Sunday, March 26, 2017

Simple Shapes with Sue Heston

3/25/17 Faber-Castell Pitt Big Brush Pens
My second Urban Sketchers 10x10 workshop was Sue Heston’s “Simple Shapes Stronger Sketches.” Many sketchers, myself included, immediately become ensnarled by the mass of details in any view we might start to draw. Sue’s workshop directly addresses this issue by keeping students focused only on large shapes. On a chilly but dry Saturday morning, 14 sketchers gathered at the downtown ferry terminal to start seeing those shapes.

In most outdoor urban views, the largest shape is the sky. “Unlike many things – cars, trees, people – we don’t have preconceived ideas about the shape of the sky,” Sue says in her handout, which makes it an easier shape to see accurately and objectively.

With that in mind, our first exercise was to choose a composition and use a wide, light-colored marker to draw the sky as a single shape. (Fat markers were recommended because it’s impossible to get fussy with details when you have those in your hand!) The next step was to fill in the “not-sky” shape with a medium gray marker, forming another large shape. We did as many of these as possible to get away from trying to draw individual buildings, windows and rooftops and instead focused on the abstracted shapes. Sue warned us not to try to make nice sketches in these exercises; they were meant to be more like thumbnails that help us see values and compositions.

3/25/17 Pitt Big Brush Pens
The second exercise built on the first by bringing in a dark gray or black marker for the shadow shapes. Starting new compositions or simply adding to the sketches we made in the first exercise, we looked for the darkest areas to fill in.

For the final exercise, Sue encouraged us to use our medium of choice while still following the same principles we’d practiced all morning: Make the sky shape; make the not-sky shape; finish with shadow shapes and finally details.

Although I don’t usually favor fat markers, I was certain that if I picked up my usual pens or colored pencils I’d fall back into my old habits. I decided to keep going and make a few more sketches with markers to reinforce what I’d learned. After drawing the sky shape for one skyline, my intention was to color in the gray and black, but I liked the simple line so much that I left it unshaded. Of course, I couldn’t resist adding a couple of cranes.

3/25/17 Tombow markers
My favorite sketch of the day was of my beloved Smith Tower framed by the interesting sky shape formed by the terminal building’s overhang.


As humans who innately look for shapes we recognize, we don’t naturally “see” the shapes in between or around those recognizable things. We have to train our eyes to see those abstract shapes. Remember those “magic eyes” picture books of the ‘90s? If you crossed your eyes just right, a three-dimensional pictured popped out of the larger picture. I remember it took me a while to see the first one, but once I did, the rest snapped into place almost immediately. By the end of the workshop, I started feeling that way about the sky shapes surrounding the buildings, cranes, rooftops, stadiums and millions of other details in front of me. I think those larger shapes will snap into place easily for me now, helping me make better sketches with any medium.

3/25/17 Tombow markers, colored pencils

3/25/17 brush pen, colored pencils

Sue points out a sky shape.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Roastery Still Dazzles

3/24/16 water-soluble colored pencils, ink
The other day I mentioned places I tend to sketch repeatedly. One of them is apparently the Starbucks Roastery and Tasting Room – I think yesterday was my fifth time in two years, all but once with USk Seattle. You’d think by now that I’d be done with it, but it is filled with so many amazing and challenging things to sketch that I remain dazzled. I may do my share of eye-rolling at the marketing copy – “Zesty lime citrus notes and brown spice accents with a chocolaty mouthfeel” is the description of my cup of Costa Rica Bella Vista F.W. Tres Rios – and my rolling eyes may pop out of their sockets when I see how much I paid for that cup, but I can sit just about anywhere and find something interesting to draw.

3/24/17 water-soluble colored pencil, brush pen
For a Friday morning, the place was mobbed and noisy, and I think we lost one or two sketchers because of that. I generally don’t like loud music and crowds either, but once I decide on a view to sketch, I get lost in drawing and hardly notice the buzz around me. The enormous copper vat with the Reserve logo was a popular spot for selfies.

Finished with that sketch, I got up to look around for the next one when something rare and astonishing caught my eye – the sun! I grabbed my coat and dashed outside for the view I was hoping to catch – the domed top of the First Covenant Church just up Pike from the Roastery.


