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Danny Gregory

by Susan Henderson on October 25, 2006

Danny Gregory can convince anyone that they can draw, that they have time to draw, and that they can silence their inner critic by drawing often and drawing in pen. There’s something wonderfully un-labored about his drawing, that’s what I like best, that you can see enjoyment in the strokes. Maybe you’ll see what I mean in today’s interview and also if you check out his books, Everyday Matters and The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are.

Tell me your story of becoming an artist.

I had loved to draw and paint when I was small but by the time I graduated from high school, art had seemed like an impractical and limiting way to spend my time (ah, the arrogance of youth). By the time I was in my mid twenties, I had stopped making any sort of art. When I was in my mid 30s, my wife was run over by a subway train and left a paraplegic. I was left with a profound sense of pointlessness and loss. After floundering around in all sorts of direction for some sort of meaning and purpose, I started to draw one day. It quickly built into an obsession as I recorded every aspect of my everyday life. A few years later, I had a few books published and, more at the prompting of others than anything I perceived, I started to think that maybe I was an artist.

What can drawing do for a person with no real skill for it?

First off, the only way any one gets skill at drawing (or any other sort of worthwhile pursuit) is by practicing. Within a few weeks, any one will see a dramatic increase in the accuracy and fluency of their drawing. It’s a lot easier than golf, French or Grand Theft Auto.

I have heard from several thousand people who have started to draw, and they are universally enthusiastic. Drawing gives them a sense of accomplishment, of appreciation of their world, of tranquility. It means never being bored in an airport again. It can be a solitary or a communal pursuit and no matter how good one gets at it there are always new things to learn and try.

Is there anything in particular (object, emotion, theme) that you draw over and over?

I draw a lot of buildings as I live in a big city. I draw my dogs, cups of tea, people relaxing, products and packages, meals as I eat them….

Anything you can’t seem to capture?

If something is reasonably still, I’ll draw it. There’s no real difference in what a thing is to me. If it’s complicated and irregular it’s generally more interesting but everything I see is made up of colors and shadows, lines and forms. It’s pretty simple. Oh, wait, there is one subject that I find tough: drawing musicians while they play. For some reason my mind finds it hard to listen to live music and draw at the same time.

Has your art changed since you became a father? Have your goals in life changed?

Well, I started making art after I became a father but my son has a lot of influence on me. He is a very fluid and confident artist and draws all the time. We share our work and talk about what we are doing. It’s great to have a fellow spirit right in my own home.

You have a very generous nature. Where does that come from?

Huh, I guess I don’t really think of myself that way. I assume I’m sort of a crab and I come from a family of basically misanthropic people. I think my wife has had a lot of influence on me and being a dad and someone who lives with a disabled person have made me a little less self-involved. I have started to wonder, however, if my drive to encourage others to draw isn’t more of an ego thing, a desire to control others, than generosity. I don’t know. I’m rethinking my perspective on many things these days and wrestling with the right path.

Tell me about the Everyday Matters group.

I started blogging at the end of 2003. As my site gathered momentum, there seemed to be a lot of discourse among the readers on the comments section of my posts and I was functioning as moderator. I thought it might be nice if all these people, who were speaking so separately about similar things, could all get into the same room and so I set up a Yahoo group. We now have almost 2000 members from all over the world and they have sustained a vibrant, stimulating conversation ever since. The group also meets off line in so-called Sketchcrawls, the drawing equivalent of a pub crawl. We get together in various places and do a series of short drawings in one location after another and then have coffee or lunch together and share our work and our thoughts. There are new people joining every day, some are complete novices who have never drawn, others are professional illustrators and teachers. We have developed a wiki to share information on supplies, books, etc. One of the members began offering a weekly subject for drawing and many of the members have started their own blogs to share the work they do. It’s a wonderful community.

Explain the weekly drawing challenge.

It’s generally some sort of universal topic like draw your dog, draw an important door in your life, draw something that feels refreshing, etc. Ideally people will write a little something along with their drawing. The idea is to give people simple accessible subjects that feel personal to them. Then they share them on their blogs and on Flickr and we all give them comments and encouragement.

You and my regular guest, Pasha Malla, both work for The Morning News. Want to tell my readers about TMN and what you do for them?

