Monday, October 5, 2015

The Price is Right

10/3/15 ink, colored pencils, watercolor
On Friday afternoon a friend who knew about my Urban Couches series sent me a text with a photo attached: a couch she had spotted on the sidewalk. I couldn’t go sketch it just then, but I knew I had to hurry or it might be gone, so I went out as soon as I could on Saturday morning. Score!

While on my walk, I also saw a pile of siding with a “free” sign attached. I’ll leave that for another series, though.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Product Review: Pilot Parallel Pens

Pilot Parallel pens
Ever since that teaser post a couple weeks ago when I mentioned I had gotten a set of Pilot Parallel pens, I’ve been giving them a full-tilt trial. And what fun! They aren’t for everything, but I sure love them for some things.

The nib has a unique design: two parallel plates with a straight-across, slightly serrated edge. JetPens describes the purpose of this design as follows: “This allows it to distribute ink more evenly than conventional metal italic nibs while also being crisper and far more durable than a felt-tipped calligraphy pen.” The feed is also slightly different from conventional fountain pens. After installing a cartridge or converter (it takes Pilot’s standard of both), you can’t simply let gravity or capillary action pull ink toward the nib as you can with other fountain pens. You have to give the cartridge a squeeze or twist the converter a bit to push ink between those parallel plates. (It takes quite a push – the puny converter is half empty by the time the ink is flowing.)

The Parallel comes in four sizes
ranging from 1.5mm to 6mm.

Apparently the parallel plates also require additional maintenance compared to most fountain pens. A small piece of thin plastic is included with the pen, which enables “flossing” between the plates. I haven’t experienced any problems so far, but according to the instructions that came with the pens, paper fibers can get caught in there and clog it up. In addition, a special cleaning bulb is included to flush water thoroughly through the nib (I use a syringe as I do with all my fountain pens, and it works just as well).

I’m having the most fun with the largest 6mm size because of its extreme width, but it’s probably the least versatile. I found it easier to sketch men’s angular features with it rather than the softer lines in women’s faces. On the other hand, it is terrific for sketching trees of all kinds.

The smallest 1.5mm size is the most versatile; I use it to sketch people, trees, chickens, whatever. It reminds me of the Franklin-Christoph music nib that I also love, and its nib is about the same size.

The 6mm nib on its flat side.
The corner of the 6mm nib writes like
a conventional fine-point fountain pen.
However, there is one important difference between all of my music nibs and the Parallels of any size: Both nib types can make a wide stroke when held with the flat edge against the paper and a medium stroke when that edge is pulled in the perpendicular direction; that’s probably true of all italic or stub nibs. The key difference with the Parallel, though, is that you can also use the corner of the nib – which will draw or write just like a conventional round nib (comparable to Pilot’s F nib, such as a Metropolitan or Petit1). That’s because ink flows between the whole width of the nib’s plates, not just a single center point as on music nibs. I doubt the Parallel nib was intended to be used on the corner, so perhaps I’ll eventually trash it (I’ll let you know if that happens!). I wouldn’t say drawing with the corner is particularly smooth, but it isn’t intolerably scratchy, either (I’ve certainly used worse). But what I like is that by being able to use the corner as well as the edges that are supposed to be used, my 6mm Parallel makes the widest range of lines in a single pen – bar none. I can make bold chisel marks and make conventional lines, too. After my months-long Epic Search to find the grail of variable-line-width fountain pens, this is an interesting and unexpected turn of events. J

9/24/15 Private Reserve Velvet Black ink, Pilot
Parallel 1.5mm
Is the Parallel a new grail? Certainly not. For one thing, its dang cap will not post! Arrgghhh! This is one of my biggest fountain pen peeves: If a cap doesn’t post, I am bound to lose it eventually, and without a cap, a fountain pen is useless. For another, that range of variable lines is really three distinct points – small, medium, large – and not a gradation like my Sailor fude.

I think the Parallel might be more than a novelty, though. It encourages me to sketch loosely and quickly, which is almost always a good thing. It’s also made by Pilot, and I’ve been continually impressed by the overall quality of its pens at any price point. Ask me in six months or a year whether I’m still using the Parallel, and that will be the real answer. But in the meantime, I’m having tons of fun.

9/25/15 Parallel 1.5mm
9/25/15 Sailor Tokiwa-matsu ink, Parallel 6mm 

9/18/15 Diamine Autumn Oak ink,
Parallel 2.4mm, colored pencil
9/19/15 Parallel 1.5mm

9/20/15 Parallel 1.5mm, watercolor
9/24/15 Parallel 6mm and 2.4mm
9/18/15 Parallel 6mm and 2.4mm

9/25/15 Parallel 1.5mm
9/20/15 Parallel 1.5mm, colored pencils

9/20/15 Parallel 6mm

10/2/15 Parallels 6mm, 2.4mm, 1.5mm

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Mail Truck Instead of a Couch

10/2/15 inks
The problem with my Urban Couches series is that I have to be quick once a couch is spotted. On our way to an appointment yesterday morning, we saw a couch in our neighborhood, but I didn’t have time to sketch it just then. I went back in the afternoon, and apparently that “free” price tag was too good a deal to pass up.

