Reference: Chance of a Lifetime: Nucky Johnson, Skinny D’Amato and How Atlantic City Because the Naughty Queen of Resorts, Grace Anselmo D’Amato.
OK, first thing, the title’s a fib. This isn’t everything there is to say about making art. That would be two or even three whole essays, at 700 to 900 words per kilogram. But I already wrote the title down and it’s pretty snappy as it is and “One-Half or Even One-Third Of Everything There Is To Say About Making Art” reads as wimpy. And not in the good ways.
Also I don’t want to talk about making real art. Real art is too hard. It’s hard enough getting agreement on what “art” even is. “Art” is anything that, when you call it “art”, gets you into an argument about what “art” is. And that’s all great stuff. If you’re willing to get into the argument you get to seriously looking at 2,038 coats of paint brushed onto some wood salvaged from the Demolishing All The Buildings With Character Neighborhood-Revitalization Project and then gouged by a putty knife so you see about half of the colors. If you’re not willing to get into the argument, then you get to point and laugh at the people who’re seriously looking at the scraped over-painted rubble that some creamer-potato of an MFA has titled Renewal. Everybody gets something they enjoy! A “Building With Character” is one that has chipped asbestos and exposed live electrical wires and in each stairway at least two duct-taped steps.
I’m thinking more about low-argument kinds of deployed creativity. Stuff like painting, for example, drawing. Drawing is great because even without specialized tools you can get great responses. Right near you this moment there should be a decent pencil and a clean sheet of paper that you could draw on right this moment. There’s not. Everyone agrees there should be. The closest to either of this is a notepad from that Knights Inn Express Deluxe you stayed at overnight eight months ago. You know. When you were having too much fun in Findlay, Ohio, to get back home that night. The one with four sheets of paper, each dogeared somehow a different amount and bearing coffee stains. The only writing tool is one of those pens with the spring-loaded button up top that, when pressed, makes the pen fall apart. The writing stylus will roll under the heaviest furniture you have.
But you can imagine all the stuff you need to draw on hand. This takes one trip to an art supply store, where you can get a 60-page sketchpad. This will last you fourteen years and survive four major moves, one to another part of the country, and six garage sales. Also get a mechanical pencil with lead so soft that it feels like butter. It feels so comfortable and smooth that you have to be restrained from brushing it on your skin or rolling in a big pile of it.
Amateurs think that drawing is a matter of imagining something and then putting down lines that represent it. This is needlessly hard. I mean, you can sympathize with someone figuring they can’t draw a cool-looking basilisk by looking at a basilisk and then sketching really quickly before your death sets in. But most any drawing is done better with references. With references, you find a thing and look at it, and then you don’t draw that. To make it cool, add sunglasses and a confident attitude. This is expressed by thumbs up.
Like, suppose you want to draw a chair. Why is your business; I don’t judge. Take an example chair. Look hard at it. Then sketch in some rectangular boxes. I mean on your paper. Maybe add a circular box for the curvey part. There’s no boxes in the chair. Unless you’re using it as storage space which I would totally do if my love let me get away with it. But. If you draw the boxes that you don’t see in the chair, and then keep adding more lines, you get a drawing of the chair. It’s as simple as that!
(Yes yes, this simplicity comes with a cost. If you want to draw a box, you have to start out by drawing bunches of chairs. And now you know why you could never convince your friend who does art but for real to draw a box for you!)
Putting in those lines that turn boxes into chairs takes experience, yes. But that’s no reason to be shy about trying. The wonderful thing about drawing is in lines. The more lines a drawing has, the better it is. So keep on putting in lines until it looks like what you want. Or until pressing the button to make more lead come out of the mechanical pencil causes the pencil to fall apart. This lets you learn what your heaviest furniture is now, after the garage sale. What’s important is how much fun it is to get to this point. It is about 58 units of fun. 62 if the chair looks cool which, again, you do by adding sunglasses and thumbs up.
Drawing a thing can be a fun recreational and creative pastime, people who are able to draw tell us. For the rest of us it’s a lot of being angry at how we have this killer hilarious cartoon in our heads and it will never, ever be manifested in a way that doesn’t look like it was rendered by a squirrel that was handed a crayon and told there was an almond inside. And is now angry about being lied to. But still, you can’t get good at drawing without learning to sketch some, so let’s look into how to do that.
