Creativity

A Drawing is a Record of Your Lived Experience.

When I’m out drawing, I try to remember to resist the temptation to spend an hour looking for the perfect view. Anything can make an interesting drawing. If you’re in Paris, you don’t have to draw the Eiffel Tower.

I was trapped under an awning during a rainstorm recently and drew a picture of the car parked across the street. It’s a funny, awkward little picture, but it ended up being my favorite drawing of the day.

I want my drawings to be a record of my experience in the world while I was drawing, complete with raindrops, smudges, and spills.

My art setup is lightweight and portable, so that I can draw absolutely anywhere—standing up, sitting on the curb, on a street corner, without a table or an easel or a stool. But if I’m tired, or my back hurts, or it’s cold or rainy, I’ll go where I need to go to be comfortable, and draw what I can see from there.

If something looks blurry from where I’m sitting, I leave it vague. If a telephone pole is blocking my view, I draw the telephone pole.

That’s what the drawing is for, after all—to record a moment in my life, complete with its aches and pains, adverse weather, less-than-perfect eyesight, obstructions, and particular vantage point.

Speaking of vantage points–I was in New Mexico once, looking for the landscapes Georgia O’Keeffe painted. I was particularly excited to see what she called The White Place, these chalky cliffs she painted over and over. I had a postcard of her most famous White Place painting with me, and I walked around the area, trying to line up the contours in the painting with my own view

I backed up to a spot that seemed just right—and stumbled into a tree. Of course! She’d picked a spot in the shade. It probably had less to do with finding the perfect composition and more to do with getting out of the harsh desert sun.

I sat down in the shade and started to draw, but when I was about halfway finished, I realized that I was in the wrong spot. The right-hand side of the drawing looked accurate, but the rest of the view didn’t match O’Keeffe’s painting at all. What was I missing?

So I got up and started walking around again. Pretty soon, I was able to line up the left side of the cliffs with the left side of her painting. I walked around until I had that half of the painting in perspective and…

I backed into another tree.

When the sun shifted, O’Keeffe simply stood up, walked around, found another tree that offered some shade, moved her art supplies over there, and adjusted the painting to fit her new reality.

If you don’t believe me, believe Georgia O’Keeffe: Your lived experience is exactly enough. It is exactly the source from which you should draw (or paint, or sing, or dance, or write, or sew, or speak, or make) right now.

Hate the Idea of Outlines? Try a Thumbnail Sketch Instead.

 

Most artists begin with some version of a thumbnail sketch. It might look like this one: a tiny, rough drawing, made with the purpose of working out where the big shapes go. Generally there’s some attempt at indicating value (light and dark) as well. You might do four of these before you settle on a composition that works.

When I do an oil painting, I’m generally working from a photograph, so I’ve already messed around with the composition on my computer and cropped it to suit. But I still do something like a thumbnail: I make a rough drawing on the canvas, using just one color of paint, to work out the values and the big shapes.

Same with sketching. I don’t generally make a thumbnail before I start to sketch–after all, the sketches themselves are already small and informal–but I do draw in the major shapes first, very lightly, in pencil. I almost always erase and adjust. Then, when I start to draw in pen, I change the drawing again, because now I’ve been looking more closely, and I can make better observations than I could even a few minutes earlier.

These are very ordinary, everyday techniques for artists. I’ve realized, over time, that the thumbnail sketch doesn’t just help solve problems. It isn’t solely a means of deciding how high or low the horizon should be, or whether the focal point should be to the right or left of center.

It’s also a way of ruminating over a subject before committing to it. It’s a way of making a first pass through your idea, and getting better acquainted with it. It’s a way of connecting your subject to your eye, and your eye to your hand. If you make any kind of art, you know that connection has to be rebuilt every time you pick up your instrument.

So how do writers make a thumbnail sketch?

Lots of writers make outlines. There are as many different types of outlines as there are writers constructing them. Index cards, diagrams, mind maps, character sketches, Scrivener corkboards–people love that stuff. Also, some people hate that stuff. I know plenty of writers who can’t stand the idea of an outline. They have to wade right in.

There are also writers who keep journals (and even bullet journals). They keep track of character development, themes that are emerging, problems to be worked out. They might write as much in their journal as they do in their actual manuscript.

