Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A 360-Degree View of Seattle Central Library

12/16/18 My 90 degrees of a 360-degree collaborative sketch at the downtown Seattle library.

A couple of weeks ago Roy DeLeon, Gabi Campanario and Dave Morris made a 360-degree collaborative sketch, with each taking 120 degrees of a café view. As soon as I saw Roy’s post in the USk Seattle Facebook group, I wanted to take part in a 360, too! I talked Sue Heston, Kathleen Keckler and Ellie Doughty into doing it with me at the Seattle Central Library, where USk Seattle met on Sunday for our last outing of the year.

After exploring the library for a while to find an appropriate view, the four of us settled on the third floor’s “Living Room” space, which has lots of open seating, including an ideal quadrant of chairs for us. We each took a 90-degree view of the large space surrounded by the iconic diamond-gridded windows of the Koolhaas/Prince-Ramus-designed building. Well, surrounded except on the 90 degrees that I took, which was both a blessing and a curse. I remember how daunting those windows were when I attempted them several years ago, so missing them was a blessing. On the other hand, the view I got was mostly a boring concrete wall and a couple of bookshelves that presented a significant perspective challenge. Curses! Whose big idea was this, anyway!

Once I got started, though, the challenge became fun, and lining up the four sketches in sequence at the throwdown made it all the more fun. I’d like to try it again sometime!

Close-up of my panorama (with the library's cool passport stamp).

The assembled 360: Left, Eleanor; right, Tina. . . 

. . . left, Kathleen; right, Sue

90 degrees each!

A good turnout at the library on a cold, wet afternoon!

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Dry Test: Durer, Museum, Supracolor

Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer
Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle
Caran d'Ache Supracolor
Faber-Castell Polychromos

A key attribute of my favorite medium – water-soluble colored pencils – is that they can be used dry like traditional colored pencils or activated with water for very different effects. Once a sketch is in process, I can choose which areas, if any, to activate (though making the choice is often a dilemma). I’ve always appreciated the versatility of one medium with multiple talents.

While writing my recent review of Faber-Castell’s Albrecht Dürer pencils, however, the dual capabilities of water-soluble colored pencils raised intriguing questions. If a watercolor pencil performs well when activated, can we assume it will perform as well in dry-only applications? And can dry watercolor pencils be as effective as traditional wax- or oil-based colored pencils? In other words, are water-soluble pencils as versatile as they seem to be?

To answer these compelling questions, I donned a lab coat and attempted to be as scientific as possible in comparing my three most-often-used watercolor pencil brands: Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle (my all-time favorite for urban sketching), Caran d’Ache Supracolor and the previously mentioned Albrecht Dürer. (Even though I use Museum Aquarelle most often, it has the narrowest range of colors, so the other two brands provide useful supplements.)

To eliminate as many variables as possible, I used a Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook (which has a smooth texture similar to Bristol) for all sketches. Because it’s usually possible to continue applying more and more pigment to intensify the hues and values as long as the paper’s tooth hasn’t been completely covered, which would take more time but look more vibrant, I spent exactly 45 minutes on each test sketch. I used the traditional method of colored pencil application that I learned from Suzanne Brooker in her Gage class two years ago: multiple layers of lightly applied pigment in each layer.

I changed the angle of the pear with each test so that I would be challenged by a fresh perspective each time (different highlight, reflection and shadow placements), which would presumably reduce a learning advantage on subsequent sketches. (I’m not sure if that’s important, but I was trying to be as scientific as possible.) I used five colors for each sketch – red, orange, yellow, light green, dark green – and tried to find hues in each brand that were as similar as possible to the other brands. I made no more than two sketches a day to decrease any boredom factor.

