Being able to draw always seemed to me to be something mystical, reserved for the special few, when I came across Danny Gregory’s book ‘Everyday Matters‘ I was sucked in – it intersected two things that I was interested in teaching yourself to draw as an adult and living intentionally everyday. Since 2007, when I first came across the book, I’ve followed the ups and downs of Danny Gregory’s life through his blog and his books. His output shows that it is possible to have a very active publishing career while also balancing the demands of a family and busy career – Danny was a copywriter and creative director for an ad agency for a number of years.
‘Everyday Matters‘ was a reaction to the accident that Danny’s wife had on the New York Subway that left her paralysed from the waist down. It’s a sad story that concludes in his book ‘A Kiss Before you Go‘.
I first came across Wendy Macnaughton’s work through her venn diagrams, such as the one above. I was sucked in by both the humor and her minimalist, colorful style. Once I started paying attention I recognized her work in lots of places – funny how that works isn’t it?
Macnaughton describes herself as a graphic journalist, a term that I’d never heard of before but it does make sense if you explore her work beyond the venn diagrams and other lettering work that she’s done. She tells the story of the people that she interacts with through her drawings, marrying these with snippets of conversations that she’s had with them and calling the result ‘Meanwhiles’. I was pleased to see that her earlier collection of ‘Meanwhiles’ from the San Francisco Public Library, one that I had unsuccessfully tried to get a hold of, was collected into her recent book ‘Meanwhile in San Francisco’. Well worth a look.
Watch Wendy talk about her work and see her drawing in the videos below.
I’ve been thinking about what it takes to ‘see pictures’. People will tell you that ‘pictures are all around us’ and yet I find that few are able to consistently find them. Why is that?
Personally I feel as though I go through my day with blinkers on, really only paying attention to the things that I need to pay attention to in the specific moment. The things on the periphery are ignored in an effort to get onto whatever is next as expediently as possible.
Most of us have acquired, with time, the capacity to “tune out” the things around us. This faculty to conveniently ignore the things that don’e “matter” allows us to live without being constantly bombarded with visual stimuli. We need to be able to drive or walk without being distracted by the slightest object in our field of vision.
As adults we have trained ourselves to disregard the landscape around us in order to keep a certain focus, that is, where are we going, how we are going to answer questions during an upcoming interview, how not to trip in those brand new heels so as to avoid public embarrassment.
Jay Maisel seems to have this problem of seeing licked licked. He always carries his camera with him and is always looking for, and finding, pictures. How does he do that? He seems to have retained a child like curiosity in everything around him.
For me this enhanced way of seeing is most easily achieved when I put myself in new situations, where things are strange or scary or strange and scary. It’s amazing to me how I seem to notice everything when I’m in potentially dangerous situations – balancing precariously on rocks in the ocean before dawn, walking along the beach when it’s so foggy I can hear but can’t see the breaking waves or walking through a forest in the near dark hoping that I’m still on the trail. In these circumstances I have a heightened sense of awareness, time slows down, and I can pay attention to an enormous amount of detail. Interestingly this sense of awareness persists, so that I find that I ‘see’ pictures when I’m on my way home in a way that I didn’t an hour or so earlier.
Have you experienced this sensation? How do you get into the ‘picture taking, seeing zone’?
I’ve been thinking a lot about aging recently – are my best years behind me? They very well could be! In the physical sciences such as mathematics or physics people seem to have made their important contribution in their early 20’s. Perhaps because they’re less contaminated by dogma at this stage in their career. In the biological sciences scientists are generally older, when they have had an opportunity to amass a broad and deep understanding of their field, when they make their most important contributions. What about in the arts?
It was interesting then, with this as a back drop, to see an exhibition of Jasper Johns recent work ‘Regrets’ at the MoMA. Unusually this wasn’t a career retrospective, or a themed retrospective as one might expect fitting for 83 year old Johns who is referred to as America’s greatest living artist but rather a new body of work completed in the last year. The work caused such excitement among the MoMA curators that they rushed the whole body of work into the museum for an exhibition in a matter of months. They tell the story here.
