Friday, June 5, 2020

An Opening in the Hedge

6/1/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Last fall I suddenly discovered the beauty of backlighting from a couple of sketchers whose work I had been observing. I tried sketching it a few times, but then the rainy season settled in, and there went my opportunities for more study. Last week my interest was rekindled when I came upon some striking backlit views early in the morning.

Now I’m on a mission to find as many backlit scenes in my neighborhood as I can. Here’s one from earlier this week: A tall laurel hedge surrounds this property, and I was enchanted by the slim strip of light marking the entry in the center.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Female Flicker

5/17 - 5/29/20 female flicker

Our feeders are still up. Usually we take them down in the spring when the birds get better (probably more nutritious) offers elsewhere, but the occasional visitors are still entertaining us during these stay-at-home days, so we’ve left them up. We had heard that nesting females in spring need more fat, and indeed, our suet feeder is more popular than the seed feeder lately.

Last year I caught a male flicker’s bright red chevron on the back of its neck as it struggled to eat from the seed feeder, which is intended for much smaller birds. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been watching a female flicker dining from the suet feeder, which is much larger and more accommodating. Luckily for me, she tends to hang from the same side each time, so I was able to work on this sketch over the course of three days, often weeks apart, refining the gesture and adding details each time.

A first for us was observing a family of Bewick’s wrens several times. Mom and her four chicks (I say “chicks,” but they are nearly as large as she is) stand on the fence near the feeders. Mom flies up to the suet, grabs a beakful, then stuffs the gaping mouths of the four youngsters. We didn’t know that wrens feed their young outside their nest, so we’ve been delighted to watch this scene. I’m not sure I’ll be able to catch them with my sketchbook; they are so tiny and quick. But I’m happy that our feeders are still up.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Happy Trees

5/27/20 Across the street

Even as I walk daily through my ‘hood, looking for fresh ways to sketch familiar scenes, I admit that I often overlook the views that are closest. It was a beautiful, warm afternoon. Although I usually make most of my on-location sketches while standing, the sunshine seemed to invite a more leisurely stance. I dragged a kitchen chair out to our front porch landing and decided I would sketch whatever I could see from that spot. Across the street, our neighbors have a few small trees that looked as happy as I felt to be sketching in the sunshine.
A leisurely sketch on the porch landing.

Technical note: I rarely use traditional (wax- or oil-based) colored pencils on location because my favorite water-soluble ones seem faster and more efficient. But I was working on a review for the Well-Appointed Desk, so this leisurely sketch was a good opportunity to use Tombow Irojiten colored pencils. I was surprised to find that this sketch didn’t take much longer than my usual watercolor pencil approach. Maybe I’ve become more efficient myself in whatever colored pencils I use.

Stay tuned for my review at the Desk of this lovely Irojiten pencil case. I’ll update this post with a link when it’s live.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

My Thumbnail Walks

5/26/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

I walk for about an hour through my neighborhood each morning – sometimes with Greg, sometimes without. Bordered by major arterials and the freeway, the residential area is about 10 blocks long and four blocks wide. During the past 11 weeks of our lockdown, I’ve grown familiar with those blocks.  

As you’ve seen, I’ve found plenty to sketch, even in a series, though usually not. To keep it fresh so I won’t get bored (the biggest challenge in sketching the familiar), I’ve been trying different formats and approaches. Lately I’ve been making thumbnails. I stop wherever I feel safe, look around, and sketch whatever I see. Each of these took no more than five minutes. There’s nothing very exciting here, and yet each is a lesson in composition. Nothing is a waste if I learn from it.

Monday, June 1, 2020


5/27/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Now that mornings are warmer and start so early, I’ve been going out for my walk earlier, too. One day I headed out even before breakfast. The sun was still below many of the houses and trees, casting long shadows.

This is the kind of sketch (above) that would have gone better if I’d kept it as a values study. The backlit tree had a few spots of sunlight coming through the branches, but I lost most of that light trying to juggle two shades of green. A large rhododendron bush was mostly in shade except for a few blossoms on top. I lost the light on those, too, because I was distracted by their bright magenta hue (and I was tickled that I had the right colored pencil in my bag).

A couple of days later I found another backlit scene (below). Recalling my brief study of backlighting last fall, I was determined this time not to lose the light in the distant trees. I’d forgotten the fun challenge of these types of scenes . . . I’m going to be looking for more of them.

