Ill be at the HOW Design Conference, hosted by one of my awesome publishers. I spoke at the conference before, when An Illustrated Life first came out, and it was a wonderful experience.
I will be talking to hundreds of graphic designers about How your sketchbook can open your mind, boost your creativity, and rock your world. I am always amazed at how many creative professionals have forgotten how to draw. I hope to turn them on again.
If you are at the conference, please come up and say hi.
I am traveling again, this time on the 6 a.m. train to Washington DC. And again, I am thinking about the Voice in my head (I first wrote about it a couple of days ago) and the other ways in which it can monkey with my creative plans.
This jabbering voice doesn’t resort only to vicious critiques to stymy my creativity. It likes to concoct diversions to distract me too:
Like, why make a drawings with the pen that’s in my pocket when I could plan a trip to the art supply store, and burn up money and energy instead? That’ll make sure I end up on the couch, dozing, my new art supplies still in the bag by the door.
Or, maybe I should just check out some of my pals’ blogs, see what they’re up to. Man, they are so creative and productive. I really do suck by comparison.
Or how about a snack? Maybe we should go out for a donut?
Okay, back to work. Wait, I should get some inspiration, do some research. Let me try to find that David Hockney book I have on the shelf somewhere. Ah, here it is. Hmm, so Hockney mentions a Franz Hals painting here, what did that look like exactly? Let me just pop open Google Images and see… Oh, look, that cat is cute…
All this activity makes it seem like I am doing something, but I’m not really. I’m just pissing away time and defeating my creative impulse with thoughts of fine art, chocolate, naps, sex… The illusion of productivity is the bone the monkey throws me. We’ll start tomorrow, I swear .
Negotiation is the monkey’s ploy. If it isn’t condemning or seducing, it’s bargaining.
But remember, the monkey doesn’t want what’s good for me. He is selfish and vindictive. He wants me slow and weak and distracted so he can have his way — uncreative, status quo,
Here’s another ploy: “There’s no point in starting until you have your act together so let’s get the ducks in a row”. A good stalling tactic but I wont fall for it. Back off, chimp. There are way too many ducks and rows are for accountants. Organization is irrelevant to making stuff. Art needs to be messy. A neat stall is the sign of a dead horse. Sure, it’s a good idea to know where you keep your pencils but being anal doesn’t help you create shit (as it were). The random juxtaposition of stuff and chaos is the seeds of art. If oysters were prissy about keeping out all the sand, we wouldn’t have pearls.
The fact is order, security, and perfection are all illusions. Life can never be perfect and again I am just wasting time.
(For some reason, I am reminded of those boat owners who sit in the marina drinking beer on board and never raise their anchors and head out to sea. Rather than adventures, they have the most expensive bar stools in town.)
The ape loves a good fight too. If I find I am quarreling with others and venting emotion inappropriately, chances are that I am not drawing, not writing, not thinking. Or alternatively, I may find myself overworking, nights and weekends (on projects fueled by drudgery and obligation not passion) living out of balance, out of harmony, out of fast food containers, far from my true self. The monkey loves french fries and insomnia.
In my job, I often encounter people who are driven to melodramatics by their inner monkey puppeteers. They act out, drawing attention to themselves, making excuses, having fits, being prima donnas, making demands, when they could just put their heads down and make more stuff. Client questions your decision? Throw a fit. Need to cover up a blunder? The best defense is a good offensive speech of self-righteous indignation. Not.
Making more stuff is the best revenge. Put your creative energies to work coming up with more ideas, not with histrionics. Get back to work.
Another monkey game is monkeying with my health, mental and physical. Am I not productive because I am depressed? Or is the other way round? Is this cancer or hypochondria? Start doing and see what happens to your mood. If something indeterminate ails me, I hang it up for long enough to write or draw a page or two of my dream. See if I feel better, less blue, more energized. My back won’t hurt, my allergies will recede. When I wake up at 3 a.m. with the ape chattering in my ear, I can only take so much lying there in the darkness. So I crawl out of bed, go to my desk and draw or write something, anything, Then my mind is eased, the chimp goes back to sleep and so do I.
How does the Voice monkey with you? I’d love to know…
Jack was eager to settle his college plans early and so was I. His acceptance to RISD was a huge relief for both of us. The stress and uncertainty of the college process was over and now we can both relax until September.
But doing next to nothing turns out to be a lot less fun than he thought it would be. Fall is a long way away and Jack still has to get up at 7:00 each morning and sit in classes all day, listening to droning teachers, half-heartedly writing homework assignments in the period before they’re due, doing the bare minimum to keep his grades above water so his acceptance isn’t rescinded.
