Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How Many Ways Can a Sketch Go Bad?

12/11/17 Our Lady of the Lake Church, Wedgwood 
I drive through the Wedgwood neighborhood frequently because I run a lot of errands in that direction, so not much is new to me there. That’s why I was delightfully surprised to turn a corner and spot an unusual steeple I’d never seen before. Contemporary in design, it houses three bells that are exposed on four sides and all the way through. I pulled over for a sketch of Our Lady of the Lake Church.

Drawing the steeple was challenging but fun, and the utility pole and traffic signs in the foreground were straightforward. So far, so good. I wanted to show that you could see all the way through the steeple, so painting the sky in the background would be important (and I always like to show when the sky is bright blue, since it so often isn’t).

That’s when everything started going downhill. As I usually do, I first spritzed the upper half of the page with water – except that I hadn’t given the Platinum Carbon Black ink enough time to dry. I moved quickly into damage-control mode, trying to dab up the ink where it had bled. Meanwhile, I didn’t think about spraying the area inside the steeple that I had wanted to emphasize, so when I hit it with blue water-soluble colored pencil, the color was more intense than the rest of the sky, and I lost the see-through look I was going for.

Annoyed with all of that, I moved on to the utility pole in the foreground. It was almost completely in the shade but had some interesting spots of light on it that I hadn’t finished deciding whether to show or not. The light spots weren’t important to my composition, and might even be distracting . . . while I continued to think about that, I decided that the sky was dry, so I went in with my fountain pen again to draw the power lines – only to find that the paper, in fact, wasn’t quite dry. The nib scudded and skipped across the page.

More and more dismayed, I half-heartedly scribbled in some foliage, lost motivation to work on the utility pole (and forgot that I hadn’t made up my mind about the shading, either), and called it good. Or bad. 

In any case, I still think Our Lady of the Lake’s steeple is worthy of a better sketch, so I’ll go back again sometime.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Product Review: Akashiya Keicho Double-Sided Brush Pen

12/6/17 The Akashiya Keicho's black and gray tones were used for different areas of shading.

In the interest of my ongoing quest to simplify and lighten my sketch kit, I recently got a new brush pen: the Akashiya Keicho double-sided pen. With black ink on one end and gray on the other, it would take care of most of my monochrome shading needs, all in one compact pen. I’ve tried many, many brush pens with the same type of spongy, formed, non-hairy tips, but this one was new to me.
Akashiya Keicho double-sided brush pen

I haven’t been using the Akashiya long enough to mush down the tips – a frequent problem for my heavy hand with most spongy-tipped brush pens – but I’m optimistic because the material looks very similar to those that hold up well. They flex a bit, but in general, the tips are firm.

The gray side is significantly smaller than the black side. Since all brush pen tips can be held vertically to get a narrow stroke and held more horizontally to get a wider stroke – a variable motion I’m accustomed to from using fude fountain pens – I’m not sure why the gray side is smaller. I sometimes need a broad gray stroke, and the smaller tip is a bit narrower than I would like.

 
Black tip
Gray tip


As is true for most brush pens I’ve tried, the Akashiya Keicho contains water-soluble inks. Especially when sketching people, it’s handy to use a water-soluble ink that I can swipe quickly and easily with a waterbrush for soft shading, and I enjoy using the Akashiya this way. I also like to use the black brush to draw, and then use the gray side for shading – another fast and easy approach.

Ink scribbles and waterbrush swipes made on Stillman & Birn Alpha paper.

11/11/17 Black brush used to draw, then washed with
water for shading. The drinking glass was drawn with the
gray brush pen. (detail)
I wish Akashiya made the same type of double-sided pen with waterproof inks for the times when I want to also use watercolor pencils. My current sketch kit contains a couple of gray tones of Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens (I’ve been using them more since I took Don Colley’s workshop) for those times, but one brush pen performing double duty would be even better. 

Unless the tips end up mushing down over time (I’ll amend this review if they do), the double-sided Akashiya Keicho is a keeper in my bag for its compact versatility. 

