Monday, August 13, 2018

Fearless and Undaunted at the Northwest School

8/9/18 The Northwest School's garden in downtown Seattle

Sometimes when I talk to people who are interested in the idea of sketching but haven’t yet started, I can sense their fear and hesitation. So many obstacles in their minds – real and imagined – keep them from putting pencil to sketchbook. Fortunately, only adults seem to be afflicted with this hesitation; kids have no such fears. Once in a while I have the opportunity to see children with their sketchbooks, and it’s a happy sight.

For the third year, the Northwest School and the Seattle Architecture Foundation invited Urban Sketchers Seattle to lead class sessions in urban sketching. (I reported on my experiences from 2016 and 2017.) Here’s how the school describes itself:

“A vibrant, intellectual home. A warm inclusive community. A dynamic liberal arts education for grades 6-12 that prepares students to think critically, act compassionately, and discover their place in the world.”

Whenever I take part in this program, I feel some envy that I never had a school like that to go to when I was their age! Among the wide and varied curriculum the pre-teens can choose from is a design and architecture class, and that’s where Urban Sketchers fits in.
My blind contours
A show of hands indicated that about half of the dozen kids enjoyed drawing, and the ones who did were primarily interested in drawing from their imagination. After talking briefly to the students about my experiences as an urban sketcher, I passed around several of my sketchbooks to look through. Their teacher, Teresa Wang, then led us in a few rounds of blind contour drawing. The kids especially enjoyed doing blind contours of each other, the results of which were hilarious, based on their responses!

After that, we all went outside to the school’s garden for some urban sketching. With nothing more than the pocket-sized notebooks and pencils that I had brought along for them, the kids went at their task with gusto. Even the ones who didn’t express particular interest in drawing chose their views and put their pencils to paper immediately. I was taken by how seriously they approached their assignment: to draw what they see, not what they imagine. The results were impressive.

I left feeling hopeful that they will take their undaunted selves into adulthood to continue drawing as fearlessly as they did the day I saw them. I wish everyone could do that.

Northwest School students sketching hard.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Two Houses of Worship in Greenwood

8/11/18 Sakya Monastery

Sixty-eight degrees with overcast skies! Ahhhh!

Despite my relief that the heatwave had finally broken, I was still miffed that yesterday morning’s forecast called for rain and even thunderstorms. Couldn’t the rain wait until after our sketch outing? In fact, it did wait until the throwdown, so we all stayed dry while sketching the Greenwood neighborhood.

Our sketch outing featured two places of worship within a couple of blocks of each other: The bright yellow and red Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. I’ve sketched the monastery’s front entrance flanked by twin lions before, so this time I went for the large bell at the side of the building. The bell is surrounded by stands of percussion instruments that make a soothing rattling sound when spun. Arriving before the other sketchers, I had seen someone come out of the monastery, walk around the bell and spin the instruments before stopping for prayers at the entrance.

Sketching St. John’s was a second attempt for me, too. More than five years ago I stood on the opposite side of the church and struggled with both the perspective and watercolor. At least I didn’t have the challenge of watercolor this time, but the perspective was no less a struggle. Giving it a shot with Eduardo Bajzek’s graphite method, I had a new difficulty: trying to make sense of the confusing values. The brightest spot on the building was the barely visible left face of the mitered top (the curve reflecting the sky), yet the sun (hiding behind thick clouds) was lighting the right side of the rest of the church.
8/11/18 St. John the Evangelist Church

The weather report didn’t scare away any sketchers! In fact, we welcomed several new faces, including Gigi, who was visiting all the way from Rio de Janeiro.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Portugal Travel Journal: Field Notes Signature

My Portugal travel journal in a Field Notes Signature

Although I’ll probably continue to mention my trip to Portugal occasionally (I won’t stop thinking about my experiences in that beautiful country for a long time), my last blog post as a trip follow-up is related to my travel journal.

The last time I talked about it was in 2014 shortly after I had returned from Brazil. For several years, I had happily used a pocket-size Rhodia Rhodiarama notebook for that role. The size and format are compact enough to slip easily into my bag and write in on tiny café tables and train or plane tray tables. It has 192 pages (96 sheets), which is more than ample for a duration of two to three weeks, which is typical for our international trips. Most important, it has paper that can be used for both writing (with any implement, including fountain pen) and sketching (as long as the medium is not too wet).