But that didn’t stop me from a sketch. Less than a block away, I spotted a mail truck, which I’ve always wanted to sketch, parked behind a traffic circle maple that is just starting to turn. And wouldn’t you know it – I just happened to have pens with both green and orange inks! (And you wonder why I carry so many pens.) An Inktober score.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Urban Couches (Plus Inktober)

10/1/15 inks, colored pencils
A couple of weeks ago when an abandoned couch happened to appear in a sketch, I jokingly commented on Facebook that I see discarded furniture on the street so often that I should start a series. A few days later, I drove by a couch on the sidewalk just a few blocks from my house. When I went by yesterday, other random trash had been piled onto it – a piece of plywood and barbecue tongs. The owner didn’t even bother to put a “free” sign on it.

While I was standing on the sidewalk across the street, not yet sketching but just studying my subject, a neighbor walked by and said, “Are you selling or buying?”

“Neither – just sketching,” I replied.

Two sketches – I now have the beginning of a series. My local Facebook friends are on point to let me know when they spot a couch.

10/1/15 #inktober
P.S. Yesterday I impulsively decided to take part in Inktober, the challenge to make one drawing in ink per day during the 31 days of October. By default, it would be easy for me to fulfill this challenge, since I sketch daily anyway, and ink is almost always at least one of the media used. So I’m giving myself an added challenge of making these Inktober sketches in ink only – any subject, any size. And I also thought it would be fun to photograph each sketch with the pen used (if I can remember to do that). I probably won’t blog about all of them, but if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see them there.

P.P.S. Go to illustrator Jake Parker’s Inktober page – he shows nine of his favorite inking tools, almost all of which I own, too! Inky minds think alike.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


9/30/15 ink, watercolor, Zig marker

After an appointment in Ballard, I was walking back to my car when I heard a lot of trucky noises. A few blocks away was the source: A huge pile of dirt and several trucks going into and out of the dirt’s lot. Conveniently, an off-duty excavator was parked right by the pile, making it easy for me to sketch both.

I had been assuming that the lot was just one of the gazillion construction projects going on in Seattle, but a passer-by who stopped to look at my sketch filled me in. The lot I was sketching was part of the Dirt Exchange, a place where you can go to either sell dirt you don’t want or buy dirt that you need.

Urban sketching: You learn something every day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Museum of Flight: More Values with Markers

9/28/15 ink, Pitt Big Brush markers, fountain pen, colored pencils (Lockheed Super G Constellation)

The day after Don Colley’s urban sketching workshop, he met Urban Sketchers Seattle at the Museum of Flight for more sketching. Other than at life drawing, I have never been much of a fan of toned paper. But I’d seen Don’s effective use of it, especially with his favorite gray Pitt brush markers, so I grabbed my Strathmore Toned Gray sketchbook to give it a try.

9/28/15 Pitt Big Brush markers, fountain pen (WWI Caproni Ca 20)
Like the previous workshop day, Monday afternoon turned out bright and sunny. I climbed up to the museum’s “control tower” for a great view of the Lockheed Super G Constellation. It seemed almost a travesty to make a sketch including that gorgeous blue sky – on gray paper (although it would work well most of the year)!

Next I wandered to a part of the museum I’d never seen before – the World War I gallery. Unfortunately, it was very dark, making it difficult to identify the values in the Italian fighter plane, the Caproni Ca 20, let alone shade them accurately.

9/28/15 Pitt Big Brush markers, fountain pen, colored pencils
(USAir 737 demonstrator)
I had only about 20 minutes before the scheduled meet-up time to share sketchbooks. With that time constraint to keep me from getting bogged down with details, I chose a challenging but fun composition: a nearly nose-on view of the USAir 737 demonstrator. Its polished surface reflected the light in the Great Gallery’s all-glass walls in crazy ways!

I have to say, I’m still not a fan of the Strathmore Toned Gray paper (which, admittedly, is made for pastels and graphite, not markers). The marker ink seemed to sink into its surface, causing it to appear lighter once it dried. The smudging and blending trick did not work at all. I might try a tan paper next to see if I like a warmer tone better. Still, with the markers in hand, I find I am observing values more carefully, and if that practice ultimately improves my sketches, I’m all for toned paper. 

See Dons Faber-Castell Road Trip blog for his sketches from the Museum of Flight.