I do something in between. I think of it as a thumbnail sketch for writers.

I started keeping a writing journal a couple years ago, right after the 2016 election, when, like many artists, I was too distraught to work. I just picked up a blank notebook and started writing about how miserable I was and how nothing mattered anymore and how I couldn’t imagine starting another novel.

Then I wrote about how I couldn’t figure out what to write about.

Then I wrote about how I did know what to write about, if I was being honest, but I didn’t know HOW to write about it.

Then I wrote a few paragraphs about that thing I couldn’t figure out how to write, and next thing you know, I’d made a little thumbnail sketch–in words–about the first page of my novel.

Then I wrote the first page of my novel.

That’s more or less how I proceed all the time now. I sit down and write ABOUT what happens next in the book. I write about all the things I haven’t figured out. “This is the scene where she catches the thief,” I write, “but I still don’t know how she catches him. The trouble is that he broke in at midnight, and she doesn’t arrive until the next morning…” and on I go, until I’ve worked out some plausible way for the next scene to proceed.

The problem isn’t always “what happens next?” Sometimes the problem is the tone. “This is supposed to be a funny scene, but I don’t feel funny today. Nothing’s funny.” Then I find myself writing about what MIGHT be funny, if only I could bring myself to consider it, and pretty soon I’m writing my funny scene.

Like a thumbnail sketch, this type of writing lets me work out the big ideas and put them into place. I can’t just think about a thing inside my head and then execute it flawlessly. I need to noodle around with it first, using the same tools I’ll use to make the finished thing, whether that’s a pen, a paintbrush, or a piano keyboard.

That’s how I connect my subject to my brain, and my brain to my hand. Once I do that, I’m off and running.

Are You Haunted by a Restless Sense that There’s Something Better Out There? Congratulations, You’re an Artist

 

I can’t stop thinking about what I read in the last three pages of Peter Steinhart’s memoir The Undressed Art. If these lines speak to you…congratulations. You’re an artist.

This was the first passage that stopped me in my tracks:

“What does one feel that leads one to light out? A restlessness? A sense that one does not fit in? A desire for revision? A sense that somewhere else life could be better? All these seem to me to be the field marks of creative personalities.”

Wait. Not fitting in? A sense that life is better somewhere else? It’s tempting to label those feelings as unhappiness. It’s tempting to try to stop feeling that way, because you might be happier if you didn’t.

But…what if that restlessness is neither good nor bad, but simply the outlook of an artist?

He goes on to define artists as “dispersers”—people who are drawn to the open road, to new experiences and fresh faces. “Nondispersers” are the people who want you to stay put. Read on:

“There are places in which it is hard to live with a disperser’s outlook. There are always nondispersers arrayed against whatever spaces an artist creates. There are always people who cling to tradition and view this wanderlust, this desire, this questioning and restlessness, as a threat to the smooth operation of society.”

Here’s where he really gets going. Does this speak to you?

“Artists tend to end up in cities, especially in cities of unusual liberality. Art centers like New York, Paris, and San Francisco are cities that have been settled and built largely by dispersers, by people who didn’t fit into the more rigid social structures of small towns and autocratic rules, by people who left their birthplaces voluntarily because they felt, like Richard Jarrett, that there was something better ‘out there.’ People who could sympathize with and tolerate idiosyncrasy, confusion, muddled thinking, and visionary chaos, because they believed that in doing so we can learn to live with our own irrationality and unpredictability, our own shame, our own desire. That out of this muddle, out of the errant lines and blurred form and imperfectly read values, come possibility and hope. And sometimes, too, a clear and reassuring light. A picture that goes from form to feeling. A picture that envisions humankind in a fresh and promising way. A new space.”

He doesn’t ignore nature as the wellspring of creativity, either. I’ll leave it to you to find the entire passage, but it begins:

“A naturalist goes into nature also looking for hope, for insight, for something that reassures and clarifies. We see nature not as something to be dominated or transformed, but as the original whole.”

It is true, of course, that New York, Paris, and San Francisco were built by dispersers but have now been purchased by a global wealthy elite, rendering these cities unlivable for artists. We have been robbed of our creative heritage, of the places we built. I can’t fix that in a single blog post. (Yes I can: High taxes on vacant properties, second homes, and luxury rentals, plus laws requiring full transparency on all real estate transactions so that investors and money launderers can’t hide behind an LLC, plus a basic social safety net that includes universal health care, elder care, child care, robust public transit, and free college.)

