Creativity

On People and Stories and Drawing

I’ve always shied away from getting people into my drawings and paintings. For years almost everything I did looked like this:

Drawings of buildings and streets in Italy

No people. Entirely depopulated streets and towns, as if all the citizens had been raptured or abducted by aliens.

Sometimes I’d drop just one little figure in, for scale.

street scenes in Mexico and New York painted in gouache with one figure walking down the street

But really, they were still drawings of buildings, with a couple little lumpy shapes to show that people do exist in cities.

But of course, if you’re into urban sketching, you can’t ignore the people forever. Over time (and with the help of some terrific teachers, such as James Richards) I started to be more deliberate about populating my sketches with people.

Still, these figures are accessories, like the street trees and lampposts and picnic umbrellas, meant to convey the sense of a lively street. They’re not about any one person doing any one thing–they’re about people collectively, like a flock of birds. And that’s great–I love these pictures. (I love all the pictures I’ve posted here–none of this is a criticism of my own art at all, just an observation about what I tend to focus on and what I don’t focus on.)

But lately I’ve been admiring the work of artists like Jenny Kroik, whose illustrations tell such a story about the city she lives in. I also admire her gouache technique, so I started making little studies of her paintings (“study” is an artsy word for “copy”) in my sketchbook, to figure out how she does it.

I was mostly working on technique but what occurred to me is that if you really want to tell a story in your sketchbook, you need to have people acting out that story.

This is hilarious, that I would only think about this now. I’ve been a full-time, professional writer for 20 years. I’ve written books about earthworms, cut flowers, poisonous plants, and I’ve written a bunch of novels. What I always tell people is, “That wasn’t really a book about earthworms. It was a book about people who study earthworms. Stories have people in them. If I’d left out the people and only written about worms, I wouldn’t have had a story. There’s no book in that.”

So I was thinking about this, and looking at Jenny Kroik’s interesting illustrations of interesting New Yorkers doing interesting things, and kind of envying her interesting art practice, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I live in Portland. This place is interesting. Come to think of it, every place is interesting in its own way.”

And at that moment, Portland was having an interesting event: an epic snowstorm. I could see from my window that Portlanders were out in the snow, doing whatever Portlanders do. So I grabbed my camera (not my sketchbook, c’mon, it’s cold outside) and decided to go looking for stories. Here’s what I found:

Portlanders and their beverages, hours before the next wallop was predicted to hit and possibly knock out power: One last coffee run, and a trudge to the liquor store.

Kids carrying around enormous chunks of ice, for probably the first time in their lives, and somebody making the all-important Trader Joe’s run.

An unplowed side street getting turned into an impromptu dog park. A walk (with trekking poles, just in case) while FaceTiming with incredulous relatives who have never seen Portland like this.

It’s intimidating to put people front and center. I did a lot more in the way of preliminary sketches for these than I would normally do. Something I learned from Marc Taro Holmes: It’s perfectly fine to do seven or eight pencil sketches of a person and just pick one to ink and finish. Studio artists do this all the time: they’ll work up a lot of sketches before committing to a big painting. But I tend to forget that even within a sketchbook, a sketch can have sketches. (This in spite of every teacher who has ever taught me to make thumbnails, including Shari Blaukopf.)

Anyway, this is what I got out of Portland’s snowstorm and a lot of idle time to think about art: Where there are people, there are stories. Those stories might be small–a woman trudging through ice to get to Trader Joe’s–but isn’t that what cities and towns and villages are made up of?  A million small stories that somehow come together to tell us something about the place?

Plus pretty buildings and trees and streets and lampposts, of course.

Some Thoughts About the Bee Gees, The Little Prince, and What Exactly Is the Point of It All

I loved the Bee Gees documentary on HBO, so much so that I would consider it worthwhile to pay for a month of HBOMax just to watch it. I am not ashamed to admit that I love their music, which takes me back to happy moments in my childhood. I also loved learning about their songwriting process, and I found it to be a moving and complex story about siblings working together. (I am literally only just now realizing the parallel to the Kopp sisters story. I’m not real insightful sometimes.)

