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Monday, May 31, 2010


Yesterday I bumped into the delightful blog of Carla Sonheim. This is how it happened: I went hunting for something on Amazon. Amazon told me I should buy Carla's new book about drawing. I looked at it and quickly deemed the book something I wanted to add to my vast, vast collection of art-related books, so I bought it.

Then I looked up Carla to see if she had a blog, and of course she did.

Then I found this older post that said something like "draw cats on a bed." So I hit the hot link and found this post with all these wonderful little cat drawings.

Then I went outside and hacked at the overgrown rosebushes that were starting to look like Janis Joplin's hair. And the other bushes that I cannot identify that were starting to look like Lindsay Lohan after a really bad weekend.

Then I was too tired to take my sketchbook out into the world for some observational drawing, which had been the original plan. You know what they say about plans.
But I now get physically uncomfortable if I don't draw at least once a day.

Then I remembered Carla, who, as far as I can tell, is a big advocate of having fun with drawing. And I thought about her cats. And I thought, "There is no reason I can't just sit down with my large sketchbook here and do a page of silly drawings, like Carla with her cats."

I should've actually DRAWN cats, because cats give me difficulty. But when I sat down with my big sketchbook, thinking about what I wanted to draw an entire page of, my brain did a little leap and said, "Elephants!" (As you can see if you look here and here, I have enjoyed drawing elephants in the past.)

I dropped out the Moleskine cream-colored background here because I tire of it and often crave pure white. But I didn't bother with erasing the hue that comes through at the crease in the middle.

Anyway, today I will do some observational drawing. But yesterday I had fun with elephants, so thank you, Carla. And I can't wait to get your book.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Be Gone, Ego, He's Gone

Let me just get this out of the way: Yes, I know that as a likeness of Dennis Hopper, this sucks. OK? There, I've said it. I did two tiny thumbnail sketches of him for quick practice first, and both of those managed to at least sort of look like him. If this were a real drawing or painting, I'd have stopped, reassessed and penciled my way to accuracy before moving on to ink. But it's a sketchbook page, all right? That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Onto the issues. And, oh: If you wanna read what I wrote on my sketchbook page, better click the picture.

Now, I'm not going to write a filmography of Dennis Hopper, because I'd just be looking it up on Wikipedia anyway. What struck me about his death was how it fell on the heels of the death of that other celebrity, Gary Coleman. More to the point, I was surprised at how the death of Gary Coleman sort of needled my heart.
Why, I wondered? I was never a big fan of "Diff'rent Strokes." (This was the dawn of really dumb sitcom writing, but at least networks clued us into that with the misspelling of "different.")

When I read about Hopper's death, I realized that what got to me was the idea of how some lives are celebrated and valued as compared to others. Our culture is built around the satisfaction of individual egos. Put another way, here in America, we are what we do publicly. Look at me, I'm writing a blog! Look at me, do you like my words? Do you like my pictures? Will you buy my talent? Publish my book? See my movie, listen to my record? Will you please NOTICE ME? In exchange, I will notice you -- as long as you are not more important than me.

I admittedly don't know much about Coleman, but I know enough to say that he was never satisfied with his place in the world. This sort of problem so often plagues people who become grownups after having been famous childhood actors.
Gary Coleman was cute, not cool. Dennis Hopper was cool. They had nothing to do with each other, of course, but I'll bet if Gary Coleman could've traded his childhood success for some of Dennis Hopper's cool he would've done it in a hot second.

What's more interesting to wonder is who Dennis Hopper might've wished to be. Maybe he was completely satisfied with his life, his achievements, how he spent his time. But I'll bet you he wasn't, because he was human.

This is what happens to us all. Well, to those of us who fail to resist comparing our goods -- who we seem to be in the world -- with everyone else. I was thinking about this a lot last night, even as I was scrolling through other artists' blogs and envying their talent. Like, really ENVYING their talent in the Seven-Deadly-Sins sort of way. Wishing it was mine rather than theirs. Then I progressed to a newfound loathing of my own work. Then I thought about Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper again.

The thing is, it really cannot come down to this. Right, I know. I live in the United States of Achievement, where if you don't aspire to a seven-figure salary and $1,000 designer shoes, people think there's something wrong with you.
But it really cannot come down to whether I'm better, richer and more popular than the people around me. Knowing that I'll always lose that game, then, what does it come down to?

I think it comes down to what kind of spirit we want to be in the world during the very short time we're here, between the time when we're a spirit somewhere else and the time when we're somewhere else again. I think it comes down to being really deeply ourselves, even if on some day it means doing a Dennis Hopper sketch in a way that is both unconvincing yet also uniquely ours.

