Thursday, December 9, 2010

Zen and the Art of Christmas Card Making

After last week's marathon project and subsequent post, I spent the next day and a half staring blankly at my sketchbook wondering what project I can possibly do this week. The last few weeks have been like this. This blog pressures me to constantly one up my previous week's work. I feel that if I don't do something new I'll let down my readers..all 8 of you! Anyway, there I sat. Staring blankly at my tabula rasa (Thanks, Dave!) wondering what I could do. I asked my wife for an idea. She says, why not do a family portrait? A good idea. I could further challenge myself by drawing the thing I hate most...NO, NOT MY FAMILY!...FACES!  
I was inspired. I began to give it some thought and I decided that a neat idea might be to draw our annual Christmas card. Usually, Rachel sets up some sort of still life of snowmen and Santas and puts Sophia in 3 outfits and struggles to take a picture of an active toddler who feels that taking her picture is tantamount to pouring acid in her diaper. So I decided to spare Rachel and Sophia the fun of this and try something different. So here is the Baldwin Christmas card this year:

The best part was that we didn't have to fight to keep Sophia still!
This project was a ton of fun. It was a struggle but I learned a lot about my abilities and I even rediscovered an old Zen concept that I had forgotten about: The Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

I remember reading Master Suzuki's book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind when I was in college. It was one of those books where the concepts makes sense but you never truly grasp them until the right situation comes around that brings it home. Master Suzuki's quote on the Beginner's Mind is fairly self explanatory but to explain further it is considered a state of ultimate freshness. Try to remember the first time you learned to ride a bike or learned to swim. If you can't remember that far back, try to remember the first time you fell in love. Everything is new in the beginning, it's uncharted territory where you have no expectations, except to experience something new.

My blog has been that way for me. I have been rediscovering art, regressing back to my old lessons and hearing my old teachers correcting my layout and techniques. However, I never regressed as far back as I did when I was struggling to properly draw Rachel's face for this project. I could capture the upper part of the face (her eyes, hair, and glasses) but I just couldn't get the nose and mouth to come out right. I sat there for an hour, drawing and re-drawing her mouth and I eventually became so frustrated I started drawing pseudo smiley faces with her hair and glasses like a 5 year old. Surprisingly these simple renderings captured her essence better than any of the detailed drawings I tried earlier.  In the 2 minutes that followed this realization I was able to draw myself and my daughter.

It was at that moment that Beginner's Mind made sense.  I stopped focusing and struggling on the minute details of the face and simply had fun with it. I felt like I was learning a completely new way of looking at things. I have moments like this when I would play with Sophia and draw her quick sketches on her magna-doodle. For her, my pictures never need to be precise...actually I never have time to be precise since she spouts off a different idea every 5 seconds. It's those moments where I feel like an art God...I can draw her anything and she feels such utter joy with the results.

This leads me to next week's project. I am thinking of trying my hand at a comic strip for the blog. I could use a good idea, so if any of you are willing, send me your ideas/stories that would make a great comic strip and I'll see what I can do.

Until next week!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Follow the Long and Exhausting Yellow Brick Road

I know I'm a week late on my post. I fell victim to holiday procrastination. I was still drawing everyday but I never got around to writing anything. Since I missed last week's post, I am treating (or subjecting) you to two projects.

Don't tell my wife but while I was home for Thanksgiving, I fell in love! Actually, she knows...she paid for her. Get your minds out of the gutter!! I'm talking about a new toy I picked up while Christmas shopping for my daughter. We went to Commercial Art Supply to look for an easel for my little one, a budding artist at the age of 2. A quick aside...My daughter really surprised me today, she actually drew me a picture of the moon and it was recognizable. It blew me away! For those of us parents, we see the art our kids produce and at that age and generally it looks like something a blind ape would make with poo on a wall. Even though I have no idea what her creations are, I find it heartbreaking to get rid of them. I have boxes of her art in the closet and in my attic.