One thing struck me: Over and over, through the years, you hear them say that their very specific goal was to be FAMOUS. And you know, when that’s your goal, you make very particular career decisions. You see this play out time and again as their fortunes rose and fell.

There are a lot of different reasons to make music or art, and they don’t have to be about fame or fortune. Just look at Seth Rogen and his ceramics.

Most of us WANT to make some money doing the thing we love, or…well, doing something, but what is the money FOR?

I mean, it’s to put food on the table, obviously. We all have long lists of things we’d do or buy if we had more money, but underneath all of that is the idea that if we had more money, our days would look different. We would do something other than what we’re doing right now.

I guess this wasn’t the case for the Bee Gees. Fame was the point. As long as they were doing “fame,” they got what they wanted. But I think that for a lot of us, we struggle with what we actually want and what we’ll do now to get what we want someday.

So it’s kind of like…we spend our days doing this thing that earns money so that someday we’ll have enough money to be able to stop spending our days doing that thing and instead spend them doing something else.

I think a lot of self-employed people in particular struggle with this: We get an idea to do something, but then there’s this question: Am I doing this because it’s something I genuinely want more of in my life, or am I doing it in the hopes that I’ll make enough money that I can then stop doing it and go on to do whatever I genuinely want more of?

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. And the difficulty is that if you put a lot of time and energy into doing a thing, you’ll generally get more of that thing. But maybe what you’re really hoping for is the freedom to have less of that thing.

It’s been such a hard year that I’ve been thinking a lot about how to fill my days with activities that are pleasurable in the moment, with no future outcome in mind.

The Little Prince book coverAnd that got me thinking of this passage from The Little Prince, where a man is selling pills that quench your thirst, so you can save fifty-three minutes a week by not having to drink.

The little prince replies, “If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

I guess my point, which I admit is half-baked, has to do with finding the intrinsic value in doing the thing you’re doing, or finding a way to do more of the thing that has intrinsic value. I’ll leave that for you to ponder and I’ll do the same.

Meet Aspiring Ceramicist Seth Rogen.

Seth Rogen is probably the only ceramicist to have 8 million Instagram followers. He got into ceramics the way many of us get into art–by following his interests, his enthusiasm, his curiosity. If you scroll down his Instagram feed, you’ll see that he’s a longtime collector of ashtrays–don’t laugh! They’re really interesting ashtrays!–and then he went to a pottery studio and made something, and then, being Seth Rogen and having all the money, he had his own studio and kiln built, and now there’s no stopping him.

He takes the most wonderfully pedestrian approach to his art. When he posts a new piece, he generally says something like, “I made this thing and I like it.” When he made some pots he wrote, “I made these pots and planted these plants in them.”

In this lovely interview he says, “I do like tactile things; I like to produce tangible work. With movies, we spend years on them and then they’re very intangible. They don’t have weight, they don’t occupy a physical space. You used to at least get a DVD or a Blu-Ray, and you don’t even really get that anymore. I don’t like to keep my own movie posters around because those are just advertising for the product, not the product itself. I do really like being able to create an artistic expression that is a thing that I can pick up, hold, show to people. It is just so different from what I normally do which has no mass to it.”

In other words, he’s doing it because it scratches an itch for him. It’s personally satisfying. He’s obviously not trying to build a business or win any awards. He says, “It’s been fun because I can just explore and play around and try different things. If something turns out terribly, it’s not ultimately damaging to my overall reputation as a ceramicist.”

Be Seth Rogen, everybody. Just go make your pots. Explore and play around and try different things, and don’t worry about your overall reputation as a ceramicist, which is just another thing that has no mass to it.

Gouache Florals!

I’m teaching a new class on painting floral still lifes in gouache or watercolor–and you have two choices about how to take the class.

Here on Skillshare, which is a subscription-style platform like Netflix, you can get a free trial and take all the classes you like. 

Or if you’d rather just take one class at a time, and pay as you go, you can take this class on Udemy as well.

More about the class…

Would you like to learn to paint simple, whimsical floral arrangements, or do you want to explore new ideas about color mixing and design? How about both?

