Doing my homework for color theory class this week, I discovered I had made the sort of thing I had always admired. It’s a great feeling , to look at your own work, and say, “Hey, that’s how you do that!” and see that you just did. The thing I made was not just a watercolor of an orange – but a page with little swatches of color and handwritten notations that, as a composition, captured the process I went through in making the picture.
There’s a fair amount of carelessness in the whole thing which evokes the way I was working but there’s also a progression that shows how I was learning and experimenting.
This is the tip of the iceberg of what I am realizing is my aesthetic.
I have always been very drawn to notebooks and diaries and I see now that this is primarily because of the way they look. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of Gerald Durrell and wanted to be a naturalist or a vet. I also loved drawing maps and making books. Perhaps that’s where this taste for logs and sketches and Latin names first began.
I remember going to an exhibition of diaries at the Morgan Library a few years ago and there was a huge book that contained a captain’s log, kept in the 18th century. The book was open to a spread that contained a painted map surrounded by spidery calligraphy. I could feel the voyage in those two pages, the creaking of the ship at night as the captain filled in his log and drew the map.
Field manuals kept by botanists and naturalists also have this palimpsest aesthetic; that’s part of why I love the work of Richard Bell, Roz Stendahl and Hannah Hinchman. Not just a report on nature but nature itself invading the report, smudges and fingerprints, taped-down specimens, random thoughts inspired by the moment, teeny gestural sketches surrounding a carefully rendered drawing. My old pal, Walton Ford, does this to a T, making enormous, spectacular watercolors that evoke 19th century explorers and are meticulously rendered. His work has put me to shame since we met at sixteen.
I am in full sympathy with Bill Gates for paying as much as he did for Leonardo’s Codex, not just because it contains the discoveries of one of the greatest minds to ever ride around on human shoulders but because of how beautiful it as, the sepia drawings, the mirror handwriting, the thick parchment pages.
When I was in college, I knew a rather crafty fellow named Brody Neuenschwander who was pursuing a course of independent study, hand grinding his on pigments and illuminating manuscripts. I’m not sure where such a major ultimately lead him, though he did do the calligraphy in a few Peter Greenaway movies, but what a wonderful way to spend your time.
I have always liked Peter Beard’s diaries; for a couple of years he had his work on display in SoHo and we went many times to look through his huge diaries, filled with photocollages and the phone numbers of his famous friends. I also love architects’ plans, those perfect sketches, wonderfully strange lettering, elevations and notes and marginalia. You can feel the ideas unfolding. And skritchy scratchy dip pens like the ones Ralph Steadman uses, spraying inkblots all over the words.
(I’ve never been that much of a fan of Nick Bancock’s work. I find his stories muddled but worse of all, it’s all artificial and seems like much of it was computer generated to simulate real letters and postmarks and the like).
I have a big collection of old diaries, ought at flea markets and on eBay and best of them, particularly the travelogues, have this layered, lived-in feelings that is wonderful. The same goes for collections of old letters, stacked and tied with faded ribbon.
Of course, computers threaten this aesthetic. Biologists and naturalists, explorers and cartographers use laptops now and everything is rendered on the web. Fat chance that there will be musty piles of old servers found behind cobwebs or that this blog will be enshrined in a dusty vitrine some day.
So I’ve mentioned here before that Jack, my boy, 9, good, handsome, smart, got into his skull that he just had to become a rock ‘n’ roll drummer and, despite my attempts to dissuade him, has been taking lessons and hammering away on most horizontal surfaces with his drum sticks whenever possible.
A couple of weeks ago, however, his pal, Lucas, decided that he no longer wanted to take guitar lessons, though his twin, Edith, has been excelling on said instrument and, in fact, last Friday, played “I’m a Believer” to a sold out crowd in the PS41 talent show, and a good time was had by all, except perhaps for Lucas. Anyway, around the same time that Lucas gave up on the guitar, Jack started fooling around on that same guitar, and mentioned casually to me, that maybe playing the guitar was cool and that maybe he’d like to play it someday. My ears pricked up and I suggested that maybe we could both take lessons together, hoping against hope that this might obviate the need for me to fill our peaceful apartment with a gigantic drum kit one of these days.
Yesterday, we went to the guitar store and bought ourselves a pair of Fenders, Jack’s black, mine cadmium red, and the attendant amps and stools and stands and stuff. (I was quite surprised how affordable guitars are, not cheap as, say, Tombow brush markers or glue sticks but not nearly as expensive as the titanium computer I’m writing this story on. I was always so impressed when Pete Townsend smashed a perfectly good guitar onto the unforgiving floor boards or when, in about 1980 and at CBGBs, I watched the Plasmatics bisect a plugged in guitar with a chainsaw and it bucked and screamed and finally fell in two, its strings geysering. I was most impressed not by the noise or the gesture but the sheer waste of money. Anyway, it turns out it wasn’t that much money after all). So now our apartment looks like backstage at Madison Square Garden, what with all this gear and amps and half empty bottles of JD standing around. First thing this morning, Jack walks into our bedroom wearing only a bathrobe and his guitar, ready to rock and roll. I had taught him the one song I know, learned when I was 15, the same song every one of my generation learns in order to impress girls, the opening chords of “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.Dum, dum, dum. Dum dum de dum. Dum, dum, dum, dum de dum. So, Jack walks around, in his robe, hammering out the song and sounding much like the Plasmatics with a good Billy Idol curl to his lip.
