Tuesday, January 21, 2020


1/19/20 Mastodon replica, Burke Museum

Somehow the mastodon always calls to me. I’ve sketched it at the Burke Museum numerous times, but I never seem to tire of it. At the old facility, the big guy stood at the end of a dark, narrow exhibit area, so it was difficult to get any angle but head-on. In the Burke’s new digs, the replica of the 10,000-year-old skeleton guards the museum’s lower-floor entrance flooded with natural light. Looking down from the lobby stairway, this was my first attempt at sketching its entire length and girth in profile.

I love drawing all those bones, for sure, but capturing the sheer scale of this formidable monster is the real challenge: I used a full spread in my sketchbook this time, but I still didn’t have room for the tail. But at least I managed to get Suzanne and David in.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Triads: Yellow Plays Well With Others

Some of the many triad swatches I made.

From my previous primary triadic studies, I noted that the aggressive players are red and blue, while yellow is an easy-going partner. I started working on the hypothesis that as long as the red/blue combo was playing happily together as purple, almost any yellow could join in without ruining the harmony.

Using Derwent Inktense pencils (at right and below), I first tried several combos of red and blue to mix a purple I liked. I settled on Peacock Blue (820) and Poppy Red (400). Then I tried several different yellows with that combo, one at a time, and couldn’t seem to mix a bad one. I chose Cadmium Yellow (220) to make the tomato sketch.
1/9/20 Derwent Inktense in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
(Peacock Blue 820, Poppy Red 400, Cadmium Yellow 220)
1/11/20 vintage Prismacolor Watercolor pencils in
S&B Beta (Crimson 2924, Violet Blue 2933, Canary
Yellow 2916)
Working with a small set of vintage Prismacolor watercolor pencils, I had fewer hue options, but I used the same principle (at left): First I combined Crimson Red (2924) and Violet Blue (2933) to make sure the resulting purple was strong, and then I threw Canary Yellow (2916) into the mix. Happy with that, I sketched the tomato and banana.

From a previous triad I had tried, I saw that Carmine (and other reds similar to it) often mixed well with others. Using the Caran d’Ache Supracolor line, I found that Ruby Red (280), which is Carmine-like, and Permanent Blue (670) made a lovely violet (below). All yellows I tried with it looked great, and I chose Gold Cadmium Yellow (530) for the apple sketch. I love this triad – clean and fresh with a strong purple. It makes me wish that the Cd’A Museum Aquarelle line included Ruby Red.

Experiments shown today were all done with watercolor pencils. I’m also working on triads using traditional pencils with a more systematic method: The red and blue remain the same in all trials, and only the yellow varies. Stay tuned!

Isn’t this thrilling?! (Yes, I’m easily amused, especially in the dead of winter.)

1/14/20 Supracolor pencils in S&B Beta (Ruby 280, Permanent Blue 670, Gold
Cadmium Yellow 530)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Cold Seat

1/15/20 Roosevelt neighborhood

Last week, after a hot tip from a friend, I found two couches on Roosevelt waiting to be sketched. After finishing one, I was too cold to get the second. Exactly a week later, I took a walk/sketch down Roosevelt again, and the couch I hadn’t sketched yet was still there – now covered with snow. With the windchill factor, it was 28 degrees, but I couldn’t resist. About 20 minutes later, my sketch was done, and none too soon – a truck came by and hauled the couch away.

Thawing my hands back at home, I was happy that I had gone out for my walk when I had. Shortly afterwards, snow started falling again – sideways. I hope you’re staying warm wherever you are!  
They didn't even bother to remove the snow
before hauling it away.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like our
snow this way: Build one snowman, and
all the snow is used up.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Giving Epsilon a Shot

Out: Zeta; in: Epsilon (with some political commentary)

I just filled the Stillman & Birn Zeta that I started in October and had used intermittently with a S&B Beta. After the Beta was full, I continued in the Zeta, thinking I’d want to start the next Beta eventually, but by then the holiday colors were over, and it was graphite season again. I haven’t been using enough color to miss Beta’s surface, especially with my current minimal kit challenge, so Zeta worked out beautifully. In fact, it’s the ideal surface for the ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil I’ve been using a lot lately. On these dreary, colorless days, it’s my favorite ultra-minimal tool.

