Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Happy Holidays! The Best of 2020

© Joseph Cortes /

The end of 2020. We made it! And I, for one, am totally worn out by the whole experience.

All the same, and despite never-ending isolation and the constant struggle to stay motivated and connected (heck, I don't even have a telephone!), I was still able to come up with my traditional "best of" list for the year. 

2020's  list may not include my usual favorites such as travel destinations, theater-released movies, writing conferences, or in-person workshops, but it does contain a full measure of joy and happy memories. That, and a lot of self-discovery; for instance, I learned that I love working with silver clay and that I can walk for a full two hours without needing to find an open cafe or a restroom. Who'd have thunk it?

But TMI aside, and without further ado, here's my "Best of 2020" list. I hope within it you'll find some useful ideas and inspiration to carry into 2021:

  • Best TV Series: Boy, we sure watched a lot of TV this year. Many of my favorite programs were old British crime series that I found on YouTube, but the one that really stands out for me is Trial and Retribution. Great acting, great story lines, and each season is only 2 parts so there's always something new to look forward to. I'm currently watching Season 8, and will definitely be sad when I reach the end.
  • Best Book (Fiction): Set in Shanghai and London, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguru was not only the best book I read in 2020, but maybe ever (though I do tend to say that about most every book I read . . . oh, well, what can I say. There are a LOT of good books in the world). What struck me in particular about this one, though, was the ending--completely threw me. And that's all I'll say--no spoilers from me! But I really like this book.
  • Best Book (Nonfiction): Life Meditations by Edward J. Lavin, SJ. Right around the middle of the year I realized I needed a serious spiritual boost. Things that had worried and bothered me at the start of the pandemic were beginning to weigh me down in ways that were unbearable: I couldn't sleep, I felt angry and confused, I avoided my WIP manuscript, and the only things I wanted to draw or paint were dark, abandoned cities or bleak, barren landscapes, usually in black. Even my happy little bird paintings began to resemble nightmare figures. Then quite by chance I came across a copy of Life Meditations on a free, giveaway pile of used books. What a gift, and what a turnaround. Needless to say, I'm feeling a lot, lot better these days.
  • Best Art Supply Purchase: Art Graf sticks, simple and effective drawing tools exactly like huge pencil leads without the wood casing. I bought my first sticks to add drama to my depressing city-scapes but then quickly learned they were great for cheery sketching too. Made in Portugal, the sticks can be used on their ends or sides, leaving wide swathes of graphite you then wet with a brush for instant shadows, clouds, and value contrasts. Amazing!
  • Best Online Activity: Signing up for Domestika, an online art community based in Spain and offering so many types of art and creativity classes it makes my head spin. Check out my recent post on the topic here.
  • Best Restaurant: The state of New Mexico seriously cracked down on indoor--and outdoor--dining this year, but many of us who could did our best to save our restaurants: curbside, patio, 25% indoor during the rare times it was possible--I was there! Albuquerque has some excellent places to eat, but to my mind one of the best is our local French bistro: Le Troquet, a tiny treasure straight out of a Parisian novel. The food is delicious and the staff is sincere in their wish to serve. Yum!
  • Best New Project: As mentioned above, working with silver clay has given me an entirely new, and exciting, range of items to add to my jewelry-making efforts. The only downside is the price; silver is expensive, but as my hope is to start selling my jewelry, maybe next year, the cost of materials will be well worth the initial price.
  • Best Walking Route: It might not be Barcelona, but I certainly have found some wonderful places to walk in Albuquerque over these last long and lonely months. So far my absolute best is to walk along the ponds at Tingley Beach and from there carry on to the (closed) Albuquerque Aquarium where I can at least sit on the very attractive patio to catch my breath before heading home.
  • Best Discovery: Tiny libraries! I never even knew this was a thing, but I've found these delightful little structures scattered all over my neighborhood offering books for the taking and shelves to fill with whatever I have to give back. It's now become part of my walking routine to leave a book as I set out and take a new one at the end.
  • Best Accomplishment: I got quiet. Real quiet, and in the process I learned to slow down and take my day step by step. I got things done, I made progress, and was grateful for every finished page.

So there we are. I hope 2020 hasn't been too sad, scary, or uneventful for you, and if it has, take heart, we're almost at the finishing line. The madness will end. Until then, wishing you a stronger, happier, and wonderfully creative 2021!

