So some nice folks from The Fix, The Washington Post’s well-read political blog asked if I fancied doing a little political sketching last week. The assignment was fairly broad in its direction, I was to start covering some of the local political machinations in the lead up to the 2016 election, and see what if any response the work garnered from the public. My first reaction was that, as a born again Canadian from Scotland I know somewhere between “diddly” and “Jed Bartlett” about U.S. politics. But it was an opportunity to get out of the office again.
My first assignment on the political beat was to be the VEEP himself. Vice President Biden was to address the New Democrat Coalition Political Action Committee (NewDemPAC) in a hotel in Cambridge, Md. I expected the somewhat pro-Democrat sounding NewDemPAC would be a fairly fawning and understanding audience for Mr, Biden, but other than that I had no idea what to expect or even what the point was? So I went with the old, “fake it till you make it” technique.
To say I was intimidated would be an understatement though. I barely slept the night before. After clearing the Secret Service at the gate I arrived at the hotel a full two hours early. Rather than sitting in the empty journalist holding area — with its free water and view over the car park — I went and sketched this lovely NewDemPAC sign (above right) near the entrance instead. People came by periodically, I think to make sure I wasn’t stealing anything.
Once a few more reporters and cameramen started to show up I returned to the journalist holding pen to make sure I didn’t miss any important VEEP related announcements. This afforded me the opportunity to do a little more sketching of the VEEP reporting entourage. The full deck of media playing cards was in attendance. From the beautifully groomed TV anchor calmly reviewing notes, to the intense thirty something reading from two cell phones at once, to the straight out of college — pretending to have seen everything — beat reporter, to the middle aged resigned camera crews who really have. And me.
After a half hour or so of staring at cell phones a police sniffer dog team came in and all of our gear was laid out and given a good sniffing. Then a couple of those almost blandly invisible casually-clothed guys came in and gave a bunch more of our gear the explosives residue test. The sniffer dog guy hung out in the doorway with his dog at his feet while the casual guys did their thing with our equipment. At the end of the leash his dog lounged panting like a furry dragon. One of the reporters asked the officer what the pronged choker chain around his dog’s neck was for? “Attitude adjustment,” he said with a smirk.
Once we were through another couple or three security screenings — which I will skip around because I don’t want to give the whole game away — we were ushered quickly past the luxurious buffet into an enclosed media corral at the back of the ballroom. From where I sat the vice president would be a pinhead … plus from where I sat he was going to be too far away to draw. Did you see how I did that?
We still had a good half hour or so until Joe was scheduled to appear, plus whatever fashionably late was for a VEEP, so I drew the camera guys to distract myself from the stress and impending doom I was feeling. I am now up to sketching at a speed that has my pen only rarely leaving the paper. I call this my Gabi Campanario style after the brilliant and super fast urban sketcher of the same name. You can see some more of his stuff right here on his Seattle Sketcher blog.
The white pencil is something I have been trying out of late. It is a technique either in gradual development, or short-term affectation — I have yet to decide. Mostly I have been using it for life drawing (see sample at right) by inverting the usual way of thinking about drawing where you draw in the shadows. With this technique I have taken to drawing in the highlights instead. It tends to be a little severe and doesn’t leave much room for error.
This is my first use of it in an urban sketching environment but it does give me the ability to light certain things to allow me some extra depth. And allows me to save some very sketchy sketching.
Through the use of just a small drop of Canadian/Scottish charm I managed to make my way forward into an empty seat so that I would actually be able to see the VEEP. At just about the point where I realized that there were in fact a fair number of empty seats he arrived. As I mentioned earlier I don’t have much of a political understanding of the U.S. although I’d dare say I’d be a Democrat if I am ever allowed to vote, so I stood and clapped with the rest.
One of the first things he did was turn off the teleprompter right before repeating a joke at his own expense made by President Barack Obama when he said, “‘I (Obama) am learning to speak without the teleprompter, and Joe (Biden) is learning to speak with one.’” My how the audience laughed. Nervously. “But this is a little bit more like family,” he said. “So I am going to just tell you what is on my mind.”
