The one thing I have learned in life is how to learn new things.
I was homeschooled in elementary school where I mostly studied on my own. In high school, I spent most of my time avoiding classes to build my first internet business in the library. Then I skipped college in favor of reading books and starting businesses to gain practical experience. I’ve always been a fan of teaching myself and learning as I go.
Later, through my journeys in entrepreneurship, vegan cooking, food photography, graphic design, computer programming, writing, and now being almost totally absorbed with art / music, I’ve picked up a ton of tips, made a lot of mistakes, and (most importantly) learned how to learn in ways that are effective and can help me reach my ambitions.
In creating this guide, my intention is to share what I’ve learned about developing skills, setting goals, and achieving success outside of the traditional “system” – especially if you’re thinking of pursuing a career in a creative field like the arts.
On my about page, I said, “drew is my name, but I sign all my stuff as [label.] because it’s a blank, generic, empty space that has no definition and therefore has no boundaries. label. is a message that we are infinite, limited only by the boxes we draw around ourselves. Things that have no definition have no limits.
More than anything, this concept is a reminder to me, because transcending the borders is what I am always trying to do. Nothing makes me happier than to work in the spaces between things, where I can dig my teeth into various skills and pull them together into something unique that draws inspiration from all kinds of disparate sources and mediums. Sometimes in order to make my creative visions come true I have to program and paint and learn 3D model making and do product design all in one day. In this process, I find that I can reach much higher levels when I stop trying to define myself as a painter or a designer or a music producer and instead just remove those boundaries and think of myself as nothing but [label.]
If there is one thing that I want to share with the world or whatever, it would be this idea of going beyond our own limiting definitions in order to find our true limitless potential. Communicating this message through my work is always my intention, and everything that carries the [label.] signature was created with this energy beneath it.
They have a great collection of Lichtensteins and I spent more time with them than anything else. I was amazed at how much his work developed over the early part of his career. His style was pretty much fully set by ’62 and, from across the room, those early paintings look very similar to later ones. For example –
But up close, it’s a different story.
In “Live Ammo (Blang)” from 1962, the quality of the brushwork is very poor. The Benday dots are messy and smeared, the black lines are awkwardly placed and shaped… the line edges are rough… there’s pencil lines that never got filled in. However, 3 1/2 years later, the style is almost identical, but the quality is at a whole other level. They still have a handmade feel, but the details are crisp and confident. Here’s some closeups I took (click for full-size) –
I don’t know, I just thought it was really inspiring to see how someone at such a high level was able to develop their craft over time. I had a few takeaways for anyone interested in doing or learning or creating anything:
In the end, you’ll be judged by your best work, not your worst.
You don’t have to be perfect before you start putting your work out there. If Roy had waited for perfection before showing his work, he probably would have gone broke and never even had the chance to sustain his practice or reach a higher level of polish.
It doesn’t matter where you start because you will only get better. So, start where you are, suck, and take comfort in the fact that you can only improve from here (and be sure to save those early attempts because even they might be worth $12 million someday…).
I went to The Broad for the first time last week. It was my first chance to see Takashi Murakami’s work and I was really struck by how great it is in person. As a creator, it kind of pissed me off how perfect the work is, so I went home to do a ton of research on his technique. At some point I came across this old 2009 quote from a Guardian interview:
One of the visual qualities we look for in the work of the artists we employ at Kaikai Kiki is “madness”. Gauguin, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Warhol – they all possessed an imagination that exuded madness. I myself have trained everyday in an effort to get close to this madness, and the training itself probably looks like a form of insanity.
– Takashi Murakami
“I myself have trained everyday in an effort to get close to this madness” is probably the most badass quote I’ve ever read.
I think madness is the main reason I had to become an artist. The more mad I become, the more I find it necessary to channel that insanity into something of value, and artistic vision is really the only positive area of value that increases proportionally with madness. 🙂
I guess this title was misleading though, because I’m not going to teach you how to train your madness. That’s for you to figure out. All I know is, I’m right there with Takashi, working every day to uncover more and more of my own madness…
If you ever find yourself struggling to understand what a piece of art is supposed to “mean,” you can try out my one (and only) philosophy about art, which is that –
Art is a mirror. I think every truly great piece of art is a mirror that helps you (the observer) see yourself more clearly than you ever could have without it.
The normal approach with art is to try to figure out what the artist is saying, as if it’s like a puzzle we have to interpret. But I don’t believe in that approach. When I experience a piece of art, I think of it in terms of what the art is saying about me, right now. This is just like a mirror, right? Mirrors aren’t designed with any content of their own. The job of a mirror-maker isn’t to tell you what you should see when you look at it. If a mirror is working correctly, you see what you are. I think art is the same kind of experience.
In fact, this function of art to reflect ourselves is, in my opinion, the reason why it’s so valuable to society. Who wouldn’t want an opportunity to experience themselves with a deeper, more expansive perspective on their life, death, and purpose? When art is at its best, it does just that.
Personally, all of my favorite works of art (paintings, novels, records, games, DJ sets, etc.) – the ones I would consider to be truly great – have had this effect of allowing me to experience my own self in totally unique and often transformative ways. Maybe it’s just me, but when I look at Girl Before a Mirror, what makes it such a sublime experience is the way I can see the indescribable truth of myself bouncing off the colors and forms.