As a control (yes – every experiment must have a control), I made a fourth sketch on the same paper with Faber-Castell Polychromos oil-based (not water-soluble) pencil with all the same conditions as the other three sketches.
Albrecht Dürer

In the sketch I made for my Albrecht Dürer review, I used Stillman & Birn Alpha paper, which I thought was too toothy, so for this test when I used the smoother Epsilon, I was interested in whether the difference in paper would give me better results or at least feel better in application. The smooth paper’s texture is less apparent, but I still found the Dürer pigment difficult and unpleasant to apply in multiple layers. If I knew I was using only traditional methods without water activation, I would not choose this pencil.
Museum Aquarelle

You’ve heard me say many times that Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle is my favorite water-soluble pencil, so perhaps this is where my bias comes through (when it comes to art, science goes only so far). After experiencing the challenges of the Dürer pencils, the Museum Aquarelles felt extraordinarily smooth and easy to apply. The resulting colors look more intense and vibrant to me, and even as I applied each layer, I could see that the pencils strokes were leaving more pigment behind.

As far as my subjective impression of how the pencils applied, the Supracolors fell somewhere between the Dürers and the Museums. They weren’t as smooth and pleasant to use as the Museums, but also not as unsatisfying as the Dürers. In terms of color intensity, the Supracolor sketch looks similar to the Dürer.
Polychromos (control)

Interestingly, I found the Polychromos pencils to be the most pleasant of all to use. Although they are the hardest of the tested cores, they are also very smooth and continue to be so on subsequent layers. (All pencils felt fine when applied to paper, but on subsequent layers, the Dürers felt “sticky.”) Less of the paper’s texture is visible, partly because of the harder core, but also because I was able to apply more pigment. Color intensity looks similar to the Museum test.

Final Impressions and Key Takeaway

Regardless of pencil used, at the end of each 45-minute sketch, I felt that the paper could still accept more pigment. However, the Dürer sketch seemed nearer to pigment capacity than the other three. Something about that pencil makes it harder to apply multiple layers. It was the direct opposite of Polychromos, which was the easiest to apply and seemed able to accumulate more pigment than the other three.

Supracolor didn’t impress me one way or the other. I would happily use it either dry or wet, but since it is not as soft as Museum (which makes the latter ideal for urban sketching and other fast, demanding circumstances), it is not as versatile.

Here’s my key takeaway (Spoiler alert: It’s another lesson in art material economy): The Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles are by far the most expensive pencils in this comparison (and among the most expensive colored pencils currently available). Nearly five years ago when I wrote a review of them (long before I learned to use them properly), I questioned whether they were worth the premium price, especially for the ways I was using watercolor pencils at the time. But the more I use them, the more I learn to value their qualities, and this test is no exception. Although all watercolor pencils, in theory, can be used both wet and dry, and all artist-grade watercolor pencils work beautifully with water, my testing has convinced me that not all watercolor pencils – even high-quality, artist-grade ones – work well dry.

At first glance, Museum Aquarelles seem pricey, but since I’ve found them to be excellent, wet or dry, and they also serve my idiosyncratic urban sketching needs, they are a terrific value, indeed. If I could have only one brand of colored pencil (heaven forbid that day!), Museum Aquarelles would serve me well. As is often the case, the less expensive choice can represent a false economy.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

New Reindeer But Same Santa

12/14/18 More kids were present than I've represented here! Way more.
Last year’s post about USk Seattle’s annual holiday visit to Swansons Nursery was entitled “Reindeer, Santa and Mobs at Swansons,” and I probably could have used the same this year. Luckily, the weather was all the way up in the high 40s and dry, so sketching at the reindeer pen and out in the plant displays was reasonably comfortable.

Before the crowds got thick, I started with the reindeer. Instead of Blitzen as in previous years, Dasher’s pen mate was Comet (I suppose even reindeer get some time off during the holidays). Every year I have difficulty scaling their antlers accurately – they seem so unbelievably large! I learned that it takes eight months to grow them each year.

12/14/18 Dasher or Comet?
12/14/18 Santa and a bald pink head.

My next stop was Santa (the same one as in previous years). When I arrived, a tiny infant had been placed in Santa’s arms, and for a few minutes while the older brother finished bawling, I had a good view of them. Suddenly the brother apparently gained courage and joined them, and mom sat on the chair’s arm, completely blocking my view. Whew! That was close.
12/14/18 Swansons cafe

By then I was hungry, so I went to the café for a snack. Chatting with Robin while scarfing down a scone, I hastily sketched the jungle of exotic greenery in the remaining time before the throwdown.

