Podcast 14: Doing Your Thing

In this episode, I explore dozens of examples of creative people either being limited or exploding the labels that define them.

I hope it inspires you to make some changes  and take some risks of your own.


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Podcast 13: Breaking Creative Blocks

This week on the podcast  author/coach Jill Badonsky gives me sage and funny advice on breaking down creative barriers and getting to work.

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Podcast 12: the seven deadly creative sins

A few years ago I was thinking about my tendency toward jealousy and my occasional bursts of wrath. These are among my less appealing qualities but I insist on hanging onto them nonetheless.

As I thought about these shortcomings, I realized that they constituted two of the deadly sins described in Dante, and that in fact, if I was completely honest with myself, I was guilty of all seven: Envy, wrath, pride, greed, lust, gluttony and sloth. Not in my life in general, but specifically when it comes to creative matters.

I decided to write a series of blog posts in the subject which I enjoyed and met with muted response upon publication here. Nonetheless, that series remained very interesting to me and so I decided to revisit them in my new life as an internationally acclaimed podcast host.

This week’s podcast is a fresh version of the seven deadly sins as they apply to creative endeavors, retooled and updated for a new generation, and scored lightly with well-mixed Gregorian chants.

I’m not sure if the listening audience will be any more interested in them than the reading one was, but I enjoy hurling things at the wall and waiting to see what sticks.

If you don’t think the deadly sins apply to you, spend a half hour with me and your headphones and let me know if I convince you otherwise.

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Podcast 04: How projects can kickstart your creativity

 

This week on art for all, I am bringing in an expert to discuss one of the most powerful productivity tools in the creative’s arsenal. How to give yourself assignments to focus your work,  improve your skills, and really move things along.

Roz Stendahl is an old pal of mine and a teacher at Sketchbook Skool since Day One. She is a real treasure, full of knowledge on drawing, painting. bookbinding, and life.

If you haven’t yet, please subscribe to art for all on your favorite podcasting app.

 

 


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How to make learning to draw a whole lot easier.

Why do you want to start drawing?

Wait, let me rephrase that — you probably don’t want to start drawing. You want to be be really good at drawing.
To pick up a pen, grab some paper, and effortlessly draw anything, perfectly, beautifully, dazzling your friends and confounding your enemies. You want to be the next daVinci, to knock out portraits indistinguishable from photographs, to replace your vacation snapshots with breathtaking watercolors, to have gallerists, collectors and reviewers clamoring outside the doors of your sunswept Tuscan studio.  And you have to start somewhere.

But deep down, you fear that you’ll never get to be great. It’ll be too hard, you’ll just give up, and instead of pride, you’ll be besieged by self-recrimination. Your dust-covered sketchbook will be just one more reminder of your failed attempts to achieve your dreams.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Seriously. Here’s how I know. I’ve been helping folks to start drawing for ages but more importantly, I have helped myself to start drawingAnd by teaching myself, I have learned a few things that could help you to get past those first few challenging steps. So this story is less about drawing techniques than it is how to incorporate drawing into your life, how to keep yourself motivated, and how to learn to learn.

How to accurately measure progress: So many fledgling artists focus on the horizon, then trip over their own feet and fall flat. They began by focussing on the end result of learning, that perfect drawing, then despair when each line they make fails to achieve that goal. What they are overlooking are all the individual steps they are making towards that objective, the small but crucial  improvements they are making every day. I know this because it happened to me too. Early on, I’d flip through my first handful of pages and grimace. They all sucked. I sucked. And I’d never get any better.

But, had I been paying attention, had I been willing to be objective instead of brutally critical, I would have noticed how much actual progress I’d been making. That my lines were more confident. That I’d tackled complex new subjects. That I was starting to see how to really see. When I look back on my early sketchbooks now, I can see that, even after a month or two, I was getting better and better. But at the time, all I could think was: “I will never get there.”
Why? Because instead of comparing me with me, I was comparing me with da Vinci, with my friend the professional illustrator, with all the artists who’d inspired me to want to start to draw. The first bar was way too high. I’d just started to jog and was beating myself up for not running a marathon in under three hours.

