School: Hanoi Pt.5

The reason for my recent trip to Vietnam was an invitation from the art teachers of the UN school in Hanoi. UNIS is a lovely place with 2,000 students from preschool to 12th grade — and I worked with and spoke to them all.

Here’s a little film I made about my trip and my work with the students.

Corrupting the youth of Switzerland.

I’ve just completed the first leg of my European crusade: a week in Switzerland. Basel is a lovely medieval city along the Rhine right on the edge of Germany and France. It’s home to loads of banks and pharmaceutical corporations and two dozen museums — some with extremely contemporary contemporary art, one which is the size of a doorway.

I’ll tell you more about my visit to the city in another post. Today I’ll just try to summarize why I was there.

Important skills: focus and self-starting.

Last winter, I was invited to be an artist-in-residency at the International School of Basel this September. Perhaps you remember that a year ago, I was in residency at another ISB (the International School of Beijing) and had a lovely and illuminating time, so this invitation was very welcome. I was pumped to spend more time with kids, making art, and wallowing in their creative energy. Additional pluses: I’ve never been to Switzerland and, of course, Basel is a mecca for art.

My week began with a school assembly. Six hundred children under the age of 11 sat on the ground while I introduced myself and talked about all we would do in the week ahead.

The future.

Then each morning at 8:15,  I’d let a couple hundred kids and their teachers into my gigantic office/studio/lecture hall and showed them films and gave them creative assignments. We drew breakfast and lunch and shoes and upside-down bicycles and portraits and more. We made enormous murals that covered all the halls and stair wells. We ended the week with a sprawling field trip to the natural history museum to draw dinosaurs and endangered animals and then drew the cathedral and the twisting medieval streets.

It didn’t stop in my classroom. The kids went home at night mad for drawing. Each morning, moms and dads came into the school with stories of  kids transformed. They filled up sketchbooks at home, drew with their parents and teachers, insisted that nobody eat their dinners until they had been drawn.

Important skill: observation

After school on Tuesday, I met with all the teachers and showed them how art had opened my eyes. I told them that art is not just for art class — it’s for learning about the world and can be applied to any discipline, from literature to social studies to science to music to gym. I pulled out examples of my travel journals, of my investigations into homelessness, fishing in Manhattan, and dogs in coats. I showed them my maps and Koosje’s recipes and the SBS students’ instruction manuals.

Important skill: problem solving

The next day, an inspired math teacher asked her 4th graders to make drawings that explain the concept of ’rounding up’ numbers. She showed me dozens of stories and watercolors the kids made in response to her assignment. They were all different, all clear, all beautiful. She was able to see how well they understood the concept and they could use their pieces to teach the 3rd graders this concept.

On Thursday evening, I met with the parents and told them why I had come to Basel and why I thought it mattered that their kids had started keeping illustrated journals.

Important skills: collaboration and communication

It was to prepare them for the future — not a future as professional artists necessarily, but as successful people in an ever-changing world. The days of being able to assume that a well-educated person could finish school, get a corporate job, and rise up the ladder till retirement, are over. Instead, kids need to be prepared for the unforeseeable. Technology is upending every industry, traditional jobs are withering while new opportunities are springing up in surprising places. Change is the constant. Kids need to learn to swim in it.

Important skill: Innovation and problem solving

Parents can no longer assume that a traditional education in math, science, literature, language and history will be enough prepare a child for the future. A crucial new skill will be the ability to think creatively. That doesn’t mean dabbling in fingerpaints, but knowing how to spark innovations, to develop ideas, to present them clearly and persuasively, to find resources and collaborators to bring them to fruition, to build networks, to be entrepreneurial. I told them that’s why I supported my own son’s plan to go to art school, so he could learn skills I think will be essential to his future. If he had majored in English or pre-med, I wouldn’t have the same sense of confidence that I had given him the necessary tools.

I told them that they should look at art not just as a sign of being cultured, a middle-class luxury, but as a key component of their children’s total education. I suggested they insist the school’s administration support and look for ways to incorporate art and creativity into all aspects of the curriculum.

