Lessons for Artists from Eric Sloane
[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” and nearly two dozen other books. He also teaches writing, self-reliance skills, and ethnobotany. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com]
Eric Sloane is one of my favorite artists. His work is primarily line-drawings, and he’s authored such books as “A Reverence for Wood,” “Eric Sloane’s Weather Book,” “Our Vanishing Landscape,” and “Age of Barns.” And many others.
Sloane is also a thinker and philosopher, not merely sharing old timey things for their antique value, but constantly trying to share that there was a living character of self-reliance that we have all but lost due to our penchant for modern devices and letting other people do our work for us.
As a would-be artist, I have used Sloane’s images to practice my line art. I figured, I’m not trying to become another Sloane, but if I could get my level of artistry closer to his, my skill will have increased. I am still no where close to that level, probably because I simply don’t practice as much as necessary to become a master.
My very first book was “Guide to Wild Foods,” which took me more or less 4 years to write and then another year for the artist to illustrate it. I knew that my skill was insufficient for that early book, but 10 years later by the time it was revised and revised, I undertook to draw the plant images for that fourth edition.
Though I have had scant few art lessons, I learned from Sloane that drawing is not so much about the technicalities of drawing, as it is about seeing. As I drew each plant for my revised book, I had collected a sample of that plant which I set before me. I would move the leaves and stems this way and that, in order to show all the significant parts of the plant that would help in identification.
Then I would begin the hours-long process of penciling each plant, where I was able to show both the character of the plant, as well as the essential details.
Once I was happy with the pencil drawing, I went over it in black ink, and these nearly 70 images became the latest book.
I have always liked that version of the book the best, because not only did I entirely produce the book – from typesetting to layout to printer – but it’s my personal art gallery, which contains much of my work in one place. I would have been proud to give a copy to Eric Sloane should I have ever met the artist.
But as technology improved and prices for color printing dropped, no one really cared for a botanical book with simple black and white drawings. “Guide to Wild Foods” is currently published in full color by Chicago Review Press, and sells more widely than my line-drawing version ever did.
I began to think about the artist’s eternal conflict after reading Eric Sloane’s “Legacy” book. The conflict is how to retain your impeccability as a true artist, and how to reconcile that with the business world and the need to stay solvent financially. It was a good business decision for me to turn my “Guide to Wild Foods” book into an all-color book, because far more people are learning about ethnobotany from it now. Still, it makes me happy to see that my all-line drawing 1995 version can still be occasionally found on Amazon and ebay for the collector who likes folk art.
Though I have always purchased Sloane’s books for the art first, and the writing second, I want to share some of his ideas about writing.
In his chapter “The Adventure of Writing” in “Legacy,” he writes, “Writing is an apparatus for the conveyance of thoughts. Some writers write because they have something to say; others write just because they want to say something. The writer who writes for the purpose of making money should forget it; there are easier ways to make a living. When you chase money, it becomes elusive, but when you ignore it for the love of hard work, money seeks you out like a neglected lover: Payments will come in from stuff you had even forgotten about. Writing shouldn’t be a commercial occupation, because it is a religion and a calling that should never be treated sacrilegiously.”
That’s quite a sentiment, though I doubt those who write (anonymously) copy for web site and advertisement and city brochures will lose sleep over the fact that they are writing for their income, as factotums. Even I have done plenty of writing such as ghost writing, editing, brochure writing, and web-content where you’d never know it was me doing it. It was honest work that paid the bills.
Still, I think every beginning writing student, whether journalists or those seeking literary careers, should read and study Sloane.
Among his other advice to writers, from his long life of experiences, Sloane adds “Writing to compete (like writing to make money) is both bad manners and bad thinking: Being yourself and enjoying your writing is paramount. Nowadays competition is the major philosophy of business, the backbone of the national economy, and the essence of sports. Competition is the spark of the American way. Yet, no doctor, inventor, painter, or writer ever reached greatness by means of competition. The only person that any kind of artist should compete with should be him or herself. Always trying to do better work used to be the rule of old-time writers, but that was when there was such a thing as indecency and four-letter words were considered crude or rude…. Writing has become a competitive industry instead of an art and a way of life.”
Sloane is forever the idealist, and for better or worse, he lived what he believed.
Again, students of journalism, English, and literature should all be required to read, study, and discuss the Sloane doctrine.
He concludes, “A writer is not someone who writes as much as someone who thinks, and the writer’s prime reason for being is to help others think. Teaching people to think is the highest calling of civilization.”