Letting Your Weirdo Flag Fly
All my favorite people are weirdos.
When I was little, my sister and I were playing with my grandma, and we happily said, “Grandma, you’re so WEIRD!” She was mortified and a bit offended, til my mother explained, “in our family, being weird is a COMPLIMENT.”
Our daughter is overflowing with this magical, neverending waterfall of creative ideas. She grabs paper and tape and makes shoes, or helmets, or tails, or spaceships, or her own paper zoo, complete with three-dimensional animals. Her wheels are always turning, and as a person who constantly tries to keep up with all the creative ideas in my OWN head, it’s so amazing to witness and recognize in someone else.
The other day, I drew a little picture of her with a paper space helmet she made. She had made a paper space helmet for me too, and we took turns exploring a new planet in our living room.
Later, she added aliens in it, and told a little story about them. That she had come to a new planet. That there were aliens that looked like babies but that were adults. They were blue. One was in a spaceship, one was in love with her, and one said hi, as another peeked out of a crater. Another showed off his invention of springy shoes and hands.
We talked about what I could add, and later I showed her my doodle, which instantly brought an “AWWW!” when she saw the cute little big-eyed mouse-elephant-tapir-alien things in the background.
She gave me color suggestions, and asked me to please make sure I added a little light blue to the alien critters in the background.
One day during this process, she came home from a regular day at school saying,
“Mom, there was a kid at school that called me a weirdo. I think they meant it in a bad way, but I just said ‘thank you.'”
I absolutely couldn’t have been prouder. She didn’t get her feelings hurt. She didn’t say something mean back to be spiteful. She just happily said “thank you,” which was wonderful. I have been trying her whole life so far to prepare her for the cruelness of other people, even way back when she loved Batman and the other kids tried to tell her that “only boys played with superheroes.”
Listen, I get it…she likes weird things. She likes bug and bats and dinosaurs and Batman. She has a wild imagination and loves to pretend. She knows about sci-fi, and I do my best to answer any question she might possibly have about ANYTHING, and try to explain it to her in a way she can easily understand. Nothing is taboo (and believe me, she ASKS). People are most likely going to call her a weirdo. I’ve been expecting it, because I went through it myself firsthand. So I’ve made it a mission to point out to her that the most creative people around her, the most wonderful people, the most artistic friends we have, have ALL been called “weird” at some point or another.
“People are going to try to make you feel bad for being different. But different is GOOD,” I told her. She caught on quickly, and added in her own words, “sometimes people will try to point you a certain way. But instead of following their pointers, you can help CHANGE their pointers to point another way–the way YOU want to go.”
It can be hard sometimes, it might hurt your feelings sometimes, but that one thing that helps is try to find other weirdos. And if you can’t find other weirdos, try to let kids see how awesome your weirdness can be…
One day at the playground, inspired by “Secret of the Kells” (in which there was a girl character who was a shape-changing wolf-girl), she ran around to the other kids, saying “would you like to play werewolves with me?” The kids looked at her strangely. I’m sure their idea of “werewolf” was more the scary halloween type, and not the cute shape-shifting fairy girl-type. I started to worry that she’d get discouraged and feel bad, but I let her handle it. Cut to ten minutes later, though, and nearly EVERY KID on that playground was playing werewolves with her. She had them all going in a den (under the slide) to rest, and then coming back out into the “trees” (the monkeybars) to run around in the wild, meet with the other wolf packs, and chase prey. She wasn’t bossy or domineering. She just helped them find their inner weirdos.
Hopefully, this girl’s gonna be just fine.
I looked at the drawing we did again, and I realized I had drawn her holding a little banner flag,which made me think of when people say they’re letting their freak flag fly, which seems totally appropriate. Let your weirdo flag fly!
So I told her times might get rough sometimes, and people will try to hurt your feelings for being different, or make you feel bad, but you keep doing what you love doing, and you might even change someone else for the better.
And so far–thank GOODNESS–she’s gotten the message: she’s a weirdo. And so am I. And maybe so are you. And you know what? That’s AWESOME. Because all the best people are.
Since things have a way of keep on keeping on, I’ll share with you some good times we had at the zoo a few months back.
You guys, Texas is hot. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s really hot. It’s the kind of hot that makes me never want to leave the house. But one weekend, the husband & I heard it’d be a bit cooler that normal (a tiny bit less than “sweltering”) and left the house early to take Myla to the Austin Zoo. I like the Austin Zoo because it’s a rescue center, and it’s so small that you can get pretty close and personal with the animals there.
Ages ago, I suggested to Myla that we bring our sketchbooks on a zoo trip. We did, and we had a great time. She remembered that this time, and asked me could we please please bring our sketchbooks again? And, since I really really love when she asks me for easy things, I said yes, of course we could.
We made a bit of a game of sitting and stopping and drawing the animals. The giant tortoise was out & about, most likely wondering if we had any more lettuce, but also just as likely looking at us thinking, “what are they DOING?”
Myla and I sat there for quite a while, politely sketching him (or her). We complimented him (or her) on its shell and all of it’s lovely bumpy skin.
We sat and drew a bear cub rolling around with some chickens and a duck. And although she was a little annoyed that they wouldn’t hold still (“Hey duck! Stop moving around!”), she used her imagination to draw them for the most part, anyway…
(PS: Since the husband came along, it was a nice change to have photos with BOTH me and Myla in them!)
