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Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Dailiness




I am helpless in the face of a new book about sketching.
Never mind that there's very little that the writers of these books can say that I haven't read elsewhere or learned on my own. And still, I buy books such as Hannah Hinchman's "A Life In Hand," which is now pretty old but pretty wonderful. I also bought Cathy Johnson's new book, which is fun because there are so many other artists' works represented there.

Part of what I love about books like these is that they remind me to carve time for daily drawing. Not that this is an onerous chore, mind you. It's quite the opposite. I really love doing this stuff so much that I want to win the lottery and just draw all day long. But I'm always feeling the tug of paying gigs and school-related work and humans and dogs and cats. You know this, too, right? Time: the Big Gift and the slave driver.

And still, there are islands of sanity to be claimed with pen and paper. With that in mind, I'm making myself a short list of ideas on how to claim time for personal drawing -- particularly observational drawing, the bedrock of illustration -- when I'm feeling crowded. Maybe you have ideas, too?

1) The Daily Grid A sketchbook page can be broken up into six or nine cells at, say, 7 in the morning over breakfast. Each cell can be given over to a drawing that takes maybe 5 minutes to make. At the end of the day, I have a page that tends to look pretty good because the grid saves the design day. Some of my favorite pages in my own books were grids I made on days when I was sure I didn't have time to draw.

2) Permission to Make the Shitty Drawing. In the writing world, Anne Lamott coined the wonderful phrase "shitty first draft." Writers need to give themselves permission to make a really terrible first crack at whatever they're trying to create: poem, essay, play, novel. The craft of writing is 80 percent revision anyway. In drawing, it's a little different. Sometimes the shitty drawing just stays a shitty drawing -- and that's OK because even 10 minutes of thoughtful, intentional drawing, no matter how bad, is good practice.

3) Arrangements are Everywhere. Not on this page, but definitely on a recent sketchbook spread, is a drawing of my kitchen table and three of the chairs around it. How did it turn out? See No. 2 above. The point is that I did it when I thought I had nothing to draw. Yet all around my house, the stuff of adulthood creates arrangements that articulate space and form. They're all worthy of study. What I learned from my tables and chairs is that I can come at them from a different angle, maybe even as soon as later today, and make another interesting drawing that may be less shitty than the first. And that all of this refreshes certain skills.

4) Resist the Illusion of Too Busy. I am plagued by anxieties of all kinds. Really. You don't have the time to hear about them all. One of them, though, is a sense that I'm more time-trapped than I am. When I start thinking, "Oh, do I really have time to stop to draw for half an hour?" the answer is usually, "OF COURSE NOT!" Yesterday when that feeling attacked, I did the uncomfortable thing and forced myself to reject it. What bloomed in its place was the crab page you see above. I like the crab page, and I'm glad I made time for it.

5) Resist the Ideal of the Perfect Drawing Situation. To be honest, my favorite drawing situation involves sitting in one, comfortable spot for an hour or more. But I can draw standing up, or behind the wheel of my car in a parking lot, or in my bed looking at a book for photo reference. If I get out my sketchbook every day, even multiple times a day, the perfect drawing situation will come along more often.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Naked Neighborhood


So you look at this sketch and you say to yourself, "What did she do, stand in front of the guy's door and memorize every detail, down to the little corn pad on his foot?"

No. I made up the corn pad.

And actually, the text on the page here is an abbreviation of the story. The first time I saw my naked neighbor was about two weeks ago. His dog was tied up out front when Pearl and I were walking by, and started barking like crazy. Startled, I looked to my right, saw the dog -- then saw his naked owner stand up from a chair parked right in front of the (again, OPEN) front door. He didn't come to the door, but instead went to his picture window and peer out at me from behind the curtain.

I had all but forgotten the event this weekend when, again on a dog walk, we passed the house and Pearl started looking all interested. I had a brief recollection of there being a loud dog, so I quickly looked up and saw not the four-legged beast but the, well, three-legged one, if you catch my drift. This time he didn't bother going to the window.

Truthfully, I'm not sure how well I did on the facial likeness of the man. Both times I saw him, I quickly looked away, because I was afraid to be caught seeing him. (What's up with that, anyway?) But I definitely captured the general shape of his body.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Save the Bricks and Mortar Bookstores


Ten things to do at a bookstore in addition to (but definitely not instead of) buying books.