We don't know why we're here, right? But let me leave you with this one image.
There's God or the Divine Spirit or Whoever/Whatever is running the joint. For the sake of my imagery, it's a guy-ish spirit. He's holding the fully formed spirit of Gary Coleman in his big hand, just before sending Coleman into the world.

"OK, look," God says, chuckling. "I think for your Big Visit, I'm gonna make you a short, squat, completely adorable kid with a great smile. You're gonna get all kinds of accolades as a child, but then -- as part of your journey -- you gotta figure out what to do after that. It'll be less easy, but it should be REALLY INTERESTING. Just remember that: It's all supposed to be really interesting. Oh, and it doesn't last long, so when you feel yourself getting a little overwhelmed, just remember that soon enough you'll be here doing the backstroke in the clouds again with St. Peter, and everything will be all right."

Then Coleman nods. "Sure, what the heck. It's just life. Put me in, coach."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

We Need a Word for ...

We need a word for the phenomenon of mis-seeing a word or phrase such that what you read is either funny or bizarre and in any case is better than how the phrase actually reads.
I wish I could offer more examples of this right now. It happens to me quite often these days. Does it ever happen to you? Can you remember what you thought you read? You know I love it when you share.

This post is dedicated to Diane, to whom it also happens, and whose recent experience inspired everything you're reading and seeing here today.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bear Wakes Up

Do click to make the picture bigger if you'd like to read the story.

It started with the tree, just wanting to draw the tree. Well, and the owls in the tree.

With the owls in the tree and the big trunk there, I saw that Bear should be in the tree. When I went to draw him, he was waking up from his hibernation.

When I noticed the expression I'd drawn on the owls' faces -- what was UP with them, anyway? -- I thought, Bear Wakes Up, and figured it was a little poem.

In the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep, it stopped being a poem and just became a sort of musical little story. Oh, and when you get to the one line about him eating proud pawfuls of leaves, it's "and a bug or two," even though it looks a bit like, "and a boy or two."

There you have it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I Break for Screech Babies

They're at the raptor-rehab center right now, but don't worry -- they'll all be healthy, fine and ready to hunt for themselves by the time we release them. But they're also young, so yesterday I had to feed them by hand. I know, I know. You're thinking, "What an awful, horrible duty that must have been!" Well, what can I say. Sometimes we just have to do these difficult jobs.

The guy in this picture who's all hunched down near the perch was actually standing tall and very hoggy yesterday. Every time I tried to point a bit of chopped mouse in the direction of one of his neighbors, he would lean over and snatch it. I had to get pretty tricky about making sure they got their due.

One of the great things about feeding babies of various types is that they're voracious when you start out. Then, as their bellies fill, they start eating more lazily. When they don't want anymore, the turn away from the offerings. Their eyes start to get heavy. Sleeeeeepy, oh so sleeepy.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Value of a Neater Page

On the other hand, a nice drawing on a neat page is never a bad thing.

I went bold-ish here in that I went back to my old practice of not laying any pencil down first. I used to truly disdain pencils for aesthetic reasons. I didn't like the look of lead on the page, didn't like the feel of it sliding across the page. Plus I always found that going direct to ink emboldened me. With ink, there's really no reason to make multiple attacks to try to get a line right; you're just making a mess. Better to live with what you put down.

With architectural drawings in particular, I'd gotten away from direct-to-ink because I wanted a chance to fix things that were wrong -- and there are always things that are wrong. I think it's part of my learning how to see that I became willing to pencil things in and erase.

But something made me want to say, "the heck with it" here. (Well, OK - that something was revisiting Tommy Kane's blog. (I love the blog. I hate the guy. He makes it look so easy.)

Anyway, here, for better or worse, is my direct-to-ink corner coffee shop in the Gordon Square Arts District of the Detroit-Shoreway area of Cleveland. More on this cool place later.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Value of an Interesting Mess

One of the common refrains of people who like to do stuff with sketchbooks is that when they find -- or more like, are given -- a beautifully bound book to sketch in, they find it intimidating. I understand the problem. You want the interior to live up to the cover. You want the drawings inside to be worthy of all that fine paper.

The fear comes from knowing that because sketchbooks are a work in progress, they will, by definition, contain badly done drawings, false starts, ill-conceived lines. What to do, what to do.

Well, I'll tell you what to do: Dig some techniques for developing what I think of as an interesting mess. Behold, I've posted a picture of just such a thing today.

I have always said that it's possible to make a good drawing that is not necessarily a likeness of the person, building or object you're trying to draw. Likewise, it's possible to make an interesting page even if the drawing that started it all looks like something your dog did with his non-writing hand. In other words, the drawing is one thing; the page is something else.