That aside, I’d argue that the “visionary chaos” of old New York, Paris, and San Francisco will spring up anywhere the dispersers disperse to, whether that’s Detroit, Mexico City, or Marfa, Texas.

If this is you—if you’re tired of feeling that there’s always something better out there, and if you wonder what’s wrong with you for always longing for the next thing—I would say this:

That longing isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Congratulations, you’re a disperser. You’re an artist.

Stop Showing Your Art to Your Boyfriend.

I was sitting in a park recently, drawing the trees, when a woman asked if she could sit down next to me and watch me draw.

“Sure,” I said. “Are you an artist?”

“I wanted to be,” she said. “I started to draw, but then I showed my drawings to my boyfriend and he said they were no good, so I quit.”

“Stop showing your work to your boyfriend,” I said.

She laughed. “Yeah, I guess I could do that.”

**

Just last week I was on book tour with Elly Griffiths, whose protagonist is an archeologist. Elly’s husband is also an archaeologist. Someone in the audience asked what he thought of her novels.

“Oh, I don’t think he reads them,” she said, lightly and cheerfully.

The audience seemed shocked, but she wasn’t bothered at all by this. “They’re just not his sort of books,” she said.

Makes sense to me.

**

I believe that anyone who loves you should be able to look at the art you’re making and say, “I love you and I love it that you’re doing this. Please keep going.” That’s reasonable to expect.

An occasional “Wow, that’s wonderful” would be nice, just like an occasional “Hey, gorgeous” is nice. It’s not a full-page review in the New York Times. It’s a compliment, given out of kindness in those moments when you’ve made an extra effort and it shows.

They could also show their love by making it possible for you to work: by watching the kids, or clearing out a space in the garage, or simply by leaving you alone when you’re working.

They could help you load your equipment into the car. They could change that hard-to-reach light bulb in your studio.

They could point out an upcoming exhibit at the art museum, or a new book, or a concert, that speaks to your work.

They could inform themselves about your art just enough to be able to explain what you do to a stranger. “My husband’s a plein air painter,” would suffice, or “My wife’s a jazz percussionist.”

If your loved ones put you down for making art, or get in the way of you making art—well, then we have a problem.

But they don’t need to love your work—especially your rough, unfinished, just-for-practice work. They don’t need to read your books, or go to all your concerts. If you were a lawyer, they wouldn’t attend your every trial and deposition, would they?

My dad’s a musician, and my mother didn’t sit all night at his gigs, gazing adoringly at him while he played guitar. She made sure he had a clean shirt and something to eat before the show. Then he went off to do his work.

Your loved ones should look after YOU. You should look after your art.

“How Do I Start My Book?” I Have an Answer to That Question.

“I have an idea for a book, but I don’t know where to start.”

People ask writers for advice on starting a book all the time. I’m sure a lot of writers get tired of trying to answer that question. There you are, behind a table at a booksigning, at the end of a long evening, trying to summarize the incredibly messy and frustrating process of making 300 pages come together as a coherent whole while a dozen other people wait in line to get their book signed. Where to begin?

But I have an answer to this question! Last week, when a woman at my event in Wisconsin told me that she wanted to write a memoir but didn’t know where to start, I told her exactly where to start.

With a box of index cards.

Pick a month in which you don’t have tremendous demands on your time and attention. Every day during that month, write down any idea you have about this book you’d like to write and toss it in a box. These can be grand ideas (“The story of my grandparents’ immigration from Poland”) or small ideas (“That time I put salt in the cake batter instead of sugar.”) Some of them might not be suitable for the book you’re going to write. Some of them might be too big, too broad, overly vague. Some might be too small and specific and uninteresting.

Doesn’t matter! They’re only index cards. Write them down anyway, and toss them in the box.

If you have a very busy day in which you have no time to write anything down on an index card, force yourself to take one minute and write one thing down on one index card. C’mon, you had time to brush your teeth, right? You have time for this.

If you hit a mother lode and come up with 40 ideas all at once, great! Write them down on 40 index cards and put them in the box.

