Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Colorful Afternoon at Japanese Garden

10/16/18 Heron at Japanese Garden (with a koi swimming by)

Remember all those days in August when smoke from wildfires ruined what should have been the best of our summer? Those lost days are being returned to us now with yet another week of unbelievably beautiful weather. If I’d known then that I’d get those sketching days back in the fall, I never would have complained, because truthfully, I prefer these temperatures in the 60s (even when I have to put on my jacket in the shade).

With the weather forecast predicting yesterday’s sunshine, we took a chance last week and scheduled a sketch outing, even though it was still seven days away, when conditions could easily change. I kept my eye on the forecast, and our optimism was rewarded. I think it may have been USk Seattle’s most colorful outing ever!

As I entered the garden, I overheard people chatting about a gray heron in the pond, and I assumed it would be gone by the time I got there. To my surprise, he was still taking his time preening atop a rock, so I couldn’t resist grabbing him first while I could. Amazingly, he stayed the whole time I sketched.

After that I walked around the whole garden to take in all the color lighted by the low afternoon sun. A weeping willow growing nearly horizontally over the pond was challenging but, again, irresistible.

Expecting to have only my usual 15 or 20 minutes left before the throwdown, I was surprised to see that I still had a half-hour. Plenty of time for a third sketch! A stone lantern by the path was filled with shadows ideal for hatching. I’d already done an InkTober sketch for the day, but what the heck – I could get a head start on tomorrow.

For a short-notice weekday, we had a great turnout!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

#InkTober Check-in: The Struggle is Real

10/11/18 (from photo of my own hand)

Week 2 of InkTober was less revealing and insightful than week 1. In fact, it was a bit of a struggle because the weather was lovely, and when I’m sketching outdoors, I want to use color. If I didn’t have time for both a full-color sketch and a ballpoint sketch, then I felt “obligated” to use the time for my InkTober sketch. Sometimes I was hasty, just to “get it over with.” It’s a common dilemma, I think, for participants of any challenge like this.

And yet, despite that tension, I admit I’m still learning from my insistence on hatching with ballpoint. Some part of me appreciates the self-discipline of simply sticking with something every day, even if I’m not really in the mood. Ballpoint is still so new to me that it’s a challenge from start to finish; I feel no sense of comfort or familiarity as I do with all my favorite sketching media. My process-oriented self enjoys observing this discomfort. Victorian work ethic or masochism? Call it what you will.

You already saw my kaput Krups coffeemaker; here are the rest of last week’s InkTober sketches. I’m putting all of them into this Flickr album.

How’s your InkTober going?

10/9/18 Wedgwood neighborhood

10/10/18 Denny Hall, UW campus
10/12/18 koi at Swansons Nursery

10/14/18 our neighbors' pumpkins

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Few Favorites at the Zoo

10/13/18 Humboldt penguins and their keeper

Although we’re Woodland Park Zoo members, it had been ages since we last visited (I was in the zoo’s Rose Garden a few weeks ago with Urban Sketchers, but I didn’t see any animals). On yet another fabulous fall afternoon, we went to see a few of our favorites.

First up were the Humboldt penguins, where their keeper was giving a presentation and feeding them treats. (I remembered the keeper from a couple of years ago, when I sketched him showing off the new Chilean flamingo chicks.)

Next were my personal favorite, the meerkats. I’ve sketched (or attempted to sketch) them every time I’ve visited the zoo, but they move so fast that they are very challenging. I love their curious poses and quizzical expressions as they rise up on their haunches to look around.

A few exhibits over from the meerkats was a two-toed sloth. Hanging upside-down from a rope as he ate lettuce, he looked like a carpet (and moved about as quickly as one). I couldn’t help but recall the scene in Zootopia, in which all the Department of Motor Vehicle employees were sloths!

10/13/18 meerkats and sloth
By late-afternoon, I was getting cold, and we had both optimistically underdressed (seeing sunshine and a blue sky will do that). Before dashing home, though, we had to make a quick stop at the new Assam Rhino Reserve, where a couple of young one-horned rhinos, Taj and Glenn (named for astronaut John Glenn, I learned), were feeding. Some obstructions kept me from seeing most of their leathery bodies, but I got a good look at the head of one of them munching hay. I hope to catch them again sometime when they’re out in their pool so I can sketch more of their substantial girth.

