Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Urban Rhythm

7/3/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Occasionally I am asked why I include unsightly utility poles and wires when it would be so easy to omit them from otherwise “pretty” sketches. My first thought is that, as an urban sketcher, I want to be “truthful to the scenes I witness,” and a street scene in Seattle without poles and wires would be suspect.

The larger reason, however, is that they lend a compelling rhythm, pattern and texture to a composition. Sometimes they are the composition.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Sketcher’s Worst Nightmare

3/28/19 Rainier Tower
(Shown in this post are sketches I've made with
Faber-Castell Pitt Big Brush Artists Pens, which I
just learned have been discontinued.)

Imagine this: sketcher’s all-time favorite art material – the one they have used every day for years, discovering its unique qualities, working out its quirks, learning its idiosyncrasies, developing techniques and effects with – has been discontinued by the manufacturer! The worst nightmare ever! (Don’t worry, it’s not mine; if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this  I would be heavily sedated.)

Although I have used Faber-Castell Pitt Big Brush Artist Pens off and on for years, especially for tonal work, it’s been a while since I bought any (except for the white one, which I remember using on my last viaduct sketch before it was demolished). I was unaware until a few days ago that they had been discontinued a while back (only the Big Brush size; the standard brush size is still available). I learned about it when Don Colley, who is well known for his stunning drawings with these pens, mentioned it on Instagram. In demos I’ve attended and workshops I’ve taken, I’ve seen Don do amazing things with these pens and his own fingers as tools – techniques he has been developing and refining for years. It takes a long time to master any medium, even markers like Pitt pens (which are not unique in the art supply world but are the best of their type). When he said his favorite pens had been discontinued, I felt his pain like a stab in my own heart!

6/21/18 Maple Leaf neighborhood
If I heard that Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles were being discontinued, I know what I’d do as soon as I recovered from passing out: I’d hoard a lifetime supply! (Never mind that I may already have that in my “normal” stash now.)

Roz Stendahl, a fount of art-practice wisdom, always advises her followers not to get too attached to any one particular supplier, paper, paint, whatever. Companies go out of business; they change a production method or location (Prismacolor, I’m looking at you), and the quality declines; a sketchbook paper changes (Moleskine users go on and on about this one); a product line is discontinued. It happens. She advocates neither hoarding in the event of such crisis nor basing one’s entire art practice around a specific art material or tool. Instead, she encourages us to be flexible and experiment with a variety of products so that we can happily continue making art with whatever materials we have.

Pitt Big Brush Pens are no more.

She’s right, of course. If I somehow found myself on Gilligan’s Island without my Museum Aquarelles or even my Supracolors (talk about a nightmare!), I would draw with sticks in the sand or smear seagull poop onto coconut shells. Forced to be innovative, I might even develop stunning techniques with these new media and tools.

Still, we’re all creatures of habit. Familiar products are comforting and predictable. Seeking and identifying our “favorites” must be an instinctive behavior of human animals (right up there with collecting pencils). I have never, ever met a sketcher who said they were indifferent about their art materials!

How, then, does a pragmatic sketcher balance the impulse to hoard with the wisdom of being flexible and experimental? I don’t know, but I’m going to keep stashing away extra Museum Aquarelles, just in case. And in the meantime, I’ll occasionally bring out other materials I haven’t used in a while to reacquaint myself with them. And of course, I’ll continue to try new things, because you never know when you’ll discover your next favorite art material.

Carry on.

My preciousssss.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Porch of July

7/4/20 Live video stream of Kristen and Mark

My niece Kristen Koyama and her husband Mark Rooney gave a taiko performance Saturday afternoon during Porch of July, a community music festival in their Maryland neighborhood. The two long-time taiko musicians set up their driveway with a makeshift stage and put out folding chairs for safely distanced and masked audience members. Although I would have loved to have seen them in person, apparently it was sweltering that day, so I was perfectly happy to enjoy their dynamic performance on a live video stream. They were joined later by other equally energetic musicians.
7/4/20 Rowan Corbett
Although I’ve sketched live taiko performances many times, I had never caught this couple drumming together in my sketchbook. In fact, this was the first time since their wedding eight years ago that I’d seen them perform together, so it was especially fun.

I also sketched vocalist Rowan Corbett, another act during Porch of July. No, he isn’t wearing headphones. . . I just had difficulty capturing the shape of his shaved head. (Sorry, Rowan.)

