Relay: Drawing Drawings

“Just look around and draw what you see — a shelf of stuffed animals or a pile of shoes.”

I have always been able to draw. Not Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci draw, but I have always had the knack to make a thing look like the thing it is supposed to be. 

As a grammar school student, faced with high school, my parents encouraged me to apply to the High School of Music and Art. Uh-oh, a portfolio was needed for that. 

Now, I could draw, but I was never the easel painter artist who followed a muse and just had to create. I was always the fulfill-the-assignment kind of drawer. So, for the portfolio I had to make as a seventh grader I listened to my mother (who acted as my art director) when she suggested I look at the spots in The New Yorker and try to do some stuff like that. (Note to The New Yorker: Thanks.)  And then she said, “Just look around and draw what you see — a shelf of stuffed animals or a pile of shoes.”

She reminded me it was not so much the subject as how the subject was drawn.

That summer I developed an eye for clutter (seventh graders are really good making clutter), and I developed what later was called “a tight hand.” In short, that means a confident pen line without the sketchy wobbly bits, a pen or pencil line that could draw the contour of a chair or even a face without needing or wanting to stop. I got into Music and Art, and I continued to learn how to look. 

As for drawing, I got a few “art jobs” after college, all really in part because I could draw small and tight. An employment agent was the one who told me I had a tight hand, and she sent me to a job designing custom rugs. There I needed to be able to draw and then paint a very realistic rose three-eighths of an inch across. (Take a ruler and look at it and try it. It ain’t easy.)

Tiny roses and shaded acanthus leaves were added to my skill set. Meanwhile, as gifts for my parents’ friends in Orient, in the summer I would continue to draw people’s houses. Many of the large houses you see on the hill as you drive on the causeway toward Orient were rendered by me in pen and ink during those summers.

One of the best jobs I ever had was for an art materials company. I was doing graphic design for them but part of my job was, amazingly, to draw whatever I wanted, Photostat the drawings, color them in using the product (Bourges paper), and give the samples to sales reps to use on the road. Perfect, no? 

Finally I landed a job at Glamour magazine doing promotional graphic design. My portfolio of drawings got the attention of editorial art department, and (freelance) I became the illustrator used by Glamour for the whole of the 1970s. Eventually, I could draw how to bone a chicken, roll out a pie dough, how to short-sheet a bed, rewire a lamp, and how to put your hair up in pin curls. I had to draw exercises from Polaroid photographs and figure out how to illustrate trimming your own bangs. 

I invented a few characters who could not cope with the “sticky situation” of the month, and my drawings even got fan mail. Thanks to a collaboration with that art director, Michelle Braverman, I was the illustrator for the “How to Do Anything Better” guide and I got to draw stuff for money.  

In the 1980s that knack for what my father called “expository drawings” led to some cookbook illustrations for the author Maria Robbins of Springs, whom I had met through my husband. 

Her cookbooks led to other cookbooks and when Maria’s editor moved on and changed jobs I managed to stay in her phone directories. 

Every few years some crazy pregnant exercise book or “bread machine cookbook” or book on how to help your special needs child integrate learning with fun would need illustrations and I would get a call from that very loyal editor. Then I would haul out the very same pens I had used in college and at Glamour (Rapidograph 00 point, India ink) and do the assignment. They were always fun and I always learned how to draw something new.

Full time in East Hampton for many years now, I still practice “seeing” in my capacity as contributor to The Star and I still draw stuff. 

Fast-forward to March 2015, with many, many little books under my belt and a good relationship with my very loyal book editor. (Thank you, Maria, for the path to Marian Lizzi of Penguin Random House.) On that day in March, my friend Mo Cohen at the Ladies Village Improvement Society, where I volunteer, pointed out an article in The New York Times business section about a Scottish lady who was making a name for herself drawing coloring books for grown-ups. 

“Mo,” I said, “I can do that. I can do a coloring book, I can do that!” (Thank you, Mo. I might have missed that article had it not been for you.) 

I went home and emailed Marian Lizzi. “I can make a coloring book for you,” I wrote. 

She wanted to see samples and I sent some of the cluttered interiors I had always drawn. The next day came this message: “Can you give us 60 in a month?” 

I could, and I did, and the clutter of my life became a coloring book.

Eight months later there are people in Indonesia and Malaysia and Russia and Brazil coloring my drawn pages. Some share the colorations with me, and their work makes me so proud that my work is out there for them. A lady wrote to me to say coloring helps with the pain of her fibromyalgia. 

The ripple effect of ink on paper is quite remarkable. The pen is truly mightier than the sword.

Durell Godfrey is a contributing photographer and illustrator for The Star and the newspaper’s East magazine. Her coloring book, “Color Me Cluttered,” was published in 2015.