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:


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.

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

This is annoying as hell. My dogs, Tim and Joe, are obsessed with the trash chute in our vestibule. Whenever I drop a bag of garbage down the chute, they go nuts, growling and barking and trying to leap up and into the chute in pursuit of the disappearing bag. This has been going on for years. In fact, it’s so obsessive that whenever we open the garbage can in the kitchen or even the dishwasher next to it, they go scrambling to the chute, waiting for something that’s just. Not. Going. To happen. It’s a habit, a pure, Pavlovian habit.

Habits can be a pain, like biting your cuticles or forgetting to floss, but they can also be a real boon to a creative person. They are a little subroutine we can plug into to our neck-top computers to make sure we draw or write or play the dulcimer on a regular basis, a basis that will make us more skilled, more expressive and happier with our work.

Habits have three basic parts. First, there’s what I call ‘the Spark’. That’s the event that triggers the habit. In my dogs’ case, it’s anything to do with throwing out garbage. Garbage in, the madness begins.

Next, there’s the habitual behavior. In this case, running like a lunatic across the apartment and gnashing your teeth at a small steel door in the wall.

Third, is the reward. Tim and Joe never actually get the reward which must be diving down the garbage’s burrow to throttle it deep in the ground (they are dachshunds after all, bred to kill badgers in their lairs). Or maybe it’s just the thrill of the chase.

In any case, think of those three steps in setting up whatever brain program you want to write. Let’s say you want to find time to draw on a regular basis but the monkey voice in your head tells you to watch TV instead. So let’s create a habit. 1. Put your sketchbook on the coffee table next to the remote. When a commercial comes, (spark), grab the remote, mute the TV, pick up your sketchbook and draw whatever’s in front of you (your feet, your coffee table, your slumbering Rottweiler, scenes from the commercial on the screen)  (habit) until you fill you up your sketchbook with awesome drawings (reward).

Think of other sparks you could link to habits. Every time you make a pot of coffee (spark), draw the view out the kitchen window (habit). Every time you sit on the toilet (spark), draw on a sheet of toilet paper (habit). Every time Donald Trump says “Mexican”(spark), draw your neighbor’s Chihuahua (habit).

Or, subscribe to my blog (sign up in the column on the right) and get an email three times a week when I post (spark), and do a drawing based on my featured image (habit). That will be rewarding for us both.

Rethinking my story.

Earlier this year, I got a lovely invitation to come out to Phoenix to talk about what I do. Jenny was born and raised there so we travel to Arizona at all times of the year to see her family and I have come to quite like the city and the desert. Besides, it was mid-winter and the idea of the desert in August had a powerful appeal.

The climate was not the only allure. Some of my pals like Jane LaFazio and Seth Apter will be there too. But most of all, it was as an opportunity to turn to a fresh page. I decided to use the invitation as an incentive to think of a whole new approach to talking to groups of people about creativity. I often present my ideas on creative blocks and the struggles we have with drawing as adults but, over the past couple of years, I have wanted to think about illustrated journaling from a different vantage point.

As part of this fresh start, I went back through every page of my illustrated journals in chronological order. From my first tentative collages and chicken scratching, through the books I bound myself, through my trips around the world, my experimentation with media, my growing confidence, Patti’s death, Jack’s departure for college, the move Jenny and I took to LA and so much more. I paged through almost twenty years of life and it was exhilarating and sobering, emotional and revelatory.

Now I have managed to turn all those pages into a brand-new story that I am really excited to present.

My presentation is open to all and the folks in Phoenix have set up a lovely evening with wine and desert and such — but reservations are filling up fast.  If you’d like to come, meet some other great creative people and see what I have concocted, I’d love to see you there.

The evening begins at 7:00pm on Saturday, August 8 MT.  To find out more and register, click here.  There’s also a Facebook event.

I hope to see you there!

Keeping the fun in fundamentals.

Teaching yourself to make art is a lifelong endeavor. Books and courses will help but it’s up to you to keep the work interesting and relevant.

Look for creative ways to keep practicing the basics, like contour drawing, proportions, foreshortening, tone, shading, volume, etc.

Don’t make drills dull. Find ways to mix things up. Draw things that mean something to you.

Instead of setting up artificial subjects like bowls of fruit or vases of flowers, draw the contents of your fridge. Draw the roses you got for your birthday and write about how you feel getting a year older. Instead of drawing naked strangers in a life drawing class, draw your naked spouse, your cat, your boss. Rather than doing “Drapery studies,” draw the shapes your feet make under the covers on a Sunday morning.

Be inventive. Be fresh. Be personal. It’s an adventure, not a chore.