Tuesday, January 17, 2017


When I saw how great my custom tote bag from Rickshaw Bagworks turned out, I couldn’t resist getting a second one before the discount coupon expired.

This time I decided to get a smaller tote, and I wanted to use a couple of sketches done in a Field Notes Sweet Tooth notebook. I wasn’t sure how well the red-orange background would reproduce, but I took a chance and picked out a couple – one of the tower on Denny Hall on the University of Washington campus and one of a fellow bus rider. I think Rickshaw’s digital printing process nailed the color beautifully!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Street View

1/12/17 brush pen, colored pencil
The past couple weeks we’ve had the longest-running streak of cold temperatures I can remember. Most winters we have a few days at a time with temps in the 20s, but it’s rare for cold snaps here to last longer than that. Fortunately, it’s also been sunny on most of those days, which makes the cold a little easier to bear.

My “mobile studio” has been serving me well. I just drive around looking for a street scene that catches my eye, and by the time I find one, my car is fully heated – I’m good for at least a half-hour.

1/16/17 graphite, colored pencil
1/13/17 graphite

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Box of Pencils

No one needs 22 grades of graphite drawing pencils.

I wanted to say that up front so you wouldn’t think this post was about rationalizing why I need a whole set of Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils or how I’d use all 22 grades. (This is not unlike why I own entire 120-color sets of colored pencils when 24 or 36 would be plenty, especially when I’ve lately been trying to use only three primaries at a time. But that’s the subject for a different post.)

Perhaps some graphite artists use several pencil grades to achieve the fullest range of tonal values, but even so, I doubt they would use 22. For most of the sketches I do, I find that I can get by with two pencils at a time – one mid-range (such as HB or F) and one soft (such as 4B or 6B). I’ve also done many sketches with just one relatively soft pencil (maybe a 2B or a Blackwing). After all, one of the virtues of graphite is being able to create a variety of tones simply by layering or varying the pressure.
1-14-17 Hi-Uni H, 9B

I already knew from my experience with a few individual Hi-Uni pencils that the line is excellent – the core, the wood casing, the finish. Smoother than any pencil I have used, the softer grades write and draw almost soundlessly. Esthetically, they are lovely – the shiny maroon lacquer is imprinted with gold, and the end has an elegant divoted yellow dot. They have become my favorite pencils. What would it be like to own an entire extravagant set?

Divots of yellow on the ends.

When I ripped the wrapper off the metal box and opened it for the first time, I was immediately taken back to my mom’s traditional cedar chest. Kept in my parents’ bedroom, the chest stored silk kimonos, dark wool sweaters and other clothing and accessories that rarely saw the light of day. It seemed she lifted its heavy lid only a couple of times a year, so as a child, the scent of cedar told me I had an opportunity to peek inside at the otherwise hidden treasures.
Take a sniff of that cedar!
At the same moment that I inhaled this memory-infused scent, I saw the most extraordinary sight: Shipped all the way from a vendor in Japan, all 22 pencils lay in their slotted tray with their logo side facing up. Now, I’ve opened plenty of flat packages of colored pencils to find them randomly and haphazardly in their slots and thought nothing of it – I’m not so fussy or OCD to be bothered. But when I saw every Hi-Uni lying so perfectly, even if the pencils had been placed in the tray mechanically (though I doubt it), I had to believe that a human at the end of the line was responsible for making sure they all faced up by the time the lid was closed. (I immediately took a photo so that I could bear to take them out.)

The next marvel was examining their unsharpened ends. From using a 10B previously, I knew that it had an unusually thick core; how thick would the cores of the other grades be? It turned out that the full range includes three sizes: 10B and 9B have the largest; 8B through 3B have a medium-sized core; and 2B and harder have a small (standard-size) core.
Left to right: 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B
Left to right: 10H, 9B, 10B (hand-sharpened)

Though it took me half a day to get over the sheer beauty of that box of pristine, unsharpened pencils, I did get over it – after all, pencils are made to be used. I took out my knife; certainly, the larger-core pencils deserve a hand-sharpened chisel cut to ensure the widest range of marks. Compared to some other pencils I’ve knife-sharpened, the wood of the Hi-Unis cut easily and evenly without splintering. For the smaller cores, I used my KUM two-hole, long-point sharpener and amused myself with the delightful curls of shavings that emerged.

KUM long-point sharpened

All of that joy came even before using the pencils. And now that I’m using them, they are as smooth and perfect as they appear.

