There’s always a shift when I start searching for something new to make, but most of the time, it comes back to observational drawing & painting. It’s a comfortable place to get some interpretive ideas happening and also keep skills in a semblance of shape.
It’s one of our oldest art traditions, and therefore a bit primal. Drawing or painting the things you see links a kinship to those earliest artists drawing bison and horses in the dark.
There’s a focus and feeling of connection that nothing else can boast. Even though first sketches are often crude, pieces of them have power.
Thinking about this meta-analysis of studies involving children asked to “draw a scientist.” More kids drew women as scientists over time, and girls drew them more often than boys, but it’s still encouraging for both diversity and perception of occupational roles.
Another thing I thought about, though, was the way it encourages us to question our assumptions about people and jobs. It’s a good thing to do that, and I wonder if art isn’t good training. We try to encourage each other to see with new eyes and to throw out what we think we know in favor of what’s there—and of what’s possible.
I watched the Classic Albums mini-doc on the making of Peter Gabriel’s So, and yesterday spent some time on my day off watching interviews and clips of the remaining Pythons (Monty) preparing for their reunion tour and other various similar things. Terry Jones watching and commenting a bit on some Holy Grail outtakes was particularly poignant, having since lost his ability to speak.
It’s a bit of nostalgia, a bit of indulging in my past. But it’s also questioning what I think I know. It’s part of the overall attempt to figure out how things work in art, looking behind the curtain, opening the engine compartment to see the oily machinery.
We’re all getting older. There’s so much new work being made, it can feel like any time spent examining the past is a waste, or self-indulgent. But museums are shrines of the past. We remember it because we build on it, and it’s important to know where we came from.
And if there’s ever a How It’s Made for art, I’ll be watching every single episode.
It’s called “deaccessioning,” the reverse of acquisition. It’s also controversial in many cases, because the job of a museum is to preserve, and selling off pieces of their collections is the reverse of that. But it’s not all one thing, a monolith of bad policy used to shore up a sinking ship torpedoed by rash decisions. Sometimes there are good and healthy and right decisions that lead to the practice.
I’m mostly referencing this Hyperallergic article, and as they point out, some museums are deaccessioning works to diversify their collections beyond the traditional white-male-heavy stacks. Sometimes they’re honing their educational mission. As we patronize and contribute to museums with our time and money, we ought to keep the big picture in mind. What does the overall collection look and feel like? How are they living up to their values? And so forth.
Declaring your sovereignty is both a goal and a rite of passage in creative circles. But it’s not necessarily a better way to get your work done and out in the world than working adjunct to a job of any kind.
Institutions and employers offer support you can’t generate on your own. It’s always a good idea to try to discount biases in making any decision to set off on your own. Concepts like “freedom” and “independence” have deep roots in our psyches, especially for Americans. It can block or hinder us to assume being on your own is always better by default.
Assuming such grand and fundamental tropes are not the most important isn’t a bad course of action. We get in our own way far too often to shrug off questioning assumptions.
The spark for these thoughts is this article by Dylan Matt, questioning if the American Revolution was the best path to take, or a mistake that prolonged slavery and genocide.
I’ve been looking for a good pencil for journals and notebooks recently. I read a few praises and criticisms of the Blackwing reinterpretations, so when I was at a local art supply store that happened to have them, I picked several up to try.
I wish the reality matched the exciting headline. Imagine literally blasting graphite from a thin cedar wand and watching lesser instruments explode in aromatic burst of shavings.
But I still had fun, and here’s what I decided.
All graphite leads were 2B. The control was one of the beat up Pentel P205s with Pentel lead I’ve used since settling on it as my pencil of choice in art school. I liked that I could quickly rotate to a sharp edge any time, without ever taking time to sharpen or feel the weight change. I’d have preferred a bit more of it, but that’s just the compromise I had to make.
I don’t intend to make this a long post, the results are pretty straightforward.
My faithful plastic pal has a decent thin to thick transition, but it isn’t the best at grading smoothly.