Before sketching the thing you should decide what kind of sketch to do. A “traditional” sketch is done with a pad of paper and pencils that have been handed down, from house move to house move, since you were in high school because they cost more than your house. I mean, yeow. They’re six-inch tubes of wood with colored lead inside, how do they run so much? Is the Koh-i-noor company thinking it will get rich piggybanking on artists? Have they considered, like, selling pencils to people with more money, like the folks with cardboard signs standing at streetcorners asking for any help and promising God blesses stopped cars? Good grief. Anyway. Traditional sketches are good because they’re easy and portable and you can hide them in your messenger bag for a quick getaway if someone asks why you’re drawing a picture of a squirrel without permission.
The other kind of sketch is “digital”, done on some glass-covered rectangular thing that has to be recharged. This is a popular choice not just because it means you can put off your drawing for the day for six hours while the battery fills back up. It’s also liked because you can effortlessly hit “undo” until your sketch looks not so completely messed up. And then you can try again, until the drawing program crashes. The main drawback is finding a good drawing program. There are six things that a drawing program needs to be good. Coding Law dictates that every drawing program has to leave one out. The one that looks like it has everything? I’m sorry, if you use that program now and then they send someone around to punch you in the stomach. It turns out there’s a secret seventh thing a good program needs: it needs to not sometimes send someone around to punch you in the stomach.
So, choose wisely, and then spend part of every day reconsidering your choice and wondering why you didn’t make a better one. It’s a little something to help you doze off better at work after staying up all night cursing the immutability of the past.
Now you need to figure whether you’re sketching something that exists or something that doesn’t. The advantage of sketching a thing that exists is you can check back on it to see what you’re doing wrong. The advantage of sketching a thing that doesn’t exist is that other people can’t say you draw it wrong. “But wait,” someone might say. “Sea serpents don’t have Popeye arms and warp nacelles!” And then you can glare at them and say, “Prove it.” This doesn’t help your sketch any, but it lets you win the argument, and isn’t that an even more precious thing in these troubled times? You get into some tricky metaphysical territory if you want to draw, like, Garfield, who as a creature of fiction doesn’t exist but who does have a well-agreed-upon appearance that you can’t vary from too much without getting fired by the Guy Who Does Garfield from your job drawing Garfield. If that’s your situation I got nothing for you. Sorry.
And the last thing is to decide whether you’re doing a realistic or a cartoony sketch. To make a realistic sketch, start by drawing a big oval on top of a slightly offset square. Then add cylindrical tubes to the side and the base. Then at the bottom put in a couple of rectangular boxes.
A cartoony sketch is very much like a realistic sketch, except that you draw while thinking about how you’re hungry. Start with an egg shape on top of a giant square food, such as a waffle. Instead of cylindrical tubes draw a couple of bloated hot dog shapes. Instead of rectangular boxes, draw mooshy dinner rolls. Then somewhere put in two dots with half-circles around so it has some emotion.
Now just add details to make your sketch look like the thing you wanted. Save it or scan it, and post it to your DeviantArt account with this caption:
Silly little sketch done to try getting back into the swing of things. Didn’t really come out like I figured but at least I like how that little mooshy dinner roll with the spaghetti curls came out. I’ll see if the art gods are nicer to me with tomorrow’s sketch.
Then, embarrassed by how much it is not what you thought the sketch would look like, put all your drawing equipment away for 34 months.
- Dogs in glasses.
- Raccoons in glasses.
- I mean eyeglasses.
- Wearing eyeglasses.
- Not “in drinking glasses”.
- Although that would kind of be cool too.
- So maybe raccoons in drinking glasses wearing eyeglasses.
- Or any animals in drinking glasses wearing eyeglasses.
- 3-D glasses would work too.
- Oh, uh, I dunno, maybe you as a kid doing that Calvin and Hobbes “Let’s Go Exploring” final-ever panel? That’s art, right? I bet that’s art.
Years ago I got a book about skyscrapers. It was a collection of articles from Architectural Digest or some similar quasi-trade publication. The articles were mostly about what contemporaries thought of buildings at the time. It was one of those this-looks-interesting-in-the-dollar-bin purchases, since I know less about architectural criticism than you imagine. No, less than that.
