Sunday, February 5, 2023

Watercolor Pencil Portraits

1/29/23 Museum Aquarelles in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

With my portrait practice since last October, I’ve been focusing mostly on ballpoint, brush pens, graphite, dry colored pencils – almost everything except my favorite material for urban sketching: watercolor pencils. Although I think of myself as being fairly adept with watercolor pencils by now, human faces feel very different from urban scenes. Trees, cars, trash cans and buildings are more forgiving than the subtle planes of the face. But with more than a hundred portraits under my belt now, I pulled out a few Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles and gave myself a shove.

In my first try (at left), I used the technique I’m most familiar with outdoors – spritzing trees. I put in a heavy application of color on the shaded side of the man’s face (all reference photos by Earthsworld) and gave him a quick shower.

With a couple of portraits (below), I used an Uglybooks sketchbook, which is sized for dry media. Although I knew the paper wouldn’t hold up well to a lot of water, I tried it anyway, just to see what would happen. I applied fairly heavy layers of color, then used a waterbrush to activate. As expected, the paper buckled, and the color didn’t float at all. The effects I got weren’t necessarily bad – just not what I was after. It was interesting to try, anyway.

1/31/23 Museum Aquarelles in Uglybook sketchbook

1/31/23 Museum Aquarelles in Uglybook sketchbook

The rest of the portraits shown here are in a square Hahnemühle sketchbook with 100 percent cotton paper. (This is not the Akademie Aquarell book I use for general urban sketching, which is not 100 percent cotton.) Although I’ve used the 100 percent cotton book for many small urban sketches since last summer because it (barely) fits in my fitness-walking bag, these portraits made me appreciate the paper’s quality more than I usually do.

1/30/23 Museum Aquarelles in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

1/30/23 Museum Aquarelles in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

My general technique is to draw the hair and facial features and then drag a waterbrush downward through the drawing on the shaded side. (Of course, the risk is that I will use too much water or not enough – I only get a single shot – and my carefully drawn features might be "ruined." But thats always the risk of using unpredictable water media, isnt it?) If features get too washed out, I wait until the page is dry, then go back in with dry pencils to redraw details that may have been lost. The cotton paper and excellent sizing both keep the pigments afloat long enough to make the subtle washes that I like on faces. I don’t really take advantage of these paper qualities when I’m out on location, but here they really shine.

2/1/23 Museum Aquarelles in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

2/1/23 Museum Aquarelles in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

1/30/23 Museum Aquarelles in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

Most of these portraits capture a reasonably good resemblance of their models, but my favorite is actually the one that bears the least resemblance (the woman in glasses with short, spikey hair, at right). It achieves a level of looseness or freshness that I have been reaching for but didn’t know how to get. Maybe it just takes doing something nearly daily more than a hundred times for that freshness (or whatever it is) to finally kick in. That’s what creativity is: Not a flash of inspiration from a muse but just opening the sketchbook every day.

Even more inspiring now!
Incidentally, I am currently re-reading Portrait Revolution, a book I was introduced to two years ago by a sketcher on Instagram who has taken part in Julia Kay’s Portrait Party. The party originated as a worldwide Flickr group with local groups that have also met in person (hey, sounds like Urban Sketchers!). On Flickr, members must upload their own photos to be used as references by group members, and then they can also draw or paint from the photos of other members. I haven’t participated yet, but I intend to soon.

When I first read it, I felt inspired by the hundreds of portraits made in a huge variety of styles and media, but I didn’t do much other than a selfie. Now that I’ve been focusing on portraiture for several months, I’m much more ready to soak in the inspiration offered by the book. In fact, it was after I began re-reading that I started making these watercolor pencil portraits, so it is obviously giving me a push in some indirect way – as a good book will do.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Street View World Tour

 

2/2/23 Chicago skyline (from Google street view image)

2/2/23 Hong Kong (from Google street view image)
Although it’s been going on since the time of pandemic lockdowns, I had never participated in Street View World Tour until Thursday. Ellie Doughty and Jenny Adam co-host the free monthly Zoom event by choosing urban views around the globe for participants to sketch.

February’s theme was skylines. As a warm-up, we spent a few minutes sketching hills above Hong Kong’s skyscrapers (at left).

Each event features a participant who gives a brief demo. Arnaud de Meyer chose to demo a somewhat daunting scene of his home city of Luxembourg (below) with a stone wall surrounding old architecture in the middle ground and modern towers in the background. I used warm and cool hues of the secondary triad to separate the two architectural styles and spaces.

