Cynicism, Hope, and Painting’s Life Lessons

June 13, 2016


Above: Sketch of Dick sitting in the TV room next to a bright light. Read below for details.

Friday was movie night and we watched “Welcome to Happiness.” It’s a quirky film that doesn’t have super heroes, mutants, or trips into galaxies far, far away. I enjoyed almost every moment, though more than once I had to step back from myself expecting that “now someone is going to do something to trick someone,” or “now it’s going to get sinister.”

If you want to know more than the IMDB synopsis about this movie here’s a review I think does a good job capturing the film's strengths and weaknesses.

The movie doesn’t get sinister. It does get a little too “kumbaya” at the end when they were trying to wrap things up and everyone starts singing and clapping hands. Believe me I’ll never lay my cynicism down long enough to do that. Some of us just aren’t wired that way. And frankly it lets others clap away. So I think we should all be happy with the balance and leave it like that.

Still it was refreshing to put aside my cynicism for an hour or so. It led to a long discussion, between Dick and me, on cynicism and the creative mind—a convoluted and personal discussion that would take many blog posts to present. (Maybe [an]other time[s].)

But like most good discussions which make you think it led me to drawing—led me to the desire to work out a visual puzzle. I needed to shake my mind clear of quirkiness and cynicism and just be.

So Dick sat for 40 minutes under a hot light while I drew him, allowing me to puzzle over those eyebrows, of course.

And I drew what is my favorite sketch of him to date—perhaps not because of how it looks now, but because of what I had to go through to get it to where it is now.

Forty minutes can seem like an eternity when you are in the weeds. Especially if you start to waiver and lose hope. Typically I don’t lose hope. Yet I came close on Friday night. It was a combination of the day and 10,000 things that were unsettled in my mind. And perhaps, not riding far enough on my bike earlier in the day because I had a meeting.

So, we watched the movie, we had a discussion, I was frustrated, I wanted to draw—thinking that would be the best way to get over my frustration.

I had just received the BOLD Uni Posca pens (This is the link to the company on Amazon I bought them from. I'm not connected to them and get nothing if you follow this link.)

These aren’t your “normal” Uni Posca paint pens—the bold tips aren’t bullet tips that are just larger, they are over 1/4 inch wide on the long sides and over 3/16 inch on the short sides. Of course there are points where the sides’ edges meet—so there are a lot of different thicknesses of line you can execute.

Frequently I like to sketch with a paint marker in loose strokes before refining a drawing. It’s something that I learned at life drawing.

I might feel around for a head shape.

I might use a marker and feel around for the placement of the features and then end up covering all the marker ink up, almost completely.

On Friday I started with the bold Uni Posca in orange and felt around for the shape of Dick’s head and features. You can still see the orange of this pen in the unpainted areas of Dick’s shirt. (The other orange came much later.)

The paper is a cream/off white. This is a page in a Dylusions Creative Journal from Ranger that’s not quite 9 x 12 inches. I’ll be writing a review of this journal later this summer when I’ve done more work in it. It has stiff, heavyweight paper that has a smooth, plate-Bristol-like finish. It held up well to what I was about to do to it!

After the initial orange “searching” lines were down, I went into the portrait with a Lyra Metallic blue (light blue) pencil. You can still see some of these color pencil lines if you look in the yellow portion of the forehead, the outside edges of the hair (either side of the head), some parts of the shirt, and near the eyes. (There are similar thin lines from a blue marker made later that you’ll need to distinguish from.)

Right then is when I said aloud, “I’m in the weeds.”

I did not really say this to Dick, but just to myself, that self that had been happy to set aside cynicism for 90 minutes, but that same self who had come to a realization just before sketching, that I would not be alive today without that cynicism. (To which Dick agreed, and that’s probably why he also agreed to sit for 40 minutes next to the bright light—to give me some time to adjust to the ramifications of my realization.)

I could have put the blue pencil down and walked away right then. It had been a productive day. I’d spent some quality time with Dick.

