The (Virtual) Struggle is Real

This morning I once again deleted the facebook app off of my ipad. To get back into facebook, I will need to re-load the app and find my impossible-to-remember password buried in my planner. If you’re familiar with Frog and Toad are Friends, this is the social media equivalent of boxing up the cookies, wrapping the box with string and putting it up on a shelf where it’s hard to reach (there is a lot of life-wisdom to be found in Frog and Toad are Friends). I have not yet fed the metaphorical cookies to the birds (spoiler alert!), but it does prevent me from casually tapping this app open when I’m bored or seeking a distraction.

I don’t keep the facebook app on my phone anymore. I don’t have it set up to give me updates every time something happens in facebookland. I waver in and out of the rhythm of only checking it on weekends. I don’t even feel like I post stuff very often, maybe once a week? It probably varies… The point is, in spite of my efforts at restraint, I do tumble down the rabbit hole of arguing with people I don’t know or simply scrolling through, getting snagged on click-bait headlines and feel-good videos more often than I’d like.

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This angers me because I feel manipulated. Lots of smart people have invested a lot in making this site very good at getting and holding my attention. There are so many lovely things to do when one is lying around doing nothing, and I spend these precious minutes self-righteously clapping back at other people’s conservative relatives or reading lists of crazy things that happen to drive through workers. Sweaters go un-knit, paths un-walked, drawing paper blank, and my cat knows zero cute tricks…

The obvious question is, why not feed these cookies to the birds?

Aside from it being a really easy way to stay in touch with family and friends and stay in the loop for events in my area, social media has morphed into the ONE AND ONLY WAY to gain any sort of following as an artist. At least that’s how it seems. Whenever I think to myself, “I mean it this time- I’m quitting facebook!” another voice pops into my head saying, “and… then what? You’ll recruit participants for your MOD project… how? You’ll get the word out about shows… how? The last three things you applied for came in through the facebook network, you know…”  And thus, the cookies wait for me in their box.

I have friends who don’t rely on social media all that much to run their small businesses. The thing is, I don’t know any artists in this category- at least not ones who make their living with art. Social media is the “location location location” of the digital world. This is partly because it makes physical location much less relevant. Conventional wisdom dictates that I need to move to New York, Los Angeles or (at the very least) Chicago if I am to have any chances at a successful art career. Not the northern edge of my beloved Michigan.

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A lifetime of experience being me has taught me that I am a country mouse and do not like living in cities. There are cities I love and they are fun to visit, but after too long I get a little suffocated by them. Social media gives me access (at least potentially) to the attention of a city without having to make my home there. Which is a powerful breed of freedom.

The thing is, in addition to what it does to my time, working with social media platforms means learning a market that is rapidly evolving. It’s a lot like learning to ride a bike, learning how the bike works and discovering where a bike can take you all at once. In the “location location location” sense of the digital landscape, my storefront site is more like a farmstand in the boonies than an artsy boutique, but I’m the hopeful farmer dreaming about how to get my wares to a farmers market… or maybe start a food truck… or supply to posh restaurants… Because I know I should share what I’ve created, and I know where to find hungry people.

Circling back to the Frog and Toads’ struggle with the cookies earlier- maybe I’ve been mindlessly eating the cookies when the real answer is to focus on bringing something fresh to the table.

Tiny Nomadic Studio

I know I write a lot about the thinking parts of art, but here’s a peek into the nuts and bolts of my practice. If you’re semi-nomadic like me, having a nomadic studio can help a great deal.

Drawing, ideally, is an extremely simple practice when it comes to supplies. Something to mark with and something to mark on are arguably the only supplies one needs. It’s like running is to the fitness world- and some runners argue that you don’t even need shoes. However, when most people begin these practices they discover they do have preferences and particularities in their practice- things they need. For example, I do indeed want shoes to run in! I also want socks, a sports bra, a not-too-bulky shirt, shorts that won’t ride up, SPF 50 sun block, a solid hair-tie and a snug pocket to store my house key and phone in. And this is perhaps the simplest of fitness activities. In the same way, I have preferences for my drawing and other art materials and tools.

As a general rule, art supplies and tools are a combination of figuring out hacks and getting what you pay for. All of these are based on the needs of the individual and what’s affordable. In pre-assembled kits, products are often selected to offer variety or the completeness of a set, and keep cost of the kit down. Or, if the supplies are high quality, the kit is likely to be expensive.

For starters, I don’t mind kits at all. Kits can be a great way to try something out, but usually they’re just the beginning. As an artist develops, materials get used up and replaced, tools get upgraded. Some items in an initial kit may be devoured while others are never unwrapped. This is because they’re designed for a generic artist- which hardly exists, even in the very beginning of one’s creative life. As soon as exploration begins, so does the individuation that results in the uneven usage of kits.

For me, 2018 has been the year of the never ending move. I won’t get into the nitty gritty, but the point is I’ve been in the process of selecting my materials and supplies back down to my own personalized “kit”. Like many artists, I have a lot of stuff. I had to pack up 99% of my studio for the move, but since I knew I’d be in flux long enough to want a little more than just my sketchbook, I’ve assembled a little nomadic studio. Whatever I chose had to include enough stuff to scratch my maker’s-itch and also be nimble enough to bounce from home base to staying with friends and family to camping- and all of these on repeat. I don’t want to compromise on my practice more than necessary, but a stationary studio lies somewhere in the future.

So, what do I want to work with? What scale can I work at? What travels well? What can I pack all my supplies into that won’t be too bulky or crushed during travel? Depending on what I pack it all in- what physically fits? What is sturdy enough not to be damaged or broken? This is an ongoing, puzzle-like process.

Walnut Shells for a project in the works.