2/2/23 Luxembourg (from Google street view image)

Chicago’s skyline (top of post) was much less daunting, partly because it was familiar to me but maybe more because the buildings could be abstracted more easily into dark and light stripes. With fond memories of sunny days during the Chicago symposium, I chose a summery primary triad for this view taken from a boat in Lake Michigan toward the beach.

My resistance to sketching from photos had always been strongest when the photos were of locations I had never been to, selected by someone else. Everything about that experience seemed counter to aspects I love most about urban sketching. However, getting over my aversion to sketching from portrait photos helped me get over that hump with street view sketching, too. It helps when someone who knows the location talks about it. Street View World Tour will never be the same as sketching on location, but it was fun to sketch the same views with nearly a hundred other sketchers from many different time zones.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Danish Day

 

1/30/23 Out of croissants? No problem.

To motivate myself to go out for a walk in the sub-freezing temperature on Monday, I dangled two carrots: One was an opportunity for a sketch (my usual walk-taking carrot); the other was an opportunity for a croissant. It was National Croissant Day, which I observe annually. I’ve celebrated with friends – both in person and on Zoom – as well as by myself.

Walking briskly, trying not to get chilled, I thought about that croissant all the way to Green Lake, where I planned to stop at the PCC for a warm-up coffee and my national observance. Apparently others before me knew of the holiday, because they were already sold out! A cream Danish would have to do. I did my best to bite it into the shape of a croissant before sketching it. (I’m sure the French would be aghast to hear me say this, but a Danish tastes nearly the same as a croissant.)


Incidentally, I researched to see if there was a National Danish Day, and there is, but it honors the Danish people, not their pastry. Too bad – I thought I had another one to put on my calendar.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Feng Shui

 

1/30/23 Mt. Rainier, Cascade Mountain range, at sunrise

A long time ago, I read an article mentioning that Seattle is one of the best locations in the world for feng shui. Surrounded by water bodies on three sides and mountains to both the east and to the west, it’s considered to be nearly ideal. Apparently some practitioners move here just to get the feng shui benefits of being nestled in the center of mountains, lakes and Puget Sound.

Monday morning dawned to perfectly clear skies and 22 degrees. Warm and comfy in our livingroom, I scribbled Mt. Rainier’s dark blue silhouette (what I could see of it behind our neighbor’s roof) against the pale orange sky. A few minutes later, the sun came up, and Rainier demurred.

1/30/23 The Brothers, Olympic Mountain range

A few hours later when the temp had risen to a balmy 31, I stood on the Interstate 5 overpass on Northeast 85th Street. Rainier to the southeast was hazy, but I was there to sketch The Brothers. All I had to do was pivot 90 degrees from the same spot, and there they were, distinct on the western horizon.

I don’t practice feng shui; all I know about it is in the first paragraph. But when I can sketch two mountain peaks on the same morning, from home and from a few blocks away, with a walk to a lake in between, I have no doubt that I’m in a good place.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Portraiture as Playground

1/23/23 Pitt Artist pen and Prismacolors in Uglybook sketchbook

My portraiture practice based on Earthsworld’s photos has become an excellent playground for trying different media as well as approaches (for those of you who do not have access to Instagram, that link above goes to his website instead). At right, I again used a colored “grisaille” with a Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen, this time in dark, cool green. Inspired by the pale green Uglybook paper, it was an odd choice for a portrait, but I thought the complement with the mostly red Zorn palette would be interesting, and I’m pleased with the result.

The portrait below was a dabble in Caran d’Ache pastel pencils. Despite my ongoing aversion to the messy dust they produce, I keep wanting to explore pastels because of their vibrant opacity. I worked on it one evening up to the point shown at left. When I looked at it in the morning, I realized what it needed to make that brilliant white hair pop – and what an easy fix! I also used a stump to blend the facial colors a bit.

1/24/23 Pastel pencils in Uglybook
1/25/23


For the next two portraits, I tried some Stabilo Arty brush pens. Yikes – markers can be so harsh and unforgiving! Apologies to these models!

1/26/23 Stabilo Arty brush marker in Uglybook
1/26/23 Stabilo Arty brush marker in Uglybook

Below, I tried one with a vintage Walnut Hollow Farm colored pencil, which was such a delicious match with the slightly toothy Uglybook paper. (I was given a few colors of these rare, much-sought, long-extinct pencils, which are now on my eBay saved-search list!)

