Podcast 10: Long live paper!

I love paper. Thick, thin, smooth, chunky, and in this episode I share my passion for all its many wondrous forms.

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Complete transcript of episode: Continue reading “Podcast 10: Long live paper!”

Writing is a dirty business.

First on the list: Tea.
Then, water.
Fourth place, beer.

But right in between,  on the list of liquids I consume most, has to be… ink. It’s a messy relationship so let me complain a bit about it to you, in confidence.

When I was very little, ink was forbidden. We were only allowed to write and draw in pencils until third grade or so. By high school, ink was mandatory. Teachers would summarily reject smudgy homework done in lead.

I started typing when I was about eleven. And I taught myself the worst job in writing: changing typewriter ribbons. Festoons of inky cloth would cascade all over the room, marking every surface, turning my hands into ebony mitts.

I got my first fountain pen not long after — another source of misery and mess. God, how I dreaded that moment when my pen would run dry. After scribbling the nib frantically back and forth over the page, praying for a reprieve, I’d sigh and begin the chore of refilling: unscrewing the pen, dipping the barrel into an ink well, pumping the little bladder, black drops flying all over the desk.

Decades later, the carnage continues. I have been carrying around a lovely aluminum fountain pen from Muji. It uses cartridges which you’d think would make it less of a hassle. I carry it loaded, with a spare cartridge waiting in the back of the barrel. This week, I discovered that the pen has developed a tendency to unscrew in my pocket (I guess the motion of walking slowly untwists it). I reach my hand into my pocket and find two short tubular shapes where there should be one long one. The nib remains protected inside the cap but the back-end is open and the cartridge is disengaged, open-ended and oozing ink into my pocket. And onto my groping fingers.

Whatever the ink is, it’s not waterproof on the page, but it is on my fingers. Ordinary soap won’t do. I have to pull out the special bar of gritty Lava® soap I keep under the sink and flay my fingertips until the black marks are a faded grey. My nails will remain rimmed in black for days, as if I was an off-duty coal miner or a grease monkey fresh from changing a transmission.

I‘m used to being inky. I often chew the ends of ballpoints and invariably one will start to leak onto my face so I walk around unknowingly sporting black lips or a blue chin. Most of my jeans have indelible spots around the pockets from sitting on pens or having them uncap in the darkness.

The biggest culprit, of course, is my dip pen.The nib catapults ink when I press too hard. The shaft of the pen is always messy. And each time I prod the pen into the well, the cork bulb above the nib sucks up ink too, right where my fingers rest as I write.  And, because I am an inattentive slob, I invariably bump into parts of the page covered with still-wet ink, then smear it and daub my cuffs.

Failing the test.

Recently a manufacturer sent me some sketchbooks to test out (I won’t mention the brand by name). I liked the size, the binding and the weight of the paper and have filled up a twenty pages this week.

Then I discovered that, no matter how long I leave the ink to dry, it loses its water resistance. The ol’ reliable India ink that I have consumed by the barrelful over the years, is now completely untrustworthy, muddying my watercolors and smearing across the page. The manufacturer tells me it’s a function of the sizing on the paper. Whatever. It’s messed up a lot of pages now and, for once, it’s not my fault.


I guess I should stick to writing on my nice clean computer. Except my printer needs a new cartridge. Here we go.



Child’s Play

Sometimes I want a spoonful or two of sugar in my tea. I want to reread The Wind in the Willows. I want to watch Tom & Jerry. I want to eat Lucky Charms, or a meat pie with ketchup, peanut butter and jelly on white bread. I want to listen to Danny Kaye singing Hans Christian Andersen.

I want to spoil the kid in me.

My childhood was far from idyllic but things from my childhood can make me feel comfortable and free. And that freedom makes me feel creative in a visceral, fundamental way. The smell of paste, the feeling of scribbling with crayons, splattering poster paint with a big mushy brush, they loosen something in my head, the something that binds me to judgment and fear. School art supplies release me from rules and expectations and let me free to play.

I’ve been using materials like these more and more, since I started to explore in my California garage and then spent time with schoolkids in Beijing. I bought tempera and huge rolls of brown paper and Play-Do and sheets of cardboard and started to let loose.

It took work to let go, to undo the handcuffs and shake off the rust, but poster paints and fat cheap brushes helped a lot. There was nothing at stake. I could chuck paint around then toss the results in the trash. I didn’t care. And the kids in China didn’t either. We were just playing.

A couple of months ago, I started working on some projects using these childhood materials I’d rediscovered. I made some videos for an imaginary kid, someone six or eight or ten, to show him or her some cool things we could make together. I turned my thumbs into rubber-stamps, I melted crayons, I made masks out of grocery bags, I made stop-motion animations — and I had a lot of fun.