Sketching at Swansons with my USk “family” is a holiday tradition I cherish (we’ve been going every year since 2012).

Friday, December 14, 2018

Product Review: Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils

Faber-Castell's Albrecht Durer water-soluble colored pencils

In addition to my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles, I keep two other sets of water-soluble colored pencils at easy reach on my desk because they both have a much wider range of hues than the Museum line – Caran d’Ache Supracolor and Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer. Although I have tried many other brands, I consider these three artist-grade pencils to be my main go-to’s. I recently realized that I have never written a full review of the Albrecht Dürer line (the closest was a comparison review I wrote earlier this year of Faber-Castell’s student-grade Goldfaber collection). It’s time to correct that.

The hue-matched barrel is a standard-diameter hexagonal that fits in any pencil sharpener. Branding and a band near the simple end cap are silver. (With my eyes closed, I think I could tell them apart from the Supracolors, which are just a touch smaller in diameter and have a glossy finish, while the Dürers have a more satin finish. Why is it important to be able to tell them apart with my eyes closed? That’s an unnecessary question for a geek like me.) I couldn’t find the box, but I initially bought a medium-size set and added more colors over time through open stock. Shown here are a random fistful from each of the two large mugs that contain them – one for cool hues, the other for warm. The collection includes several unique colors that are different from anything Caran d’Ache offers.

With the hardest core of my three go-to’s (though by no means the hardest artist grade I’ve used; that would probably be the Staedtler Karat Aquarell), Albrecht Dürer pencils hold their points well, making them ideal for details as well as solid areas of color. The rich pigment dissolves easily and fully when activated with water.

The pigments dissolve easily and completely.

12/10/18 Albrecht Durer pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
n my sketch of the tomato and pear, I made multiple cycles of dry/wet applications (apply dry pigment, activate with water, allow that to dry completely; repeat), and the colors became richer and more vivid with each. That’s the way I expect high-quality water-soluble pencils to behave.

As I was using the Dürer pencils, I started thinking about my post last week about the dilemma that all watercolor pencils present: Activate or not? Regardless of how I resolve that dilemma, I noted that a key benefit of all water-soluble pencils is that they can be used either wet or dry, making them highly versatile.

For something like a still life, I almost always decide from the beginning whether I want a watercolor-like look or not. If I don’t, I usually choose a traditional wax- or oil-based colored pencil instead. But if water-soluble colored pencils can truly be used either wet or dry, I should be able to use them all the time, regardless of my choice. It occurred to me that I rarely choose to use a watercolor pencil if I know I’m going to leave it dry. That’s when I got the idea to make a sketch with the Dürer pencils as if they were traditional colored pencils, leaving them dry throughout.

12/11/18 Albrecht Durer water-soluble colored pencils (no water used) in
Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook
Thinking the cores would be sufficiently hard for Stillman & Birn’s toothy Alpha paper, I started the pear sketch. I realized almost immediately that they are actually softer than would be ideal for that degree of texture, so I had some difficulty covering it. More surprising, though, was the difficulty I had in building intensity of hue when I left the pigment dry. It felt strangely “sticky” instead of smooth to apply subsequent layers, and I didn’t enjoy using them.

That’s when I realized that making a sketch with a dry-only application should be part of every review I write of a watercolor pencil! If it is a truly versatile medium, it should be enjoyable and effective to use either wet or dry.

I’m sure you can see where this is going! Stay tuned for my (relatively) scientific comparison of my top three favorite watercolor pencils – used as dry pencils only. The results are illuminating and informative.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Long Pose

12/10/18 (1.5 hours, graphite)

A few months ago I went to a long-pose life drawing session at Gage because I wanted to try Eduardo Bajzek’s graphite technique on the human form. I used the full three-hour session (with model breaks, that’s about two-and-a-half hours of drawing time) on one drawing – probably the longest period I’ve spent on one figure.

