A few days ago in San Francisco we were having margaritas near the Presidio Officers’ Club when my son Jules bolted and disappeared around the corner. I found him admiring this Andy Goldsworthy piece, Earth Wall, which I had never seen. Goldsworthy has four pieces in the Presidio—Tree Fall, Wood Line, and Spire:
I was reading about Spire in the brochure about Goldsworthy and the Presidio, and I was struck by this detail: “The sculpture is fated to fade into the forest as young cypress trees planted at its base ultimately grow to obscure the piece – like the old forest welcoming the new.”
It’s Jules’ 3rd birthday today. He’s not a baby anymore. This morning in our hotel room I watched him drawing along to Super Simple Draw, and I felt, most definitely, that if I’m the spire now, he’s the young cypress, and I will be happy for him to obscure me.
Our two-year-old, Jules, our little caveman, started drawing dozens of skeletons a few days ago, and in response to my posts about them, an Instagram follower commented, “They’re like ancient cave drawings.” I immediately thought of the work of Sylvia Fein, a painter who wrote two really interesting books about children’s artwork: Heidi’s Horse, a record of her daughter’s drawings of horses from the ages of 2 to 17, and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking, which compares children’s drawings to the cave paintings and drawings of our ancestors. The books can be hard to track down, so here are a few examples from First Drawings, below:
I love these books because they honor the work of children’s drawing — their play — by paying close attention to it, and they show how the development of children’s visual thinking echoes the development of our species’ visual thinking. Children do the work of developing powers that we have evolved over thousands of years, all in the span of a decade or two.
I also love these books because they are about intense looking and observation, and they explore their arguments through simple juxtaposition. I know of at least two other books — both favorites of mine — that use this method: David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, which compares post-photography painting to medieval pre-optics paintings, and Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten, which compares the art of kindergarteners to the art of modernist artists and architects.
Sylvia Fein is a terrific painter who, to my knowledge, is still working at the age of 98. Here’s a 2014 documentary about her life and work. There’s a wonderful moment when she speaks of discovering working in miniature when her daughter was very little: “I was just in heaven. Everything seemed to go together: my life and my painting.” I’m inspired by the way Fein was able to integrate motherhood and art-making. (Above is my favorite painting of hers, obviously a self-portrait, from 1947, called “Lady With Her Baby.”)
The only thing remotely similar to Fein’s book Heidi’s Horse that I can think of is a 1939 exhibit at the MoMA, Creative Growth, Childhood to Maturity, which showcased the work of Dahlov Ipcar, from the age 3 to 22. (She was, by the way, the first woman with a solo exhibition at MoMA.) Ipcar’s parents, William Zorach and Marguerite Zorach, were both artists, and they saved much of the artwork she made as a young child. The press release of the show outlines a goal very similar to Heidi’s Horse: “it shows the creative growth from infancy to adulthood of an individual who is neither a genius nor a prodigy.”
Ipcar wrote about her unique upbringing in her essay, “My Family, My Life, My Art”:
My parents had always encouraged me to develop my own style of art. They both had undergone conventional art school training, but when they became involved in the modern art movement, they found they had to unlearn everything they had been taught…. They had deliberately left me unschooled in art, wanting to see what would happen if I were left alone to develop in my own way.
Ipcar and Fein share another connection: they both found a way to integrate their life and art-making. It came naturally to Ipcar, who recalled painting in the studio alongside her mother, and later, painting with her own children:
People always ask me how I managed to paint when my two boys were small. My children were a joy to me, and there was no problem working with them around — I just let them play at my feet as I painted. They would even run toy fire engines up and down my easel, but it didn’t bother me.
This is very much what I am attempting here, at the kitchen table, at this very moment, while the two boys draw quietly beside me, long enough for me to press “Publish.”
Several times a day since October, ever since the Halloween decorations went up, my two-year-old son Jules has asked my wife or me to draw him an “x-ray.” (That’s his word for skeleton.) When you draw for him, he hunches over so close to the drawing that you can’t even see your hand. You finish a drawing, then he turns the paper over to the blank side and says, “X-ray?” We’ve drawn hundreds of skeletons for him, over and over and over again. He flat-out refuses to attempt drawing one for himself. Sometimes we’ll be finishing dinner, and he’ll say, “X-ray?” and we’ll shout, “No! No more x-rays! We’re eating!” and he’ll throw a complete fit until one of us relents and draws the skeleton.
Then, yesterday — Christmas morning — totally out of the blue, I look over, and there’s Jules, with a piece of construction paper and his new Slick Stix from his stocking, drawing freaking x-rays like he’s been doing it his whole life:
I was so shocked I just sat there next to him for 15 minutes, watching him draw. And we’re not talking just a few x-rays, we’re talking dozens of x-rays. He’s drawn for hours since Christmas morning, as if seized by some kind of hypergraphia. X-rays, x-rays, x-rays. Here’s a picture of the whole stack of drawings he’s done so far:
What happened? What convinced him it was time? The construction paper and the markers have been there at his disposal for months. Was it that we had visitors in the house for Christmas? I can’t come up with any convincing external factor that might have caused him to finally pick up the marker. He just decided he was ready.
As is so often the case with parenting, you do the same Sisyphean, seemingly meaningless task over and over again, wondering when the heck it will add up to anything. And then, one day, often without warning or fanfare, the meaning arrives, and you still can’t believe it.
Every time I open up our copy of Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals, I smile at this perfect dedication page.
