Tiny Gems

Dr. Nina Ansary. 2020. Pencil preliminary in sketchbook

Some weeks ago I lamented the anti-intellectualism that’s running rampant in my beleaguered country. This week isn’t any different; the flagrant and callous imbecility continues unabated on social media and it isn’t going to stop. All the uneducated, misinformed wannabe epidemiologists and virologists spewing their opinions on social media were selfish assholes before all of this started and they’ll continue being selfish assholes long after this is over and done with. That, dear friends, is the last you’ll hear from me on this topic. I don’t know about you but I have better things to do.

Truth be told the aforementioned situation actually has some value to offer If you look for it. In the grand scheme of things, the daily shitshow on social media is nothing more than a pathetic example of just how stupid and self-centered humans can be. In that sense, it’s a complete and total waste of time, but if you dig beneath its bloated ego-laden surface, you’ll find a nice little tidbit of wisdom: Life is short. Live your best life without compromise.

It’s easy to get caught up in the anti-intellectual mire that is modern-day America, but that, dear friends, is a choice. Mental stimulation is always within arm’s reach, if you truly desire to have it. You can either watch another mindless sitcom or you can choose to read or watch something informative. Books like Anthony Bourdain’s classic culinary memoir, Kitchen Confidential offer profound understanding into the struggles and aspirations of a working chef. Documentaries like The Birth of the Cool, the recent Miles Davis documentary, are fantastic for giving you insight into the mind of a musical genius, and musicals like Hamilton expose you to the life of someone such as founding father Alexander Hamilton. The truth is that there are a plethora of things to choose from that will help stop brain rot. Choosing between a mindless sitcom or gameshow and Miles Davis is like choosing between a Big Mac or some gambas al ajillo. You get my point, right? Mental stimulation is out there, it’s not hiding. If you want to  continue growing as a person then the choice is yours. Evolving as a human being is part of living your best life. There’s many facets to living your best life, and a lot of that falls to the choices that you make as an individual. You either continue to grow or you stagnate. It’s all up to you. 

As an artist, I’m very mindful of all this. Perhaps because of my profession this kind of thing is that much more important to me than it is for other folks. For me, being an artist and learning new things go hand in hand. It’s because of this that I was able to go from being a kid from a humble background who read comic books by Jack Kirby to an art school graduate who counts people like Burne-Jones and Lord Leighton as influences.

At my age, my thirst for knowledge has not lessened; on the contrary, it has become even more insatiable. As I get older, my patience for conversations about mundane pedestrian things is getting shorter and shorter. I like to be around people who talk about ideas and about books they’re reading, different cultures, music, art, etc. This is where I’m at and it’s what I want.

These things are going to take on an even greater importance as time goes on. Art and  culture inform and influence me as a person and artist. Hispanophile, Anglophile, Francophile – yes, all of the above. This is just the tip of the iceberg. That fact that I speak fluent Spanish opens me up to an additional world of enrichment. As a kid, I grew up with Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and the Three Stooges while also taking in the work of the equally brilliant Mario Moreno “Cantinflas,” and Roberto Gómez Bolaños in all his various guises. Anyone who speaks another language fluently knows exactly what I’m talking about. All of this influences my interests, my tastes, and most importantly, my worldview. Growing as a person doesn’t have an age limit. The only limits that exist are the ones you put on yourself. The world is too vast and too interesting to limit myself to one culture, one way of seeing things, so yeah, you can be pretty sure that when it comes down to it I’m always going to choose Miles Davis over over a sitcom. 

Agribusiness cities aren’t exactly cultural meccas, but if you’re hungry enough you’ll view that sort of situation as a challenge rather than a nail in the coffin. It’s a choice you make. As an artist and individual it’s important for me to continue learning about the world I live in. That means looking beyond the limited parameters of where I’m at. I refuse to stagnate in the all too familiar humdrum situation that could easily derail me at any given moment if I let it. Life is short and the world is too vast – go beyond the never ending monotony of everyday life and nourish yourself with the hidden gems that are out there waiting for you. 

This week, I have chosen to show you a piece of work before it is fully worked out and completed. In this case, it’s a pen and ink portrait of Dr. Nina Ansary that I’m currently working on. What you see here is a pencil preliminary from my sketchbook. It’s close to being done but still needs some work. Dr. Ansary’s features are very fine so they must be handled with the utmost finesse when drawing them. This is why I do a preliminary study beforehand. I need to be sure of what I’m going to be doing when I do the final piece so I work everything out before my pen ever touches the paper. In case you were curious, this is how art is made.      