Important skill: optimism

If a student is encouraged to look everywhere for inspiration, to combine ideas into new ones, to replace competition with collaboration, to accept mistakes and ambiguity and learn from them, to have faith in the creative process, to know how to overcome its pitfalls, only then will he or she be prepared for a world full of self-driving cars, delivery drones, mobile apps, and Donald Trump.

Knowledge alone is no longer power — it’s something that pops up in your browser. Knowing how to use that knowledge to create new ideas and solve new problems, that will be the source of true power, a power that will serve all mankind.

The best drawing teacher.

A couple of days ago, I filled out the Sketchbook Skool survey we placed at the end of our most recent course, Playing. I shared it on Facebook but because FB is such a temporary place to store important thoughts, I am reproducing it here.

| Please fill your details below

What’s your name?
Danny Gregory

How did you find out about Sketchbook Skool?
My friend Koosje told me about it.

‘Playing’ | Your Experiences

Why did you sign up for this Kourse?
I have been worrying so much about perfection, about ‘getting better,’ about ‘making art’ that I was losing the pure joy of making. The idea of playing for a few weeks seemed like it would be fun. I didn’t want to just learn more new techniques, I wanted to reconnect with the spirit of creativity I had when I was six, a spirit that burned the hottest I’ve ever experienced and that made Picasso great.

Was the kourse what you expected?

What did you expect?
I expected some people to like it and some to be disappointed. I expected some people to let loose and dance the hootchy-kootchy and some to complain it was for kids and grumble that they had paid $69. I expected some people to grumble right off and then do one assignment that opened their eyes wide and they would go back and look back at the assignments they had just skimmed and suddenly find delight. I expected some adults to share their new found creative energy with kids, making sure that those kids never forgot how much fun art can be. I expected to be inspired by the enthusiasm and freshness I saw in the galleries.

Do you prefer the more shorter lessons, which is the style of Playing? Do you like more emphasis on projects than on lectures?
I thought the change was good. I’d heard a lot of people say they didn’t have time to do the more complex assignments they got in ‘Stretching’ and ‘Storytelling’ so I thought just screwing around with crayons would be a nice break.

If you’ve taken a Sketchbook Skool Kourse before, was ‘Playing’ a welcome change?
I loved learning from the great artists who teach at SBS. But the parts of the klasses that stretch me the most are the homework assignments. I learn a lot from doing them and from seeing what others do. I thought a kourse that was all about making stuff would be a cool change.

I have been drawing for twenty years and this is how I learned. I believe that it is the only way — to be inspired and to take my lit fuse and blast off in my own personal direction.

Sketchbook Skool | How do you feel about it?

At Sketchbook Skool we believe that the best way for you to learn is to be inspired, rather than giving you a lot of step-by-step instructions. How do you feel about that?
I have been drawing for twenty years and this is how I learned. I believe that it is the only way — to be inspired and to take my lit fuse and blast off in my own personal direction.

How do you experience Sketchbook Skool: Is it about exploring yourself or about community?
SBS inspires me to start and the community keeps me going.
The lessons make me challenge my assumptions, make me marvel at what is possible with just a pen and a book, and make me accept responsibility for my own creations and education — I am my own best teacher.
The community stretches me further, shows me more of what is possible, supports me when my monkey gets me down, pushes me to keep getting better and insists I stick to my creative habits.
I could draw alone. I could learn alone. I could evaluate my work alone.
But passion is so much better when it’s shared.

If you want to continue this face-to-face, come meet me in Phoenix.   I’m heading there now.

Brand new!

We are SUPER excited to announce our newest course, Stretching, is open for enrollment right now. Classes begin in a week!
We are also open for enrollment for Beginning, Seeing, and Storytelling. These kourses will begin every few weeks over the month ahead.

To get a preview of all the courses and to enroll, just visit

We are also very excited that all of our klasses* will now take place in our very own Sketchbook SKOOL HOUSE. Our programming team have built a lovely new environment for our classes which is easy to use and highly responsive. Our servers are now all over the world so you can get your videos and comments faster than ever.

The Skool House is also home to our new Student Union. This is a gathering place for everyone in the SBS community. Places to talk, share work, meet with others who live nearby or who have similar interests. There are even special groups for teachers designers, architects and more. The Student Union is open right now, so even if your courses doesn’t begin right away, you can still join the party.

