Podcast 11: Austin Kleon

This week I interview best-selling author Austin Kleon on the creative process.

Austin is one of my favorite writers and thinkers about the creative process. He is a poet, a collage artist, a blogger, an author, a diarist, and a writer who draws.

Listen to the episode here.

Mentioned in this episode:


COMPLETE EPISODE TRANSCRIPT: Continue reading “Podcast 11: Austin Kleon”

Podcast 05: The seasons of creation

I woke up super early with a thought in my mind and, as fast as I could type, I wrote this script for the new episode of  art for all, the Sketchbook Skool podcast.  It’s all about  the creative process. How the brain recovers from a burst of productivity, the value of inspiration, how to tackle a giant project, coping with setbacks, and more.

I hope it make some sense.  Let me know.

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Links to stuff mentioned in the episode.


EPISODE TRANSCRIPT: Continue reading “Podcast 05: The seasons of creation”

Authors: Min Jin Lee

For most of my reading life, I loved to slowly graze through bookshelves. At least once a week, I’d spend a good couple of hours just browsing, usually in a used bookstore, not discriminating between genres, prices, pub. dates, or authors’ backlists. I would stand and stare at spines, then hinge out one book after another, reading jacket copy, flyleaves and a paragraph or two plucked at random. Sometimes I’d emerge with an armful, sometimes empty-handed. The hunt was the fun.

Things have changed a lot as bookstores have been increasingly usurped by websites. Now I am forced to hopscotch on a course based on others’ opinions and algorithmic recommendations. I am a difficult read, I imagine. — I consume history, pulp fiction, thrillers, classics, science, nature guides, how-to, how-not-to. Genre is an unreliable guide of what will strike my fancy. But Amazon thinks it knows me and serves up minor variations on the themes and authors I’ve already exhausted.

I used to judge a book by its cover. But now books appear on my Kindle as tiny greyscale icons. I can barely read their titles. Looking for any sort of guidance, I read a lot more newly published books and best sellers than I ever have. And I find I abandon many books mid-course, a practice I would never have permitted when I was younger and much more loyal or maybe just forgiving.  Now I know time is growing shorter and the options seemingly infinite. Lose me in the first hundred pages and I’ll find another book on the fishes in the sea.

Certain books keep appearing in my recommendation list. Years ago, I read Free Food for Millionaires.  I barely remember much more about it than I liked it.  But Amazon wants me to read Pachinko, also by Min Jin Lee. It’s a National Book Award finalist. I tend to be attracted to award nominees, just because they blink brighter in the endless sea of books, appearing to ensure quality in the bottomless fathoms of self-published crap and mystery novels with “Girl” in the title.

Finally, I give in and click over to read the description. A book about Christian Koreans in Japan in the 1930s? Uh, no. None of that is interesting. But Amazon insists and Pachinko shows up again and again, “Inspired by your purchases”. Inspired!

I give in again and download the sample. It begins in a boarding house for Impoverished fisherman. Again, not something I care about. But slowly I do start to care. The sample hooks me and begins to reel in. I start to care about these people. Their fastidiousness.  Their morality. The strangeness of the situation. The unfamiliarity contains the familiar.  The language is as crisp and clean as sun-dried bed sheets.

And even though it’s foreign and historical, it’s honest. Discussion of bodily functions, of sexuality, of wavering morals are all modern and not wrapped in pious bullshit. People speak and act like people. They are very different from me and yet the same.

The book is longish, something I tend to forget on my Kindle which holds so many books of so many lengths. But it contains so much. It follows one generation then another, interweaving stories, throwing characters into impossible situations and then fishing them out, dripping with regret or discovery, forgiveness or shame, setting them back on their pins to struggle forward. It’s epic and yet so personal.

The whole mystery of Korea, of what it is, where it comes for, how it has been shaped by history, where it fits into my world, all become clearer with each page. Not in a didactic way but through story, through the way global conflict inflicts itself on little lives, how they groan under its weight, how they struggle on.  I learn but also feel how poverty inevitably creates criminality, how religion provides succor and delusion, how nuanced and brutal racism is in every society.

One of the characters in the book manipulates the pins in his Pachinko machines so customers’ balls are guided to certain outcomes.  That’s how I felt reading the book, pinging between events and people, bouncing across the story, on a long and surprising journey crafted by a master of physics, story, and the human mind. I don’t mean Amazon (though that too) but Min Jin Lee, whose next books I will immediately download when it appears on my recommendation list.

Sketchbook Club: Me

This week, I went through all the books I’ve published and told the stories behind making them. It was fun to reexamine some of the dusty tomes.