This spread began because I was totally itching to draw and took my book to my favorite bookstore cafe at lunch. While I waited for my pear-and-walnut salad, I started sketching the railing and stacks on the second floor, which can be seen because of a loftlike setup. I will confess that it was taking me way too long to get proportions generally in order, and when I was done, I had a not-very-interesting sketch of this area of the bookstore. In addition (as long as I'm letting it all hang out), there were perspective problems that I recognized as soon as I did them -- in pen.

Did I despair? I did not, because this is a big sketchbook, a Moleskine Folio, and there was still plenty of room to make a more interesting page or a more interesting spread. So when I got home, I added a little color to the bookstore sketch, which help a bit. Then I drew my dog's beautiful head, because I've been trying to meet the challenge of making a decent drawing of an all-black dog. (Go ahead, try it and then get back to me.)

Now, I'm not loving what happens to ink on this damned paper, which just sucks up all kind of wet media and dulls it all out. So even after I had the dog on the page, and an idea of what I wanted to say about my Sunday, I was still looking for a little pop. So I hit my stack of Mi Tientes paper, ripped off that shred of purple you see there on the left, and glued it down as a place to do my writing. Once I'd added a little texture to the page, I realized I wanted to treat the spread like a spread rather than just a page that would have some sort of conversation with the other side whenever I got around to creating the other side. (That's also an option, however.)

Later in the afternoon, my family and I went to something called the Weapons of Mass Creation Festival. I took my book along, thinking there would be down time for doing more observational sketches. There was. And now, because of the quasi-collagey thing going on on the left side of the page, I had no fear of adding random sketches on the right; I knew I could use the purple paper later to integrate things a bit. So I did a quick sketch of Thing Four (er, my younger daughter); the top of a church building and, later, the singer we had come to hear.

When we got home, it was late-ish, but I still felt very compelled to add more torn paper to the page, where I would add my notes. I did that, and -- voila! my mess! And it really is a mess. There isn't a great drawing on his page. But I particularly enjoyed doing the church and the singer. I'm glad I did them, and I didn't let the general wonderfulness of a large, perfect-bound sketchbook intimidate me.

The placement of the torn-paper notes gives the illusion that the page was rather more planned than it was. It suggests (I think) a relationship between these objects and events, and indeed there WAS a relationship. They were all part of the disparate events of a kind of typical Sunday in my life.

The overall point here is that a ho-hum or outright BAD drawing does not have to equal a ho-hum or bad page in your sketchbook, whether said sketchbook is beautiful or average. The drawing is one thing. The spread is something else.
And if you want excellent ideas about page layout, go visit the excellent Roz Stendahl over at Roz Wound Up. She's currently in the midst of doing a series of little articles about page layout.

Do I love my spread here? I do not. But as part of a whole -- as something unexpected to find when I'm flipping back through the book in months and years to come -- I'm quite pleased.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Arting the Artists

This is a little preview of some work I think will be pubished tomorrow (Sunday May 23) in the Forum section of the Plain Dealer. I say "I think" because we've had so many technical difficulties along the way that I'm braced for anything.

But the premise: I wrote an essay about the Cleveland Institute of Art's year-end Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis-review week, wherein graduating seniors present usually elaborate projects that represent the thinking and work of a full school year, if not longer. Students and faculty attend these presentations, and for the most part I find it a really energizing experience to witness, which is why I was moved to write about it. In Cleveland, sometimes you have to hunt for the energizing stuff.

After I approached an editor at the newspaper about the possibility of publishing my essay, she got back to me and said, "Sure -- would you like to do some illustrations, too?" (She's someone who embraces the new and unexpected, which I appreciate.)

I contemplated how to illustrate the piece. In the end, I went for a thoroughly conventional (for me) approach of using sketchbook drawings of the actual presentations and the work. What you see here is, at top, one finished sketch (that doesn't much resemble the artist but captures the spirit of the event) and two preliminary sketches, one of which I redid.

All were eventually done on watercolor paper with black ink and watercolor. I decided not to render the second sketch, and there are two others I did for the newspaper that I'm not showing here. (After all, I don't wanna scoop myself!)

If you're art-nerd enough to still be reading, I'll ad that the technical problems with production seemed to be mostly in the area of getting strong scans of the finished artwork. For some reason, it was difficult to capture the delicious white of the paper to show up on the printed page. Only part of that can be blamed on the fact that printing on newsprint is, as an old editor used to say, tantamount to printing on toilet paper. (He was referring to the quality of the actual paper, mind you.) One of the technically smart people had at it and improved things quite a bit, but then the poor people trying to do the layout were having trouble getting a proof of the page. Ghosts in the machine, it seemed.