Here’s the current inventory-

  • Brushes and a pen in my bamboo brush roll-up. These are ink, watercolor brushes, and a crappy old brush I used for masking fluid.
  • Envelope of extra pen nibs
  • Two ceramic watercolor palette dishes
  • Adorable Windsor & Newton travel kit of pan watercolors
  • Set of Royal Talons Van Gogh watercolors in tubes (supplemented with Windsor & Newton Colman watercolors where mine have dried out)
  • Set of 24 Koh-I-Noor Hardmuth woodless colored pencils
  • Windsor & Newton masking fluid for watercolors
  • Higgins ink in blue, red and black
  • Two empty Talenti sorbetto containers, for water
  • Washcloth to dry brushes with
  • Pad of Strathmore watercolor paper 6”x9”
  • Pad of Strathmore watercolor postcards
  • Pouch of drawing supplies (pencils, Micron pens, china markers, erasers… Maybe my drawing pouch calls for it’s own write up?)
  • Sewing kit I put together out of sewing tools I like that lives inside an eyeglasses case
  • Moleskine accordion sketchbook
  • Staedtler pencil sharpener
  • 14 walnut shells from the barn
  • Two packages of loose tea from a friend
  • Two thin boards, stack of random drawing paper all held together with elastic straps

There are a few items I’d like to draw attention to…

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Bamboo Brush Roll-up.

First is the bamboo brush roll-up. This brush roll-up allows for air flow while protecting my brushes- both are important while traveling, there’s not always leisurely drying time and often no chance of stationary storage. I’ve used fabric roll-ups and plastic canisters for brush storage and I always get worried about them trapping moisture or mashing bristles. I think acrylic/oil brushes can handle a little more bristle contact than watercolor and ink brushes, but since watercolor/ink is my primary media, this is my preferred storage. Brushes aren’t cheap, yo! And if you do have cheap brushes that you like, you have to take super care of them because cheap brushes fall apart more quickly!

Second is the Talenti Sorbetto containers. What you need to know first is that Talenti makes excellent gelato and sorbetto, so you should just pick some up for the sheer pleasure of eating it. Or you can call it art supplies acquisition. I’m very picky about water vessels for watercolor painting. I want two of them, at least a pint in volume (hey Talenti, if you want to make a quart sized option… wink wink….), clear and wide at the mouth. One is for rinsing brushes and the other is for loading with clean water. Usually I use glass spaghetti sauce, pickle jars, or canning jars (as a general rule, do not use anything you’d eat or drink out of for this purpose). For my travel kit I wanted to meet these requirements with something plastic that wouldn’t break and had tight fitting lids. Talenti containers hit all of these marks.

Trusty old Staedtler pencil sharpener.

The third item is my Staedtler pencil sharpener. It’s one of those self-contained pencil sharpeners that keeps the shavings stored until you dump them and has ports for both graphite and colored pencils (the difference being the angle of the trim). A friend gave me this pencil sharpener years ago, declaring it to be the BEST PENCIL SHARPENER EVER- and she wasn’t kidding. It quickly sharpens pencils to a tip you could stab someone with and hardly ever breaks the end of a lead off (this happens once in a great while with colored pencils). I don’t know what gives it theses qualities or how it’s lasted so long, but I feel that when a humble pencil sharpener demands that you notice what a good job it’s doing it warrants passing that information on.

The most useless things in my kit are my blue and red Higgins ink. Have I ever used these? How did I get them in the first place? I think they are among those awkward items one can imagine uses for, but the interest in experimenting never quite hits that critical mass point, so they may get packed or given away.

The only items I use often but would like to swap out are my dear little ceramic watercolor/ink palettes. They are very cute and nice to use, but they clack against each other in the basket and aren’t able to save colors for future sessions (yeah, you can let paint dry in them and re-mix it, but I don’t always have time to allow for total drying before I pack up and some of the paints don’t re-mix well). My usual studio palette is plastic with lots of little wells surrounding four larger mixing areas and has a lid that can be used for even more mixing and for saving colors for later (not indefinitely, but for a few sessions). It is way too large to travel with, but if I could find a similar one that fit and would hold up to travel I’d pack up my ceramic palettes.

While I’m on the topic of editing- I should probably get those two little tea pouches out of the basket and put them somewhere more sensical… And swap out my walnut shells for ones I haven’t drawn already…

One thing I’d like to add to the kit would be a little hair dryer. Like a lot of watercolor artists, I struggle with waiting for paint and paper to dry. The really good painters simply wait and talk endearingly about the depth of pigment that develops over the drying process. Most of the rest of us ordinary mortals use a hair dryer. I bet a portable mini-fan would work well enough- although a cordless, rechargeable, mini-hair dryer would be ideal.

It doesn’t have to be super tidy as long as it works.

The whole thing is carried around in a small picnic basket. Picnic baskets have the advantage of being solid enough to protect the contents, maintain an upright orientation and the wooden lid can be used as a wee table on which work. And they’re adorable. So far I’ve been pretty satisfied with my set-up and have been traveling with it and working out of it while home. My hope is that in being forced to work small and with limited materials for a while, I can practice focusing in limited media and also develop ideas on a smaller and lower-stakes scale so I’m ready for more space once the time comes.

Bamboo in Black and Red

I read a story recently where a zen master was painting bamboo with red ink. One of his students told him that was stupid because bamboo isn’t red. To which the master replied, “Oh, right- because bamboo is black?”

This made me laugh because of a similar realization I had as a child. I remember riding in the car, thinking about drawings I had seen- illustrations in books, animations, etc. These drawings all had black lines bordering the shapes and defining key elements. Part of my curiosity was that I couldn’t figure out how black lines shifted as positions changed- as in, the lines that look like such a physical reality in drawings would have to be in near constant motion if they were really bordering all solid things or defining facial expressions, wrinkles, dimples and other surface details. So I was looking around for black lines bordering things.

I remember clearly holding my hand up against the window looking at the edge between my hand and the sky. I was trying to make out the black line, and I think I sincerely thought I would find one if I looked hard enough. I remember looking at the creases of my knuckles, because those often get black lines too in illustrations of hands. The interior of the car was black, and so there were places deep in the shadowed creases where elements joined that were basically black lines, but that didn’t seem to quite count since the base color was black- and even then the light shining on it meant it wasn’t all the same black… I went back to examining my hand against the sky in the background.

I finally had to admit that I could see my hand and the sky behind it was simply where my hand, well, wasn’t. I couldn’t make out a black line. It just was my hand. And what made it my hand was all the hand-characteristics of color, shape, texture, etc. What made the sky behind it sky was the sky-characteristics of color, texture, shape, etc.