That brings me to Epsilon, which I use frequently at my desk but haven’t used as an everyday-carry. I often avoid sketching on the page that faces a graphite sketch because of the smudging that occurs. Epsilon has the same surface as Zeta, but the paper is thinner, so a book contains twice as many pages. As long as I’m using mostly dry media, the lighter pages are fine, and I can skip a facing page without regretting as much of the waste of the higher-price-per-page Zeta. I’m going to give Epsilon a try for the rest of my minimal challenge.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Green Lake Arch

1/14/20 Green Lake Park

The day after Monday’s dusting, we got a little more snow overnight, but not enough to write home about. The more significant difference for me was the drop in temperature. Although my weather app said it was 28 degrees, I was hoping that my walk down to Green Lake would have warmed me enough that I could stand to sketch outdoors as I had the day before. But my hands were freezing even with the mitten tops pulled over my fingerless gloves. I retreated to Starbucks.

Thawing my hands around a tall flat white, I picked a window seat facing a row of knotty old trees. It’s one of my favorite views of Green Lake Park, but it had been several years since I last sketched it. The darker areas are the grass already showing through the scant snow.

I’ll point out a bit of history: That classical façade in the distant background at right is a piece of architecture taken from the Martha Washington School of Girls for “neglected and unfortunate young girls.” Built in 1921 near Lake Washington, the school closed in 1957, and the city bought the property in 1972. (Local trivia: Apparently ghosts have been sighted there.) The Green Lake Arch, as it is now called, was taken out of storage in 2009 and placed at the park. I always thought I hadn’t noticed the arch until recent years because so many things escaped my attention before I started sketching. But now that I’ve read this bit of local history, I realize it was erected only a couple of years before I started.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Dusting

1/13/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

On Monday we woke to the snow that had been promised for more than a week. It wasn’t quite the storm we had been led to expect, however: At least in our neck of the woods, we got barely a couple of inches. When I went out for a walk/sketch in the lightly falling snow, the streets were dry, but the trees had the magical look that a dusting of snow always brings.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Bewick’s Wren

1/9/20 Bewick's wren

Last winter a Bewick’s wren visited our feeder only occasionally, and meals were extremely brief. Every time I spotted one, it would be gone by the time I picked up a pencil. The most I got were a couple of incomplete gestures last spring. Along with a nuthatch, which also visits rarely and briefly, a wren has been my sketching goal at the feeder this winter.

Hoping to attract more nuthatches, which like to hang upside-down to dine, we got a different feeder this year designed to accommodate birds that eat that way. It holds suet bricks instead of loose seeds. I guess wrens like suet, because one has been visiting more often, and last week I finally caught it! It’s still not much more than a gesture, but it’s the most complete sketch I’ve made so far.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: Uni Posca Colored Pencils

Uni Posca colored pencils

The Uni Posca name might be best known among sketchers for its line of opaque paint markers. I reviewed them a couple of years ago at the Well-Appointed Desk, and they are especially fun to use on black or other dark colored papers. (I did a sketch of koi at the Japanese Garden with Posca paint markers a while back.) I discovered recently that Uni Posca is now in the colored pencil game, too: A set and open-stock pencils are available at Blick for about $2 each. Although I’d be reluctant to buy a set of 36 as a trial (the only set size available at Blick), their availability as open stock made my decision easy. I bought one each of red (15), lemon yellow (28) and blue (33). (My recent experiments with triads have convinced me that three primaries are an ideal number for testing application and blending properties.)
The 3 colors I tried

First, let’s look at the pencil’s exterior: Posca pencils, made by Mitsubishi (I don’t have the packaging to know whether they are made in Japan), have matte black, round barrels that feel very smooth and comfortable to hold. (I have been known to repeatedly run my fingers along that lovely, pleasant finish.) Uni Posca’s primary colored logo, which also appears on its markers and other products, gives the design a whimsical look.

Smooth matte finish and rounded end caps
Color numbers on the ends

Rounded end caps indicating the pencils’ colors have the same matte finish. Color numbers are on the ends – a nice touch for people like me who store pencils in cups instead of in boxes. Unfortunately, color names are not on the barrels.

