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A scrapbook of stuff I'm reading / looking at / listening to / thinking about...



Sep 02, 2014
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An artist of any sort… you must not put down the man before you. It’s like putting down the guy who built the ladder you’re standing on. Without him, you’re standing on the floor. With him, naturally you’re above him, because he’s holding you on his shoulders. You devour his stuff. You eat it up. And then you move one step higher. A lot of cartoonists, I’ll take all the originality they’ve got, and all their ideas, and swallow them, and then I’ll try to move one step further. That doesn’t mean I could’ve done it without their influence or their help. Because, eventually, some guy’s going to be standing on my shoulders…
Shel Silverstein, in a wonderful interview with Studs Terkel

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Mise en place for artists

Mise en place is a French cooking term that means “everything in place.” It’s used to refer to the way chefs will have all of their ingredients organized and ready to go before they start cooking. (Obviously, it’s an idea that applies to other types of work.)

Without mentioning it explicitly, cartoonist Kevin Huizenga explains why mise en place is important for artists:

Maybe you have a hard time getting to work because you really haven’t taken the time to figure out what materials you need, and you don’t have them ready-to-hand. They shouldn’t be “organized” in the sense of “visually organized.” One’s studio should be definitely be “messy,” but only in the sense that everything is where it’s most useful. If papers everywhere on the floor makes working easier right now, because you need to constantly refer to them, then they should stay there. So you need first to get the material conditions in place, before you can work.

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Roger Ebert’s sketchbook and thoughts on drawing

While I was watching Life Itself last night, I noticed two or three drawings in the mix of images, none of which were commented on.

Had I been reading his blog more carefully, I would’ve come across this blog post, “You Can Draw, and Probably Better Than I Can,” where he explains how he met a woman named Annette Goodheart in the early 1980s, who convinced him that all children can draw, it’s just that some of us stop:

The break in our childish innocence comes the first time we use an eraser. We draw a chin and think it looks nothing like a chin, and in frustration we erase it. That’s it. Our bond of trust with our artistic instinct has been severed. We will be erasing for the rest of our lives. I speak here not of great and accomplished artists, for whom I hold great awe, but for you and me, whose work, let’s face it, will not soon be given a gallery show.

It seems to me Annette said something like this: Begin with a proper sketch book. Draw in ink. Finish each drawing you begin, and keep every drawing you finish. No erasing, no ripping out a page, no covering a page with angry scribbles. What you draw is an invaluable and unique representation of how you saw at that moment in that place according to your abilities. That’s all we want. We already know what a dog really looks like.

When he was in London, Ebert bought a Daler sketchbook and a drawing pen across the street from the English National Opera.

I settled down in a nearby pub and began to sketch a glass, which is no more than an arrangement of ovals and lines. I continued to draw throughout the 1990s… I sketched mostly on vacation. I had the time. In Chicago there was always a deadline, someplace to be, a phone ringing. On vacation I found a cafe or a park bench, or was waiting for a concert to begin, or whatever.

He soon found out that the quality of his drawings didn’t matter at all — it was the mere fact that he drew them:

That was the thing no one told me about. By sitting somewhere and sketching something, I was forced to really look at it, again and again, and ask my mind to translate its essence through my fingers onto the paper. The subject of my drawing was fixed permanently in my memory. Oh, I “remember” places I’ve been and things I’ve seen. I could tell you about sitting in a pub on Kings’ Road and seeing a table of spike-haired kids starting a little fire in an ash tray with some lighter fluid. I could tell you, and you would be told, and that would be that. But in sketching it I preserved it. I had observed it.

I found this was a benefit that rendered the quality of my drawings irrelevant. Whether they were good or bad had nothing to do with their most valuable asset: They were a means of experiencing a place or a moment more deeply. The practice had another merit. It dropped me out of time. I would begin a sketch or watercolor and fall into a waking reverie. Words left my mind. A zone of concentration formed. I didn’t think a tree or a window. I didn’t think deliberately at all. My eyes saw and my fingers moved and the drawing happened. Conscious thought was what I had to escape, so I wouldn’t think, Wait! This doesn’t look anything like that tree! or I wish I knew how to draw a tree! I began to understand why Annette said finish every drawing you start. By abandoning perfectionism you liberate yourself to draw your way. And nobody else can draw the way you do.