In this class, we’re going to use your choice of paint—gouache or watercolor—along with markers, paint pens, colored pencils, or any mixed media tool you like, to create inventive, inspired floral arrangements. We’ll also try out a color-mixing exercise to extend a simple palette of colors by mixing wonderful pastels and neutrals.

Then we’ll look at how to create color combinations from the new variety of colors we’ve mixed.

These techniques form the basis of all still life paintings. I hope you’ll start with flowers, and move on to fruit, bowls, mugs of tea, houseplants—whatever you’d like to arrange and paint.

I’m going to encourage you to be really free and imaginative with your floral arrangements. Concoct your own color scheme! Design your own vase! Invent new colors for flowers that you’ve never seen in nature!

Inspired by the creativity of masters like Matisse, you’ll be able to work from my example, or from your own still life setups, or from photographs you gather yourself. These still life floral paintings make beautiful framed pieces, they’re great as gifts, and they’re lovely on cards. Enjoy!

At Some Point, You Just Have to Deal with the Painting in Front of You

 

Several years ago, I took a class with Qiang Huang, an amazing oil painter from Austin. We were all painting from still lifes set up next to our easels. His work is both beautifully precise and also loose and imaginative. That balance of accuracy and abstraction was what we were all after.

At one point he said, “Your still life setup is just a reference for the design you want to create. You’re not here to copy it.”

In other words, a still life setup or a reference photo or the landscape in front of you should just be a jumping-off point for the painting that you’re going to make. If you find yourself struggling to make an exact copy, you’ve lost the thread of the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think there comes a point in a painting or a drawing where you almost have to set the reference aside. At some point, you just have to deal with the painting that’s in front of you. What it needs next may not be found in the reference you’ve been using. It becomes a matter of stepping back, squinting, maybe taking a black-and-white photograph to check the values, and making a decision about what the painting itself needs, not whether it matches the thing you’re trying to paint or not.

This is true of writing as well. You might start off with a very fixed idea of what sort of book you’re writing and what you want it to be like when it’s finished. But at some point, the book becomes its own thing. At some point, you have to deal with the book that’s in front of you, not the one you had in your head when you started out.

Ann Patchett said something like this when she wrote about book ideas being like beautiful butterflies drifting around in the air. “I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.”

She’s talking about learning to live with the disappointment that inevitably comes when you compare the book you’ve written to the way it looked in your imagination before you started. And that disappointment is real.

In the case of a painting, though, I’d say that I never have a fixed idea, when I start, of how the painting’s going to look. I have my reference (a photo, maybe), and I know I’m going to make something out of it that somehow speaks to whatever drew me to the image in the first place. But I’m just as surprised as anyone else to see what it looks like when I’m done.

Here’s the painting that’s on my easel right now, along with the image I started with. It’s a tricky photo to copy as a painting, because of the way the headlights are blown out and the halos around them. I’ve made a lot of changes and I’m still tinkering. But there’s no point, at this stage, in looking at the photo anymore. The painting’s become its own thing.

It’s Pumpkin Season!

 

This class is available on Skillshare! Get a free trial and check out all my classes with this link.

Pumpkins! Could anything be more fun to paint?

One of the best ways to learn to draw and paint is to do a still life. You get to work on shapes, proportion, composition, values (meaning light and dark), and color.

Best of all, it’ll help you develop your own style.

For this class, we’ll paint a beautiful arrangement of pumpkins on a porch. A project like this is so much fun to do in mixed media, where you build up layers with different materials. You get rich textures and interesting contrast by combining watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, pastel, paint pens, markers, and/or ink.

Use whatever art supplies you have to create a lively, interesting style that’ll be uniquely yours.

The Rebecca Diaries

In December I started an art project based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel REBECCA.  I don’t know when I’ll finish it. It’s more like a book than an art project in that way: I can finish a painting in a day or two, but a book takes years, and it’s always an open question whether I’ll be able to finish a book at all. These paintings are like that.

Unlike a book manuscript, there’s no way to save earlier drafts. Most of the art I’ve made for this series is gone already; these photos are all I have to remember what I’ve done so far. I decided I ought to document it before I forget where I’ve been and what my intentions were.

