Monday, November 30, 2015

Exploring the New and the Familiar at the Burke

11/30/15 colored pencils (rear end of 12,000-year-old giant ground sloth)
The Burke Museum is one of my favorite winter sketching locations. Our thermometer read 30 F degrees this morning, and that’s plenty wintry for me. The Burke was an ideal place to meet up with Laurie from the Bay Area, who is visiting Seattle this week. (I met Laurie when I sketched with Urban Sketchers SF Bay Area a few months ago.)

Although I’ve sketched most of the Burke’s large skeletons by now, the one I’ve been missing is the 12,000-year-old giant ground sloth, which was discovered in 1961 during construction of Sea-Tac Airport. I’ve considered it several times, but it’s difficult to get a good angle on the whole skeleton in the relatively narrow space where the sloth is exhibited. Today I decided I would get behind the sloth, one way or another.
11/30/15 colored pencils (Iatmul mask)

Next I went downstairs to the human history area. Because I’m usually so completely engrossed in animal skeletons, I rarely even make it downstairs at the Burke, but there are lots of fascinating human artifacts to sketch. Today I focused on an Iatmul dance/clan mask of Papua New Guinea, which has interesting fibrous textures that were fun to capture with colored pencils.

With only five minutes left before the sharing time, I went straight to my all-time Burke favorite: the “Terror Bird” of Brazil! I seem to sketch that scary guy nearly every time I visit. (Once again, my Zebra double tip brush pen served me well in getting the big bird done in a couple of minutes flat.)

Most of us went to lunch later at the University Book Store (with art supply shopping there afterwards, of course), and Michele was the only one who had the patience to sketch her food before eating. (If you’re sketching, you’re at risk of being sketched yourself. J)

Thanks for joining us, Laurie!

11/30/15 Zebra brush pen, colored pencils
(Terror Bird of Brazil)
11/30/15 Zebra brush pen (Michele sketching)

Thanks for joining us, Laurie! (back row, second from right)

Post-Travel Follow-up, Part 2: Sketch Kit

Items most-often used in Japan.

As is my personal tradition, here is my post-travel follow-up reporting on how accurately my sketch kit met my needs during my trip to Japan. To see everything I brought, please refer to my travel prep post (and photo at the bottom of this page).
  • Looking back on that post now, I see that much of my kit prep was based on all the fall color I anticipated seeing in Kyoto, which turned out to be disappointing. Unlike five years ago when we went at the very same time of year, many trees were still green, and the main color we saw was in the Fuji foothills, where we spent very little time. I had brought a waterbrush filled with a custom ink mix of Diamine Poppy and Diamine Red Dragon to quickly paint the red Japanese maples we had hoped to see; alas, I hardly used it. Same for the Pilot Parallel filled with an orange mix of Diamine Autumn Oak and Iroshizuku Yu-yake.
  •  The rainbow pencil got used once, and the Koh-i-Noor Tri-Tones not at all. Surprisingly, I didn’t use watercolors much, either. If I had seen as much fall color as I’d hoped to, I’m sure I would have pulled the paints out more often; as it was, colored pencils and the Pilot Parallel with orange ink were sufficient for most sketches.
  •  The rest of my over-prep was due to my usual anxiety about running out of ink; I didn’t come close to emptying any of my fountain pens, even the one filled with waterproof Platinum Carbon Black, so I needn’t have worried. And OK, I did bring along a couple more pens than I really needed (but if I hadn’t brought and used them, I would have gone through the ink in the remaining pens more quickly!). I guess this is just general carryover from my day-to-day need to carry more pens than I “need”!

