Inspirianapolis.

Over the years, I have narrowed my bag of tricks to a select few: watercolors, ink, a dip pen to write with. Sure, I vary it a bit with some gouache and an occasional brush pen — but my arsenal is limited and comfortable as old, very scuffed shoes.

Last week, when I hung out with my pal Penny Dullaghan in Indianapolis, I realized the price I pay with this lack of imagination. She opened drawers and pulled out screen prints, monoprints, pages of pattern blocks, , then drawings she had collaborated on with her 7-year-old daughter. I watched her create stencils to define shapes and then pound color through them with ink pads. I marveled as she created carbon paper with oil paint and scribed spasmodic, fractured lines with a special transfer techniques. She whittled a stamp out of soft linoleum and created graceful repeating patterns. She layered ink, watercolor, gouache and colored pencil over the textures she’d made and turned simple drawings and designs into rich, organic textures that made her images come alive.

I left town with my head full of ideas and a long list of things I wanted to try. Then I caught up with my pal Tommy Kane and he showed me new techniques he’s doing by layering drawings on top of each other, by drawing on marbleized paper, and by painting and drawing on ceramics.

My friends fired me up to get radical, to experiment in a way I haven’t in ages, to learn new techniques, and to build myself a proper studio once again so I can spread out and play.

How set are you in your ways?

 

 

Baby steps

When I started working with Keith, I was not in great shape.  I had pains in my lower back, carpal tunnel syndrome, and chronic headaches. But I just grinned and bore these maladies. As far as I was concerned, these were just part of being me, aches and pains that I’d developed since I’d first started pounding on a computer all day, decades before — my imperfections, unfixable.

As for going to a trainer, well, that was all very well, paying someone to hold my hand while I walked around the gym, counting off reps, giving me encouragement, helping me build my biceps or lose a few pounds. Eventually, there were some meager results so I could take it or leave it.

Keith taught me otherwise. He showed the point of exercise is not six-pack abs or marathon times. It’s about making the most of the equipment we have for living out the rest of our days and that making certain little changes could make huge differences to my body and to my life.

We worked on tiny muscles hidden deep along my spine and  between my shoulder blades. We focussed on the exact angle of my tailbone when I crouched, correcting and re-correcting. We looked at the angle of my pelvis in the mirror. We rolled the fascia alongside my left thigh with rubber logs and built up strength in my right quadriceps.

After a few months, standing and moving in a balanced way became second nature. The unnatural way I had held my shoulders, my neck, my stance, were replaced with alignment.  Now if I hunched my shoulders or sat in a cramped and twisted way, my body told me something was wrong and I adjusted.

My headaches vanished. My hands no longer tingled. My feet, which had always splayed out like Charlie Chaplin lined up toe to heel. My carriage grew more and more erect. Jenny noticed that I was getting taller, soon by a couple of inches. I felt better all the time. And happier too.

For the first time, my relationship with my body changed because I saw what truly is. Not just a couple hundred pounds of annoying meat but an amazing machine that just needs to be tuned and maintained.

I discovered that my body is a miraculous system of complex interconnected processes that can be adjusted, honed, perfected. The way I was didn’t have to be the way I’d be. The unhealthy adaptations I’d made to certain chairs, desks, sidewalks, stresses, ways of standing, sitting, sleeping, were not carved in stone. And my assumptions about my physical being, that it was some sort of curse to be endured, an uphill battle that would always let me down, was nonsense. Being out of whack, behaving in ways that hurt me, limiting my ability, assuming that there was no solution — all these behaviors and thought patterns were replaced by balance and a better way of being.

For the first time, my relationship with my body changed because I saw what truly is. Not just a couple hundred pounds of annoying meat but an amazing machine that just needs to be tuned and maintained. Not for vanity but because of how it helps me live better and get the most out of each day. A few small adjustments in my body led to a change in my entire being. In my life.

Similarly, when I began to draw, I had no idea what seismic shifts this small change would cause in my life. Many of friends tell me that picking up a pen and opening up a sketchbook ultimately led them to change careers, travel the world, publish books, make new friends, new priorities, new plans for their remaining days.

Why? Why does this simple habit make such a difference? When you start to draw, you set things in motion. You start to see what is. Perhaps you’ll see beauty where you overlooked it. Perhaps you will fill books with stories about your life, an ordinary life, and suddenly see it is actually quite rich and wonderful. And perhaps the power of seeing so clearly will make you want to go and see more. And that desire will cause you, like Mole in The Wind in the Willows or Bilbo Baggins, to lock the door of your cozy little life and wander out into the wide world.

Maybe seeing clearly will show you that you have been hiding your true self from yourself, have been leading a life that wasn’t really what you wanted, that you could do more, that you could be more. That your childhood dreams are still valid, that your parents, your banker, your boss, your children can’t call all your shots. And that time is running out.

