Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Progress

March 31, 2015 @ 7:58 pm | Filed under: Art, Assorted and Sundry

One of the earliest lessons of having a special-needs child was learning to recognize his progress not by comparing him to typically-developing children of the same age, but by comparing him to his own earlier self. I say ‘lesson’ and ‘learn’ but in truth this was something that happened naturally and almost instantaneously after his multiple diagnoses and the beginning of various therapies—physical, occupational, speech. As soon as I had an understanding of his developmental challenges, I was able to rejoice over each increment of progress, each small accomplishment along with the big ones. It was like my brain was wiped free of comparisons to other babies, including my first three, and all that existed was this baby, making these tremendous (even when tiny) strides.

That mental shift keeps popping into my mind lately as I keep working (and working and working) on drawing. Only here, it isn’t natural and instantaneous. Here, I have to keep relearning the lesson; some days I practically have to shout it at myself. The trouble, of course, is that I have so many friends who are spectacularly good artists. Years of training, years of dedication and work. Hundreds or thousands of pages of finished art under their belts. If I compare my drawings—or my slow progress—to them, I feel bleak. I don’t have it, that thing they have. Vision, natural talent, hand-eye coordination, vast knowledge of technique—you name it, I don’t have it. All I have is…earnestness. A belief that everyone can learn to draw, and that includes me. And this long-simmering desire to learn, kindled last fall into a full-boil determination.

So I keep reminding myself, baby artist, to compare myself to the even babier artist I was a few months ago. I remember when my son was finally able to climb up stairs on his own. He was well past a year old. He had motor planning issues, and we spent hours and hours over a period of several months, moving his limbs for him up stair by stair by stair. Hand, knee, hand, knee. Or was it hand, hand, knee, knee, I don’t remember now. Either way, it took so much practice. Until one day his brain figured it out. The pattern was learned. The pathways were formed. Soon after that we could hardly remember what it was like before he learned to climb stairs. We had to scramble to help him learn how to climb down.

Stair by stair, I’m making progress. For every ten drawings I hate, I make one that I like. But I like looking at the bad ones, too, because I know that the fact that I can see what’s wrong with them is another sign of my progress. My eye is improving along with my hand. (“Your taste is killer. Your taste is why your work disappoints you.”)

Today I looked at something I’d done, a couple of quick, surreptitious gesture sketches of some women in a meeting, and realized I’d attempted people—in complex postures, no less—without even thinking about it. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have done that. It’s nice to know I’ve made it up a stair or two.

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“…wake to the wonder of this grass”

March 12, 2015 @ 8:16 am | Filed under: Art, Assorted and Sundry, Commonplace Book

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Ours is in bloom this very day, as it happens

“Our Christmas cactus has predictably bloomed each December for three decades and some years when it has been colder for longer, as is the case this year, it often blooms more than once a year. Our Christmas cactus is alive and growing 365 days of the year, most of which it is rarely seen by me but only looked at.”

That’s Owen Swain in his post “Blooming Cactus / blooming an illustrated life / and, what I learned in Sketchbook Skool.”

In his drawing of the cactus, he includes a quote which sent me immediately dashing for my commonplace book (which is to say, this blog).

“While drawing grasses I learn nothing ‘about’ grass, but wake to the wonder of this grass and its growing, to the wonder that there is grass at all.”

—Frederick Franck

That. Yes. Exactly. Or at least, I suppose I would say I learn something about grass when I’m drawing it, I learn something about everything I look at closely. But that kind of learning is implied in the quote. I get what he means by ‘about.’ And yes, the waking to the wonder of a thing by observing it quietly, moving your pen along its paths, or by writing a poem about it (“This grasshopper, I mean—/ the one who has flung herself out of the grass,/ the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—/ who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes…”)*; even, I daresay, by blogging about it—the combined act of observing, pondering, and then expressing, in word or line—these endeavors shift your relationship with the humble object; they awaken you to the wonder the thing actually is.

The very first revelation that struck me about drawing, way back in college during a too-brief foray into sketching, was the passage in the Betty Edwards book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in which one of Betty’s students mentioned that after she began trying to draw faces, “every face I looked at seemed beautiful to me.” I have written before about the enormous impact that statement had on me, not just in relation to drawing but to an overall view of life.

The drawing lessons taught her to really look at people, and when she did, she saw beauty everywhere.

I know I’m going all over the place here, but in my mind these things are all connected: this way of really looking, really seeing, noticing what is interesting and important and even beautiful about things many people whisk by without noticing. And what I can do for my children is refuse to fill up their lives with things they must patiently endure until a better moment comes. I can savor the moments as they happen, and give them the time and space to find what’s interesting and beautiful in every face the world shows them.

