This is Where the Lights Were On

And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself
In a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife…

…And you may ask yourself, “How do I work this?”
And you may ask yourself, “Where is that large automobile?”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house!”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful wife!”

—Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”

My sister sent me a New Yorker article Ariel Levy wrote about Lisa Yuskavage a few months ago. It’s fascinating. I recommend reading it.

There’s a lot in there, but the part that made the biggest impression on me was at the beginning of the piece: Yuskavage’s frustration with her very early work, which was “beautiful and everything”—muted, palatable to galleries—but, in her words, looked like work she’d made “for some mysterious fancy person who didn’t even exist…”

Yuskavage was already depressed. She’d recently had her first gallery show—abstracted depictions of women folded over like swollen seashells, painted in what she later called “dark, slimy” colors. “I walked into that opening and I absolutely hated the show,” she recalled recently. “I wanted to take it all down and get out of there.” She confessed her dismay to the painter John Currin, a former classmate at the Yale School of Art, and he empathized. “They’re beautiful and everything, but it’s not you,” he said. The paintings were quiet, understated, unobjectionable. Yuskavage is not.

Reading about Yuskavage—who was, apparently, once disinvited from a party for being “too much”—it’s pretty clear why she’d look at an exhibit of restrained, coldly attractive work, and see one compromise too many. Her painting partner (and future husband) Matvey Levenstein had an unusual suggestion:

…she should switch personalities with her art. “So you would make paintings that would get disinvited from the party,” he said, “but your personality would be demure, like those paintings from the show.”

Yuskavage does not sound like someone who could ever be described as “demure”, but as far as putting her too-much side into her artwork—oh, did she ever:

The sludgy tones were replaced by vivid, saturated color; the female figure was aggressively exposed instead of allowed to hide. Yuskavage was elated: “I felt so great painting it—I was, like, ‘This has got to be right.’…this is where the lights were on. The stream of content was endless.”

Her figures started emerging from a haze of sfumato, a technique that was popular during the High Renaissance, but executed in shades of Barbie pink and screeching orange—“candy colors,” Yuskavage said, “very American colors.”

I remember, vividly, reading the above quote. “I felt so great painting it,” “The stream of content was endless,” and “colors” registered on me like panels from a comic strip: the sense of something being set up, and then, finally, the meaning.

I thought, Yes.

Another day, another puppy

And you may ask yourself, “Where does that highway go to?”
And you may ask yourself, “Am I right, or am I wrong?”
And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

I haven’t been happy with #notesArt for a while now. I don’t know if anybody’s noticed, but I’ve noticed. It’s like a fading relationship: a cold sense swirling up from the depths, a sneaking suspicion that something’s gone stagnant, or gone sideways, or just gone. You don’t want to admit that it’s happening, but it’s always there, especially when you have to interact with the person.

I don’t know when this started happening, but I know what started happening: #notesArt shifted from an exploration to an obligation. I’d find a podcast, settle back, and think: “welp—time to hammer out another one of these puppies.” And I’d do it. It was a routine. More, it was a responsibility—a byproduct of having been so damnably diligent about this business for nearly two years. Today, if I ever didn’t post a drawing, people would probably think I was dead.

But what was especially unsettling, on a canary-in-the-coal-mine level, was that I was having trouble coming up with ideas. I’ve never been someone who had trouble coming up with ideas.

In The Prehistory of The Far Side, the 1990 tome where Gary Larson revealed the thinking and history behind his creation, Larson noted that he was often asked if he ever worried about running out of ideas for cartoons. He didn’t. “I think the array of nature’s creatures that sting, bite, stab, suck, gore, or stomp is just about endless,” wrote Larson, referencing one of his preferred topics. “I never worry.”

Larson’s offhand comment has stuck with me, nearly verbatim, for the past 33 years. I identified strongly with that brand of warped, self-aware confidence. Why would Larson worry about his creative well running dry? I never did. If you’re one of the cursed people who will spend their lives obsessed with weird, dark, obscure things, you’ll never run out of creative material, ever. The world is a blazingly fucked up place. You might as well use it.

