When Madeline Kelty at Smithsonian Magazine asked me to contribute to their Star Spangled Banner issue, I decided that other artists would probably paint flags and portraits of Francis Scott Key. So I decided to do a painting of Fort McHenry.
Fort McHenry sits low on the peninsula that juts out into Baltimore Harbor. As most school kids know, it was the target of British shelling during the War of 1812, but survived the bombardment, leading Francis Scott Key, a lawyer being held on a truce ship in the harbor that night, to compose a poem that more than a hundred years later (1931) was adopted by the US Congress as our un-singable national anthem.
Of course I had no way of knowing what the fort actually looked like during the long night it was besieged – or on the morning after, for that matter. I found old prints of the scene, but saw no point in copying them or even relying on them for historical accuracy. They looked to be the products of various artists' imaginations. So in the end, I decided to use my own.
This, then, is a sort of conceptual landscape of the fort on the morning after that battle, with its famous flag still flying high above the horizon.
It’s not necessarily a realistic picture: on that particular morning, there'd still have been some British warships left riding at anchor in the harbor. But it’s a picture of the fort on the country's new morning: because in a sense the ending of the War of 1812 really was our country's national dawn.
The War of 1812 is often called "the forgotten war." Yet there are reasons it should be remembered. Coming a generation after the American Revolution, it settled many of the disputes with England that had remained unresolved from that conflict. And just as important, perhaps, it created a new national identity for the fledgling United States, both at home and abroad.
Although neither the US nor Britain could plausibly claim to have won the War of 1812, the United States, by holding its own against one of the great armies of the world, finally convinced American citizens and foreign governments alike that the American experiment in self-government – long considered by some to be a dubious prospect – might actually succeed.
At home, the war’s successful resolution also tempered the rancorous political differences that had poisoned civil discourse during the feuding Adams and Jefferson administrations. This led to a period in American history that even in those days was called “The Era of Good Feelings."
This dawn of a new age then is what I had in mind when I decided to do the painting. And as for reference, I found that that I didn’t have to rely on somebody’s old engravings. I could use an earlier painting of my own.
A few years ago, I did ten paintings of Baltimore harbor as it is today. Unlike most of my assignments, which are purely professional in origin, this one began as the result of a personal friendship.
My friend Jennifer Phillips is a designer who lives and works in Baltimore and is Director of the Graphic Design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. A few years ago, she was asked to design materials for a real estate development project in Baltimore harbor. And as part of the concept she presented to the clients, she asked me if I'd be interested in doing some paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the site.
In publishing, of course, we don’t get many opportunities to do landscapes or cityscapes. But Jennifer and I had traveled together and she was well aware of the landscape drawings I had filled my sketchbooks with. So she thought that an assignment of this sort was something I might be interested in.
I jumped at the opportunity and following her lead, did ten paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the harbor where two hundred years ago British mortars and Congreve rockets (the “bombs bursting in air”) had marked the end of England’s effort to invade the US from the east coast.
Of course, in doing these pictures neither Jennifer nor I were thinking of the War of 1812. We were simply aiming to present some scenes, more graphic then representational even, of contemporary life along the Baltimore waterfront. For me it was a refreshing experience.
When I was younger I tended to think of landscapes as interesting only to the eye. Who wants to draw pictures of trees, I thought; I wanted to draw pictures of ideas. Ideas are as real as trees but since they're invisible, you have to rearrange aspects of the visible world to show the invisible. You might call such pictures landscapes of experience.
But as I got older and began to travel; and then started to fill my sketchbooks with drawings of faraway places – places that in my Ohio childhood I had never dreamed I’d see – I found a new respect for things that are interesting only to the eye.
And so if I had ever disdained landscapes or taken them lightly, I found that I could get unexpected satisfaction out of paintng things that were sitting right in front of me: editing reality, as it were – in this case silos, warehouses, cranes and boats – instead of having to make everything up.
