Have you ever looked at other artists’ media feeds, and just assumed that everything they touch turns out perfectly?
I have. And aside from a few magical unicorns for which that may be true, I am pretty sure that all artists suffer from bad starts, and art block.
Mine has been going on a while now….I’m not sure if it’s related to the fact that I’ve had a massive headcold that later turned into a sinus infection for the past three weeks, and has been totally clogging up my brain, but it sure shows in my sketchbooks, which are FULL of bad starts.
The thing about bad starts, is that sometimes all it takes is the beginning of an eyeball for me to realize it’s not worth holding onto. And then I get discouraged about the bad start. And feel bad for wasting paper in my awesome sketchbook. And then I feel like nothing I draw has been turning out right lately. And I start completely re-thinking my whole style and technique, and everything that has made sense to me in the known universe up until that particular moment, because WHAT AM I DOING I TOTALLY FORGOT HOW TO DRAW.
…And then a decent doodle will show up. It’s not GREAT, but it at least gets the idea out.
Sometimes I go back to my comfortable spaces, where I feel the best, to try to pull something out from there. I always let Myla join me, because she always makes it better, and reminds me that it’s not that serious.
And sometimes strange things make for decent doodles…
Sometimes, I re-work an older idea for some inspiration, and try to update it…
And sometimes, outside prompts (like this month’s Inktober suggestions) help get me out of my regular mindset…
And it takes some time, but then things start coming back around eventually.
And soon, it’s not as much of a constant struggle, and starts to come out in an easier, more enjoyable way…
The thing to remember is that it’s part of who you are, when you have a passion like drawing. Whatever your passion is, you’d still do it if no one ever saw it, right? You do it because it makes you feel good. You almost NEED to do it. It’s not this yearning for a title, it’s not a status, but drawing is like skin to me, it’s just there, and I’m grateful for it.
…So why does my confidence in it waver so much? If you struggle with the same things, try to remember what I keep telling myself: It’s not gone forever. It will come back, and you will be better for it when it does. If it takes a hundred bad drawings to get back to your groove, then by all means, start sketching!
I’m telling myself that right now. Hopefully when this stupid flu leaves, it’ll take my art block with it. Until then, I’ll keep making my bad starts and pushing forward! 🙂
This past week, the daughter and I visited family for Spring Break, part of which included an 8-hour drive. Myla’s a great traveler, though, and can entertain herself for hours with a sketchbook, animation apps, or just staring out the window, daydreaming. I had never tried her with audiobooks, but since the trip was long and she was tired of her normal car activities, I decided to play for her The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, read by Anne Hathaway.
Anne has a knack for creating interesting voices for all the characters, which Myla enjoyed, and to my surprise, she was riveted, and was hooked right away.
We happily learned that there were a great many differences between the book and the famous movie (of which she’s not really a fan), and was full of so many strange creatures and events that we had never heard of before.
“We should try to DRAW all the characters the way we saw them in our heads!” she excitedly suggested once we got back and settled in at home. It was an incredibly awesome idea (she is 6 years old, and never ceases to have awesome ideas). And it just so happened that my husband (who is deployed) had sent us a little sketchbook that was just waiting to be drawn in…
So we started talking to each other about the characters, and we talked about drawing what was in our minds as we heard the story. We talked about how the author can sort of tell you what they see, but everyone who hears it might have their own picture in their heads. (We also never referenced the movie or the original illustrations from the 1900s, we just drew what we saw in our heads, so that can’t be wrong, no matter how you slice it). So in case you’re worried about spoilers from a book that’s been out since the 1900s, I’m going to tell you a bit now about all the characters we drew:
One of her favorites was near the end, when the adventurers come upon some people they called the Hammer-Heads, who had no arms, but very wrinkly necks, which could shoot out and punch you with their flat heads. And we started to sketch.
We drew them side by side, to compare. I pictured them more as rock people, and she saw them more like little cranky men. In any case, they both definitely had a wicked case of cranky-face.
