Sunday, September 21, 2014

Channeling My Inner KK at the Sculpture Park

9/21/14 India ink, twig, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
We’ve all heard of the proverbial artist who can create a masterpiece using only a toothpick and ketchup. I haven’t seen a demo using those media yet, but the one I saw in Paraty last month came close: Ch’ng Kiah Kiean (better known as KK) wielding a twig and Chinese ink. After his inspiring demo, I gave it a shot myself, vowing to try it again later at home. This sunny morning at the Olympic Sculpture Park, which got a huge turnout of Seattle Urban Sketchers, I had an opportunity to give my twig a better workout.

I didn’t have Chinese ink at home, so I used India ink. KK’s trick is to place a piece of medical gauze in a small jar and pour only enough ink into the jar to saturate the gauze. This trick addresses two issues: It keeps the ink from spilling (especially important when wearing a white sweater), and it allows the twig to pick up a very small amount of ink, which results in KK’s signature “dry” ink look.

9/21/14 India ink, twig, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
Once I picked up my twig, I had to dispense with a few things immediately. The first was the illusion of control. The second was my penchant for details: twig sketching is all about big shapes. The third was color. The latter was a tough one – who doesn’t want to put a big splash of red across the page when sketching Calder’s Eagle? (It helped that I’d already been to the sculpture park with a sketchbook several times.) Once those were out the window, I had so much fun sketching with that most primitive of sketching tools. A big benefit of twig sketching is speed. I finished five sketches during the two-and-a-half-hour sketch outing, which may be a personal record.

During KK’s demo, participants kept asking him questions about the types of trees his twigs come from, the angle at which he cuts the tips, creating sort of a “nib,” etc. Although he answered the questions, it became apparent by watching him that his magical sketches have very little to do with the twig. They have everything to do with the hand holding the twig.

9/21/14 India ink, twig, Canson XL 140 lb. paper

9/21/14 India ink, twig, Zig marker, Canson XL 140 lb. paper

9/21/14 India ink, twig, Canson XL 140 lb. paper


9/20/14 Pilot Iroshizuku Asa-gao ink, Zig marker, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
Three years ago today, I started drawing.

It’s become a personal tradition to write an introspective post on my drawing anniversary. I think it’s important to honor and celebrate something as important to me as sketching, especially since it was a part of me that lay dormant or repressed for most of my life. An anniversary is also a convenient annual retrospective of my progress and process.

Today I’m still thinking about the excellent, inspiring post I read a few days ago by Alex Zonis, a Chicago urban sketcher, about “talent” versus persistence, tenacity and 10,000 hours of practice. (If you haven’t yet, go read her post now.) Although I still have many (I’ve estimated 9,000) hours yet to go before I reach the 10,000 I need to consider myself sufficiently well-practiced, I identify strongly with everything Alex wrote.

Every now and then when I’m out sketching in public, someone will approach me, and the conversation goes something like this: “Oh, you’re so talented. . . I wish I could do that. I can’t draw a straight line.” I accept this comment as a compliment, since I know it was intended that way, but then I also always say, “It’s not talent. I only started doing this a few years ago, and before that, I couldn’t draw a straight line, either.” (At this point, they look at me with skepticism.) Then I say, “The only reason I can do this much now is because I’ve practiced nearly every day for the past three years. That’s all it takes – not talent.”

At this point, the person’s expression changes from skepticism to dismay, and I assume they are doubtful that they could do it themselves. But I also think they are disappointed that I wasn’t born with this “talent,” because it means they can’t let themselves off the hook – “I wasn’t born that way, so I could never do that.” If what I just told them is true, it means they could draw, too – but they’d have to practice, and they don’t want to hear that part.

My very first post on this blog was about the topic of regular practice, and it’s something I think about a lot. When I consider all the times prior to three years ago that I started learning to draw, and then eventually quit, I’m not sure what all the factors were that led to quitting, but I know that at least one of them was that I got bored with the subject matter I practiced with. Whenever I took a drawing class, the subject matter was inevitably something suited to classroom studio teaching, such as still lifes or piles of cubes and spheres. Drawing books were the same. While I accepted that basic drawing principles are easiest to teach when using readily controlled subjects as these, and while I also knew that something of value can be found in anything I might draw, I could not get past the fact that these subjects did not resonate with me. I was well-intentioned – I didn’t mind working hard and practicing; I knew that to improve at anything requires practice – but I didn’t have the discipline to keep doing something that bored me.

It wasn’t until I discovered urban sketching that I finally, finally, found subject matter that resonated meaningfully. I no longer felt like I “had to” practice; I felt compelled to. “Practice drawing” wasn’t something I checked off my to-do list; it was something I couldn’t wait to get out the door to do.

So this post today on my third anniversary isn’t about the virtues of urban sketching versus still lifes. It’s not a lecture about how you should draw more often. And it’s not even a list of suggestions for making regular practice easier.

All I have to say is that if you want to get good at something and you don’t want to quit before your 10,000 hours are up, look for subject matter that resonates with you. After that, you will not feel forced to practice – you will feel compelled. And the 10,000 hours will take care of themselves.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Seattle Busker Week Finale

9/20/14 Diamine Chocolate Brown ink, Zig marker,
Caran d'Ache Museum water-soluble colored pencil,
Canson XL 140 lb. paper (Jim Yun)
After a week of special events around the downtown area, local buskers turned out for a grand finale performance this afternoon outside EMP. Seattle Busker Week was the 40th anniversary celebration of an ordinance that made busking legal in Seattle. In 1974, busker Jim Page became a local hero when he took on the city prohibition that made performing in the streets for money illegal.