All of our courses (including membership in the Student Union) are still priced at just $99*.

We hope to see you in klass!

*If you took previous semesters of Sketchbook Skool on Ruzuku, you will continue to have access to them in the future on Ruzuku.

**Due to recent changes in EU tax laws covering online courses, we are now required to add additional VAT for all our European students. Sorry!



Learning to teach beginners. On the teaching philosophy of Sketchbook Skool

What is the role of feedback in learning? Especially when starting to do creative things, things that are ultimately pretty subjective? When there are no answers in the back of the book?

The biggest obstacle we need to overcome in learning to create is the belief that we can’t. That’s especially true when we learn as adults. We have spent our entire lives believing that we cannot do this thing, and now, unless we are convinced that we can, we will never get to a point of any sort of mastery.

The most difficult and crucial lesson for beginners is the importance of failure. You need to make a lot of mistakes. You need to feel good about those mistakes and recognize that they are opportunities to improve. You can’t allow those errors to overwhelm you and make you feel hopeless.

The biggest obstacle we need to overcome in learning to create is the belief that we can’t.

The reason that people struggle with failure is because they believe that their failures are reflections on who they are as human beings. “Only failures fail.” The fact, of course, is that everybody fails on the path to learning, that failing is the most important part of any education. Researchers have shown that people learn far more from watching others fail than they do from watching extremely accomplished people do things without making any mistakes. You can sit and watch Lebron James shoot baskets perfectly all season but that won’t prove very instructive in developing your own game.

It is much more difficult to look at our own failings as educational opportunities if our egos and self-image are wrapped up in success and failure. When we watch other people fail, we are able to separate failure from ourselves, to see the failure as ‘other’ and thus look at it objectively.That is why it is generally better to learn creative things in a group environment where we can see others struggling and failing. We can see where the mishap occurred or how the problem was not fully solved.  The problem exists independently and facing it is an interesting challenge, rather than a demeaning disaster.

…failing is the most important part of any education

What is the value of a teacher’s comments to a new student?

In creative situations, where one’s ego and self-image are tied into the results of an exercise, any sort of perceived criticism can undermine that process. Because we are still so new at learning this new skill, it is difficult to accept that a mistake is not a reflection of who we are and an indication that we shouldn’t even bother tackling this lesson.  That’s why we need as much encouragement as possible in the beginning phase of learning, a phase that can actually last for years. We need to develop self-confidence and faith in our own creative abilities and sometimes criticism of any kind can thwart that  progress.

Students often ask for specific advice on how to improve their composition or how to use a certain medium more effectively, and some teachers are quick to provide lots of guidance, rules, and specific direction. I don’t know if that is especially effective. I find that most students are extremely vulnerable to the most benign sort of commentary — even if they asked for it. Simply telling somebody that they might want to consider a different composition, different medium, consider a slightly different approach, can be extremely undermining. There are so many open wounds as one is going through this creative rebirth that everyone involved must tread lightly. That includes the teacher, the student, and the relative looking over the shoulder.

I think it’s more effective to encourage students to experiment, to make more work, and to gradually developed their own answers to these questions. In fact, my experience is that almost all direct input from the teacher (inevitably an authority figure) is not particularly useful before the student has real confidence in their abilities. Instead the teacher should create an environment of trust, inspiration and fun. They should encourage the process, the experimentation and exploration, provide reassurance and safety, and do demonstrations in which they explain their own process, rather than making specific suggestions about the work the student has done. Turn the key, but don’t grab the wheel.

Turn the key, but don’t grab the wheel.

Many novice students believe that there are shortcuts available that once revealed will turn the student from an amateur into an expert. They want to know what brand of pen the teacher uses under the misimpression that the pen is the secret. The fact is that the student will do much better by discovering answers on their own, by studying the works of others, and by trial and error. There isn’t an accumulated body of knowledge that the student can acquire which will transform them. That knowledge only comes through years of work.

But that doesn’t mean the student can’t be delighted with their accomplishments almost immediately. Especially in the beginning of a creative education, progress happens quite quickly, simply by feeling empowered and free to actually make things. Sometimes that simple realization can wipe out years of anxiety around creative issues. And with that freedom comes an opportunity to continue working and develop one’s own style and techniques.