The tiger was out, totally passing up her pile of meat to come over and check us out…and then sauntered over to a shady area for a nap.
Myla drew the “three little bears,” as we watched the bear cubs getting fed, and playing hide and seek for their veggies. Myla continued to “collect” animals in her sketchbook. “OH! a parrot! I haven’t gotten a parrot yet!”
Most times, collecting the animal wasn’t as important as using it to create something else. When we found the serval, she gave it spikes and a dragon tail…because: REALITY.
It didn’t really matter WHAT the drawings looked like. In fact, everything I drew ended up as just a little strip of a tiger stripe, or a rough doodle of the turtle’s eye. What I really enjoyed was watching HER excitement, and seeing things through her eyes. “WOW, mom! That pig is so big and cool and guhSKUSTING!”
And we also took time to put the sketchbooks down a bit and look around at all the beautiful things, and enjoy just being together.
…And then it got really really hot, and we went home.
But hey–you’ve got to find smiles in the little things! Those little things are truly what leave the biggest memories.
And it doesn’t have to be the zoo–It can be a walk down the street, kicking rocks and catching grasshoppers. It can be the crunch of leaves with each step on a walk through the forest. It can be in your backyard, drawing daisies, or splashing paint on paper.
You can try it right now! You can try it when the kids get home from school. You can try it alone, or with a friend.
Enjoy the little things, and be glad that they’re there…
Sketch Sketch Sketch
Before anything, I want to tell you all how very much I appreciate all the wonderful comments I got on my “Pause” post last week. I was sincerely overwhelmed by all the support out there! Each and every comment was like a splash of fresh water in the middle of a marathon. It felt like smiles from new friends. It felt like a hundred hugs through my computer. People can be awesome, and there’s nothing more awesome than people being awesome to someone they don’t even really know.
So I thank you all so MUCH for that, with a promise to dust myself off, pick up our little pieces, gather them all around me, and keep on truckin’…
For me, when the going gets tough, the tough get….drawing. And I have been drawing a lot. I wish I was the type of person that obsessively worked out and got super buff in times of stress, but I’m not. I’m quite squishy….because instead, I bury my head in sketchbooks, custom work, random doodles, and projects with the kid.
Remember those tiny sketchbooks I got a couple of weeks ago? Well, I’ve already filled one completely. And through the magic of the internet and magical blog-incantations (which I just spent some time trying to figure out), I can show you a little video of the sketches it’s filled with:
(Music by Bach)
So I’ve been drawing a lot. I’ve been working my regular job and taking care of my regular things, getting ready for a convention in Austin at the end of October, fulfilling custom portrait orders, and dealing with everyday things, and I fill every space in between with sketches.
So I thought that with my compulsive sketching surge, I’d join in on Inktober. Have you heard of Inktober? It’s basically just a drawing challenge…a drawing a day for the month of October. I usually don’t commit to something like that with the sort of random hectic schedule I keep, but I thought that if I got Myla on board (she’s six years old now), it might be a fun thing to try to stick with and see it through…
Similar to Drawloween, Intober’s subject matter is wide open. Some people have made posts with halloween-related topic suggestions (like “pumpkin,” “vampire,” “frankenstein,” etc), and some of my artist friends have made their own lists of subjects (BreakfastJones puts her own topic out every day if you want to follow along with her).
As for Myla and I, we sort of skip around. Here’s a little show of the first few days of Inktober we’ve done so far…
Day 1: Villain. I chose Daryl Hannah as Elle Driver in Kill Bill, and Myla chose Megamind.
Day 2: Beetlejuice. I drew Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice, wearing a shirt of Beetlejuice (from the Howard Stern Show), and Myla drew Beetlejuice with a snake-tail and bugs in his hands (she’s never seen the movie).
Day 3: Witch. I drew Bellatrix Lestrange, and Myla drew the witch from one of her favorite Playmobil shows, Super 4.
Day 4: Skeleton. For this one, I let her add on to a doodle I started, turning her into a people-version of LaMuerte from Book of Life, and Myla chose to draw Turbo from Wreck-It Ralph.
Day 5: Werewolf. I drew Michael J. Fox as Teen Wolf, and she drew Aisling (a white wolf-girl), from Secret of the Kells.
Day 6: Edward Scissorhands. From the minute she saw a photo of him somewhere, Myla thought he was just the super coolest. She’s still too young to watch the movie (she’s pretty sensitive), but she gets the idea.
Day 7: Wednesday Addams. Since it was Wednesday, we HAD to draw a Wednesday! Again, she didn’t know who she was, but Myla was digging the idea of a creepy family.
Day 8: Hellboy. Another character she’s never seen in a movie, but loves the idea of. A good guy who LOOKS bad? How intriguing. And he likes cats, too!
So there you go. And there I still am, face-first in my sketchbook, getting through things the best way I can. Just like you are. Just like we all are. And it’s so, so good to know we’re not all alone…
Collaborating With a 6-Year Old
A few years have gone by since I collaborated with our then 4-year old… And on occasion, people will ask me if we could do more.
Sometimes we still do. It’s more of a casual thing. I’ll toss her a page and say, “here are a few heads if you feel like sketching,” usually when she’s bored or looking for something to do.
