Monday, June 1, 2020


5/27/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Now that mornings are warmer and start so early, I’ve been going out for my walk earlier, too. One day I headed out even before breakfast. The sun was still below many of the houses and trees, casting long shadows.

This is the kind of sketch (above) that would have gone better if I’d kept it as a values study. The backlit tree had a few spots of sunlight coming through the branches, but I lost most of that light trying to juggle two shades of green. A large rhododendron bush was mostly in shade except for a few blossoms on top. I lost the light on those, too, because I was distracted by their bright magenta hue (and I was tickled that I had the right colored pencil in my bag).

A couple of days later I found another backlit scene (below). Recalling my brief study of backlighting last fall, I was determined this time not to lose the light in the distant trees. I’d forgotten the fun challenge of these types of scenes . . . I’m going to be looking for more of them.

5/29/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Black is the New Toned

I’ve breathed new life into my daily hand series. When I had used up my sketchbook with colored pages, I waffled with beige and white for a few days – and then I remembered black! I had tried it only once early in the series and then dropped it immediately because it was too challenging. By the time I got to Day 71, though, I was ready for it.

Indeed, the challenge is formidable: On black paper, I feel like I have to twist my brain around in the opposite direction to draw the light instead of the shadows. It is always more difficult than it seems like it should be. I’m going to stick with this black Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook for a while and see where it takes me.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Sketchbook Review: Stillman & Birn Square Format Softcover

Stillman & Birn square-format sketchbooks are available with all of the brand's papers.

When I first started sketching, I explored many different sketchbook papers and formats (some are pictured on my Sketch Kit Archives page). It’s what we all have to do when we start because we don’t yet know what size or format we like, and we’re still experimenting with media. One style that I stayed with for a good part of my first year was the square Hand Book Artist Journal (at the time, it was made by Global Art Materials; now it seems to be coming from Speedball). After much frustration trying to use watercolor with this paper that is not appropriate for wet media, I finally wised up and changed to something else. But the thing that kept me going back to the Hand Book was its size and format: a 5 ½-inch square.

That book taught me the versatility of the square. I could begin a sketch without committing to a vertical or horizontal orientation (I don’t necessarily recommend starting a sketch without having a composition in mind, but we all know that a composition can change midstream). A single page was great for one or two portraits or figures or even a small scene. It fit nicely in my bag, and I could pull it out discreetly in buses or coffee shops. (Indeed, I had no need for a separate pocket-size book as I do now.) On the other hand, if I suddenly saw potential for a panoramic landscape, I could draw across the full spread. The square was handy (even before the age of Instagram).

After I gave up the Hand Book, I moved on to mostly 8 ½-by-5 ½ inch portrait-format books because I couldn’t find squares with paper or binding I liked. During all those years that I bound my own sketchbooks and could have made square ones, I didn’t because it seemed to waste paper in the sheet dimensions I was buying. But every now and then I miss the versatility of the square.

A few years ago, Stillman & Birn, my favorite sketchbook brand, brought out a square softcover version in all of its papers. The 7 ½-inch square was larger than the Hand Book, but I was excited to get back into the square. I got a Zeta and a Nova Trio, which contains all three of S&B’s toned papers. (Since I’ve reviewed Zeta and Nova papers in previous reviews, I will only discuss the square format in this post. For information on paper quality and features, please see the previous links.)

As expected, the square format gives me the right shape for compositions that don’t fit quite right in a rectangle, like this pot of pansies.
2/16/20 ArtStix in Zeta

When I felt like sketching my sketch kit last fall, I knew I couldn’t do it with the level of detail I wanted unless I had more real estate, so a full-page spread in my square Zeta accommodated my composition well.
11/9/19 brush pen and watercolor pencils in Zeta

At my first Zoom social event, I again grabbed the square Zeta to fit four portraits conveniently on each page.
4/1/20 Uni Pin brush pen and water-soluble graphite in Zeta

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to do a study of clouds from our sundeck, and I wanted something as large as possible while still being easy to hold while standing. It was an ideal opportunity to test a full-page spread in the Nova Trio – a full 15 inches across. While I was working on the right side of the gutter, the page behaved well because it was supported by the rest of the book. On the left side, however, the book’s first page was supported only by the softcover, which felt flimsy when I pushed against it roughly in my typical colored pencil style. It was a struggle to keep that side steady. Since I have no problem using the pages near the covers of my usual softcover 8 ½-by-5 ½ inch portrait-format books, I was surprised that the additional two inches made that much difference.
5/14/20 watercolor pencils in Nova

Since the 7 ½-inch size is smaller than the long side of my go-to Beta books, I also thought it wouldn’t make too much difference in my daily- carry bag. Alas, it makes a significant difference: My bag flap will not close completely over it, and it feels clumsy.

