Monday, June 5, 2023

Urban Couches and Context


5/31/23 Green Lake neighborhood

Urban couch season is now open, and I bagged my first last week! I must have been slackin’ all summer, because the last one I sketched was more than a year ago. I’m ready – bring ‘em!

As I sketched this, enjoying 61 degrees and a soft breeze in the sunshine, three thoughts occurred to me: One was that in years past when my palette was tied more closely to “real” colors, with rare exceptions, almost all discarded couches were dingey, dirty brown (or formerly some lighter color but brown by the time I sketched it) – talk about sketching mud! This one was too, but using a secondary triad, I was able to get a slightly more vibrant dingey, dirty brown.

Secondly, I thought about how couches make excellent exercises in perspective. Most are basically cubic rectangles with some parts missing (especially if they are lumpy and misshapen), but if you draw them from an angle, it’s quite a challenge. In describing her new online course devoted to teacups, Liz Steel mentions that teacups present a good challenge in drawing ellipses. Maybe I should teach a course on drawing urban couches with perspective as a topic. 😉

Finally, making this sketch made me think about the importance of context in visual storytelling. People new to Urban Sketchers often ask whether something like a potted plant qualifies as an urban sketch if it was drawn from direct observation. I think these two parts of the Urban Sketchers Manifesto address the question:

  • Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live, and where we travel.
  • Our drawings are a record of time and place.

Nothing in the manifesto explicitly prohibits a potted plant as subject matter for an urban sketch, but the question is always about the story (no matter how small that story may seem). Does the sketch tell you anything about where the potted plant was when you sketched it – on your own patio, on the porch of a derelict building, in front of an Italian villa? Let’s see the context that shows those location details, and then youre telling a story.

As for my sketch above, imagine if I had sketched only the couch. It could be in my own livingroom, in my friend’s livingroom, or at the city dump. Or it could be on a residential street near Green Lake where, unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be claimed because the street is closed for pavement work, so no pickup trucks will be able to get to it. But without context, you’d never know it was the latter.

Sunday, June 4, 2023



5/31/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Within a couple of blocks, several new houses are under various stages of construction in Maple Leaf. All are behemoths compared to the traditional homes around them – the kind that the behemoths have replaced, often two or even three at a time. This one is typical: A large single-family residence with a smaller “attached accessory dwelling unit” in back. (I learned this term by seeing the convenient label AADU on the dwelling.) Even the smaller one has three stories and probably more square footage than our house.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

More Peonies (and Thoughts on a Maximal Watercolor Palette)


5/27/23 Kuretake Gansai Tambi watercolors in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (My favorite spot is the blue shadow on the nearly white peony at lower left. I just know I couldn't have gotten that effect if I had been mixing colors . . . my wet-in-wet approach would have dried.)

I bought another bouquet of peonies (including one perfect iris), this time to take to the cemetery. I just happened to have at my fingertips a brand-new set of Kuretake Gansai Tambi watercolors that I’m reviewing for the Well-Appointed Desk. Tossing caution to the wind, I saw the bouquet as another opportunity to try direct watercolor.

As I implied last time when I was using my set of 24 Akashiya Gansai watercolors, it’s really fun to have easy access to so many colors without mixing – just pick up the paints as if they were colored pencils! (I discovered the same freedom and fun with my Sakura Koi set and Color Meditation Desk exercises.) I’ve been “painting” with colored pencils; I guess now I’m scribbling with watercolors! ðŸ˜‰

In fact, I seem to be doing a 180 flip-flop in the attitude I had when I was taking Kathleen Moore’s winter sketchbook + watercolor course. Back then, I was determined to apply the color principles I had been learning with colored pencils to paints, so I was keeping my palette as minimal as possible. One major frustration during class, however, was that my paint mixes would become increasingly diluted as I tried to achieve the hues I was looking for. I’d add more paint to get the concentration thicker, but then I’d have to adjust the mix again, over and over. It’s no wonder that I always had such wimpy washes as a novice urban sketcher using watercolors. The class was a good education in watercolors when I could work leisurely from photos or still lives at home – but I’m not interested in working that way in the field.

The more colors the better!

As I painted this bouquet straight from the paint box without using a mixing tray, I remembered that in his book, Color First, Ink Later, Mike Daikubara discusses his preference for using a large palette of 20 colors. Saving time by not having to mix on the tray, he prefers to let colors mix dynamically on the page. Knowing how fast and efficient he is at sketching in the field, I now see how much sense his strategy makes for his style.

I don’t know if or when I’ll be ready to take watercolors back out in the field, but new light bulbs are now firing above my head.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Both Sides of the Arboretum


5/25/23 Washington Park Arboretum

We were treated to two fabulous days of “summer” last week as a lead-up to Memorial Day weekend. Nilda and I met at the Washington Park Arboretum, hiked through the quiet, cool, forest-like side, then found a shady bench to sit, chat and sketch. In the distance, I spotted a tree still brilliantly lighted by the afternoon sun (above). By the time we left a couple of hours later, it was mostly in shade.

We didn’t get around to the colorful side of the Arboretum, where the rhodies and azaleas were at peak the prior week. I knew they wouldn’t be around much longer, so the very next day, the spouse guy and I decided to catch the color. Almost exactly a year ago, we had enjoyed the same colorful route, but I had sketched with only graphite. This time, I pulled out all the stops and let the color flow.

5/26/23 Azaleas and rhododendrons

What struck me on this visit was that while the eye is bedazzled by brilliant hues of pink, red and orange, the dark green foliage surrounding the blossoms is what makes the floral colors pop. That seems self-evident, and yet I realized I hardly pay attention to surrounding foliage when I decide to sketch colorful blooms. This time, I did pay attention. (I sure love all the texture I got -- and its the Hahnemuhle paper that did all the work!)