“Busking is based on the principle that if you can talk, you can sing,” Page said, giving anyone an opportunity to perform for an audience. An original song he performed today was a lampoon of Bertha, the expensive tunnel-boring machine which has been stuck for months.

Ukulele player and singer Jim Yun, a Seattle busker who had been in Chicago for a while, began his performance by complaining about that Midwest city’s highly restrictive busking laws. “This is an awesome city for creativity and creative expression,” Yun said, praising Seattle and its liberal busking policies.

Since I’m a frequent sketcher of buskers at farmers markets and street fairs, and it’s my personal policy to put money in the hat of any busker I sketch, it was a surprising change to see today’s buskers performing without their hats out. But as a celebration of Seattle’s liberal ordinance, it made sense: They gave back to an appreciative city with a free show.

9/20/14 Pilot Iroshizuku Asa-gao ink, Zig marker
(Bob Crosby and Jim Page)
9/20/14 Pilot Iroshizuku Take-Sumi ink, Zig marker (Katy Keenan)
9/20/14 Pilot Iroshizuku Asa-gao ink, Zig marker, Museum pencil
(didn't catch this guy's name)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Greenwood

9/19/14 Platinum Carbon and Diamine Grey inks, watercolor, Canson XL 140 lb. paper

I know nothing about the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, which is on the corner of North 83rd and First Avenue Northwest in the Greenwood neighborhood. Sketching it today, however, taught me two things: Bright yellow and red must be symbolic, reverent colors for this Buddhist sect, so although I usually don’t pay much attention to getting the colors of buildings exactly right, I tried my best for accuracy in this case. The second thing I learned is that animals and nature must be important; two lions flank the stairway leading up to the ornate fa├žade and doorway, and two deer are atop the front overhang.

9/17/14 Pilot Iroshizuku Take-Sumi ink
When I first spotted this monastery on my way to an appointment a few days ago, I had only five minutes to spare, so I quickly hopped out of the car to sketch one of the lions. Today on a sunny afternoon, I took my time with the colorful front.

Not shown in my sketch is the whole right side of the building, where an elaborate percussion system stands exposed. At first I thought the cylindrical objects were bells, and I wondered how the monks kept neighborhood children (or adults) from ringing them at all hours. (I figured the clappers must be removable.) Today after school let out, a few kids walked by, and right on cue, they made a swing past the cylindrical objects. Instead of gonging them, however, the kids knew to spin the cylinders, which made a soft rattly sound, like they were filled with seeds or pebbles. I have to come back another day to sketch them.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Brazil Sketchbook: Completing a Cycle

My Brazil travel sketchbook is bound.
This rainy morning was a good opportunity to finish binding my Brazil sketchbook. As with last year’s Spain/Germany sketchbook, I kept my symposium workshop and activities sketches in a separate collection from what I would call my “usual” travel sketches. In fact, the symposium sketches all went into the Moleskine watercolor sketchbook that I received in my goodie bag. Even though I would normally prefer the chronological continuity of keeping everything in one sketchbook, I liked putting all my workshop sketches in one self-contained volume peppered with class notes, related ephemera and cards I exchanged with other sketchers.

I bound the symposium program right into the sketchbook.
I ended up filling seven signatures with non-symposium-related sketches. Like last year, as a symbol of the initial impetus for the trip, I bound the symposium program right into the sketchbook. So the eight total signatures turned into my thickest handbound sketchbook yet, which gave me a little concern about how well the stitching would fare, but I needn’t have worried. Coptic stitch is stronger than it looks (or perhaps my technique is improving).

Creating the book covers was especially fun; it gave me a sense of closure on the trip (and also took care of a potential packratting issue). I pulled out all the maps, brochures and other ephemera collected during the two weeks. This is the kind of stuff I used to haul home, shove into a box, store in the attic and never look at again (until I throw it out a couple decades later). Now, after carefully selecting and preserving the most meaningful images on the covers, the rest goes into the recycle bin (right away!). The front cover is a collage of images of Paraty and the symposium logo. The back cover is made of map scraps and brochures of Rio, plus an image of the spectacular Cristo Redentor cut from a postcard.

My July - August sketchbook covers remind me of a lovely summer.
Since I had all my bookbinding supplies out, I also finished binding my July – August sketchbook. On the covers are the Smith Tower sketched on Kate’s birthday and L.A.’s Marina del Rey – both redolent of the peak of summer (now a fond memory – sigh.)

Last year’s symposium and related travels were my impetus for developing a flexible, portable sketchbook system that led to handbinding. Now, 14 handbound sketchbooks later (in as many months), I feel like I’ve completed one cycle – and look forward to the next one. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Triple Color

9/17/14 Platinum Carbon ink, watercolor, Caran d'Ache Museum water-soluble
colored pencil, Zig marker, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
When I first spotted the maple growing in this Greenwood neighborhood traffic circle from a few blocks away, I thought it was curious that one side was still completely green, while the other side was turning. Then I drove up closer and realized there were actually three maples (another curiosity: that’s a lot of trees for one traffic circle). Perhaps the arborist or gardener who planted this circle planned the varieties carefully to lengthen the time that the intersection of North 83rd and Dayton North would be glowing with color. I might come back in a month or so and see what it looks like then.

(I do a lot of whining and lamenting at this time of year, sad to see the prime outdoor sketching season nearing its end. But despite that, I do love fall.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Words of Wisdom from Chicago

I just read an excellent, inspiring blog post by Alex Zonis of Urban Sketchers Chicago. Every word could have been stated by me (uh, well, except the part about having reached 10,000 hours)! After three years of sketching, I probably still have about 9,000 hours of practice to go, and I’m looking forward to every one. 
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