Interestingly, this was a hard reality for my little brain to accept and I concentrated on the edge- the very edge of my hand against the blue. I remember feeling a little duped by drawings. If the black lines weren’t real, what were they? It seemed more likely they didn’t exist outside of drawings, this made sense. However, I reasoned that to really draw a hand, one must draw all the “inside parts” of the hand- the fine lines of the skin and the subtle shifts of value. I was probably five years old and this was a daunting discovery.

I wish I had some of my very young drawings to see if I can spot evidence of this thinking in them. I don’t believe I’m the only kid who’s made this discovery, or at least a version of it. Children’s drawings are strange and idiosyncratic because they lack motor skills and a set of symbols, so there’s a rawness to the translation of the visual1. For example, one of my brothers would draw human eyes as though they were gigantic bicycle wheels with elaborate spokes out from the hub of the pupil. What he was looking at was the iris of the eye- the radial colors, peaks and valleys. My untestable hypothesis is that, along my same lines of thinking, he had questioned the “eyes are black dots or white circles with black dots inside” that he was seeing in illustrations and cartoons. He was looking carefully, deeply, deliberately at eyes. I remember him looking very carefully at mine. The drawings are, of course, very strange, but I can’t say that they don’t look like “real” eyes. Why wouldn’t they? Because eyes are just black dots, the zen master would wryly say?

Years later I was taught to draw by bringing values up to the edges of things, letting the contrast of value and mark suggest lines. There are a number of exercises dealing with this- using large flat pieces of charcoal, lifting graphite or charcoal off paper with an eraser, filling in negative space with flat values. It’s a strangely unsteady way to draw, especially if one works without the help of lightly sketched lines that define the borders of things. Lines are fine, but I’ve begun to think of them as a sort of language in drawing. In the same way thoughts can be expressed with many human languages, there are many methods of mark-making that translate the visual, and lines are one of these. They are not what we see, they describe what we see. They are visual words that point to the meaning.

In the case of drawing something, one is interacting with the subject primarily with one sense- sight. As with many things, we can be very unaware that our experience of reality is shaped by filters we have in our minds, like the black lines of a drawing one doesn’t find when looking at one’s own hand.

So, how does one draw without mark making? Or maybe stretch this question- does one, should one, could one draw without mark making?2 I don’t know and, although it’s fun to think about, it’s not currently relevant. The thing is, we live here in this body and with these senses translating information into our minds and our constructed meanings back out. The meanings we build in the act of drawing describe our experience of reality. Or maybe they translate in marks the translation of information filtered through our senses. Don’t be fooled that this somehow inherently negates the meaning. Take a closer look at what meaning is. Being in the space with the subject, seeing it as accurately as possible with as few extra layers as possible, this is what builds connection and deep listening. Which, at least to me, feels meaningful. Use lines, values, shapes and marks to point at your experience, but understand that the bamboo is neither black nor red.

1 Caveat: there is a lot going on in children’s drawings related to much more than simply visually processing. I claim no expertise in child development, just sharing what I’ve observed and how it relates to my thinking on drawing in general.

2 There are artists playing with this idea if you’d like to see someone drawing without mark making. I’m working with a deliberately small definition of drawing to keep this discussion from sprawling too far.

12 Failures

I know it’s late March and around this time New Year’s Resolutions are getting dropped, but I wanted to share one of mine that I’m still plugging away at.

First, I’m excited to share my thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions and fresh starts in general. I love New Years. I love cracking open a fresh planner. I love color coding my calendar. I love mapping out the steps to a new me. A better me. A bigger, stronger, faster, smarter me. I. Love. New Years.

I come up with a list of resolutions as long as my arm and sincere as my dog- and my dog is made of rock solid hope and enthusiasm. Thus, I leap into the new year with gusto, tossing my hat jauntily into the grey cold of winter like Mary Tyler Moore, armed with a handful of highlighters and that fresh planner I mentioned earlier.

I know the statistics, and I follow typical patterns of burnout and failure like many people do. I have made my peace with this. My attitude is that if I enjoy the fun of imagining my improved self, where’s the harm in that? And besides, if I drop my resolutions after a few months, that’s a few months of progress I made, right? For an easy and popular example, if I aim for a 90% improvement in my eating habits and achieve only 15%, that’s still a 15% win. And if I embrace the fun of beginning improvements like this, those 15% gains will stack over time. With this attitude- if I may brag a little- I can now do a full on handstand for a few seconds at a time. It’s not the most amazing feat of acrobatics you’ve ever seen, but it is better than my awkward, flailing kick-ups against the wall that I started with last year.

This year I’m taking a different approach, I’m going to try to fail twelve times. I was reading about how John Grisham had his manuscript for the Pelican Brief rejected 64 times (or some crazy, soul-crushing number like that) by publishers before it was finally accepted and he became a famous author. That’s a lot of rejections. I’ve heard these sorts of numbers before and always thought of these sorts of efforts as pretty badass. I value perseverance, but in my life this has often meant perseverance in a defensive way- staying the course on one’s commitments in spite of setbacks and duress. The persistence it takes to have a manuscript rejected 64 times seems much more proactive. Thinking this over has lead to the realization that no one is fighting me in my efforts, and thus my efforts must be proactive in nature in order to succeed.

The thing about being an artist, is that although I feel that art is incredibly valuable to the world, the nature of making that which is not in existence is that no one misses it if it doesn’t happen because they don’t know it’s an option. Another way of saying this is that there’s no awareness of a loss of something that never existed in the first place. No one would ever know they were missing out on the writings of John Grisham had he given up his efforts to publish. In musing on this, maybe it’s time for me to become a little more badass.

 

The parameters of this exercise are as follows:

  1. Each month I will apply for things. This includes shows, competitions, residencies, commissions, grants, asking to use spaces/times/audiences for workshops (this one is very mindfulness-drawing project specific), etc.
  2. If I get accepted, I can celebrate and then refocus on meeting my rejections goal! I get to participate and get another notch in my working artist belt.
  3. If I get rejected I can celebrate a fresh star on the failure tracker I drew on the front of my planner.