The paintings are small: only eight inches by ten, and as a small regional assignment they never got much attention. Still, they got my attention and led in the space of a few months or a year to a far more expansive project: a series of 40 pastel drawings of Andalusian castles for a Spanish publisher.
Jennifer's project had led me into a new line of pictures and into a new medium. And with this little painting of Fort McHenry as it is today, a national historical site virtually unchanged from 200 years ago, it gave me the information I used for the much larger painting I finshed last month for the Smithsonian.
While the contributors were working on this project, a researcher from Smithsonian Magazine called each of us to ask for a few words about why we were doing what we were doing. I told her about the Baltimore harbor paintings, of course, but when she asked me how I happened to know a bit about the War of 1812, I said maybe it's because of where I grew up.
I grew up in Fremont Ohio, just a few miles south of Lake Erie, not far from the Canadian border. Fremont's history as a town actually began with the War of 1812. In those days it was called Lower Sandusky, after the Sandusky river that runs through it and empties into Lake Erie. In 1812 Ohio was the northwest frontier, a state for only nine years; and as the lowest point of entry from Canada into the US, it was the perfect site for the British to invade. On August 1, 1813, they did, disembarking at a low spot on the river and laying siege to the small palisade fort that sat on the edge of a wooded ravine.
The Battle of Fort Stephenson took place the next day and, according to the history books, it was the last land battle of the War of 1812 fought in the western United States. The fort's defenders drove the British back into the lake, where a month later they were defeated at a decisive naval battle off the island of Put-in-Bay. The next spring they concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay area, which led to the burning of Washington and the shelling of Fort McHenry.
In modern day Fremont, the town library sits on the site of the old picket fort; and when I was a kid there was a little museum of sorts in the basement, with artifacts under glass going back to the town's birth as a frontier outpost. Since I grew up in a home with no books, I was in and out of the library from an early age and occasionally, once I was tall enough to see above the glass cases downstairs, I used to wander around the basement, looking at stuff. My favorite items were the knives, forks and spoons the fort's defenders had fired at the British when they ran out of shot.
It's funny how an odd detail like that can interest a nosy kid, but it was the oddness of it that got my attention. Later, in Chicago I discovered Robert Remini's books and began to read up on the whole Jacksonian era. But I'd have to say that my painting of Fort McHenry actually had its roots in the basement of the Birchard Public Library, where as a little kid I learned that in a pinch you could hold off an enemy with kitchen utensils.
Two years ago, Joseph Fiedler posted 13 illustrations he said the Society of Illustrators had rejected from their annual show. Since the pictures were excellent, he joked that the number 13 had jinxed him. Still, numerology aside, I know how he felt. Over the years, I've had a lot of pictures accepted for those exhibitions, but I’ve always thought some of my best ones never made it. I remember thinking then that when I had the time I'd look through my archive and resurrect some of them. So here are 13 of my favorite Society of Illustrators rejects, starting with the very first one.
Heavy Medals is a drawing I did when I was 22 and working in Kansas City. It was part of the portfolio I came to New York with and the portfolio got me a monthly slot in Playboy that lasted for over 20 years. I had five pictures selected for the Society's show that first year but this wasn't one of them. Maybe it was all those cheesy medals. They look like Christmas tree ornaments on an unhappy tree. And what kind of jury would ever award an award to a picture that mocks awards?
Junkie Around the time I got my first Gold Medal from the Society, the jury rejected this drawing. I liked the Gold Medal picture well enough, but it was a conventional painting and reflected the larval stage of my career. It didn't look to the future of what graphic art could be. I never did go to the Society to pick up the medal: I'm told it laid around the place for years until somebody finally swiped it. And as for the prize-winning painting I've never shown it again. It’s frozen in time back in the Age of Nixon. But this drawing – the reject – kicked off the OpEd page of the New York Times and gave me a regular outlet for the kind of pictures many people had previously told me were unpublishable.
