Confessions of a rueful geek.

I was just reading an article about the developments in cryptocurrencies (which is really worth checking out — but is not what I want to write about today) and was struck by a section on how the immense power of open systems to spawn creativity and community have been increasingly stifled since those systems were co-opted by big corporations. All of which led me to think about my sketchbook.

At the time I started to draw in a sketchbook — in the pre-dotcom-bubble-burst of the early mid ’90s — I was also exploring the early Internet. Back then, most people were as unaware of the transformational power of networked computers as they were unaware of the idea of illustrated journal keeping or sketchbook art. Now, of course, we all spend hours a day on the Web but, 20 years ago, it was a lot geekier place to hang out.

I loved that geekiness — because geeks are interesting and passionate. They know a lot and they care a lot. The early Internet wasn’t just the playground of tech geeks. I found wheelchair geeks there when I started, a community for disabled people like my wife, Patti. And I found sketchbook geeks too, like Richard Bell and Roz Stendahl.

In those days, the Internet was turning out to be a wonderful place to find people who shared niche interests like old record collecting or fishing gear or classic car restoration or knitting. These sorts of geeks gushed with knowledge that had been long bottled up because no one around them in the real world was even vaguely interested in the passions that consumed them.

But when geeks meet geeks, decades of stored up arcana comes pouring out of their basement lairs and garage workshops and people spend hours and hours talking about minor Star Wars characters or Jane Austen subplots or the best way to pickle kimchi or fill a fountain pen with waterproof ink. What seemed eye-glazing to the rest of the world was endlessly fascinating to some other geek, previously burrowed in obscurity in Croatia or North Dakota or the Bronx.

The first book I wrote, Hello World, was about an intense geek sub-species, the ham radio operator.  In the 1920s, when radio was a hot emerging technology, hams were super cool, but eighty years later, they were just geezers who wore pocket protectors, Vitalis and white socks with black shoes.

But I loved their passion, their willingness to stay up all night trying to reach a fellow ham deep in Siberia or put together dangerous expeditions to literal desert islands lost in the Pacific just to be the first to transmit from a new location. Hams loved the Internet too, helped birth it in fact, but it was ultimately the last nail in their coffin. Why hand build a radio to bounce Morse code off the moon when you could just send a text message from your phone?  Their obscure hobby was now just a silly waste of effort made redundant by Twitter and Google and Facebook, the megacorps their efforts actually spawned.

Anyway, as I read this article, I thought about my own long-time passion for keeping a sketchbook and how it has changed over two-plus decades. What started as a solitary therapeutic activity grew into a network of new geek friends, then into this blog (I wrote the first post over a fourteen years ago just to share thoughts with my pal Richard in Yorkshire), then into a series of books, and then into talks, teaching, and a full-time job and business hiring several people. My geekdom has become as increasingly mainstream as my network has expanded. When you are surrounded by an army of tens of thousands of like-minded folks, you aren’t an outsider anymore. Or a geek.

There have been lots of advantages to this mainstreaming process, both for me and for technology. Back in the day, if I had a tech problem, there were maybe three other dorks I could call on to help solve the problem. Now I can just Google an answer or walk two blocks to the Apple Store.

But all this mass-produced convenience has polished away the magic. My computer, which used to be like a hand-carved wizard staff, carefully assembled and tweaked, is now as personal as a rental car.

And my sketchbooking process, which has become an essential part of who I am, can also get diluted and homogenized if I don’t remain vigilant and true to my origins. It’s essential to hold on to what has made my art process intimate and personal, even if it needs to be shared now and then.

It’s also crucial to remind myself of what has always given the process its power and excitement. That it is an ever-changing creative lab, that it gives me a fresh perspective on the world around me, and that it never become rote.  And equally important, that it remain authentic, made by me for me, that it stays honest and unswayed by others’ wants and expectations, that I am filling pages for their own sake.

