Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Beta/Zeta Dilemma

October and November sketches are scattered between Beta (left) and Zeta (right) (both festooned with some favorite stickers). 

During my first couple years of sketching, I tried nearly every sketchbook on the market, looking for the right fit (you can see a few of them at the top of my Archive of Sketch Kits page). It’s what you must do as a beginner – explore various book formats, paper textures and weights and how they meet your media needs. Then I decided to roll my own using 140-pound Canson XL watercolor paper, and that kept me happy for years with all the media I used.

Last spring, I stopped hand binding my sketchbooks for the first time since 2013, and I’ve been in a mild sketchbook tizzy ever since. At first I thought Stillman & Birn Zeta would be “the one” – a daily-carry I could count on with all media. But during my trip to the Netherlands, I started wavering, and I tried switching to S&B Beta as my daily-carry.
Zeta handles ink and graphite beautifully. . . 

I just finished filling my second consecutive Beta, and it took quite a bit longer to fill than usual – because I kept interrupting it to use Zeta instead! Whenever I was in the mood for graphite or ink (especially during InkTober), I would grab the Zeta as I was going out the door. I don’t like carrying more than one book, but if I was planning to drive, I’d take both books, just in case I changed my mind.

With all that dithering, my sketches from October and November are scattered between two sketchbooks, which annoys me greatly. During most of my sketching experience, my limited media choices enabled nearly complete chronological continuity of my sketchbooks. But now that I use more media, and neither Beta nor Zeta meets all my media needs, I must either compromise on the paper choice or compromise on the continuity.
. . . but I still love Beta best when I want rich, vibrant hues.

At this point, after months of wavering, I’ve concluded that it’s probably more important to have the paper that makes me happy with whatever medium I’m using than it is to have the sketches appear in chronological sequence. All the sketches are dated, so I could easily retrace the chronology if that’s important. But if I used paper that wasn’t right for the medium, I’d probably be less satisfied with whatever sketch resulted. And ultimately, the sketch itself is not nearly as important as the sketching of it, and that gets done no matter what paper I use (or whether it’s in the right sequence). I’ll keep using both books and get over it.

Now, if only Stillman & Birn would make my dreams come true and create a sketchbook containing both Beta and Zeta papers . . . !

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Drawing Jam, Part 2: Not Models

12/7/19 Drawing Jam participants

My focus at Drawing Jam tends to be the costumed models because I don’t have regular opportunities for that elsewhere. But the event is so packed with participants that there’s no shortage of non-posing people, too – many of whom are nearly as still as models as they focus closely on whatever they are drawing.

Live music in every room puts the jammin’ in the Jam, and this year was no exception. Ask Sophie, a band of “traditional folk music, old-time country and rock 'n roll, with a punk rock sensibility,” was one of my favorites. They were hard to sketch, though, because participants drawing models often got in my way.
12/7/19 Ask Sophie

The percussionist in the center, however, had such an interesting beard that I sketched him a second time. He sits on a box with a hole cut into it and uses one hand to drum on its side. (He does have a second leg, but I couldn’t see it.)

12/7/19 Ask Sophie percussionist

Monday, December 9, 2019

Drawing Jam, Part 1: Models

12/7/19 Cookie Couture (20-min. pose)
Cannoli (20-min. pose)

I know I just got through saying I’ve been jonesin’ for life-drawing practice while Gage Academy is on winter break. But one reason Gage takes that break is to put on Drawing Jam, the school’s annual day-long participative art extravaganza, which I look forward to all year. Saturday was my eighth consecutive year taking part in the Jam (now in its 20th year), which offers nude and costumed models to draw and sculpt, areas for still life and self-portrait practice, demos by Gage instructors, activities for kids, live music to draw by, and free art supplies donated by Blick. Guess what? I got my fix!

Since I sketch nude models during regular sessions but rarely have a chance to draw them in costume, I focused my attention on the latter. I was also in the mood to try some new materials that I don’t usually take to life drawing. I’m currently working on reviews of fountain pen inks for the Well-Appointed Desk, so Drawing Jam gave me an opportunity to use those inks in unusual ways.

Two models sketched in 1 minute
First I filled several waterbrushes with fountain pen inks. This tool is not new to me; I first started using it years ago during the long transition between being frustrated with watercolors and trying to find something else that worked better for me. I remembered the fast, deliciously juicy applications of ink I could get with waterbrushes, and I knew they’d be fun to use during short poses. For the ink reviews, I had also filled a couple of hacked Pilot Parallel fountain pens, so I grabbed these for Drawing Jam, too.