No one – maybe least of all me (I tend to favor softer cores and will probably rarely use the harder ones) – needs 22 grades of graphite drawing pencils. Still, it’s rare to experience complete pleasure from such a simple product made well and presented with pride.

1/13/17 Hi-Uni 7B
11/23/16 Hi-Uni 10B

Friday, January 13, 2017

Looser = Faster = Fresher?

1/11/17 Pablo colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Alpha
Last month I started talking about the question of looseness and whether it can be achieved (at least in appearance, if not in execution) with colored pencils. One way I started experimenting with looseness is by using a limited palette, and lately I’ve been using the more severe restriction of a primary palette only.

Because my main objective in making these still life studies is to eventually apply what I learn to sketching on location, I’ve been trying to get away from the highly controlled, painterly look of my previous colored pencil works. I want to explore ways to make the still lifes look fresher and more spontaneous – which is how I want my urban sketches to look, too.

Decreasing the time it takes to make a sketch is not a primary objective, although it does seem to be one result of my quest for looseness (and in urban sketching, speed is almost always an advantage).

Shown above is a recent Envy apple (delicious, by the way – this season’s favorite at our house) sketched with a primary palette. I was being so loose (in this case, also known as careless) that I started coloring in some of the highlights I had taken the time to save out, so I had to use an eraser to get them back again. I was tempted to cover every speck of paper, which is part of the time-consuming aspect of using colored pencils, but I resisted. The apple took half the time I took for the pear (below) sketched back in September – I did a thorough job of covering every bit of paper surface that time. As is often advised by watercolor painters, I think allowing some of the paper to show through gives the sketch a bit of sparkle and, I hope, a bit more freshness. What do you think?

9/6/16 Pablo, Polychromos colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Epsilon

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Nude or Clothed, It’s All Practice

1/10/17 brush pen (1-min. poses)
I’ve talked about how people who look like they are about to flee are good practice for making as few lines as possible to convey the essence of the person. Tuesday at a Gage life-drawing session, I realized that what I practice regularly in coffee shops could also be applied to those one-minute poses. I suppose I do it intuitively in life drawing because the clock is running, and I know roughly how long a minute lasts (I don’t have to guess whether the man at a table is just waiting for his drink or whether he’ll stay and check messages). But Tuesday was the first time I thought about it consciously and decided to use the same principle to draw the model: Use as few lines as possible to convey the gesture.

1/10/17 brush pen (2-min. pose)
Although I always prefer sketching in real life to the artificial setup of a life-drawing studio, I have to say that my brush pens make much more esthetically beautiful lines to express this model’s body than the hooded jackets I see around town. Still, there are many challenges to both – the creases and folds of fabric are just as challenging as the muscles and skin of a model.

During the 15-minute poses, I had the luxury of pencil, just like I sometimes do with certain “victims” in the coffee shop. I’m fickle and change my materials all the time, but right now my favorite pencils for life drawing are Derwent Drawing Pencils, which have a soft, creamy, thick core and come in a range of muted, neutral hues that work well on toned paper as well as white.

Do I go to life drawing to prepare for sketching in the field? Or do I sketch people at Starbucks to prepare for studio life drawing sessions? Nude or clothed, it’s all good practice.

1/10/17 brush pen (1-min. poses)

1/10/17 Derwent Drawing Pencil (15-min. pose)
1/10/17 Derwent Drawing Pencils (15-min. pose)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


1/9/17 graphite
Yesterday I showed you some coffee shop victims who fled the scene before I could finish them off. Here are a couple victims who gave me a little more time and the luxury of graphite.

The man in the broad-brimmed hat was chatting with a couple of friends, so I knew he’d be there a while. The special treat he gave me is the one-quarter profile, which I find to be the most challenging view of the face.

The man in the puffy down jacket is the same man I showed yesterday when I drew him while he waited in line. It turned out that he sat right in front of me and stayed long enough that I could examine his jacket’s texture at length. Those puffy jackets are a fascinating study of light and dark; the fabric is smooth and shiny, and it crinkles where it’s sewn. I see so many of them around town that I think sketching a series of them would make a good winter project!

1/9/17 graphite

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Unfinished Business

1/9/17 brush pen, white colored pencil, gel pen
In coffee shops, I have two kinds of “victims”: the ones staring nearly motionlessly into screens for minutes on end (possibly hours if the wi-fi is unlimited), and the ones who are there to grab and go. Early yesterday at the Green Lake Starbucks, I encountered more of the latter kind – people standing in line for only a moment and constantly in motion.

