Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Book Review: Archisketcher

I almost didn’t buy this book.

I’ve read nearly every book available with the words “urban sketching” (or similar phrases) in the title, and I occasionally go through my public library’s catalog or Amazon.com to see if any new titles have shown up. (Amazon is uncanny in its ability to let me know if a book I may be interested in has been newly published – amazing, isn’t it.) So when I heard about Archisketcher – Drawing Buildings, Cities and Urban Landscapes by Simone Ridyard, my first impulse was to buy it – but then I paused. Did I really need yet another book on urban sketching? What could this one offer that the others haven’t?

Unlike most others I’ve read, this book is written by an architect, which made me pause even longer. As much as I admire Simone’s urban sketches, I was worried that the book would have a stronger emphasis on architectural drawing (drawing buildings the way architects draw buildings) than I was interested in. Technical instructions on achieving three-point perspective? No, thanks.

Then I saw the photos and video flip-through on Parka Blogs. Even if there was nothing else to be gained from the book, at least it would be full of delicious eye candy: many luscious sketches by all my favorite urban sketchers. Who can resist candy?

Not me – and I’m certainly happy I didn’t resist after all! Filled with many different styles of urban sketching, this book has very little to do with drawing like an architect and everything to do with helping you make buildings come alive in your sketchbook. Its goal is not to teach you how to draw but to show a variety of approaches so that you can find and express your own.

The list of contributors reads like a who’s-who of contemporary urban sketching – Shari Blaukopf, Nina Johansson, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, Suhita Shirodkar and Liz Steel are among the more than 40 artists worldwide – but my guess is that at least half are not architects, which I found inspiring in and of itself. “You don’t need to be an architect to sketch architecture confidently,” says Simone in the introduction, and a quick scan of the book would tell you that’s true.

Focusing on composition, color, viewpoint and other aspects of architectural sketching, Archisketcher expands on each aspect by showing multiple examples. Each of the book’s five main sections ends with “Sketching an Icon,” in which sketches by several artists of the same well-known structure (such as Notre Dame or the Brooklyn Bridge) are shown together. I found it fascinating to see how sketchers take on the same subject in such varied ways. In addition, each section highlights two urban sketchers showing their home towns in “My Neighborhood.” Both of these unique selections of sketches are especially inspiring and enjoyable to savor again and again.

One other unique feature of Archisketcher is the author’s particular viewpoint as an architect, which is apparent in brief but illuminating sidebars to many sketches. Simone might comment on the historical significance of a Moorish tower appearing in Alvarao Carnicero’s sketch, for example, or how the roofline of a city becomes its signature. As someone who has never studied architecture, even casually, I really appreciate this context and the opportunity to view a sketch the way an architect might.

Other than brief lessons on one-point and two-point perspective, the book contains no how-to instructions or basics found in most urban sketching books (such as suggested art materials or portability tips). For those reasons, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to a novice. Instead, I’d say its audience is sketchers who have a few years of sketching under their belts and are now looking for ways to step-up their architectural sketching level. Perhaps that group includes sketchers who are comfortable with most subjects, but architecture still intimidates them. I could also see experienced sketchers who are comfortable with architecture nonetheless being inspired by the wide variety of approaches shown that could get them out of a potential sketching rut. There’s something here for almost everyone – and definitely candy for all.

(A shorter version of this review appears on Amazon.com.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

An Afternoon at the Zoo

8/3/15 ink
By this point in the summer, I normally would have visited Woodland Park Zoo several times, but for whatever reason, it’s been off my radar this year. I had heard that the temperature would only get up to about 80 today (instead of 90 the last couple weeks), so it was a good day to spend some quality time with animals.

Although the sketch doesn’t look like much, I was especially tickled to catch the Asian small-clawed otters all piled up in a community nap. Every other time I’ve seen them, they were chasing each other like squirrels – impossible to sketch! The two-toed sloth was another animal I’d never sketched before (my goal is to sketch every type of animal at Woodland Park at least once).