This evening, when I got home from work, Russell, our teacher was half way through Jack’s lesson. Then it was my turn to learn how to sit, how to hold the guitar, how to curl my fingers into impossible contortions and press my delicate finger pads into the egg-slicer strings. Russell has decided that of son-and-pop, I am to be the first one to learn how to tune the “machine” as he calls it and showed me the first steps and then launched into an erudite monologue about the physics of sound. My innocent questions ricocheted his ample brain into all sorts of directions incorporating Aristotle, Euclidean geometry, Miles Davis’s early ineptness, the Well Tempered Clavier, electrical engineering, and the real difference between Sinatra and Torme. It was the sort of rich broth I love but, after an hour or so and with a sigh, we went back to filleting my finger pads.
I have always loved music of all sorts, however, it has always mystified me. I have half-heartedly studied other instruments before but the harmonica is the only one I have been at all fluid with and then, only in the shower. So music and the people who play it have all been suffused with magic. Musicians, particularly improvisational jazz cats, seem like another species, with some sort of extraterrestrial knowledge that I can never begin to comprehend. It’s a foolish sort of obstacle that I set up for myself so long ago, this absolute sense that I could never hope to play an instrument, even on an amateur level.
And yet, in my one lesson, I have already begun to feel the door inching open. One of the points that Russell emphasized to me was take the time to listen and savor the note. While my body is learning and stretching, my tendons lengthening, my bones shifting, I should give my mind the time to feel the music, to hear the decay of a note, to see how the sound emerges and then how the harmonics fall away. What I find fascinating is that, yet again, the lessons I learned in drawing are at the core of all creative effort.
To suspend time and to appreciate the moment.
To be gentle with myself and feel comfortable with ‘errors’.
To realize that no matter how few hairs I have and how grey they may be, I can always learn new things and that once I open my mind to learning, everything becomes a fresh lesson.
Finally, I am also so excited to be learning something with Jack, as he does. In many ways, he is a much better artist than I am — freer, bolder and clearer. I hope he never loses that way he has with making things. I am also interested to see what it is like to be as new to something as he is, to learn alongside him, to see how we tackle our frustrations differently. I think this guitar thing is going to be quite an adventure and a good investment of what little free time I have left. My true goal: to play “The Milkman of Human Kindness” or anything else by Billy Bragg.
My mum taught me to appreciate paper early. To riffle through blank journals and pinch the sheets between my finger pads. To consider pulp and fiber. To notice how a pen flows smoothly here while it bucks and protests there. Since, I’ve met and felt quite intensely about so many different papers.
French toilet paper – crisp, waxy, impractically nonabsorbent and harsh. Little Italy deli sandwiches wrapped in thick white paper, once, sliced in half, then wrapped again. In Pakistan, at nine, I cut my finger in class and the teacher bound it in green crepe paper, which, as I watched in horror, turned black with my blood.
Fibrous, mud colored hand towels in bus station bathrooms. Hand made papers in the flat files of Tallas, marbleized in Brazil — $80 a sheet. Small edition books with cream-colored papers printed with scarlet initial caps and black, debossed, letter set type. The lox-colored pages of the Financial Times. A dental bib with its little necklace of steel balls and alligator clips. Heavy vellum that takes soft lead like a dream, then smears posterity. Sculpted papers at the Dieu Donné paper mill, tectonic layers thick as egg cartons. Ridged passport pages. Anachronistic rolls of brown paper in the butcher shop. Stationary, too good to use.
Silk-screened banana leaves on pre-war wallpapers. Foot thick stacks of tissue paper on a store counter, enfolding plates, glasses, lingerie, soft as carnation petals. The dehumanizing feel of a paper-covered examination table sticking to my buttocks. Gridded, oily pages of a Chinese composition book. Toothpick thin strips of heavy stock for sampling essential oils at the perfumery. Distant newspapers packed with an ebay purchase, stale with old cigarette smoke.
My grandmother at her desk, shredding old accounts payable into confetti with her aluminum ruler. The savage shock of a paper cut. Bond. Hot pressed bond. The sinful indulgence of any paper over 300 lbs. Architects’ amber tracing paper ripped from rolls screwed to the drafting table, soon spidery with the lines of 6H mechanical lead and Rapidograph ink. Drawing on paper restaurant tablecloths with a roller ball pen. Collecting shirt cardboard. Foreign bank notes. Ancient craftsmen in folded newspaper hats. The heady smell of musty, rare books.
Paper balls lurking in the toes of new shoes. Kids’ papier maché over withering balloons. The lottery tickets, fractioned over and again, in the Treasure of Sierra Madre. Fish and chips in a vinegary newsprint cone. The grimness of motel glasses wrapped and sanitized for my protection. The surefire excitement of florist paper, encircling roses. Ripping open a fresh 8 1/2 by 11 brick to feed the printer. The corpse of a forgotten note to self, transformed and illegible in the pocket of freshly laundered jeans.
The trembling promise and snowy expanse of a virgin journal.
What does it take to name a color? Manufacturers do it every day for their own convenience. It helps them keep track of what they’re making and how it’s selling and distinguishes one season from another. Apparently, it also makes colors more desirable, forming associations between random hues and exotic places and objects and values and flavors and anything else that might help sell.
Still, there’s something presumptuous about assigning a title to a particular color, like naming a star or a species or a mountain. Who gave Old Navy that right? And what a sloppy job they do too, giving very different colors the same name or vice versa. Crayola and Pantone are a lot better at it.
All this cavalier designation helps to compromise what we see. The names are meaningless because the relationship between the names and the colors are so inconsistent. These blues aren’t the same when they are printed in our catalogs, or on our computers screens, or dyed into yarn, or worn in sunlight, or washed ten times.
What matters in the end is not these ill-fitted names but the fact that we recognize and appreciate the many hues we see all around us, that we don’t become desensitized through commerce’s clumsiness and yen to market everything under the sun, and start to mistrust the incredible abilities of our eyes and brains. When we try to shoehorn colors into chip and swatches, we diminish our environment and blind ourselves, just a little bit more, to the infinite subtlety and wonder of the universe.
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.