Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Up on Stilts

5/9/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood

We hadn’t walked on this block in a while. The last time we looked, a house was standing on the ground as always. The next time we saw it, the house was high up on stilts, wrapped in Tyvek! Presumably new construction will begin beneath the existing house and eventually connected. I sure wish I had known this was going to happen before it happened so I could have watched (and sketched)!

A few days after I sketched this, I was walking by again when I spotted the owners on the property. I asked what the plan was: The existing house will be completely updated inside. A new basement will be dug, and a new main floor will also be built. Then the old house will be placed over that.

You can bet I’ll be walking on this street more often this summer so I can check on the new construction.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Review: Arrtx Colored Pencils


I have been disappointed so many times that I have become skeptical and even cynical about all inexpensive and most mid-range colored pencils on the market, and even some not-so-inexpensive ones. Such was the case when a set of Arrtx Colored Pencils, apparently a relatively new product, crossed my radar. Ho-hum, yet another likely mediocre set of colored pencils, “fine and creamy artist grade pigment,” ya-da, ya-da, whatever – wait! Bunnies??! Bunnies on the box! [Add to cart.] We product reviewers all have our weaknesses.

I was not familiar with the Arrtx name before I spotted these pencils, but the Chinese company offers a range of art materials such as markers and paints and now colored pencils.

At the risk of revealing a pattern of being seduced by packaging, let’s begin with the Arrtx box. Once I got over the bunnies (really – how many colored pencils do you find with bunnies on the box??), the other feature of the package that excited me was its stand-up design. It’s so much more practical and space-saving compared to the wide, flat tins that most large sets of pencils come in. When they come in flat trays, I always transfer them to a vase for use, so I thought this bunny-enhanced box would offer a slim yet practical alternative.

Space-saving and convenient stand-up box.

When all the pencils are in place, they look like this.

Unfortunately, the foam insert that keeps the pencils upright has a major design flaw: Instead of an individual slot for each pencil (see my review of the Karst Woodless Colored Pencil for an excellent example of this), the insert simply keeps the four rows of pencils from running into each other – while they are all sitting quietly in the box. As soon as one is removed, the other pencils collapse around it. Replacing the pencil requires rooting around for space. It’s hardly better than a vase. So much potential poorly executed.

The foam insert doesn't support individual pencils.

After pulling out several pencils, this is what happens.

Nonetheless, the pencils themselves are nicely lacquered the full length of the round barrel. Along with decorative stars, both the color number and name are printed in tiny, reflective metallic silver letters (which is sparkly but difficult to read for these aging eyes). All cores are well-centered, and the wood sharpens beautifully. Bonus: When I opened the box, I instantly got a faint whiff of the delicious licorice scent I usually get from Prismacolors! Perhaps one of the binding ingredients is the same.)

If a smaller set had been available, I would have bought it, but 72 colors was the only set I could find. For such a large set, the palette is unusual and somewhat redundant. It has a disproportionately large number of yellow-oranges, several of which are close in hue, and not as many greens as I would like to see in a set of 72. I could take out half the pencils and be left with a solid set of 36 good colors. No claims are made about their lightfastness, and I would not expect them to be artist grade for the price.

My initial swatches indicated that Arrtx pencils are neither super-soft nor hard, so they occupy that vast middle of the road which is already over-crowded with many, many colored pencils. I have clear uses for both soft and hard pencils, but pencils that are neither here nor there leave me little to get excited about. Arrtx pencils, however, produce almost no dusty particles – that’s a pleasant surprise.

Typically, I make a simple still life as my initial test sketch, but composition and color temperature studies have been on my mind lately, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one pencil. Picking out a secondary triad from the Arrtx palette, I found that these pencils have a higher pigment content than I would have expected. On the soft/hard scale, they remind me of Caran d’Ache Pablo, which are also in that mushy middle of the road – yet Pablos produce more dust. Although my sketch of houses has only a few small areas of intense color, the layering ability felt promising. My cynicism was turning to optimism.

5/11/22 Arrtx colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

Happy with that sketch through the window, I grabbed the last uncooked or uneaten piece of produce in the house (a danger of sketching right before shopping) – a firm, truck-ripened tomato (farmers market season can’t come soon enough). For this sketch, I chose three hues that come closest to my model Prismacolor CMYK triad (True Blue, Process Red and Canary Yellow). Despite the number of off-yellows and yellow-oranges in the set, only Light Yellow (1012) is a true yellow, which is a definite weakness in the palette.