10/13/18 young rhino

Sunday, October 14, 2018

RIP, Krups

10/13/18 Farewell, reliable friend!

My two-cup Krups has been making my coffee every morning since the ‘80s when I first moved out as an adult. Suddenly on Friday, it died. This sketch for InkTober is a memorial and farewell to a reliable hard worker. (More InkTober sketches from last week are coming up, but this one deserved its own post.)

Now I have to decide what to replace it with. I don’t want one that makes 10 cups (I already have one of those in the basement for when we have the rare house guest), makes ridiculously wasteful single K-cups, plays music, must be programmed or is smarter than I am. All I want is one good cup of coffee each for Greg and me.

Facebook friends have suggested various solutions, including a French press, which sounds the least wasteful because it uses no disposable filters. For now I have my old single-cup plastic cone to get us through.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Blue and Orange at Swansons

10/12/18 Swansons' planter display

USk Seattle likes to make at least two regular visits to Swansons Nursery each year – autumn and Christmas. Yesterday was our first visit of the year, and the pumpkins and other fall displays were out in full force. Looking around at all that orange, I then turned around and saw multiple displays of large ceramic planters organized by color. I knew the blue ones would be especially gorgeous if I could also get some pumpkins into the same composition. I walked around for a long time trying to get the blue and orange together while also taking into consideration the direction of the sun, but I just couldn’t make it work.

I finally settled for doing two separate sketches – first, the blue planters; then an old tractor filled with pumpkins (along with Arlene sketching them).

It was a lovely autumn morning for sketching outdoors – mostly sunny and bright (but chilly – I was very happy that I had grabbed my down jacket on the way out the door, especially for the top-down drive home).

10/12/18 Swansons Nursery

Friday, October 12, 2018

East and West

10/11/18 East side of Green Lake

Although the day dawned cold and foggy, my fingers were crossed that the gloom would burn off by noon. Sure enough, as often happens in the fall, sunshine broke through in the afternoon, and Green Lake shimmered with color.

First I sketched the east side of the lake, where the water was relatively calm. By the time I got around to the west side, a breeze had picked up, breaking up the reflections in the water.

10/11/18 West side of Green Lake

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Book Review: Essential Techniques of Landscape Drawing

You’ve heard me mention the name Suzanne Brooker – my Gage drawing instructor for three terms – many times. I’m mentioning it again today, this time to talk about her new book: Essential Techniques of Landscape Drawing: Master the Concepts and Methods for Observing and Rendering Nature. While the book focuses on landscapes and the natural world, the incomparable value of classical drawing principles is that they can be applied to any subject matter.

Beginning with an introduction to materials (graphite pencil is the primary medium used in the book, with brief discussion of colored pencil, charcoal, pastel and water-soluble pencils), Suzanne takes the reader through the basic elements of drawing, such as line, value and form, and how specific techniques can be used to express them.

For me, the meat of the book begins with Chapter 3, Light Logic and Shading Techniques. Although I have studied the basic principles covered by this chapter several times in other books and classes, and I thought I understood them, Suzanne’s explanations helped me to internalize the principles in a way that I hadn’t before.

What is “light logic”? “The sun touches objects in nature, creating areas of light and shadow in a predictable fashion.” Because the human brain automatically uses light logic to perceive an object, it’s an essential concept for rendering a three-dimensional form realistically. It sounds so simple – the classic drawing exercise of shading a ball or cube lighted from one side – yet it’s not at all easy to apply textbook understanding to real objects that are not balls and cubes. First you have to learn to see the highlight, core shadow and reflected light on an object in space, and then you must transfer that perception to the flat paper.

I am still learning to do this, of course (I expect it to be a lifelong challenge), but after studying with Suzanne, I have nailed the first step: I can finally see what she is talking about. (The first time I looked out our livingroom window and saw the “core shadow” on our front porch column, it was a “Eureka” moment for me. I have seen our column every day for 30+ years, yet I had never “seen” the core shadow as it wraps around the column’s cylinder and then stops just before it gets to the opposite edge, revealing the beginning of the lighter side – and how rendering all of that accurately is necessary to define its form. I said to Greg at the breakfast table, “Oh my gosh – the core shadow! It’s on our porch!” Now I can’t walk through a park on a sunny day without seeing core shadows on trees.)

