Friday, March 22, 2019

Strong, Vulnerable

3/14/19 Shannon (5-min. pose)
3/14/19 5-min. pose

I’ve been attending Gage Academy’s life-drawing sessions for nearly seven years now. Some models I have drawn only once; others I sketch time and time again. A few I have drawn so regularly that I have gotten to know them, and we follow each other on social media. But regardless of the model, I am always awed by his or her courage and willingness to stand before us for three hours, naked. It’s a job that requires a certain combination of both strength and vulnerability.

With each pose, an unspoken dialog occurs between the artist and the model that involves trust and sensitivity. While my main objective in attending figure sessions is to improve my people-drawing skills, I also feel compelled to try to express whatever I sense of this person who is willing to take off his or her clothes for our scrutiny.

3/14/19 20-min. pose

3/14/19 10-min. pose

3/14/19 10-min. pose

3/14/19 This final 7-minute pose was my favorite of the afternoon -- what an awesome foreshortening challenge!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Spring Palette Refresh (Screw Minimal Palettes)

Getting ready for spring!
My basic palette

The sunshine and warm temperatures we’ve been having this week have made me optimistic: It’s time to refresh my palette for spring. Working with my usual basic palette (shown at right), I’ve substituted Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle 015 (though it may look yellow in my photo above, it’s a very yellow yellow-green) for 245. I’ve also added Caran d’Ache Supracolor 091 with the hope that I’ll soon be sketching cherry blossoms (or at least plum blossoms). It’s a slightly darker pink than the one I’ve used in previous years because pink always becomes less intense than it looks in the test swatch.

I’ve been thinking more about primary palettes, choosing a palette based on frequency of use, and other palette minimization attempts, and today I’m here to say: Screw them all. That doesn’t mean I’m going to add a hundred pencils to my palette; I’m still sticking with not exceeding the 25 slots in my Tran Portfolio Pencil Case. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it doesn’t make sense to be so stingy with specific hues, especially if they are difficult to mix and convey meaning that another hue might not.  

Just the right green.
Case in point: A couple of weeks ago at Union Station, I began drawing the large pottery vases and tile walls, and I was thrilled to pieces that I happened to have the color verdigris (Caran d’Ache 182) in my bag. Although I don’t have much use for it in Seattle, it’s a hue I always make sure I take with me to Europe for statuary and building details. I guess I had left it in my palette ever since my trip to Portugal last summer. In any case, it was just the right kind of green that would be difficult, if not impossible, to mix, especially with colored pencils. More important, it conveyed meaning in terms of the décor of the place. Someone went to a lot of trouble to find vases that match the wall tiling.

However, my renewed liberalism about color does not mean I’m letting myself go in terms of my sketch kit in general. In fact, even as I allow more hues, I’m going to be more conservative than ever about considering everything else I carry.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kite Hill

3/16/19 Kite Hill at Gas Works Park

I’ve sketched at Gas Works Park probably more often than any other Seattle city park. The massive gas works themselves are almost always my focus; it’s hard to resist those mysterious, steampunkish structures. Last Saturday, though, I wanted to focus instead on all the happy locals reveling in the sunshine on Kite Hill. It’s been a long, record-breakingly cold winter, and just being able to take a walk without a down jacket felt like a celebration.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Coming Down

3/15/19 Heavy equipment ready for action on the viaduct.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct has been closed for more than a month now, and its demolition has been occurring gradually, a small area at a time. After seeing the Jeffrey Gibson exhibit at SAM, we wandered through the north end of Pike Place Market to see if any destruction was ongoing. Lots of heavy machinery was scattered about the otherwise empty viaduct, waiting for some action. We could hear activity further south, but nothing was happening near Steinbrueck Park where I sketched this. Soon enough, it’ll be a noisy, dusty mess there.

The graffiti’d lane signs shown in this sketch are the same ones I sketched in February when I walked on the viaduct – but from the other side.

(According to my phones weather app, it was 63 degrees while I sketched this! Spring could happen yet!)

Monday, March 18, 2019

Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer

3/15/19 Seattle Art Museum

Contemporary artist Jeffrey Gibson uses found objects, repurposed cultural artifacts and disparate materials like rawhide, punching bags and tin jingles to bring together his multiple heritages. Including paintings, three-dimensional wall hangings and sculptures, his exhibit Like a Hammer at the Seattle Art Museum provokes thought through vivid colors and shapes, pop music lyrics and lots of fringe and beads.

