Saturday, September 30, 2023

Green Ash at Whole Foods


9/23/23 Whole Foods parking lot, Roosevelt neighborhood

Every autumn I admire the trees surrounding the Roosevelt Whole Foods parking lot when they change from their usual lime green to a brilliant lemon yellow. I always intend to sketch them, but whenever I’m there, the car is full of groceries, and I put it off – and the next thing I know, the leaves are all on the ground.

This year I put them on my leaf-peeping walking tour. On the overcast morning when I sketched them, that lemon hue put sunshine back into the gray sky. The PlantNet app identified the trees as green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica).

Palette thoughts: Although I had a lot of fun last fall experimenting with different secondary triads, I’ve decided not to tie myself to a specific triad this season. One reason is that yellow is an important color to have for some fall trees, like these. Instead of a triad, my general rule of thumb will be to simply stick with a limited palette by using no more than three or four colors at a time. (I think I broke that rule only once in the four sketches I showed yesterday.)

My current pencil palette may look like a random rainbow, but it’s actually fairly methodical (plus a little idiosyncratic): My favorite CMY primary triad (Caran d’Ache Phthalocyanine Blue 162, Purplish Red 350, Yellow 010) and a secondary triad including both a very warm green and a very cool green (Caran d’Ache Cornelian 850, Light Olive 245; Derwent Iron Green 1310, Dusky Purple 730). To those, I added two “convenience” colors: Caran d’Ache Scarlet 070 and Gold Cadmium Yellow 530 (AKA heavy-equipment yellow). It’s a versatile palette that should get me through any urban sketch I’m likely to make this fall.

Green ash foliage

I do find Phthalocyanine Blue a little too warm for Seattle skies (except in summer), but it’s my favorite in primary triads, and I don’t want to carry two blues. Strangely, even though it’s a primary, blue is not very useful for the way I like to sketch. I find dark violet to be more versatile.

Friday, September 29, 2023

A Walking Leaf-Peeping Tour


9/13/23 Japanese maple, Maple Leaf neighborhood

Now that I’m doing so much more of my urban sketching at locations I get to by foot, my annual leaf-peeping tour has become a walking tour (at least partly). Although I’m dazzled by trees at their peak of color, I especially enjoy catching trees at this early stage when the reds and oranges pop against still mostly green foliage.

With that in mind, I swapped out my default dark green (Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle Dark Phthalocyanine Green 719), which I was still using in the Sept. 13 sketch (at left), for a much cooler dark green (Derwent Inktense Iron Green 1310) used in the other three. It’s a lovely cool green for Pacific Northwest firs, but possibly too cool as a shadow color for deciduous trees. I really liked it, though, as the green in the secondary triad I used in Columbia City last week. Mixed with dark violet, it’s a lively shade color.

9/18/23 Green Lake neighborhood

9/19/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

9/21/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

The current fall palette

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Eye-Searing Bag and Sketch Kit Update

My latest Rickshaw bag in eye-searing orange for fall! (Field Notes shown for scale)

Although I frequently discuss materials I’m using, and I’ve mentioned issues that have come up since I committed to using a smaller bag, it has been quite a while since I wrote a post specifically on my bag and sketch kit. I recently bought a new mini-size Rickshaw Zero Messenger Bag for the change of the season, which is as good an occasion as any for this post.

These two older bags show the size difference.
Left: "Small" Rickshaw messenger bag; right: "mini" size.
First, I want to summarize various mumblings I’ve made about using a smaller daily-carry bag. After nearly a decade of using Rickshaw’s messenger bag in the “small” size as my everyday-carry, I started using the smaller mini size at the beginning of the pandemic. Since I was hardly going anywhere except on daily walks and occasional errands, I didn’t need to carry as much. I also began sketching more while taking walks, so using the smaller bag as my simplified sketch bag made sense.

After I started going out more again, I used the larger bag at sketch outings and other occasions when I wanted to bring a larger sketchbook, but I still took the mini on fitness walks. (Switching bags constantly was a dangerous business – I left behind my entire wallet once, including my driver’s license, when I drove across town for a sketch outing.) 

Eventually, I realized that the mini bag had become my daily-carry without much conscious effort on my part. I just found myself using the larger bag less and less, and when I did, it felt heavy and cumbersome. I enjoyed the freedom and lighter weight of the mini, whether I was fitness walking or not.

