Thursday, February 19, 2015

Spirited Scribbling: A Wonderful Video Conversation Between Chase Jarvis and Brené Brown

Today,  I can't wait to share this wonderful long form video interview I recently discovered.  Talk about inspirational words on creativity, art, authenticity and the meaning of life!   This Chase Jarvis interview with Brené Brown has it all!

"Daring Greatly to Unlock Your Creativity with Brené Brown" is a spectacular episode of Chase Jarvis Live, well worth the 90 minutes.  The relaxed conversation comes free of sound bites and instead allows the two speakers to develop ideas which Brown has presented in her book, Daring Greatly, in the specific context of creative people (which, is, in fact, all of us).

Spirited scribblers of all sorts--you will love this.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Drop the Phone and Draw!

I love taking photos with my cell phone, but I'm thinking that maybe, just maybe, it might be doing more harm than good to my quality of life.

Let me explain.

When I see a beautiful or interesting thing, my impulse is to try to capture it so that later I can revisit it, remember it, and experience that beauty all over again.  Experiencing the beautiful thing made my life better, so why wouldn't I want to repeat that, right?

Here's a photo I took on a recent vacation to St. John in the USVI.  This is of Coral Bay.

Lovely, right?

Yeah, except a picture of a thing almost never does the subject justice.  A photo might capture the details , but somehow it can't capture the experience of that live encounter.  It's a lovely picture, but in a few weeks, it won't much remind me of what it was like to stand on that mountain.  To feel the sun and the breeze.  To smell the salt and the greenery all around me.  To hear bugs and birds and goats enjoying the warmth.

I had read the weather reports.  I knew that when I came home from that vacation it would be during a polar vortex cold snap, including a 100 degree temperature drop.  So I knew I would really, really want to remember the experience of being there on that sunny warm mountain!

What to do?

Ten years ago, I would have used my camera to snap a photo.  I'd have thought, there, I've got it.  I would have moved on to the next thing to look at, secure that I had captured the scene and could revisit it and rekindle the experience whenever I wanted.

But!  In my experience, that never worked.  I can refer to the image and be reminded, sure.  But I can't revisit the experience through a hastily taken photograph.  Bummer!  Hundreds of photos, slideshows and photo albums or scrapbooks later, I while I can remember, can't recapture the feelings of being on that beach, or hiking that mountain, or watching that rainstorm.

A better way exists.

I discovered this better way of capturing memories almost by accident when I began keeping an illuminated journal some years ago.  This type of journal is a combination of writing and drawing.  In order to fill my pages, and to increase my own mindfulness in each moment (a spiritual practice which I took on at about the same time) I needed to heighten my attention to the world around me.  Instead of capturing the photographic facts, I needed to pay attention to all five of my senses, and then try to capture those.

At first, this felt incredibly awkward.  I'd sit on a beach and walk myself through my five sense.  Sight.  Hearing.  Touch.  Smell.  Taste.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What can you feel on your skin?  What do you smell?  What do you taste?

I'd jot notes.  Sometimes I'd jot haiku (more on this in a future post!).

Later, when I got more brave, I began to draw.

But it was only months and years later that I realized the magic of keeping that sort of record.  Unlike looking at snapshots which really triggered only intellectual memories and some emotions associated with those, my journal entries full of notes and pictures created after periods of intense attention, helped me re-experience the moments themselves, almost without effort on my part!

I could look at a picture I drew of a particular beach and--bang!--instantly I was there.  When I read a series of haiku I wrote in a particular restaurant while waiting for the food to come, suddenly I experienced the smells, the hunger, the cacophony, the anticipation all over again.

And here is the best part: the quality of my drawing and my writing do not matter in terms of the value these little pieces of art bring to my life.

The only thing that matters is that I paid attention, and then created something with what I experienced.  I used images to get what was happening in my head out of my head and onto a piece of paper.  That paper then became a prompt to reignite the memories formed by that close attention.

For example, here is a sketch I did one morning as I sat and just watched the water at Haulover Bay, also on St. John.  I look at the picture and I go straight back there.  I remember the sky and water and rocks.  The sound of the low waves.  The textures of the gray cobblestones in the sand (which aren't even in the picture!).  The roosters who hovered hoping to snatch a potato chip.  The donkey who hoped we'd move so he could snag our spot in the shade.  And so much more.

