Saturday, August 18, 2018

Analog and Digital

8/13/18 Green Lake (graphite)

When my niece was young and studying both piano and violin, her father (my brother, an engineer) made an interesting observation. He said that while piano is digital (discrete units expressed in a scale), violin is analog (a continuous physical variable). It’s an intriguing metaphor that has stayed with me.

8/9/18 Summit & Boren (fountain pen and Pitt marker)
You know how fickle I am about my sketching materials. My first several years, I used ink line and watercolor. The past few years, “mixed media” has been the only accurate term for what I use. In a single sketch, I might use colored pencils, ink, Pitt markers and a brush pen together. It’s not so much that I want to use so many things at once. It’s more that certain media do things faster or more easily than others, so I grab the tool that gets the job done for the subject matter I’ve chosen or the length of time I have.

Having sketched with a wide variety of materials, I recently started thinking about the difference between “digital” art media (and here I’m using the term metaphorically, not in reference to iPad sketching) and analog media. Markers (like my favorite Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens) strike me as very digital tools – either on or off. When you make a mark with one, it’s a solid, discrete unit (like 1 or 0). Once put in place, it will not change. Unless you have fast fingertips like Don Colley, who can smear Pitt ink quickly enough before it dries that it can blend or have a slight gradation, marker marks tend to look streaky. Markers come in handy when I want a flat, solid surface, like shading the side of a building. But without Don’s fingers, I find it almost impossible to give soft, rounded shading to a person’s face, for example, with a Pitt.

The past couple of years as I’ve gotten to know colored pencils and graphite pencils better, I have come to realize that what I love most about both is their potential for endless, seamless gradation. They are the quintessential analog material. If you look at a pencil mark under a microscope, you’ll see that it’s made of a bunch of particles of varying sizes that adhere to the paper’s surface. The mark is a continuous physical variable, like a violin note. By smudging or applying more, a pencil mark can be changed almost indefinitely. Maybe it’s just my training in landscape drawing (with Suzanne Brooker at Gage) that influences this opinion, but pencils seem to be made for soft or organic subject matter.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Hemming and Hawing about Paper

8/4/18 University Village
(graphite on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper)

For the past four years, I’ve been happily using Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper as my go-to for my handbound sketchbooks. Although it’s only student grade, I’ve found its cold-press surface and hefty weight pleasant and reliable for all the media I’ve ever thrown at it – watercolor, colored pencils, water-soluble colored pencils (even when spritzed heavily with water), ink, brush pens, everything. It’s available in 9-by-12-inch pads, which means I don’t have to cut it – just fold and stitch. (Frankly, if it weren’t available in that size, I’m not sure I would be using it – the convenience is hard to beat.) Although I use other sketchbooks at home, like various flavors of Stillman & Birn, and occasionally dabble in other papers on location, the Canson watercolor paper has given me no reason to look around for anything else.

Until now (you knew I was going to say that, right?). As you’ve seen, I’ve been fascinated with graphite ever since I took Eduardo Bajzek’s workshop, and I’m discovering that the paper choice with his technique is more critical than I had initially realized.

On his supply list, he had suggested a relatively smooth paper, but during his workshop I tried the Derwent sketch pad we had been given, and I liked the light tooth on it with the sketch I’d made. I also enjoyed using Strathmore Bristol – a very smooth paper that Suzanne Brooker had recommended for both colored pencil and graphite – for a few sketches I made in Portugal (the paper was in a signature I had brought for use in Eduardo’s workshop, but I ended up using the larger Derwent pad instead).
8/11/18 St. John's Church (graphite on
Strathmore Bristol)

Since I had enjoyed using the slightly toothy Derwent surface, I tried a sketch with his method using my usual Canson XL watercolor paper, and it was too toothy for my taste (sketch above at University Village). When I used a tissue to blend and smudge, the graphite got trapped by the texture and looked grainy instead of forming an even haze of tone. It ended up looking murky. It was also more difficult to erase.

I decided to stitch up a signature containing sheets of the Derwent, the Strathmore Bristol and some Canson Bristol that I had initially tried and rejected during Suzanne’s class (it’s smooth, but not as smooth as the Strathmore). At the Greenwood neighborhood sketchcrawl last Saturday, I used Strathmore Bristol (St. John’s Church at left).

My plan is to make several graphite sketches on each paper and see how they compare. Stay tuned for the results.

Three papers I'm trying with graphite

Thursday, August 16, 2018


8/15/18 Skyline around 9th and Boren

For the past couple of weeks or more, the air around here has been yellow with smoke. Although thankfully we’re in no danger, the Puget Sound region is surrounded by wildfires to the north, east and south. Sadly and terrifyingly, this is becoming our new late-summer normal.

I’m generally not attracted to downtown views like this, but seen yesterday morning through the disturbing haze, it was just right for a smudgy graphite pencil.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Drawing Nature – This Time From Life

7/31/18 Tree study at Volunteer Park

A few days after I returned from Portugal, I was still getting over jetlag when I hit the ground running and started a new class at Gage Academy called Drawing Nature, taught by Kathleen Moore. It’s a five-week, half-term class, which is a format that the school offers only in the summer. I’ve taken other five-week courses, and I wish they’d offer them year-round. The commitment isn’t too long to feel burdensome (in either time or cost), and it’s also a great way to try out an unfamiliar instructor before possibly committing to the same instructor for a longer term.

