And now for lots of dots

Since the last post featured a detailed, graphite drawing, I’ve dropped back to ink for this portrait of Flannery O’Connor. I’m never quite sure if I prefer graphite to ink; like everything, it probably depends on my mood. But if you’ve read any O’Connor, you know she writes about grace and wickedness—light and dark—so ink did feel like the slightly more appropriate choice in this case.

I also wanted to try a portrait in the Wall Street Journal’s famous “hedcut” style, which replicates the classic, engraved look of currency. So I found this great video detailing the process and gave it a shot. Naturally, this method is time consuming and gives you hand cramps, so another savvy Photoshop user figured out a way to digitally replicate the effect. Like all digital shortcuts, it’s not perfect, but it does save you from placing a million dots into carefully contoured lines.

First attempt. The line quality was too comic-book and didn’t suit Flannery at all, so I decided to try a hedcut.

The result I came up with wasn’t exactly Wall Street Journal, but that’s fine. In fact, it’s great because when you’re trying to sort out your own style, it’s helpful to copy someone else’s.

I realize that sounds counterintuitive. However, the fact is you’ll never match someone else’s style yet in the struggle to do so, your own line will naturally emerge. This is why art students copy paintings from the Old Masters and why, in one of the first fiction workshops I took, the instructor assigned us to try writing in the style of our favorite author. I went for Kafka and, while my story failed, it forced me to take apart his stories and figure out why I liked them so much.

Anyway, I think my own, slightly garish and grotesque line came through. That tends to happen any time I work in ink. Either that, or things turn into cartoons. I just can’t help myself. After all, I learned to draw by copying cartoon characters.

An earlier attempt at hedcut style using bigger dots.

Fortunately, it’s time to shift gears back into some design work for a while and give my hand a chance to rest. Besides, I’ve killed all my pens.

I’ll close with a quote from Flannery O’Connor. She has a ton of great quotes (like: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”), but here’s one of my favorites:


Medicine for Melancholy

Ray Bradbury died today. At 91, he’d lived the life most writers only dream about: a long and healthy one filled with books and magical worlds he’d created and generations of readers inspired by them. He was that rare writer who worked in genres typically ignored and disdained by the literary establishment—namely, science fiction, fantasy, and horror—yet garnered critical acclaim for his work. He was one of my favorites.

Bradbury was also one of the few writers I remember reading as a child yet still enjoyed immensely as an adult. In fact, I have a very specific memory of reading “All Summer in a Day” when I was 9 years old. I couldn’t believe a story that short could move me so much. The idea of Margot locked in the closet as the sun shined on Venus haunted me for decades. When I returned to the story after years of writing my own fiction, I marveled at his prose–clean and deceptively simple but, at the same time, incredibly alive with the moment, like this scene:

The children lay out, laughing, on the jungle mattress, and heard it sigh and squeak under them, resilient and alive. They ran among the trees, they slipped and fell, they pushed each other, they played hide-and-seek and tag, but most of all they squinted at the sun until the tears ran down their faces, they put their hands up to that yellowness and that amazing blueness and they breathed of the fresh, fresh air and listened and listened to the silence which suspended them in a blessed sea of no sound and no motion. They looked at everything and savored everything. Then, wildly, like animals escaped from their caves, they ran and ran in shouting circles. They ran for an hour and did not stop running.

What I also love about Bradbury was his dedication to storytelling, literacy, and education. He was wary of technology but believed in the power of imagination and the inherent goodness of humanity. He also encouraged other artists to dream big and work hard.

One of my favorite quotes from Fahrenheit 451 is this: “Books were only one type of receptacle where we started a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical about them at all. The magic is only with what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.”

But he didn’t just encourage writers and readers. His pithy quotes on how to push yourself into living the life you must easily apply to everyone.

Important reminders on how to fully live from a man who lived fully. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury.

Life before death

Today marks what would have been the 50th birthday of David Foster Wallace, a really terrific writer I admire very much. He died in 2008.

While he’s usually depicted with his signature bandana (which, the way he wore it, reminded me of Madame Defarge), I decided to draw this image snagged from Amherst’s memorial page. He still looks like a scruffy professor moonlighting as a drummer in a grunge band, but he also looks serious and smart and maybe even a little happy.

For the background, I collaged together scans of books and galleys of his work he’d marked up. Many of these are from the Harry Ransom Center, which now maintains his archive. Wallace was a notorious marginalia scribbler, so much that it appears he’s having a dialog with the text itself. I find this fascinating and beautiful—not simply for the act, but for the palimsest-like texture it creates. The page with the big “TK” on it appears to be an early version of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” one of my favorite essays.

Wallace is largely known for his fiction, but if you’ve never read him before, I’d recommend starting with his nonfiction (like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster). It’s just as hilarious and brilliant as his novels and stories but probably more accessible to the average reader. His fiction is challenging but worth it, which is why his fans tend to be less of the tepid, “Yeah, he’s okay,” variety and more of the “I fricking love him,” variety. Clearly, I’m in the latter camp.

One thing everyone should read, however, is his 2005 Kenyon College address. Never have I heard the importance of a liberal arts education articulated so clearly, and its core message—to remind yourself: “This is water”—is my daily mantra. Truth is about life before death. It is, indeed.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Wallace.