The sun stayed out long enough for us to take a group photo outside the Roastery, but by the time I caught my bus ride home, it was pouring again.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Sun Break

3/23/17 colored pencils, ink

I find myself sketching some scenes or locations many times. Often it’s just conveniently located along a regular route, or it might be a certain tree that I like to catch seasonally.


Sometimes, though, an ordinary place calls to me. It’s not particularly beautiful, but it’s where I go when the weather changes unexpectedly for the better. I’ve sketched this spot at Green Lake at least twice before – a little more than a year ago when we had an unseasonably warm streak, and three years ago when summer was unpredictable. It wasn’t exactly warm yesterday, but after so many weeks of record-breaking rain, people streamed by in quiet celebration of not having to wear soggy hats and hoods.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is the Purpose of a Sketch?

3/22/17 colored pencil (photo reference)
For our last session in the colored pencil class I’ve been taking at Gage, the focus was on sketching (Yay! Finally!). Well, it wasn’t exactly sketching as I know it because, as usual, we worked from photos. (You should have seen me twitch at the travesty: The temperature was mild, and the sun came out this morning as we sat in the classroom, sketching from photos! What is wrong with this picture!) I half-heartedly produced a few sketches like the one shown here (a scene I’d love to sketch very soon from life – a cherry tree in full bloom at the Seattle Arboretum).

More than the sketching experience itself, I found Suzanne’s lecture today interesting because she talked about the purpose of sketching – from a fine artist’s perspective. Gage Academy is in the business of training people to become fine artists. Most atelier students go on to become professional studio artists, and even many casual students are there because they have an interest in eventually offering their work for sale. So when Suzanne discussed sketching, it was clear that the sole purpose of producing a sketch is as a preliminary step toward eventually creating a finished work. Unlike the type of sketches I make, the fine artist’s “field sketch” (Suzanne’s term) has no purpose if it doesn’t lead to something bigger and (presumably) better. At the end of the sketch, an artist may decide that a scene doesn’t interest her enough to merit a finished painting, or she doesn’t have enough information about the scene to make a painting, so the sketch goes no further. But in any case, the job of the sketch is to help the artist make that decision. It has no life of its own.

To me, that’s very different from the content of the dozens of sketchbooks I’ve filled during the past five years. My sketches did their job just by being made by me. They do have lives of their own in my sketchbooks – by evoking for me, every time I look at them, whatever captured my attention long enough to make me want to sketch.

Despite this major difference in purpose, the steps she takes to make a field sketch are very similar to the basic steps I take for most of my sketches:

 Look for a point of interest: What attracts or excites me about what I see? What do I want the viewer to see?
 Zoom in and out like a camera to find the composition.
 Once I’ve identified the picture I want to make, think about the best ways to express it – with line, shape, color, form, texture?
 Where is the sun? Think about light and shadow and how I can use them to help describe the scene.
 Deliberately emphasize the light and shadow in the sketch to help define the forms.

After Suzanne (and other fine artists) makes a field sketch, she still has to take it, along with photos, back to her studio and hope that it contains enough information to help her make a painting.

Fortunately for me, after I’ve taken those steps, my work is done. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Seein’ Pink!

3/21/17 ink, colored pencils
Could it be? Yes!


Driving through the Green Lake neighborhood, I spotted the first signs of pink in a cluster of trees. Most of the dark pink buds were still tightly closed, reluctant to admit that Monday was the first day of spring. I’m guessing they’re plums, as the pale pink cherries are still a way’s off. But I’ll take any pink I can get.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What Colored Pencils Are Teaching Me

3/18/17 graphite
In the still life I did the other day, I felt like I didn’t do justice to the garlic’s complex, multiple curves (not to mention struggling with capturing its whiteness with colored pencils in four hues). I decided to focus on the garlic alone, this time with graphite. The highlights were much more challenging than a mostly spherical apple.