 

Therefore, as I’m accepted to things, I need to keep applying for things because my highest goal is to fill up that failure tracker. Also, if I get accepted too much, it means I will need to set my sights higher in order to reach my goal. I suppose conversely, if I get rejected too much I can use that information to calibrate my submission efforts.

The goal is to turn rejections into a sense of progress. Although many of these opportunities I’ll be trying for are a zero-sum game (I will either be accepted or not accepted) my artistic life as a whole is not. At the end of 2018, I will have progressed to a certain degree- this is a given because I am always progressing- but whether or not I was able to participate in the larger community will be determined by how much try to participate in it. Another idea I tell myself is that the entities to which I’m applying won’t (usually) know where my own level of confidence about my request is at. My work will or will not be a good fit for the opportunity and I will be selected/not selected on that basis.

So now we’re at the end of March, and I’ve managed to make some progress on getting rejected. I keep tossing my Mary Tyler Moore hat into the air still and looking over residency applications. I have only one rejection tallied on the tracker so far (a residency), and a new piece in a show in Buffalo, NY, and another application in limbo- waiting on acceptance or rejection in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I have work to do.   

You Just Lost the Game

If you’re a millennial, like my brother, you’re cursing my name right now. For the rest of us who need the game explained, I’d be delighted to help you lose it.

The rules of the game are:

  1. If you are aware of the game, you are playing the game.
  2. Don’t think about the game.
  3. If you do think about the game, you have just lost the game.
  4. If you lose the game, you are required to announce it.

 

That’s it. My brother explained it to me and it sounds like a millennial version of “cooties”. In crowds of his friends, someone would say “I just lost the game” and every one would groan and the cascade of “I just lost the game” would roll around, with the phrase popping up to everyone’s annoyance for the rest of the day. It seemed ridiculously silly to me at first. However, since I’ve been digging into all this mindfulness stuff, I’ve been losing the game like crazy. It’s become really interesting to me, because it’s sort of a mindfulness game.

To play the game, one must be aware of their thoughts and let this one go- the goal is to dismiss it quickly as soon as it surfaces. Are you winning or losing? It does not matter- evaluating how you’re doing in the game will not help you. As soon as you congratulate yourself on your long stretch of game-winning, you’ve lost it and the clock resets.

Why dismiss a thought? Because, in this case, you lose a dumb game. But, applying that to other areas of your life this exercise could be useful.

For me personally, I’m in the middle of a big life-transition (moving, developing this project, looking at my art practice as a whole, not sure what the future will bring) and I’m very aware of my fears moving forward. The thing about thoughts is, they feel so very real. Our minds are very motivated to be right and very good at offering evidence to support these notions.

I’ll give you an example of one I grapple with. I think that real artists have a consistent style and medium in which they work. Real artists can summarize their practice with clarity. Because I fit neither of these, I’m amateur. A half-baked poser, and I can provide plenty of evidence to support this claim.

For some people, maybe this sort of thinking would motivate them to get their act together, but for me it doesn’t work that way. Although I understand the value of clarity and consistency, my efforts to establish legitimacy as an artist against such a measure gives all my work a stiff quality. I can tell which pieces of art I’ve made while this reality looms in my mind. They’re usually one-off’s and they’re usually not very good. When I believe this thought, I feel like either I have to fit the shape-shifting peg of my work into a square as consistent as an instagram pic, or lament it as underdone and unworthy.

Anyways- enough about me and my crippling insecurities when it comes to my creative practice- lets get back to the game. I’ve been trying to “game” this thought- the idea that real artists are consistent. I try to dismiss it as soon as it surfaces.

In the game, you “catch and release” thinking about the game. This is somewhat simple because there’s not much to think about with the game. There is a big difference between the game and other habitual thoughts, but I think it’s good practice. I get a deluge of supporting evidence to raise that tide of insecurity and discouragement with my nagging thoughts about what real artists do or don’t do. If I can “gamify” this thought, I can recognize the thought when it arrives, and the supporting arguments flowing in with it. Sometimes, I can metaphorically cross my fingers (the tried and true guard against cooties) and let it pass over me. Sometimes I just brace for the hit, accept that I’m going to get mentally and emotionally rocked, and try my best to keep my footing.

The thing is, the game and my real artists idea are thoughts and will pass with or without my help. What I have control over is what I decide to do with them. Sometimes I decide to embrace my slug-nature, hide under some rotting bark, apply some empathy and take some rest. Other times I’m better at cheering myself on and digging back into my work.  The clever part is, if I’m making work and moving forward, no one ever need know I’m playing this game. Either way, I can tally it up as a loss, maybe congratulate myself on a long stretch of oblivion, announce the real artists thought for what it is and reset the clock.

 

My Mind and My Skull

I’ve been working on developing a method- something repeatable and hopefully explainable- of mindfully drawing as a meditative practice. To this end (“end”- ha!) I’ve been drawing almost every morning for at least a half an hour for the past few months. I’ll flesh out how I’m understanding some of these terms before I try to relate my experience.

Mindfulness– A mental state of observing the present without judgement, prediction, attachment to future outcomes or analysis of the past. This includes observing one’s thoughts and feelings as they happen. Notice, but don’t pursue. See the thought or feeling for what it is- a passing state. Yes, it’s real but it’s not permanent and one can be deliberate about level of involvement. With physical surroundings and sensations; again- notice, but don’t judge.

Meditation– This term refers to a lot of things the way “exercise” can mean a lot of things. Exercise can mean weight lifting, yoga, dance, running, boxing, et cetera. Meditation can mean anything from listening to a relaxing audio track while you fall asleep to trying to levitate or astrally project your consciousness out of your body. It can get pretty fancy. For my purposes, meditation means a special time set aside to practice being in a mindful state.