Succeeding chapters focus on step-by-step exercises for developing drawings from photo references. Many demos are included, showing various stages of drawing development. Particularly helpful are sections devoted to specific natural elements that make up a landscape, such as sky, terrain, trees and foliage, and water.

Throughout the book are many examples of Suzanne’s own work and those of her peers, students and classical masters. Even if you never draw, it’s a huge volume of delicious eye candy to savor.

But after reading this book, I believe you will draw, because fully understanding these classic principles is likely to reinforce your passion for drawing as it did mine. When I finally grasped concepts and principles that had been only floating peripherally in my brain, I could not keep myself from putting them into practice.

Although the book, for me, is mostly review of concepts I learned during the past two years while studying with her in class, it is such a thorough coverage of her curriculum that it reads like a full two semesters of work. Of course, as with any how-to book, reading the text is not learning; that comes only from practicing the exercises. Had I only read the book and not taken 25 weeks of classes, I must admit that I might not have had the self-discipline to do all those exercises as we did for class! (As students of all ages experience, knowing the teacher is going to check the homework is a major motivator for doing it.) If you follow Suzanne’s curriculum, the training is thorough, rigorous and very time-consuming, but there’s no doubt that you’ll see results.

I don’t purchase many books anymore because I’m trying to reduce the number of volumes on my shelves, not increase them, but this one is a reference I will turn to repeatedly to reinforce and remind me of what I learned. It also reminds me of everything I love about drawing. The many exquisite examples in the book show me what’s possible, and the instructions explain how.

Monday, October 8, 2018

#InkTober Check-in: My Head is Spinning

10/7/18 Swan gourd

I didn’t think I’d be doing another InkTober check-in already, but yesterday’s and today’s sketches left me dazed and confused, and it helps me to analyze the issue by thinking out loud (and my way of doing that is by writing).

Hatching a flat surface is easy enough; it’s just a matter of practicing making lines so that they are evenly spaced and consistent in weight. But a curved or spherical surface is a whole other matter. Before I began sketching the “swan gourd” yesterday (yes, it really looks like that – I bought it at Metropolitan Market, which is full of bizarre gourds and squashes this time of year), I thought about an important technique I learned from Suzanne Brooker when using colored pencil and graphite: Follow the shape of the form with the pencil stroke. Even though the drawing will eventually be completely or nearly completely covered in graphite or pigment, the many, many repeated subtle pencil strokes will show through the overall hue or tone, and they will visually reinforce the three-dimensional form of the subject.

I even reviewed lessons in hatching in Alphonso Dunn’s guide to Pen & Ink Drawing because I remembered seeing excellent examples of the same principle I had learned from Suzanne: The hatch marks follow the shape of the surface and change direction with the change in plane.  

Intellectually, I understood this concept, and I had practiced it regularly while I was studying with Suzanne. Yet when I sat down with the swan gourd, I got very confused about which way the marks should curve.

I needed lots more practice, so today I tried more pedestrian produce. The banana went well – it has relatively simple plane changes – but the lumpy, bumpy Bartlett threw me some curve balls, and my head was spinning again. (I realize now that instead of sketching an apple whenever I test new colored pencils, a pear would give me better practice.) Stay tuned for more lumpy produce.

10/8/18 Bartlett and banana
Technical note: I’m avoiding color as I do these hatched value studies in ballpoint pen this month, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use colored paper! As I was looking at the banana and pear, wishing I could use colored pencil, I remembered a Shizen Design sketchbook I was given, which contains five colors of paper in one book. The thin paper buckles even from heavily applied markers, but it’s very friendly toward ballpoint. In fact, every paper I’ve ever tried with ballpoint has been friendly toward it. I’ve never met an art medium that was so indiscriminate in its paper pairings.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

#InkTober Check-in: I Get the Bic

10/5/18 Day 5 at Zoka Coffee: Using different "grades" of ballpoint

Usually my InkTober insights don’t come until later in the month, but less than a week into it, I’m already learning.