Anyway, back to the story. While we were shopping I decided to look around for a decent art pen. I was getting ready to purchase a standard studio pen (sort of like a fine tip Sharpie) when I decided at the last minute to ask one of the store reps about what they recommend to use for illustration. He asks me, "Have you ever tried a fountain pen?" I said, "No, not since 8th grade art class...and I hated it!" He suggested I give it another try. So he takes me to this counter with a glass case, kind of like what you would see in a jewelry store. He pulls out an assortment of pens and told me to give one a try. The lines these pens created were fantastic. The pen were light and comfortable. The heavens opened up, birds sang, and a unicorn came out from around the corner and told me that I was destined to own this pen. I was in love. Then I saw the price tag...$30!!! FOR ONE PEN??? I felt like asking him if this pen requires gold ink. So I look over at my wife, who I might add looked absolutely gorgeous and radiant (wink, wink), and gave her my most pathetic look. She said, "Go ahead and get it." Have I mentioned how much I love her??
This leads me to my latest project. Marvel comics recently released a comic version of the Wizard of Oz.

I decided to purchase this book because I liked the art and I was inspired to create something for my daughter's room. Basically I wanted to replace Dorothy with my daughter and draw her and the other characters on the yellow brick road. I did a bunch of sketches to figure out how to draw these characters. I can definitely tell I am improving because when I look at the art of others, I am immediately breaking it down to simple shapes and quickly recreating them. The characters were surprisingly easy to draw. Once I mastered the look and style of the characters I decided to create my own layout and do a smaller draft version (below).
Pen and Ink draft

I have to say that I am really happy with how this turned out. I love the lines that my new pen makes. This was so much fun I spent another 9 HOURS yesterday recreating this on a 20x30 illustration board using water color pencils and ink (below). In retrospect, I kind of like the ink version better but it was more fun to do the big project.

I haven't done a marathon session like that since I was in college...actually, I don't think I have every did that when I was in my prime. I actually felt like my brain ran a marathon. It was an insane feeling... I kept telling myself to stop because I'd done enough already, but every time I looked at the picture, I kept adding and adding. Afterward, I couldn't focus on anything. I tried to read and couldn't get past one page. I don't know how professionals do this all day, everyday.
Final 20x30 Illustration Board Water Color Pencil

Anyway, I'm spent. I need a day or so to decompress and think about my next project. See you all next week!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Love of Pu

Angel (1494) by Michelangelo  Basilica of Saint Dominic
There is a famous quote by Michelangelo regarding his sculpture, Angel. When asked how he was able to create this work, he said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." The ability to see the potential in the uncarved block is one of the reasons that I've always loved sculpture.

I never used to sculpt when I was younger but in recent years I have developed quite an interest in it. The subtractive nature of sculpture has always appealed to my mind. There is something special about staring at a block and shaping it in order to bring about the hidden potential. Being a father has really brought this idea to a deeper level. There are times when I am with my daughter, that I look at her and wonder what she will grow up to be. I realize that everything I do and don't do with this little girl will ultimately help shape her into her future self. The thought absolutely terrifies me.

As horrifying as this thought is, it reminds of a piece of Taoist philosophy that I had completely forgotten about. The concept of Pu or the uncarved block. It is a reference to pure potential. There is no right or wrong, good or bad; there just is. It is the human mind before it has been tainted by the's most primordial state. Pu is my favorite part of sculpture. The very beginning, when there is no form, just the block waiting to be carved. I will stare at a block for days before I make a decision about what to carve. Once I do decide what to carve I begin to address the block like a philosophic problem. I examine the block's nature: What type of wood is it? What tools do I have or need? Which way does the grain of the wood flow?

Uncarved Mahogany Block
Now how unoriginal do I feel?
This week's project is far from fact it has barely begun. I have this old block of mahogany that I was given by my wife's uncle (put it this way, he was given the block by his teacher when he was a teenager and he found the block when it was salvaged from the bottom of the east river). I stared at this block for weeks and I finally was able to see a form. My original thought was to sculpt a Buddha sitting in lotus position. However after reading stories to my daughter, I decided to sculpt a father and child piece for my daughter. I could see myself sitting cross legged with my daughter in my lap while we read her bedtime stories.