There’s a real danger in refining a method, in becoming too polished, and devolving into generic illustration, in being infected by commercialism, by some projected audience, that it goes from a passion, a hobby, an exploration, into a job. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists who used to excite me and are now just undistinguished self-promoters questing for likes, Etsy sales  or freelance gigs,

Amateur doesn’t mean second rate or unskilled. It’s derived from amare, to love, an activity fueled by passion — by geekery, if you will. But it can be so much more raw and exciting than the predictable, manicured path that professionalism and corporatism mandate. Just as Facebook grows duller by the day, just as my corporate agency job chafed me, striving for professional standards will dull one’s art and leach it of the passion that makes it moving.

The wild west frontier days of the Internet are now just fodder for TV shows which do no justice to the headiness of random discovery I remember. But every blank page in my sketchbook still has that power to shock and excite me, so long as I remember to stay free and explore.

How do you stay authentic?

Sketchbook Club #2: d.price

We convened another meeting of the Club to discuss the work of one Dan Price of Joseph, OR. He was one of my earliest and greatest mentors.

Some notes: 

Moonlight Chronicle back issues:
I see that on this site Dan said he doesn’t have back issues in print anymore but will be making e-versions of them. If you email him and bug him, maybe he’ll pull some out of the attic. It’s worth a shot. Otherwise, you’ll have to make do with his books — which are pretty awesome too.

Moonlight Chronicles:
How to Make a Journal of Your Life:
Radical Simplicity:
Learn about his simple life in this film about d.price:

Go big. Or go home.

Ah, Vienna! I cracked open the trusty travel journal, uncapped the old brush pen and began to draw the Hofburg Palace. Soon, I realized that I needed to be creative, resourceful, and as resilient as a Hapsburg to tackle the task.

And speaking of travel, I am flying to Indianapolis  today to shoot the next class for Sketchbook Skool. I’ll try to report in from the road.

Inspiration Monday: James & Tommy

Recently Tommy Kane showed me this incredible video of a flip-through tour through James Jean‘s latest sketchbook.

It’s awesome but what it inspired Tommy to do is greater still:  a tour of his sketchbook from this past summer. I have seen this book and I have watched him draw several of these drawings and it is amazing. Obsessive, imaginative, hilarious and moving.  Just like my old pal, Tommy Kane.

I hope it sets your week off in the right direction.

Spring: a new Sketchbook film about, well, me

I really enjoy making our little series of Sketchbook Films. With each one we become more ambitious and discover new techniques and gear to use. Last weekend, we decided to make a fairly simple one — no dollies, Winnebagos or helicopters.  I got in front of the camera again and left Jack to man the lens for the action sequences then Jenny covered off my drawing process (the fourth Beetle, Tommy Kane, was off doing something productive and couldn’t join us on this one though he approved the final cut as being Sketchbook Films worthy).

I wanted to show a simple pen and ink drawing, done outside on a gorgeous day. The weather didn’t cooperate and instead of gorgeous we got clouds and rain which meant things got more complicated and technical and we actually had to shoot bits and pieces over the course of four days and in three different parks.

It was still fun to make though horrifying as always to see myself on screen. It may surprise you to know that no aging makeup was used on this production — that’s actually how decrepit I now look.

Cross training


My drawing muscles are out of shape after a few months of underuse. As I get back to the habit of journaling again, I am taking my tools out one at a time to see how I want to work, how to express myself, how to become fluid and unconscious once again.

My first drawings felt scratchy and inept to me, so I put down the pen and picked up the brush, wanting to work in color and built up layers of perception. I drew my stuffed pheasant with my little winsor newton paint set and a sable brush.

My first attempt felt too stylized in the face and I didn’t capture the iridescence of the neck feathers.

This is more like it. He has a chckeny expression in his eye which is right. My brush also feels good in my hand and I can make all sorts of marks with it in a controlled fashion. Let’s have one more go.

