Podcast 15: The Story of Sketchbook Skool

Five years ago, Koosje Koene and I started on an epic adventure to create a new creative business. For this episode of the art for all podcast, we sat down to discuss all that has happened, all we have learned, and all we hope to do with Sketchbook Skool.  We were joined by our Dean of Students, Morgan Green.

If you are a fan of Sketchbook Skool or are hoping to start your own creative business, I hope you’ll find this discussion of interest.

NOTE: This is the last episode of Season One. We will return soon with the new season. For updates, please subscribe to the free Sketchbook Skool Zine.

You are not alone

You need to go way out to a cabin in the woods to write a great novel. You must move up to a garret on the top of floor of a tenement to paint masterpieces. Do not disturb. Genius at work. The myth of the solitary artist, toiling alone, far from the madding crowd. We’ve all heard it. And yet I wonder, is solitude really the key to creativity?

Case in point.

In 1866, Vincent van Gogh left the Netherlands. For three years, he had been trying to teach himself to paint, essentially on his own. He briefly had a mentor who then grew tired and rejected him. He enrolled in an art school but clashed with his teacher for his unorthodox style of painting. Two months later, he quit to move to Paris.

Within 18 months, Van Gogh went from dreary, ham-fisted brown paintings to bright, lively, emotional masterworks that are some of the greatest paintings ever made. What made the difference?

Paris. Or more specifically the community of artists he found in Paris.

For the first time Vincent was exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism, and Japanese woodblock prints. He befriended Pissarro, Signac, Bernard, Seurat, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. His palette changed. His painting technique changed. His line quality changed. His sense of himself as an artist changed.

When Van Gogh finally found himself in the company of artists, he discovered what being an artist truly meant. He borrowed ideas and discoveries from them. He modified pointillism, he painted with complementary color, he discovered light, and in two years, he made over 200 new, fresh paintings.

Marinating in all those influences, helped him discover a unique and utterly personal approach to painting. By associating with great and generous artists, Van Gogh found himself.

Many of our teachers tell me they love being a part of Sketchbook Skool, because they usually spend so much time working alone. They love to commune with other creative minds, to share ideas, to talk shop, to find new solutions to common problems. Some of them set up shared studios. Others travel to conferences and conventions. Others use social media to share their works in progress and find input and support.

For many beginners, sharing art can seem like a scary business. We fear being judged or seeming to be presumptuous by donning the artist’s mantle. But remember the explosive effect of creative community on Van Gogh. Nothing he’d made before 1886 deserved to end up in a museum. He couldn’t find a single customer for his flat, amber landscapes and dimly-lit, mawkish still lives. But by stepping out, by daring to expose himself and ask to learn from other artists, he was transformed.

You may think you are not a Van Gogh. But have you gone to Paris? Have you taken advantage of the impact a creative community can make?

Speaking of creative communities, this piece was originally written for the Sketchbook Skool Zine.  Didn’t see it in your inbox this morning? Sign up now.

Brain — on.

My brain has been whirring this weekend. I now have loads of things I want to make — but only one life to make ’em in.

• I am thinking of new daily projects I want to pursue. My 30-dogs-in-30-days iPad drawing project eventually reached 110 dogs, which was great fun for a while, but it’s feeling forced now and for the first time have missed several days. I am thinking of doing a series of drawings and long-text Instagram posts about my family’s history and my childhood. I spent some time yesterday looking at old photos and had a bunch of ideas. I have thought about writing on this topic before but always flamed out under the weight of it all, worrying more about how to wrangle several generations of dysfunctional people into an ongoing narrative but the idea of doing something bite-sized and episodic seems more doable and fun.

• I want to start up a podcast again. It’s been over a year since I did an episode of Shut Your Monkey and the podbug is nibbling at me again. I am thinking I’d like to do a chatty podcast about art making, probably under the Sketchbook Skool umbrella, kinda of like an audio version of the Zine we’ve been doing. A great new issue of the Zine comes out next week, by the way. I wrote a lot of it. (If you haven’t subscribed yet, get on it.)

• I just signed up for a mysterious creative camp for this summer and I am excited and super curious about that.

• There are only a couple of weeks till Illustration Nation begins at SBS and I have been thinking alot about what project I want to spend a month on. I like the idea of making prints or a book or magazine but am not sure what to do with the things I make. Maybe I’ll give them to you.

• I am very excited about a conference we are planning and keep thinking of more and more ideas about what to do there. Ideas that will get people together, ideas about all the people I want to have speak, ideas about how to promote it, ideas about little videos to show and ideas about what I will wear.

• I have been working on a short-film series on and off for the past year and I think I am now ready to release it. I’ll do so episode by episode. They’re gonna be short and autobiographical. I’m not sure why it’s taking me so long to get them done.

• I would like to do some new episodes of Sketchbook Club and now have an entire shelf of books set aside. I’m thinking of finally tackling Maira Kalman, Lynda Barry, Lapin, Eric Sloane and a few others. I’ll try to get one done in the week to come.

• I have three new shoots with artists scheduled for the next month and I’ll be travelling to Atlanta, then Charlotte and finally Nashville starting in ten days. I have been preproducing these for the last couple of months and I can’t wait to get out there, work with some new artists and film crews, and make some cool stuff.

• Koosje and I have been working on a new kourse that we are calling “Zillion” for short. We have begun filming and it has been so fun to work on a new kourse and to collaborate creatively with my partner.

• I was invited to do two keynotes in Washington DC — and they are major. The audience is super-important and not the usual sort of folks I talk to so I am eager to do something interesting. I am contractually not allowed to say who it is, alas, but let’s just say they are in Washington and work in a large building with flags on it.

Weekends are meant for relaxation so I tried turning my brain off last night by watching a movie. But The Square was the most amazing, brilliant, hilarious, thought-provoking film I maybe have ever seen and so it filled my dreams with monkeys, piles of gravel, and angry children. What an incredible work of art!

Today, I will make some stew and probably not watch the Super Bowl. Maybe the Puppy Bowl instead.

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.

Let’s Make a Map!

I just love maps — looking at them and making them too.  I started making them as a kid, and my journals (especially the travel ones) are full of maps. They’re a great way to tell a story graphically, even the ones I made up out of my imagination. And they have so many uses, from giving directions to a house guest, to recording my personal history, to recreating memories, to recording a trip to charting the geography of a novel, to figuring out the most efficient way to tackle my list of chores.

Recently, I worked with my friend Nate Padavick, one of the world’s great map makers, on Let’s Make a Map!, a great new kourse at SketchBook Skool.

We filmed it in his gorgeous studio and all around the Mission district of San Francisco and we even used a drone (an SBS first!). Nate is a great teacher and he breaks down the process of making a map into simple fun steps, then gives oodles of inspiration. It’s a short kourse, just a week long, and it’s affordably priced ($29), and by the end, you’ll have made your first map and be eager to make loads more.

Nate is a lovely man, a great illustrator, and he knows SO much about maps. He’s also the curator of two great web site: They Draw and Travel and They Draw and Cook. You must check them out…. after you sign up for Let’s Make  A Map.

 

Study Hall: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I love this week’s klass in Exploring with one of my idols, Felix Scheinberger. I made a bit of a mess with my homework but then was inspired by an old spaghetti Western. I hope you had fun with your assignment.