This is where it gets strange. I searched the web to see how other have tackled this subject and low and behold do I find a sculpture that looks almost exactly to how I envisioned this.Well this makes the sculpture a little easier. I can use this as a primer for me to base my work. There are a few things I am going to change on my sculpture. For example, I won't have to worry about the weight issues that are inherent with stone like the primer does, so I can make the legs not look like the father has cankles. So I began carving. After two 30 minute sessions this is all that I was able to get:

I have to say that I Mahogany is a pain in the ass to work with. The wood is so hard that it dulls my tools and I have to re-sharpen them every 30 is a tedious and frustrating wood to work with but the end result is gorgeous. Below is a mahogany sculpture that I found:
The Space Between Us- John Evans

I will do another post next month updating you all on the progress of this project...providing I haven't stabbed my hands or cut off a finger. I'll be back next Thursday with another project. Until then, have a good week!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pandora's Box O' Crap

I always hated drawing self-portraits, actually I hated drawing portraits in general. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how closely I paid attention to the details, my drawings never looked like the subject.   Whenever I had an art project in school, I would do everything I could to avoid drawing faces.

This week's project reminded me why I avoided drawing faces and why I stopped drawing...WHAT A PAIN IN THE ASS!!  As frustrating as this drawing was, I learned a lot of things that many of us take for granted; the most important of which is how unique we all are. I know it sounds rather obvious ...we hear it everyday in commercials, on billboards, and from family members, etc. However, when you draw a portrait, you truly see how the sum of our unique features identify us as who we are. If just one of those features is off just slightly, it ruins the portrait and changes the piece entirely.  
Original Charles Schulz drawing
A good exercise to illustrate my point is to draw a picture of Snoopy. It seems like a rather simple exercise, there are so few lines and it's rather simplistic looking. However, don't be fooled, if the nose is off slightly, or the ears are too long, or the eye is set too far back, it won't look right. Sure, you'll be able to identify the character as Snoopy, but it will look like a poorly drawn Snoopy.

Batman and Robin #5 Cover art by Jim Lee

This week I used a picture by my favorite comic book artist, Jim Lee. In a lot of ways, copying this drawing was a lot like drawing Snoopy. I threw out several versions of the below image, my wife yelled at me for this and in retrospect, I wish I saved those pieces of crap because they illustrate my point perfectly. The classic mistake that every young artist (including yours truly) makes is that they use the standard proportion rules of the face and don't deviate from it.

I learned that what makes the Batman character unique is not so much the proportions of the face but his mask. The facial features aren't necessarily in proportion and if the ears, nose, or eyes off, it looks wrong. The mask exaggerates not only the facial features it covers, it also  highlights what's not covered: the chin and mouth. Surprisingly, these two items gave me the most trouble. What I learned was that the chin is not your standard everyday's the classic comic book heroic chin. It makes Batman, Batman. Without that chin, he looks like some poor schlep dressed up as Batman for Halloween.

My version of Jim Lee's drawing
Here is my interpretation of the Jim Lee drawing (Please excuse the crappy job done by my doesn't pick up all of the shading thus making it look rather stark). It took me three tries to get the face correct but overall, I feel that I have made significant progress from last week. There are still things I need to work on...drawing hands, foreshortening, comic style shading, etc. The one thing I did differently than last week was I loosened up. I trusted my instincts and looked at the original drawing less than the previous week. Slowly but surely I am starting to become more confident in my abilities

This drawing was in a way a Pandora's unleashed several artistic challenges that exposed some pretty substantial weaknesses. UGH! Humbling? Yes. Of course this blog is meant to be humbling so I shouldn't at all be surprised. However, I will not do what I did when I was younger. I will not avoid this; in fact, I see this as a challenge and will keep at it until I get it right.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How do you make it to Carnegie Hall?

Growing up I loved comic book art, I never really read them...I would just copy the art. So if you were to ask me which which Iron Man comic introduced Tony Stark's alcoholism, I would stare at you like you had 3 heads.  Comic book art always seemed alive to me, more so than any other genre. Comics could break physical laws, exaggerate body proportions, and by doing so were able to capture movement without getting bogged down in extraneous details The result was always exciting art. I always felt that an invaluable exercise that will help you improve artistically is to copy other artists. Whether it's proportion, muscular development, perspective, etc.; there are lessons to be learned in every piece artwork.

This brings me to this weeks project. I found a great scene (below) in an Utlimate Annuals book, drawn by an extremely gifted artist, Mark Brooks. What appeals to me about this, it the movement and linear tension...OK I made up the phrase "linear tension" but I could not think of a better way to describe the tension of the lines used to convey anger, fury, as well as surprise. Also, by making the villain (Rhino) abnormally large, you get the feeling that the hero (Spider-Man), who is drawn as wispy yet muscular, is in for quite a fight.  No words are necessary here.

