A Week In Review

Dr. Nina Ansary (Preliminary). 2020. Pen, ink, and gouache in sketchbook. 

Today will be another might-as-well-be-living-in-Sub-Saharan-Africa day in the Central Valley. Summers here are relentless and unforgiving and their effect on my ability to be creative is just one more hurdle I have to overcome in my daily routine. It is what it is.

This week I will continue to give you an insight into what it’s like to be a professional, working artist in the 21st Century. This week I am going to give you a peak into a working week from start to finish, warts and all.

Monday: My days start early, usually between 6:30 and 7:00 am. I normally start them with a book and my first of many cups of coffee. It’s always been important for me to read – an artist who doesn’t read is shallow in personality and short on ideas. I love reading about the lives of artists that I admire; it gives me an understanding of what I’m doing and where I’m going. 

This morning, I’m starting work on the second version of a portrait of Dr. Nina Ansary. My first preliminary pen and ink drawing adorns this week’s post. As always, I feel that it can be better, so I’ll likely redraw it. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish work on my preliminary pencil drawing by this afternoon amidst the sweltering and unbearable heat in my petit atelier. The drawing will be in a very elementary state: a tight but loose sketch that’s ready to be traced and transferred to my tracing pad where it will be refined. That probably won’t happen until tomorrow at the earliest because I’ve got lots of other projects that I need to get to. The pieces that I will be producing in the coming months are important to me and will likely be some of the best work that I’ll ever do. Great art takes time to create and I intend for these to be nothing short of extraordinary. After all these years, I’m still full of piss and vinegar, so without any hesitation whatsoever I can say that I will be going balls out on this new work and pulling no punches in its execution. My time has become precious and I despise wasting it. Most of these ideas are in a preliminary phase and there’s an unimaginable amount of hours left before I can even begin to fathom putting pen to paper and bringing them to completion. 

Tuesday: This morning my work continues on my second portrait of Dr. Ansary. I traced and transferred what I did yesterday over to my tracing pad, so now I can begin to refine and hone the drawing to where I want it to be – this usually happens after multiple tracings. Once I’ve got the drawing where I want it to be, I’ll trace it onto a thick sheet of 3 ply Strathmore series 500 Bristol board and start inking it with Rapidograph technical pens. 

By late in the afternoon, I’ve worked up my pencil preliminary of Dr. Ansary to a satisfactory level and move on to other projects. I’m in the process of organizing a publicity event for later this year that will showcase some of the new work that I’ve been talking about. All of my new work will reflect my love of 19th and 20th Century art, especially Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Sir Edward Burne-Jones and fin de siècle Symbolist painters, draftsman, and engravers such as Carlos Schwabe, Alphonse Mucha, and Gustave Doré. My new work will be a mélange of these influences and reflect personal interests such as Spanish cante, Moorish art, ancient English storytelling, and a myriad of others.

Wednesday: It’s midweek, and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with the process of choosing which projects I want to work on in the coming months. Don’t get me wrong, I want to work on all of them, but I need to zero in on the ones that need to get done sooner. It’s tough doing this because all of these projects are important to me. This feeling isn’t anything new to me, however; it’s part of my creative process. Big projects usually start like this and slowly but surely get organized in my mind. That normally takes place late at night when I’m lying wide awake ruminating on what to do. 

Today was a scorcher. When I say scorcher, you should know that it’s an understatement. I was only half joking earlier when I called the weather here in The Valley Sub-Saharan. Summers here in the Central Valley can be brutal with stretches of days where the weather is over 100° F. The heat is stifling and makes it a challenge to be creative. Scorching weather or not, the show must go on. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the dynamic for everyone including me. Initially I found myself struggling to adapt to it. My wife is a private tutor who usually goes from home to home all afternoon and evening, but all that changed with this pandemic. I was used to days where I could take a break and either read or watch TV whenever I wanted to, but that was taken away from me when my wife started working from home. The first month and a half were kind of rough and I wondered how I was going to adapt to the change. Thankfully, my wife and I worked together to develop a solution. I wake up early and have the morning hours to myself and she stays up late and enjoys the quiet hours of the night. In addition, time has helped resolve the issue. I’m grateful that both my wife and I are able to continue working and doing what we do amidst this worldwide tragedy. 

