Seeing the forest, oh, and the trees

tree-1In The Art Spirit, my pal Bob Henri talks about the importance of that original intention which sparks one to make a drawing or a painting. What caught my interest? And, all critically, how do I hold on to that intention so my art is infused with that interest? It’s not enough to decide to draw a tree, one must feel something about that tree and have that feeling right in front of one’s eyes and one observes. His advice is to work fast and furiously, blocking in the big masses while the flame is still burning.
My usual technique is to move slowly, with a blank mind. I enter a meditative state and let my eyes cruise around the contours, laying down every line with equal weight until I have explored the whole object. I rarely try to feel anything as I do this but I must be. I choose certain subjects over others because I like them or am curious about them. So I decided to be more aware and to explore some other ways of looking at a tree a few blocks from my hotel.
I spent a good long time working in ink first. I was very into the carbuncles and folds of the tree’s skin. As I drew, I became increasingly aware of the tree’s colors: it was quite yellow but cloaked in purple, two complimentary colors. I kept thinking about how these colors inter-played and then I painted over my line with watercolors. I was using my new paper, this Yupo pad I picked up on the weekend. The ink went down very smoothly on it but had a tendency to smear. As I painted I was pretty aware of how unnaturally the paint went down, pooling on the paper instead of soaking in. The colors remained pretty vivid, undimmed by the fibers, but it all felt temporary somehow. I couldn’t really let go, worrying that the whole thing would wipe of the page when I was done. I also felt like I had a long lens on — I was only looking at each square inch of the tree but had little sense of the whole as I drew.


While the pad lay drying in the afternoon sun, I decided to have another go and grabbed my trusty Japanese journal with its 100+lb paper ( intended for drawing but it’ll take watercolor pretty well) and my Faber-Castell PITT bold brown brush marker. In three minutes, I knocked out a sketch, thinking all the while about the flow and energy of the tree. I did a caricature of the yellow and violet and capped my pen.


Next I took a black PITT pen and thought about the tree’s architecture, how it anchored into the ground and how the limbs were bolted onto the spine of the creature. I bore down harder on my pen, drawing firmer lines and painting in more defined shapes of color.


Finally I took my cheap Sheaffer italic pen, loaded with dark brown non-waterproof ink and this time I thought about the movement of the trees, how the carbunckly growth flowed like water or vomit from the trees crotch, how the limbs pulled in different directions and how that tension held the tree together and propelled it into the sky. Now the tree seemed almost serpentine to me, writhing out of the soil, phallic, twisting, alive. The watercolors dulled the lines but it felt okay, as if the fusing the whole thing together.

I look at these four drawings and I’m not sure yet what conclusion to draw about them. I like the earthy energy of my last drawing (as if it was made by a goat or a mole) but there’s still something lovely and light about the first bird-like one. Each has something to say in its way, like the varied members of a string quartet, the ingredients of a cassoulet.
One conclusion is clear: Drawing never fails to amaze me; how it can rip open the doors into your head, how it can transform the world and your place in it. Nobody but me can see this process, this unfolding, as it happens to me. All that’s left for others to see are the pages in my journal, the ass wipings on paper — but never the feast.

Bagging it

lunchbagJack takes a lunch box to school but when he goes to summer day camp, his carrot sticks, cookie and sandwiches (unvaryingly: one salami, one PB&J), travel along in a brown paper bag. At one point, maybe it was last summer or the summer before, Patti asked me to write his name on the bag. Soon this became a ritual and each morning after breakfast I would do more and more elaborate calligraphy to identify his bag.
Then I started making up panels from super hero comics and printing them on the bag with my ink jet. This year I alternate between dip pen hieroglyphics and watercolors and gouache (which look great on the biscuit brown paper).
When I first came to America at thirteen, I got my first lunch box. I think I picked it out myself, a Scooby Doo model. It wasn’t long before my classmates started to snicker and then openly deride me for my cluelessness.
Before long, I’d gotten the message and began to brown bag it. No name or watercolors.

I contain multitudes

I am a wiry cowboy or maybe an ex-con, sideburned, sunburned, sheathed in jailhouse tats, wearing Dickies, Vitalis and Old Spice, a hand-roll dangling below my Fu-Manchu, stonily silent, a solid peckerwood who’s 1000-yard-staring through glacial blue eyes.
I am Robert DeNiro as Vito Corleone in Godfather II. Poised, determined, resourceful, lethal.
I am Aimee Mann: thin, blonde, beautiful; cynical, hilarious,profane; part angel, part construction worker.
I am Eminem.
I am Miles.
I am Tyson.
I am the Dalai Lama.
I am Jimi Hendrix: my fingers scrabbling and singing across the strings, my cheeks sucked in, my eyes closed, my shirt a riot of psychedelic paisley.
I am Steve McQueen, leaping the barbed wire fence into Switzerland on the back of a stolen German motorbike.
I am Francis Bacon.
I am Warren Buffett.
I am Jesus Christ.
I am Keith Richards: kohl eyes, turtle skin, brown bony arms gripping my axe.
I am Curtis, holding a piece of cardboard and a cup on Sixth Avenue.
I am Vincent in the wheat field.
I am Arnold, winning Mr. Olympia yet again.
I am Henry Miller, fingering in Clichy, scribbling in Brooklyn.
I am Dy Thomas, blowing a fag end into a BBC mike.
I am a spotty fourteen-year-old with a meager moustache.
I am a bloated middle-aged bald man.
I am a corpse.
I am Chas Eames.
I am Dick Feynman.
I am Wally Whitman.

