Drawing, and why I do it.

Original drawing by Suzanne Forbes Sept 2015I did this drawing of loved ones at the Piano Center in Berlin, in about 20 minutes.

Even for me, that’s extraordinarily fast, and it’s a terrific drawing. The wonder and joy of all the handwork I’ve been doing in these last few years of not painting or drawing very much is that it’s made me a better artist. It is my job in this life to become a better artist, of course, but I have paid terrible dues approaching that goal directly.

Making art was always an arena of terrifying risk, the place where my entire identity was on the line with every stroke. Failure meant total failure, to myself and my goals. I’m enormously grateful that now I am engaging with my craft in a way that’s more nourishing and less savagely self-critical. I still put the pencil to the paper with a sense that my value is at stake, that it is work in the sense of breaking rocks, but at least I have a parallel arena of play.

I have no false modesty about my draughtsmanship- there are only a couple thousand people left in the world who can draw like I can.

As storyboard artists continue to be replaced by animatics software and pre-vis studios, as hand animators continue to be replaced by 3d animation, as book cover artists are replaced by graphic designers, as comic artists continue to focus on style over technical skills, as the remaining fashion illustrators and courtroom artists, almost entirely replaced by cameras, die off, the number of deeply trained great draughtsmen who can perform reliably under any conditions will continue to diminish.

Drawing isn’t like beer and bread; it won’t be saved by a new wave of artisan DIY makers who decide to preserve the old ways.

You can learn to make great bread in a year-long apprenticeship; it takes a year to learn technical perspective alone. A year to learn anatomy, a year to learn foreshortening. Ten thousand hours, or as Chuck Jones said,

“Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”

I grieve for my craft, of course. I ache for the days when you could go to San Diego ( we didn’t call it “Comic Con” then- in 1986 comic artists said “Are you going to San Diego?” to each other) and Howard Chaykin wouldn’t shake with his left hand because he had to “protect the instrument”. The days before Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. When there were still journeyman illustrators in ad offices on Madison Avenue, and the Lord & Taylor’s ads in the Times were still drawn by fashion illustrators.

When I was a teenager it was still a completely reasonable, practical life choice to become a commercial illustrator.

I would never have committed over a decade of training to something frivolous, like “fine art”; I fully intended to be self-sufficient by my own means and a working artist. The only reason I know anything about “fine art” today is that when I went to treatment in 1989, the best halfway house was in St. Paul, Minnesota, and after I got out they said I’d relapse if I went back to New York. I’d seen enough of my peers relapse that way to believe them, so I stayed in the Twin Cities, where the only art college happened to be a conceptual PostModern Fine Art emo wonderland.

If I hadn’t gone to MCAD, I would never have learned to paint; I would never have seen installations by Janine Antoni and Karen Finley, never heard Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Ann Hamilton speak ; never been exposed to performance artists like Ron Athey and the others who were supported by Walker Art Center performance curator John Killacky (later executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).

I’m not sorry my tradesmans’ view of making art was disrupted by conceptual art- it was a priceless experience.

Even though I wandered the halls of the school muttering, “Why can’t Johnny draw?” sometimes, and it was tremendously hurtful to have my skills disregarded. In the Parsons Illustration Program I’d been a hotshot, a teacher’s pet, the example held up in class, until my nodding and vomiting disabled me. At MCAD traditional drawing was already completely devalued, utterly passé, and a boy I foolishly loved once sneered at my senior thesis paintings, “Why don’t you just get a camera?”.

But I was lucky in my work, at first. An illustration teacher who admired my skills suggested I look into courtroom illustration, since Minnesota was then one of the three remaining states that didn’t allow cameras in the courtroom. There were four major tv stations in town, and four courtroom illustrators; by a morbid coincidence, one of the four artists died just a few weeks before I contacted the stations. By the end of my senior year I was working regularly for the CBS affiliate, making ridiculous money for the time. CNN bought my drawings and people who knew me saw my name around the world. I worked with journalists and loved knowing them; they are a special breed. I told people what I did and they said, “Oh! How interesting!” and I could say, “Yes. It really, really is. ”

If I hadn’t had my heart set on drawing comics, I might have been ok.

But all I had wanted from 1983 on was to draw superhero comics. The story of how I broke in, after years of struggle; how I drew one of the first DC comic issues ever to be pencilled, inked and edited by only women, how I was then (and perhaps still) one of less than a dozen women ever to be a fulltime penciller on a monthly book by the Big Two, how the industry collapsed around me in ’95 and I left comics- that’s a story for another time. The point is, I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t build my skills out of a selfish desire to do something I loved and enjoyed- I built them to do work I was good at and expected to be well paid for, even though doing it had an enormous emotional cost. And then those skills became obsolete in my lifetime.

So it goes. Now there is just the puzzle of the next fifty years.

Andy Warhol painted by Alice Neel

Andy Warhol painted by Alice Neel when she was 70.

Because portraitists do their best work late in life- as anyone who has ever been in a gallery of Millais’ assured later-life portraits or seen the incredible Hockney portrait show at LACMA knows.

I have no idea if I can build a portraiture practise here in Berlin that will support me financially; I only know I stand a better chance here than I did in Oakland, and that at least if I can’t, I’ll still have medical care and housing.

I am a repository of everyone who taught me, everything I studied, all the work I put in to be the craftsman I am, and I just can’t let it go to waste.

3 thoughts on “Drawing, and why I do it.

    1. Suzanne Forbes Post author

      Sadly no, we have no phones! I have been thinking of you and wishing we could talk. We could Skype though! I am currently awake pretty much all night German time, which is 6 hours ahead of you- email me some good times?

      Reply
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