Don sketching in the Great Gallery
From left: Kate, Feather, Frances, Tina, Michele and Don

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Urban Sketching with Don Colley

Don Colley teaching at the Daniel Smith store.
The mirror above reflects his sketchbook
About four years ago, only a couple months after I had started sketching, I went to a demo at Daniel Smith’s Seattle store by Don Colley. Although I had already been hooked on urban sketching by then (seeing images online had gotten me hooked long before I had actually put pen to paper), Don’s sketchbooks opened my eyes – wide. Up to that point, most of the sketches I’d seen online were of buildings and urban landscapes, and as much as they inspired and dazzled me, they also intimidated me. I wanted to sketch them, but I didn’t know how to approach all that architectural stuff. Then I discovered Don’s work – in addition to buildings and urban scenes, he makes breathtaking sketches of people sitting in cafes, sleeping on buses and doing other ordinary things – all the stuff that goes on inside those buildings. It made me realize that people and interiors were part of urban sketching, too, and that seemed much more approachable.

During his demo using Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens, Don let us skim through his piles of extraordinary sketchbooks, and one particular sketch stays with me even today – a woman reading in a coffee shop, head down over her book, the light illuminating her hair in a way that is nothing less than magical – sketched with dark blue markers. He did that with markers? Whew. I’ve been following Don’s sketches ever since, continually marveling at his mastery of the human form – both captured in the urban landscape as well as in the life-drawing studio.

Of course I bought a set of Pitt markers after that demo. Unfortunately, my set was defective – it didn’t come with the super powers in Don’s pens, so I soon gave them up.

You can imagine how thrilled I was a few weeks ago when I heard that Don would be in Seattle to teach a workshop called “Travel Drawing - People and Figure”! At last I could learn the magic! Although the course description said that we could use any media we wanted, I decided it would be my opportunity to give those markers another try.

9/27/15 Pitt Artist Big Brush Pens, fountain pen,
Zig marker, colored pencil
On a crispy-cold but beautiful Sunday morning, a bunch of eager sketchers arrived at Daniel Smith to learn Don’s ways. For the first hour, he described his approach to urban sketching and showed many examples from his sketchbooks. He always tries to catch the fleeting elements first – the person who is likely to walk off or other things that may change. Using a lightly toned marker, he quickly sets up his composition, including making small marks to place any figures who might imminently run from the scene. Then, using a range of cool and warm gray Pitt brush markers in a grisaille manner, he builds up the scene. Strategically placing warm and cool tones enables him to differentiate between foreground, middle ground and distance.

Using shading is the most common way to describe three dimensions in forms, but Don also likes to look for patterns to do the job. He showed examples of how sleeve stripes bending around a person’s arm or the upholstery pattern on a chair can give dimension to those forms.

When I asked how he manages to avoid the streaky “marker-ish” look, he said he uses the markers’ tendency to make bands to help describe the texture and direction of a surface. We all watched with fascination as he extended the typical possibilities of markers by using his thumbs to smudge and blend the ink before it dries. He prefers sized paper because the sizing retards absorption of ink, and if sized in the right manner, it prevents feathering and wicking so the drawn lines are crisper, and there is more fidelity to the marks. He also applies the ink directly from the marker to the paper with his thumb, bypassing the marker tip altogether. And that ink all over his thumb? He uses that, too – like a stamp to add texture to fabrics and foliage!

Don’s approach toward urban sketching is to create a “narrative” of the scene before him. “I’m not a camera; I’m an interpreter,” he said, encouraging us to be selective in choosing our composition.

Don uses Pitt markers on more than paper!
Dazzled by what we’d seen in an hour, we were hungry for more. What surprised us, though, was that we would be moving from the cozy classroom to nearby Alki Beach for the rest of our workshop. Remember that crispy-cold weather I mentioned? Had I known, I would have worn more than two layers! Brrrr!

Some hardy sketchers braved Alki’s biting wind, but not me – I ducked into a Vietnamese tea shop with Frances for my first workshop sketch. Through the window was one of my favorite scenes: a utility pole and lots of wires. As Don had suggested, I tried using the warm and cool marker tones to create a sense of distance.

During lunch, while the rest of us scarfed down pizza, Don pulled out more sketchbooks to talk about concepts and techniques. The highlight of our lunchtime “lecture” was when he used a marker on his own face to show how to place features accurately on a head!

The afternoon didn’t warm up as I had hoped, so again, while some sketchers opted to sketch on the beach, I went indoors – this time with Michele to Top Pot Doughnuts. Lucky for me, a laptop-absorbed victim gave me plenty of opportunity to try sketching a person with gray-tone markers. And lucky for both of us, Don decided to get out of the cold at Top Pot, too, so we were able to get his feedback on the spot. With a few deftly made marker strokes, he improved my sketch immensely. (And what was Don doing while we were sketching? He sketched us!)
9/27/15 Pitt Artist Big Brush Pens, fountain pen

As has been true in many a workshop, the key lesson in Dons class was values, values, values. If you get them right, the whole sketch looks right. I don’t know if Pitt markers will become my medium of choice, but one thing is certain: Using a range of gray tones is one of the fastest ways to learn to “read” and understand values. The second thing that’s certain is that there’s nothing magical about Pitt markers – it’s the man holding the markers that makes the magic.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post when I show the sketches I made at the Museum of Flight – more value studies with Pitt markers.

Check out the workshop swag from Faber-Castell!

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