text and illustrations by Andrew Silton
My path to drawing and watercolor flows from an unusual source: my business notebooks.
Three years ago when I retired, I decided it might be a good idea to throw out 20 years’ worth of notebooks. The old ones were stacked up in a couple of large moving boxes, and the new ones were piled up in my home office. Not unlike many other professionals, I’d drawn doodles during meetings. If the meeting was long enough, the doodles became quite intricate (In Exile, 1999).
On the off-chance that my notebooks had some value, I decided to show them to Kathryn Olive, a good friend and artist. I figured I wouldn’t be embarrassed if she told me that my doodles weren’t worth saving.
Within 30 minutes, notebook pages were scattered across her office and she was proposing that I do an art show at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Durham. However, she warned me that there’d be a lot of hard work in selecting the images and figuring out what they were about. I’d never thought about the doodles as anything more than a way to reduce stress and remain focused in meetings. The last feedback on my artistic skills hadn’t been positive. My elementary school art teacher had encouraged me to take shop.
With Kathryn’s encouragement, I decided to take the risk of exhibiting some images from my notebooks. I didn’t see it as an art exhibit, but rather as an opportunity to begin talking about and critiquing my former profession, money management. After months of culling through hundreds of doodles, we selected 12 pages for the exhibit, which I called Meditations on Money Management. As the project was being finalized, Kathryn asked me if I drew outside of meetings. My quick answer was no. She encouraged me to go to an art store and buy colored pens and paper (most of my doodles were in black or blue ink).
I wasn’t comfortable going into an art store, so I went to Staples and purchased a couple of packages of pens and a pad of drawing paper. Then I sat on the couch and stared at a blank piece of paper. Without a meeting or a business issue as a motivation, lined paper and margins to guide my drawings, and notes and numbers to serve as borders, I didn’t know what to draw. I turned on the radio to create some background noise and after a while, I applied ink to paper. Then I began in the center of the page and just started making shapes, which turned into a building, animal, human image, or geometric pattern. This first phase of my work was a colorful extension of my doodling – without the need to take notes or interject comments.
I quickly discovered two things. First, I became completely lost in my work. During my business career, I’d been highly aware of my surroundings as I drew. But I found that when I drew while sitting on my couch with NPR in the background, I could focus solely on the world I was creating on paper.
Second, I discovered that drawing in ink was very stressful, especially after I’d invested several days in a particular drawing. Because my drawings are very detailed and use fine lines either as positive or negative space, there’s no room for error. Any loss of concentration or slip of the pen, and the drawing is ruined. However, I’d just retired from the business of money management, so I’d been well trained in coping with stress. Moreover, this felt like a good kind of stress.
Encouraged by friends, I started venturing into art stores to find a wider variety of colored pens. I even decided to buy a set of watercolors. I figured the kitchen table was a safe place to try what I’d failed at in fifth grade art class. Applying ink with 0.7 mm and 0.5 mm pens is a slow endeavor. I thought watercolor might allow me to cover more territory, allowing me to graduate from my 9-inch by 11-inch drawing pad to larger surfaces.
Two events took my drawing in a new direction. Last February, I decided to do a drawing of Dubrovnik, Croatia – my father’s boyhood home – for his 90th birthday (Dubrovnik, 2014). It was the first time I’d thought about a specific topic in advance and decided to capture the essence of a specific place. Up to this point, all my drawings had been drawn from my imagination, which had been a basic principle of my doodles in business meetings. For those, I’d intentionally avoided drawing anything resembling the actual people or setting of the meeting.
Several months later, encouraged by my Dubrovnik drawing, I picked up a large leftover poster board and started my largest work so far, 22 inches by 28 inches. The picture became a series of scenes from coastal Alaska and was drawn in anticipation of a trip to Glacier Bay (Imagining Alaska, 2014).
After the trip, I combined photographs from my trip to Alaska to inspire my own Alaskan landscapes in ink and watercolor (Icy Straight, 2014). The process of combining images was a satisfying way of creating my own realities.
Now, instead of staring at a blank piece of paper, I collect multiple photographs and assemble them into a completed scene, like the one I created of the view from the second floor of my home (The Oval, 2014).
There is, however, one big problem with the materials I’ve chosen for my art. It turns out that the ink in office pens fades with time. My bright color schemes will turn to pastel as the years go by. Rather than upgrade my paper or pens, I’ve turned to giclée – fine art digital prints on archival paper – in order to produce lasting images. And thanks to the patience and expertise of Wojtek Wojdynski, a fine photographer in Chapel Hill, I have learned a great deal about light, color, and paper.
Learning as I go is familiar territory. While I spent most of my career in money management, I stumbled into it through a series of accidents and was never trained in the subject. My second career as an artist appears to be following the same accidental path, although my current career is far more satisfying than my previous one.
Andrew Silton is an artist in Chapel Hill who writes a bi-weekly investment column for The News & Observer and a blog critiquing the money management industry (meditationonmoneymanagement.blogspot.com).