Have you read ’em all? Probably not. Wanna round out your collection? Click the links to the left.

Sketchbook Club: Obsessions

I have’ em. Maybe you do too. Things you explore, collect, draw, in obsessive ways. This week on the Club, I look at a handful of artists who focus on one subject or approach and really dig deep.

As a result, they discover worlds within worlds. Their art turns out to be less about their subject than about something else — themselves, their way of seeing.

I find it obsessively fascinating. I hope you will too.

This week’s artists and books (click for more info):

Library love fest

Jenny and I are spending the weekend in the country, enjoying the peace and quiet of a borrowed house surrounded by bare trees, piles of crunchy snow and the hoarse caws of ravens. We spend the evening listening to records on a turntable, playing casino, and reading books.

Jenny and I are both big readers; books are the shared love that first drew us together. I’m reading Michael Lewis’s new book on my Kindle, absorbed in a perspective on the birth of Israel that has overnight transformed my own (maybe I’ll write about that sometime). I have a half-finished paperback, A Short History of the United States in my backpack as well as a library book , Nutshell by Ian McEwan. I tend to travel with multiple books in multiple forms so I can shift gears with my moods. Even my favorite genre can become sticky and claustrophobic, like too many chocolates in a box.

Jenny’s reading several library books too and dipping into our absent host’s collection of cook books. She has always been a glutton for cookbooks. We have shelves of them at home and, on our weekly trip to the library, she inevitably hauls back more armfuls of heavily illustrated tomes from celebrity chefs. For me, cookbooks are a means to an end, cooking, but Jenny enjoys them for the vicarious pleasure, content to just rattle the pots in her mental kitchen.

We spent this Saturday morning on the Long Island Expressway instead of the library. That’s not the norm. Usually, we have a bagel from the baker on University Place, read the paper, then head to one of four public libraries in the ten-block radius of our house.

There’s the large Jefferson Market library with its stained glass windows and spiral staircase, a repurposed court-house with a red-brick tower. Or the compact Mulberry St. branch tucked into an alley by the Puck building. Chalky perfumes waft in from the Santa Maria Novella store next door, mingling with the excited murmurs of the kids from Chinatown playing computer games in the mezzanine and the exotic fragrances of the homeless men reading magazines. To the West, there’s the Hudson Park branch — we stop to read the chalkboard by the entrance. Some anonymous librarian always adds a witty welcome message: the first one we noticed was a celebration of grilled cheese and Lionel Richie, our favorites too. If we head East on our Saturday morning stroll, we end up at the Ottendorfer branch, formerly a 19th century clinic for German immigrants, its facade festooned with busts of Bavarian doctors. This branch is the smallest one, which shortens our visit but also produces the most book picks. I don’t know if it’s just especially well-curated, but we always come back with the biggest haul from the Ottendorfer.

We generally bring home 4-8 library books each week and stack them on a table at the end of the couch. Within a day or two, most of them have been thumbed and rejected. This culling is just the final pleasure of library gleaning, which begins with a visit to the new arrivals section of the library shelves. Jenny and I stand and browse side by side, reading spines, then examining covers and flyleaves, quietly passing good finds back and forth (“This looks like your sort of thing” “Read it last year”), amassing a stack on one of the library tables for further study. Then we read a page or two from each candidate, until we have separated the rejects from the chosen few. We check out the winners and stack them in our Trader Joe tote bags then head home to plunk down on the couch and further refine our search.

For the next few days, we dig deeper into each book, only occasionally making it to the very end. If dialogue sounds wooden, plotting forced, vocabulary opaque, then the book gets banished back to the TJ bag sitting beneath the end table. On rare occasion, one of us loves a book so much, we must go online to renew it so the other can get his/her fill of it too.

We can afford to be picky. New books are being published every day, the library shelves are groaning, and we have many pages to turn before we sleep.

Speaking of, I’m heading to the couch to read. And snooze.

What I did this Summer

It’s been a while. The last you heard from me, I was whining about my extraordinary good fortune, that I had rented a painting studio for the summer to share with my son and how challenged I felt by this enormous hot fudge sundae.

And, while it may have appeared on this blog that I had disappeared into that studio and locked the door behind me for two months, I actually was absent because I gave myself an even bigger gift.

A summer off.

It wasn’t a deliberate plan at first. But despite my industrious and responsible nature, I decided to shirk more and more habits and rutware and see what grew in their place. And to see how much trouble I’d get in to for not showing up.

Studio.

