'Picture This': How to (Do) Art

With yellow legal paper, old magazines and whatever other materials are handy, Lynda Barry paints and draws and glues as she shows the reader “how to art”.

Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Length: 204 pages
Author: Lynda Barry
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Release Date: 2010-11

In Picture This, Lynda Barry sums up humanity’s infinite affair with art in two succinct sentences: “It is good to move your hand. It is good to leave some marks during a hard time.” Barry asks questions about what it means to make art, to want to make art, and the meaning of being good at it. Here, the work is both the question and the answer. With yellow legal paper, old magazines and whatever other materials are handy, she paints and draws and glues as she shows the reader “how to art”.

Throughout the book, Barry’s recurring characters, Marlys and Arna, embody the book’s themes in the form of their own struggles with making art. As young teenagers, they straddle the world between childish inhibition and pubescent insecurity, and the joy once found in coloring books has been replaced by the thrill of discovering Beat poets and the ease of watching television. Marlys and Arna provide a framework for the book, but this isn’t the story of how Marlys and Arna overcame their teenage insecurity and learned to make things again.

Much of Picture This is about shape; the physical forms and emotional experiences which make our world. The Near-Sighted Monkey is a shape Barry began drawing, she says, after the death of a close friend. The Monkey appears throughout the book drawing, painting and smoking cigarettes. Other repeated shapes include a cephalopod, rabbits and bats. “Does experience have a shape?” Barry asks. “Why do we talk about things that shape character?” Using the malleability of language, she opens philosophical holes in the mind through which everyday shapes find their way out of the ordinary and into the profound.

In their beds at night Marlys and Arna watch a water stain spread on the ceiling and the shapes they see are awful monsters hovering above them. Barry recreates this experience with water color and brushes on notebook paper, lifting familiar shapes out of otherwise formless blobs, just as ancient fishermen imagined the shapes of the constellations. This is “how to art”: creating the familiar out of the unfamiliar, the strange or, as with the water stain on the ceiling, the unwelcome. Barry asks, “Why do shapes appear in shadows and stains? Is there a power that makes them show themselves? Can we choose what we see?”

This is a metaphor for the entire book, if not art as a whole. Barry puts this idea in motion with series after series of drawings and collages where bits of shredded paper or puffs of cotton become portraits of animals or endless, curving lines become pathways that lead to the next great idea.

Barry notes that, since she started drawing, people have told her she wasn't any good at it. That she made a career of it is beside the point. Of course her drawings are good. They're plain and uncluttered, filling each panel with only the necessary information, but where those drawings take her is truly inspirational. That's where she bests makes her mark.






Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".


Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.


Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.


On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.


Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".


Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?


London Indie-Poppers the Motive Impress on "You" (premiere)

Southwest London's the Motive concoct catchy, indie-pop earworms with breezy melodies, jangly guitars, and hooky riffs, as on their latest single "You".


Vigdis Hjorth's 'Long Live the Post Horn!' Breathes Life into Bureaucratic Anxiety

Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! is a study in existential torpor that, happily, does not induce the same condition in the reader.


Konqistador and HanHan Team for Darkwave Hip-Hop on "Visaya"

Detroit-based electronic/industrial outfit, Konqistador team with Toronto hip-hopper HanHan for "Visaya", a song that blends darkwave and rap into an incendiary combination.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.