Drawing– This is also a huge hugeHUGE category. If you start trying to box this term in, it will defy you at every boundary you set- which is very exciting. The flip side is that most fruitful practices come with design constraints. With that in mind, I present my (evolving) constraints in place of a definition of “drawing”. I am drawing from visual observation, on paper, with a pencil or a pen. I am not using an eraser at any point. I am not using any tools to aid my seeing (for example, a sighting stick) and trying not to use techniques I learned to represent shapes/volumes/values/etc. This last part- not using techniques- is probably the most difficult part, but I also think it’s what makes this a mindfulness practice.

Now that I know what I’m doing (ha!), I’m ready to draw.

I get up pretty early, stumble down the stairs with bleary eyes and swat my hands in the direction of coffee… You don’t need to know the whole routine, just understand that once I’ve got some coffee, breakfast and morning news in me, I’m ready to draw. I pick a subject- today it’s an animal skull- and get my sketchbook, pens, pencil, and my phone. I use an app called “Insight Timer” to time my drawing. It’s handy, but any timer or method of timing will do. I set the timer for a half an hour and begin.

First, I take a few breaths with my eyes closed, sitting upright, feet flat on the floor, hands still. I try to pay attention to my breath using a little mental checklist. Nose, face, jaw, throat, shoulders, ribs, belly. I try to follow my breath past each of these. (If you look into mindfulness or meditation at all- “breathe breathe breathe breathe breathe….”) I listen to my quiet house. I try to ignore my cat.

I open my eyes and look at my object. I have to stop myself from picking up my pencil and starting to hash out the shape. This is part of resisting my training. When I’m not mindfully drawing- when I’m drawing to WIN!- I start with light lines and ovals. I try to get relative shape mapped out, length versus width, angles and relationships, etc. In my trained-drawing, I’d also start hitting areas of deepest value and locating highlights- just a gentle shade to begin with. But no! This precious time is for mindfully drawing, so I need to resist! I simply don’t touch my pencil for a while. I look at my object, really look. I try to listen with my eyes to see.

This is tricky with ambiguous objects. The skull I chose has been damaged- part of the front of it is broken away. The jaws are intact, as is the back dome of the skull and most of the eye sockets, but the area that would be the bridge of the nose up to the space between the eyes is missing and the spongy, lacy sinus cavities are exposed. This is a tough area to look at and see because there aren’t any clear lines or clear areas of value or shape. This is where letting go of prediction and evaluation are important, I have to loosen my grip on my desire for a clear line, shape, value and just trust my eye on this rocky terrain.

I pick up my pencil and start somewhere “easier”, the bottom of the jaw. I draw a line slowly slowly slowly… Following the outside of the skull. I try not to look at my drawing too much and move slowly. The goal is to sync my hand up with my eye. When I’m doing this well, it’s like my sight, the focus of my vision is the point of the pencil touching the shape itself. The pace is the same, the rises, falls, turns and arcs line up with where my eye is. It’s like a mime caught in an invisible box, my pencil on the paper must trace the boundary, make a reality in the blank space of the page- treating where my eye/sight touches as solid reality for my hand. It brings me into the present with the skull. I have a skull and teeth and a lattice of sinus cavities too, and I will die, rot and break someday as well. But to be honest, I don’t really think about that very clearly. I try to just listen with my eyes, touch it with my sight, say it with my hand.

And I am trying my best. I really am. But at the same time my to-do list pops up in my head, chunks of songs or movies run around, the mound of dirty dishes chatters at me, my cat climbs into my lap and insists on being petted. (She used to get fed in the mornings as well as at night. We’ve switched to just feeding her at night, but she’s hopeful and keeps fighting the good fight.)

And, honestly, I think about you. A lot. As I watch myself draw, I narrate to you. Sometimes you’re a loving friend with whom I can relax and share my excitement and sincerity with, but then you morph into someone I admire and am intimidated by. Sometimes you’re an attractive and cool stranger and I can’t read your reactions and spend my time wondering if my outfit is too wonky or shabby. (The outfit I’m wearing is in the future in my head too.) Sometimes you think this is all really cool, but you don’t know me very well and I’m scared you’ll find out what a dork I actually am. Sometimes you do know me well and have watched me fail over and over again in the past- you both love and remind me. Sometimes you tell me this is a silly, gimmicky, cliche, and an indulgent waste of time. Sometimes you ask me why I think I’m qualified to try to develop this into a practice, writings, workshops…

I rehearse your praise and rejection, as though bracing for it now will somehow lessen the blow when it finally lands. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. It’s bad enough just drawing with the knowledge of an audience on the other side- and I am good at drawing- but thinking over explaining, even trying to guide a practice- you, dear audience, you loom. 

To assert some space, there’s something I need to say to you. When I see and hear your reactions to my efforts, I feel annoyed because I need freedom within my own set aside time to develop this practice both for my own good and in hopes of sharing it with my larger community. I need this time alone with myself to explore this by myself. There will be time in the future for you to give me feedback. Would you be willing to wait outside until I’m ready to give you my attention?

I finally get you to back off and give me some space. I notice my drawing is coming out pretty well and pat myself on the back for drawing good. Then I notice myself patting myself on the back and notice that I just judged that. Which I’m not supposed to do. But then I notice myself judging myself judging. I am an excellent noticer. Which is also a judgement. Crap.

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I set my pen down (I’ve moved onto pen), sit up, put my feet flat on the floor, and close my eyes again. I go through my breathing again. I pat myself on the back for remembering to breathe and reset my posture. I notice this judgement, judge the judgement, notice the judging of the judgement, mentally flip off the part of my mind that is monitoring this, open my eyes and look at the skull.

The little skull, that’s the important thing. The skull and it’s cast shadow which I haven’t drawn yet because I find cast shadows boring and difficult. But the cast shadow cannot be divided from the skull. It grounds it on the table where my paper is resting, where my hand is moving in harmony with my eye that I refocus on the skull. I remind myself to relax my hand. The universe can be extrapolated from a piece of sponge cake (any other Hitchhiker’s fans out there?)…

Next, the inside of the skull’s former mouth- I can see the lower jaw receding and the points of the upper teeth just poking out below the side that’s closer to me. I’m very tempted to block the shape in as a long, jagged rectangle with my pencil and then chip the details out of that. But that is my training, and I resist. I step off onto the white of the paper with my pen and follow the little wedges and ridges and how the bone molds around the roots of the teeth…

I’m singing to myself in my head and try to guide it- gently this time- back to the skull…

The little pit where the lower jaw joins the skull…

The way the cast shadow and the lower back corner of the dome are almost indistinguishable, they are so close in value… It is tempting to insert information that I can’t see….

