The Young Man and the Pencil
By Roger Weber
It was Paris, Summer, 2008. After a rambunctious few months spent with friends studying at the American Academy near the famous Sorbonne University on the Left Bank of the Seine River, drinking wine and living up life in the summer of light, I had one day left. Due to a scheduling glitch, all my friends had left a day before and I was left with but a single day at the end of the summer to spend solo before I too would be flying home. While I’d done much that summer, there’s always more to see in Paris. But rather than opt for yet another tourist attraction, I opted to spend that final day doing the one thing that I perhaps hadn’t done amid all the commotion of the summer gone by - really drink in the city.
I chose a small empty streetside cafe near the Tour Montparnasse. The tower is a modernist eyesore on the south side of the city that everyone hates, and it casts an imposing shadow, but the bustling street life of the city goes on unphased. Sipping a cafe au lait, I took in the summer breeze, listened to the ambient noises of the city, and watched people and cars go by. After a time I pulled out my sketchbook and started drawing - a simple streetscape of some cars, a couple cafes, a long sprawling department store, and the tower looming over them. First a few sketchy lines to establish scale and perspective. A few placeholders for critical elements. Some loose outlines. And a long march to bit-by-bit study and fill in the details, with some constant refinement and re-refinement to coalesce an ultimate composition. It was a bit of an ad hoc job. Good enough but surely not my best work. Then again, this was little more than recreation for me, as I didn’t really need this sketch for anything. I thought about its utility for a paper I was writing, but this was more just for fun, a bit of an excuse to while away the hours without any company as I stewed in my own thoughts and absorbed the city, mooching a seat from the cafe owner to do so. In an empty cafe, though, my presence there wasn’t hurting anybody.
While sketching I tend to fall into a bit of a trance. The sights and sounds of the city are wonderful and while lost in the details of observing and shading in how to represent a window well I can get a bit preoccupied. I usually start chewing on my tongue as I do. As I finished this time, I reflected on the work. Imperfect perspective, I thought, but a creation nonetheless. Coming out of my trance I glanced around. The cafe was still quiet but a table or two behind me I finally noticed the proprietor of the place just sitting there, watching me. She was a youngish woman, probably in her 20s, and she was watching me closely. She had a smile on her face. Probably not wanting to interrupt my concentration she’d been sitting there silently, but now seeing I’d come to she decided to engage. In French she told me I was a very good artist and that she liked my piece. It was nice of her, and flattering to have garnered her attention like that, especially since my purchases from her only amounted to about a euro and a half. Having broken the ice we chatted a bit.
Eventually she mentioned she needed to close the cafe a bit early due to something, so I gradually made my way to pay. I gave her more than I owed, which I figured was the last I could do for occupying their space for so long. This poor lady was staffing the whole place for a lone customer. As I was paying she mentioned that she too does art. She said she could show some to me, and invited me up to her apartment just upstairs to take a look at it. Now, in hindsight, it’s very possible this had the makings of playing out something like a bit of a romantic break-the-ice movie scene, but weighing my situation I told her I had a bit more to do that day and declined her offer. A mistake on my part? Perhaps, but we were all young and clueless once. It’s one of those life moments I’ll chalk up to forever wondering what might have been.
A few hours later I sat on the banks of the Seine River sketching Notre Dame as the boats went by. I actually created a couple of different sketches from a couple of different angles. As I did a few people paused as they walked to take a look at what I was drawing. A peppering of complimentary comments in both French and English from various tourists and locals. The attention was nice, and the cordial conversations with random strangers that arose without so much as even gladhanding any effort to initiate them were really pleasant for a boundlessly curious introvert like me. It was such a wholesome final day in Paris. No company, not even any wine. Just me, my thoughts, my pencil and a sketchpad, documenting all the ambient energy and emotion of an average summer day in a city of boundless ordinary pleasantness. I still have those sketches. 15 years later they are a bottle of pleasant memories, and I’m still glad I spent my final day in the city that way.
Over the years I’ve gone out sketching on the National Mall in Washington in much the same way countless times. Amid all the hustle and bustle of life, nothing is more calming or meditative for me than detaching from technology for a bit, grabbing a sketchbook and sprawling out against a pillar at the Lincoln Memorial and just sketching. I’ve never had a day when I did that when I didn’t get at least one comment and a conversation with a random tourist. It’s actually a great way to meet people.
To freehand in a couple hours a sketch of a place that is not only indicative, but which also captures the emotions of that place and moment, is an uncertain order, and that’s part of the fun and challenge of it. I never quite know what I’m going to get when I’m going in, and yet I always force myself to figure something out. Some people are naturally gifted artists. I’m more like an ok one. But because it’s not an innate skill for me it’s a bit more of an intellectual challenge - here’s the emotion I want to cultivate, so how can I do that? How can I translate in pencil a respect for the iconic and enduring nature of these special places while also imbuing emotion, abstraction, and creativity in them? And more pragmatic questions: precise, soft or a mix? How to represent people without actually drawing them? Abstractions, silhouettes, layering and careful shading. Oh, the most transformational skill an artist ever learns - how to draw freehand using only light, shadow and shading to bring imagery to life in lieu of hardlined edges.
Every sketch I’ve ever attempted ends up stylistically a little bit different. I challenge myself a bit in this regard, and I live within a box that I’ve never compromised. To sketch I only ever use a #2 pencil, a sharpener and a single gum eraser. I learned years ago about the power of ranging a diverse array of media, but as a casual exercise I’m lazy. And it’s a more fun and profound challenge for me to force myself to try to achieve something great with a single tool, and to do so uninterrupted. Faced with a problem I’m never calling for backup. To sketch for me is a one-on-one battle between me and that pencil. When I sketch I want to walk away with the backside of my palm covered in graphite, surrounded by a pile of pencil shavings. And as I rinse off with a few drops of water afterward from the water bottle I always carry with me for exactly this purpose, I want to do so reflecting on the work feeling a profound sense of accomplishment that against all restrictions of a limited medium I stretched its capabilities and expanded my technical skills and challenged my imagination to achieve something novel, creative and inspiring, sometimes witty, sometimes emotive, and always rich with gravitas. Amid the ambient noise of the nation’s capital it’s a meditative experience I love and a chance to get away and renew for myself a personalized high feeling of longform accomplishment so different from the dopamine-drive that fuels our seemingly 24/7 online engagements. For me, conquering a simple pencil through sheer accrued skill and personal willpower fuels confidence and creativity for life at large.
As I wrapped up a sketch of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington in 2019, I lamented the cooling air and the rising tidewater of the Tidal Basin. But I also turned on the radio feed of the Washington Nationals’ playoff game. Surprisingly, they were ahead again, quietly surging to a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. They’d go on to win the World Series. Galloping home that day on the dual highs of some early fall sketching and a win for my favorite sports team is one of those quiet and personal outdoor memories that will etch into my brain eternally as a reflection of my years living in Washington. Like Paris it too carries a wealth of fleeting memories and enduring beauty. Within the pages of a sketchbook I’m hopeful if for no one but myself I’ve captured perhaps a little bit of both.
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