1/28/23 Walnut Hollow Farm colored pencil in Uglybook

1/22/23 Bic ballpoint in Moleskine sketchbook

As much as I love to explore different media, sometimes I go back to a beloved Bic ballpoint – an instrument that I struggled with for a long time but that now feels like a familiar, old friend. I now make all ballpoint sketches with gratitude to France Van Stone, whose online courses changed both the way I approach portraiture as well as this common tool.

Most of the reference photos for these portraits were selected by the Drawing Earthsworld Challenge Facebook group. The moderator tends to choose photos that I would typically avoid – those that are either fully in shade, fully lighted from the front, wearing large hats or are otherwise “difficult” by my initial glance. This is exactly why it’s an excellent challenge for me: I am “forced” to use references I would otherwise avoid, and I always learn from them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Rare View of the Strongest Bite

 

1/27/23 Jaguar, Woodland Park Zoo

Taking our fitness walk through Woodland Park Zoo last week, we got the best view we’ve ever had of a jaguar. Usually the big cats are roaming in the distance, and although I was able to sketch a lion once, I’ve never gotten close enough to a jaguar to sketch it. A docent told us that jaguars have the strongest bite of all the wild cats. What a beauty!

When we needed to warm up, we popped into the tropical aviary, home to an impressive variety of colorful and exotic birds. Dressed in down parkas and gloves, we got a bit too toasty in the humidity, but it was fun to try to find the tiny birds hidden within the foliage. The toco toucan was the only resident who perched long enough for me to sketch.

Toco toucan

Photo by Greg while I was busy sketching.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Color “Grisaille” – Photos vs. Life

 

1/20/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood (on location)

After practicing the color “grisaille” from photos, I wanted to give it a try on location. (After all, that’s my main motivation for anything I practice – I want to eventually apply what I learn to drawing from life.) Rain and cold temps haven’t made it easy, but on-and-off sunshine helps.

On a cold morning neighborhood walk, the low sun (when isn’t the sun low in the winter?) illuminated the side of a tree and the house behind it (at right). I used a purple Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Brush Pen for the darkest tone and filled in the midtones with colored pencils. Typically I would leave the lightest tone paper-white, but because I was using a coolish, pale green Uglybook, I tried warming the bright side of the house with yellow pencil. (The composition feels a little unbalanced since I left the other side of the tree empty.)

That same day, I had to pick up my car that was being serviced in the neighborhood during the golden hour – an unusual time for me to be walking in winter. The light was spectacular, but I knew it would be brief, so I snapped several photos quickly. I regretted not sketching on the spot, but that low, late light is the one circumstance when even this fast sketcher can’t keep up: The best part of the golden hour lasts about five minutes. 

I knew the photos would make great studies later, though (below). Using Pitt pens in only blue and yellow, I made the “grisaille” for two compositions. Then I used a pale orange pencil and a blue pencil to add a little more color and to round out the gradation on the water tower.

1/22/23 Two studies from photos

A few days later, I had another rare experience: I sketched from life the same scene at Green Lake Village that I had sketched from a photo previously (below). I didn’t have the benefit of those nice reflections on the wet pavement when I sketched from life, and I think the composition was a bit better from the photo. Of course, I enjoyed the experience of sketching on location more, but I noticed that making a study first from a photo took away some of the freshness of my experience on location. Maybe if I had waited longer between the two, it wouldn’t have affected me that way.

1/19/23 Study from photo

1/23/23 Green Lake Village (on location)

Other observations:

  • Although I’ve come to realize that this color “grisaille” technique is no different from what opaque media painters do, my roundabout way of arriving here with colored pencils – one underpainting idea leading (or misleading) me to the next – has been an interesting process of self-study. I’m enjoying the exploration.

  •  Using Pitt brush markers has reminded me of something I realized years ago when I was using gray-tone Pitt markers as an actual grisaille: I don’t care for the look of making the initial contour drawing with markers – the lines are too thick and solid. I’m going back to doing that task with a colored pencil, then filling in afterwards with markers.

  • Although Pitt brush markers come in something like 90 colors, and I have a lot of them, the palette is missing a blue-violet that I often want. I’m trying to find no more than two colors that work for most scenes because I don’t want to carry around a huge fistful of bulky markers.

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