Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Painterly Lessons

2/13/19 Caran d'Ache Supracolor pencils (all sketches in Stillman & Birn Beta)

In my efforts to practice a more painterly approach to using watercolor pencils, I’ve learned a few things that weren’t as apparent to me when I took a more pencil-ly approach (for lack of a better term).

For one thing, to take a painterly approach, it’s vital that the pencils contain a generous amount of pigment. When using them dry or in a series of dry-wet/dry-wet applications (the method I learned in Suzanne’s class), pencils can contain a mediocre level of pigment and still produce acceptable results because more layers can be applied. But after applying a wetter brush load of water, it’s more difficult to continue applying many more layers of dry pigment, so the initial application had better be fairly heavy. This approach suits me fine, as it’s what I’m used to when out in the field: I like to apply as much pigment as possible in one shot and activate only once.
2/11/19 Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer
(Irony: In an effort to make my still lives more like urban sketching, I’m applying techniques that I already know from urban sketching to my still lives. Maybe I’m not really teaching myself anything new – maybe I’m just tricking myself into believing apples and bananas are buildings and trees!)

Another thing I’m learning is to blend and mix colors in a more painterly way. In the sketch below of a tomato and garlic, I had chosen complementary blue for the shadow cast by the garlic on the tomato, which seemed mostly orange when I colored it. When I activated the blue, though, I saw that the shadow had turned out too green because the tomato contained more yellow than I realized. It also wasn’t dark enough. I made a few test swatches, and I saw that applying more blue over that yellow/orange/blue combo would not improve the shadow color.

Trying to think like a painter in this situation, I considered adding red to the mix – the complement of green. Red pencil applied dry looked strange, but when activated, the resulting brown, though muddier than I prefer, was an acceptable shadow in that it was the right value. I don’t know how painterly the result looks, but since I had to think like a painter to achieve it, I still consider it a painterly approach.

In progress -- I didn't like the green shadow cast by the garlic onto the tomato.

2/16/19 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle

Monday, February 18, 2019

More Dull and Rough

2/15/19 Utrecht brand colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook

A few weeks ago I sketched an avocado and a satsuma to get some practice with rough and matte surfaces. (Shiny, smooth surfaces are easier because their gleaming highlights do much of the work of evoking the forms.) Looking for more practice, I found a potato and a sumo orange in our kitchen. The orange’s strange, bumpy texture and equally strange shape were a fun challenge.

The potato turned out to be more difficult than I expected. As I tried to depict its shape, which is less textured than the sumo orange but irregular, I was reminded of the landscape-drawing classes I took from Suzanne Brooker. We frequently worked on the challenges of conveying gently sloping hillsides and bumpy terrain.

Technical note: The potato was challenging in another way: I hadn’t used Derwent Lightfast colored pencils in a while, so I pulled out my smallish collection, which I knew had mostly earthy tones that would work well on the potato. Quite possibly the softest, waxiest pencils I own, they were at first easy and very smooth to apply. With subsequent applications, however, they were so waxy that they started feeling like they were sliding off the previous layers – like walking on ice (doing that in the days following snowpocalypse is still fresh in my memory). Harder pencils don’t have that effect. The more I use very soft colored pencils, which I favored at one time, the more I prefer harder ones like Faber-Castell Polychromos.

2/15/19 Derwent Lightfast colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook
Choosing among colored pencils with hard or soft cores is a difficult question, and the choice depends on preferred ways of working. My shift in preference from soft to hard points out a difficulty in choosing materials when one is relatively inexperienced with working in a particular medium. I think this happens frequently with other media, too: You just don’t know what you’re going to like until you’ve used it a while. That’s why it’s so difficult to make recommendations when asked about materials: I think it’s always best to try a variety of options instead of simply duplicating someone else’s choices.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Not a Machine

2/14/19 Shannon (10 min. poses)