And there you are again, audience, as I start explaining this little ambiguous corner. I begin counting the pencils and pens you will need. I try to look away from you again and watch the lines and shades…

The shade in the eye socket…

That dark pit just below the eye… and the other tiny ones towards the front of the lower jaw….

Eventually the timer winds down and dings it’s little ding. But I don’t stop drawing right away, I want to finish it (whatever that means). I keep drawing, but in only a few minutes my to-do list, the dishes, the cat will all get my attention and I let them retain it this time. I either relax, or relax out of relaxing. It’s hard to tell which. I breathe and rub my face. My eyes turn back into my eyes, the skull turns back into a skull, and I break our connection to the table when I pick it up and stand up.

Usually I take a few notes in my sketchbook, but today I wrote this.

I should go do the dishes now.  

I Want to Teach you to Draw

Glen was the first man to strip naked for me to draw him. He was very casual about the whole thing, chatting as he struck poses. He’d clearly done a lot of life modeling and understood how to give the whole room something interesting. In one of our first sessions, he got cheeky and struck a jaunty hitchhiker pose. He brought a lot of levity to a room full of mostly awkward young adults.

Our other male model- whose name I can’t remember- was silent, slender, tall and almost always had a 40%-60% erection he seemed very self conscious of. I don’t remember much about him other than how tense he seemed compared to the Glen who posed like a cat enjoying a sunny window.

My favorite woman to draw was Belinda. She was easily in her 80’s and didn’t speak a great deal of english. She was so beautiful. Her sagging breasts and belly pulled and wrinkled the skin along her bony hips and shoulders like withering drapes. I would sink into the charcoal, tracing the uneven descent of her hips, the lines of her body were very in sync with my natural stride in drawing.

The other woman who modeled for us was a much younger, strong, athletic woman with an even tan, carefully shaved pubic hair and prominent- and, I believe, artificial- breasts. Her breasts were so aggressive we all avoided them until one day our teacher had her simply sit in a chair and told us all to draw her from the breasts up. I look back at her and think how she sort of defied being naked. So much of her, even with no clothes on, seemed like it anticipated presentation.

I got good at drawing in that class, but that wasn’t the biggest lesson for me. I know I’m not alone in this, but life drawing guided me into seeing humans as beautiful. Because the word beauty is so closely linked to aesthetic enjoyment, I have often fumbled explaining this and have usually said “I find I can’t see anyone as ugly anymore, not if I really look at them”. I use the word beautiful here because I feel it’s more accurate to my experience.

It’s not always an experience of aesthetic enjoyment or conventional attraction, more of a feeling of curiosity that grows into marveling that blooms into awe the more closely I look. So I love people’s bodies now. Fat, thin, scarred, flabby, muscular, freckled, hairy… I was guided in giving bodies careful, non-judgemental attention in order to draw them and have found that exercise makes them shine, makes them beautiful. The closer my drawing was to representing what I actually saw- no flattery, no avoidance- the more beautiful my drawings became. I know it’s a quasi-mystical idea, but I do believe that sincere attention- sincere listening, sincere seeing– makes people beautiful. My drawing practice over the years has fostered this attitude in me towards other things as well- plants, animals, landscapes, building, household objects- anything, really. And I think it’s good for my brain.

The more in-practice I am with drawing, the less I glaze over my visual environment. I see my stack of dishes and start breaking down the visual relationships. Which doesn’t mean I don’t do the dishes, just that when I do the dishes, the little gremlin that whispers in my ear about what a lousy housekeeper I am is slower to the punch. The part of my brain that observes carefully and without judgement had been well exercised and beat the gremlin of my self-criticism to the front of my brain. Not every time, and sometimes only for a millisecond, but enough that it’s worth it to me.

It sounds paradoxical, but being in the practice of giving more attention to the visual world makes the distressing parts less distressing. This exercise of drawing regularly (without evaluation- no grades, no audience) makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin with the people, spaces, critters and objects I love. When I’m good about drawing regularly, I feel like my anxiety switch is slower to flip. I wanted to share this feeling and felt invigorated by the few, side-stepping opportunities I got to do so.

These past handful of years, when trying to explain my desire to teach drawing, I’ve tried to verbalize its value in my life. It usually came out along the lines of “it’s a good way to spend time with someone or something special”, which now seems weak, flat, and off-the-mark. What I’ve come to realize lately is that, for me, drawing has functioned as a type of mindfulness meditation practice, although I didn’t know it. Mindfulness- as I understand it- is the practice of attentive observing present reality without judgement, and maybe especially the reality of one’s own thoughts and feelings. I bet you already know this, as mindfulness is a hugely popular concept presently. If you’re interested in mindfulness in general, a quick google search will turn up plenty of helpful information and lots of empirical evidence of its positive impact on health.

I’ll leave the more general mindfulness explaining to the experts and share my vision of how drawing fits into this. Since I clued into this connection, I’ve paid a lot more attention to how I draw (side note: thinking about developing a way to transmit ‘drawing as a mindfulness practice’ has nearly devastated my ability to use drawing as my own mindfulness practice- ha! It’s one of those “don’t think of elephants” problems. So I’m working on that.). I’ve been digging deeper into information on mindfulness and, by random chance at a used bookstore, discovered an artist who was teaching what he calls “drawing/seeing” as a zen-meditation practice. I’ll dig into these resources and reveal this artist in later posts. For now, I mention them only because they have been greatly influencing my thinking on this and fueling my excitement to further develop these ideas and put them to use.

And, yes, practicing mindfulness meditation is increasingly on the list of things healthy people do, and this approach to drawing is one method. Drawing is a way to practice shutting down judgement, “should”, rushing or forcing- because all those things often result in poor drawings. At its most stripped down-level (which is the one I’m interested in acquainting you with), drawing practices noticing.