Working with colored pencils lately has given me ideas about applying what I’ve learned to graphite pencils. In particular, I was thinking about the blending tools I’ve been experimenting with, and I remembered the tortillon I bought a long time ago when a class supply list included it. Just like charcoal, soft graphite can be blended easily with tortillons and stumps (but thankfully, graphite is not nearly as messy as charcoal!). I also used an eraser judiciously when I got heavy-handed with shading in some areas and to clean up smudgy edges after I got done using the tortillon.  

I always think it’s sort of funny that while most beginning sketchers start out drawing with a graphite pencil because they are most comfortable and familiar with it, I went almost immediately to ink. My growing familiarity with colored pencils is, paradoxically, what finally got me interested in trying graphite. Although they are quite different in terms of media, they have similarities in how they can be used, so my learning curve might not be as steep with graphite as it would be if I weren’t immersed in colored pencils right now.


I’d love to take a graphite drawing class someday. When I think of masters like Michelangelo and Da Vinci, there’s nothing quite so exquisite as a well-executed graphite drawing.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sun and Brews in Ballard

3/19/17 inks, colored pencils

Based on what I saw driving past Green Lake on my way home from Ballard this afternoon, I’d say 90 percent of the Seattle population was outdoors today (and the other 10 percent was wishing it was). Never mind that the temps got up to only around the high 40s – this rain-soggy region had been craving sunshine!

3/19/17 brush pen, colored pencils
When I arrived at Hale’s Brewery for the Urban Sketchers Seattle meet-up before 11 a.m., the temperature wasn’t yet 40, but that sun was irresistible. I zipped up my down parka and sketched the scene outside Hale’s, where there were so many utility lines criss-crossing the street that I could hardly keep track of them all. As I sketched, I kept thinking that I probably wouldn’t have attempted a composition spanning this much distance before taking Gabi’s Pocket Urban Sketching workshop last month. Although the concepts he taught about scaling weren’t new to me, I think it was the first time the proverbial light bulb had turned on over my head.

3/19/17 brush pen, colored pencils, ink
Thirty minutes later, my hands were cold, despite that delightful sun at my back, so I ducked inside the brewery to sketch the British telephone booth next to some barrels.

By then I was hungry, so I joined other sketchers for lunch inside the pub. Michele and Sue each had a tasting flight of five brews that I had started to sketch. I didn’t get far on color or details, though, because then my Nightroll Stout (named for the Fremont Troll) and burger arrived (and you know me – I’ve never been one to let my food get cold for a sketch).


Ahhh – a day like this could sustain me for the rest of winter! 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Getting Over the Color Barrier

3/17/17 colored pencils
Whenever I see the work of artists who liberally interpret hues in lively ways (and here I’m talking about urban sketches and other realistic work, not abstract art), I’m awe-struck with admiration. Grass and trees don’t have to be green – whaaaat?? My eye is delighted, and my brain accepts it, yet when I try to do it myself, I feel stumped. Ummm, those trees look green. What color would I make them, if not green?

The colored pencil class I’m taking is helping me “see” many more hues in those trees besides green, which is essential for rich shading and modeling, so I’m hoping my exploration of color eventually expands into my urban sketching, and I won’t be such a slave to “actual” hues. Because of the class, I’m also getting a bit braver about using color complements to help with and even direct the hues I choose for shadows. I’ve been doing this a lot in the class exercises I’ve been showing the past few weeks, but it’s not always obvious because so many colors are blended together. It’s not a new concept to me – in every book I’ve read about painting and watercolor, the color wheel is shown, and invariably the author discusses how a palette can be made more complex and yet cohesive by using complements. But understanding it and doing it are very different things!

The limited primary palette I started experimenting with even before taking the class has helped me tiptoe in that area, too. I’m not at the point yet where bananas are blue, but I tried this still life using only three primary pencils plus a complementary purple for shading. I have to admit that the addition of purple makes this simple still life richer.


Frankly, I’m not intending to make blue bananas – that’s moving more into the world of imaginative or abstract work that I’m not ready for! – but color is a wide realm within the range of what the brain accepts as believable and “real.” I want to be bolder about poking around in that range!

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Sunny Recycle Day

3/16/17 ink, colored pencil

It’s not often that I can get a yellow fire hydrant and a row of blue and green recycle bins in the same sketch. And please note the blue sky and shadows! Although the stiff breeze kept me in the car, it still felt good to get out and put my urban palette to work.