It’s also a sketchable exhibit with numerous large, colorful pieces displayed in wide spaces and good lighting. On Friday morning, we had SAM to ourselves, and I managed to get quick sketches of two visually striking works. One is part of the “Everlast” series of beaded punching bags. The other is called “All for One, One for All,” one of several large avatars.

Like a Hammer is at SAM through May 12.

3/15/19 Seattle Art Museum

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Green Lake Drive

3/13/19 Green Lake neighborhood

The drive curving around the perimeter of Green Lake doesn’t allow parking everywhere, but this spot was handy: Parked where the road turns sharply, I could see the profiles of several houses as well as trees and cars directly in front of me. (It was a partly sunny day, but the temperature was in the 40s, so I’m still confined to my mobile studio. But at least we seem to be past the threat of snow!) I thought this unusual view of the Green Lake neighborhood was just right for St. Patrick’s Day.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Unpaid Model

3/13/19 graphite, Yupo

While studying portraiture for a full intensive weekend with Gary Faigin, I heard repeatedly the value of learning to draw from life (rather than photos). If we can’t practice from professional models in a studio, he encouraged us to sketch unwitting models in public every chance we get. Short of that, he reminded us that we always have at least one head at our disposal – our own.

Suddenly the self-portraits I had been doing as part of selfie Sunday, a casual social media challenge, took on greater significance. Faigin said that most students in his full-term (10-week) classes studying his portraiture methods are able to draw with a strong likeness after practicing about 20 to 30 portraits. I don’t know when I’ll get to No. 30, but let’s call this one No. 1.

One part of his method that I’m ignoring (surprise, surprise) is the material – charcoal. Using a tortillon to smudge soft graphite (here, I used an 8B) and the same kind of kneadable eraser we used in the workshop, I think I can still apply his principles and techniques for the purpose of learning. And like the smooth paper we used in class, I’m using Yupo, which I’ve already discovered to be a fun support during life drawing sessions. The result is different from charcoal, of course, but also much cleaner.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Dynamic Pete

3/7/19 Pete (2-min. poses)

Last week’s dynamic model at Gage’s life-drawing session was Pete. (He was also a portrait model at Gary Faigin’s workshop, but sitting for that class was about as static as you can get.) Like many of Gage’s excellent models, Pete also models for DigiPen, a Seattle-area game developer, where game animators are required to practice their drawing skills on extremely short poses lasting seconds, not minutes.

While these two-to-five-minute poses must have seemed downright leisurely to Pete, I appreciated the creativity he used (including props he brought) to give more realism to his actions. Drawing him was pure fun.

3/7/19 Pete (5-min. poses)

2-min. poses
5-min. pose

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book Review: Atelier Caran d’Ache: The Workshop Book

OK, maybe I’m a sucker for eye candy. So shoot me. I bought Atelier Caran D’Ache: the Workshop Book knowing full well that it would be an overpriced promotion for the Swiss art materials company. But I couldn’t resist.

As you may know from some of my reviews, such as of Prismalo colored pencils, I am interested in (OK, a total geek of) the history of my favorite materials. I was hoping this book might shed light on some dark corners of Caran d’Ache colored pencil history. Nope. But it does deliver on the promised eye candy.

Most chapters cover the major product lines: graphite, colored pencils, fiber pens, watercolors, gouache, acrylic and modeling clay. Other chapters offer techniques and ideas, including some unusual innovations. These chapters do not include step-by-step instructions but simply photographs of works in progress. A final gallery shows works made with Caran d’Ache products.

There is a chapter on company history, including a timeline, but nothing illuminating to this geek.

On my bucket list is to someday travel to Geneva and tour the Caran d’Ache colored pencil factory. This is mostly a fantasy, as I’ve heard that Caran d’Ache does not offer public tours. In case this bucket list item is not fulfilled, the book does offer a few photographs of the colored pencil manufacturing process. It’s not Geneva, but it will have to do. For now.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


3/9/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

Driving through the Wedgwood neighborhood last week, I noticed a fleet of bright yellow Seattle City Light trucks parked on both sides of the street. There must have been eight or nine of them. I pulled over immediately, and the easiest way I could see several at once was to look through my sideview mirror. (I learned this trick from Roy deLeon, who frequently sketches from his mobile studio, too.) My timing was impeccable: Right after I finished this sketch, they all started rolling out.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Weekend of Portraiture with Gary Faigin

Gary Faigin giving one of many demos.
“If you want to learn to draw portraits, the worst thing you can do is to practice by drawing from photographs.” That’s how strongly Gary Faigin believes in the value of learning by drawing from life. In one weekend at Gage Academy, I got a crash course in Faigin’s basic portrait-drawing principles. Co-founder and artistic director of Gage, Faigin rarely teaches outside of his atelier, so when I saw that he was offering a weekend intensive on portraiture, I jumped right on it.