I was in the mood to try it again, but I modified the technique slightly. Much of the time spent on this graphite technique goes toward the initial toning and smudging of the paper with graphite. As I learned last time, though, the human form doesn’t have as many places to erase out for highlights as would a street scene, for example, with a large wedge of sky above it. This time, instead of toning the whole area, I lightly roughed in a contour line of the model first in a more traditional manner. Then I applied graphite and smudged it within the contour line in a way similar to what I had learned. I was still able to erase out small highlights. Although I didn’t have the full range of values that I might have if I’d used the complete toning process, I think I had enough to get the job done. This drawing, about the same size as the one from September, took about an hour and a half.

The pose went on for another hour, and I could have continued working, but I was afraid I would overwork the drawing (I was tempted to continue picking at her face, for example) and lose whatever freshness is possible for a drawing that takes that much time. I’m happy that I stopped when I did.

This drawing is a good example of the very typical dilemma I often face when I’m not sketching on location. In the field, more often than not, I seem to be motivated to complete a sketch as quickly as possible: I’m cold, hot or distracted; other potential sketches call to me; the light is disappearing quickly; I have an appointment to get to; the sketch outing is nearly over; etc. Working quickly seems to help retain a sense of freshness and spontaneity (although sometimes at the risk of looking rushed and sloppy). But when I’m making a still life in the comfort of my home or attending a long-pose session, I run the risk of overworking past the point when I should stop. For me, the stopping point is when the spontaneous response to whatever I’m looking at is still apparent.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Celtic Magnificat

12/8/18 City Cantabile Choir performing at Green Lake United Methodist Church

One of our annual holiday traditions is to attend a chorale concert or two in one of the neighborhood churches. The past several years, we’ve been following City Cantabile Choir, whose director develops creative and unusual collaborations or interpretations of holiday music that always incorporate traditional Irish songs. (You can see my posts and sketches from previous years.) This year’s concert, “A Celtic Magnificat,” was no exception: It was an imaginative meeting of Bach and harpist Turlough O’Carolan last Saturday evening at Green Lake United Methodist Church (an old stone church that I sketched several years ago).

Sketching in a darkened church is always an interesting challenge (I’ve sometimes used a book light, but I decided to keep it simple this year), especially when the choir, orchestra and conductor are all dressed in black. I was delighted to see conductor Fred West wearing a bright red shirt this year, and all the choir members wore matching red scarves, which made the sketching more fun.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Brick Tudor

12/5/18 Maple Leaf neighborhood

After the series of sketches I made last spring and summer of houses in my neighborhood, I thought I wouldn’t get back to it until next spring when it was warm enough to sketch outdoors again. But driving around last week when it was brilliantly sunny and startlingly cold, I spotted this cute Tudor that I could easily see from the comfort of my mobile studio (parked legally, even!). I love the bay window that looks like a small tower.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Studies in White: Garlic

12/2/18 Derwent Lightfast
A couple of weeks ago I talked about white colored pencils and compared all the brands I own. My main use of white is as a highlight on toned paper (especially in life drawings), which means I don’t use it much. But making that comparison chart of white pencils made me realize how much they vary in opacity and even hue temperature. As anyone who has ever looked at paint chips at a hardware store knows, there’s no such thing as white white.
12/5/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle

All of this got me thinking about the color white as I use it in a sketch. I rarely think about white except when I need it to depict light, and in that case, it’s mostly a matter of remembering to retain some part of the white paper. Otherwise, white is usually just the negative space around whatever I consider to be the positive space. But what about when the subject matter in the positive space is white?

I grabbed the first white thing with an interesting shape that I laid eyes on: a head of garlic. It’s white, but of course, white is never really white. In this case, it’s yellow, purple, taupe and gray. I had fun pulling out all three versions of Stillman & Birn’s Nova sketchbooks for these small studies.