Sometimes they turn out okay, and I try new things with them, making little pendants or doodles. But mostly, it’s just a fun little pasttime.
On occasion, she still adds a body to a face I’ve done, and it turns out pretty well…
For the most part, though, to be honest: the main reason we don’t always collaborate is that she’s busy doing her own thing! She’s FIERCELY creative. She throws herself into her art desk and is consumed with scissors, staples, and tape, making all sorts of wonderful things–
Other times, she just draws.
Lately, she’s been obsessed with “writing books.” We can’t get enough little thin sketchbooks–she fills them up with complete stories–usually just directional things, like new creatures she invents for her Minecraft game, or the inner anatomical workings of the prehistoric wooly mammoth.
She mixes and matches her Lego minifigures, creating all kinds of new creatures. She makes “costumes” from construction paper, and spends hours inventing her own board games, like “Fishing for Genies,” and “DeerPeople Land” (it’s like Candyland…but with deer-people, obvs).
And from time to time, people ask us why we don’t do very many collaborations anymore. The simple answer is that we DO….but mostly, because you don’t always make art just for other people. You do it because you love it.
Sometimes, the things people ask us to do work out fairly well: we did this mural together at Crave Hair Lounge in Killeen, and it worked mainly because the owners gave us complete freedom to do what we wanted. But even then, it was intimidating to make sure it actually worked out on such a large scale.
I’m sure when our collaborations went viral when she was four, we could’ve been involved in a great deal of things. We were asked us to do custom portraits together, requesting certain animal bodies. People wanted us to write a book with a single main character, or wanted me to collaboratively write POETRY with her. I was asked if we could create new work for ads, for products, for magazine illustrations.
But can you imagine? Have you ever tried to get a 4-year old to do anything? It’s tricky. Now take that 4-year old, take their favorite thing to do, and make it a JOB. Tell them they HAVE to do that thing a certain way. Make them do it within a deadline, or re-do it if it’s not exactly what someone had in mind. Does that sound fun anymore? Maybe I missed some opportunities, but you know, I’d rather have done that than make her favorite thing become a horrible chore.
Instead, now that she’s older, and she’s developed her own style, I’ve found a different way to collaborate with her.
Now, I ask her to help me.
Often, my favorite thing to draw is her. Occasionally I do a series for myself I call “Stuff Myla Says,” where I illustrate the funny things she says. And sometimes, she’ll help me with them.
But one time, I was doing a portrait of my dad, and I was trying to find a way to artistically describe some of my best memories from my childhood. I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story of some of my favorite memories–playing in the woods, exploring castles, enjoying sci-fi, and building gnome bridges. Do I draw them out realistically? Do I draw them as a background?
She came over and asked me what I was doing. “I’m drawing me as a kid, with Papa. And I want to draw some of my favorite times with him…but I can’t figure out how to draw all my favorite childhood memories of him.”
“I’m a kid–maybe I could help!” She said. “You tell me, and I’ll draw it.” And we did. And it turned out SO MUCH better than I could’ve hoped for.
Lately, my favorite thing to draw is her. It’s fun to put her in new scenarios. And when I do, since she’s her own artist now, I like to ask her to “help” me. And the things she adds always turn out better than anything I could’ve come up with.
I once drew her from a photo I took of a funny face she made while she played an arcade game, and asked her for help with it. “I wanted to make it like you’re fighting monsters and robots.” “Oh, okay!” she said, and her imagination took off from there. She created this intricate story about these creatures releasing monsters from these eggs, and ones that weren’t good or bad, just “in the way,” and others who were “just trying to survive.”
I drew her as an imaginary astronaut, and asked if she’d like to add to it. She came up with an elaborate story about all kinds of aliens meeting up on the “deer people” planet…(apparently, that’s a thing, in her world)…
Sometimes, I need clarification on what she’s drawn, and she’s always happy to help me; sometimes telling me what colors things should be…but only if I ask. She’s not demanding about it at all, and will often say, “You can make them whatever color you like.”
And she always seems happy with the end result…
Another time, I started this drawing of her (from a photo of her in a simple eared hoodie), and turned her into a forest kid. “She looks kind of scared,” I said. What do you think she look so worried about?” She thought for a minute, then said, “forest monsters.” And we took turns back and forth drawing monsters, based off of what the other one said.
Once, I asked her “If you could be any creature, what would you be?” and she said (without hesitation), “A WINTER CENTAUR.” So I drew her as one, and she described to me the colors she imagined, and added all her little winter friends. “Don’t forget, mom: I should be all white, but with mud on my fur to blend in with the trees.”
Next, we did a spring centaur (mostly because I stink at proportions, and was trying new things). She drew her walking next to a deer-dragon, surrounded by baby deer-people (creatures she invented) making nests in her hair and snacking on grapes.
Another time I drew her riding a furry beast (think: Where The Wild Things Are), and she added all sorts of monster and bird friends, helping her along her imaginary journey.
I’ve held strongly to the idea that she draw whatever she likes. I love her creativity, and as a mom, the best I can do is allow her the room to be herself, in any capacity, being sure to gently nudge her on a safe path along the way, or steer her aside if she starts to venture down a dark road. But mostly, allowing her to be herself, allowing her to be her OWN artist and ASKING for collaborations has been what works best for us.
