The Naked Beginner bids momentary adieu

Okay, Mr. Naked Beginner here has just shown you a few aspects of his evolution as a self-taught artist. Wait, wait—I’m referring to myself in the third person. That’s a sure sign of delusional megalomania. Let me start again: In the past few weeks I showed you a few aspects of my evolution as a self-taught artist. Before I turn my blogging attention to other subjects, I thought it’d be useful for me to encapsulate some of the lessons I’ve learned in my explorations.

  1. Fear is the king and queen of our psyches, and facing and taming our fears is our mission in this life. We might readily agree that the fear of death shapes a lot of the things we do in life. But in truth there are a thousand fears inside us, some big, some small, and they ALL shape who we are—including the fear of handling a crayon, for instance.
  2. It doesn’t matter what triggered your fears to begin with, in what context they arose, or who gave you the fears. It’s up to YOU to deal with them, right here, right now. And many of your fears are wholly of your own manufacturing anyway.
  3. The fear gamut runs from reasonable apprehension of real dangers, to irrational phobias of inexistent dangers. It doesn’t really matter how irrational, how petty some of your fears might be: they are fears nevertheless, and they handicap you in some way or other. If you’re afraid of handling a pencil or a paintbrush, that fear plays a little role in your overall emotional make-up even if you have no practical reason ever to handle a paintbrush. This doesn’t mean you SHOULD paint; it means it may be healthy for you to let go of the fear, whether you paint or not.
  4. It’s very easy to be unaware of your own fears. It makes perfect sense: Since it can be scary to acknowledge a fear, it’s convenient to deny you have it. “I’m not afraid of cats, I just don’t like them very much.” “I’m not afraid of learning foreign languages, I just have no need of them.” “I’m not afraid of art, I just don’t have any talent for it.”
  5. It’s very easy not to see, not to feel, not to observe. There’s too much information out there, and we’d go psychotic trying to absorb all of it. But in a bid to retain our sanity, we tend to stop seeing, feeling, and observing. It’s quite the balancing act, to be open to the world but not overwhelmed by it. It takes a steady center within yourself.
  6. Exploring, learning, and growing never stop, from the day you're born onward. You can embrace it or shy away from it. You choose!

In a few months I'm likely to come back to the subject of my artistic education. Right now I leave you with a before-and-after comparison, showing where I started as an artist and where I got after a few months of exploration.

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Matisse tries to resist the Naked Beginner

In my artistic explorations, I alternated between working outside (in museums and other public spaces such as parks, parties, and concerts) and working at home, where I often copied faces from art books. I did a dozen Van Goghs, a dozen Picassos, a dozen Rembrandts, a dozen Murillos… It was a wonderful education, and also a wonderful psychological process: to enter another artist’s mind for a moment, to see the world with different eyes, to be in Arles or Spain or 17th-century Holland.

1303411-1575756-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1575755-thumbnail.jpgSome artists were much easier than others to explore. I tried to enter Henri Matisse’s mind, and for some reason I couldn’t find my way in. My first few sketches were so awkward that I knew I hadn’t gained any insight upon Matisse’s perspective. I stayed outside him, I struggled, I remained my own little self. I almost became a stick artist again.

 
I think I had some hostility toward Matisse. I’d look at his drawings and say to myself, “What’s the big deal? Why these fat thighs? Can’t the guy draw, for chrissakes?”

1303411-1575758-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1575757-thumbnail.jpgNeedless to say, this wasn’t a judgment of Matisse’s skills—it was a reflection of my own blindness, my own handicaps. One day I decided to draw one of his women with a brush pen instead of a pencil. The pen “required” that I use simplified gestures and lines, not worrying too much about detail or, for that matter, anatomy. With the brush pen the name of the game is “flow.” And I finally “got” Matisse, “got” how freely he worked, how sensuous his figures were, how much depth there was to his simple lines.

I had been looking at his drawings with false suppositions about form, shape, volume, and so on. Maybe Matisse didn’t “need” to think about form and shape, since he’d moved on to the very essence of things!

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My little Matisse reproductions aren’t straightforward. I put something of myself in them, in particular by coloring drawings that were originally in black and white. To do an exact Matisse seems both impossible and a waste of time, since—well, since the original is already “there.” But a Pedro-ized Matisse? That seemed more interesting to me.

