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A Fundamental Lesson

I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to pick up a crayon. As a little kid, I was bent and determined that when I grew up I would be a cartoonist for the Disney studios. My parents encouraged my early art endeavors – which I’m sure they would not have had they even remotely suspected that I would ultimately pursue a career in art.

I continued art in high school, and eventually acquired a B.A. in Art (despite which, I’ve actually been able to make a living as an artist). The college art experience was, to say the least, stultifying.
In fact, I spent the next eleven years on the road playing music for a living (this didn’t exactly fulfill the high aspirations my parents had for their son).

I was still working as a musician when I landed in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1981. With over 120 art galleries, Santa Fe was a thriving art center, and a Mecca for artists and collectors. Although I was playing my music seven days a week, it wasn’t long before my art juices got flowing, and I decided that I would, once again, take up the brush and join the art dance.

Now here’s the funny thing about art. The longer you paint, and the better you get, the more you realize just how much you actually don’t know. It’s this principle that keeps the young, arrogant, “gun-slinger artists, like I was in ’81, from throwing in the towel (or the brush, as the case may be).

At that time Santa Fe was home to about 3000 artists, several of which were exceptional technicians and nationally known. Being quite serious about my new chosen profession, I figured it would be pretty foolish not to take advantage of their expertise.

One of the artists I admired most was Bettina Steinke, who I think was one of the premier women artists of the twentieth century. She was raised in New York City, where she studied at the Cooper Union and the Phoenix School. She was a successful illustrator (unusual for a woman in the mid 1930’s), and, at the age of 24, achieved acclaim and notoriety for portraits of Aturo Toscanini and all 108 members of the NBC orchestra. She traveled and painted in Central and South America, and Alaska and the Arctic. She eventually became quite famous as a portrait painter, and, although her favorite subject was the American Indian, she also painted portraits of celebrities like John Wayne and Joel McCrea.

I knew where her studio was off Canyon Road, and so one day I grabbed an armload of paintings and headed over there to get an honest assessment of my efforts. The truth is, I thought she’d be quite impressed with the talent of this up and coming artist.

I knocked on the door and waited. In a few moments, this head, replete with cigarette and a two inch drooping ash, poked out and shouted “What?!”

I rather sheepishly told her how much I admired her work, and would she be good enough to give me a critique. She stared at me for about 30 seconds without saying a word. I wanted to run, but I wanted her advice more.

Finally she said, “Alright. Bring ‘em in and lay them along the wall.” I did so. She lit a new cigarette and spent about fifteen minutes pacing silently back and forth. Eventually she stopped pacing, looked over at me and said, “Son, you don’t know how to draw. Go away, learn how to draw, and come back.” 

I picked up my paintings, put my tail between my legs and walked home.

Although Bettina’s critique was pretty deflating in the short term, it forced me to take a long, objective look at my skills (or lack thereof).

I began working regularly from models, and more importantly, I began my long love affair with the sketchbook.

I began carrying a sketchbook wherever I went. I painted and drew in cafes, bars, at flamenco shows, concerts and even the opera orchestra rehearsals. I worked primarily in pencil, watercolors and watercolor pencils. Some of that early stuff was pretty bad, but I was growing as an artist, and documenting that growth in the process.

Not only did my sketchbooks expedite and simultaneously record my artistic maturation, they forced me to see the daily world around me in a new exciting way. Scenes, people and activities that previously went unnoticed suddenly became fresh, new artistic challenges. I was continually engaged in finding new drawing shorthand that would accurately capture some fleeting scene.

My sketchbooks became my intimate friends. They became adumbrate diaries, with each page acting as a sort of self-portrait of moment in my life. The sketching process was comfortable, allowing me to perform my art without fear of prying eyes or other-approval.

Today I have a cabinet full of sketchbooks from all over the world – spanning four continents and thirty years. Because each painting and drawing was an investment of time, energy and alertness, the circumstances surrounding each image are, unlike photographs, fresh and indelible.

Even to this day I’ll pore through my sketchbooks and some drawing or painting will act as a springboard for a new idea.

Here are a few random pages from those early sketchbooks. I don’t show you these because they are great art (in fact – some of those early sketchbooks ran the artistic gamut from “A” to “B”), but because they were honest attempts to strengthen my hand, and capture a fugitive moment in time. If I’ve accomplished anything, then these were the early steppingstones.

 

So, anyway, I worked on my drawing for about a year, and then I screwed up enough courage to grab another armload of paintings and head back to Bettina’s studio.

With some trepidation, I knocked on the door and waited. When she finally opened the door, she said, “Oh, you again. Alright, bring ‘em in.” She cogitated on them for a few minutes, and then she said, “Well, we’ve got some things we can talk about here.”

Eventually we became good friends, and Bettina was not only a mentor, but very supportive. She was sweet and giving, and I quickly learned that her longshoreman exterior was just that - an exterior. She was a true artist, with a no-nonsense attitude when it came to painting.

The first point here is that we artists, like our paintings, are works in progress. If your only critic is yourself, you’re being a bit myopic. In order to grow, we need objectivity. Eagerly seek critical advice from artists that you respect. A fresh eye can really grease the wheels towards artistic growth.

Secondly, consider carrying a sketchbook. It can be an invaluable tool for honing your skills, and opening the floodgates for new ideas and ways of seeing and recording the world around you.

We’ll talk a bit later about the advantages of carrying sketchbooks while traveling abroad.

Happy Painting!