Thursday: Today it seems as if the universe has listened to my pleas and bestowed a cool and cloudy day upon me. The preliminary pen and ink that adorns this post is something that I’ve been working on over the past few days along with everything else I’ve mentioned. I’m done inking it and making corrections, so it’s time to scan it and get it ready for posting to my social media accounts. The drawing is well done and whatnot, but I’m not sure I’ve captured my subject’s elegance and aplomb. It’s a solid start that will lead to a much stronger drawing when it gets worked up into a more finished piece.

Out of the blue, I’ve decided to start writing the post you’re currently reading a little ahead of schedule because I’m driven to do it; I spend the better part of my afternoon at the computer pounding out the beginnings of this post. The urge to write is something that’s becoming stronger as time goes on. Aside from these weekly blog posts, I’ve also started working on two manuscripts and a collection of short snippets of random moments. I’m not a writer per se, but I like to write, so this will now become part of my creative output – albeit at a much slower rate than my visual art. 

Friday: The universe continues to bless me with cool and cloudy weather. Praise. Today I’m looking forward to continuing all the preliminary work for my upcoming projects. One of the main factors that will differentiate this new work from things I’ve done in the past is that many of these new pieces will be substantially larger than previous work. This obviously means that it will take an even greater amount of time to complete most of the work I have planned. The most exciting thing about these new pieces is that I’ve been keeping a list of “Projects I Will Someday Have the Skill to Complete” for the past 35 years and I finally feel technically ready to undertake the work required to bring these ideas to fruition.

The week is ending on a good note. I ‘m feeling more productive than I have in quite some time. Work on all my projects is moving ahead, and I’ve got everything I need in order to move forward with everything that I want to do over the coming months. Onward, ever onward.  

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.

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.

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.

Common Ground

No one could be more different from me than Marco Pierre White. I’m an American – he’s English. I’m a visual artist – he’s a chef. I’m chill – he’s volatile. Despite these differences, reading his autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef, has both inspired me and spoken to me both viscerally and intellectually.

This is not the first time that I have found commonality with people that seem very different from me; despite our differences, and sometimes because of them, these people have often served as guiding lights and I have seen them as kindred spirits. As a teenager I discovered the work of Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Despite the cultural differences between us, I found much in common with Burne-Jones: he was also an only child from humble beginnings who used art to better himself. I also connected with people such as French comics artist Jean Giraud: again, he was an only child, his biological father was absent in his life, his grandparents helped raise him, and he used his art to navigate through childhood. These are just two individuals among many others that I’ve felt an affinity with. I feel a strong kinship with these people because the fight for excellence knows no boundaries: cultural, geographical, or other differences do not matter whatsoever.

As a draftsman, storyteller, and picture maker, I’ve drawn most of my inspiration from visual artists: painters, illustrators, comic book artists, and the like. In addition, I’ve also drawn inspiration from musicians, writers, directors, etc both foreign and domestic. No matter the discipline, the one common denominator that’s always inspired me is excellence. My reverence for excellence is what led me to discover Marco, a British chef and culinary hero who’s famous for being the first and youngest English chef to win three Michelin stars.

Marco’s book showed me that the struggle to succeed as an artist is also the same struggle that one faces on the road to becoming a great chef: it’s all or nothing. You either do it right or you don’t do it all — there is no in between. I found the same relentless, hell-bent attitude that exists in my life on the pages of Marco’s book. It’s always comforting when you find another person whose bloody mindedness is the same as your own. Perhaps the one thing that struck me the most while reading The Devil In The Kitchen was that beyond all the kitchen staff bollockings, service meltdowns, cheese-flinging episodes and notoriety there was a deeply profound belief in himself and his abilities. Things like that always speak to me. It’s the common thread that binds me with every single person that has inspired me along the way. Again, the fight for excellence unites me with this brotherhood of people who are driven by a singular and profound belief in themselves. Despite our differences, we are the same.

