Circulation Desk Portrait and Do-overs

I did something I didn’t want to do. Usually that ends badly. It went surprisingly well. A strange evening involving near life-sized plush cheetahs and friendly pharmacy staff. Sometimes we get a do-over.

I wasn’t up for going to a monthly sketching event at my local library. The past week had seen my energy and mood tick steadily down. So I made excuses for myself. Excuses like I had to go to the pharmacy that’s open twenty-four hours and located three blocks from our apartment.

We Talk Ourselves Out of Anything

I don’t know why I went. As the time was ticking closer, the excuses got stronger. What if there’s too many people? Too few people? The still life isn’t interesting? At some point in that treatise on the procrastinator’s prayer of what-ifs a slow burn in my chest started to flare up. It was this feeling of disapointment, guilt and being fed up with myself. I didn’t want to think of how I would explain not going to the one person who knew and expected me to go. It was a terrible physical feeling.

Shutting myself out of my own mind I grabbed a sketchbook, pen roll and jacket. I was in the car not remembering having taken my keys or putting on my shoes. There were good spaces available in the library’s lot. I was on the second floor gallery, seated, and with an empty page ready to go in what seemed like a minute.

Those Times We’re Wrong About How Bad Things Can Be

There was a nice turnout. A Goldilocks approved number of people. Everyone was relaxed with good attitudes and ready to draw. Our first subject? A giant stuffed toy Cheetah sitting next to a bowl of fruit. The library’s curator has a good sense of humor and knows how to break the ice.

Soon after the endless series of spots we had a surprise model. A special occassion. It’s usually hard to get anyone to volunteer to sit for the group during the school year with tutoring sessions and other informal events throughout the library. It was winter break for the schools and the circulation desk had little traffic.

Checking out drawing and art books every other week over the past six months I’ve come to know most everyone working the circulation desk. Our volunteer to sit for a portrait was a fellow art school alum. We’ve chatted about our interests here and there (she’s the resident watercolor expert). It was nice to draw a friendly, familiar face.

After my anxious, paranoid and panic-stricken experience from the portrait party, I wondered if this was the do-over I needed. We had fifteen minutes for our portrait. Fifteen minutes that seemed like an indulgence compared to the rapid succession of ten-minute sketches at the portrait event one day short of two and a half weeks ago (rough estimate of course). The idea of an extra five minutes transformed my senses.

Let’s try this again

I used the same brush pens. I didn’t try to be clever. I started with an English red erasable colored pencil. I didn’t try to be exacting with each stroke. The underdrawing complete I moved marks across the page with relaxed confidence. I finished a fun, enjoyable portrait of my friend at the circulation desk.

She loved it. The group organizer and other attendees enjoyed it as we exchanged sketchbooks to see everyone’s different approaches. I left relieved, satisfied and happy to have finally permitted myself a do-over.

Placing Thoughts in Other Heads

I did get to the pharmacy. I carried my improved state to the pickup counter. Another opportunity for self-conscious anxiety. I always await the reactions of the assistants. I read their minds full of wariness and judgements as my medications come up on-screen. Paranoia fills the space from queue back to my car.

This isn’t true of course. There was one time I interpreted an expression from a new employee months ago. I planted the reaction on everyone else ever after. I planted every terrible thought. Another masochistic fantasy to place on the shelf.

Called up. I gave my name, birthdate, and waited for the reaction as the keyboard clicks came to a close. Where’s the reaction? The pause? Where’s the head slowly jerking back wishing the next register had called me? I waited and none of those things happened.

I got a relaxed smile. She gave a helpful update on my refill schedule. We said goodbye. I’m just not that big of a deal. Sometimes strangers can teach us how to accept ourselves. They give us a do-over. Grant permission to accept.

Milling Machines and Perspective Mishaps

I started this blog as my own sketchbook, notebook. Lots of scribbles, some successes, and spectacular failures. I never intended this to be any kind of Insta-ham feed. This would be seperate from any notion of “finished” art pieces.

