Getting a New Angle on Things: Or How to Sketch When You are Ill

February 18, 2013

121230_BCarlsSketchofRozLeft: Portrait of me by Carl.

Seems I had a premonition in December about how the Portrait Party would go in January. I was worried about how I was going to be able to run the party and document it (with photographs and video). 

I mentioned to Dick that if Carl and I did portraits of each other before the party I could focus on documenting the party itself. This sketch was the result. Carl really is hampered by not having an opposable thumb.

130117G_CarlRight: Two-minute Portrait I did of Carl on one of my Portrait Party practice sheets (cut to the right size we'd be using in the book.

By the time I realized I was getting ill on January 17, four days before the Portrait Party, the idea of Carl pairing up with me became more and more appealing. I also still thought I would be able to attend.

I was getting a little bit desperate as the evening of the 17th wore on. I could feel my brain closing down. I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate and make lines on paper that meant anything. I tried different pens to shake my brain loose; I was in denial about being sick, convinced I'd rally if I could just sketch.

130117i_DickLeft: Sketch I did of Dick while standing on the couch and looking down at Dick. I was using the Aquash pen with light black ink. I photocopied the sketch to see how this pen would reproduce, so I could judge its suitability for use at the Portrait Party.

By 8 o'clock I was frantic. It was time for me to practice sketching Dick (something we do regularly in the months leading up to the portrait party). Nothing was working.

In desperation I stood on the couch and sketched him while looking slightly down at him. Something clicked in my brain. I was pushing my brain out of the lockdown effects of the cold by forcing myself to look at things from another angle. I made a copy of the sketch to test if the pen would reproduce well (i.e. photocoping is the method of printing we use on Portrait Party night). When it did I decided I needed to do more tests.

I went into the pantry and fetched the step ladder. I set it up next to Dick who was sitting in a chair in the TV room. The step ladder elevated me another 26 inches—this was higher than the couch pillows which compressed when I stood on them. It was also more stable (when I drew standing on the couch I actually fell against the wall, where I ended up leaning).

As I climbed up the step ladder Dick kept reaching out, worried that I would fall. He didn't like this experiment at all. (For someone who got up to no end of trouble with his own childhood experiments I find that Dick is often not overly fond of my experiments.) However, in seconds I stood rock solid on the step ladder holding my 9 x 12 inch Fabriano Venezia journal tightly to my chest. I'm not the most balanced of people in the best of situations and this wasn't the best of situations, but the ladder was steady. This new higher vantage point worked even better to switch my brain back to looking at what was.

Afterwards Dick and I laughed at my decision to take a ladder to the Portrait Party. But I was grasping at straws and he was willing to humor me.


Left: Sketch I did of Dick while balancing on top of the step-ladder while sick. (Don't try this without a spotter.) I worked with a Pentel Aquash Brush Pen with light black ink in a 9 x 11 inch Fabriano Venezia journal.

Unfortunately as the weekend continued the cold gave way to a bronchial infection and a doctor's visit. I became too ill to attend the party.

Dick ended up taking my place at the party creating the layout of the portrait pages for the photocopier master. Suzanne Hughes, at her first meeting as co-coordinator of the MCBA Visual Journal Collective, jumped right in and pulled everything else off. The participants made a great book. I have 5 of them sitting on the table waiting for me to sew them together.

In the meantime I haven't been back up on the ladder. Coughing made sketching impossible for awhile, and then difficult at best. 

But the ladder is still in the pantry, and Dick still sometimes sits in the chair in the TV room. (Dick doesn't really watch TV, he likes to say he watches me—and my reactions—as I watch TV.) I can do more experiments any time I want.

While I'd like to say I remained cool and calm when I got sick, I didn't. I became frustrated at my inability to sketch. I've been able to sketch at other times when I've had a cold (see a "cold journal" which starts at this link and through which you can page). I have to keep reminding myself to breathe and deal with what is. Sometimes rest is good. Sometimes it's what you need to focus on.

I'm still glad I did those experiments on the ladder. They helped me to look and pause before I made a mark on the paper and ask myself does this mark articulate what I'm seeing or what I think should be there? It's a trap we all fall into.

Here's the disclaimer part—don't try this at home, trained professional stunt people…blah, blah. I'm not suggesting you get up on a ladder, though if you're well, and well-balanced, you can give it a go as long as you have a spotter and you don't have a drawing style that involves large swaying arm movements.

What I do suggest, however, is that you constantly look for ways to bust out of your habits of looking. 

    • Dana
    • February 18, 2013

    Brilliant idea Roz! My huz and my cats are frequent models… especially in the winter when the temperatures drop and the winds rise. I often feel as if it’s just another sketch. Yes, I’m practicing but it just seems so… so “same”. I’ve sat on the floor a few times but somehow never thought about my step stool. (I’m tall enough that a ladder would be overkill.)

    The Portrait Party is intriquing… wish I could have been there. I’m sure everyone got a kick out of you and Carl partnering up for portraits even though neither of you could make it. He’s really quite good, that Carl, maybe he should try gouache next. And of course… Dick gets the biggest kudos for being your second at the portrait party. Good man!!!

    • Dana
    • February 19, 2013

    You mean you didn’t submit the sketches you and Carl did? I had the idea they would be included in the book… since you were there in spirit. Well, at least you shared them with us. Thanks!

  1. Reply

    Dana, if I had attended the party and taken photos and video instead of drawing then the images may have been included.

    I’m just really sad that I was so sick and couldn’t attend. It’s one of the things I look forward to all year.

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