My colors are nice and bright here. My little watercolor set, while filled with high quality paints, can sometime lead me to make murky and muddy paintings as I over mix.

I turn the page and the pheasant and get out some other media.

Roz had been extolling the virtues of gouache lately so I dust of my set of opaque watercolors and give it a whirl. It’s so different to work with colors that aren’t translucent; I’m used to layering and layering until things come into focus. These paints force me to commit much earlier to my tones. I also have to work from dark  to light, I think. Or maybe it’s the other way round. II dunno, I just can’t get the hang of it and cant be bothered to figure it out. Lots of other tricks in my bag to play with.

I have been using my Lamy Safari fountain pen for most of my drawings over the past year. I like the feel of the pen’s flow and the blackness of its line. It’s mildly flexible but I wish it was even springier. Drawing with a pen forces me to pay far more attention than does the brush; I am committed to every mark and I can draw much more specifically. My crosshatching is a little less even than I’d like it to be but I quite like this drawing.
I liked drawing this one more. It’s done with a dip pen and a steel nib (no idea which one — I have a big box of randomly collected one and I know by feel which ones I like best). This pen gives me much more variation in my lines and it’s more interesting to draw with. It’s trickier to control too. My lines are a less regular and perfect and I never know exactly how the nib will behave. The springiness also means it can spring back and attack the wielder, spraying splotches and drips or suddenly scarring the page with a dark irregular line. It’s an adventure.

I pick up my sable brush again and dip it into my India ink. It’s a feeing experience, like drawing with a super liquidy marker and also has a fair degree of unpredictability (Or is that just a function of the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing?) I make a specific kind of graphic image with this brush, almost comic booky, and unlikely to become my everyday way of capturing the world around me. A fun detour nonetheless.

Colored pencils are just too much work. I don’t like swapping pencil after pencil to find the right color and then being limited to the hues I have ( and I have a huge collection of pencils, none of which are exactly right). I cross hatch and layer them to reproduce the colors I see but I don’t like the process or the results, I don’t like seeing white paper showing between the lines either. I am trying to approximate what I do with water colors and I may well be doing it wrong. Pencils do give one a fair amount of control and the colors are fairly bright but they are also smudgy and fiddly.

My love for Lucinda Rogers‘ work inspired me to combine a sper fat (B) Faber Castell PITT pen  with a super fine one (XS).  I’ve done a few drawings like this but I have  a lot to learn about this technique. I dont fully understand when to use the fat one and the XS doesn’t glide on the rough watercolor paper of my Moleskine.Still, it has a nutty quality that I like.Finally, I unpack my huge collection of Doc Martin’s super electric translucent water colors. I just love these colors, so bright and bold, but they need to be handled with care. Like colored pencils, they come in zillions of hues (I have over a hundred little eyedropper bottlesfull) but they can be mixed. They tend to be much more fluid that pan watercolors so it;s easy to overload the brush and make things gloppy. This isn’t the best example, but generally I love the ways paintings come out when I use this stuff.

This was a liberating experience and gave me lots to think about. I also got to know my pheasant roommate better, always a smart idea.

Getting back in shape

The last year has not been a great one for drawing. At least not for me. After being a dad and an employee and a housekeeper, the little spare time I have had left has been consumed with the two books I have been putting together. I’ve had to do a lot of drawing to get those books done, of course, but it’s certainly not been the sort of art that fills my dozens of old sketchbooks. It’s not really a record of my daily life.

A few weeks ago, once the last of my book files was picked up by the FedEx man,I had to admit that I had pretty much lost the habit of drawing and I’d better do something about it. I just kinda didn’t wanna.

