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Widowers Request & The Great Leap Forward

April 26th, 2008 (02:01 pm)

Li drew a color picture of Li’l Wayne at Julian’s instigation. It’s easily the best of our samples, and a real attention grabber.

Did I say that Li translated Ding’s parting lecture on color? That made him part of the audience, and he said she said things he hadn’t known. So...

He really got into the colors, working on Li’l Wayne. There’s a red baseball cap at an absurd angle (they put that thing on the front for a reason motherfucker!), multiple warm and cool colors in the skin and hair, and blue in the white shirt. He said, “I promise you, I’m going to do a lot of color, and really improve by the end of the year.” Look out, world, ‘cause Li’s doing alright now.

I did a double take coming into work one morning. The first thing I saw was a color portrait of a pretty woman with cascades of blond hair, and flanked by a pair of pre-school boys. It wasn’t the portraits that stopped me. Mom-and-kid portraits are common enough. The attention grabber was the Thomas-Kincaid-Painter-of-Light garden behind which the artist had parked these monumental fleshy busts. Yellow greens mimicked tender spring grasses on a knoll decorated by red compound flowers (or were they pomegranates on sticks). There was a spouting water bubbler of the old cast-iron, city-park variety, an impressionistic tree, a board fence for a backdrop, and a white and yellow beam of light blazing in a blue sky. The work of someone with more chops than taste, and I said, “Whoa, Li’s been busy.”

I was supposed to sit behind this monstrosity and pretend to work on it. Li calls it “fake touchups.” It was my first experience with that concept, and I was panicked and confused when Jiyao (pronounced “Gee-yo”) earnestly and haltingly told me I was supposed fix it. There was nothing in this drawing that lighter fluid and a match couldn’t fix.

It turned out that the woman in the portrait had died, and this was the third time it had come back in the mail for adjustment. There was something “not quite right” about the young mother’s likeness. The widower couldn’t say what was wrong, though, and had sent a different photo, thinking that would help us know what she looked like.

Li explained that I was just supposed to look like I was working on the drawing. I was window dressing. Anyway the picture was. And it was eye-catching. The way a Porky Pig necktie is. But some people like that sort of thing. And Ding, not Li was the artist who had drawn the portrait a year before.

The drawing hung around for a week, with nobody making any changes to it. Then Li headed for China, and asked me to put it in the mail. I came in on a day off to pick it up, as well as some Minnetonka Moccasins that were going to China by way of Ding in Flushing. (Jiyao pointed the irony out to me.)

I matted and packaged the drawing. While I was matting it, Jiyao teased me about using too much masking tape. I just priced masking tape. A sixty-yard roll of 0.94 inch masking tape was a buck forty-nine at the hardware store across the street from gas that was going for three forty-five nine. I think oil was one seventeen a barrel yesterday.

Jiyao was in diapers during the Great Leap Forward (Dayuejin), and Li came along eight years after. The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s project to turn China from an peasant to an industrial economy. It didn’t work, and between 14 and 43 million people starved to death.

Li drives two cars, and the one I’ve seen is a BMW X5. These puppies start at forty-five nine and get low twenties MPG. He lives in a third-ring suburb. Five thousand years of culture, my ass. These people are kids in a candy store.

Open Mic for Sketch Artists

April 18th, 2008 (11:07 am)

I’m off Thursday nights now.

Once upon a time, I was a regular at an open mic at South Minneapolis’ Riverview Coffee House. Chef and guitarist Dan Rumsey started a lively Thursday night party there, call it, five years ago, and he alternates master of ceremony duties with a great finger picker, Jeff, whose Norske last name I do not know. The majority of performers are of the folk and blues pursuasions, but usually there are surprises like the bass singer who appeared one evening to sing a Paul Robeson Medley a capella.

Last night I showed up with my easel and charcoal to sketch patrons. I cleared things with Rachel the barrista, and twisted the arm of photographer and mournful tenor, Alfred Sage, to be my first sitter.

All told, I sketched four faces in three hours, which was a lot more drawing than I would have done at the Mall (which Alfred has never visited). I was satisfied with each drawing: likeness, solid, nice range of lights and darks (“values”). People were happy to be drawn. I was happy to be there; the musicians play for free, not even a tip jar, and I did likewise. One guy, subject of my weakest drawing, tried to pay me, and my last two sitters approached me. I promised some other folks I would be back next Thursday, and this looks like a way to beef up my skills.