As I was writing that last sentence, Beanie appeared in front of me with a big smile and a present: a bracelet made of safety pins linked together, each pin shining with green and blue beads. “It’s for you, Mommy,” she breathed, so proud and excited. “Jane showed me how.” How patiently (the good kind of patience) she must have worked to slide all those beads in place.

I never noticed before what a work of art a safety pin is!

I’ve written so many times on this blog about how my approach to education is to keep the focus on the process, not the product. The lesson is renewed for me every time I take pencil in hand and try to capture the lines of a thing on my page. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all how my drawing ‘turns out.’ The magic is in the doing.

*From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Danny Gregory interviewed me about one of my favorite subjects: making art with kids

March 8, 2015 @ 7:59 am | Filed under: Art

Sketchbook Skool Q&Art video interview

Well, this was quite a treat. My recent post on ways to encourage a family art habit caught the eye of folks at Sketchbook Skool, which led to my being interviewed by Danny Gregory for a Q&Art video. As an eager viewer of this excellent video series, I was delighted to find myself chatting with an artist whose books and classes (I mean klasses) have been a tremendous source of inspiration and education for me. What a joy. Danny asked me for advice on encouraging creativity in children—one of my pet topics, as you know!

(Not included in the video: the two minutes of Rilla bouncing up and down in her overwhelming glee at meeting Danny, one of her heroes, via Skype just before we began the recording. She was absolutely starstruck. :) )

(direct link)

Ten Ways to Cultivate a Family Art Habit

February 16, 2015 @ 9:28 pm | Filed under: Art

Ten Ways to Cultivate a Family Art Habit (1)

On Twitter, Kim asked if I had any advice for a family getting started with sketching and art journaling. Did I ever!



I’ve Storified the conversation, if you’d like to see how it unfolded, but I’ll recap it here as well.


My replies below, expanded a bit. Points #6 and 7 are the most important.

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Suggestions? Yes, lots!

1) Koosje Koene’s Draw Tip Tuesday videos. She also offers classes in drawing and art journaling. (Here’s a post I wrote about her videos in November.)

2) Sign up for a free two-week trial at Creativebug and take Dawn Devries Sokol’s Art Journaling class and Lisa Congdon’s Basic Line Drawing. I wrote about how much Lisa’s class inspired me in my “Learning in Public” post.

3) A bunch of books to inspire you: Lynda Barry’s wonderful Syllabus; Danny Gregory’s new Art Before Breakfast (it’s a delight; I’ll be reviewing it soon) and the much-beloved The Creative License; the Illustration School series; the “20 Ways to Draw a…” series; Claire Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal; the Usborne “I Can Draw” series. And a few more recommendations in this older post.

4) Maybe try a Sketchbook Skool course! They offer a free sample class (I mean klass) so you can get a taste of the magic.

5) Cathy Johnson videos. Rilla loves Cathy’s art and her gentle delivery.

6) The most important thing! Really just dive in and do it—if you do it, the kids will follow. Mine truly love to see me working & playing in my sketchbook. Actually, Rose was just commenting on it today, before this Twitter conversation occurred. She said she has really enjoyed watching me start from scratch (so to speak) and work at learning to draw. They all seem to love to see me trying, making mistakes, learning, improving. My progress excites them almost as much as it does me. :)

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7) The REALLY most important piece of advice I can give: Allow plenty of TIME and room for mess. Many parents say “I want my kids to be creative” but can’t tolerate mess. Art is messy. Creativity is messy. You need space to leave work out and return to it. Supplies in easy reach. And big spans of time for messing around, staring into space, doodling, doing things that look unproductive. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is to any creative process. Time and room.

When I’m writing a novel, my most intense work happens while I look like I’m doing nothing at all. Sitting and staring blankly, chewing my nails, or filling an entire page with tiny lines and spirals. This is my body getting out of the way so my brain can get down to the real work of creating.

And for the visual arts, these totally tactile pursuits, you’ve got to have a place to spread out your paints, your pencils, your small objects that make you itch to draw. You know what’s nice and tidy and doesn’t clutter a room? A cellphone. If you want them to spend less time staring at screens (I’m not knocking screens here, you know I love me some screen time), you’ve got to grant them some real estate.

