Drawing is a skill like reading, like writing, which can be learned by anyone regardless of talent. It is a mental discipline.
This is , a column by Abby Walthausen that explores the nature of book illustration and the way images can shape the text for the reader.
Your smart teacher, propped up on senseless scribbles.
The Little Prince
And sometimes they are not things I see on the trip at all, but things I draw for my son to entertain him in a moment of downtime. The illustrations take up plenty of room on the page, but their subjects are the marginalia of my senses, my experience.
Ephemera peppers the pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. The author does not draw characters or action, but portrays the stuff at the margins of his story. He draws motel signs and protest signs, symbols and switches, buttons and buttholes. Basically, ephemera and jokes. A torch is an ice cream cone on fire; an asterisk is an anus.
Every piece of para-textual language we see in his own hand. Motels are no sooner named than their signs are drawn. Notes from one character to another are not quoted; they’re sketched. None of this is beyond what the reader can imagine. The images don’t need to be there. They are not beautiful, but they are exuberant. The pictures become part of the writer’s voice, spilling over from the text.
When I was about fifteen, a much-loved English teacher led a trip to see Kurt Vonnegut read at SUNY Albany. I had been to a few poetry readings before, and I thought I knew what to expect. So when Vonnegut brought out a chalkboard and began diagraming the arc of typical stories, I was surprised. It was funny and charming and had almost nothing, on its surface, to do with Breakfast of Champions, the text I’d read in preparation—aside from the fact that the author leaned on his pen for more than just words, but shape and line and texture.
He drew a few traditional plots, ones which gyrate along a good fortune/bad fortune axis. They were not the plots of great works, though. He proclaimed that great works unfold plainly, without the expectation that we know what is the good news and the bad. And that made sense in the context of Breakfast: It was not the plot itself that demanded dramatic shape and line. It was the small details of the quotidian. We don’t know what’s good news and bad news, but Vonnegut does insist that humans should be better about saying, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
At my son’s preschool, they call the black Sharpie marker the “thinking pen.” With strong fumes and indelible ink, it’s not a typical toddler art supply. Yet it holds a privileged place because of its bold, sharp line. The teachers use it when they supervise an important, individual project.
For the kids, the “thinking pen” is for when they sit and narrate a self-portrait, drawing it, making important maps, practicing with their names. The results are much more striking than anything done in crayon. During a 1997 lecture at Case Western University, Vonnegut, a self-proclaimed Luddite, claimed Sharpies as one of his new favorite technologies. Their bold lines are quiet and primal.
Two years ago, I attended an event for the release of Tamara Shopsin’s lightly illustrated memoir Arbitrary Stupid Goal. I’ve been to many many readings in the interim between Vonnegut and Shopsin. Once again, I thought I knew what to expect. Once again, I was surprised. There was no reading, no talk, no conversation, no Q&A.
Instead, Shopsin sat at a table with a pot of tempera paint, intently lettering strips of cardstock. She was making custom bookmarks to order. Her husband stood by making egg creams. This wasn’t a signing exactly, so I didn’t want to ask for the author’s name. It wasn’t a stand selling airbrush t-shirts either, so I didn’t want to ask for my own.
In Arbitrary Stupid Goal, Shopsin uses her drawings to tell the jokes. They riff. If she writes about incentivizing with a carrot, she draws a mule with a gold ingot dangling before its nose. If she describes a safebreak, she draws a safe falling on an umpire.
I decided that for my bookmark, I’d go with a joke. I have a problem at home with disappearing bookmarks. My son slides them out of my books for fun and uses them as pretend TAP cards for his toy buses. When I got to the front of the line, I asked Shopsin to write, as a message to my as yet pre-literate son, “This is not a TAP card.” Explaining the scenario felt awkward, but not much more so than the vision of her hunched over a paintbrush rather than addressing the crowd.
She lettered the line beautifully, her text like a drawing, and I thought of her experience in spot illustration. For the New Yorker, she draws to fill the leftover spaces. There is a similarity between doing a bookmark and a spot illustration—both are kind of like guaranteed non-sequiturs. The artist has no idea where they’ll end up in the text. Yet even at their most random, the bold black strokes are thoughts that converse with the story.
I wonder what feels so special to me about the bubbling up of illustrations that play and joke and riff rather than illustrate. In the wonderful instructional text and manifesto for perceptual learning, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards speaks about the supremacy of language in our culture. Drawing, she claims is a skill like reading, like writing, which can be learned by anyone regardless of talent. It is a mental discipline.
Books that are illustrated professionally translate the language, to us readers, who are already reading that same language. Books that are filled with small, adjacent images—those translate something about the author’s perception, something direct that didn’t quite make it into language.
To teach my son about service, and to get him a little dirty and tired—you could say I’m trying to add dimension to his upbringing—I bring him to a tree planting event. My husband and I work, as we are instructed, to dig a hold shaped “like the inside of a tuna can.” My son stands around nibbling a filled donut. The sun shines, and if “this isn’t nice I don’t know what is.”
“X-ray vision!” proclaims Hugh, an older man we are partnered with, eyeing the jelly that oozes out of the doughnut. Hugh has two hearing aids, good digging technique, and he informs us that his aunt once worked in the chocolate industry and could read the markings on the bottoms of candies.
I ask him if the markings are brand specific or universal. I’ve always wondered. Hugh doesn’t answer the question, but asks if I’d been an English major. I don’t answer his question, but take it as license to tell him he’s a dead ringer for Kurt Vonnegut. All he’s missing is the chalkboard, and if I had one on-hand, I’d surely have asked him to sketch out a few encoded bon-bons. It’d add dimension to the story.
Abby Walthausen's writing has appeared in The Public Domain Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Atlantic, Zocalo Public Square, Atlas Obscura, Common-place, Mutha, Extra Crispy, LARB, Electric Literature, and LitHub. Fictional work has been published by Gigantic, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Made in LA anthology, Santa Monica Review, Gulf Stream, and is forthcoming in Sycamore Review . She lives in Echo Park, Los Angeles where she guides a tour about twentieth-century printmaker Paul Landacre, and is at work on a novel, ST. CYR.