In the spirit of getting back on track, I submit this latest sketchbook page. I enjoyed making this sketch. It scratched two itches. First, I’ve been wanting to do more drawings that included some kind of machinery. I also look for good examples of hands in action. This small moment of a machinist tightening a drill bit was perfect, accomplishing both. That already made the effort a success from the start.

I like a few things in this sketch. I used watercolor pencils for the underdrawing. I used complimentary colors which helped separate hands from the machine. Breaking down the sketchbook page into two smaller drawings helped me work efficiently and confidently. Now I could focus on one section at a time.

I was surprised at how happy I ended up being with the hands. I can always improve when it comes to fingernails (what is it that makes them so challenging?!?!). The wash may have taken away from the forms instead of defining. Overall though I’m happy with the progress I’ve been making rendering hands. It makes the “long way to go” not seem so long.

The milling machine. What I believed would turn out best, didn’t quite get there. My strengths fell to the side (particularly the left side and components in particular). My only explanation is that I didn’t match the required effort and focus with expectations. I think that’s how most preventable mistakes happen.

That’s where I feel this ended up a failure. I made preventable mistakes. I was sloppy. Those are really the worst mistakes. Mistakes made while learning, exposing areas that require more knowledge, practice are informative. Mistakes made while exploring something new are valuable. Mistakes made over subjects we are familiar and have had practice with are empty experiences.

If there is anything good about an empty failure, it’s the lesson that you will never be too good to not focus on what’s in front of you.

Secret Hideouts and Sketching Outer Space Oyster Mushrooms

I have a secret hideout. I’m going public with it. Feeling disconnected, distant I seek out strange, odd, and spatially vibrant vegetables. I go to the produce section.

Busy farmers markets, especially those serving diverse communities, are where I run to for the best art models. That’s where I like to spend an evening late in the week. The greatest variety of lines and forms all there among humans pinching, prodding and weighing them like alien abductors.

I started with the full bundle of oyster mushrooms, then cropping and finally inventing.

Some vegetables do seem otherworldly. Oyster mushrooms, a science fiction example of what extra terrestrials keep as apartment starter plants. Oyster mushrooms are another wonderful subject. When you look at them. Stare. Observe them closely. You see layers of lovely complex lines and shapes.

The greatest gift fruits and vegetables provide is their ability to inspire imaginative lines. They can be a starting point for something original from ourselves. Like the big dried up piece of horseradish in front of me. Waiting for every crooked groove to be closely observed. Coaxing to get lost in my next sketchbook page.

When Every Fear Comes True

We tried everything. Prepared. Inspired by our own pep talk. All that work to push our fears to the side. The time comes. We fail spectacularly. Every fear comes true.

Last Saturday I attended a drawing event on the East side of Manhattan, in a highschool cafeteria with a few hundred strangers. The sixth annual Portrait Party.

What’s a portrait party?

  • Artists assigned to separate groups
  • There are twelve, ten minute rounds
  • Each team member sits once for their portrait
  • The group finishes when everyone has sat for their portrait
  • Set drawings from each team into a grid
  • All attendees walk around viewing portraits and socializing

I had prepared. I gave myself a pep talk. I warmed up at home. I warmed up on the train. I arrived early and warmed up sketching attendees as they walked into the caffeteria.

Two things about warming up

  1. I warm up every day for ten to twenty minutes
  2. As I warm up I notice any tendencies that need correcting

I ignored what I was seeing. Everything was a little off. Gestures, straight line and ellipse drills. But I pushed through without adjustment. Convinced I would do well and those kinks would magically melt away.

Don’t confuse arrogance for confidence

  • Confidence draws on attention to planning, preperation and familiarity.
  • Arrogance is misguided and blind to gathered information

I decide maybe an extra cup of coffee that I didn’t need would help give me more energy and focus. That extra cup had my hands go from slightly unsteady to nervous breakdown. The organizers called on everyone to get to their groups. The event was starting in the minutes.

We sat down and prepared to begin. With one of the “rules” being to use big, bold lines and colors, I decided on using markers. While I keep markers for quick sketches, they’re always thumbnails, not full drawings. But I had a plan. Create a background of fun shapes with limited bright colors. A bold, black line drawing would take up the rest of the ten minutes.