Bad Drawing #93

April 16th, 2008 (12:54 pm)

I was struggling with proportion, and paying a lot of attention to Ding’s drawing. She was looking at mine, too, and giving me stern looks while pointing to long chins or wide faces. I wanted her to tell me “How do you measure from the nose to the lips to the chin,” or, “How do you know how wide to make the spaces outside the eyes?” It seemed unfair for somebody to think she was your teacher, when all she was doing was pointing out to you what you could see for yourself, thank you very much.

Ding is cute and well preserved for a grandmother. I think Europeans age more than Chinese. They eat better than we do -- less self-indulgent -- and Ding has a resume including dance at the Beijing Opera and martial arts, but her long black hair has just enough silver wires in it to convince me the color doesn’t come out of a bottle.

When it comes to English, Ding doesn’t speak dick, so there was no hope that we could talk about what she wanted -- and I wanted -- to see in my drawing. Ding has stock phrases that she uses, mostly Li’s powerful talking points, and a personal dictionary in a small notebook, with English words next to Mandarin characters, or, mostly, drawings of facial features. It took me months to get Li to tell me that the distance from the eyebrows to the tip of the nose is two eye widths, but he couldn’t tell me how to rotate an eye ninety degrees and hold it against a nose. If you want to get an idea of what I wanted from Ding, explain what Li told me, and what he couldn’t in the language you took in high school. Frustrating.

But Ding is a friend, as nice as anybody you’d like to meet in any language. And brave. Imagine the guts it takes to sell a drawing to strange people who speak a language you don’t understand.

I came in late one afternoon, to hold the fort until closing. There was a gorgeous drawing of a baby on ding’s easel. The drawing was in the lovely brown of the dreaded “special Chinese charcoal,” and the chiarascuro was gradual and delicate without having been smoothed by finger or paper stump. The baby, African-American, was sitting up, round and solid, with her hair pulled into little pigtails, and her fingers interlaced. She was turned three quarters to the right and gazing up, smiling. I would have bought that sketch off the easel, then and there.

Two things happened that night.

The first involved a young woman from Ethiopia. I’m looking at the drawing I did of her now. She’s pretty, with a round face on a slender neck. Untamed curls spill from her scalp, looking full and round, with places a bird could fly through, like the trees across a ravine. Round eyes gaze steadily between full lids top and bottom with fringed with long thick lashes. The eyebrows break wide, where they wrap around the almost spherical outer corners of her eye sockets. The woman’s nose is straight and just a little wider than a European’s, and her lips full, and thrusting above a babydoll chin. Do I have to say she has high cheekbones? It is a very solid drawing.

She came to me after dark, in the neon light from the amusement park. The girl who always rides the Screaming Yellow Zoomer was shrieking every six seconds, as the ride fell away from her butt.

“What is it you do? Will you make a comical drawing of me?”

When I applied for the job, I thought it was a caricature booth, so I spent the weekend teaching myself to do comical drawings of movie stars. I had to explain that we do portrait sketches. The caricaturists work downstairs, in the park, but probably weren’t open.

She was waiting for her friends, looking forward to late supper at Tucci Bennucch, veal parmigiana and a rough red, watching the parade of shoppers across a low wall, with weathered wood and vinyl grape vines suggesting a Tuscan vantage point. She was up, feeding her good mood, and a portrait seemed like a good idea.

It’s a rare thing that I talk while I draw. One of my teachers insisted on quiet. He said that drawing was a right-hemisphere activity, and talking left-hemisphere. This time we talked. She was the young cosmopolite, whose parents had survived the Red Terror, but moved to the States in ‘92, seeing little future in the Horn of Africa, even without Mengistu. I was the tough, sympathetic old guy, virile even in age, safe repository for flirtation and confidences. We exchanged views, me pretending to more knowledge of Ethiopia than I possessed by name-dropping Haile Selassie and the Italian occupation early in WWII. And I drew and fell a little bit in love.

