Category Archives: Books

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss

Dr Seuss

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” – Dr. Seuss

Today is the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. Part of me is sad that we have to dedicate a special day of the year to motivate our kids to read. But today is also Dr. Seuss’s birthday, so the other part of me encourages this celebration.

Dr. Seuss’s books have been an accessible entrée to reading for millions of children across multiple generations. I still remember my Dad teaching me to read Green Eggs & Ham. So if we have to choose a day to encourage our children to read, then we could not have picked a better one.

But why does Dr. Seuss continue to entertain us? It’s because he blended unique illustrations with wonderful stories, while using simple, yet poetic language. One could argue that the moral messages Dr. Seuss weaves into his stories resonate with us, particularly with children. But I wasn’t surprised that the unnamed character eventually tried green eggs and ham and liked them, or that the Grinch finally realized the Christmas spirit does not come from a store. The ends of those stories warmed my heart, but what I really wanted was a fox in a box, or one ride down Mount Crumpit. And how cool would it be to run your own circus? Through his unique art and captivating stories, Dr. Seuss ignites imaginations, and that’s why we love him.

Most parents will have read to their children before today, and will continue to do so afterwards. But while it’s Read Across America Day, let’s read to our kids, and let’s celebrate a brilliant artist who may just inspire the one who you are reading to.

P.S. Speaking of inspiration, Jason Seiler inspired my portrait of Dr. Seuss. Seiler, an artist who my friend at Adobe suggested I would like, is one of the most talented illustrators out there, and I encourage you to check out his website at www.jasonseiler.com. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, Business Week, and many more titles. What I found unique about Jason is that he often paints using digital technology (using a Wacom Cintiq tablet and Photoshop). He uses traditional methods (i.e. lights over darks with an emphasis on values), but the technology allows him to speed up his process and easily make refinements to his work. I used Brushes Redux, an iPad app, to create this portrait of Dr. Seuss. Brushes Redux is not as powerful as Photoshop, but I enjoy painting digitally, and I’m going to continue to experiment with it.

In 2013, Jason created the cover art of Pope Francis for TIME’s Person of the Year issue. That’s a long way from drawing caricatures of his high school teachers. Congratulations on your success, Jason, and thanks for sharing your work with us.

Drawing Tommy Kane

Tommy Kane_smres

Tommy Kane is a New York-based illustrator and ad agency creative director who travels extensively, and draws on location wherever he goes.  His work has been profiled in a number of books, and he recently published An Excuse to Draw, his first full-length book featuring a collection of his drawings.  I ran across Tommy’s work almost exactly two years ago, when I saw this drawing of the Red Hook Yacht Club on the Urban Sketchers website, and I have followed his blog ever since.  Tommy is a talented artist, and if you are interested in drawing, particularly on location, I recommend checking out his blog.

Tommy is also on the  faculty of Sketchbook Skool, an online course that teaches anyone who is interested in drawing how to see the world, and to get the most out of their drawing and journaling.  Recently, Tommy asked his students to draw his portrait, and the result is an amazing collection of different styles and techniques, all based on the same subject (you can see them on Tommy’s Tumblr page).  Tommy also offered to send a high rez photo to anyone else who was interested in drawing him.  So I emailed Tommy and said that I would be happy to give it a shot.  The drawing above is the end result.  Thanks for inspiring me Tommy, and I’m glad you like the drawing.

Why I Sketch For 30 Minutes Every Morning

CJ

“We have failed to recognize our great asset: time.  A conscientious use of it could make us into something quite amazing.” – Friedrich Schiller (1759 – 1805)

In high school, my art teacher advised his students to sketch every day.  Even if it was just for a few minutes, he said that daily practice would result in dramatic improvements in our work.  It seemed like sound advice, but I could never last more than a few days before I got side tracked by some other activity.

In the last two years, I have been better about finding time to draw, but until recently, I have struggled with doing it every day.  But the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which I read based on Tim Ferriss’s recommendation, convinced me that not only could I manage my time better, but also that in doing so, I could draw and paint more often.

Mom

In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey writes about the habits of 161 creative people (writers, painters, scientists, composers, etc.), “to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work, and vice versa.”  Currey just describes the respective rituals, and does not suggest which ones might be better than others – although, I would not advise adopting Jean Paul Sarte’s daily habit of chewing twenty pills of Corydrane (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin that was “legal in France until 1971, when it was declared toxic and taken off the market”) to increase your writing productivity.