Mother and Child In 1975, Vietnam fell and in the panic that followed, refugees filled the roads to Saigon. The New York Times ran this drawing that spring and I re-published it two years later in my book Human Scandals. The Society rejected it both years. In those days, there were still folks at the clubhouse awaiting the Second Coming of Norman Rockwell, and people like that tended to think my pictures were grotesque. In 1978 I did a second version – this time a painting – making the woman blonde and nude – I used my girlfriend at the time as a model. I prefer that version, which has never been published: it's dark, but softer, warmer and more subtle. Still, the black and white drawing has the brutal edge of its originality, and I'm satisfied that it says something about something that had never been said before in art.
Long Shot When I switched from black and white drawings to color, a lot of art directors advised me not to. My ink drawings were just starting to win awards, they said: why monkey with your brand? But I thought branding was for cows. This was one of several pool hall paintings that never made it into a Society of Illustrators annual. Still, they did something better: they took me over the rainbow and into a world of color. When I finished the series, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her sepia house and into the Land of Oz. It set the tone for everything I've been doing since.
The Dinosaur Lounge was modeled on a real place: a club with a Day-Glo volcano on the wall that some Puerto Rican friends once took me to on the Lower East Side. The dinosaurs I added from some childhood drawings of my own. To be honest, it never really bothered me when pictures like this were rejected from shows. I spent most of my early career on the fringes of the business. I rarely went to openings and never looked at annuals. Some of that was due to shyness, but in general, it was self-defensive. I found it easier to go my own way in the business if I didn’t think too much about the way other people were going.
Rain was one of 40 pastels I did for a book published in Zurich. It was a sort of gamble for me since I had never used pastels before, but I was pleased with the way the series worked out. The New York Art Directors Club awarded it their Gold Medal, but when I entered several pieces in the Society of Illustrators show, they were all rejected. Then I had a one-man exhibition at the Society and made a poster of this drawing. I entered it in that year's show as well, but it got rejected again. Finally, when the Society voted me into their Hall of Fame and asked for three "signature pieces," I laid it on them a third time. This time they must have felt stuck with it because when the Annual came out that year, there it was.
The Prophet was the third painting I’d done of a cratered Earth. I did the first version in the 1970s and another about a decade later, but I was never happy with either one. Then along came Rolling Stone with an article that let me try again. This time it worked. The painting wasn’t picked for the Society’s show that year, but it’s one of my all-time favorites, and the underlying concept has proved fruitful. A couple months ago, I resurected the idea a fourth time, in a very different painting for the 60th anniversary issue of Playboy.
The Tree of Life is usually portrayed by artists as lush and fruitful and in general, I’ve always thought that's a great way to look at life. Yet I grew up in Ohio and Arkansas and all the Hollands before me had been farmers. That means they knew the many faces of Mother Nature. So when I was commissioned to paint my interpretation of the Tree of Life, I decided to show it as a budded shoot growing out of lifeless ground. I didn't expect it to be picked for the Society's show that year and, good guess, it wasn't. But I became very fond of the painting and when I had to bundle it up to ship off to the collector in Maryland, I was rather sorry to see it go.
Cold Catch was one of a series of paintings I did for Harrah's in Las Vegas. I’ve written about the commission in Rio By the Sea-O. There were 28 pictures in all, but this was my favorite. It started as an anecdotal image but quickly flattened out when I decided to make a pattern out of the holes in the ice. This gave me the idea to flatten out some of the other pictures as well, and that gave the whole installation a more graphic look than it would have had if I hadn't started fooling around with this one.
Green Door Over the years, I’ve done a lot of unpublished pictures, but I rarely ever entered them in shows. This painting was one, so normally I wouldn’t have tossed it into the ring. But then the British magazine Varoom published it in a cover story about my work, so I thought: what the hell. The green door is from a hotel in Istanbul, the woman is from my past. The painting is part of a series. There are a bunch more like it sitting around the house.