And instead of the accidental collaborations we started with, now that she’s older, we’re consciously collaborating…working together to tell a story through the pictures…something I’ve always had a problem with in my own art. But by allowing her to take control for a combined purpose, I think it helps build her confidence. She’s not just adding on to my work…she’s helping me tell a story together, and I love it.
“We make a great team,” she says. And that makes me smile.
(I added a few of our newer collaborative pieces to our print site at Society6…)
(Copies of the book of early collaborations we made ourselves through Kickstarter can be found here…)
When Myla was born, my mother and I wrapped her up in a little blanket to take a photo of her. “Oh no.” I said. “Delete that one. It doesn’t look anything like her.” We took photo after photo, again and again, and with each photo we took, a completely different little baby popped up on the screen. Nothing on that little camera compared at ALL with the beautiful little creature in front of me.I love drawing our daughter. When she was younger it was very intimidating, and I was so awkward drawing her, because no matter what I did, it didn’t really LOOK like her. It didn’t seem to capture that beautiful little person in front of me. It’s one of the most intimidating things about painting portraits: trying to make the image capture the personality of its subject, especially when you don’t already know that person very well. I comfort myself with the idea that (in my mind) it doesn’t HAVE to look exactly like them. It’s supposed to be a representation of an aspect of their perceived personality.
So Myla has reached an age where she is slowly beginning to be self-aware of her appearance. Not to the extent that some kids are….she cares nothing at all about clothes (you could put a space suit on her and she’d say, “oh, okay.” and rock that for the day. On Kinder graduation photos she said “did you see they put a GENIE costume on me?” when referring to the cap & gown, which she didn’t even question–just rolled with it). She doesn’t really care about how her hair is styled, other than in a functional way (to keep those curls out of her eyes). But from time to time, she has started to notice little things, like how everyone’s skin is different colors. That some people “seem fancy” when she doesn’t really notice that sort of thing. That people keep telling her she’s doing “boy things.”
If her girlhood is anything like mine was, I know the worst of it will come when she’s a teenager. But I’m hoping to sort of help her enjoy and celebrate herself–whatever that means to her–now. Not by constantly showering her with praises of beauty (although I think telling her she’s pretty is a good thing to hear, too), not by inflating her ego by making her feel superior, but by asking her what makes her FEEL happy and pretty, and trying to be comfortable with and rock whatever she’s got.This will totally work, because my parents actually did the same things for me, and I NEVER had any image issues. (INSERT SARCASTIC FACE HERE) ….Okay, yes, I’m fully aware that no matter what I do, she’ll have issues. But one can try, right?
So I drew this little Myla-face on a piece of pressed chipboard, and asked if she wanted to draw what she liked. What made her happy. What made her smile. What made her feel like a good person. How does she see herself? And I let her use my acrylic paints to paint on it.
She painted pink hair, because she’s always wanted pink hair. We used paint-in temporary dye from time to time when she was younger, but they sort of frown at wonky hair color at her current school (which I find ridiculous). She drew a streak of black (which sort of looks like a beret). If anything, it was a fun opportunity to teach her a little more about using acrylic paints…
She asked if she could use a pen to draw the rest, and drew things that make her smile: dragons, animals, made-up creatures, Lego characters.
So later, I finished painting the background for her. I thought it was fun that instead of TELLING her what I thought of her, I got to see what she thinks, what she feels…how she sees herself. Not to judge, but just to think about and be comfortable with.
There are so many good examples for kids about how not being judged only for your outer appearance. Some are:
- Elsa and Kristoff telling Anna (when Anna wants to marry someone she just met) “You don’t even KNOW him!”
- How Cinderella and her Prince marry after only a few nights of dancing and missing footwear.
- Flynn in Tangled liking Rapunzel’s for more than her hair. And the big mean guys in the tavern who sing “I Got a Dream” look creepy, but are (mostly) quite sweet.
- In the book “the Paper Bag Princess,” that the clothes you wear and the way you look doesn’t make you a good person.
And those are just a few that Myla (at age 6) and I have had pretty in-depth discussions about. Not in some lecture, not by me bringing it up, but just in talking about what we just saw or read.
You can have fun with what you look like, you can change your hair and decorate it. Your body can be bigger or smaller or shorter or taller than everyone else’s. Your skin can be so many different colors. You can have fancy clothes, or secondhand pants.
But what’s MOST important is being smart, being caring, being kind.
I hope she always sees herself the way I see her.
Walking Through the Witches
People ask me sometimes about ballpoint pen and how I use it in my drawings. They’ll say that when they use it, it smears or gets discolored. And I say, “that’s because no one in their right mind should be using ballpoint pen.” But I can’t help it–that’s what I like. It’s what I’ve ALWAYS liked, and what I’m most comfortable with. It’s cheap, portable, easy to find, easy to carry.
But it does have a couple of issues.
Don’t be scared, though! When I was younger, information was a lot harder to find, and I was about the only one I ever knew that drew with a PEN. Nowadays, there are TONS of fine artists that use ballpoint (sometimes they call it “biro”), and do some AMAZING work. I don’t know what they go through, but here are some things I’ve learned…
THE PEN ITSELF
I’ve learned that I like ballpoints. Not gels, not rollerballs, not ink pens. BALLPOINTS. Believe it or not, there’s a difference. Nothing fancy, either–I’ve tried the expensive ones, and they’re nice, but for my work, they’re not gritty enough. Plain ol’ Bics work best for me…but I’ll use anything in a pinch.
