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Lessons in creativity from the great masters

I wish Davinci had also taught Portugal to use steps for their trains…

I recently read the art instruction book Drawings Lessons from the Great Masters. Via examples from art legends like Davinci and Rembrandt, the author demonstrates how the masters approached creating art.

My biggest takeaway: they rarely drew exactly what they saw. They’d leave out shade on an upper lip from a nose because created a mustache, omit the tip of an ear for a tilted head portrait, or create light sources from nowhere.

Beginners, on the other hand, often aim to copy exactly. The author uses the example of a student drawing a nude model…complete with the shadow on her chest from a cat asleep on the skylight!

Beyond drawing, this makes me think of general creative expression. With piano, I aim to learn a piece true to the tempo and dynamic markings of the composer. But when I play the piece, I often vary the piece depending on my mood. With writing, I often break Grammar Rules to fit my voice or to be bombastic. (HEY, IT’S MY NEWSLETTER!)

This “bend the rules” approach works with storytelling too. Who sticks exactly to what happened? *yawn* People enjoy stories for the lessons they contain or the entertainment, not for 100% factual regurgitation of an event.

Try it out with your creative projects! Take it from Davinci…he knew stuff.

Tom Jobim portrait

January Portrait Challenge, Week 2

Alexis Ffrench

My January portrait challenge continues! I know it was tough to wait an entire week to see who I’d draw next, but your wait ends now! Portrait party time. (Check out the first round here.)

I still haven’t made the time to actually study how to draw portraits. I’m just diving in. However, I’m finding that my eye for proportion is developing from just 30 minutes a night.

My focus this week was shading and blending. If I say so myself, there’s some improvement happening.

Still so many things I notice I’m messing up, but 1) I don’t want to spend hours a day on this and 2) I want as many repetitions as possible, not perfection.

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In order, these portrait subjects are:

  1. Ernesto Nazareth – Brazilian composer from 19th century and a fine handlebar mustache wearer.
  2. Alexis Ffrench – contemporary British composer and pianist.
  3. Tom Jobim – Brazilian bossa nova composer (can you tell I have a Brazilian piano teacher?)
  4. Florian Christl – contemporary German composer and pianist. Love his song Vivaldi Variation!
  5. Clara Schumann – brilliant 19th century pianist and composer.
  6. Víkingur Ólafsson – contemporary Icelandic pianist with SKILLZ. His interpretations of songs are fabulous (check Bach’s Prelude in G Major out.)
  7. Claude Debussy – Impressionist French composer with a strong mustache game, but weird shaped head.

Onward!

Rediscovering the right side of my brain

As part of my quest to not only draw stick figures forever, I’m reading the classic book Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. The section on brain development in children is fascinating.

When we’re infants, our brain hemispheres are not clearly specialized for different functions. That “lateralization” for left and ride brain doesn’t complete until age nine or ten.

This coincides with when kids start obsessing about “getting it right” and become sharply critical of their earlier drawings. They start regarding failure as anything less than perfect realism. I HATE THIS HORSE!!! *paper crumpling*

“Discontented with their own accomplishments and anxious to please others with their art, they tend to give up original creation and personal expression. Further development of visualizing powers and even capacity for original thought may be blocked at this point. It is a crucial stage beyond which many adults have not advanced.”

Miriam Lindstrom, Children’s Art

Not surprisingly, many kids abandon art completely at this age. And when adults are asked to draw many years later, they often generate work at a 9-10 year old level.

This is SO sad. How many blossoming Picassos and little Mikey d’Angelos have stopped making art because they couldn’t draw a perfect horse? Perhaps even worth, how many billions of people curtailed personal creativity at that age and never returned?

Guess who also stopped making art at that age? Yup. ME. Oh, and I even have two parents with advanced art degrees! Instead, I pursued athletics, scholastic achievements, and Warcraft 2 or Mario Kart proficiency.

My mom recently sent me this drawing I did around age 4. Did I care back then there were 7 legs on my winged hell dog? NOPE.

It’s Never Too Late

In case it’s not obvious, I’m not sharing my amateur beginner drawings for extrinsic validation. Nope, I’m merely hoping to demonstrate that anyone, even left-brain dominant engineers like me, possesses a font of creativity to draw, play music or whatever strikes your fancy.

We don’t need to sell (or even share) our work. The rewards are intrinsic and so palpable. Instead of passive consumption of media, we can create something that didn’t exist. How cool is that!

As I’m scratching away at a portrait each night this month, I’m experiencing the glorious melting of time. It’s marvelous: My right brain takes over and my Type A productivity self disappears into the background. The same thing happens when I look up from piano practice to discover an evening has zinged by unnoticed.