It’s essential to recognize that your judgement of your own progress is far from accurate. I guarantee you are doing better than you think you are because again, your perspective is distorted by the dream you have of where you want to get to. And because you feel like an impostor who’s pretending to be an Artist but can’t draw a stick figure. So stop obsessing on on how far you have yet to travel and check out the ground you’ve already covered. Spend less time on self-criticism and more on your next drawing.

How to draw like a natural: Another crucial lesson: don’t skip ahead. Keep working on the basics. Draw simple objects. Draw your lunch. Draw a shoe. Just stick to using a black pen. Don’t plunge into portraiture or three-point perspective or advanced watercoloring. Develop your confidence in the building blocks of drawing: lines, angles, measurements (I explain more in my kourse,  How To Draw Without Talent).

And if you can’t quite capture what you’re seeing yet, write down your observations. Draw an arrow to the drawing that explains how the shadow looks, point out the highlight, record what you are learning. Just the act of writing information down, helps your memory retain it. Then look for other examples of what you have observed.

The more actively you engage, the more the lessons become second nature.  And that’s really where you want to be, to draw without having to think, to intuitively translate what you see into line son the page.  But, like learning to walk, to tie your shoe, to throw a ball, to drive a car, it takes lots of repetition to build the neural connections that make a new skill feel natural.

How to motivate yourself:  And of course, if you don’t want to practice, you won’t. It’s crucial to stay motivated, even if you’re not on the verge of a career retrospective at the Guggenheim.

One way is to set yourself small goals that you know you can achieve. For instance, do a drawing every day. Even if it’s just for two minutes, pick up that pen. Or commit to filling an entire sketchbook in the next month. Then celebrate by buying a new art tool. I spent a year drawing with one type of black pen. Then I allowed myself one grey brush marker. A month later, I added a different grey, and slowly worked my way up to a bag full of color markers over a year. The next year, I bought myself a cheap watercolor set. The year after that, a really good watercolor set, and so on.

Try focussing on a single daily subject for a month. Pick a subject you find interesting but don’t try to make an “art statement”. It’s just a theme to practice variations upon. I drew my teacup every single morning. I drew a selfie every day. The view out my kitchen window. Cars on my block.  A photo from the front page. Now I draw a dog every day.  I get a sense of accomplishment when I see how much I am drawing, not just how “well” I am drawing.

Whenever you complete a sketchbook, spend some time with it. Look back at each page, study what you did, how your work has changed.  Get out your phone and make a video as you  flip through the pages.  Share it online with friends you can trust. Their support and encouragement will help keep you going.

Three facts to write in the inside cover of your sketchbook:

1. Never compare yourself to other artists. Don’t compare your first drawing to their reproduction in a coffee table book. Let their progress inspire but not intimidate you. Compare you to you. That’s all that counts.

2.  You’re making more progress than you think. You may not see it but it’s happening with every page. Guaranteed.

3. Everyone struggles at the beginning. Check out early van Gogh drawings. Awful. Struggle is normal, inevitable, a positive sign that you are working things through. Your early drawings are zero indication of what you will achieve in time. Zero.

I hope this helps. Remember, you can do it.


This post was originally written for the Sketchbook Skool Zine. If you liked it, consider subscribing. It’s free and full of interesting stuff.

The writer’s guide to essential gear.

I started writing when I was about six. Within a year or two, I had migrated to my mother’s manual typewriter and when I was seventeen, I finally bought the first typewriter of my own, an Olivetti Lexikon 82. I acquired my first word processor, a RadioShack TRS 80 Model 100, in 1983, then an Apple IIC, and then a long line of Macintoshes stretching all the way to the present.

olivettiBut my computer is just one of many tools I use to write with these days. When I was in college, writing my senior thesis about the social dynamics of 1960s political activists, I used yellow legal pads, index cards and Black Wing pencils to write the 400 pages of my first real book-like object.

trs80I do most of the spade work for all my writing in incremental chunks. Every book, every blog post, began as a series of little scraps, notions, inspirations that struck me often when I was far from my writing desk. I used to jot down thoughts on bits of paper, envelope backs, and receipts. Now I say them to my iPhone.

macAfter I’ve assembled all the scraps a mountain of these scraps, I begin to shuffle them around and pile them into chapters then sections and ultimately a book. And when I write, I rewrite. I go back over each sentence and rethink it, tighten it, replacing a sprawl of adjectives with a single taut verb.