8/7/18 Kubota Gardens

What caught my attention when I initially read the course description was that the class meets on location in various city parks. Yes – on location! Last year when I was studying colored pencil and later graphite with Suzanne Brooker, you heard me complain about how frustrating it was to work only from photos instead of from actual landscapes. Although I understand why learning from photos is useful and even necessary, and I certainly learned more that way than I ever could if I had to work with unpredictable factors like weather and shifting light, I still missed the energy and real-ness that comes only from drawing on location. So when I saw that this late-summer class would meet only outdoors and not in the classroom, I couldn’t sign up fast enough!

Although Moore’s focus is on nature, she encourages us to include whatever human-made objects might appear in city park landscapes (such as the Moon Bridge at Kubota Gardens or the cranes at Green Lake), so it all feels like urban sketching to me. In the first two classes, we used graphite. In the third, we used ink (bottom of post). Although on the supply list she had recommended a technical pen, I talked to her about using a fountain pen instead, and she wholeheartedly encouraged me to use one. I appreciate her openness to media.
7/31/18 Thumbnails before starting a drawing at Volunteer Park
Before starting a drawing, we are required to make at least three thumbnails to explore composition and, more importantly, to map out the values clearly. While I’ve heard the thumbnail mantra from nearly every instructor and book I’ve studied from, thumbnails are generally used for composition study. This is my first experience with using thumbnails as a values map, and while it feels tedious, I must admit it’s helpful. Making thumbnails forces me to look for the values and consequently reject some compositions quickly if I see that the value contrasts might not be strong enough for a good drawing.

8/14/18 Green Lake

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Blue Angels

8/5/18 Blue Angels viewers at Maple Leaf Park

Seattle’s annual Seafair festival is a weeks-long summer mashup of community parades, food events and other crowded activities that culminate on the first weekend of August with hydroplane races. The highlight of Seafair weekend is the flight of the Blue Angels. Having grown up on Lake Washington where the racing and flying take place, I don’t get as excited about these events as the rest of the city seems to. I like to watch the Blue Angels, I suppose, but it’s not that big of a deal to me.

Greg and I walked up to Maple Leaf Park, where a small crowd had gathered to see them. Several miles away, the angels were not exactly roaring past our faces. While everyone else watched the tiny dots dip and fly, I stepped back to sketch the spectators.

8/5/18 Maple Leaf water tower

Monday, August 13, 2018

Fearless and Undaunted at the Northwest School

8/9/18 The Northwest School's garden in downtown Seattle

Sometimes when I talk to people who are interested in the idea of sketching but haven’t yet started, I can sense their fear and hesitation. So many obstacles in their minds – real and imagined – keep them from putting pencil to sketchbook. Fortunately, only adults seem to be afflicted with this hesitation; kids have no such fears. Once in a while I have the opportunity to see children with their sketchbooks, and it’s a happy sight.

For the third year, the Northwest School and the Seattle Architecture Foundation invited Urban Sketchers Seattle to lead class sessions in urban sketching. (I reported on my experiences from 2016 and 2017.) Here’s how the school describes itself:

“A vibrant, intellectual home. A warm inclusive community. A dynamic liberal arts education for grades 6-12 that prepares students to think critically, act compassionately, and discover their place in the world.”

Whenever I take part in this program, I feel some envy that I never had a school like that to go to when I was their age! Among the wide and varied curriculum the pre-teens can choose from is a design and architecture class, and that’s where Urban Sketchers fits in.
My blind contours
A show of hands indicated that about half of the dozen kids enjoyed drawing, and the ones who did were primarily interested in drawing from their imagination. After talking briefly to the students about my experiences as an urban sketcher, I passed around several of my sketchbooks to look through. Their teacher, Teresa Wang, then led us in a few rounds of blind contour drawing. The kids especially enjoyed doing blind contours of each other, the results of which were hilarious, based on their responses!

After that, we all went outside to the school’s garden for some urban sketching. With nothing more than the pocket-sized notebooks and pencils that I had brought along for them, the kids went at their task with gusto. Even the ones who didn’t express particular interest in drawing chose their views and put their pencils to paper immediately. I was taken by how seriously they approached their assignment: to draw what they see, not what they imagine. The results were impressive.

I left feeling hopeful that they will take their undaunted selves into adulthood to continue drawing as fearlessly as they did the day I saw them. I wish everyone could do that.

Northwest School students sketching hard.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Two Houses of Worship in Greenwood

8/11/18 Sakya Monastery

Sixty-eight degrees with overcast skies! Ahhhh!

Despite my relief that the heatwave had finally broken, I was still miffed that yesterday morning’s forecast called for rain and even thunderstorms. Couldn’t the rain wait until after our sketch outing? In fact, it did wait until the throwdown, so we all stayed dry while sketching the Greenwood neighborhood.

Our sketch outing featured two places of worship within a couple of blocks of each other: The bright yellow and red Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. I’ve sketched the monastery’s front entrance flanked by twin lions before, so this time I went for the large bell at the side of the building. The bell is surrounded by stands of percussion instruments that make a soothing rattling sound when spun. Arriving before the other sketchers, I had seen someone come out of the monastery, walk around the bell and spin the instruments before stopping for prayers at the entrance.

Sketching St. John’s was a second attempt for me, too. More than five years ago I stood on the opposite side of the church and struggled with both the perspective and watercolor. At least I didn’t have the challenge of watercolor this time, but the perspective was no less a struggle. Giving it a shot with Eduardo Bajzek’s graphite method, I had a new difficulty: trying to make sense of the confusing values. The brightest spot on the building was the barely visible left face of the mitered top (the curve reflecting the sky), yet the sun (hiding behind thick clouds) was lighting the right side of the rest of the church.
8/11/18 St. John the Evangelist Church

The weather report didn’t scare away any sketchers! In fact, we welcomed several new faces, including Gigi, who was visiting all the way from Rio de Janeiro.

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