For this to work the lines, contours, proportions had to be perfect. The first try was the only try. Anything after that would just show the mistake as the lines were equal in weight. At best the drawing would look like a ball of yarn among creative kittens.

Most of the attendees painted their portraits. Forms and layered shapes allowed for softer, elegant mistakes. It was a smarter approach allowing a forgiving process during ten unforgiving minutes. In contrast, I compounded an unforgiving bold, black line with an unnegotiable, ten-minute time limit. My arrogance to set me up to fail.

Yes, I was unhappy with the drawings I made. Embarrassed, I set them down in our group’s grid. I walked away, taking the sour ball of self-consciousness with me. I made this day solely about every portrait turning out terrific, patting myself on the shoulder before the day even started. Was it all about the end product? Is it ever?

Our group’s final grid. I was amazed at what attendees accomplished in short time

I’ve always held the idea that growth, self-discovery, needs uncomfortable moments along the way. Something alien, new. Something known. A deep fear.

Planned or unplanned, we need these moments. Not to make us better. To reach an understanding. Yes, it can lead to improvement. Sometimes dramatic. Improvements are great. Understanding is why we want to improve.

While we’re deeply embedded. Our moment of crisis, unsettling confusion exposes the worst. Every fear, humiliation and mistake we’ve ever made swell from this one moment. Our thoughts overwhelmed. We go from what was a bad afternoon to a full blown crisis.

It isn’t. The waters will recede in the following days. Revealed will be the lessons we weren’t seeking. Answers from our undiscovered selves.

I unpack and make a full inventory. What went wrong that will end up being right?

I know that afternoon had roughly half a dozen variables of fear and discomfort. Collected, what do they tell me? I went when I wasn’t up for it. I stayed when I wanted to tear up everything and walk away.

I finished. Gathered everything. Said my goodbyes and thanked the organizers.

Sometimes experiences don’t mean anything. There are no deep answers. Accepting that the time spent had it’s own unique value that lived and died that afternoon. Accepting that sometimes understanding what failure is and isn’t has value. Once in a while we need a bad afternoon to remind us of that.

Portrait Party Pre-game: Speed Sketching

I’m nervous. A week of practice and, still nervous. Ten minutes to draw a stranger sitting three feet in front of me. Eleven strangers. One hundred and ten minutes.

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a big, live portrait event. A few hundred fellow artists will be creating 11 portraits, with 10 minutes allotted per sketch. The directive is to go big and bold. Unfortunately, that leaves my fountain pens capped.

Putting fountain pens away for the day, relying on fat markers and brush pens

Maybe it’s a good restriction. Restrictions can bring out our best creative thinking. I can’t fuss around. Can’t over think. At least that’s what I am trying to tell myself.

Back to practicing. I’ll be sure to post the results.

Micro Torch

Fountain pen, ink wash and gouache on mixed media paper

As much as I enjoy the toothe of this mixed-media paper, I may have to finally crack open a watercolor sketchbook. While a spot of gouache is handled well, every attempt at a wash has buckled the pages. It’s mostly tolerable but adds one more thing I have to be aware of and really shouldn’t. I should be thinking about the sketch itself. What I’m seeing and trying to get on paper.


Much of why I started drawing again has been about reconciliation. It’s a recursive reconciliation. It builds and deconstructs along the same loop. Since moving back to post-industrial North Jersey, I have been reconciling my ties here. Growing up here. What is the effect of that legacy on us children of factory workers? That last generation of shift workers benefiting from a final, full prosperous breath of big industry employment.

It’s not nostalgia I feel. Something in me needs to recognize growing up around the tools, machines, shops, plants and talk of shifts. I thought a sketch involving fire was a good way to begin. A torch lit and ready to begin.

5 Artists, 5 Quotes on Drawing

Practice. Rehearse. Just over a week away. I registered for a speed round-robin portrait event. Artists are allowed exactly ten minutes to complete each drawing. “Times up!” We hurry and switch to the next fresh new face. It’s both performance, test of skills and courage. Nervous, I’ve looked for anything to squelch the butterflies. Maybe build confidence.

