Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Small Box, Part 2: Sketchbookless and Primary Palette

2/18/19 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils on reused cardboard 

Once in a while I’ll see sketches shared on social media that are done on unconventional supports. Australian urban sketcher Peter Rush is well known for his sketches made on cardboard packaging (like cereal and cracker boxes). And other sketchers are even more spontaneous, using things like maps and brochures when they travel. I thoroughly enjoy the look of these drawings, especially travel sketches done on related ephemera. In fact, every time I travel, I have the intention in the back of my mind to do one or two sketches on a brochure about something I’ve experienced in that country, but somehow I always forget when I’m there.

As I’ve learned during my annual sketch kit diets, the tools I choose integrally depend on the sketchbook paper I choose. It turns into a complicated business: If I choose toned paper, then I need a white pencil and a tonal marker or two. If I choose a toothy watercolor paper, then I won’t enjoy using graphite on it. If I decide on thin, smooth Bristol, then I might as well forget about water-soluble pencils.

Yesterday you saw my pencil box from Portugal filled with my most beloved, most essential sketch supplies: four pencils (one graphite, three colored), one brush pen, one waterbrush, an eraser and a sharpener. Those items were chosen without regard to paper because I decided to see how basic I could be – a sketch kit that could work on any paper. Today I’m showing the results of my experiments sketching only on paper I found in my recycle bin.

2/18/19 Zebra brush pen on envelope
The apple sketch (top of post) was made on the inside of a light cardboard box that contained greeting cards for inkjet printing. It was the heaviest piece of paper in my bin, so I thought it would be the best bet for using a little water. The activated pigments in the Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle colored pencils sunk quickly into the cardboard’s unsized surface, so the hues aren’t as vibrant as they would be on watercolor paper. Otherwise, however, the smooth surface wasn’t unpleasant to apply pencil to, and the paper certainly didn’t buckle (and if I had only thinner paper, I could simply use colored pencils without water).

Next, I used the envelope a utility bill came in with the Zebra brush pen to draw Weather Bunny. Sometimes I like making simple line drawings with a marker, and the Zebra works well on almost any paper without bleeding, so I knew it would be fine.

2/18/19 Blackwing pencil on inkjet printer paper
Finally, I wanted to do a simple graphite sketch of the view from my studio roof window. Graphite pencil, of course, works on almost anything. I used the back of a discarded sheet of ordinary inkjet printer paper.

Obviously, these were just fun experiments; I have no intention of giving up my self-made or purchased sketchbooks. It was a good exercise, though, to prove to myself that the materials I chose for my pencil box are perfectly sufficient for all the ways I like to sketch – and they can be used on whatever paper is at hand. (I’m going to make a greater effort to try this when I’m traveling.)

How about that primary palette I chose? A big lesson I learned from last month’s minimalism challenge was that a secondary palette, though fresh and exciting, can be too limited. While predictable, a more basic primary palette is more versatile. It’s ideal for a honey crisp apple, and it’s probably also sufficient for urban sketching. That’s as yet untested, though; maybe when the trees start to leaf in a few months and it warms up, I’ll take this minimal kit, including this primary palette, outdoors for more experiments.
Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle primary palette

Imagine the freedom of traveling with only these eight implements and paper gathered along the way. . . .

Can you imagine traveling with a sketch kit this simple. . . ?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Small Box, Part 1: The Materials

The pencil box I bought in Lisbon.

When I was a little girl, I had a small, transparent plastic box that I filled with the kinds of things little girls like to collect: polished rocks, shells, a penny with my birth year, a foreign coin from someone’s exotic holiday, a blue eraser shaped like an elephant (with glued-on googly eyes). It was that wondrous, simple time of life when all of one’s most valued possessions would fit in a small plastic box.

Now that I’m at the age when I not only don’t need any new possessions but I’m also working hard to get rid of the ones I own, I look back on that time wistfully. Of course, you know how much I love my art materials and having lots and lots of choices; I’m not ready to give up all of that. But you also know how often I think about which sketch supplies I would (hypothetically) take to Gilligan’s Island. And you know how I enjoy challenging myself each winter by paring down my sketch kit to the bare minimum. Despite how much joy my art materials spark, some part of me still has the desire to fit all my most valued possessions in a small box.

When I was in Portugal last summer, I bought a wooden, slide-top pencil box from a stationery shop in Lisbon. It’s been empty since I brought it home because I couldn’t decide what to put in it. I don’t have a collection or set of anything small enough to fit, and I didn’t like the idea of simply filling it with a bunch of random pencils or pens, so I left it empty, thinking that I would eventually find the right thing.

On a recent rainy morning, just after we had given to charity another load of stuff from our house, I started looking around my studio with the perpetual question: What is the absolute smallest sketch kit I could have and still be happy? A kit so small that it would fit in the box from Portugal?

