When I was about nine, I developed a theory. What if everybody actually sees very different colors but calls them by the same names. Like, I look at a tree and see its leaves as a color I call ‘green’. When you look at the tree, you see a color that I would call ‘red’ but you call that color ‘green’. The only way to prove the difference would be if I could climb into your body and see through your eyes and say ‘hold on, you’ve got the colors all backwards.”
It wasn’t a terribly useful theory. Still, I’ve thought about it again quite often since starting my color class. What I’ve become increasingly aware of is how inaccurate my observations of color really are. I’m not colorblind and I have 20/20 vision but I rarely see what’s really in front of me. The root cause seems to be the same thing that blocked me from drawing all those years: converting reality into symbols. I’ve discussed before my discovery that when we reduce our observations to symbolic shorthand (that’s a car, that’s a building, that’s a person) we are forced to draw only symbols instead of accurate representations of the very specific reality that lies before us. If we are fairly well-versed in creating drawn symbols we can communicate the general ideas we perceive but can never capture the specific essence of what is there, in other words, draw accurately.
After a bit of practice and self discipline, we can all overcome this handicap and see and then draw the specific outlines of any scene from the angle we are viewing it. I, more or less, have done so. But now that I am paying a lot more attention to painting, I see how much I do the same old thing with color. “That car is yellow, that building is grey, her hair is brown.” When my paintings are more than cartoons or paint by numbers it’s because my ideas are a little more complex. “Her face is in shadow so let me add black or maybe mix a darker version of her skin tone.” “It feels sort of cooler over there so let me paint that part in blue”. Still, I am dividing the world up into the colors in my paint box and the few combinations I can confidently mix up from them. It’s all made up, a rational construction based on ideas rather than observation.
These days, though it’s still not reflected in my painting, I try to focus on the actual colors in my environment. As I walk through NYU, I try to isolate a patch of a wall and see what color it really is. “The wall seems brown, but that section in the shadow is really quite pink whereas that part on the cornice is silver or more accurately a color I can’t name but sort of a light and glowing grey with a bit of purple in it.”
It’s pretty overwhelming. So many hues and shades and values, hard to discern, difficult to remember, impossible to reproduce. But my goal isn’t really accuracy. It’s sensitivity. To learn to slow my brain and judgment down enough to absorb reality as it appears at this moment, here. Not to see the world in short hand, as a caricature, or a blur but to live life fully, from my particular place and angle. That, it seems to me, is very much the point of living.
If someone else jumped into my brain, perhaps they’d see a wall that’s brown. But I’d love to to see the whole rainbow reflecting back at me.
I’m no Archimedes, but I’ve had a disproportionate number of good ideas in the five minutes or so of my day I spend in the shower. I’ve explored a number of possible explanations.
My shower pressure is fairly powerful for a New York apartment and it generally hits me right at the base of the skull, stimulating the blood flow. But it’s only my medulla and my cerebellum lying right beneath and they are almost certainly not the source of the ideas that pop up. I tend to keep my frontal lobes away from the jets, except for the few seconds when I am washing my face or shampooing my few hairs. The only thoughts that cross my mind then relate to conditioner.
The sound of the water drumming on my skin and the acoustics of the tiles are fairly easy to reproduce outside the bathroom. But when I listen to the sound of falling water anywhere else it generally just makes me want to pee.
Maybe the water returns me to some primeval state; I read somewhere that the pattern of our hair growth indicates that humans went through some extended aquatic stage, living entirely in the sea. This hypothesis seems improbable and in any case I doubt that it was a particularly fecund stage of our history. Seals, whales, and mermaids, all live fairly banal sorts of lives and rarely win Nobel Prizes or have gallery openings.
Most of the things I do in the shower are mindless. That’s not entirely accurate: my mind is present but my judgment is suspended. I can hardly see, I can only hear white noise, I am all alone, and while I am doing things — working up lather, washing between each toes, getting as far down my back as I can reach — I’ve done them more than 14,000 times before and they are automatic.
The afternoon is generally when I give myself challenges and problems to solve. I do research, and kick around a few preliminary ideas. I may have taped up some ideas on the wall from the morning and I’ll look them over and try to push further. Half formed notions will rattle around my skull for the rest of the day, getting a polish in the cerebral rock tumbler before bed.