(Honestly, the irony that my favorite painting features a literal mirror and reflection was totally lost on me until I started writing this…)
Ultimately what I am saying is that all good art is co-creative. It is only truly made into art once it is experienced by an observer. A lot of people think of art as a one-way speech given by the artist to impart some kind of objective “meaning” that we’re all supposed to figure out. I disagree. The works I love are always a dialogue, a conversation, a form of communication between you and the artist. A great artist may intend to say something through their work, but they always leave enough space for you to respond and it is your response to a work that makes it art, in my opinion.
In my own work, this is something that is always on my mind. One of my most relentless ambitions is to find that balance where I’m creating something that has both the depth and symbolism to be meaningful, while leaving enough “space” and openness that allows you to see your own personal experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and emotions reflected back at you. Through a million different techniques, that’s what I am always reaching for.
If you want to experiment with this idea, go to an art space and try to filter everything you see through this lens. Forget any notions about the artist’s intentions and instead just feel what the piece is reflecting back at you, now, here, in this moment. For me, that’s always a trippy experience and makes the value of art in my life that much more impactful.
I tend to have a lot on my plate. There are always 5-10 totally different areas of interest in my mind and sometimes I have a hard time keeping track of everything and making sure I actually do all the stuff that matters.
Over the years I’ve tried a lot of systems to stay productive, but I’ve actually developed my own process that works better than anything I’ve tried before, so I thought I’d share it with you.
It works like this…
Each weekend, I take one index card and write out all the subjects / domains / types of work that matter to me (i.e. running, reading, making art, producing music, etc). One subject per line.
After each subject, I draw one empty checkbox for each day that I want to work on the area in the coming week – some areas (like reading) I want to do all 7 days, some areas (like running) get a rest day.
For each day that I make a solid effort on that subject, I check off one of the boxes
Each day, my work is to make sure I get a check mark in as many areas as possible (ideally one in every row). That’s it. No planning, no scheduling, no to-do lists, just the constant pursuit of checkmarks.
The thing is, this works really well.
The idea was inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s Red X System. If you haven’t heard the story, a young comedian asked Jerry how to get better at writing jokes:
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
If you have just one thing you want to work on, that system is totally magic. But if you have 6-8 areas that you want to stay on top of (like I do), having 6-8 calendars would be a bit ridiculous. In that case, my index system can be a little simpler – it also has the advantage of letting you control the number of days per week for each area (i.e. 6 days of running to account for a rest day). It only takes about 30 seconds of planning each weekend to rewrite / print the new index card for the upcoming week and there’s nothing else to plan or schedule beyond that.
The reason this system is so powerful is because it turns your dreams into routines. Literally 90% of achieving any goal is showing up. No matter what you want to do or learn or improve, if you can simply show up each day and make a sincere effort to get a little bit better, you’re more than halfway there. What you can accomplish today in 90 minutes might not be much, but what you can accomplish in 360 x 90 minutes is pretty substantial.
In my experience, there is no better way to stay on top of the work that matters than this red x / index card system. I always know what needs to be done and, in one glance, I can track my progress and hold myself accountable.
I was born in the redwoods of Santa Cruz. I live in LA. My heart is stuck halfway between the two in Big Sur. It’s a place that never leaves my thoughts. In any quiet moment, Big Sur finds a way into my awareness. It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that all I ever really want is to be outside in Big Sur.
In fact, my only real ambition is to buy like 100 acres somewhere along the cliffs halfway between Ragged Point and Carmel to create a secret hippie vegan artist commune that only the cool people know about.
Until then, though, I try to get out there as often as possible, driving up and spending a night or two in Cambria on the south, Monterey on the north, or camping in the wilderness and taking 24 hours to do nothing but search for condors (still haven’t found one…) or terrorize the hermit crabs in the tide pools.
I just found a bunch of photos I’ve taken on such trips that I rotate through as desktop wallpapers to remind me of Big Sur, and I thought I’d share them with you.
This “plain ezekiel” was the last of the 16 slices that I painted in the loaf. The technique of painting the complex texture of the bread surface took tons of experimentation to get right, with the lightest layers first, some sea sponge to add random texture, and then filling in darker and darker values of the toast surface over 15-20 more layers. I figured I would save the one with no toppings (and therefore the most bread surface to paint) for last.
I should have known it would be the most difficult – anytime you’re 15/16ths done with a project, reaching that finish line will kick your ass. The video above went fine, but right after I turned off the time lapse, I noticed a spot that wasn’t right and ended up ruining the whole piece while trying to fix it. I had to start over from scratch, so the plain toast you see in the final collection is a totally different one. 😣 It was not a good few days of painting.
At some point while working on the toast collection, I found some hilarious melamine plates that were molded to look like paper plates. I bought a bunch, knowing that I would someday figure out how to include them in the project.
Eventually I had the idea to slap a piece of fake toast to the center, like a cheap paper plate with freshly toasted bread. In the end, I love how these turned out. I love the feeling of how this mundane experience (a piece of toast on a cheap paper plate) is highlighted into focus and suspended forever in time. I think it would be so great to walk into a house and see a “decorative [toast] plate” just hanging on the wall.
Welcome to the new notebook. The first question you may have about my work is, why toast? I spent about 18 months producing 30+ pieces of art on the subject of toast and that might need some explanation…
So, before we go any further in this notebook, I wanted to take a few minutes to share the story of the toast art and why it became such a thing for me…
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hi. my name is drew. this notebook is a place where i document what i’m working on and thinking about [art / music / coding / life] right now. if you’re new here, you can visit my about page to read more of what i say about myself.