Art Before Breakfast: couch potato

I usually listen to the radio while I potter around in the kitchen of a morning. Today I put on the TV instead and watched talkingheads discuss the last Republican debate. While they kvetched, I sketched.

I approached it like a doodly collage, capturing moments in boxes that approximate the shape of the screen without being too slavish to reality, and augmenting them with decorative bits.  I kept moving around the page, adding bits to earlier parts, making the whole thing denser and more detailed. It’s a fairly mindless way of drawing, half paying attention to the screen, half to the page.

One trade secret: the pause button on my remote control. I can freeze the action for a couple of minutes and catch a gesture. Other bits I just drew while they were happening or from memory. Or from my imagination.

I used a manga pen and a brush pen in my trusty Stillman & Birn Delta sketchbook.

Every Friday I work through an idea from my latest book, Art Before Breakfast. It would be lovely if I could imagine you out there drawing along with me. This particular exercise comes from p.51. If you decide to do it too, please share how it turned out! (Share the results on your own blog or on Facebook and post a link in my comments section. Use #artb4bkfst on Twitter or FB).

Art Before Breakfast: Toast

Instead of hitting the POST button at 7 am as per usual, I sat down to draw my breakfast.

This particular slice comes from a loaf baked by our pal, Michael. He brought it to a wine tasting we hosted last weekend and it was so delicious I managed  to stretch the loaf out all week. Today I hit the heel.

Drawing toast is an adventure. It’s an opportunity to slow way down and delve deep. I begin by slowly driving my pen around the perimeter and then, quadrant by quadrant, I work my way through every nook, crumb, divot, pit and hole. It’s not difficult work but it’s absorbing and clears the mind.

I have gone into this in more depth here on the blog,  in Art Before Breakfast and in Seeing at SBS but all you really need is a pen, a piece of paper, some toast, and about 10 spare minutes.

Every Friday I work through an idea from my latest book, Art Before Breakfast. It would be lovely if I could imagine you out there drawing along with me. This particular exercise comes from p.38. If you decide to do it too, please share how it turned out! (Share the results on your own blog or on Facebook and post a link in my snows-bread-recipecomments section. Use #artb4bkfst on Twitter or FB).

And if you’d like to draw the same bread I did, here’s Michael’s recipe:

From to-do to Done Deal.

I frequently risk being the prisoner of my ambition. I dream big and often, then wake up exhausted with a long to-do list and a sense of dread. How will I get it all done? How will I climb this mountain I have built?

I sit at its base, exhausted by the possibilities, wrapped in a sense of failure before I begin. That sense threatens to keep me from the first step. And the longer I wait to begin, the further away the summit will stretch.

Not doing can easily become a reflex. Like a hoarder with newspapers to the rafters, like a 700 lb. man trapped in bed, like a refugee clutching a trash bag of possessions and a child’s hand, it can all seem too big to tackle. Submission to failure and the monkey can seem the only possible recourse.

But doing, like failure, can be incendiary. I start by taking on one challenge, maybe the easiest, teeniest one on the pile. When I have surmounted it, one checkmark on the epic list, I feel a flicker of hope. I pull the next task toward me and the flicker starts to smolder.

I make the bed, I got to the gym, I do a drawing, I write a blog post, I arrange a lunch meeting, I write a chapter, and soon the flames are roaring, wheels are turning, we are half-way up the peak.

Not doing can easily become a reflex.

Then, I sift through the list. I discard the pointless, the distracting, the indulgent. I break the most overwhelming obstacles into a small series of do-able tasks. I beaver on. Soon the list is a scaffolding, a set of pitons leading me hand-over-hand to the top.

Last night we watched The Martian. It’s a great move based on an even greater book. It deals with an impossible challenge: surviving on Mars, with rescue years away. The solution is increments — tackling one small problem, then the next, and so on. The more bite-sized the problems, the easier the whale is to digest.

Dream big. Start small.


Look, I’m going to tell you some thing pretty embarrassing. I need to get it off my chest so I’m just telling you, but please don’t let it get around.

A couple of weeks ago, I realized I was horribly, horribly out of shape. I’ve been pretty busy this summer and haven’t had a lot of time for much, but this is no excuse. I know better but frankly, I had just plain let myself go.

jenny-shoesOne afternoon, I sat down, brushed the dust off my sketchbook,  uncapped my pen and began to draw Jenny’s shoes.

I couldn’t believe what came out. It was awful. And even worse, the act of drawing was awkward and crabbed, like I had three left hands and they each had sprained wrists and five thumbs. I tried slathering on some gouache to cover my mistake but that just made matters worse. The prognosis was clear and so was the cause.

I had forgotten how to draw.

I felt humiliated. I mean, I have been so busy all summer writing books, giving talks, blogging, making stuff for Sketchbook Skool that I had become that archetype: he who can’t, teaches. I felt really awful. And I wasn’t sure how to fix it. Well, I sort of was but I wasn’t sure it would work.

I had three left hands and they each had sprained wrists and five thumbs.

My first impulse was to get down all my old favorite, sure-fire drawing instruction books. Sketchbook for the Artist. Work small, Learn big! Creative Ink Drawing. then all the artists who’s inspired me. Crumb. Searle. Gentleman. Hogarth. Kane. Ware. Jean. They remind me how to do it. But my mentors just made me feel more inept and hopeless and lost.

Next, I decided I’d better go to the art supply store. Maybe, I just need some thicker pens. And  a new type of sketchbook. I bought a painfully expensive one that claims that ink never bleed through its page. Cool, I could finally draw with Sharpies. I’d seen Jonny Twingley doing that to great effect. And the Basquiat notebook show at the Brooklyn Museum was full of big bold lines and flat colors that seemed just the ticket. I came home with an armful.

