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2012/12/30

Sketch Happy

by John Bloner, Jr.

I've been drawing for most of my life. In Catholic grade school, a nun made an error of seating me next to the art supplies, where I filched pieces of paper, day by day, to draw race cars and rocket ships. I drew because the action of moving a pencil across paper helped to center me and gave me joy.

As I grew older, I drew less and less and that feeling I knew as a child became harder to find. Visits to art galleries and fairs discouraged me with their works of finely rendered lines and vibrant colors contained within expensive frames. My own "art" was in notebooks, on the occasional handmade Christmas card, or on envelopes that contained letters to friends. This art was ephemeral, as it was lost, given or thrown away. I had no idea in those years that there were many other people around the world who were also scribbling, doodling and sketching in order to calm themselves and get a private thrill from drawing.

Among those other people was Danny Gregory. In his mid-thirties, he began to draw the objects that populated his New York apartment--the medicine cabinet, cowboy boots, light bulbs and his breakfast.


What Danny Gregory and other sketch artists were doing was a revelation to me. By looking at their work, I was given permission to haul out my pencils, purchase a portable watercolor set (complete with its own tiny brush) and sketch a dental floss container, my wife's giant eyeglasses from the 1980s (I call them her "Ellerbees", after the pair that journalist Linda Ellerbee once wore) and anything else I encountered around the house--a phone, a watering can, coffee mug, the Bible, a bottle of essential oils and my own hairy hand.


Sketch artists not only draw the objects around their homes, they perch around their towns, alone or with other sketch-happy friends, and render landmarks, fences, telephone poles, sewer grates and passersby, people in libraries, coffee shops and commuter trains.  In San Francisco, artist Enrico Casarosa decided about eight years ago to dedicate an entire day to roaming his city and capturing his experience in his sketchbook. He wrote about it on his blog:

I had a great time throughout San Francisco and it actually felt like a small adventure. It's amazing how something like drawing makes you see things differently, in different degrees of depth. It really makes you stop and smell the flowers. Well, draw the flower, but you know what I mean.

image by Enrico Cassarosa
Cassarosa enlisted his friends to join him on drawing adventures and dubbed the activity, Sketchcrawl.  It soon became a worldwide happening, from Berlin to Barcelona to Baton Rouge, in which artists of all abilities and all ages get together and "crawl" about their cities, sketching anything that catches their eyes.

"After a whole day of drawing it proved to be amazingly interesting and inspiring to share and compare other people's drawings and thoughts," Cassarosa later wrote."Different takes on our surroundings, different details, different sensibilities"

Sketchcrawl in Davis, California
My home place of Kenosha, WI and its neighbor, Racine, have hosted Sketchcrawl events, outdoors and in, and have welcomed writers to join us. Our Sketchcrawl group has met in a cemetery, a used tire shop that doubles as a bird sanctuary, a 19th century lighthouse and an historic fire station. We've met at sunrise on the summer solstice, among the dioramas of a Civil War museum, as well as in libraries and coffee shops.

One of my favorite places to visit is a nature sanctuary and arboretum, Hawthorn Hollow, where the historic buildings, Pike River School (d.1906) and the Somers Town Hall (d. 1859), await everyone to learn about the area's past and enjoy its beauty today.


Sketching allows me to slow down. Once I start drawing, I stop seeing the world in stick-figure symbols of trees, cars, houses, flowers, and other objects of man and nature and instead caress (with my eyes and my pen and brush) the contours and colors of my neighbor's dwelling and the golden coat of the greatest dog in the world. (R.I.P. Chloe.)


Sketching isn't just about finding your inner Zen. Michigan artist Rick Beerhorst writes in the book, "An Illustrated Life": "My sketchbook is a place where anything goes. It doesn't have to look good or smart or professional. If there is any rule, it's that it needs to be fun and sometimes stupid or silly."

Sketchbook pages of Michigan artist Rick Beerhorst
My friend Jeffrey Johannes taught art in the public school system of Wisconsin Rapids, WI for many years. As I prepared this article, he told me, "I love the sketch stages of a work of art. They seem more spontaneous and refreshing than the final work itself. A lot of comic books have sketches in back nowadays. I always told my students that the visual history of a major work of art is as exciting as the final work." His words find proof in Steven Heller's new collection, "Comics Sketchbooks: The Private Worlds of Today's Most Creative Talents".

Heller's book features many artists, including Javier Mariscal, who comments, "The purpose for me in sketching is to try to understand better the world around me, to amuse myself, to enjoy watching and observing, and to draw."

Drawing by Javier Mariscal
I've gained my education of being a sketch artist by reading the books of Danny Gregory, looking at his artwork, discovering other sketch artists through him, and most of all, by sitting down with my sketchbook, pencils and watercolors and seeing and creating the world anew.  

Gregory and his son, Jack Tea, have crafted a series of videos about other artists in order, in Gregory's words, to "capture the adventure of drawing, the discovery, the spirit, the fun."  One video profiles Tommy Kane, who characterizes himself as "a complete idiot who can draw really well." Like my own experience, Kane spent his youth in parochial school, drawing instead of doing his homework.


By drawing, the familiar becomes unfamiliar. Below are pieces of furniture and things around my home that I pass by many times each day, taking each one for granted. By drawing them--granted: not with the precise lines of an architect--I can feel their energy.


I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of the world of sketching. It has not only changed the way I see the world, it has transformed me, too. Its purpose is like a prayer by Richard Cardinal Cushing:

Slow me down, Lord. Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.

If you're seeking some books on sketching and artists I've mentioned here, you may wish to begin with Danny Gregory's illustrated memoir, Everyday Matters, which not only serves as an ode to common things but also as a reminder that every day matters. You may also wish to take in Frederick Franck's book, The Zen of Seeing. Seek out a Sketchcrawl group in your town or start one of your own. You don't need any of these things to get started. Just grab a pencil and piece of paper and start drawing.

I've recently encountered the book, "Keeping A Nature Journal" by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. The book not only provides lessons in keeping an illustrated journal for every season, it's a delight to the eyes and soul for its images of rocks, trees, hillsides, acorns, birds and more objects of nature.

Drawings by Clare Walker Leslie
By keeping an illustrated journal, you may find, as I have found, that the joy of translating the world onto paper transforms yourself.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Kenosha artist Brigitta Richter--she is also the subject of a terrific 2FL article by Lisa Adamowicz Kless--and I continue to reflect on her words when I am sketching or writing in my illustrated journal. I hope they become a part of your experience, too.

Why does an artist make art? The answer is the same for why a golfer plays golf: because it completely relaxes you. There's no time, no stress. Everything else is gone. When you have that connection, then you have oneness. You're not afraid of being judged. You're in a different space, which is so wonderful.

Happy sketching, everyone.

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