But Larson, for all his confidence, stopped drawing The Far Side five years later, and did not produce another Far Side cartoon until 25 years after that. Bill Watterson, my other cartoonist hero, wrote in “The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book” about the grueling workload of producing a comic strip: maintaining a steady 2–3-week backlog of cartoons, engineering coherent story arcs, completing particularly effort-intensive drawings like the film-noir effects in the “Tracer Bullet” sequences, etc. You remember the artistic quality he put into those strips. (And as if that wasn’t enough, Watterson had the additional stresses of trying to keep his publishers from monetizing the soul out of Calvin and Hobbes: pushing back against the specter of Calvin-branded lunchboxes, plushies, and animated cartoons as if it were Garfield or Peanuts or some other borderline-zombie strip.) It was burning him down to the wire.

And as much as I hate to say it, you could see it: the tension, the haste, the well going dry. At least I could. I’d spent the formative years of my childhood buried in every Calvin book there was; it’s not an understatement to say that the comic has had more of an impact on me than any work of classic literature ever did. I thought the final collection of Calvin and Hobbes strips was the least interesting, the most forced-sounding. I don’t know if Watterson ever commenced any of those last strips by muttering “Time to hammer out another one of these puppies,” but I’ve wondered.

Watterson drew Calvin and Hobbes for a decade. (Given what he accomplished, it might be more appropriate to qualify that as only a decade.) Larson drew the first incarnation of The Far Side for fifteen years. I’ve been drawing #notesArt for over 700 days as of this writing. For me, that’s a long time; in the grander scheme of things, though, I’ve only just gotten started. It seemed premature for me to be declaring creative bankruptcy, but every day, the process of spending hours hammering out another puppy for some mysterious fancy person who didn’t even exist got less appealing. I realized that I’d come to resent the #notesArt project—regard it with the cynical pragmatism reserved for 9–5 jobs—and that was not where I wanted to be. That had never been the idea.

And I’d ask myself, how did it get to this?

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When I first started #notesArt, anything went. My only requirement for an idea was that I wanted to draw it. I didn’t have any inclination towards Meaningful Art, whatever the definition of that is; I inaugurated the project with a crude drawing of a Pac-Man ghost. I still remember how one of the really early sketches I did—a person walking alone at sunset—was somber enough to prompt a reply from a friend who was concerned about my state of mind. I was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to me that anybody would take the work seriously.

The other reason I didn’t think about how people might react to my work was because I wasn’t getting many reactions. Besides my friends and family, nobody even knew I was doing this. Some of my work got more likes and shares than others, but I never paid much attention to it—I had no plans to be an influencer. I didn’t even share the early sketches as permanent Instagram posts, just as stories. They were gone in 24 hours. (I only started pinning them as highlights after another friend suggested this.)

But as time went on, and I started sharing my work on a broader array of social networks, the amount of attention a work got, or didn’t get, began working its way into my idea-evaluation mindset. I cared more about what things meant, and how they might be perceived—or received. I’d think “a face, except the features are knobs and dials!” and get excited about the prospect, and then remember that the last one of those I shared didn’t get as many likes as the others. I wasn’t keeping a spreadsheet, but when you see audience reactions to your work in real-time, you inevitably develop a sense for what “popular” is or isn’t.

And popularity, in whatever relative form it takes, is a corrupting influence worse than money. X likes/shares was great. Y was average. I was more and more worried about Z, and it was affecting my work. I’d sworn to whoever asked—friends, interviewers, random people on the internet—that my sole criteria for selecting ideas was whatever I wanted to work on, and I realized that that was no longer true. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas; it was that I was dismissing all the ideas I did have because I thought they were non-meaningful—and, worse, potentially unpopular.

You can see it in the work. Take a look at what I was drawing on August 4, 2023—the day Jen sent me that article. There are some exceptions to the work I was doing during this period, but on the whole, the colors are more muted, more pastel. I hadn’t thought about this at the time, but it’s a literal representation of where my mind was. They’re “beautiful and everything”, as John Currin might have put it, but the energy—the color—is no longer there.

And I think, reading the Lisa Yuskavage article, that it was the reference to color that got me more than anything else. “Candy colors,” Yuskavage had said. “Very American colors.”


