“Finding a Likeness: How I Got Somewhat Better at Art,” by Nicholson Baker. Knopf, 352 pgs. $35. Penguin Press

Nicholson Baker has already mastered one kind of art, writing books. His novels “The Mezzanine” (1988), “Room Temperature” (1990) and “A Box of Matches” (2003) showcase his gift for finding the extraordinary in the minutiae of everyday life – buying shoelaces, feeding a baby, lighting a match. His 1992 novel “Vox” explored more carnal activities and became, famously, a gift from Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton.

In nonfiction books such as “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper” (2001) and “Substitute” (2016), Baker immersed himself in his subjects – for the latter, he spent 28 days working as a substitute teacher in Maine, where he lives. It was an exhausting experience but not as taxing as his next book, “Baseless” (2020), in which he delved into boxes of documents about U.S. military operations in the Korean War.

Completing that project nearly broke him. “It’s a book about germ weapons and crazy government interventions all over the world,” Baker said in a video interview from Rochester, New York. “And it was just getting me down. I suddenly woke up one morning thinking, I have a finite amount of life left. And what I’d really like to know how to do is paint.”

Baker, 67, had given up this aspiration at 14, after his attempt to create a portrait of his sister went awry and she ended up looking like a gargoyle. But he’d always yearned to try again – his parents were visual artists, as is his wife – and so it became the perfect activity for his self-imposed “rehabilitation program.” He gave himself a simple goal: “to paint a white tablecloth set for lunch in a green and dappled shade.” Achieving that proved more challenging than Baker had expected, but his experience, chronicled in his new book, “Finding a Likeness,” proved instructive in surprising ways.

Baker fails at drawing and painting almost as much as he succeeds, and he is not shy about sharing the evidence in this heavily illustrated volume. “Half of painting happens off-screen, on the palette,” he writes. “The mixing of colors, until and unless it becomes second nature, is a distraction and a joy killer.” Soon after, he trades in his paintbrush for a pen.

In the book’s final pages, Baker offers eight lessons gleaned from his two-year quest. Among them: “Drawing is knowing,” “Everyone has some festive corner of their soul” and “Smiles are hard to get right, but are worth trying.” In conversation, he elaborated. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Q: Your subtitle is “How I Got Somewhat Better at Art.” How much did you improve since you began, in 2019?

A: I don’t know if I can quantify it, but I did get better. In part, I improved by doing sneaky things like using tracing paper. At first I resisted crutches like this, but tracing helped me immeasurably. I also learned that tracing has an awful lot to teach you, and having a basic blueprint means you can relax and enjoy the experience, which was what this project was about: finding some joy and solace.

I am a happier person. Partly it has to do with not having to look in those boxes of redacted CIA documents, and partly it has to do with the fact that practically every day, I can think: I have looked at another human being very closely, and I have thought about him or her to the extent that I have actually created a recognizable likeness. The short answer is that I feel really good when I’m drawing, but of course when you’re done, the world is still full of troubles.

Q: Do you now prefer painting to writing?

A: I think I know how to write better than I know how to paint. I kind of failed painting, actually, but the joy of ending up with a physical thing on really thick paper at the end of a day’s work is satisfying. If you’re writing, you have a bunch of jumbled paragraphs that need to be rewritten, and they’re either part of something longer or they’re not. And there’s thousands of these pages a year, and essentially it’s just a pile of black marks on a white background. If I am making a drawing, which I usually do in the early morning, I can check the box of the accomplishment for that day, and it’s a really great feeling.

Q: Can anyone learn to paint or draw later in life?


A: If you have a hankering, sure. Anybody who thinks, “I wish I had some talent”: It’s closer than you think. I began the book not being able to draw freehand well, drew with tracing for two years and after that drew freehand much better. What happened in the interim? I learned.

Q: What is the easiest object to draw?

A: An object that has an immediately recognizable pattern that doesn’t have to be reproduced exactly right. At one point I took a class with the Art Students League of New York, and my assignment was to draw a melon slice, two cherries and a plate – a still life. Well, we all know what a melon slice looks like, right? So I managed to come up with a very plausible piece of sliced melon that was made out of paint, and that was very satisfying.

Q: The hardest?

A: When you draw a person and you’re trying to make that person be instantly visually identifiable as that person and no other person out of the billions of people in the world. That’s much harder, because that’s using that part of our brain that involves facial recognition, and it’s a very subtle, hypersensitive part of our identity apparatus. So finding a likeness – the book is titled that because that is, to me, the most interestingly challenging thing about drawing.

Q: You relied on a number of artists who teach online, but notably not one of the most famous – Bob Ross. What do you think of Bob Ross?


A: Bob Ross is a complicated story. It’s actually Bill Alexander who taught Bob Ross how to do that kind of formulaic style, and I loved Bill Alexander – he’s the one who first used the phrase “happy fan brush.”

I admire Bob Ross, but his approach to art doesn’t lead me anywhere good. What he’s saying is, “Here’s how you paint a tree at sunset, here’s how you paint the reflections of sunset in water, here’s how you paint distant mountains.” Those are all nice techniques, but it’s just a suite of techniques. You have to look at something real and ask yourself, where are the subtleties and the surprising things about it? The joyful-inducing thing about doing art is actually looking at something real – the world is always more interesting than any arrangement of trees and bridges that he was painting.

Q: You engaged with social media – Reddit, Twitter, Pinterest – for inspiration, help and feedback. In part this is because most of this book is set during the pandemic. Tell me your thoughts on the role of social media in creating and sharing art.

A: Pinterest was a tremendous resource; Reddit, too. Later, social media became part of the process – I’d be thinking, “I’ll draw this drawing on Reddit, but I want it to be Twitter-worthy.” When that started to happen, I realized that is the problem with social media – when your thoughts start to be corrupted by what it will look like on Twitter or Instagram, that’s when you have to take a break.

Q: Do you want to write another book that has more words in it than this one?

A: I have this computer file called “Do.” It’s a long list of topics that I want to write about. I still have journalistic urges. Fiction is hard because I seem to only be able to write in the first person, and I think when you’re born you’re given, let’s say, 17 first-person credits – and I have used them up. Nonfiction is different, though my nonfiction is also very personal. As I get older, there are certain things I know about myself, such as I will never write a “normal” novel in which people say, “He looked askance …” – words that novels use that are attempts to create in the third person a feeling about things happening as if you were viewing them from a camera. I can’t do it. I’d love to write a suspense novel. I love rom-com movies and romance novels – would love to do that – can’t do it.


Q: What did you learn from your failures?

A: Those frustrating days, when I was trying to paint clouds and I was just muttering swear words, that obviously was not therapeutic but the opposite. Perhaps it’s that there are a million ways to do it – and you will get there. The only way to really look at the world is to draw it or describe it. I love wrapping words around things, but there are certain limitations because you can say, “He gesticulated,” and you and I understand that, but if I draw it for you, you see the finger, the hand. So, the act of drawing is an education, not an attempt to become a certain kind of person with a career.

Q: You have tried being a substitute teacher and learning to draw again. Is there another life challenge that you would like to take on?

A: I would like to have a real job again.

Q: What does that mean?

A: When I was first learning to write, I was a temp and I learned so much from that – observing people in offices. I love the jokey work relationships that people have. Being a mail carrier would be great, getting to say hello to people, or working at Trader Joe’s – I’ve had such great conversations with people at checkout there.

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