A special thanks to Dr. Ansary for graciously giving me permission to do this portrait. 

A Silver Lining

Dr. Nina Ansary. 2020. Pen, ink, and digital color.

This blog post originally started as a spontaneous “Here’s what I’m doing this Monday morning,” but after ingesting a near lethal dose of uneducated rubbish regarding, amongst other things, COVID-19 all day, it quickly changed. Sometimes I seriously wonder what the bleeding hell is wrong with people nowadays. Never in my life have I seen so many ego-driven, self-centered, fact-less opinions being doled out willy-nilly. Social media is an unending barrage of uneducated, misinformed bullshit – a literal daily shitshow. Sadly, the flame of anti-intellectualism has been fanned into a roaring blaze by the internet, social media, pop culture, and so called smartphones. We live in the information age and yet people seem to be dumber than ever. Nowadays, Joe Blow and Jane Doe are suddenly effing geniuses despite having barely crawled out of high school. Funny that. They don’t read; they have no intellectual curiosity, and they live on a steady diet of jalapeño poppers and pop culture. In short, they’re as hollow as the culture they come from. This is where we’re at as human beings: ”My ignorance trumps your knowledge.” It’s a sad state of affairs and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

I’m supposed to have sympathy for these schmucks? Yeah, that’s never going to happen. In the end, you have to decide how much of your time and energy you’re going to spend verbally slugging it out with the denizens of Slobville. They’re not going away anytime soon and verbally sparring down in Slobville isn’t high on my priorities list. The stupidity, the lack of empathy, and the all around selfishness have reached levels so nauseating that I think it’s time that I call it a day and cut back my time on social media before I suffer permanent brain damage. This, of course, excludes anything having to do with my work; the production and promotion of what I do will continue unabated.

Truth be told, I have much better things to do – you know, like make art. When I get sick and tired of people’s BS I retreat into my own little creative world where I can create, explore, and learn. Some might say that I live in a bubble. Perhaps. I might live in a bubble, but at least I’m being productive and that is reason enough to get away from social media and pop culture. Instead of going round and round with selfish, unempathetic idiots, I’d rather tell you about some of the things I’m currently working on. I’ve started to work on a new series of drawings that will likely carry me well into the fall; this batch of new work is some of the most complex work that I’ve ever done. I’m excited to be starting work on these new drawings which will represent me better than anything I’ve done previously.  Besides being some of my most ambitious work, these drawings will reflect my personal interests more clearly than ever before. Things such as Spanish cante, gitano culture, Moorish design, and late Victorian draftsmanship and painting will be woven into the images that I will be creating over the coming months.

We’re all living through an unprecedented moment in time, but we must all remember that as horrible as all this seems, it’s just a moment in time. In a few years it will all slowly fade into history as we start to return to a normal way of life. This unexpected pause to our daily life has a silver lining for creatives. This is an unexpected opportunity to be as creative as possible. I can’t help but feel as if the universe is tapping me on the shoulder and telling me to go balls out and create the best work that I’ve ever done. Hey, that sounds pretty good to me. Don’t miss out on this opportunity dear friends – the likelihood of something like this happening again anytime soon is pretty doubtful so unleash your creativity and go for it. For now, I will continue to remain positive and hopeful that a vaccine is developed in the coming months. Stay safe, wear a damn mask, and practice social distancing. We can get through this if we all do our part.

The drawing that adorns this week’s post is the second portrait that I’ve done of Dr. Nina Ansary. My first drawing of her from a few weeks ago wasn’t quite what I wanted; It didn’t really capture Dr. Ansary’s beauty, elegance and aplomb so I decided to do this second portrait. I like this drawing a lot better – it’s closer to what I would expect of myself and I’d like to believe that I’ve finally done Dr. Ansary justice. I hope that she feels the same way I do when she sees it.    

Creating A Drawing

People often inquire about how I go about creating a drawing, so I thought I’d take this week’s post to answer that often asked question. 

The drawing that I’ll be using as an example for this post is my brooding pen and ink portrait of painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, cofounder of the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. When I decide to draw a portrait of someone, the person has to intrigue me in one way or another – there has to be a fair amount of depth and intrigue to them. If you know anything about Rossetti, you’ll understand why I chose to draw him: painter, poet, translator, visionary, and one of Victorian England’s greatest figures; the choice to draw him wasn’t difficult. 