Craft and Substance

After my last blog post, I realized that there are two things that it boils down to when making art for me: craft and substance. I’m at an age where certain things need to be inherent in whatever I create: It must be well designed and it must be well crafted. I’m not a fan of bad art. I loathe it; I loathe it even more if I’m the one producing it. In my eyes, there’s no excuse for mediocrity. None. You either do it right or you don’t do it at all. Facility and great technique can certainly be impressive, but they alone are not enough. The piece of work being created has to say something about me as a person — it has to have substance to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to hang on a gallery wall or if it’s going to be in my sketchbook — the work has to reflect some aspect of me as an individual and my POV on the world at large, or whatever. Otherwise, what’s the point? The drawing that adorns this week’s post is a fine example of what I’m talking about.

When I read the story of Helene Lebel, it struck a chord deep within me. In my life, I’ve encountered and witnessed up close what the effects of mental illness do to people. On a personal level, I watched as my uncle, Raul, struggled valiantly with schizophrenia for over 30 years. It’s a horrible thing to watch – physically, my uncle appeared to be well but his appearance belied the internal chaos and the forces that were mentally ravaging him. I also witnessed the scourge of mental illness as part of a job I held. Years ago, I worked as a Spanish mental health interpreter for San Joaquin County; on a daily basis I, once again, got to see the insidious effects of mental illness at work. Along with the doctor or therapist and the client, I was present during appointments. This meant that I heard everything that was said during the appointment. Sometimes, I wish that I’d never heard some of the things that were discussed during those appointments. Interpreting at the clinic for adults was bad enough, but interpreting for the children’s clinic was heartbreaking.

Sadly, in 2018, mental health still carries a stigma. People who suffer with mental health issues are still described as being: crazy, nuts, cuckoo, whacked, touched, bat-shit crazy, etc. It’s so unfair to label people like that — they can’t help it. I often wonder if the people who make such remarks about complete strangers would do the same for someone they love? I’ve learned that everything changes when an issue becomes personal. Funny that. After my experience with mental illness, and based on what I’ve seen and heard, I wouldn’t wish mental illness on my worst enemy.

Helene Lebel’s story is tragic. At age 19, when she was a law student, she began to show symptoms of schizophrenia, and was forced to abandon her studies. In 1936 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in Vienna’s Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital. Two years later, the Germans annexed Austria. Helene’s parents were made to believe that she was going to be released, but that was never going to happen. In August 1940, Helene’s mother was notified that Helene had been transferred to a hospital in Bavaria, when in reality she had been transferred to a converted prison in Brandenburg, Germany. There, she was subjected to a physical examination and then lead into a shower room. Helene was one of 9,772 persons who were gassed at the Brandenburg Euthanasia Center. She was listed in official paperwork as having died in her room from “acute schizophrenic excitement.”

I would like to thank the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for providing information and details on Helene’s life.

Ten Years On Paper


I started my first blog, Cubist Comix, in September 2008, which means my work has been online for a little more than a decade. Back then, blogging was fairly new, and sketch blogs were rare. I remember how confused I was by HTML — it was all Greek to me! Thankfully, my wife understood the basics of this foreign language and was able to help me set up many parts of my blog. Since then, keeping a sketchbook has become incredibly popular and many people are sharing their work on websites, blogs, and social media. Some of the work out there is good, but a majority of it is pedestrian, banal, and poorly executed. I continue to be proud of the quality of work that I insist upon for myself. I’m very hard on myself; I loath mediocrity and the lack of wanting to improve. I am also proud that while I maintain a social media presence, I have not abandoned my blog as many others seem to have done.

The past ten years have been full of changes for me and for my work. It should come as no surprise that my point of view regarding visual journaling and blogging has changed as well. For many years, most of my blog posts consisted of a drawing created during the previous week and the story behind its creation. Believe me, I’ve drawn my share of coffee swilling cafe dwellers over the past decade; it seems there’s a never-ending supply! I loved these drawings and associated posts, but recently I have come to realize that they are just not enough any more. I have come to realize that I need to approach both my work and my posts in a way that is more filled with meaning.

When Twitter first started, people were literally tweeting about the most pedestrian things you can imagine. The novelty of doing that wore out lickety-split. Why? Because no one really cares that you’re going to your kitchen to get a bagel – that’s why. Sketchbooks are wonderful things, but ultimately they need to say something more profound about you beyond what you’re going to eat or what the person sitting next to you looks like. I’ve always been of the opinion that after someone thumbs through the pages of your sketchbook, they should have a good idea about who you are and what you believe in, and the longer I keep a sketchbook, the more I see that this is the truth.