Another way to say this is that drawing what you see and not what you think you see is hugely important. This means one needs to be aware when they are drawing a symbol for something. For the beginning draw-er, this is very difficult. Their brain is filled with an extensive catalogue of how things “should” look and the temptation to draw those things instead of what ones sees is massive. For the more advanced draw-er, this is equally as difficult. Their brain has an extensive and highly sophisticated catalogue of how things “should” look and a set of practiced techniques to make them look that way. Basically, no matter how skilled you are, the struggle to draw what one sees and not a symbol for it- however refined that symbol may be- is constant. The veil between the ego-self and the present moment is broken down, bit by bit, through this process of continually stepping past the symbols your mind offers up and seeing, ever more carefully, reality-as-it-is.

If that sounds too woo-woo for you, let me offer you this as well. Sometimes I simply want better quality laying around time, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. I need periods of rest, but entertainment and media are only actually soothing if I don’t over do it. Drawing is a more satisfying alternative. I do find drawing tiring, it does take effort, but it’s a refreshing effort for me. The same way yoga and other forms of exercise are work, but they’re also refreshing and I feel the benefits throughout the day when I’m practicing regularly. I also believe that developing the ability to be present in our increasingly visual world can help combat the numbing and fatigue many people experience being surrounded by advertising and media, in particular through our ubiquitous screens. Drawing can put you in greater touch with one of our most relied-upon senses in the same way dance, yoga, and martial arts can put you in greater touch with your body.  
So, I want to teach you to draw. Not so that you can perform drawing and become an amazing artist, but so that you can really listen with your eyes and see the world around you. So that you can find your surroundings more compelling, more beautiful- not by changing anything about them, just by changing your way of seeing it. So that you meet the world with curiosity, spend time with spaces, people and objects that are precious to you in the sincere present. Even if these benefits are only marginal at first- the world is just a tiny bit more beautiful, you’re just a tiny bit more piqued with curiosity- I feel they contribute to quality of life.

Art is Hard, Part 3: Why Art is Hard

The idea that some people are more creative than others is bullshit.

I won’t deny that there are variations in aptitude and interest, but I do believe we all have a creative capacity and that we would be healthier happier people if we exercise that capacity. This has a lot to do with creativity’s relationship to a healthy mindset. The thing is, without that natural aptitude or interest, or if one wasn’t encouraged at an early age, making art can feel incredibly difficult. To be honest, in some ways, it’s never not-hard no matter how long you work at it. For the purposes of this blog entry though, I’ll be discussing why it’s hard for beginners.

Observational drawing in particular seems to have this petrifying effect on people. In my limited experience teaching drawing, even getting people to put a pencil to paper and make a mark is challenging. The worst possible outcome is a bad drawing, and I’ve made plenty of those- I make bad drawings all the time. It’s not a big deal. But for many people this process is very painful and they look desperately for short cuts- ask for simpler subjects to draw, map out grids on their pages, resort to formulas of lines and shapes, etc. Don’t misunderstand, there are uses for these tools, but I sometimes watch beginners lean hard on them as though they will assure success. If these tools are what get them to start marking up a page, so be it, but they have to let go of it if they’re actually going to learn to see and draw.

Let me share another take on this same phenomenon. I’ve been involved in roller derby for a few years. Learning to skate was, literally, a painful process. Last night I went to a class where a lot of new people were trying out skating, some for the first time. I don’t remember these contraptions from when I was a kid, but there are PVC pipe frames with wheels we call “walkers” that some of of the most timid new skaters were using. The skater holds onto them to help with balance and many of us veterans grumble over them.

What they do is prevent one from falling. And to learn to skate, one must fall. To learn to really skate, they have to leave the walkers behind and bring their breakable bodies into a new way of being. They have to learn to listen deep inside with their bones and muscles.

And yes, it hurts to fall. Sometimes it hurts a lot.

The thing is, many people have had those metaphorical falls when it comes to art making and it hurt so bad they never got back up. Brene Brown found exactly this in her research on shame:

“… 85% of the men and women who I interviewed remembered an event in school that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. But wait – this is good – fifty percent of that 85% percent, half of those people: those shame wounds were around creativity. So fifty percent of those people have art scars.”¹

Art scars that changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. That’s heavy. Although I don’t personally bear this sort of art-scar, I know the feeling she’s talking about. And I know plenty of people who do bear these scars. Among these people, most of them tell me they don’t want to correct this- they’re happy without it. They claim they don’t feel the lack, “I’m just not artistic, I couldn’t draw a straight line!” or “I can’t even draw stick figures!”

The earnestly seem to view “artists” as a different breed of people, and it’s a breed they don’t belong to. I don’t feel qualified to argue with what makes people happy, but when I see people venture into a drawing lesson, sweating and fretting over shy strokes of graphite, I think that- at least for some people- that hunger is real. But for many the simple act of drawing what one sees has been confused with the ego which really really wants to get it right. If they get that little incubus of creativity shame perched over their hearts as well, even the hunger can be dampened.  

This is why art is hard. It’s a fight through layers of ego and maybe past an incubus that needs to get lost. To get to the meat of art- the zone, the listening deep inside with bones and muscle, hearing the signal through the noise, seeing and drawing for what it really is- is vulnerable. Which is why art is hard.

 

¹ Side note- as I was skimming for this quote, my partner walked by and said “Magic lessons! Ooo, fancy!” I didn’t know what he was talking about and unfocused from my text-block skimming. There was a bright rainbow square with the words “Would you like to take a couple of MAGIC LESSONS with me this summer?” right in the middle of the paragraph I was skimming. I laughed because I hadn’t seen it at all. He made a comment about my 20/10 vision… Then I told him that I’m working on a blog article about seeing and he laughed. A lot.

Art is Hard, Part 2: Why You Need to Learn to Draw

Art is hard. Learning to make art is hard. It’s very vulnerable and labor intensive. The hard part is there because, aside from the ocean of media options and the technical skills involved, art is not as subjective as many people seem to think.¹ I feel pretty strongly that learning to draw is a crucial foundation in making art. Learning to draw isn’t about making pretty pictures, it’s about learning to Listen accurately.