His assertion about the value of drawing from life made me feel somewhat vindicated about not enjoying drawing anything from photos (his statement felt like a spiritual high-five to all urban sketchers). As a learning tool, he said, drawing from a photo is about 10 percent as effective as drawing a model. Copying a master is about 50 percent as effective. But drawing in your sketchbook every time you see someone’s face? That’s 100 percent effective – even if it’s just a quick sketch. Every time you do one, you learn something. Faigin urged students to draw heads from life at every opportunity. (He estimates that he’s drawn 10,000 heads by now!)

Over the weekend, we had two models each day – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – giving us a variety of head types and features to practice on. We also systematically rotated our spots in the studio when the model changed so that each student would learn to draw the head from different angles – near profile, three-quarter and full-frontal face.
Gary's demo of model Lexi.

Besides the actual drawing practice, probably the single-most valuable part of the workshop was watching Faigin’s demos. Seeing him turn big, ugly blobs of charcoal into a face that closely resembled the model – in only 30 minutes or so – was nearly magical. But of course, it’s not magic – it’s simply applying the principles that he has developed over 40 years as an artist and teacher.

Faigin’s principles are based on his belief that portrait resemblance comes not from individual features but from the larger structures: overall head shape; positions (not details) of major facial features; and relative proportions of those features. If we block in those larger structures correctly, then even if we don’t render the eye or mouth perfectly, the portrait will still be recognizable. And if those larger structures are not blocked in correctly, no amount of perfect rendering of individual features will lead to resemblance. These are the steps that he showed us with each demo and that we practiced all weekend:
  1. Block in the large shapes: overall head shape (including hair), forehead, eye sockets (from eyebrow to lower socket edge, not just the eyeball). Try to see these areas as abstract shapes and dark blobs, not “eyes” or “forehead.”
  2. Mark placeholders for locations of the base of the nose and mouth.
  3. Block in large shadows on the face.
  4. Finally, render the individual features last.
His method is designed to bypass the human instinct to first pay attention to individual features. Paradoxically, although we (as humans) are attracted to details such as individual features, our brains recognize faces by their larger shapes. Surprisingly, he believes that by following these steps, one can achieve reasonably recognizable results after practicing only about 20 or 30 portraits. (I was afraid he was going to say 10,000!) In fact, he says portraiture is relatively easy compared to figure drawing, which involves so many more ways in which proportions can go wrong.

This was my first portrait on day 1 (model Pete). I forgot to photograph the blocking in. Gary said that my overall head shape and proportions were good, however . . . .

. . . the position of one eye was too close to the nose. Here's my drawing with Gary's corrections made over it (and a study of the nose when I said I was having difficulty shaping it).

My biggest insight of the weekend was how similar Faigin’s approach to portraits is to the urban sketching methods I learned from Eduardo Bajzek in Porto. Although buildings and streets seem very different from faces, the principles for drawing them are identical: Block in the largest shapes and structures first. Once you are confident that the large shapes are right, including their relative positions and values, then filling in the details is easy.

One other similarity was both artists’ penchant for use of the eraser as a drawing tool. In Eduardo’s workshop, we spent a substantial length of time giving the paper an even tone of gray with graphite so that highlights could be put in with an eraser. Faigin followed the same technique with charcoal. (Important: In Faigin’s workshop, we used a very smooth “layout” paper with a surface similar to standard printer paper. With his technique, he advised against using traditional charcoal paper, which has a strong tooth that holds charcoal particles and will not erase cleanly.) Over the weekend, it helped significantly to already be familiar with Eduardo’s technique that I’ve been practicing with graphite.
Blocking in completed for my second portrait of day 1 (model Lexi), including large shapes and placement guidelines.
My completed portrait of Lexi (the eye study in the upper-right corner was made by Gary)
Blocking in completed for my first portrait on day 2 (model Gloria). At this stage, Gary said things were going well. Later when I had started rendering Gloria's mouth, he said I had made it look generic and Caucasian (Gloria is African American).
He said, "Don't be afraid to walk right up to the model and look more closely." That certainly helped immensely! I could easily see Gloria's mouth. See below. 
Here's my finished portrait of Gloria. This was my best work of the workshop -- I think I captured a resemblance well. Gloria herself liked it enough to take a photo of it! I'm always especially pleased when the model likes a sketch I've made of him or her.