I sketched this yesterday but saved it for today so that I’d have a bit of green for St. Patty’s Day! 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon (Plus Splender and Paper Experiments)

3/16/17 colored pencil, Strathmore Bristol vellum paper (photo reference)
When we visited Bryce Canyon several years ago, the highlight of our stay was seeing the sun come up behind all those strange hoodoos, which cast amazing, rapidly changing shadows. We woke at 4 a.m., drove to the park, jockeyed for space in the best viewing area (several busloads of tourists were there, as well as dozens of photographers with their cameras on tripods all pointing in the same direction) and waited for the sun, shivering in the sub-freezing temperatures.

For this week’s colored pencil class assignment on sunset or sunrise skies, Suzanne said we could bring our own reference photo, so I chose one (bottom of page) from the many Greg took at Bryce that morning. I recomposed the view a bit liberally; since the lesson was sky colors, I didn’t want to get distracted by silhouettes of too many trees.

Unlike a couple of weeks ago when I kept procrastinating in getting started on the homework, this time I jumped right in and finished it in two sessions (about four hours total for this 6-by-7 inch piece). I felt a bit more inspired and motivated because the photo image was meaningful to me. And of course the color junkie in me was excited to use all those oranges and lavenders that I rarely get to use as an urban sketcher. It took me quite a while to choose a cohesive palette that was bright but not garish.

I’m happy with my pencil choices but not with the paper I used. For the previous class exercises I had been using Canson Bristol smooth paper, which is like hot press watercolor paper or Stillman & Birn’s Zeta series in texture. Although I like the smooth finish that can result, I’ve also been frustrated by how difficult it is to get a really dark value on it. After multiple layers of colored pencil pigment, the Bristol smooth paper’s fine tooth seems to flatten, and it’s almost impossible to apply more pigment.

When I make small still lifes at home, I’ve been happy with Stillman & Birn’s Alpha paper, which has a surface similar to cold press watercolor. I happened to have a pad of Strathmore Bristol vellum, which has a similar tooth, so I thought I’d give it a try. I don’t mind the texture that appears on the sky, which makes the work look a bit like pastel. But it was hell trying to get the dark blue ground to be a solid flat hue. I must have put on something like 10 layers, and I can still see the white specks of the tooth. It reminds me of the crayon drawings I used to do in elementary school! 😕

One new thing I tried for this assignment is a Lyra Splender, a colorless blending stick that Suzanne recommended. On my own, I’ve tried a Caran d’Ache Full Blender Bright, which is a hard plastic tool that intensifies colored pencil when it’s used after all the pigment has been applied. I think the result is that it flattens the remaining paper tooth, because after using it, it’s almost impossible to apply more pigment. So you can’t use it until you are certain you don’t want to apply more.

Bryce Canyon, sunrise, Sept. 2012
The Splender stick, however, looks like it is made of wax or some other binder material similar to what colored pencil cores are made of (but without the pigment). After applying several layers of colored pencil, Suzanne suggested applying the Splender stick with a fair amount of pressure. Counterintuitively, the application of wax (or whatever it is) primes the existing pigment layers so that they can take even more pigment. I ended up going through several cycles of pigment/pigment/pigment/Splender to try to get that ground as dark and flat as possible, but I still wasn’t completely successful.

As with watercolor or any medium that is applied to a paper support, the choice of paper is just as important as the medium, and the relationship between the paper and the pigment makes a huge difference in the result.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Past Due

3/13/17 brush pen, colored pencils
Some people in my ‘hood still have Christmas lights up on their houses, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this ornamented tree in a traffic circle.

It’s a good thing I went out in my mobile studio yesterday when I could still see between the raindrops on the windshield to sketch this (I stuck my finished sketch out the window for a second to catch a bit of local DNA). Today the rain is pouring down in sheets, not drops.


But I know those of you in the East and Midwest are shoveling again, so I’ll keep my mouth shut. Stay safe, everyone!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Preparing My (Optimistic) Urban Palette

My optimistic palette
Shown below is the five-day forecast, and it looks very similar to the previous five (or more) days. I’m still sketching from my car, but continually turning the wipers on and off gets tiresome. Sigh.

