HILL LIFE MARCH 15, 2013
When I’m bored, or when I’m supposed to be working, I can slip into a kind of codependency with my phone. I will instantly, unthinkingly click on anything new, just to distract myself. So it was on a slow Friday a few weeks ago when my phone buzzed with a push notification from Twitter. “Why hello @reidcherlin,” it said, followed by a link. I put my thumb to screen, and suddenly I was staring at my own face—a pencil-drawn likeness of a very old and gaunt version of myself, there on my iPhone.
I heard my own pulse in my ears. I was sure it was the work of a serial killing caricaturist, one who sends you a drawing of your death mask just before he busts through the door. When that didn’t happen, I decided to look again. It turned out that a friend—an editor at this magazine—had discovered a blog called Daily Drawings. It is a homespun site, consisting solely of pencil drawings of the guests on C-SPAN’s morning programming by an evidently non-professional artist. I had gone on C-SPAN precisely once, a year ago, and the scribbler hadn’t missed it. Neither had my editor friend, who’d been tweeting the portraits back to every subject he knew: among them Annie Lowrey of The New York Times, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones, and Molly Ball of The Atlantic. “That is remarkably unflattering! Or maybe I am just remarkably unattractive,” Ball tweeted back, an entirely typical reaction. “My first response: dear God is that what I really look like?” Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, told me when I emailed her the link to her portrayal. “It’s like Dr. Spock meets an evil elf queen. Even so, I am quite impressed that this man has made drawing dorks like us his hobby.”
And that, at first, is what is so striking about Daily Drawings: It is the full cavalcade of dorks. Whether it is adoring or mocking, though, is hard to tell. To scroll through the hundreds of archived images is to see a particular intertwined segment of our political culture—reporters, columnists, politicians, and power staffers—rendered in bulbous, stretched forms, as if DC’s water supply had been infected by parasitic worms, and a tipsy courtroom artist had been dispatched to chronicle the outbreak. Here is Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz, his eyes hollowed out and his head looking slightly concave. Here is Pentagon spokesman George Little, his meticulously rendered eyes sitting below a suggestion of wispy hair. Roll Call politics reporter Jonathan Strong said that when he got his turn, an email went around the newsroom: “Oh heeey, look who got the C-SPAN Sketch treatment!”
“These are done live, in motion,” the website’s header text says. “Hopefully these can be ‘plugged’ into other blogs to give a ‘face’ to the subjects of other blogs.” There’s something pretty fantastic about it. Forget whether the pictures really look like their namesakes (some do, some don’t) or whether they are ever in fact “‘plugged’ into other blogs” (they aren’t). The illustrations impart corporeal heft and depth to their subjects, like the sneering figures of a Rubens painting. I’ve now spent hours—yes, hours—paging through these drawings just because they look so different and weird.
The man who makes the drawings identifies himself on the site only as Michael McCutcheon. There isn’t a biographical detail on the site, or even any contact information. But I left a comment under one of the pictures asking him to email me, and an hour or so later I received the following note: “I’m the person that does the daily drawing of the guests on C-SPAN. I am a retired person 73 who does these while waking up in the morning. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.”
Anyone who has watched “Washington Journal,” the early morning call-in show on C-SPAN from which McCutcheon draws most of his inspiration, knows that its viewers—many of whom phone in from time zones where it’s not yet even 5:00 am—tend to be crazy people. Daily Drawings would seem to be an outgrowth of that same culture of fixation. “More than anything, the concept seemed of a piece with the bizarre obsessiveness, not to say crankishness, one tends to find in C-SPAN viewers,” as Molly Ball put it to me. My sister cautioned me that I was about to make personal contact with someone who had been staring at my face, a pencil gripped in his fevered hand, without my even knowing it. Didn’t that feel creepy?
But McCutcheon is no fanatic: He’s just a hobbyist. Each morning he takes his breakfast to the TV room, plunks down on the couch with a clipboard, a Cretacolor woodless pencil, and a few sheets of 50-pound drawing paper, and goes to work. “It’s something to while away the time, I suppose,” McCutcheon told me in a Texan accent so thick that I had to ask him to repeat himself several times (he lives in Austin). “The political end of it, I guess I’ve always liked the debate. That’s why I would watch C-SPAN. And then I thought, well, I might as well do something while I’m watching it and waking up in the morning. So I started drawing these guys.”