Last night I was thinking about how hard it is to stay in my own skin. Maybe that’s the way art is supposed to make you feel, to catapult you into another aspect of yourself and let you dwell there a while. Or maybe that’s just what it is to be human and to try to live an examined life.
I’m reacting intensely to all of the things I am going through right now, all of the different audiences I seem to be strutting past. I want to’ be me’, to express that me-ness, and yet it is so varied, so contradictory. There’s me as husband, father, son, and brother. Illustrator, author, blogger, copywriter, professional, and novice. Teacher, student, know-it-all, and idiot. Ad guy, art-guy, ugly American guy, and Registered Alien. Jew, Christian, Buddhist, and atheist. Hermit, tireless self-promoter, success, and failure.
It’s not really that I’m seeking the answer any more. My adolescence is so far behind me, and I have worn out my allotment of mid-life crises. It’s more that I’m perpetually restless, only temporarily satisfied with every conclusion.
Perhaps this is the biological imperative that moves successful organisms towards adaptation and evolution. Those who are content to keep chowing down on a certain kind of leaf or to hang out by a certain waterhole are secure … until the shit comes down. Then it’s only those shifty, scuttling rodents in the undergrowth that make it to the next level. We are the descendants of every successful shape shifter there’s been till now, the freakiest of all mutated freaks, and these days, as the shit comes down more heavily than ever, only the unsatisfiable will survive. So perhaps I’m working my way up to missing linkhood.
Or maybe I’ll just be the first lemming off the cliff.
Or worse yet, somewhere lost in the middle of the herd.

John Hancock

jacks-noteWhen you’re designing a book that will be entirely handwritten, you have two choices. You can be as patient as Frederick Franck and get a bunch of pens and set to work, writer’s cramp be damned. If you are as inconsistent and sloppy as I am, better to follow SARK’s example and have a font created based on your handwriting. So when I made Everyday Matters, I worked with Alexander Walter to turn my vaguely cursive upper/lower case writing into a font.
The font worked well for the book but I was troubled by the fact that the point size is set by the height of the tallest letter, including descenders and ascenders. That meant I was also ways having to scale up the letters and that if I cranked down my leading, I would have letters from different lines bumping heads and tails.
Recently I decided to try a new one, based on my other style of handwriting, a printed uppercase face with slightly larger letters for caps. I wrote out the alphabet and all the punctuation and numbers, then copied out many surreal sentences like “You hope havoc and chaos will ebb when you tattoo a kiwi at the zoo” and “A yoga guru will hew the yucca with a hacksaw.” I made a high res scan of all this palaver and emailed it to Alexander and a couple of weeks later, he sent me a link so I could download the font. Alexander also gave me a macro that runs in Microsoft Word to randomize my text. This useful feature takes all of the variations on a given letter that I have printed and randomly substitutes them in to my text. Instead of the same exact Y, for instance, it will insert one with a longer tail, an angled shaft, uneven tines, etc. This helps to give the font the little bit of chaos that makes for verisimilitude.
Jack immediately asked if I would load it onto his computer. I wonder why.
PS: About 50% of Everyday Matters, captions, some of the nuttier pages, is handlettered.

Ten thousand things to draw

drawerContent of kitchen cabinet, fridge, bedside table, medicine cabinet
All my shoes, clothes
Covers of ten favorite CDs, books
Every significant front door of every place I’ve lived or worked
Everything I eat today
Contents of my bag, of my pockets
Every tree on my block, labeled with its official Latin name
All the cars on my block
Views out each window in my home
Clutter on my desk
A map of my neighborhood
A map of the house I grew up in
Portraits of my wife, son, and pets asleep
Every appliance in our house
Every phone in our house
Series: every cup, mug, vase and lamp
My hands, feet, face, body
The exterior of each place I buy lunch
My car’s engine
Every pen and pencil in my desk
All of Patti’s cosmetics
Every present I got on my last birthday, Christmas
All of our sports equipment
Every chair in our house
Every outlet and all its plugs
Everything that belongs to a pet: food, toys, clothes, bed, medicine, cage, etc.
All the liquor in our cabinet
The portraits in my yearbook
Ten pieces of broken cookie
Ten manhole covers
Ten hydrants
Each component of a sandwich, individually, then assembled
All our jewelry and watches
Every hat I own
Every bill and coin in my pocket
Ten things from any catalog in our mailbox
A plate of spaghetti
The laundry: clothes, machines, detergent, etc.


The members of Everyday Matters, the Yahoo!group, have been working on an interesting project. Take a page, divide it into thirty squares (pipaudstudio created a Word template you can download here), then do a drawing each day in one of the squares. After a month, it will be filled with a rich quilt of art. No matter how lame any one of the drawings is, the overall result will be beautiful. As the month ended, some of the participants have been uploading their work. It’s very interesting and inspired me.
Patti signed me up to contribute a piece to the auction at Jack’s school, a watercolor of the school. I carved my page up and got to work.


Helluva Town

nyjournal1A few years ago, we decided to take a vacation in New York. Yes, we live in New York but we’ve never been tourists here. So we went to the Whitney biennial and the Cooper Hewitt triennial, the Museum of Natural History, a Woody Guthrie show at the Museum of NYC, the Queens museum, the Hall of Science, the Bronx Zoo. We went to the top of the Empire State building and the Easter parade and heard music and ate in touristy restaurants.

What made it really special is that we kept a family travel journal. We recorded everywhere we went and how we felt about it. We took pictures and did drawings, we drew maps and made collages of souvenir stuff. The most avid journal-keeper was Jack and he was just five.
I’d like to write some more about travel journals in the future because I think they not only record your journey, they help to define it as you’re doing it.