Jennifer Daniel’s Sketchbook

Jennifer Daniel’s url is http://httpcolon forwardslash forwardslash wwwdotjenniferdaniel dotcom.com. She bought the name in 2005, when she was 23, and she hasn’t changed it since. By profession, she is an illustrator, designer, and journalist, but most of her bio is composed in “lorem ipsum” — nonsense Latin. She loves a good punchline, which is one of the many reasons we’re friends.

In August, after many years in Brooklyn, Jen moved to San Francisco. Recently, she posted pictures of some new drawings — abstract patterns, fractal-y things. No jokes here. No story. No references. Still, they somehow fit in with all the rest. I asked her about these and her sketchbooks — one book in particular.

Below, excerpts from a long-distance phone conversation, over lunch, at work.

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So when did you start doing this kind of drawing?

In high school I was allowed to draw in class. I drew on graph paper as high-schoolers do. I thought of it as doodles. 

They let you draw in class?

Yeah, I really scammed the system. I mean I was diagnosed with all these learning disabilities when I was younger, and somehow it was decided that I was a “kinetic” learner — which meant that I had to draw while I was listening. And so even though I was doodling it just meant that I was “listening.”

So I started challenging this a little bit — like how big can the drawing be before they tell me it’s disruptive? Or how obscene cans it be? And so I would bring in really large 18 x 24 pieces of paper and draw in class. And at one point I brought in a drawing of myself nude — to my history class. I think it was so awkward for Mr. Klopfenstein that he couldn’t acknowledge it: It was a nude drawing of a 17-year-old girl. It was in the mirror, observational.

Someone did ask me to prom though after class —

Did you go with him?

No, I had to say No — he was weird. I wish I still had the drawing though.

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Do you still have the high school books?

No, they’re lost forever — they’re gone. Those books were also graph paper and very similar to this book. When I bought this blue sketchbook I knew exactly what it would be — some continuation of what I was already doing. 

When is it from?

2002, 2003? Early college.

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So what is the writing here? Are these college notes?

Mostly it was filled with quotes from my family, some notes from school. I like to write things that my family says, because they are very vocal group of people. I’m the quiet one in the family.

Come on now.

Well, I am demure compared to everyone else.

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So is the wine glass from a Daniel event?

It was New Year’s I think, or Christmas, at my Aunt’s house, and she handed me this giant goblet of wine — giant. And I remember asking her, “Do you have any glasses bigger than this?” and she was like, “Oh, I’ll go check.” And I traced the glass because it was so funny and I wrote that quote — that was the first quote and then the night went long — the quotes just kept coming in.

What are the other little drawings?

Well, there are terrible art school projects throughout this thing. And if I didn’t like them I would kind of doodle over them because I didn’t want anyone to see them. I felt massive amounts of shame and would start drawing circles and Xs over everything. And it created patterns, and then I just sort of started snaking them through the book.

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So is that how the patterns started?

A lot of the patterns are basically doodles. But at one point I filled a whole page with these hashmarks — and I was like, “Oh that doesn’t look bad.” And so then I started dedicating full spreads to it.

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So how does this one [above] work?

With each pattern it always rotated. So if it was a straight line, then the next square would be diagonal and the next square would be horizontal and the next square would be diagonal. And so each of these patterns has a sort of system applied to it. On this page I felt like I wanted to see the pattern more, so the right side is zoomed-in. The left side I divided a single square into fourths and on the right side I took two squares by two squares.

So I can see how this changed, but I mean this is pretty much the last one in the book. How’d you get back to this?

Well, these are work, but they don’t stress me out. There’s good stress or you can just be stressed the fuck out. It’s like playing a video game and the game challenges you, but you start losing and you realize, “I’m not enjoying this!” And so these drawings — at least the ones based on math, or a pattern really — they challenge me in a way that doesn’t stress me out.

You had to buy a new notebook to make these new ones.

I have this Rhodia one and yeah it’s a sketchbook, but it’s really more like just a pad. I’m already halfway through it and I bought it in January.

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Well what was it about this old book that you liked so much?

All the other notepads that I see are kind of Meh — I love the paper stock on the old book. It’s thick — not precious.