IDEAS: Here are the tools that I use to glean my raw materials, and then shape them into something that deserves to sit on a shelf.

Evernote: My life revolves around this app. It’s a huge database of notes, links, pictures, scans, boarding passes, receipts, quotes that I have assembled over the past few years, all assembled into digital notebooks and tagged with labels. I access it on my laptop, my phone and my iPad. I’m writing this blogpost in Evernote because it’s so convenient.

evernoteIf I am walking down the street and a thought hits me, I whip out my phone and put it in Evernote. Many times I don’t even type it, I can record a note or even have it transcribe my words as I walk. If I am reading an article online, I highlight a quote for future reference, click on the Evernote plugin in my Chrome browser and, boom, it’s added to the data mountain. But unlike the cocktail napkins and matchbook covers of yore, these notes are all easily located and connected to other relevant bits and bobs. I even have photos of all my lightbulbs on it so when I’m at the hardware store I always know what size to buy for the spotlights in the living room. Evernote is a miraculously good thing and I couldn’t write or even function well without it.

Do Note: This is an app for the iPhone which provides shortcuts for the usual process of writing myself a note. In the past I would have to 1) open my email app, 2) put in my email address, 3) write a subject line, 4) write the note to myself, And then 5) send it to myself. With Do Note, I simply open the app, write the note, and push a button. My note now appears in my email, or goes directly into Evernote. Many of these notes are just one word, a clue that will jog my memory and help me reconstruct the thoughts later on.
do itBy making it so simple I can write with one hand, Do Note has made it much easier and more likely that I will record and later developed these little ideas. And we little bit of tweaking, I can write shortcuts to all sorts of other things, allowing me to make a tweet with just one hand or even Post to my blog with the push of a button.

I used to use a notebook and pen to record midnight flashes of inspiration but it would mean turning on the light and waking up fully. Do Note lets me remain half-asleep and still jot down my thoughts and sent to myself for later reference.kindle

Kindle app: I have a paperwhite Kindle and is a fantastic reading device. But I also use the Kindle app on my phone and on my iPad. This app allows me to hight and copy lines from books I’m reading and instantly save them to Evernote for later reference.

LONG-FORM WRITING: Once I’ve gathered all of these many bits and pieces, it’s time to sit down and write a longer piece like a presentation or a book. At this stage, organizing all this information is often half the battle. I generally create an outline of sorts, not the formal sort we learned in high school, but more of a mental map that will guide me to the finish line. I want to sort all of my little thoughts and references into buckets and then arrange those groupings into a larger structure. For this, I use two apps for the Macintosh.

Mind Node: this app has replaced the hand-drawn diagrams I used to make in my sketch book. I usually create a sort of tree with branches connecting different thoughts and expand them into their component parts. But doing it on paper made it much harder to rearrange that structure as I work. I’d have to completely redraw all of the elements to make a change and things tended to get messy and harder to follow. Mind Node allows me to simply drag these branches around into different relationships. And it makes them into pretty colors as well.

mind nodeI also use Mind Node to create to do lists as well, because it allows me to empty my brain of all of the projects I am working on and create a single List that give me an overview of everything that’s on my plate. I create a higher level category and then break it down into its component parts. When I’m done I can see everything I have to do laid out for me in actionable pieces.