I call it “glurping” or “glumping,” or whatever. It’s that blob of ink that sometimes comes out when you’re drawing, that can smear up your whole picture. Early on, I’d be happily drawing and OH NO MY WHOLE DRAWING IS RUINED!!! I know of one artist who uses his finger to wipe the pen every few strokes. I use my shirt….or whatever dark fabric thing is closest. Which is why, if you look all over my house, and on every shirt I own, you will most likely see little constellations of pen dots on my right front shoulders. As I draw, every couple of minutes, I instinctively wipe my pen on my shirt in a little twist. Sure, there is absolutely a better way to do this that was not so messy on my clothes. I could use a napkin. But I don’t.
PENS TURN FREAKY COLORS
I use ballpoint sketches as sort of a skeleton, because I like the pen marks to show through a little. If I watercolor on top, I get this nice blend of ink and pen. If I use acrylics, you still get to see the great lines, but with painting more on top. BUT IF YOU VARNISH, no matter HOW MUCH acrylic paint I have on top of my pen lines, the pen will SHOW THROUGH. And it turns sort of a purplish color. I’ve tried different varnishes, and I always get the same result. I usually like the look, but if it’s TOO discolored, I wait for the varnish to dry and paint in acrylic back on top of it. Varnish THAT, and you’re good to go. Waste of time? Yes. Draw my undercoat in pencil instead, then? NEVER EVER EVER. Don’t know why.
So here’s a typical project: Awhile back, my art friend Aaron McMillan (@mcmillankid on Instagram) and I challenged each other to draw Meryl Streep. I wanted to draw both versions of her witch from “Into The Woods.”
I usually start with the eyes and work my way out. I’ve mentioned before that there are many ways to measure faces to get proper proportions, and while I did my time with that in art school, I prefer to just wing it, because I like the wonky look.
My drawings are made up of very soft lines using varied pressure and crosshatching. I noticed once, while drawing, that I sort of blur my eyes to see the values and tones as I’m shading…which might explain my terrible eyesight. (Thankfully I’m near-sighted, so I’d still be able to draw in a post-apocalyptic world if I broke my glasses…but I’d be useless spotting anyone more than 10 feet away. …I have to think about these things.)
Once the sketch is done, I usually use watercolor or acrylic, but for this one, I challenged myself to use markers (since Aaron uses them a lot). Several people use Copics, but I prefer Prismacolor Premiere Brush Tips for no real reason, other than that I’m comfortable with them, and I love them.
Now this is where people who try this often get freaked out, because pens do freaky things…
AAAUUUGH it’s PURPLE!! Yeah, using markers on top of ballpoint pen is a little freaky because it instantly turns purple. This can weird you out at first, and make you think you’ve ruined the whole thing. But be patient! All is not lost! Keep going…
I get my darker markers out to shade, and the purple discoloration is already starting to settle down a bit as it soaks into the page…
And now by the time I’ve blended my darks with my lights, the purple tone is almost as faded as a bad dream in the daytime.
So here’s what it looks like, flat without much highlights. I have the ballpoint skeleton underneath, and I like the quickness of the markers–you can blend solid colors very quickly with darker shadows, and the marker soaking into the page does the rest. So here it is all flat, and ready for the next step…
Highlights! Here I like to use white acrylic paint (although I’ve used white colored pencil in a pinch) to add highlights to everything to make it pop a little more.
I like to find the “hot spots” of white, and blend them into the background color.
And there ya go!
The main point is not to get freaked out. I teach our daughter that there’s no real way to “mess up.” If you can’t fix it with ink or paint, you can always pretend you did it on purpose. 🙂
Don’t be afraid to mess up. Just open that sketchbook and DO IT. The worse that could happen is that you learn something. So good luck with all your artistic experiments!
A Little Perspective
Have you ever had an idea that wouldn’t go away?
Ages ago, in a sketchbook, I toyed with an idea…what if aliens came down to earth in robot bodies, using the faces of our beloved icons to gain our trust so we’d let down our guard so they could more easily take over the world?
I know, I know. It’s an old chestnut, and old theme that’s been played out over and over again.
HA! Okay, just kidding–I know it’s weird. But that was my thought and it wouldn’t go away. So I drew two little sketches: one of Gandhi (which I can no longer find), and one of James Dean. And they sat in my sketchbook for YEARS.A year or two ago, I came across them again, and thought I’d give one a try…and pulled out the Gandhi to paint it.
And I liked it…but I didn’t love it. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
So recently, I got a new sketchbook, hoping to get some ideas out…and I tried again, this time with James Dean. And it looked lame. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
And one day, when Myla was flipping through my sketchbook, she said, “Oh! What is this?” I told her it was an alien in a robot suit, but I couldn’t get it to look right. “Can I try?” she asked. And of course she could.
And it’s AWESOME! I loved it immediately. It wasn’t quite what I had in my head, but with her new point of view, I think I have a great basis for a really fun and cool perspective. More fun, more playful that the very detailed thing in my head that I couldn’t get out. I can’t wait to work on it!
I think part of creating good art is that struggle artists go through in trying to make what’s in their head make sense in their own medium.
I’m starting to discover that although I enjoy the work of so many amazing artists, sometimes when I struggle with a piece, it might be because I’m imagining it in someone else’s style.