12/2/17 Black brush washed with water for shading. (Detail)

12/7/17 Black brush used for drawing; gray brush for shading.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Touch and Go

12/6/17 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Let me tell you: This was a high-risk situation. I could see the workers inside the building they were working on, and I could tell that they were on their lunch break. Every now and then one man or another would come out to use the porta-potty, so their break could end at any moment, and the excavator could move. I sketched furiously. Well trained as I am for touch-and-go operations like this one, I got in and got out, sketch intact. Whew. After that, I had to go home and take a nap.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Friday Anniversary at Gingerbread Village

12/8/17 With an emphasis on Seattle's waterfront, this exhibit includes the Big Wheel and an octopus.

Six years ago this month, five urban sketchers wanted to sketch the Sheraton’s annual Gingerbread Village exhibit, but we knew weekends would be mobbed, so we decided to have an ad hoc outing on a Friday. That was the first of what became the bimonthly ad hoc Friday USk meetups, and the group has been growing ever since. To celebrate our anniversary, we met at the event that initially inspired us: Gingerbread Village.

Kathleen sketches the exhibit featuring Ballard.
For this annual fundraiser, Seattle’s major architectural firms team up with local chefs to design elaborate, theme-based dioramas made of cookies and candies (voluntary donations to the event somewhat ironically benefit type 1 diabetes research). Now in its 25th year, Gingerbread Village moved from the Sheraton to US Bank City Centre – a much better venue. Instead of displaying the exhibits all in one row, the confectionary creations were spread throughout City Centre’s main floor, dispersing the crowds into small clusters instead of a single line, which made the displays easier to see (and sketch).

Although I had a better view, I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. Unlike previous years that had strong visual themes like Harry Potter, Star Wars (my favorite), Christmas carols, sailing ships, and fairytale castles, this year’s theme was less defined: “25 Years of Cheer: A Celebration of Seattle.” Each exhibit focused on a geographic area of Seattle and included images of the nostalgic past or the imagined future. The most visually fun was a fat sailor riding an orca in an homage to Ballard’s Scandinavian heritage. While colorful and sometimes kinetic, most of the exhibits left me scratching my head as I tried to understand the theme’s interpretation.

 
I went up to the second floor to sketch this rotating
exhibit of downtown, including the Smith Tower.

Regardless, I enjoy sketching this event not so much for the elaborate sweet creations as for the people of all ages who come to see them. Although I had space to step up close to the exhibits, I decided to hang back as I usually do and focus on the viewers. 

Ummm. . . a Norwegian sailor in Salmon Bay?
A future Seattle waterfront.

Throwdown from a great turnout of Friday sketchers!
Rotating city!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Rock of Ages

12/5/17 Rock of Ages Lutheran Brethren Church, Phinney Ridge

As usual for this time of year, I make most of my urban sketches from my warm and comfy “mobile studio.” While it keeps me sheltered, views and compositions are limited to (mostly) legal parking places. On this sunny but chilly day, a street in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood offered a rare elevation view of a building. And not just any building: The Rock of Ages Lutheran Brethren Church had stained-glass windows, interesting shadows and a power pole right in front. I could hardly ask for more.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sun Break

12/4/17 Green Lake neighborhood
In my urban couches series, I’m usually fairly strict about sticking with the theme – no tables, no bookcases, certainly no mattresses. But when the sun finally broke through the thick fog the other day, I got so excited that I went crazy for a moment. And it’s a good thing I didn’t dawdle, because as soon as I finished sketching, a woman drove up, checked the chair out carefully (even sat in it for a few seconds to evaluate the cushion), and then took it home.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

To the Bone

12/4/17 Wedgwood neighborhood
It was foggy all morning with temps in the high 30s. It’s the kind of damp cold that reaches deep into my bones.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Jammin’, Part 2: Unwitting Models

12/2/17 Drawing Jam participants


Instructor giving a demo.
I had so much fun at Drawing Jam sketching the excellent models that I didn’t spend as much time looking for unwitting models – the other participants, instructors giving demos, musicians, and other live entertainment in every studio. But sometimes when I finished a drawing early and didn’t want to keep picking at it until the model’s time was up, I’d draw the other participants instead. 

Once I had an ideal situation: An instructor was giving a demo of portrait painting just behind me. Whenever the models took their five-minute breaks, I would turn my chair around to sketch the instructor. When the models were back, I’d turn back around again. I sketched the instructor a few minutes at a time over the course of an hour, and his pose was nearly as motionless as the models’!