5/12/22 Arrtx colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

To my huge surprise, Arrtx pencils are a delight to use! Layered smoothly and effortlessly, that’s a lot of pigment I piled onto the tomato. Arrtx is easily better than many others in its price range (and
some that are nearly triple the price). The set is an excellent value, even considering some redundant colors. The stand-up box is a disappointment, but with bunnies, it’s a wash. More important, the set has restored my faith that high-quality colored pencils can be found at a reasonable price.

(Incidentally, my recent interest in and study of color temperature made me approach this tomato sketch in a different way compared to all the other simple still lives I’ve made as pencil test sketches. I don’t know if it shows in the result, but I feel the difference in how I see and use color temperature now.)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

No Lighting Required


Flossing is frustrating for Scissors, but her hygienist says it's important.

Years ago, I attended a gathering of the Sketch Pistols, a group who met regularly in pubs and coffee shops to socialize and sketch together. I had been a member of Urban Sketchers for a few years by then, and I thought it would be fun to meet more sketchers. I was also curious about how other groups sketched socially.

I was surprised that the chosen venue was very dark. I could barely see the décor or patrons enough to draw them. But the sketchers were nice people, and I enjoyed the conversation, so I stayed, struggling to see what I was drawing.

Faucet Handle has colorful terms for people who don't pick up after their dogs.

As the evening wore on, we started sharing sketchbooks, and I realized that I was in the minority as someone who drew from life. One other person was drawing other patrons, but the rest of the group all seemed to be drawing from inside  their heads – comic strips, elaborate, fantastical scenes with creatures or vehicles, and one artist was designing a deck of playing cards. In my narrow experience with Urban Sketchers, I guess I had assumed that this group would be drawing from observation too, so it was mind-expanding to see the diversity of their work. I laughed wryly to myself about their chosen venue: No wonder they didn’t care about how dark the interior was – as long as they could see their sketchbooks, their own minds required no lighting!

I recalled that evening with the Sketch Pistols recently when I found myself hoping to fill a few minutes with sketchwaiting, but the surroundings were dark and dismal. That’s when I remembered that I could work on sketches from my imagination! I pulled out my Field Notes and started scribbling ideas. Although I will probably always prefer drawing from observation, it’s liberating to have the option to dig something out of my mind if I want to. 

Hayfever season sucks. (After posting this on Facebook, most readers didn't realize that the shapes floating over Soap Dispenser's head were supposed to be soap bubbles. My sloppy circles led most people to think they were pollen particles. I learned the importance of drawing carefully if the meaning is essential to the drawing.)

Soap Dispenser had lent her some books he thought she would enjoy, but Faucet Handle is not much of a reader.

Scissors' personal best was 27 dandelions in one snip, but she's off her game this year. Plenty to train with, though.

Soap Dispenser listens to podcasts while knitting scarves, but sometimes he forgets to stop.

Faucet Handle is not superstitious, but today she's hangin' with her four favorite rabbit's feet, just in case. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Thinking Like an Urban Sketcher


5/7/22 Wedgwood neighborhood

Yesterday I talked about how studying Ian Roberts’ principles of composition was making me think like a painter. Since my intention with this study is to improve my urban sketches, not to make paintings, I’ve also been thinking about the difference between making paintings and urban sketching.

Although he uses photo references for most of his YouTube demos, Roberts has spent much of his life-long art career creating and teaching plein air painting. He certainly knows how to capture a moment on location – that magical light that will be gone in a few minutes or a dynamic pattern of shadows. From that perspective, he is similar to an urban sketcher.

Where he differs in viewpoint and approach relates to subject matter, which he believes is secondary to the overall “design” of the painting. In his demos, I’ve seen him crop out some of the more interesting parts of a potential view (interesting in terms of being subject matter) because they didn’t serve the compositional design of the overall painting.

Of course, the subject matter is what attracts the artist, and it must likewise engage the viewer. But “if you let the subject matter rather than the large value masses carry the painting, you’ll lack drama and probably get buried in details. When you think in masses, you see the big light and dark shapes as the real subject of the painting, and the objects in front of you are just the inspiration for the painting.”

