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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Illustration Argument. Won.

As you can infer from the last post, art galleries are cool places to me. If I were smarter, I'd go to the Cleveland Museum of Art every single week, and look at maybe three artworks each time. I'd really study them, and think about them, and hear what they have to say. I would try not to read the wall labels till the art itself had said its peace.

Typically, what hangs in galleries is regarded as fine art. This is considered different from what I do (illustration) because fine art tends to be more "for art's sake," while illustration is often "for book's sake" or "for magazine article's sake" or "for advertising's sake."

Now, some fine-art snobs denigrate illustration, and I'm not going to get into why I think that's dumb. Let me just say that it's possible to love fine art and love illustration, and that great illustration is better than mediocre so-called fine art for turning people into art lovers. Indeed, illustration in children's literature is the first art many people are exposed to in their lives, and therefore might set a person up to be a lover of all kinds of art later in life.

I love illustration best when it does things that aren't easily done in real life, like Wile E. Coyote hanging in mid-air off the edge of a cliff. (I love it less, and sometimes not at all, when it looks like a drawing of a photograph.)

I love illustration when seams and roughness and peculiarities of perception are evident in the work itself. I love it when it's perfect and complex and highly rendered, but also when it's childlike and naive.

Finally, I love the democratic nature of illustration. It comes into our houses via cereal boxes and postcards and books and magazines. It doesn't ask us to wait till wine-and-cheese hour to spend time with it. It's self-assured enough to say "Look at me!" but humble enough to say "No cover charge!" And the best illustration, like the best fine art, doesn't yield everything on first glance. It rewards us for spending time with it.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Did Rembrandt Have a Cat (and Other Pressing Questions)

Having seen "Rembrandt in America," an exhibition from American collections, I have Rembrandt and art and mastery and non-mastery on the brain. There is so much to be struck by in the beauty of these portraits, and so much to notice. And (but?) like watching the Mozart biopic "Amadeus," which got me stuck on the existential tragedy of being Salieri (or so it would seem tragic), this exhibition has fixated me a bit on all the other artists who worked in R's time, in his studio, and whose fate -- despite a lifetime of dedication to their art -- is to now be dismissed with words such as "merely competent" in the show catalogue.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Learned In Art School ... And Elsewhere

I've been assembling this list for one reason and one reason only: So I can remember all the really important stuff that I've learned over the last few years. I share it here first and foremost because the items make me sound smart, and second because you might find them useful. No. Kidding. I'm sharing because I think they're important.

1. Make Work Daily. You'll improve faster. You'll remind yourself that this is what you want to do, and this is what you do.

2. Set Your Own Standards. Make them higher than the standards your mother sets for your work. Make them higher, even, than the client's, if you have a client.

3. Be Intentional. Be intentional about your projects and be intentional about how you use your time. This means not waiting for The Muse, whose watch has been broken since, like, 500 BC. You would not have to be intentional if time were limitless, but I have found that not to be true. This is disappointing, but it's what we have to work with.

4. Notice More; Judge Less. The noticing eye is open to seeing connections. The judging eye is a tiny little cataract-riddled thing.

5. Be Unreasonable (sometimes). Bobby Chiu's great book The Perfect Bait was my first encounter with this idea in a form that made sense to me. It means that if the only way to get better is to, say, rise at 5 a.m. and practice your scales or work on your rendering or write your book, and a little part of you says, "But 5 a.m. is an unreasonable hour!" then the correct response is, "Yes, it is unreasonable. And still, I will do it."

6. Be Interested in Something Outside Your Art. Be curious. Follow your curiosities. Become expert in something, or at least more expert than your friends. My friend Sarah has learned a lot about coal mines and poker. This makes her a better artist in many ways.

7. Travel. Sometimes that will mean, "Go to Paris!" Sometime that will mean, "Explore the parts of your city that scare you." Both are travel.

8. Don't Get Addicted to Comfort. If you get addicted, it means that comfort will always win. And comfort does not want you to get up at 5 a.m. to work on your book.

9. Give Safe Haven to Neither Self-Doubt nor Self-Pity. They are boring. They are forms of narcissism. They are forms of procrastination. Say hello to them politely, offer them a fake smile, then escort them directly out the back door, to the little wooden shack even your dog won't live in.

