How to suck.

As a surprise, I signed up for ballroom dancing lessons with Jenny. I had rosy visions of twirling her around the floor while brilliantined men in dinner jackets played peppy tunes on from the bandstand.

Alas, after two or three sessions, it was obvious that I suck. While my wife is graceful and athletic as a prima ballerina, I clearly and congenitally have no innate sense of rhythm, no ability to remember steps, no actual understanding of music at all. Despite her brave smile, I finally acknowledged I’d have to buy Jenny steel-capped pumps or hang up my dancing shoes. 

What if you try doing something and find you’re not very good at it. What are the consequences?

Continue reading “How to suck.”

How to win by losing.

This is going to be mortifyingly embarrassing but I may as well tell you about it. When I was a teenager, I loved the Newhart show. Not The Bob Newhart Show where he was shrink in Chicago married to Suzanne Pleshette but the later one in which Bob had a different wife and lived in Vermont. You may remember that show, a not-terribly funny precursor to Fawlty Towers, in which Bob ran an inn and there were the three local brothers named Larry, Daryl and Daryl.

I loved this show because of Bob’s second career, his real career. He was a successful author of “how-to” books. This struck me as the perfect ambition. To sit in a cozy study and churn out books that were effortless to write. Not to strive for Pulitzers or National Book Awards but just to crank out shelves full of books on animal husbandry, basket weaving, and transmission repair. Real books nonetheless, arrayed on shelves filled with one’s name over and over on the spines.

Continue reading “How to win by losing.”

How to make learning to draw a whole lot easier.

Why do you want to start drawing?

Wait, let me rephrase that — you probably don’t want to start drawing. You want to be be really good at drawing.
To pick up a pen, grab some paper, and effortlessly draw anything, perfectly, beautifully, dazzling your friends and confounding your enemies. You want to be the next daVinci, to knock out portraits indistinguishable from photographs, to replace your vacation snapshots with breathtaking watercolors, to have gallerists, collectors and reviewers clamoring outside the doors of your sunswept Tuscan studio.  And you have to start somewhere.

But deep down, you fear that you’ll never get to be great. It’ll be too hard, you’ll just give up, and instead of pride, you’ll be besieged by self-recrimination. Your dust-covered sketchbook will be just one more reminder of your failed attempts to achieve your dreams.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Seriously. Here’s how I know. I’ve been helping folks to start drawing for ages but more importantly, I have helped myself to start drawingAnd by teaching myself, I have learned a few things that could help you to get past those first few challenging steps. So this story is less about drawing techniques than it is how to incorporate drawing into your life, how to keep yourself motivated, and how to learn to learn.

How to accurately measure progress: So many fledgling artists focus on the horizon, then trip over their own feet and fall flat. They began by focussing on the end result of learning, that perfect drawing, then despair when each line they make fails to achieve that goal. What they are overlooking are all the individual steps they are making towards that objective, the small but crucial  improvements they are making every day. I know this because it happened to me too. Early on, I’d flip through my first handful of pages and grimace. They all sucked. I sucked. And I’d never get any better.

But, had I been paying attention, had I been willing to be objective instead of brutally critical, I would have noticed how much actual progress I’d been making. That my lines were more confident. That I’d tackled complex new subjects. That I was starting to see how to really see. When I look back on my early sketchbooks now, I can see that, even after a month or two, I was getting better and better. But at the time, all I could think was: “I will never get there.”
Why? Because instead of comparing me with me, I was comparing me with da Vinci, with my friend the professional illustrator, with all the artists who’d inspired me to want to start to draw. The first bar was way too high. I’d just started to jog and was beating myself up for not running a marathon in under three hours.

It’s essential to recognize that your judgement of your own progress is far from accurate. I guarantee you are doing better than you think you are because again, your perspective is distorted by the dream you have of where you want to get to. And because you feel like an impostor who’s pretending to be an Artist but can’t draw a stick figure. So stop obsessing on on how far you have yet to travel and check out the ground you’ve already covered. Spend less time on self-criticism and more on your next drawing.

How to draw like a natural: Another crucial lesson: don’t skip ahead. Keep working on the basics. Draw simple objects. Draw your lunch. Draw a shoe. Just stick to using a black pen. Don’t plunge into portraiture or three-point perspective or advanced watercoloring. Develop your confidence in the building blocks of drawing: lines, angles, measurements (I explain more in my kourse,  How To Draw Without Talent).

And if you can’t quite capture what you’re seeing yet, write down your observations. Draw an arrow to the drawing that explains how the shadow looks, point out the highlight, record what you are learning. Just the act of writing information down, helps your memory retain it. Then look for other examples of what you have observed.

