I used to think thumbnails were so annoying — like, why waste time making a bunch of tiny drawings when you could jump right into one big painting? But now I think they’re ridiculously fun all by themselves. Why spend forever on one big painting when you can divide the page up, make six different little scenes, paint all six of them all at once, and call it done? Here’s a whole day at the beach, all at once.
And if you want to try this along with me, here’s the reference photo:
I’ve always shied away from getting people into my drawings and paintings. For years almost everything I did looked like this:
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.
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.
First I want to say this: Not everybody had a chance to rest up and re-think their priorities during the pandemic. Lots of people worked harder than ever. Lots of people scrambled to keep their families safe, dealt with an impossible school situation for their kids, and faced all kinds of losses and hardships.
But…some people got some rest, or experienced real idleness for the first time in years, or found themselves unencumbered by the demands of their old lives–flying across the country for meetings, sitting in a car for an hour commute every day, juggling three part-time jobs–and had a little time to think about what they’d really like their lives to look like, if they were in charge of deciding that.
And now…it kind of feels like it’s time to decide.
Offices are opening back up. People are flying on planes. Conferences and conventions are tentatively back on the calendar.
Which puts us in a weird position. Do we ramp our lives back up?
Or…now that so many activities were forcefully evicted from our lives, do we re-evaluate each returning thing, each resumption of an old activity, and decide on a case-by-case basis whether it’s allowed back in or not?
I don’t have the answer, but it’s a thing I’ve been thinking about. I’m contemplating a big new project, but I keep ruminating over all the trappings of this particular type of big new project: the deadlines, the expectations, the emails, the travel, the scheduling, the other people who will have to get involved…and I wonder, “Do I want to invite all that back in?”
Or do I want to completely redefine the terms of how a project like this gets done, knowing that I’ll have to explain to everyone involved (including myself, I will need many pep talks) that yes, I’m doing this thing, but no, I won’t be doing it that way. I won’t be doing that part. I won’t be doing it that quickly.
Is that even possible? I don’t know.
I do know this: For twenty years, I’ve thought of myself as a self-employed person because I don’t work at a place and get a paycheck on Friday. But just now it occurs to me that if I haven’t been defining the terms of my projects–if I’ve allowed the expectations and deadlines to be set by editors, publicists, journalists, event organizers, social media platforms–have I ever been truly self-employed?
What does it look like if I just call the shots, and decide for myself what it takes to be moderately scheduled and well-rested, and turn everything else away, without excuses or apologies? WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK????
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.
I just picked up this book at Powell’s. In the introduction is the most extraordinary passage–it could apply to any creative pursuit, so I’m sharing it here:
“Develop an internal tutor. When you begin drawing, often you’ll find you’re accompanied by an internal critic, pointing out your mistakes and making you question your drawing. This can be more restricting than a lack of ability. You need time to look and draw without internal criticism. Instead, try to develop an internal tutor, allowing you to stand back and look objectively at your drawing, picking out its best qualities and what can be improved upon.”
Imagine–an inner tutor! A voice inside your head that can give you a friendly nudge, encourage you to sharpen a detail or rethink the direction of a line. What a helpful and handy voice to have on board!
Everyone wants to silence their internal critic. But have you ever thought of cultivating an internal tutor?
It’s a question that every kind of artist grapples with:
I do these watercolor landscapes, but I also do abstract collage and sometimes I get really into architectural ink sketches. I can’t seem to focus on just one.
I write short stories, but I’ve also written three mystery novels and now I’m thinking about writing a biography. But successful writers pick their genre and stick to it.
I play classical guitar and I’m also in a blues band and lately I’ve gotten into the harmonica and I’d kind of like to learn percussion, too, but I’m never going to get anywhere if I don’t choose one.
Sometimes it’s a question of a creative person picking one of several very different pursuits:
I’m into photography, and I love to crochet, and also I do pottery. Why can’t I pick one?
So in the last year, during the shutdown, I’ve been meditating a little. Just a little. I put on the Headspace app for ten minutes in the morning. It’s not a big deal, and I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in mindfulness or meditation.
But here’s something anyone will learn in their first ten-minute meditation session: Thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. You can observe them and let them float by, like clouds on the horizon, or like cars driving down the road, while you sit alongside the road in your lawn chair and watch them go by.
You don’t have to jump on board and ride down the road with every Crazy Thought Car that goes zooming past.