Maybe this approach to keeping a sketchbook and blogging about it isn’t for everyone. After all, opening up and spewing your opinions takes cojones. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something that’s necessary if you’re going to grow as an artist and as an individual. Whether you’re a professional or hobbyist doesn’t matter, what matters is the bravery to embrace change and put yourself, the raw unadulterated you, out there. This is why Barron Storey and Robert Crumb’s sketchbooks will remain as examples for me to follow. Visual journaling has exploded over the past ten years and that’s great, but it’s full potential has yet to be realized. Much like with Twitter, soon folks will realize that fluff wears out its novelty right quick, and only that which has depth will survive.

Fighting The Good Fight

Vivir es lo más peligroso que tiene la vida,” — The most dangerous thing in life is living. These words from famed Spanish singer-songwriter, Alejandro Sanz, are something we can all relate to. There are things that can happen in a moment that can change things forever. Sometimes for good, but, unfortunately, far too often for the worse, and, sadly, too often for the much worse. There is no rhyme or reason to why such things happen — one day something happens and, bam, things are never the same.

One of these things happened to my friend, Serena Miller, when she was eight. She was involved in an auto accident caused by a drunk driver and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The results of that accident have affected her life, often dramatically, every day for the past thirty years. Sadly, Serena isn’t the first person whom I’ve known that has suffered a traumatic brain injury because of a drunk driver. My sister-in-law was similarly injured when she was a little older than Serena, but not yet an adult. It’s a horrible thing — a thing that robs you of your own future potential and brings forth demons that you’ll struggle with again and again whether you want to or not. It’s a fucked up thing for someone to have to deal with.

Mental health is no joke and yet it’s still something that the general public stigmatizes and makes heartless cracks about. Too often people with mental health issues are told: “You need to work more,” or, “Do something to get your mind focused on something else,” or, “You just need to get more exercise and to eat right.” Would these same people dole out such bleak wisdom to someone suffering from cancer? To someone suffering from alzheimer’s disease? To someone suffering from kidney failure? This level of ignorance is infuriating to say the least. To add insult to injury, they refer to people with mental health issues as “cuckoo” or “nuts” or whatever. I always wonder if they would say the same things about someone they loved.

Last week, Serena reached out and asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a GoFundMe fundraising account that she’s established to help her get through the rough period that she’s currently going through. Serena continues to deal with her mental health issues as well as trying to raise her ten year old son. As an artist, I feel that it’s my duty to speak up about things that matter to me and help as much as I can, so I told Serena that I would draw her and spotlight both her story and her GoFundMe link as part of this week’s post. It’s the least that I can do. Please help if you can. If you can’t help monetarily, then please share Serena’s link. Finally, please remember to be kind as you go through life; you never know what somebody else is going through.

Louts, Laundry, and Humility

Another week of sketching in the hateful and wretched Central Valley of California, and another blog post. Before you decide to send me hate mail for calling The Central Valley hateful and wretched, please know that I didn’t come up with that gem of a title; that credit goes to the and only Robert Crumb, so address your letters to: R Crumb, Medieval Village, France.

Crumb lived in The Valley for nearly 20 years between the early 70s and early 90s so he knows a thing or two about life here and his assessment isn’t too far off the mark. After 25 years, I can relate to his blunt and disdain filled observations of life here. If you’ve lived in The Central Valley long enough, you know that you need endurance and loads of patience to be here. This week was a good example of that. Between the continuous and oppressive heat that’s enveloped the area and the denizens that live here its been a true test. Thankfully for me, I can express my angst on paper so that helps to keep me productive and sane, so it’s not all bad.

This week’s page started late last week at my local Starbucks as I observed an old guy going on and on about god knows what for almost an hour or so. Cafés remain the best places to find unsuspecting victims who hardly ever move. That’s great for guys like me — it makes it easy to fill sketchbook pages on a regular basis and it keeps me from sitting around and doing nothing. Art is always waiting to happen. The remainder of this week’s page is made up of a quick sketch of a loutish bloke that was sitting at the laundromat on Monday. He was entranced with something on his phone, so it wasn’t hard to preserve his thick-headed likeness in my sketch-journal. Finally, a quote about Internet humility, a strange and deceptive phenomenon that I see a lot of these days. Click the link, it’s a good read.