I keep lists upon lists. Several include favorite artists. I have a few lists of quotes. Looking, I found a perfect handful. Meditating on each one I thought they made a good list to share.

Sense of purpose. Clarity of voice. Insidious feelings of inadequacy. Each artist offers a guiding, bold honesty. Keep these quotes close for moments of creative confusion.

Believe it or not, I can actually draw.

~ Jean-Michel Basquiat

My dream is to show the fire which comes out of the horses’ nostrils; the dust which rises from their hooves. I want this to be an infernal waltz.

~ Rosa Bonheur

Even if a comic artist spent his whole life drawing yogurt cups. You would still see his most secret and deranging sensibility emerge.

~ Jean “Moebius” Giraud

I wish I was better at art. I love some of the great artists of the 19th century and, compared to them, I just feel I lack this technique.

~ Hayao Miyazaki

Errors and exaggerations do not matter. What matters is boldness in thinking with a strong-pitched voice, in speaking out about things as one feels them in the moment of speaking; in having the temerity to proclaim what one believes to be true of the consequences. If one were to await the possession of the absolute truth, one must be either a fool or idle. If the creative impulse were stunted, the world would then be stayed on its march.

~ José Clement Orozco

Quotes are translations from the original language

Iguanas, Battling Fear and Adventures with Blue Ink

Dipping dead of winter temperatures. A creative freeze. Going into a new year I had all this great momentum, ideas and projects ready to go. Then it snuck up on me. Second-guessing, doubts, and perfectionism blocking all my progress and plans.

All the planned studies and finished drawings of birds came to a stop. Not even a feather found in any of my sketchbooks. Perfectionism and self-doubt always dance together, ripping oxygen from the room.

I spent most of the week focusing on small, confidence-building draughtsmanship exercises. I attended a weekly figure drawing group I enjoy. In the evenings I looked through my favorite work of dead artists. While enriching and practical, these efforts hadn’t vanquished the creative malaise.

Going through old sketchbooks and journal entries reminded me of an idea I had for these hard moments. To get through a slump we could sketch the opposite of whatever we find ourselves stuck on. Tough block sketching subjects we love? Draw what we show indifference towards. Sketch what shakes us with irrational fear.

In my case, reptiles, crocodiles and the like. They chill the marrow in my bones. Even after living for a stretch of years in Florida, I never did get comfortable around reptiles.

Breaking a creative block drawing birds by turning to reptiles

Why draw something we fear? To remind us that in our sketchbook, we are in charge. That empowerment turns something we fear into an opportunity to develop courage and discover something new, unexpected. Second-guessing and perfectionism have little chance to survive these revelations.

How did this lead to my blue ink iguana? I spent a short while looking through videos and images. Began thinking about my experiences with the reptiles. Easily, I remembered the biggest iguana I may ever see in my life.

I had just dropped off my parents at the airport. Driving back, I spotted it. Making its way out of the Intracoastal waters to intimidate the cars passing by, was an iguana the size of a couch. My Jetta doesn’t exactly elicit fear. Thankfully the big ole’ curmudgeon agreed. The massive iguana lifted its head high, triumphant. Satisfied, it turned back and moved slowly to the water. The impression forever cemented.

Lounging iguanas under bridges and docks solidified in my head. Pictures maybe even clearer than of my favorite birds. Is it easier to remember and draw the things we fear than those we love?

Invested, my visual search continued. Little effort lead to upsetting stories. Over the past year, the University of Florida had a grant to exterminate iguanas in an awful, violent way. Invested became determined inspiration. I went right into the sketch.

I’ve been handwriting journal entries in fountain pen. The ritual inspires focused intentional expression. The jump from writing to sketching in fountain pen can be difficult. I find the benefits to both acts similar. This challenge to break through my slump was about finding inspiration and facing fears. Fountain pen and ink reinforce this idea.

I have two fountain pens I use. One filled with black ink the other with blue. I thought the blue would make a nice statement for the head of an iguana. The flow of this blue ink feels rich and velvety on paper. Unlike the black ink from the same line, it does take longer to dry and is not exactly waterproof. Both attributes welcome to a wet brush for a lovely wash. For such a permanent medium, ink actually provides a surprising amount of options.