Shown here is that morning’s answer: One Blackwing pencil, one Zebra waterproof brush pen, a Kuretake waterbrush, three Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils (primary colors), an M+R pencil sharpener, and a kneadable eraser.

As you might guess, each item was very carefully considered, but since I had only recently ended my month-long minimalism challenge, the lessons learned were still fresh in my mind, so it didn’t take long. The biggest difference compared to that challenge was that I chose a primary palette instead of secondary (which is visually exciting but more limiting).
The art supplies I value most.

I’m sure I could have jammed a few more items into the box, but as an act of discipline, I allowed myself only a single layer of implements. Everything is visible and fully accessible without removing anything else first. This small pencil box of my most essential tools sparks endless joy. I’m keeping it on my desk as a visual reminder that it doesn’t take much to keep me artistically happy.

But wait – what about a sketchbook? The fact is, the world (and certainly my house) is full of paper of all kinds without ever opening a sketchbook. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll show you the results of my sketchbookless experiments and also show my primary palette at work.

Sparking much joy!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Painterly Lessons

2/13/19 Caran d'Ache Supracolor pencils (all sketches in Stillman & Birn Beta)

In my efforts to practice a more painterly approach to using watercolor pencils, I’ve learned a few things that weren’t as apparent to me when I took a more pencil-ly approach (for lack of a better term).

For one thing, to take a painterly approach, it’s vital that the pencils contain a generous amount of pigment. When using them dry or in a series of dry-wet/dry-wet applications (the method I learned in Suzanne’s class), pencils can contain a mediocre level of pigment and still produce acceptable results because more layers can be applied. But after applying a wetter brush load of water, it’s more difficult to continue applying many more layers of dry pigment, so the initial application had better be fairly heavy. This approach suits me fine, as it’s what I’m used to when out in the field: I like to apply as much pigment as possible in one shot and activate only once.
2/11/19 Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer
(Irony: In an effort to make my still lives more like urban sketching, I’m applying techniques that I already know from urban sketching to my still lives. Maybe I’m not really teaching myself anything new – maybe I’m just tricking myself into believing apples and bananas are buildings and trees!)

Another thing I’m learning is to blend and mix colors in a more painterly way. In the sketch below of a tomato and garlic, I had chosen complementary blue for the shadow cast by the garlic on the tomato, which seemed mostly orange when I colored it. When I activated the blue, though, I saw that the shadow had turned out too green because the tomato contained more yellow than I realized. It also wasn’t dark enough. I made a few test swatches, and I saw that applying more blue over that yellow/orange/blue combo would not improve the shadow color.

Trying to think like a painter in this situation, I considered adding red to the mix – the complement of green. Red pencil applied dry looked strange, but when activated, the resulting brown, though muddier than I prefer, was an acceptable shadow in that it was the right value. I don’t know how painterly the result looks, but since I had to think like a painter to achieve it, I still consider it a painterly approach.

In progress -- I didn't like the green shadow cast by the garlic onto the tomato.

2/16/19 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle

Monday, February 18, 2019

More Dull and Rough

2/15/19 Utrecht brand colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook

A few weeks ago I sketched an avocado and a satsuma to get some practice with rough and matte surfaces. (Shiny, smooth surfaces are easier because their gleaming highlights do much of the work of evoking the forms.) Looking for more practice, I found a potato and a sumo orange in our kitchen. The orange’s strange, bumpy texture and equally strange shape were a fun challenge.

The potato turned out to be more difficult than I expected. As I tried to depict its shape, which is less textured than the sumo orange but irregular, I was reminded of the landscape-drawing classes I took from Suzanne Brooker. We frequently worked on the challenges of conveying gently sloping hillsides and bumpy terrain.

Technical note: The potato was challenging in another way: I hadn’t used Derwent Lightfast colored pencils in a while, so I pulled out my smallish collection, which I knew had mostly earthy tones that would work well on the potato. Quite possibly the softest, waxiest pencils I own, they were at first easy and very smooth to apply. With subsequent applications, however, they were so waxy that they started feeling like they were sliding off the previous layers – like walking on ice (doing that in the days following snowpocalypse is still fresh in my memory). Harder pencils don’t have that effect. The more I use very soft colored pencils, which I favored at one time, the more I prefer harder ones like Faber-Castell Polychromos.