I wasn’t feeling it last Thursday at life drawing. It wasn’t the model’s fault – Shannon is always excellent, and I’ve happily drawn her many times, including last fall when working on a long pose of her put me fully in the zone. I don’t expect to get in the zone every time, but I was hoping to feel some of the mojo I had the last time I was at Gage. I kept switching media and paper, hoping to find the right combo that would put me there again, but nothing quite did it.
2-min. poses

Because I sketch so regularly and share often on social media, friends have called me a “sketching machine.” It’s a compliment, and I certainly accept it as one. But one of the most frustrating things about drawing is that the ease (and I use the term “ease” relatively – it’s never easy) with which it comes varies constantly. It might not even be apparent in the results, but it’s the way I feel when I’m making the sketches. Even with regular practice, some days are better than others. If I were a true machine, I could draw with the same degree of flow and confidence every time.

10-min. pose
5-min. pose

10-min. pose

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Fude of Pencils

2/13/19 An unattractive corner of our backyard sketched with a vintage
Derwent carpenter's pencil. All of these varying line widths and marks came from
its two ends sharpened with different points.
When I reviewed some vintage Rexel Cumberland Derwent Drawing Pencils, I wrote about how much I enjoy using them at life drawing sessions, especially the flat carpenter pencil-shaped ones. The soft, thick, colored cores are the same as those found in their round contemporary counterparts, but the rectangular cores in the carpenter pencils can be cut in different ways to provide a variety of line widths and marks. I’ve only just begun experimenting, and I’m still learning how to whittle the points at different angles.

A few days ago, a YouTube video about carpenter’s pencils was brought to my attention. Intended for actual carpenters, not sketchers, the video explains why carpenter’s pencils are flat, how their standard dimensions are useful in carpentry, and other fascinating information. Watching it being sharpened was especially informative to a novice knife sharpener like me.

Carpenter's pencils sharpened Darth Maul style!
Most exciting of all was when the video pointed out the very obvious (duh!) fact that a carpenter pencil can be sharpened on both ends! Eureka! I immediately sharpened the second end of each of my pencils with a different shaped point so that I could expand the range of line widths even more. (I had so much fun sharpening that I gave myself a small blister! That’s what made me realize I need to work on my knife skills.)

A couple of year ago I discovered a Uni Mitsubishi graphite pencil with a 10B core called a fude enpitsu (“brush pencil”). Sharpened to a chisel point, it can make a wide range of line widths, just like the fude fountain pen nibs that have been my favorite for years. But now that I’ve been using these carpenter-style drawing pencils, I’d have to say that the vintage Derwents are the true fude of pencils.

Pointy on one end. . . 

. . . blunt on the other.

I had so much fun that I gave myself a blister.
Here's the chisel point on one end of the pencil I used for this sketch.

Friday, February 15, 2019


2/7/19 All sketches made with Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelles
in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (my typical approach)

The approach I’ve been using with watercolor pencils most often is the one I learned nearly two years ago from Suzanne Brooker. In her class, we used the water-soluble properties of colored pencils mainly as an enhancement to traditional (dry) colored pencil properties to intensify hues and soften visible pencil lines. In particular, we focused on using water activation of the pencil pigment to give – what else? – water body surfaces in landscapes a watery look. But in the limited time we had with her in that class, we didn’t really get into using watercolor pencils in a more painterly manner. In other words, using them more as watercolors than as pencils.

The techniques and approach I learned from her generally serve me well because they suit my drawing style – when I’m seated comfortably at my studio desk. But as has always been my motivation in learning to use any medium, I want to be able to take advantage of the water-soluble properties of colored pencils on location, too. And lately I’ve been feeling like my still life practice isn’t necessarily effective practice for that. I get too comfortable having consistent lighting and taking all the time I want.