The more actively you engage, the more the lessons become second nature.  And that’s really where you want to be, to draw without having to think, to intuitively translate what you see into line son the page.  But, like learning to walk, to tie your shoe, to throw a ball, to drive a car, it takes lots of repetition to build the neural connections that make a new skill feel natural.

How to motivate yourself:  And of course, if you don’t want to practice, you won’t. It’s crucial to stay motivated, even if you’re not on the verge of a career retrospective at the Guggenheim.

One way is to set yourself small goals that you know you can achieve. For instance, do a drawing every day. Even if it’s just for two minutes, pick up that pen. Or commit to filling an entire sketchbook in the next month. Then celebrate by buying a new art tool. I spent a year drawing with one type of black pen. Then I allowed myself one grey brush marker. A month later, I added a different grey, and slowly worked my way up to a bag full of color markers over a year. The next year, I bought myself a cheap watercolor set. The year after that, a really good watercolor set, and so on.

Try focussing on a single daily subject for a month. Pick a subject you find interesting but don’t try to make an “art statement”. It’s just a theme to practice variations upon. I drew my teacup every single morning. I drew a selfie every day. The view out my kitchen window. Cars on my block.  A photo from the front page. Now I draw a dog every day.  I get a sense of accomplishment when I see how much I am drawing, not just how “well” I am drawing.

Whenever you complete a sketchbook, spend some time with it. Look back at each page, study what you did, how your work has changed.  Get out your phone and make a video as you  flip through the pages.  Share it online with friends you can trust. Their support and encouragement will help keep you going.

Three facts to write in the inside cover of your sketchbook:

1. Never compare yourself to other artists. Don’t compare your first drawing to their reproduction in a coffee table book. Let their progress inspire but not intimidate you. Compare you to you. That’s all that counts.

2.  You’re making more progress than you think. You may not see it but it’s happening with every page. Guaranteed.

3. Everyone struggles at the beginning. Check out early van Gogh drawings. Awful. Struggle is normal, inevitable, a positive sign that you are working things through. Your early drawings are zero indication of what you will achieve in time. Zero.

I hope this helps. Remember, you can do it.


This post was originally written for the Sketchbook Skool Zine. If you liked it, consider subscribing. It’s free and full of interesting stuff.

Letter-pressed.

When I was about six, I started making books. There were so many aspects of bookmaking that intrigued me and I wanted to make them mine.

My first books were stories, with a drawing filling the left page, words filling the right. I made them with crayons and pencils, writing as neatly as I could.

At ten, I wrote a book on dogs, with drawings listing the different breeds. I had sections on dog care, and took photos of my long-suffering dog Pogo to demonstrate how to clean her ears with cotton balls and how her teeth were laid out in her long snout. When they came back from the photo lab, I pasted the pictures into my binder and wrote captions in italics beneath each one. Fig.I. Fig IIa, etc.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I wrote diaries, plays, short stories, novellas, and was fetishistic about the manuscripts, making carbon-paper copies, putting each one into a file folder or a plastic sleeve , then archiving them in cardboard boxes or ring binders.

I had my own library, with a card catalog I carefully typed onto index cards, scotch-taped Dewey decimal labels on each spine, and checkout cards in little sleeves on the final endpapers to record who had borrowed each one. I re-arranged my books by height, by color, by author, subject, date of publication, publisher.

He taught me the correct place for an author sign a book, not on the end paper but on the half-title or title page.

My mother sort of understood it. None of my friends did. But for me, there was something very comforting in making books, even if they were lopsided, incomplete, lumpy with glue and typos.

My uncle was very authorial — he had a beard, a Selectric, smoked a pipe, played Schubert lieder.  A shelf in his library held his six books in a row, his name on each spine, his author photo on each flyleaf. He taught me the correct place for an author sign a book, not on the end paper but on the half-title or title page.

In high school, I worked on the newspaper and saw my name and words in print for the first time. I have vivid recall of what each article looked like — the number of columns, the placement of the illustration, the size of my byline. I took home stacks of each issue and added them to my archive.

My undergraduate thesis was the first properly bound book I produced, three hundred or so pages on the power of group psychology of student radicals in the 1960s. It was a manuscript bound in plain white cardboard with a black taped spine and a typed label on the cover but, to me, it was a real book and I have it still.