No, he is not a trained artist—in fact, he never even finished high school. But McCutcheon has been interested in drawing since he was a kid, dabbling in portraiture, painting, and even woodcuts between shifts at a local lithography plant. Now that he’s retired, he’s got more time to hone his skills. “Being facile with the line, that’s what I’d like to try to do; I don’t know if I achieve that or not,” he told me.
He usually starts with the space between the person’s eyes and works out from there, the eyes themselves getting the most attention overall. (Necks, it would appear, get the least.) “You look at a person’s face, and that—their eyes and their lips and if their mouth is open or closed or whatnot—usually pretty well sets the tone for the whole thing,” he said. Despite what the site says, McCutcheon’s goal is not to produce a headshot that is going to please Robert Costa of The National Review or Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, or whoever the guest may be. The goal is the exercise itself. “I rarely spend more than 20 minutes on any one of those things,” he said.
“It’s a bit like the newspaper sketch artists of the mid-19th Century,” offered Wendy Wick Reaves, Curator of Prints and Drawings and Interim Director of the National Portrait Gallery. Sketch artists, she said, would be the first on the scene of a fire, or a battle, or a crime, and would have to get down the essentials as quickly as possible before dashing back to the office, giving rise to a spare, raw style that readers found captivating. “I think if you’re going to draw somebody from the television screen, you have a similar lack of time to belabor the essence of a likeness,” she said. “You may have a full frontal view of the face only very briefly. So to really get the relationship between the eyes and the bridge of the nose has to be pretty instantaneous.”
In the spirit of exploration, I decided to fire up c-span.org and try it for myself. Not surprisingly, my drawings sucked. I produced a crooked-eyed representation Virgil Goode, the former congressman and third-party presidential candidate, and an oversized, under-detailed take on White House press secretary Jay Carney, recognizable only because of the rectangular glasses. Almost all of the images at Daily Drawings, by contrast, are recognizable—even if they’re distorted—and sometimes even call your attention to a particular feature you’d never recognized: the downward cast of Congressman Steve King’s nose, or the proximity of Senator Johnny Isakson’s eyes. “There’s nothing folk-like or naïve or unschooled about it,” Reaves said. “He looks like a trained artist—which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s great at getting the likeness. But given how little time he’s got, I think he does a pretty amazing job.”
“I think for drawing in general, it appeals to people because it seems so immediate,” Reaves said. “I think you do get that from some of these images that I’m looking at. And that’s eye-catching. Which is ironic. It’s only because photography is so ubiquitous—and becomes even more so with social media.”
In the age of Instagram filtering and tidily maintained profile photos, it’s helpful and bracing to see a familiar face come back to life, or to liveliness. Like the drawing of me: Okay, I may not look like a septuagenarian yet, but McCutcheon captured a heaviness in my eyelids that I never noticed before. The collection at Daily Drawings is so arresting, perhaps, because of the way Washington is used to seeing itself—and the way the rest of us are used to seeing these personalities lined up in a neat column of smiling Twitter avatars flowing down our web browser. There is the old joke that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people—but in its own meticulous presentation it can look more like one giant Sunday show roundtable, everyone powdered and styled, smiling. Until someone starts really looking. Drawings are always the most direct representation of what the artist sees, Reaves said, because “there’s no equipment in between. There are no layers or glazes or over-painting or shutters or anything else.”
It’s not clear that unmasking Washington is anything close to McCutcheon’s goal, even though he succeeds at it. He seems just to be looking for people to sketch. And in any case, he certainly doesn’t think the guests on C-SPAN are all that important. Molly Ball had spoken for many of us when she admitted that “I suppose I was a bit flattered that someone had mistaken me for some kind of celebrity.” But that’s not how McCutcheon sees it: “I rarely if ever draw anybody that’s famous,” he said.
Reid Cherlin is a contributor to GQ and a former White House spokesman.