12/5/18 Caran d'Ache Pablo

Sunday, December 9, 2018


12/4/18 Calvin (10 min. pose)

In a couple of recent posts (Thursday and Friday), I talked about how much I love the subtle tonal gradations that are possible with pencils. Strangely, I also like harsh, graphic tones that are easy to make with markers and brush pens. From the same life-drawing session at Gage, here’s another sketch of Calvin, this one of a 10-minute pose. I had run out of pages in the mixed-media sketchbook that I usually use with water-soluble brush pens, so I tried the Strathmore toned sketchbook instead. The paper isn’t sized appropriately for wet media, so instead of using water to wash the tones in, I just went in heavy with the brush pen. No subtlety here.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Pacific Place and Nordstrom Santa

12/7/18 Nordstrom Santa

On a cold (29 F) but sunny morning, Nilda and Natalie met me at Pacific Place for some holiday sketching. As a warm-up (literally and figuratively), I walked up to the second floor, where I had a good view of the café below. (You can see blue-haired Natalie sketching near the center.)

Unknown to us, a big renovation was going on, and I was disappointed that Santa was no longer on the second-floor thoroughfare as he has been in previous years. I’ve enjoyed sketching him several times from the floor above looking straight down over his head or from the front. This year he was sequestered in a retail shop right next to a gift-wrapping service, so I didn’t have a good view without standing in the way.

Undeterred, I marched across the street to Nordstrom, where Santa sits inside a big show window. His voice is amplified so that people on the sidewalk can hear him chatting with the kids and ho-ho-ho-ing. I stood right next to the window, where I had a great profile view of Santa and his clients. I would have liked to sketch all the toys and other decorations, but 15 minutes in the cold was all that I could stand.

12/7/18 Pacific Place main floor

Friday, December 7, 2018

Crayola for Grownups

12/4/18 Calvin (20 min. pose)

Above is a 20-minute pose of Calvin that I made with a Derwent Drawing Pencil. With a core that’s even softer and thicker, this pencil would supersede my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle if it were water-soluble, too. By using it on the side of its core (in the frowned-upon way I mentioned yesterday), I love the subtle shading I can get with it. As I was happily working on this sketch, the pencil evoked something joyful from my past . . .

During the break, I looked over at the artists easel beside me and noticed that he was using a purple crayon! He said he’d forgotten his usual Conte pencil but had found the crayon on the floor (left behind after Saturday’s Drawing Jam, no doubt), so he decided to use it instead. Bingo! Derwent Drawing Pencils are as close to crayons as one can get and still have wood around them.  

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Wet or Dry: The Water-Soluble Dilemma

12/1/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle in
Stillman & Birn Nova (10 min. pose)
12/1/18 Caran d'Ache Supracolor in Nova sketchbook
(10 min. pose)

While I love pencils for many reasons, the quality I appreciate most about both graphite and colored pencils is the lovely, subtle tonal gradation that is possible with them. I know it’s possible with any medium in the right hands, but I’ve never been able to achieve it with anything wet like an ink wash, markers or watercolor. With dry media, it’s just easier to keep applying more tone, a little at a time, until I get the value I want. And I love being able to modulate those values over a curved surface relatively easily compared to using a wet medium.

This attribute I love so much about dry pencil creates a dilemma with water-soluble pencil: Activating the pigment or graphite with water will intensify the hue and usually darken the tone significantly and immediately, which makes it handy when you want to get the job done quickly (which is often my goal when sketching on location). But the big risk is that activating with water often destroys any subtle gradations I might have intended.

12/1/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle
Here are some recent examples. At the top of the page are two more sketches from last Saturday’s Drawing Jam – each sketch made from a 10-minute pose with water-soluble colored pencils. Although the poses were short (and I was so hasty that Dee, the poor model on the left, apparently lost her second leg!), I wanted to capture the shadows and light on their form. Keeping the pencil work dry, I was even able to retain some of the mid-tones. Toward the end of the poses, I was tempted to put some water on the darkest shadows because I knew that would punch them up, but I thought I would lose whatever gradation I had achieved. (Fortunately, I resisted.)

