Believe it or not, if you wade past the spam bots, name-calling and nuclear threats, there’s a heartwarming, human side to Twitter. Recently, 94-year-old Rose Marie, best known as Sally Rogers on the Dick Van Dyke Show, joined the fray, probably expecting it to be the soul-deadening echo chamber it is for most of us.
In a few weeks she’s gained about 100,000 followers, all coming out of the woodwork to express their love, admiration, and awe at her 90-year(!) career.
In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in extremely weird times. There have always been people who take pride in stubborn ignorance, emit lies and spurious arguments to justify bigotry, and are fundamentally disposed toward seeing the world in terms of “us vs. them.” But, for the first time, we’re seeing these qualities in the supposed leader of our country.
As a person who’s rational yet anxiety-prone, it’s meant a year of lost sleep and gnashing teeth. So it’s hard to overstate the value of a late-night host who can make me unhinge my jaw laughing, while reminding me that there are plenty of people out there who are seeing clear through the BS and are not afraid to call it out.
Last week I had the opportunity to spend three days in a caricature drawing class led by Mad Magazine artist Tom Richmond. Basically everything that’s covered in the course can be found in the book that I bought way back in 2011, so if you’re a self-starter, that may be all you need to step up your game. As for me, I tend to require someone standing over me and telling me what the heck I’m doing wrong, which is almost always obvious in retrospect. Actually, I don’t think I drew anything during the class that would qualify as a successful caricature, but after the concepts marinated in my brain for a few days I was able to crank out a few I was reasonably happy with.
I’ll keep practicing! Nothing about this class made me want to become a guy who draws 5-minute caricatures for ungrateful tourists, but it made me realize that regular practice will help me improve my goofy cartoon faces the way figure drawing has improved my goofy cartoon bodies.
Speaking of which, last Saturday also marked the end of an era at the National Academy, where for the last 6 years I periodically took weekly figure drawing classes with Lisa Dinhofer. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the 25-plus years she spent teaching the course, or the 192 years the Academy managed to stay afloat before being run aground by new management. Jerks.
Opportunities for figure drawing abound in New York, but it’s rare to find a small, relaxed class with a teacher who is always 100% right about what you’re doing wrong. Over the years my observational skills have slowly but surely improved, and I couldn’t have done it without Lisa. If I put my mind to it, I can probably summon her critical voice while drawing from life on my own. But it’ll take decades more practice before I’m able to see past my blind spots the way she does.
I’m surprised I didn’t post this cartoon I drew for class a few months ago:
I should point out that these characters are merely based on Lisa and I. And I’m not just saying that because she was slightly offended by my portrayal!
Somehow the stars aligned, and there was yet a third class that ended this past week; my SVA course with illustrator Steve Brodner. This class was unique for me in that, instead of teaching the mechanics of drawing, it was all about what it takes to become an illustrator. Steve’s philosophy is that all good illustration tells a story, and that the point of your illustration should be crystal clear to any stranger flipping through a magazine and seeing it for the first time. Often times, us amateur artists have a tendency to rush to creating finished art, but that doesn’t give us the opportunity to come up with a really strong composition, which can be done much more effectively at the scribbly thumbnail stage. If you solve all your storytelling problems beforehand, creating the finished piece is much more straightforward and enjoyable.
Many of my regular readers (i.e. friends and family), though they tend to be overly positive about my work in general, have noticed that I seem to have upped my game in the last few posts. That’s not because I improved my drawing skills, but because I spent days and sometimes weeks, with the help of Steve and the rest of the class, refining the ideas and making sure I didn’t cut any corners.
The class in Steve’s studio; that’s him bottom right.
So, back to the self-starter thing. Steve’s class has taught me some good habits, in theory, but in order to really ingrain them I know I’ll need a re-up of the assignments and accountability that a structured class can provide. So for that reason—and also because it feels weird not to be enrolled in a class of some sort—I’ll be back with Steve in the fall, chipping away at a portfolio and summoning the chutzpah to actually sell myself as an illustrator at the tender age of 40!
Like me, Tyrus Wong grew up in Sacramento, scribbling drawings on recycled paper.
Okay, that sort of diminishes everything he went through. An illegal (trigger warning, Republicans!) immigrant to post-earthquake San Francisco, he powered through discrimination and prejudice to quickly rise through the ranks at Disney, almost single-handedly defining the look of 1942’s Bambi.
A Disney strike and World War II killed the momentum of the Asian-American artists group he helped to found. In spite of that, he earned U.S. citizenship, continued to contribute to animation and fine arts, and spent his later years designing and flying beautiful kites in the sunny skies near his California home.
His New York Times obituary from 2016, when he died at 106, tells it better. Having a soft spot for joyful centenarians, I decided to portray him in his later years, bringing an ephemeral splash of color to the skies over San Francisco Bay, glass half-full, all smiles, satisfied with his contribution to the world. Few of us will have such hard-earned luck, but Tyrus’ smile gives us something to aim for.