But that doesn’t mean the student can’t be delighted with their accomplishments almost immediately. 

Personally I find that students with the most technical skills alone rarely make art that I find very interesting.  Instead I’m far more excited by people who make mistakes and discover new and interesting ways to overcome them.

Learning the tried-and-true ways of making art is not necessarily the way to make great art. It is simply the way to rehash the lessons we’ve already learned, to make more art that is ready familiar. Instead you want to create new and exciting directions, to take risks, to see the world afresh, to find answers to new questions. Learning to draw is not like cooking Boeuf Bourguignon, a set of steps one can follow from raw ingredients to final delicious product. Instead it is a voyage, an excursion into the wilderness, an adventure that is mainly rewarding for its own sake, not for its results.

The teacher doesn’t have the answers.  Only the student does.

“Why should I learn to draw and how are you gonna teach me?”: On the teaching philosophy of Sketchbook Skool

A key to successful learning is to have a motive. Why do I want and need to learn this?

When we first started to learn things, it was to survive in the world. Learning how to walk, how to eat solid food, how to talk, and how to play with others were hard but essential lessons. When we first got to school, we had to learn things because, well, mainly because we were told to do so by adults and because everyone else in the room was doing it too. We didn’t really understand the reason for learning what we are being taught but we did it because it some big person told us too. Eventually, some grown-ups inspired and excited us in the classroom and then we were doing  it because it was fun and we wanted them to like us even more. Those kinds of teachers are the ones that have the power to change our lives.

When we are grownups, why do we want to learn things? Generally, because the new skills will help our careers or enable us to accomplish some useful goal like cooking dinner or programming the DVR.

So why do people want to learn to draw? And how do we help them to persevere?

So why do people want to learn to draw? And how do we help them to persevere? People want to learn to draw generally because is a skill that they felt was potential in them for a long time but they were never able to focus on or get proper guidance  to fulfill that potential. “I’ve always wanted to draw,” people tell me. But there were huge obstacles that sat in their way — the largeness of the task, the enormous commitment required, and most of all the fear of failure.   This stems from the sense that while others may be good at this, you were not born with the talent or ability to ever accomplish even a basic level of drawing skiinstructionll yourself.

So the first and most important task is to give people back their sense of power. To make them think that they can do it, to show them that that ability does reside within them, and that if they put in a bit of work it will not be wasted effort. Because there is that sense that the process is magical and that, without that spark of magic, no amount of effort or training will pay off.

As teachers, we have to show them that it is indeed possible. And the key to doing that is to show them that people just like them —novices, frustrated creatives, people born apparently without talent — are able to make progress in the same way.

If you look at Betty Edwards’ classic  book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, one of the most notable things in it are the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. We see accomplished beautiful drawings and next to them the same sort of amateurish fumblings that we are now capable of. The book promises us that, just like these people, we will be able to progress from A to B.

A great way of doing that is by giving people a sense that they are surrounded by like-minded people. Community, is a key part of empowering them. I can tell you over and over why I think you will be able to accomplish this but, unless you trust me, unless you feel I am like you, your inner monkey critic can simply dismiss my expectations and say that I am different from you so my lessons do not apply.

You can buy a book and struggle alone with the exercises, giving up when you hit the first obstacle or disappointing sketch. But when you’re surrounded by thousands of others with the same ambition, the same busy lives, and the same apparently limited talent, you feel like maybe it is possible. And when you have that sense of possibility, the next step is to give you the opportunity to exercise. We need to give you work to do that will be both fun and rewarding. So we need to devise assignments that will fit in with your current life, that will remain interesting and varied, and that will move you one small step at a time, toward the goal of creative empowerment.

When you’re surrounded by thousands of others with the same ambition, the same busy lives, and the same apparently limited talent, you feel like maybe it is possible.

I think it is similar to  learn the way we did when we were children, to just enjoy the process, to have fun in the process rather than agonizing over the first meager results. All learning involves work. But it need not feel like work. It should  be fun, rewarding, and engrossing in someway.

