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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.”

Yes.

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.

Afem

I’m proud to announce I’m currently exhibiting at Gallery Afem. Afem is a digital gallery run by Gustaf Jansson, a Gothenburg-based photographer who I met on Glass. The exhibit is a selection of fifteen works, available for order. It’ll be up for the month of April.

Afem prints art on A5-sized paper (Fem is “five” in Swedish). I’m in good company; they’ve had some pretty amazing artists in the past. I’m not the only one who repurposed mobile technology for artistic uses.

(And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke.)

The Pencil tool

Whenever I talk about the pencil tool, I have to specify that I mean the virtual one in Notes, not the $99 stylus. In your Notes app, the pencil is the third tool from the left. It looks very similar to the pen, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it has the flattened sides of a pencil, with the weight printed on it in tiny letters, no less. Somebody at Apple (probably a lot of somebodies) was obviously a studio arts major.

A screenshot of the iOS drawing tools with the pencil tool circled

The pencil is one of these little Apple flourishes that I really like. Both the pen and highlighter are just fine for marking up documents, but Apple went the extra mile and included a pencil. It’s a really good one, too: the pencil texture is very realistic. That quality likely goes unappreciated if you’re just circling text in a PDF, but it counts when you’re actually drawing with it.

Five red pencil lines, each one a different thickness

Longtime Mac users might recall that this isn’t the first time Apple’s incorporated art tools into its software. One of the things people liked about Mac OS 8 was the crayon box (and if you used the machine long enough, the crayons even wore down over time).

A screenshot of a dialog box with a picture of a box of crayons. Clicking a crayon selects the color it represents.

I don’t remember which drawing I first used the pencil tool on. It might have been the bulb balloon drawing, but I think I used it to its full potential in the drawing I did for Thanksgiving.

Uses

What’s nice about the pencil is that the lines are textured; they don’t have hard edges. This makes them useful for slight touches.

Tip: Notes doesn’t show you the specific opacity value when you’re adjusting it in the opacity slider for a tool. If you want to see it, set your opacity and then open the color picker; the current opacity is displayed there.

Also, the tool’s opacity is reset as soon as you choose a different color. If there’s a particular color opacity that you want to preserve, add it as one of your saved colors by hitting the + button in the color picker.

It’s worth noting that I almost never use the pencil at full opacity. That’s too heavy for things like highlighting and atmospherics, so I usually bring it down to something in the range of 3%–8% opacity. A good trick for creating smooth textures is to make it really light—say, 2–3%—and then build up the color by layering the strokes on top of each other. That gives you more control over the saturation, and it’s smoother, since the pencil texture in all those lines starts to blend together. (If you want the texture to be visible, though—and it’s a nice texture, so sometimes you do—it might be better to start with a darker line and just try different opacities on a single line until you find the one you want.)

Minimal highlights

First and foremost, I’ve found the pencil tool useful for adding very light, soft highlights in places where doing this with the pen tool would be overly sharp.

Some examples:

A chemical canister stands next to a wine glass filled with a glowing green substance
The light reflection on the bottle and glass, and the center of the green glow
A tiny angel stands on the round, red head of a pin. The pin is wearing a green suit coat with an ID badge
The light reflections on the sides of the pin (the “neck”)
A wicked general with a shaved head, a mustache, and a monocle that looks like the nuclear clock
This guy’s face

Small details

Beyond highlights, there are often subtle parts of a drawing where the pencil comes in handy.

A giant furnace-like espresso machine dominates a tiny room, a cup of coffee balanced on one of its edges
The fire, glowing bars, and red highlight on the cup (as well as the glow around the red buttons)
A flaming person pilots a glowing red lightbulb across a snowscape at night
The figure driving the bulb, as well as bulb highlights and ground reflections
An observatory on a snow-covered hill, with an unusually bright star gleaming in the sky (which is most likely a supernova and not a celestial omen if we're being coldly practical here)
Clouds, light reflections on snow, fog effects on the building and forest

Atmospherics

I’ve found the pencil tool to be most useful for situations where I need a lot of light, soft lines that form a blurry area. This is something that neither the pen nor the highlighter can do particularly well, given the hard-edged strokes of both tools.

I’m still working on these techniques. My problem is that in a lot of cases, the individual pencil strokes are still visible, giving the final result a stripey, uneven appearance.