Look at that thick core – the first sign that these pencils might be pleasant to use. According to Blick, the oil-based cores are “fade-resistant, highly opaque, and blendable.” A close look at the collar gives an interesting clue: Instead of dipping the end cap color onto the painted pencil, the end cap color is painted first, and the black coat is added afterwards.

Thick core and a telltale collar.

1/8/20 Uni Posca pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook
Using a Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook, I started sketching an apple with the Uni Posca pencils, and I was immediately struck by how creamy and smooth the super-soft cores are. Among the softest I’ve used, they apply like a dream and blend beautifully without feeling waxy. In fact, the feeling was familiar. . .

1/8/20 Uni Pericia pencils in S&B Epsilon
I reviewed Uni Pericia colored pencils for the Well-Appointed Desk a while back, but it had been a while since I last used them. After I finished the Posca sketch, I pulled out my Pericia set to refresh my memory.  Using three colors in the Pericia palette that are as close as I could find to the Posca triad, I sketched the apple again. Pericia pencils are also oil-based. There it was – that same super-soft, creamy application. 

I put the cores side by side: The same thickness, and the wood looks the same, too. In fact, the round barrel, matte finish and rounded end caps are also very similar.

From top: Pericia and Posca

Since opacity seems to be a selling point of the Poscas, I swatched both side by side on black paper.

Opacity test in Stillman & Birn black Nova sketchbook

 I’d be willing to bet money that Posca and Pericia cores are the same!

How are they different, then? Mainly the price. Although Blick doesn’t carry Pericia pencils, so I can’t compare directly, JetPens’ price is about $3 each. Pericia pencils come in a faux leather storage case that looks like it should contain jewelry. Blick’s images of Posca packaging show plastic trays. When I reviewed Pericias, I wondered how much of that price was for the fancy case . . . and now I think I know how much.

I don’t know if Pericia pencils are available open stock (I’ve never found them sold that way online), but Posca pencils are, so that also makes them a better choice. I say go for the Poscas. At least right now, Blick seems to be the only place carrying Posca pencils.

Edited 1/17/20: Using Blick’s chart of 36 open stock colors, I matched as many colors as I could from my set of 24 Pericia pencils. Except for a handful that appear to be unique to Pericia, I found close matches for all the rest. Color numbers do not match.   

Monday, January 13, 2020

Off the Couch and to the Couch

1/8/20 Roosevelt neighborhood

Cold and promising rain, the day looked grim. I was trying to get up the get-up-and-go to take a walk/sketch when I received a text: “Couch at 71st and Roosevelt.” It was exactly what I needed! (Thanks, Natalie!)

When I got there, I was delighted to find not one but two couches right across the street from each other. I couldn’t get them both into the same composition, so I started with this one. By the time I finished, I was too cold to do the second. Maybe it’ll still be there tomorrow.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Lots of Lamps But Not Much Light

1/10/20 Broadway, Tacoma

Built in 1916 for the Fraternal Order of Elks, McMenamins’ newest hotel and pub venue in Tacoma would be challenging fun to sketch from the outside on a warm, sunny day. On a wet, cold Friday, however, we all stayed inside the Elks Temple, where it was cozy. The joint sketch outing between USk Seattle and USk Tacoma attracted a huge turnout, and many sketchers were attracted to the venue’s period-appropriate furnishings, especially the impressive collection of vintage lamps.

Ironically, despite all the lamps, I found most areas to be dimly lighted (authentic to the period, I suppose). After wandering around from floor to floor, admiring the décor, I found a stairwell window with a view of Broadway.

Later I found a seat on the main floor, where I noticed that all the fabulous chairs had clawed feet. I knew I didn’t have enough time for a whole chair, but I had time for one foot (well, three, actually).

