Wednesday, February 26, 2020


I recently accepted a commission, for a drawing. Not something I do. The gentleman saw me sketching at the cash register, between customers, and admired my work. He made a point of coming back to ask me if I would draw his picture as a present for his wife. I explained that what I do is caricature. Now it's true, there is much less of this in my drawing now, fewer exaggerations: disproportionately enormous noses, bug-eyes, etc. I'm more interested in likeness than I used to be, and I'm more interested in technical matters like shading than I used to be. The results, frankly, tend not to be as funny or as loose, but what I'm doing pleases me -- mostly -- so there we are. I still call what I do caricature though because I am still disinterested in flattery. I like every wrinkle, dimple, wart and asymmetry I can see. Thus my warning to the interested party. People may think they want me to draw them, but most people don't really. Nonetheless he persisted and I agreed -- to try.

Some years ago I caricatured the then CEO of the bookstore where I worked. I gave him the drawing. He liked it. He was a good sport, as they say. I liked that. Later he came to me and suggested I might draw all my coworkers who were then contributing to the store's website. He thought that could provide some "unique content." I declined. I also explained. Not everyone is a good sport. Moreover, not everyone need be. Even the best sport does not necessarily want to be immortalized as it were by a caricaturist let alone in an official way at work.

Friends I've known for years have been offended when I drew them. Strangers, when they've caught me drawing them, have not been uniformly pleased. Women have tended to focus on some flaw, or perceived flaw that I may or may not have emphasized or even noticed. "I hate my ears," I've heard. "I wish you hadn't drawn my teeth," I've been told. A lot of that. Famous and not so famous authors I've drawn have commented likewise. Amy Tan asked me if her eyes were really so small? I didn't draw them so. Anna Quindlen said I made her nose enormous. I hadn't. (Julia Child was one of the only famous woman who ever asked if she could have the drawing I'd done. I gave it to her of course. It was in the style of Guiseppe Arcimboldo; the portrait composed from fruits, grains, and vegetables. "Look at my fingers!" Julia cried, "they're leeks! How perfect." Nicest thing anyone ever said to me.) Gay men have been likewise pretty uniform in their dislike of what I do. One writer, an old friend, told me bluntly that he was insulted by my drawing, that he did not consider caricature an art, and asked me to destroy the drawing I'd done. I did not, but I didn't re-post it on social media, though I really thought it rather good. Straight men have tended to respond more stoically, most with just a "huh", and maybe a somewhat forced smile. One notoriously thin-skinned winner of the National Book Award, etc., actually made some suggestions to improve the likeness. He wasn't wrong and I did. More than one straight, male writer told me I'd made him look drunk or hungover. I hadn't. More men than women have laughed. Genre writers, journalists, historians, and critics have had the most positive responses. Novelists and poets the worst. Very old writers have told me they were flattered, as have very young ones. The middle-aged seem the least pleased. I get that. Still a shock every morning in the bathroom mirror. Glad I wear glasses -- to be put on only after my undershirt.

After all this I nevertheless drew the gent as best I could, from a photograph I found on Facebook. (He'd emailed me a couple of photos, but like most photos people seem to like best of themselves, they were taken too far away and without the kind of -- what shall we call it? -- characteristic detail required.) I drew the picture. I put it in an envelope and put it on hold for him at the bookstore. He picked it up on a day when I wasn't working. Perfect timing, as far as I was concerned. I received an email a day or so after. His wife liked the drawing. All that mattered, so far as I was concerned. Success. My subject offered, again, to take me to dinner, as I wanted no payment. Nice. Don't know that I will, but it was well meant.

The gentleman I drew is a retired sportsman and instructor. I resisted the cliche of including a golf club, first, because it would be a cliche, and second, because I don't know that I could draw a golf club even if I wanted to. Sports. Not my sort of thing, sports. Golf in fact is my primary reason for resisting his dinner invitation. Can't imagine.

I wish I was the kind of caricaturist who could set up an easel on the pier and in ten minutes draw a fisherman, or a golfer, or a child. It's an enviable skill, a way to make a buck, maybe even a (very) modest living. Like any skill, doubtlessly it can be learned, but I never did. Draw a fishing-pole. Draw a hundred fishing-poles. Likewise a golf-club, a baseball-cap, cotton-candy. Draw a thousand children. Repetition. Practice, practice, practice, but I never did, and now it feels a little late in the day. I imagine that the style of such caricature is closer to cartooning and animation than Daumier or David Levine. Draw Mickey Mouse a thousand times. I'm fascinated by cartoonists and animation, but it's never occurred to me that I might aspire, road not taken.

In my youth I worshiped Al Hirschfeld, the masterful caricaturist who spent decades at the New York Times capturing not just the faces but the performances of the actors, dancers, singers, and stars of Broadway and film. His line not only delineates character -- definition of caricature -- but also conveys an unparalleled kinetic life; singers sing, dancers dance. I spent many a long hour copying those drawings. Never came near. Likewise David Levine's exquisite cross-hatching and perfect exaggeration.  At some point, one draws as one does. One can improve, and I like to think I have, but those old boys had genius.

So, I'll never be Hirschfeld. And I'll never draw a proper golf-club. Only one of those things bothers me now at all. Besides, golf always makes me think of George Carlin and his conviction that the solution to homelessness in America would best be found in nationalizing the golf courses. "Arrogant, elitist... boring game, for boring people." I could not agree more.

And now I come to think of it, golf figured in another potential commission, one I did reject. Different gentleman of a certain age saw my books and approached me with the idea that I would draw a comic strip he'd written about the high-jinks at a country club, with golfing, naturally. The man had hundreds of scenarios; whole runs of this strip, in binders. All he needed was an artist to draw them -- on spec. Later, presumably once the strip was picked up by newspaper across the country, I'd get a cut of the profits. Nice man. Need I say this did not happen?

I'm a bookseller and a bookish man. Authors are what I do, author's faces, faces and hands lately. I like the challenge of hands more and more. I find them telling: of age most obviously, but also of experience, character, class, and of attitude. Hands, even at rest, suggest activity in a way faces need not. Hands I'm still happy to exaggerate both in size and detail as the first draws the subject closer to the viewer and the later has the challenge of less familiar bone, skin, the arrangement and potential interaction of fingers. Knuckles. Knuckles are fun.

An internet acquaintance of mine, a published poet whose work I've read and admired for many years, has taken to asking questions on social media about the evolution of poetic form. May be something he's done socially or presumably in the classroom for years, but it can be a bit startling in the context of vacation snapshots and political memes and photographs of memorable meals. I like it. I don't often have anything much to contribute to the resulting conversations -- or "threads" -- as they're called, but I enjoy the questions and the responses from better qualified readers. I've learned some things from reading these exchanges. I've also had to look up quite a few words and or ideas of which I would otherwise have no notion. There's pleasure in this, when there's no social pressure to be as smart as the people contributing. The point for me is in not being a poet, but just a reader of poetry. No one assumes I know what poets know. I like the chance to learn, but what I learn won't make me a poet, just a better reader.

What I do for a living is buy and sell books. I like what I do. For pleasure, among other things, I read. I also write a little and draw a lot. One hears constantly about the lucky few who do what they love for a living. So I hear. I count myself lucky enough. As for once in a very long while drawing a nice man who asked me to --

it was my pleasure.

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