I made a bunch of paintings and some sculptures. Despite my initial trepidation, I let myself go fairly wild with how I made them, experimenting with new media and working much bigger than usual. Most of the paintings were fairly large and the sculptures were all knee high but were installed in various sites as if they were monumental. In a few days, I’ll write a detailed post about what specifically I did and what I learned by doing it, but suffice it to say for now that going to the studio was a refreshing departure that helped me examine and combat a lot of those fears I had expressed to you a few months ago. I drew some but less than normal and didn’t keep any sort of illustrated journal at all.

Reading.

Usually, the summer is a great time to go to the movies. But over the past few years, the cinema has lost its appeal for me. I find most of the films really forgettable. I can think of two I have seen this year that I liked (Hunt for the Wilderpeople and The Lobster) and, because so many of my friends don’t seem to go the movies any more either, even they haven’t been good fodder for dinner party conversation.

Instead, I have watched TV and read books.

I made time to read a lot. I’d get up early and read before breakfast and go to be early and read for an hour every day. I read a fair amount of escapist crap as one should in the summer. I also read some fantastic books, many of them new. Many of these are memoirs and others are novels that feel like memoirs. Here are the ones that have really stuck with me, creating moods and insights that I keep coming back to as the best books do.

Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Vol.4 of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s My Struggle, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Nix by Nathan Hill, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Ahmad.

I read some books about business and about creativity. The better ones include How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton, Makers and Free, both by Chris Anderson, The Prize by Daniel Yergin, Let the Elephants Run by David Usher, Choose Yourself by James Altucher,  and Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Watching.

We watched a fair amount of TV when staying in the air-conditioned living room seemed the sanest plan. We watched the ABC series Lost on Netflix, a strange and endless tease which I hadn’t watched when it was first broadcast. It took the better part of the summer.

We watched the Olympics, although our initial enthusiasm waned over the two weeks of breathless coverage. Partly because living with a millennial for the summer who doesn’t get the Olympic quadrennial ritual and wonders why we need to watch hours of gymnastics and swimming when there 700 other things on to watch instead. And partly because I started to wonder the same thing.

The Election.

(Note: One thing that I have learned in a dozen years of blogging: avoid talking about religion or politics; it just ruins the party. But I’ll break that rule today to share how I have felt watching the election this summer.)

Since high school, I have always been a deeply committed election follower. I was a political science major at Princeton, a White House intern, and devoured all the classic books about campaigns like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter Thompson, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, The Selling of the President by Joe McGinnis, and the various edition  The Making of the President by Theodore H. White.

I like following the campaign strategies, the unfolding dramas, the twists and turns. And, in at least four elections in my adult life, I have felt pretty passionate about one of the candidates running for office.

This election has been a gobsmacking, rubbernecking train wreck but it lacks the usual pleasures. There’ve been no real discussion of solutions, no traditional campaign strategy, and the result, despite the media’s shrill thrashings, has been forgone for some time. It’s like the 1972 Olympics in Munich — instead of watching a match of amazing accomplished competitors, we are watching a highjacking. It’s disturbing that at a time of such change in the world, this important opportunity for discussion has become just a referendum on two individuals. Like a lot of people in this country, I don’t feel much enthusiasm for either candidate, and I am just waiting for it to be over. Nonetheless, it’s hard to tear one’s self away from the spectacle. I just hope I can get back to enjoying the race next time.

Okay, back to more important things we can all agree on, like Sketchbook Skool.

Sketchbook Skool.

We are entering a new phase in the Skool’s development. It may not always be apparent from outside, but we do a lot of thinking and planning and replanning and rethinking about what the future of the Skool should be and if it should even continue at all. What began as an experiment almost three years ago grew into a business. And a passion project became a job. There are times it has been the best job I could imagine. At times, I have felt like I work for the worst boss ever: me.

This year, we had lots of ambitions, tried lots of experiments, and finally came to a maturing in the early summer that has made us all feel both excited and in balance.

We have created a number of new kourses this summer. We released Andrea Joseph’s Creative Lettering klass, one of our biggest launches
ever and people really love it.

We filmed another intensive kourse with Veronica Lawlor that we will be launching later this year. I am in the midst of creating a kourse called “How to Draw Without Talent” that I am having loads of fun with. And we have several new teachers segments in the can for another 6 week kourse to launch in the winter.

Jack and I even made a film (to be released soon) called “How to Draw Your Dog” featuring our two favorite canine mascots, Tim and Joe. We’ll share that soon.