1/10/20 One clawed foot and two booted ones.
Dark but full of gorgeous lamps

Lots of clawed feet
At the Elks Temple pub for possibly the
 largest USk lunch turnout ever!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Minimal Kit Check-in: Green, Gray, Bigger Book

Left: out; right: in

It’s been more than two weeks since I started using my minimal sketch kit, and I’ve already revised it, so it’s time to check in. After only a few days, I had to swap out the bright green/yellow-green Caran d’Ache Bicolor pencil for my tried-and-true Light Olive (245) in the Cd’A Museum Aquarelle line. The Bicolor greens were just too garish and unnatural for the dead of winter, and neither could be toned down with the other colors in my kit. By contrast, my favorite Light Olive is a versatile, medium green that can easily be brightened with yellow or darkened with blue. In addition, I took out the brown/amber Bicolor and put in my all-purpose neutral, French Gray (808) (also a Museum Aquarelle). Those Bicolor browns hadn’t been very useful, while the warm French Gray works well for both shading and standing in for an urban or natural brown.

According to my own rules, any change is fair game as long as I don’t increase the number of items in the kit. I still have a net of five sticks – but eight colors now instead of 10. (Surprisingly, I’m reducing colors instead of adding – who would have guessed?)

Ahhh.... it's nice to have my usual-sized "canvas" again.
During my walk/sketch fitness walks, the Field Notes Signature didn’t last long, either. I was afraid I was going to find the paper less than satisfying, but ironically, that part was fine; it was the page size that I found too constraining. I’m so used to having a full 8½-by-5½-inch page without a gutter in the middle that the smaller size cramped my style, literally. I’m now simply taking my usual daily-carry Stillman & Birn (currently a Zeta) on my fitness walks, too. It’s about 6 ounces heavier than the Signature, but I think it’s a worthwhile compromise to have a comfortable page size. Thankfully, it still fits in the mini-size Rickshaw Zero messenger bag I’m using for this purpose, so I didn’t have to change that.

Shown below is the revised kit – same number of tools with a few color changes. The ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil has proven to be a useful shading tool when some Bicolors have turned out to be too pale (as well as a fun drawing tool on its own). Normally, I would have reached for a cool gray or black for that role, so my minimalism challenge is teaching me to stretch the versatility of materials.

Revised minimal kit.

Friday, January 10, 2020

A Bend in the Road

1/7/20 Green Lake

Walking through the Green Lake neighborhood is interesting because all streets lead to the lake, so as long as you can see the lake somewhere in the distance, you know where you are. The road around the lake itself curves in funny ways, like this one, which is fun to sketch.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

More Triads; Finding Balance

1/2/20 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle (red 65, yellow 10, blue 185)

Day after day of rain is good for some things: I’m still studying primary triads.

At the same time, I’m trying to find the right balance for myself between a painterly approach and a more “drawingly” one (no, “drawingly” is not a word, but it should be if “painterly” is). After reading about Charles Evans’ approach, which has a strong painterly emphasis, I looked critically at how I might use more painterly techniques. Then I stepped back again to think about how I prefer to use watercolor pencils to get the results I want. It’s still somewhere in the middle between drawing with dry pencils and using water to enhance the drawing – without taking away the form that I only seem able to achieve with drawing, not painting. It’s a wobbly balance beam I tread.

The sketch above of the Cosmic Crisp apple is the same one you saw the other day, except this time I included the triad swatches. Preserving the yellow “star” would have been difficult to do with stronger, wetter brush strokes, so I was more reserved with water. This Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle triad is on the cooler side. (Ive stopped trying to identify the cools and warms because I think its more informative to simply see the results.)

1/4/20 (no color numbers or names available)
Next I sketched a different Cosmic Crisp (at right) with some low-pigment, student-grade pencils (yes, sometimes I like to torture myself with inferior products just for kicks). Although the pigments were pale, I like this muted triad. The hard-working yellow did a lot to brighten the cool red and probably saved this triad from being glum. But the low pigment kept me from getting the shaded side of the apple to be as dark as I wanted.

