Friday, August 18, 2017

Familiar Yet Fresh

8/17/17 I-5 overpass, Green Lake neighborhood

Like many other urban sketchers visiting Chicago last month, I found myself compelled to sketch the El’s supports and infrastructure. Certainly they were visually interesting, but seeing things with fresh eyes makes everything more interesting. The typical Chicagoan seeing us sketching on Wabash Street probably wondered what could possibly be so captivating about that scene so familiar to them. 

The I-5 overpass across Weedin Place Northeast near Green Lake is a scene I see nearly every day. Yesterday as I was driving home from an errand, I was suddenly captivated by the broad stripes of dark and light formed by the freeway and its shadow. For just a moment I took off my native Seattleite’s eyes – now blind to most things I pass every day – and put on a fresh pair belonging to a visitor. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Two Sketchbooks Bound

My Chicago sketchbook

My sketchbook from my week in Chicago is thin – only two signatures of 16 pages each – but it’s thick with memories. As I did last year with my UK and Manchester symposium sketchbook, I bound the symposium program right into the sketchbook between the two signatures. On the covers are two of my favorite street scenes – the El tracks at Wabash and Congress, and Michican Street looking out toward the pointy blue Two Prudential Tower.
The symposium program is bound right into the book between the two signatures.

While I had my bookbinding supplies out, I also stitched together my signatures from May through the beginning of August, including our short trip to the Twin Cities. On the covers are the walrus on the Arctic Building sketched at the beginning of summer and the construction going on outside our Minneapolis hotel. Looking back through the sketches as I bound the book, I have to say it’s been a great season! 

If you detect a bit of wistfulness, it’s because I’ve been seeing traces of yellow and orange in some trees just lately. At the first signs of fall, some years I either panic or go into denial; other times I’m ready to let summer go. This year I feel mostly the latter: We had one of the best summers on record, weather-wise, and I sketched the heck out of it. (And now we could certainly use the rain.) Still, the outdoor-sketching season is always shorter than I want it to be, so the waning days of summer are also bittersweet.

My sketchbook from May through early August

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Keeping Up

8/5/17 Maple Leaf neighborhood

The couches are appearing so often in my neighborhood that I can hardly keep up. The top one is probably the most ornate one I’ve sketched so far. Rather charming next to the yellow picket fence, don’t you think? 

The one below – let’s just say it lacked charm, though it was appropriately placed next to the trash bins on trash day. On the driveway behind the easy chair were more overflowing trash and recycle bins. The “free” signs were written on torn-off notebook paper and scrawled in pencil.

8/7/17 Wedgwood neighborhood

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


8/10/17 Skyline from Harvard Avenue East on Capitol Hill

While we were in Chicago, smoke from wildfires in western Canada began blanketing the Pacific Northwest. By the time we returned home on Aug. 4, some of the smoke had dissipated, but not all. When looking at the sky it was sometimes hard to distinguish smoke from a white overcast, but the light coming through windows had a distinctly yellowish cast to it. Sometimes eerie, sometimes beautiful (at sunset), the smoky air was nonetheless disconcerting.

All last week I was trying to figure out how to sketch that disturbing haze. On Thursday morning I was on my way to Capitol Hill when I saw a particularly gloomy skyline, despite the otherwise sunny day. I remembered that Harvard Avenue East, which parallels Interstate 5, has a panoramic view of that skyline, so I pulled off the freeway and drove over to the lookout I had in mind. Two years ago Greg and I had explored this particular spot as a potential site for fireworks viewing, and I recalled sketching the Olympics behind the Aurora Bridge and Lake Union. This sketch looks a bit further south than my previous sketch, and all I could see were the gray silhouettes of skyscrapers and the Needle – no mountains anywhere. 

Fortunately, the next day the last of the smoke finally started to dissipate, and we had clear skies for our extravaganza sketching weekend (well, except for the normal overcast on Sunday).

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mega Pity Party Weekend!

8/11/17 Calder's Eagle at the Olympic Sculpture Park
When we heard that the 5th Annual West Coast Sketch Crawl in Vancouver, B.C., had been cancelled, many of us in Seattle were very disappointed. I had a great time in Tacoma last year and in San Diego the year before, and I had been looking forward to another terrific long weekend of sketching in that lovely Canadian city to the north.

The USk Seattle admin team decided that we weren’t going to cry over lost sketching. For the same weekend that would have been the Sketch Crawl, we scheduled an extravaganza of outings on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Not intended to be a formal replacement for the cancelled event, it was just a way to give everyone as many sketch outing options as possible as we move toward the waning days of summer.

8/11/17 Space Needle
On Friday we met at the Olympic Sculpture Park, which has become something of a summertime staple. Although I sketch Calder’s Eagle just about every time I visit (last year, twice in 2014 and in 2013), I was magnetically drawn to it yet again. This time, however, I chose a partial view, and as I sketched, I remembered fondly Calder’s similar but much larger Flamingo in Chicago.

