How to grow healthy.

My grandmother won prizes for her gorgeous chrysanthemums. She had a huge rose garden that was designed like a Persian Carpet. She had two full time gardeners who kept her topiaries trimmed and her lawns like billiard tables. She taught me to love making things grow and to respect the endless powers of Nature.

One of her pet peeves: “Why must Americans call it ‘dirt’? It’s soil. It’s earth. It’s not dirty. It’s wonderful.”

Last week, I thought about her often as we watched a wonderful film about turning dirt into magic. The Biggest Little Farm is a documentary about the Chesters, a cooking blogger and a filmmaker, who worked for eight years to transform a mistreated farm into a Garden of Eden.

Continue reading “How to grow healthy.”

Sketchbook Club: Obsessions

I have’ em. Maybe you do too. Things you explore, collect, draw, in obsessive ways. This week on the Club, I look at a handful of artists who focus on one subject or approach and really dig deep.

As a result, they discover worlds within worlds. Their art turns out to be less about their subject than about something else — themselves, their way of seeing.

I find it obsessively fascinating. I hope you will too.

This week’s artists and books (click for more info):

Take three.

What with this, that, and lots of the other, I haven’t gotten around to telling you about a brand new klass I am teaching in the new Kourse at Sketchbook Skool. So I shall. But first, let me show you a little film about the kourse and its fakulty.

I also wanted to tell you what I was thinking in putting it together. This has actually been harder to do than I thought (the telling, not the putting together). In fact, this is the third film I’ve made on the subject this week and I hated the first two. So this time I shall just turn on the camera and see what comes out. If it’s boring, don’t worry. Polishing, I assure you, is not.

I hope to see you in klass. It begins on April 15th and you can learn more about it here.

Pednesday.

It’s the middle of the week and it’s January and it’s ludicrously cold in New York, so I need to comfort myself with a new pen or three. Know the feeling?

I am an unapologetic LAMY enthusiast. I have several different Safaris and I recommend them highly for anyone who wants an inexpensive fountain pen with a nice springy nib. I have a couple of charcoal ones, a blue one, even one in hot pink all outfitted with converters so I can use my own ink, ideally waterproof. They’re the bomb. Now it’s time to try out some other family members.

pen-1This is a LAMY Balloon. My first love in pens was the Uniball Vision which is also a rollerball like the Balloon, though a lot more utilitarian in appearance. The Uniball is a little scratchy and dresses in drab grey whereas the Balloon wears a transparent lime sheath that feels child-like and has a cartoony pocket clip. It makes a slightly thicker line than the Uni but there’s variability; I can pull back on it to make a lighter and narrower line or bear down for a thick and somehow softer mark. It’s not a ballpoint feeling but much smoother and glidier. I am using a blue refill in mine and the color is at the green end of blue. At this point, I doubt I’ll use the Ballon for serious drawing. It feels more of a pen for writing  (it’s lovely for jotting notes) or for doodling — the gliding line makes me just want to fill my margins with monsters — but it’s not either controlled enough or interesting enough to make me inspired to draw.

pen-2c

This is a LAMY nexx M. It is a lovely, modern looking fountain pen. It’s available in five different nib types, from extra-fine to broad and there’s a left-handed nib too. My nib is fine — which is fine. A tad scratchy but flexible enough to take me from a delicate line almost to a medium. The pen is light (pseudo metal with a stainless steel nib) and quite thick-barreled but the best feature is the soft, non-slip rubber grip so you can keep going and going — without getting that dreaded fountain pen claw cramp that narrower, harder pens can cause. It is intelligently designed so you can easily know which way is up. (Nothing worse than a fountain pen that somehow resolves so the nib is upside down when you bear down and it jitters across the page). The Safari has a similar contour design but I like the rubber cover of the nexx M. It’s not as functional- and tough-looking as the Safari, a bit more junior executive, but a good pen for about $25 and fun to draw with.

pen-3

This is the Lamy Joy. It’s my favorite of the new recruits. First off, it’s a calligraphy pen which may seem a weird choice for drawing but I like the expressive quality italic nibs make. Pull down and they’re broad, slide and they’re thin. And curved lines swoop from fat to thin and everything in between. My Joy came in a sleek metal box with three different nibs (1.1.,1.5 and 1.9) in it so there’s lot of room for experimentation.  I also love its shape. The end of the pen is long and narrow, almost like a dip pen. I had a Rotring Art Pen that had a similar shaft — but the cap would just fall off the narrow end so I was always losing it. The Joy has a tough clip just like the Safari and the cap snaps tightly right on the end of the pen. It was made by designers who really think about how people use pens. It might even improve my handwriting. Oh, joy.

Did you see the LAMY pen giveaway on the Sketchbook Skool blog? Check it out.

Hygge!

So far, so good. The mercury is in the 50s in New York and winter seems to be slower to come this year. I did encounter a few snow flakes in Indianapolis but I also discovered a concept there that will help me weather the cold.

