February 25, 2016

Tuning in by Sketchbook—An Artist’s Connection to Politics.

orange donald

As I watched Hillary and Bernie debate two weeks ago, staring at them fixedly on the TV screen, I thought, why not try to draw them?

In my long life, I have been a boardwalk portrait artist and a courtroom illustrator, and it satisfies me when I can catch a likeness, and when revelations come from my results. Often the wispiest lines register my most apt responses. I look for these insights that my body knows, and that my mind does not.

I have cultivated my hand’s responsiveness and I am able to choose stylistic approaches, but I do not control the results.  Subjective information surfaces. That is the beauty of it.

For example, I sketched Jeb Bush during a Republican debate, aiming to capture the pensive angle of his head, and which angle made him appear poetic. His comments, strangely, back this up: “Trump is a chaos candidate.”.

And in a later debate, regarding himself as a candidate, “We need someone with a servant’s heart.”


I use a soft pencil, and erasure smudges to find contours, feeling my way, allowing erasure marks to create movement, contrast, and depth. I build likenesses out of dirty scribbles, as if these characters are caught in a messy, chaotic whirlwind.

hil0 copy

I didn’t expect much, in drawing from television. However, sketching Bernie, his visage, took on a desperation that I hadn’t registered before, and certain redundant questions of her history caused Hillary’s pupils to dilate into sad, blue whirligigs.

I hadn’t previously formed a strong attachment to either candidate but was thrilled that each was doing so well. Drawing, and listening, swayed me. I was dissuaded by Bernie’s staged irate pandering to the disillusioned. I was impressed by Hilary’s adamant clarity and found her specific smack-downs a tonic. My drawings evoked this enough to post them on Facebook.

Buoyed by my experimental drawing of the Democratic debate, and full of curiosity, I tuned in to draw the Republican debate.

There they all were, like kindergartners jostling and pretending to behave, but with deadlier agendas, each a mightier, fiercer need to regulate women’s rights, immigration law, end healthcare, build up the military, the border wall, reinstate torture. Shocking that no questions were posed to them on education, climate science, gun control.

Here was Governor Christie, plump and belligerent, and a heavy-lidded, immature Rubio bent on turning back abortion law, and sandbag Cruz with his carved piano-leg nose. The Donald was my reward—easy to do—an eraser scribble for hair, Kewpie doll mouth, squashy, arch-villain eyes.

orange donald

A friend Facebook-messaged me, from a remote tropical beach hut asking, “Who are these grim people?” This surprised me because I hadn’t seen their “grimness.”  Or I should say, steeped in it as I was, I hadn’t seen my own grimness in my perception of these characters.

What was I doing?

Becoming aware that the lens I was seeing them through was indeed grim was important. Looking at the array of figures I had drawn, they are a grim bunch.



But they amuse—I laughed out loud when a wild smudge suddenly showed me layers of a tiny, whale-like Trump eye. I should think less of myself for engaging in this cruel paper-doll making, me and my bully pencil, enjoying scratching out savage likenesses.

But drawing is a healthy response to how frustrated I am.

Yes, I was “doing” the grimness. Why? Because when I am offended, and engage with what offends me by drawing it, well, were you expecting cherubs and angels? The candidates and their concerns are not addressing so many serious issues—so I had been ignoring them and their contests.

Now to engage with it gave me a sort of voice. I became consumed with creating apt observations. I spent too long trying to adjust my sketch of Rubio because, overworked, my drawings lose their spontaneous appeal.

I kept trying to move him away from handsome, more toward depraved…with little success.

In a last desperate attempt, I mashed two of my drawings of him together, and voila! It is better. The two faces at once describe him, as if to say, he is two-faced, and/or confused.

Obvious, but effective.

Even though his inane views appall me, his good bone structure wouldn’t let him appear hateful. He looks kinda cute no matter what. This is a phenomenon—symmetrical, regular features can defy negative appraisal.

rubio copy

Drawing Hilary is complicated for different reasons. Pencil-bashing this good-looking, aging woman, vulnerable to negative objectification is not cool. (Yes, I have done it, but kept it to myself.) To mock her for her jowls, her hard, warrior hair and make-up, her Mao jackets, is too easy and is beneath even the current Republican dialogue—progress!


Yet I have just now seen footage of her barking like a dog, bringing her fantasy that dogs bay when Republicans lie to life. A Hillary shenanigan? Gotta draw that. I‘ve taken to including the verbatim words spoken while I am sketching—first, to offset the allure of good bone structure, second because the words are both ludicrous and lethal and third because you can’t make this stuff up—it would be comical if it weren’t true. My drawings, coupled with the candidates’ actual words, reveal the senseless depravity of this low comedy, which, while questionable entertainment, is what is happening. But I already knew this.

Making these visual soundbites feels powerful. A kind friend who has been following these sketches on Facebook writes, “These are fantastic! You should make them into cards!”

In fact, provoked by an Iraqi journalist throwing both of his shoes at then President George W. Bush during an Iraqi press conference in 2008, I did gleefully make a sketch of it into a card.

shoe copy

Making these images now is how I throw my own shoe, empowering and connecting me to the protagonists in these intractable events. These images allow me into my voice, providing me with insight, traction and release.

I now follow national politics, which I had tuned out. I binge-draw the unfolding presidential race, avidly waiting to see who endorses whom, for words from Elizabeth Warren, for the next shocking episode.


Author: Cate Whittemore

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Artwork: Courtesy of Author

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