In the case of the small portrait at right, I had only five minutes, so I went ahead with the waterbrush to deepen the shadows quickly. The harsh smear under the chin is not the look I was going for, but it’s hard to be subtle once the pigment is activated. (If I’d thought of it at the time, I would have tried swiping off the excess with a tissue. That works sometimes.)

12/3/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle on 140 lb. paper

At left is an example from Zoka Coffee on Monday. Applying the sides of the cores of a few Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, I used these soft pencils almost like pastels (but without the dusty mess, of course). It’s a relatively efficient way to apply them. In this case, I knew I had to leave the pigment dry or I would definitely lose all the work I’d put into the form of the balding guy’s head and neck. I don’t know how to convey those subtle curving surfaces with anything but dry pencil.

By the way, this method of applying colored pencil by the side of the core is not recommended by traditional colored pencil artists. It could be that it’s difficult to achieve a consistent tone with this method, and it’s hard to cover the surface evenly (you can see the paper’s texture showing through, but in this case, I don’t mind). With some other pencils I’ve tried, the coverage is much more uneven. But one significant reason why I love Museum Aquarelles is that something about their consistency makes it easy to apply in this (albeit discouraged) manner.

Even if I struggle with the dilemma of applying water or not, a big benefit of all water-soluble pencils is that they can be used either wet or dry. I like having that choice in one versatile medium.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Urban Persimmon Sketching

11/27/18 Sketched with the "urban sketching" method (20 minutes)
One of my biggest motivations – and, ultimately, my biggest disappointment – in deciding to formally study colored pencil and watercolor pencil last year was that I had hoped I would learn how to use both types of pencils for sketching on location. During those two quarters, I learned so much about value, form, light, nature as subject matter and effective techniques for using colored pencils that it’s hard for me to even say I was disappointed, but the fact is, I didn’t learn anything in terms of urban sketching.
11/29/18 Sketched traditionally (55 minutes)
The necessarily time-consuming, methodical nature of colored pencil doesn’t lend itself well to working outdoors where the light and other conditions are constantly changing. Working from photos in a studio is the ideal way to use colored pencils effectively, and learning in that controlled environment taught me more about how to draw than anything I’ve ever done.

To use colored pencils in the field, however, is something I’ve had to teach myself (and continue to teach myself every day). And one reason I spend so much time in winter practicing simple still lives is that it’s good exercise for when I can sketch on location. Before our last persimmon got eaten, I thought it still had more to teach me about colored pencils.

A major difference between how I use watercolor pencils on location and in the studio is that I lay on a heavy application of pigment all at once for the former because I intend to do only one activation with water; I need to apply as much color as possible. It’s the only way I know of to work quickly and still get reasonably intense color. This is not the recommended method of using any kind of colored pencil, whether traditional or water-soluble. Traditionally, both types require applying multiple layers of pigment a little at a time to effectively build value and color gradually.

Using my daily-carry Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, first I approached the persimmon as if I were sketching it from a sidewalk. After making a quick, rough drawing, I colored it heavily with a mix of yellow, orange and a little red. (One big reason why Museum Aquarelles have become my favorite for urban sketching is that they are the softest watercolor pencils I’ve tried, which makes it easy to apply lots of pigment quickly without flattening the paper’s tooth.) Then I activated that with water. While that was drying, I decided that I would color the leaves without using water because I like the texture of the paper showing through. With that decision made, I went ahead and put in a few details and shadows on the leaves. (Because they are so soft, Museum Aquarelles do not hold a point at all, and tiny details are difficult to render. At home, I have harder pencils that would do the job better, but I don’t carry them with me, so I stayed with the Museum Aquarelles as I would on location.)

After the orange part was completely dry, I added some dark blue on the persimmon’s dark side. The cast shadow was a mix of the same dark blue, orange, red and the green I had used on the leaves. I forgot to pay attention, so I’m not certain, but I think I applied blue and orange first, activated that mix, let it dry, then applied the other colors without activating. I was done in 20 minutes.