She was patient with my slow search for a likeness. I really don’t know what I’m doing, but if I make a bunch of marks, I can sometimes see when something is wrong, and change it. Our live sketches happen on the newsprint that newspapers use. It’s a cooler grey than the stuff at art supply stores, more flexible, and has a lot less tooth. It is very erasable and very forgiving. My sitter was up, as I said, and seemed glad to be with me. Maybe I was parasitic to participate in what I had told myself had to be an unstable joy. It was a mistake to let flirtation get in the way of a good drawing.

When she saw my work, her crest fell like a souffle in an earthquake. She didn’t look like that. The change in her mood was palpable, and she threw out ideas and explanations in rapid fire, trying to fix the drawing, our relationship, and her good mood. She could suggest second sittings or bringing me photographs until the cows came home (Ethiopia is the world’s tenth largest livestock producer), but she was sad and hurt.

I told her to take the drawing for free. She could use it as a conversation piece at dinner, but she wanted no part of it. I hoped for a couple of weeks that she would come back, but I never saw her again.

I rolled the drawing up in tissue paper, and put it out of the way. I really liked it, likeness or not. I was embarrassed and unsure of myself, but still at work. I had to be cool. I had signed on at Lee’s Gallery to master one, small, difficult skill, and hanging on to egregious goofs wasn’t going to help.

To my shame, my tendency is to press my bruises. I needed distraction. I went over to Ding’s easel, hoping for inspiration from the beautiful, umber baby. It was still a cool, cool drawing.

A woman came up to me. She was African-American, forty-five, dark, overweight and overworked.

“That’s my niece. I wondered how the picture was coming.”

I told her that I thought it was coming very well. When we do color drawings, there is always an under-drawing in special black and white that includes all the details and values. I suspected that the drawing I loved was destined to go under a layer of pastel. It would be good -- Ding has a huge vocabulary of color technique -- but it would hide something remarkable. I asked if this was going to be in color.

“Yes. I was scared when I saw all this brown.”

I reassured her.

“She was my little sister’s baby. She had Down’s Syndrome and a problem with her heart, and she died. Are they going to put wings on her?”

“Angel wings. I told those Chinese people that she should have wings, but I don’t think they understood.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw Bouguereau putti flitting around some self-absorbed tart in the surf. Okay, I saw a flock of bare-butt angels around a painting of some self-absorbed tart in the surf. Little feathery wings that couldn’t lift a hummingbird, levitated some pretty chunky cherubs. Detachment was coming easier.

I told the customer that I would make sure the baby got wings, and the next day I came in early to make sure Ding knew before she took the drawing too far.

It took a three-way conference, with Jiyao translating, to get the job done, but Ding committed to wings, and I didn’t give it another thought.

The last time I saw the drawing, it was in color, and the baby had gorgeous, gaudy, butterfly wings. A worm that turns to jelly inside a shell of hard skin, then emerges with shimmering, colorful wings, is probably a better metaphor for birth to eternal life than a toddler with pigeon wings.

Calm Day

April 15th, 2008 (11:14 pm)

Spring break is over and I’m back to three days a week from six. I expect to make faster progress. Without having to sell drawings, I will draw more and be less bored. I have plans to take my easel and drawing board to a Thursday night open mic, and offer portraits for free, my art as free as the musicians’.

I had a quiet but contented day at the Mall today. I was busy with a dubious project I took on for somebody last week, and then with a “special black and white” drawing that Li wanted me to finish for him.

The dubious project was a coat of arms for somebody with one of those German names like Moebius or Euler that Americans often mispronounce. He’d come across it in a book, or come across the coat of arms of a family with a similar name. His original thought was to include his own face, but he changed his mind without any prompting ffrom me. Actually, I thought that was a good idea and wanted to do it.

The coat of arms is a shield, probably sable, but he wanted a kind of yellow-orange from a sign for some Orange Julius or DQ product. He said the shield was probably wood, and there were seven jousting lances pointing down (there’s probably a heraldic word for this but I’ll look it up some other time) arrayed symmetrically thereon. Eight-and-ahalf by eleven. And the family name at the top.