This combining of text and illustration is, I've come to realize, the real stuff of my passion for art. Words seldom seem finished without images, and my images always long for words. It's why I'm loving some of the more literary graphic novels, and why I wish there was more published that didn't fall in the "superhero" mode, and why I want to do such work myself. Children's picture books -- the best of them, anyway -- have a poetic elegance to them because of the conversation that takes place between efficiently written text and art that finishes the thought.

So here we are. On the radio yesterday, I heard a nun say something like, "Follow where grace leads you."
I've been following lately. Sometimes that's a scary experience, but here is where it has left me, at the crossroads of words and pictures, unwilling to choose one over the other.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Limping Into the 21st Century

I know, I know -- I promised you "The Escort." Well, you'll just have to wait a bit.
This morning I did what I promised my classmate Josh all year I would do but never did: I opened the box to the Wacom drawing tablet I got several Christmases ago. I installed the software. I read a little bit. I did a little of the tutorial. Then I opened a Photoshop document and took a shot.

It feels like flying.
Oh, it's awkward as heck. But I already like it. I like how you can flip the electronic pen and just erase stuff. I like how you can whip the lasso tool around. It's so nimble. And while this debut piece of, er, "art" doesn't do justice to the tool, I even sort of like how my unsteadiness with it comes across in the image. By the way, the one intentional thing here is how the color doesn't exactly adhere to the lines of the drawing; I always kind of like that look.

Anyway, please congratulate this old dog for learning a tiny new trick.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bar None

The first time I saw an owl up close it was a barred owl perched on the fist of a handler at a nature program. "Barn owl?" I said, when the woman told me what it was. "Barred," she corrected, then explained about the "bars" on the feathers.

Since then, through volunteer work, I've gotten slightly smarter about owls in general. I've answered the barn owl/barred owl question myself. I've had barred owls perch on my own fist - as recently as last Friday -- and I can say that these beauties never cease to amaze me. I can also say that they're unbelievably fluffy. (That's a scientific term, of course.)

The drawing here, by the way, was done with help from several photo references, including a shot I took a couple of years ago of Aurora, the very owl with whom I communed last week. Click on the picture for a closer look.

My next post will answer the question, "But what is 'The Escort'?"

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Am I a Grownup Yet?

A friend says, "You and Carlo should really be condo owners," and though she's referring to my disdain for yardwork, I know she's right in a bigger sense.
Heck, we should probably be renters. The demands of homeownership are constant and grinding, and frankly we are, in some ways, such children that we can hardly be trusted to take care of them.

And when you have a home like ours, where the previous owners managed to find the cheapest, code-violating route to every new "improvement" idea that crossed their sodden gray matter, well -- it puts one in mind of that horrible yet spot-on movie, "The Money Pit."

Our last few weeks in a nutshell: Furnace problems lead to discovery that we need a new breaker box (lead to discovery that some genius years ago left a live wire completely exposed near the front of the crawl space) leads to discovery that we have a hole in a gas line, which leads to discovery that this part of the gas line is old and rusty and needs to be replaced. Sigh.

All of this costs a lot of money, which is one of the big downsides of homeownership. One of the upsides is that it brings members of our trusted group of tried-and-true home repair experts onto the scene. These men (yes, they're all men) have come our way through a tough trial and error process that included finding out who NOT to hire. But when these guys are here, well ... I just feel like I'm being taken care of. It's sort of like having parents around, in a good way.

And for a while, after they have left, I think to myself, "We might not be the most efficient, dogged homeowners, but at least we're smart enough to hire good parents -- er, repairmen."

Incidentally, the quote at the top of the page here -- "The notion of 'a better mousetrap' has never preoccupied the mouse" -- came to me all at once while I was drawing the dead mouse that Don and Tom found while they were building a new breaker box. I have no idea what it means, really, or why I thought of it. In fact, it's one of those writerly experiences where I worry that I'm claiming to have invented something I didn't invent. Anyway, it feels like there's a metaphor in there -- something useful to think about regarding human beings. I only wish I knew what it was.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Invasion of the Swedes

I drew this theater in the early afternoon, then patronized it in the evening to see the film adaptation of the novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson.

As usual, click on the image if you'd like to read more.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cedar-Lee Sketchcrawl

International Sketchcrawl Day today. Some of us celebrated in the lovely Cedar-Lee neighborhood of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. This is Page One. I'm still working on Page Two, which you'll see tomorrow.

