Jan 30, 2011

Sketchbook Exercises

By Wendy A. Jones

I stayed up way too late last night reading Robin McKinley's Pegasus.

I love Robin McKinley.

It's amazing to me I didn't even know who she was until about five years ago, despite her winning the Newbery Award during my school years. It's possible that a later discovery, though, increased my appreciation for her complete mastery of the craft.

Whenever I finish reading one of her books, there is a satisfied sigh and a happy glow all about me.

It's like I've eaten--and savored--some decadently-rich chocolate or insanely expensive ice cream; the taste lingers on my tongue long after the treat is gone.

A friend and I went to see a Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum earlier this month. Over 150 pieces were visiting from the Musee National Picasso in Paris. I had prepared for the exhibit by reading books about Picasso in the months leading up to it.

When we arrived, the museum was packed. We had to wait in line almost an hour just to get tickets, and then another 20 minutes to get into the exhibit. Once there, the wall-to-wall people made it difficult to move without invading other patrons' personal space.

No one grumbled or complained, though. We were seeing Picasso!

The exhibit was arranged chronologically, starting at the beginning of his career and spanning a large portion of the 20th century. "How many eyes have seen this art?" I thought.

In researching, there were a couple of pieces I found particularly interesting: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Guernica. Sadly, they weren't among those at the exhibit; however, I could see paintings that led up to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Studies of masks, studies of people in various positions . . . practice. Rough drafts.

Later, I had to be warned by a blue-shirted security guard to stay six inches away from the art; in my excitement I'd leaned on the display case with sketchbook exercises from Guernica in order to get a closer look. It's easy to look at Picasso's work and think he started with a blank canvas (in the case of Guernica, a very large blank canvas) and just attacked it. One reason Picasso's work is so powerful, though, is because he figured things out first. He tried different compositions in his sketchbooks before attacking the canvas.

I've thought about that a lot in the ensuing weeks. And even though after closing one of Robin McKinley's YA books I feel like she wrote the entire thing with an enchanted pen, I know that isn't true. I've read her blog and discovered it isn't easy for her.

Creating art--writing books, painting pictures, all of it--is hard work. There are no shortcuts, no woo-woo that happens as soon as paintbrush touches canvas. Not even with Picasso.

Yes, there are periods of inspiration; yes, there are times when we feel our muse is feeding us great material.


(There's always a but.)

Those times follow a lot of research, a lot of character interviews, and a lot of rough drafts.

A lot of sketchbook exercises.


  1. great post, Wendy! i love the comparison. It is easy for forget that no matter how easy someone else makes it look, somewhere along the line they put in a tremendous amount of effort.

    and how fun that you took the opportunity to see those works of art!

  2. I love this comparison. It is a humble reminder that the amazing art we are blessed with today took a mentor. The inspirations my be seen from previous work of divenly inspired. You have shared a wonderful connection and the assurance that hard work can show beauty. Nice post, Wendy!

    It can also be compared to Zumba... You cannot twist, shake and keep up with out practice and know what steps are next. :-)

  3. What amazes me is how we all view things so differently. You love Picasso and I don't get him at all. But I totally get your analogy. It's a great one.

  4. Terri--I wouldn't say I *love* Picasso, although I guess this kind of gave that impression. I find his work very interesting. He changed art so much in his lifetime and was such a trail-blazer. I think his stuff is incredibly dynamic, especially because a lot of it is still life. To get that much interest and movement in a painting of something that isn't interesting or moving intrigues me. However, I wouldn't hang a Picasso in my house. Intrigue might switch over to haunt at that point.

    Leesa--I'm pretty sure the mysteries of life can be explained through Zumba. In fact, maybe that will be my next blog post . . .

    Kari--you are one of the most encouraging people I "know." I think it's a gift.

  5. I love your comparisons. A less known artist than Picasso, that I met once, was being challenged about his prices for works of art that the potential buyer thought were being created too quickly to be valued so highly. He replied something to the effect that what the person was missing was the life time of learning his art and the planning before painting.


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