I wandered around the park a long time, simply enjoying the not-too-hot sunshine and not feeling particularly compelled – until I saw the Space Needle peeking over some buildings. Then with only a few minutes before the throwdown, I made a quick sketch above the amphitheater with Richard Serra’s Wake in the background. The empty space on the page was a good spot to hold the badge that Kate had playfully given to participants.

8/11/17 Amphitheater and Richard Serra's Wake

8/12/17 Sketcher on the ferry
For Saturday, Day 2 of our extravaganza, we chose Bainbridge Island for an entire day of sketching. Meeting up on the ferry, most of us started sketching right away, and I spotted a woman I didn’t know who looked like she was sketching, too. When we talked to her later, it turned out Martha was aware of Urban Sketchers but didn’t know we would be on the ferry that day. A life drawing student, she simply enjoys sketching people on the ferry. Imagine meeting a sketcher in the wild who isn’t part of Urban Sketchers while we’re on our way to a sketch outing!

After the initial meetup in Winslow, I headed for the Bainbridge Farmers Market, where I was lured by music and the smells of good foods cooking. I had to leave the house so early to catch the ferry that I had skipped breakfast, so I ate a big piece of carrot cake while sketching Good Karma Blues, a lively band with a terrific vocalist.
8/12/17 Good Karma Blues at Bainbridge Farmers Market
8/12/17 Eagle Harbor
That was a lot of fun, and I could have stayed all day sketching nothing but the market, but I was on an island, after all, so I found myself gravitating toward the water. At Eagle Harbor, the sun started to break through the overcast sky as a few lazy boats knocked against a pier. 

After the sketchbook throwdown, the group split up – some going to Rolling Bay to take part in the art studio tour and some staying in Winslow for lunch and whatever. I opted for the latter, and after a leisurely lunch of symposium gossip, half the afternoon zipped by on island time. A few of us went to the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, where local artist Bill Hemp has an exhibit of pen and ink drawings of island locations. Interestingly, the pieces are reproductions of his sketchbook pages that look like they are torn right out of a spiral-bound book.

While I often have opportunities to sketch ferries, I see them only when they are either stopped briefly at a dock or a long distance away where it’s hard to see details. I took advantage of a moored ferry near the Winslow terminal to squeeze in one last sketch before hopping on the ferry back to Seattle. I think being able to take my time to observe and draw all the details on this one will help me fake it a little more realistically next time I need to sketch a ferry on the fly.

8/12/17 Washington State Ferry at Winslow terminal

For our third and final day, we chose the West Seattle Farmers Market, one of Seattle’s few neighborhood markets that are open all year round. As I was driving across the West Seattle Bridge, the drizzle on my windshield started looking like it could be “measurable” rain, which made me wonder if we had finally ended our record-breaking spell of consecutive dry days. I also started wondering if our sketch outing would end in a soggy mess. As it turned out, we did end our dry streak with 56 consecutive rainless days, but I needn’t have worried about sogginess – the measurable drizzle stopped as quickly as it had begun, and it was my favorite sketching weather – a comfortable temperature, not windy, the sun darting in and out of clouds just often enough to provide shadows or light, whichever you need at the moment.
8/13/17 Bluegrass band at West Seattle Farmers Market

I mentioned a few days ago that I had hardly sketched any people in Chicago, so today I made up for it. A lively bluegrass band, a young cellist, and a guitarist standing in front of a huge mural all provided the tunes for a fun morning at the farmers market.

8/13/17 guitarist and mural
8/13/17 cellist at the market

8/13/17 Junction Plaza Pocket Park near the West Seattle Farmers Market 

Despite the iffy weather, we had a small but stalwart turnout for our pity party finale. And Sue and I get the prize (each other’s respect!) for participating on all three days!

Stalwart sketchers at the Day 3 finale
Sue and I made it to all three days!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sketchnoting at Hill House

8/4/17 sketches and notes made with a brush pen

On our second day in the Twin Cities when it rained, we toured the James J. Hill House, an enormous historic mansion in St. Paul. As a preface, I have to say that I generally don’t do well on tours involving a guide who walks a large group through some facility, pointing out various artifacts while rattling off a stream of amusing anecdotes and historic dates. Even before I was sketching, these types of tours made me glaze over. Now it’s even worse because if I don’t glaze over, I’m seeing something I’d like to sketch, but the guide is already rushing us onward.

Hill house exterior
Wanting to avoid that frustrating experience on the Hill House tour, I tried something new. Initially I thought I would simply make small sketches as quickly as I could. I started doing that, but as the guide spoke, I found myself writing some of what she said next to my sketches, whether they related or not. Eventually I was taking notes and sketching simultaneously, so that the writing related to the sketches. I’ve heard the term sketchnoting, and I’m not exactly sure what that is, but whatever I was doing that day felt like sketchnoting – using sketches and notes to supplement each other. I filled six pages of my sketchbook (two pages shown above).

