In art school, other students would often ask “Who are you looking at?” Besides being tempted to some smart ass response like, “You,” I often felt a bit on the spot since this question referred specifically to other artists, especially established ones, and usually I wasn’t particularly looking at any of them.
Not that I was unaware of them or wasn’t regularly enjoying the air conditioning, as well as the Anselm Kiefer piece, at the Virginia Museum, but what I was looking at that influenced me the most was often things other than art or artists, and that is still true today.
When I made the transition earlier this year to working pretty much full time in the studio, I was so overjoyed at the prospect that I didn’t take into account how challenging it would be. For one thing, after about a week of painting I thought my arm was going to fall off, because my muscles were just not used to it. And let’s just say the same was true on a figurative level.
In my opinion, the most important muscle to have creatively is focus. If I can be focused, I can tune in and really see what I am creating. It is a type of seeing that is equivalent to listening, less about asserting my will and more about seeing what is there and then drawing or painting it, making it real.
It is surprisingly hard, and it takes practice to maintain it for hours at a time. It is so easy for the ego to step in and start trying to make something clever or pretty.
So I have been working on focus. And “who I have been looking at” is my daughter’s gymnastics class. It turns out trying to get a bunch of preschool kids in line is a pretty good equivalent to what’s going on in my head when I work.
The other day, they were going on the low balance beam. First they all went across normally, with all of them wobbly and sometimes slipping off, both accidentally and on purpose. Then the teacher gave them each a hula hoop to hold vertically in front of them and roll along the beam as they walked. You would think kids who couldn’t do it on their own would really have trouble with a hoop added in, but amazingly they all went across perfectly, my daughter included.
It was harder, so they focused.
Applying this to my own drawing practice, I have started drawing outside my studio in somewhat distracting environments. The other people, the noise, that’s my hoop, and I find it much easier to stay on the “beam.” My current favorite spot is the cafe at the main branch of the SF Public Library.
If you look closely, you’ll also see I’m using my old Staedtler case to hold Micron pens. The Staedtlers weren’t black enough for me. If you want a real black black, I highly recommend the Microns. I also love that they have a very fine, 0.005 size.