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Lessons from Berlin, part 8

Posted on Nov 27, 2013 in Vancouver | 0 comments

2013 11 06 One Sketch a Day

There is great joy in discovering your own backyard

I knew this before I went to Berlin, but even more so this year. I am exploring my own city as I am drawing it both alone and with others, and spin-off projects such as the copper etching venture are developing from simply doing what I love to do.

I travel a lot, but I am also happy exploring my own neighbourhood. It probably doesn’t hurt that I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

I promise there is only one more “lesson from Berlin” coming, then I am done with the mop-up.

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Lessons from Berlin, part 7

Posted on Nov 26, 2013 in Vancouver | 2 comments

2013 10 30 One Sketch a Day

I need to connect with people even though I like to pretend I don’t

I never sketched with other people until I went to Berlin and contacted the Berlin Urban Sketchers, and they welcomed me. They are, by the way, a diverse group, consisting of native Berliners, as well as Berliners by choice from various other countries. My German background had nothing to do with being accepted by this group.

I enjoyed sketching with others so much that I decided I wanted to have a sketching community in Vancouver and that I would have to help create it or it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. I think I have transmitted some of my love for sketching and joy of discovery to the meetup sketching group which I started on February 17, three days after returning to Vancouver. The group currently has over 380 members.

I discovered that there is a special connection that results from sharing the passion of drawing with others. I have met more people this year than ever before. It’s been energizing and made me realize I am more social than I thought I was. Quality time spent with other humans is never wasted. It is even possible that encouraging and inspiring others to be creative is just as important to me now as being creative myself.

And as a bonus, I also appreciate the connection with my husband, my family, and my friends more. I just hope they will remember these heartfelt sentiments when I still don’t get any chores done because I’m out sketching instead.

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Lessons from Berlin, part 6

Posted on Nov 19, 2013 in Vancouver | 0 comments

2013 10 23 One Sketch a Day

“Tank you life, tank you love!”

(Marion Cotillard’s Oscar acceptance speech, Best Actress for portraying Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose)

I was on a constant high in Berlin from all the newness and excitement of discovering this city. In hindsight, it felt a bit like being in love — with life, I guess. I have been able to hold on to that feeling of wonder and rejuvenation throughout this whole year. Not every single second of each day, that would be exhausting. But a lot.

P.S. The Jennifer Aniston drawing is really just randomly associated with this post, as are many of the other drawings. Jennifer happened to be on a magazine cover in a waiting room. I have to admit that I’ve always been strangely, specifically impressed with her shapely arms and elbows. Here I’ve obviously tried to capture the spirit of those elbows; their shape, not so much.

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Thoughts on abstraction vs. realism

Posted on Nov 17, 2013 in Vancouver | 0 comments

2013 10 29 One Sketch a Day

An “abstract” doodle I made. But now I see a weird creature with Martian eyes, or a retro pattern.

East Side Culture Crawl, Vancouver

An “urban sketch” which is supposed to capture what I see, but I was really just enjoying the rhythm of some abstract lines that could be interpreted as buildings.

I’ve been thinking about the distinction between abstract vs. figurative/realistic art for a while. I’ve decided that neither one really exists. There is no pure abstraction and there is no pure realism.

I like to draw both ways, for the same reasons: Drawing something “abstract” gives the analytical side of my brain a break. Over the last few years, I’ve come to enjoy drawing in a free expression style, in addition to on-location sketching. As I am drawing, I constantly try to surprise myself by doing something I would normally consider “ugly” or “illogical”. The goal is to create something unpredictable and unrecognizable. Of course, free expression drawing can also end up looking like something; I may suddenly draw a snake or a mountain or a sun, or I may start to see something recognizable in whatever I’ve drawn.

And drawing something realistic on location, as in urban sketching, gives my brain the same break. I just use what I see in front of me as a guide and try to trace it with my pen, there is no need to “design” anything. The calming effect on my brain is the same as with my abstract drawings.

When I draw something realistic, based on what I see on the street or when looking at a human model, I very much enjoy the abstract quality of a line, or the repetition of a pattern of hosiery maybe, or the shape of a tree. When I enjoy these elements for their visual qualities alone, they become completely abstract to me. And lines are abstractions to begin with; there are no lines in nature.

On the other hand, when I create an abstract drawing, my brain instinctively tries to associate the resulting shapes with something it already knows. It starts reading interpretations into the drawing. Even a completely minimalist painting like Barney Newman’s Voice of Fire, which has all possible associations removed, by necessity then results in a purely physical interpretation of “three vertical paint strokes, perhaps even done with a cheap paint roller, in about half an hour if sober, a full hour if drunk, on a wooden panel”. The abstract concept behind the art is so far removed from its physical appearance that the art appears to be one with the physical object it consists of. To me, that is as realistic as it ever gets in art. Definitely that is the case for the uninformed viewer, hence all the jokes about “my kid could paint that.”