As he wrote in a Facebook post, “An artist using a sketchbook always looks like a happy person.” 

Knowing Ebert himself drew means a lot to me, as the only direct contact I ever had with Ebert was this Facebook post where he praised one of my drawings.

He published a little paperback with some of his drawings (Two Weeks In Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook), but, unfortunately, it’s out of print. Luckily, you can read all of his thoughts on drawings and flip through some of his drawings on Flickr.

Filed under: Roger Ebert

Sep 01, 2014
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"Vintage" selfies, grabbed from Google Image search.

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The Chairs Are Where The People Go

I like it when I can’t tell at a glance if it’s my book or my toddler’s book. (That’s thanks to the great art by Leanne Shapton on the cover.)

This was recommended to me by my friend Nicole Fenton. Here’s the story: Sheila Heti wanted to write a novel about her friend, Misha, but couldn’t really make it work, and besides, what she really liked was listening to him talk. So they made a list of topics together, Misha talked, and Sheila talked. This book is the result.

I wish more writers would go this route — just give us 170 pages of the stuff you’re really trying to say, you know? (I suddenly feel very David Shields-y.)

Some highlights, below.

Against virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake:


  The idea that the point of art is to be impressive is — to me — incredibly distressing. Skill should be a means to an end, or it becomes like watching acrobatics, or being very tall… At a certain level, virtuosity has only one thing to say, and that is: Look at how good I am.


On not-knowing:


  A lot of people are scared to be surprised, I find. And a lot of things I don’t like in prov come down to people’s attempts to avoid that surprise. But a real part of what it means to truly improvise is to really not know where you’re going, to really not know what you’re doing. There’s a feeling I associate with improvising which I think is a really thrilling feeling, which is the feeling of being at once very comfortable and yet having no idea what’s going to happen. That’s thrilling, and it’s a little mysterious, and there’s pleasure in feeling out of control. There’s a real joy in starting a sentence and not knowing how it’s going to finish.


On how experimental music eventually makes its way to pop:


  [Missy Elliott’s] “Work It” is like this insane collage of incredibly abstract electronic noises, some of which would be considered really abrasive in other contexts. At various different moments, the vocal track is played backwards. But a song like “Work It” or any of a gazillion really interesting things happening now in dance music couldn’t have happened without twentieth-century experimental music. It’s as though “Work It” is the useful application of all those useless experiments. “Work It” is like those unbreakable dinner plates that got developed because of the space program.


How to ask a good question during a Q&A session:


  The first thing I tell people that a good question has to be a question. I warn them that if they take a statement and try to raise the pitch of their voices at the end of their sentences, we won’t be tricked. I tell the audience that grammarians will agree that there’s no such thing as a two-part question. I tell people that if they think they have a two-part question, what they really have are two questions, and that they should just pick the better of the two.


On storytelling vs. conversation:


  Being a conversationalist and telling wonderful stories aren’t the same thing. I mean, a story isn’t a conversation. It’s a monologue, a one-way thing. When you’re telling a story, you need to not be interrupted—and the story has to end up where you want it to end up. […] The best conversationalists are people who are hoping to end up somewhere they didn’t expect… It seems to me that the most pleasing thing you can find yourself saying in a conversation is something you haven’t said before.


And a funny take on “impostor syndrome”:


  One possibility I think people often overlook is that there might be people who feel this way because they are impostors. There actually are people who hold impressive jobs or high positions who don’t merit them. […] It’s normal for us to feel insecure about our own real abilities or accomplishments, but it’s also the case that we’re kind of encouraged to lie about our abilities and successes. There is so much pressure on people to achieve, to become ever more accomplished and impressive, and that goes along with this encouragement to be a kind of salesman for yourself in a certain way. So what ends up happening is that a lot of people really are presenting a version of themselves that is false. In this case, the reason they have this unpleasant feeling of being an impostor is because they are one.


The book is front-loaded — I got a little sick of Misha towards the end, but, I have a feeling Misha probably gets a little sick of himself, too. (Don’t we all?) Most bad reviews call this book some form of “hipster navel-gazing,” but hell, that could describe Montaigne, too, you know? There’s some fun stuff in here.

