Art Journal Secret No. 1

I’ll get to the Big Secret  in a minute. First, a little Long Island lore. I’m still a new-comer to Long Island, having lived here for only five and a half years now. And for three of those years, I was in my room writing a book about living some place else (my Wanderers book). So really, I’ve only lived here for about three years.

So one day I was driving home from a thrift shop and I spied this shop (above). It’s a bakery outlet.

Let me repeat that: it’s a Bakery Outlet.

Well, this I had to see.  So I veered off the road and pulled into this shabby parking  lot, and entered a linoleum-floored heaven.

Entenmann’s is a local commercial bakery that supplies boxed cakes and cookies to grocery stores and delis in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Maybe elsewhere for all I know: all I know is that they”ve been baking their stuff here on Long Island for about 100 years.

And this is their outlet, where you can get bakery seconds for less than half price. Now, you might be asking yourself, “Jeeze…What kind of skeeve would eat second-rate bakery goods?”

The answer is: Moi. Just so you know, this is what a bakery second looks like:

Maybe you can’t see why this box of delicious Super Cinnamons didn’t pass quality control, so here’s a second look:

See how the blobs of sickeningly sweet icing didn’t get plopped on exactly in the center of these buns? That’s what makes this box of $5.99 Super Cinnamons sell for $2.00 at the bakery outlet.

If I didn’t have so much I wanted to tell you  about Art Journal Secrets today I would take you on a virtual tour of this place — it’s a slice of 1959 complete with customers who were already old in 1959. I love the place. But I digress.

Today I wanted to tell you about an Art Journal Secret that will help all you beginners out there start illustrating TODAY. 

As you all know, I was NOT an illustrator when I began writing my book. I didn’t know where to begin, either: I had images floating in my head but I did not have any idea how to haul them out of the ether and put them down on paper. Maybe you have that problem, too.

Here’s how I began to train myself as an artist: I started drawing series of stuff. I singled out one thing, one object / one concept,  from the soup of ideas in my head, and I focused on drawing that one thing, over and over. Done correctly, that one thing can become your illustration.

Here’s an example: my journal was a chronology,  about the twelve months of the year, and my experience of each season. So I was struggling with Summer. The problem was how to represent my memories and attitude to Summer using my limited painting skills. I knew I could not manage to paint any type of landscape; neither could I paint a still life or anything that required shading or composition. I had to stay away from people, animals, or food.

So what could I do? I could do objects. The trick, then, was to choose an object that spoke of Summer. Here’s what I did:

Series No. 1: Watering cans.

Series No. 2: Sunglasses.

Series No. 3: Summer Hats.

And, to throw in a little nostalgia:

None of these illustrations made it into the final book. Because simply by drawing and painting these objects — the only thing I could do at this point — I was teaching myself how to paint. I was becoming very comfortable with the paint and the paper, and getting confident about stretching my puny talents out towards painting the things I feared: landscapes, people, animals, and food. That’s what I put in my book. But I still like these series.

Working in a series like this is actually a highly sophisticated way to present visual information. When you take an object, like those Summer Hats or those Sunglasses, and you vary each one slightly, you are presenting a viewer with a visual experience that I call The Chocolate Box effect.

You know how you feel when you open a box of chocolates? And there’s all those delicious nuggets of dark brown confections sitting there, waiting for you to examine carefully so you can pick out the one with the caramel core? Or the one with the marshmallow filling? Or the truffle? Even though they are all the same chocolate-type treat, and they appear to be repetitive, they are each one sneakily different. Isn’t that fun?

That’s what looking at a really well done series can be like, like peeking into a chocolate box.   Like this:

Catharine Snow did this, cutting her butterflies out of vintage magazines in order to get those weird, 1960s hues.

Here’s another well done series:

Warhol, of course.

So that’s my Art Journal Secret No. 1: Even without any high-level painting or drawing skills, you can present your visual information in a charming and sophisticated way by working your idea as a series

Simply deconstruct your Big Idea into its smallest components, and draw that one component. Even if you can’t draw all that well — yet — keep at it. Your drawing will have its own appeal and distinctive style, even if it lacks accurate draftsmanship.

And the kicker is: by working on a series, you will at the same time be increasing your creative skills by force of repitition. And remember the chocolate box: make each re-iteration a little different, add a color or a quirk to keep your viewer surprised.

Like this:

That’s my teaser Monday: I will introduce you to an illustrator (above) who works in series — and whose playful mix of text and art you should know. Because when you steal ideas, you should only steal from the best.