I say to him, well, you’re still being taught useful and interesting things, even if your grades really don’t mean as much. Can’t you just learn … for the fun of it? What’s the point, he groans. Who cares? I’ll study when I get to college… Etc.
Senioritis isn’t confined to teenagers. At every point in life, it’s easy to be so focused on goals that one can’t see the value in anything that doesn’t pertain directly to them. All around are books and classes and conversations and experiences that would enrich us greatly but it’s easier to just do the same-old and not expend the effort for something that doesn’t same to have a direct benefit or relevance to one’s occupation or obligations. What’s the point in learning to draw or reading about ancient history or trying sushi or visiting China? We think we know it better, so despite the richness of the world around you, if your mindset is wrong you won’t absorb or even register it. You screen it out.
When we’re toddlers, we are constantly exploring and asking questions about everything we encounter. That impulse diminishes when we get older because our pre-frontal cortex develops and filters out the firehouse of information that is constantly streaming in. Most of the time, we certainly need that filter so we can be focused and goal oriented — it would be impossible to get anything done if we were always walking around in slack-jawed amazement. So we increasingly notice only those things that we have decided are related to our preconceived goals and orientations.
That means it takes an extreme form of novelty or trauma to snap us out of this narrow tunnel we have burrowed into. Something like 9/11, a death, an accident, can force us into a reassessment and new orientation. Our eyes are opened, we say, and suddenly we see things we’d never seen before.
We use this metaphoric language to describe this epiphany but what if we take this notion literally and force ourselves to actually see things anew. We can reorient our perception and put on a wider lens. Of course, we don’t want to eliminate this screening function altogether or else we might wander off the road and spend all day picking wild flowers, but we can pick moments to relax our pre-frontal cortex, return to a more childlike state, rebuild our muscles of perception, and restock our cache of creative stimulation.
When you draw something you see it in a new way. A good drawing is a fresh perspective on an object you may have seen a thousand times before: a building, a body, a bowl of fruit, your breakfast dishes. But by paying deliberate and careful attention to every nook and cranny, you flood your mind and your page with new information about what you are seeing — the texture of a banana skin, the way light hits a brick, how the knee connects to the shin bone, the exact curve of a cup handle. You are suspending the critical function of your pre-frontal cortex, refusing to decide whether there’s importance to each individual line and aspect; you just record them all. This information isn’t actually that important to you beyond the act of drawing, you don’t need to retain the visual data about that banana skin, it may have no further utility to you. But it is expanding your awareness of the world around you, strengthening for observation muscles — it has as much purpose as lifting the same weight over and over at the gym.
When your mind’s eye is open and your screens and filters are down, you get more and more useful information, and that information and experience are the raw fodder for creativity. Forming associations between apparently disparate things to create a new idea is what creativity is all about. And the more open your mind is, the more you are open to experiencing things are interesting but may not have immediate and obvious relevance to your current endeavors. By exposing yourself to art, to novelty, to new ideas, facts and experiments, you stretch your mind so that it is pliable and elastic, so that it doesn’t seize up when you have to move in a new direction. Your reservoirs of references are loaded and you have oodles of bits and bobs to build new ideas with.
Senioritis hits senior citizens too. It’s easy, as you become middle aged and older, to think you know it all, that you have discovered what matters, that you know what you like to eat and like to vote for and where you like to visit and what you like to read and that experimentation and exploration are things of the past. But if you can loosen up your built-in filters, if you can slow down and draw every petal of a flower or the hairs on a dog’s muzzle, you’ll soon see that you don’t know everything, far from it, and in fact you never will. And that realization, that the more we know the less we know, will set you free to devote the rest of your days to exploring the depth of your ignorance, to gathering sticks and shells and tastes and smells, and weaving them together in to combinations you and no one else have ever seen before.
Jack can afford to suspend learning until September. But I can’t.
Now, watch this:
A recent email:
Do you think being creative and artistic makes a person more depressed or prone to depression? I read a book about this a long time ago. They actually used Jonathan Winters as an example of the creative mind and artist and his bipolar disorder. Something about how being creative taps into the same part of the brain as the emotional area.
I think that being creative makes one more sensitive which could enhance one’s tendency for depression but that could also translate into increased optimism. I’ve found that focusing on art has shown me the beauty of the world in the face of calamity. I guess everyone’s chemistry is different.
Next question: Do you believe that sketching everyday makes you more conscious and in the moment? (I'm talking more like what the Buddha states about it.) I do seem to remember Dan Price talking about this also.