Although some favored creating whenever they felt the desire, many stuck to specific schedules, and would work at their craft at the same time every day.  Some had other jobs or obligations, so they would have to create either early in the morning, or late in the evening.  For example, in order to earn extra money to support her six children and sick husband, Frances Trollope, mother of novelist Anthony Trollope, “sat down at her desk each day at 4:00 A.M. and completed her writing in time to serve breakfast.”  Since my evenings are not always predictable, I decided I would try to draw early in the morning.  Since the beginning of June, with few exceptions, I have woken up at approximately 5:15 A.M. and sketched for 30 minutes.

CB

My morning ritual looks like this.  After I wake up, I go to the kitchen and make coffee.  I could make it the night before, and set the timer to brew so it’s ready for when I wake up, but I like the process of making coffee in the morning.  Doing so also allows me to start my day by completing a simple task.

Then I make a smoothie, or bacon and eggs, and once I finish breakfast, I draw for at least 30 minutes.  After which, I pack up my materials, have a shower, change for work, and then join my family for 20 minutes or so before I leave to take the train to San Francisco.

Me

If you want to increase your creative output or productivity, I highly recommend reading Daily Rituals for inspiration.  And wherever you are Mr. S____y, thank you for your advice.  I wish I had followed it 20 years ago.

P.S.   “Be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” – Gustave Flaubert

Portrait Practice

MJF

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” – Stephen King

As you can tell from a few of my recent posts, I am in a portraiture phase.  I imagine most artists go through a period of wanting to draw the exact likeness of a human face.  All of our artistic paths start by drawing stick figures and smiley faces.  That might be the best time as an artist, as we draw and paint with reckless abandon.  We don’t care whether the eyes are in the correct proportion to the nose and mouth, or why hair is just so bloody hard to capture.  We just draw.

WT

But eventually, the urge for accuracy takes over.  This may be the point when artistic curses take hold.  We try to draw the shape of a head, and wonder why it looks more like an alien’s than a human’s.  We can’t understand why the nose is just so hard to place properly on the face.  And it certainly doesn’t help that artists like John Singer Sargent and Jonathan Yeo make it look so easy.

BART portrait

As Stephen King advises, to get better, we are left with only two methods, study and practice, with practice being the most important.  Included here is some of my recent practice.

Selfy

I once read that when you are learning to draw portraits, you shouldn’t practice drawing famous people, as others will know when you’ve messed up the resemblance.  Drawing unfamiliar faces is safer and will build your confidence.  There’s definitely not much room for error when drawing a self-portrait.  I asked my son whether the sketch above looked like me.  He said, “No.  Your neck is too skinny and your head looks like a balloon.”  Apparently, children also criticize with reckless abandon.

P.S. Stephen King suggests that would-be writers should read to become better at writing.  This would-be artist likes reading too.  So Stacie, please feel free to surprise me at Christmas with Jonathan Yeo’s new book, “The Many Faces of Jonathan Yeo.”

Pen & Ink

B on blocks

I belong to a Facebook group called Sketching Workshop, where 150 sketchers from around the world post sketches and provide comments and critiques on each other’s work.  The purpose of the group is to share, and to learn.

Recently, a few of us collaborated to write a booklet called Pen & Ink: Drafting Techniques.  Each wrote a five to six page article on a topic of his or her choosing.  Since I’m not a formally trained artist, and I don’t have any particular advice on how to draw in pen and ink, I just wrote about two of my sketches, and the techniques I used to create them.

All of the contributors have benefited from the Sketching Workshop, and from other artists who share their work online.  So although it took some time and coordination to produce this booklet, we wanted to give back, and to make sure Pen & Ink was available for everyone to read.  So if you are interested, please click on the link below to download the PDF, and hopefully you’ll find something useful that helps you with your own sketches.  And feel free to share it with anyone else who you think might be interested.

Pen & Ink: Drafting Techniques (click on link to download)

P.S.  I enjoyed the process of creating this booklet as much as seeing the finished product.  Despite working with seven people from five countries who I have never met, this was the first collaborative project I have worked on where no one spoke on the phone, and no one called an unnecessary meeting.  Everyone trusted each other to do their part.  Thanks to all of my fellow sketchers for making Pen & Ink such a fun and valuable experience.