What this has taught me is that I can differentiate between the facts, and my thoughts and feelings about those facts.
Fact: I do watercolor landscapes, abstract collage, and architectural ink sketches.
Thought: I can’t focus! I need to focus. I have to pick one. Real artists, successful artists, know how to pick one and stick to it. There’s something wrong with me. I’m doing it wrong.
You see? Those are thoughts. Not facts. As thoughts go, they might be awfully persistent. They might hang constantly around the horizon, rather than drift away.
But there are other, equally viable thoughts that could be attached those facts. Such as:
I’m a polymath. I’m well-rounded. I contain multitudes.
Or, simply: I’m versatile. Flexible. Agile. Nimble. I do several things and I do them well.
Or even: I do several things and I enjoy them all. The question of whether I do them well or not doesn’t matter.
The question of whether a person can be successful doing more than one thing is not all that interesting to me–what is success? A certain salary? A number of awards? If you want a list of artists who are successful at more than one thing, or who work in more than one style, that’s easy to find. Look at all the actors who paint. Look at all the musicians who write. Or look at the ever-changing styles of Gerhard Richter, including his late-in-life stained glass work. I grew up with a mother who painted in watercolor and acrylic and wrote and juggled many jobs, and a father who made a living playing classical guitar, jazz guitar, and “whatever pays the bills” rock and pop guitar. People called him for gigs because he was versatile–he could do a number of things, and he could do them well. He’s also a photographer. For many years he was a sailor. He studies French and sometimes dips into Spanish and Italian for fun.
But the reason this idea of “let’s find examples of people who successfully do many things” is not all that interesting to me? It’s because this is also thinking.
What I learn from my ten-minute meditations is that mindfulness meditation is not about replacing “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts. It’s not about judging one thought as wrong or inadequate and replacing it with some better, more empowering, more useful thought.
It’s about recognizing all thinking as thinking, and all feelings (the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones) as feelings.
It’s also not about eliminating all thoughts and feelings. That’s impossible. It’s only about recognizing them when they drift by, and naming them as thoughts or feelings, and understanding that they are separate from facts.
So I’m not suggesting that you replace one thought with another. (Wait, it’s not that I can’t choose! It’s that I’m a polymath! That’s better!)
Nor am I suggesting that you stop thinking entirely. (I just had a thought about my art! Bad artist! I should just stop thinking!)
Instead, I’m just suggesting that you can observe the facts about your art practice in a kind, non-judgmental way: I enjoy these watercolor landscapes, and I’m also playing around with these abstract collages….
…and then recognize that all the thoughts and feelings that rush in to finish that sentence (and therefore I really need to choose! And therefore I’m an agile, nimble polymath!) are just that: thoughts and feelings that your very big brain generated all on its own, because it saw some facts and decided that Conclusions Must Be Drawn From Those Facts.
And if you can do this–if you can recognize that the thoughts and feelings about your art practice are separate from the facts–then maybe, just maybe, that will open up a little space in your creative practice to explore your art, and to follow your preferences wherever they might lead.
On the subject of following your preferences, no one says it better than Nicholas Wilton. He explains it so beautifully in this video. Notice what he says about how when you follow your preferences in your art, your art gets better, and then you learn how to also follow preferences in your life, and your life gets better, and it turns into a feedback loop.
So really, all I’m saying in addition to his words of wisdom is that in order to get to that place where you’re really following your preferences, it helps to acknowledge that all that thinking about your art is thinking, and all that feeling is feeling, and that you are free to acknowledge all those thoughts and feelings as they float by, and then turn back to your art and follow your preferences and go where it lights you up to go.
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.
And 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.
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.
I read this obituary for guitarist Ellen McIlwaine and I was so struck by what she had to say about her decision to start recording under her own label: “I’m tired of being on labels. It’s people with temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career.”
This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Once, when a new publicist offered to start handling all my speaking engagements, I told her that she’d need to keep a list of everyone who requested me as a speaker and share that list with me. She was a bit taken aback and wanted to know why.
“Because you’re going to leave,” I said. “Someday, you won’t have this job. But I’ll still be here, doing my thing. And if I don’t have this list, there’s no way for me to go back to these people when I have a new book out, or when I’m coming to their town, and so on.”
I never could convince her to share her list. (I suspect she didn’t keep a list.) And I could tell that she didn’t really see herself as just passing through my career. In fact, she probably thought that I was just passing through her career.