If an idea hits you and you don’t have an index card handy, write it down on any scrap of paper. Type it into the notes app on your phone. Email it to yourself. Leave yourself a voice mail.  And at the end of the day, transfer those ideas to index cards. There is something powerful and cumulative about writing your ideas down, in the same format, every day.

At the end of the month, I hope you have HUNDREDS of cards. You should keep adding cards all the time.  Don’t stop just because the month is over.

Now what? Well, remember, this is the short version, the standing-in-line-at-the-booksigning version. But the next thing you should do is to pull out an index card and write ONE PAGE about what’s on that card. Tell the story, whatever it is, no matter how big or small it is.

Just one page. A double-spaced page, at that! We’re talking 300 words. Anybody can get 300 words down on paper.

Writing this page might give you more ideas for more index cards. Good.

You might not get the whole story written in one page. Fine. Write two pages. Or (even better) leave yourself a few notes and come back tomorrow to write another page.

Don’t worry about where that page falls in the chronological timeline of your story. In fact, I hope you write everything out of order. It’ll be fresh and interesting that way.

If you can write one page a day–a double-spaced page!–then at the end of the year, you’ll have a book.  That even allows for some days off for holidays, illness, whatever.

Now, I promise you that it’ll be a terrible book, a real mess, and it’ll be completely out of order, and there will be a million things about it that are wrong and out of whack and in need of some serious fixing–but now you have some pages to work with.

That’s how you start.

My Art Supplies

If you follow me on Instagram, you might’ve noticed that I’ve been posting a lot of sketches lately. Sketching is a delightful pastime that also happens to be highly portable, especially if you have a small and simple set of art supplies that can go with you everywhere.

I get a lot of questions about what art supplies I use, so here’s the answer.  I’m including links to purchase online, but only because you can see a clear photo of each item. I encourage you to buy your supplies locally! Your local art supply store will be there when you need it–when you run out of ink or paper right before you’re about to head out on a sketching trip–but they can only be there when you need them IF you buy from them all the time! They can order all this stuff.

Here’s a video of me showing everything I take with me when I travel (as of February 2020)

Here’s a video of me showing how I juggle these art supplies when I’m out and about in the world.

PENCIL
A mechanical pencil. My favorite: the Pentel Quicker Clicker with a side click button. Buy lots of extra HB refills and store them in the pencil.
OR: An HB drawing pencil and portable sharpener. Or just an ordinary No 2 pencil.

ERASER
A kneadable grey eraser

BLACK DRAWING PENS—DO NOT GET WATER-SOLUBLE! You want permanent ink.
.8 thickness Steadtler permanent drawing liner (or similar brand)
AND .3 or smaller Steadtler permanent drawing liner (or similar brand)

OR…FOUNTAIN PENS!

I love Lamy Safari pens with an extra fine or fine nib (honestly I can’t tell much difference between those two) and the Sailor Fude pen. Note that the cartridges that come with these pens are not waterproof! I get the converter (Lamy and Sailor) and fill them with Platinum Carbon ink because it’s waterproof.

I also have a Platinum Carbon desk pen, which I love for its ultra fine line. The cartridge that comes with this is weirdly not waterproof, so get some extra Platinum Carbon cartridges. These are great because it’s easy to travel with extra cartridges, but I would not travel with a bottle of ink.

I used to be worried about real ink pens leaking on airplanes. It’s never happened to me, but if you’re worried about that, seal them in a ziplock bag during the flight.

BLACK BRUSH PEN
I love the amazing Pentel Pocket Brush Pen.

If you want a cheaper option, get a PERMANENT (not water-soluble) SB (“soft brush”) artist marker in black, such as the Faber-Castell Artist Pen SB.

These grey brush pens are nice for putting in shadows before you do watercolor, but not necessary.

WRITING PEN
Any good ballpoint writing pen. My favorite: A Pilot G2 or Uniball Signo 307 

SKETCHBOOK
For practicing, a small (8 x 5 or so) spiral-bound watercolor sketchbook, like Strathmore.
For more finished sketching, the Moleksine watercolor sketchbook (make sure it fits in your bag!) or the square Pentalic sketchbook (and of course you can do bigger horizontal or vertical layouts with a square notebook, too) There are lots of options–just make sure you get paper that is meant to take watercolor.