8/3/15 ink, colored pencil
Whenever I get frustrated by animals that walk off before I can finish, I take a walk through the Family Farm petting zoo, where the goats and sheep are usually lethargically chewing cud – probably the easiest of all zoo critters to sketch. And although I’ve sketched the hippo several times before, she’s impossible to resist.

8/3/15 inks

8/3/15 inks

8/3/15 inks

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A (Nearly) Single Line Sketch (Plus Inky PSA)

8/2/15 brush pens
Using a continuous, single line to draw an object’s contour – sometimes without looking at the paper, which is called blind contour drawing – is one of those exercises that many how-to-draw books recommend. I’ve tried it numerous times, but only with still lifes, life drawing or my own hand – never while sketching on location.

Yesterday Larry Marshall had a compelling blog post about his attempts at single-line sketches on location, as recommended by Marc Taro Holmes in his free, downloadable tutorial, Making Expressive Pen and Ink Drawings on Location. I empathized with the frustrations Larry experienced, but I was also intrigued by the process. After reading Marc’s tutorial (which was a good review of some of the main concepts he covered in his book, The Urban Sketcher), I gave it a try.

Since today is Seafair Sunday, the culmination of a month-long summer celebration highlighted by clogged traffic everywhere, I decided that I would travel the shortest distance possible and still be able to call it “on location”: I walked out the French doors to the tiny deck off our bedroom and looked across the street to sketch a neighbor’s house. (It’s actually a fun house to sketch at different times of day.)

Instead of my typical fountain pen, I chose two sizes of hard fiber-tipped brush pens (not the kind with real brushes that I usually prefer). I used the finer one to do the continuous, single line drawing, and as Larry expressed doing, I spent a fair amount of energy strategizing how to keep the line moving without lifting it off the page. It’s like drawing with an Etch-a-Sketch! I found that all the trees and shrubs surrounding the house were a handy place to scribble over from one place to another. I had to cheat only once to add a line I realized I had missed after lifting my pen from the page. Then as Marc suggested, I used the larger-tipped brush pen to emphasize shadows. And as long as I had that pen in my hand, I went on to add more trees and an indication of the house next door. After that I cheated more deliberately by using a waterbrush to wash the water-soluble ink in the larger-tipped brush pen and put more shading in.

Having done only one sketch instead of five as Marc recommends, I found that my pen jerked rather than “flowed.” Still, I could already see the value of this type of practice in preventing me from getting bogged down with details and in gaining confidence with drawing quickly. This sketch took no more than five minutes. I’m going to try it again soon.

Now on to the public service announcement part of this post:

At left is the improvised cap liner I made to replace the one I
stupidly tossed out, making a continual mess of ink.
You know that thin, plasticy or foamy liner inside the lid caps of bottled ink? I didn’t realize it served a function, so when it fell out of the cap to my bottle of Sailor Jentle Doyou ink recently, I simply chucked it. The next time I went to fill my pen, I noticed that a large dribble of ink had dripped down the outside of the bottle, making a huge mess. No matter how carefully I wiped out the lid or the bottle mouth, the ink continued to pool and then dribble down every time I opened or closed it. It was then that I realized that the thing I casually tossed out actually served as a seal between the lid and the bottle mouth, preventing such drips. Such a simple thing yet with an important function!

The messy ink bottle label.
Risking ridicule for being the last person in a first-world country to know this (in which case, this PSA won’t serve many), I posted a cry for help on Facebook’s Fountain Pen Network. Literally within minutes, several helpful fountain pen users replied that the same kind of liner material can be found on other similar lids, such as those on vitamin bottles. I went through our supply of various emptied containers and found a liner of similar size. I cut it down to fit inside the Sailor Jentle lid, and voilĂ ! Problem solved. I was told by one poster that without the seal, the ink would have evaporated over time, so I’m especially relieved to have solved the issue quickly.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Early Morning at Green Lake

8/1/15 ink, watercolor

Here in Seattle, we’ve been breaking all kinds of weather records this summer. Highest average temps, most number of days in the year with temps of 90 or higher, hottest July ever recorded, driest summer. Whew – even blogging about it makes me sweat!

