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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Episode transcript (but please listen to the podcast!) Continue reading “Podcast 12: the seven deadly creative sins”

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.



EPISODE TRANSCRIPT: Continue reading “Podcast 04: How projects can kickstart your creativity”

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.

Finding your groove

The need to make something can be a tenacious itch, clawing to be released into the world. You can try to forget it — like an early summer mosquito bite — refusing to scratch it, aiming your mind elsewhere, hoping it will just go away.
If you suppress it too often, maybe you’ll succeed in dulling your senses, in refusing to heed that inner call. You’ll have managed to wrap yourself in a cocoon, impervious, detached. Congratulations, you can focus on what’s “important,” undistracted  — for now.

Sometimes, the reason you ignore that call is because you haven’t yet found the right way to scratch it. Not every medium is right for every artist. For some reason, maybe it’s physical or aesthetic, we may need to keep shopping for a while ‘till we find the right instrument.  Bassoon players are somehow different from conga drummers, dancers are different from print makers.  (I think it’s sort of strange that in high school band, teachers will often assign instruments to kids, rather than letting them find their perfect musical partner). You need to find your perfect groove.

A few years ago, I visited Creative Growth in Oakland, CA. It’s an amazing hive of artistic activity, all coming from people with various disabilities. I will never forget the energy in that room, with dozens of artists working all day, every day, making paintings, subjects, ceramics, mosaics, prints… it was overwhelming and beautiful. Creatively, these people seemed to have no disabilities or challenges; they’d all found their groove.

When we visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore recently, I re-encountered an artist who I’d met at Creative Growth years before. Judith Scott was born deaf, mute and with an IQ of 30. She was also a twin. When she was seven, she was sent away to an institution. She was separated from her sister (who was not disabled), and because of her low IQ, she wasn’t given any training of any kind. So she just sat and festered, neglected, alone.
After thirty-five years in the institution, her sister Joyce managed to spring Judith from the institution and bring her home to live with her. Soon Judith started going to Creative Growth. But at the start, she could not connect. She had no apparent interest in drawing or painting, drawing aimless scribbles and little more. She didn’t speak so no one knew what she needed to take off.

Then, one day, Judith wandered into a class given by a textile artist named Sylvia Seventy. She saw the skeins of yarn and spools of thread and suddenly found her passion.  But, instead of following the projects that Sylvia was leading the rest of the class through, Judith began to make her own sort of art, something radical and new. She wrapped objects in yarns and cloth, binding them together into cocoons and nests and complex interconnecting forms.  Much of her art seems to be about connection and twins,  binding together networks and forms into a powerful and non-verbal  emotional message. I can look at her piece for ages, following the colors and lines, and somehow feeling something so sweet and strong and comforting.
I’m not the only person who responded to Judith’s art. Her work is in the permanent collections of several museums and has been the subject of books, films and gallery shows. She made hundreds of amazing pieces in the last two decades of her life.

Judith passed away in 2005. She had lived to be 61, which is extraordinary for a person with Down’s syndrome.  I like to believe that her art and her sister’s love kept her going.

I love Judith’s story because it feel so familiar to me. I can identify with what it must have felt like to go from being abandoned in an institution to suddenly seeing the light, to discovering one’s medium, one’s voice, and to see it grow richer and more complex and expressive. And how easily she might never have found her medium and remained mute and locked down. Judith didn’t have the ability to wander through an art supply store, a museum, to trawl the web, and to find her groove.

True love doesn’t just appear. You have to keep your eyes open and look for it.  Just because you don’t yet know how to scratch it, don’t ignore that itch.

How I podcast

A) I have an account at liberated syndication:  I decided not to host on my site as I want sure what the traffic would be like. LibSyn is cheap and they specialize in hosting podcasts and the experience has been fine. They set you up with a special podcast blog where you can add art work and write commentary. Plus it;s easy to link it to iTunes and for people to subscribe. I set up the podcast of my mum’s radio show on her iMac account and that works pretty well for her.