Fancy pen in hand. Barrel full of ink. I meditated over this small study. I thought about all these different fears and doubts I had. It focused me on why I draw. Why did I start drawing after years away from a sketchbook? Reconciliation.

I should draw reptiles more often.

24 Ways to Improve Our Drawing

I wanted to share my personal list. Most I have incorporated in practice in some form. Others are aspirational. All are ongoing efforts. They have all helped me improve since I started drawing again regularly six months almost to the day before this post.

Each item could and likely will become their own post but for now – Let’s get to it!

  1. Dexterity Exercises
    Drawing is a dexterity exercise in and of itself but there are other fun, proven ways to improve our hands
    • [ ] Origami
    • [ ] Learn to use chopsticks more often
    • [ ] Studies with plasticine
  2. Draughtsmanship Drills
    • [ ] Learn what angle we naturally create the straightest lines
    • [ ] Mirror the angle of our best straight lines
    • [ ] Rows and columns of straight lines
    • [ ] Ellipses, ellipses, and ellipses
    • [ ] S and C curves
    • [ ] Set various points on paper and draw lines through them from every angle
  3. Don’t Get Hung Up…
    • [ ] if you didn’t get everything done on your task list (See #9)
    • [ ] on that first blank page of a sketchbook (See #13)
    • [ ] on the impossibly good masterpieces on social media (See #12)
    • [ ] on a bad drawing, session or day
    • [ ] on our seeming lack of progress (We’re wrong!)
  4. Blind Contour Drawing
    We hate it. We stink at it. But it’s the exercise that can be done anywhere with any subject and nothing improves our ability to see more than this slow, steady, study.
  5. Try a Big Round Brush and Bottle of Ink
    Another frustrating (at first) practice. This could have been included in #1 Dexterity Exercises but really deserves its own place. Few things improve a heavy, tense hand than drawing thin and varied lines like a big (try a size 10) round brush.
  6. Gestures
    The perfect compliment to #4 Blind Contour Drawing, gestures are fast, fun and loose. They are the lines (Note, many lines. Not a single action line) that give life to our drawings. Try starting from the belly button out to help with correct proportions.
  7. Time and Log Sessions
    It’s done in pretty much every drawing class. Use the Pomodoro or simply increase the increments from five to twenty-five minutes. Keep a record of these timed sessions to look back on later.
  8. Study Dead Artists and Very Much Alive Teachers
    We’ve probably heard the advice of studying the work of the past masters. There is something oddly less intimidating in studying our favorite artists from history in comparison to the latest Instagram star. However, we should find a few instructors who inspire with their great lessons. Either from a local drawing group, an instructor who recently releases a book (last 10 years) or who runs a favorite YouTube channel. Let’s maybe even send them a thank you note.
  9. Create a Schedule
    This pairs with #7 (Time and Log Sessions). Create a schedule every six weeks. Decide on a progression of exercises, sketchbook work, and/or projects to work through over a six week period. It’s a good way to stay focused and you can be sure after six weeks to see improvement.
  10. Work with a Variety of Mediums and Tools
    We’ll always gravitate towards a favorite medium but let’s set aside time each week to play with other tools. There’s something to learn in each tool about line, mass or both that we can bring back to our preferred pen/pencil/brush/paper/etc.
  11. Get Uncomfortable
    • [ ] Eat the Frog in the morning
    • [ ] Take our weaknesses head on
    • [ ] Work on our strengths within the medium we’re weakest using
    • [ ] Tackle our weakness in our favorite medium
    • [ ] Sketch in a public place we’ve never been to before
    • [ ] Draw in a favorite spot we never dared to bring a sketchbook to before
    • [ ] Sign up for a challenging, intimidating workshop
  12. Ditch Social Media and Start a Journal
    Where to begin… The unproductive sapping of our time, attention and carefully nurtured self-confidence? Yes. The greatest infraction of all these networks is how they guilt us into feeling the necessary, best and, only true way to promote ourselves (is that really our goal? See #21) or source of inspiration. It is inevitable that we fall into the trap of comparing our B reel to an Instagram star’s A reel. By all means we should show and share our work with others. However, we can and should do this on our own terms and turf. Set up a blog, have fun with a blank stack of postcards that we send to friends with a personal note to each. The responses from both will be more sincere, informing and meaningful.