After doing a couple dozen Matisse-inspired drawings, I thought I’d honor the great man by doing a portrait of him, from a photo in one of my wife’s art books.

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The taboos within

At every juncture in my art education, I’ve had to acknowledge the role that fear played in determining my behaviors. For about 35 years I didn’t draw altogether, and if I’m really honest with myself, then I’d have to admit the ultimate reason for not drawing was that I was afraid of it: Afraid of going wrong, not being good, not being talented; afraid of other people’s judgments; afraid of not controlling what would come OUT of it, as if the pencil risked unleashing some innermost perversion that I wasn’t even aware of.

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Yeah, weird. But the only thing is that most people have plenty of fears exactly like mine. And “most people” kinda includes you, dear reader! A hundred fears, big and small, lurk inside us, making us do strange things at work and at home, creating compensating mechanisms, giving us health problems.

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It’s good to acknowledge these fears and overcome them, as much as possible.

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At first I was afraid of drawing altogether. Then I was afraid of using color in my drawings. Then I was afraid of drawing anything other than human faces. The latter happened in part because when I started drawing, I had decided to offer a daily portrait to my night person, and I had somehow determined that a portrait meant “a human face.” Mental rigidity, pure and simple! To draw an animal was a sort of breakthrough, a deep "letting go." It felt both transgressive and sacred, as if I was going through some sort of rite of initiation.

I know, I know, these are just little drawing of kitty cats and puppy dogs and tweety birds. What can I say? Van Gogh was crazy, too.

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Faces and hearts

As part of my self-education in art, I copied faces from magazines, photographs from ads and articles. Celebrities depicted in magazines and newspapers are sometimes photographed very skillfully. And the celebrities themselves display an intensity of personality, a sparkle, sometimes depths of suffering. One of the reasons these public figures speak to our imagination is because they have the ability to appear greater than us, as if they contained each of us in some way.

1303411-1575810-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1575811-thumbnail.jpgEvery day, as I looked for a photo to reproduce, I’d leaf through a magazine until someone’s face said to me, “I’m interesting and expressive, and you’d enjoy studying me and drawing me. You’ll even learn something about yourself if you do this.” In magazines, it was mostly men’s faces that spoke to me like this. The men were depicted in action, or expressing a strong emotion, their faces creased with lines and bumps, showing a lot of wear and tear—in other words, showing signs of life.

1303411-1575813-thumbnail.jpgAnd the women? Almost without exception, they were made up so that that their skin showed nothing but a single smooth surface. No lines, no creases, no signs of strong emotion; sometimes, no sign of emotion altogether, only an empty placidity, the eyes vacant, not even a trace of a smile. The lighting was such there no shadows appeared upon their faces. The women were photographed not as multidimensional human beings, but as icons of supposed beauty. They’d come across as “beautiful,” or “pretty,” or “handsome,” or “desirable,” or any variation on this single aspect of femininity; but rarely did they come across as “thought-provoking,” “hurt,” “funny,” “powerful,” “scary,” "ugly as sin." More often than not, there was no joy in drawing them.

Okay, folks. Who's going to write in with names for all these faces? Here are a few hints. One is a playright, one is a Hollywood megastar, one is an Australian actor who's also done good in Hollywood. One is the greatest prestidigitator in the world, and also a successful character actor. And two are sportsmen caught in a doping scandal. Names, I want names!

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A splash of red can kill you

During my first few months exploring art, I drew everything exclusively in pencil, black only; most often I used a 4B or 5B pencil. There was a good and a bad reason for me to do this. The good one was a thorough sense of discipline, my saying to myself, “Let's get the hang of this wonderful basic medium here.” The bad one? “I'm afraid of color!” Or, to put it more concretely, “I’m afraid of not knowing what to do and how to do it, I’m afraid of missing out on important stuff, I’m afraid of being revealed as an ignoramus and a fraud. I want my Mommy!”