Here’s my opinion:

All art is abstract in that it consists of shapes and lines on paper or in space which may be interpreted to convey meaning.

All art is realistic in that it consists of shapes and lines on paper or in space which may be interpreted to convey meaning.

P.S. I love Voice of Fire.

Voice of Fire

Voice of Fire. Barnett Newman, 1967. Acrylic on canvas, 543.6 x 243.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada (no. 30502). Click on the image to go to its National Gallery of Canada page. Read about the painting’s controversial acquisition by the Canadian government in 1989.

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Lessons from Berlin, part 5

Posted on Nov 15, 2013 in Vancouver | 3 comments

2013 10 31 One Sketch a Day

Make art like a child

I discovered this before Berlin, but it’s worth mentioning on this sketchblog. Being like a child means not worrying about how the art you are making is relating to art history or what it all means. I want to draw what I feel compelled to draw. I may examine it later, or not.

Whatever lines or shapes you make on a piece of paper, are not going to physically hurt anybody, nor mentally (at least probably not in the long term). So why worry about it and have the urge to label it ugly or beautiful, or even the hope that it pleases you or anyone else?

The most important thing is that you’ve been deeply absorbed in an activity to the point where you’ve turned off your conscious, restless, critical mind, and you have created something unique that did not exist an hour ago. I think that theoretically one should be able to shred it up and let it go as effortlessly as one produced it. The child is always ready to part with what she’s just drawn.

That’s why I like the work of artists like Andy Goldsworthy who create something out of nature and then allow the climate and the seasons to take over and rearrange it/disturb it/decompose it. There is great humility in that.

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Lessons from Berlin, part 4

Posted on Nov 14, 2013 in Vancouver | 1 comment

2013 10 28 One Sketch a Day

Not only is the grass not greener in Berlin, but there is no grass

After 24 years as a graphic designer, I had developed a bad attitude towards my work over the last few years. I would feel underchallenged if my clients went for the safest and most obvious idea, or disrespected if they weren’t choosing my preferred approach, or affronted if I felt they behaved unprofessionally. The recession starting in 2008 didn’t help. With many laid-off designers desperate for work, suddenly design clients were shopping around for the cheapest deal and calling all the shots, basically getting away with murder.

But I realized in Berlin that my career as an independent graphic designer/consultant is not so bad after all. I befriended some artists there and learned about their struggles to get by. I saw that they welcomed commercial work in order to support their art, which gave me a new appreciation of my graphic design work and my loyal corporate and institutional clients — clients who pay me professional billable rates and don’t mind when their designer takes off to live in Europe for three months. I was able to make a shift in perception this year where I see art as my main activity and my paid design work as financially supporting my art. I may not be working any less than before, but seeing art vs. work in this different light has been liberating.

I am also getting better at saying no to projects that don’t seem to be either interesting or well-paid (I don’t require both criteria at the same time, although it’s nice when that happens).

So I am not going to give up my design business because I don’t want to feel pressure to make money from art, not that I even could. It would just make me uptight if I felt I had to “deliver” by a certain time, in a certain style, to appease art buyers. It would be much like what I do now, which is to work for clients. It’s OK, maybe even desirable, to be a bit OCD and goal-oriented as a designer, but I don’t want to have to be that person when it comes to art.

And in hindsight, it may have well been my own creative stagnation which caused my professional slump. It’s too easy to blame it on bad clients. Now that I am constantly working on personal creative projects, my client work is more inspired as well. And I got rid of the bad clients, leaving me with only fantastic ones, of course ;), and more time for art.

P.S. One year ago today I left for Berlin, woohoo!

(Check out the tumblr When You live in Berlin that I borrowed this animated gif from — it’s pretty funny. More so if you’ve lived in Berlin.)

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Lessons from Berlin, part 3

Posted on Nov 13, 2013 in Vancouver | 0 comments

2013 11 05 One Sketch a Day

My communication skills could be better

By extension of my first insight, I realized how damaging not just internal criticism is, but also criticism of others. Much of it is unnecessary or unconstructive. Then there’s the natural reaction to criticism: indignation and defensiveness. That builds up walls which impede communication. It is much better to listen attentively, and to be supportive.

And if I get to embrace my quirks, others should be entitled to theirs as well.

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Typhoon Haiyan poster by Emmanuel Buenviaje

Posted on Nov 12, 2013 in Vancouver | 0 comments

Typhoon Haiyan

My friend eman (yes, he spells it lower case), who is Filipino, designed a poster to draw attention to the devastation in the Phillipines. I had not been watching the news for the last few days, so I had no idea how horrible the disaster was until I had a visit with my Filipina neighbour yesterday.