My partial-spread here is in a folio Moleskine, and as such is a tad wider than my scanner. I did a quick job of "scaling" two sides of the page together. You get the idea.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Summer's Work

May I introduce you to my new summer sketchbook?
It's a large-format Moleskine which I'm planning to fill with work that still looks like mine only different. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Old Married Couple

On the last page of this sketchbook I had pre-pasted the photo of violets I clipped from an ad. There I was, wondering what to do with the beginnings of a collage, when I decided that it might do to make the end of the book relate to the beginning, which can be seen right here.
I mused again on love, and on a conversation I'd had on the idea of the "old married couple," and decided that violets and my couple belonged together. So here they are.

I think the idea of being part of an old married couple has a hold on us whether we like it or not. In a culture that worships youth, we also paradoxically want the payoff of reaching the end of our lives with access to a most favorite companion. Can we go so far as to say that this is one of the great and mostly unspoken reasons people get married -- in hopes that their marriage will ensure them the privilege of someday being half of an old married couple? I think we can go that far, in a general way. When something like divorce happens, we (temporarily, at least) mourn the loss of the promise of the old married couple. It's like losing Santa Claus.

Artistically, by the way, I kind of like this page for the way the scale of things throws you off. I like the ink-and-brush-pen look, and I like it combined with that little bit of photography in the corner. I'd been looking closely at a Ralph Steadman book I have and noticing for the first time that the great illustrator of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (among others) does fantastic illustrations that slyly, and sometimes robustly, incorporate photographs. He collages with cut-up photographs, paints over them -- it's all delicious.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

I Believe

Those of you unaccustomed to making fiction with words might be under the impression that it's easy. After all, you get to just make it up.
This is true, but it must cohere. It must make sense, in its own (hopefully inventive) way.
And so it is with the imaginary images -- landscapes in particular, which some illustrators do so well. The person who comes to mind is Mattias Adolfsson, a Swedish illustrator with a fantastic sense of whimsy.

Anyway, in the middle of some insomniatic night recently, I tried my hand at an elementary imaginary cityscape. To do this really well, it helps to be a student of architecture -- even an amateur. But to do it and have a little fun -- well, you can just imagine stuff and do your best to draw it all in perspective.

The way I approached it was to imagine my buildings as little cardboard boxes and tubes, but more fun. I wanted entrances and exits to be a bit perplexing. Like maybe they'd work and maybe they wouldn't. Or like maybe the beings who inhabit these buildings would look like you and me, and maybe they wouldn't

What strikes me now, after having added color, is 1) How I completely believe my own little cityscape here, and 2) How much it reminds me of Fort Lauderdale.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Sssshhh ...

The Glenview Elementary School library was a sacred place that lives in my memory nearly 40 years after I last saw it. There I checked out books I would read and re-read. There I first inhaled the scent of old ink. And it was there, in a place of borrowing books, that boxes from our book-club orders arrived. A teacher, or maybe the librarian, opened the boxes, pulled out the books and called names. The teacher called my name, and handed me my new book -- or books. My mother never denied me the chance to buy a book-club book. (In turn, I never denied my own kids that way, either, though the book club catalogues of late are regrettably filled with lots of non-book items, which I did limit.)

Oddly, then, it was in my first, favorite library that I learned to love owning books better than borrowing them. The idea of the library -- literally a free exchange, if you can get your stuff back on time -- is so lovely, so perfect. It's one of those great American ideas.

And yet in the end, I like to buy rather than borrow.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

At Heinen's

One of my fantasies is to be let loose, probably with some other artists, in my favorite grocery story for an hour or so just to draw. It would only be interesting if there were other people there, but we'd have the permission of the management to linger in any one spot with our little sketchbooks and paints. The market is so full of energy and color. Yet, as much as I've lost a lot of my fear about drawing in public, I can't imagine just standing there and drawing in the middle of the store without some kind of sanction. I mean, it would just be strange, wouldn't it?

By the way, if you're an artist and you've ever DONE such a thing in such a situation, I'd love to hear about it. Though I don't imagine I'll be flooded with messages.

Meanwhile, my trust iPhone takes pretty darned nice pictures, and no one suspects you're taking shots of fresh produce. They just think you're text-messaging or generally being rude.

As usual, you can get a better look at this spread if you click on the picture.

Saturday, May 01, 2010


There's a plaza I like to visit for book-browsing and coffee. In the warm weather you can sit outside and hang. I usually hang and draw. It is during these times that I have overheard the BEST conversational snippets. I like to throw them on the sketchbook page. They feed my imagination. They spark narrative.

The flowers, by the way, were not some strange wallpaper border hanging in mid-air behind the couple talking at the table. They were growing in a pot right next to me.