One essay catching my attention, though, was about a circa 1910 skyscraper. The article praised its design for having finally solved the problem of skyscraper proportions. And the picture looked … normal. Boring. There was nothing distinctive about this building. You could drop this maybe fifteen-storey thing into any city and not be noticed. It was a mystifying phrase until I understood the context. If this solved the problem, well, of course it wouldn’t stand out nearly a century later.
The National Cartoonists Society announced yesterday the death of Mell Lazarus. He was renowned in comic strip circles for Miss Peach and Momma. Miss Peach, particularly, I keep hearing singled out for brilliance, and I confess I don’t get it. Probably that’s from lack of exposure. It was never running in a newspaper when I was growing up, and I never saw it on a newspaper’s web site before the strip closed up in 2002. I may have seen it parodied, mostly in Mad Magazine, more than I’ve seen the original. It’s hard to understand what’s great in something that way. It looks like an average example of that Mid-Century Modern comic strip style shared by every comic strip from between about 1960 and whenever it was Dilbert became trendy. But see the problem of the solved skyscraper.
Momma, though, that I read growing up and through to the present day. The family dynamics are awfully screwed up, but in a way normal enough for a joke-engine daily strip. The art, at least at Lazarus’s peak, had that style that looks shaggy and undisciplined, but which you learn is really tightly controlled when you study it seriously or, better, try to imitate it. And the jokes may have gotten harder to parse lately, but it’s hard to land every joke successfully, especially in a comic strip with a necessarily small cast of characters and limited set of continuing stories.
Anyway, by all accounts, Lazarus was a fantastic person and your life was considerably better if he was in it. That’s a great thing for people to be able to say about you.
Why do we art? And if we must art, can anything be done about it? These are questions that come to mind if we’ve already worked out what we mean by ‘art’, or by doing artistic things. Let me explain what art is. Art is the way you make yourself feel inferior whenever you observe something you used to enjoy.
Let’s say you enjoy drawing. If you just like drawing, you can find drawings and look at them and enjoy them. If they’re bad drawings, you can enjoy laughing at them. If they’re great you can pass them around to people who don’t care about visual arts and demand they respond. They’ll finally nod and agree that’s an awesome whatever the heck it is. Also, they’re moving to a secret location inside a linen closet, beside the towels, so don’t need any more pictures, thank you.
If you attempt to draw, though, you can’t enjoy drawing anymore. Any really skilled drawing is a reminder of how awful you are at it. You can’t do that thing where a line is drawn so it looks like a line. Your best attempts at drawing a foot earned you hate mail from the Foot-Drawing Hall Of Fame. And that’s even though you never let it out of the spare room where you hide all your creative dreams and you don’t know how they got your address. You’re not allowed to look at feet now, says the Hall of Fame, which seems like an excessive reaction since you weren’t even attempting socks.
No, you were just making yet another attempt to get any good at drawing. This time you were following the instructions in some How To Draw Fifty Popular Cartoon Characters For Kids book. It’s a fun book, what with how its title implies Mutt and Jeff or Hardy Har-Har or the cast of comic strip Boner’s Ark are characters kids love, or have ever heard of. The book’s a reprint from 1984, which makes it a little better, but still. If you completed the book perfectly, it implies, you might be able to finally draw! Some strange figure named Wash Tubbs! In exactly one pose ever! But what you actually have are a series of off-model Felix the Cats and the haunting discovery that while Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble have toenails, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble do not. Why? Why? Why?
So you can feel worse about yourself, of course. You can put time in. You can put in better materials, too. I mean, you can draw just using a sheet of paper stolen from the printer and the pencil that’s supposed to be near the phone for messages and never is. But down at Michael’s you can get a nice quality sketchbook and some mechanical pencils and a few basic ink pens for little more than all the money you have. And it comes with a coupon good for forty percent off anything except purchases at Michael’s. Really, it’s just worth it to be in the line that consists of four people, none making a complicated purchase, that somehow still doesn’t move until someone from outside, dressed for winter in so many layers of clothes they’re a tumbling sphere of laundry, rolls in and knocks people over.