For an able description of the work check out this article on ArtSpace.
It is interesting to see how the work evolved and spiraled out from a single photograph. An approach that might not work for all of us but is worth having in mind when it comes to exploring options to extend and deepen a body of work.
As an artist Denevan creates some of the largest drawings on the planet. Working most often with sand on California beaches, but also in other parts of the world including Siberia (!), working quickly to beat the incoming tide he creates geometric patterns that because of their scale are best viewed from the air. Very impressive. Who ever said that crop circles couldn’t be man made has never seen a Denevan drawing. Check out some videos of Jim at work below.
I find that I can learn as much from looking at books from other visual artists as I do from photographers. One such example is ‘Landscape Meditations’ by Elizabeth Mowry, that I found recently while browsing in a local bookstore. From the introduction I knew this was a book I would gain something from when I read:
‘when one uses an idea already expressed by others, it becomes unequivocally necessary to take the idea deeper, further or in a different direction to avoid finding oneself on an inevitably dead-ended plateau with unfulfilling work that echoes refrains from someone else’s songs.’
This and other ideas in the book are very much in line with my thoughts for what I’m trying to do with my photography, to have my personality come through in my work. How to get there is a struggle that involves working hard and intentionally. I feel as though Landscape Meditations provides some framework for the exploration for those things that catch our attention, the themes that run deep in our work.
The book begins with a brief historical survey of those artists that have worked in series before launching into the 10 chapters that form the bulk of the book. The general format for each chapter is an introduction, the work and finally a section titled ‘Thoughts: artist to artist’. I found myself reading the ‘Thoughts’ sections for all the chapters first and then going back and reading the chapter through.
Thoroughly enjoyed the book and is one that I’ll keep coming back to.
The introduction has a number of useful comments for the prospective student. The section ‘Getting Involved In The Subject’ particularly resonated with me. Here’s an excerpt:
The best paintings, I feel, result from the artist having an affinity with the subject. Painting is nothing if not accompanied by the poetry of feeling. You need to find those subjects that excite you most, for only when you find an involvement with the subject can you do your finest work.
This as equally applies to photography and I couldn’t agree more!
On a recent archeological expedition in the basement I came across my copy of Betty Edwards’s book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain‘ and the sketchbook that I had used for the exercises. It had been a while since I looked at the drawings and I must admit that I was surprised – they weren’t actually that bad. There were two exercises that stood out for me in the many that are in the book. The first was to copy a drawing that is shown upside down. Remarkably when you copy an image that is upside down you do a better job of capturing what us there than you do when the same image is right side up. Why? The exercise prompts a shift from the left brain, verbal mode of thinking, to the right brain, visual mode. We become conditioned to name objects and to have a standard ‘symbol’ that represents the object rather than drawing what is actually in front of us. Having the picture upside down makes it difficult to recognize the image and so there is more likelihood that we will draw what is there than rely our symbol short-cuts. The recognition that we tend to rely on short-cuts rather than truly seeing spills over into photography. I have wondered on more than one occasion whether using a medium format camera, where the scene before you is viewed inverted, would help advance my photography by removing the familiar, making me more reliant on graphic elements.
The second exercise that stuck with me was drawing a chair. In this exercise, rather than draw the chair, you are guided to draw the space around the chair. This is a great lesson in the importance of negative space and how it defines the object of interest. How negative space and the space occupied by the object of interest fit together within the boundary of the frame is fundamental to good composition. Defining the boundary of the frame is as important in photography as it is in drawing. While some may argue about the validity of cropping from the standard 2 x 3 format of the DSLR, it is unquestionable that some compositions would work better in alternate formats.
The drawing that I have been using to support my photography is the compliment to the writing that I have been working on. My drawings roughly map out ideas for new photos that I have developed through some of the writing exercises. The drawings are not frameworks for future Photoshop constructions but rather ways to help me be prepared for what I may find when I’m on location. While I may not find the exact drawings that I had imagined, they allow me to see opportunities where I may not have otherwise.