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Lessons from Berlin, part 2

Posted on Nov 10, 2013 in Vancouver | 1 comment

2013 10 27 One Sketch a Day

I’ve been thinking about my 3-month-long stay in Berlin a lot during the last couple of weeks, as November 14, the anniversary of my departure, approaches. It’s a bit tricky to put my Berlin insights into a tidy list, but here’s my attempt at a summary. I will just post one insight at a time, otherwise it gets really long:

I can be very happy with myself

The most important thing I gained was a sense of liberation from my inner critic after some struggles during the first couple of weeks on my own. For example, I was giving myself a hard time about staying up until 4 or 5 am every night, much of it because I had to work and be available during business hours in the Canada Pacific time zone. Then I would wake up at noon, and catch just a couple of hours of daylight in the dark, gloomy Berlin winter. The darkness, by the way, didn’t bother me one bit, I was on such a high just to be there. But my strange schedule made me feel like a lazy bum at first. Then I realized that I was suddenly legitimately living out what I am anyway: a night owl working a night shift. Except when I’m in Vancouver, I don’t have the excuse of working for clients that are 9 timezones away. But so what if I feel like working in the middle of the night, even in Vancouver? I am self-employed.

Even my very decision to go to Berlin met with disapproval from a few people in the older generation of my family who thought it was odd for a married woman to go off to Europe by herself for three months, that it was selfish. Which it was, but in the best possible way. There is nothing like fake self-denial which you can then rub under your partner’s nose to remind them how much you gave up for them and how much they cramped your style, even if they never asked you to make that sacrifice. I say yay for some honest selfishness.

I also realized how often I censor myself or worry about how I am perceived by people, and how self-defeating that truly is. If I feel like crouching down on the street to take 157 photographs of something that caught my eye, why should I feel embarrassed about that? Especially if I am alone and not holding anybody up. And if I enjoy sitting in a bar by myself for 7 hours while engrossed in sketching, why not do it?

Drawing or taking photos, or spending three hours carving an elaborate pumpkin may just be what is most important to me, even though some people may think it’s frivolous play. They say “how on earth do you have time for that?”, implying that it’s something fun they might like to do, if only they had time for it with all the truly important stuff they have going on in their lives. Yet some of those people probably choose to spend many more hours shopping, or watching sports, or knitting, or lifting weights, or facebooking, than I ever would. It’s a matter of priorities.

In Berlin, after overcoming a bit of inner resistance, I felt free to roam the streets and go out to events, restaurants, bars, concerts, museums, theatres and operas alone, and I relished every second of the temporary solitude which allowed me to do precisely what I wanted at any moment. I decided that there was no reason I could not preserve the essence of that feeling back home in Vancouver.

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Lessons from Berlin, part 1

Posted on Nov 8, 2013 in Vancouver | 0 comments

It was high time to take down the “I’ll take Berlin / Yo, I’m back home” banner at the top of this page. That trip meant so much to me that I had to leave it up there for a while.

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I took a 3-month leave from Vancouver to live in Berlin from November 14, 2012 to February 14, 2013, and started this blog. I had been wanting to start a sketchblog for a while before then, but I needed that initial push to get rolling. The impetus was that I wanted to update my friends and family on what I was doing in Berlin, and to preserve the memories I was going to make.

I had been dreaming about Berlin for at least five years before I went to live there, but I didn’t get anywhere close to making a concrete plan. But once I started thinking “why not?”, I came up with many reasons in favour of moving there: I knew it had a lively arts and culture scene which promised to be inspiring; it’s a major European city; my first language is German; I left Germany as a teenager and thought it would be interesting for me to spend more than a couple of weeks there as an adult; and being German-born, learning more about the twists and turns of the history of Berlin promised to give me more insight into my native country’s past and present. As a German, you cannot not face your country’s history. And a practical but very important reason was that Berlin is surprisingly cheap (rapidly getting more expensive though!).

Also, having my own graphic design business allows me to work on a laptop from anywhere, so I didn’t have to give up my income. I worked as little as possible from Berlin, but I did work enough, and managed to pay myself my regular salary during that time. Most of my clients were supportive, even impressed with their designer absconding to Europe. During a meeting with one of my clients, I detected a note of pride as she announced to a co-worker who had popped into her office: “I’m just on the phone with my designer in Berlin.” It didn’t hurt that on most days I stayed up to work during Canadian business hours, which translated to 5 pm – 2 am Berlin time.

So sometime in November 2011 I had asked Jeff what he thought of me going to Berlin for three months in the winter of 2012/13, with a visit from him over Christmas to halve the length of time we’d be apart. He said that it sounded like a good idea. Two days later, I had booked myself a bachelor apartment in Berlin for three months, one year ahead. Jeff was surprised — he didn’t think I’d act so fast, he thought there’d be further discussion. But we’ve been together 20 years, you’d think he’d know me by now: I have a great need to feel free and autonomous. Luckily Jeff is not clingy, jealous, or distrustful. But really, why should anyone limit themselves to a self-denying definition of partnership? The trick is to maintain the balance between personal freedom vs. commitment to your relationship.

The first three months of this blog are full of my Berlin stories and impressions. But what has lasted a year later? There were a few insights I took with me from Berlin that I haven’t written about. But that will be my next post.

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