None of that matters. You can put in all your time and your best effort and best materials and it will always look to you like you’ve drawn lovable alien monstrosity Stitch as a potato, using potatoes smeared onto tree bark. You can scan it and try to touch it up in software, and so get Stitch drawn as a potato using smeared potatoes on tree bark, but airbrushed. And you can’t look at a picture of Stitch, or worse, the whole movie Lilo and Stitch, anymore without feeling inferior.
I’ve picked on drawing, because it’s easy to understand. Everybody used to draw, and most of us stopped doing that and felt good about ourselves instead. But the same effect applies in any field. Photography, singing, music, writing … There are even people who say computer programming is an art, because they don’t have to deal with people who use their programs. But look close at people who’ve taken up any of these fields. You’ll find musicians trying to do something that sounds like the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”. They’re growling at the guitars and cursing out Ray Davies’s chord progressions, just like everybody else.
Or consider writing. I’ve done a lot of it, and I like to think I’m decent in the pop-mathematics and the humor fields. Back in August I caught an episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. It mentioned among other overpriced Whole Foods nonsense items “a plate of grain blown back and forth between two fans”. Every day since then I’ve chuckled at that phrase, and that video. The only thing stopping that chuckling is my anguish that I can’t even imagine my writing something that effortlessly absurd. If I didn’t write, I would just enjoy the line. But because I do write, it makes me feel inferior.
What if you already feel inferior? I’m sorry to break this to you. I don’t know who wrote the line about the fan-blown plate of grain. But I can tell you this, truthfully. That writer is haunted by how much worse that joke was than something she’d read not a month before. And how she might someday, maybe, write something that’s close to how funny she wanted it to be. So not only will your art make you feel inferior, but your feeling of inferiority will be inferior to other people’s feelings of inferiority.
I’ve got further thoughts about the sensible thing to do. You can catch me with them, on line at Michael’s. I’ll be jotting ideas down on my iPod and screeching out unfunnily bad notes on the violin I took up in third grade. See you there.
Since my recent mention of the Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame there’ve been a number of inquiries directed to this office asking for more information about this Hall of Fame, such as where it may be found and whether I made the whole thing up, and what sort of person gets inducted into the Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame. The last is easiest: it tends to be people who draw feet, although there are exceptions made for people who have made great advances — strides, to use the industry jargon — in public awareness of foot-drawing and its associated fields, such as sock envisioning or the composition of toenail apologias.
The Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame as we know it was inspired by the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as many Halls of Fame were. Every baseball player of serious note has or at some point had feet, or knew someone who did, and yet did they get any mention in the Hall? Not a word, and P K Shrelk couldn’t help wondering where all these players would be without their feet? Down a couple inches, was his conclusion, and that was good enough to search out a way to celebrate the drawing of feet, because when he looked into the whole foot there was too much to consider. Just thinking of all the bones alone could make someone have to lie down and come back later. He imagined someday a network of foot-related halls of fame might allow the understanding of the foot in all its complexity for the interested foot viewer. Shrelk died a very tired man.
The Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame opened in 1967 in Sick River Junction, Missouri, making use of the famous sanitarium which was once the Missouri State Home for the Tall. One needn’t worry about the former residents of the home. Medical advances and changing social attitudes allowed Missouri to sort out the patients who could be readmitted to society from those who were incurably tall. Those unlucky persons were few enough that they could be placed in more general-care institutions with cathedral ceilings. Indeed, Anthony Millest — one of the last children to be taken in to the Home for the Tall — was found to be not just healthy but to have a foot-drawing talent great enough that he became one of the earliest docents at the museum. To this day he’s three days a week, greeting kids and sharing stories of the museum’s goals and accomplishments and plucking things off the top of the refrigerator.
The first artist admitted into the Hall of Fame was one Pelter Rebleat, who was of no particular renown in the field of foot-drawing, truth be told, but the directors felt they needed to start with some impressive names. Rebleat was surprised by his induction, as the letter of invitation had been addressed to Peltier Rebleat (arguably the more impressive name) and because of what he described as the kidnapping which brought him to the opening ceremonies. Since then the policy of “once-famous, always-famous” has blocked all attempts to remove him from the hall, and people bring him fresh clothes and adequate food. He often gets together with Millest to play checkers and agree that things have changed and there’s probably not much of a way to stop that, especially on the web sites they use all the time.