Shown above are the items I used most frequently during my 19 days in Japan:
  1. My Sailor “grail” fude pen with Sailor Doyou ink (an easy pen to reach for when I sketched people on trains and subways because I’m so comfortable with it)
  2. A Sailor fude pen with Diamine Chocolate Brown ink (for the same reason as the other Sailor, above)
  3. A waterbrush filled with cool-gray Iroshizuku Fuyu-syogun for shadows (I use that brush a lot, whether I’m traveling or not).
  4. Pilot pen with Posting nib filled with waterproof Platinum Carbon Black ink. I had initially planned to bring the Pilot with the Waverly nib, which I’ve recently grown so fond of. But at the last minute I switched to the Posting nib because its very fine nib uses so little ink (an ink-shortage anxiety reaction).
  5. A Zebra double-ended brush pen, which I had discovered as a favorite for life drawing only a couple weeks before I left for Japan. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to make the final cut, since I was also bringing my usual Kuretake brush pen along, but I ended up taking it after all. And what a dark horse that Zebra turned out to be! I discovered almost immediately that the Zebra’s strangely spongy (and annoyingly squeaky) brush tips are ideal for making quick sketches of architecture, trees, wide urban landscapes, people – anything. I learned in Himeji that while my first sketch of the castle using the fine-point Posting nib felt constrained and rigid, my second try with the Zebra felt much more expressive (though perhaps less accurate). While I’ve always loved the organic look of the brush strokes I get with the Kuretake brush pen’s real bristles, the Zebra’s spongy felt tips gave me just enough additional control that the pen turned out to be extremely versatile. And having both fine and broad tips in one pen makes it all the more versatile.
  6. And finally the best packing choice of all: the vermilion colored pencil! Selected specifically because I knew from experience and photos that Japan is full of torii gates and pagodas, that Caran d’Ache Supracolor II water-soluble pencil gave me quick, convenient swipes of bright red-orange many times without having to pull out watercolors. A little color research about the place I’m visiting goes a long way toward helping me select the right colored pencils, which save time and make standing sketches easier.

My ongoing travel successes included:
  • My usual Stefano sketchbook (I filled seven signatures again, just like I did in France and Brazil).
  • My usual Rickshaw Bagworks Zero messenger bag (both the sketchbook and the bag have been with me on four continents so far!), with one weather-related issue (see yesterday's post).
  • A simple tote to carry daily essentials that don’t fit in the Rickshaw. In Japan I had fewer things to carry than in most locations, because things like bottled water (and just about any other beverage you could want, including canned hot coffee and beer!) are so easily available from vending machines on literally every street corner. Conversely, I always had to carry my own small hand towel (most Japanese residents do), because public restrooms generally do not supply paper towels (or even hand dryers in some places).
  • A Rhodia Rhodiarama pocket notebook, which served as my writing/collage travel journal, memo pad, vocabulary reminder and catch-all sketchbook.
The above four things have consistently worked so well for me on all my travels the past few years that I’m happy not to have to consider changes (maybe ever!).

The complete sketch kit I took to Japan.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Post-Travel Follow-up, Part 1: Shopping in Tokyo

Sekaido -- the stationery and art supply
geek's mecca!
Initially I had planned to talk about the art supply shopping I did in Tokyo in my sketch-kit follow-up post (up next), but since I had given Paris shopping a whole post of its own, I thought Tokyo deserved the same attention.

If you are ever in Tokyo, there’s no question that the one store you can’t miss is Sekaido. A multi-floor discount store devoted to art, craft and hobby supplies, it is a pen and stationery geek’s mecca. Sekaido sells most of the high quality, innovative or simply cute Japanese products you see on or – except without the steep markup. (In fact, all products are nicely discounted and would have been even further discounted if I’d opted to join its loyalty club. I’m sure if I lived in Tokyo, I would be a card-carrying member!)