We have the fantasy that learning a skill is simply a matter of getting access to certain shortcuts. That there is a secret set of tricks that will instantly have us drawing effortlessly and accurately, as if there were secret rules that allowed you to drive a car expertly or shoot a basket expertly. Drawing is a physical skill. Like any other, it takes practice. There are no shortcuts but there are things that will make the effort and time commitment required seem just like fun.

No one of the steps will instantly provide you with extraordinary abilities. But they will build your faith. And that faith means that you will continue to take one small step after another. And fairly quickly you will be able to look back and see how far you’ve come. And that will re-reinforce your faith again so you will continue to work and to move forward.

None of the steps has a magic formula, it just contains inspiration. Because ultimately nobody can teach you to draw — only you can teach yourself. And the way you do it is by believing that you can, and doing the work to develop the skills and the connections in your brain and body to make it so.

Artist Danny Gregory inspires during ISB visit

By Tom Fearon


New York author and illustrator Danny Gregory began his two-week visit to ISB with a Q&A session at a high school assembly on Wednesday, September 17. Encouraging students to be flexible to change and seek inspiration in their surroundings, Gregory stressed the importance of discovering their creative potential and never losing sight of their passion.

The London-born artist has authored and illustrated more than half a dozen books during a career that has seen him work in the US, Australia, Pakistan and Israel. During his Q&A session, he spoke about how he combined his work as the creative director of an international advertising agency with his artistic talent, and revealed what inspires him each time he picks up his pencil and sketchbook.

Do you have to be an artist to express your creativity?

Everybody has the ability to be an “artist” in some way. You don’t have to create paintings exhibited in a gallery or museum; we all have the potential to express ourselves creatively. Being creative means solving problems and coming up with new ideas. Everything is changing, especially in Beijing.

To think like an artist doesn’t mean you must have that title on your business card, if you even have one. But you have to be prepared to investigate and take risks. You all have the opportunity to be creative in everything you do in school and in life.

It’s less work to do what has already been done, but to be creative you have to always have inspiration and an active mind. Think about how what other people in other fields are doing could influence you; how a director creates a film could be relevant to how you want to create an app. If you want to start a business, look at how people are operating businesses in completely different fields and see how you can apply that.

For me, drawing has always been a useful tool for focusing my mind and seeing the world in a different way. Think of some other form of creative expression, be it creating music or writing poems, and use that to tap into your creativity, keep ideas flowing and make new connections.

What life lessons can you learn through being creative?

Being creative allows you to avoid boxing yourself in. It’s tempting in life to look for a label for yourself, but a more creative approach to life is allowing yourself to expand and take any opportunity that comes your way. This approach can open all kinds of doors for you. I’ve reinvented my life in different ways because I was open to do that, but there have also been times in my life where I felt I needed to be in a “box.” When you do so, you feel safe and can say, “This is where I live and this is where I work.”

But it’s a dangerous thing to do in a way, particularly when you consider the pace our world is changing. If you put yourself in a “box,” you’ll find the world has changed and left you behind because you haven’t been able to adapt.

It’s also tempting to think if you work really hard and develop certain skills, you’ll be set for life. But everything is changing all the time and if you narrowly define yourself, you may end of underprepared.

Be curious by making connections with your surroundings, meeting different people and taking risks is how you will thrive in the future.

How do you manage your responsibilities and cope with stress?

I live in New York City, which is a very busy place, and I was a major executive at an international company that involved a lot of responsibility. But I found that you need to make a commitment to use time to explore. It might be a matter of setting your alarm half an hour earlier to have some time to yourself that you might use by reading something new or creating art. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities by thinking about how busy you are; try and stay relaxed, and have faith in yourself by remembering you’re a smart, hardworking person. If you check all the boxes by engaging in every curricular activity, applying to all the right colleges and performing really well in your tests it’s easy to believe life will be fine, but life isn’t really that simple.

Considering yourself and what really interests you is more important than following a checklist and doing all the things you feel you have to do. Be true to yourself.

What influenced your decision to switch from advertising to art?

I was a copywriter and wrote lots of commercials before I became chief creative director. I published half a dozen books while working in advertising and also taught workshops.