Alas, my sketch of a pear (below) could not be saved, even by the yellow. The red and blue in this Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer triad apparently ran into each other head-on (as is apparent in the swatches, which show the purple as brown), and the dark side of the pear turned to mud. (Why do I go through with a sketch even when mud is apparent from the test swatches? I’m obviously a glutton for punishment. Although some part of me is always curious to see if I can prove the swatches wrong.)
1/5/20 Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer
(Middle Cadmium Red 217, Light Chrome Yellow 106, Cobalt Blue Greenish 144)
1/6/20 Winsor-Newton (Carmine, Sunflower, Midnight Blue)
The fourth triad in this post (right) is my favorite, and the sketch is also my best example here of the right balance between painterly and “drawingly” (especially the pear). This Winsor-Newton triad is really lovely, especially the clean and bright secondaries that came from it. This time, I paid attention to the swatches (what?? I’m actually learning?!): Despite those fresh secondaries, I saw that the center (all three primaries) could get muddy if the balance wasn’t right. So I minimized the yellow on the shadow side of the fruit and stuck mainly with red and blue there. I love the dark purple that resulted even more than the one that the test swatches had indicated.

In fact, I just went back and reviewed all my triads so far, and I’d say that the red/blue mix is critical in making successful triads. Yellow, a quiet, hard worker, usually brings out the best in either red or blue. But if red and blue together aren’t right, no amount of yellow will help. I’ll try that as a strategy next time: Start with a red and blue that mix into a strong purple, then add different yellows to see how the mix changes.

As for my application process, I most often get results I like when I use plenty of pigment in the first layer, activate it with a sparing amount of water (not too painterly), and then finish with dry pigment. The water step brings out the color intensity, but I can then take my time to model the form with pencil marks. If I go in again with more water, I tend to wash away all the careful modeling I just put in.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Bitter Wind

1/4/20 Wedgwood neighborhood

It may look sunny, but those shadows belie the bitterly cold wind that day. I stayed inside my mobile studio.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Wet-on-Dry with Watercolor Pencils

Wet pencil tip applied to dry paper

While reading Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils, I noticed how often Evans dabs pigment from his pencil tips with a wet brush and then uses those same pencils in a conventional manner to draw with immediately afterwards while still wet. When I’m sketching on location, I’ve done this only occasionally, but wet Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencil tips become so soft and intense that I have to take care to be gentle with the points and also go easy on how much I apply or the hue could get too intense (as happened on one of the dry-on-wet apples shown yesterday).

Thinking about all of that made me wonder . . . since saturating the pencil tips both softens them and makes them apply more intense color, what if I did that with harder pencils, even if I haven’t “licked” the pigment off with a brush first? In other words, what if I wet the points before use as a deliberate drawing technique?

First I tested several harder watercolor pencils to see how they would feel when used wet. In the scribble tests below, the first line was drawn dry. Then I dipped the pencil point into a cup of water (trying not to submerge past the edge of the wood), waited a few seconds for the water to be absorbed a bit, and then scribbled the second line. The last test was of a Cd’A Museum Aquarelle, which is already so soft that it doesn’t need to be softened this way, but I wanted to see the change in the line quality.
Tests made in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

In each case, the pencil point softened significantly, but I was disappointed that the line quality did not change dramatically. Still, I like the slightly fuzzier line quality that the soft pencils produce for times when I want that effect. As expected, the more pigment the pencil contains, the softer the point becomes when saturated, and the more intense the hue.

1/1/20 Caran d'Ache Bicolors and Uni Pin brush pen
 in Field Notes Signature notebook
Next I tried this technique in the field. In field tests, I wet the points with a waterbrush instead of dipping them, since I don’t carry a water container. The first trial sketch was a brick house in my neighborhood (left). After making the rough drawing with dry Caran d’Ache Bicolor pencils in my minimal kit, I wet the brick-reddish pencil point liberally and used it to color the front of the house. Color application was very uneven as the pencil tip became drier and drier. It’s not an effective technique if I want an even application of color on a flat surface like this house front, and it’s much easier to simply apply dry pencil in a conventional manner and activate with water afterwards.