The Blackwing Pearl was an immediate delight. Very smooth with a lovely zero-to-black gradient.
Prismacolor has gone a bit waxy recently, but it’s still a good drawing pencil. Writing, not so much, it’s way too mushy.
The General Pencil Co. Kimberly is sold as a drawing pencil, but it was great to write with, too. It doesn’t mush out or snap off easily, even with as gorilla-like a touch as I have. Celebrated comics artist Michael Kaluta calls it the “chop it out of the page” approach. The Kimberly was the best compromise between writing and drawing facility.
The Staedtler Mars Lumograph black is tightly precise, which is something I’d prize for linework, but isn’t my favorite for shading. Also, it didn’t flow as well as I wanted when writing.
So, I settled on the Blackwing Pearl and the General Kimberly. I did a short “long point” test (below) to check ease of writing and duration of the point.
After that, a short text sample.
Interestingly, I found when I tried to press more lightly the Blackwing worked a lot better. But it still wasn’t as consistent as the General. The only thing is, that eraser is really handy, and I have to use it a bunch. I’m not sure the eraserless Kimberly is a good fit for what I want.
And, hey, that’s pretty much it. I’ll get back to you about which one keeps me picking it up after a few weeks.
I’ve been missing having so much time with traditional art tools since I graduated and started practicing up my digital ones. But there’ve been recent rumblings about the real stuff and I’ve begun questing for some quality pencils to go with the paper I’ve set aside to make my next sketchbook (Strathmore 400 recycled, if you’re in the market).
Writing and drawing—not to mention cartooning—with physical tools is as much hearing the graphite sizzle across the page as it is constructing sentences. We’re forced to slow down, be deliberate, get our fingers dirty.
Changing up tools is resetting your habits and breaking the ubiquity of screens and electronic devices we’re surrounded with. That can reconnect us not only with the past, but with slightly disused brain pathways.
I was reading some things about a sort of contemporary prescriptive thinker, who’s become a guru, in a way, for people who want to see the world as needing more structure and rules of tradition. I won’t link there, no. It’s not for me to say it’s objectively wrong, or bad, either. But it’s not the way I think I want to live, nor the way I want to help shape the world—at least my corner of it. I like the descriptive approach to society, and even to life.
I was thinking myself that making art is better served in a similar way by being always open to new or individual methods of discovery and structure. We need to overturn, question, eschew traditional ways of creation. We need, desperately, to avoid perfection.
In order to make something good, something different and true and compelling, I need to give myself the space to mess up. And then I need to mess up.
I have to flub. I need to blow it. I’ve got to fail, to crash and burn, to slip up, to be wrong, to ruin, to miss the mark,
I need to fuck up.
That’s the way you find not only new ways of making stuff, but totally new types of it, things no one has seen before, strange work that builds on the art of the past but at the same time is new.
Our mistakes lead to change and new paths. Not our perfected customs.
It’s not easy to pull pranks in blog form, not without some long traditions, probably, and claims that one is quitting or some such invariably fall flat. It is good, however, to play games. With oneself, with family, with your friends. The resurgence of tabletop gaming is heartening, because it means we’re perhaps more serious about play, and that’s a good thing. In the U.S., we tend to value work above all else, the career and job milestones are often primary. But life is bigger, and our minds need balance.
It’s the difference between concentration and wandering. You get better at each by doing one, then the other. They feed off each other, these disparate parts of our brains. Not as simple as left vs. right, either, the myth that one type of thinking comes from one half. The brain, like the people who house it, uses balance to do its best work.
Seize the opportunity to be a bit of a fool. We probably need more days to do so.
How very human it is to desire rituals. They’ve been part of who we are as long as history, and almost certainly from the dawn of us becoming human in the first place.
We’d love to be iconoclasts, smashing the stuffy conventions and customs of the past. But it might be detrimental to be too enamored of the new. We still find truth and connection in our traditions, and that desire for them may well fill a biological need.
There is such a thing as going too far, creatively, if we lose a work being relatable.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.