2/8/19 Attempting a more painterly approach
So with that in mind, I’ve lately been making a conscious effort to use a more painterly approach and take better advantage of the pencils’ water-soluble properties. It requires applying a little more water than I’m accustomed to and working quickly once the water is applied so that I can blend in some dry pigment, for example, while the paper is still wet, which can yield interesting effects. Or mix wet hues on the paper. These techniques are difficult enough to do with watercolor paints, but since watercolor pencils require less water, they require working even faster before the pigments dry. This is also exactly the opposite technique we learned from Suzanne, which is to allow each layer of water application to dry completely before applying more dry pigment. So the need to think and act faster has blown my head open.

2/9/19 Another painterly attempt
You may have difficulty seeing the differences between my typical approach (the first still life at top of post) and the more painterly approach I’m attempting (the other two still lives) because, frankly, I’m still learning how much water to use and struggling to take action before the pigments dry. My goal with these still lives is not necessarily to sketch faster – these all took about the same length of time – but I’m hoping that with practice, I will become somewhat faster by using more painterly methods. (And being able to be faster when I want to is almost always a useful skill on the street.)

I’ll report back as my practice progresses.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

I Heart Graphite

2/12/19 graphite

The idea for the drawing above, which I made for Greg’s Valentine card, is something I plagiarized from one I made five years ago. For that drawing, done with a fountain pen, I sketched my right hand from life, then mentally mirrored it to draw the left hand (you can read the post from 2014 to learn the surprising challenges I encountered).

My intention was to do the same thing this time, but working with graphite takes much longer than pen and ink, so my hand started cramping up. (The experience made me appreciate life-drawing models even more, especially their ability to hold poses for any length of time.) I had to resort to working from photos.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Snowing Again

2/11/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

As of Monday afternoon, it was snowing again, with a “wintry mix” of rain and snow predicted for the evening commute and beyond. Sub-freezing temperatures overnight were then expected to freeze the slush, creating another treacherous mess. I am ever grateful not to have anywhere I must go.

This view is through the window in our back door looking out on our deck railings, the backyard and our neighbor’s yard. I’m enjoying all the practice I’m getting in sketching snow, but I’m running out of windows.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Snowpocalypse, Part 2

2/10/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

On Sunday we stayed hunkered down, waiting for part 2 of our snowstorm of the decade to hit. Our neighbors’ cars across the street hadn’t moved since Saturday morning, so they were both still capped with snow in their respective driveways. I’m not usually interested in this view from our front window, but everything looks different, fresh and more sketchable with the snow.

As I was sketching in the warm comfort of our livingroom, a U.S. Mail truck drove up – on Sunday. At first I thought it was because we didn’t receive any mail Saturday, which was surprising but understandable, given the snow. But it wasn’t regular mail – it was an Amazon delivery! Say what you will about Bezos: Snowpocalypse may keep the U.S. Mail away, but two-day Prime stops for nothing.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Slow: Snow Ahead

2/9/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

After morning flurries, the snow stopped, and the sun came out, so we went for a walk. The temperature was about 30 according to my phone app, so it was pleasant on the sunny side of the street. Every now and then, though, a harsh gust of wind would shake the snow from the trees and onto my sketchbook. When my fingers started getting numb, I decided to call it quits. After hot tea to thaw my hands, I gave the sketch a little more color from memory.

Splattered with snow.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Snowmageddon Arrives

2/9/19 Through our kitchen window, Maple Leaf neighborhood

Snowmageddon delivered the promised several inches overnight. We woke Saturday morning to a thick, magical blanket and the pure silence that occurs only when it snows.

After the sun came up, I looked through every window to see what I could sketch without putting on my boots. I settled on this view from the kitchen – our neighbor’s tree and patio table and our bird feeder. Even the birds were smart enough to stay in bed. (A couple of chickadees did show up toward the end of my sketch.)

I’m very grateful that we didn’t lose power overnight as many homes in the area apparently did. I hope you’re warm and safe, wherever you are!

Out the front door. . . 

. . . and out the back door! I'm not putting my boots on -- yet. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Snowpocalypse Blind Contours

2/8/19 negative space drawing

Snowpocalypse is under way in the Puget Sound region. As I’m writing this on Friday afternoon, it’s only just begun, but snow is expected to continue through Saturday, yielding 4 to 8 inches. Shelves are depleted in grocery stores as people prepare to be housebound, and flights and bus routes have been cancelled.