We’re not set up for that. Our paper is twelve by eighteen, and we use pastel for color. I didn’t think I could get fine enough to draw the lances with pastel, and I had some nice 300-pound hot-pressed water color paper. I burned up a lot of daylight this morning getting paper, colors, markers, and brushes together, making me late. The drawing also took more time than it should have. It really needed a drafting table, but I got a good looking shield drawn, and a bunch of lances that looked more like seam rippers at that scale. Wood grain in umber marker on top of the sable, and Bob’s your uncle. I went down to Barnes and Devour and bought a caligraphy book, which cost more than my commission, and faked some Gothic script, drawing the letters in pencil and filling them in with a Sharpie. Not bad.

Li’s drawing looked good to me. I like the rough look of unsmoothed charcoal, but this was a lesson. Pretty teenaged girl, athletic, bright-looking. I fooled around with the background and the hair, without referring to the photo, confident that Li had nailed the proportions. I tried to give it more of a sense of volume.

After a while, I ran out of ideas, and got the photograph. I wasn’t sure It was the same girl, but the hair was familiar, and it was the same t-shirt. The girl in the photo tilted her head dramatically to her left, and turned it a little to the right. In the drawing it was nearly level and square. The real girl has bigger eyes than the one in the drawing, a shorter upper lip, and a longer chin.

Jiyao looked at what I was doing. I held my hand in front of the drawing, and rotated it to show the way I thought the head should go, really more than I expected to be able to do. he said to just make the chin longer.

I did that, leaving charcoal stains where I erased. Ben came in, and I asked for a tutorial. He rotated the photograph, so that the face matched the drawing, and started to work. Small change here, small change there, with a brief homily about values: “shadow family” and “light family,” with the lightest shadow being darker than the darkest light; “these shadows are equally dark, but this one seems lighter because it’s surrounded by other darks, and the other one is surrounded by lights;” and “there need to be tones everywhere, but this girl is very light skinned, so the hair and background need to be dark.”

The thing that Ben did that amazed me was to enlarge her eyes. Erasing less than a quarter of each eye, preserving the light irises and the sparkles in the pupils, Ben made both eyes bigger, changed their shapes, and made a likeness.

Bad Drawing Number 117

April 11th, 2008 (11:51 pm)

I have a backlog of stories from work. Some of them are cute little happenings observed, like the one of Ding and the aunt who wanted angel wings on her niece, others have to do with my struggle with drawing, and trying to grow as a draughtsman while drawing for money in a very public place. Both kinds of stories happen more often than I make time to write, but I try to remember them. The one that follows is about a bad drawing, and happened a couple of hours ago.

My drawing seems to have turned a corner. Li told me that it was adequate now, and it was time to start working on it deliberately. I had said something similar to myself hours before, more in terms of movie metaphor: “I’m inside now. Time to figure out how this baby works!” Li also says that learning is a spiral, and sometimes I strike out. It’s like Woody Allen said about women, “Now I strike out with a higher class of drawing.”

Two women my age (late fifties) came to me looking for a drawing. They had grown up and had adventures together. It had been a few years since they had seen each other. One is a flight attendant, and had called the other, having arrived in town unexpectedly.

The woman who lives here was nervous about sitting for me. Over the course of their sittings, they told me about themselves. She was the smart one, and the flight attendant was the mischievous one. Whe they told me that, I answered that the mischievous one must have been smart enough to keep up with the smart one, and the smart one must have had enough mischief to sometimes get in trouble. Anyway, the smart one probably hadn’t been the cute one in high school, but now has a kind of clean, unaffected handsomeness that I liked.

Except for her mouth, I put a likeness together quickly. I tried to draw a smile, but when I copied the lines the mouth made when she smiled, it didn’t look like a smile.

Let me take a minute to try to talk about live sketches. We try to draw what we see. If there is an edge here, we draw it, if a structure curves there, we draw that -- while trying to soft-pedal wrinkles, bags, double chins, and so on. Also, we try to get a likeness before the sitter gets restless, something I’m not good at.

I had tried my subject’s smile once, and erased it, when she got up, thinking I was done. It was a complicated mouth, with pretty broad ledges inside the lower lip at the corners, and corners that turned down when she smiled. She told me that she had been in a car accident, and that smiling wasn’t easy for her. She had had physical therapy which included practicing smiling in front of a mirror for fifteen minutes a day. I wouldn’t have known. There wasn’t anything asymmetrical about her face or its gestures, and the smile was a recognizable smile, in spite of its being upside-down. Okay, no smile. Still, it was a complicated mouth, and one that I didn’t have time to study as much as I should have.