Weird, right? Let me explain: I’ve been struggling with another piece, one of Myla with her ghost-rats (she had two pet rats that died and she believes they’re running through the fields where we buried them, “playing with their ‘chothers.”). I tried it a couple of different ways, and even got as far as starting to paint it:
And for whatever reason it didn’t look right to me. And it was terribly frustrating. So I drew it again, in a different way, in my sketchbook. And it still didn’t look right. Because it wasn’t what was in my head.
So I closed my eyes, and tried to listen to myself. What does it look like in my mind? What do I WANT it to look like, if this version isn’t working? And surprisingly, what came to the surface was not my own work, but that of Casey Weldon…
You heard me. I imagined SOMEONE ELSE’S WORK. His work is lit beautifully. In my mind, my painting should have had similar lighting and playfulness and reverence…but it didn’t. And I was actually hindering myself by trying to make it look like HIS work.
It’s one thing to be inspired by someone, and another to fault your own work for not being like someone else’s. I have to realize that no matter WHAT I DO, this piece will never look like his. So I tried it again in my own way, and tried to listen to my own voice. And again, I asked Myla for her input. And this is what we did:
A part of me mourns for that beautifully painted imaginary piece that’s in my head, but I know it’s not real. And it’s okay! Sometimes a little perspective gives you new insight, and changes your opinion about what things SHOULD be and what they actually are.
I am lucky I have a creative little 5-year old for instant “fresh perspective” insights, but there are other ways to break out of your preconceived ideas…
1. Just start DRAWING. Have a sketchbook that’s JUST for ideas, wrong or right. Take “notes” in it, get quick ideas, but don’t limit yourself to “getting it right.” When I do this, it is UGLY. It’s very nearly stick people art. But at least the idea’s out.
2. Listen to yourself. I work from home, and I can tell you it is VERY rare that I don’t have music, tv, an audiobook, my phone or a movie in my face while I work or draw. It’s a bad habit that I’ve been doing for YEARS, and it’s not really fair to my brain / imagination / creativity. I plan to make more time to just SIT with my sketchbook and LISTEN.
3. Don’t stop trying. So the pieces above didn’t work. Am I going to stop with that? Well, I will if my brain is happy. But if those ideas keep trying to get out, I’ll try it again. And again. And again.
When I was in high school I was lucky enough to visit the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, and of all the incredible work I saw, the most memorable to me has always been the experience of walking into a room FULL of hundreds of sketches on paper and napkins and scraps–all of a man sitting with a scythe. Over and over again, this same image repeated in different ways. You can tell the idea was in the artists’ head, and he tried again and again to get it out. The room was FULL of drawings, rough paintings, even some small sculptures of this same figure, over and over, in a hundred different ways.
..And at the very end of the room, as big as the wall, was the final piece…
It’s called “Paying the Harvesters” by Léon Lhermitte. And the man with the scythe wasn’t even the only character in the painting. I think of that room often, and wonder sometimes, after all those hundreds and hundreds of drawings…did he feel like he “got it right?”
Sometimes, you get your idea out the best you can. Sometimes you get in your own way. Sometimes you beat it til something beautiful comes out. Just listen to your voice and you’ll figure out what to do.
Painting with Confidence
“You’re really good at drawing, mom. You’re even better than that lady that’s better than you.”
Um. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but it sounded like a compliment.
Then, with her head down, she said, “I’m not even as good as you. I don’t paint very well at all.”
Ouch. Now I know she doesn’t really feel that way. But being a mom of a whole 5 years of experience (trust me, I know from my sister–a mother of two teen girls–that I’m STILL in the beginner levels), I have learned enough to see this more as a confidence cry than an actual honest declaration.
She KNOWS she’s only five years old, and that my own many many (MANY) years on this earth has just given me a bit more time to improve in my artwork. She knows that the more time she spends on something, the better she’ll get at it. And she knows it’s not good to compare yourself to others, as long as you’re having fun.
She knows all that. But she wasn’t just being disingenuous, and she wasn’t fishing for compliments–she just needed to feel something positive. A reassurance that she was on the right track.
But it hurt my heart for her to not be able to see how awesome she is when she does what she loves. So I whipped up an idea to let her run with.
We’ve drawn together many times before, and our collaborations are fun. But it’s not often that SHE does the painting herself.
I had an extra piece of cut wood from an older project, and I sketched a face.
That evening, I laid a tablecloth on the carpet in the art room, gave her a few of my older (but still decent) brushes, and my palette of acrylic paints. I told her it was hers to paint any way she liked.
So she immediately went for the green.
Apparently, they had learned that song “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah” that day at school, but to her ears, it sounded like “DINO…” And she imagined some happy little dinosaur-girl who (for some reason) was dancing around in the kitchen.
Using my “grownup” paints is a really good way to teach her to control the paint…that just a little change in water or pressure, how you mix the paint, how you thin it….it ALL affects how the paint goes on. All I did was watch her, and tell her how she could make it work when the paint was too thick or too thin. She noticed that when there’s too much water and not enough paint, it dries very VERY light….but that a little paint can go a long way if it’s thinned down with water a little bit. I thought of myself as bowling bumpers: letting her do all the work, but there just to make sure she didn’t completely throw a gutterball in frustration.
And after awhile she said, “You can paint with me, if you like.”