1303411-1591289-thumbnail.jpgBut eventually I faced my fear. When I finished doing an entire black-pencil sketchbook for my beloved night person, I started experimenting with colors. My wife gave me a useful piece of advice: “Use one color only at first, just to get the feel of it.” So I did: drawings in olive, in red, in brown, simple stuff like that. Then I started using two or more colors together.

 

1303411-1591290-thumbnail.jpgMy first color breakthrough was drawing a flower—not from a live flower, but from a photo by Irving Penn, simply because that's what I had at hand at the time. I started experimenting, did some perfectly awkward things. But that's the thing: a prerequisite to learning well and quickly is not being afraid of making mistakes, of going wrong. You need to suspend aesthetic judgments for a while—perhaps even forever, if these judgments are imposed from a polluted source, such as people's inane ideas of right and wrong. Or your own inane ideas!

 

It's not as if we ought to lead our lives with NO notion of right and wrong; on the contrary. But we need to be on the lookout for misconceived and fixed notions of which we aren't even aware. Every day, all day long, we're better off thinking or saying to ourselves, “Maybe I'm wrong, but this is how I see it.” This makes it easier to change our minds once new evidence comes into view. And by new evidence I mean "reality."

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Who's worrying about you anyway?

1303411-1585457-thumbnail.jpgFor a few months I kept doing gesture and contour drawings of people and objects in public spaces. I went to a concert of Ron Carter, the great jazz bassist, and even while he played I sketched him, his guitarist colleague, and members of the public. I attended an informal play and sketched the heads, faces, and backs of theatergoers sitting near me. At a big party for my father-in-law's 70th birthday I drew guys dancing, guys laughing, guys asleep after drinking a few too many... Sitting at sidewalk cafes I drew passersby and fellow coffee drinkers. On occasion I rode the métro with a little notebook and discreetly sketched passengers.

Social convention would tell us that sketching people without their permission is a no-no, an invasion of privacy. So far I haven't had any problems with my public sketching. Either nobody noticed it; or if anyone noticed no one was bothered by it; or if anyone was bothered no one told me. It was another interesting lesson, to see that social settings afford a certain leeway of action; you can do more things in public than you normally assume. Another lesson, another liberation: shackles are self-imposed, including those of social behavior.

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 From the point of view of craft, sketching people in public is interesting because most of the time you need to finish the sketch within seconds of starting, before someone moves and the "pose" is lost. The brain, eye, hand, and heart all come together, and for ten seconds you're in the moment, intensely alert, concentrated. Little by little this attitude becomes your habit, and you remain always in the moment.

 There's been an unexpected benefit to my sketching: It seems to me that as I become more observant, I also become more appreciative of people. When you pay attention and really look, people turn out to be quite fascinating. Everyone has a certain presence or energy; everyone has lived and suffered; everyone has something to offer to this world.

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Fear is a choice you make

I live about a twenty-minute walk from the Pompidou Center in Paris, and for a few years now I've been a member—meaning I can go in for free all year long! One of my Sunday pleasures is to stroll through the Marais on my way to the Pompidou, sit at the cafe inside it reading or writing for a while, then spend some time looking at the permanent collection or whichever temporary exhibits are up on that day.

Recently I attended a retrospective of Alberto Giacometti, the great Swiss sculptor famous above all for his very elongated figures. As it happens, some time ago—I think about three years—there was another Giacometti show at the Pompidou, focusing on his drawings and sketches. The show included some very expressive portraits that Giacometti had drawn with cheapo ballpoint pens, those same pens that you and I use to jot down a shopping list or write a check. Looking at the sketches I had though, "I wish I could do this too." And the thought was wistful, tinged with envy and perhaps even a touch of bitterness. The day after I saw the show I bought myself a dozen ballpoint pens (red, blue, black, and green) and a notebook, and I put them all away in a hidden corner of my workspace.

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I wasn't ready.

 

But when the time finally came for me to start drawing, one of the things that got me going was the memory of Giacometti's ballpoint sketches, and the wistful yearning they had triggered. So you can imagine how happy I was to go visit a new Giacometti show, notebook and pencil in hand. This time I was “doing,” instead of “wishing I could do it.” Two very different attitudes, one sad, one happy; one envious, one celebratory; one handicapping, the other enabling. It doesn't matter if I can't begin to draw as well as the great masters; what really matters is that I'm not afraid of drawing anymore; I'm not envious, I'm not jealous, I'm not self-defeating!