Now, about those 100 words you wrote on Monday. Your assignment for the weekend is to review what you’ve written, and cut the word count in half. For three reasons:

1. Everybody needs to learn how to edit.

2. EVERYTHING can be improved by brevity. Or, 99.9% . If you think writing a good 100 words is hard, try writing a good 50 words. NOW you know how to make every word matter.

3. You need to learn that your work is not precious, it is not whispered to you by the goddesses, it is not the pure untouchable undiluted truthfulness of your heart and soul.  It is not sacred. (I’m talking about your public art journal — I’m not talking about your private diary confessions.) If you intend to show your stuff to the world, you have to know that your work is not you, it is the artful representation of you, subject to the refinements of craft and the self-consciousness of critique. You know how, on Project Runway, Tim Gunn is always telling his exuberant dress designers to “edit” their creations? This is like that.

Step back. Change gears from the sensitive, urgent, daring, brave person who puts her heart into getting her story out there in the first place. Become the person who hates ooze, self-pity, cuteness, cliche, and conformity. (What did I miss?  What do you hate to read in an art journal?)  Cut your word count in half.

Meet me here on Monday to discuss How To Arrange Words and Pictures on a Page.

9 comments to Art Journal Secret No. 1

  • Entenmann’s is down here in Virginia. My husband is partial to the French Crumb cake that weighs about 10 pounds. One of the saddest stories in my life is that I couldn’t go on my third grade field trip to the Wonder Break outlet (where Hostess cupcakes are born as well). My mother couldn’t be a room mother that year and so I had to sit in a fifth grade classroom and not say a word while my classmates were touring Hostess Heaven and getting their miniature loaves of Wonder Bread, perfect in every detail down to the blue, red, and yellow dots on the cellophane. Clearly, I have never gotten over it.

    I have not written my 100 words. I look at my sketchbook but I am too tired from writing 2500 tedious words (nonfiction book) to do anything besides watch “The Gilmore Girls” and wonder why everyone in Stars Hollow is so happy.

    I like the idea of drawing one thing. However, I’ll be lucky to get one item drawn instead of several. Maybe the same item from different views. Maybe I could manage that. After I write my 100 words and cut them in half. Could I just write the 50 words to save time?

  • I’m off my schedule today. Usually, I am up and watching for the Monday, Wednesday, or Friday addition. I see Candice beat me to the first observation.

    I, too, thank you, Vivian for your help. Now I will get to work shortening my observations.hmmmm..
    Can’t wait til Monday.
    ta ta

  • Deborah

    We enjoy Entenmann’s here in Indiana & Michigan, too.

    Candice, you wrote a 100 word (or less) story about your non-visit to the Wonder outlet.

    I’m feeling so non-creative, it seems like the only thing I can imagine is copying someone else’s series. That might build skills.

  • Jennifer

    Great advice about editing! So important. Your 3rd point regarding editing is especially well said.

    Entenman’s Bakery outlet! :-)**** <-drool. Did they have any cheese filled crumb danishes? I love those evil things! During a terrible college break up when I lost all appetite for nourishing myself, that was the only thing of caloric substance I didn't have to force myself to eat. Mmmm, cheese filled Danish.

  • Kim

    Entenmann’s is out here in the Pacific NW, too!

    Vivian, you’re the best … We can all benefit from your sparkling, feisty and insightful perspectives, whether we ever pick up a journalist’s pen or art brush brush (although you do INSPIRE such!). I read your writings as mini-metaphors for life, and each day is richer, as a result. As always, THANK YOU!

  • Sandy

    Well I guess Entenmann’s is Everywhere – but Yes we do have an outlet here in CT on the shoreline. I avoid Entenmann like the plague, as I could easily just apply directly to hips (life is unfair). I must write my 100 words, and get on the stick with illustration as well!! Can’t wait to see monday’s post!!

  • I’m afraid I’ll have to return to this to absorb your VERY useful points about working in a series, and about editing.

    But first, I must get over hating you for being so close to an Entenmann’s outlet (they are here, in Phoenix, but not a full ‘line’ of their deliciousness), and

    second I must now make a run to the German bakery near MY house for some streudel.

  • emily m

    I khope you are sending these pages to your agent as this is the very best art journal idea
    I’ve ever read. “The Art of Art Journaling: …” Whatever the title, it is a unique, simple yet sophisticated approach to becoming a self-taught art journalist. Keep on teaching us in such a wonderful way. You have something really great going here.

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