In the meantime, I’ve been shuffling around the water-soluble colored pencils I carry in my everyday bag. Shown here is my freshened “urban palette” – a fairly standard range, plus the more unusual “construction zone yellow” and “recycle bin green.” I was about to take out the pink pencil, which has been in my bag since the Women’s March, but then I thought about the cherry trees. Exactly one year ago today, Urban Sketchers Seattle met at the University of Washington’s Quad to sketch the blossoming sakura. What a difference this year is! The leafless, budless trees are nowhere near blossoming. Sigh.

Trying to be optimistic, I left the pink pencil in.


Any signs of spring in your neck of the woods? Send some my way!

Sigh.

Friday, March 10, 2017

104 Total for #oneweek100people2017 and Learnings

3/6/17 brush pen
Yesterday I asked whether you were sad or relieved that the #oneweek100people2017 initiative was almost over. Now that it is over (I hit 104 today!), I have to say I’m a little of both. I really did have so much fun that I felt like I could continue making 20+ sketches of people every day indefinitely and enjoy it. But a smaller part of me was relieved to be done because I enjoy sketching many different subjects, not just people, and it’s hard to make time for anything else if I’m counting heads all day! I’m happy I participated, and I look forward to next year’s One Week 100 People. (Based on the inspiring worldwide participation I saw by viewing the hashtag, I told Marc Holmes it’s going to have to become an annual event!)

3/6/17 brush pen
In his introductory blog post, Marc said that if you make 100 sketches “over a whole week, at least ONE will be amazing.” I don’t know if I ever achieved “amazing,” but I definitely had a few favorites out of the 104, specifically those that best met my personal goal of evoking an individual – not a generic symbol – with as few marks as possible. I’ve shown those favorites here. (A collage of all of today’s sketches are in my Flickr photostream and on Instagram.)

One of my favorite viewpoints today also turned out to be my most challenging: looking down on the curving line of people at the Assembly Hall Juice & Coffee counter (below). Such perspectival trickery! But it’s the sketch that got me to 104.

3/10/17 ink

Here’s what I learned from taking part in the challenge:

3/7/17
Even if the sketches are fast and gestural, it really helps to be able to see the subject well. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but I didn’t really think about it until I started looking over my sketches from days 1 and 2 and compared them to today’s. I had much better lighting at Zoka Coffee and the Northgate food court, and it shows in my sketches. Today it was much darker at the Via6 apartment/retail complex in South Lake Union, which was an outing with Urban Sketchers Seattle. Except for the few I did on the bus, I sketched most of my subjects looking down on them from the complex’s upper level, so they were quite a distance away and usually backlit. I found myself trying to guess at lines I couldn’t really see, and that usually yields mediocre results.


3/7/17 brush pen

Liz Steel mentioned on her blog that taking part in One Week 100 People has made her much more confident about sketching people. While I can always benefit from the practice of sketching 100 people in a week, it occurred to me that it’s not a challenge I really need because I sketch people regularly anyway (at least in the winter months). What I really should be doing, I commented to Liz, is sketching 100 buildings in a week! OK, that might be too aggressive. But maybe 10 buildings in a week, or at least one a day for a full week? That kind of concentrated, regular effort might make me more confident about sketching architecture in the same way that this challenge has benefitted Liz. I am going to think about that for the summer!

After I finished my 104, I had only about 15 minutes before the group sketchbook sharing, so I wandered around the Via6’s main floor, looking for a subject that wasn’t people. But wouldn’t you know it – people were everywhere, so I resigned myself to one more peopled sketch, this time in front of the fireplace near the entrance.

3/10/17 brush pen, ink, colored pencil

Thursday, March 9, 2017

33 at Life Drawing for #oneweek100people2017

3/9/17 brush pen, rainbow pencils (20-min. pose)
Since I didn’t do any sketches at all yesterday for #oneweek100people2017, I knew I had to get on the ball today. Too lazy to go looking for people, I took the easy route: I went to a life drawing session at Gage! With 33 more sketches under my belt, that brings my total to 85. One more day to go – it’ll be a piece of cake! (To see a collage of all of today’s sketches, see my Instagram account.)