Filed under: my reading year 2014

The Chairs Are Where The People Go

I like it when I can’t tell at a glance if it’s my book or my toddler’s book. (That’s thanks to the great art by Leanne Shapton on the cover.)

This was recommended to me by my friend Nicole Fenton. Here’s the story: Sheila Heti wanted to write a novel about her friend, Misha, but couldn’t really make it work, and besides, what she really liked was listening to him talk. So they made a list of topics together, Misha talked, and Sheila talked. This book is the result.

I wish more writers would go this route — just give us 170 pages of the stuff you’re really trying to say, you know? (I suddenly feel very David Shields-y.)

Some highlights, below.

Against virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake:

The idea that the point of art is to be impressive is — to me — incredibly distressing. Skill should be a means to an end, or it becomes like watching acrobatics, or being very tall… At a certain level, virtuosity has only one thing to say, and that is: Look at how good I am.

On not-knowing:

A lot of people are scared to be surprised, I find. And a lot of things I don’t like in prov come down to people’s attempts to avoid that surprise. But a real part of what it means to truly improvise is to really not know where you’re going, to really not know what you’re doing. There’s a feeling I associate with improvising which I think is a really thrilling feeling, which is the feeling of being at once very comfortable and yet having no idea what’s going to happen. That’s thrilling, and it’s a little mysterious, and there’s pleasure in feeling out of control. There’s a real joy in starting a sentence and not knowing how it’s going to finish.

On how experimental music eventually makes its way to pop:

[Missy Elliott’s] “Work It” is like this insane collage of incredibly abstract electronic noises, some of which would be considered really abrasive in other contexts. At various different moments, the vocal track is played backwards. But a song like “Work It” or any of a gazillion really interesting things happening now in dance music couldn’t have happened without twentieth-century experimental music. It’s as though “Work It” is the useful application of all those useless experiments. “Work It” is like those unbreakable dinner plates that got developed because of the space program.

How to ask a good question during a Q&A session:

The first thing I tell people that a good question has to be a question. I warn them that if they take a statement and try to raise the pitch of their voices at the end of their sentences, we won’t be tricked. I tell the audience that grammarians will agree that there’s no such thing as a two-part question. I tell people that if they think they have a two-part question, what they really have are two questions, and that they should just pick the better of the two.

On storytelling vs. conversation:

Being a conversationalist and telling wonderful stories aren’t the same thing. I mean, a story isn’t a conversation. It’s a monologue, a one-way thing. When you’re telling a story, you need to not be interrupted—and the story has to end up where you want it to end up. […] The best conversationalists are people who are hoping to end up somewhere they didn’t expect… It seems to me that the most pleasing thing you can find yourself saying in a conversation is something you haven’t said before.

And a funny take on “impostor syndrome”:

One possibility I think people often overlook is that there might be people who feel this way because they are impostors. There actually are people who hold impressive jobs or high positions who don’t merit them. […] It’s normal for us to feel insecure about our own real abilities or accomplishments, but it’s also the case that we’re kind of encouraged to lie about our abilities and successes. There is so much pressure on people to achieve, to become ever more accomplished and impressive, and that goes along with this encouragement to be a kind of salesman for yourself in a certain way. So what ends up happening is that a lot of people really are presenting a version of themselves that is false. In this case, the reason they have this unpleasant feeling of being an impostor is because they are one.

The book is front-loaded — I got a little sick of Misha towards the end, but, I have a feeling Misha probably gets a little sick of himself, too. (Don’t we all?) Most bad reviews call this book some form of “hipster navel-gazing,” but hell, that could describe Montaigne, too, you know? There’s some fun stuff in here.

Filed under: my reading year 2014

Aug 31, 2014
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David Lynch painting in his studio

From a nice NYTimes profile, “David Lynch, Who Began as a Visual Artist, Gets a Museum Show.”

Aug 29, 2014
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Paintings by Joan Mitchell

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People want to be wowed. And what’s the best way to wow people? Just give them the hits… After you give them the hits, then you can do whatever.
— Prince, to André 3000
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