Bringing Down the Bull was done for Vanity Fair following the big Wall Street meltdown in 2008. It has most of the elements I shoot for in a picture like this. It’s simple and relatively artless and has no more details than it needs. It was also the first picture I did following my discovery of yellow. I don't know why I had never used yellow before; it's a perfectly good color. Maybe it's because my painting style is sculptural and yellow's a hard color to model. In this case, however, I kept the modeling to a minimum, and the yellow seemed to work. After that, yellow became my go-to default color, and for a while, everything I painted was painted yellow. Finally I got over that, but in the process I had added a new color to my palette. My grandfather once had a similar experience with green. In the space of a year, he painted his house green and all the rooms in it; then he took a two inch brush to his Ford pick-up. This leads me to suspect there are genes for things like this that run in families.
Molon de la Frontera is one of 40 pastel drawingss I did for a book of Spanish castles published in Spain. I had never used pastels on this scale before; my previous bouts with the medium had mostly been pictures like Rain – line drawings with some color smeared around. These landscapes were my first attempt to use the full range of color and pastel textures; and this drawing was the first I did for the series. So when the elements in it all seemed to work, it set the tone for the other 39. I entered several of the drawings in the Society's show that year but they were all rejected. On the other hand, I got queries from several galleries asking to show them. In the end, the originals were all bought by the publisher for donation to the city of Seville.
Hellhole Ever since my paintings caught on many years ago, a lot of art directors seemed to have forgotten that I did pen and ink drawings too. So I was happy when Chris Curry called from The New Yorker a couple years ago to ask for a full page ink drawing. Over the years I've found that drawing in ink has taught me a lot about painting and painting a lot about drawing. Once upon a time I thought my ink drawings would lead me into etching, but etching turned out to be too indirect for me. I got tired of all the scraping and rubbing. I wasn't crazy about having to draw everything backwards either, but ink drawings seem to work fine for me.
So much for 13 of my favorite rejects. It's funny that I can remember them better than most of the pictures I've been given awards for. I've aways wondered why that is.
Maybe it's because some works of art have a longer shelf life than others. For example, it's always amused me that when they make up lists of the ten greatest films of all time, they often name movies that were not even picked as the best movies of the years they came out.
Or maybe it's just the complex emotions evoked in all of us by any kind of rejection.
As a little kid, I was so vulnerable to criticism that I'd bawl every time I got scolded. And since I didn’t follow rules very often, I got scolded a lot. By the time I got to kindergarten, I sensed this was going to be a problem. And I concluded that if I didn’t want to be at the world’s mercy for the rest of my life, I'd either have to start following rules or shape up and develop a thicker skin.
By eighth grade I knew I wanted to be an artist. And coming from a small town and a poor family, I knew I’d have to start at the bottom. So I decided to get to the bottom as fast as I could.
In the ninth grade, I quit taking art in school and started submitting cartoons to magazines. My friends in class were getting blue ribbons for drawing hot rods and cocker spaniels. But I was getting rejection slips from The New Yorker, Boys Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I figured that made me a pro of some kind.
By the time I was 15, I moved up to a higher class of rejection. I sent a box full of drawings to the Disney studio in Burbank. I stuck in a letter I had typed on a neighbor's typewriter saying I was 21. For a year I didn't hear anything. Then I got the box back.
The drawings had all been pretty well manhandled, which meant at least somebody had looked at them. But just to have them returned that way was a discouraging sign. Surely if Walt had wanted to hire me he’d have phoned. So as I dug through the hundreds of drawings (yes, hundreds, I had never heard of a portfolio) I feared for the worst. And sure enough, there at the bottom of the box, was that authentic piece of Americana: a Mickey Mouse rejection slip.
Unlike the samples I had sent to the studio, the rejection was printed on archival paper: a Disney rejection was for the ages. Yet I always used to ponder those thumb prints at the top of the card. Were those Walt's? Had I been rejected by the great man himself? Or had I just gotten the bum's rush from some corporate flunkies? I hoped it had been the latter case; I figured I could live with that.