The first step in my process is the search for good photo reference. This is a practice that was drilled into my head when I was an illustration major in art school and one that I’ve not abandoned despite no longer considering myself an illustrator. Fortunately, I found a great portrait of DGR by preeminent Victorian photographer, Frederick Hollyer. The next step is the preparatory pencil sketch where I establish all the angles and proportions of the face and where I start to indicate facial features. I usually do this using a Rotring 800 mechanical pencil using HB lead. I did my drawing in a Stillman & Birn softcover Alpha sketchbook. SB uses really sturdy paper so things like repeated erasing usually isn’t a problem. SB sketchbooks also take ink really well. This first stage is often the hardest as I have to make sure that all the angles and proportions are just right so that I don’t have to go back and correct mistakes later. Correcting mistakes that could have been avoided is just a waste of my time. 

In the next phase, I start to work up the subject‘s features in order to bring forth their personality. Features are a tricky thing; again, lots of attention must be paid to them at this stage so that the personality of the subject comes through. Setting a drawing aside for a day or two will aid greatly in picking out any mistakes that have been made. Once the preliminary drawing is at a solid stage of completion it’s time to move on to the final and most tedious stage: rendering in ink. 

The majority of my ink work is done with Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph technical pens. I favor point 0/.35 for most of my work. I prefer Rapidographs because they use real ink and are refillable. I’m no fan of supposedly modern disposable pens like those made by Micron. I tried them years ago and they felt flimsy and unreliable. My Rapidographs are solid pens that haven’t failed me in 35 years. 

The first thing I do when I start to render my drawing in ink is to outline the subject’s features. Once that’s done, I start to thicken my line work by going over my lines to add variety and depth to my them. At this point I start putting in the darkest values in so that I can contrast all lesser values against them. I repeat this until I achieve an overall and pleasing balance. Once this balance is achieved, I correct any and all mistakes with Winsor Newton white designer’s gouache. 

I’ve included my original version of my portrait  and the updated one I did a few months later. The drawing didn’t feel right when I finished it; some of the proportions were off and the value balance was off. Using gouache, I whited out a portion of his forehead at the hairline and shortened it. I also whited out some of the hair on the back of his head as well. In addition, I darkened the background. These changes really brought the drawing together and brought out that brooding quality that’s evident in Rossetti’s features. 

Pen and ink is amongst the most challenging of mediums to work with. It’s similar to watercolor in that everything must be well thought out before the actual rendering begins and because there’s very little room for mistakes. Yes, you can white out mistakes with gouache but it’s better not to make those mistakes to begin with. Pen and ink is also challenging to work with because of the difficulty in achieving subtleties in shading. Unlike pencil, pen and ink requires a lot more work in order to achieve this. If there’s one thing that’s true about pen and ink it’s that a well executed drawing has a definitive power to it that is unique to this drawing medium.

Voices Not Forgotten

The world seems crueler in 2019. It’s not really any worse, but it feels like it is. With the advent of the internet and social media we are all now hyper aware of the worst things that happen in our world. The days of hearing only vague details about something happening in another part of the world on the nightly news are gone. We now get, on a daily basis, blow-by-blow, live on-the-spot, in-your-face reports about all manner of atrocities that are happening in any part of the world at any given time. 

As time has passed, I have felt an increasingly strong need to use my work to give voices that have gone silent a chance to be heard anew. Each and every day there are atrocities committed all over the world that leave me speechless. Last week, it was another mass shooting at a high school in Southern California where more innocent people died and yesterday and today it was Fresno and Oklahoma. Tomorrow it’ll be somewhere else and it’ll happen to people that you are currently completely unaware of. You will learn the names of these innocent souls because their lives will have come to a sudden and unjust end. You might not personally know these people who are lost to senseless violence, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important. The names of the innocent deserve to be heard. Their lives deserve to be remembered.

One such person that I recently found out about is 14 year old Ana Kriégel of Dublin, Ireland. Ana was brutally murdered in May 2018 by two 13 year old boys who lured her to a derelict farmhouse outside the city. Here’s a bit of Ana’s story from Wikipedia:

 “Anastasia “Ana” Kriégel (/kriːˈeɪʒəl/; 18 February 2004 – 14 May 2018) was a Russian-Irish girl who was subject to a violent attack, murdered and sexually assaulted in an abandoned house late May 2018 in Lucan near Dublin. Two boys, known only as Boy A and Boy B who were 13 years old at the time of Kriégel’s death, were convicted of her murder, with one of the boys (Boy A) being further convicted of aggravated sexual assault. The two convicts are the youngest in the history of Ireland to be charged with murder.” 