Boots to the Moon performing for Jam participants.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Jammin’, Part 1: Models

12/2/17 Awkward foreshortened pose!

I probably say this every year, but Drawing Jam just keeps getting better and better! The annual all-day drawing festival sponsored by Gage Academy is something I look forward to all year (this was my sixth consecutive year participating). With nude and costumed models, demos by Gage instructors, live music, busts and still life arrangements, self-portrait stations and plenty of art exhibits by students and faculty, it’s the most fun a sketcher can have on a cold and rainy December day.

I spent most of my day at Skinner Auditorium sketching costumed models. Although I missed the Seattle Seafair Pirates and Comic Book Characters for a Cause who have modeled in previous years, this year we were treated to four drag queens instead! Fantastic dancers, they took turns performing for us while the others posed. 

The rest of the time, Gage’s usual lineup of stellar models posed two at a time on a platform, which made it easy for the large crowd to see one or the other from anywhere in the room.

Shown here are sketches of the program models (mostly 15-to-20-minute poses); tomorrow I’ll show sketches of the unwitting models.

Technical notes: I’m still thinking about minimalism and my personal challenge to slim down my kit again. As I was leaving for Drawing Jam, instead of my usual DIY sketchbook, I grabbed my tan Stillman & Birn Nova, which I knew would be a nice, warm color for life drawing. It wasn’t a true test of minimalism because I still had my usual full assortment of materials with me, but I consciously kept my choices narrow. At the end of the day, I reviewed what I had used: my Sailor fude fountain pen; a double-sided Akashiya brush pen containing water-soluble inks (black on one end; gray on the other – more about this handy pen sometime soon); a waterbrush; one graphite pencil; one water-soluble graphite pencil; one white colored pencil; one red water-soluble pencil. One sketchbook and seven tools – not bad for a full day of sketching. I think something like that easily could be my minimal sketch kit in January when I put myself to the full challenge. 


It’s been so long since I’ve done regular life drawing (either formally or while urban sketching) that I’d forgotten how much I like S&B’s paper sizing and texture (Alpha, Beta and now Nova) with a simple ink wash. That’s still one of my favorite ways of achieving soft shading on people’s faces.





Friday, December 1, 2017

Bleak

12/1/17 Wedgwood neighborhood
Slate sky, harsh wind, cold rain: It’s bleak out there. Between errands in Wedgwood, I was surprised to spot this Harley. In these parts, most motorcycles are buttoned up in the garage by now, not to be seen again until spring. Which seems like a long, long time from now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Feeder is Back Up

11/28/17 chickadee
We put our bird feeder back up last week right after Thanksgiving. After enjoying watching and sketching the birds all last winter, we took it down in the spring so they wouldn’t get too fat and lazy. It’s fun having it back up again, especially on these days of seemingly relentless rain. (Lucky for me, birds don’t have a problem with wet-weather dining.)

I keep a pocket-size Stillman & Birn sketchbook and a few water-soluble colored pencils on the kitchen counter next to the window that looks out on the corner of our backyard where the feeder hangs. Whenever I pass through or get a hankering to sketch something live (and lively), the tiny birds are endlessly entertaining. Most of my sketches are small, unfinished and in varying poses. After viewing the birds repeatedly over the course of a few minutes, I add details a little at a time. Eventually some sketches start to look complete. Shown here are two of the most finished sketches from the past few days.

Though the smallest, the chestnut-backed chickadees are the most aggressive (and fastest!), chasing away any other birds that perch nearby. The dark-eyed juncos seem the most reticent, waiting on the nearby fence for the chickadees to move out before they go in. The juncos also like to drop down to the ground and peck the seeds that have spilled out. A newcomer we hadn’t noticed before is a pine siskin. The only reason I can identify any of these birds is because we bought a book on Seattle and Puget Sound birds from our local Audubon Society office.
 