10. Choose worthy heroes.

11. Draw Your Material from Life. Art and artists resist absolute rules, but let's just say it tends to be a good idea to draw the owl's feathers because the owl feathers spoke to you in some way rather than because you saw a cool way to render owl feathers in someone else's illustration on It's better to write a short, clipped paragraph because it precisely conveys the mood of the meeting your characters have found themselves in than because you always liked Hemingway.

12. Respect the Dreaming Child. This is the part of you that wants to bound toward paper or canvas or computer to record your genius story or drawing or idea.

13. Respect the Dispassionate Grownup. This is the part that can stand back and assess what the Child has made, and offer helpful suggestions.

14. Always Keep Separate the Dreaming Child and the Dispassionate Grownup. Whenever they try to play together, they make a big mess. Force them to communicate by messenger pigeon.

15. Be Realistically Confident. Work from your strengths, whatever they are. In the beginning of a project (or a career), your strength might be your enthusiasm and ideas, or your mastery of a particular technique.

16. Expand Your Skills. Confidence cannot be given to you like some "participation award" for showing up to soccer practice. You get it by getting better; then by getting good; then by excelling.

17. Make the Stuff Only You Would Make. Not because there's any real sin in being "derivative," as the music critics like to sneer, but because you're just here on Earth for a little while. So record you, not them.

18. Be Grateful.

19. Study the Work of Others Like a Pro. This means noticing techniques, influences, the way the artist has solved certain problems, the finesse with which he or she has employed detail. Admire it. Scrutinize it. Accept inspiration from it, if it comes.

20. Resist, Like a Pro, the Temptation to Compare Yourself to Others. Such comparisons encourage Self-Doubt and Self-Pity to ring your doorbell.

21. Thank the Universe for Making You An Artist. Even though art and writing and music are hard, you are privileged to have the kind of spirit that wants to do this. So say "thank you." Say it every day.

22. There Is Always Another Way. Successful artists are about experimenting, improvising, duct-taping and work-arounds. If you think you've said something in the ONLY WAY IT CAN BE SAID, that doesn't necessarily make you elite. It might just mean you're thinking too small.

23. Fill Up on the The Wisdom of Youth. Most of my life, I revered people older than me for what they seemed to know, and for what they could teach me. Going to art school with (at first) teenagers — young enough to be my own kids — taught me that smart starts early. I learned to respect them for all they knew and all they had taught themselves, and each other. Did they have it all together? No. But neither do I. Youth + Experience is a magical potion, no matter what side of the equation you're on.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sshhhh! I'm Trying to Draw — Er, Hear!

Live musical performances are, for the most part, much more enjoyable for me if I can draw while I listen. Possible exceptions to the rule: David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and other highly visual performers, whose every move I'd want to watch. But when it's just guys and gals playing instruments or singing, well ... my eyes need an assignment. So I draw when I can. Such was the case Saturday night at the final performance of the season for the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, which would've been completely enjoyable except for the young woman and her date seated next to me. They talked through the entire first half of the show. Over the music. Mostly, she was the loudmouth, but he responded to her incessant questions and comments. She shut up only long enough to take her phone out of her purse every 30 seconds and check email and second text-messages. Somehow she failed to notice that, unlike at rock concerts, where people regularly (and still infuriatingly, if you ask me) carry on loud conversations, everyone else in the Ohio Theatre was actually listening to the music. I fumed silently. Why? Because I reasoned that a person who is rude enough to do this is also rude enough to ignore a polite request to shush up. I reasoned that any request on my part would mean only that the hostility that I held alone would simply be doubled, and she would continue to talk and to read her texts. At intermission, we moved. Though we heard from seatmates that eventually she was asked to put away her phone, and that the two of them left midway through the second half. All of which is to say that it's amazing the whimsical bird on this page does not look angrier. What do you do in situations like this? What should I have done?

Sunday, May 06, 2012

BFA Thesis Show at Cleveland Institute of Art

Hey, heads up! If you're in the Cleveland area, come see my thesis presentation — and artwork by more than 100 grads of the CIA class of 2012 — this coming Friday, May 11, from 7 to 11 p.m. Those are the public reception hours. The exhibition takes place at CIA's Joseph McCullough Center, 11610 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. You can catch a glimpse of the three-chapter appetizer of my book, "Thick Through the Middle," and buy me a (free) cup of wine. Or I'll buy for you. Be there or be square!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012