Book Reviews: Spiegelman Conversations and Be A Nose! Sketchbook
Be a Nose is a collection of three sketchbooks by Maus creator Art Spiegelman. The guy has got to be pretty decent at drawing; his name is Art isn’t it? I enjoyed viewing these sketchbooks, because it’s great to pick an artist you admire, and then see how they brainstorm ideas. Sketchbooks offer a glimpse into the artist’s visual language, in a rough form that often retains spontaneity. Spiegelman makes it known that when he made Maus, he spent days on a page. But according to the artist himself, his sketchbooks contain some of his best work, because they capture that spontaneous moment when a certain magic happens in putting down an idea on paper. The following quotes are from the liner notes that accompany the sketchbooks.
“My best drawings have often been on stray scraps of paper, falling somewhere between unconscious doodles and focused drawings… I don’t keep most of them, though my wife curates and files the ones I leave around when I use her phone. On scraps of paper the pressure to perform is gone and the results throb with a life I just cant hold onto in my ‘finished’ art.” By penciling and then inking my comics, I cover my traces, dressing up my demons before they meet the public. The rehearsed snap of a ‘professional’ line replaces raw and intimate seismographs of thought.”
There is something very satisfactory as an artist, if you can render something quickly, yet with enough detail that the viewer can tell what it is. Not only capture the fleeting idea before it passes, but render it in a way where the picture is successful, the parts make a unified whole and the picture doesn’t need reworking. Comics and sketchbooks are the perfect medium for this kind of work. The complete work has a gestalt quality to it. Of course there’s nothing wrong with finishing and polishing up artwork, just like there’s nothing wrong with mixing down a song so there is a balance between the instruments.
“The lines in my spontaneous drawings keep their integrity because I follow them around to discover what I’m making.”
This is important. The artist is talking about drawing for the sake of drawing, which he describes as intense and/or exuberant. That means sometimes you just sit down with a pen and start improvising, the way a jazz musician would, or the way a musician would sit down and try to compose a song or riff. You follow the line, you see where it leads, you aren’t trying to render any of your preconceptions. If you’ve never drawn this way, you’d be surprised with the results you may find. You will learn things about your own visual language and the way you perceive the world, including things buried in the dark and watery human psyche. This is the way the surrealists and Dada artists often worked, it also reminds me of Eastern Calligraphy and Zen painting.
“As a cartoonist, when tending to the business of producing readable picture-signs, I usually drag the lines along, insisting that they become, say, a nose.”
Dragging the lines along is hard and sometimes tedious work, yet necessary. This refers to why the sketchbooks are called Be A Nose. The quote is from a movie called Bucket of Blood (1959.) The movie is about a dull yet ambitious busboy who works in a beatnik coffee-shop. He falls in love with the prettiest girl who hangs out there. He comes up with a plan to woo her, he will become a great sculptor and then she will fall in love with him, or so he thinks. With no artistic training, he attempts to make his first sculpture, a human figure out of clay, and fails miserably. He exclaims “be a nose! Be a nose!” while trying to mold the clay into a nose. Spiegelman states this “is the most accurate evocation I’ve ever seen of my own creative process.”
This means that artists go through a struggle, of trying to render something realistically enough that other people will know what it is. We want that nose to look like a nose. It takes skill and foresight and practice. There is a time investment, and many mediums force you to work quickly, like paint that dries. Other mediums force you to work carefully, like drawing in pen, a few major mistakes and hours of work can be ruined. This challenge is worth pursuing in art, and shouldn’t scare prospective artists away from dragging the lines along till they look like a nose. But the nice thing about comics is that they are usually small on the page, and they tell a story, so you only need to make the nose look like a picture-sign of a nose, for the sake of the story. So it doesn’t have to be exquisitely rendered like the Mona Lisa!
A few favorites:
Floundering for something to draw, he remembers a painting he saw by John currin that made a joke about Picasso’s Lady with a Fish Hat…
Megalomaniac with an inferiority complex
Looking within, he saw nothing…
Make boxes… Fill them. Cartoonists… and undertakers… Same business.