I have hundreds of pages of sketches sitting on my bookshelf. Many of them were produced during a period following the financial collapse of 2008. I was laid off, from three different companies in succession – a bizarre land-speed record, I’d say – and was working in a temporary position at a call center, absorbing other people’s anger and frustration because of their own credit card debt. It was a hard time, but I did the best I could with a worthless education and very few resources of my own. It’s easy enough to satisfy a coffee-shop budget, though, and I re-acquainted myself with a very useful tool: the bicycle.
I was living “on the cheap” during that time. And it wasn’t all-too-terrible.
I met a lot of great people back then, and one of those individuals become a daily collaborator in artistic adventure. We didn’t go to clubs or movies, weekend trips or dinners out on the town. We drank cheep beer and indulged in the most lovely of all free commodities, conversation and creativity. It wasn’t a master’s class in rendering, but rather was a couple of guys occupying various Tucson coffee shops and bars, with mechanical pencils and sketch books at the ready.
We would throw down meaningless – absolutely meaningless – drawing challenges. “Sit here, fool. I’ll sit across from you. Take your pencil. I’ll keep the time. I’ll sit still. You have three minutes. Draw me.”
It was all fun and games. Literally. And it’s actually pretty liberating when you’re guaranteed to fail.
Show me a three-minute ‘perfect’ portrait, and I won’t (necessarily) be surprised; the world is full of genius. But show me that, and you will have shown me one of maybe ten people on earth who can do it. The idea, really, is to short-circuit the very real ‘fear-node’ that prevents one from starting a drawing – or any work of art – in the first place. We wanted to override that fear, eliminate that fear. You have a minute, maybe two. Not many people can sculpt a Michelangelo ‘David’ or paint a ‘Mona Lisa’ in a minute or two. You literally get a free pass. All you have to do is just scribble.
But then I started to revisit the scribbles to see if there might be something worthwhile there. Interestingly, there are a few promising articles, hiding in the piles and piles of otherwise wasted paper.
The image above was a self-portrait challenge. My friend had dropped by the apartment, and it was a woefully empty apartment at the time. My girlfriend – ex-girlfriend – had just moved out to be with a gentleman who played bass guitar in a local band. He was, up until that point, a friend of mine, too. I felt pretty betrayed, pretty alone. Feelings were hurt and I was wounded – my faith in humanity was running shallow. Needless to say, the lack of furniture, the heartache, and the smattering of empty wine bottles about the limited square-footage were probably not resting well with my friends; a few of them were concerned about my well-being.
My buddy Trent was over one day and, after some YouTube time-waste, some cigarettes, and a few beers, he tossed a tattered sketch book at me and instructed me to sit in front of a mirror (plucked from the living room wall, setting on the floor in the living room) and draw myself. The rules for this particular challenge were simple:
1. I wasn’t allowed to look at the paper in my lap; I could only look at my reflection and draw without looking down.
2. I wasn’t allowed to lift my pencil from the page. I had to draw myself without ever lifting my pencil.
3. I had exactly ninety seconds. We both were (are) collectors of stop-watches. He plucked his watch from the pocket of his thrift-store vest, looked up at me, and said…”go.”
I wasn’t surprised by my failure. At the end of the ninety seconds, I looked down and sighed, with relief, that it actually looked like a human being. I quickly buried the sketch with the hundreds of others. It wasn’t until, years later, I started looking at the old sketches, that I started seeing something I couldn’t have seen back then: some of these sketches are actually quite interesting. Our context can blind us, and what seems like a past failure can become a present opportunity. I know that this image isn’t the ticket that’ll save me as a creative professional, but it is interesting to me, today, in a way that it couldn’t have been interesting to me back in 2008.
This image reminds me, in an odd way, of Picasso’s end-of-life drawings. There’s no grandiosity here; I don’t think of myself as possessing the kind of brilliance that Picasso possessed. But there’s a simple, basic, and raw quality to this image, a stylistic quality, that reminds me of some of his lesser works. I’m happy to possess the compulsion to save everything – I would have abandoned this image a long time ago – because I scanned it, archived it digitally, and found it recently while wiping my hard drive.
So here you have it. A broken-hearted man, bespectacled, rendered in pigment and ink on cardboard. A simultaneously confident figure, weighed down with rejection and a crippling fear of loneliness. If you can think of a good title for this piece, please let me know in the comment section.