Tip of the Day: No matter what happens, we can always dance:

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Gesture Drawing, Gesture Writing

Gesture drawings on newsprint using my favorite Koh-i-Noor Magic Pencil

Way back in January 2020 when the world was a bit more normal I did two things that while temporarily gone now, managed to keep me from throwing in the creativity towel. The first was when I joined a local drawing group that met on Thursdays after lunch, and the second was attending life drawing sessions with the New Mexico Art League. The one element these two groups had in common was an emphasis on figure drawing, and in particular, gesture drawing.

At the time of joining these groups, I wasn't a stranger to gesture drawing, I just hadn't done very much of it. I'd certainly read about it in various art books, and even got to try it out several times during some basic art classes. But other than those rare instances, I'd never really taken the idea seriously, or made it a part of my daily drawing practice.

All that changed in January, especially in the Thursday group where gesture drawing practically took center stage. Every week it was the first thing we did as soon as we were seated around the art table with big pads of newsprint, soft pencils and pastels, sometimes paint, and of course our model--which was always each and every one of us. We took turns holding poses for up to a minute or so at a time with usually about five to six different contortions: some hilariously funny, some more difficult to maintain than others, and all of them, I now realize, incredibly valuable. Being comfortable with a loose and imperfect drawing style that centered on shapes rather than details grew my confidence as an artist, especially when I found myself side-by-side with a roomful of professionals at the NM Art League! 

Although I only got to attend a limited amount of sessions with these two very different art groups before Covid closed everything down, I miss them terribly. In retrospect I learned so much from those timed drawings: go for the energy; don't think, just draw; find the most important and dynamic lines. One of the main things that struck me was how similar gesture drawing was to freewriting: write, don't think; don't stop to edit; don't censor yourself; first thoughts are often the best thoughts.

When Albuquerque went into lockdown I was truly saddened by the harshness of our restrictions and how I was left without access to friends or creative groups of any kind. I wasn't sure how I would stay on track as far as self-discipline went for either writing or drawing. That's when I realized I had to continue with my gesture drawings, even if it was only me and my laptop. With a small amount of research I was able to find dozens of timed drawing sessions on YouTube complete with excellent models and relaxing soundtracks. Now I can't imagine a day going by without doing some sort of gesture drawing practice.

More than anything, whether we're in lockdown or not, gesture drawing feels good. I love the immediacy of throwing myself into a fast drawing accompanied by the sensation of using my whole body to draw--the exact same way I jump into my freewriting. Some tips that can help your drawing or freewriting sessions to feel equally alive are to:
  • Time your sessions, starting with small increments of 1, 2, or ten minutes and building up to a half- or full hour.
  • Keep turning the pages; don't be afraid of starting and stopping a line without perfecting or adding detail. Keep going for the new, the fresh, the strongest points of interest.
  • Seek out the story wherever you are or from whatever your eye catches. Gesture drawing isn't only about people; cats, dogs, trees, tropical fish, table lamps and laundry can provide you with insightful "poses" that you can use to draw or write about with genuine meaning.
  • Use a magazine for reference if you really don't have anything to inspire you on the spot. Open the cover and go through the pages from first to last, moving from one eye-catching photograph or headline to the next. Keep your pen moving.

Both gesture drawing and freewriting are often thought of as preliminary warm-up exercises before we get to the "real thing." But I think that's a little dismissive and contrary to the heart of creativity: sometimes the quickest sketches--written as well as drawn--can be the most compelling and beautiful. The value of our art shouldn't be measured by the time spent making it.

Lastly, when you're finished drawing or writing for the day, don't be too hasty to toss or tear up your work because you thought it was solely for exercise. Put your pages aside and wait a week or two before evaluating which pieces you like best and which you want to keep, or not. You can either use them as the foundations for a more finished body of work, or simply to save and enjoy for being themselves.

Tip of the Day: One of the best parts of gesture drawing is the chance to experiment with different mediums, something you can use to liven up your freewriting, too. For instance, try writing in an oversized sketchbook with colored gel pens (including gold and silver of course!), soft artists' pencils, or dip pens and bottled ink. It's amazing how breaking away from the familiar (e.g., a computer keyboard) can open entire worlds of possibility and unexplored creativity.