But in fact, no one who was involved in my career when my first book came out is still around. My first agent? Retired. My first editor? Changed careers. My first publisher? Also retired. First publicist? Moved on. I’m the only one left, and at the end of my career, I will be the last one standing. I’ll be the one to turn out the lights and lock the door.
There’s nothing wrong with people in temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career. If not for all those people in temporary jobs, I never would have found a publisher, finished a book, given an interview on NPR, made it to a bestseller list, seen my books translated into eighteen languages…all of that required the expertise of many excellent people in temporary jobs.
But it’s also true that a person in a job can only offer you what they have to offer within the confines of that job.
I once sat next to a country singer at a dinner. He was pretty well-known, solidly in the middle of his career, and on his way up. But guess what? He didn’t want to sing country music anymore. Jazz was his passion.
“But my label really doesn’t want me to do this,” he said. “They’ve got a definite idea of where my career is headed, and this isn’t it.”
“Your label can only help you make the thing that they know how to sell,” I told him, deciding on the spot that I was somehow qualified to speak on the inner workings of the music industry. “There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re good at selling country music, and building up country artists. But that’s all they have to offer you. They can’t possibly see where you’re really meant to go as a musician. Nobody can. They don’t have a vision for your career. They have a vision for how to sell the thing they know how to sell. As long as you are making the thing that they know how to sell, you two can do business. But that’s as far as it goes.”
This is where I think Ellen McIlwaine got it right. A label–or a publisher, or a film studio, or a gallery–is perfectly poised to take an artist in the direction that they know how to go. And the people who work there–temporarily, all jobs are temporary–will make a lot of decisions that the artist will own forever, long after that person has moved from one temporary job to another.
It doesn’t mean that every creative person should rush out and start their own label, or publish independently, or fire their gallerist. But it does help to stop and think, every now and then, about who actually owns this thing called your career, or your artistic path…and what do you want from the people who are just passing through?
Pictured above: What I’d like to be doing right now.
I get asked this question a lot, and I think it’s worth exploring, because we all struggle to manage the demands on our time.
First, here’s what “all the things” has consisted of over the years. I did have a day job while I wrote my first three books, or for roughly the first seven years of my writing career. Because I had a salary coming in, I didn’t spend a penny that I earned as a writer. I put it all in a separate bank account that was not very easy to get to, and I saved it up with the idea that I’d quit my job when I had a year’s living expenses in the bank. That took seven years.
After that, my income was a mix of paid speaking gigs, a little freelance writing, a stint doing freelance copyrighting for a local company, and book advances and royalties. That went on for another ten years or so.
I should say that in all these early years, we lived in a small, rural town where the cost of living was low so we could buy a house. This is a real trade-off. I missed out on networking opportunities, was not considered for regional prizes, etc, because I didn’t live near a city. Also, flying in and out for all the speaking gigs was more expensive and required more days away than it would have if I’d spent more on housing and lived in a city.
Today, “all the things I do” includes writing books, making art, teaching online, and doing some Zoom events to take the place of in-person speaking gigs. That’s pretty much all I do, apart from getting myself fed, exercised, showered, dressed, etc. every day.
So the simple way to answer this is to say that I truly don’t have any other obligations or responsibilities. I no longer have a day job, and–this is important– I also don’t have any family responsibilities: I don’t have kids, and my husband is very self-sufficient. No one depends on me for their day-to-day existence. If you are responsible for earning a paycheck or keeping other human beings alive, that does make a difference in how much time you have to pursue creative endeavors. No getting around it.
But the other answer is that I am sort of deliberate about how I structure my day. And I’ve figured out what kinds of things I can do and when I can do them throughout the day.
For instance, I don’t like to write in the mornings. Never have. So I write in the afternoons, after lunch. I paint in the mornings.
I know how to break a project down into bite-sized pieces and just do a little every day, knowing it will all add up. Writing a page a day gives me a book in a year. Spending an hour or two on a painting every morning gives me a new painting every few days.
And now that I’ve started to teach classes online, I’ve learned how to break that process down into smaller chunks and just do a little every day. (And by the way, I teach a class on developing good writing habits, which you can take on Skillshare or on Udemy , where I have made it part of a longer class on starting a book.)
I save up all that nonsensical admin work–answering emails, paying bills, etc–for late afternoon or evenings, when I’m too brain-dead to do anything interesting.
So how do I do what I do? A little at a time, and with the luxury of very few distractions.