As our guide talked continuously, there were times when I might have glazed over ordinarily, but sketching keeps me focused so I could listen and retain more information than I otherwise would have. Later when I looked through my sketches and notes, I realized I had remembered more. If I were a student, I think I would learn more using some form of sketchnoting instead of just writing.

I wish Id taken more photos inside of this impressive, formidable house built in 1891, but I guess I havent learned to sketchnotephotograph. Here are a few.

Pipe organ
Stained-glass windows

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sun and Rain in the Twin Cities

8/2/17 Centennial Lakes Park

8/2/17 Parking lot of the Bloomington Country Inn & Suites
From Chicago we took a short flight to Minneapolis to visit with family for a couple of days. While we had consistently beautiful sunshine in Chicago, Minneapolis was a mix. Knowing rain would come the second day, we spent our first day outdoors as much as possible. I got an early start while Greg was still in the shower by sketching the heavy equipment in our hotel’s parking lot, where major remodeling was taking place.

Centennial Lakes is one of our favorite Minneapolis parks (top of page). I knew I had sketched there on a previous trip, so I searched through my blog and found the post – it was in 2013. Interestingly, I had sketched both of the same subjects then as I sketched this year – the arched bridge across the lake and a white heron (possibly the same heron?).

8/2/17 Heron at Centennial Lakes Park

The same day we had a late lunch at W.S. Frost (below), an excellent and popular restaurant with a lovely terrace. With a long wait for a table, I had plenty of time to sketch the diners under umbrellas.

8/2/17 Waiting for our table at W.S. Frost

In the afternoon we went to St. Paul, where we discovered a pocket park called Summit Overlook. A large sculpture of an eagle and its young – apparently a relic of the New York Life Insurance Company – was the park’s centerpiece.

8/2/17 Sculpture at Summit Overlook
8/3/17 Country Inn & Suites lobby
The next day was cold and rainy, so I had to resort to the hotel lobby for my early-morning sketch. Later we shopped at Ax-Man Surplus, a store that has been around since Greg’s youth. Filled with oddities (mostly for display only, not for sale, like a weird museum) and quirky merchandise, Ax-Man is hard to describe or categorize. I can’t begin to name all the strange things we saw, but the unfortunate plastic fellow hanging from the ceiling was the least of them. It would be a fantastic place for a surreptitious sketch outing (I was discreet and quick, so no one saw me).

8/3/17 Strange sighting at Ax-Man

We also sheltered from the weather by touring a grand old mansion. I had an unusual sketch-related experience there that I’ll relate in a future post.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Field Notes Field Trip

A few years ago when I was trying to find a small, easily accessible notebook to serve as a sketchbook supplement, I accumulated a mountain of them from many manufacturers, trying to find one with paper that would suit the media I like to use. Of course, small notebooks aren’t sketchbooks, so the paper in them usually isn’t appropriate for what I want to do. Endlessly frustrated, I resorted to making my own. But my handmade booklets were nothing more than a smaller version of my conventional sketchbook, and what filled them were nothing more than smaller versions of my usual sketches.

Fast-forward to Spring of last year when something happened: Field Notes Brand released its Sweet Tooth edition – identical in size and format to all of its previous editions (and similar to the mountain I had tried from other manufacturers) – except for one thing: The books contained bright red, blue and yellow paper!

Fellow Nuts!
Even though I still fill my conventional sketchbook at the same pace, I look for different types of subject matter to sketch in my favorite red book. Instead of the “stories” I try to tell with urban sketches, my Sweet Tooth is filled with random bus riders, motorcycles parked on the street, the beer I drink with dinner, and other small moments of my day. I won’t be so dramatic as to say this little book changed my life, but it did change the way I look at sketching. Why is red paper so very different from white? I don’t know, but somehow it gives me a different perspective. (I don’t post many of them here on my blog, but you can see all the sketches made in Field Notes in my Flickr photostream.)

With that as preamble, perhaps you’ll understand why I couldn’t leave Chicago without making a pilgrimage to Field Notes headquarters. True, I’m a stationery geek anyway, so it seems only natural that I would visit the company while I was in town for the Urban Sketchers Symposium. But it’s not every day that an ephemeral paper notebook changes one’s perspective. For that, it was worth taking the short Blue Line ride to pay my respects to the notebook maker (I even wore my T-shirt sporting the face of Aaron Draplin, Field Notes co-founder and designer!). And to make it even more fun, I gathered up a bunch of local Field Nuts to go with me.
Bryan Bedell, in lavender shirt, gave us a tour and talked about the company's history.