11/28/17 junco
That’s also where we bought the feeder, which is a Brome Squirrel Buster. Recommended by my friend Alex, a birder and urban sketcher, the feeder is designed to keep squirrels and large birds out. We’ve enjoyed highly comical entertainment when a squirrel tried to maneuver his way onto the perches, but his weight caused the feeder to close access to the food. A Steller’s jay and a flicker each tried to feast from the feeder too, but both were too big to use it. I would have loved to have had the chance to sketch those larger birds, but I guess we’d have to get a separate feeder for them.


Even as it is, those tiny birds are going through quite a bit of feed each day – a small price to pay for our winter entertainment.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Product Review: Stabilo CarbOthello Chalk Pastel Pencils

Stabilo CarbOthello chalk pastel pencils
When I was in London last year, I made a brief stop at the L. Cornelissen “artists’ colourment” shop, a very old store crammed from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with brushes, paints and paper. I didn’t need any paints, I already owned all the colored pencils they carried, and I didn’t want anything heavy to pack like sketchbooks, but I couldn’t leave a London institution like Cornelissen without buying something, could I? The only thing I bought was a small set of Stabilo CarbOthello chalk pastel pencils, which I wasn’t overly interested in. Chalk pastels were not really my thing – I tend to shy away from anything that smears easily, creates dust or is otherwise messy – so I put them aside as a lovely souvenir from London.

Stabilo CarbOthello
At the Chicago symposium, my swag bag contained a few General’s chalk pastel pencils (which I reviewed at the Well-Appointed Desk) and some samples of Stillman & Birn’s toned Nova paper, so I put the two together and experimented with a few small sketches in Chicago. As expected, I didn’t care for the way chalk pastel smeared and transferred to whatever was next to it, but I did like how opaque it is on toned paper. I didn’t do much with the pencils after that, but a mental note had been filed.

Fast-forward to the many continuous days of rain we’ve been having this month, and I started thinking about chalk pastels again. Something I read recently reminded me that chalk pastels are partially water-soluble, and that gave me an idea. I decided to give them another try, this time using water with the Stabilo set I bought at Cornelissen.

Compared to the General’s chalk pastels, the CarbOthellos have richer and more intense hues, but they also produce quite a bit more dust. (Cough, cough – that can’t be good to breathe!) I found myself working somewhat carefully to avoid producing too much dust, and I tapped the excess off into my waste basket.

11/25/17 CarbOthello with water applied (Stillman & Birn Alpha)

Compared to colored pencils, the chalk pastels are very quick to apply to Stillman & Birn’s toothy Beta paper (above). I left some of the paper’s tooth showing, and then I took a blending stump to blend the pastels and work them in further, easily covering most of the surface. Their blendable opacity is really fun – whatever you put on top covers most of what’s underneath, but when that’s blended, the pigments underneath are still on the surface, so they return as part of the mix. (I find colored pencils to be much more transparent, so colors tend to mix optically rather than blending like paints.)

CarbOthello test swatches with water applied.

As expected, chalk pastels smudge and smear easily, so I was eager to get to the next step: water application. (I meant to scan the apple sketch before applying water to show the difference in appearance, but I forgot. And truth be told, I was skittish about putting that mess on the scan bed.) Chalk pastels don’t dissolve completely or as vibrantly as water-soluble colored pencils, but they do blur just enough with water to get similar blended effects. The larger benefit, though, is that they hardly smudge at all once the paper is dry. In my test swatch on S&B Beta paper, water was applied with a waterbrush to the lower half of the swatch (below). After the paper dried completely, I gave the whole swatch a smear with a paper towel. The top half, which had no water applied to it, still smeared, but the lower half hardly smeared at all.

Application of water stops much of the pigment from smudging.

Hmmm, this interesting discovery encouraged me to keep experimenting – maybe I could grow to like chalk pastels after all, if water tames their smudge and dust factors! I pushed on, this time with black S&B Nova paper, which I figured would really show off CarbOthello’s opaque hues.

As I’d hoped, the colors really pop on black paper. I deliberately left some of the paper’s texture showing through because I intended to apply water to blend the chalk pastel further. Before I did that, though, I made a test swatch just as I did on the white Beta paper – with a very different result. On black, the dissolved pigment on the bottom half of the swatch was much less intense than the dry chalk pastel. As before, although applying water did keep smudging at bay, I didn’t like the way the color became less vibrant. Well, that was disappointing!