2/15/19 Derwent Lightfast colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook
Choosing among colored pencils with hard or soft cores is a difficult question, and the choice depends on preferred ways of working. My shift in preference from soft to hard points out a difficulty in choosing materials when one is relatively inexperienced with working in a particular medium. I think this happens frequently with other media, too: You just don’t know what you’re going to like until you’ve used it a while. That’s why it’s so difficult to make recommendations when asked about materials: I think it’s always best to try a variety of options instead of simply duplicating someone else’s choices.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Not a Machine

2/14/19 Shannon (10 min. poses)

I wasn’t feeling it last Thursday at life drawing. It wasn’t the model’s fault – Shannon is always excellent, and I’ve happily drawn her many times, including last fall when working on a long pose of her put me fully in the zone. I don’t expect to get in the zone every time, but I was hoping to feel some of the mojo I had the last time I was at Gage. I kept switching media and paper, hoping to find the right combo that would put me there again, but nothing quite did it.
2-min. poses

Because I sketch so regularly and share often on social media, friends have called me a “sketching machine.” It’s a compliment, and I certainly accept it as one. But one of the most frustrating things about drawing is that the ease (and I use the term “ease” relatively – it’s never easy) with which it comes varies constantly. It might not even be apparent in the results, but it’s the way I feel when I’m making the sketches. Even with regular practice, some days are better than others. If I were a true machine, I could draw with the same degree of flow and confidence every time.

10-min. pose
5-min. pose

10-min. pose

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Fude of Pencils

2/13/19 An unattractive corner of our backyard sketched with a vintage
Derwent carpenter's pencil. All of these varying line widths and marks came from
its two ends sharpened with different points.
When I reviewed some vintage Rexel Cumberland Derwent Drawing Pencils, I wrote about how much I enjoy using them at life drawing sessions, especially the flat carpenter pencil-shaped ones. The soft, thick, colored cores are the same as those found in their round contemporary counterparts, but the rectangular cores in the carpenter pencils can be cut in different ways to provide a variety of line widths and marks. I’ve only just begun experimenting, and I’m still learning how to whittle the points at different angles.

A few days ago, a YouTube video about carpenter’s pencils was brought to my attention. Intended for actual carpenters, not sketchers, the video explains why carpenter’s pencils are flat, how their standard dimensions are useful in carpentry, and other fascinating information. Watching it being sharpened was especially informative to a novice knife sharpener like me.

Carpenter's pencils sharpened Darth Maul style!
Most exciting of all was when the video pointed out the very obvious (duh!) fact that a carpenter pencil can be sharpened on both ends! Eureka! I immediately sharpened the second end of each of my pencils with a different shaped point so that I could expand the range of line widths even more. (I had so much fun sharpening that I gave myself a small blister! That’s what made me realize I need to work on my knife skills.)

A couple of year ago I discovered a Uni Mitsubishi graphite pencil with a 10B core called a fude enpitsu (“brush pencil”). Sharpened to a chisel point, it can make a wide range of line widths, just like the fude fountain pen nibs that have been my favorite for years. But now that I’ve been using these carpenter-style drawing pencils, I’d have to say that the vintage Derwents are the true fude of pencils.

Pointy on one end. . . 

. . . blunt on the other.

I had so much fun that I gave myself a blister.
Here's the chisel point on one end of the pencil I used for this sketch.

Friday, February 15, 2019


2/7/19 All sketches made with Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelles
in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (my typical approach)

The approach I’ve been using with watercolor pencils most often is the one I learned nearly two years ago from Suzanne Brooker. In her class, we used the water-soluble properties of colored pencils mainly as an enhancement to traditional (dry) colored pencil properties to intensify hues and soften visible pencil lines. In particular, we focused on using water activation of the pencil pigment to give – what else? – water body surfaces in landscapes a watery look. But in the limited time we had with her in that class, we didn’t really get into using watercolor pencils in a more painterly manner. In other words, using them more as watercolors than as pencils.

The techniques and approach I learned from her generally serve me well because they suit my drawing style – when I’m seated comfortably at my studio desk. But as has always been my motivation in learning to use any medium, I want to be able to take advantage of the water-soluble properties of colored pencils on location, too. And lately I’ve been feeling like my still life practice isn’t necessarily effective practice for that. I get too comfortable having consistent lighting and taking all the time I want.

2/8/19 Attempting a more painterly approach
So with that in mind, I’ve lately been making a conscious effort to use a more painterly approach and take better advantage of the pencils’ water-soluble properties. It requires applying a little more water than I’m accustomed to and working quickly once the water is applied so that I can blend in some dry pigment, for example, while the paper is still wet, which can yield interesting effects. Or mix wet hues on the paper. These techniques are difficult enough to do with watercolor paints, but since watercolor pencils require less water, they require working even faster before the pigments dry. This is also exactly the opposite technique we learned from Suzanne, which is to allow each layer of water application to dry completely before applying more dry pigment. So the need to think and act faster has blown my head open.

2/9/19 Another painterly attempt
You may have difficulty seeing the differences between my typical approach (the first still life at top of post) and the more painterly approach I’m attempting (the other two still lives) because, frankly, I’m still learning how much water to use and struggling to take action before the pigments dry. My goal with these still lives is not necessarily to sketch faster – these all took about the same length of time – but I’m hoping that with practice, I will become somewhat faster by using more painterly methods. (And being able to be faster when I want to is almost always a useful skill on the street.)

I’ll report back as my practice progresses.

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