A couple of days later, I approached the same persimmon, this time in a traditional, leisurely manner. I went through three cycles of dry-wet applications on the fruit, but I treated the leaves the same as I did in the first sketch. I finished with some dark blue and left that unactivated. I used all the same colors for the cast shadow as I did before, but because I activated more often, each color application became more intense than in the first sketch. Although I like the depth of color, I think the hue got a little muddy; the activated orange was much yellower than I expected, so I had to tone it down with more blue. This one took 55 minutes – almost three times longer than the first one.

If I hadn’t explained the difference in technique, you might say the two sketches look about the same (and you might say that anyway, even if I hadn’t explained). From my perspective, the first one looks a bit fresher because I didn’t have time to fuss with it as I did with the second one. But the more similar they look, the more satisfied I am that my self-studied approach can be used successfully on location. It’s what I’ve been trying to do the past couple of years when I can, but there’s always room for improvement.

As we all know, urban sketching is never as easy as sketching this small persimmon in the comfort of my home. But when given the choice, I will always choose something on location to a still life, and I will always choose either one over drawing from a photo.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Urban Sketching as Improv

11/29/18 Gallery space at the Pocket Theater in Greenwood

How is urban sketching related to improvisational acting? Before last Thursday evening, I would have shrugged trying to respond to that question, but thanks to urban sketcher and University of Washington urban design student Robin Hunt, the answer for me is now clear: It can be an innovative, creative evening of art and interactivity.

A few weeks ago, Robin invited USk Seattle members to participate in an exhibit of urban sketches in the Greenwood neighborhood’s Pocket Theater. I considered participating, but I didn’t get around to prepping my work. However, very curious about what the “interactive gallery” would be, I decided to attend the event.

I was glad I arrived a few minutes before the exhibit officially opened so that I had a chance to start sketching right away before it got too crowded; the small gallery space filled instantly. Sketches of Seattle by Robin and several other local urban sketchers were displayed on two walls. Beneath the rows of sketches were long, horizontal strips of tape, sticky side exposed. Hmmm. . .

On tables around the room were stacks of small slips of colored paper. The slips began with various open questions that could be prompted by a sketch: “Share a memory that you are reminded of.” “What is a lesson you learned in this place?” “Write a note to someone who shares memories of this place with you (please include a name).” Event attendees were invited to write their responses on the slips and then adhere them to the tape on the walls beneath the sketches they were responding to.

A-ha! Suddenly my initially passive viewing of the sketches when I had first walked in was insufficient. I went through the exhibit again, looking more closely at each sketch, thinking about the last time I had visited the familiar locations – Fremont, Pioneer Square, Swanson’s Nursery – or whether I had recently visited at all. I picked up a few slips, wrote my thoughts and memories, and adhered them to the walls. Then I walked back through the whole exhibit to read what others had contributed. I had a few conversations prompted by what we were reading and viewing, and the whole room became livelier once the interactivity began. While viewing sketches of familiar places often prompts memories and associated feelings, people rarely share those thoughts. Titled “Your Where,” the event encouraged that sharing.

11/29/18 The Collective Improv Troupe interprets viewers' memories
prompted by sketches.
That part of the event alone would have been an innovative way to evoke memories and conversation based on sketches. But the evening wasn’t over yet. An hour after the exhibit opened, doors to the adjacent Pocket Theater opened. Every seat in the 50-seat theater filled with curious attendees.

The Collective Improv Troupe, which Robin belongs to, took on the second part of the program. Using the slips of paper with our written responses, Robin periodically entered the stage and read from them. The improv members would then interpret the readings with humorous dialog and stories they developed on the spot with no preparation or rehearsal. (As someone with no public speaking skills or acting experience, I was so impressed by their ability to perform improvisationally!)

I left the event satisfied that Robin’s production (her senior project for her UW urban design-related degree) had fully answered the question of how urban sketching and improv can come together. The evening was an engaging confluence of art, comedy and audience participation.

Gallery space

Some memories of event attendees prompted by urban sketches.

"Your Where" producer and urban sketcher Robin Hunt

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