I told her that it was her project…that I had wanted HER to do the painting. “But I really like painting with you,” she said.
So I did.
I tried not to add TOO much detail. I didn’t want to discredit what she’d already done by completely painting over it. Her only request was that I not change the colors she had already chosen. AND OF COURSE I WOULDN’T! Why would I? They were already awesome.
So here’s how it turned out in the end…
And here is her sticking it over her own face…
I didn’t want to alter it TOO much, but I also wanted to join in with her, since she asked me to. I made sure to ask her before I did anything. I let her give me direction. And watching me, she picked up that a quick way to make scaly dino skin without too much detail is to paint dots on the face in a darker color. She learned that a little darker or lighter makes shadows & highlights. She ASKED me about these things, not because I sat her down for a lesson…but just simply from observing a fellow artist.
So I told her again: I have many years of experience, but I am not finished learning. I am ALWAYS learning. I love to learn new things. I love to watch other artists, and try the things they do, learn the things they do.
Yes, I have been drawing a lot longer than my five-year-old. But she has parts of her imagination that I no longer have, that are fantastically wonderful. Her artwork is just as valid as mine, and quite often even more amazing. Everyone has value. It doesn’t help to compare yourself against someone else. There is always room to grow and learn, no matter what level you’re at. And wherever you’re at–if you have a love and a passion for it (whatever it is)–that is an amazing thing.
Sometimes I get asked if Myla and I still draw together. My answer, in short, is that YES, we do…but that it’s sort of changed a bit.
The collaborations we did were fairly simple, and happened–as I described in the post–pretty spontaneously, at first. Now that she’s a little older (she’s five ANDAHALF now), she’s not so interested in just simply adding a body on to a head I’ve drawn. While she does still enjoy it now and then, her interests (and mine) have changed quite a bit. So while our past collaborations were a such a wonderful and fun experiment, and we still do enjoy doing them from time to time, we find so many other ways to share our artwork with each other.
I started the new year with some new supplies, anxious to try some new things. Recently, I tried out some mixed media board, drew a picture of her sleeping, and wondered if it would work if I asked her to draw what she might be dreaming…
So she added onto what I had drawn, telling me what each thing was, and what it might mean. I asked her questions about it, had her tell me dreams she might’ve had in the past, and if she could draw them.
I later added on some pen detail, to sort of clarify what I thought she was trying to convey (based on what she had told me), and give it some decorative, dreamlike imagery.
And this is what we made. She dreamt of rolling toys, and the Shcar she had created. There’s a dragon in the top right, who carries her babies in fire. Most of her dream is protected by a unicorn with a shield-horn that wraps around her as she sleeps.
(Consequently, the unicorn also has glitter streaming out from behind him (see those dots?), because…well, because she’s five, and glitter farts are funny.)
She was happy when she saw it finished, although it didn’t come without critique…she said I had forgotten to color the eye of the Shcar white (I later amended it for her), and that in her mind, the unicorn was actually supposed to be BLACK….but that one she was willing to overlook.
Another time, I wanted to draw her from a photo I had. When I showed it to her, I said, “I want to make a drawing that tells a story about creativity, and how your mind thinks of wonderful things. do you have any ideas?” She grabbed the pen right away, and started drawing…
She included dragons playing with her hair, dreaming of Legos. She’s imagining the Shcar she designed. She gave herself wolf ears, for fun. There’s a peacock on her shoulder, disappointed because he thought her hair was worms. And a sleeping mermaid, resting peacefully on her shoulder. I don’t know what any of it means. But I don’t HAVE to. It’s her creativity, it’s her mind. It doesn’t have to MEAN anything.
Again, she gasped with delight when she saw how I had finished it, but again, she had critiques. The mermaid was initially colored wrong. It’s apparently a toy she has (I had misunderstood which one), so I corrected it.
She asked why I drew circles around her eye, and I told her I was trying to draw the idea that artists see things in a different way than some people do. That it’s almost like having “special eyes.”
She asked me, “why do I look so sad?” I showed her the reference photo I used, and said, “In the picture I used, you weren’t sad, just thinking. I didn’t mean for it to look sad, I just meant it to look like you were thinking.” I told her that when I was younger, people often thought I was mean because I would quietly stare off at nothing while I was thinking, and that (along with my squinting because of bad eyesight), it made people think I was annoyed when I wasn’t. That made her laugh. She loves stories of when I was younger…
Speaking of when I was younger, Myla once said to me, “I wish I could play with you when you were a kid. We would have so much fun.” So I thought it’d be interesting to draw the two of us, around the same age, playing…
Before I gave it to her, I said, “if we were kids, what kinds of things would we do? I used to like to catch bugs, I liked dinosaurs and robots, aliens and animals. I bet we’d ride bikes together.” She thought that was awesome. But the first thing she drew was the “loves” above our heads.
(Awhile back, she asked me what my “love” would look like, and I drew a heart with BIG BIG arms. Hers was an envelope with wings to fly with you wherever you go.)