Although I was still satisfied with the Rhodia, I decided to try something new as my travel journal for Portugal: an unruled Field Notes Signature (which I reviewed when it first came out). The page format is slightly larger than a Rhodia, giving me more space for sketches, the softcover profile is less bulky than the Rhodia’s hardcover, and overall the book feels lighter. The paper is not quite as friendly to fountain pens as the Rhodia is, but on the other hand, the light tooth is friendlier to graphite and colored pencils. It can take a light wash just like the Rhodia. The only drawback I foresaw was that the Signature contains only 72 pages (36 sheets), which I thought might be insufficient to cover 18 days of travel. But with a larger page size, perhaps it would be a wash? It was worth a try.
I left the cover blank when I left for the trip, hoping that I would find an appropriate sticker by the end of my travels. Indeed, my symposium goodie bag contained stickers!

A few things I always do to prep my travel journal long before the trip begins is to glue a calendar with itinerary to the inside front cover and a map on the first page showing the cities I’m visiting. As soon as I commit to a trip, I use the first several pages to make notes from my research about things I want to see and do. Starting from the back (where it’s handy for quick reference), I use a few pages to write vocabulary words and pronunciation cues I learn as I’m researching.
Calendar and map at the front

The bulk of the book contains observations and musings about my experiences. But because I’m in the habit of using a pocket notebook for general memos during my more mundane life at home, I use the travel journal for that role, too. I wrote messy reminders to myself right alongside pontifications of the day and notations of steps Greg registered on his Fitbit (18,111 in Lisbon one day; 19,932 the next!) I glued in ticket stubs, receipts and other ephemera. And at the end of each day, I looked through the photos I took and picked out just one or two favorites to print out on my Sprocket portable printer (the printer paper is self-adhesive, so it’s about as handy as it could be).
A photo printed on my Sprocket

Since I do most of my sketching in my usual hand-stitched sketchbook signatures that I’ll later bind together, I didn’t make too many sketches in my travel journal. But again, just like in my ordinary life when I sometimes sketch in a daily-carry Field Notes, I occasionally reached for the Signature instead of my full-size sketchbook. It was especially handy when I had only a few minutes for a sketch, or I was in transit and my full sketch kit was in my backpack (when that’s the case, my travel journal always stays at my side in my mini-size Rickshaw Zero messenger that I carry during transit only).
Peacock sketched at Castelo de S. Jorge right next to a list of restaurant options we were researching.

The Signature held up very well to daily wear and tear and constant pulling in and out of my bag. My only minor complaint is that I did, indeed, run out of pages at the end of the trip. My final observations and a couple of sketches were done on the backs of receipts and a train ticket (which I later taped in). I enjoyed doing that, though; writing and drawing on ephemera gives the book a certain grittiness that’s part of every trip, no matter how well-planned.

The Signature is a winner. Wherever I go next, a Signature is coming with me.

I adhere ticket stubs and receipts with Tombow Mono tape glue, which is pricey but very handy and neat.

When I ran out of pages toward the end, I started sketching on ticket stubs and receipts.

On the last page are vocabulary words I started jotting long before the trip began. On the inside back cover, I taped in the
ephemera I wrote and sketched on when I ran out of pages.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Porto Symposium, Part 4: Sketch Kit Review, Swag, Shopping

Porto swag!

With all I’ve written about the Porto symposium, I know that what you really want to see is the swag 😉, so I won’t make you wait any longer.

New colors added to my usual daily-carry.
More on that in a bit, but first I want to do the all-important sketch kit review: How did my prep match what I needed in reality? You may recall that my kit prep didn’t amount to much. I added a few colors to my pencil palette that I thought would come in handy in Portugal, and they did. I used russet (065) nearly every day for all those tile rooftops, and cobalt green (182) came in hand several times for verdigris trim. Although I had thought my wide-ranging palette would cover the pastel-colored buildings I’d seen in photos, I regretted that I didn’t have peach or salmon, which I saw frequently in the residential hillscape. I made do with a mix of middle purple-pink and Cornelian. Overall, my usual daily-carry kit served me fine.
Materials I brought specifically for workshops.

What about the additional materials that were on the symposium workshop supply lists? In Eduardo Bajzek’s workshop, Graphite is the Matter, I used only one pencil, the kneaded eraser and the Tombow Mono Zero eraser. I ended up using toilet paper instead of the blending stump, and I didn’t need the signature of paper I’d prepared, either (see below for more on that). Still, it was good to have other grades of graphite in case I wanted to explore them, and I did end up using some after the workshop.