I also like these blank watercolor postcards. You can tuck just a few in your bag and take them anywhere.

TRAVEL WATERCOLOR KIT

Field Artist Pro kit
Advantages: super portable, ring underneath you can stick your finger through, comes with decent colors, easy to refill pans with solid half-pan or tube watercolors.
Disadvantage: Plastic pans tend to slide around just a bit. I use a little blue earthquake putty to hold them in place, and I’ve replaced the pan colors with my own tube colors.

The Pocket Palette / Artist ToolKit
Made by an artist. Very well thought-out. Designed for tube colors (which you would buy separately and squeeze into the pans, and then let them dry–so you don’t have to travel with the tubes). Good if you think you are really going to get into this and want beautiful tube pigments. This is the one I’m using lately and I love it.

Windsor Newton

I haven’t tried it, but a lot of people use it.

PAINT

Eventually you will get tired of the cheap pan watercolors and want real yummy tube watercolors, which you squeeze into the pans and let dry.  Daniel Smith is everyone’s favorite–this set would be a good place to start. I would add a sap green, transparent red oxide, yellow ochre, a good purple or shadow violet, cerulean blue, and maybe another color that you just love for no obvious reason. If you want to try before you buy (and have a ridiculous amount of fun) buy the Daniel Smith Dot Cards.

My basic palette right now includes:

• Cobalt blue
• Ultramarine blue
• Prussian blue
• New Gamboge
• Hansa Yellow Medium
• Yellow Ochre
• Pyrrol Orange
• Quinacridone Rose
• Alizarin Crimson
• Sap Green
• Viridian
• Shadow Violet
• Transparent Red Oxide
• Neutral Tint

WATERCOLOR BRUSH
Any round watercolor brush, size 6, 8, or 10. Synthetic is fine. Don’t get fancy. Here’s one example.  Short-handled is better because it fits in your bag. You can also cut off a longer handle.

If you want to get fancy, get yourself the very nice Escoda travel brush (with cap! So useful!)

Or maybe you want to try a fillable watercolor brush like these.

ODDS & ENDS
PAPER TOWELS or if you tend to forget to pick up paper towels like I do, one of those cheap microfiber cleaning cloths (sold next to kitchen sponges in any kind of store). I cut mine into fourths so I can carry less.
BINDER CLIP To hold the pages of your notebook flat in the wind.
SMALL WATERTIGHT BOTTLE for brush cleaning. I use an empty travel-sized shampoo bottle.

A bag to hold it all! Make sure your bag can also hold your phone, wallet, whatever else, and is light enough that you will actually take the whole kit with you when you go places! If it’s too much trouble, you’ll leave it at home.

CLASSES

I’m teaching writing and art classes on Skillshare these days! Go here to see what I’m up to.

A few people have asked me about the online classes I’ve taken, so here are some suggestions:

BluPrint’s sketching classes are wonderful (formerly Craftsy). My favorites are the ones taught by Marc Taro Holmes, Shari Blaukopf, and Suhita Shirodkar. I also love Suma CM’s class about sketching in 15 minutes a day. Steven Reddy’s style is very different from mine, but his approach really helped me figure out interiors. Stephanie Bower’s class is great if you need help with perspective.  Look for others by these instructors, not just the ones I’ve linked to.

I also love Liz Steel’s Sketching Now classes, and I admire her so much for producing these herself!

James Richards teaches a great class on Skillshare about drawing people, and you can get two months free with this link.

Finally, Marc Taro Holmes (and many other artists) have great videos on ArtistsNetworkTV. I rented one of these and invited a couple of friends over so we could do them together. Great fun.

 

 

The Amazing, Astonishing Google Check: How I Used Google to Spell-Check Every Word in My Book.

Anyone who uses technical terms, scientific terms, foreign words, proper nouns, or brand names in their writing knows the limitations of the spell-checker built into a word processing program.  After all, it’s just a static list of words that got loaded onto your computer and never gets updated or expanded unless you do it yourself.  (And if you’ve ever tried one of the professional spell check add-ons, like Spellex, you may have noticed that they don’t always include every possible term in your field–I found the botanical checker particularly lacking–in which case, you still can’t be confident that you’ve caught everything.)