I’ve had these books for more than a year, but they are slow to fill. The reason is that I only use them at home when I’m seated at my desk, where the book can be fully supported. The cloud study was the first time I street-tested it (although the “street” was our sundeck). My sad conclusion is that it’s a great studio format, but not so great for sketching on location.

Now, if the square were 5 ½ inches, I bet I would find a lot more uses for it just as I had found with the versatile Hand Book. Heck, it would fit easily in my mini-size Rickshaw Zero messenger bag, which has become my daily-carry during these pandemic months. I wouldn’t need an additional pocket-size sketchbook, either. How about it, Stillman & Birn? (This is going on my annual sketch materials wish list.)

Friday, May 29, 2020


5/23/20 A memorial service on Zoom

A remarkable woman passed away a couple of weeks ago. A relative through marriage, she was 103 and healthy to the end. Though I didn’t see her often, I was honored to have known her.

She lived in L.A., and we most certainly would have flown down for her memorial service if these had been normal times. Instead, we clicked a link in an email for a Zoom event. I have attended many Buddhist memorial services, but this was a first: The minister performing rites, chanting and gonging, while wearing a mask. Likewise, the few family members in attendance were masked.

Moved by the remembrances and stories that were shared, I felt my eyes fill, blurring the screen. I wanted to hug my family members and give condolences. Instead, I sketched. If I had been actually attending, I would never have sketched, but in the privacy of our kitchen, I couldn’t resist. And I knew that she would have wanted me to and would have delighted in the result. That’s the kind of person she was.

Thursday, May 28, 2020


5/21/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

 Back in the day (and by that I mean before mid-March), I often stopped for a sketch from my mobile studio on my way to or from routine errands like going to the post office, library or grocery store. I always had errands like these at least a few times a week (not to mention scheduled events like sketch outings and lunch appointments). Sketching was my reward for doing mundane chores.

Now I have to make an effort to take my car out at least once a week just to keep the battery charged. (I’m still on the same tank of gas I filled in February.) But one thing hasn’t changed: The mundane errands are still rewarded by a sketch.

5/22/20 Wedgwood Community Church, Wedgwood neighborhood

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Sketch Journal of an Ordinary Day

5/18/20 sketch journal page

“Sketch journaling” has varying interpretations by its many practitioners, but in general, it’s a journal format that incorporates both words and pictures that describe one’s day. Admiring the sketch journal processes I’ve seen online, I’ve tried making such pages a few times, but it hasn’t been a format that “sticks” as a regular habit. As a journal writer my whole life, maybe it’s just too easy for me to fall back on words, the format I’m used to.

In any case, when Urban Sketchers Japan’s weekly challenge was to make a sketch journal, I was inspired to give it a shot again. One aspect that interested me was that the group intended to stay focused on urban sketching, which means drawing only from life, not photos or imagination, and “telling a story” with their subject matter and its context. This was a familiar form of sketching that I could reach for easily.

 I found myself somewhat hyper-aware of my mundane activities that day, seeking out whatever was more visual to describe with sketches. Taking a walk was easy; I just stopped at a traffic circle and sketched a parked car and trailer. Our Fred Meyer grocery pickup was so mundane and non-visual (the pickup spot is a dark garage) that I almost skipped it, but it was the only thing we “did” that day! I felt compelled to include it.

By dinnertime, I had filled the page spread with five small sketches describing my day. As you can see, not much happened. On the other hand, that day is now more memorable than the other six (similarly mundane) days that week because I made this page. And more important, I enjoyed the process. It was both challenging and fun to think about my activities in a visual way.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Free Laws Workshops Online

5/14/20 Workshop notes

John Muir Laws’ books on drawing have long been among my favorites. Although the northern California artist’s focus is on nature (he is especially well-known for his books on drawing birds), his rendering instructions are applicable to all forms. On my bucket list is to someday attend one of his nature journaling workshops in the Bay Area, which he offers regularly (in pre-pandemic times, at least).

5/14/20 1-minute sketches (from photos)
As many instructors have, Laws has moved his workshops online. I’ve been attending his free live Zoom workshops on drawing birds (donations encouraged). Although his basic principles are the same as in his books, he has changed his approach slightly in the way he initially blocks out a bird’s gesture. We work from still photos in the workshops, but he gives us only a minute or so to make each sketch, so it isn’t too much more leisurely than it might be when sketching a live bird.

5/14/20 1-min. sketch (from photo)
Since I have more experience drawing human models than avian ones, it struck me that birds are not much different from people in fundamental ways. For example, the feet in a drawing must be firmly planted under the body’s center of gravity to look realistic. In a life-drawing class, I learned that if you draw a straight line down from a standing model’s head, the line should pass through the weight-bearing foot, or the model will look off-balance. The same is true for birds. Just draw a line straight down from the head, and that’s where the feet go.

It’s seemingly simple but hugely important tips like this that make Laws’ books (and workshops) invaluable.

Check out his events calendar and get on his mailing list to find out about upcoming workshops.  

5/21/20 Workshop notes
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