I knew the wet-on-dry application would be more effective with organic subject matter, so the next time I went on a walk/sketch walk, I chose one of several palm trees near Green Lake. (Local trivia: These palm trees are at the intersection of East Green Lake Drive North, West Green Lake Drive North, and Green Lake Drive North! Glad I don’t live there . . . imagine the address confusion!) I sketched most of the palm with dry pencils as usual. To shade the right side of the trunk and give it texture, I then wet the tip of the brown pencil. I like this application a lot; the wet pencil makes nice rough, irregular marks that are just right for a palm trunk. I’m happy that the Evans book reminded me of this technique, which I plan to use more often.
1/3/20 Cd'A Bicolor and ArtGraf pencils in Field Notes Signature
If you try this technique, please be aware that routinely saturating the woodcasing around the pencil core may damage the wood. Avoid wetting the wood as much as possible. I treat wet pencils like wet brushes and allow them to dry lying on a flat surface so moisture will not wick further into the wood (similarly, brushes can be damaged if water routinely wicks into the ferrule). Also, never try to sharpen a wet pencil – the softened lead is certain to crumble inside your sharpener. Evans recommends knife-sharpening all colored pencils.

One more thing to think about and plan with this technique is any detailed drawing you may want to do with a particular color. Whatever sharp, firm point you may have had on the pencil will be unusable once it gets wet, so use the point as needed while it’s dry.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Dry-on-Wet with Watercolor Pencils

Dry pencil applied to a wet surface
In my review of Charles Evans’ book, Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils, I mentioned that I was reminded of some techniques that I don’t use often and was inspired to try again. One is dry-on-wet, which looks rich and organic when everything goes well, but – as with anything that involves “on wet” – it’s unpredictable. While the paper is still wet from a previous water activation of pencil pigment or from a fresh spread of clean water, you draw with a dry watercolor pencil onto the wet area. The wet-on-wet technique with traditional watercolor paints is tricky enough, but an additional complication with pencils is that the point is firm, so it can damage a wet paper surface more easily than a soft brush can. I find it less damaging to use the side of the pencil lead rather than the point.
1/1/20 Trial 1: Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle (red 60, yellow 240,
blue 660) in 
Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

1/1/20 Trial 2: Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle (red 60, yellow 240,
blue 660) in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
Another challenge is that the paper must be wet enough for the newly applied dry pigment to settle and blend with the previous color but not too wet that the new pigment floats away. If the paper dries too much, the pencil will skid unpleasantly on the damp surface, leaving only a faint trace of pigment, and the point is more likely to damage the paper. It’s a narrow window between wet enough and too dry. This technique requires a high-quality pencil containing lots of pigment. (It’s actually a good test of pigment content; see the comparison chart I made a few years ago, including more info about various techniques.)

Given all these challenges, I tend to use dry-on-wet only when sketching trees or other foliage, where unpredictable results have a better chance of being happy accidents (in the Bob Ross sense). I haven’t used it much at all on still lives, so I gave it a shot on my oddly shaped Cosmic Crisp (which also gave me more opportunities to try some primary triads). In all cases in this post, I used Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles so that I could count on high pigment content.

In my first try (top), the blue I chose (which looked so innocuous in the test swatch) turned out to be disastrously dark for the shaded side of the apple when I applied the rich pigment too heavily. I immediately tried again (above) using the same triad, but I applied the blue with a lighter hand. A little better, but the paper had started to dry by the time I applied the red, so more of the rough pencil strokes are apparent.
1/2/20 Trial 3: Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle (red 560, yellow 10,
blue 162) in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

Using a different triad, I got slightly better results on my third try (at right), though the paper reflection under the apple turned muddy. I thought this technique would be faster than my usual dry-on-dry-then-wet approach, and it was – until I had to wait for the paper to dry completely before I could apply more dry pigment.

I’m not happy with any of these tries, and I’d need a lot more practice with this painterly technique to get better results. As with other painterly approaches I’ve taken, I miss being able to render the form with the shape of the pencil stroke. With pencil “paint,” I have to rely more on effective shading to shape the apple, and I have only about a minute to do it while the paper is still wet. I’m a fast sketcher, but not that fast!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Cosmic Crisp

1/2/20 Cosmic Crisp apple

I’m not sure how far outside of Washington state the new Cosmic Crisp apple has been distributed yet, but it is a huge hit in these parts. More than 20 years in the making, this apple variety has been bred for its “ability to survive in all of Washington state’s microclimates, its taste and texture, and how long it would store without decaying.” At first I poo-pooed the news as just another type of hyped-up, over-promoted, fancy, expensive produce. But since its price is about the same as Honeycrisp, our apple standby, we decided to try it. Somehow both sweeter and more tart than a Honeycrisp (I know that sounds contradictory, but that’s how I perceive it), the Cosmic Crisp has a startlingly intense flavor. I’m sold!

