Here is how I think art works: If you’re depressed, draw a picture of Batman depressed. You’re still depressed, but now you have a picture of Batman.
My son Jules woke up on Christmas last year and started drawing. He was 2. (His birthday is in March.)
Inspired by Sylvia Fein’s book Heidi’s Horse, which collects her daughters drawings from toddler to teenage years, I thought it’d be interesting to see how his drawings developed over the next 12 months.
From the very beginning, he has had unlimited, unrestricted access to markers and paper. From the very beginning, he has often drawn for over an hour, becoming extremely angry if we interrupt him. Here is a batch of skeletons — his great subject!
Here are some skeletons he drew on our outdoor couch cushions with sidewalk chalk.
They were so good we couldn’t bear to clean them off, so my wife got out her sewing machine and embroidered them. (This is how Jules got on Boing Boing’d at age 3.)
Here he is drawing along to Super Simple Draw in a hotel room.
Here’s a robot copied from Super Simple Draw. (Later in the year he would become fond of Ed Emberley books.)
Here he is in April, drawing along to Kraftwerk videos while singing “Man Machine” at the top of his lungs.
In May, he started drawing his favorite nursery rhymes. (Here are Jack & Jill.)
His drawings got incredibly gestural and emotional around this time.
Here he is copying Mo Willems’ pigeon. (Here’s his brother’s blog post about it.)
Later in the month, he drew our family as skeletons at the pool. I became fascinated by how he would draw people in his life using the moves he picked up drawing other characters.
Here’s another drawing of us in the pool.
Here he is with his brother drawing side by side.
July was also the month he got obsessed with The Scream.
Here’s a drawing he made after going to the dentist.
He also started drawing the characters from a Coco coloring book, even though he still refuses to watch the movie again, and screams whenever I mention it. (When you draw things, you’re in control of them.)
He also started drawing the human body.
Here is a photo of our kitchen floor on a day in September, to give you an idea of what one day’s worth of drawings looked like.
My wife and I would sweep them up with a broom at the end of the day.
This is around the time I got so fed up with the boys one afternoon I made the (extremely questionable) decision to read them Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies. (He can now draw the whole book from memory.)
Drawings of musicians — his other great subject!
A drawing from life made while waiting for his brother to finish art class at Laguna Gloria.
Finally, here he is on December 30, a year and 5 days after picking up his marker, drawing along to YouTube videos of Orchestras playing Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.”
I find it remarkable, at this point, how drawing for him still has nothing to do with the results. He does not care what you do with his drawings after he’s done making them. How he draws is intense and adorable at the same time: he will put down a few lines, and then stand back and shake while he admires them.
I find it endlessly fascinating watching him draw. And inspiring.
The six-year-old is taking art classes at Laguna Gloria. I love dropping him off because while he’s in class, the 3-year-old and I get to explore the grounds. (An older dad told me years ago how important it is to split your kids up once in a while and go on little one-on-one “dates” together.) Yesterday the 3-year-old was having some serious separation anxiety (my wife is out of town), so I put some paper down on the stone ledge around the tiny koi pond and told him to draw the plants. This is what he drew.
I actually left the house last night to attend Edward Carey’s art show opening & book release for Little at the Central Library gallery. It was a special treat because after Edward read, he was interviewed by his wife, Elizabeth McCracken. (It was their first time onstage together.)
I’m inspired by how much pictures and words are fully integrated in Carey’s work. His stories often start with a drawing, and he’s drawing constantly while writing. (I wondered about how much his visual thinking makes it into his classroom work — he mentioned that in his courses at UT he talks to his students about maps and the importance of knowing the worlds of your characters.) If you read this blog regularly, you might remember his bit on productive procrastination:
The exhibit (up until January) is very well done, and organized by book. (The second great exhibit I’ve seen in the space — the first was Lance Letscher.) Here is original artwork for The Iremonger Trilogy:
And here’s a drawing from the new one:
There’s a lot to like in the show, but my favorite thing might’ve been this bowl of his pencil stubs — Tombow Bs, I think— which resembled an ashtray with cigarette butts. (Carey is a former chain smoker.)
“Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.”
In his Paris Review interview, David McCullough talks about how important seeing is to the writer and historian, and how much his training in drawing and painting has been of great benefit to him in his work. “Drawing is learning to see and so is writing.”
He has a motto tacked above his desk: LOOK AT YOUR FISH.
It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
He tells that story in all of his writing classes, and then emphasizes that looking more closely helps you discover new things in old or ordinary material that other people have not:
The chances of finding a new piece [of the puzzle] are fairly remote—though I’ve never written a book where I didn’t find something new—but it’s more likely you see something that’s been around a long time that others haven’t seen. Sometimes it derives from your own nature, your own interests. More often, it’s just that nobody bothered to look closely enough.
Filed under: looking
I took this photo of our 3-year-old’s setup in our hotel room in Chicago. (I had to run to the local Target after two days to buy a new ream of paper.)
Here’s half a day’s worth of drawings on our kitchen floor. My wife sweeps them all up into a big pile at the end of the day.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the 3-year-old loves drawing skeletons, but refuses to watch Coco. He still refuses to watch it, but he’s now discovered the Coco coloring book, so many of his skeletons now play guitar. (I’m reminded, now, of the genius of merchandising: hook ’em through coloring books first…)
He does this new thing where when he makes a particularly good line, he’ll stand back and pull his arms to his side and just shake in excitement. It’s infectious, watching a tiny person draw this much. And humbling. Back to work, papa.
I really love this 2013 video of Ralph Steadman in his studio making drawings, talking, and playing the ukulele. It’s basically what I want my life to look like when I’m his age:
There’s so much to learn. On the difference between him and his work:
People have said, “Oh, I thought you’d be a nasty piece of work because you’re so dark and trenchant,” and I say, “No I’m not! I’ve got rid of it — it’s all on paper!”
There’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is only an opportunity to do something else.
I never went out of my way to invent a style. I haven’t got a style — I just draw and it’s that way.
In 2014, he Skype-d in to a room at SXSW to promote for his documentary, For No Good Reason. He was walking around the studio, and I saw this big book on podium next to his desk. It looked like a big Gutenberg bible or a dictionary or something. I started obsessing over what this book could be. So when it was Q&A time, I shot up my hand and asked him about it. He lit up and said, “Oh! That’s my idea book! Every time I have an idea, I go over here and write it down.” He started flipping through pages and showing us old bits and debris he’d pasted into it. (What I wouldn’t give to see it in person!)
Here’s another video of him drawing, because I can’t get enough:
My kids have obsessions. Deep, drawn-out obsessions. And sometimes, as with my 5-year-old and Kraftwerk, we get so far into the obsession that I can’t even remember when or how the obsession began.
Our 3-year-old’s latest obsession is drawing Edvard Munch’s The Scream. WTF?
So, my wife printed out a photo of the painting from the internet, and he immediately began copying it. (Copying is how we learn.) The above picture was drawn on June 15th.
Here’s a drawing from July 7th — four weeks later! He was still drawing the scream.
The next day, we took him to the Blanton Museum, thinking maybe we’d see some weird expressionist painting that would be a good substitute. No such luck.
So the obsession continues. Who knows how long it will last?
Yesterday, I was lettering the cover for my next book, over and over again. I tried to channel Jules drawing The Scream.
I kept thinking about how much of my work is just being obsessed. Giving myself over to things that interest me, not just for a few days or a few weeks, but for months and for years.
It’s thrilling to watch my kids have the time and space for their obsessions. To see where they go. They keep teaching me how to learn.
If you read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, you’ll come across several diagrams like the ones above. “McPhee creates them for everything he writes,” wrote Sam Anderson in his terrific profile. “Some of the shapes make almost no sense — they look like the late-stage wall sketches of a hermit stuck in a cave. Others are radically simple.”
McPhee learned the technique from his high school English teacher, Mrs. McKee, who made him do three writing assignments a week. “We could write anything we wanted to, but each composition had to be accompanied by a structural outline, which she told us to do first. It could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs.”