Next up, we drew the Scarecrow–Myla’s favorite of the travelers. I drew a little doodle on her lunch napkin that day, and when she got home, she sketched her version of the scarecrow being flung by the guard trees in one of the forests. I drew the Scarecrow in a quite disturbing description of how Oz gave him brains–by filling his head up with a lumpy mixture containing pins, which then stuck out of the fabric once his head was back on. They said it made his mind “sharp” (and not at all terrifyingly creepy in the slightest, right?).
We both loved the Tin Woodsman (my favorite), whose story was MUCH more grim than in the movie. In the book, he was a regular man, in love with a Munchkin girl who lived with a mean witch, who enchanted his axe, which made him accidentally keep cutting off his own goshdarn limbs. Luckily, his good buddy the Tinsmith would replace his limbs with tin ones each time, until finally the Tin Woodsman cut off his own head and body with the enchanted axe, and the Tinsmith fashioned him a new one…but it didn’t have a heart, and he no longer was able to feel love, even for the little Munchkin girl….until Oz cut a little square in his chest and put a tiny fabric heart inside, and he finally felt love again. I drew him on her lunch napkin, and then later, holding his axe (with which he chops a GREAT many messy things in the story) and Myla drew him feeling sad, crying over accidentally stepping on an insect.
The Lion seemed to us just like a regular lion, and we talked about how in the movie they kind of made him like a person, standing on two legs. Hers was a little more goofy -faced than mine (since he was quite silly), and mine is drinking the liquid courage (which I assume was probably a shot of whiskey or whatever?) that Oz gave him.
Dorothy was also quite different. Myla saw her as a little blonde-haired girl in a blue dress, and we were both surprised to know that in the book, those famous ruby slippers were not in fact “ruby,” but were SILVER, a-thankyouverymuch, and never ever contained a bit of red. When the house lands and she’s about to take off on her adventure to find the Wizard who might help her get home (which she heard about from a woman who was NOT Glinda, but an older small, hunched wrinkly woman, who was indeed a Good Witch), she puts on a blue gingham dress, the silver shoes, and a yellow bonnet, which I supposed she wears for the entire trip… Since that blew my mind, I scrapped my childhood image of the iconic Dorothy, and drew her with shorter, curlier brown hair. Myla and I both saw Toto pretty much the same, which makes sense, since they described him pretty well.
The Wicked Witch of the West was a fun one, as she was described in the book as having one eye that was magic and could see everything in the land she ruled over. “What did she have in the place where her other eye was?” Myla asked me. “Well, they never really said if she lost one of her eyes, or if it was one eye like a cylclops.” So we decided to both draw her as a grumpy ol’ cyclops. And they never actually said her skin was green, so I just drew her with a greenish tint. (Still, I think it might’ve been fun to draw her like a sort of cyborg, or like Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter.) 🙂
We haven’t yet drawn my favorite characters, the Flying Monkeys…but I was surprised that their story was MUCH different in the movie, where the Witch just bossed them around all the time, whenever she wanted. In the book, there is a golden jeweled cap that the Witch puts on, says a goofy little chant, and the monkeys come do whatever she commands. The catch is that the wearer of the cap can only call the monkeys three times (she’s already called them twice), and then the hat must be passed on to someone else. So when the Wicked Witch sees the travelers in her country, she sends…the WOLVES to go hunt them down. When that doesn’t work, she calls the CROWS. Then the BEES. Then the WINKIES. (wait, what? “Where are the goshdarned monkeys??” I was thinking at the time). Finally, when all of those are defeated, she decides to use her last and final monkey-call to attack them.
The monkeys have a whole other back story, but it’s a bit long…
…So there it is! What started as a simple way to pass the time on a long road trip turned out to be a pretty fun project for us both. I’m pretty happy about how much she got into it!
I had nearly forgotten that when I was in high school, I had an AP English assignment to do a paper on imagery from the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I drew each character as I had seen them in the descriptions I read. It had always been one of my favorite assignments, and I had nearly forgotten about it until Myla came up with this one.