Despite the size of my shopping bag in the photo, I actually restrained myself during our trip to Sekaido (I had other plans for unrestrained buying . . . stay tuned!) – mostly just a few gel pens and brush pens. One of my most exciting purchases turned out to be a Faber-Castell 9000 pencil sharpener, not because I can’t get it anywhere else (it’s easily available on, Amazon and elsewhere) or because it was discounted; it’s because Sekaido was very accommodating in allowing me to use a sample to try sharpening all of the pencils in my bag, including my favorite, hard-to-fit Caran d’Ache Museum pencils, to make sure it would work on them. You can’t beat that Japanese customer service!
Kutsuwa Dr. Ion accessory case: All my sketch tools stand upright and fully
accessible in my bag.

Even more exciting was finding a Kutsuwa Dr. Ion accessory organizer designed to stand upright inside a bag (it’s about 6.5" W x 7" H x 2" D) – allowing full, easy access to all pens, pencils, brushes and other sketching implements without adding bulk. (Although offers several Dr. Ion cases, I don’t see the specific style I found at Sekaido.) It came with a crossover-length clip-on strap, which would turn the organizer into a very functional “quiver” bag (if I ever explore the quiver concept again, which I adore in theory but couldn’t quite get to work for me in practice, this bag would be absolutely ideal).

Dr. Ion top view
All my sketch materials fit in this organizer, and the whole thing fits very tidily into my Rickshaw Zero messenger bag. It allows me to remove the multiple makeshift dividers I had been using to keep everything upright. Having all my implements standing vertically is a mission-critical organizational structure for my sketch bag – I can’t tolerate having to unzip and open internal bags or pockets, or having them all fall down into a horizontal heap at the bottom. Normally I would wait to get back home before reorganizing my sketch bag, but I got so excited about the Dr. Ion that I reorganized during some downtime in Kyoto. For the rest of the trip, my bag was – and remains – fully convenient and tidy!  

My new waterproof Rickshaw Bagworks Zero messenger bag with the Dr. Ion
accessory case in place.
The last purchase I’m going to mention was made while I was in Japan but is not from Japan – it’s from San Francisco. I got a new Rickshaw Bagworks Zero messenger bag just like the trusty purple one that has been with me on four continents – except the new one is made of waterproof fabric! I was in Kyoto the day after my bag (and everything else on me) had gotten drenched in Hikone’s continual downpour when I received a 50% discount coupon from Rickshaw – such timing! The old Rickshaw’s
My new waterproof
Cordura Nylon lining had kept the bag contents from getting wet, but the outer fabric still took a long time to dry. The old purple bag is now my dry-weather bag, and the new black one is for the rest of the year. I miss the purple fabric (the waterproof fabric comes in a much smaller range of color choices), but I’m happy with the “amethyst” trim and “lazer yellow” lining (my photos don’t capture my bag’s colors accurately; have fun playing with
Rickshaw’s customizing tool to see the actual colors!).

Speaking of the old bag being on four continents, it was showing some road grime from being set down on all types of terrain. Per Rickshaw’s instructions, I simply detached the strap, and threw the bag into the washer. I dried it by stuffing it with a towel for a day. It’s as good as new, and the fabric shows no wear at all. It’s probably the single best sketch kit investment I’ve ever made – it’s the only item I use every single day without fail.

Updated 2/9/16: Since a couple of readers have asked about the Kutsuwa Dr. Ion organizer, I am showing below an image of the tag that was attached; it might help you in sourcing it. JetPens has indicated that there is a chance they might carry it at some point. It would be great if they did – I have been using the organizer since November, and its meeting my needs perfectly!

Kutsuwa Dr. Ion organizer

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Something for Everyone: The Renton Public Library

11/27/15 brush pen, ink, colored pencils

Librarians will tell you that you can find just about anything you want to know at a public library. This sketcher would say that you can also sketch just about anything you want at a library – at least at the Renton library.

11/27/15 inks, watercolor, colored pencils
First of all, how about a scenic river? The Cedar, which runs right under the library, is comfortably sketched through wide windows on either side of it, along with trees and even a traffic bridge.

Need some perspective practice? Look in any direction in the wide-open, naturally lit interior space, and you’ll see lots and lots of parallel ceiling, window, shelving and wall lines all converging on those mythical vanishing points. Rows and rows of neatly squared chairs and tables will also keep you busy.