I tried using the waterbrushes and pens individually during the shortest poses, but the real fun started during the five- and 10-minute poses. First I captured the general gesture loosely and broadly with an ink-filled waterbrush. Then with a Pilot Parallel containing a contrasting color ink, I went back into the gesture to emphasize shadows and fill in a few details. Sometimes I used a water-filled brush to spread the inks further and bring out the light. So much fun! I’m definitely going to bring these tools to regular life-drawing practice when it starts up again.

Two models sketched in 1 minute
Ink-filled waterbrush and a hacked Pilot Parallel!

10-min. pose
10-min. pose

5-min. pose
5-min. pose

During 10- and 20-minute poses, I also used my favorite watercolor pencils to work on tighter drawings. With nude models, color isn’t very important, so I hardly even think about it. With costumed models, though, it was a lot of fun using full color for a change.

10-min. pose

10-min. pose

20-min. pose

Most fun of all was drawing drag queens Cookie Couture (top of page, whom I’ve enjoyed sketching at previous Drawing Jams), Mercury Divine and Cannoli (top of page) – their bright outfits were a treat.

Mercury Divine (20-min. pose)
Thank you, Blick and Gage, for the free art supplies!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Practicing People of the 21st Century

I’ve been jonesin’ for life-drawing practice while Gage Academy is on its long winter break. I try to sketch real-life people whenever I can, but I want a way to practice from home, too. Encouraged by the fun I had sketching from a newspaper photo a few weeks ago, even though I generally avoid it, I decided it wouldn’t be so bad to resort to working from photos if I use the images only as gestures. In other words, I’m not trying to reproduce the photos; I’m viewing them as short poses.

I remembered a book I got a few years ago after Ed Harker showed how he was using it to practice drawing people: People of the 21st Century, by Hans Eijkelboom. This fascinating book is a collection of photos taken by Eijkelboom from the ‘90s into the current decade – thousands of people that the photographer has captured on urban streets, mostly in the Netherlands but also elsewhere in Europe, Asia and North America. What makes the book visually interesting is that he has arranged each page into a grid of images based on unifying themes, such as men wearing striped shirts, women wearing pink tanks, people in yellow raincoats, people in blue raincoats, people in fur. Even if you never draw from it, the book is intriguing to look through.

Written by David Carrier, the book’s afterword says (with a quotation from the photographer): “Taken individually, Eijkelboom’s small photographs are as banal as their subjects. He uses repetition to communicate awareness of difference: the closer you look at any page of this book, the more diverse you will find the people who are dressed in similar ways. ‘Everybody has the skills to relate to what is surrounding him,’ he says. But only art shows you how to see clearly this everyday reality, which is right at hand. ‘What is more beautiful,’ he asks, ‘than a human being who tries to be an optimal human?’ He is infatuated with this ordinary world.”

I just flip open to random pages and pretend these people are walking by as I try to capture their poses as quickly as possible. Fun and strangely relaxing!

By the way, this is the way the binding on the book looked when I bought it.

It drove me crazy because it wouldn’t stay open while I was sketching, so I took it to my neighborhood FedEx store. For a few bucks, they chopped off the spine and replaced it with a spiral – best book hack ever.

Saturday, December 7, 2019


12/3/19 Star Line Barber Shop

We had to run an errand together in the same neighborhood where he gets his hair cut, so I decided to tag along to his appointment. His barber is so fast, though, that she was done in minutes – and I was left with a humorously bad sketch! (I think I did better several years ago at the same barber shop.)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Sketch Material Wish List for 2020

How cool would it be if a Stillman & Birn book contained both smooth Zeta
paper and toothy Beta paper -- between the same covers?

If I could have any sketch tool or material I wanted, even those that haven’t been invented yet, what would I ask for? Two years ago I wrote such a wish list – products that I wanted but that didn’t yet exist. Of the six listed items, four have been fulfilled, at least to some degree – not bad at all! Scoring on those items encouraged me to make a new list, and this time I have specific manufacturers in mind, based on what they already do well:
  • Stillman & Birn, my favorite sketchbook manufacturer, makes a Nova Trio edition that contains beige, gray and black toned papers bound together in the same book. I find that I love S&B’s toothy, water-friendly Beta edition with watercolor pencils, but when I’m using graphite, ballpoint and other pens, I prefer smoother Zeta or Epsilon papers. I want S&B to make an edition containing both Beta and Zeta papers in one book! (I’ve heard that Arteza makes a sketchbook with alternating spreads of cold press and hot press papers, but I’m not familiar with the papers myself.)
I bet Mitsubishi would make a dreamy water-soluble pencil!
  • The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni line of graphite pencils is my favorite for drawing, and the Japanese company makes many other luscious graphite pencils – all smooth, dark for their grades, and flawless. Viarco’s ArtGraf is currently my favorite water-soluble graphite for its rich, dark wash, especially in 6B. But I often run into little gritty bits in the core that prevent smooth application, and I have to stop and rub them out on scrap paper before I can continue. I’d love to see Mitsubishi use their extensive graphite know-how and apply it to making a water-soluble version. I bet it would be dreamy!