We’ve read a few actual chapter books at bedtime, like the Spiderwick Chronicles (of course), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, How to Train Your Dragon, and The Phantom Tollbooth, to name a few–ALL of which would probably be amazing for this project. I think the key is finding out if your kid’s into it first.
But if not, hey–what’s to stop you from giving it a try yourself? 🙂
Last month, as if I didn’t have a million other things going on, I decided to join in on Inktober. Have you heard of it? I had seen artists do this last year: a drawing a day for the month of October, usually spooky-themed, and usually done in ink or pen. And just because I wanted to make it a little more fun, I asked Myla (the 6-year-old) if she’d like to join me. This was a challenge because 1) I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to keep with the theme for the whole month, and 2) it sort of limited what I drew, as I had to sort of keep it within something that fit both of us, and wasn’t TOO creepy for her.
I made my own rules, so it didn’t feel like pressure: if I wanted to add color, that was fine, and if I didn’t get to it one day, I wouldn’t stress it too much. But Myla was already full of enthusiasm, so we got started.
Day 1: VILLAIN. Elle Driver from Kill Bill, and Megamind (who’s she said is special because he’s a villain who turns nice).
Day 2: BEETLEJUICE. This is one of those characters that she didn’t really know, because she’s not so into creepy things…but with things like that, I tell her about them, and she gets the jist. My Beetlejuice is wearing a shirt of a guy named Beetlejuice from the Howard Stern show, and hers is the cartoon version, holding beetles in his hands.
Day 3: WITCH. Bellatrix LeStrange from Harry Potter, and the Playmobil witch from a show Myla likes called Super4.
Day 5: WEREWOLF. Old school Teen Wolf and Aisling, the little wolf-girl from Secret of the Kells, who’s sniffing another girl…like ya do when you’re like a dog.
Day 6: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Another character she doesn’t personally know, but she’s always been fascinated by. I told her the story, and she loved it. (Hers is crying because he has no friends, poor guy…)
Day 7: WEDNESDAY ADDAMS. It was a Wednesday. It was another character she didn’t know. I used to LOVE the old Charles Addams drawings as a kid, and devoured his books and drawings. I told her about the movie characters, which cracked her up (especially Thing).
Day 8: HELLBOY. Again, I did NOT let my 6-year old watch Hellboy, but she’s seen him around (especially at conventions), and always liked the fact that he’s a good guy who was supposed to be bad but CHOOSES to be good…and she really digs that he loves cats.
Day 9: VAMPIRE. I drew Vampira–and here’s a little trivia break: I learned that she created the character and hosted a show of horror films in the 50s and added campy comments to them. In the 80s, studios wanted to recreate her show, but cast the actress who now plays Elvira in her part, pulling her look and the style of the show directly from hers. Since she created the Vampira character (based loosely on Charles Addam’s Morticia drawings!), she tried to settle in court but lost. Strange, the things you learn, when looking up references. Aaanyway, for Myla’s piece, she drew Drac, Mavis, and the curly-baby from Hotel Transylvania.
Day 14: ZOMBIE. This one was tricky, since they’re one of Myla’s absolute creep-outs. So I tried to keep it harmless with Michael Jackson from Thriller (she even liked the video, although I didn’t show her the full beginning skit). She drew the zombie “Bad Guy” from Wreck-it Ralph.
Day 15: MUMMY. Myla has a thing for mummies–they fascinate her! She even has a bedtime book on the whole ancient Egyptian embalming/mummification rituals (yeah, for some reason, THAT doesn’t freak her out at all! Haha!). Old school Karloff and Akhmenrah from Night at the Museum (she has a little crush on him), both catching some Zs.
Day 16: Another WEREWOLF. Eddie Munster, and the wolf-dad from Hotel Transylvania, covered in his wolf-pup kids. (Side note: I can’t see Eddie Munster without thinking of Ben Stiller playing a grownup Eddie in a skit on SNL…)
Day 19: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I had initially planned on drawing the kid from the movie, but then remembered I had once made her a Max Halloween costume when she was 2 or 3, and decided to draw her now, as a wild thing, roaring her terrible roars. She drew the goat-one…plus a flying wild thing she made up.