But I was proud of the drawing.

The flight attendant was harder. She was small and -- dare I say it -- vivacious. She had a hard time sitting still (controlling my sitters is a skill I wait to acquire), and a lot of hair. She had more flaws to finesse.

The standards are different for men and women, so that the average guy of fifty-five or sixty, comes off as better preserved than the average woman. Besides that, the average woman has had children, and the average man has not. And the man has found it easier to make time for himself to run, lift weights, and keep in shape.

I liked this woman, but maybe not enough to be honest with her. Between not wanting to show the shadows, or to take the time to study them, or to get tough with my sitter and make her pose. I invented a sixteen year old with this woman’s eyes -- behind glasses -- and hair.

Was it a likeness? Beats me, which means it probably wasn’t.

Read this Like You're Henry Rollins

April 6th, 2008 (03:50 pm)

I’m a modern man. I still don’t know how to program my cell phone, but I can tell you what chaos theory is, I am very good at integral and differential calculus (or used to be), and I have all my shots. I’m a property owner with savings and no consumer debt, but I can’t let go of the notion that the remaining hunter gatherers spend about twenty hours a week pursuing survival.

Maybe that’s all we spend at it, and the rest of our ostensible forty hours spent “earning a living” is social-cultural, in support of the tribe and its aims -- no different than the !Bang and Jivaro. Except my tribe has its head up its ass. What kind of critter needs to pump its capital out of the ground and burn it to live. There’s some cat in a straw hat somewhere or sometime working -- and I mean the real thing -- sixty hours a week so you and I can coast. I don’t think we need to talk about global warming. Oil is capital and we treat it as income. Wrap your noggin around those nine words, and simple economics tells you we’re fucked. But you know what? We’re changing the climate! (insert factoids here)

Now, Lee, my boss, is writing a business plan that he’s taking back to some investors in China. Can’t you see a bunch of them, sitting around this carved ebony table, looking like Christopher Walken in that ping pong movie, with incense curling up to the ceiling. Bullshit. They look like your boss, only neater. Lee’s going to get them to back him in starting up a Starbuck’s or a DQ or something. Doesn’t matter what. And get this. He’s doing it for the sake of the Minnesota economy! Thank you. It doesn’t matter that it’s a fucking invasion. I’d rather starve than have to answer to some souless Confucianist in a three-piece suit. Now it doesn’t matter that these people used to be Communists. I’m a socialist, myself. Take me out behind the chemical shed and shoot me, because I don’t think the Soviet Union fell because of its ideological bankruptcy in the free market of ideas. Those assholes were living on their capital, just like everybody else, and trying to be military bigshots. Our time will come. They used to be Communists. Now they’re capitalists. Fifty years ago they tried something called (Chinese Name) the Great Leap Foreward. People were gathering scrap metal and melting it down in backyard foundries. Kind of cool. Do-it-yourself. Recycling. Very self-reliant. Except that they put everything they had into making what turned out top be very shitty steel. And people starved. The made people stop growing food, so they could work the bellows on the makeshift forges! People were so hungry they started eating corpses. “Grandma died.” “Oh no. Is there any soy sauce left?” Capital Punishment in China. At least one thousand ten executed in 2006. In 2006, the United States put down 53 bad guys. Texas killed 24. Let’s say each of the fifty states executed as many as the good people of Texas. 24 times 50. That’s 1200, so we’d be about neck and neck. So to speak. I’m not saying they like to kill people. They just don’t have any patience with you if you fuck up. CEO of a company that poisons a bunch of American pets? Give him the hot shot. They have trucks with the equipment in back for lethal injection. They also use assault rifles with hollow points to blow the tops of the heads off less well connected criminals. What can you get shot for doing in the People’s Republic of China? Sixty-eight different crimes warrant the death penalty. There are the usual violent crimes you’d expect, but also bribery, pimping, selling drugs, pornography. No patience at all. If I have to have a boss... Wait, I have a Chinese boss. But Lee’s a fuckup himself by Chinese standards. I can smell it. BS in arcitecture at Beijing University. Complicated story about MBA and Interior Design in New York City and Kansas. Now he’s running this kind of carny art stand at the Mall of America. Fortunately, most Chinese don’t know about places like Minnesota. They only know about the coasts. Thank the gods that you live in flyover land. And if they do know about about Minnesota, they think it’s Siberia, and wolves are constantly biting your ass. (You know, is it really nice in Siberia, after all?)