I am a contributing artist for TMN. It’s a website that has been around for quite awhile and has hundreds of thousands of readers. Each day, a new article, generally something topical or funny or personal is posted along with a review of interesting news-stories, some major, some bizarre, all interesting. I illustrate some articles, write and draw others, and created many of the bits of art that were part of the design. The site just underwent a facelift and it’s less visually oriented and slicker so my work is less prominent.

My youngest son is a marvelous little creator and sometimes talks about becoming a cartoonist or illustrator when he grows up. But much of his drawing is spent crumpling and ripping papers and becoming furious at himself or his drawing. What advice do you have for a little boy with a love-hate relationship with drawing?

The key is to keep art as a part of his life, like playing, building, running, etc. And look at yourself as an example: Do you draw? Do you beat yourself up about your own creativity? Do you sing with him, draw with him, etc? If he feels that creativity is just a part of life, like eating and breathing, he’ll be less judgmental. Also, moderate your encouragement. I find that if I give my own son too much praise and we make too much of a fuss about his drawings it can turn into a sort of pressure to perform that makes him too hard on himself. It’s as if positive judgment can feel as heavy as negative judgment.

Tell me three people who inspire you.

Vincent Van Gogh inspires me because the art he made in the last three years of his life was so amazing. His career is an amazing case study in what a self-taught, dedicated person can accomplish. At first, his stuff was terrible, murky, lopsided, ham fisted. Then he went to Paris and in a few months, he took off. He had so little positive feedback and yet he persevered. I tell myself that if he could do it, I could. After I’m only slightly insane.

I also admire Ronald Searle‘s work a lot. He was a great recorder of the sorts of things I like to draw and he combined careful observation with a looseness and a personal drawing line that I aspire to with each drawing.

I admire my friend d.price a great deal. He is also self-taught and a great observer of the simple pleasures in life. He showed me a great deal about how many forms and topics once can express with an illustrated journal. Whenever we speak, I feel refreshed, renewed and inspired. Our lives are a different as can be and yet, we are similar spirits.

What are you working on these days?

I am taking a major break from doing art for anyone but me. For the past few years I have been pulled between my books, my blog, my readers’ community, teaching, etc., and I desperately want to reconnect with my original impulse to draw. This summer, I decided to step back from all external demands and just get back to my little drawing books. I am open to the possibility that a new idea or adventure will come a long but feel no pressure to look for it.

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If you’re on MySpace, you can “friend” Danny and say hello by clicking right here.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Slick October 25, 2006 at 11:56 am

Yet another way cool and interesting interview, Sue, and it’s encouraged me to go dig out my sketchpad and pen. Danny, I adore your style – it’s so loose and free and beautiful.

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Myfanwy Collins October 25, 2006 at 12:56 pm

Oh, that was just great. Thank you both. I’m inspired that out of tragedy can come an impulse to create beauty.

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Kasper October 25, 2006 at 1:20 pm

Danny Gregory’s idea of putting the fun back into drawing or any other difficult pursuit is a healthy one. As a person who was routinely subjected to the remnants of formal nineteenth century academic art training, I can testify that one needs some relief, someone to throw a brick through the window and let in fresh air, fresh fun.

Mr. Gregory’s own drawings are full of life and enlightened observation. One of the delightful things he does is to convey the immediacy of his interest in his subject with spots of color.

The man is a force for good in the world.

Fine interview, Susan, and thank you, Danny Gregory, for sharing the enlightenment of your pen and frisky way of seeing.

Kasper

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Juliet October 25, 2006 at 1:33 pm

It never ceases to amaze me just what it takes in our lives to allow us to give ourselves permission to create. And then, once we give license to that, how quickly the critics of self arise from within to tell us that we are doomed to failure.

I think it’s beautiful and courageous of Dan to challenge those places of self, and from it, he has arisen to new heights of creativity.

His comment on the ego thing left me laughing out loud, as I’ve thought the same thing of myself many times. It’s that sober self-evaluation which allows us to silence the nattering voices, methinks.

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Aurelio October 25, 2006 at 4:26 pm

Another great interview, Susan. I found this quote to be particularly insightful.

“It’s as if positive judgment can feel as heavy as negative judgment.”

Wise words.

As one who believes everyone should be taught the basics of how to draw in our schools (in the same way everyone is taught to spell, write an essay, and add a column of numbers) Danny is preaching to the converted. Not everyone will end up a Rembrandt, but the fact that we will not all end up a Shakespeare doesn’t stop us from insisting we learn how to construct a sentence, write a letter or essay, and express our thoughts through words. Support for art in schools is vital.