But now that I wasn't going to be the boy wonder of the Disney operation, I realized I’d have to go to Plan B.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a Plan B.
At 17 I graduated from high school. That fall, my friends all headed for college with stars in their eyes. I caught the bus for Chicago with a breaded veal sandwich and a hundred twenty five bucks I had saved mowing lawns. I didn’t know what I’d do when I got to the big city. I'd never been to a big city. I didn't know anybody there and I didn't know how artists went about finding jobs. Did you buy a newspaper and look through the want ads? I figured I'd have to wing it when I got off the bus.
I brought a bunch of drawings with me from Ohio. In the weeks that followed I took them around to studios. I was young and looked younger; several people asked if I was skipping school. I tried to schedule several rejections a day so I could work on new stuff at night.
Yet as I trekked up and down Michigan Avenue – "the Magnificent Mile" – in the cold that fall, I learned that my two years of futile cartoon submissions in high school had served an unexpected purpose. They had innoculated me against rejection. That was useful, because hadn't Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher of the World? At least I never expected a Welcome Wagon.
Over the next two years I learned that I could turn rejection into stress, stress into energy and energy into art. And out of that alchemy came the kind of art I would never have thought to do had it not been for the irritant of rejection and stress. They were cartoon ideas that weren't necessarily funny. Now all I had to do was find a way to apply them to subjects other than rejection and develop the right style to put them over.
That would take me another two years to work out and would lead to an entire portfolio of drawings like the picture Heavy Medals that I began this post with.
When I had that, though, I knew I was ready for New York. I gave up my rented rooms in Kansas City (by this time I had moved there and was working for Hallmark) and caught the bus east. I wasn't sure I could sell my pictures, but I was convinced they would sell themselves. It was a certainty that transcended acceptance or rejection. Ever since, I've taken an outsider's view of both and cast a cold eye on the collective wisdom that appears to invest either with authority.
It’s in that spirit that I've always tried to take professional recognition of any kind – good or bad – in stride. And why not? Over the years, I’ve been on enough juries of enough exhibitions to know how the sausages get made.
Some years ago, I was judging a show on the west coast with several designers, including Robert Miles Runyan, the legendary designer who first introduced art and photography to annual reports.
Miles told me about an exhibition that he had judged back in the fifties or sixties with Herb Lubalin and Saul Bass. All three were iconic figures who had helped revolutionize postwar graphic design. And all three had definite opinions about what was good and bad in the world of popular art.
It was one of the first professional competitions in the field, Miles told me; and they took their responsibility very seriously. "We were pretty tough graders," he said. "By the time we were finished, we were the only three who had anything in the show.”
In our high tech world, charcoal must seem like a pretty primitive medium. And of course it is. Maybe the most primitive. Drawing with a charred stick of wood is probably as old as the domestication of fire. Yet in a lifetime of teaching myself to use ink and paint and now Photoshop, no medium I’ve ever used is as direct, simple and cheap as sticking a stump of charcoal in my coat pocket and taking a walk with a sketchbook.
One of the chief virtues of charcoal is speed of execution. When you're drawing something like a barn at noon in upstate New York, the light can shift and shade so completely in half an hour that if it takes you any longer than that, you can find yourself finishing a drawing that’s quite different from the one you started.
Being able to draw quickly is also imperative when you're trying to draw people in motion, or who would become self-conscious and uncooperative if they caught you drawing them. Not that the fellow below would have noticed however. He had just finished a big meal on a trans-Atlantic flight and had settled down into a world of his own.
Of course some subjects have nowhere to go and can be drawn with greater detail at a more leisurely pace. This cow, which I found in the countryside north of Zurich is a case in point. I made a finished painting of this sketch, and nothing was different, except for the addition of color.
