An example of the kinds of "movement exercises" given to students of handwriting a century ago
If there’s any method to my madness, it lies in a slow trajectory, beginning with a series of scratchy drawings that led to linoleum cuts; these in turn led to work on canvas and masonite, and all of it characterized by the media agnostic nature of my explorations — pen, pencil, acrylic, oil, whatever. But does it matter? Because the minute I told myself this work was not obliged to bow to some recognizable notion of clarity, I felt liberated and became, as a result, insanely more productive. By letting go of logic, it became all about form: once that happened, I was free to just think about making form.
Of course, many graphic designers draw and paint and do magical things with photographs: Ellen Lupton’s whimsical illustrations, which she refers to as “prose paintings
” have been published in The New York Times
; Stefan Bucher’s spectacular monsters
have a book and website (and a serious following) of their own; Stephen Doyle’s word sculptures
(also published in the Times
) are intricate and exquisite formal studies of word and shape and light. Our own Michael Bierut’s sketchbooks
, featured not long ago here on Design Observer, celebrate the longevity of such achievement in ways I can only dream about. I envy them all their capacity to build bodies of work framed by similar values — formal, temporal, colorful, meaningful and, by and large, logical.
I can’t, I confess, do any of this: I find that I am, in fact, an abstract painter. And it is this fundamentally experimental vocabulary — unruly and unplanned and gestural — that characterizes the work I not only can but want to make. What's key in this equation is the process: assuming that all sketchbooks are meant to be a clearinghouse of subconscious thought, why is it that so many of us use our sketchbooks to annihilate that which lacks clarity, so that we can set the random thinking aside and consequently, produce more resolved work on the other end? On the other hand, if you think of your sketchbook as the end goal, what then? What if you start drawing with no idea about what you want to draw? What if your relationship with the pencil and the page is the whole point?
Not at all a product of logic, it is, ergo, the antithesis of design. Or is it a new way to think about design?
Not long ago, our daughter was watching me drawing something in the basement and asked, “How come the work you make downstairs never makes its way upstairs?” It occurred to me then that the degree of random exploration that was tacitly permitted in the painting studio but verboten in the design studio was, in fact, much more than this. And here’s where I had something between a breakdown and a breakthrough: logic, I realized, was my worst enemy. And designers like me were, in fact, prisoners of logic. Having spent the first half of my life making responsible, consistency-based choices, I am now passionately committed to the opposite, and it is this abstraction that fuels my every move. My sketchbooks, not surprisingly, reveal the decidedly inconsistent pattern of this unwieldy perspective, and while I pretend to capture my explorations in some steadfast fashion (convincing myself, for instance, that if I work in identically-sized sketchbooks, the wily-nily nature of my work will nevertheless be contained in some digestible, managed way) it is abstraction that surges forward as the common thread. And that is nothing if not illogical.