As I’ve written in my last two books, I know that drawing is a powerful form of meditation and very definitely enhances one’s awareness of the Now.
I guess I'm just curious if doing art everyday creates a more conscious, but also a more likely to be depressed person?
I understand the theorem you are testing here: a) Drawing makes you more sensitive so therefore b) more sensitivity leads to more depression. I know the first part is true, but is the second? And the sort of sensibility one develops through drawing is as much about knowing the outside world as it is one’s inner state, in fact more so. I find that when I draw my brain sort of goes on hold, that the things agitating me recede as I dwell in the moment.
I believe that making art and, importantly, sharing art with other people, enhances my view of the everyday and my positive outlook. I know that I can feel down some days and not even want to draw but that if I kick my butt into doing it it usually makes me feel better. Do I think that making art can drive one deeper into depression? From my limited experience, no. There are certainly many depressed, even deeply depressed people in the history of art but I don’t know that they constitute a disproportionate part of the overall community of art-makers vs. the general community.
Being neither a psychologist nor a depressive, I invite ask any readers with a POV to comment on this topic.
I like nice. I like sweet. But even more I like raw. I like real. And Ilove Charity Larrison. She and I have been corresponding for a couple of years ago and she always cracks me up and take my breath away with her honesty. Charity’s story is pretty different from Trevor’s and it is far from resolved. I won’t say much more in the way of introduction but to say, Charity is the real thing. We can all learn a lot from her bravery, creativity and independence.
The Fundamental Distraction by Charity Larrison
At 18, the idea of going to art school, being a real artist, whatever, you know – seemed basically useless. My family was poor – college was not even an option really. And college for something as abstract as “being an artist” – ha ha. I might as well not even think about it.
I remember spending my whole senior year of high school in a corner of the art room working on paintings - buying extra time here and there doing the whole fluttery-eyelashes thing, “Oh come on, *please* Mister Whatever Stupid Teacher - I finished the assignment in five minutes! Can't I *please* go down to Miss McKannicks' for the rest of the period?? - i'm working on A GREAT PAINTING!”
So like any good comic book loving skateboard punk rocker with no way out of small town America hell – I joined the army.
I remember when I was in basic training my drill sergeant secretly pulling me over to the side and saying: “ONUSKA, take these markers and these flags up to the latrine and draw E-328 Predator faces on them so I can give them as prizes at the end to the other drill's. If you get caught you're in trouble, so don't get caught!”
And then there was the Sunday afternoon when I was in advanced training, learning my 68G10 - Aircraft Structure Repair crap; I was walking through the platoon area on my way to the smoking table when I was accosted by my Drill Sergeant to report for detail to the enlisted club, where I ended up spending the rest of the summer assisting his wife painting a mural of a bunch of Blackhawk helicopters landing on the wall in front of the dance floor.
She yelled at me one day: “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!” Then it was a few really a lot louder sentences in Korean that I am still glad that I couldn't understand & I remember shrugging my shoulders at her and saying: Don't worry, Sun, I have it all worked out.
I got married. We had fun for a while. I got pregnant. He got kicked out of the service. I decided to opt out and follow him home. Our marriage didn’t survive the strain. I packed my baby and what belongings I could fit into his gold Fiero (dear god) and never looked back. I was twenty. Worked and worked and worked. Lots of crap jobs. Night shifts at the convenience store. Short order cook. Bank teller.
I remember it is two am and I am standing under fluorescent lights in an all night convenience store slicing endless little piles of lunch meat, passing the time wondering who it was that got to have the job where you made all the dumb signs. I would be good at that job.
I remember hanging out at my teller station when I worked at the bank, copying pictures out of comic books every moment of time where there were not incredibly crabby people in front of my face blaming me for all their money problems.
I remember lucking into a seasonal civil service gig with Pennsylvania state parks. Where I got to take care of the computers. Burning another boring afternoon clerking it in the office, doodling on post-its when Kevin, the Assistant Boss Park Ranger dropped a stack of instructions in front of me and said: “Larrison: if you can figure out how to network all our computers and make it work, you can have the internet. (THE INTERNET!!!! FINALLY!!!)
I decided I needed to cave in and try to go to college. To get out and get something better. Thinking to maybe get some kind of IT certificate, as I was so swell at computers and all. Looked it up on the Internet. Looked halfheartedly at stuff, then saw it. The graphic design program. You know: the “oh, that’s what i’m supposed to be doing” moment. (omg – like art school! But like – you could actually GET A JOB) (try not to cry laughing at me :D) anyway – once i saw it, it was too late. I had to do it. So i did. It was insanity. I worked five million jobs and went to school and somehow held everything together with just, pure will. (because seriously, this was the stupidest gamble of all time WHAT ARE YOU THINKING etc.)