I did not, to my memory, know Emberley’s books when I was growing up, but when I discovered them in my 20s, he instantly became one of my heroes.
I not only love his books, I’m inspired by the way he and his wife Barbara collaborated on classic books like Drummer Hoff and The Story of Paul Bunyan, all while raising their kids, Rebecca and Michael, both of whom grew up to become illustrators and now have creative families of their own. (On the family business, Rebecca remembers, “Our parents would say ‘Think up something you can make and sell it.’”) I used a quote of Ed’s in Steal Like An Artist, and a few years later, Rebecca sent me of a snapshot of her dad reading it. I framed it and hung it on my studio wall and I look at it whenever I feel worthless.
Now that I have my own marker-wielding boys, I leave the Emberley books out for them to find. My son Owen, who’s about to turn 5 this month, likes to copy out of the Drawing Book of Trucks and Trains, although he also likes to skip most of the steps and copy the final drawing.
Here’s one from The Big Red Drawing Book:
“Most children are at least as creative as adult artists are until they get to first or second grade,” Ed says. “Your job is to bring them back.”
I try so hard to provide the life I always wanted for my boys, and I want so much for them to enjoy the things I love, to see me working, and to work alongside me. But I’m always mindful of Andrew Solomon, who wrote in Far From The Tree, “Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is that we give our children what we wanted, whether they want it or not.”
I continue to be fascinated by how slow, seemingly inefficient methods make my self-education more helpful and more meaningful.
Example: This week I was reading Jan Swafford’s introduction to classical music, Language of the Spirit, and I wanted to see the lives of all the composers on a timeline. Instead of googling for one, I decided to just make one for myself with a pencil in my notebook. It was kind of a pain, but I had a feeling I’d learn something. Pretty much immediately I was able to see connections that Swafford wrote about that just hadn’t sunken in yet, like how Haydn’s life overlapped both Bach’s and Beethoven’s while covering Mozart’s completely. Had I googled a pre-made timeline, I’m not completely sure I would’ve studied it closely enough to get as much out of it as the one I drew.
Another example: I copy passages of text that I like longhand in my notebook, and it not only helps me remember the texts, it makes me slow down enough so that I can actually read them and think about them, even internalize them. Something happens when I copy texts into my notebook that does not happen when I cut and paste them into Evernote or onto my blog.
A lot of this way of studying has been inspired by my son, Owen.
Even before I had kids, I wrote, “We learn by copying… Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.” Funny now that I have a four-year-old budding mechanic, who actually spends a great deal of his time copying photos and drawings of cars, taking them apart in his mind and putting them back together on the page to figure out how they work.
What I love about my son’s drawings is that he does not really care about them once he’s finished them. To him, they are dead artifacts, a scrap of by-product from his learning process. (For me, they’re tiny masterpieces to hang on the fridge.) Milton Glaser says that “drawing is thinking.” I think that drawing is learning, too, and one thing Owen has taught me is that it is more valuable as a verb than it is as a noun.
I felt sure that my children would teach me more than I taught them. I was not anticipating that they would actually teach me how to learn again…
“When you draw,” says Ed Emberley, “you go away. You go to another place. It’s a safe place. And it’s a real place.”
“A piece of paper is a place,” says Lynda Barry. “The thing you draw with is the way you travel through that place.”
“I make places I want to go to,” says Renee French.
“It’s sublime,” said Maurice Sendak, “to go into another room and make pictures. It’s magic time, where all your weaknesses of character, the blemishes of your personality, whatever else torments you, fades away, just doesn’t matter.”
In Jules Feiffer’s house when he was growing up, “Everything was a secret. So in order to make my own secrets, to establish my own way out of things I couldn’t understand, [I drew]. And it’s a way of not just escape, but of survival.”
“Drawing is 50,000 years old, isn’t it?” says David Hockney. “I think it comes from very deep within us. When all those people in the 1970s were trying to give up drawing, I did go and see them and they said: ‘Oh, you don’t need to draw now.’ And I did point out: ‘Well, why don’t you tell that to that little child there? Tell them you don’t need to draw and see what happens.’”
“Drawing is my way of explaining to myself what goes on in my mind,” said Saul Steinberg. “It’s not I who makes this drawing. It’s the hand that drew that makes it.”
“As kids,” Lynda Barry says, “we went to the page to find something, to have an experience. As adults, she says, “we have it backwards.” We think that we need to have an experience before we go to the page.
Cy Twombly: “It’s more like I’m having an experience than making a picture.”
Ken Robinson tells this story: “A little girl was in a drawing lesson. [The teacher] said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”
“Drawing isn’t work,” says a character in Christophe Blain’s Isaac The Pirate. “It’s a form of prayer.”
This morning to warm up I drew some entries from one of my favorite Tumblrs, Screenshots of Despair.
Here I am modeling my new favorite t-shirt:
Designed by Kyle Fletcher of Mutual Midwest and screen printed by our friends at the one and only Wire&Twine, this 5-color design features every illustration in Ed Emberley’s classic drawing book, “Make a World”. From dump truck to schooner, from forklift to dinosaur, every image is on the shirt.
I only came to Ed Emberley’s Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make A World last year, but it’s quickly become the #1 book I recommend to people I meet who say, “I can’t draw.” In it, Ed Emberley shows you how to “make a world” with just a few simple shapes, step-by-step. I love the emphasis on simplicity: if you can draw a triangle, a square, a circle, and a line, you’re good to go.
And yeah, I have sat down with the book and copied all the exercises!