With that in mind, I make a point of keeping art supplies in easy reach. We have a dedicated kitchen drawer for placemats, paper, paint supplies so even the youngest kids can help themselves. Jars of colored pencils & crayons on table, a sharpener on the kitchen counter, a stack of art books on the shelf nearby. I want them to have constant free access to art materials. It’s also a good idea to keep a bag packed for outings. I described ours in this old GeekMom post.

8) And what materials do I recommend? For littles: good paper, cheap paints. I elaborated on my reasons in this post from several years back:

When my older kids were little, I read lots and lots about the benefits of providing children with really high quality art supplies. In some cases, I still agree: Prismacolor colored pencils are worlds better than your drugstore variety. The lead is so creamy and blendable. They’re expensive but they last a long time—we’re on our second set of 72 colors in over ten years.

But watercolors? Real watercolor paper makes a huge difference, but it’s expensive; that’s one reason I was so taken with Jenn’s idea to cut it into smaller, postcard-sized pieces. But when it comes to the paints themselves, well, I’ve been the high-quality route, absorbed the persuasive literature that talks about rich pigments and translucent hues; bought the pricey tubes of red, yellow, blue; collected jars for mixing colors; watched my children squeeze out too much paint and gleefully swirl it into an expensive puddle of mud-colored glop.

Lesson learned. The 99 cent Roseart or Crayola sets work just fine. In fact, dare I say I think my preschoolers like them better? Mixing colors is fun, but there is nothing quite so appealing as that bright rainbow of pretty paint ovals all in a row. When Wonderboy and Rilla make a mess of their paints, Jane cleans them up with a rag and they’re practically good as new.

For older kids—and for yourself!—my advice is to skip the student-grade watercolors and go right to artist quality. More expensive but the difference is immense. You can use the money you saved buying cheap paints for the preschoolers. 😉

We’re still addicted to Prismacolor pencils—no other brand will do for me. And I like Micron pens for line drawing. The ink is waterfast so you can paint over it (like my pumpkins in yesterday’s post). I also picked up a few gel pens—white, silver, and gold—and Rilla has had unbelievable amounts of fun with them. I love the white one for writing on a dark surface, like on the tag of my pencil pouch here.

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Don’t feel like you have to have millions of fancy supplies right off the bat. Look at what Andrea Joseph can do with a simple Bic pen. (Seriously, this blew my mind.)

The sketchbook I just filled up was a Canson Mixed Media, 7×10 spiral bound. The size worked really well for me and the paper takes watercolor okay (not perfectly but well enough for where I am right now). I also have a small Moleskine journal with watercolor paper, but it feels so special I find myself hesitant to use it and reaching for the mixed media book instead. (I’ve just started a new one, same as the one I filled up.) That’s my real playground, the place I’m not afraid to (in the words of my personal hero, Ms. Frizzle) “Take chances and make mistakes!” But I’m getting braver every day and the lovely paper in that Moleskine is calling to me.

I’ve also found I love doing my first rough sketches with a brown watercolor pencil, very lightly. I go over it with ink afterward and then, when I paint, the pencil just blends in and becomes shadow. I don’t sketch this way every time, but for some reason it seems to free me up. I’m more daring with this pencil. It takes me to a confident place between graphite pencil—with its sometimes overly tempting eraser—and straight-to-ink, which is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying. The brown Aquarelle feels like my co-conspirator. I don’t know how else to describe it. I have even starting making some first tentative stabs at portrait drawing, thanks to this pencil. (I tried a selfie-a-day project for a week. None of them looked much like me, but this attempt on day seven could maybe be a cousin?)

my cousin me
Guys, I still feel so shy about posting my drawings! I mean, I have so many friends who make their livings as illustrators—heck, one of them even just won the Caldecott! (GO DAN! SO THRILLED!) Do you know how nerve-wracking it is to know pros are looking at your rookie work? Of course you do. Because what I’ve learned is everyone feels that way. Even my most brilliant artist friends look at some other person’s work and sigh wistfully, wishing they’d made that piece. I’ve seen it happen time and again. So bit by bit I’m getting brave enough to share my baby steps. 

9) Okay, so you have your lovely sketchbook and drawing implements, now what to draw?? Well, I guarantee Koosje Koene’s videos mentioned above will keep you and the kids busy for a good long while. There’s also this wonderful Everyday Matters Challenge list at Danny Gregory’s blog. 328 suggestions, so you’re just about good through 2016. And Kortney tipped me off to this most excellent Lynda Barry post (in Rilla’s words, I simply adore her) about keeping a visual diary.