See – I loved graphic design. I loved it more than anything in the whole universe. There was nothing like it to me. I knew how to make the pages talk. Then i learned how to make the pages sing. I made pretend magazines and taught myself how to make web pages, and I demanded that i get a REAL internship at a REAL place. Because even though i was just some jackass with an Associates’ degree from a tech school – that didn’t make me not THE BEST. (quit laughing :D)
Anyway, i got my internship. They hired me right out of school. Their art director moved to Atlanta, and I got his job. I was never, ever, ever, so miserable in my entire life than how miserable i was for those six months. I remember my favorite part of the day was whenever I could go down and sit in the restroom just so that I could spend five or ten minutes not having to be in the same room with those people. I mean, holy shit – these guys were some serious assholes. I was so depressed. I mean this? This is what graphic design is for? Lying? And lying and lying forever? GAH. And I’d spent so much of myself learning and it felt like, all for nothing.
I lasted about six months till they fired my ass. I remember dancing up the street Fred Astaire style the afternoon they fired me. Sure it sucked and I was doomed, but lunchmeat at two am was better than that crap.
Not to be thwarted, once i finished celebrating being fired from the ninth circle of hell, I threw my resume up on monster.com and got a call. Some company needed someone who could use Photoshop. Okay. I can do that. Went. Interviewed. They ended up hiring me on the spot. Was a small engineering company. Tired of getting raked over the coals from the ad agency that was doing all their stuff previously, they wanted just someone who could use Photoshop to fix some images for them.
I was all like, well, you know, i can do everything those bastards were doing for you, except better, and cheaper. So they hired me and gave me a million raises and built me a giant office and bought me every toy I asked for. It was fantastic for about a year. I made everything for them from out of nothing. I was like a great hero, rescuing my company from the tyranny of the great evil of advertising agencies.
I suppose you see what’s coming by now. I mean, there’s only so much you can do. After a while my job started to consist of just updating and tweaking and pressing buttons. I joke that it is my George Jetson job. I just rush in push a button then put my feet up on the desk. Which everyone says is so great. Which I suppose it is, but what happens if you are crazy and actually LIKE to work, but have no work to do? It sucks. But you can’t leave your great job when you are the sole support of your tiny family. You gotta just suck it up and go to work.
So, I sit in my giant office in the middle of nowhere America and spend my days floating around the great now of the Internet. I don’t know that I had a plan really when I started out. I mean, I just did the things I already liked to do. I followed comics websites and comics artists and followed their advice about how to learn how to draw, and i just kept trying to learn how to draw. Because that’s what I wanted more than anything. To learn how to draw for real. So i could draw comic books. For real. So i just kept drawing. I made myself websites to put my drawings on, cause that kind of made it feel like an activity. I made horrible comic books. I made friends and enemies.
I have some friends who are writers, they asked me to draw their stories, so I did. Because I love them, and I love that they write stories, and I love making words into pictures, and the challenge of making the pages read and flow. Figuring out just the right thing to draw to make the story move the best way. It’s the funnest game ever. It makes me work hard. I could do it till the end of the universe.
And slowly I started to learn how to learn.
It’s funny about learning. It’s never what you expect. I am starting for the first time ever, to actually get the hang of it, and make some things that are kind of cool and that i really love. I am starting to learn how to see the world, and my heart is constantly in like this odd vice of joy. I want to draw everything all of the time. But time is precious – which things to spend the time on? I want to draw that tree – but really shouldn’t I be working on something serious? I mean, that is the kind of thing I have been thinking to myself lately.
See – honestly, I hate my job. It’s awful. I am all by myself all the time. There is no one to talk to ever, except the dumb internet, and I want out. Having basically one client only for the past four years, my portfolio is utter crap. And, Jesus, I don’t want to be a graphic designer anymore anyway. I want to draw. But how do you make a living from drawing? How do you make a living from drawing without starting to hate drawing, is the main thing i think. I have been trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out what way to push so that I can still love it, and still get out of here.
So I have been trying to remember why I started this. Why I am here. What did I want when I began? To maybe find some kind of clue that will help me figure out what to do. What is important? Why do i do all these things that I don’t actually care about anymore when I would really rather be out drawing trees?
These days I just wake up every day and do what I have to do to buy the extra time down miss mckannicks' to work on the paintings. And think it is pretty awesome that I get to stay here this time and don't have to go to the Army again, because that sucked.