Restaurant Placemats


When I was a young lad and my family went to a restaurant (often diners and pizza or burger joints), frequently there were paper placemats at the table. Being a human who drew incessantly, I viewed placemats as both sources of free paper and good excuses/opportunities to make a drawing. My mother would dig around in her big, old purse and produce a blue or black “Bic” ballpoint pen for me to use. I would attack the placemat with obsessive focus while being careful of the wet spots from sweating glasses of ice water or spilled clumps of sauce or food. Most of my drawings were of robots, strange vehicles, bizarre creatures or random abstract patterns. It was a bit of a race to finish by the end of the meal. Sometimes I would fold the paper up and bring it home when we left, but often I left the drawings and always wondered: What do the servers think of these drawings? Do they keep them, or do they just throw them away?

(Click on individual images to enlarge)


Step-by-step process for Restaurant Placemat No. 7 (Creative displacement), 2017


Fast-forward almost forty years to the present and I’m still incessantly drawing on every paper placemat (or most any random scrap of paper) I encounter. Beyond an enduring drawing obsession, I have a few reasons for continuing (and expanding upon) the practice:

  • It’s always a good idea to share art with people, especially if they’re not expecting it.
  • Creative situations with specific parameters are good. It’s fun to push the limits and to discover as many possibilities withing a given set of constraints as possible. Being pushed in surprising or unexpected directions is the best outcome of any creative endeavor.
  • Don’t pass up free paper.
  • It’s a refreshing challenge to make art in public, non-art-related spaces because you have to use creative problem-solving to make it work. Unexpected problems/challenges lead to unexpected and more challenging/stimulating outcomes.
  • Stretch the boundaries of what a piece of art is or can be. For example, are these placemat pieces simply drawings, or are they performances (because they’re being made in front of people) or are they photos within an online conceptual art project (because the final images are photos shared on social media)? Or are all of these at once?
  • Art does not have to be just for studios, galleries and museums. Take and/or make art outside of the exclusive and sometimes stifling art spaces. Put it all around us, share it, spread it–make connections, build communities, spark ideas and make art on placemats in low-brow diners (enjoy the meal!).

Step-by-Step Example:

Restaurant Placemat No. 6 (A particulate cloud of smoke), 2017


Restaurant Placemat Series Formula:

  1. Go to a restaurant (probably a cheap one) that uses paper placemats. A little hole-in-the-wall Thai place is a good option.
  2. Get out a drawing tool of your choice; a single ball point pen is preferred, as the ink is water resistant.
  3. Assess your surroundings for interesting visual motifs or ideas. Also consider your current state of being and inclinations. From these, choose a simple idea or subject matter for a drawing (repetition works well).
  4. Begin sketching on your placemat as quickly and inconspicuously as you can, so as to be done by the time your food arrives. If people around you notice and make comments, smile and answer their questions cheerfully and briefly.
  5. Let the server put the plate of food directly over your drawing. Eat your meal with as much gusto as you can muster. If food spills on your drawing, this is good–enjoy the serendipity.
  6. Don’t let restaurant employees see this next step, as it might worry them. Once you’ve eaten and your plate is gone, take a glass of water (tea is okay) and carefully spill enough to inundate your whole drawing. If you’ve used ballpoint ink, nothing will smear. If you’ve used water-based ink, enjoy the smearing.
  7. With your fingers and/or the tip of your pen, carefully tear the wet placemat away from the edges of your drawing until it’s free. You’ll find the wet, thin paper tears easily. This is a little tricky, so go slow.
  8. With a napkin wipe the table down (except for your drawing) and put any trash on a plate or in a trash bin. In other words, don’t leave a mess.
  9. Take a photo of your drawing on the table and post to Instagram or other social media site.
  10. Finally, either leave the drawing for someone to enjoy or peal it off the table and put it in your sketchbook.

A Variation on the Formula:

Restaurant Placemat #2 (Spiral over Weed, CA), 2015