B) I use a Snowball microphone. My mum got one too and we are both big fans of it. It has a USB cable so it plugs directly into my MacBook Pro.

C) I use my computer’s hard drive to record. Sound files aren’t too enormous.

D) I generally do my editing via GarageBand. It has a lot of podcast-specific capabilities. It’s very intuitive and easy, I find. Plus I think it came with my mac or was less than $80 with iLife. It also has a lot of filters and things for reducing background noise. You can set it up to send it directly to iTunes. And it’s easy to add tracks of music, SFX, etc.

E) To interview people remotely, I use Skype. It’s cheap and easy, the quality is almost always terrific (I have  a broadband cable connection at home, nothing fancy)., and I use my mic to talk through and a pair of ordinary earphones to listen to the other person with (Obviously you need to shut your computer’s speaker off so you don’t get feedback.

F) I also use a utility called Call Recorder which is just $14.95 and it does several extremely useful things. One is to record the calls to my hard drive. The second is to split Skype calls into two tracks,. one for each conversant. These tracks van then be imported into Garageband and you have control over each track separately. If one person starts monologuing and  a fire truck goes by on the other end, it’s a cinch to cut out the offending noises.

Macs are generally easy to do multimedia stuff . I tend to play around with this stuff a fair amount and via trial and error get it right. My mum , at 70, figured it out on her own, so I imagine anyone can. If you use  a PC, most of my suggestions apply, except perhaps for GarageBand. I assume there is a PC equivalent. I sometimes use Audacity for quick edits, not sure if that’s multi platform.

This looks like a pretty good tutorial:

Hope this is helpful. Can’t wait to hear your first episode!!

My perspective on perspective

School’s back on and NYU students wander through my neighborhood, clutching new books and pencils. Quite often, I see some of them set up in the park, preparing to draw Washington Square arch. It’s a beautiful landmark, and I’ve often tackled it myself.
I like the ones who slop around with paint and charcoal but I can’t relate to those who show up with t-squares and turn out tight engineering schema, that look more like blueprints than any expression of soul. To me, drawing is about observation and sensuality more than perfection. That’s my esthetic.
I draw a lot of architecture because they define the landscape we New Yorkers live in. While I’m no Brunelleschi, I understand the principles of perspective. I know generally how to locate a vanishing point and that knowledge can be useful if I’m really stuck. But I think of it as more like understanding the principle of the internal combustion engine; I get it but it doesn’t enter my mind much when I’m driving down the road.
Here’s how I’d go about drawing* the view down my street. perspective-pen.gif
It’s a fairly complex scene so I lay down some little marks first. I find the midpoints of my page (in green) using my pen as a rough ruler. I take the same sorts of measurements of the thing I’m drawing. I also uses my thumbs as rough rulers� so and so many thumb widths to this point, so and so many pen cap lengths to this point � that sort of thing. If I didn’t measure things out like this, I’m sure I would have misjudged how wide the library’s facade was in the foreground. The actual part of the scene that is of interest only occupies about 1/8 of the whole space.
I usually start drawing in the upper left hand corner and work my way across. I’ll make little marks if need be to tell me where things intersect. When I just whip out a long diagonal line like the one in the upper left, it probably won’t hit the mark unless I set a target point.
I’ll also look for some sort of large and broken line somewhere to use as a reference point. In this case, the building on the right has a regular pattern of tiles down its length; I can use this like an in situ ruler to guide the other buildings’ proportions. I count down three tiles and say, ‘Okay, the roof of the ornate building in the center hits this height. Go down one more tile and that’s the point at which the angle of the receding part of the roof hits. Down two more and that ‘s the roof of the building behind it…’ and so on. If there’s no guide in the landscape (as there wasn’t horizontally here) I can also use my pen length to bifurcate the space and create a partial grid to set my reference points.
Remember to check your verticals. Unless you have birds’ or worms’ eyes, make sure your verticals are straight 90 degree angles to the ground. It’s so easy to start leaning them over and soon all of your lines will be out of whack.
I measure other sorts of angles by holding up my pen horizontally and then rotating it to meet the angle. That action temporarily imprints the deviation of the angle from the horizon into my brain. When I go down to the paper, I just repeat the rotation and I can usually get it pretty dead on.
I like to do all these little measurements rather than ruling down the artificial lines of perspective and then erasing them because I am trying to record my own observations in my drawings. I find that all these little measurements bring me closer and closer to my subject and that’s the goal of my work. I don’t care if it’s all accurate and perfect but that it reflects what and how I am seeing. The deeper I go the better. Somehow rulers and perspective lines make it all seem more mechanical and artificial and I just don’t like it.
In any case, the results seem okay to me. In fact, I will often be a lot wilder and just draw lines and angles on the fly. I don’t care that much of my buildings are misshapen and irregular, so long as they feel alive. Those T-square folks seem to make drawings that lie on the page like dead, academic fish.
Drawing buildings is just like drawing anything else. Be slow. Keep your eyes on the subject most of the time. Don’t freak out if you make a ‘mistake’. And do it as often as you can.
Drawing isn’t a science. Don’t reduce it to one.
*Atypically, I drew this in Photshop on a tablet so I could use layers to demonstrate my methodology.