Yes, I have plenty of photographs of Haulover Bay as well.  Probably too many.  Certainly too many to ever show to friends and family, who would wither and die if they had to look at all my travel photos.  So I'm certainly not saying that I plan to give up photography!  No way.  And it can, of course, depending on the mindset with which it is approached, capture much more than just an record of something in front of you.

You'll find an interesting article here about John Ruskin and his views on the importance of drawing as a tool for experience life at its fullest.  He wrote:

Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

As with most of life, I guess, it's all about the mindset. I'll keep taking photographs, that's for sure.  But I will also always remember to put the phone (or the camera) down, take a deep breath, pay attention with all five of my senses, and draw.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Painting a Selfie from a Photograph

While looking in the mirror to draw a selfie provides great practice, I have found that scribbling selfies from photographs provides not only practice, but different and unique opportunities for looking closely at yourself in the world.  Since I don't carry a mirror with me most places, it is through photographs that I can examine myself in the context of a particular place.  That gives me more to think about that just my self.  The "who am I?" contemplation of drawing a selfie expands into a "who am I in this place or time?" experience.

This is kind of like drawing from old family photos, which I've written about elsewhere.

Anyhow, recently I had the great good fortune to go on a vacation dedicated to snorkeling and underwater photography--one of my favorite things to do!  I snapped this selfie as I floated in a bay off the Caribbean sea.

Later, I sat down with my kit to do a sketch of this shot. 

Normally I work pen first, then fill in with watercolor, but I wanted to emphasize the watery-ness of this location so I decided to do the paint first.  Of course, I was too chicken to start that without some sort of set up, so I did a loose, light drawing of the main shapes in an ochre watercolor pencil.  The lines were so light, in fact, I couldn't get it to show up in a photo or a scan!

Anyhow, those light lines gave me enough stability to feel grounded in the image and composition, so I painted.  I liked what I came up with, but I still missed the vibe of my good old reliable ink lines.

However, I didn't want to do my usual solid ink over the paint, because I felt it would make it too, well, line-y.  So I tried something new.  I drew many of the "lines" with broken marks.  The ink is there, but not demanding quite so much attention from the viewer.

I rather like the effect.  I have to remind myself that I can do more with my ink pen than simply draw unbroken lines or hatching! 

So how did drawing a selfie from a photography bring a bit more meaning to my life?

The experience of doing this scribble with pencil and paint and ink brought me twenty minutes of thinking about myself and how I feel when I snorkel.  Why do I like it so much?  What connections does it help me make with the planet?  With other parts of myself that don't get enough light during my normal life?  Is floating like flying?  How marvelous that there is this whole other world down there that you can't normally see at all but with the addition of this simple mask and snorkel--there it is!!  What other aspects of creation could I see if I just wore another sort of mask?

On a page in my private journal, I wrote some of these questions and my thoughts on them--just another ten minutes or so.

After a pleasant half hour, I felt as if I'd both napped and communed with the Great Spirit of life.  Rejuvenating!

Sketching selfies in context is a whole new way to revisit your vacations--or to simply think about yourself in the world.  Why not give it a go?!

Final note:  if you are interested in learning more about drawing selfies and the wonderful and enlightening experience it can be, be sure to check out Sketchbook Skool, the course called "Seeing."  One whole week is dedicated to the practice!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Changing Focus Changes the World

A recent sketching exercise in exploring focus has made me think quite a bit about how changing our focus on anything we encounter in life impacts how we go forward.

As part of Liz Steel's terrific Sketching Now Foundations course, I had to choose one setting and draw several quick thumbnails of it.  With each thumbnail I changed how I looked at the scene.  I framed it horizontally and vertically.  I zoomed in and out.  I shifted things to the right and to the left.

You can see how different just these first four thumbnails look!

If I had just drawn the sketch without these thumbnails, I would probably have gone with my first version.  But because I did zoomed in on the boat's cabin, then did a focus on just the boat, I saw the craft and its depths differently.   Then, by shifting my vision to the right, I discovered a little building on the hill which just put the whole thing in a wider perspective.

I decided to do a sketch very close to the first one, but with the boat located more carefully on the one third dividing line (better for composition).  And, because these thumbnails had helped me see just how incredibly complex that boat was, I did a set-up sketch in watercolor pencil to help make sure that I got the boat right when I inked it.  Other than that, I just did quick lines to indicate the rocks, the horizon and the mountains.  I debated about putting in that house on the hill and decided not to.