In my mid-twenties, desktop publishing became commonplace and I delighted in setting pages of type, making faux-newspaper layouts, printing out little booklets all written, designed, and printed by me. It was a thrill to see anything I wanted set in type in columns and pages.Then I got access to a scanner and I could make images and wrap text around them. I loved the ker-chunk and thwack of pages extruding from a laser printer, crisp and sharp. I printed out booklets and faux newspaper articles for my family, then my girlfriend, then my wife.

Twenty years ago, I took some courses in bookbinding. There was something so magical about making a case-bound book. Sure, I’d made pamphlets, center stapling the pages together, and filled ring binders with loose-leaf paper, but they weren’t real books. A real book had a spine and pages that were sewn in. But on my own, I could never figure out how to make one, how it all stayed together in a neat box with a rigid spine. Soon the secrets were revealed and I cranked out perfect-bound sketchbooks. Perfect-bound, yes, but not perfectly bound. My bindings were, like everything I make, wonky, ink-stained, lumpy with adhesive, far from perfect, mine.

A couple of years later, my first book was published and soon, I too had a shelf with a row of spines with my name upon them. I would spot them in bookstores and libraries or being read by strangers on a train.  In time, as my publisher sent paperback editions and stacks of foreign editions, my books became more commonplace but they are never ho-hum. They are my books.

This last week, I finally wandered into the one uncharted territory left in my book-making realm: the actual printing of words. My sister is a commercial printer and I’d been on press before when I worked in advertising, watching ads and brochures roll of big industrial presses, but I’d never been involved in the actual setup, especially not in a pre-digital way, so this was very exciting — and scary.

It was another area half-filled with shadow. I had a vague sense of many parts of the process: that type was set, that it was put on a press, that ink came off rollers, that blank sheets slipped in one end and pages came out the other, but I knew I didn’t know the half of it. Actually the quarter of it. Maybe even a smaller fraction.

I took my week-long workshop at the Center for Book Arts in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, the same place I studied bookbinding back in the 20th century. The CBA has about ten old presses, six Vandercooks and a few other platen presses that look like Ben Franklin bought them second-hand. They also have dozens of cabinets filled with typefaces, each heavy drawer full of lead containing one face in one point size.

So that’s the first lesson: unlike with a computer, real type only comes in a limited number of sizes and many of the faces may only exist in one size. You can’t just scroll through a bunch of fonts until you see something you like. You have to pick one face from a big ring binder of samples (and the samples don’t contain every letter, just the name of the face set in itself). Then you have to find the drawer with your typeface and that could be anywhere in the stacks of cabinets, each with a tiny label, arranged in no coherent order. Then you slide half open the drawer below the one you want to support your drawer (each drawer weights a helluva lot — it’s full of steel and lead after all), and pear uncomprehendingly at the little compartments containing each letter. Uncomprehendingly, because they are not laid out alphabetically or even according to QWERTY. You have to get a map to the drawer and these maps aren’t universal, so you have to pull out each letter one at a time, a letters that’s backwards and sometimes minuscule, then arrange it right to left on a stick.

This sort of nightmare is even more likely if you’re the sort of butterfingered, ten-thumber who has spend his whole life making wonky, ink-spattered things.

Next you have to decide how big the space should be between each word and locate the appropriate spacer. Then you put down some leading to separate the first line from the next, leading being a strip of lead which comes in different lengths and thickness. You determine the length by setting your longest line of copy and, if that line is in the middle of the page, you’ll need to measure it, then dismantle it so you can begin again with the first line of copy. You determine the thickness by deciding how much space you want between lines and how many lines you want on the page over all.

Now, the ‘stick’ that you are arranging the letters on is just a little metal bracket with no adhesive or magnetic qualities. If you don’t hold it at the correct angle, the letters will topple over and may even slide off and end up in a jumble on the floor. This sort of nightmare is even more likely if you’re the sort of butterfingered, ten-thumber who has spend his whole life making wonky, ink-spattered things. Not naming names, just saying.

And that nightmare is compounded by the constant sense that the tools you are working with are not available on Amazon but are all artifacts from long-defunct manufacturers and if you screw anything up, you’ll be trashing part of our cultural history. No pressure, numbnuts.

There are also drawers full of even more magical objects: wooden type, some of it letters the size of my hand. They all bear a luminous patina from decades of ingrained ink, a rich sheen of mysterious layered color. These faces are often incomplete, missing letters, punctuations, that you need to compensate for with creative improvisation.

Once you have your type picked and assembled, you lay it on the bed of the press, then surround it with strips and blocks of metal and wood called ‘furniture.’ These all need to be measured and arranged like Tetris till they fill in each direction of pressure. Finally, you slip in a quoin which is a sort of expanding strip with a hole in it which you tighten with a key.