Then at eleven or so, I’ll hit the hay, hopefully for the whole night. (Sometimes ideas will wake me up at four, jolted to the surface by a passing fire or garbage truck. These ideas, while insistent in the dark, tend to look fairly ugly by the light of day, like half cooked pork.) By morning, my brain has been well- marinated and is ready to serve. I tend to take a shower 15 or so minutes after I wake up, and in that calm, consistent, non judgmental environment, the ideas feel safe to poke their heads out of my head and present themselves.
So the trick is not a matter of soap and water. It’s slowing down, clearing the mind, letting go, giving myself a few minutes of nothingness. And yet in that relaxed nothingness, there is bubbling activity. The only other place I’ve found such a paradoxical blend of tranquility and creativity is between the covers of my drawing journal.
Maybe I should get a waterproof pen and start drawing on the tiles.
I’ve always enjoyed drawing series of things. It’s so interesting to see variations on a theme, to explore connections between things, and to expand specifics into generalities and vice versa. I learn a lot by doing drawings of similar things, going deeper into the familiar and seeking out variation. The subject itself is fairly irrelevant; the patterns and changes are what inform.
They are interesting to look at too. The eyes like rhythm. And repetition and pattern are made more interesting by variation. This is the basis of music, the bass line and the drum keep your feet moving, syncing up with the natural rhythm of the heart while the melody adds the variation that keeps you from zoning out.
It’s also interesting to revisit themes from your own work or that of other artists. Monet had his water lilies, haystacks, cathedrals and poplars. Mozart’s wrote variations on Haydn’s string quartets which in turn inspired Ludwig Van. Picasso’s painted dozens of variations on Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Warhol did soup cans, Dine bathrobes, Wayne Thiebaud cakes, Hirst pills, Ford westerns, and the Magnetic Fields wrote 69 Love Songs. It’s more than a shtick. It’s how you go deeper.
Life itself is a variation on a theme. The seasons repeat like movements. Each fresh day provides a canvas whose dimensions always stretch from dawn to dawn, while the clock ticks out the same number of bars each day. Despite this consistency, we have enormous freedom to play each day as we will. We can seem to trace the day before exactly, from bed to the office to lunch to the train home to the TV set to bed again. But our hand always hitches some where along the path, throwing in some minor variation. The art is in noticing these chord changes, attending to life closely enough to recognize its shifts. That’s the art of journal keeping.
I find enormous positive reinforcement in these little adjustments. They show me that what has been may not necessarily continue to be—the skies will clear, the mercury will rise. And yet I see the consistency too, so I am not as panicked by chaos. There is reassurance in the sameness and hope in the changes.
I have been doing life drawing at a studio down on Spring Street. Generally the sessions are open and you can do what you like. Some people paint or draw. One guy draws entirely on his PowerBook (and fabulously, creating something that looked breathtakingly like a chalk & pastel drawing). Yesterday I went to a three hour anatomy lesson; we studied the innards of the bottom of the foot. Fascinating and baffling.
Drawing the human body is hard. Tackling a nude is the hardest of all. Foreshorten the body with its unfamiliar shapes and angles, all symbols distorted beyond recognition makes the degree of difficulty quite numbingly high.
It’s not just that a body has so many angles and curves. It’s how loaded it is with expectations and meaning. Humans know the human body intuitively and yet not consciously. We are able to spot our species from afar, to judge a fellow man from another among thousands. Have you ever scanned a huge crowd, at a football game or in a train station, and been able to find a familiar face though all you have to go on are tiny differences, the cant of a nose, the miniscule difference in eye size or the relationship between ear and cheekbones? Cut a person’s hair, give them a beard, makeup, a hat, or glasses and, often, we will still manage to pick them out from across a crowded stadium. It’s a life saving skill, finding your mother in a herd, and yet it’s a lobster trap of sorts. We can spot Mom and yet we probably can’t describe her accurately to a police officer with an Indentikit. We can’t recall or reproduce those features which we can so accurately judge.
When drawing the human body, unclothed — a sight we actually behold quite rarely in the flesh (and yet think about several times an hour) — we have to ditch all our baggage and try to see clearly without judgment, breaking it down into components, lines, shadows, angles and curves. And yet the inaccuracies we might get away with when drawing an apple or a car or a building are completely unacceptable when drawing a person. The tiniest miscalculation in the angle of a nose turns Mary into Sue or possibly Bob. On the other hand, if we slow down too much, become too accurate, too calculated, we will never capture Mary’s balance and weight, she will be a two dimensional cut-out instead of a body with mass and volume, with no sense of the bone, muscle, and fat that lie beneath the skin. And most challenging of all, we will fail to capture her humanity, her personality and character, her spark of life. She will be just a body, a slab of flesh, an animal, a cadaver, and not Mary.