The items I had brought specifically for Lapin’s workshop – a booklet of Viviva colorsheets and some waterproof colored pens – were clearly optional, and I almost left them behind. I could have, as I didn’t use them at all. However, I did learn how Lapin uses those colored inks: To separate and distinguish certain elements in a composition. In my workshop sketch, I had plenty of color, and I thought adding more in the form of inks would not have improved the composition. But I like the way he uses color in his work, and it gave me food for thought on how a variety of tools can be used to emphasize some elements.

Ultimately, my hunch was right: I could have omitted the materials I assumed were optional. In a workshop where a specific material and its application technique are being learned, however, it’s more important to bring what’s specified by the instructor.

OK, now back to the swag. Each year, the symposium sponsorship team seems to out-do itself from the previous year, filling our goodie bags with piles of samples, information, discount coupons and even full-size sketchbooks. Shown at the top of the page are the contents of the tote I received upon registration (Thank you, sponsors!). The next day as I was walking out of the restroom before heading for my workshop, a sponsor nearly knocked me over as he handed me a landscape-format Pen & Ink sketchbook! Umm, thanks?
Derwent supplied Eduardo's workshop participants with
a sketchpad, pencil and erasers.
Sometimes instructors secure sponsored materials specific to their workshop topic. When we arrived at Eduardo’s workshop, participants received a sketchpad, pencil and erasers from sponsor Derwent. Although I had already prepared a signature of paper that I was planning to use during the workshop, it was smaller than Eduardo had recommended. In retrospect, working over the gutter as I had planned would have been difficult with his technique, so I was relieved and happy to receive the A4-size spiralbound pad. I think the surface has more tooth than he likes, but I really enjoyed working on the moderately textured surface for my workshop sketch. In fact, I’m thinking about stitching up the remaining sheets into some signatures for my usual daily-carry to use with graphite.

When packing for a symposium, sometimes first-time participants ask me whether they need to bring anything at all, since they know they will receive a generously stuffed swag bag. I always say that while it’s probably possible to get away with that in a general approach- or concept-based workshop (in which using specific materials isn’t important), it’s unlikely that the bag will contain exactly what they need for a workshop in which the material is critical. I did see some participants using the sketchbooks they received, so if you aren’t fussy about paper or format, it’s entirely possible to leave heavy books at home and use whatever you are given. It’s a good way to explore a new product (as long as you are willing to embrace the unknown).

In all the symposium workshops I’ve attended, the Derwent sketchpad may be the first time I’ve ever used a swag item in a workshop. It probably made a difference that the sponsor was secured specifically for Eduardo. (Though the Derwent mechanical pencils and erasers we received were not the kinds he had recommended, so I used the ones I had brought from home.)

Of course, as always, the most important item in my goodie bag is the Cretacolor pencil tin with the Porto symposium logo on it! This brings my collection to five, and I cherish each one. At this time last year when I returned from the Chicago symposium, I was completely content, believing that I had acquired every symposium tin that existed. Sometime after that, I discovered that a tin had also been made for the Barcelona symposium – but only in a very limited quantity! Perhaps only symposium staff or instructors received them. . . ? I don’t know – I only know that I saw a photo of one, and despite my pleas on social media, no one has yet come forward with a Barcelona-logo Cretacolor tin that they are willing to give or sell to me. Believe me, if I see one, I will beg, buy or steal to get it. I’m not giving up! (I suppose it’s unlikely to show up on eBay, but this is what collecting rarities is about. If you have information, call now!)
My pride-and-joy collection of symposium pencil tins
Meanwhile, I didn’t have to beg or steal to get another pencil box and pencils – I only had to purchase them from a lovely shop in Lisbon called A Vida Portuguesa. Everything in the shop is made in Portugal, from tile replicas to hand soap and home dĂ©cor. I found a beautiful wood pencil box with a sliding top and several products made by Viarco, Portugal’s only pencil manufacturer and one of Europe’s oldest. I already knew and loved Viarco’s ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil, so I stocked up on several of those and a few other pencils. I also got a cake of ArtGraf water-soluble graphite. (Virginia Hein mentioned it in her landscape book, and I’ve been wanting to try it.) Viarco and A Vida Portuguesa had collaborated on making a set of colored pencils that reproduces vintage Viarco packaging, so of course I needed that, too. A modest haul, wouldn’t you say?

A modest haul from A Vida Portuguesa

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Blog Post No. 2,000


I have at least a couple more posts planned as follow-up to my Portugal trip (including a report on how my sketch materials fared and symposium swag), but before I get to those, I have an announcement to make: According to Blogger, this is my 2,000th blog post!