[Printing is the source of so many common phrases. For example, “to quoin a phrase” comes from locking some words into a form. “Mind your ps and qs” refers to a common mistake in setting type where you mix up backwards letters in the form. “Wrong end of the stick” comes from arranging the letters the wrong way. “Upper-case” and “lower-case” describe where in the drawer of type (or case) each letter  can be found. “Get the lead out” means get a move on and set the next line. There are scores of others.]

With furniture in place, you next have to make the final adjustments to the type lockdown. That requires tweezering increasingly thinner sheets of copper and brass between the letters so they won’t wobble or slide. Next you pick your inks. There are dozens of vibrant colors available, each in a can with a tight lid which you have to screwdriver open and then pray it isn’t dried up or contaminated. Then you scoop out a tablespoon or so onto a sheet of Plexiglass, stir it about with a putty knife and either apply it to the roller of the press or brayer it onto the type by hand.

You pray again (no wonder printing used to be done exclusively by monks) and examine your print.

Next you do some tests on newsprint which reveal all the adjustments you have yet to make. You discover letters that are backwards or upside down or the wrong face. You discover that one of your Gs is actually a C. You adjust kerning with more little strips. You realize the whole damned thing looks like hell and is the wrong typesize and have to wipe it all down and reset it. In between skirmishes, you have to wash your hands repeatedly with orange-scented pumice soap.

Finally, you are ready to print — oh, wait, not yet. First, you have to go to the store and buy paper (250+ gram weight)  which comes in big sheets, usually 22″ x 30″. Then you have to determined the direction of the grain and how best to cut up the sheet to get the least waste. Then you go to the giant papercutter, a black steel guillotine with a foot pedal, and when you swing it up, try not to slice open the back of your head or sever many fingers.

Okay, now you’re ready. You start up the press, which activates the rollers. Then you make sure the press is in ‘trip mode’ and you ink the rollers (unless you brayered them by hand — don’t do both). Then you line up your paper, make sure it’s gripped by at least three points of contact, then hold the paper down on the platen while you turn the crank and walk down the length of press then catch the print as it comes up from the depths, pull it out with one hand, while rolling the mechanism back to the starting point. You pray again (no wonder printing used to be done exclusively by monks) and examine your print. If all went well, you put it on the drying rack and print again.

So far, so good. Now the trickiest part which is registering the second color. You have to clean and take apart all the type you have on the press and slip in whatever you wanted printed in the second color. You also need to do this if you combined wood and metal type because they are slightly different heights on off the bed). If you were organized and took your time, you kept all the furniture in the same order as you rebuilt the form, so the registration should work fairly well. Or, if you’re me, you’ll have to do a dozen alterations and adjustments and waste most of your test prints in the process.

Then you have an edition of prints and have to figure out what you will do with them. Mine will probably end up in a drawer but the lessons they revealed will stick with me.

First, after five decades of making things, from books to model planes to shirts to Ikea furniture, I remain a super-consistently hasty slob. Clearly, I can’t change.

Two: I like making stuff with my hands, even if it’s slower and shittier than doing it on a computer. I like the physicality, even the back-breaking parts, and all the many serendipities that happen with analog production, the mistakes that occur and the ingenuity needed to correct or compensate for them. I like the beauty of the brass rollers, the copper slivers you slip between letters, the burnished old wood type, the lumpy mouths of the ink pots.

Three: I like the historical thread that weaves through the press. The awareness that each of these bits of type was handled by generations of people before me, that the processes I’m working on are fairly unchanged back to Guttenberg.

This year, I learned a teeny bit about hockey, botany, canine dentistry, constitutional law, shark migration, and a loads of other inessential but fascinating things.

Four: I like to appreciate how hard it can be to make something well, how that appreciation of craftsmanship is is lost when I can just open InDesign, click my mouse and and push ‘Print.’

Five: I liked the vacation from so much of my usual days, sitting at this desk in front of this computer, the world of digital creation with its endless options, easy undos, and immediate gratifications. I spent a lot of this summer on another project —learning how to go from drawing in ink on paper to making art on an iPad. An exploration in the opposite direction with its own frustrations and satisfactions.

Six: I had to break free of the aesthetics and conventions of digital design. Initially, I was struggling with the design and concept of my letterpress project and then I realized why. I (and frankly many of my classmates) were creating designs that frankly could have just as well been made (and better) with a computer. When I realized this, I decided to use the medium for what it is, to make something I couldn’t make with a computer or a pen, something that was quintessentially an analog print. I drew my inspiration from circus posters and wild postings, chunky, loud, oversized, with rich colors my Epson couldn’t dream of.