Day 20: FLYING MONKEY. Easily my very most favorite characters in the Wizard of Oz. I went for a realish-version, and she drew the cutest, most adorable BABY flying monkey that I’ve ever seen. (Seriously, I LOVE that little guy! Can he be my pet?)
Day 25: Another SKELETON. She wanted to draw a skeleton again, so I chose a soggy little skeleton kid based on a character created by the talented Matthew Gordon. She drew a little guy from a book they’d read at school called “Skeleton for Dinner.”
Day 29: GOBLIN KING. We both love the Labyrinth. I drew Jareth and his goblins. Myla drew an “inappropriate” Jareth on the toilet (because bodily functions crack kids up)…then added another, drawing him when he transforms into an owl (so I couldn’t help but post them both).
Day 30: CREEPY OCTOPUS. A category she completely created, because she wanted to draw a vampire octopus from Octonauts. This one stumped me for a bit, until I remembered the COOLEST “creepy octopus” of all: Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean, with his heart chest.
Day 31: DRAGON. Admittedly, we were at the convention in Austin and couldn’t really go out with a bang, but hey–we tried! Myla drew a “rain dragon” (which is how she describes drizzly days), and I drew the sad little Gringott’s dragon from Harry Potter.
So there we are! A drawing a day for October. And honestly, Myla was the motivator the whole time, asking me excitedly every morning, “what’s our drawing of the day today?” We both picked the topics–she was so good at coming up with themes that we both could do.
Anyway, I hope you all had as fun an October as we did with Inktober!
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?”
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…
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.
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…
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.
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 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.
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…
I’m unpacking (mentally and physically) from the 3-day ComicCon, and I’ve got a lot of cool photos to share from it. For now, I’ll mention a fun little aside that came from it.
One of the best things about conventions is meeting other people. I’m not so good at the “walking up and making small talk” thing, but I really really enjoy one-on-one connections, and a booth gives you a great chance for that.
So the first day of the Con, a guy named Kenneth Rocafort walked up and said he enjoyed my artwork, and that he had a table set up in the Artists’ Alley, and also that he works for Marvel or something. No big deal. 😛 He talked about how much he loves drawing in sketchbooks and tries to just draw a little every day. Then he pulled out his little tiny sketchbook, and I was blown away:
It reminded me (in a different way) of the sketchbook diaries I used to do, ages ago…
And although I draw every day ANYway, I thought that was a good habit to get back into; maybe carrying a little book around, and not making it so “precious.” Just drawing whatever I wanted, just for fun.
My friend Annie had come to the show to help with my booth, and–inspired by Kenneth’s tiny sketchbook–brought a little sketchbook, and was asking artists to draw in it. Usually artists at conventions will do this for a fee, but some will do it just for the fun of doing it.
Since we had watched Mad Max: Fury Road in 3D at her house the night before, I drew her a little Furiosa and Nux to kick things off:
Later, I added a Ron Perlman (since we were going to meet him for a photo later):
When we met him for the photo, we were ushered in there, snapped, and then ushered out. The whole thing took about two minutes (if that). I didn’t get a chance to show him the Hellboy drawing that Myla and I had done, or the drawing I did of him as One from one of my all-time favorite movies, City of Lost Children. But I DID get this derpy photo of me, unready for the camera, surprised at how normal-sized he was (I imagined 9 feet tall, at least), and making the most unintentionally goofy face, while everyone else looked great:
(I mean, what is that face? Really? Where is my neck? I don’t think I’ve ever even made that face before. I didn’t even have time to be awestruck or anything, so that face was more of a “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MY HANDS”…..)
The day after the convention, my mom and I went to the craft store, and I found these cool little watercolor sketchbooks on sale, and thought I’d try one.
It was longer & thinner, which would make for a more awkward drawing space, which I found to be a fun challenge. That night, while my mom & I watched movies, I doodled Myla and some autumn moths in a pair of antlers.