A vast ship emerges from the fog. A Native American stands on the shore watching it.
The fog around the emerging ship, as well as small fog effects around the trees
A troll emerges from a foggy wood.
The fog around the creature, as well as the cloudy sky (and the creature’s facial features)
An unearthly glow hovers over a city celebrating New Year's Eve. On one building, a small figure standing next to some baggage signals what may be a descending spacecraft.
The clouds and light, as well as the glow on the building farthest in the background

The bulk of a drawing

I loved crayons as a kid, and I had a lot of them. I inherited my mom’s collection, so a lot of my early childhood drawings were done with the same exact crayons she’d used when she was my age. Those were good crayons: large, solid, and rich-textured.

And sometimes, that specific texture is what I want. After all, Apple went to the trouble of including an art-quality pencil/crayon texture, so why don’t I use it more?

Because just like regular crayons—and other thick, textured implements like charcoal sticks—the pencil is harder for me to control. While the pencil offers a range of stroke thicknesses, the thinner lines are barely visible, so I’d usually be working with the thicker ones. Those don’t lend themselves as well to the fine details and precision I prefer.

This is the first drawing I did primarily via the pencil. I’m not particularly pleased with it. I found the strokes hard to control. Solid-color areas that would have been easy to cover with the pen tool required a lot of linework (and for some of them, I did wind up using the pen tool). The shading is also not as smooth as I’d wanted.

Image A: a creature with a craggy face, glassy purple eyes, and a long robelike beard stands with a frown.
A
Image B: a monster crudely rendered in crayon chases a person. Unlike the rest of it, the monster's head and eye are rendered in detail. The monster has a speech balloon with "ROAR" in it.
B

That’s the other issue with the pencil: unlike the simpler grid-esque textures I do with the pen tool, the complexity of the pencil texture makes smooth shading areas harder to pull off. Overlapping lines result in striping, which I have to fix with more lines, which leads to more striping. Besides requiring a lot of effort, this means the drawing gets large fast; and as I mentioned, once you start approaching 100 MB, bad things happen.


So I haven’t—at this point, at least—found a lot of reasons to use the pencil as the primary tool for a drawing. It’s a very neat little tool with a lot of potential, but unless the crayon aesthetic is a requirement for what I’m trying to do (like Image B), the pen is the most practical tool for the style I work in right now.

How it works: the basics

I’ve gotten a few questions on social media about what I use to make these things, so I figured I’d cover the process here. I’d like to discuss artistic techniques at some point, and maybe even do a video or two; I already posted a video a short while ago to show another artist how I build up dimensionality by layering. I’ll cover that in another post; though—this is primarily about Notes as an art tool.

This is going to be pretty nuts-and-boltsy, but if you’re doing art in Notes, or interested in doing it, here’s everything you need to know to get started.

The tech

I use an iPhone XS, running iOS 15.4. That’s an old phone, and I’ve since upgraded to an iPhone 14. I’ve stuck with the XS for Notes art, though, because:

  • The smaller size fits in my hand better
  • The Notes app in iOS 16 makes it tricky to move the canvas when zoomed in. Attempting to do a two-finger drag usually (not always but often) results in drawing a line instead of dragging the canvas. Switching to a different tool fixes this temporarily—you can drag at that point—but it’s annoying enough that I’ve been sticking with my old phone for art.

Update: Apple fixed this bug in iOS 16.3, so I’m now using my iPhone 14. Thank you, Apple!

A few people have asked me if I use a stylus. I don’t; iPhones don’t support the Apple Pencil yet, and while there are third-party styluses out there, I haven’t found them to be very good. So yeah, I draw these with my finger.

I do have an iPad Pro that I use for other artwork, and that combined with the Apple Pencil is the best tablet I’ve ever used. As far as the Notes art, though, I doubt I’d move to the Pencil even when phones start supporting it, since I feel like I have more control with my finger.

Starting a drawing

What I used to do

When I first started sketching in Notes, I’d select the Pen tool and draw directly on the note itself. To put down a colored background, I’d either use the largest-size pen width, or the highlighter tool; both are good for drawing a colored background with minimal effort. (I often used the highlighter, but I’d recommend the pen tool; the highlighter is translucent, so overlapping brushstrokes result in stripes and an uneven background. Unless you specifically want that effect, the pen is best for a uniform color background.)