Caran d'Ache, aren't you embarrassed that I have to
use a Derwent extender on your pencils?
  • I know I’m particularly cranky about this one (I’ve bitched about it often enough, even directly to the company), but I truly believe Caran d’Ache should make both a portable sharpener and a pencil extender that fit its own products! By “products,” I mean, specifically, the Swiss company’s Museum Aquarelles, which are just slightly larger than conventional pencils and therefore don’t fit in many standard-size tools. I’ve resolved both the sharpener and extender issues for myself, but really: Is it too much to ask for adjacent tools that support their own pencils?

  • Derwent’s Drawing Pencils (which, despite their name, are colored pencils, not graphite or charcoal) have long been a favorite at life drawing because of their softness and extra-thick cores, which make them easy to apply quickly in broad, loose strokes. Their only drawback is their narrow color range, which is limited to earthy hues conducive to animals and landscapes. Derwent’s own Coloursoft and a few other colored pencils I’ve tried might be nearly as soft as the Drawing Pencils, but no other colored pencil I know of has a core that thick – which is what I love most about them. I want Derwent to expand the Drawing Pencil color line to include a few natural greens and yellows (which would still qualify as part of a landscapey palette, right?). While we’re at it, let’s throw in a couple more muted reds and blues, too. The addition of just a few more hues would make the whole palette more versatile.
Derwent Drawing Pencils with thick, luscious cores: All I want are a
few more hues!
  • More than a year ago when I reviewed the then-new Derwent Lightfast pencils, I speculated (OK, maybe it was wishful thinking, but it was educated wishful thinking, based on Derwent’s prior actions) the following: “Now that Derwent has introduced a collection clearly intended as a direct competitor to Caran d’Ache’s premier line of traditional colored pencils, what are the chances that the British company intends to introduce an artist quality water-soluble collection to compete with Caran d’Ache’s Museum Aquarelle pencil? As much as I love the Museum Aquarelle palette range, which is sufficient for most of my needs, it has a few holes that I’d like to plug with an equally soft, highly pigmented brand. A girl can dream.” Sadly, my speculation hasn’t (yet) materialized, but a girl can still dream. 

     suppose Derwent would say that its Inktense collection fills that need, but I’ve read about lightfast test results indicating that the pigments fade quickly (apparent from all those fugitive reds, purples and bright pinks in the palette), and the company makes no claims that they are artist quality. I think Derwent still has room for a lightfast water-soluble line (even a narrow one) as a complement to its oil-based, artist-quality Lightfast line.

 What’s on your wish list – products that you know a manufacturer would do well with if it made them?

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Monochrome Mood

12/2/19 Trees through my studio window

Once the weather goes cold and dark, I find myself drifting more and more in the monochrome direction. Color can always be found, any time of year, if I look hard enough. But I think it’s more about my own mood than about the physical world. Winter is a more contemplative, introspective season (at least for me), and sketching with one color (or one implement) keeps the focus on values, shapes and form instead of hues.

11/4/19 Starbucks

11/24/19 Gourd (I was trying out a new ballpoint pen, and it gave me a lot of trouble:
blobby ink that came out unevenly. Back to my faithful Bic.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Individuals, Not Symbols

6/13/19 Lake City Farmers Market

Crowds of people milling and going about their business make excellent studies in quickly capturing gestures and poses. People walk, stand and make simple actions in unique ways, and I try my best to see and suggest that individuality and avoid generic marks.
6/13/19 Lake City Farmers Market
11/22/19 Costco
11/30/19 Costco

11/30/19 Costco

11/1/19 This person disappeared quickly, but I wanted someone for a sense
of scale, so I resorted to a symbol.
Sometimes if the person I started sketching is long gone but I still want to indicate a human for scale or context, I will resort to a symbol, but I would rather capture the individual if I can.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Firm and Flexy Uni Pin

The firm but flexible Uni Pin brush pen

I’ve been using flexible-tip and bristle-tip brush pens for nearly as long as I’ve been sketching, and I’ve tried lots (here are two more reviews: waterproof and refillable ones; and favorites from a couple years ago). While I love most of them for the beautiful varied lines and organic marks they impart, and I can use any at my desk, their primary job is to make quick captures when I’m riding public transportation. For that specific purpose, I’m much more picky.

I’ve come to find that the ones with firm but flexible tips and a conventional pen body are the most versatile (some Japanese brush pens mimic traditional sumi brushes with long, tapered bodies). The firm but flexy tips are easier to control on bumpy bus rides, and the normal body size is discreet and uncumbersome (I don’t like to attract attention when I’m sketching in public).