Scrivener: this is a heavy-duty professional writing tool. It allows me to create structure, to write in a clean and uninterrupted environment, to build in small bites, and then to format to various industry standards. Scrivener is a complex application and it took me months to understand most of its capabilities but it makes it possible to write a long presentation or a complete manuscript for book in a way that a regular wordprocessing application never can. I can put all of my research into it and I can break down my long piece of writing into manageable small parts, almost like writing on index cards that then weave them together to form one unbroken manuscript.

scrivenerIt also makes it easy to see the forest and then the trees, zooming in and out all of the structure of the book so that I feel in control of an otherwise unwieldy mass of tens of thousands of words.

I used to have to print out my entire book and shuffle hundreds of pages around on the floor. No more — I can save trees and proceed with confidence. Scrivener has helped me to take risks and gain clarity. I used it to write Art before Breakfast and Shut Your Monkey and to keep track of dozens of blog posts over the last couple of years.

Dictation: Writing and drawing are physical activities and they take a toll on my body. I’ve long been plagued with headaches that come from hunching over my keyboard and using a self-taught method of hunt and peck typing. After a long and uninterrupted binge of writing or, even worse, editing a film, all of that unnatural pressure on my thumbs and wrists causes tension in my shoulders and neck resulting in headaches that can last for four or five days. I’ve used various mechanical aids to get around this problem, but the best solution is to be more moderate in my output.

laptopOne way around this problem is to dictate my words rather than pound them out on the keyboard. Over the last decade or so I’ve watched this technology get better and better, and it is reached near perfection with the dictation function of my Macbook Pro. This is built right into the system and it works really well. In fact I’m using it to write this blog post today.

Now, dictating tends to create writing that is different in tone than writing that is, well, written. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as it were, but writing via dictation tends to make things a little more formal and less fun. Somehow dictation puts me in the mood of ordering some robotic slave around, and I tend to be a little more imperious and commanding than I do when I have keys under my fingers or a pen in my hand. Nonetheless it is an effective tool for getting my thoughts down and on I can polish things up with the keyboard and lighten things up afterwards.

InDesign: I’ve not only written and illustrated most of my books, I’ve also designed them. That means ultimately creating final files that I can send to my publisher and they can send to the printer. It’s a lot of work but it allows me to make books that reflect my style and vision.

I use InDesign CC not because I love it but because Adobe forces me too. I’m not a big fan of having applications that are so strongly tied to the cloud because they make it more difficult to work off-line and seem to be updating themselves a couple of times a week just as I want to get to work, but this is the most up-to-date form of this indispensable application. I’ve used it, and a now pretty-much defunct program called Quark Express, for 30 years and it is pretty much second nature at this point.

Canon MX922: In the last century, when I designed my first books, getting a production-worthy scan of a piece of art meant sending it to a service bureau to have a drum scan. That could cost a fair amount of money and slow down the process. But scanner technology has advanced so far and become so cheap that I’ve been able to make three books in a row using a $75 multi-function Canon scanner. It’s a bit limited in size but I tend work small so it’s rarely a problem.iphone

I even found that my new iPhone 6S Plus takes really clear photos from my sketchbook that, with a bit of tweaking in Photoshop, can work as final art. It really makes the workflow move along and allows me to experiment without hesitation.

BLOGGING: It may not seem like it but this blog takes a fair amount of work. It’s not just a matter of coming up with ideas, but also writing posts, editing images, and designing overall look of each page and the blog itself. I’ve developed a toolkit just to cope with this because I know that if the process is cumbersome, my monkey will have many excuses to procrastinate. The smoother I can make the process, the more likely I am to get my thoughts out to you.