One sure bet about heat in these parts, though, is that no matter how hot it gets during the day, it cools down overnight, so by early morning, it’s actually chilly enough to wear a sweater in the shade. Such was the case at 6:30 a.m. when I headed for Green Lake today. Last night’s Blue Moon was setting, and Mt. Rainier was clearly visible.

I rarely visit the Green Lake Starbucks because it’s almost always mobbed, especially on Saturday, but I arrived early enough that I found exactly the table I wanted. Although they aren’t oaks, this line of trees leading from the street to the lake always reminds me of Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. Instead of an antebellum Big House, it’s the Green Lake community center at the other end. And unlike Louisiana this time of year, the air was still cool and crisp. The sunlight dappling the tree trunks changed by the second.

Even in spite of our broken heat records, I’d rather be here in the summer than just about anywhere else on earth.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Shilshole in the Sunshine

7/31/15 inks, watercolor, colored pencils

Last summer when Urban Sketchers Seattle met at Shilshole Marina, the morning started out chilly and foggy, though that burned off quickly. Not so today for the Friday sketchers – we had full-on sun, clear, blue skies and excellent opportunities for shadows. Although I sketched Leif Erikson’s statue last time, the shadow opportunities prompted me to take a wider view this morning to capture the whole memorial to Nordic immigrants. On one side of each of the stone markers is a plaque engraved with individual immigrants’ names and the year they arrived.

I stood in full sun to make this sketch, and it took me longer than planned because the one you see above was the second try. The first (mis)try is shown below. Shortly after beginning, I saw that my proportions for Leif were all wrong – so I abandoned the sketch immediately.

Abandoned quickly.
Now that I’m going on my fourth year as a sketcher, I still think of myself as a beginner, though I’ve also gained much experience from daily sketching. It occurs to me that nearly four years of experience does not prevent me from making mistakes like the abandoned sketch. What four years of sketching has given me is the wisdom to realize (most of the time) that when proportions are wrong, no amount of futzing is going to make the sketch look right, so the best solution is to start over quickly. During my first couple of years, I would have kept going, not really understanding why the sketch didn’t look right. Even if I understood that, I would have continued anyway, trying to fix it. After wasting an hour or more, I’d come to the same conclusion: The sketch still didn’t look right.

If abandoning a bad sketch immediately is all I’ve learned in four years, I’m good with that!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Maple Leaf Summer Social

7/29/15 brush pen, colored pencil
Last night was our neighborhood’s 20th annual Maple Leaf Summer Social at Maple Leaf Park. It’s a fun, low-key family festival highlighted by free ice cream bars donated by Maple Leaf Ace Hardware/Reckless Video owners Mike Kelly and Kathy Stephenson. Last year they gave out 1,750 ice cream bars during the two-hour event! Not to be outdone, Flying Squirrel Pizza gave out free pizza slices, too. Kids got their faces painted and balloon animals made, and everyone enjoyed live music and the cool breeze on a hot evening.

Scarfing down our Dove bars before they melted, I looked around for a sketch while Greg searched for photo opps. New to the festival this year was a Seattle Police Department mounted police officer and his horse, Chance, a 10-year-old quarter horse. I even got a sticker!

7/29/15 inks, colored pencils
Eventually I wandered over to listen to the band and stood behind the musicians so I could get more of the park in the composition.

Free ice cream, live music, sketching – that’s my idea of a perfect summer night.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rabbit Library

7/29/15 inks, watercolor, colored pencils
This is a Little Free Library that I spotted several months ago in my own Maple Leaf neighborhood. It’s directly across the street from another one that I sketched last month. Although the design and construction of the two libraries are so similar that I’m sure they were built by the same person, this one is decorated very differently: It has a rabbit theme. In addition to the rabbit painted on the side (along with a Hemingway quotation – “There is no friend as loyal as a book”), the door knob is also a tiny bunny.

Technical note: See where I wrote the quotation? My new Pilot with a posting nib is the only fountain pen I own that can write that fine! It’s not for loose, expressive drawings, but I sure like it for certain tasks.
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