My latest book, The Drunken Botanist, is packed with weird, tricky words.  On a single page, I might mention the name of a flavor molecule, the Latin name of a plant, the surname of the French botanist who discovered it, and the brand name of a liqueur that is flavored by that plant.

That goes on for 400 pages.  You cannot imagine what a chore it was to proofread this book, and the level of sobriety required for the task.

After the completed, polished, edited, spell-checked manuscript had been proofread at least three times by me, my editor, a professional copy editor, a professional proofreader, a few other people I probably don’t even know about, and been read closely by a few smart friends and relatives, I got the pages back one last time for a final check.  It had already been typeset by then, so I got it as one long PDF.

Every time I saw a tricky term that didn’t look right, I double-clicked the word, copied it, and pasted it into Google to check.  Google, as you may know, is a surprisingly useful spell-checker:  if you get a word wrong, you’ll probably get “Did you mean…” right under the search term.  Even if that doesn’t happen, Google will generally take you to a variety of well-respected sources (or, in the case of a brand name, the company’s website) to help you check the spelling. It even catches pop culture terms, and it snags some context-specific stuff (for instance, if you wrote “hear” instead of “here”) And–bonus– Google is poly-lingual.

So as I was doing that, I was thinking, “I wish I could just Google the whole book.  Why can’t I do that?”

Then I realized that I could.  Google Docs (now called Google Drive) relies on Google’s search engine technology for its spell check function.

Why had I never thought of this before?  Here’s how I did it:

First, since I was working with a PDF, I copied the text and pasted it into a plain-text editor.

Once I had the whole document in Notepad, I copied chunks of it into a blank Google Docs document.  I found that there was an upper limit to how much text Google Docs could handle at once.  What worked for me was to put my cursor at a starting point in the Notepad text, then hit Page Down about 15 -20 times, and copy that much text at a time.    In my case, that worked out to about 35,000 words at a time.

Once you paste it into Google Docs, it takes a little while to process and save it–roughly 20 seconds.  At some point beyond that 20-second mark, with a larger chunk of text, it just gives up and won’t process it at all–at least, that was my experience.  So the sweet spot seems to be right about 35,000 words. (update: in 2020, you can pretty much always just paste the entire text in at once. But try breaking it into chunks if you find it’s too slow.)

Then all you have to do is go through and right-click on any word underlined in red.  It’ll give you a “Did you mean…” suggestion for anything that looks weird to Google–including people’s names, names of foreign cities, obscure scientific terms, all of it.

And guess what?  I found an astonishing thirty-eight errors with this method.

This is after it had been through a very rigorous and professional editing process that took months and passed through many very competent hands.  A process in which we’d all discussed how important it would be to check and double-check those tricky, difficult-to-check words. We weren’t even really proofreading anymore–this was just a final, quick look-see before it went to the printer.

And yet the silliest mistakes had escaped the notice of all of us.  Most of the mistakes I found had been in the original manuscript all along. We’d all missed them.

I can tell you that I will never again publish a book without running it through Google. (and I am fighting the temptation to Google my previous books–it is only the fact that I don’t have a PDF of the final version of each previous book that is holding me back.)

It’s time-consuming — the whole process took me 12-14 hours, in part because Google flagged a lot of words that were actually correct, but I still had to slow down and double-check them– but entirely worthwhile.   I think that if I had it to do over again, I’d run the Google check twice during the editing process.

The first time would be right before I transmit the final version of the manuscript. This is the version that my editor and I have already been over at least three times and that I have spell-checked (both with the computer and with my eyeballs) many times.  Once we transmit it, I never get it back as a Word document again.  From that point on, someone else inputs the changes. And new errors can get introduced as those changes are made.

So I’d Google-check it once right before transmittal just to eliminate obvious errors and make the professional copy editor and proofreader’s jobs easier.  The fewer mistakes they have to contend with, the more likely they will be to catch all the stuff that computers don’t catch.

Then, when I got final, typeset pages, maybe at the second pass stage, I’d take the PDF and copy/paste it and do the Google check one more time.  It probably wouldn’t turn up much, but then again, I wasn’t expecting to find 38 errors this time.

The genius behind this technology appears to be a guy named Yew Jin Lim.  Dude, you are invited to Thanksgiving at my house every year, from now on. Do not be surprised if I dedicate my next book to you. Srsly.  (Google got that word right, btw. And that one.)