Seven: I like learning something new. So much of this week was mystifying, and much remains cloudy, but it was also filled with revelations. And even though I am not good at printing, I can see how, with time, I could be. I don’t know that I want or need to be good at this, but, from completely opacity, I have discovered a path and it is nice to know I could follow it if I chose rather than being afraid or overwhelmed by my ignorance. I’m not a native, but at least I know the basic language now and can find my way about with a map.

It’s important to me, as a creative person and as a human in this world,  to periodically shake up my assumptions and learn something, anything new. To understand a bit about things I like or things I am completely oblivious to. This year, I learned a teeny bit about hockey, botany, canine dentistry, constitutional law, shark migration, and a loads of other inessential but fascinating things.

After last week, I am a jack of yet one more trade.

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.

The Stare Master.

What were the very first things you ever learned? Unless you are Mozart, they were probably things like walking, talking, using a spoon and a sippy cup. You learned these skills from someone who knew how to do them well, like your mum or your older brother. And you learned them by watching, watching intently. Check out how a baby or a toddler watches — it’s like a lion on the veld or my dachshunds as we unpack groceries. Unblinking, rigid with attention.

Oh, and speaking of Mozart, how do you think he became a prodigy at three? He watched his older sister take harpsichord lessons and he watched his father play the violin. It’s no coincidence that so many prodigies, from Michael Jackson to Wayne Gretzky, were the youngest kids in large families. Lots of people to stare at and learn from.

When you learn this way, you create a vision of yourself performing the skill, a mental video you play over and over. As the scene loops, it is burned into your brain, creating new neural pathways and locking in the nuances of the skill. You notice not only the steps the experts take but the intensity and rhythms with which they perform the action, the way that all the component parts of actions come together into one cohesive and coordinated whole. In time, these observations lead to fluid and confident motions.

Learning a physical skill is a very complex process, most of it nonverbal. You are programming your head and body to dance together in a thousand little ways. You must keep refining those dance steps, polishing them until there are no hitches or hesitations, until they run like greased, teflon-dipped clockwork. That’s how you learn to walk, to dribble a soccer ball, to drive a car, to play the guitar, and to draw. You program neurons.

If you want to improve your golf swing, watch Ben Hogan on YouTube. If you want to improve your jump shot, watch LeBron during this week’s NBA finals. If you want to improve your drawing, watch any of my Sketchbook Films or the demo videos on Sketchbook Skool. Watch them again and again. And don’t watch passively, like you were dozing off in front of a Seinfeld rerun. Sit forward, engage, focus, mimic, stare. Let your body respond as you watch. Feel your muscles tense, your fingers twitch. Throw yourself into it and absorb the rhythms, the linkages, the unspoken logic behind the scenes.

Your meat computer takes longer to train than silicon chips, but it lasts longer too. Once you have forged these connections, they will last a lifetime. Neglected, they may get rusty and overgrown, but, with a little practice, you can prune them and get them up and running again, like a long forgotten stretch of railroad track. You never fully forget how to ride a bike. And the same holds true for the network you’ve built between your brain, eyes, and hands so your pen will make lovely marks in your sketchbook.

Stare, engage, mimic. And repeat.

 

A hundred feet of eighth graders

(A somewhat funky video I made in my hotel room in China)

Learning to draw is not like learning to drive.  You don’t have to master the fundamentals, take courses, pass tests, put thousands of dollars of equipment at risk.  You just have to start.

Drawing isn’t a learned skill so much as it’s a process of discovery that starts with skills you have had since you were a toddler. And that process requires a willingness to stretch and practice, things that can be scary or boring if you approach them with the wrong set of expectations.

One thing that has been reinforced with me over the past few weeks that I have spent drawing with kids is that the most crucial thing is to have fun. If you are all enjoying yourself and slopping ink and paint around, well, you want to keep it doing it. As as you do it, you encounter new situations, you have questions, you want to stretch. And that’s where a decent teacher can step in and show you how to make progress. You also start to feel more comfortable with what you are doing so you are willing to make mistakes and take new risks, and that’s how your adventures to new places begin.

We all need to accept that creativity is not about immediately achieving some sort of awesome finished piece; it’s an exploration of discovery, not a straight-line commute to Perfection.

Of course, this insight isn’t just for junior high. It’s the core idea behind Sketchbook Skool: having new experiences, having fun, exploring with friends, and having opportunities to grow. Speaking of which, the new semester is about to begin. I assume you have already signed up, but if not, get over to our site and enroll.