10) And a last tidbit I almost forgot: A most beloved activity here (especially for Rilla and me) is to listen to audiobooks while sketching. Many of my happiest hours have been spent this way. We’re especially fond of Roald Dahl while drawing. Nobody brings on the whimsy like Dahl.

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San Diego gardening is a quirky business

February 16, 2015 @ 3:01 pm | Filed under: Art, Butterflies, Gardening

spring pumpkins

Remember those pumpkins I said might be ripe in time for Christmas? More like Valentine’s Day. We gave most of them away to a neighbor (who thanked us with pumpkin bread, so we came out ahead) but kept a couple to perpetuate the cycle. We’ll ignore these and let Nature do her thing, and maybe we’ll have some seeds sprouting earlier in the season this time around. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the jarring contrast of spring flowers and fall harvest.

Spotted two tiny caterpillars on the milkweed! Sadly, however, we also found a withered monarch chrysalis hanging on the fence with a pinprick hole in it. It looks like we’re raising caterpillars for something’s lunch. Not cool, Nature. Monarchs have enough to contend with these days.

six weekend moments

February 15, 2015 @ 7:34 pm | Filed under: Art, Assorted and Sundry, Gardening

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1. Leaving the house early yesterday morning, I spotted a pair of goldfinches feasting on the seeds of my basil—yes, another herb I forgot to pinch back, and now I’m glad

2. Pink milk and candy hearts

3. Saturday night ritual: art time with Rilla while the older girls watch TV with Scott (after the early-to-bed boys have conked out). This week, we binged on Cathy Johnson videos. Oh, I just love her, murmurs my girl.

4. Weeded the front-yard flower beds. Began, at any rate, and made good headway. After I mowed the other day, I discovered just how much is in bloom. Nasturtiums, coreopsis, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, viola, milkweed…Ellie said it’s okay to talk about my flowers, hope you don’t mind. 😉

5. Set up a new palette and spent a good while testing colors with Rilla.

6. This one’s a Big Happy: today I finished the last empty page in my very first complete sketchbook. I started it on August 30. Have drawn or painted almost every day since (even if only for a few minutes). Feeling pretty chuffed.

The intrepid artist

December 31, 2014 @ 2:36 pm | Filed under: Art

rillaracetrack

Rilla and I have been trying to work in our sketchbooks daily. I feel brave when I tackle a subject like my stapler or a piece of fruit, and then I watch her casually sit down and commence drawing something massive and complicated with utter confidence. She is dauntless. I am inspired.

Singing my song

November 27, 2014 @ 10:29 am | Filed under: Art

The habit of making art is wonderful. Sharing it is sublime.”

Danny Gregory, artist, author of The Creative License and other wonderful books on illustrated sketchbook-keeping

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Learning in Public

November 24, 2014 @ 8:56 pm | Filed under: Art

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Something I think is wonderful about social media is the way so many creative people share their efforts and progress in various arts. I don’t just mean professional artists sharing their finished work, though of course that too is a great delight—this abundance of gorgeous, polished photography and painting and stories and poems and quilts and handwovens and other creations we find displayed all over the internet. Just Google artist sketchbook blog and you could be absorbed for weeks upon weeks.

But even more so, I appreciate the working-it-out pieces, the I’m-undertaking-something-new-and-here’s-how-it’s-going-so-far posts. Years ago, a bunch of us were doing this with quilting—posting pictures of our blocks, sometimes the first ones we’d ever made, crooked seams and all. You see it often with knitting and sewing and all kinds of handcrafts. Look what I made! I know it isn’t perfect, but… Sometimes shy, sometimes fearless, always inspiring, this sharing of incremental progress.

Even people who are accomplished in one aspect of an art sometimes do what I’ve come to think of as “learning in public” when they undertake another aspect of it—a kind of unabashedness I thoroughly respect, since it means admitting to gaps in skills or knowledge, but speaks to a desire to always be learning, always be stretching one’s abilities. I think about the very wise advice of that great sage, Ms. Frizzle: “Take chances! Make mistakes!” Our mistakes are what spark growth.

Certainly you may challenge yourself in private, and do plenty of chance-taking and mistake-making without an audience. Most people do, I think. Or they do it in the context of a relatively intimate setting: a knitting club, an improv class, a private piano lesson. I understand that, I respect that desire for privacy. But it makes me all the more grateful to see someone willing to fumble along in public, so to speak, encouraging the rest of us by posting rookie work online. Then, too, you create an archive of progress, not just for yourself but for future students of the art.