A writer my entire professional life and a journal keeper even longer than that, I have always used the written word to develop and retain ideas, record experiences, process feelings and thoughts and, indeed, to think. It’s been said before by other writers, but sometimes I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it. It’s a natural part of how I learn to understand my experiences.

It was only natural, then, that when I began learning to draw, I wanted to use writing to document this very new experience – a process that undoubtedly would be endless if I kept it up. And it struck me that I had a rare opportunity to document my own creative and learning processes from the beginning. That’s when I decided that a blog might be an interesting medium for that documentation.

When I published my first post on March 18, 2012, about six months after I had started drawing, I didn’t know how long I would keep the blog up or how often I would post. Even back then, trendsetters had long ago moved on to social media, and blogging had already been declared dead. Knowing this, I gave myself permission to try blogging for as long as I felt like it, but if it no longer interested me, I’d stop.

Six-and-a-half years and 2,000 posts later, I’m still blogging, nearly every day. Although I also share my sketches on social media, this blog gives me a permanent place where I can write about the sketch subject, how I made the sketch, the materials I used, or a story about the circumstances. While others may have let their blogs go because posting on Facebook or Instagram is so much easier and faster, I still have a need for more space and time to develop a thought. Indeed, I want to think a little longer than the 30 seconds it takes to post and hashtag a sketch.
While I always intended for this blog to be mainly for myself, it’s been a genuine joy to “meet” readers along the way – the ones who occasionally or regularly leave comments; the ones who email me privately about their own sketching experiences; and the ones who find me among hundreds of symposium attendees to tell me they are readers. Many thanks to all of you – even if you’re silent! – for sharing my journey. (I especially appreciate your readership because, despite much troubleshooting and frustration, I have never been able to get the email subscription tool to work on my blog, and yet you keep returning.) And the journey continues. . . for the next however-many-thousands of posts.

I hit my 1,000th post on March 27, 2015. You can read about that milestone here.

(What do the sketches shown here today have to do with my 2,000th post? Not much. I have a folder on my computer containing hundreds of sketches I haven’t shown on the blog, usually because I had nothing to say about them at the time. I still don’t, but this post is a rare excuse to show them. I picked one randomly from each year that I’ve been sketching.)



Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Portugal Sketching Highlights

7/25/18 Coimbra

Every time we travel, Greg and I learn a little more about what we enjoy most (and least) about traveling, and I learn a little more about what kinds of travel sketching moments are my happiest. When planning a trip, I always have a mental “must-sketch” list based on images I’ve seen, and I usually manage to hit a few. But time and time again, the highlights of my trip are not when I’ve checked off the “big” sketches on my list but the casual moments captured spontaneously. Since I can’t plan for the spontaneity that I know will ultimately be the most enjoyable, I’ve learned that I can only build in enough unstructured time in my travels to enable those moments to happen. And over time, we’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding over-planning and staying as loose as we can.

My favorite sketch of the entire trip is the one you saw earlier in my report of my workshop with Eduardo Bajzek (top of post). It was late afternoon on our last full day in Coimbra when we had nothing to do except maybe look for a place for dinner. Greg was taking photos somewhere nearby; a busker played jazz on his saxophone. Relaxed and unhurried, I looked at those cafĂ© umbrellas in black and white and the canyon of buildings topped by a triangular slice of sky, and the casual scene seemed just right for practicing the graphite techniques I’d learned. In addition to being a quintessential Portuguese street scene, it represents the best of what I took home from my symposium education.

Another highlight was when I sketched Mondeguinas Tuna Feminina da Universidade, one of several musical groups made up of female Coimbra University students. Singing traditional college songs about loyalty and fraternity, these vivacious young women seemed so positive and cheerful as they busked to help pay for their education. (They were so delighted with my sketch that we exchanged Instagram names, and they showed my sketch on their account later that day.)
7/24/18 Mondeguinas Tuna Feminina da Universidade
I had good moments in Lisbon, too. On a Sunday afternoon, we stopped for a late lunch at a café with very rocky tables and chairs teetering on the lopsided, inclined pavement. No amount of tissue folded under the table legs would keep it from tilting dangerously. A large tree provided plenty of shade (and occasionally dropped small leaves onto our plates). It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner for the other patrons, who shot the breeze over bottles of Sagres, so we were the only ones leisurely eating. After I finished, I sketched a building on the street below us that was covered with yellow tiles. Streetcars passed by (but never long enough for me to work one into the sketch). The whole time I was wary of leaning too far in any direction lest my unstable chair toppled over. I was sketching in Portugal, and it was wonderful.
7/14/18 Lisbon
Although the last official leg of our trip was Coimbra, we had to fly home out of Lisbon, so we returned there for an overnight before our morning flight. With only about 18 hours in the city, we felt at loose ends. Wandering around our hotel’s neighborhood (which was different from the one we enjoyed during our initial Lisbon stay), we stumbled upon a lovely park. Strangely enough, it was filled with roosters and some large, ugly birds that looked like a cross between a turkey and a vulture. Some of the most fun I had in Portugal was chasing these birds around the park, sketching them. At one point a surprising gust of wind took my hat off and into the fenced area where the birds roamed. As I was contemplating whether to climb ungracefully over the low fence to retrieve my hat, a young woman who had been sitting nearby saw my quandary and stepped over the fence to get the hat for me! It’s a simple memory that I’ll cherish.