When you’re drawing a model who’s only posing for half an hour, charcoal really comes into its own. No other medium lets you to cover a surface so quickly or modulate tones with more subtlety.
Because it’s so easy to carry around, charcoal is perfect for drawing things you don’t expect to find. In Tokyo one morning, I got up at 3 AM to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market and do some drawings. On the way back I sat down to have a Coke in a little park on the grounds of a Buddhist temple and before I had finished the Coke I had done this drawing.
At Florianopolis, off the coast of Brazil, I noticed that the local musclemen would get to the beach early so that each of them could stake out his own private rock and hold it for hours, preening and showing off for the babes on the beach back across the shallow tidepool.
I drew my friend Jennifer on a Shinkansen Bullet train as we traveled from our little cottage in Hakone and headed for our next destiation:Takayama in the Japanese Alps. You could see Mount Fuji over her shoulder but I was taken with her exquisite profile. Jennifer is a brilliant designer and we've done a number of fantastic projects together.
At Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, I skipped lunch with some friends one day to wander around the ancient city and draw. This stretch of shoreline is of such extraordinary beauty that it was said Mark Anthony gave it to Cleopatra as a wedding present. I wouldn’t know about that, but I confess it was one of those times that the brilliant colors of the sky, the cliffs and the sea made me wish that I had a little more time and a box full of pastels.
I found this magnificant pool table at a great pink hotel in the Brazilian forest near the city of Foz do Iguaçu. The Iguaçu River forms the boundry bewween Brazil and Argentina and culminates in the great waterfall there which many people regard as one of the seven wonders of nature. At two miles in length and comprised of 270 separate cataracts, Iguaçu Falls simply wouldn’t fit into my sketchbook, but the pool table did.
During my first trip to Australia I was so taken by the kangaroos that I did half a dozen drawings of them my first day. Until then I had never realized how human their anatomy is. It’s not apparent when you watch them bounding about, but seeing them in repose is a different matter. All this character below would need to complete the picture is a can of beer, some Cheese Doodles and a TV remote at his side.
I’m fast, but I wasn’t fast enough to draw this lady of the night on the streets of Frankfurt before she and her client had settled on terms and disappeared inside the hotel. I took a few minutes to sketch in the rest of the exterior and thought I’d draw the woman later from memory. But once I got back to my own hotel, I decided that her ghostly absence serves the picture better than a concrete drawing of her would have done. So I left the picture alone and concluded that it was finished.
In Leningrad I did several drawings on site, but the most evocative for me is this crude sketch I did from memory during a long night on the Gulf of Finland sailing back to Helsinki. The perspective is no artistic device: this part of the city is the only place I’ve ever been where the space was so vast and the line of sight so unimpeded that the streets, the buildings and streetlights all went to a single vanishing point.
The gentleman strolling towards me was wearing a large white hat that looked like a scoop of vanilla ice cream on his head. On his suit coat he wore a World War II medal. It reminded me that during the war Leningrad survived the longest and deadliest siege in the history of warfare. Nearly one thousand days – two and a half years – during which the inhabitants were reduced by the Nazis to eating dogs and cats and rats. Yet they held out and prevailed, and there, by their will to resist – as at Stalingrad in the south – people like this old man – then in his youth – turned the tide of the second world war.
My wife, when I was married, kept sketchbooks of her own and some of the happiest times of my life are of the times we spent together, both drawing and not drawing. Her pictures were always as strong and sensitive and beautiful as she was herself and, as I would imagine, still is.
Flying out of Bergen Norway, the scene below us was a maze of channels and waterways that threaded their passage west to the North Sea and south to a great fjord. I didn’t know the geography well enough to know what I was seeing and what I was seeing changed so rapidly that what I drew was an abstraction anyway. By the time we passed over Stavanger in the south, the landscape had changed again and I found myself drawing another abstraction: this time suggesting snow covered hills dotted with pines.
