Learn to draw with Mark Kistler A new documentary celebrates how millions of children learned the power of drawing from PBS television art educator Mark Kistler.

Learning to love to draw with Commander Mark, the Bob Ross of drawing

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If you were a kid in the 1980s or early '90s watching PBS, you might recognize this voice.


MARK KISTLER: You got your pencil ready. You have your paper out in front of you, right? OK, we're ready to draw today.

SUMMERS: That's Mark Kistler, or Commander Mark, as he's known to fans. He's the creator of several PBS children's television shows, including "The Secret City," and he's also the author of many books on drawing. He is like the Bob Ross of drawing. Now there's a new documentary film out about Kistler's life and work. LA Johnson, an art director and illustrator at NPR, sat down with Kistler to discuss the power of the pencil.


KISTLER: Hi. I'm Commander Mark, and this is "The Secret City."

LA JOHNSON, BYLINE: Commander Mark had big, bright eyes and a wide, mustachioed smile that were like a magnet to me.


KISTLER: Isn't drawing fun? It really captivates you and gets you moving.

JOHNSON: Dressed in bright red military coveralls with a bandolier filled with markers, he created magical worlds with his pen.


KISTLER: It was this just eruption of energy on the screen.

JOHNSON: The new documentary "The Secret Cities Of Mark Kistler" takes us back to the '80s, where it all began. It tells the story of how the shows were built and their legacy.


KISTLER: We wanted to create a safe place for kids they could travel to in their imaginations.

JOHNSON: Born in Ohio, Mark Kistler grew up in Southern California. At 18 years old, he fell in love with teaching art.


KISTLER: Now, I'm going to let you decide...

JOHNSON: And over time, he came up with a goal to teach a million kids to draw.


KISTLER: What kind of texture I should use on the design right here. I can use small little circles or squares.

JOHNSON: It didn't seem a crazy idea, he says, because he really believed anyone could draw. Forty years later, he told me he still believes it.

KISTLER: You can draw. If you can write your name, you can draw.

JOHNSON: Chatting with Mark Kistler is kind of like listening to a self-improvement audiobook. You can do this, is his messaging. He believes drawing is the way to visualize and achieve your life goals, and he's even got a handy catch phrase.

KISTLER: Dream it. Draw it. Do it.

JOHNSON: Kistler teaches drawing fundamentals using a step-by-step approach based on copying and tracing. It differs from classical art classes that teach drawing from observation or realistic art. All of this is done with a generous dose of showmanship and lessons about attitude.


KISTLER: This is fun, huh? Don't you get in a good mood when you start to draw? So you're becoming much more confident. I've noticed that.

JOHNSON: Kistler's style is certainly fun and encouraging, but I wondered, is it just a gimmick, or does it really teach kids how to draw?

SEYMOUR SIMMONS: There's lots and lots of ways to teach drawing. There's not one correct way.

JOHNSON: Seymour Simmons is a retired professor of art and art education from Winthrop University in South Carolina.

SIMMONS: Drawing is observation. Drawing is invention. Drawing is self-expression. Drawing is problem-solving. Drawing is a visual language. There's so many different methods.

JOHNSON: One thing common to all of them, he notes, is that learning to draw is a discipline, but it also needs to be fun. And that's where Commander Mark comes in.

SIMMONS: Mark Kistler has a fabulous approach to the drawing as ideation and invention.

JOHNSON: Kistler says all of this is super important at a time when arts education is often a victim of budget cuts and so much of the emphasis in education is about STEM.

KISTLER: Science and technology and engineering and math - all very noble and important pursuits. But without the art, how can you solve the problems? You have to get that creativity.

JOHNSON: And as if to prove his point, while we're talking, Mark Kistler makes an unusual request.

KISTLER: Can we do a drawing together? I wanted to draw this toucan with you.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think we can.


JOHNSON: I see Kistler change as he slips into teacher mode...

KISTLER: See what I'm doing?

JOHNSON: ...And switches over to a script in his head that he's honed over four decades.

KISTLER: I love this toucan. So I'll start down here at the bottom of my page.

JOHNSON: I'll admit it. At first, I feel a little silly drawing this. This cartoon toucan is a bug-eyed, fluffy little guy sitting on a tree branch.

KISTLER: I want to draw the toucan beak coming way out. So look at this.

JOHNSON: I have an art degree. But my inner child artist is giddy.

KISTLER: The first step I mention to the students is to draw really light. We're going to do layer upon layer of detail.

JOHNSON: Pretty quickly, we both start to relax and loosen up, and I remember it doesn't matter how it looks. It's the act of drawing that holds power.

KISTLER: It doesn't have to be perfect. Remember, no stress, no stress. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Wave goodbye to the stress bus. Bye-bye.

JOHNSON: I humbly wave bye-bye to the stress bus and my ego and lighten up. Hey, even us pros can get stuck in our heads.

KISTLER: Here, hold up your drawing. Let me see it. Hold it up to the...

JOHNSON: Yeah, it's getting there.

KISTLER: Yes. Oh, that's so awesome. You're really developing true pencil power. Pencil power - that's right.

JOHNSON: Gimmick or not, after 15 minutes drawing with Mark, I felt great. Because no matter what stage you're at, beginning or professional, we could all use a little encouragement. LA Johnson, NPR News.


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