And that’s why I mentioned Lee’s business plan. You see, he’s so worried that the backers in China are going to be all freaked out about the ice and snow in l’Etoile du Nord, that they won’t believe they can make any money here. So Lee is using global warming as a benefit in his plan. Industrial carbon dioxide concentrates in the atmosphere, raising temperatures, and making Minneapolis just like LA! Hmmm. It could work if Chinese capitalists are as dumb as ours.

Sticker Shock

April 6th, 2008 (12:19 pm)

A man called. He’s opening an Indian restaurant, and wants two murals. The size changed during our conversation, as did the subject matter between then and his e-mailing me a couple of illustrations from the Mahabarata.

The pix he sent me were of Krishna and Arjuna in a chariot pulled by four white horses, seen from below, against a dramatic sky, and of what I think was the Pandevas assembled before the battle of Kurukshetra. (It’s beyond me to tell you the story of the Mahabarata, but these two pictures are of central moments illustrating a Vedic moral view.)

Maybe it would be better to say he sent me a picture of a blue guy and a pink guy in this wacky-looking cart, with a bunch of horses, and a storm, and another of a bunch of gaudy guys with swords and shit standing at attention around the same horse cart.

The caller let me know he was on a tight budget. I bid on the painting of Krishna and Arjuna, and said I’d need to look at the original illustration before committing to a price for the other. For color work, we charge a hundred and fifty bucks per single portrait, and one-forty, each, for multiple portraits. We also add fifty percent for including more than head and shoulders. I called the two dudes, each horse, the chariot, and the sky a portrait, including the fifty percent, and bid it as though I were bidding a pastel, on paper, done at work. If it had been a pastel, I might have made a better deal. Going to his place, though, trips to the art store, lost mall biz, and anticipating the unanticipated, made me bid the whole $1680.00, figuring I could knock off a couple hundred to make it easier for my patron. I e-mailed the bid, and I’ve never heard back. Last time I ever pay eight bucks for a plate of chick peas in gravy.

People at the Mall are startled by our prices, too. Our bread and butter, the live charcoal sketch is supposed to be $34.95 for one face, thirty bucks apiece for couples and groups.

“Nah, man. That’s too much.”

“Tell you what, I'm sitting on my hands. I can give you a good deal. I’d like to get a crowd going.”

Even at twenty bucks, the price is surprisingly high to somebody carrying a Dairy Queen Blizzard past Lee’s Gallery on her way to As Seen on TV. Portraiture just ain’t on people's radar.

Lee really does want to bring fine art to the masses. In the executive meeting room at Jefferson Bus Lines, along with the antique grandfather clock, and Charlie Zelle’s toy buses, is a portrait of Edgar Zelle, founder, in oil. Doesn’t any human being deserve commemoration by a skilled and insightful craftsman -- an artist -- for posterity. Here was someone noble who suffered, was gladdened, gave, and struggled. And by producing those commemorations, might we not give our sitters an inkling of their own, potential, nobility?

Sometimes. People frequently giggle at my attention, or nod off. They can pleased at their likenesses, or their children’s, or indifferent. I like to think that their portraits will take them by surprise years later, after they have forgotten them and taken their presence for granted. I like to think that they are possessions whose eventual disposition will important to somebody, and carried out with fondness and ritual.

But sometimes people are not noble. Julian did a portrait that he liked, that the subject claimed to like, for an agreed thirty-five, then the customer said “no,” and was going to walk away without it. Later I told Julian the number for Mall Security, but, at the time, this was the opening salvo in uncomfortable bargaining. Eventual outcome: the customer took the drawing for twenty-five, no matt or frame (framing not included, which customers often take as an affront).