Besides hosting the third-largest collection of drawings of feet among states whose names start with M, the Hall of Fame offers informational classes designed to help would-be artists overcome their natural fear of drawing feet. According to longtime museum defender Anabess Sweetkludge, the most common thing artists do wrong in drawing feet is begin too far up the leg, so that the feet fall out of frame. This can be overcome most easily by getting a slightly larger sketchbook or, for those artists who work digitally, holding the drawing tablet closer to themselves. A more complicated solution is to engineer an artistic movement by which ankles and their environs are regarded as the true measure of artistic accomplishment, but that’s regarded as too much work just for some pictures of feet.
I hope this answers some of the more serious questions. If it doesn’t, perhaps this answers some other ones instead.
Figure 1 shows a sock-clad foot. With the sock on, the floor feels clean, smooth, almost like that little ice rink that Jerry and that Other Mouse made out of the kitchen in that Tom and Jerry where they go ice skating to the tune of that music they lifted off Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. It’s hard to resist gliding around the living room and tripping over the fence used to keep the rabbit out of the dining room. You could imagine the floor to be liquid helium for all the friction you feel on it, except for not actually falling over.
Figure 2 shows a sock-unclad foot. It … hey, come to think of it, these are some pretty good drawings of feet. I mean, the leg in the first is clearly better, but the foot in the second is nothing to sneeze at. I’m not saying that I expect an invite to the Foot-Drawing Hall of Fame, not on the strength of these drawings alone, but I am saying that for someone who’s in my skill grade of foot-drawing, that’s doing pretty good. I mean, you can mostly tell what all the major parts of the foot are without labelling, and there’s even toenails and there’s that one where you can see the little bitty toe knuckle or whatever they call it when it’s on the foot. I’m not bragging here, I know there’s friends of mine who could draw a foot that so evokes “foot” that it would smash my drawing flat, I’m just saying that is definitely a drawing of a foot, and it came out way better than I figured it should, and I’m just awfully proud. And it’s not just a side view, this is in kind of an isometric view or something like that where you have to see things from a tricky angle, and it all works out basically all right. That’s pretty good stuff. Thanks for putting up with me. Is the big toe on the correct side of the foot there?
If you’ve been stuck trying to improve the way you draw things, and/or people, and/or how you caricature Richard Nixon and found yourself stuck, have you considered giving a try at drawing guinea pigs? They make good practice if you’re having trouble on the details of shapes, because guinea pigs really don’t so much have shapes. They’re more sort of there and have fur all right, and maybe a bit of general nervousness about how you seem to be expecting them to do something, but as result you really can’t go wrong with them. If that fails, you might try drawing some invisible characters, if you don’t think that’s too likely to get you caught by ghosts.
There’s something exciting and liberating about digging into a sheet of paper and just drawing whatever comes to mind, particularly if there’s something else important to be done. But taking a picture of someone — there are over 14 people photographed on the Internet, you know — and trying to caricature them reveals something astounding about humanity and artwork. That revelation is: all caricatures manage to somehow resemble Richard Nixon.
Drawing is a wonderful way to express yourself, to force your friends to look at URLs of your art without leaving them free to express their real indifference, and to get pictures of what you really want without having to explain it to an artist. (“It’s Kim Possible’s Mom as Captain Picard’s new helm officer, only she’s a steampunk mermaid dragon Little Pony, and she’s eating spaghetti, in Tron.”) It’s also a beloved activity of childhood, something parents and teachers pass on to kids, along with making paper rings and snowflakes, to show humanity’s dominance to crayons and construction paper. Many of us stop drawing, but here’s how to do it again.
The first decision is whether you want to use pencil and paper, or “media”, or to use computer and drawing tablet, or “media”. The advantages of pencil and paper include cheapness, portability, and the ease with which the pencil will go missing every time you should practice, saving the bother of actually drawing things. Computer methods offer the chance to buy consumer electronics which always feels so good, unlimited undo’s, and 25-cent refills if you bring your own mug, and save you from practice by throwing up “Driver Error: Link token exchange ring to bus”, which sounds like some sort of contract squabble at the Port Authority. Best to give in to their demands unconditionally, as I’m fairly confident they have tire irons.