Here’s to turning off that decades-old criticism that your 10-YO self perhaps experienced. Give it another chance. Order some watercolors. Buy a sketchbook. Start a blog. Sign up for piano lessons.

You won’t find perfection (ever). But perfect is boring. The magic lies in the process, the ritual of creating.

Any eight-year-old kid knows that’s true.

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Yann Tiersen portrait

January Portrait Challenge, Days 1-11

I suck at portrait drawing for two main reasons: 1) it’s par with rocket science difficulty-wise and 2) I’ve put exactly three hours of practice into it in my entire life.

Enough! January is my month to go from “is that a person?” to “hey, only the ears and chin are weird!” (Here’s week 2.)

How? I’m taking 30 minutes a day to draw a portrait. To make it easy to think of subjects, I’m drawing composers whose piano songs I’m learning, as well as performers I admire. (Like Otis Spann, a Chicago blues pianist.)

My goal is to improve my shading skills and generally work on perspective. I’m looking past my absolutely mediocre skills with optimism thanks to a Skillshare video I watched that said, “you don’t discover your talent to draw. You develop it.”

Chelsea, always helpful, pointed out that drawing a bunch of dead white guys from past centuries is straight-up odd. Nice to have feedback to keep me from getting too strange, I suppose.

DISREGARDED. I shall soldier on in all my weirdness!

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BTW, I know my first one isn’t a portrait…I decided to go full formal drawing after the 1st. This isn’t an art school dissertation, alright?! Sheesh.

This first round of portraits includes:

  1. Louis Armstrong – I’m learning What a Wonderful World
  2. Ludovico Einaudi – the esteemed/maligned modernist Italian composer. (Learned a bunch of his songs.)
  3. Otis Spann – badass Chicago blues pianist
  4. Franz Liszt – the brilliant 20th century virtuoso and composer (I’m working on his Consolations.)
  5. Martha Argerich – incredibly talented Argentinian pianist.
  6. Lang Lang – the flamboyant Chinese pianist.
  7. John Legend – American singer and songwriter.
  8. Chris Martin – lead singer for Coldplay.
  9. Erik Satie – the very quirky Impressionist/modern French composer.
  10. Yann Tiersen – French composer of the Amelie soundtrack, which has a few songs I’m learning.
  11. Chopin (no first name needed!) – I’m learning a bunch of his preludes and other pieces.

January Artist Portraits, Day 1-11

Forget goal setting, invest in skills

Goal: Bikepacking the Colorado Trail. Skills to do it? Acquired over many years.

Ah, a new year! A fantastic time to hate the old us: let’s whittle away our bloated physical bodies, quiet our ping-ponging minds, change our crappy jobs, and eat celery while taking cold showers and doing pushups.

Meh. I don’t buy it. Can’t we just be happy with who we are and still be on a personal growth path?

Maybe that’s why I loved Mark Manson’s recent thoughts on goals vs. developing skills. As he says,

“What are you improving at? What are you learning and gaining?

Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve in the new year, ask yourself, “What do I want to be good at that I’m not?” Then get to work on it.”

Mark Manson

Goals are things you want to accomplish. Skills are things you DO. (Which, incidentally, can help accomplish goals.)

Want to lose weight? Skill: learn how to cook three healthy meals.

Want to make more in-real-life friends? Skill: Learn how to be more vulnerable and listen better.

In the past, I’ve prioritized freedom and flexibility over a strict schedule. Game for an outdoor adventure or a friend hang at any time. Benefits, yes…with the downside that I wasn’t consistent with skill development.

Last year, I booked weekly Italian/piano lessons and committed to drawing consistently. I didn’t miss a day of studying my Italian flashcards with Anki and slowly but surely learned 4,000 vocab words. Thanks to that, I made tangible and incredibly satisfying progress. Small, consistent efforts lead to real skills.

I’m not as available now, but the tradeoff in schedule flexibility is 100% worth it. Now the days where I barely play music or skip a drawing session feel incomplete. I can’t imagine going back to the old me.

Which reminds me of this quote from Stillness is the Key…

So: to hell with goals. What skill can you commit to developing this year?

I’ll go first: I want to improve my portraiture skills, so I’m starting 2022 with drawing a portrait every day in January. Gawwwd they are hard!

A young Franz Liszt (composer and virtuoso pianist).

A year of T. Rex drawings

T. Rexes like to focus on the middle section of the tree.

Here are all my T. Rex drawings from 2021. After all, what better way to tee up a successful next year than referencing dinosaurs striving and failing?