Or maybe people are more your thing? Jackpot – they are everywhere, so completely engrossed in their PCs, books, newspapers and phones that they will be oblivious to your steady, head-on gaze – even if it lasts for 20 solid minutes.

I don’t know about the other Friday sketchers who met yesterday at the Renton library, but I found just about everything I needed there.

11/27/15 ink
11/27/15 ink
11/27/15 ink

Friday, November 27, 2015

Japan, Part 8: The Small Moments

11/21/15 East bank of the Kamo river and Shichijo bridge.

We had several activities planned for our last full day in Kyoto, one of which was the famed Toji Temple flea market – something I have been wanting to see for many years. On previous visits, our timing was off, and we had always just missed the monthly event. This time we actually scheduled our Kyoto visit so that we would be sure to hit the market.

11/21/15 Herons and egrets fishing on the Kamo river.
Unfortunately, by that time, we were both sneezing and sniffling through head colds we had caught while traveling, and we knew the Saturday market (as well as our other plans) would require battling the usual crush of crowds we’d encountered everywhere else in Kyoto. With much reluctance, we decided to bag our plans and lay low for the day.

Walking to the Kamo river a short distance from our rented townhouse, we discovered an oasis of solitude. Even on a warm weekend afternoon, the riverbank was deserted – only a few strollers, bike riders and one or two residents reading or picnicking. The busiest residents were the many egrets and herons fishing in the shallow water.

That day on the river turned out to be my favorite in Kyoto; I filled several pages of my sketchbook with those kosagi and sagi as well as the river itself. It was an important reminder that while I’m always tempted to experience the “big” things when I travel, sometimes the smallest moments turn out to be the most enjoyable.

Another example was when we had taken the well-known Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto the day before. A tree-lined footpath that takes about a half-hour to finish at a leisurely pace, it’s most popular in spring when all the cherry blossoms are in bloom, but November was also beautiful on the sunny afternoon that we were there. It was crowded, but not uncomfortably so. For me, the icing on the cake was unexpectedly finding a busker on the path playing an unusual lute-like instrument. After several days in a row of day tripping and rushing through crowds, plunking myself down on a bench to sketch that busker seemed like the ideal, relaxing treat.

Looking back through my Japan sketchbook, I realize that the small moments were some of the most joyful in other places, too. In Takao after hiking to a river to see the fall color, we stopped to buy skewered dango (rice flour dumplings) at a roadside stand and ate them at a sheltered table overlooking the river. As I ate, I sketched the dango vendor. Although I enjoyed many amazing gourmet meals in Japan, that simple snack somehow seemed especially delicious.

11/15/15 Dango vendor in Takao.
Our fourth visit to Japan in the course of 14 years, this trip brought different experiences than the first three, but it ended the same way: Whenever I leave Japan, it’s with a certain bittersweetness that I am leaving some part of myself behind. It’s not that I feel I belong there; as a Japanese American, the U.S. will always be my home. It’s not that the people there are “my tribe”; I actually have very little in common with Japanese culture and habits. It must be that my genes stir from recognition of all those people who vaguely resemble my brothers or my mom or my cousins; all those people who vaguely resemble me. My roots don’t necessarily take hold in that foreign soil, yet they sense the ancestral familiarity that my consciousness can’t quite grasp.

As always, I left without understanding those feelings, but two things were clear: One is that I know I will continue to visit Japan, again and again, to reconnect each time with whatever part of myself stays there. The other is that preserving Japan in my sketchbook enables me to stay in touch with that part long after I’m back in Seattle. Page after page, I still feel it – the home of my ancestors.

11/20/15 Busker along the Philosopher's Walk.

Eating dango in Takao.
One of many sagi fishing on the Kamogawa.

Ja mata, Japan! We'll be back!