She drew our Donkey to the right, since we both have loved him for YEARS (I got him when I was around 8, and she’s had him since she was a baby). There’s a spider catching a fly in a web below us, which we’d probably both be fascinated and grossed out by. On the bottom left, she and I are riding bikes. You can barely see (as my hand is nearly covering it) that she is pouting on the bike, because even as a kid, she imagines I’m probably still the boss when we ride bikes…
Here’s the piece nearly done…
And the final piece: Myla and me, roughly 4 or 5, playing. And she’s right….we’d probably have been the COOLEST of friends. (..And I’m pretty sure I’d take turns on our bikes…)
She smiled a big smile when it was done, and had only one thing to say: “Perfect.”
Aside from my regular face studies, in my drawings and paintings this year I’ve decided to make more of an effort to try to tap into illustrating a message, or a meaning, or a feeling. I don’t mean a STANCE–I’ve not got any political or legal or religious statement to make in my artwork (there are others who excel magnificently in that), but more of something that means something TO ME.
I find (as an illustrator) that it’s one of the defining differences between “commercial illustration” and “painting”–I know I take things way too literally. There is not often any deep, hidden meaning in my work, and I’m totally okay with that. But this year, I’m going to try to tap more into what I’d have to SAY (if anything) in a painting….something I’ve never really done, unless it was a melancholy, depressing image when I was upset, like pitiful gothic teenage “woe is me” poetry.
And that’s exactly what happened with the first one I tried. I was in a hormonal funk I couldn’t get out of. Everyone has “down” days, but this one seemed neverending. I had no motivation. I wanted to cry all day FOR NO REASON. It felt like someone handed me a huge boulder to carry as I went through the day, and it weighed down everything I did. I had trouble really describing how crushing this feeling was. Instead, I tried to see if drawing it might help.
It felt like pointy-beaked birds nesting in my hair. It felt like ribbons of tears. It felt like a dark cloud. Still, drawing it still seemed to trivialize it a bit. It still felt like bad teenage poetry.
I debated showing it to Myla–I didn’t want to worry her or upset her. But when she saw it on my art desk, she asked about it. I told her I was doing a painting about feeling sad, and was trying to show how it makes you feel. She asked if she could add on, and why not? She drew a dragon tangled in the hair, trying to hold on. There are x-rays to “show what’s inside.” And little wind-up mice, crawling all over–into the heart, chewing the hair, chewing at the bones. She hesitantly asked if it was okay if she drew something creepy (because there’s a time and a place for creepy things, and school isn’t one of them..and also because it was my drawing and she wanted to know if it was okay), and I said of course–that it was what the drawing was about, that I was trying to show things that bother you, that upset you. She drew the thing that creeps her out the most–zombies (which she only knows about courtesty of the halloween sections at the grocery store, and the game “Plants and Zombies,” and from a few kids at school).
So she helped me with this one. And to me, it seems like a stereotype…a morose self-indulgence. Maybe I’m just uncomfortable with negative feelings. It must’ve helped, though, because the horrible funk passed not long after.
But every new journey starts with just one little step, and that’s my goal this next year…to try to see (from time to time) if I can start with very simple, little ideas, and get them on paper, without it being all melodramatic and serious. Not because it’s a “new year” and I have to “make a resolution” (I’ve mentioned how I feel about that)…but because I love trying new things, and it just happened to coincide with the new year. SO there. 🙂
And while I’m taking my own little journey, I’m wondering how it’ll influence Myla’s views on her own drawings. She is VERY literal (like me). She has an AMAZING imagination, but she’s not sure (spatially) why I have made things float around in the paintings above. I’ve told her the idea behind why I did it that way (that I’m illustrating dreams and ideas instead of THINGS), and she’s nodded, deep in thought. I can tell she’s mulling it over.
But I don’t think this means my artwork will get more “SERIOUS”–I think humor is a big part of what I enjoy (and not taking yourself too seriously is EXTREMELY important to me)….I just think it’ll be fun to see where digging a little deeper takes me. Where it takes us. Because as long as it’s fun and it’s making us happy, who CARES what it means, right?
…So what new things are YOU trying?
“Let’s both each draw a picture that’s a fish,” Myla said one day. We each drew our own on the same page, and, as will often happen, she inevitably became more interested in what was going on on MY side.
“Don’t forget his fins,” she’d say. “Or maybe some teeth.”
So I make a joke out of it. “Oh yeah?!? You know what YOURS needs?? Lobster claws. Totally.” And then I reached over to her drawing and doodled a quick pair of claws.
It cracked her up in a cascade of giggles.
“Oh, okay…yours looks great, mom, but it could really use some BIGGGG horns.”
Pretty soon it evolved to an all-out doodle war. “Oh, yours would look SOOOO much better with walrus tusks!” “It’s good, but I think it could really use an elephant trunk,” we say to eachother in our mock-friendly voices. …And on and on.
It’s hilarious to her to impact something I’ve done in a funny way, and a great demonstration of the idea that if you want to have say in what someone else is doing, you might have to be okay with them doing the same to you…
And since it’s just a quick little doodle, there’s nothing sacred in it, other than just having fun and being silly.
I always love what comes of them, as crazy as they are. I’m wondering what a finer version of it might look like. maybe it’d be different than our usual collaborations. It might involve taking some time and patience, which is very difficult for a 5-year old. People have often tried to “tell” us what we should draw together, and while people sometimes have some great ideas, it sort of just has to happen. In my world, the things that I push the hardest on are the things that don’t ever feel as genuine, and therefore aren’t as enjoyable for the viewer or the ones creating it.
But trying something new? I’m always up for that. 🙂