My last portrait of the workshop was of Shannon. I forgot to photograph the blocking-in stage. I think I didn't get that right,
because this doesn't resemble the model well.

More tips and wisdom from Gary Faigin:

  • Every facial feature should be compared with more than one other feature to gauge relative size and position. Don’t draw any single feature in isolation.
  • A good way to practice form and shading for portraiture is drawing from casts of heads. Although not as effective as drawing from a model, a cast is more practical since it never moves and will not need to take breaks.  
  • Another effective way to learn general form and shading is drawing still lives.
  • It’s a good idea to confirm relative proportions and placements (by holding up a pencil, knitting needle or other straightedge), but measure only to check your work after you’ve drawn from observation.
  • We should study the “rules” of average facial proportions and positions – the eyes are halfway down the head, the corners of the mouth line up with the pupils, etc. – but our job in portraiture is to observe “what it is about the model that departs from the average.” Do not draw generic faces based on the average.
  • Regarding values: “You are guaranteed to fail if you don’t explore the full range of darks and lights. The worst thing is to get stuck in the middle” [of lots of gray tones without contrast].
  • If you learn by drawing models, that will help you draw better from photos. But the vice versa is not true: Drawing from photos will not help you draw better from life. That’s because learning to draw from a two-dimensional object (a photo) will not transfer to learning from a three-dimensional object.
  • Artists to study for portraits: John Singer Sargent, Franz Hals, Anthony van Dyck, Hans Holbein

Monday, March 11, 2019

Nice Light, Bad Pastries

3/4/19 Zoka Coffee

When I’m in the mood for café sketching, my first choice is always Zoka Coffee in the Green Lake neighborhood. For a coffee shop, it’s huge, and large windows on two sides bring in a lovely natural light all morning. The warm wood interior, over-stuffed leather furniture, tables at various angles, and lots of victims staring at their devices make for an ideal indoor sketching location.

Unfortunately, I don’t like their pastries. The scones are so hard that they require a fork to penetrate, and the croissants leave a film on my palate, which leads me to believe they are made with shortening instead of butter.

Another first-world sketching problem rears its ugly head.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Randy Show

3/15/18 Randy (20-min. pose)
11/8/18 Randy (10-min. pose)

Randy Schuder is possibly the most-often drawn, painted and sculpted person in the Seattle area. A Gage Academy model for more than 15 years, he is one of the school’s best. I’ve sketched him at life drawing sessions many times (most recently a couple of weeks ago), and it’s always fun to recognize him on Gage’s walls where student work is often hung.

Now he is being officially recognized by the Gage community with “The Randy Show,” an exhibit of 150 works exclusively of Randy. Including everything from sculpted busts and oil paintings to pages torn out of sketchbooks, the show acknowledges his many years of service. As every life drawing student knows, we couldn’t practice if we didn’t have models, and I’m ever-grateful for Randy and other models who make it possible. I was honored to include a couple of sketches (shown here) in the show.

At the show's opening reception Friday night,
Randy points out my humble sketches surrounded by many amazing works
by students and instructors the past 15+ years.
Surrounded by his own likeness, Randy, a published poet,
reads a poem he wrote.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Union Station

3/8/19 Union Station

Almost exactly three years ago when Urban Sketchers Seattle met at Union Station, I chose the fern planters and light fixtures as my subject – with a bit of the architecture for good measure. This time I was less ambitious – no architecture at all!

Although I didn’t sketch it, I did appreciate the building’s lovely restoration (backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen 20 years ago). Built in 1911, Union Station has not been used by trains since 1971. Rented out for events in the evenings and weekends, the building’s main daytime use is office space. Plenty of chairs and tables are scattered about the huge hall, but strangely, no food or beverages are available. That means that sketchers can feel free to use the space without buying so much as a cup of coffee.

Although we sketchers occupied most of the tables, the space was also taken up by some locals. To kill a few minutes before the throwdown, I sketched this man, who seemed to be transporting all of his worldly possessions in a roller suitcase and a garbage bag.

3/8/19 Union Station

Only the man at far right was not a sketcher!
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