 

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Needless to say, I could have been drawing all my life. There wasn't a single GOOD reason for me not to draw, only a misconception I had created about myself and my capabilities or lack thereof.

 

 

 

 
Drawing is a wonderful thing. But dispelling a burdesome misconception about yourself is even more wonderful.

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Big little kid lost in the museum

As part of my self-education in art I attended art shows with a notebook in hand, like a kid on a school trip, and I sketched small reproductions of paintings and sculptures that my eyes were attracted to.

1303411-1575696-thumbnail.jpgThe Metropolitan in New York City put together all its Dutch paintings in one show, more than two hundred pictures of astounding quality: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and their peers. It was a little strange, walking the rooms and looking at the paintings not with the awed eyes of an art lover, but with the no less awed but somewhat sober eyes of a craftsman. As I stood there sketching, it may have appeared to an observer that I was missing out on the emotional response to the works. That's not how it felt to me at all; in fact,  I was truly seeing things for the first time, truly observing, taking in, admiring, and appreciating the sights in front of me. It was a highly emotional experience, but if I had gone berserk with emotion... I wouldn't be able to draw a thing! So I kind of “sublimated” the emotion, kept it in, swallowed it and put it back out as a drawing. It was no less emotional an experience, and in fact it was a rather more multi-dimensional experience than many previous visits to the museum.

1303411-1575698-thumbnail.jpgThere's a certain skill in standing in front of a masterpiece in a crowded room and focusing yourself for the minute or two that it takes to do a basic little sketch. You can't be too bothered by the people around you; you can't worry about what they're thinking and feeling about you. From time to time I could tell that someone was looking over my shoulder and glancing over my drawing. Did the person like my drawing or dislike it? Was the person annoyed that I was standing there? I didn't give it much thought, because I was invested primarily in the process of sketching, not the process of worrying about what other people were thinking of me! So, part of the fun is in occupying a crowded little space for however long you need to, not bump into people, not let people bump into you... look and sketch... and move on. I stayed in the Met show for about ninety minutes, and I did 15 or 18 sketches of varying degrees of skill, from the blobby to the surprisingly adept.

1303411-1575697-thumbnail.jpgI’m not saying my sketches were great; the experience, the discovery, the learning all were.

1303411-1575695-thumbnail.jpgI went to the Louvre a few times too, and drew mostly sculptures in the huge inner gardens. The Louvre is a magnificent museum, but let me confess a dark secret: sometimes I find it a chore visiting it. I think it displays some of its art in a haughty manner that alienates the viewer, while the Met in New York consider its visitors as friends worthy of attention and comfort. There are rooms in the Louvre packed to the gills with paintings of historical merit but—to my eyes—little artistic beauty; those rooms are archival, showing you bits of French or European history while squashing you as an individual, as a human being. In those rooms I feel like the museum is saying to me, “You ignoramus. Look at these big, big paintings. Monarchs. Military campaigns. Generals. This is true greatness. You, on the other hand, you're so little you could disappear right now and nothing in the world would change. Au revoir, little person! Come again if you dare!” The paintings are way up on huge walls, too many busy images displayed too close together. I don't get the same feeling at the Met. It's more democratic, more person-oriented instead of archive-oriented. The Met says, “Hey, guys! Swing right in and share in all this beauty! Don't care for historical stuff? Not to worry! Next gallery is full of treats for the modern eye!”

You art lovers out there—what about if you help me change my mind by sharing your positive experiences of the Louvre with us?

The Naked Beginner returns

A few months ago I posted a series of entries about my passage from stick-figure artist to wide-eyed beginner. I'd like to tell you a bit more about my artistic education and its psychological and emotional implications. The first two exercises that I practiced were called gesture drawing and contour drawing, both of which demanded that I look away from the paper in which I was drawing, keeping my eyes “locked” onto the object I was drawing and let feeling alone, not vision, guide my hand's path on the paper. After I got the hang of not looking at the paper as I drew, I started mixing looking and not looking.