There simply are no words for this act of pure evil. Ana’s death was a senseless, cold-blooded murder that can never be justified. Just like so many other victims of violent crime, Ana’s name deserves to be remembered. As an artist I feel that it’s important for me to share these stories. It’s the least that I can do. I hope that my drawing has done Ana justice. 

Anguish and Luxury

A cool October breeze blows gently through the trees outside my house as leaves rustle, swoosh, and swirl to the ground. Along with the rustling of leaves there are other sounds that waft through the air on a daily basis in my neighborhood: neighbors mowing their lawns, kids going to school, people walking their dogs, and people out for their daily runs. Along with all that hustle and bustle is the sonic cacophony of police and fire engine sirens that seem a permanent part of the landscape. Without them blaring in the background this place would feel a little off-kilter.

Aside from the neighborhood sounds and the daily chorus of sirens, there’s another sound that fills the air near my house on an almost daily basis. It is perhaps even more unnerving and jarring than the aforementioned chorus of sirens. Directly behind my house there’s a small, rundown rehabilitation center for senior citizens; I’ve lived in my house for two years and up until six months ago everything seemed fine. Recently, though, I am forced to listen to the agonizing screams of an elderly woman who clearly suffers from some sort of a mentally debilitating illness. She screams at the top of her lungs nonstop for what seems like hours on some days. She’s clearly in mental anguish, and it’s unsettling to hear her call out in such desperation. 

I often wonder, “What if that was me?” The mere thought of going through what this poor woman goes through on an almost daily basis sends chills down my spine. More than anything, it reminds me of just how damn lucky I am. The fact that I wake up every morning in complete control of my bodily functions is a total blessing that I can’t overlook and yet sometimes I do. I can only imagine how much of a torture it must be for this poor woman to get through days that most of us spend pissing away on the most banal  and trivial of things. Think about this, you’re driving somewhere and someone unexpectedly pulls out in front of you and it triggers some ego-induced road rage that gets you to speed up and go and cut the person off just to satisfy some pathetic need to be dominant or perhaps you spend your days online spewing nonsense and reveling in the fact that you can because you choose to. We think these things are torturous and are the worst things that could happen to us. We go home and spend our time complaining about these things that are, in the larger picture, trivialities. The woman in the rehab center behind me doesn’t have those luxuries available to her anymore. Instead, she spends her days in a type of mental anguish that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Somebody has to feed her, dress her, bathe her, clean her, and most of all, make sure that she’s safe. Hissy fits about other drivers and what someone said to you on Facebook are things that are completely nonexistent in this woman’s world. Trust me, pissing away your time because you choose to do so is a luxury that most people take for granted each and every single day. 

The anguished screams that flow through the air near my house do not go unnoticed. Those screams have meaning to me. As one person fights with every ounce of her being to get through another day, I have the luxury to learn something from her and to gain some perspective on my life. Despite it all, things aren’t so bad for me. How could I even think that they’re anything other than damn good knowing full well that I could be the person screaming behind my house in the blink of an eye. 

I’ll leave you with this bit of food for thought: someone said something or posted something on Facebook that upset you. The woman in the rehab center behind my house is screaming in mental anguish as she struggles to get through another day. Now, please tell me again about  how upsetting your insignificant Facebook incident was. We all need to get a clue. 

Getting On With It

Summer. 2019. Pencil Preliminary (Study II). Pencil in sketchbook. 

As a self confessed and proud perfectionist I admit that I drive myself a little crazy at times. I’m not ashamed of being nit picky at all as that keeps mediocrity at bay at all times but sometimes I do feel the need to just jump in and get on with it. Spontaneity doesn’t mean that quality has to suffer. Solid draftsmanship is solid draftsmanship and that doesn’t change.

Lately, I’ve felt the need to loosen up a bit and shove my hands into the creative dirt. The main thing about all this is that I’ve decided to stop overthinking things and just do them. The only thing that matters now is creating and everything else takes second place to that. Interestingly, this approach is a throwback to past era of my life when I was much more willing to be spontaneous and experimental. Those things have their importance but there must be skill beneath them to give them support otherwise they’re there’s really nothing there.