1) Look at the art in new children's pictures.
2) Find classics you always meant to read. Read the first paragraph.
3) Study the demographics around the magazine section.
4) Draw people reading
5) Pick up chicks/dudes
6) Consider a new hobby. Pick out a book to help you with it.
7) Buy greeting cards even though it's no one's birthday; it will be soon.
8) Cover up the outfacing copies of books you've read and didn't like, or those written by people you don't respect.
9) Turn books you like facing outward, so people will see them.
10) Ask a bookseller what his or her the name of his or her most recent favorite title

The bonus activity, of course, is stand for a minute and wonder what it'll be like when there are no more bricks-and-mortar bookstores. If all but a few stores went away and those that remained charge a browsing fee, would you pay it? (To be refunded, of course, when you buy something.)

When I was bookstore hopping Saturday for "Save A Bookstore" day, I saw (and drew) a young woman who had piled a bunch of expensive graphic-design magazines on the table where she was drinking her $4 coffee. She was flipping through in a manner that said, "Just wanna see what's in here, then I'm going to leave without buying any." This, by the way, is exactly what someone I know in the graphic design business advises people to do if they can't or don't want to subscribe to these magazines.

The other thing I witnessed, over at the little independent store Mac's Backs in Cleveland Heights, was a conversation between a customer and proprietor Suzanne DeGaetano, in which the customer seemed to have a list of books she was interested in. She said she finds the books on Amazon.com, then always buys them in a real bookstore.

Incidentally, the books I bought Saturday: "One Breath Apart," a strange little illustrated book about medical students and their study cadavers, and a new Weight Watchers cookbook -- because Weight Watchers has great recipes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cut Flowers


Click on the image for a closer look.


A few months ago I was introduced to writer and poet Molly Peacock, not through her poetry (which I will read) but through the wonderful biography she wrote about Mary Delany, an 18th century Englishwoman and artist. I reviewed "The Paper Garden" for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I encourage you to read the review, which you can catch right here. Among the notable facts of Mary Delany's life is that she was 72 before she began the artwork that has us still talking about her in the 21st century.

Another notable fact is that Delany's work -- she created bontanically precise flower pictures by cutting out tiny pieces of paper -- has become the stuff of museum shows because she was this good:



Yes, it is.
No, I am not kidding. Those are really and truly individually cut pieces of paper, assembled and glued to the black background.
Yes it IS crazy.

I must have had Mary on the brain when I was considering what to do with the visual journaling spread that you see up top. Well ... a little Mary Delany and a little Eric Carle.

He's one of the more famous contemporary children's book illustrators working today, and of course his thing is cut-paper illustrations. I got to interview him once (I was always interviewing children's book illustrators more than other newspaper writers, I confess), and I know two things from that interview. First, Eric Carle is a really nice guy. Second, he works in a studio chock-full of papers in every conceivable palette that he has painted in big batches so that he has what he needs when he goes to make his illustrations.

Eric Carle is good, too, and you can take a look right here.

Now, whereas Mary Delany's aim was to essentially paint with cut paper, and to make the flowers look realistic and natural, Carle embraces and emphasizes the contrasting textures of the paint that happens to be on the paper he's cutting for the different parts of the animals he illustrates. And while I admire Mary's diligence and the beauty of her work, I myself am more Carlesque. I like to notice the paper. If you haven't figured it out yet, I tend to embrace inexactitude. (Which, my teachers would hasten to point out, is not the same as losing control over one's medium. Which also happens.)

Anyway, about the above journal spread: I pasted down the purple background paper first, then went about figuring out what I was going to do with the spread. Then I took a nap, and I dreamed about an image having to do with bridesmaids in similar but not exactly the same dresses. When I woke up, I thought, no, I don't want to do multiple girls -- just one.
Figured out the colors.
Painted a bunch of color on paper harvested from a badly constructed sketchbook (that's another post) with acrylics, keeping in mind the general hues I knew I'd want.
Drew the girl on tracing paper.
Re-drew, on tracing paper, each part of the girl that would be a separate piece of paper.
Traced each tracing-paper part onto the colored papers, keeping mind some idea of where I wanted certain colors. Then cut them out.
Aassembled the parts on the page, and glued them.
The flowers on the right I made from scraps. I tore that green bit that's like a swatch of grass across the bottom. At first I thought I like the white layer of paper that resulted from the tearing. Probably if I were doing it over, I'd get rid of it, but whatever. It's a sketchbook page, not a finished illustration.

