The back of the bus is quiet now. I don’t want the situation to escalate, and I really don’t want to get hurt. So I tell him I’ll ask next time. Looking at the tiny shreds of his portrait on the floor of the rocking bus, I start thinking maybe he was right. Maybe I need to ask everyone before I draw them. Maybe somehow what I’m doing is rude. But when I ask…people say no. They don’t know why you’re asking; if you’ll want something in return; why you chose to ask them. It’s just too weird and random—so people just say…no. It’ll take me a lot longer to reach one-hundred this way.
I get off the bus. I have to wait for another. A friend of mine has taken the same bus from school. He had heard the noise. “What was that all about on the bus?” I explain what happened. He can tell it affected me. “Don’t worry about it. Look, that’s one guy in what, ninety people you’ve drawn? I think it’s pretty cool that you draw people anyway. Look, if you want to draw somebody, draw them. Don’t worry about this one person. He probably just got out of prison and was already in trouble again. Just don’t draw people that look like ex-cons, and you’ll be alright.” Others, waiting at the bus stop, had seen the whole thing play out too. They were warm and encouraging. “Yeah, he just crazy! Just keep doing yo’ thing, baby.” I was still a bit shaken, a bit depressed. But I drew a few of them too: ninety-three, ninety-four, ninety-five…
That week I reached my goal of one-hundred portraits.
That was a few years ago. Today I reached portrait number five-thousand-and-twenty-five. Five thousand…I cannot imagine how different life would be had I stopped at ninety-two. Sometimes, the coolest things in life grow slowly, randomly, without a real reason. A love of music, fashion, cooking, writing, comics, drawing: these things need time to mature. They need time to become rewarding. With enough time, they flourish and grow into some really cool things.
At the I House, my dorm in college, I grew this hobby. I drew every one of the six-hundred residents there, two years in a row. Six-hundred students from Lebanon, China, Israel, Argentina, Guinea, Finland, Kenya—eighty different countries. And through drawing all of them, I got to meet and talk with each of them. I got to learn about the lives of people from every corner of the Earth. I had an excuse: I was just drawing their portraits. “I want to draw six-hundred people at this dorm, and I’m really close—you’re number five-hundred-and-ninety-two.” I met many friends I never would have had this way. I wrote a few of them just today.
I still draw people on buses. I still draw people on trains. I still remember the face of a homeless man on a subway with a great big beard, who grinned from ear to ear when he saw his portrait. He folded it neatly and kept it in his coat pocket. I still remember the smiles and fascination of three school boys who I drew one by one on a train while commuting. They compared their portraits and talked with cheerful voices as they got off the train. I still remember the stories and the struggles I’ve learned from others I’ve drawn.
No, I don’t always ask first. I often don’t ask first. Even so, every now and then, I get a message in my inbox from one of these strangers. Here’s one I especially like:
It was on the morning commute, Valentine's Day 2017, when you drew my portrait. I had been watching you surprise individuals on the Expo Line heading to Santa Monica with their exquisitely drawn images (each one being completed in the travel time between one metro stop). Amazing work! I was happy when you settled upon my pate, knowing that you had recognized my interest in your work. Thanks, again!
This person wrote me two months after her portrait was drawn. Some write me the same day. Others six-months after. But I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of smiles. A few thousand more than if I had stopped with number ninety-two.
A bit of advice for you out there getting started with candid portraits:
- Draw old people first. They know they have no reason to be worried. If there are no elderly around, draw women, draw children, or draw ‘geeks’ next. Once everyone understands what you’re doing, they relax. Then you can draw anyone, sometimes even those who look like ‘ex-cons.’
- If someone asks if you’re drawing them, be honest. Say yes. Let them know you don’t want money. Let them know you’ll give them their portrait when you’re finished. The more they know, the less they worry.
- Be kind and respectful. If you mean well, most people will mean you well.
- Draw only when you’re in a public place with many people. It’s safer.