The Daily Heller: Drawing Life Where it Lives

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Lynn Pauley is a perpetual motion drawing machine. She has more energy in her pencil hand than anyone I’ve seen. She honed her skill drawing from life—not just still-life, but living life (life after life). She captures what she sees, and sees with rapid-eye movements that take form on the page.

Pauley is no stranger to fast-paced work. After undergrad at Syracuse, she worked at two newspapers on Cape Cod: The Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth and The Cape Cod Times in Hyannis, and ran their advertising departments. She put together layouts and measured type and spec’d up ads at a feverish pace. She is a natural designer, interested in type and design of the picture plane, “but I still wanted to draw. And I wanted to paint.”

After Cape Cod she came to New York City to get an MFA in the Illustration as Visual Essay Program at the School of Visual Arts, studying under Marshall Arisman, Thomas Woodruff and me. Pauley graduated almost three decades ago, then went into higher gear as a “visual journalist,” and has not shifted down since.

I recently had the chance to see Pauley’s latest books (I hesitate to call them sketchbooks, but they are collections of final and process work) and was instantly transported into her world. I asked her to talk about the mental and physical stamina of drawing life nonstop in the moment. Her responses are rapid-fire.

What inspired you to document (or sketch, if you prefer) quotidian signs?
I’ve been interested in documenting signs and signage since I was enrolled as an undergrad at Syracuse University. I took type and graphic design classes. We drew type by hand and I learned about point sizes and kerning, the space between the letters. I’m a reader and love type but knew with my temperament that I would never be happy purely being a graphic designer. This is one road that illustrators take.

You’ve been sketchbooking for a long time
I don’t sketch, I draw. I make one true line. I don’t try to draw, I draw. My marks are immediate, raw and sure. Many have said I draw like a man.

What is the visceral and aesthetic appeal?
I was taught by Robert Weaver at SVA. We had live models pose in his class. The models were clothed and they moved. Weaver found street people—jugglers, actors, singers, dancers, and once a fireman[who] in three hours slowly [was] putting on his entire uniform. We were tasked with getting one line drawing in the class period.

Do you always work from life?
The method [I learned] was a clinic in memory. Weaver taught us that the model had three to five familiar gestures they would cycle through. Pick the one gesture you wanted, and as they moved draw everything around the figure until they returned to the original gesture.

Did you ever work figuratively but in an abstract manner? I sense an a underlying abstractness to your work (or is it just shorthand?).
I studied the San Francisco school of American painters in graduate school, Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. They were “hard-working” abstract expressionists that returned to the figure in the 1950s. Park’s method was to draw from life using a line and then later add color purely by memory. Diebenkorn had a method of scratching out and covering over existing works and activating the entire picture plane. His theory was that if the figure or protagonist, subject of the picture, was the positive space, that everything around the figure was the negative. He focused on the space around the protagonist, giving it the exact same attention I learned from copying Diebenkorn and Park’s figurative paintings a new color palette and how to activate the entire picture plane. Thus making the entire picture plane a positive. (Also, my mantra on life—try to make everything a positive.)

How do you describe your work?
I became a visual reporter at SVA, learning to see and make a portrait of place. From 1991–1993, starting while still in graduate school, drawing live, I created over 300 line drawings for The New York Times’ Metro section. I used the memory and sure line drawing technique learned in Weaver’s SVA live figure class to follow 28 reporters to sites in all five boroughs.

These NY Times Metro pictures, live drawings on site, are now held in the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

Let’s talk about the sign series. Where did the urge come from for these books of drawings?
I grew up blue collar just outside of Philadelphia in Delco, PA. I was the middle child in a loud, funny, too-smart, athletic family. My father was a storyteller and a furniture salesman.

I kept a written journal since I was 16. I was “the audience” in my family. The listener, the artist. I watched and recorded.

Somewhere along the line I started drawing in the written journals, and then that morphed into carrying two books—a journal and a sketchbook. I go back and forth between having the writings and pictures all in one place or keeping them in separate “books.” My practice daily, even now, is to rise early and write for 30-plus minutes every day in a journal. I work in a sketchbook daily for the same amount of time.

The sketchbooks are private places. I have a private space and place to work in. Not worried about a finish or an audience, it is a place to try out pencils and crayons, and later glue and tape and paints. They are for me.

Are your sketchbooks mostly made in and about New York City?
Yes! Many were specifically about my 17 years in NYC and themed about New York: Coney Island (photo below), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Central Park. There are many others from Manchester, NH, and Center City, Philadelphia and Vermont. I’ve lived and worked in Paris and London and in Auvillar, France, so there are sketchbooks about those places as well. I have a sketchbook from almost every place I’ve lived. I love exploring and chronicling the location.

How did this specific body of sign work get started?
In every strip mall in America there is a Target, a Walmart, a Dunkin’ Donuts—all have signage but none like these huge, hulking, gorgeous, rusted neon signs on the side of the road. They are pieces of art, urban sculptures.

I would say the sign series started in Oklahoma. I was sent to cover the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by The New Yorker in 1995 (words and pictures were subsequently published in PRINT magazine) (Photo above). I stayed in a hotel on Route 66 and had a camera, several sketchbooks and a full set of paints. It was an emotional, raw event and I was privy to the scene, having unprecedented access to the site. When I flew back to NYC I started drawing the signs of Route 66 from photos I had shot. The Route 66 Bowl was the first image I made after my return.

I am able to lose myself in drawing the spaces between the letters. The pressure of painting a likeness or realistic portrait of people, place and thing is not required. My attraction to abstract realism, lush color and activating the picture plane was my only focus. I could put all the emotion I felt at the site on assignment for the client into drawing objects while still capturing design and type content I enjoy.

I kept at it.

The sketchbooks themselves are found pamphlets, address books, or small catalogues that come to me in the mail. I pre-prepare and gesso over the pages and existing printed photos and text before I add my own content from life or memory. I am playing around with cut color from magazines. Usually the images are drawn first with a 4B-9B pencil or a Pentel Rolling Writer. Then magazine, found color pasted in from memory later.

“The Quality Signs” sketchbook [mixed in with the other book pages here] probably took me a good 10 years to complete. It came from my box of sign reference collected from all the places I had visited in NYC and across America.

The Ridley Carwash sketchbook (above and below) was all live, created from the front seat of my car. My dad had died that year and I drove up and down McDade Boulevard and Chester Pike mostly at night, chronicling the dry cleaners and delicatessens of my youth. A way to “get it out.” A place for the emotion to go.

Sketchbooks are portable. A great place to work in in short spurts. You don’t need a huge studio. Or even a lot of time. A desk and a lamp and a table are nice, but not needed. You can stand and work anywhere. A laundromat, the subway, a curb, the front seat of your car.

A sketchbook is a great way to work things out. To hack around, play, experiment. The painted sign series and all of the collage series and a lot of landscape and figure paintings have started as a page in one of these “journals.”

Art and illustration and design is an old man’s game. You spend years developing your technique. Hours practicing painting and drawing, collaging, pasting and designing. If you’re lucky you’ll find content that is unique and personal to you. Your work will look like you.

I like seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Noticing the beauty in something that someone else would overlook. I like discovering value in things people drive by or miss. Listening and hearing and recording the story in words and pictures.

I plan on taking it pretty far.