We were given a gracious welcome and facility tour by Bryan Bedell, who told us all about Field Notes Brand’s history. We all peeked into boxes and shelves and bought more notebooks than we really needed (and received a free Chicago book and other goodies!). I sketched the water tower on the roof of the building next door. Pilgrimage completed, I left Chicago the next day, happy that I’d visited the home of my little red notebook.

Reception area

The shop!
A busy worker.

Peeking into boxes.

Someone on staff likes these too!

7/31/17 brush pen, gel pen, colored pencil

Edited to add the photo below of the gifts I received. The lefty books were my only purchase. . . I already had all the other standard editions!

FN swag!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chicago Symposium, Part 4: Sketch Kit Review and Swag

Symposium swag!

I can’t complete my blog series about the symposium without talking about sketch materials – everything I brought and everything I received there!

The first part is boring: The materials I brought with me worked well, predictably, because they are the same things I use every day. No surprises, no drama – this is the one kind of boring I like!

My faithful sketch materials: Ho-hum, no drama here.
At the last minute I made one change to the bag dump I showed: I brought a new water sprayer (originally holding hand sanitizer) that puts out a finer mist. It’s larger than the old one, so it takes up a bit more space in my bag, but in a pinch I was able to use some of its water to fill a waterbrush, so that was a bonus. Except the rainbow pencil, I used every single item that I carried at least once, and most things I used daily.

The only thing I missed was a verdigris colored pencil, which was essential in Europe, but I didn’t think to bring it to Chicago. Although I was able to mix a passable color with the blues and greens I had, verdigris would have come in handy when I colored the lion I sketched outside the Art Institute.

Overall, I have a finely tuned sketch kit, if I say so myself!

7/29/17 The Bowman at Michigan & Congress
Now that the boring part is done, let’s get to the fun stuff: the symposium swag bag! The symposium sponsorship staff out-did themselves this year by giving us a tote stuffed with lots of great samples, discount coupons, brochures and some full-size sketchbooks. It was an especially useful selection of goodies for a mostly dry-media sketcher like me – quite a few pencils, markers and appropriate sketchbooks.

7//29/17 Grant's Park
7/29/17 Dearborn Station
One of the most useful swag gifts turned out to be a set of sample papers from Stillman & Birn, including their brand-new gray, beige and black toned papers. On one of the sketchwalks, I was a bit disappointed when I learned that the walk leader was going to take us on a tour of the Printer’s Row neighborhood with multiple stops, giving us only about 20 minutes to sketch at each stop. (The other sketchwalks had focused on central locations where we were able to wander on our own and spend as much time as we wanted on a sketch – a more conventional sketchwalk format that I preferred.) At first I felt constrained by the time limit, but I decided to take advantage of the format by putting the toned paper samples to work. I used one 4-by-6-inch sample at each stop, sketching a small vignette on each using General’s pastel chalk pencils that were also in the swag bag (and the white Derwent colored pencil I always carry for use on red Field Notes pages). I ended up enjoying the short sketch periods much more than I thought I would, and I like the triptych of small toned sketches I completed.

For the record, I’m not a fan of sketching on location with pastel chalk pencils (if you’re interested in learning more about them, I reviewed them for Ana at the Well-Appointed Desk when a couple of General’s pastel chalk pencils were included in the June ArtSnacks box). They smudge easily and transfer to the facing page. But I know artists who use traditional colored pencils to great effect on toned paper, so I can’t wait for the S&B Nova books to come out (due imminently at my local Daniel Smith as well as
A triptych of sketches made with General's pastel chalk pencils on S&B Nova paper samples.

Derwent's new Procolour pencil
A swag gift I am really excited about is the Derwent Procolour colored pencil. A month or two ago I heard that Derwent’s newest line of colored pencils had just come out in the UK, and it had yet to be released in the US. It is being marketed as the pencil line somewhere between its very soft ColourSoft (which I reviewed earlier this year) and the much harder Studio (which is intended for outlining and crisp details). Since my colored pencil review series taught me that I prefer a slightly harder pencil than super-soft ones (but not as hard as those intended for detailing), I was curious about the Procolour. After trying the sample I received, I am definitely interested in exploring them further. When I got home, I poked around online, and I found that they are starting to be available in the US now. offers them open stock, which is the ideal way to buy colored pencils, so I’ve ordered a good selection of colors I tend to use. Stay tuned for a full review.

My growing collection of symposium pencil tins!
My favorite swag gift of all is sentimental more than functional: The Cretacolor pencil tin with the USk Chicago logo! Beginning with the Paraty symposium, Cretacolor has been a staunch USk supporter every year, and one of their gifts has been the custom tin filled with a variety of art pencils. Honestly, I don’t care much about their contents, but I love collecting the tins commemorating the symposiums. Since I didn’t go to Singapore, I was sad to be missing that one, but my friend Shiho gave me one, so my collection is complete. I can’t wait to get another one in Porto!

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