We’ve bought them several times now, including a recent organic batch from Whole Foods. Less shiny (unwaxed) compared to conventionally grown Cosmic Crisps, they are also not perfectly round, but they still taste the same. Most notably, I found one embellished with a “star”! I didn’t notice it the first time I bought them, but then a friend mentioned that she saw this cosmic-like mark on her apples. The next time I shopped, I took a more careful look . . . and there it was! I’m ambivalent about such overly designed produce, but I certainly couldn’t resist sketching it.

Star-struck or over-designed?

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Review: Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils

Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils by Charles Evans

During the cold, soggy months, I use the indoor time to scan book descriptions and page samples on Amazon and our public library online catalog, looking for potentially interesting art technique books. I learned long ago that probably 98 percent of books on colored pencil techniques focus on the time-intensive studio process I learned in my colored pencil class at Gage a few years ago involving layer after carefully applied layer of pigment. From that class and the watercolor pencil class that followed, I learned so much about drawing in general and the medium in particular that it was certainly worth understanding and practicing the process, but I also know it’s not the kind of work I want to do. So I continue to look for books that might offer an approach closer to my own: working on location with a method that enables me to finish a sketch right there (instead of many hours back at home). I was therefore delighted to come across Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils, by Charles Evans, which sounded from the description to be close to my desired approach.

Evans is an urban sketcher at heart.
A traditional studio and plein air painter, Evans uses water-soluble colored pencils in a sketchbook while in the field. He encourages readers to use this medium on location for two purposes: to get their feet wet with plein air work without the fuss and heavy equipment of traditional plein air painting; and to make field studies that can then be taken back to the studio to develop into large-scale paintings. Discouraging working from photos, he believes that making a sketch on location “will capture really special, personal moments with much more feeling than a quick snap on the camera.” I appreciate that Evans is an urban sketcher at heart!

After the usual brief introduction to materials and tools, he demonstrates various wet and dry pencil techniques. (The techniques were not new to me, so I didn’t learn much there, but I was reminded of some techniques I rarely use, and I’m now inspired to try them again.) The bulk of the book is made of 17 lessons, each based on a sample sketch with step-by-step photos of how he completed the sample. Most examples are natural landscapes (some urban), and almost all are from life.

The author's favorite technique: using a wet brush to pick up pigment from
the pencil tips.
Although I was excited that the book comes as close as any I’ve seen to my own approach to urban sketching with watercolor pencils, I was disappointed that every lesson relies strongly on one technique: “taking the paint off the pencil with the brush” and applying it to the paper with the brush (what I refer to as the “licking” technique).

Some lesson examples were made entirely by this method, which is exactly the way one would use traditional watercolor pan paints – except it’s more difficult with pencils. As a traditional watercolor painter, the author is probably very comfortable working in this manner, whether the paint comes in pans or in pencils. While I have nothing against the technique, I feel that if I’m going to do the work of completing entire sketches by taking pigment off of tiny pencil points, why not just use actual watercolor paints, which would be much easier to get onto the brush? My complaint is that he emphasizes using watercolor pencils as a substitute for watercolor paints instead of taking greater advantage of the unique properties of watercolor pencils. In all fairness, he does mix a variety of techniques within each sketch, but the overall effect is more painterly rather than drawing. (Obviously, my preference is to view and use colored pencils as a drawing medium rather than a painting medium.)

Despite my complaint, readers who are interested in learning to use this “licking” method would find the book informative. The lessons are broken down into manageable steps, and photos are plentiful. I’m thrilled that a book that is close to my own approach (at least in philosophy if not methods) is even on the market. It gives me hope that other such books may follow (even if I’m the one who has to write them someday!).

As mentioned earlier, the book rekindled my interest in techniques I had forgotten about or rarely use. I’m going to explore some soon; stay tuned.

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