When you make art, you slowly brush the cobwebs from your inner life and sunlight starts to stream in. Who knows what it might reveal?

Maybe you will see that drawing is a thing that you actually can do even though the monkey has too long told you that you can’t, because you suck, because you have no talent or time. And, when you discover this power, you may come to wonder what else you have overlooked or deceived yourself about, what else you can do and be. Maybe you could paint or play the piano or visit Rome or hang-glide or open a store or be a clown or run for Prime Minister.  Or hire a trainer and get rid of your headaches.

This can be scary, feeling the first winds of freedom and change sweeping through the open door of your golden cage. But if you don’t face this fear from some angle, how can you ever see your life for what is and can be?

When you make art, you slowly brush the cobwebs from your inner life and sunlight starts to stream in. Who knows what it might reveal? Who knows what journey you are about to embark upon once you uncap that pen and take that first little step? Don’t you want to see?

“Why should I learn to draw and how are you gonna teach me?”: On the teaching philosophy of Sketchbook Skool

A key to successful learning is to have a motive. Why do I want and need to learn this?

When we first started to learn things, it was to survive in the world. Learning how to walk, how to eat solid food, how to talk, and how to play with others were hard but essential lessons. When we first got to school, we had to learn things because, well, mainly because we were told to do so by adults and because everyone else in the room was doing it too. We didn’t really understand the reason for learning what we are being taught but we did it because it some big person told us too. Eventually, some grown-ups inspired and excited us in the classroom and then we were doing  it because it was fun and we wanted them to like us even more. Those kinds of teachers are the ones that have the power to change our lives.

When we are grownups, why do we want to learn things? Generally, because the new skills will help our careers or enable us to accomplish some useful goal like cooking dinner or programming the DVR.

So why do people want to learn to draw? And how do we help them to persevere?

So why do people want to learn to draw? And how do we help them to persevere? People want to learn to draw generally because is a skill that they felt was potential in them for a long time but they were never able to focus on or get proper guidance  to fulfill that potential. “I’ve always wanted to draw,” people tell me. But there were huge obstacles that sat in their way — the largeness of the task, the enormous commitment required, and most of all the fear of failure.   This stems from the sense that while others may be good at this, you were not born with the talent or ability to ever accomplish even a basic level of drawing skiinstructionll yourself.

So the first and most important task is to give people back their sense of power. To make them think that they can do it, to show them that that ability does reside within them, and that if they put in a bit of work it will not be wasted effort. Because there is that sense that the process is magical and that, without that spark of magic, no amount of effort or training will pay off.

As teachers, we have to show them that it is indeed possible. And the key to doing that is to show them that people just like them —novices, frustrated creatives, people born apparently without talent — are able to make progress in the same way.

If you look at Betty Edwards’ classic  book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, one of the most notable things in it are the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. We see accomplished beautiful drawings and next to them the same sort of amateurish fumblings that we are now capable of. The book promises us that, just like these people, we will be able to progress from A to B.

A great way of doing that is by giving people a sense that they are surrounded by like-minded people. Community, is a key part of empowering them. I can tell you over and over why I think you will be able to accomplish this but, unless you trust me, unless you feel I am like you, your inner monkey critic can simply dismiss my expectations and say that I am different from you so my lessons do not apply.

You can buy a book and struggle alone with the exercises, giving up when you hit the first obstacle or disappointing sketch. But when you’re surrounded by thousands of others with the same ambition, the same busy lives, and the same apparently limited talent, you feel like maybe it is possible. And when you have that sense of possibility, the next step is to give you the opportunity to exercise. We need to give you work to do that will be both fun and rewarding. So we need to devise assignments that will fit in with your current life, that will remain interesting and varied, and that will move you one small step at a time, toward the goal of creative empowerment.

When you’re surrounded by thousands of others with the same ambition, the same busy lives, and the same apparently limited talent, you feel like maybe it is possible.

I think it is similar to  learn the way we did when we were children, to just enjoy the process, to have fun in the process rather than agonizing over the first meager results. All learning involves work. But it need not feel like work. It should  be fun, rewarding, and engrossing in someway.

We have the fantasy that learning a skill is simply a matter of getting access to certain shortcuts. That there is a secret set of tricks that will instantly have us drawing effortlessly and accurately, as if there were secret rules that allowed you to drive a car expertly or shoot a basket expertly. Drawing is a physical skill. Like any other, it takes practice. There are no shortcuts but there are things that will make the effort and time commitment required seem just like fun.

No one of the steps will instantly provide you with extraordinary abilities. But they will build your faith. And that faith means that you will continue to take one small step after another. And fairly quickly you will be able to look back and see how far you’ve come. And that will re-reinforce your faith again so you will continue to work and to move forward.

None of the steps has a magic formula, it just contains inspiration. Because ultimately nobody can teach you to draw — only you can teach yourself. And the way you do it is by believing that you can, and doing the work to develop the skills and the connections in your brain and body to make it so.