Japan, Part 7: People

11/12/15 Man riding Shinkansen
When I travel, I feel compelled to sketch all the “big” sights – the monuments, architecture and landscapes that make the location unique. But as you know, people are one of my all-time favorite sketching subjects, no matter where I am in the world. While riding public transportation and during other downtime, I often made small portraits of people around me, just as I do when I’m home.

While thinking about this, I started to write that contemporary urban people look pretty much the same everywhere – the same types of clothes and hair and (phone-staring) gestures. But that’s not true. In fact, in general, the Japanese dress better and have much better styled hair than people in Seattle. And the other thing that struck me in Japan is this: I kept seeing people that reminded me of my brothers or my mom. That doesn’t happen often when I’m sketching people in Seattle!

One day we took a break in Ginza, Tokyo’s high-fashion shopping district that rivals Paris or New York. We didn’t know it before we walked in, but that Starbucks turned out to be Japan’s first (now there are many all over the country). A mural in the store pictured the very first Starbucks ever – the one in Seattle’s Pike Place Market – and when the barista asked me where I was from, we ended up chatting about these “firsts.”

11/7/15 Man on Tokyo subway (one of several
who looked like my brother)
Incidentally, that brief conversation was one of many I had with various retailers, clerks, restaurant servers and even innocent passers-by using my very rudimentary Japanese-language skills (which land somewhere between caveman and kindergarten, both in vocabulary and expressiveness). Although many Japanese people have relatively good English skills, they are shy about using them, and I try to make an effort to use the language of the people I’m visiting, so I always took the initiative to speak Japanese whenever possible. As you might guess, hilarity (as well as some pantomime) often ensued. But if there’s one thing you can say about the Japanese, it’s that they have astounding customer service. I was impressed and sometimes touched by the efforts people made to answer our questions or help us get what we needed. 

11/14/15 National Museum of Kyoto
gift shop
11/6/15 Ginza pedestrians

11/22/15 dozing and snacking on the Shinkansen.
11/4/15 My first subway sketch of one of
many riders wearing medical masks.
11/6/15 A few folks at Starbucks.
At Japan's first Starbucks in Ginza.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Japan, Part 6: Himeji and Hikone Castles

11/16/15 Himeji castle
Kyoto was a convenient base camp for making day trips to Himeji and Hikone castles, each less than an hour away by train. On one gorgeous day that looked and felt like spring (the temp in the afternoon got up to 70!), we went to see Himeji-jo, which was only recently unveiled after five years of restoration. In fact, five years ago on our last Japan visit, we made a stop at Himeji on our way to Kyoto only to discover it fully veiled in tarps and scaffolding. It was fully worth the return trip this time to see the 800-year-old castle in all its splendor (and what a joy to sketch it on such a beautiful day!).

What was not worthwhile was joining the cattle call of thousands of people to climb to the top of the castle – in our stocking feet (shoes aren’t allowed) on ancient wood stairs I could hardly reach with my short legs. Compressed like a pyramid of produce ready to topple if any one of us missed a step, we dutifully climbed to the top, sometimes waiting on stair landings for the previous batch of tourists to move off of a higher level. I truly regretted the journey – I would rather have stayed below and sketched the castle a few more times!

11/16/15 Himeji castle sketched with a brush pen.
Speaking of which – my sketches of Himeji-jo were an interesting lesson in media choice. For my first sketch from the far side of the castle grounds (above), I used my finest point Pilot posting nib pen because I was compelled to capture as many fine details of the splendid castle as possible. The sketch you see here is actually the second attempt; I saw almost immediately that the first try wasn’t proportioned accurately, so I abandoned it quickly. But even this second attempt feels a bit rigid and constrained.