As mentioned on Day 1, I am once again committed to exploring ballpoint during InkTober. I’ve tried in previous years, but I always gave up after a few days because the material annoyed me, and I didn’t like the clunky results. This year, though, I’m determined to stick it out. My first couple of days with a Bic Cristal were as clunky as ever because my hatching is rusty, and I questioned why I so masochistically insist on struggling with ballpoint.

10/1/18 Days 1 and 2: clunky as ever

On Day 3, however, I remembered that Bic ballpoint ink can be built up gradually in layers, almost like graphite. It’s also pressure-sensitive the way graphite is. Since pencils and I have a good relationship, I wondered if I’d have a better time with ballpoint if I treated it more like graphite. I still used hatching for this sketch of my hand, but I also varied the pressure, and I was pleased with how faint a mark I could make when I applied very light pressure. It really is the “pencil of pens”! It was a gratifying discovery that encouraged me to plunge forward with ballpoint.

10/3/18 Day 3: I discover the "pencil of pens"

The next day, however, was a setback. I had been using a fat 1.6mm Bic Cristal, which has a bad habit of leaving unintended blobs of ink, so I dug through a kitchen drawer for a Bic Stic pen (the ubiquitous kind we all find in hotel rooms), which has a finer point. The mistake was taking it to life drawing. Even during a 20-minute pose, I didn’t have enough time to hatch it properly, and my results were less than satisfying. That experience reminded me that ballpoint is like pencil in another way: I have to allow enough time to use it well.

10/4/18 Day 4: Ballpoint and life drawing don't mix.

Day 5 dawned wet and cold, so I went to Zoka, my favorite coffee shop for sketching. This time I tried something different again. Although I’m not a fan of writing with ballpoint in general, I always carry a Uni Jetstream 4 & 1 in my bag for times when I need an implement to grab quickly, like when I’m signing a credit card slip or jotting a note to myself. Its 0.7 mm tip is much finer than the Cristal’s 1.6mm, so as long as I was thinking of ballpoint as graphite, I decided to use the Jetstream as an “HB” and the Cristal as a “4B.” Sketching a woman reading next to the windows, I found the hatching process to be meditative and relaxing (top of post). Using “grades” of ballpoint seemed to help me adjust values better and stay in a (happier) pencil frame of mind.

The biggest discovery came yesterday, Day 6. Continuing to think of my Jetstream as an HB grade pencil, I used it to draw the contour line of my hand holding a Blackwing (from a photo this time – how else would I get to draw my left hand? 😉), and that’s when I realized that it’s not possible to get a pale mark with it as I can with the Bics. (see my test hatch marks shown to the left of the sketch.) With the Bic, I can make the initial contour line light and darken it along with the tone as the drawing progresses (see the previous hand sketch). The Jetstream’s ink formulation is smoother and flows more consistently than Bic’s, which makes it pleasant to write with. But that same characteristic makes it harder to apply in varying densities by changing the pressure on the point. I abandoned it after finishing the too-dark contour line and switched to the Bic Cristal for toning.

10/6/18 Day 6: I get it now.

 I get it now: This is why so many ballpoint artists seem to favor the lowly Bic. It’s a pressure-sensitive medium that can be applied gradually in layers of tone. The more I think of a Bic as a pencil, the more I like it. I think the rest of InkTober is going to be more fun, now that I’ve figured out how to approach ballpoint.

How’s your InkTober going?

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Life-Drawing Weather

10/4/18 Shauna, brush pen (5-min. poses)

I skipped life drawing last week because we had a streak of weather that was too beautiful to spend sketching indoors. We’re back to “normal” now, however, and I think I must sadly concede that outdoor-sketching weather is over for the year.

The return to normal weather means that I’ll be going back to life drawing practice more regularly again. On Thursday Shauna, one of my favorite models, was in fine form with expressive, fluid poses. My sketches were less so, but I’m slowly getting my joints re-oiled. Brush pens are still my favorite for very short poses, and I’m enjoying using soft colored pencils when the poses are at least 10 minutes long. (Here’s a post showing all my current life-drawing materials.) Masochist that I am, to fulfill my InkTober self-commitment, I even drew a 20-minute pose with a ballpoint pen, but I’ll wait until my first InkTober report to show you that one.