Another thing that happens is that customers think the per-person price I quote them is the total, so that a double portrait is cheaper than a single. I can’t blame them; mental arithmetic is tough for me while I’m listening to somebody reel off numbers as they pop into his head. Still, it makes for awkward conversations when I present the bill.

You do the math: I draw you for thirty-five dollars. If I do nothing but draw all day, and everything I take in is mine, and if I draw you in the (falsely -- even Lee takes longer) promised fifteen minutes, I report almost a quarter million a year (I’ve done 8,000 portraits).

But that’s impossible. More likely, I’ve given you a discount, usually knocking fifteen bucks off. I have to split with Lee, fifty-fifty for full price, giving him a premium when I offer a discount, or don’t sell a mat or frame. (Lee has his costs, too. An article in City Pages said that kiosks at the Mall start at fifty grand a year, and ours is a big one.)

On a good Saturday, maybe I’ll do ten faces. Let’s say customers pay an average of twenty-five bucks a face. That’s two hundred fifty dollars, and I’ll have sold, say, one-fifty-five in mats and frames. I get one-twenty-five for the drawing, and fifteen-fifty for the framing. Equals $135.50, except that I kicked a couple bucks back to Lee, because one of the customers didn’t like his drawing enough to protect it with a mat.

When was the last time you lowered your prices?

Drawing Little Kids

April 5th, 2008 (12:32 am)

Three babies today. Two were toddlers, but I drew three little kids. I think the damage I do in making somebody that young sit still for me is only marginal. But Monsignor Haddigan told us that sins were mortal, not because of their temporal consequences; they were mortal because they were a conscious rejection of God’s grace.

When we’re small, we have better things to do than have our portraits drawn. Consider the genius required to learn a language from scratch, and we’re capable of learning at least two, as well as the context in which we speak one instead of the other. We learn to interpret emotional cues, physical conditions like balance, friction, and tensile strength, gender differences, how to recognize a face, species differences, representation in two and three dimensions. We’re all born geniuses, unless we have some organic disability, and we’re not geniuses now to the extent that some grown fool interfered with our investigation of our environments.

Some little kids are performers and charmers, and enjoy an artist’s attention, but most aren’t like that, and they all squirm, and that makes the ordeal last longer.

First little sitter: Blonde girl, less than ten months, in her father’s arms (one of which had her name tattooed inside the forearm). Entourage of aunts and uncles. She seemed to want to hold her shoulders toward me and her head head at 3/4 profile. It’s easier, and quicker, to draw a full face, but it seemed appropriate to get drawing. Whoops. I got a head blocked in, and she never took that pose again. From then on, I was twisting around, calling to her, and waiting for her to turn the way I needed, so I could kind of see what her features looked like.

We’re by the east escalators, overlooking the park, and the sun got low enough to shine over my shoulder and into the girl’s eyes. The entourage took turns holding and encouraging her. Also busting each other for doing it wrong.

We took a break, and re-assembled by the railing, so that the sun was hitting both of us from the side, and my subject could watch the rides.

Success? The parents liked the drawing. Lee told me I’d done a good job. The little girl had baby proportions and features, with a couple of exceptions, including very angular eyebrows, and I included those. I thought that I’d done a pretty good generic baby, solid, proportional, and with a whispy, baby cowlick.

Second child portrait: Three or four-year-old with lots of braids and beads, and a Dora the Explorer jacket. Jiyao started this one. Lee called me over, and said that they had to leave; they had a gig at a private party. He wanted me to finish the drawing.

Mixed feelings: I owe Jiyao for helping me with bad drawings, but I’m shy about messing with somebody -- somebody better than me -- else’s drawing.

But Jiyao had already established the proportions; I just had to shade the face, fake in some hair and beads, and draw a jacket with a bunch of Doras and stars and monkeys.

Victory. The little girl, who had been making sour faces earlier, loved it. So did her grownup.

Third little kid: This is the fortieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Earlier, Barbara and I had heard two Memphis sanitation workers (King was in Memphis when he was killed, supporting striking sanitation workers) on the radio. These were older black guys, probably not educated, from the deep south (Memphis is just on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi line), and the things they said were thoughtful, organized, and enunciated clearly. Barbara pointed out the irony of how much more well-spoken these men were than a lot of younger, more privileged (these guys had had to shake the maggots out of their clothes at night), northern blacks.