We are also advertising on Facebook for the first time which has been a great way to welcome new people and has made us completely rethink how we present ourselves and what our Skool can be. It has also been fascinating, as a person who created advertising for thirty years, to be marketing my own business, and to be using new tools and technologies that work in such amazing ways. I can’t say I ever knew exactly how any ad I ever write really worked. Now I know on an hourly basis.

This summer we also committed to doing a Study Hall video for every single week of every kourse, a daily blog post that’s useful and inspiring, a weekly newsletter, a weekly video roundup of everything that’s going on in the community and to our first wave of Teaching Assistants, recruited from our alumni.

Our growth has had some pains. We have come to terms with the fact that our platform may not be right going forward and in the next few weeks, we will begin to transition in a hopefully seamless way to a new technology that is faster, more secure, and has lots of new features that will improve the Skool. It’s one of the most essential and most disruptive things we have to do (we changed platforms last year and it was like moving to a new country) and it’s taken many months to finalize the decision but it’s gotta be done.

We are also getting better at doing our jobs. For the first time, we are regularly getting planning and things done long before they are due, sticking to proper production and marketing schedules. And we are being realistic and focused in what we take on so we can get things done, and grow in the way we want to, to accomplish our personal and business goals.

Sketchbook Skool is a great part of my life and the lives of lots of other people, my colleagues, fakulty, and students. Keeping it viable and thriving is challenging but rewarding and this summer has been one of our most important chapters, even though much of that work has gone on behind the scenes.

Advertising.

I signed on to do a three-month project for a former client which will take me through early October. I can’t discuss the deets but it involves a sizable budget and a fair amount of autonomy.

It has been interesting to fire up those sections of my brain that have been under a tarp for three years and see if they still work. They do.

It has also been interesting to see how I have changed in the past three years, how differently I work, how differently I view the processes of big corporations and of the advertising business. I must say I much prefer how we do things at SBS. So much less bureaucratic, more decisive, more flexible — but so it goes. I don’t miss working full-time for the Man but an occasional visit is fine.

Jack.

My boy graduated this summer and has spent a couple of months working to save up for his move to Los Angeles in the fall. It has been great to have him here with Jenny and me but bittersweet because we all know it’s the last time he’ll really be living here. Soon he’ll start his new life, far away, and I am savoring every one of the moments we have left.

At the end of September, I plan to drive with him from New York to Los Angeles to help him get setup in his new apartment and to leave him the family car. Then I’ll fly home and he will begin his next chapter. Gulp.

Cooking.

We spent last Spring having our kitchen renovated and we love the results. Jenny and I have a beautiful, sunswept place to cook now and we are making the most of it, visiting the farmer’s market, ordering mystery boxes of artisanal veggies from Fresh Direct, and having an excuse to buy even more cookbooks. Our kitchen is so big and well designed that all three of us can work in it together, without knife fights or saucepan jousts.

Exercise.

Maybe it’s my demographic, but more and more of my friends and relatives are getting decrepit. They’re spending time in the hospital, struggling to reach their shoe laces, filling drawers with pill bottles. I want to avoid that. My shingles experience last Spring really brought that home. I have been ever more dedicated to working out with my trainer Keith, to avoiding french fries, double dip cones, and the sun’s rays. I am also realizing that I am not meant to be thin but that doesn’t mean I am meant to be fat. I am, however, meant to be baldish, it would seem.

Ideas.

This summer I began a new habit: I start each morning by writing down a bunch of ideas. Each day I concoct a different assignment and write down whatever occurs to me. It pumps my brain with blood, clears the cobwebs, and is a nice habit. Most of the ideas are worthless but the occasional one is worth developing and that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll share some of those lists with you here, in time.

Workbook.

I have a new book. It just came out at the end of August. It’s called Art Before Breakfast – the Workbook. It is designed to help you develop a creative habit, of drawing and seeing the world around you every day. If you have read Art Before Breakfast, you will recognize some of the content but it has been redesigned and expanded and printed on high quality sketchbook paper so you can not only carry it around with your for inspiration but also draw and write and even paint right in its pages. I hope you like it.

And if you prefer Frühstück to Breakfast, you will be glad to know that the original Art Before Breakfast is soon to come out in German. That will be the sixth edition foreign language, including Spanish, Russian, Korean, Mandarin and I forget the other one. Aussie?

The fall.

Well, I hope you had a great summer too. Do tell me about it.

School’s back in session, I have my new shoes, fresh haircut and sharpened pencils and will be at my workstation, posting semiregularly again. So get used to coming back to this same batchannel in future for more ruminations on all things creative.