  13. Keep Two Sketchbooks
    • [ ] A-Reel
      The one we show. The one where all our hard work comes together. The one that follows a theme or concept in a nice neat (Not perfect. See #14) package.
    • [ ] B-Reel
      Where we encourage mistakes. Where we experiment. Where we try new things. A safe space to be uncomfortable (See #11)
  14. Our Sketchbook is Precious, not Pristine
    We take our sketchbooks everywhere. They have our notes, show progress, failings, insecurities, triumphs and… well, they are that and more. But one thing we should never consider them is a pristine object to be encased in glass with special overhead spotlights. We can aim for perfection in our A reel sketchbook but never let that paralyze us into inaction. Otherwise, we risk keeping a pristine BLANK sketchbook for months until it’s forgotten altogether.
  15. Make Use of Our Local Library
    Drawing and art history books get expensive. In one year I borrowed over a dozen drawing books that were all helpful. I renewed the loans on at least half of them. I ended up ordering two for my bookshelf. Also, librarians are awesome and arguably our best resource. Become friends with our local librarian, we won’t regret it.
  16. Make use of the Produce Aisle
    • [ ] The cheapest available subjects that have been used by artists for centuries to gain and show mastery in our craft. We can make it interesting by pairing items that would never be seen or eaten together (eg. a black radish and plums).
  17. Draw Peppers
    The real kind. Not the ones that are “perfect”. The twisted, collapsed and bulging peppers. The ones that look alien but still immediately recognizable as a pepper. They’re a great source for perspective, volume, and vitamin c.
  18. Stretch and Jump
    Nothing and everything to do with drawing. Drawing is as physical an activity as it is analytical. While drawing we often suffer from tension, tightness and sitting hunched over the table into a ball of nerves. Some simple stretching, jumping jacks or throwing up our hands and dancing to a favorite song provide the looseness that can bring more life to our lines while not letting us take ourselves too seriously. It’s a few minutes that remind us the process is fun.
  19. Silence Our Biggest Critic
    • [ ] Focus on the process, not the end result
    • [ ] Meditate, learn to push out yesterday, tomorrow, later this evening or earlier this morning. We gain nothing in burdening ourselves with what already happened or what we think is to come.
    • [ ] Our biggest critic will use social media to exploit our insecurities (See #12)
  20. Draw Confidence from the Process
    • [ ] #7 Time Ourselves and Log It
    • [ ] #9 Create a Schedule
    • [ ] Find comfort and joy in whichever routines we develop over time
    • [ ] There is no destination without the journey and the best journeys are never a straight line.
  21. Mix and Match a Wet with a Dry Medium
    • [ ] Wet with dry watercolor crayons
    • [ ] Brush and ink with graphite
    • [ ] A dry brush with watercolor straight out of the tube
    • [ ] Gesso with pretty much every one of our materials
  22. Make Our Own Tools and Kits
    • [ ] Art supplies get expensive
    • [ ] Learn and support our process in a much more personalized way
    • [ ] Helps us to better know our tools
  23. Take Our Kit Everywhere, All the Time
    • [ ] Leave a sketchbook in our bag, car, nightstand or leave it in the same place we keep our keys
    • [ ] Take our sketchbook even when we are sure there won’t be an opportunity to draw
  24. How Important is Drawing to Us?
    Yes, this could (maybe should) have been the first item. It is last intentionally to instill the habit of regularly asking ourselves this question. The answer will evolve, maybe change entirely. Being aware of this will make sure that what we do each day has greater meaning and supports us on days we aren’t at our best. Deciding and understanding how drawing is important to us provides the inspirational foundation for everything we do.

I wish you the joy of discovery and satisfaction from your dedication to drawing.

Do you have a #26, #27 or #28 way to improve our drawing skills?