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

Mark Kistler, aka Commander Mark, stars in a new documentary, <em>The Secret Cities of Mark Kistler</em>, that tells the story of Kistler's legacy and how it all happened.
Corgan Pictures
Mark Kistler, aka Commander Mark, stars in a new documentary, The Secret Cities of Mark Kistler, that tells the story of Kistler's legacy and how it all happened.

Commander Mark had big bright eyes and a wide mustachioed smile big enough to match his magnetic persona. He wore bright red military coveralls with a bandoleer filled with — not bullets, but magic markers.

His catchphrase was "Dream it. Draw it. Do it." Back in the 1980s and early '90s, millions of children tuned in to PBS to watch Commander Mark create magical worlds with his pen, teaching them how to draw along the way.

And 40 years later, a new documentary — The Secret Cities of Mark Kistler — tells the story of Mark Kistler, the artist behind the shows The Secret City, Draw Squad and Imagination Station.

Born in Ohio, Mark Kistler grew up in Southern California, the youngest of five kids with a single mother who worked as a nurse. He says his mom encouraged him to follow his passion for art early on, buying him art supplies and letting him turn his bedroom closet into a tiny art studio.

He loved Disney animations and dreamed of becoming an animator. Then, as a teenager, he began teaching drawing workshops for kids, through his local parks and rec programming. There, he fell in love with teaching art and came up with a goal to teach a million kids to draw.

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. "If you can write your name, you can draw," he says.

But how would he reach that goal? After all, he says, he was just a broke kid with a dream.

One day he was in an art store and noticed a rack of VHS tapes with titles like "How to Paint" and "How to Sculpt." He didn't see one that said "How to Draw." He went to his local public television station to see if they'd give him a shot at hosting such a program. No way, they said.

He didn't give up. In New York, he met with PBS producers, who also said no. They wanted a show about painting for kids, to ride the coattails of Bob Ross. Kistler pushed back on that idea, pointing out that paint was not as accessible to kids as a pencil and paper. Eventually, they let him try out his idea.

Kistler's shows and subsequent how-to books, like You Can Draw in 30 Days, teach drawing fundamentals using a step-by-step approach based on copying and tracing. It differs from more traditional art classes that teach drawing from observation, or "realistic" art, but these methods are based on principles of drawing developed by the Renaissance masters.

In his approach, kids learn about composition, shading, foreshortening and other techniques in a fun environment that emphasizes practice over perfection.

All of this is done with a generous dose of showmanship and lessons about attitude.

In fact, watching Mark Kistler is kind of like listening to a self-improvement audiobook: "You can do this!" He believes drawing is the way to visualize and achieve your life goals.

Kistler's style is certainly fun and encouraging, but is it just a gimmick or does it really teach kids how to draw? Is drawing really a skill, not a talent, like Commander Mark espoused?

I asked Seymour Simmons, a retired professor of art and art education at Winthrop University in South Carolina, who wrote a textbook about the history of drawing.

Simmons says drawing is an intuitive process that captures momentary brain processes and records them. He, too, believes it is a skill, not a talent, that humans have used to communicate for thousands of years, since they began making marks on cave walls long before formal written language.

And if it is a skill, he believes it is something that should be taught. But there are many ways to teach drawing:

"Drawing is observation, drawing is invention, drawing is self-expression, drawing is problem-solving," he explains. "Drawing is a visual language."

Simmons says Mark Kistler has a great approach to drawing as ideation and invention. As Simmons puts it, "It's a discipline, but it should be fun."

For his part, Kistler believes that it helps to have a positive attitude when learning a new skill. Or as Commander Mark would put it: "Wave bye-bye to the stress bus."

That's the reason he created his character, and the cosmic world around him, so many years ago. He wanted to create a safe place for kids to try something new, mess up and not be afraid to try again. All so they could put to paper what was in their minds.

And thanks to that young 18-year-old who wanted to teach the world to draw, many children across the globe — kids like me — got his message and fell in love with drawing, too. We followed along with Commander Mark at home, drawing goofy toucans, birthday cakes and castles.

His hope from the start was that his lessons might lay the groundwork for future engineers or scientists to design solutions to something big.

The whole point of education, Kistler believes, is to teach students to become problem-solvers. And he's worried that arts education is sometimes forgotten, especially in times of budget cuts. "Science, technology, engineering and math are all very noble pursuits," he says, "but you've got to have that creativity."

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LA Johnson is an art director and illustrator at NPR. She joined in 2014 and has a BFA from The Savannah College of Art and Design.