Fired up in the dark

I am really inspired by working with Melanie Reim on her klass for Sketchbook Skool. Her loose, fast drawing style and her ways of capturing people in motion is just what I need to loosen up.

Here’s one of the pages I filled waiting with Jenny at the DMV.

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A couple of days ago we were invited to attend Sting’s new Broadway show. The music was good, the story and characters less so. During the second act, I pulled out my little Moleskine and  a couple of pens. It was so dark I couldn’t seem my book at all and  wasn’t sure what I was scrawling. During intermission, I flipped through my pages and, heartened, kept going after the curtain went up again. When I walked out of the theatre,  I had the story of the whole evening recorded in my book and my grey cells.

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This sort of quick, take-no prisoners kept me fired up and, over the next few days, I drew a bunch of people in the street and from photos too.

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Another reminder that — as in rock ‘n’ roll —sometimes speed and volume are just the ticket to loosen you up and silence your inner monkey.

Oh, and that Sketchbook Skool has the power to change your view of the world.

Even if you just work there.

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.

By way of explanation.

I have been received occasional emails and comments from people wondering why I have stopped posting on this site. Let me begin by saying that Jack and I are doing quite well, despite the silence. We have both had milestone birthdays in the past month; he turned 16 and I turned (gulp) 50. We have been making a lot of art, spending time with each other and friends,moving our lives ahead. There have been setbacks and moments of deep sadness and anxiety, but as each one passed, I felt stronger and clearer.

I have decided however that I am less comfortable sharing enormous amount of detail here. I have received a lot of encouragement, wisdom and support from visitors to the site,  but I feel that these enormous passages in our lives should be expressed somehow differently, with more care and perspective. So, while I continue to write and draw about these days in my journal, I will be much more selective in how I share them, here and elsewhere. Instead, I shall use dannygregory.com as a place to express myself as I always have, about matters creative and artistic, rather than as deeply personal as the posts I put up in the early summer. I promise to share a lot of this material with you in the future — just in a different shape and form.

I don’t regret that public airing of my private feelings, but I no longer have the same need to do so. I’m sure you understand.

Also, after being plagued by malware and paying a consultant to repeatedly exterminate the vermin in my site, I have decided to radically redesign dannygregory,com. I will launch the new site soon and on it I will share a lot of material from my sketchbooks which I  hope you will find useful.

If you have visited this page over the years, you are probably quite used to my occasional bouts of ambivalence about leading a public life and know that inevitably I shall prance back onto center stage, neuroses in full display and reveal more than a sane person probably should about my experience of the world.

Until then, I remain small and timidly yours,

Danny

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Oh, one more thing  —  Seth Apter has just published an interview with me in which I explain, for the first time, the real origins of Everyday Matters. You might find it interesting.

Comic Experiment

(Enlarged image of comic here)
I have always enjoyed reading comics. I started when I was about 7 or 8, with Disney comics and Archie and Tintin and Beano then in puberty progressed on to underground comix by Crumb and Bodé and Hernandez Bros. etc. In the last few years I have been into Seth, Ben Katchor, Jason and Kochalka.
I have never particularly enjoyed super hero or fantasy comics. I like small stories that reflect reality in an interesting way.
I am often struck by how little does happen in these stories and I wonder to what extent this is a reflection of the enormous amount of work involved in making comics. If you have to learn to draw so well and then draw so much to tell a story, do you lose the opportunity to have a life? There are so many comix about guys who have no life, no girl, no clue and I wonder if that’s a reflection of their creators’ experience or lack thereof.
Anyway, I have decided that I will work in this form for a little while, just to strech myself. It is a difficult assignement as it violates so many of the rules I have set up for drawing over the past decade or so. It means drawing from my imagination rather than from observed reality, by and large. It is also takes a certain amount of forethought and planning. And you have to be reasonably neat, or at least a lot less loose than I am.
This first comic tells the the story of a recent incident in which, while walking up 6th Avenue with my family on a Sunday afternnoon, I got a huge gash in my head from a hockey puck.
As you can see, the comic is pretty awful. It’s so tiny ( I drew it in my teeny moleskine) and cramped and ill-planned and messy. Still, for me, it sort of captures the event in a way that ‘s more satisfying than my usual approach of just drawing a puck and then surrounding it with calligraphy.

I am starting to turn the members of my family into characters that can be drawn over and again in different poses and be recognizable from frame to frame. Again, this is so dffferent from how I normally work. I am drawing in sumi-ink and working very small. My lettering virges on the indicipherable for which I apologize. Write me with strenuous complaints.
I imagine that comics aren’t your cup of tea. Still, think about them and how they could effect your own journaling. They offer a good way to use drawing to tell a story and force you into some dfficult design and drawing problems that may teach you something.