That was another mistake. Thinking that switching everything up would provide instantly good results. Not only had I forgotten to draw, I was now setting out to learn how to use a bunch of new materials and simultaneously ape someone else’s style and POV to boot.

The first few pages in the book continued down the disastrous path. I kept thinking and thinking about how to reduce things into shapes, struggled with how to add tone, drew far too fast, and then, to cap things off,  the cap came off one of my fat new pens while it was in my pocket, scrawling a tattoo of india ink down my leg, my pants and even my good salmon Lacoste shirt.

Early one sweltering morning, I sat in my boxer shorts and made a self-diagnostic comic. Time to get to work.

parkThe weekend arrived and Jenny and the dogs and I went to the park. While my family dozed on a picnic blanket, I drew people. Fat, tall, crazy, slow-moving, sleeping, texting, skateboarding people filled my pages. Even the slowest were too unpredictable for me to do a lot of strategizing. I just drew and, if they got up off the bench, I started drawing the next person who sat down. The shadows grew longer, people got sweatier, Jenny and the dogs when back to the air-conditioning, while I kept going.

fightThe next day, I started my morning in the window of the Lafayette bakery, drawing a couple seated at a sidewalk table and having a long argument. Over and over I drew them both, as they gesticulated, accused, sobbed, then paused to shovel down almond croissants. Then I went to church and drew the choir and the congregants, page after page of earnest reverent faces.

tennisI spent the rest of the day watching the U.S. Open on TV. I drew the players, the  commentators, the actors in the commercials. Occasionally, I would hit the pause button and to freeze and study a gesture.

As Federer rejected half the balls the linesmen lobbed him, squeezing, bouncing, assessing, until he found the right one to serve, I grabbed new pens from the pile, testing out different weights until I found my way back to an old favorite, a Stabilo pigment liner, but a fatter one than I’d ever used before, a 0.7.  I was feeling my old line start to flow again and it had picked up a bit of weight from the influence of Jonny and Jean-Michel.

“I am the one who knocks!”

Monday, Jenny went to work and I began to binge. Summer rains had rolled in, and I started to rewatch Breaking Bad on Netflix. Episode after episode, season after season, I drew bald heads and grimaces and dramatic lighting.

I didn’t try to draw accurate portraits, I just let my pen slide over their heads to take me to new inventions. I didn’t write clever quips, didn’t compose my page, didn’t add color, didn’t judge. I didn’t think. Just drew the scene, turned the page, and moved on.

Fortunately there are five seasons of Breaking Bad and there are still some empty pages left in my expensive sketchbook. After a week of intensive workout, drawing has started to become second nature again. The lines flow. I’m  still not thinking but I can just plunk down the pen on the page and it starts to move. And generally in the right direction. For better or worse, the drawings look like mine. And best of all, I love it again. I can’t wait to keep going.

I’m back.

Getting back in shape

The last year has not been a great one for drawing. At least not for me. After being a dad and an employee and a housekeeper, the little spare time I have had left has been consumed with the two books I have been putting together. I’ve had to do a lot of drawing to get those books done, of course, but it’s certainly not been the sort of art that fills my dozens of old sketchbooks. It’s not really a record of my daily life.

A few weeks ago, once the last of my book files was picked up by the FedEx man,I had to admit that I had pretty much lost the habit of drawing and I’d better do something about it. I just kinda didn’t wanna.

Even though it’s been a mild winter, it’s not been conducive to drawing outside so I sat for in the kitchen for a while and looked at the odds and ends on the counter and tried to psych myself up. Instead, I sighed. I just can’t draw my pepper mill again, nor a box of raisins or my knife block. I have a new, great-sounding but boring-looking radio — its a black rectangle with a small monitor and two knobs. Most of the view out my window has been blocked by two newish NYU buildings. They are as dull looking as my new radio and, in any case I’ve drawn them over and again over the years. My mind whined: there’s nothing to draw. But really, beneath my feigned boredom, lurked fear. An anxiety that maybe I had lost my ability to draw. Look at Tiger Woods — even great talent can slip away in the night and leave you swatting the air.

I had to find a way to ease back into the water without scaring the muse away. I didn’t want the pressure of making great journal pages or writing witty marginalia. I just wanted the visceral pleasure of making lines and slowly and carefully studying something, anything. I unearthed an empty, spiral-bound journal with not terribly nice paper and filled my fountain pen. Then I picked up the dogeared copy of last week NY Times Magazine and let it fall open to a random photo. Then I began to copy the picture into the book, focussing on cross hatching, spiraling lines in neat rows, lining up a smooth gradation of micro dots, making ribbons of greys and undulations of silky blacks.

The old pen was a little rusty but not nearly as bad as I feared. And soon the sweet flood of neurotransmitters swept over me, like emptying a too full bladder, and I entered the zone.

So I made a small deal with me. Each morning after my breakfast was chewed and the French press was still half full, I would do one drawing from the morning paper on one page in the book. At least one. If the urge was there and the coffee held out, maybe I’d make a second.

Most mornings I fill a page (and I don’t beat myself up about it if I miss a day to give the dogs some extra time in the park or to make an early meeting). And the fun is back.

Granted, I’m making drawings of unknown faces from news photos, not the sort of things I want to fill books with, but I figure, what the hey, it’s spring training, and the season will eventually  start for real. Meanwhile, just keep loosening up the shoulders, stretching the hamstrings, and shagging those flies.