What’s the red stain?

Wine. It’s not perfect, you know? It has that big bar at the top like school notes would have. But it’s sort of just unassuming and it’s the perfect size. I wish there were an infinite number of pages in there. I bought it at that place with the really long name… [Googling]: The Unimpressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Bookstore.

Wow, I have actually never heard of that place. Is it still there?

I go back all the time to that store to see if they have this sketchbook, but they do not. No one makes this book anymore. I’ve tried everything to get another book just like this and they do not exist.

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Wait, so what’s wrong with the Rhodia?

What I’m figuring out as I move to like a square format is that patterns can reveal themselves — it’s a sixteen bit pattern on a sixteen by sixteen square you see a gradient appear that you wouldn’t see in a rectangle, because it’s just a different ratio. It’s different, but I kind of liked the extra few lines of the old page — where you could sort of see it play out longer.

You said that someone said it looks like a semacode? (Just so you know, I don’t actually know what that is.)

Yeah, you know, the barcodes that look like crossword puzzles. They code internet urls in them.

Ah right. Like if you put your iPhone up to it…

Take a picture and it’ll be a seahorse!

Well, I mean, you mentioned that — do you think there’s something computer-y about them? Does that feel true?

They’re not computer-y — I feel like I say the word computer and it’s not the right word to describe them. They’re math. Just because a fractal is generated with an algorithm on the computer doesn’t make it computer-y. But I think because they are based on an algorithm, people associate that with computers.

Does it matter to you that it’s not made by a computer?

I don’t think it would be wrong to make it by a computer. I don’t think it would be bad. But if I did it with code, for me it would be about learning how to code. So if I do it by hand, it’s me learning how to think using structure. When I do it by hand, it’s about thinking; if I did it by computer, it would be about coding. They might look the same, but it’s two very different kinds of operating.

Do you really think that they’d look the same? I mean, I’m giving myself away here, but don’t you think there would still be a difference?

Well, you know I spent a whole Saturday — a nice day — drawing something, not knowing how it’s going to look, and it looks like shit, and my nice Saturday is burnt. With a computer, I could do that really fast. But that’s the only advantage to doing it on a computer. And that’s not what’s it about.

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Would you say it’s about the process then? I mean, how much do you care that they’re perfect?

I do care. I care about whether they’re perfect because by doing these I get to understand the pattern. It’s hard for me to understand what these patterns look like unless I execute them perfectly. If I break it, then I don’t really fully understand what makes it special. I mean I’m not fluent in numerology — or math —so it’s hard for me to anticipate how it will look. Do prime numbers result in better patterns? I’m not sure. Those are things, if I was a smarter person, I think I would explore more, but I am not. I mean, sometimes I’ll be working on a project and I’ll set it down and I’ll pick it back up and I can’t finish it because I have no idea where I left off. So I’ll start over and then it’ll become more clear to me — but I have to go all the way back to the beginning of the pattern to figure it out.

So is this more like a relaxing brain exercise for yourself, or do you think of these as public in a real way?

I pick it up and put it back down — I mean, I’ve been doing this since high school — but I’ve never shared it online before, and that’s the part that’s actually new. It’s been good — people have been sending me artists that do similar work, and I’ve never looked at any artists who did anything like this, because I never took it very seriously — and I still don’t take it too seriously. It’s still just something I’m experimenting with. But I’m excited to do it when I get home.

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I see where it comes from, but this is definitely different than most of your work.

Well, in high school, my Dad brought home these stock image books. Because he’s a picture-framer — he works in the picture framing industry —

The picture-framing industry?

Yeah, it’s so funny to think about now: He would bring home these massive books for me, because I like to make collages — and my understanding of art was based on “White families smiling and jumping on each other and drinking lemonade” or “Magnifying glass looking at a dead body” or, you know, “Hourglass with people in it, being beaten down by sand.” These were the High Concepts that I grew up around. So when I did these drawings in school, the patterns were always mostly in the background. These were just the doodles on really really bad drawings — me in an hourglass with sand beating down.

But yeah stock art. I still love it. I still love it all.

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