And, so, voila: cut paper.
This is a technique that makes for useful practice if you like to do stuff with polymer clay, too. I'll definitely scatter these cut-paper spreads through this journal.

Oh, by the way, the headline on the upper left is not cut off on the page, only on the scan. Also, your eyes aren't going bad; I used PhotoShop to blur the journal entry, which contains notes to myself that are not inherently embarrassing, but not necessarily anything I want others reading.

No offense, 'cause you know I love you.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Subvert! Subvert!



As I mentioned in a previous post, I visited the theater recently to see the touring show of the popular Broadway musical "Ne#t To N0rmal."

What I didn't mention was that the company hired people to walk through the lobby and theater aisles with these big signs warning people that PHOTOGRAPHING THE SHOW WAS PROHIBITED.

This just makes someone like me want to take pictures. So while I didn't shoot the actors on stage, I did capture the excellent set before the show started. That's what you're looking at here.

Have you noticed the ubiquity of corporate attempts to lay claim on everything? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame even won some stupid copyright suit years ago, the result of which is that you supposedly can't go taking pictures of their I.M. Pei-designed building on the shores of Lake Erie and then sell them. Because after all their building is a trademark. And after all you didn't design the building. Or build it. So even if you can see it from a public place, and even if you frame the shot yourself, you're not allowed to print that photo and sell it because the Rock Hall must control all and earn every cent that can be earned by anyone if it has to do with itself.

Ditto for the NFL and the NBA and the Major League Baseball.
And, yes, even Big Theater.

So here's your picture of the set of that award-winning play. I'm glad I was able to show it to you.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bark Once for Yes



I am beginning to see how people become The Crazy Cat Lady or Those People With All the Dogs. I am starting to understand the allure of drowning oneself in animals, in no small part to avoid the complications of humanity.

A Mark Twain quote about dogs: Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Afternoon at the theater



I spent Saturday afternoon watching a touring show of the Broadway hit "Next to Normal" at Cleveland's Palace Theatre. You non-Clevelanders don't know what you're missing in not having seen the gorgeous vaudeville-era theaters that make up our city's Playhouse Square.

In any case, I did an installment of Sketchbook Cleveland on our adventure, and you can see the whole thing right here! The drawing above is a scene we passed before we sat in our luxury loge seats, which we'd won in a silent auction at a fundraiser. I'm not sure what each of our tickets would've cost at the box office, but I'm betting the cost of the four of them would've carried this lady through a couple weeks of living expenses.

Yet what do I really know about her?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Where It Comes From



Some things never get old.
Ice cream.
Driving fast with a great loud song on the stereo.
The thrill of seeing what comes out of us when someone hands us a creative problem to solve.

You know that one yourself, right? You at least remember, from childhood, what it was like to make a picture or a model or to invent a private language with a friend, and to be thrilled that your brain could produce something you hadn't even thought of a day or a week before.

When you go to school to study, say, art or illustration (as if they're two different things), you get more methodical about making things up. You understand more about how it works and how to control the making-up process, or at least the rendering process, which is good. But there's still a sense of "Huh. That came from me?"

OK, call it narcissism if you will. I suppose there's a little of that, but really I think the thrilling part derives from a sense that there's some mysterious Force that energizes everything. The thrill is this sense that you've had a nice long conversation with that Force, at a pitch only dogs can hear, and together you and the Force did a job.

With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to talk about the illustration up top, which I did to accompany this essay that was published today in the Plain Dealer. (Note: If you are reading from Sweden or Australia or New York City, you should know that the Plain Dealer is the metropolitan daily newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, where I worked as a writer and editor for 18 years before abandoning journalism to pursue a career more rocky and unstable than the one I had.)

I'd be pleased if you read the essay (and also if you said something nice in the comments, since the Cleveland.com comment section is often populated by the mean people who don't get enough fiber in their diets). But in any case, the issue was the loss of my nearby bookstore and the sense of community that went away with it. The piece is larger, though, in that it addresses community in general.