Notes from a chat with Julie Dermansky


Julie Dermansky: Journal page – European monumental architecture

Julie is one of my favorite artists and she has always been a huge source of inspiration and encouragement to me. She is so committed to making art and has a lot of experience in how one survives financially and psychically as a creative person.

JULIE: Inspiration is overrated. It’s all about discipline. There are glimmers of inspiration, when you lose touch with time and place but you can’t wait around for that. When I start working on something where I am so excited it’s like some sort of drug, I’m just alive. But the only way to get there is through discipline.
It doesn’t matter why you make art, you’ve just got to make stuff and eventually you’ll understand. I won this grant that allowed me to travel for a year. I just had to write four letters back to the foundation over that year. That was it. I was 20 and I could do whatever I wanted. So I just made drawings in my journal, drawing monumental architecture all over Europe. That was my only discipline, my commitment to do at least one drawing every single day. And because the fancy journal books were too expensive, I made my own, ripping up water color paper and tying it together. It evolved as I went. And when a book was filled, I would send it home and I had no idea what the value of what I was doing could be until I came home and saw all those journals. It came out of me with no forethought and I’d never done it that way before. It just came out that way. I didn’t worry what people would think, I just tried to be honest. And I didn’t worry about the quality of the drawing, I just went with it. I hated having a page I didn’t like so I kept working it until I liked it. Those pages are so vibrant and visceral, so raw. I don’t know if I can get back to that looseness, pure hand /eye. The more time I had the more I let go, the looser, the better it all got. That art was my reason for getting up each day. For me, travel is a lot of work. Nothing planned, figuring everything out on the fly, real work.