When I heard him describe this concept in his videos and read those words in his book, Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting, I began to understand how urban sketching is different from making a painting. From his design perspective, the story of a strong painting is about those masses of light and dark and how they engage the viewer. The viewer may think they are responding to the Provence landscape that is the subject of a painting, but it’s really the painting’s design and composition that are attracting and holding their attention long enough for them to appreciate that landscape.

3/5/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood (not much composition here)

As an urban sketcher, I also want to attract and engage my viewer to whatever I’ve put on my sketchbook page, but the story belongs to the subject – not whatever composition and value masses I may have created.

Driving through Wedgwood one morning, I was thinking about Roberts’ composition principles, hoping to find a view that would include some elements that would form a strong composition. Two large ornamental plum trees, pruned through the middle to accommodate utility wires, stopped me in my tracks (top of page). I did my best to compose the sketch in an engaging way, and I certainly paid attention to value masses. But to my mind, there’s no doubt what the “story” of this sketch is (Hint: It’s not the compositional design).

3/19/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood (not much composition
here either, just some blazing forsythia)

Shown at left and above are two sketches I made a couple of months ago during my fitness walks that are clearly “stories” of subject matter. I wasn’t thinking about composition much then, and I don’t think it would have mattered if I had been – I would have sketched them anyway. Looking at them now with a different perspective, I can see that they lack compositional strength – but I would still sketch them now.

At the bottom of this post is another fitness-walk sketch, but this one was made after I began studying Roberts. I paid attention to value masses, and I “designed” the composition to the extent that I stood where I could see that magnificent tree reaching into the street. I think it’s a stronger composition than the other two, but it’s still all about the subject.

I may be studying to think like a painter in ways that will improve my sketches, but thinking like an urban sketcher is what I do.

5/3/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood (some composition, but mostly a grand old tree)

Friday, May 13, 2022

Thinking Like a Painter


5/6/22 Composition and color temperature study, Maple Leaf neighborhood

After getting hooked on Ian Roberts’ YouTube channel, I wanted a more comprehensive view of his principles. Although his short videos are nice nuggets that are easily chewed and digested a bite at a time, they left me hungry for the full meal. As a reader more than a viewer, I also find that I learn better when I can read concepts as well as see them being demo’d. I bought his book, Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting. (Originally published in 2007, it is out of print, but my public library has it, and used copies are available on Amazon. I got mine on eBay for the same price as originally published. I heard that a new edition is in the works and will be available soon.)

The full meal I had wanted is a lot to digest, so I’m trying not to stuff myself too quickly. Learning about composition, values, color and other basic keys to developing a strong painting has made me start to think like a painter: Big shapes of color instead of details. Composition and “design” instead of subject matter. Controlling the “edges” between one “color mass” and another. It’s all painterspeak. It seems like it might not apply to urban sketching, and yet it all does. (The only section that doesn’t apply is a short one related to brush strokes using oil paints.)

To be clear, I have no current interest in becoming an oil painter (or any kind of painter, for that matter). But I have enough understanding about the way he teaches to realize that his principles are much larger than specific media or approaches. Whether on a 40-by-30-inch canvas or in an A5 sketchbook, whether using oil paints or colored pencils, the principles of solid composition (and what he calls “design”) are the same. I want to understand these principles to make my usual urban sketches better.

The study above was made through the same west window through which I usually sketch the three houses you’ve seen many times. Although these rooftops and chimneys are just as easy to see, I tend to sketch them in monochrome (here’s one I made a couple of winters ago when the Japanese maple was bare). As a compositional study, though, I think it’s more interesting than the three houses.

Value study thumbnail

Because I’m trying to be a Roberts student, I had to make a small value study thumbnail first. (He says his students usually hate making thumbnails and value studies because they want to hit the paint as soon as possible. I know how they feel, but this part also felt more like an urban sketch to me because it was fresh – a scene I hadn’t sketched in a while.)

Then I used a secondary triad with the addition of magenta (I needed something between the warm orange and the cool violet) for the color temperature study. I admit, it was easier to think about color values with my monochrome value study as reference. (Yes, yes – I know almost every art instructor or author says to make a thumbnail first, but I only do it when I’m in class. Admit it – you’re the same!)

Composition: I think if Roberts were here looking over my shoulder, he would first say that my tight cropping was a good idea. He might say that I have some strong vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines to keep the eye moving, but I should get rid of that distracting tree in the upper right (he likes utility poles, though, so I don’t think he would tell me to get rid of that!). He would probably also say that the green foliage I added on the right side, even though it wasn’t in my thumbnail, should have been a lower contrast because it drags the eye out of the picture plane. I think this view has more compositional potential, so I’ll try it again sometime. (Fair warning: You may see these rooftops again.)