Mark and Kristen

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Not Proud

I didn’t do or sketch anything yesterday to observe our country’s birthday. Indeed, I have lately been so ashamed, disgusted and outraged by what some fellow Americans are doing that it’s very hard to be proud. Yes, they are a small minority, and most people are still kind, generous and considerate. But I did not expect to see so much ugliness to be revealed in the face of a global health crisis (the story linked above is only one recent example).

Someday, those of us who survive will heal and move on. I certainly hope to. But I will not quickly forget my stunning disappointment in other Americans that I have experienced since March.

Saturday, July 4, 2020


6/30/20 backhoe waiting for the landscaping to begin

Clouds and drizzle in the morning, some clearing in the afternoon: That’s been our typical weather pattern lately. As a Seattle native, I know that summer doesn’t begin around here until after July 4 (many of my childhood 4th of July memories are of watching fireworks while wearing a parka or a raincoat), so we’ll see what tomorrow brings. In the meantime, I still take my daily walks through the ‘hood, rain or shine, and sketching is my reward.

A few days ago I filled the last page of this Field Notes Expedition notebook, which I began in early 2017. The first several pages were tested heavily with a variety of media to see what would work best on its waterproof Yupo paper, which is made of slick, toothless plastic. While some pens will write on its dry pages, not many will work on wet pages. Pencils work best, wet or dry, and I especially enjoy using soft graphite – it’s as rich and dark as a marker!

Anticipating rain, I took this Expedition with me to the Women’s March that first year (but luckily, I didn’t have to use it). It was perfect on a misty day at Cannon Beach. I’ve even used it in the snow.
6/30/20 weeping cypress
Although it has taken me three-and-a-half years to fill this little book, I’ve used it more the past few months than I did during the three years prior. As soon as I filled it, I immediately got out a fresh Expedition, ready for the next drizzle.

6/30/20 a Maple Leaf alley

Friday, July 3, 2020

More Big Ones

6/29/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

In March when we first began our daily walking routine, we noticed that a new house was going up in the ‘hood. It turned out that two houses are being built on a property that used to hold only one. We could tell early on that they were going to be humongous – and yet extremely close together. (I quipped that the two neighbors could easily use tin cans tied together with string to talk to each other through the windows. Heck, they could hold hands.) The framing of the first one is nearly done; the second is just beginning.

On this morning, I made two small sketches of the first one – once from directly across the street (at left) and once from a side street (below). It’s three full stories in a neighborhood where most second floors are not much more than a dormer.


Thursday, July 2, 2020

What Motivates a Sketch?

6/29/20 squirrel dining at a bird feeder (motivated by
subject matter)

If you spend any time observing the work of urban sketchers who share their work regularly, you’ll start to see what motivates their sketching. (Aside: The term inspires is often used as a synonym for motivates, but in this context, I avoid inspires because it seems to evoke an external intervention – a fickle Muse or a bolt of lightning from the heavens. I think of motivation as coming from within, not the sky.)

For many, it’s obviously color – the multi-hued flower garden; a red house with a yellow door; the elusive hue of a near-black, reddish-purple tree. For others, it’s subject matter: distinctive architecture; an ancient pickup rusting in a field; an iconic landmark. Sometimes an intriguing play of light against shadow is enough to motivate a sketch. Or perhaps seeking an interesting composition in an otherwise dull scene can be motivating because of its inherent challenge. And most of us, at some point, are motivated by nothing more than art materials themselves: Having a new pen, pencil, sketchbook or even a new sketch bag is enough to get us out the door.

6/12/20 cement mixer (motivated by this super-soft pencil)
At various times, I’ve been motivated by all of the above. Perhaps the most enjoyable sketching of all is when more than one element is a motivating factor, like a beautiful old building with dramatic light and shadows; or an exciting composition of trees bursting with pink blossoms. Who could resist a quirky landmark that is also colorful?

Now that feeling safe while sketching on location can be a formidable challenge, I’ve noticed that some sketchers have stopped altogether. I think the sketchers who have adapted the best to these challenging times are the ones who are motivated by a wide variety of elements and are even exploring new territory. For example, I’m impressed by Virginia Hein’s recent experiments with Brusho (as described in her USk Talk), which keep her motivated even when she’s still sketching mostly around her home. And I’ve been motivated myself several times by creative prompts that USk Japan has come up with to help its members keep sketching, even if the familiar scenes they see every day are not necessarily “inspiring.”
6/16/20 Motivated by an interesting composition and a prompt to draw
with a single, unbroken line.
I see myself as an adaptive sketcher with many motivators. What motivates you – especially during our corona times? Please share your ideas in the comments.  

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