Even though it’s been a mild winter, it’s not been conducive to drawing outside so I sat for in the kitchen for a while and looked at the odds and ends on the counter and tried to psych myself up. Instead, I sighed. I just can’t draw my pepper mill again, nor a box of raisins or my knife block. I have a new, great-sounding but boring-looking radio — its a black rectangle with a small monitor and two knobs. Most of the view out my window has been blocked by two newish NYU buildings. They are as dull looking as my new radio and, in any case I’ve drawn them over and again over the years. My mind whined: there’s nothing to draw. But really, beneath my feigned boredom, lurked fear. An anxiety that maybe I had lost my ability to draw. Look at Tiger Woods — even great talent can slip away in the night and leave you swatting the air.

I had to find a way to ease back into the water without scaring the muse away. I didn’t want the pressure of making great journal pages or writing witty marginalia. I just wanted the visceral pleasure of making lines and slowly and carefully studying something, anything. I unearthed an empty, spiral-bound journal with not terribly nice paper and filled my fountain pen. Then I picked up the dogeared copy of last week NY Times Magazine and let it fall open to a random photo. Then I began to copy the picture into the book, focussing on cross hatching, spiraling lines in neat rows, lining up a smooth gradation of micro dots, making ribbons of greys and undulations of silky blacks.

The old pen was a little rusty but not nearly as bad as I feared. And soon the sweet flood of neurotransmitters swept over me, like emptying a too full bladder, and I entered the zone.

So I made a small deal with me. Each morning after my breakfast was chewed and the French press was still half full, I would do one drawing from the morning paper on one page in the book. At least one. If the urge was there and the coffee held out, maybe I’d make a second.

Most mornings I fill a page (and I don’t beat myself up about it if I miss a day to give the dogs some extra time in the park or to make an early meeting). And the fun is back.

Granted, I’m making drawings of unknown faces from news photos, not the sort of things I want to fill books with, but I figure, what the hey, it’s spring training, and the season will eventually  start for real. Meanwhile, just keep loosening up the shoulders, stretching the hamstrings, and shagging those flies.

Back from Beantown

Jack and I took a brief break from New York with 75 hours or so in Boston. Neither of us had ever spent time there before —though with the torrential Nor’Easter dumping all over New England, I’m not sure we saw it at its best. We trained up there, stayed in Cambridge and managed to see Harvard (infinitely inferior to my alma mater, of course), its art and natural history museums, then visited the Institue of Contemporary Art and the Science Museum. We saw some movies, had some nice meals, played cards,talked, and drew in our journals. I broke out my watercolors for the first time in ages, and Jack bore down on his dip pen.

It was a refreshing break after a very sad week, giving us some distance and perspective, as well as a chance to start our lives as a smaller family. Drawing was a relief to both of us, a feeling that we were making something out of the nothingness, and seeing a new place with fresh eyes. Our journal pages will be a landmark for us, the first fresh pages we are turning over, with many blank ones ahead to fill.

One thing I hadn’t anticipated: Patti was always the first person to read my journal pages after I finished them. Somewhere in Boston, it occurred to me that I write for her to read and that she  wouldn’t read them, ever again. But then I realized I will always write for her, she will always be my favorite reader.

Sketchbook #3

Sketchbook3Here’s another video tour of one of my early sketchbooks. Old #3 was one of the first I handbound, nice heavy bond pages in a marbleized paper shell, courtesy of my recent classes at the Center for Book Arts. I was forcing myself to work in narrow confines back then — just line and a couple of warm grey brush markers to add tone. It’s interesting to me to see how my technique developed through the course of this partiucalar book and I was clearly itching for more media by book’s end.
(Those of you troubled by the quality of my last video will be glad to know that after much trial and error, I have developed a good video setup that is easier to watch and listen to. I hope it makes a difference.)

Glenny and me

Incidentally, I had a lovely time in Portland this week, chatting with attendees of the Art and Soul creativity conference and then giving a 90 minute talk on how and why I developed my drawing habit. I was amazed and delighted at how many people showed up armed with dogeared copies of my books and I was flattered that so many insisted I pose with them and have my picture taken. They threatened to invite me to next year’s conference in Virginia and I parried by threatening to come.