Last fall I discovered cold wax medium, a soft, waxy paste that mixes with oil paint to change the texture and make it spreadable, like cake icing. Cold wax painters build up layers and scrape them back, as the paint hardens gradually to the consistency of a wax candle but remains pliable. I thought that was interesting, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it.

Then I went to a cold wax painting demonstration where the artist mentioned that she layers collage papers into her abstract cold wax paintings. I knew immediately what I wanted to do: I wanted to paint on book pages.

I wanted to paint on my book pages.

But the prospect of layering oil paint over the words I’d written seemed too…fraught. What was I saying, exactly? What would it mean to look back over twenty years of work, rip pages out of books, obliterate them with paint, and scrape them back to reveal what was left? What would be left? What would I be trying to say about my own life’s work?

Better to start with someone else’s book, I thought.

I had a galley of Courtney Maum’s wonderful novel COSTALEGRE floating around my office. Surely Courtney wouldn’t mind if I used her book as an art experiment. Her book IS an art experiment: it’s an absolutely gorgeous, vividly imagined telling of  the time Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, spent in Mexico. It was a novel about painting.

So I painted on it.

 

Urban Sketching in New York City!

 

My new art class is live on Skillshare now. Use this link to check out the class and get a free trial to explore everything they have to offer.

You can also take this class on Udemy as a bundle with two of my other travel sketching classes! Go here to check that out.

Do you love New York? So do I! It’s my favorite spot for urban sketching, travel sketching, and kind of exploring and art-making.

In this class, we’re going to focus on the one skill you really need to paint a city like New York: Perspective.

We’ll use Manhattan for our laboratory to look at the fundamentals of perspective.

We’ll work out how to identify your horizon line and your vanishing point.

We’ll see how all the lines in an image converge to that vanishing point.

We’ll start a drawing by putting down some perspective lines to help guide us.

And then, with those guidelines in place, I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can create an accurate drawing.

When you get this piece right, you can be really free and loose with your drawing and painting.

This is easy to learn and fun to practice. Join me!

Anybody dreaming of Italy?

 

Ah, Italy! I was there exactly one year ago, and I wish I was there right now! At least we can dream.

My new Skillshare class is all about simplifying a classic Italian village scene. Go here to preview the class and get a free trial on Skillshare, which is more than enough time to travel the world (virtually, anyway) and improve your sketchbook skills! Skillshare is a Netflix-style subscription site for online classes.

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you just pay for the class you want to take. I’ve bundled this one with two other travel sketching classes. Go here to check that out.

First, we’ll focus on getting the major shapes in place by measuring how they fit into the frame and how they fit next to each other.

Second, we’re going to use wet-into-wet watercolor techniques to capture the feeling of stone and tile without actually drawing every single stone and every single tile.

Third, we’re going to use wet over dry techniques to add in shadows and a few bright colors and other details.

The idea is to get the major shapes and the light and shadows right, and then to simplify everything else.

Learn these simple tricks, and you can paint all of Italy with a pen, watercolor, and a sketchbook.  Just be sure to bring me along!

How to Paint a Chicken

My new Skillshare class is called How to Paint a Chicken. Guess what it’s about???

For about ten years I raised chickens in my backyard. I can tell you from experience that chickens are wonderful subjects to paint!

My style is to paint them against a simple, neutral backdrop, as if they are sitting for a formal portrait. With this style they look almost like members of the family, and you can capture their unique personalities. (Yes, chickens have personalities!)

In this class I demonstrate four chicken portraits using ink, watercolor, and gouache. You can do all four in either watercolor or gouache, or try both.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

How to take good photographs of chickens (or other birds!)

How to quickly sketch in the features by measuring proportions

How to mix colors so that you’re showing light and shadow

How to use brushstrokes to suggest feather patterns

How to mix a neutral background and make sure it blends with the rest of your portrait.

This is all about making quick, simple, charming portraits. And of course, if you’d like to paint another type of bird, please do! Ducks, geese, parrots—everyone’s welcome!

This class is happening on Skillshare now! Sign up with this link and get 2 months free: https://skl.sh/3gyfU0r