P.P.S.  The sketch above is of my son at his conference swim meet.  Although not included in Pen & Ink, I used the same techniques to create this sketch that I wrote about in my article.

Why I Drew a Can of Campbell’s Soup

Warhol Campbells Soup

In her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards writes,
“For centuries, copying masterworks was recommended as an aid to learning to draw.
“Copying forces one to slow down and really see what the artist saw.  I can practically guarantee that carefully copying any masterwork of drawing will forever imprint the image in your memory.”

In fairness, Betty Edwards was not referring to Andy Warhol’s paintings and silk screens when she referenced “masterworks.”  She meant the works of people like Rembrandt, Rubens, or John Singer Sargent.  But in the last couple of months, while visiting SFMOMA in San Francisco, and MOMA in NYC, I was encouraged to draw what I saw.

Fang Lijun

MOMA offers note cards and pencils for visitors to sketch and to participate in a program called, “I went to MOMA and…”  Originally, the program was an experiment to see what people would do if they were given an opportunity to visually share their experiences while visiting MOMA.  The result was beyond MOMA’s expectations, as thousands of people shared creative sketches, as well as thoughtful and humorous responses.

Although MOMA claims “I went to MOMA and…” started as an experiment, by providing paper and pencils, I think MOMA knew that their visitors would have a deeper connection with the works that they saw.  As Betty Edwards suggests, the simple act of writing or sketching forces you to focus, and to develop a deeper understanding of the artist.

California Artist

For example, while sketching and painting one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, I thought about the patience it must have taken to paint all 32 cans, and the conviction Warhol must have had to know that painting a bunch of soup cans was worthwhile.  It also occurred to me that Robert Arneson simply must have had a lot of fun sculpting California Artist.

Copying the works of Rembrandt and Michelangelo will undoubtedly improve your drawing skills.  But as MOMA knows, and as Betty Edwards wrote, we should copy our favorite artists, “not to copy their styles, but to read their minds.  Let them teach you how to see in new ways, to see the beauty in real things, to explore new forms and open new vistas.”

Philip

SFMOMA sketch

Last weekend, I took my kids to SFMOMA for the first time.  After touring the museum, I asked them, “Which artwork did you like the best?”

My eldest was the first to respond, and he said, “The bull’s head” (referring to Damien Hirst’s Philip (The Twelve Disciples), a “ready-made” sculpture of a skinned bull’s head placed in a white framed case of formaldehyde, which sits on the floor in one of SFMOMA’s main rooms – see top left sketch above).

In high school, when I first heard that an artist had won critical acclaim for suspending a 14-foot dead shark in a transparent case filled with formaldehyde, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Since then, British artist, Damien Hirst, has become one of the (if not THE) most famous living artists in the world.

His paintings and sculptures are found in every major modern art museum.  His works fetch astronomical prices.  For example, in September 2008, Sotheby’s auctioned off a complete show of his artwork titled, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.  At the end of the two-day auction, Hirst’s artwork sold for a total of £111 million ($198 million).  What’s ironic is that while Damien Hirst was filling his coffers, the rest of the world was losing theirs – the auction started the same day that Lehaman Brothers declared bankruptcy.  In his fantastic book, What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art, Will Gompertz wrote,

“The art world appeared to be oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, as pickled animals and brightly colored paintings sold for their estimated prices or above.”

Such is the cachet of Damien Hirst.

With works that include dead animals, pharmaceutical bottles stacked on shelves, and colored dots painted evenly over a white canvas, part of me thinks that Damien Hirst is just “taking the piss,” and that for every £1 million increase in his bank account, he has a little chuckle at our expense.

But after learning more about the ideas behind some of his paintings and sculptures, I gained a healthy respect for Hirst, who other famous contemporary artists say is in a league of his own.  And if a seven-year-old chooses Philip as his favorite, out of all of the other pieces in SFMOMA, then part of me thinks that Damien Hirst is a genius.

What do you think?

P.S. My youngest son chose Super Nova, by Takashi Murakami, which was predictable, as it is a 30-foot brightly colored painting of anime mushrooms.  My other son chose two drawings by Lebbeus Woods, all of which are incredible, and one of which I sketched above.