Anyway, I liked the sketchbook so much, I went back and got more because they were on sale and they were trying to get rid of them. So don’t try to find them at the store in Killeen, Texas, because they’re all gone, I got them. I couldn’t help it, and I don’t even really feel bad about it at all, because they’re awesome, and there weren’t very many of them anyway. Sorry.
My mom had been giving herself a “drawing a day” challenge to get back into her own artwork, and bought she and my dad one, hoping to get him on board. I know another friend, who does amazing things with those drawing prompt books… (I’m talking about you, Kendyl…) I bought one of those books one time, and only ever drew one thing in it: a bulldog in a monocle. So there’s also that.
I drew Tuna from @tunameltsmyheart…do you know Tuna? His little face makes me smile. Anyway, there was a contest or a thing about drawing him, and this is what I drew. Because: TEETH. Tuna is all about that mug.
I wanted to draw more faces, so I drew a page of Rosanna Arquette….because why not? She’s got a cool face, cool lines, and her face always tells a great story…
Apparently, though, she saw it on Instagram and didn’t really like it….
And that’s okay, because you know what? I didn’t draw it for her, I drew it for me. I love her lines, and if she’s not comfortable with my version of her lines, that’s alright with me. (sniff). Of course, I’d have loved her to love it, but the thing that makes me enjoy making art is not whether or not someone else likes or doesn’t like it…even someone famous.
Because I learn from each one, and that experience is inexchangeable (that’s a word I just created. You’re welcome to use it). I learn something new and nonverbal each time I doodle, and that’s why the end result doesn’t matter. I used to hate people to look through my sketchbook if it was full of false starts. I wanted to say, “NO! I’m better than that wonky eye I scratched out!”
But it doesn’t matter. I HAD to draw that wonky eye to learn. All the struggles, all the mess-ups….at least it’s a STEP, right? You have to make those mistakes to show yourself, “nope. That’s not the way. Let’s try this way.”
So don’t be afraid of criticism or judgement. Don’t take that criticism seriously. They’re looking at the front steps without walking into the house. It gets better the further you go. You just have to PRACTICE it….
So here’s to new sketchbooks–hooray!
I am an “illustrator.” I draw what I like to see, and there’s usually not any “deep” or lofty meaning behind any of it. It’s nearly always taken best with a good sense of humor, never with a serious face.
But lately, I’ve been trying out a few things that mean something. And since I’m usually so bad at it, I thought I’d sort of go through my thought process, in case anyone else was having trouble connecting those same dots…
There was that time when our daughter was going through a thing. You know those things? Where they’re nearly insufferable, and they make you crazy because you don’t know how to handle it, and the way you’re handling it isn’t working?
Well, I was trying to describe to myself how that FELT. It felt like holding too tightly to too many wild, flapping things, flapping in that aggressively frantic way wild animals act when they’re scared. It felt like I was trying to explain too many things in too much detail, and none of it was taking any hold. It was going skyward, it wasn’t making any sense to this wild, frantic creature. It felt like I had lost my way, and couldn’t even tell from the stars which way to go. And this is what came out (I called it “A Very Bad Day”):
And that felt good. Much better than words.
And as the days went on, I felt like I had sort of found my general shape, but I was torn into so many different directions, in so many different ways. I was having trouble focusing on priorities, because EVERYTHING seemed like a priority, and everything needed attention. And yet nothing was working the way I wanted it to work. It was hard–It would be SO much easier if you just didn’t CARE, wouldn’t it? But I wasn’t going to give up.