Vernal, in eastern Utah, is the northern corner of the “Dinosaur Triangle.” It streches from there to western Colorado and then back over to Price in southern Utah. Not far from where I did this drawing is a 75 foot-high ridge upended by the earth’s convulsions and eroded over millions of years so that along its entire face, dinosaur bones literally stick out of the ground. As I drew this sketch, a prarie dog watched me warily from his hole and in a bush nearby, I saw the ripped-off leg of a deer caught in the branches, with the blood on it barely dried.
In our twenties, my brother Jim and I looked so much alike that our relatives had to see us together to tell us apart. That changed over the years, but our closeness never did. Although he was six years younger than I, he was my best friend from the day he was born until he died six years ago. He looks severe in this drawing but he was merely squinting in the Arkansas sun. He was smart and inquisitive and unimpeachable, yet he was the kindest and most thoughtful person I’ve ever known. When he died in 2007 some part of me left the world with him.
Many of you know Marzena, or have run into her at openings. She represents a number of excellent artists and has my nomination as one of the best reps in the business. Besides having great taste and and integrity, she also has courage. I’ve done several drawings of her over the years and one painting; and if she still lived in New York City, I’d try to do more.
“What an expression!” I thought when I saw this woman’s face on a crowded street in Toyama Japan. Yet in less than ten seconds she had disappeared into a sea of faces and I was left to draw her mostly from memory. I’ll never forget that look though. Was it urgency, desperation, tragedy, indigestion? It’s not a look you can put into words. Yet of all the drawings I’ve ever done, this face – which took me hardly a minute to draw – haunts me like nothing else I’ve ever drawn from life.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve heard about the “miracle of the swallows” of the mission of San Juan Capistrano in southern California. According to legend (and song), they return to the old Spanish church every March 19, a symbol of continuity and a harbringer of spring. Of course in southern California, I don’t know how you tell spring from the rest of the year, but it’s a great story and who wants to quarrel with that.
I’ve been to the mission four times over the years and have seen, as advertised, plenty of swallows. But on my second visit there I was dawn to this lonely dove sitting on a rock. All around her people came and went but the commotion and jostling of the crowds didn’t seem to faze her. She seemed to have found a zone of her own in both time and space and I felt that I had found a similar zone for myself in the half hour I spent there drawing her.
I began this post by writing that charcoal was the medium most suited to my personality. Yet as much as I love the medium it was hardly love at first sight. Back in high school my first charcoal drawing was a mess and it wasn't just because I had never heard of fixative.
I was in the ninth grade when I first saw some charcoal drawings in a library book. I wanted to do pictures like that, but there were no art stores in town and the local hobby shop didn't sell art supplies. So where does a smart kid go in a small town to get charcoal? To the super market.
I took my bike because I didn't know if they sold charcoal in five pound bags or whether I'd have to get a 25 pound bag and lug it home. Also, I didn't know whether I should get the kind with or without fire starter. I figured things like that could make a difference.
I had the same issue with finding paper. A cartooning book at the library said that professional cartoonists did their work on illustration board. I had never heard of illustration board and neither had anybody at the super market. The hobby store didn't carry any either, but the woman who ran the place said shirt cardboard should do the trick. So off I went to the dry cleaner.
Now I don't know whether any of you have ever tried to do a charcoal drawing – with a charcoal briquette – saturated with fire starter – on shirt cardboard; but I recommend it to any young artist who has trouble sticking to things. It will either cure you forever of wanting to draw or teach you perseverance, which in my case, is apparently what happened.
At the time, however, it simply taught me to abandon charcoal and shirt cardboard. I settled instead for Ebony pencils and typing paper. They sold both at the town stationery store. That got me through high school. Then at 17, I got a social security card and a bus ticket for Chicago. It was there, at the Sam Flax store on Wabash Avenue, two blocks from the river and the Sun-Times building, that I bought my first grown-up charcoal. I’ve been using the stuff ever since.