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Peony Petal on Black


5/24/23 Pinks appear too cool

One morning I came into the kitchen to find that the palest pink peony in my bouquet had fallen apart in an explosion of petals. Before sweeping up the counter, I picked out a few petals to sketch.

It would have been relatively easy to sketch a nearly white petal on white paper, but to make it stand out would require some kind of tedious background. Since my mind is lately fixated on light-on-dark drawings, I wondered what it would be like to sketch it on black paper. I’ve seen works by colored pencil artists who use black or other dark papers, and one trick they use is to apply white or a very pale tint first to make the later colors show more easily. (I showed how I had used that technique a few days ago.)

In my black Uglybook, I first put down a few layers of a white Derwent Drawing Pencil, which wasn’t opaque enough to completely cover the black, but I thought it was good enough to start. The peony is a relatively cool, pale pink, so I dug through all my Prismacolors, Faber-Castell Polychromos and even Caran d’Ache Pablos (which I rarely use) to find suitable candidates. I started with five. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the black paper cooled the pinks significantly, so although test swatches looked right on white paper and even on black, by the time I had applied several layers, I could see that the hue was still too cool (above). It might have helped if I had put down several more initial layers of white to obscure more of the black.

Warmer pinks applied later -- but still not warm enough.
I then went back through my pencils to find warmer tints of pink. Interestingly, at least among pinks, the Pablos seemed slightly more opaque than either the Prismacolors or Polychromos. That surprised me, as I’ve never used Pablos seriously enough to notice their opacity. (Worth testing further to see if that’s generally true of the range.) Even with those later layers of warmer, more opaque pinks, I didn’t capture the right petal hue (at left). I was at the point where the paper probably couldn’t take more layers, so I stopped.

But here’s something that I only noticed when I took the photo below: The petal lying on the sketchbook is so translucent that the black paper shows through, cooling down its actual pink hue (compare with the other petals on white paper). So my sketch looks closer to the actual petal – if I lay it on black!

I find drawing on dark papers challenging and intriguing in unexpected ways!

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

California Poppies (and My Genius Moment)


5/24/23 California poppies in Maple Leaf

Suhita Shirodkar and Nina Khashchina have been giving me California poppy envy. They’ve been sketching the gorgeous blooms growing profusely right now in northern California.

I pass these poppies on my walks now and then. Not quite as vibrant and extravagant as the ones in northern California, they still make me happy with their sunny outlook, even when they aren’t fully awake.

Process notes: Spontaneously, I tried an interesting experiment prompted by the subject matter: Here’s a case in which I didn’t want the bright yellow and orange poppy hues to get muddied by the green foliage around them. Using Derwent Inktense pencils, I drew and then activated the poppies with a waterbrush. While that dried, I put in the foliage greens around them with more Inktense pencils. Then I spritzed the flowers and foliage liberally. Since Inktense pencils are supposedly “permanent,” the poppies I had initially activated shouldn’t reactivate and mix with the foliage. I think the flowers did stay relatively unmuddied, so that’s one way to take advantage of this unique Inktense quality. 

Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle replication of sketch

To be fair, I thought I should test this real-life situation by making a similar sketch using only Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles (at left). I replicated the poppies and foliage doing just that, in the same Hahnemuhle sketchbook. The flowers did blur with the foliage a bit more than the Inktense did, but not significantly. I must say, though, that the Museum colors are more vibrant, aren’t they?

The lines on the fence, too, are something I wanted to stay crisp and sharp, but since I had already drawn them, they were prone to being blurred when I spritzed the foliage. However, I just happened to have a Black Cherry non-soluble Prismacolor in my bag. I used that to draw the fence – ta-da! No blurring. (Every couple of decades or so, I’m a genius! But only for 30 seconds at a time.)

One of these pencils is not like the others.

Actually, I recall some similar experiments I did a few years ago, using watercolor pencils alongside non-soluble ones to take advantage of the soluble/non-soluble properties of each. It’s a great strategy, but I don’t remember why I stopped doing it – maybe the non-solubles got ejected during a bag refresh because I wasn’t using them much. This idea is worth exploring further, though, and just one non-soluble pencil would do the job.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023



5/23/23 Graphite, downtown Edmonds

The most exciting urban sketching event to happen in Seattle since pre-pandemic is this July’s Sketcher Fest, a weekend of workshops, sketch walks, book fair and all-around sketching fun. Held in Edmonds, 20 minutes north of Seattle, Sketcher Fest is the brain child of Gabi Campanario, who hopes the event will be a model for more events like it around the country.

As part of the festivities, Sketcher Fest has partnered with Graphite in Edmonds, a beautiful gallery and studio workspace for artists, to put on an exhibit of urban sketches and sketchbooks. I’m both thrilled and humbled to be included in the show alongside many of Seattle’s best urban sketchers.

After dropping off my work at the gallery, I stood across the street to draw the huge Graphite building – one of the most challenging architectural sketches I’ve attempted in a long time! So many weird, unexpected angles – whew! The building actually stretches further in both directions, but this was all I could get in without a panorama-format sketchbook. (And being able to scale even this much on a 4-by-6-inch page is something I owe to Gabi.)

Pointless to use graphite.

(If you’re thinking that surely I should have made this sketch with graphite, you’re not the only one. Unfortunately, when I pulled a Blackwing pencil out to do that, this is what it looked like (and the only sharpener I had with me was the one that fits thicker colored pencils!). Luckily, I always have a mechanical pencil in my bag, so I could still block in the sketch with graphite (but not the kind I would want to draw with).

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