I don’t get much of a look at the VEEP in my general day-to-day. The stories I see on Mr. Biden tend to be towards the end of the newscast told by an anchor with a wry smile. He seems to be most often portrayed as a bit of a loose cannon with a doddering penchant to talking off script. There was no sign of that now.
Mr. Biden talked hard and fast about what the country has come through in the last six years. And he made no bones about who was responsible for that recovery. And he joked about the serious ideological differences between conservatives and Republicans. “When Mitch McConnell, and others, finally acknowledged that we were IN a recovery they said that, ‘it was because the business community was anticipating a Republican win.’ I found that fascinating that they were now claiming the recovery,” he said.
He talked in strong language about the Iran Nuclear deal. And how he and the president did not intend to leave the Islamic Republic any wiggle room on the nuclear issue and the intrusive inspections they have agreed on. “If they (Iran) back off that, there will be no deal. If they change the dynamics of their ability or inability to engage in research, we will not sign it. If they decide that they will not abide by the constraint of never being closer than one year to being able to break out, there will be no deal,” he said.
Now any artist worth their salt would have spent a couple of days studying photographs of Mr. Biden. You know, getting to know all of his features. Trying a few test sketches. But because I am not very smart, and I have kids and a life outside of work, I had neglected to do this, so as the VEEP spoke I struggled again and again to pin down his features on paper. And for the next forty minutes while Joe talked on about trade, China, the world economy, the American worker, infrastructure, taxes, education, and healthcare, I filled page after page of sketches of some white haired guy with mismatched features.
Maybe the drawings could be mistaken for sketches of one of Joe Biden’s distant relatives — if I was lucky.
By the end I resigned myself to honestly self-critiquing my work and writing what I thought right on top of the sketches while I listened to what Joe was saying as he continued to blow through the Democrat horn of success. Eventually he was shouting at his audience to make his point, by the time he came to health care he seemed genuinely angry as he spoke about Republicans who had stood in the way of the Affordable Care Act.
“They (the Republicans) were wrong, you were right. Health care, John Boehner (talking on the ACA) – ‘It’s going to ruin and bankrupt the greatest healthcare system in the history of the world.’ Well guess what? Sixteen million Americans have insurance that didn’t have it before. The lowest inflation rate in health-care costs in 50 years … HEALTHCARE IS A HUMAN RIGHT,” he shouted before finally, after a pause, whispering and staring around the ballroom, “They were wrong, you were right.”
For all his impromptu off-teleprompter ad-libbing, the words flowed freely, clearly and articulately. And at the end as the ballroom exploded into applause as he left, I tucked my crappy drawings and pencils away, and realized if I was going to be on the political trail, I was going to need to sharpen my wit, intellect and pencils to survive long. ‘Fake it till you make it’ isn’t going to work for this.
Here is that full post in The Fix.
This weeks’ artist of note is Joel Winstead. SEE SAMPLES BELOW.
Joel grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. He started sketching in earnest while in graduate school doodling in notebooks. I think he would be the first to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, but for me that doesn’t stop his work from being inspirational. He has bravery in his sketching and coloring, and that fearlessness allows him to take risks others – me for one – probably wouldn’t take. And through that I am often enchanted by his successes. His series from last week of the blooms in D.C. are particularly good. And I think his love of D.C. shines through in his work.
“Sketching has given me an opportunity to rediscover my home town and see it in a new way,” he said.
You can see more of Joel’s work here on his flickr feed, which he updates almost daily. Joel Winstead.
Got a question on fashion or tact or even drawing? Ask me. Got a drawing? Send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are out there and doing stuff I need to see then please do send it along. I’ll post it up here on the Washington Post’s best Urban Sketching blog.
Want to see more of my work? www.newsillustrator.com.