I spent the next 2 minutes saying, “Boy I’m in the weeds,” or some variation of that. And then that non-cynical part of me, that really hopeful and optimistic part of me, the part of me that has kept me balanced, just as cynicism has kept me safe, kicked in and said, “Oh goodie, now it’s time to see what we can do.”

What happened next from Dick’s perspective is I took up fat Montana markers that are so large I can barely hold them in my hand and applied seemingly random colors, using their 15 mm wide, rectangular tips at all sorts of impossible angles, to get paint on the page. (And sometimes I smeared the paint around with my finger.)

I worked so fast that under layers weren’t dry and came up on the new color tip. So I spent time “cleaning” the tips on the verso page.

I looked for value shapes. I started with light blue and a minty-green-blue, then dark blue. I was still trying to come to grips with the width of his head on the verso page at that point. You can see how I am constantly bringing that line in, as I relate it to the eyes. I frequently used the corner of the blue marker’s tip to do the fine marks in the eye, along with a purple marker.

Next I picked up green, some more light blue, yellow, pink (which was a chisel tip), and white. The white comes from a medium Uni Posca which has a bullet tip. I pumped it too hard and it gushed a bit on the right side-burn and lower lip—when I tilted the page up as I was working, it ran a bit. I just mopped it up with a paper towel and kept going.

Then I took a 30 mm orange marker and quickly filled the background with the wide path of its “tip.” (I had filled it incorrectly and so it leaked a little, causing splotches which I dabbed up with a paper towel.)

And then I was done. I put it on the TV room floor. (I had been sitting on the ottoman—which is paint stained since you’re probably curious, and so is the floor for that matter, and neither Dick nor I care.)

I jumped up, filled with joy.

“What do you think?” I asked Dick.

I don’t know what Dick thinks. I draw him probably four to seven times a week. I make his ears elfin, I give him a nose W.C. Fields would recognize, his hair is always unruly (that part is just real), his lips pout or sag, and his eyebrows take over the world. After all of that I only know that he is patient and quick to find some sliver of resemblance he can comment on. He agreed that he liked this one.

I love it.

I knew when I picked up the dark blue marker that first time, that I was going to get out of the weeds, and from then on it was simply pure fun.

160610-Dick-montana-marker-met-pencilCRBRDetailLeft: Detail from the sketch. Look closely in the eye area (both the brow and under the eye) and you'll see some of the original orange Uni Posca lines that I put down while trying to find the shapes and features.

The values could be adjusted here and there, but the shapes and the proportions hold up. Most important the eyebrows hover at the edge of his brow ready to engulf his eyes, his blue eyes which are reflecting that very bright light.

Even when I stop and look at the sketch now, and think about Friday night, I’m still happy, still filled with joy. There is great satisfaction in setting a task for yourself and following through, even when things start to slip sideways. There is more than comfort in pushing through.

But here’s a little truth, sometimes when you push on it still doesn’t quite work. So a weary spirit might shrug and say “Why bother, let’s stop now.”

And to that I say, keep going, because you learn something each time you push.

I have learned through drawing sessions like this that even though I can barely hold these clunky tipped markers I can get splashes and lines of color out of them that do go “mostly” where I want them to go. I have learned which color combos I like, or which I should try next time. I have learned patience (which is huge for me). I have learned to stop efforting and simply be with something, respond to it.

I have learned to see what is necessary and can be changed, and what is necessary to be changed but given what I’m working with can’t be changed right now—so it is good enough.

I have learned to let my critical eye let go of perfection.

I have learned to let my editing eye (which sees what is off), provide constructive, concrete and useful up-to-the-minute feedback on things that need work and may yet be saved—or must be worked on another time.

I have learned that painting is more than a metaphor for or about life. Painting is a way to practice skills we all need in life.

Sometimes it’s the coming close to losing hope, or failing, that allows us to get to something new. 

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    • Susan S.
    • June 13, 2016

    Such an interesting post, and a great illustration of many things you pass on in your teaching. I really like the calm steadiness of the gaze amidst the lively interaction of colours.

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