It took me a long time to judiciously pare down my sketch materials, but I knew I was ready. I finally put the larger bags away and made the full commitment to the mini. Now, when I’m in the mood for a larger sketchbook, or on those rare occasions when I use watercolors in the field, I simply grab a tote bag as a supplement. (Ironically, I made the same decision nine years ago when I was considering various bag options for travel – but that time, the tote was a supplement to my larger Rickshaw bag! I’ve come a long way since then, and my shoulder thanks me for it.)

On to the new bag: For the coming wet months, I chose Rickshaw’s waterproof Xpac fabric for the exterior in eyeball-searing Orange Flo! I’ve already had comments from friends as well as strangers on the street about the high-viz color, which makes me feel safer when walking.

Over-exposed in this image, the bag looks more yellow-orange than it really is. The photo at the top of post shows the color more accurately. But I wouldn't mind a bag in this yellow-orange, too! 

Fuchsia interior and trim

Two A6-size sketchbooks, materials, glasses take up the larger compartment.

As you can see from the bird
s-eye view, my two pairs of prescription glasses (regular and shades) take up a substantial portion of the interior’s larger compartment, which is unfortunate, but I haven’t figured out a way to slim those down. The front pocket holds my phone, a Field Notes notebook, keys and a mask. The only other non-sketching item I carry is my tiny Rickshaw snap wallet (which, other than the bag itself, is my most essential Rickshaw product).

Switching from an A5-size sketchbook (a size I had been using most of my sketching life) to an A6 that is half the size was probably my most radical change in materials. My current favorites are an A6 Hahnemühle sketchbook and a similar size Uglybook.

Hahnemuhle 100% cotton watercolor book and Uglybook, both A6, are my everyday-carry sketchbooks. (Stickers by Angelope Design, Dapper Notes, Rickshaw Bags)

A lot of sketching goes into small books!

My other sketch materials are a bit of a snooze. Other than changing out the colored pencils frequently, the basic materials haven’t changed much in a long time. My rule is that everything except the
Derwent water spritzer must fit into the Rickshaw pencil case. (The one I’m using is a prototype that was never produced. It’s slightly larger than the standard Waldo field case, which is made to hold a Field Notes-size sketchbook.)

Total weight of the mini bag and contents is 2 pounds, 9 ounces. My larger Rickshaw, at its most recent weigh-in in December 2019 after a big diet, was 3 pounds, 10 ounces (according to my minimalism challenge blog post, before the diet, the bag weighed 4 pounds, 2 ounces).

Today's selection. The colors change frequently, but most other materials remain consistent.

My rule is that all materials except the spritzer must fit in this Rickshaw case.

That’s it – as lean and mean as can be! It’s probably not a sketch kit or even a bag size that most sketchers would willingly use, but it suits my standing sketching style and fitness-walking routine. In other words, it affirms my blog’s tagline: Urban sketching: It’s not a hobby; it's a lifestyle.

Waterproof? Check!

The urban sketching lifestyle! (photo by Kate Buike)

Free goodies from Rickshaw with my bag order!

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Backyard Raccoon (and Failed Whiskers)

9/20/23 Bic ballpoint in Uglybook sketchbook
(reference photo by Greg Mullin)
Last week when we were eating lunch on the deck, our regular blue-feathered friends didn’t show up, but a new beggar did: a youngish raccoon. Smaller and slimmer than other raccoons we’ve occasionally seen in the neighborhood, this one seemed to be missing most of its tail. Getting up on its hind legs, looking up at us optimistically, it entertained us for quite a while. Comfortable around humans, it had perfected its adorable begging stance for maximum payoff in treats. (I know I’m not supposed to feed them, but I couldn’t resist tossing one peanut.) I wanted to make a portrait first, but I’ll probably make another sketch sometime showing the raccoon’s full stance.

Ratty bear abandoned.

Process notes
: This wasn’t my first attempt at sketching the raccoon. A couple of evenings earlier, I had begun a sketch from the same reference photo but abandoned it when I realized that the space between the eyes and other proportions were way off (shown at left). Even without looking at the photo you can probably see that it isn’t right – the face looks ratty or bear-like. (Hmmm, I’m having déjà vu . . . maybe I just have trouble with raccoons.)

In Gary Faigin’s portraiture workshop several years ago, he advised us to begin with the shape of the head first before adding facial form and features. I usually have proportional problems with this technique; my results are better when I begin with a feature (usually the eyes) and build the rest of the face and head around it. That’s usually what I do with all the Earthsworld portraits I’ve been making. With the raccoon, I thought I’d challenge myself by beginning with the head shape, so I blocked that in first. Sure enough, I got into trouble.