1/9/17 brush pen, white colored
I can usually tell when they aren’t going to stay long even when they sit – they don’t bother taking off their coats, or they might pull out a phone but not a laptop. Instead of getting frustrated when they leave me with unfinished sketches, I use these short-term victims as an opportunity to study how few lines – and which lines – I need to make to convey the essence of the person. This is different from simply sketching as quickly as possible, which I do most of the time with people anyway. In the second or two before I put brush pen to page, I think about what I need to include – the hat? The hair? The posture? – and what can be left unstated.

Here are four people who left before I could finish them. Do you think I got enough lines – and the right ones – to convey their essence? Tomorrow I’ll show you a couple people who stuck around a little longer. (The guy in the puffy jacket ended up staying a while after all, so you’ll see him again.)

1/9/17 brush pen, white colored pencil

1/9/17 brush pen

Monday, January 9, 2017

Acorn Squash Times Three

1/7/17 Sketchbook Pro
You know it’s winter when I sketch the same squash three times. I did the same exercise just about a year ago, too – sketched once in water-soluble colored pencils, once in watercolors and once in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. I didn’t get very far with digital sketching last year because my Android tablet and the stylus that was compatible with it made me feel like I was drawing with a fat crayon while wearing a mitten.

I recently got a new Surface tablet/laptop, which comes with a stylus that I’d heard was much better for sketching, so I decided to give Sketchbook Pro another try. Indeed, the pressure-sensitive stylus is much more responsive and easier to use. I still feel like I’m wearing a glove, if not a mitten, and the app has so many tools and options that my head spins. Digital sketching will probably never be my thing (I love hands-on art supplies too much to give them up!), but I look at it as just another medium. Every medium I’ve ever tried – ink, marker, watercolor, gel pen, ballpoint pen, colored pencil, graphite – has taught me something new, and I’m willing to learn whatever digital sketching can teach me.
1/7/17 colored pencils

It’s possible that the only thing it has to teach me is that I should stop sketching digitally. 😉 In any case, it’s a good way to pass these cold, wet, dark days.

1/4/17 graphite

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Vanity Tote

You know about vanity license plates, and now there’s the vanity tote bag! Rickshaw Bagworks, maker of my all-time favorite everyday-carry bag (as well as several other bags I own), now offers custom tote bags. You can have any image digitally printed onto your choice of three tote bag sizes. I thought it was a cool idea even at full price, but then they sent me a coupon code for half off (mctx50 until Jan. 11), and who could resist that?

The hard part was finding two sketches (one for each side) that fit well in the tote bag’s portrait format (I tend to sketch in landscape format). I finally found one of the Space Needle that I sketched last spring in a class and one of the Maple Leaf water tower from last year. Two urban icons – one from my city, one from my neighborhood – seemed like the ideal images to put on my urban sketching vanity tote. 😀

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Not-So-High Noon

1/6/17 graphite, colored pencil
The past week or longer, it’s been colder here than it has been in years. Winter temperatures below freezing and even below zero are commonplace in some regions, but not here – we rarely see the mercury dip into the 20s during daylight hours. Just as unusual are some of the clear, sunny days we’ve had along with the cold.

Yesterday I drove around for a while just to get the temperature up inside my car, including the seat heater. Then I pulled over in the Bryant neighborhood to catch a few trees and street shadows. While I don’t have it in me to brave the cold as some urban sketchers in northern climes do (see this post from several hardy sketchers on how they do it), I do crave sunshine when I can get it, especially on these short days. (I know this sketch looks like 5 p.m., but it was actually not-so-high noon!)

Thursday, January 5, 2017


1/4/17 graphite
It’s been a while since I’ve sketched a tree bifurcated by power lines. On the way home from an errand yesterday, I came upon this old pair, and the only space I could find to park was a bit closer to the subject than I would usually choose. The trees were so tall and wide that I could barely see the ends of their branches through my windshield. And the sketch didn’t take long because my car was cooling down fast.

This morning I had an early appointment, and I sure was glad to have my down parka! At 7:43 a.m., my phone said it was 20 F degrees! I hope you’re all staying warm!