When I was in my mid-30s I started to draw and keep a record of my life in drawings, but being creative and artistic were things I did all the time. I eventually realized I could decide to do what I wanted to do all the time, which is what I do now. It was tempting for me to think for a long time that I had to be within the corporate structure, but I learned to trust myself and do what was important to me. If they carve anything on my tombstone, it probably won’t be the titles I earned in the corporate world. Hopefully, it will be something a bit more poetic.

Why do you draw unusual scenes in life, such as people standing in line at Costco?

I carry a sketchbook and pen with me all the time, and whenever I have a spare moment I draw. Life is full of spare moments; a lot of the time we spend our spare time using Facebook, texting a friend or staring off into space. I do these things too, but I also use my spare time to draw.

How has living in New York influenced your art?

New York is full of things to draw; there’s so much energy and many things going on, but it’s also my home. I certainly go to museums and galleries and immerse myself in the “Art” world with a capital “a,” but I think of myself as existing in the “art” world with a small “a,” which means art that is part of life.

Danny Gregory will present workshops to ISB art students of various grade levels until Friday, September 26. He will attend a book signing and participate in a student-led dialogue from 4:45 pm to 5:15 pm in the MS/HS Cafeteria and then attend a student art exhibition and book signing from 5:15 pm to 6:15 pm on Thursday, September 25.

News, September 18, 2014 9/18/2014

School daze


I don’t have loads of fond memories of teachers in high school. And most of the art teachers were especially forgettable. And as you know, the monkey voice in my head makes sure I still retain some ambivalence and self-doubt surrounding my own position as an artist and as a teacher. Nonetheless, I’ve agreed to spend a week with high school students at the International School of Kuala Lumpur and went with a few sketchy ideas and an open mind.

ISKL is a terrific school. It has students from fifty countries, all studying in English, and they go on to top universities in the US and Europe. Great art schools too, RISD, Cal Arts etc. They have lavish resources, a dark room, a theatre, art classes three times a week, a swimming pool, sports fields, a great library — so much more than Jack had in the NYC public schools system.

Whatever they do in life, the school is giving them a solid and broad base of culture. These are well-behaved kids, prepped for success, eyes drooping from after-school tutoring and late-night study sessions. Their parents are diplomats, engineers, top executives in global companies, or the cream of Malaysian society. Several have the talent and drive to get into a great art school, but their parents want them to study economics or law. Still, they are not hectored drones hell-bent on success. Just good kids who need to be goaded to take some risks.

Which was why I was there.

It took me a few false starts to figure out how to proceed. I began with a lecture with almost 100 slides, selling them reason after reason for how great illustrated journaling could be for their lives. I repeated this mistake in three different classes that day.

I went home the first night, still half dead from jet lag, dismayed by the realization that I’d become one of those droning teachers I hated in high school, telling kids what was good for them, urging them to follow my example, using incomprehensible, made up jargon, telling them what was wrong with thinking any way but my own. I’d behaved like I was doing a presentation back at my ad agency, selling my ideas hard, rather than being empathetic, rather than understanding where I was or what they needed. I’d talked so much that first day, we hadn’t even had time to do any drawing.

It’s one of the problems with being an ‘expert’, when you aren’t really sure what your expertise is or how it’s useful. It takes time to recut your experience to suit the current situation, to figure out how what you know night be of service, If you come in hellbent on asserting your expertise or tone-deaf and presenting your same old stump speech, you risk boring or alienating the people you wanted to help. You have to become expert in being an expert. In part, that means, knowing what you don’t know.


One idea I’d sold my host Ian on, was that we could get the kids to create a whole bunch of great sketchbook pages documenting the stories of the school. They could interview the staff in the kitchen, draw the equipment in the gym, sketch the poses people struck while studying in the library, and at the week’s end, we’d have a great collaborative project that he could curate somewhere. It wasn’t a bad idea but it didn’t set the kids on fire. I was excited to poke into all corners of the school, but these kids spend all day all year there and there were few revelations left, despite my exhortations to discover a new way of seeing. We did spend a couple of days drawing the turtles in the pond, the band rehearsing, the lost and found. But I realized that this very loose assignment was too ambitious and not sufficiently attuned to the way the kids think.