These videos were the foundation of a new set of lessons that I plan to take with me to Switzerland and Dubai these fall, to work with kids and show them some new ways to play. But they are also a new kourse we created for Sketchbook Skool because playing is something that’s not just for kids, it’s for the kids in all of us. I’ve seen time and again that when grow-ups are given permission to mess around with cheap art supplies, they reconnect with their original creative impulse, that impulse that fuels even the most sophisticated art and professional creative projects. Without that wild child, art becomes business, stiff and academic and overthought, and driven by fear and judgment. But unleashed it can produce anything.

I also liked the idea of creative projects that kids and grownups could take together and inspire each other. And that kids, out of school for the summer, could do on their own to keep their creative flames a flickering.

The monkey fought me a lot as I put these lessons together. What if adults resented being treated like children, felt patronized? What if I looked foolish? Unprofessional? Lost my ‘authority’?

Aw, screw it. I had fun and I think anyone watching the lessons will find some fun in them too — or might want to ask themselves why not. They gave me the same sort of comfort I find in childish things and my drawings and writing have been a lot looser since I started, more open to experimentation, less filled with consequence. I can’t wait to work with schoolkids again this fall. And to see what you make of our new kourses, Playing and More Playing at Sketchbook Skool. Here’s a little preview of the kourse if you’re interested:

Crank up the Chroma

I really enjoyed Ric Burns’ two-part PBS documentary on Andy Warhol. Andy’s color sense was superb and it had an immediate effect on my painting.

I love my new paints a lot and I am trying to use my colors as fresh onto the page as possible. Somehow paint dies on the palette a bit but, when I layer pure colors onto the page, they remain vibrant. Compare this painting of Joe with the one I did with my old paint set and pre-Andy.

This poor critter was waiting for me on the way to work; I have never seen such a bird, alive or otherwise, in the city before. It took me two goes to capture his lines; I also had to remember his color scheme as I only could paint him when I got home in the evening

A Fountain of Learning

As my Rapidograph was still empty, I continued drawing with my green fountain pen. I drew this funny old car against the curb, managing to overcome my usual disasters with angled wheels. The ink in my fountain pen is not waterproof, so I just hit the shadows a little bit with a blue Crayola.

I change the color of the ink cartridge in my fountain pen every time one is empty so the ink is always changing hue. Right now it’s going from black to blue; next up is a vermillion cartridge, so I’ll be entering a sort of purple phase pretty soon.

Ronald Searle is my idol, my spiritual guide, my ideal. Drawing with his tool of choice, the fountain pen, made me want to look at his work again so when I got home, I filled up my Rapidograph with fresh India, opened my copies of Back to the Slaughterhouse and U.S.A. for Beginners and copied some works of the master, Then I drew my slumbering mini-pup, Tim.

New color

For the past couple of years, I have used a fairly good set of Grumbacher “Deluxe” watercolors in a big plastic box. They have served me well all over the world,and I have grown quite used to their slightly chalky hues and know how to mix virtually any hue with the two dozen pans in the palette.
I would compare painting with these Grumbachers to a $10 bottle of Merlot. Certainly not bottom of the barrel, not embarrassing, but I know there’s something a lot tastier out there, probably at a much higher price point. Every time I browse an art supply store, I glance into the locked-up showcase at the gleaming sets of real professional artists paints. They tend to start at about $75 and crest a C-note pretty quickly. Dear, even for a New York gazillionaire like me, and I usually end up shrugging and scoring another familiar old set of Grumbachers for about twenty bucks.

FInally, I caved and bought myself a teeny lovely set of Winsor-Newtons in a leather case for about $75 (they’re cheaper, I now see, on the web). There are only a dozen colors but they are revolutionizing how I paint. I have been using them to paint my #600 series of portraits and they are bright and bold like nothing I’ve used before, pushing me to wilder and wilder color combinations. They are so intense and creamy.
Just a wee dab on the end of my sable is like handling a freshly honed scalpel. A teeny touch and everything changes. I am mixing more and more on the page and forsaking my palette; I find this makes my colors crisper and stronger than anything Grumbacher could conceive.
I am not urging anyone else to use these paints. I know that Roz loves a man named Daniel Smith and that for many beginners a box of Crayola poster paints will get them on the road. But for me, right now, these are the perfect companions. It’s a new chapter, a new virulent sunset to rid off into.

I am now also firmly committed to my .35 Rapidograph. It hasn’t balked or clogged on me much and I’ve only had one brief leaking issue. The line is clean, consistent and yet somehow more liquidy and velvety and creamy than anything a disposable pen can give me. So far, it’s just conked out on me once far from home; I pulled out my trusty green fountain pen with its cheap water-soluble refill and polished off the drawing.