10/4/18 Shauna; brush pen (5-min. poses)

10/4/18 Shauna; colored pencil (10-min. poses)

Friday, October 5, 2018


10/3/18 Metropolitan Market parking lot, Wedgwood neighborhood

Every fall I wait with anticipation for the maples at Metropolitan Market to blaze. Sometimes I drive by even when I don’t have shopping to do, just to see how they’re doing. The last time I shopped there a week or so ago, they were only just beginning to turn, but on Wednesday afternoon they were on fire.

See my sketches of these same trees last year and the year before.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

From Thumbnail to Color at Japanese Garden

10/2/18 Seattle Japanese Garden

This week my sketching-as-thinking class (my title for it, not my instructor’s) met at Seattle Japanese Garden, where the Japanese maples are beginning to turn. Although a few trees are ahead of the pack, most are showing just a blush of pale orange with the more brilliant hues yet to come.

The purpose of our visit to the Japanese Garden was to study how different our compositions might be in a formal garden where every planting has been designed by a landscaper’s vision compared to a more natural (and messy) location like the Arboretum. As before, I tried to make thumbnail sketches that would help inform me later “back at the studio” as to how to develop a full drawing based on photos (which is the intention of this type of sketching).

10/2/18 thumbnail
Spotting a lovely young maple with a large rock in the pond in front of it, I made a thumbnail of that composition (at right). When I thought about how to make the maple stand out from the wall of green behind it, I realized I’d have to darken the background behind the lighter colored maple. You can see in the photo (below) that the background is somewhat darker than the tree, but Suzanne concurred that I would have to really exaggerate the darkness to make the tree stand out. Likewise, I noted that in my thumbnail sketch.

After two-and-a-half hours in the garden, where the temps were in the mid-50s, and the sun darted in and out of clouds, we were all chilled. I was relieved that the class was over so that I could warm up, but I kept thinking about how that little maple glowed in the fleeting sunshine.

The others left, but I went back to the maple by the pond and decided that I would do my “back at the studio” sketch right away! It really helped to have done the “thinking” thumbnail while discussing the background with Suzanne because I knew how to approach the tree.

As I sketched, I remembered sketching the same maple just about a year ago (see below) from a slightly different angle. It’s gratifying to see that both my technique and composition have improved since then.

10/5/17 The same tree sketched a year ago.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Product Review: Viking Verso Pencil

9/26/18 Wedgwood neighborhood (Viking Verso with a touch of Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle on Strathmore Bristol smooth paper)

You already know my love for double-sided colored pencils, both contemporary and vintage (especially when they are also beautifully useable). Imagine my surprise and delight to discover the new Viking Verso pencil – a two-sided graphite pencil!

Viking Verso double-sided graphite pencil
It turns out that the Verso concept is not new at all. With HB grade on the gray half and 4B on the black half, the Danish pencil is apparently based on a design that was introduced at the Paris Expo in 1867 by a Bavarian company. As soon as I saw it, I started wondering . . . bicolor pencils have been around a long time; why aren’t there more dual-grade graphite pencils? According to information provided by Viking and found at CW Pencils where I bought the Verso, the answer is that producing such a pencil is trickier than it seems:

“The challenge comes down to the simple fact that, unlike a double colour pencil, it is impossible to tell two graphite grades from each other in the production process where the ends of the pencils are often mixed up in the various stages of formation, lacquering, etc.”

I admit that production complications had never crossed my mind. Viking, however, was up for the challenge, and the Verso was born.

I pulled out a number of HB and 4B pencils on my desk to make this comparison chart. Spoiled by the buttery smoothness of the Palomino Blackwing, Mitsubishi Hi-Uni and other Japanese favorites, I find the Verso a bit scratchier, but it’s certainly acceptable. The HB side is slightly lighter than the Japanese pencils (which are typically darker than most pencils of comparable grades), but the 4B side compares favorably with all the other 4Bs I tested against it.
Pencil tests done in Baron Fig notebook

In my sketch of the foggy morning in Wedgwood, I used the HB side for the initial toning, where I especially noticed the scratchier laydown (compared to a Blackwing, which I typically use for this step) on Strathmore Bristol smooth paper. However, after smudging the toning layers with a tissue, I was pleased with the result. I continued to use the HB side for most of the sketch, then finished with the 4B side to emphasize the darks. The two grades are a useful, versatile pair – exactly the two grades I would have chosen if I were designing the Verso.