This was not like teaching adults. It’s not the self-motivated atmosphere of Sketchbook Skool. Kids aren’t in high school because they want to be, they’re not looking for ways to realize their potential. They’d much rather hang out with their friends or play video games. So they need you to focus them, tell them what you expect them to do, and make it finite. The older kids are working towards their International Baccalaureate, sort of like AP classes in the US, so they need final projects for their portfolios, not meandering explorations of the recycling cans or the locker rooms. My first days of loose experimentation in creative freedom left them lost, afraid of doing wrong and wasting precious time.

Next we gave them more specific assignments. Draw six things that are round but very different sizes, draw them the same size and arrange them evenly across the page. Draw a stack of books you’ve read in the library, giving them dimension, paying attention to the letterforms. Interview and draw one worker in the kitchen. Draw the place you’ll miss the most after you graduate. This was better, and they certainly did the assignments uncomplainingly, but much of the work was still sketchy and lacked passion.

Next step was to tone down all the demands of illustrated journaling, rather than insisting on 1. interesting drawings, 2. confident line work, 3. insightful, witty stories in 4. nice calligraphy, with 5. good composition and 6. a well laid-out page — let’s just get excited about drawing.

Things took off when I demonstrated how to do a technique I showed in Sketchbook Skool, I call “slow/fast”. First we drew a one-minute gesture drawing with a fat brush dipped in watercolor, followed by a carefully observed, detailed pen drawing right on top of the initial study.

We wheeled a motor scooter into the middle of class and sat around it drawing. The kids were silent, lost in drawing, and the results were awesome. The teacher told me, “This is usually my most unruly and disruptive class and I have never seen them so engaged. And I love the drawings they did. Many asked if they could keep working on them in their free time.”


I tried the same Slow/Fast technique with another group, dividing them into pairs and having them pose for each other. The portraits were a huge leap from the work they’d done early in the week, individual, well-observed and alive.


Next we made a dozen or more squares on the page, then drew little snapshots of random scenes through a viewfinder, like a contact sheet or scenes from a movie. Again, the drawings were carefully observed and lively, the compositions were interesting and fresh. Initially we knocked out each little drawing in a minute or two, but then many of the kids went back and added more detail and color.
IMG_6999I also taught through example. I shared the pages I had made outside of class drawing around Kuala Lumpur, I passed around old sketchbooks, showed images I had made over the years. I did a lot of drawing, participated in the exercises, then walked around pointing things out here and there, try this, consider that.

On the last day, I hauled out my slides and books again, and this time the response was different. Now they loved drawing and it made sense so we could delve deeper into conversations about layout, expression, inspiration, technique, possibilities.

My biggest lesson was that you first need to show students how it feels to love making art. You need to have that momentary flash when you see why it’s so great. It could be the deep meditative experience that comes from really concentrating and going deep. It could be that moment when you pull out of that daze and look at what you have made and are blown away. Just doing one great drawing give hope. Even if the next one sucks, you know you can do it because you did it once. And when you have that knowledge, you have secure ground to build on.

Early in the week, one girl made several really great pages but I would hear her muttering to herself or her neighbor how much she sucked at drawing. Then I saw that she had written, in graceful swirling letters, right on her page, that she thought this drawing was awful and that she was no good. I explained how untrue I thought this was but also how, by asserting it over and over, she was creating a self-fulfilling process. We kept pushing ahead with more experiments that would distract her monkey mind and by the week’s end, she showed me drawing after drawing with pride.

I felt good but I wasn’t really sure if I’d really made an impression on the classes. So many of these kids are reserved and polite and not effusive and the monkey was still wondering if all this time and travel and work had been worthwhile, for them or for me. On Saturday afternoon, I went back to my desk to pack up my stuff and there on my laptop was a card. On the cover was a lovely watercolor portrait of me and inside the students had written (neatly lettered and beautifully composed) how much my time had meant to them, how much they had learned, how they now embraced risk and mistakes and how grateful they were I had come to their school.

It felt like every corny movie about teaching I’ve ever seen, Mr. Chips, Mr. Holland, Mr. Kotter, but I was really touched. It’s a cliché, I know, but those kids taught me more than I taught them.
Now on to Beijing, to learn some more.