When I tried again, I began with the eyes instead of the whole head, and my proportions were more accurate. I’d like to learn to make portraits the “right” (or classical) way, but I seem to do much better this way.

Failed whisker technique: In both graphite and colored pencil classes, I’ve learned a trick that I call the “whisker technique” (or, if you prefer botanicals to animals, the “leaf vein technique”). To make thin, white lines such as whiskers or veins, use a stylus or other instrument to score the paper. Then apply graphite or pigment to the area, and the incised lines will remain white. Since I’ve used this technique successfully with both colored pencils and graphite, I wondered if it would work with ballpoint ink, too? I’ve always thought of the Bic as “the pencil of pens” because its unique ink is pressure-sensitive and builds in layers, just like pencils. It was worth a try.

Unfortunately, when I tried it on the raccoon, it didn’t work. Afterwards, I made a more formal swatch study (below) to see if I could either make it work or figure out why it doesn’t work. It looks like the ballpoint pen nib is so fine that ink is able to be applied inside the incised lines. With graphite, I used the side of the pencil point, which could skip over the incised lines more easily.

The "pencil of pens" isn't quite pencil enough.

A well-rehearsed begging stance for maximum treats.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023



9/17/23 Astra's forked trunk

Only blocks from Luma, the tree that was saved by public concern, stands another western red cedar in the Wedgwood neighborhood. Named “Astra” by its supporters, it’s on the edge of a lot where a new housing development is coming. The developer has submitted a permit to cut down this healthy, 100-year-old tree, and according to city code, the tree should be protected. But codes are not always enforced, especially when developers apply pressure. Architects have shown that different designs are possible that would enable the development to be built while retaining the tree.

In photos I saw, Astra has a distinctive forked trunk that I wanted to capture, but most of it was dark and hidden behind a fence. I couldn’t show it well in my sketch, so instead, I walked down the block to get the tree’s full height. Lush and perfectly symmetrical, it’s such a beautiful tree that it’s difficult to imagine choosing to destroy it when other design solutions are possible.

9/17/23 Astra stands tall in the Wedgwood neighborhood

Monday, September 25, 2023

Still Growing


9/16/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Last October, Kate and I sketched Maple Leaf’s biggest pumpkin at the neighborhood’s most exciting event of the year. The two neighbors who had a friendly pumpkin competition then are growing more this year. With Halloween still more than a month away, the biggest one, Jack Skellington, already weighs 775 pounds! According to a sign nearby, Jack was planted on May 19 and pollinated on July 7. I plan to sketch him again at his peak, but on a recent walk, I decided Jack was already worth sketching.

As I sketched, the intoxicating scent of ripe grapes from the nearby vine filled the air. I heard rustling among the grape leaves, and a tiny mouse poked its head out. It was such a delightfully fall-ish scene that I embraced it fully with no remaining bittersweetness about summer’s end. Of course, it helped to be sketching in a T-shirt when it was 67 and sunny.

By the way, as any self-respecting pumpkin is, Jack Skellington is on Instagram.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Art and History in Columbia City


9/22/23 Ark Lodge Cinemas, Columbia City

Spirit of Washington at Columbia Park

With days of clouds and rain ahead on the forecast, USk Seattle may have gotten the last of the sunshine for a while on a beautiful Equinox morning last Friday. Meandering around the Columbia City neighborhood, I stumbled upon a sculpture I hadn’t noticed before in Columbia Park. Called Spirit of Washington, the 16-foot sculpture by Quinault and Isleta-Pueblo artist Marvin Oliver “takes the form of a dorsal fin of an orca whale depicting Salish symbols of power and rebirth,” according to the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. Instead of hitting it face-on, I went around to the side where I could catch the strong shadow it was casting (at left).

On Rainier Avenue South, Columbia City’s main drag, an old Regency Revival style building with Ionic columns (yes, I had to look it up – I don’t know squat about architectural styles) caught my eye. It turned out to be a 1921 Masonic Lodge that has been operating as the Ark Lodge Cinemas since 2012. (One of the films it was showing was Barbie – I couldn’t resist that pink B.) Columbia City has no shortage of historical buildings.

The problem was that the noon sun was nearly directly overhead, so both sides of the building were in the shade. Of course, just as I was finishing the sketch, the sun came around and put some nice bits of light on the building’s front façade. (What happened was a corollary to Murphy’s Laws of Urban Sketching No. 5: The light you were hoping for will appear just as you finish a sketch.)

On a September day when the weather could go either way, however, I had nothing to complain about!

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