Lisa Congdon, a very accomplished artist, decided to improve her lettering skills by posting a handlettered image on her blog every day for a year. Every day of 2012, she shared her work. About a hundred days into the project, she wrote:

Hand lettering everyday is a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. Some days it feels really fun. Some days it feels like a chore (and I have to redo something 5 times to get it as right as I can). I do like the discipline of the process. When I did my first daily project in 2010, I felt the same way. The daily encouragement from people who read my blog and follow me on twitter also helps tremendously!

Artist Jennifer Orkin Lewis (I’ve posted about her before) does a daily 30-minute painting in her sketchbook and posts each page on Instagram. They are a feast for the eyes, let me tell you. In an interview with Lisa Congdon, Jennifer said, “I decided to post them all on Instagram to hold myself accountable to painting everyday.” I think there’s a lot to be said for using a blog or other public medium to help yourself stick to a goal—spurred on both by the sense of accountability Jennifer describes, and the encouragement and support Lisa speaks of.

***

I wrote the above more than a week ago and left it sitting in drafts because—despite everything I said up there—I personally feel really shy about sharing my rookie drawing and painting efforts. (Confession: the one time I went to a karaoke party, I was dying to get up and sing—and would have died before I’d have volunteered.)

This morning Tammy Garcia posted the following at Daisy Yellow:

When I started drawing I didn’t know that I would or could get better. I thought that people were either born with innate drawing talent or they were not. Perhaps they skipped the queue. But the truth for me has been that my coordination and control have improved over the years. If you are having trouble getting the pen to do what you want it to do. Maybe you just need to draw more lines.

When I started drawing in about 2008, I was an accountant – a financial analyst – with no particular drawing skill set. I started drawing doodly lines simply to pass the time while my kids were doing stuff. I drew in moleskine journals. On airplanes, at swimming lessons, while the kids splashed in the tub, at Starbucks and book stores.

The boxes looked like wonky kites. Parallel lines intersected instead. Circles looked like cracked eggs.

But looking back, I can see that every time I challenged myself to try something new {what about a mandala without any curved lines? what about ivy leaves that cover each page? what about a mandala where the lines focus on negative space? what about a new alphabet?} I made a step forward. In understanding, in pen control, in art. With trial & error & practice, I now know how hard to press, how to move my arm, my hand, to get a reasonable facsimile of a straight line. I can draw curves. I still can’t draw great faces, but I believe that one day I will.

(Read the rest—there’s a lot more including a list of ways to improve your line work.)

Tammy teaches online art classes and sends out regular art-journaling prompts that inspire masses of people. What a delight to see her discussing her (relatively recent) learning curve. I was nodding excitedly as I read along, because I’ve been drawing lines almost obsessively ever since taking Lisa Congdon’s Creativebug course in early October—pages and pages of scallops or triangles or short parallel lines in interlocking patterns. It’s meditative and relaxing, a good busying-of-the-hands for me when I want to think for a bit. But mostly I’ve been doing it simply for the pure pleasure of feeling the line. Of making my pen do what I want it to do. Of figuring out, bit by bit, how to do it better.

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Now Rilla and I are watching all these Koosje Koene drawing videos and I’m trying to push a little farther. This month my sketchbook is full of staplers and tape dispensers and colored pencils—whatever’s lying around on my desk when I sit down to draw. I’m working on watercolor, too. SO MUCH TO LEARN. Scott gets cross with me when I start pointing out all the flaws in my work—he thinks I’m way too hard on myself, being a novice and all—but I remind him that as professional writers, our entire day is laced with editing and revising—the constant practice of seeking out places in our writing that could be made better, stronger, zingier, lovelier, fresher, truer, something-er. I don’t feel pained about cataloguing the ways a drawing isn’t there yet. I enjoy it, actually. Especially since reading that Ira Glass quote and recognizing that it’s my “killer taste” that allows me to see the weaknesses in my own work.

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Because at the same time that I’m self-critiquing, I’m also feeling a tremendous sense of pleasure in having a Finished Thing I Made. This was a bit of a revelation I had the other day after I painted these tomatoes from my garden. It’s my first real attempt at a proper watercolor. And even as I was scrutinizing its shortcomings, I felt giddy: there it is. This thing I made. In one sitting! I’ve been working on my current novel for four years. Even books I’ve written quickly took months—and then another year or more to reach publication day.

I can grow a tomato in my sketchbook in an hour. To me it feels like magic.

I don’t think I’m brave enough to commit to posting a daily drawing—much as I would like the accountability and encouragement! But maybe I’ll try to keep learning in public once in a while. Something I want my kids to know is that you have to be not-great at something on your way to getting better at it.