Sincerity of self expression is powerful, but I think it gets more than its fair share of the glory. The silence framed between notes, the volume of empty air the cathedral stones define, the blank space around poem on the page- that which draws the audience into Listening is what draws the audience into Relationship with art.

Sincerity of Listening is powerful. And I feel that the practice of learning to objectively draw is powerful in learning the skill of deeply Listening.

Let me first explain my capitalization of the word Listen. I’m folding some language together here, so bear with me. One common problem in relationships comes from our inability to listen, really Listen, to people. We can hear them, but Listening is a mind and heart opening act. We do our best to loosen our grip on what we know (or assume) and approach the other with a vulnerability to accept, process, and hopefully understand their reality. This kind of Listening emcompasses a host of complexities beyond the spoken words. And when we understand, we say “I see what you mean”. Ha!

Here’s another way to say it. A friend of mine- Chris Dorman- writes kids songs and has one that goes “When you listen with your ears, you hear. When you listen with your eyes, you see. When you listen with your body, you dance. And when you listen with your heart, you love.” (I cannot find a link to just this song, so if you want to hear it you’ll have to learn about how apple blossoms turn into apples on his new show Mr Chris and Friends) I like this song because it applies the word Listen to that deeper, more holistic, meaningful sensing and knowing the world. Thus, I capitalize Listen because I think its uses extend beyond the sense of hearing.

How does this apply to drawing? Well, one of the hardest aspects of learning how to draw is learning how to draw what you see, not what you think you see. We humans are extremely good at processing visual information, but part of our speed and skill in this is because we’re also very good at developing symbols for things. When we draw, often enough we are drawing symbols. Eyes are football shaped with a dark circle in the middle and curvy lines swooping off the top, hands are circles or squares with lines pointing out from the center, trees are thick rectangles with bumpy round shapes perched on top, you get the picture (ha!).² Learning how to Listen until you see what is actually present and draw it is a skill that must be practiced.

Back to the subjectivity or objectivity of this. I think the lines between subjective and objective are somewhat of a false dichotomy while at the same time being useful concepts. Representing something with as much accuracy as possible so that another viewer understands what’s being represented can be measured against the informal democratic agreement of what reality looks like, and for our purposes, this is a good objective measure. Can I tell in your drawing if fur is soft, glass is transparent or the sun is shining through a window and not the floor? Yes? Then good job, objectively speaking. You have done a good job sincerely Listening.

But, of course, it is your unique lens through which you translated it and that is subjective. We can’t escape our subjectivity, but we can try to Listen with sincerity- practice and hone that skill of Listening. After all, what good is your unique lens on the world if you don’t bother to clean it? To grind it and polish it? To focus it and make sure the image is true to your eye? What do you offer your audience if not a relationship founded on sincere Listening? Do you see what I mean?


¹Caveat, people can do whatever the hell they want. I’m not going to bother splitting the “what is art?” hair or the “art versus craft” hair.¹* This is about my experience.¹**

¹*Anyone who knows me knows I cannot actually help myself and I am always splitting the “craft versus art” hair and the “what is art?”¹*** hair. The thing is, I honestly get annoyed at myself from this constant looping and this annoyance leads to the assertion that “people can do whatever the hell they want.”

¹**“Art is not as subjective as you think, as I’ll clearly explain via my subjective experience,” said Ruby, the Lewis Carol character.

¹***I’m much better at explaining why things are art then why they are not art.

²Apply this metaphorically to language- especially language used in your key relationships- and you’ll see symbols emerge here too. Have fun with that (she says with both sarcasm and sincerity).

Art is Hard, Part 1: Art Lesson from a Fictional Bear

When I was going through my foundational program at GVSU, I tried to get home to my family on the weekends. It was a long drive, but it was comforting to retreat back to my folks house. I have siblings from my father’s re-marriage- a brother and a sister- who are much younger than me.

Having significantly younger siblings, I had a pretty developed nurturing sense and the self-secondizing that goes along with it. Sure, I was struggling with those questions of self-identity and learning to make my way in the world, as well as trying to figure out cooking for myself* that comes along with being in one’s early twenties and living outside the house for the first time, but they were struggling with being daily affronted with new foods, learning to read or trying to remember the litany of rules for putting one’s clothes on correctly: rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to live both one’s public and private life in their underwear?… Those sorts of things. Whether it was altruistic of me to patiently let these concerns be the center of my parents attentional gravity, or it was just easier to stuff my own struggles and existential questions- rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to lives one’s public and private life in their underwear?- underneath them in the stack of things to do, I don’t know.

Robin (who still struggles with clothing conventions, but more philosophically these days) could always tell if I was having a hard time. Even more surprising, this child seemed to know how to soothe me. He was making a lot of “comic books” at the time and he made one for me on one of these visits home.

It featured a little bear who was trying to paint a picture. She worked very hard but it wasn’t turning out. At one point the bear cries tears of frustration over the struggle, but she bravely persists in her efforts. Eventually the bear triumphs and happily proclaims it to be beautiful. In the tale of this little bear, I saw reflected my long hours bent over a project, fighting through the tears of doubt, blindly groping towards the sublime.

It’s a common enough story- a hero’s journey in miniature- but in that way stories are more precious when they’re personal, my brother had listened to the spaces between my words and actions and drawn this story out. This small allegory had been distilled for me. My brother could see my struggles perched on my shoulders every time I tried to shake them and come home. I also knew he could also see my belief in the light at the end of the tunnel, the faith that satisfaction would be found upon accomplishing the beautiful. That feeling of being seen is a powerful feeling, even (or perhaps especially) coming from an eight year old, and it propped me up. My brother had learned from watching me that art is hard and art is worth it. I had learned this same lesson back from him in the tale of this bear who persists through her tears in search of the sublime.

*Insight for those of you hard on young people who don’t know how to cook- if their family taught them how to cook, they probably taught them how to cook *for that whole family* which is different from cooking for *just one’s self*. For years I could not manage to cook for less than six people at a time, which meant food was constantly going bad in my fridge, which led to eating the chips and dip for dinner people laugh at college students for.