By the way, the whole T. Rex thing started when I sketched a piece of Guatemalan art that Chelsea and I have on our wall. I randomly added a T. Rex, then thought “hey, I can do better than that.”

And so it began. All part of being an amateur.

Who knows how long I’ll continue…for now, it’s fun brainstorming ideas and I crack myself up executing the actual drawing. Plus, it’s honing (or maybe wrecking?) my drawing skills by practicing ridiculous dinosaurs!

Click on the first image for full size and scroll on through. Got ideas for more T. Rex fails? I’m all ears.

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All The T. Rexes

The power of sharing your thoughts online

Have you ever considered sharing your thoughts publicly via a newsletter, blog, podcast, or vlog? Based on my experience doing so, I can heartily say make. it. happen.

Why? Well…

Publishing Traipsing About for the past eight years has added so much richness to my life. Almost 100 newsletters and 200+ blog posts in, things just keep getting better. (By things, I mean my T. Rex drawings, not my jokes.)

T. Rex tries to brush his teeth

I have good friends who initially found me through Traipsing About. A cousin I’d never met randomly read my Italian citizenship blog post and I discovered a whole side of my family I didn’t know existed! (Pretty sure they’re New Jersey Italian mafia.)

An extra bonus: writing consistently keeps me connected with friends and family. They witness my antics and keep tabs on me even when kids and jobs make staying in touch difficult. It sparks email exchanges and connection. Sure, Facebook and Instagram kiiiinda work, but it’s not the same depth as longer-form media.

There’s power in putting thoughts down and sharing them publicly. It clarifies things in a way that a private journal sometimes can’t.

I’ve gained so much from following others who also share their thoughts and struggles, so it’s satisfying to be part of that great internet diaspora and pay it forward.

I also love getting random emails from you when I share things I’ve screwed up learned. It fascinates me how my personal experience with money, travel, relationships, or social media use can impact someone if it hits them at the right time.

People want to hear what you’re thinking. Put it out there! Substack has free newsletters, podcasting can be done with a $40 microphone, YouTube only requires a smart phone, Twitter takes 37 seconds to sign up…

What better time than now?

Here’s to the amateurs

Beethoven bad portrait
Early drawing efforts in an old notebook my mom gave me.

In today’s full-tilt culture, amateur often carries a negative meaning. If a hobby doesn’t morph into a monetized side hustle, what’s the point?

Take drawing, for example. I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw something beyond stick figures. To test the waters, I’ve sketched almost every night this year. Then I text a photo of my creation to my college roommate, Eric, who is doing the same.

I’m a total noobie. Eric, a long-time artist, is amazing. The contrast between our drawings is, errrr, obvious…

But you know what? It doesn’t matter! We crack each other up, share moments from our daily lives, and flex our drawing muscles in the the process. I’m improving, slowly but steadily.

It’s like getting a cardio workout while playing basketball: if you’re having fun, it doesn’t feel like a w.o.r.k.o.u.t. Try feeling that way during solo wind sprints.

Amateurs have it better

The word amateur has Latin roots in “love.” In both French (amateur) and Italian (amatore) it’s not about skill, but love and passion.

Compare that to the stress of professionals. I’ve read about pianists whose nerves are so bad they throw up before performances! I may get some nerves while playing for friends, but I tend to keep my dinner down.

Historically, the amateur was considered to be the ideal balance between pure intent, open mind, and the interest or passion for a subject. The gentleman scientists (think Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin) were amateurs in the best sense of the word, following their curiosity whichever way it went.

Those guys set the bar high, but they didn’t start out discovering gravity or evolution. Initially they looked at falling apples and studied mollusks.

Me? I study dinosaur mobility.
(Every T. Rex hates the sit and reach test.)

Why is art different?

What I find fascinating is that people spend their time on so many activities where they’re distinctly amateur without feeling a pressure to make money. Chess tournaments, local 5k running races, strumming the guitar. Few people get paid for those hobbies.

But creating physical ART?! No way, dude: that’s a waste of time. Maybe it’ll be worth it if I open an Etsy store or sell an NFT?

PFFFFT. I enjoy drawing (and writing this blog, playing piano and so on) because they’re satisfying and fun creative outlets, not a source of income. I don’t have to think about marketing, customer acquisition cost, or…

Sorry, I drifted off with all that boring business crap. NONE of which I have to do as an amateur!

The next time you’re going deep on a hobby and someone asks when you’re turning it into a business, be proud of your amateurishness. Remember, nothing wrecks an enjoyable hobby like turning it into work.

Whoa, what happened to Amelie’s eyes? DOESN’T MATTER, I’m an amateur. BOOM.
Amelie, take 2. Ignore the (amateurish) watercolor seep through… Still having fun!