Draft: I hate Word. For decades, this Microsoft dinosaur has been sprouting claws and additional tails and horns and useless, complicating features that make a simple writing tool feel like the cockpit of a Space Shuttle. These features were designed by marketing people, to give the illusion that this application is progressing, rather than trying to be a useful tool for writers.
I told you above about how Scrivener is really useful for longform writing. But when it comes to writing a blog post, I want a clean empty environment. No bells, No whistles, no formatting options even, just a blank screen the blinking cursor. That’s why I use Draft.

draftIt’s a website, not even an application. And it simply provides me with a clean page on which to write my thoughts. Draft even has a ‘Hemingway mode’ that remove all distractions, even the delete key so you can just concentrate on getting the idea onto the screen without worrying about rewrite — you can always fine-tune it later. Draft is not the final stop on my creative journey, it’s simply the place to write something fairly short like a blog post. And then I can copy and paste those characters into another place, like WordPress, in order to do the final tweaking and formatting to express my intentions most clearly.

wpWordPress: I use WordPress.com because, after trying many other options over the past twelve years, I have my blog where I like it: clean, distinctive and with just enough features to make it useful. Tumblr and blogger are too barebones while WordPress.org is the opposite, super customizable, allowing you to host your site anywhere and add lots of plugins with cool features. However I know from also managing the sketchbookskool.com blog that it can be a drag to keep updated. WordPress.com just takes care of all the action under the hood and leaves me to blogging. Plus, I have a special custom theme that makes it look pretty distinctive.

bucketImageBucket: Each of my blog posts has at least one image, many of which begin as fairly large Photoshop files. I can save them as smaller files in Photoshop but I like to use image bucket, a Macintosh app, to down-res batches of images or to quickly knock out a 72 dpi version of a large tiff file. It works quickly and mindlessly it is therefore a regular part of my toolkit.

VIDEOS: I love making films and, in many ways, the process is like writing so I’ll share my filmmaking process with you too.

My kit now has fourcameras:

camera 3– At the top of the heap is my Canon 7D which I generally use with a 50 mm lens. I also use a wide-angle (16-35 2.8 L II), a macro (100 2.8 LI1.8), and an all-purpose zoom (24-70 2.8 LII).
– My favorite camera these days is the small, gorgeous Canon G7X. It is infinitely customizable, has a display that flips up so I can frame myself in a shot, and fits in my pocket. It’s a pretty miraculous bit of gear.
– I also have a butt-simple Canon Vixia HFR40 camcorder which I originally bought to take along on our cross-country trip. The images and sound are pretty great and it’s a basic point-and-shoot, perfect for those moments when I don’t want to monkey around with technical considerations.
– My new iPhone 6S Plus shoots 12 Megapixel stills and 4K video — which is insane for a cel phone. It will definitely become indispensable as a camera too.

fcpxFinal Cut Pro X: I think FCPX is, despite the derision of many of my professional editor friends, an incredible cutting platform, especially at $300. We cut all of the Sketchbook Skool videos on it and it works like a dream. If you wonder how good it is, sign up for a kourse at SBS and see for yourself.

vimeoVimeo: We host all of our videos on Vimeo because it has real respect for the art of filmmaking. There’s no advertising and full control over the appearance of embedded videos, including making them private and passworded. I’ll often copy videos over to YouTube as well, just to stay on Google’s good side, but there’s just no comparison. Vimeo’s also a great place to browse and be inspired.

AND FINALLY: I have a lousy desk chair. I’ve tried an Aeron, a yoga ball, standing, and now I have given up and just use a chair from the dining table. They all leave me feeling tight and achy and lead to the headache situation I described above.

pomodoroThat’s where Pomodoro Pro come in. It’s a really simple idea, a timer on my computer and phone that divides my day into 25-minute work increments, followed by 5 minutes of rest. It is intended to keep your nose to the grindstone, your attention undivided and focussed on the task at hand. For me it does the opposite, reminding me to stop, stretch and take a breather. The timer just went off so I’ll stop now.

I hope this has been useful. If so, why not sign up for future updates from my blog. Just drop your email in the box at the top of the column on the right.

The right time to start.

I’ll start when the summer’s over.
I’ll start when the kids go back to school.
I’ll start when I have time to get to the art supply store.
I’ll start when everything calms down at work.
I’ll start when I retire.
I’ll start when I lose some weight.
I’ll start when I can find a class to take.
I’ll start when Danny’s new book comes out.
I’ll start when I feel better.
I’ll start when I have a week to myself.
I’ll start when someone makes me.
I’ll start when I finish this blog post.