Seeing humans is extraordinarily hard because it requires the usual cool, calm, objective sight that lets us draw still lifes and landscapes and yet a much healthier dollop of subjectivity. We can read Bridgman and learn all the tricks that make joints turn and proportions accurate, but we will end up with comic books heroes or mannequins. To be Degas or Rodin, we must work and work to internalize these principles so they become unconscious, second nature, so that we can suffuse them with feeling and response to the actual person before us, not a faceless hulk but a living breathing person whom we can lust for or pity, love or disdain. Investing that human feeling is at the core of all successful art, even when it’s not depicting human anatomy. To draw a peach or a beach or a leach, and make the viewer feel something real about it, we must transcend technique and approach the truth about how we feel about peaches and leaches, about the world, about ourselves, a truth that is simultaneously intensely personal and completely universal.
Practice makes perfect. By mastering technique, anatomy, light, color, materials, we push them into the background and let our selves take the helm — honest, open, caring, judgmental, flawed, true. Drawing humans is incredibly hard because to do it really well, we must let ourselves be a little naked too.
My passion for my Rotring rapidoliner deepens. Unlike any other technical pen I’ve used, it is always on the ready, never clogs or sticks or leaks and I’ve never even had to shake it one time to force ink to the nib. The ink itself is deep black, fairly quickly drying and water proof. The drawings I do with this pen are detailed and full of crosshatching. Occasionally, I catch glimmers of the sort of line that r.crumb coaxes out of his Rapidographs and those are very exciting occasions to me.
Still the pen tends to make me draw and see in a particular way — I find myself looking for immensely detailed things to draw, elaborate building facades, the interiors of overflowing closets, or else to do lots of postage stamp pictures crammed on the same page. To shake things up, I switch hit with the crudest, most blunt drawing instrument of all, a bamboo pen.
This pen is just a stick carved into a point on either end. I dip it in Higgins waterproof ink. The line is surprisingly smooth and responsive to my pressure, delivering lines of different thickness.It makes me draw far more gesturally and to switch my vision to a different focal length, taking off the microscope of the Rapidograph and seeing in sweeping outlines, forsaking the miniscule details I could never render with the bamboo.
I am drawing from one of my favorite sources, the 1955 yearbook of Spalding Institute of Peoria, Illinois, full of hundreds of well groomed Catholic faces. I have a shelf full of yearbooks, picked up a for a dollar or two at flea markets, and they give me a great range of faces to study, all similarly composed, sharp and clear, covering the 1930s through the 1970s.
I have not posted or visited this site for a week. I have been on an “electron fast”, forsaking all activity on the computer and television (except for those things absolutely essential to my business). The rest has been liberating. I have enjoyed several additional hours in each day, time which I have spent reading, drawing my city, listening to music, writing, thinking, playing board games, strolling, and whatever else took my fancy.
Reviewing my emails, I see that only a couple of people wrote to me to ask why I had stopped my daily postings, to inquire after my situation, so I guess it was okay to be gone from the virtual world for longer than usual. Clearly, I had been taking the burden of regular, committed writings more seriously than anyone else. The discussion group seems to be firing on all cylinders and traffic to this site has ground down even further than it did when the group began. My suspicion that people needed other creative folks to talk with has been confirmed and my own role can easily be assumed by many others.
To add to my humility, I have also decided it’s time to start learning from other teachers besides experience, intuition, and books. A good and generous friend has begun to instruct me in color theory and I am staggered to see the depths of my ignorance when it comes to watercolors and how they truly work. It’s a lot more than just whipping together colors on my palette and slapping them on the paper as I have been for years. There’s an enormous amount to learn about chemistry, physics, manufacturing, aesthetic theory, and the wisdom of the ages.
I have also begun attending life drawing session at a nearby atelier, and am humbled once again by how much I need to learn about anatomy. The data passing through my eyeballs is insufficient to draw people accurately; I need to ‘see’ beneath the skin, to comprehend the body as a whole, to practice from scratch again.
Every time I feel I can relax on my laurels, feel competent and proficient, I see how much of a beginner I am. My grandfather is still alive and fifty years older than I, so hopefully I still have much time left in which to study.