Color: It was raining off and on all day, so I didn’t have any shadows to help out except the narrow strips under the eaves. I kind of winged it, relying mostly on the dull local colors. (Roberts would have told me to skip it and come back on a sunny day when I could clearly see the color temperature “shifts.” To which I would reply, “But if it’s sunny, I’m going to be sketching outside, not here in my studio.”)

If you’re thinking that I’ve chug-a-lugged a full glass of the Ian Roberts’ Kool-Aid and now my sketches will be too thoroughly “designed” to be urban sketches, well, you know me better than that. Although I did make both the value study and color sketch from life, I’m not even calling them urban sketches because I moved the utility pole to make a better composition, which means I’m not being truthful to the scenes I witness. 😉

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Landscape Gardeners


5/5/22 Landscape gardeners working in the pouring rain.

Our neighbors across the street are doing a major landscaping job all around their house. I made a series of sketches of their house several years ago when they put on a big addition. If you look at those sketches, you can see the small bushes and trees that used to be in front. All of those are gone now, as are some other plants in their backyard.

Unfortunately, I keep missing the action. The day they had some large trees pruned and chipped, I didn’t notice until the workers were already done and putting their equipment away. Then the next day a team of gardeners planted a bunch of new things in front (and seemed to be working in back, too), but I only caught the tail end when they were cleaning up. But when people are moving around, it’s easy enough to fill a page with small gestures.

I was inspired by Nishant Jain, who routinely fills entire sketchbook pages with  “tiny people” he sees in coffee shops and other public spaces. If you keep the drawings small, you can capture a lot of actions quickly.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Rhinos and Dragons and Bears – Oh, My!


5/4/22 Malayan tapir and rhinos at Woodland Park Zoo

Some sketchers I know visit their favorite gardens or parks over and over, year-round, and never tire of sketching the same trees or plantings. I feel that way about Woodland Park Zoo. If I had to choose a single favorite sketching subject, it would be animals from life. I could probably sketch at the zoo every week and never tire of it. Although in recent years I haven’t visited as often as I did during my first few years of sketching (it was where I first learned to become comfortable sketching in public), I still get my money’s worth from our zoo membership.

Last Wednesday afternoon warmed up to the mid-60s and partly sunny – ideal zoo weather, at least for humans. We had hoped it would be warm enough for the other animals, too. Many were still sleeping in their shelters, but I found plenty that were active enough to see and sketch.

My favorites on this trip were the rhinos (above), whom we don’t see often. After the Woodland Park’s long-time resident elephants were transferred to a different zoo several years ago, the endangered one-horned rhinos moved into the elephants’ former home, so they are now much easier to see close-up. They wear a fascinating hide of what looks like plate armour.

A bat eating from a hanging bowl. I had a hard time figuring out what part of it was what!

Although I’ve sketched the Komodo dragons several times, usually they are so still that I wonder if they are even awake. I had never seen one so active as last week. The one I sketched was exploring its territory thoroughly, flicking its long, peach-colored, forked tongue rapidly and continuously. It was a bit unnerving when it suddenly stared me down through the glass, tongue still flicking, but I took advantage of the close-up view to capture it.

Komodo dragon and Chilean flamingo

It was wonderful to get a brief glimpse of the two adorable sloth bear cubs, who were born on Jan. 1 this year. I didn’t get much of one before mama led it away.

Sloth bear cub and Asian brown tortoise

Technical notes: I usually bring my full sketch bag when I visit the zoo, since I never know what might catch my attention. This time we were using the opportunity of our visit through the large park for our fitness walk as well as seeing animals, so I felt like traveling light. Thinking about all the animals I have sketched there, I realized that I could capture probably 95 percent of them with either brown or black or both. So I brought only those two colors plus pink (in case I sketched flamingoes), a rainbow pencil (which I didn’t use) and a waterbrush – that’s it. The sketchbook was my square Hahnemühle. The more I use it, the more I appreciate its compact, 5 ½-inch square format, which fits so nicely in my small fitness-walking bag and is also easy to hold for quick gesture sketches.

Brown, black, pink -- all I need at the zoo!

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