After I pitched it to the wonderful editorial-page women at the newspaper, they came back and asked if I felt like illustrating it. The answer to that question is always "Yes! I'd love to!"

So then I had to stop thinking like a writer and become someone illustrating someone else's essay. That mental distance allowed me to ask questions like "What are some of the distilled ideas or images in this piece?"

The first answer I came up with was, "Loss." The second was, "books." But the essay isn't really about books, per se, but about the bookstore as community. My brain kept ricocheting back to this feeling, a kind of somberness. So while part of my brain started coming up with stupid, generic book-related ideas that it also instantly started rejecting, another part of my brain was searching -- and this was the fun part -- in a really different direction. My boring brain was saying, "draw a book or books." But my smarter brain was saying, the piece should feel like something Edward Gorey would've drawn.

Now I wouldn't be completely honest if I didn't admit that between the time my brain started to think of dumb ideas and the time "Edward Gorey!" arrived, there was despair. You know this, too, right? You think -- whatever the assignment is -- I will never have another half-decent idea in my life. Never mind "good." Just half-decent. I'll never have another one.

I think thoughts like that are what people usually call writer's block. They start repeating that sentence and its variants over and over, which of course retards the gestation of the very half-decent idea for which they long.

Anyway, I had a little internal freak-out, but I think I broke it by asking myself something like, "Mood?" And then my brain responded, "Edward Gorey." Who, I should've said by now, you probably know, but if you don't you can learn about him right here.

Thinking "Edward Gorey" made me think happy thoughts about my brother Mark, who shares some of my admiration for Gorey's Gothic weirdness.

Once I got "Gorey," then I instantly pictured how a Gorey version of myself would be represented in the context of this essay: adrift in the water. And THEN I got out one of my Gorey illustrated books so I could examine more closely how he worked some of his great line stuff. And then, because I had no choice, I didn't quite do Gorey, but I did Gorey-as-done-by-Karen. Which is the right thing to do.

Is there a better illustration out there for this illustration? No doubt. And if you are an artist and you feel like illustrating it yourself, I'd happily publish it here. The point isn't "look at how brilliant this is." (Though I have to say I like it.)

No, the point is: ISN'T IT COOL HOW EVEN A MIDDLING BRAIN LIKE MINE STILL MAKES SOMETHING UP THAT DIDN'T EXIST BEFORE?!?

It is. That is the crack-cocaine of the whole creative-life thing, which is why doing creative stuff for work is such a double-edged sword. The harshness of commerce can use the very thing that thrills you to break your heart.

That is another essay altogether. And now that I think about it, that, too, sounds like something illustrated by Edward Gorey. So I'll think happier thoughts.

Now go make something.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

It's Good to Be Weird




From Pages 26 and 27 of "Weird? Me Too!"

Poet and artist Shel Silverstein had a way of remembering what the world looked like from a child's point of view. He remembered what seemed wonderful and scary and strange or incomprehensible.

Poet and writer Sara Holbrook has that gift, too, which is one reason I love her. And why I was so happy, two years ago, when she started talking to me about the possibility of illustrating the two poetry books for kids she was writing for Boyds Mills Press.

"Zombies! Evacuate the School!" was published this time last year.

"Weird? Me Too! Let's Be Friends" came in out April to coincide with National Poetry month. What I love about this book (which will appeal to anyone who even REMEMBERS school) is that it addresses the many and varied emotions around friendships. Then as now, friendships are sources of joy and comfort, but also of confusion and difficulty. Friendship, even in childhood, is like dancing. How well do you know the dance steps? How good are you at tuning into the other person's rhythms?

Artistically, by the way, "Weird" was more challenging than "Zombies" because so many of the poems were, at heart, about feelings. But we draw about things. That means finding metaphors, or face and body expressions that speak to those heart issues.

It was an honor and a pleasure to draw for Sara's words. And as you can see, I had a bit of fun.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

North Chagrin Again



Last weekend I visited my childhood stomping grounds at Huntington Beach for the latest installment of Sketchbook Cleveland at the wonderful online magazine OhioAuthority.
Anyway, I planned another nature hunt/sketch visit right away, and this one took me to my all-time-favorite east side park, North Chagrin Reservation. The place is one big drink of peacefulness, but in an ever-changing way. My time there earned me a wicked sunburn, but I'd say I was rewarded well enough.