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.

Chillin' with Dylan

stones

Last week, I was hit by a sniffling cold midday. I spent the last few hours of the workday back at home, in bed with tea and Bob Dylan’s new memoir. By the next morning, I’d bounced back and finished reading the book.
For most of my life, I really had no interest in Dylan until about seven years ago when my friend, Bob Dye, more or less forced me to listen to The Freewheelin’ and Highway 61. The music softened my resistance but Pennebaker’s movie, “Don’t Look Back” triggered the sort of instant conversion usually limited to evangelicals. I haven’t paid much attention to the albums from the mid 1970s to the mid 90s but own and play most of the early and late records fairly regularly.
Despite all this enthusiasm, nothing prepared me for Chronicles, Vol. I. I had long assumed that , though I admired the music, the man was arrogant and withdrawn, the sort of person one would never want to spend ten minutes with. Instead, I discovered that Bob Dylan has all the hallmarks of the quintessential creative person (and I’m surprised that this surprised me).
First I was struck by how much he knows about music, all sorts of music, from classical to bebop to rap to doo-wop to the cheesiest sort of pop, and is able to extract something useful and inspiring from all of it. Like Picasso, he believed in borrowing from everywhere … but himself.
Secondly, he has always challenged himself — not to be successful financially and critically — but to constantly grow and branch out in new directions. Except for a period where he admits he was in some sort of creative stupor, he has always been motivated by some flickering notion in the back of his head that slowly grows and blooms as he feeds it. It’s not to ‘show the world’ or provoke the industry, but because he is always feeding himself with new influences that spark fresh ideas and directions.
Thirdly, despite the fact that he is such an important maverick, he has deep roots in those that came before. His love for and appreciation of roots blues and folks music has always been the core of his art. He has solid foundations, ones he forged himself, and he has been layering on top of them for fifty years. Reading about his early record collection had me revisiting mine, pulling out Sleepy John Estes, Dave Van Ronk, and Harry Smith’s American Folk Music once again.
Next, I was struck by his enormous generosity. He is lavish in his acknowledgment of all the influences on his art. He talks about what he learned from all sorts of surprising influences, everyone from Frank Sinatra, Jr. to Daniel Lanois.
It was fascinating to hear how he first came to write music, how content he had been to simply play others’ compositions, and how hesitant he was to compromise the body of folk music, sort of like if Horowitz began playing his own piano sonatas rather than Ludwig Van’s. Slowly Dylan began to introduce his own additional lyrics to folk standards and then eventually to create his own from the staff up.
While he was committed and hard working, Dylan never comes off as terribly ambitious. He wants to keep moving forward, to play for larger audiences so he can have new creative opportunities but he never set out to be a superstar. In fact, in his admiration for pop singers and Tin Pan Alley composers, he acknowledges that playing Woody Guthrie songs hardly seemed the road to fame and fortune, even in the folk-mad days of the early 1960s. Even recently, when he has been touring a lot, it’s to stretch himself creatively, to play music publicly that should be played, to shed the nostalgic classic rock trappings and talk to new audiences in new ways. Miles was much the same way. The still-touring members of the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, etc. have no such creative ambitions.
I’d urge you to read the book and see how it strikes you. I believe it has a lot in it for anyone contemplating their own creativity.
——————
A number of people have written to me for a certain kind of advice. Typically, they’ll ask how they can become professional illustrators or, even more frequently, how they can get books published. I tend to answer such letters less often than I used to because I realize that I don’t have the answers. But I think Bob does. Here are a few landmarks:
1. Figure out what you’re about. What do you like to do, what are your media, your subject matter, your style.
2. Explore. Getting to #1 requires flexibility, openness, a willingness to explore and to try on lots of costumes.
3. Focus. Spend less time on success and more on art. The more you work, the better your art, the more likely things are going to happen. And figure out what you really want. At one point, I just wanted my name on a book jacket, any book. Now I have a clearer sense of what I am willing to spend my time on. And consider your work from the point of view of those who you want to want it. Learn about the industry you are trying to break into and the audience you are talking to. Don’t just send off stuff to inappropriate and uninterested publishers. Understand the market.
4. Move to New York. You may have to make some sacrifices but if you’re not where it’s at, you’re not where it’s at. This applies to those hellbent on commercial success (but, of course, there are many other ways to be successful). But most importantly, when you are in the deep end of the creative pool surrounded by others full of energy and ideas and examples, you learn to swim a lot better.
5. Be generous. Seize every opportunity to thank people and include them in what you’re doing. Give your work away then make more.
6. There are no small parts. Play the coffee shops, pass the basket, don’t just hold out for the Garden. Be willing to illustrate school play programs or diner menus, publish a zine, start a blog etc. whatever will get your work out into the world.
7. Meet like-minded folks and be actively involved with them. Meet other artists and creative people but don’t just talk about the business of art (god, how dull) but share your passion for making things and infect each other.
8. Never complain, never explain. Be yourself and be glad of it. Creativity needs light and nourishment.
9. Above all, do what you love and love what you do. Don’t try to figure out what you should to to be successful but how to successfully express what’s makes you you. There’s nothing more pathetic and boring than those who have done everything they can to mold themselves to the prevailing notions of what is popular. That already exists (it’s on Fox and it’s called American Idol). You need to blaze new paths, your own paths. No one does what you do. Keep it that way by expressing the true you, the inner you.
Remember, Art’s most important job is to light the viewer’s fuse, to create new feelings and insights, to create by sharing. By sharing yourself, you make the world a better place. The important goal is not to win gold records or Hummers or groupies. It’s the same as the goal of every share cropper who picked up a Sears guitar and wailed the blues. To be authentic, to express yourself. That may lead you to Cleveland and the Hall of Fame or, even better, to an enriched feeling of what it is to be human.