I practiced the exercises in a number of different settings, some public, some private. Every night I'd do a drawing on a sketchbook dedicated to my night person, preparing myself to sleep, to dream, to shift my energies from the quotidian to the spectral (that means, from the sometimes petty preoccupations of daily life to the more fluid energies of the subconscious...).

1303411-1573485-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573486-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573487-thumbnail.jpgOn that sketchbook I started copying faces from the art books I had lying around the house. My wife studied art in college, and over the years she collected a series of books, some about art history, others about aspects of craft, others still purveys of great masters. As an art lover I too had bought a few art books. And you know what? I had never properly read the majority of art books in our modest library. To some degree the books made me feel bad about myself: bad for buying too many books, buying expensive books, buying books that I didn't read... I finally started reading the books, looking closely at some of the images, then reproducing a few. A bonus side-effect to my art education: my library doesn’t make me feel bad anymore!

1303411-1573489-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573488-thumbnail.jpg1303411-1573491-thumbnail.jpgI began filling in huge gaps in my knowledge of art history, and of history itself. I read a biography of Rodin. I read Gauguin's notebooks. And I drew faces: from Velasquez, Murillo, Picasso, Rembrandt, Fra Angelico, and a dozen others. The faces taught me a lot. You look closely, really closely, for twenty minutes or thirty minutes, and the face becomes a person; you invent a whole story for that face, and you begin to empathize with someone who has been dead for hundreds of years. A sparkle in someone's eyes, a shade of sadness, a mysterious smile... (Double-clicking the thumbnail images will magnify them and give you a microscopic view of my handiwork. It's kinda neat!)

A well-trained artist might find my sketches very basic, perhaps even full of unpardonable flaws. But, hey! A few weeks before I didn't believe I could draw altogether. You can imagine how happy my night person was with my offerings! It felt to me that I had entered a heightened state of creativity and awareness, of risk-taking, of permanent learning and discovery. I highly recommend the process and the state that comes with it. You know what is required? A sheet of paper and a pencil. If you don't have art books lying around the house, a magazine or a newspaper. Don't have those either? Look in the mirror and draw yourself!

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Okay, you blog readers out there. Who's going to recognize these images and tell us exactly where they come from? Show us what you know, and we'll reward you with a virtual pat on the back.

Oh reader, you're so talented!

In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I recounted how I used to suffer from the misconception I had no talent for drawing, and how I cured myself from that handicap with help from a fictional character, an imaginary friend, and a dead white male. Here I offer you a little meditation on the notion of talent. Since the meditation applies to all people, I’m posting this blog entry on multiple categories.

  1. Everyone is born multitalented; this you can see by watching a few kindergarten kids at play, inventing every sort of game and improvising brilliantly at arts, sport, music, relationships, and anything else. The tragedy is that many of those kindergartners (and I’m talking about you and me and your brother and your sister) will grow to “forget” how talented they were from the first.
  2. You have hidden talents you don’t know about. Every day as you go about your normal existence, amazing things lie inside you waiting to be discovered.
  3. Talents are eternal: they are always there, inside you, from birth to death. When the expression of a talent is squashed, the talent itself remains. At any time in your life, if the conditions are right the talent will come right back out.
  4. You can be absolutely sure about something and yet be absolutely wrong about it. Wanna bet? The principle is universal. It applies to your feeling certain you don’t have talent for something—drawing, music, computers, managing people, you name it.
  5. If you’ve tried to do something and failed miserably, you might still have a talent for it; perhaps you just need a good teacher, a good partner, a good environment. Think how many mean and incompetent teachers are out there, and how discouraging they can be.
  6. “I’ve never danced in my life! I don’t have a talent for it!” Can you see what’s wrong with these words?
  7. Timing is everything. Talent is always there, but sometimes you need to wait until you are good and ready to explore it. And you may not be ready until you’re 13, or 26, or 39, or 52. (Here’s testing your talent for multiplication tables!)
  8. Talent is immutable; it’s already there inside you, and it’ll always be there as a latent force. But your manner of tapping into it is highly variable. It’s easy to confuse the two. If you go about blindly trying to develop a talent, your failure doesn’t mean you don’t have the talent.
  9. You can develop a new skill in intermittent bursts of time and effort, as long as the effort is intelligent and the time well-spent.
  10. If someone has a great deal of innate facility for something but no patience to develop the skill over the long term, does he or she really have “talent”?
  11. Okay, it’s possible for you not to have talent for something and feel sure that you do. Still, that’d be a lesser problem than having talent and feeling sure you don’t.
  12. Talent isn’t contagious, but enthusiasm is.