7/2718 odd birds in Lisbon

Although these weren’t necessarily among my most enjoyable sketches, small thumbnails (like those below) turned out to be long-term sketching energy-savers. Sometimes when traveling, I don’t have enough time for a full-page sketch, but I want to preserve a scene anyway. A tiny thumbnail (these are only a couple of inches) does the job as well as a full page, and it enables me to save energy for a larger sketch later. In this case, it’s not so much a sketching highlight as a strategy for greater enjoyment overall.
7/26/18 thumbnails of Lisbon building tops
If these were the highlights, what were the lowlights? Although I enjoyed seeing both Sintra and GuimarĂŁes, I realize I don’t appreciate short day trips nearly as much as committing several days to a single place. Greg feels the same way. I feel too rushed and compelled to sketch only the “big” sights because that’s what I came to see, and I end up missing the ordinary. It’s hard to resist the “must-see” side trips that travel books recommend, but I have to keep reminding myself to stay true to what I enjoy – not what the guidebooks say I will enjoy.

The more I travel and sketch, the more I learn about both traveling and sketching.

Tchau, Portugal! We'll be back someday!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


7/24/18 Coimbra University Tower

Our international travel experience has shown us that we are happiest when we schedule a smaller, low-key town at the end of the trip instead of a large, intense city. To that end, we made Coimbra the last stop on our Portuguese itinerary, a college town that has been described as “Lisbon, but without all the tourists.” Four nights is probably more than most travelers to Portugal would devote to this friendly town, which doesn’t have any big-name attractions (other than Coimbra Universidade, of course – one of Europe’s oldest universities). But photos we’d seen and articles we’d read gave us the impression that Coimbra would be an ideal place to wind down and relax before we headed home, and it turned out to be exactly right.

Although we didn’t get to rest our weary legs much – Coimbra has its share of hills – we could give Google Maps a rest (in a town with one main square, it’s hard to get lost). Feeling safe and relaxed and having sketched enough iconic towers and views during the rest of the trip, I found myself making more of the kinds of sketches I would make if I were home – ordinary street scenes, utility wires, a busker, heavy equipment.
7/23/18 Bellini gelateria, Coimbra
We finally had time to enjoy Fado, the traditional Portuguese musical form. I found myself taking more photos of the remarkable pavement and details like doorknobs because there wasn’t as much vehicular or pedestrian traffic to worry about bumping into. We ate more gelato!

7/24/18 Fado performers
7/23/18 busker

7/23/18 Detail of Igreja de Santa Cruz
7/24/18 door knob

7/24/18 Igreia Santa Cruz 
7/25/18 An historic flag of Portugal was being hoisted
for an event.

7/26/18 Se Velha cathedral, Rua dos Coutinhos

7/25/18 monument of Joaquim Antonio de Aguiar,
which was always covered with pigeons

7/25/18 I loved the juxtaposition of the Gothic cathedral, highrises, construction crane and utility poles -- all in the same view.

7/26/18 St. Benedict Chapel and bamboo forest, Jardim Botanica

7/25/18 utility wires wrapped around a balcony
7/25/18 building details

7/25/18 Mondego River, Coimbra

7/26/18 Hotel Astoria

Street scenes of Coimbra

A car and a bus trying to squeeze past each other!

Lots of interesting doors and doorknobs

I had more time to appreciate the pavement.

Bamboo grove inside the Jardim Botanica, which is part of Coimbra Universidade

Burger King delivers!
184 narrow, winding steps to the top of Coimbra University's
iconic tower

And when we climbed to the top, this view was our reward.

After Greg's Fitbit registered our 19,488 steps for the day, we stopped for gelato. BIG gelato.
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