It’s a good time for blind contours.

First I piled up a few random objects and started with a basic negative-space drawing. That’s often an exercise in how-to books and classes to make students focus on the space around and within objects instead of the objects themselves. 

That didn’t seem fun enough for snowmageddon, though, so I added a blind contour aspect to it. The technique is the same – focus on the negative space – but this time, look only at your subject matter as you draw and not your paper. Now, that’s fun! All the pressure is off for making the drawing look “right,” and rainbow pencils make the exercise even more fun.

2/8/19 blind contour

blind contour
blind contour

2/8/19 Weather Bunny is prepared.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Vintage Colored Pencils: A. W. Faber “Castell” Polychromos (Contemporary Polychromos Comparison)

Vintage A.W. Faber Polychromos pencils

Faber-Castell Polychromos has long been my go-to for traditional (non-water-soluble) colored pencils. Harder than most artist-grade pencils, oil-based Polychromos has proven to be an excellent balance between softness (for easier application) and firmness (for crisp details) for most of my needs.

Both surprised and delighted to see a vintage set appear on eBay, I snapped it right up. I usually don’t buy large sets of vintage pencils, but I have never seen sets of any size of Polychromos, so the temptation was irresistible. I was also pleased because it gave me a rare opportunity to compare an old set with its contemporary counterpart. (Two others I’ve been able to compare in this way are Faber-Castell Goldfaber and Caran d’Ache Prismalo.)

Barely used at all, the set is missing only one pencil, and none was sharpened past production sharpening. (Photos show pencils after being freshly sharpened by me.) I was told by the eBay vendor that this set was used by her aunt in the early ‘60s. (I love it when the eBay vendor knows a product’s provenance! So often, vendors simply buy out estate sales and are clueless of a product’s age, and often I know more about the product than they do. But I always ask anyway, and occasionally the information provided is historically useful.) The pencils are in such beautiful condition that I think they spent most of their lives in their box.

The box, too, is in good condition, and opens to form an easel. Alas, its design is useless – the flap on top is too stiff to fold back, so it obstructs pencil removal. (I took all the pencils out, finally liberating them to live productive lives).

The box forms an easel. Unfortunately, the top flap makes the box unuseable.

Before I get further into this review, here’s a bit of visual history. Although this is the first set I’ve found, I’ve managed to acquire a few random single Polychromos pencils. Shown here are six A. W. Faber Polychromos (the bright green at the top is a contemporary one for comparison). Interestingly, the bottom one is made in the USA; all the rest are made in Germany, as is my contemporary set and the vintage set I’m reviewing. The old Polychromos have unfinished ends; contemporary ones have a rounded end cap with a gold band.
Top green pencil is contemporary; others are vintage.

Vintage pencils have plain, unfinished ends.

The vintage set I’m reviewing is probably not as old as those singles, based on the design, which is almost identical to my contemporary set: The round, glossy barrel is finished with a rounded end cap and a gold band.
Vintage Polychromos from the set I'm reviewing.

Branded A.W. Faber, the old pencils do not bear the “jousting knights” logo that appears on contemporary pencils – a logo that was adopted when the company began using the name Faber-Castell (according to Wikipedia).
From top: vintage Polychromos, newer vintage from the set reviewed here; contemporary with jousting knights and Faber-Castell name

In my exploration of vintage colored pencils, and especially when I’ve been able to compare older ones with contemporary ones of the same brand, I’ve almost always come to the same conclusion: Newer pencils are better, at least in terms of pigment quality – and as long as pencil manufacturing has remained in the company’s country. It’s only natural that as production technology improves and discoveries are made about pigments and binders, pencil quality would improve, too. So it was with some trepidation that I made swatches of the 71 colors: It would be heartbreaking if this lovely set were of inferior quality compared to the contemporary Polychromos pencils that I love!  