The problems:

  • Even if you can draw it quickly, you still have to draw it.
  • It’s important that the canvas doesn’t extend past the size of the screen. If it’s too long, it’ll get cropped when I take a screenshot of it (and screenshots are pretty crucial in this process, for reasons I’ll get to). Given that the drawing tools take up some of the available space, measuring the exact canvas size you need can be tricky. Not hugely difficult, but I like to eliminate microfrictions like this wherever I can.
  • You can’t zoom. Notes only allows you to zoom into attachments; if you’re drawing directly on a note, you can’t magnify that drawing. When you’re using your finger to draw on a screen the size of an index card, zooming is kind of important.

A lot of my original drawings were un-zoomed, which gives them a rough, woodcut look. I actually like that aesthetic, but I prefer to work more precisely now.

What I do now

The first thing I do is create the canvas: a colored rectangular image the size of the phone screen. I then paste the canvas into the Notes app and draw on that. This saves me from having to measure the area and manually fill it with color, and since it’s an attachment, I can zoom as needed.

I have a Shortcuts workflow for this. It’s a simple little workflow that displays a color picker, generates the canvas image, copies it to the clipboard, and then creates a new note for me. (I have to paste it myself, but hard work is part of being an artist.)

Shortcuts is an automation tool that comes with iOS (and now, macOS). It’s great—I use it all the time for repetitive tasks.

The drawing process

There are a few things about the drawing process that I keep in mind.

Take screenshots often.

I take screenshots very frequently when drawing. Notes is a great little app, but since I’m using it for something it wasn’t designed to do, it occasionally glitches, resulting in unsaved or corrupted work.

A few times, Notes will abruptly invert the edges of a part of the drawing, which results in the lines having a very dark or light border.

If you’re sketching on an attachment, it’s possible to copy the attachment and paste it into a new note. I recommend screenshots because I think they’re more stable. I’m not familiar with Notes’s internal workings, but it looks like every line you put down is its own object, like something you’d draw in Illustrator or a vector drawing program; it’s not just a flat collection of pixels. This is nice for quickly erasing many lines, or doing a whole series of undos if you’re not happy with a particular direction, but it also makes the attachment very large and (my own suspicion) makes the sketch more prone to glitches.

iOS indicates that the attachment you’re working on is a bitmap (mine are PNGs, probably because that’s the format generated by the canvas creation shortcut), but copying an attachment seems to include all those objects/undo states, so you might find your backup gets corrupted as well. I strongly recommend screenshotting as often as possible.

Quality: There isn’t an obvious difference between the quality of an original sketch and a screenshot of it. I notice some slight blurriness when I do a close, zoomed-in comparison between the two, but it’s not something you’d notice when the drawing is at its normal size, or printed.

Keep an eye on the file size.

How to do this: Exit drawing mode, open the image (tap it so it fills the screen), and then tap the “Share” icon (lower left). At the top of the share sheet, next to the image’s name, you’ll see its file format and file size.

Complex, line-heavy drawings can get very large. The 100MB range is the redline area; Notes often stops saving changes past that size. When I’m working on a drawing, and I get up to around 80–90MB, I start over: take a screenshot, and paste it into a new note.

Super-thin-line hack

Notes offers you five different line weights, ranging from very thin to very thick. There is, however, a trick to get an even thinner line.

  1. Close and then re-open the drawing in Notes
  2. Before drawing anything, zoom in
  3. After zooming in, select the thinnest line weight. Then draw.

You’ll notice that the stroke is significantly thinner than it would be if you selected the thin weight at the drawing’s normal size. What seems to be happening is that if you zoom before drawing anything, Notes doesn’t increase the stroke size to match the zoomed-in scale; it simply renders the stroke at its normal size, which—when applied to a canvas that’s around 200–300% magnified—becomes very fine when the drawing is returned to its normal scale.

This is probably not normal behavior—i.e. that trick might not work in future versions of Notes—but it works as of iOS 16.1. I don’t use the super-thin line much anyway. There were a few drawings where it came in handy, particularly for eyes, but nowadays, if I need a very smooth texture, I’d use the Pencil tool.

Hope this was useful! I’ll probably get into the Pencil tool next, since I’ve been using that a lot these days.