1/5/17 brush pen, gel pen

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

On Pencils and Pears

1/2/17 graphite
Years before sketching became an active, regular part of my life, I used to take drawing classes sporadically or read an occasional how-to-draw book, and inevitably the subject matter would be the classic still life. The instructor would set up a typical arrangement of a vase, some fruit, a bowl or other random objects (or the author would show an example) and shine a light on one side, and I would spend many lessons drawing the arrangement. I understood the reasons why the still life was such a time-honored subject for learning to paint or draw, but that didn’t make the exercises more fun. Dusty vases from thrift stores didn’t have meaning for me, and I was soooo bored. It was usually the thing that made me quit drawing (again, since I had tried learning to draw many times).

Another thing I suffered through in those classes or books was using pencil, charcoal or some other monochrome medium to learn value. Many art instructors advise studying with black only before adding color because distinguishing values becomes more confusing when multiple hues are involved. I understood this, but I always wanted to jump immediately into color anyway. Like a child in the backseat whining, “Are we there yet?” I’d restlessly complete the assignments, all the while thinking to myself, “When are we going to get to the color part?”

12/27/16 graphite, colored pencil
Despite all of this, if you search for the label “still life” on my blog, you’ll see that I’ve done a fair number of them the past five years. And I’ve also made some efforts (usually during the colorless winters) to work on monochrome value studies. Because even though I resisted and protested, some part of me must have been learning anyway. That part of me realized that those teachers and books were right, so I might as well accept the lessons.

The most surprising thing about this is that, over the years, I’ve come to genuinely enjoy the studies I resisted so much – making both still lifes and monochrome drawings. A single piece of fruit with a light shining on one side (tip: I polish the fruit or vegetable to get a strong highlight) is always a remarkable lesson in highlights, reflected lights, cast shadows and form shadows. Trying to render any three-dimensional form, no matter how “boring” it seems at first glance, is always a challenge – and I realize now that the challenge is what keeps it from being boring.

12/31/16 graphite
As for monochrome drawings, you’ve seen how I’ve gotten into graphite lately, even for urban sketching. (Ironically, I think it was my comfort with colored pencils that gave me an easy transition to graphite.) In addition to being such a simple tool to use, a pencil teaches observation and rendering of value like no other medium (well, maybe it’s second to charcoal, but you won’t find me using that voluntarily). And as much of a color junkie as I am, I admit I see beauty and elegance in the strokes of a soft pencil.

I guess it just took five years for the lessons to sink in.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Tipping In

My November - December sketchbook is bound.
To start the new year on the right foot, I spent yesterday afternoon binding my sketchbook from November and December. On the covers are Pee Wee Herman’s T-Rex, which I sketched on our way home from Joshua Tree, and my bird’s-eye-view sketch of Santa at Pacific Place.

By strange coincidence, the first page of the sketchbook turned out to be the topiary dinosaur I sketched at Swanson’s Nursery. 😉

A topiary dinosaur on the first page.
There’s one other point of interest to mention about this sketchbook. When I was packing art supplies for our trip to California in November, I was aware that we would be in L.A. for the Super Moon – apparently the closest the moon had been to the Earth in 70 years. It would be at its peak very early in the morning of the day we would be driving to Joshua Tree, so I didn’t know whether we’d be able to view it at all – from our hotel or anywhere else. Just in case, I packed a sheet of black toned paper.

We set our alarm for 5:30 a.m., and amazingly, we had a fantastic view of the huge moon right from our L.A. hotel room. Greg went out to climb to the roof of a nearby parking garage so that he wouldn’t have to photograph it through glass, but I stayed in my jammies and sketched from the window. Although the sketch didn’t come out very well – I had to keep the lights off in the hotel room so I could see out the window, and of course it was pitch dark outside – it was fun giving it a try on the black paper with colored pencils.
Sketch of the Super Moon setting over downtown L.A.

The trimmed-off side of the tipped-in page is visible on the
opposite side of the bound signature.
Yesterday when I was binding, it was easy to slip the single folded black page between the pages within a signature in the appropriate chronology. On the opposite side, I simply cut off most of the black sheet that I didn’t use, so only a narrow flap of paper remains. I believe this bookbinding technique is called “tipping in” the black page. I used the same process last year to add a page on which I sketched the lunar eclipse – except that time it didn’t occur to me to cut off the excess paper. After doing that yesterday in my latest book, I went back to the older book and cut the excess paper off.

If I’d been using a store-bought sketchbook, I would have had a random page of black paper without a home that would certainly eventually get lost. I love the flexibility of hand bookbinding that enables me to bind in whatever pages I use.
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