Hey, you talented readers out there: How about submitting your stories about hidden talents, talents snuffed out by mean teachers, talents that have surprised and delighted you as you went about discovering them?

What you learn is not what you expect to learn

In my previous installment of The Naked Beginner I told you about the gesture drawing as I learned it from Kimon Nicolaïdes. Today I’ll tell you about Nicolaïdes’s second great exercise.

The contour drawing shares two characteristics with the gesture drawing: you don’t actually look at the paper as you draw; and the pencil never leaves the page. But, instead of drawing something quickly the way you do with gesture drawing, you let your eyes slowly follow the contours of whatever you’re looking at… and you let your hand slowly draw the very contour your eye is looking at, millimeter by millimeter. It’s another Zen-like meditation, in which your eye and your hand so fuse that you develop the feeling you are actually touching the object or person that you draw. The eye caresses the figure, the hand caresses the paper, and what the eye sees and what the hand draws finally become one.

At first the exercise was surprisingly difficult. I kept wanting to look at the page, not at the object I was trying to draw. I found that I simply didn’t want to let my eyes linger on an image long enough. I'd scan the image in a jerky fashion, stopping at one point and then suddenly moving my eyes jerkily to another point far away. I was impatient, quickly bored, even uncomfortable. This showed me I didn’t live in the moment. I didn’t “stay,” as it were; I “came and went” instead. It also showed me I had never, ever truly looked at the world with my attention properly focused. There’s so much to see when you really look: shape, dimension, proportion, context, expression, perspective, color, light and shadow—the amount of information at your disposal is staggering. There may well be good biological and psychological reasons not to look so closely: you can be utterly overwhelmed by what you perceive!

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1303411-1159834-thumbnail.jpgAnd that is the main thing: I was learning to broaden and deepen my perceptions of the world. It’s tempting to think that what separates an artist from a non-artist is the degree of technical expertise: in short, the artist has more and better “technique.” But that is utterly misleading. Artistry is first and foremost about perception. Caravaggio’s accomplishment wasn’t in how he depicted the world, but how he perceived it. Caravaggio, Picasso, Matisse, Kahlo, O'Keefe, Rembrandt, name whom you will—it’s the case with all artists.

My artistic initiation has had little to do with art, and everything to do with perception, with looking, seeing, and touching, with living in the moment, with trusting my instincts, with passing from the known to the unknown.

In fact, I learned so many things from Nicolaïdes’s two basic exercises that I’ll need a whole new blog entry to dissect my  experiences and to offer you a few pointers along the way.

Extra! Extra! Insane Artist Finds a Teacher!

In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I told you about how I started drawing thanks to a fictional character and an imaginary friend who lives by night. Today I’ll tell you about a dead white male who gave me the last push.

Kimon Nicolaïdes taught drawing in New York City during the first half of the 20th century. He left behind a marvelous book that provides an extremely constructive method of drawing. The Natural Way to Draw is written with such passion and humor that it makes for wonderful reading, even if you’re not interested in drawing at all.

My wife, who’s a trained artist, had a copy of the book from before the time we met. I had leafed the book on several occasions, and was always struck by Nicolaïdes’s tone of voice, so direct and engaging. But something about the book actually prevented me from trying to draw. Nicolaïdes demanded, from the reader and putative art student, the same passion, the same commitment that Nicolaïdes himself brought to his craft—or so I imagined from his tone of voice. 15 hours of practice a week! One chapter per week! Don’t read chapter 2 before you finish the 15 hours of practice from chapter 1! It’s the least you can do! It’s normal! It’s the only way to learn! Grow up already!

It was all or nothing. Despite the many pleasures I had  his book, over the years I opted for nothing again and again.