5/29/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Black is the New Toned

I’ve breathed new life into my daily hand series. When I had used up my sketchbook with colored pages, I waffled with beige and white for a few days – and then I remembered black! I had tried it only once early in the series and then dropped it immediately because it was too challenging. By the time I got to Day 71, though, I was ready for it.

Indeed, the challenge is formidable: On black paper, I feel like I have to twist my brain around in the opposite direction to draw the light instead of the shadows. It is always more difficult than it seems like it should be. I’m going to stick with this black Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook for a while and see where it takes me.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Sketchbook Review: Stillman & Birn Square Format Softcover

Stillman & Birn square-format sketchbooks are available with all of the brand's papers.

When I first started sketching, I explored many different sketchbook papers and formats (some are pictured on my Sketch Kit Archives page). It’s what we all have to do when we start because we don’t yet know what size or format we like, and we’re still experimenting with media. One style that I stayed with for a good part of my first year was the square Hand Book Artist Journal (at the time, it was made by Global Art Materials; now it seems to be coming from Speedball). After much frustration trying to use watercolor with this paper that is not appropriate for wet media, I finally wised up and changed to something else. But the thing that kept me going back to the Hand Book was its size and format: a 5 ½-inch square.

That book taught me the versatility of the square. I could begin a sketch without committing to a vertical or horizontal orientation (I don’t necessarily recommend starting a sketch without having a composition in mind, but we all know that a composition can change midstream). A single page was great for one or two portraits or figures or even a small scene. It fit nicely in my bag, and I could pull it out discreetly in buses or coffee shops. (Indeed, I had no need for a separate pocket-size book as I do now.) On the other hand, if I suddenly saw potential for a panoramic landscape, I could draw across the full spread. The square was handy (even before the age of Instagram).

After I gave up the Hand Book, I moved on to mostly 8 ½-by-5 ½ inch portrait-format books because I couldn’t find squares with paper or binding I liked. During all those years that I bound my own sketchbooks and could have made square ones, I didn’t because it seemed to waste paper in the sheet dimensions I was buying. But every now and then I miss the versatility of the square.

A few years ago, Stillman & Birn, my favorite sketchbook brand, brought out a square softcover version in all of its papers. The 7 ½-inch square was larger than the Hand Book, but I was excited to get back into the square. I got a Zeta and a Nova Trio, which contains all three of S&B’s toned papers. (Since I’ve reviewed Zeta and Nova papers in previous reviews, I will only discuss the square format in this post. For information on paper quality and features, please see the previous links.)

As expected, the square format gives me the right shape for compositions that don’t fit quite right in a rectangle, like this pot of pansies.
2/16/20 ArtStix in Zeta

When I felt like sketching my sketch kit last fall, I knew I couldn’t do it with the level of detail I wanted unless I had more real estate, so a full-page spread in my square Zeta accommodated my composition well.
11/9/19 brush pen and watercolor pencils in Zeta

At my first Zoom social event, I again grabbed the square Zeta to fit four portraits conveniently on each page.
4/1/20 Uni Pin brush pen and water-soluble graphite in Zeta

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to do a study of clouds from our sundeck, and I wanted something as large as possible while still being easy to hold while standing. It was an ideal opportunity to test a full-page spread in the Nova Trio – a full 15 inches across. While I was working on the right side of the gutter, the page behaved well because it was supported by the rest of the book. On the left side, however, the book’s first page was supported only by the softcover, which felt flimsy when I pushed against it roughly in my typical colored pencil style. It was a struggle to keep that side steady. Since I have no problem using the pages near the covers of my usual softcover 8 ½-by-5 ½ inch portrait-format books, I was surprised that the additional two inches made that much difference.
5/14/20 watercolor pencils in Nova

Since the 7 ½-inch size is smaller than the long side of my go-to Beta books, I also thought it wouldn’t make too much difference in my daily- carry bag. Alas, it makes a significant difference: My bag flap will not close completely over it, and it feels clumsy.

I’ve had these books for more than a year, but they are slow to fill. The reason is that I only use them at home when I’m seated at my desk, where the book can be fully supported. The cloud study was the first time I street-tested it (although the “street” was our sundeck). My sad conclusion is that it’s a great studio format, but not so great for sketching on location.

Now, if the square were 5 ½ inches, I bet I would find a lot more uses for it just as I had found with the versatile Hand Book. Heck, it would fit easily in my mini-size Rickshaw Zero messenger bag, which has become my daily-carry during these pandemic months. I wouldn’t need an additional pocket-size sketchbook, either. How about it, Stillman & Birn? (This is going on my annual sketch materials wish list.)

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