Much to my relief, they are of the same high quality; in fact, dare I say they are slightly superior? I picked out a few pencils that I could find matching color numbers for in my contemporary set to compare them one-to-one. Is it my imagination, or do the vintage pigments appear just a hair more vibrant? In application, they feel very slightly creamier. (Granted, if I were to mix all of them together and use them without looking at the branding, I would be hard-pressed to distinguish them, I’m sure; the differences are very subtle.)
Swatch comparison of same color numbers

Making the sketch of the garlic, satsuma and banana, the vintage pencils are every bit as good as their modern sisters. It’s always a pleasure to find a well-preserved specimen of colored pencil history that I can also enjoy using.

2/5/19 vintage Polychromos pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

Nothing like a pile of colored pencils to warm a frigid day!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Freezing Fog

2/6/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

After the stunning polar vortex in the eastern half of the country warmed up, it was our turn for snow and sub-freezing temperatures. It isn’t nearly as cold here as it was in the Midwest and East, of course, but the snow and icy roads are still a hazardous inconvenience.

Yesterday morning I stood at our bedroom window to sketch the sun making a valiant effort to burn through the fog. When I was done, I stepped out onto our sundeck very briefly to photograph the delightful frost clinging to spider webs and railings. My weather app said it was 23 degrees.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Adventures in Yupoland

1/24/19 Conte on Derwent sketch paper (5-min. poses)

Adventurous watercolor and acrylic painters know about Yupo – it’s a strange “synthetic” waterproof, tear-resistant paper that’s made of plastic. Its completely toothless, nonabsorbent surface makes liquid media behave in surprising and often striking ways. Years ago when I was dabbling in abstract mixed-media collages, I messed around with Yupo, but it was a novelty more than anything else.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago when I was preparing to participate in the Women’s March. Rain was a distinct possibility, so I brought along a pocket-size Field Notes Expedition notebook, which is made entirely of Yupo. I didn’t need it that day, but a short time later in Cannon Beach, I happened to have the book in my pocket and discovered what a joy the paper is with soft graphite. It seems counter-intuitive – pencils seem to need some kind of tooth to grab onto. Yet the experience is like gliding soundlessly on ice, and soft graphite leaves behind a rich, dark line that looks almost like liquid.

After that, I sort of forgot about Yupo again – until a couple of weeks ago at life drawing. Thinking it was a colored pencil, I inadvertently picked up a traditional sanguine Conte pencil that happened to be in my case. Using nothing but one fingertip to do the smudging on toothy sketching paper, I had great fun expressing Shawna’s form even on relatively short poses (the ones shown above were five minutes each). I tried soft graphite and colored pencil on the same paper, but it was more difficult to get good smudged effects compared to the chalky Conte (which is a bit messy, though not nearly as bad as charcoal).

1/27/19 graphite in Field Notes Expedition notebook
Something about that delightful experience made me wonder what kind of paper would be best for making graphite smudge as nicely – and the Yupo light bulb went on over my head! I pulled out the same Expedition notebook I had taken to the Women’s March and the beach and sketched a quick garlic with a 10B pencil. Using one finger, it was easy to smudge the graphite, and the darkest shadows came out looking almost like a marker. It turns out that Yupo makes all media behave surprisingly – not just liquids.

I dug out the 11-by-14-inch Yupo pad I still had from my mixed media days and brought it to the next life drawing session. Typically I use an ink-filled brush pen on the one- and two-minute poses because I need fluid to move that quickly. But instead of having a liquid medium, my 10B pencil skated frictionlessly on Yupo as if the support had turned to liquid!

On the five- and 10-minute poses when I had more time to develop Bob’s form, I again used a single finger to smudge the graphite. It was the most charcoal-like experience I’ve ever had – but without the mess, of course! (One black fingertip I can handle.)

1/31/19 2-min. poses

5-min. poses

10-min. pose

10-min. poses

20-min. pose

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