On drawing

My contribution to an as yet unpublished book about drawing, by William Bardel I’m on the 11:33am train to New York for a business lunch. Frankly, I’m more excited about the train ride than the lunch. I use the train as a kind of drawing board. In the middle of the morning, the train is not crowded and cell phone users are relatively polite. I don’t really know why it works so well as an idea facilitator; perhaps the lulling hum of the wheels on the track focuses the mind, or perhaps it’s the fact that I can eliminate home office distractions: the phone, or the ping of a new email arriving, or the fridge. Actually, I think it’s the movement of the train that promotes new thoughts. One way this happens is that the gentle jiggling wiggles my pencil as I draw, leading to many of the drawings being shaky; they can’t be considered as anything other than very rough roughs. But that’s good: I can concentrate on the idea behind the drawing, not what the drawing looks like. Sometimes the train ride is smooth and wiggle-free, and that indicates that my love of the train is not about these tentative, wobbly lines, because on a smooth ride, the lines are smooth. From time to time I stare at the passing bridges and trees; somehow this is not a distraction, it’s another part of the calming movement that’s feeding my thought process. Maybe cognitive scientists know why this is so; to me it’s a pleasant and useful mystery. I carry just a few drawing tools with me: a pencil with an eraser, a pencil sharpener (one with an enclosure for the lead and wood shavings) and a red or blue pen. My notebooks are home-made, using deliberately cheap white paper to avoid the fear of making a mistake in an expensive “artist’s” sketchbook. I use the colored pens as I do in many of my diagrams and charts—as an explanatory second color, on top of the pencil drawing. Some fellow passengers notice me using the pencil sharpener. Their faces seem to be saying how old-fashioned it looks. Then they go back to pecking at their laptops or cell phones. I wonder if they know how lucky they are to have opposable thumbs to text with. I’m sure that using a pencil is a distant memory for most of them. Meanwhile, I’m deep into the elements of a chart I’m working on. How best to show the information about an ivy league college’s business cycle in a way that gives some meaning to the data, and isn’t just a table of numbers? I’ll try many different versions. Some are completed very quickly, just to try out different ideas. Others are abandoned before finishing the visual thought. It’s the equivalent of the old movie cliché of an author who types one line then rips the paper out of the typewriter and screws it up into a ball. Except that I don’t throw anything away: there may be the germ of an idea in there that I don’t see at the time, or don’t need for this particular job. My sketchbooks are filled with false starts. The train pulls into Grand Central, and it’s back to distractions. The ride was productive, but I need the return trip in my mobile office so I can continue drawing.