The drawing that accompanies this post a drawing of a good friend of mine that I recently did in my sketchbook. If you have beautiful friends you should draw them. There’s nothing better than drawing a beautiful woman and capturing her beauty. I’m fortunate to have quite a few highly photogenic friends so I am not too worried about the scarcity of subjects for my pen. There’s definitely more to come. This drawing was fun to do; I left a bit of pencil in for the shading and finished off the rest in pen and ink. I’m pleased with the results I’ll probably rework this and refine it a bit and turn into a proper finished piece so as to do it’s gorgeous subject justice.

Empathy and Finesse

It’s late on an August evening and I’ve spent the better part of my day behind my drawing table working on a myriad of projects, including this blog post. It’s stifling in my studio tonight, but work must continue. People often ask me how much I work on a daily basis, perhaps a better question would be how much I don’t work. I’m up early, around 7:30, and I’m in the studio a great part of the day. Lately, I’ve been racking up the hours — I’m starting to slowly edge back to those 14 hour days that were so common in the past.

The drawing that I’ve chosen for this new blog post is one that I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. It’s been quite a while since my last post; I’ve put off making a new post because I just couldn’t bear to bring myself to publish yet another journal page filled with drawings of food or coffee-swilling patrons. These things are so commonplace nowadays that they have become cliche. Surely there’s more interesting things to draw, right? There has to be more tto a post for me than the shine of silverware and the ritualistic act of daily caffeine ingestion. 

Recently, the world has felt so dark. The news can be so overwhelming and it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness and despair. As always, though, there are those that burn like beacons in the dark, showing us the way forward. Powerful women are stepping forward worldwide to guide us. These include Americans like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ruth Bader Ginsberg as well as international figures such as Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, and Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. On March 15, 2019 the city of Christchurch, New Zealand suffered a horrific terrorist attack where a gunman killed 51 people and injured 49 others at two local mosques during Friday prayer. In the wake of these attacks, the Prime Minister reached out to the families of the victims and held them close to her as they came to grips with such a senseless and cowardly act. Most importantly, within a month she helped pass legislation that banned assault style weapons in New Zealand. 

I remember seeing images of her comforting her bereft countrymen on social media and I was moved by the great empathy that the Prime Minister showed them. Her actions were the exact opposite of what I see here in the United States — her actions were heartfelt and genuine as opposed to being just another photo op. This portrait is the first in a series of new drawings that will celebrate exceptional women. 

What you see here is basically a preliminary drawing that will lead to a finished piece. I’m still working it out and finessing her features. It may look finished, but I can assure you that this is far from done. Her face is the most important element of my drawing, so her features have to be spot on. I hope that I’m able to capture the sincere and heartfelt empathy in her gaze. Showing such emotion is a challenge that I’m excited to be undertaking. 

A Kindred Spirit

Originally, this post was set to appear on Saturday, June 8th, 2019 to commemorate the first anniversary of Anthony Bourdain’s death; however, once I started working on my portrait I realized that wouldn’t be able to complete my drawing to my satisfaction. Instead of rushing to complete the drawing, I decided to put it off by a day in order to ensure that my portrait of Tony would meet my standards.

A year ago, on the day he died, Anthony Bourdain’s name was only vaguely familiar to me. I’d heard his name mentioned here and there by the cool cats that I’m fortunate to know; you know, people in the know, people that know the cool stuff that most folks are oblivious to until those things hit the mainstream years later. One such soul is my old pal, Kenny. He had read Tony’s classic culinary exposé, Kitchen Confidential, when it was originally published in 2000. What can I say? I’m a serious latecomer. Worst of all is that I missed out on many years of enjoying the exploits of one of the coolest people to ever walk the world stage.

I read Kitchen Confidential for the first time in 2018, and I instantly connected with Tony and his tale of the ups and downs experienced while living, “The Life.” It sounded all too familiar: living a life outside the norm and hell bent on making a success out of it all while putting up with the general public and their total misconceptions about what a working professional goes through. Most of all, I loved that Tony had the same attitude towards being a chef and cooking that I have towards being an artist and making art: shit or get off the pot.

Within days of his untimely passing, I was watching Parts Unknown and discovering something truly wonderful: storytelling through food. I watched and re-watched as many episodes as I could. Since then, I’ve discovered all manner of things — terminology such as mis en place, foods like roasted bone marrow, great restaurants like St. John, and great chefs like Marco Pierre White and Fergus Henderson. Because of Tony’s insatiable curiosity, I’ve discovered a whole new world that has expanded my world view. I am not alone in my feelings about this, his curiosity, adventurous spirit, and easygoing personality has enriched us all. Thanks, Tony.