This was doubly dumb of me. First, “all” is better than “nothing.” Second, I could simply have refused Nicolaïdes’s radical entreaties (as I foolishly perceived them) and made my own choices about how to read his book. That’s what I finally did. I decided to follow Nicolaïdes exercises one by one, and fulfill his practice schedule to the letter… but in my own rhythm. I took two months to do the 15 hours of practice scheduled in the first chapter.

It was the most blissful summer of my life.

My education started with two sketching exercises: gesture and contour. They’re both simple but far-reaching. To do a gesture sketch, sit somewhere with pencil and paper… look at a figure, an object, a passerby, a child at play, any one thing… and draw, very quickly and without looking at the paper, a sort of perception of the object’s or person’s energy.

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Draw a few continuous squiggles without letting the pencil tip leave the paper. It takes a few seconds. Don’t draw details or a literal physical rendering, but rather the essence, the intention, the gesture that the object or person conveys. It’s a way of having your eyes, your intuition, and your drawing hand converge in a Zen-like moment of completeness and freedom.

Nicolaïdes explains it rather better, and you really ought to read his book.

And you really ought to practice the exercise before you go on to the next installment of The Naked Beginner, in which I’ll tell you about contour drawing.

Extra! Extra! Graffiti Artist Goes Insane!

In my last instalment of The Naked Beginner I told you how a fictional character prodded me to start exploring my artistic bent. Today I'll tell you about another... well... imaginary friend, for lack of a better term.

I'm the client of a great doctor here in Paris, a German allopath and homeopath whose nearly shamanic guidance has taken me to plenty of unexpected places over the years. When I last visited him he said, in his own words, “We are all two people, a day person and a night person, a doer and a dreamer, left brain and right brain, what you will. You can communicate with your night person directly and engage him or her. Sit up in bed last thing before going to sleep and say hello to him or her. Tell her you have a problem and you need her help. Outline the problem briefly. Then go to sleep, and let the night person solve the problem for you. You sleep all night, you wake up in the morning, and the problem is gone.”

Yeah, I know. Your day person is saying, “Nonsense." I thought the same thing at first, but I decided I’d have a go. (The German fellow has quite a track record with me.) I bought myself a spiral-bound notebook with blank pages. On the notebook's first page I glued a card with a photo of a children’s party where a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds were screaming and playing with balloons. Inside the card I wrote, “My dear night person, I welcome you into my life. Please introduce yourself to me, tell me your name.” I added four stamps, from a trove of old stamps from all over the world I had bought at a philatelist’s just for this purpose.

That night I had a dream, and a young being, both male and female, came into my life. He, she was called Noï, written just like that. In German, “Neu” means “new” and it’s pronounced “NAW-ee.” In Italian, “Noi” means “We, us.” The name was beautiful, full of different meanings and connotations, musical, nice to say. Every night since that dream I have written to Noï, always starting my messages with “Dear Noï of the Beautiful Name.” I tell her a little about my day, I praise her infinite creativity, I thank her about all that she’s given me, and I ask her for more of everything.

I’ve presented Noï with problems, issues, desires, fears, goals, and tasks of all sorts—some creative, some professional, some affective. And Noï has helped me deal with a number of them. I won’t tell you what these tasks were precisely. (Hey, this is the Internet, after all! If I tell you my secrets they’ll be on every one’s tongues and ears in a nanosecond.) But I’ll tell you that Noï has helped me sleep much better, work more productively, and have steadier energy throughout the day. All for the price of a notebook and a ten-dollar bag of old stamps.

After I filled the notebook with my nightly postcards, I decided I’d change medium. Some years ago I saw a marvelous show of drawings by Alberto Giacometti, better known as a sculptor (in particular of extremely elongated figures). Several of his drawings were made with ballpoint pens, just like the cheap Bics you and I use to take notes and write checks and so on. The drawings were expressive and original. I couldn’t ever be or become Giacometti, I thought, but I could certainly handle a Bic. I bought a box of Bics of many colors—blue, black, red, and green—and, on a fresh notebook, I started drawing a different face every night, for Noï’s delectation.

I started off copying photos of friends and family, alternating the colors every night. My goddaughter Marianne in black, my mother in green, my grandmother in red. My efforts came out stilted and distorted. I myself could barely recognize my family members.

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After a few nights maiming my elders, I chose to draw my nephew as a baby. Lo and behold, the portrait came out rather charming.