After the tour inside the castle, feeling frustrated by the claustrophobic ordeal, I decided to try a second sketch closer to the castle itself. This time I pulled out the Zebra double-sided brush pen that I had discovered during a recent life-drawing session. The opposite of the posting nib’s finest point, the brush pen wouldn’t allow me to get into any details, so I was free to capture more of the castle’s elegant spirit (if not particularly accurately). I enjoyed making that sketch so much more, and I think it conveys more of the sweeping joy and awe we all felt that day viewing its beauty.

With that mental note tucked away, a couple of days later we took the train to see Hikone castle, but this time the weather was completely different – torrential rain with a side serving of high winds. (Leaving our Airbnb-rented townhouse, we noted the vast supply of loaner umbrellas near the door, but being Seattleites, we said, “We don’t need no stinkin’ umbrellas” – a statement we grew to regret as the day wore on. We were the only ones in the entire town of Hikone without umbrellas.)

11/18/15 Hikone castle
I had already decided I wouldn’t climb this castle, but how could I sketch it in the rain? I found a small kiosk holding brochures that had just enough of an overhang to keep me and my sketchbook dry for the duration, which wasn’t long. With the lesson learned at Himeji, I went straight in with the Zebra brush pen on Hikone-jo, which was shaped very similarly to Himeji except much smaller.

I ended up using that brush pen on a lot more sketches than I had expected – and to think I had almost left it at home! (More comments on that in my post-travel follow-up post coming up.)

Himeji castle
The view from the top of Himeji-jo, which
wasn't worth the climb.

Himeji castle's mascot.
Mandatory Himeji castle selfie.
Mandatory (and hooded) Hikone castle selfie.
People smarter than we were who brought their umbrellas.

Japan, Part 5: Kyoto

11/13/15 Sanjusangen-do Temple
(Happy Thanksgiving! And now we return to our regular programming.)

Kyoto has always been one of our favorite cities. Cosmopolitan while also retaining old-world charm, the former capital of Japan is one of few places in the country where you can still occasionally see women dressed in traditional kimono (either because that’s the way they dress or because they’ve rented an outfit for the day to enhance their selfie-snapping as they shop).

11/13/15 Sanjusangen-do
I have to say, though, that compared to five years ago or previous visits, Kyoto felt far more crowded this time. Unlike Tokyo, which has wide sidewalks and other modern infrastructure to accommodate its huge population of residents and visitors, Kyoto has sidewalks where you can barely walk double-file. I felt like I was always being jostled and bumped, and wherever we went, we found gazillions of tourists (oh, yeah – I guess I was one of them). Apparently someone sent out a memo that November is a beautiful time to visit Kyoto!

Another thing that made me grumpy about Kyoto was that it rained quite a bit – heavily and continuously. In Seattle, we call it rain, but really it’s just intermittent showers, sprinkles or drizzles. In Kyoto, when they say rain, they mean rain. Of course, we had museums, temples and other indoor activities to fill those rainy days, and fill them we did. (And looking through my sketchbook now, I see that I still did plenty of sketching, so I guess I was grumpy for nothing!) One day I did what I might do on any rainy day at home: I walked down the street to Coffee Shop Amazon and sketched the other patrons.

11/13/15 Thunder God at Sanjusangen-do
One hall in Sanjusangen-do Temple is filled with one thousand Buddhist Kannon statues and their 28 guardian deities. Although photography in this sacred space is strictly forbidden (at the risk of having your camera confiscated), nothing was said of sketching, so I felt somewhat smug being able to capture the statue of the Thunder God, one of the deities. 

Despite being overrun with tourists, Kyoto is still a beautiful city with a fascinating mix of the ancient and the modern.
11/19/15 Gion

11/19/15 Entrance to Yasaka Shrine
11/15/15 Kyoto Tower sketched from Kyoto Station
11/20/15 Philosopher's Walk

11/17/15 Ladies chatting at Coffee Shop Amazon
11/14/15 Statue of the Buddha at Kyoto
National Museum
11/14/15 Kyoto Station on a rainy afternoon.
11/20/15 Ginkakuji Pagoda
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