So I drew this, and added this line to describe it: “We’ll get through this, one screaming monkey at a time…”
After a bit, I became more comfortable with the chaos, and just sort of settled in. I thought of Ren’s maddening laugh in Ren & Stimpy’s “Space Madness.” You know–the kind in cartoons where someone straight up loses their mind? Yeah that. That’s what it felt like. Like I didn’t know who was more crazy… And that’s like a hyena laugh, right?? That crazy animal giggle because as hard as you’re trying, it’s NOT WORKING and it seems like you’ve tried everything…
So that’s where this one came from…not so much a title as a statement: “You have to keep a sense of humor about these things…”
After a bit longer, things start to settle down a little. What’s so frustrating is that we’re trying to keep a handle on everything, do the best we can, and raise a happy, healthy kid, and she WON’T LET US. All that stuff my parents said about it “being harder on me than it is you,” is true, and I was only JUST realizing that.
And yet, even after all of that, I can look at that sweet little person (usually when she’s asleep) and remember why we’re struggling so hard. Because she’s special and amazing and wonderful. I thought of those wild things, all primitive and clumsy, and how they still survived for years and years without much effort at all…Because you have to protect the Delicate Things…
I thought of how much attention we give to this one little tiny thing that has such a HUGE impact on our world, and how all you want to do is love it and hug it, and sometimes it just doesn’t WANT that. I thought of two or three or four grown adults and the hoops they jump through for a crying baby or a restless toddler on an airplane, because they just want to calm and comfort that spiny little thing…but sometimes it HAS to pull away. I thought of a mother lion, and all these very attentive hands doing their best to cuddle this small, prickly, spiny creature….
I called it “Attempting to cuddle the crankies…”
Around this time, I had an experience that reminded me to breathe…that reminded me that I had no control over anything, no matter how hard I bash my head against the wall. That I could do everything that I considered “right” ALL the time (which I realize is impossible), and things could still go terribly wrong. There is no REAL control. And keeping it all in and pretending it’s all fine doesn’t help anyone.
And I thought I would try to describe that feeling of bottling everything in…
And this, as silly as it sounds, is one of the most special things I’ve painted because I was able to get out in a drawing almost exactly how I feel. I wrote this thought down, because it came to me so clearly, like a meditation: “Breeeeeathe deeply. Then push it all down low and tighten it all up inside…Maintain what awkward poise you possess simply for the sake of appearances. And keep as calm as a Hindu cow…”
And that’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Not a very good way to behave. I thought of all these unpleasant things, these things that weigh on me, that poke and grab at me in a huge dustcloud of shadows, and how I keep telling myself that there’s no time for them right now….that they’re not important enough to spend time on. I thought of them like a corset, giving the false appearance of control, while simultaneously NOT ALLOWING ME TO BREATHE. I thought of trying to cram all that stuff inside while trying to keep strong for everyone else. While trying not to make waves. While trying not to be a burden to anyone. While trying to take care of everyone else. While trying to manage everything and keep it all going. While keeping a calm, brave face because with all that stuff going on, there’s no room for anything else.
And I thought of how painful and harmful and isolating that is…
And I’m working on that.
And it might not look like much, but it was one of the few times I’ve been able to connect those dots–to help my hands get out what’s in my mind. And it helps make things feel a little better.
Art does that for me. Usually, just the act of drawing something (even if I’m emotionally unattached to it) is fairly meditative and calming.
But for some people, it’s cooking, it’s sculpting, it’s reading, it’s whatever. So what connects your dots?
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!
I get such wonderful mail from time to time, of people sharing stories about how the little collaborations that Myla and I do has affected their lives in a positive way…and I don’t care WHAT kind of cruddy day I might be having, they ALWAYS make me smile.
This set of collaborations is from Charlotte Christian School, where kids in High School worked on drawings with kids from Kinder and Junior Kinder classes. Look at all the amazing things they did!
This is a small sample from a class at Sanna preschool in Jönköping, Sweden, where the teachers took photos of the kids and let them paint whatever they wanted to, after seeing the drawings that Myla and I did (thank you, Ellen, Olivia and Benjamin!).
I got this beautiful image via @januarylark on Twitter, who got our book before she knew she was pregnant, and is reading it to her new little buddy.
I love to see the things people draw together, and I love that you all share them with me! So keep drawing, keep doodling, but most of all, keep enjoying spending real time creating with your kids!
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.