I also agree that it is NEVER too late to start! Sketchcrawl is a great way to challenge yourself to begin.

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Carolyn Burns Bass October 25, 2006 at 6:05 pm

Wow, Danny, I love your work. I’m going to friend you on MySpace.

I so agree with Aurelio on this quote: “It’s as if positive judgment can feel as heavy as negative judgment.”

I think this happened to me. Among my earliest childhood memories is the praise I got for my drawing. Everyone in my family thought I would be a visual artist when I grew up. I took every art class my high school offered and learned to imitate anything I saw with photographic detail. Even though my favorite artist was Van Gogh, I was obsessed with drawing everything lifelike. My high school art teacher often encouraged me to loosen up, to experience the process, rather than fixate on the product. My first college drawing course was the final stab that killed my love of drawing. I realized that I could imitate, but I couldn’t create.

The following semester I took my first creative writing course. With drawing I felt compelled to draw what I saw, exactly as I saw it. But fiction and poetry gave me a canvas for images made of words, rather than lines, shadows, colors, and textures.

Aside from writing, my business includes graphic design, which I’ve found tremendously satisfying and freeing. I also studied calligraphy and wrote/self-published an instructional manual which I used in classes I taught in our city education program. Calligraphy is literally drawing words into art. It’s a blissful activity for me.

I still love to doodle around with portraits and landscapes, but the camera’s eye still dominates my expression. Occasionally I’ll pull my old portfolio pieces to show my kids, who are always amazed by this side of their mother. They are more impressed with my drawings than my writing. I wonder why?

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Pia October 25, 2006 at 7:17 pm

I bought Everyday Matters when it first came out, and then gave it to my three sisters for Christmas. It removes the old saw – I can’t draw – from the excuse pile of why you don’t try. So, I’m going to go right now and draw my feet up on the coffee table that’s piled high with old newspapers and magazines I raced through this morning for fear that I’d miss something I might be smarter for knowing. And then I’m gonna throw those piles out.

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Susan GT October 25, 2006 at 9:08 pm

What a great interview! Thank you both so much.

Even as a child, I felt the pressure make perfect pictures and my efforts never met my expectations or those of my teachers. As a result, I left my art behind for some 20 years. I became a commercial writer instead. Then, as my children grew and I supported their artistic efforts, I felt the need to get my art back and went back to ‘school’. I took a variety of drawing, painting, fiber and sculpture classes. In one of my favorite classes, we drew by holding two pens in one hand. So, I had to let go and let the fun begin.

Dan’s approach to creativity and drawing is an inspiring reminder to me once again!
Susan GT

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Sarah Roundell October 25, 2006 at 10:23 pm

Incredible interview! Danny’s work and words are so inspiring. I’m thinking some sketching could really get me over those tough times dealing with writer’s block and then I’d have those drawings to look back on when the writing is finished. It sounds as though there’s lots of fun to be had while in waiting rooms and airports that I never even thought to explore. Thank you for introducing us to Danny, Susan.

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Lance Reynald October 26, 2006 at 4:09 am

I’ve always loved the visual artists….

and I often feel so mute when it comes to commenting on them.

(but I’m also tone deaf so I keep my trap shut about music too.)

yeah, I’m a shower singing scribbler with an interesting way with words.

great bits of wisdom in this piece though.

xo-LR

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Susan Henderson October 26, 2006 at 4:00 pm

Robin – I’d love to know what you drew!

Myf – He inspires me, too.

Kasper – Hee. Frisky. I like that.

Juliet – Yes!

Aurelio – Have you gone sketchcrawling with this group?

Carolyn – I didn’t know this about you. Fascinating.

Pia – What better use for a stack of newspapers and magazines. Remember, don’t judge how the drawing comes out. Just try a new drawing today.

Susan – Welcome! I love your story of re-connecting with an old passion.

Sarah – Wow, it’s so great to hear som many writers are inspired to draw after Danny’s interview!

Lance – Yeah, I let Kasper choose all the right adjectives when he’s describing an artist’s work.

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Susan Henderson October 27, 2006 at 12:36 pm

I wonder if the handsome man in pink will stop by and give us his iTunes shuffle? (This is your cue, Danny!)

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Alexander Barnett April 7, 2007 at 8:53 pm

Since you are interested in Vincent’s life and work, you might want to look at the Notes section on http://www.theeyesofvangogh.com. I am the writer and director of the new independent film on his life.

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