My Indiana friend told me she used to suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder. I know lots of people who do. SAD is a form of depression that comes on with the shortening days of autumn and lasts till spring. The treatment usually involves gazing at boxes of color-corrected lightbulbs and popping Wellbutrin. But my friend said that one word had helped her enormously. One word and she immediately felt a color-corrected bulb go off in her head.

Hygge. It’s a Danish word that’s pronounced “hoo-ga” and has no direct equivalent in English. It’s sort of like ‘cozy’ or ‘snug’ but it’s bigger. Hygge isn’t just about soft sweaters, wood paneling and roaring fireplaces — it’s about attitude, about a sense of well-being. About being gentle and calm rather than battling arctic gusts. And it’s about people. It’s about having a warm heart, even in cold times. About sharing comfort and cheeriness with friends and people you love.

hyggeDenmark, despite 17 hours of darkness each midwinter day, has the world’s happiest people.  They value being good to oneself. To finding warmth in others. To sitting around in wooly socks, sharing a mug with a couple of friends. To chilling, without being chilly. The Danes buy more candles more capita than any other nation. And, come on, they have a pastry named after them.

This winter, I plan to hug hygge. I will enjoy the changing rhythm of winter, rather than fighting it tooth and claw. I will cultivate cheeriness. I will fill my house with friends and warmth. And I will take it easier on myself.

Care to join me?

The right time to start.

I’ll start when the summer’s over.
I’ll start when the kids go back to school.
I’ll start when I have time to get to the art supply store.
I’ll start when everything calms down at work.
I’ll start when I retire.
I’ll start when I lose some weight.
I’ll start when I can find a class to take.
I’ll start when Danny’s new book comes out.
I’ll start when I feel better.
I’ll start when I have a week to myself.
I’ll start when someone makes me.
I’ll start when I finish this blog post.

The Art Spirit

police-car

“Genius is not a possession of the limited few, but exists in some degree in everyone. Where there is natural growth, a full and free play of faculties, genius will manifest itself.” — Robert Henri
I have always been a fan of Walt Disney. Not just of his animated films but of a certain image I have of the man himself. It’s not the dictatorial egomaniac that some biographers have depicted but the gentle, welcoming character who appeared at the beginning of each episode of the Wonderful World of Disney — small moustache, grey gabardine suit, warm smile, standing in his book-lined office.
When I flew home from LA for the weekend, I decided to re-screen one of my favorite videotapes for an infusion of inspiration. It’s an episode of the Disney show that I Tivo-ed a couple of years ago in which Walt answers letters from art students seeking direction in life. His advice to them is to read a book called “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri. Henri was a painter and art teacher in the early part of the twentieth century, a terrifically inspiring guy who taught the generation of American realists that emerged in the 20s; people like Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis and John Sloan and Rockwell Kent, many of whom I like a lot. He encouraged his students to paint what they saw around them, urban scenes of everyday life — gritty, bold, and true. Henri’s students collected their noted from his lectures and assembled them into The Art Spirit and it has been a valuable guide for artists ever since, full of observations and ideas that are accessible and encouraging.
One of Walt’s correspondents asks him how he can develop style and Disney responds via Henri, with something like, “Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.” To demonstrate how individual vision is really at the heart of style, he takes four animators form his studio, men who by day are paid to subvert their individuality in the service of creating a unified look for Disney movies and films them, of a Sunday, painting a tree. Each has his own way of painting, but more importantly his own way of seeing. One describes the tree in terms of architecture, like a solidly engineered structure on the landscape. He paints the tree as if it were made of steel pylons. Another artist is fascinated by the movement of the tree’s bark and studies the surface textures in detail. A third sees the tree’s relationship to the sky behind it and studies the negative space of the branches. A fourth observes the entire tree as unified shape and works on its relationship to the rectangle of his canvas.
Then we see how each artists interprets his vision in different ways through his materials. One paints of a big slab of plywood thrown down on a rock, painting with long brushes in a muscular way. Another draws in charcoal and then fills in with casein. When the paintings are done, they are juxtaposed and we can really see the varieties of worldviews in the four men. Even though they are talented artists, the real lesson comes from their willingness to put their own characters in their work.
It’s all shot in muddy black and white, typical old TV images, and the painters are not fine artists showing in NY galleries, just modestly paid artisans working for the Man. But the little film demystifies the process of art making in a wonderful way. It’s also a reminder of how the world has changed. Hard to imagine these days prime time Sunday night TV being devoted to something as ethereal as this. And the Disney Company, marred by well-publicized corporate battles and an surfeit of marketing and promotion, seems pretty far removed from the gentle art lesson on this show.
If you can, Tivo the Wonderful World of Disney, and see if you stumble on this gem. Or pickup a copy of The Art Spirit and be directly inspired by a great teacher. Try to keep in mind the wisdom of this thought from Robert Henri: “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”
— Written in a rental car in a rainy parking lot by the Rose Bowl, a few miles from the Walt Disney studios.