When I’m making these quick portraits of fellow commuters, I need to be able to discreetly whip out a reliable pen and use it without fuss – no leaks, bleeding, feathering or unpredictability. The cap must pull off easily and post securely. These seem like easy requirements, yet you’d be surprised how many caps are so tight, I am at risk of socking my seat mate when I pull, or the posted cap falls off and rolls under the seat.
11/21/19 Uni Pin in Blackwing Clutch notebook

The latest to meet all my urban sketching requirements is the Uni Pin Pen with a brush tip, which I just reviewed at the Well-Appointed Desk. Its black pigment ink dries almost immediately and is mostly waterproof after a few minutes (a trace of washed ink is visible after a few minutes’ wait, but that’s good enough for me). It doesn’t feather or bleed on typical notebook papers. In addition to meeting the demands described above, it has some features that appeal to me in idiosyncratic ways, like the tiny window in the cap and the solid, audible click the cap makes when it’s secured. As I mention in the review, the hard, reinforced brush tip looks like it will not mush down under my heavy drawing hand, which is a problem I’ve had with many flexible brush tip pens. Yet its line variation is impressive. I can hold the tip upright to draw individual eyelashes, or I can hold it at an angle for broader strokes.
Only faint traces of bleeding after a few minutes.
In retrospect, I realize that as I used fountain pens less and less, even my most beloved Sailor Naginata Fude de Mannen, I was using a firm but flexible brush pen more and more instead. Although I never babied my Sailor on the street (if I couldn’t comfortably take it out on location, it was of no use to me), the one place I feared for it was on the bus, because if I lost the cap under the seat, I knew it would be expensive or maybe impossible to replace. A disposable brush pen gives me no pause at all.
10/24/19 Uni Pin in Field Notes notebook
There was also the matter of paper. The Sailor filled with my favorite Platinum Carbon ink is probably the juiciest, most-likely-to-bleed pen and ink combo I own, and so often a typical pocket notebook would let me down. Continually frustrated, I couldn’t blame the notebook: How many pocket notebook users would be expected to use a Sailor Naginata Fude de Mannen for casual note-taking? On the other hand, most brush pens, even those containing pigment ink, fare well on typical notebook papers.

A reliable disposable brush pen gives me all the fude qualities I crave with none of the risk or maintenance issues. If the brush tip on the Uni Pin holds up as long as the ink lasts, it will become my regular go-to.


Monday, December 2, 2019

A Constellation and a Moon Module

11/29/19 Lockheed 1049G Super Constellation

On the day after Thanksgiving, I was invited to sketch with a few friends at the Museum of Flight. Although I’ve sketched there several times, it had been several years since my last visit. I couldn’t accept fast enough!

My plan was to sketch in the Great Gallery, the largest exhibit area, which allows standing far enough away from a plane that scaling it becomes a bit easier. But as I made my way down the corridor where the restrooms are, I found a glass doorway that gave me a terrific view of the Lockheed 1049G Super Constellation out on the sun-drenched front lawn. I could sketch it without myself standing in the 35-degree morning! And since I often struggle with scaling, I knew it would make a good study in putting a humongous plane on a 5½-by-8½ -inch page – and indeed, it was a staggering challenge. It’s also not the first time I’ve attempted it: More than four years ago, I sketched it from the museum’s upper level “control tower” for a super view of the Super G. First built in 1954, this “Connie” was made for Trans-Canada Air Lines.

11/29/19 Apollo command module replica
Next I wandered through the Apollo exhibit. I missed the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration earlier this year when the actual Apollo 11 command module was on exhibit. The one I sketched is a full-size replica, which still gives an excellent feeling of how cramped and claustrophobic the module is (a peek inside the window shows a mannequin astronaut).

I could visit the museum every week and never run out of things to sketch! On this day, it was an ideal alternative to shopping on Black Friday.

Sunday, December 1, 2019


11/27/19 Green Lake neighborhood

Parking in the Green Lake neighborhood is scarce and competitive, especially on sunny days when people enjoy walking around the lake. When I got back to my car after a walk, the space in front of me was empty, so I had a clear view all the way down to the next block. I knew that space would not remain empty for long, so I pulled out my Field Notes notebook (I didn’t have my favorite red one; this is one I carry just for note-taking in my tiny fitness-walking bag) to see if I could capture the view before a car pulled in and blocked it. Five minutes later, a car pulled in – but not before I barely finished. Score! (I guess I’m a little competitive, too).

(If you’re wondering why I couldn’t just get out of the car to sketch on such a sunny day, it’s because the temperature was in the low 40s. I’m a wimp once it dips below 50.)

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