Notes on Drawing on Napkins

From 2012:

I have been drawing pictures on napkins for my sons' lunch boxes every night for the last six years. I usually get requests, although they are sometimes hard to fulfill- "I want Nightwing and Kid Flash blowing up the Brotherhood of Evil while Batman and Superman watch." 

I started out drawing simple pictures in black Sharpie on a nice big Vanity Fair napkin for Archer's nursery school lunches. I wanted to reassure him and to win him some additional attention at lunch- perhaps his teacher would have to read the message to him and then they could talk about what interested him about the character in the drawing. I tried to draw characters from the books we were reading at home, but those were often upstaged by Archer's obsessions with movie and TV characters and other pop culture detritus. We went thru months of "Draw me driving with Lightning MacQueen!" or "Draw Chicken Little having Gatorade poured over his head!" (Archer's favorite scene at 3 years old from the widely panned Disney movie)

As Archer blossomed into a boy obsessed with Star Wars and all thing related to guns, fighting, and violence in general, producing an image that satisfied him but would still be acceptable to pull out of a lunch box at a Quaker school became challenging. Luke and Darth Vader embraced proclaiming non-violent conflict resolution and Wolverine used his claws to skewer broccoli florets, but his Pre-K teacher was not fooled. She expressed her disapproval by refusing to read him the text to anything that had even a whiff of pop culture or conflict. She suggested that insects, animals and plants should tell him to have a good lunch, not Star Wars characters.

The teacher reception seems a bit more friendly in recent years. Superheros have been able to clutch their trademark weapons, even without healthy foods impaled on the ends without negative comment from teachers. I made a special guest appearance in Ansel's classroom to draw each child a personalized napkin. There had not been an opportunity to draw a princess since Ansel discovered that boys are not supposed to like princesses over a year ago. Every girl in the class requested a Disney princess with the exception of one who wanted a pegasus. The boys were predictably divided among Star Wars and Thomas the Tank Engine. For the following two weeks, the kids in the class continued to draw on napkins with Sharpies as if that was some widely approved set of art materials for four year olds. 

Our napkins usually come back home along with all the uneaten food. They are sometimes crumpled and a little spotty, but usually in fairly good condition.  Neither child used them for their original purpose anymore.  Archer, tells me, "oh, I only use the napkin to get attention, I just wipe my hands on my clothes." We have boxes and boxes of hundreds of returned napkins at home. They enjoy looking through them, revisiting their previous obsessions day by day, and leaving masses of crumpled napkins all over the apartment.

What started out as a brief nightly maternal indulgence for one child is now a sizable full color entitlement for two. I've amassed a huge collection of colored Sharpies, and have even resorted to buying pricey illustration markers for those shades that the Sharpie company does not provide. My sons' expectations are high, and they are rarely satisfied: "Mom! Red X's costume has gauntlets, and that's not the version of Robin that I wanted, Tim Drake, not Dick Grayson!" Occasionally, I come up with just the right combination of Batman and Ace the Bat Hound, and the lunchtime recipient actually tells me that he is pleased, but this is exceedingly rare. I try to avoid showing them the day's napkins before we head off school or camp, because most likely revisions or a complete do-over will be demanded. I gather, however, once they are at school and I am not around to berate, that the napkins are still doing their job of providing reassurance that Mom is thinking about them, and giving them something to attract the attention of their teachers and peers. During the height of Archer's long running obsession with the Pokemon trading card game, he was apparently able to console himself that even if he did not have a particularly desirable character card, at least he had a drawing of one on his napkin. In the first and second grade, this seemed to be good enough.  Now that he is in third grade, he is more interested in demonstrating that he is up on the latest cool (and probably age inappropriate) video game.

While I have certainly produced hundreds of drawings that are often destined to sop up excess condensation in lunchboxes mostly to gratify my children, I find it a not completely useless activity in relation to my own interests. I have always been a bit lazy about drawing, and now I have an enforced drawing session every evening. The images that I am cribbing from are in most cases not what you might call "fine art"... although there are exceptions of course. But there is usually something to be learned even from the animation on Danny Phantom or the Teen Titans. Rendering a piece of Star Wars hardware convincingly is always an interesting challenge. The combination of indelible marker and easily shredding napkin surface is quite unforgiving of hesitation and has made my drawing more definite. And the act of drawing something for them every evening reminds me to pay attention to what they are thinking about, even if it is the 50th rendition of Batman.



  1. Replies
    1. I couldn't have written it any better.

  2. I am blown away! As an aspiring illustrator with 2 kids I think this is a great way, as you said, to force you to draw each day. Kids can make life a little too hectic for a daily drawing session!

  3. Thanks Sarah. My drawing has certainly improved in the last 6 years...perhaps not as much as it should have, but I can always blame the unforgiving medium. Good luck with your work.

  4. These are incredible! In addition to the sharpies, are you using prismacolors?

  5. These are just incredible. Please tell me you don't ever throw them away.

  6. I have been trying to slowly shift to (expensive) Copic markers as they are refillable, and maybe less toxic.
    Lately, the napkins come home in pretty good shape, so it is pretty rare that one gets thrown away.

  7. You are awesome. I'm inspired.

  8. This is the greatest thing I've ever seen. Thank you for being awesome! :D

  9. What you do is so precious! Your kids are very blessed and you are very talented

  10. It looks as though you blend colors from darker to lighter shades with no distinct lines of delineation. How do you blend sharpies from dark to light gradations? As you can tell, I don't have a lot of experience. I'm just an enthusiastic beginner.

  11. Other art markers blend more easily than sharpies. Anything with enough solvent in it will blend, and of course, colors that are quite similar are easier to run together.