This kid was the two-ish son of a young man that was so mush-mouthed and jargon-addled, that I kept asking him to repeat himself. He wanted two sketches each of himself, his wife, and the boy, as well as various samples. We began.

I told the mother that it was a tough thing for little kids, so we should start with her son. Julian drew the dad, while I began with the boy. His name is Trevian, and Trevian wanted no part of me or my enterprise. He turned away, covered his face, and wept and howled.

Having just finished Jiyao’s sketch of the little girl, I tried to do a Jiyao drawing: outlined head, outlined eyes and brows, curves indicating tip of nose, nostrils, nostril wings, outlined mouth, placed correctly. Well, more or less. Trevian struggled, I struggled, and his mother threatened him with his father. I got the head, eyes, and nose, but crapped out on the mouth. I figured the folks didn’t want his lips stretched in an outraged howl. I had brought a camera, and tried it, but Trevian wouldn’t sit still enough for that, and then the camera told me it couldn’t access my data card.

I worked from a pic on the mom’s cell phone. Not a good one because the light had been poor, Trevian was not entirely in the frame, and he wasn’t smiling. Still, I could check proportions, the angle of his eyebrows, and various structures. He’d been in somebody’s lap, and the ear I could see was pushed forward. I tracked the kid down. Another young man, one I hadn’t noticed, was trying to entertain Trevian, while listening to an iPod with a plug in each ear. I needed a little help from him, and he had to open up an ear to catch on. Trevian didn’t want any part of me, but I got an idea of how his ears were made (later I smudged them and faded them into the background -- just enough flap to let you know the kid had ‘em).

Definitely a generic toddler. The dad decided against a second set of drawings, and chose a few samples (Scarface, Michael Jordan, and a nice black and white of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). While Julian matted his drawing of the mom, I helped Trevian push the easels around the floor. He seemed to have forgiven me. His parents told him to stop, but didn’t do anything about it.

Juggling for Spazzes: Lesson Two

April 3rd, 2008 (11:59 am)

Throw one ball underhanded so that it passes in front of your face. Catch it with your other hand, and throw it back. Do this for three -- no, two -- minutes, every day, for months and months.

Try to aim at your catching hand, so that it doesn’t have to move. Music is especially helpful for this exercise.

Turning a Corner

April 3rd, 2008 (11:53 am)

Yesterday, indeed, was dull at the Mall. Not a lot of traffic, and mostly not buying. I drew a boy of eight or so, and it was a nice drawing -- good likeness, proportional, dark darks, light lights, and plenty of in-between, looking smooth and blended like you’d expect from a boy who’ll live almost as long as he already has before he shaves.

The boy liked it, his parents liked it, I liked it. I could hear Lee cheerleading for it behind me. Did he like it? Yeah. He said that my drawing gets better when my passionate Irish nature isn’t irritated by a lot of noise. Does he believe that bullshit? Yeah.

I had seen it coming, though. I’d been more conscious and purposeful in my pursuit of proportion in a few recent photo-portraits, likewise in cultivating a smoother finish. I’d gone the other direction, shading a double portrait of Doctor King and Lyndon Johnson for myself, making the surfaces impressionistic, even pointilist.

A conversation I’d had with Ben had helped too. Ben told me that his current method grew out of blind contour drawing -- as described in Kimon Nicolaides’ “The Natural Way to Draw” -- scaring me into doing a better job with my current methods, so that I wouldn’t have to begin again with such a tough technique. (Use a pencil and a large sheet of newsprint. Your left hand can be your first model. Hold the hand still. Hold your head still. Look at your hand. Don’t look at your paper. At all. Move your eyes pore by pore along your hand’s edge. Move your pencil across the paper in lockstep with your gaze.) Ben and I were looking at a drawing of Lee’s, and Ben remarked that Lee judges his proportions top to bottom and right to left, while he judges them triangularly, and consequently has more measured proportions. I was at a loss to ask the questions that would get me more detailed instruction. Hell, I don’t know how to ask how Jiyao decides how far from the eyes to put the nostrils.

I think I’ve turned an important corner. Things will get anachronistic here occasionally, because there are some good bad-drawing stories I want to tell.

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