Is there anything more tiresome, and yet oddly compelling, than the sub-sub-genre of blogging wherein one’s pedestrian but repeatable creative efforts in a given category are laid out, day after day, as a great cumulative achievement of artistry and time management? See, for instance: A Photo a Day. A Drawing a Day. A Heart a Day. A Song a Day. A Dog a Day. A Startup a Day. A Collection a Day. Et cetera.
On the one hand: well, what am I doing with my time and creativity right now that’s any better? On the other: doesn’t it begin to feel like we’re just watching a musician performing his scales, or rooting around in a painter’s trashcan for the sketches that didn’t quite work? It seems to me the danger of these sorts of projects is that they can celebrate artistic discipline with a little too much speed and ease.
In fall of 2006, I set myself the goal to draw a quick sketch of a person from each and every of the 244 Wikipedia-sanctioned countries in the world, in alphabetical order and alternating between men, women, boys, and girls. In a fit of descriptive rigour, I titled my project “Man/Woman/Boy/Girl.” I started with “Abkhazia Man” in October 2006 and finished “Zimbabwe Girl” in August 2007. (One benefit of using the Wikipedia list is that it contains quite a few almost-countries. Abkhazania is the contested corner of Georgia that was in the news for a minute or two during the Russio-Georgian war that started during—though not at—the 2008 Beijing Olympics.) The source images were found using flickr or Google searches. All the photos were drawn with a Bic ballpoint pen in a nice black notebook left over from my dot-com days.
Throughout the project, I was aware of the problematic notion of selecting a de facto “representative” portrait for every country. This difficulty is obvious for widely multiracial countries like the USA or Malaysia (who gets to be “the” American face?), but perhaps more insidious for stereotypically less-diverse countries like Sweden or Zambia, where choices between “traditional” or “modern” faces might bear their cultural baggage more subtly. So part of my way out was to leave it up to the search results, picking the first striking and sketchable face that came up in the returns. But even the fact that I simply tried to dismiss people who seemed to be obvious tourists in favour of those who looked to me like locals undermines that algorithm.
Well, whatever. My goal for the project was to give myself the chance to explore and rejoice in the variety of the world’s faces, and I think I achieved at least a bit of that in my compilation. As for the artwork itself: it is nearly universally safe to assume that my sketches don’t do the source images, let alone the people behind them, justice. Usually I was pleased if my portraits looked like a plausible person, if not the one I was trying to draw.
In general, I think the younger women and girls bore the worst of my artistic lapses: an ill-plotted jaw-line on a guy could usually be turned into a five-o’clock shadow, but finer features proved less forgiving of my misdrawn lines. And I don’t think I came near depicting the wonderful variety of my subjects’ skin tones (dulled though they were by photography). Often as not, folks I was trying to draw darker just got scruffier. My subjects fared the worst, I think, when I let my ideas wander from the subject at hand, getting too experimental with techniques of line and shade. But as long as I did my best not to sacrifice the person (such as they could be glimpsed) for the concept, I found even the middling results quite satisfying. I liked the idea of using the same internet technologies that condition us to the rapid-fire consumption of images to deliver up pictures worth lingering over, and engaging with, at the speed of a pen.
I’d hoped, from A to Z, that I’d get better and better at drawing ballpoint portraits. In the end, though, I think I mainly got faster.
Aren’t liturgy and litany like that sometimes? You submit yourself to a repetitive pattern, come to inhabit the rhythms of the discipline, the inner and outer motion inherent in working your way down a list or across a calendar, and in the end what you gain seems to be not depth, but efficiency and a certain sort of muscle memory.
After I finished the Man/Woman/Boy/Girl sketches, I hung on to the aura of the project for as long as I could, stretching it along by photographing the notebook page by page, then cropping and labeling and plotting each image—like any good-yet-problematic 19th-century ethno-geographer—on a map of the world. I contemplated other potential sketchbook series—portraits of saints and other admirable people, perhaps. But when the saint you drew doesn’t look like the saint you drew, it’s harder to get around.
Yesterday, like the day before it and the day before that, I did not draw anything; instead, I wandered the Web until I wound up at a site called Burgers Here and There, in which a chef is creating an original hamburger recipe for every United Nations-recognized nation. She’s just gotten through the A’s (“Azerbaijan: Burger on Tandir with Aromatic Herbs and Apricot-Saffron Yogurt Sauce”). I wish her all the best.