My next step was to ink the drawing.  I chose to ink the darkest of the darks because I wanted to be sure that depth and contrast--part of the interesting complexity which I had discovered doing the thumbnails--really came through.  You can see the watercolor pencil lines are still there.  I used Noodler's Kung Te Cheng ink, a blue which I love and which I have found to be utterly waterproof (much more waterproof than Noodler's Bulletproof black).

Finally I added the watercolor, going over the whole sketch first to wash away the remaining watercolor pencil grid lines.  Almost all of this was done wet on wet, except the tiny spaces on the boat cabin.

The thumbnails took about 10 minutes to complete, the pencil sketch about 10 (because I found the boat really hard), the inking very few, and the watercolor about 20 minutes--most of which was drying time between layers and so spaces wouldn't bleed into each other.

So what did this drawing exercise teach me about the meaning of life?

Look at a person or situation from a variety of perspectives not only changes what you see, it changes how well you understand the thing you are studying.  Take the long view.  The short view.  The wide view.  The narrow view.  Look up close.  Examine the whole thing in a much wider perspective.  In the end, no matter what point of view you decide to take and operate from, you'll be more informed and more sensitive to the complexities and nuances which exist.

The lesson also reminded me about how hard it is to really understand anything that is not me.  I think I know what a boat is and how it is shaped and that understanding should help me understand the boat in front of me, right?  But no!  Wrong!  My idea of "boat" just gets in the way of my seeing the true depths and complexities and beauties of the actual boat I am encountering.  How much more must that be true of things like people or problems?  How much does my idea of "teenage male" or "rich hedge fund controller" get in the way of my genuine interactions with the individuals I meet?   How much do my ideas of various problems get in the way of my really looking at situations and maybe finding new and different solutions?

Drawing makes life richer in so many ways!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Learning by Copying

Some of my most spirited and energetic scribbles happen when I copy someone else's work.  Not to pass off as my own, of course.  Instead, I copy to absorb some of what I admire--the technique, the impact, of a particular author.

I've done this for years in my scribblings with words.  I keep what I call Mentor Novels on my desk when I write my own fiction.  When I'm writing and hit a slump, I can open to any page of my well-read mentor novel and simply start typing.  Yep, I actually just type right into my own document the words straight out of that novel.

I know those words aren't mine and of course I cut them from my document only minutes later.  But the act of typing them--not just reading them--never fails to job my own words and energy loose from whatever has it stuck.  Usually within a couple of minutes, my own unique scribblings start to flow again.  My authentic voice is actually more free to emerge when given permission and inspiration by someone else's creative voice.

I have found this technique so useful, I've taught it to my writing students for years.

And I have used it in my visual art as well, copying drawings and paintings from too many artists to count.  What can I learn?  What can I absorb?  What will help me create my own art?

Recently, thanks to a prompt from Sketchbook Skool, I sat down to "copy" the oil transfer monoprint "Angelus Novus" by Paul Klee.  You can read more about it here.

Source:  Wikipedia
Of course, the goal (at least for me) is not to produce an exact copy.  Instead it is to learn a little bit about how Klee did what he did so that I can use some of that technique in the future in my own drawing.

Here is mine, done in watercolor and ink.

What I learned:

  • variety in background wash adds interest to the drawing.
  • spatter is cool.
  • what feels almost monochromatic isn't--and that little splash of read in the middle matters.
  • geometrics (which I didn't do very well) produce really interesting effects and I should plaly with them more.
  • the eyes looking off the page add intrigue.
As I drew, this reminded me of the watercolor and ink work of Felix Scheinberger, whose work (and book on watercolor sketching) I love.

I want to try copying this piece again, just to see what happens a second time!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Scribbling Images: Lynda Barry and Accessing the Imaginary

Scribbling with spirit only happens because of images.  Drawn.  Spelled out in letters and words.  Conveyed with words and pictures working together.  Scribbling is image-making.  And image sharing.

One of my great heroes in the world of scribbling is cartoonist Lynda Barry.  In addition to collections of her comics and to novels she has several truly excellent books out about images, art, drawing, life...  I recommend them all.

Recently I watched a video of Barry giving a guest talk at The Stamps School of Design at the University of Michigan (2013).  In this video, just under an hour long, she talks about Accessing the Imaginary.  This includes some fascinating information on what neuroscience has revealed about knowledge, memory, and imagining.  She tells some hilarious--and compelling--stories about small children and transitional objects and how that spirit of devotion to something "unreal" continues alive within all of us today.

Find yourself an hour and treat yourself to this wonderful, laughter-filled talk about what lies at the center of our hearts, our minds, our imaginations, and our scribblings.