The Joys of Making

I started playing with sketching and watercolors back in July 2018. I had been curious about watercolors for several years, and I happened to be having a terrible month, so I decided it was finally time to play. I signed up for a Bluprint online class, and I bought a sketchbook, a portable water brush, and a tiny set of watercolors.

A year and change later, I’m finally on the last page of my sketchbook. I decided to celebrate with a little value study:

My book is filled with terrible drawings. I’m not being falsely humble either. Earlier this year, I went to an urban sketching meetup and noticed someone painting a beautiful landscape. I struck up a conversation with him and asked him lots of questions, which he pleasantly answered. He then asked if he could see my sketches, so I opened up my book and showed them to him without comment. The expression on his face was hilarious. There was a flash of disappointment on his face, a long pause, then he offered me some tips, which I happily accepted. I truly enjoyed that moment. He didn’t try to pretend that I was anything more than the beginner that I was, and he helped me by giving me frank feedback. It was honest and kind, and it helped me get better.

The first time I sat down to draw something in my book, I was paralyzed with fear. I had to psyched myself up to apply that first pen stroke. I finally got over myself and started to draw, and the fear became concentration and curiosity almost immediately. It was wonderfully meditative, and I was happy with what I created. That was followed by several clunkers, which demotivated me for a few months, but I picked it up again, and I haven’t stopped since.

Filling my book has brought me peace and joy every time, and it’s also brought me closer to friends and family. Most of my friends ignore me when I draw with them, but some get curious, and I’ve even been able to persuade a few to join me. My favorite has been painting with kids, including my nephews. They are fearlessly creative, and I always have tons of fun and walk away inspired. I haven’t bought a single card or postcard this year, choosing instead to paint them when the opportunity arises. I always enjoy the process, but I still get pangs of fear of being judged. Unlike the urban sketcher, I think my friends often give me plaudits for my skill that are slightly exaggerated, but I can tell that their appreciation is real, and it really touches me to see them moved. It reminds me of how simple and wonderful it is to gift someone something you’ve made with your hands, regardless of how good it is.

My sketchbook also serves as a record of my learning journey. Signs of my stubbornness abound, which amuses me. It’s clear from many of my drawings that I have no idea what I’m doing, but those are often followed by several (mostly failed) attempts at figuring it out. I’m only marginally better than when I started, but the paralysis and fear and self-consciousness have disappeared. I just try things when I’m struck, and I don’t worry too much about how it turns out.

A few months ago, I went to a Leadership Learning Community gathering to meet their new Co-Executive Director, and I ended up spending most of the evening talking to an artist who was friends with her. He told me that the best way to learn watercolors was to do a value study with a single color. He also told me to look up Anders Zorn, who famously created stunning paintings with only four colors (Lead White, Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, and Ivory Black). I never knew any of this before, and it’s opened up entirely new worlds for me.

There are so many fantastic resources for learning how to draw and paint. I discovered the aforementioned urban sketching meetup in my neighborhood, and they have been friendly and supportive. I follow a number of artists on Instagram and on their blogs, and I’ve especially enjoyed Suhita Shirodkar’s work. And then there’s YouTube! So many instructional videos! It’s not only been a great resource for me, but it’s also inspired me to explore different ways for sharing knowledge about collaboration, which is my day obsession. In general, I find myself playing with ways to incorporate this little practice into my everyday work. I can’t help myself.

I see everything differently now — from everyday objects to art. It slows me down, and I’ve gotten better at noticing things — light, color, contrast, little details here and there. I’m still pretty bad at painting, and I think it will be a while before I improve significantly, but it’s already made me a better photographer, a better learner, and a better person. Most importantly, it’s been relaxing and fun. Making stuff rules!

Two Seconds a Day in January 2019

Toward the end of my photo a day project in 2015, several people asked me if I was going to do it again in 2016. “Heck, no!” I responded. That project meant a lot to me (still does), and I loved doing it, but it was a lot of work, it took up a lot of mental and emotional headspace, and I was burned out on sharing.

Still, once you get into the habit of making, it’s hard to break. It just feels good to make something every day, to watch a little bit of incremental effort become a body of work. And it’s especially nice when it serves as a kind of journal of your life.

Even though I was saying no to doing another 365 photo project, I had started toying with the idea of doing a one second of video a day project. I had seen a few of these floating around on the Internet, and I was amazed by how much a single second of video could capture.

I started playing around with this at the beginning of 2016 and didn’t even get through a week. Over the next few years, I tinkered with other daily project ideas, but wasn’t motivated enough to do one.

I decided to revisit the one second a day idea this month. You can see the results above. I started with one second a day, and really liked it, but when I showed it to others, they said it was too fast. I decided to go with two seconds instead, and I like it even better.

Doing this was much less stressful than my 365 ever was. First, it was only 31 days. I might do another month, but I haven’t decided yet. Second, I’m not sharing every day. Third, video is much more forgiving than photography. You get two more dimensions — movement and sound — to capture something interesting. Fourth, I don’t care that much about getting good at video right now. I’m just playing, which is pretty liberating.

That said, I’m slightly more primed to capture video than I was three years ago. I’ve been inspired by several friends and colleagues (and, in some cases, their kids) who often produce simple, but really fun and compelling videos. My experience with photography helps. I also read Walter Murch’s outstanding, In the Blink of an Eye, a few years ago, and it made me see video in a whole different light. Finally, the 1 Second Everyday app makes it super easy to compile and edit your videos. (The iOS version is superb. Sadly, the Android version is terrible.)

Emile Zola on Poetry and Craft, Nature vs Nurture

Viola Davis’s introduction of Meryl Streep for the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award last Sunday was a highlight in its entirety, as was Streep’s powerful acceptance speech. But one thing that stood out in particular for me was Davis quoting Émile Zola:

If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, I will answer you: I am here to live out loud!

Because I am anal, I double check quotes I like before I save them, and the best source for citations is often Wikiquote. While scanning Zola’s Wikiquote page and affirming that he did indeed say the above, I also ran across this quote that I love in a letter to Paul Cézanne in 1860:

There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.

Make Something. Don’t Be Nice.

sweat_it_out

I’m a private person. Over the years, I’ve found a nice balance between living and working openly while maintaining personal boundaries. I’m consistently surprised by the benefits of being selectively open and vulnerable in public.

My Photo-A-Day project has pushed these boundaries. On the one hand, I’m not that excited by how much I’ve shared about my life, even when they’ve only been tiny windows. On the other hand, what I have shared has resulted in deeper relationships with many people I care about. All in all, it’s been net positive.

Still, I feel discomfort, especially when I’m not feeling great. 2015 has been a stellar year overall, but I’m human, and I have my ups and downs. I’m going through one of those down periods now. It’s nothing serious — no one is dying, thank goodness. I’m going to get through it just fine, and I most definitely don’t want any sympathy. But forcing myself to continue publishing photos that tell an authentic story while also maintaining personal boundaries has been tough. I’ll be glad when this project is over.

I’ve found over the years that you mostly just have to wait out times like these. Sure, I have my coping mechanisms: basketball, music, food, family, friends, etc. They all work to some extent. But there’s really only one thing that consistently helps: Making things.

Make a picture. Make a tool. Write something down. Doodle. Make change. Make music. Make trouble. Make love. Just make something. Express yourself through making. And whatever you do, don’t be nice. Be you. Feel what you feel, and be okay with it.

The Special Quality of Crafts

Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the mingei (folk craft) movement in Japan, on craft:

The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge or the lofty as the beauty of the familiar. People hang art high up on the walls, but they place objects for everyday use close to them, and take them into their hands.

Via the Tom Bihn blog.