How are you doing on the challenge? Are you having so much fun you’ll be sad to see it end? Or are you happy it’s almost over?

3/9/17 brush pens (2-min. poses)

3/9/17 brush pens (5-min. poses)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Shapes and Values

3/8/17 colored pencils, smooth Bristol (in progress)
This week’s colored pencil class exercise is a major departure from all the previous ones. Using a photo reference with strong value contrasts, we are to focus firmly on the shapes and values in a limited color range – no textures, no details, no forms – almost to the point of abstraction. After weeks of highly detailed work that focused on form and realism, my classmates and I were all a bit shaken and puzzled this morning – what the heck?? And how?!

Fortunately, we had enough time to get a good start on the assignment during class so we could ask lots of questions. (For most of the prior exercises, we had a few minutes in class but did the bulk of the work at home. I think I would have been lost trying to start this on my own.) With Suzanne’s prompting, however (mostly constant reminders that we should stick to shapes and values), it started to click into place for me.

In fact, not only did it click – I started seeing this exercise as an entry to using colored pencils for urban sketching. Though it’s not quite done, shown here is about an hour’s worth of work. This approach is much faster than anything we’ve done before, and with more practice, I think I could be even faster. It takes some doing to get used to the “blurry” look – when I look at this, I feel like I’ve forgotten to put my glasses on! – but if I get the values right, it should still be credible and “readable.” That’s the goal, anyway.

At my request, Suzanne promised to talk at the end of the quarter about colored pencil techniques for sketching on location (and she concurred with my speculation that today’s exercise is one of them). Yes! My diligence and hard work this quarter will finally pay off – I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned to sketches that match my style (instead of these time-consuming drawings from photo references which I may never attempt again once the class is over).


reference photo
(In class all morning and at an appointment in the afternoon, I made exactly zero sketches of people today for #oneweek100people2017! I’ll have to work double time tomorrow.) 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Day 2 of #oneweek100people2017

3/7/17 brush pen
Yesterday I was short on time, so I sped through my first 28 sketches of people in 50 minutes with the objective of simply getting as many done as possible. On day 2 of the #oneweek100people2017 challenge, my time was more flexible, so I went to my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, Zoka Coffee.

I made almost the same number today – 24 – but I took more time, not so much on individual sketches but on thinking about the whole small page spread as a composition (similar to the pocket sketchbook vignettes Gabi taught in his workshop a few weeks ago). I didn’t always follow his suggestion for including a small, a medium and a large image to compose the page, but three images often worked well together on a spread.
 
3/7/17 brush pen, colored pencil

I’m having so much fun with these! The simple materials I’ve chosen for this challenge – a small Field Notes Sweet Tooth notebook with yellow paper and a brush pen with occasional colored pencil highlights – are working out just right. Instead of feeling pressured by the challenge, I’m feeling liberated: I’m simply meeting the project goal of making 100 people sketches and my personal goal of using as few marks as possible to evoke a real person. Although my results are not much different from the type of coffee shop sketches that I usually do, the narrow focus and limited materials paradoxically feel open and loose. I dont have to waffle about any choices  I just sit down and sketch.



Monday, March 6, 2017

#Oneweek100people2017 Begins!

3/6/17 brush pen
Are you participating in #Oneweek100people2017, the online challenge initiated by Marc Holmes and Liz Steel? I am! It’s not limited to urban sketching – you can make selfies, draw from photos or TV or, of course, draw from life. I’m going to sketch from life on location whenever I can (but if I run out of time at the end of the week, I might resort to selfies).