julie-2Julie Dermansky: Steel Gate at her studio in Deposit, New York

JULIE: I was at the art students league taking drawing and this teacher came behind me and I was making a mess like I do and he said “Ah, a lefty. But its nothing like Rembrandt,” and I was, like, “Rembrandt? Fuck you! Why would I draw like him? He was great but he already drew like that. I’m not here to do that.”
If I can recognize something you did without being told you did it, you have done something magic, you have created a visual vocabulary. Good, bad, doesn’t matter you’ve created something brand new. Everything’s been tried but no one can draw like you, unique, special. It’s not the materials, it’s you.
Everyone can multiply. You struggle at algebra but you can learn it. Everyone can draw. Everyone can do their times table. It’s just a matter of developing the skill. Drawing is a skill and a science, like learning perspective.
I love Tennessee Williams – At the beginning of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof., he says something like “Every human being is in their own jail call and all we can do to communicate is to take the thing you know the best and put it out there. The strongest part of you that everyone can interpret in their own language.” He took his internal dramas and made works of art that are in the mainstream yet retain that rawness. You don’t need to know all about his internal extremeness to enjoy his work.
I don’t know why I make the things that I do and I don’t overanalyze it. I never took formal art education classes, I learned it from art historians, composition, color theory, I learned it right from the work, not from academics.
There’s work I’ve done that was completely derivative and I wouldn’t show it. It’s not part of my vocabulary. It’s my homage to the artists I love.
If you go to a museum or a gallery and you have to read the thing on the wall to understand the art, the work is bullshit. However if you go that museum and have some sort of response to the work you can’t understand, and then you read the wall, and reading the explanation helps you develop another layer of appreciation and understanding, that makes the work more rewarding, it will be a beautiful thing.
I went to see the Calder retrospective at the Whitney when I was in second grade. And I appreciated that he is a great artist but I just didn’t like it and it bugged me and I said to myself, I can make better things than that and I knew that I would. I was that confident as a child. Then looking at Picasso, I thought how did he make so many pictures and then when I really started rolling with my own stuff, I said, Oh, if you make work everyday it’s not that hard to make that much stuff. I just compared myself to the pros and never found that conceited. In Europe, it’s very conceited to say ‘I’m an artist’ but it’s fine to say ‘I’m a painter’ or ‘I’m a sculptor’.
For me the definition of an artist is someone who has created a visual vocabulary. I may not like it. But when you look at a retrospective of an artist’s work, you can check it and look for the vision, the palette, even if you don’t respond to it. It’s not about liking but seeing quality, consistency.


Julie Dermansky: from the Lumis Collection in the basement of the Robinson science center, Binghamton, NY

JULIE: My work isn’t really done until it’s out in the world.
My uncle is an artist and told me, never sell anything for less than say $100, or make up your own number. If it’s less than that number, then just give it away. But don’t sell it. I like that rule. Keep the value for yourself. Joseph Cornell hated to sell his stuff. Leo Castelli could never get it away from him.
Andy Warhol said make pictures you’d sell for $100 and others you’d sell for $10,000. That way you just get your work out there by having something for every budget.
Some people feel the universe should take care of you, and others get out there and hustle.
There’s always a way to make money, one way or another. I grew up around the drive to make it for its own sake but for me it was a way to be an artist. Being an artist costs money and I needed money in my pocket. I started making and selling jewelry when I was 14. In college, I would go to the dorms, not be shy, just say, “would you like to see some jewelry” and spill it on the bed. I’d make $400 or $500 which made it pretty impossible to go do some job for $6 an hour. It didn’t make any sense. My art objects always sold.
I’m not qualified to do anything so it’s lucky people have always bought my stuff.
People romanticize self-employment but it’s a heavy burden because you can’t count on regular money coming in. I’ve envy people with steady jobs on one level. I have no safety net but then again no one is 100% safe and the rug can be pulled out from under anyone.
A lot artists don’t do their homework. You have to hustle, have to keep going, Have to have faith in your work. You have to be willing to go below your level sometimes without bumming out. If you insist on selling everything for thousands and never do, you’ll end up with no money and no collectors. If you need the money, don’t feel bad, get your work out there. That’s what makes your work into a commodity, because it’s visible. I don’t know who created the rules about artistic integrity, that money is evil, that you shouldn’t make work in order to sell it, that it shouldn’t have a decorative element. And no art schools have classes about marketing. It’s frowned upon.
It’s so easy to give up, to forget to market, to forget to find a market place, to not do your homework. You’ve got to feel confident about your work, that’s a key to salesmanship. You’ve got to learn about grants and sources of funding. Artists have a knack for being self effacing and for being overly self critical instead of learning skills and promoting themselves.
The art world is very seductive and full of hangers-onners. there’s so much energy and people want to latch on to it. When I’ve had relationships that have reached the point where men say you’ve got to decided between me and the work, it’s too much and there just wasn’t a choice for me, of course, it was the work.
I can’t be something else, even if I wanted to.

To see more of Julie’s work, please visit her website.