According to the information from Viking, the Verso is handmade (I assume they mean hand-managed to ensure that the two grades are correctly identified on each pencil). At three bucks a pop (that’s like buying two half-pencils for $1.50 each), it’s not exactly an economical pencil. But I always appreciate two sketching implements that fit into the space of one. The Verso is going into my bag when I put my sketch kit on an extreme minimizing diet again. And it’s an ideal pencil for a trip to Gilligan’s Island (which I think about often and am amply prepared for).

Given the complexity of manufacturing the Verso, it seems unlikely that we’ll see too many competitors. I like the concept of a double-grade pencil so much that I am once again thinking about the Tsunago device, which ostensibly can be used to make my own double-sided pencils (unfortunately, it works only with graphite, not colored pencils). I’ve heard it’s a finicky mechanism that requires a lot of practice to finesse. Hmmm – sounds like a good challenge for a pencil geek like me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Green Lake Color Show

9/27/18 Green Lake

The autumn color show is well under way in these parts. We probably won’t see the peak for another month yet, but last week we had such phenomenal weather that the early trees got a chance to show off. Every year, I notice the same interesting pattern at Green Lake: Identical maples (they look identical to my uneducated eye, anyway) will be standing in a row, receiving the same light, yet some will start turning way ahead of the others. That dark red one near the center of the sketch is always the leader. Several next to it are still bright green.

Something else I’ve noticed this year isn’t typical, but I’m afraid it will become more common in the years to come: Instead of stepping through the color changes from yellow to orange to red, some maples are going directly from green to brownish, and the leaves are already curling. I think they’re distressed from the record-breaking hot, dry summer we had.

Monday, October 1, 2018

It’s That #InkTober Time of Year Again!

9/23/18 Bic Cristal, Baron Fig notebook

For the fourth consecutive year, I’m taking part in InkTober, Jake Parker’s annual initiative to encourage drawing with ink. The rules are simple: Make a drawing in ink; post it on social media with the hashtags #inktober and #inktober2018; repeat throughout the month of October.

Optional prompts are offered each year, but I don’t follow them. Instead, I try to take up the spirit of the event by giving myself a personal challenge. In 2016 I wanted to focus on drawing more from imagination, which was particularly difficult for me, but by the end of the month, my ongoing weather-reporting bunny had been born! Last year I decided to practice hatching, another challenge for me, and by month’s end I saw improvement.

Another focus I started with last year was working in ballpoint pen. I’ve seen so many examples of amazing art created with the lowly Bic (or other such cheap pens), such as those I saw in the book The Art of Ballpoint by Matt Rota, that I wanted to try the medium myself. But after a week or so, I got fed up and switched back to the fountain pens and brush pens I’m more comfortable with.

It always bothered me, though, that I didn’t stick with it – after all, it’s only 31 days. So for InkTober 2018, I’m going to stick with ballpoint for the entire month, come hell or high water. Subject matter will be wide open – urban sketches, still lives, from imagination, from photos, whatever.

9/20/18 Bic Cristal, Field Notes Signature
I saw on social media that some people started gearing up early, so I did, too. Shown here are a couple of practice sketches I made a week ago or so. Both were done with ubiquitous Bic Cristals – a traditional favorite of ballpoint artists. The pen’s plastic body feels like it’s worth less than the 25 cents I paid for one, and the ink is blobby, especially in the 1.6mm tip size that I prefer. I’m not sure I’m going to make it through the month if I stick with these Cristals; I may switch to the Uni Jetstream I used a couple years ago on Ballpoint Pen Day.

I don’t plan to blog daily about my InkTober sketches; instead, I’ll report in every week or so as I did last year. I’ll also be posting sketches daily on Instagram.

Tell me what you are doing for InkTober 2018!

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