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Er… it was kinda scary. I still thought of myself as a stick artist, and my accidental success challenged my aesthetics and my conception of myself. But deep down I was quite pleased. Every night I showed my drawings to my wife, who happens to be a trained artist,with a fine-arts college degree from Parsons. My wife indulges me, and I’m terribly grateful to her. “Cute,” she says. “Funny.” “Not so bad.” “Pretty good.” “The eyes are all screwy.” Actually, I resented that remark bitterly. But she was right. I couldn’t do eyes. Or lips. Or noses. Or cheekbones. Or—well, you get the idea.

The thing, though, was that I was finally drawing, for the first time in 35 years. My drawing hand (I’m a leftie) loved the feeling of the pen on paper. My visual perceptions were changing. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes, and I was having tremendous fun.

Then Kimon Nicolaïdes entered my life. He was dead, of course. But I’m used to communing with fictional characters and ghosts inside my heart, so a dead man didn’t scare me one bit. Stay tuned for the next instalment of The Naked Beginner!

Extra! Extra! Stick Artist Becomes Graffiti Artist!

In the first instalment of The Naked Beginner series, I told you about my life as a handicapped stick artist and how three strange people helped me overcome my handicap. Today I'll tell you about a non-existent guy who initiated me into the art of grafitti.

Tommy Latrella, the hero of my forthcoming time-travel novel, Backtracked, is a 16-year-old who rides the subways in New York City and defaces its wall and corridors, its cars, its benches. I thought I would do some research. I bought myself a marker and a big cheap notebook, and I tried to channel Latrella’s style of subway art. As I set out in my explorations, I splashed a few lines boldly drawn across a page, their rhythm more important than their shape. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t draw—I was just doing character research, right?

Sitting at one of my favorite Parisian cafés and working on my signature—I mean, on the signature of the NYC graffiti artist called Thomas Anthony Latrella, aka Ghost—I started drawing other things with my big fat marker. A cup of coffee. Someone’s face in a few round strokes, the drawing not even recognizably human. A sketch of my own hand.

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The smell of marker ink was delicious. The feeling of my hand defacing a blank page, exhilarating. And the visual result, on page after page, surprisingly adept (at least to my easily fooled eyes!).

It was the beginning of the end of my days as a stick artist.

After the Ghost initiated me into the visual arts, someone else decided I needed to go further—someone who may or may not exist, and if he or she does exist, he or she may or may not be... myself. I'll do my best to explain it in the next installment of The Naked Beginner.

Birth and Death of a Stick Artist

The last time I took an art class was in grade school, probably when I was about 13. Subsequently I became your stereotypical non-artist whose technique for drawing consisted of a few straight lines and a couple of circles. Dog? Five straight lines for the skeleton (one for the spine, four for the legs), one circle for the head. Human being? About the same. Women were different from men because they had two squiggles for hair. If I tried very hard, this is what I would be able to do:

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The fowl below (I suspect it's a chicken) is my absolute best drawing from my early period, covering the years 1958-2006.

chicken.jpgDrawing, painting, and sculpting were outside my domain, by a law of nature that said, “At the maternity your momma pressed a button by the side of her bed, and she chose to make you a stick artist instead of a Rembrandt. Yes, sweet little Pedro, you’re a stick artist if there ever was one. You’ll grow up a stick artist and you’ll die a stick artist. Tough nuggets.”

My momma’s button notwithstanding, like all stick artists I suffered from a severe misconception. I can’t speak Swahili—that’s a fact. I can’t pilot an airplane—that’s also a fact. I can’t draw—well, that’s a perception, not a fact. The problem is, when the wind blows just so perceptions become convictions, and convictions become realities. For roughly 35 years (that is, following my last art class in 8th grade) I didn’t draw because I couldn’t, and I couldn’t because I didn’t. “I don’t draw, you understand? I can’t! Look at my stick figures—they demonstrate I can’t draw!”

I owe the unraveling of my stick-artist identity to three people. One definitely doesn’t exist. Another has been dead for seventy years. And the third one—well, it’s hard to explain. In the next Naked Beginner installment, I’ll tell you about the inexistent one.