Here is my take on the above:
So what did I learn re-creating this?? First, it's really goddamn hard copying a comic book artist's work! It's even harder when you haven't been drawn in a long time. It's been a few days since I've looked at this but now that I am able to compare the two, I see all sorts of mistakes that I've made. Besides the obvious reference points being off (like the left arm of Rhino and the perspective of the head),  I see that I completely lack the overall style and fun it must have been to create the original. I was so worried about copying the image perfectly that I completely forgot to have fun and relax. To understand what I am talking about, watch this 2 minute video of one of the greatest comic book artists of all-time, Jim Lee. He creates something in 8 minutes that's better than anything I could accomplish in a month. 

Granted, he does this for a living and draws everyday, but the video points to something for us to learn. Through enough practice and comfort with your medium you can create anything and have fun doing it. I remember how it felt to have fun creating and I want to feel it again. I want to be at that level where I can draw and create without having to copy another artist.

I'm sure there are days when even the greatest artist is sick of what they do, but what makes them great is that they do it anyway despite how they feel. I look back and lament on what I gave up. I took my talent for granted and chose not to practice and now I see how far I've fallen off. I feel like I am learning to walk again. It's frustrating and humbling, but in the end I look forward to being able to create and have fun. There's only one way to get there though....PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Choose Your Tool, Monkey!

Let me begin this blog by telling you a story:

When I was in graduate school I worked as a sous chef/cook for just over a year.  Everyday, depending on how well I did my job, I would learn something new either about life or food from the chef. It was one day in particular that sort of put things in perspective for me. I decided to ask the chef about getting a Thursday night off. Now I should make it clear that getting time off as kitchen staff really does not exist since it's generally thought that there is no other place you would rather be than in the kitchen. I knew that I was going to catch hell for even thinking of asking him for this but my choice was either an angry boss or an angry wife (for those of you who know my wife knows that this was an easy decision). So I approached the chef like Oliver Twist asking for more food and explained that I needed this day off. Expecting the worst, he looked at me and said, "No's not like you'll be missed. I can get a monkey with a spoon to do your job!" He was kidding with me, of course, but with every joke there is always a grain of truth. So for the remainder of my time at the restaurant I was referred to as "Monkey Spoon."

This funny little interaction really made me think...When all is said and done, aren't we all monkeys with some sort of tool that defines us? The question I have, which leads me to this blog is: What is the tool that defines me?

Growing up, my tool was always the pencil. Art was my refuge from all of the teenage angst and family drama in my life. When I went away to college, art became work. Being 20 and foolish, I hated having to conform to styles and deadlines, so I began to ask myself: Am I doing this because everyone expects it of me or do I do it because I love it?  I decided that I did it because it was expected of me and chose to give up art. As the years progressed, I tried my hand at various tools: books, keyboards, ties. None of them really ever felt right. My wife kept telling me the whole time that I have this gift for art, why not go back to it. I had brief dalliances with art through the years, but I never committed to honing my gift.

So here I am today, doing the very things I said I would never do: 1. Write a blog, and 2. Share my art with those interested. I've always had issues with showing my art, mainly because I never thought it was that good enough, especially when you compared it to those who do it for a living. However, I am sort of at a crossroads in my life where I am now a father to an amazing 2 year old girl/little monkey. I'm starting to look back on my life and ask what have I really accomplished that she could be proud of. I don't want her to make the same mistakes I made. I want her to actually nurture whatever gifts/tools she has been blessed with and develop them to their fullest potential.

So for my wife and my daughter, I have decided that this monkey chooses to use the pencil that he was given at birth and draw with it to the nub! I make this solemn oath over the sacred banana of our ancestors: I will spend at least 30 minutes everyday doing something artistic (more than likely drawing but I may throw in a sculpture here and there). I will then post the result of my week's work along with an account of my process and struggle to complete it.  This is going to be a long and painful process for me to get to a level where I can be satisfied.  I hope you'll find this fun and interesting. I welcome any critique, advice, or comments you may have.

Come back tomorrow for the first project post!