This has got to be right

I’ve always been hyper-aware of color, to the extent that I see colors in things that don’t have colors. It’s one of the perversities of who I am that the exchange Yuskavage had to do consciously—transferring the energy of her personality into her work—is how I was wired from the start. I’ve never been someone who’d be banned from a New York art-scene party for being too much; I’m someone who avoids parties to begin with. I can definitely see a person who didn’t know me well describing me as “demure”.

But if my color preferences in art and design were a person, that person would be on a watch list. I like rainbows, neons, primary colors, toddler-with-a-marker colors: the colors that come from inverting a computer screen, the colors you see when you poke your eyes too hard, the colors from a lab experiment gone amok. Colors that, in more benighted times, either didn’t exist or would be considered a sign of madness and degeneracy if ever used in artistic expression. That is where the good power lies.

It started early. My mom’s artistic interests and ability meant that I never had any shortage of colors as a kid—crayons, chalk, paint, food coloring. That set the stage for every visual thing I’ve done since. I still remember how excited I’d get every time Crayola invented wild new shades of orange or green (and I was always disappointed that crayon-wax, sticky and uneven, never did those colors any real justice). Visiting Japan in 1986, every toy I had—the cheap stuff you’d find in stalls and groceries—came in screaming shades of plastic, festooned with neon cartoon characters. In Europe, where I first encountered graffiti, I couldn’t stop looking at the chemical greens and purples that the writers used on walls and railway embankments. One of my college art professors told me I used orange too much. I didn’t think I used orange enough.

So the idea of getting back to working in “Barbie pink and screeching orange” felt a lot like suddenly noticing a distant light while lost in a forest. It was as simple as thinking: what if I ditch this whole, social-media-minded thing I’ve been stuck on? Scrap this wearying obsession with popularity and meaningfulness, and adopt a simpler goal: use all the colors I haven’t been using. The ones I start to use and then think “oh, that’s too much.”

It was as though I’d been trying to draw in the dark, got frustrated, and turned the lights back on. I had ideas again. More specifically, I had ideas I was willing to use. It felt like a breakthrough.

Eternal vigilance

And it has been a breakthrough, for the moment. I enjoy drawing these again. With colors back on the agenda, I’ve been experimenting with more impressionist styles—drawings where the textural layers include a range of different colors instead of the usual alternating-foreground-and-background. I’ve gotten results that I like. Some of them have been X-popular and some of them have been Z-popular. Not that it matters what anyone thinks, right?

Of course it doesn’t. Not caring what other people think is the first and second rules of Creative Fight Club; the ultimate exhortation of life coaches, advice columnists, and memes alike; a mindset so crucial to innovation that Richard Feynman titled one of his books after it. Caring what other people think is a dangerous, corrupting distraction. Everyone knows that.

It’s also a pervasively hard thing to get away from. Especially when what other people think—often a vague, indeterminate thing left to your own suspicions—is quantified into a number and displayed right below something you’ve done. Especially when you’re an emerging artist and what people think affects more than just hearts on Instagram.

Somebody smart—well, a couple of them—pointed out that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It seems obvious when you think about it. If you aspire to something better than the primeval default, you need to be constantly keeping an eye out. Untended institutions turn to corruption. Untended gardens turn to weeds. Untended habits fall by the wayside.

For me, creative liberty is not caring what other people think. Maintaining that liberty is going to take a lot of vigilance, because the pressure to care what other people think is always there. The #notesArt project is fundamentally rooted in social media; that’s where I got my audience, to the point that I refer to it using the hashtag I post work under. #notesArt has gotten me more followers than anything else I’ve done. And the animating energy of social media is caring—obsessing—about what other people think.

Now, I’m not close to anyone’s idea of influencer-level-famous. I might never be. But even the following I’ve accumulated so far has provided me a small sense of what that kind of attention can do. Influencing is a two-way interaction, similar to gravity: you influence others, but they wind up influencing you. A critical mass of influence can pull you off-course, to the point that you find you’re working for mysterious fancy critics who don’t even exist.

Feel good about what you’re doing. Stay vigilant. The lights have to be on.