Making a hundred sketches of people in five days is somewhat challenging, but not if you lower your standards. 😉 As Marc says, “The goal is PRACTICE. Not perfection” (and that guy just did his 100 sketches in one day!). A little pressed for time today, I dashed over to our neighborhood mall’s food court at noon and sketched 28 people in about 50 minutes. Some were individual portraits, and a couple sketches were of groups. I think I could easily finish the challenge during a week of lunch breaks. (Frankly, I think Marc needs to up his game next year and make 500 sketches! 😜)
 
3/6/17 brush pen

My goal for this challenge (and actually, almost any time I sketch a person from life) is to make as few marks as possible and still evoke an individual – through expression, gesture or posture – and not a generic symbol. I wasnt always successful today, but thats my goal. And, of course, the primary goal is to have fun! Join me, and remember to share online with the hashtag #Oneweek100people2017.

3/6/17 brush pen

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Backyard Birds with Bonus Squirrel

3/1/17 water-soluble colored pencils (chickadee)
About a month ago we got a bird feeder. I had been noticing lots of small birds hopping around in the lilac and mock orange trees outside our kitchen window, and I wanted to sketch them, but I couldn’t see them very well through the branches. If we put a feeder out there, I said to myself, they would be easier to see and might even stick around long enough to sketch! A minute later I had ordered a hanging feeder from Amazon, and two days later, Greg put it up.

The tiny birds – mostly chestnut-backed chickadees and dark-eyed juncos – are easier to see now as they cling to the side or bottom of the feeder to peck the seeds out, but sketching them requires an incremental process. First I simply try to capture the gestures – the acrobatic stances they take to hang from the feeder or perch on a branch. This takes many tries to get the shape and proportions right, and I have several poses going at the same time. Animals repeat the same poses and motions over and over, so as soon as one bird moves, another will probably take on the same pose, or the first one will return to the original pose in a few seconds. Once I get a contour that looks adequate, it takes many more sightings to get the coloring and details, which I add or correct one at a time. I know this sounds like a time-consuming process, but I probably spend no more than 10 minutes per sketch.

2/26/17 (dark-eyed junco)
Yesterday I got a bonus: A pair of squirrels is nesting under our neighbor’s roof. One of them seems to be injured or sick, because it spent a good five minutes hardly moving, giving me plenty of time to sketch it.


I keep a pocket-size Stillman & Birn sketchbook and a couple of brown and black water-soluble colored pencils on the kitchen counter next to the window. Every time I walk through the kitchen, I glance at the feeder, and it’s easy to take a minute or two to work on a sketch. This winter the feeder has become my daily-sketching-habit lifesaver: If I’ve been cooped up all day, feeling restless with nothing to sketch, I can always draw a chickadee or two. A few minutes of drawing from life has also been an ideal antidote to the frustration I’ve been feeling about working exclusively from photos in my colored pencil class.

3/4/17 (gray squirrel)
2/18/17 (chickadee)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Rocky Shores of Procrastination

3-4-17 colored pencils, smooth Bristol
This week’s colored pencil class assignment is a rocky shore with water. Suzanne instructed us to pay attention to the patterns on the water’s surface, the direction of the flow, the reflected light and the subtle color variations. To draw the currents, I had to make lots and lots of small marks with a variety of blue, green and gray pencils. It was tempting to color in some areas solidly to get the values right, but then I’d lose the sparkles of water evident on every single ripple, no matter how tiny. (I know I say it every week, so I’ll resist declaring that this was the hardest homework yet!) I don’t know if it’s done, but I had to stop sometime.

While I was away in Cannon Beach I missed the lesson about reflections on water, which I regret, but it was also nice to have a break mid-quarter. Each assignment takes many hours over several days of work – a lot more intense desk work than I am used to.


Source photo
Although I knew from the get-go that the class would be focused on working from photos as a learning tool, and although I am certainly benefitting from the assignments, by the seventh week, I have to say I’m nonetheless frustrated. It was especially evident when I sat down to begin this week’s homework. Usually I have no problem simply hitting it, but this time I kept procrastinating by sharpening pencils, emptying the shavings, cleaning off my desktop, rearranging the desktop – basically doing everything except beginning! Trying to engage with photos taken by someone else is difficult at best. (It might be slightly better if I were to work from my own photos; I think we’ll be doing that at the end of the quarter.) The drawings feel like the exact opposite of the lively, spontaneous results I try so hard for (and love so much) in urban sketching. I know many artists work from photo sources as a matter of course, but it’s just not for me. 
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