Works in Pencil, Works in awareness
processes with working in pencil + how mindfulness gives me superpowers and keeps me sane.
I’ve talked here before about my former career as a baker and also the start of connecting my love of food + art when I lived in Hawaii and painted all the incredibly inspiring tropical fruits. But really the first piece of food art I ever made (other than actual cakes), was a very simple yet detailed drawing of my friend Christina’s sourdough bread. Christina and I used to bake together when I lived in New Orleans. She lead the way for me really, finding me jobs a few times at different places she was working, and eventually creating our own little pop up’s together. I’m forever grateful for our baking kinship and bond. Christina kept on going with developing her skills and now is the owner of the best bakery in New Orleans (truly, i’m not even just saying that), Levee Baking Co.
7 years ago, she was still experimenting with sourdough and sharing a lot of crumb shots. If you are a baker you know that this is a very important detail in the process of making good bread. Everyone has different crumb preferences when it comes to eating, but there is also somewhat of a gold standard in the crafting of the bread. The crumb refers to the texture inside of the loaf, and all those little and big holes of texture and delicious gluten-y elasticity that are created in the baking process. Christina shared a gorgeous photo of the inside of a sourdough loaf she had baked, and I decided, what a cool photo to try to replicate in pencil!
Like a lot of the subjects I eventually end up painting or drawing, I had thought about drawing her loaf of bread for months before it actually happened. Sometimes ideas need to marinate, and if we are lucky, the inspiration doesn’t just stay but grows as time goes on, so that the moment you come to realize the idea, it is more alive than the original thought of it was.
My husband and I had just returned from a very impactful trip to New Zealand. We had gone to visit my dear community there and spent 2 blissful months of their spring time visiting with friends, working remotely, and attending our very first vipassana meditation retreat.
A vipassana retreat is a silent meditation retreat, varying in the amount of days, and the one we attended was 10 days. 10 days of no speaking and roughly around 11 hours of meditation a day. To say that it was a transformative experience may be a bit of an understatement. I can still say, 7 years later, that it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Rob and I both had had regular meditation practices in our lives for years, but never had done something so immersive. After our time there, we really took the practice home with us and started meditating for 2 hours a day, one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening.
I started drawing this pencil sourdough piece in the time after we got home from that experience, when I felt VERY present in the day to day. I have to say that presence is probably my most powerful tool when creating art. More than any actual pencil, paintbrush, or piece of paper, it is more about what my attention is doing that matters most. I remember during the meditation retreat feeling sensations in a whole new 10x super power kind of way. Water had body and life to it when I touched it with my hands. Wind had shape and texture. Birds had individual feathers I could hear move against the air as they flapped to fly. It was incredible to get to a level of detail of noticing that felt superhuman. Like everything extra and distracting had been stripped away and I was really able to be here now.
So when it came to drawing this piece, I was just so present with all the little details I was looking at in the photo. I don’t know if I had really known how to allow myself to be so fully taken by my subject before this. I know it’s cliché and silly, but I truly did become the bread as I was drawing it. Every line, every shadow, I could feel into it and then I could feel into it even more and more, constantly discovering new layers within just a little segment of the whole.
A meditation practice is valuable for so many reasons, but there is also something around the safety that presence offers me. In a culture that prioritizes the mind over everything else, we are easily taken into past and future timelines and scenarios of anxiety and worry if we aren’t practicing presence. When we can slow down enough to notice a breath in and out, to feel what our hands are currently feeling, to listen to the active noises happening around us, something lands us into a place of release and trust. We can trust being here because here it is all unfolding for us, and we are ok in that. Sometimes we are even more than ok, we are content.
I always start my pencil pieces (and my watercolor pieces) with an outline of my subject in 2H pencil. It is hard and light enough so that I can erase if needed later, but it gives me just enough of a map to move forward and fill in. I have a very predictable order and process when it comes to working in pencil. I start with 2H, do all of my shading and outlining with that, and then work in 2B over that. Once I develop lighter shading, then medium shading, I add in something like 3B or even 4B if I want to really add some depth and contrast. I build up this way, and erase as needed along the way. My favorite pencils to use are Faber-Castell, and I love using Strathmore drawing paper (especially the recycled option).
This was one of the first pieces I decided to make prints of, and have sold a lot of copies to fellow bakers and bread lovers. The actual drawing is quite small, but thanks to the magic of great scanners, I sell prints sized up to 18x24”. It is one of the only pieces of my own making that is hanging in my house, in a little kitchen nook. It’s also one of the pieces I feel is still most iconic and comforting to me. Maybe because I remember so vividly allowing myself to fall so completely in love with the bread as I drew it, and maybe because that time in my life was so special, to come across this super power of presence that is here for us whenever we can practice tapping into it.
Fast forward several years later and I found myself drawing a similar kind of piece with this canelé. Again, a very talented baker friend whom I have mentioned here before, Olivia, (bakers are the best people ;)) made the best canelé in town, and I felt called to drawing all of that beautiful caramelized custardy crumb.
Similar to painting, a lot about creating with pencil is also about how much you hold back. Pencil is so forgiving and changeable, and for those reasons, will forever be my very favorite of mediums. But it also takes patience and a nuance of noticing within the varying shades of greyscale. Building up darker areas slowly so that they can really stand out against the in between shades.
Bread, and baking in general, is such a symbol for bringing people together. Such a vehicle of nourishment and care. In a time in the world where we are being asked in such enormous ways to look after one another, I find solace and assurance in these pieces and their symbolism of connectivity and love.
Thanks to the advice of a wise friend, something I have come to recently has been the meditation practice of tonglen. Current world news and social media outlets have me feeling incredibly distraught and hopeless, and sometimes I don’t know what to do with all that despair. Tonglen is a way to take that despair/heaviness and alchemize it within ones body into love, and then transport that energy of love to the places in the world where it feels needed most.
There are lots of ways we can engage with this moment in the world. I have found that this is the most useful and helpful way for me to interact in a way where I feel the positivity building, not lessening. I feel the hope inching its way through, rather than utter defeat.
I hope you find this as a helpful practice as well, if you too are feeling overwhelmed. I truly believe in the power of collective meditation.
I also hope you can find outlets for your creativity and within that, more space for presence and safety, especially in what is usually a very busy and hectic time of the year.
I am calling in a gratitude practice every day. I am spending time in meditation. And I am allowing myself to sleep in longer, go slower, and soak up the moments of stillness that all feel like incredibly rich gifts when I take the time to zoom out.
Both of these pencil pieces are available as prints via my webshop.
*This is my last substack post of 2023! Thank you SO much for subscribing, supporting and following along. I will be taking January off to scheme on what I can offer in this space for 2024. I have found this outlet such a wonderfully rich and authentic stream for connecting with you all. I’m so happy to have this platform to learn, dream, and grow together in.
Current Inspirations and Musings…
-Thank you to everyone who ordered prints from me during my last sale of the year! My shop is open for holiday orders up until December 10th, and then will be on hiatus until January 2024. I am so grateful for the support. Truly every single order feels like a gift and really supports me and my family right now.
-Really loving the memoir Mirrors in the Earth by Asia Suler, an herbalist I have been following along with for over a decade now.
-I found this interview with the film maker and actor Brit Marling to be a bright light of inspiration.
-Loving the writing and content within Rosie Spinks substack newsletter.
-I use the insight timer meditation app for meditating every day. I generally just use the timer that has a nice bell chime for starting and ending my desired time, but there is also a whole library full of wonderful guided meditations available as well. Highly recommend, even if it is just for 5 minutes a day.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! Wishing you all the best possible closing to 2023.