I have completely forgotten where we were actually heading that night when the big thunderstorm hit, but when weather and fate intervene you just roll with it. It was especially warm that evening, Jimmy and I walking hand in hand down a narrow street into the charming neighborhood behind our building. It was way too early in the season to be expecting rain but down it came nevertheless starting with a few drops and then building to a dramatic downpour. It was incredibly loud falling on the tin roofs all around us. We took shelter under an awning, feeling safe and in good spirits despite being a little soggy.
This being Thailand, food is never far away and we spotted a little noodle shop just down the street. We made a run for it. The shop was like so many we’ve frequented with concrete walls and a makeshift ceiling of tarps, the front entirely open to the street. There was a plastic case holding the day’s selection of meat and vegetables next to which sat a tall metal stove, woks smoking inside. Jimmy picked out a table while I went to the little grocery right next door for some beer.
The shop was run by a young Thai couple who worked closely together, handing things back and forth without saying a word, their actions perfectly choreographed by having made a thousand bowls of soup and plates of pad Thai. They had a beautiful little baby boy who was strapped to his mother by nothing but an ordinary bath towel. He seemed perfectly happy on his perch, curiously looking at the customers and watching the cooking, sometimes taking a little nap. The young father would regularly reach out to his son and touch his cheek or whisper something in his ear. It was very sweet.
Later we realized that the couple lived there, in a tiny space behind the shop. I took a photograph of their sleeping area as I passed by, feeling a little guilty for invading their privacy. What am I entitled to document? What might seem mysterious and exotic to me is ordinary to the locals and I want to be a respectful visitor. At the same time, I want to share my experiences with all of you. Sometimes it’s hard to know where the line is. There have been many, many photographs that I didn’t take because I thought it would be rude. But I would have if I had a “spy” camera.
Since that first night, we’ve been back to the noodle shop several times and they are always there cooking, baby strapped to the mom with a green bath towel. The food is always delicious.
Free Art lessons:
1. Walking the world as an artist
What’s interesting to you? What is worthy of stopping to draw or take a reference photo? For the first month or so I felt frustrated with my lack of “production,” the Western woman in me thinking I needed to work harder, accomplish more. But I soon realized that rather than slacking off, I was in fact working all the time. Every day, from breakfast to bed, I was conducting research. I was looking for subject matter. I was asking myself what I could produce here that would be a reflection of my particular vision, my particular voice. There are many beautiful subjects here in Thailand but I was also drawn to the mundane, the street vendors, the insane tangle that is the electrical grid. My creativity was on red alert.
I knew I wanted to draw the family at the noodle shop that first night and did some preliminary sketches. After that, I returned on several occasions during the day to take photographs, and eat lunch of course. It’s always tricky to take candids…what constitutes invasion of privacy? There are a thousand photographs I didn’t take because I felt it intrusive. If I ask permission my subject will usually “pose” and that’s the last thing I want. I discovered my iPad makes for a good spy camera because you can’t necessarily tell when I’m taking a photo.
2. Working from photographs
This path is is fraught with peril but it seems inevitable that most artists need to use them as reference from time to time, especially when you’re on the road. “Reference” is the key word as they should be used as such rather than laboriously copied. When you need or choose to work from photographs, use more than one. The multiple perspectives will help keep your drawing original as you have to make decisions regarding what to include, what to edit, and what are the most important compositional elements. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to work from “bad” photographs. That way you won’t be tempted to copy them.
3. Do your homework
Sometimes artists draw not to make art, but to make good decisions, to solve problems. Don’t let your work become too “precious.” Make mistakes, take chances, and try to keep that approach even when you’re working on a more finished piece. I drew multiple versions of mother and son, trying to find the most interesting silhouette.
This thumbnail represents a larger view I was considering but later abandoned because it “diluted” the primary subject matter, the young family. Thumbnails also serve to help simplify your composition and determine which shapes, lines, and values are critical.
Footnote: After finishing the color version of the couple, I did another of just the mother and son. I gave it to them as a present.