Hubris is a terrible vice for a creative person. The arrogance of accomplishment is as bad as the fear of beginning; they both prevent one from taking risks and jumping ahead.
Over the months that I have been keeping this log, I have assumed a role to which I have no real right. I am not an artist and yet I have been judgmental and critical about so many artistic matters and have pretended to provide advice to people who were probably far further down the road than I. I have placed myself along practicing, professional artists, have bemoaned the plight of those who are starving, maligned and ignored. And yet, who am I, but an ad guy with pretensions, a well-fed, Sunday painter, a guy who’s gotten more breaks than he no doubt deserves.
I have written cheerleading, rallying cries, encouraging others to draw around the clock, and yet when I look at my own output for the last month, too much of it was created for those who will, or may, pay me for what I produce, rather than for the sheer love of it.
And as for my electronic asceticism, maybe it was just an attempt to shirk my responsibilities, or worse, to see if an echo would rebound through the silence.
I believe in Art. It is my religion. I study it, I practice it, I seek comfort and guidance in it. And yet I am flawed and hypocritical and human. Art deserves better.
Obviously, I’ve spent some time soul searching. And I’ve spent time feeding my soul too. It has been a sweet feast and only the appetizers have been served; there’s still a lot I intend to do to discipline myself more, to elevate myself more, to deepen myself more. Ultimately, I would like to come a little closer to that thing I have merely pretended to be. An artist.
Man, the name-giving animal, is in rare form these days. We’re just stalking the planet, hell-bent on slapping labels on others, stuffing them into compartments, and spewing vast generalities about things we don’t understand well enough.
Religion is dividing the world and our country like it hasn’t since the Dark Ages. The promise of immigration on which America is founded has become an evil tangle of anxiety and finger pointing as broad swaths of our neighbors are labeled and fingerprinted, then shown the door or locked up without due process. The media pundits have been wrong time and again throughout this presidential election, as they have tried to adhere dusty nameplates and bankrupt maxims on phase after phase of the campaign. Instead of observing wisely, they insist on prognosticating and tripping over their mike cables.
For a while it seemed like the forces of globalization would push down the walls that subdivide the planet, providing a global culture of inclusion, one huge Benetton ad. Instead, we’ve been given too many McDonalds outlets, too many Nike logos. Instead of religions and nation states, the folks in Davos wanted to give us all SKUs, compartmentalizing everything to fit neatly into Walmart’s inventory.
The Internet was another beacon of hope, connecting us all, one to one, allowing us to found and find our own communities of interest. We’d have labels but at least we got to put them on ourselves by signing up for this chat group or the other. But the anonymity and lack of accountability that rules the ether has made it hard for people to translate their keystrokes into action. Howard Dean showed us that. We can connect and agree, slapping each other on the back and exchanging wild emoticons, but the results are amorphous and hard to turn into anything concrete and enduring.
Among creative people we find similar divides and so many of them are self imposed. Aesthetics are ruled by professionalism. Be an actor but you can’t then be a writer too. You can act on TV but not in movies. You can write comedy but can’t paint murals. You can be a rocker but don’t expect to be taken seriously as a composer.
Sure, some people climb over a wall here or there, the Sean Jean/P Diddys, the Will Smith/ Fresh Princes, the Carrie Fishers, the J-Los.
But we much prefer to know which section of the bookstore to find our favorite authors and the more they repeat themselves – the John Grishams, the Tom Clancys, the James Pattersons – the more we will reward them. The same goes for bands and movie stars and fashion designers and chefs. ” Be consistent. Let people know what to expect. Be a brand”
And how we draw those barriers through our own lives too, imposing restrictions often through sheer inertia. “I don’t eat Indian food. I don’t read mysteries. I hate French wine. I’m not into documentaries. I don’t look good in red. I hate history. I never go to the opera. Blah, blah, blah.”
And then, deeper still, we carve labels on our very Selves: “I’m not talented. I’m an amateur. I can’t draw. I’ve got two left feet. I’ll never make it. I don’t have a degree. My whole family is tone deaf. I never read. I’m a woman. I’m too old. I have to make a living. I never finish things. Blah, blah, blech.”
Can’t we all be a litter more subtle, a little more aware, a little more creative, and start seeing the world in all its shades of grey, and all the hues of the spectrum?
We don’t live in a box. We live on a ball, always revolving, always changing, moving ahead, never in the same place for more than a moment. That’s the nature of the universe. That’s the true nature of man. And that, my label hungry friends, is what Art is all about.