11/25/17 CarbOthello left dry (Stillman & Birn Nova)
Application of water prevented smudging but also
took away much of the hue's vibrancy.



I decided to leave the sketch on black paper dry (and despite my trepidations, I put it on the scan bed, then cleaned the glass furiously afterwards. Yuck, what a mess). 

I don’t think I’m ever going to be a huge fan of using chalk pastels – not only because of the inherent mess, but also the potential for inhaling pigment particles. But they kept me busy on another rainy day.



Friday, November 24, 2017

Mastodon and Elasmosaur Redux

11/24/17 Mastodon, Sage and Tina
The Burke Museum is one of my favorite indoor places to sketch. Full of dinosaur skeletons and other natural and human history artifacts, it’s a treasure trove for any sketcher. Yet, as many times as I’ve sketched there, I seem to gravitate toward the same few artifacts over and over. They never cease to be challenging, and I apparently never tire of them.

That said, it’s been a good two-and-a-half years since I last sketched the mastodon (whose skull I had first attempted the year before). Like last time, today’s visit was with USk Seattle, and I finally caught the mastodon with a couple of sketchers nearby for scale. He’s a massive, formidable form.

Another favorite is the Elasmosaur, a marine reptile with oar-like flippers that are structured remarkably similar to our own hands. The last time I sketched his whole skeleton was three-and-a-half years ago, and that time I used a full sketchbook spread to capture his enormous length. This time I used a single page only, which may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a mark of growth for me because I have always been challenged by scaling large objects on a small space. Then, as today, I marveled at his tiny, tiny head compared to the massive yet most likely graceful body as he swam through the oceans in search of critters to chomp with his interlocking teeth. 

I had a feeling that sketchers would prefer the Burke to Black Friday madness, and I’m happy that I was right – we had a great turnout of USk Seattle today!

11/24/17 Elasmosaur

Thursday, November 23, 2017

29 Minutes

11/22/17 Roosevelt neighborhood

In Mike Daikubara’s book on urban sketching, he talks quite a bit about how to manage one’s time and expectations to get great sketches, no matter the circumstances. He uses a quadrant graph to explain how he manages his own sketching based on his energy level and the time available. For example, if he’s tired and low on energy, he would need more time to sketch, and conversely, if has plenty of energy, he might attempt a sketch in a very short time. If he’s low on both, he might not attempt it at all. He also has ideas for scaling back on color or details if he’s running out of time but wants to leave a sketch at a place of completion rather than simply stopping and leaving it unfinished. He has developed a solid set of strategies that he has honed over the many years that he has been sketching.

As I was reading, I realized that although I have slightly different tactics, I, too, have come to develop my own strategies for managing my time and expectations for sketching. Like Mike, I’ve been honing these strategies for a while. Unlike Mike, however, I don’t know how to teach them (or whether they can be learned) – I think they come from experience.

When I first started out, I used to think I needed a relatively large chunk of time to “do urban sketching,” and I did. That large chunk of time began even before I left the house, choosing and prepping my materials: Should I bring watercolors today? Then I’d better bring the watercolor paper sketchbook. But it’s so heavy – maybe not. Oops, I’d better not forget brushes and a water cup. Oh, maybe I’ll skip it and just bring markers. If so, which colors? If I go to the park, I’d better have lots of greens. If I go downtown, I won’t need many greens. Hmm, I do want to try this larger sketchbook today – I need a different bag now. Should I bring a stool? On and on.

Once I finally arrived at my destination, I’d spend quite a bit of time looking for subject matter that appealed to me or looking for the “right” angle (without really understanding what the right angle might be). I would draw a woman sitting on a park bench by starting with her face, her hair, her jewelry, the pattern on her jacket, and suddenly, she would leave. Then I’d have to start over with a new sketch. Three hours later, I’d go home with one or two complete sketches, and indeed, “doing urban sketching” took a substantial chunk of time.

After about a year, I got tired of the whole kit-prep process of deciding which materials to bring each time I sketched. I made a significant shift – both practically and mentally – by carrying all my materials with me all the time, every day, whether I planned to use them or not. To do that, I had to pare down my options and think about what I really needed (obviously still an ongoing process!). But more important, my choice to do so changed urban sketching from a hobby (defined by me as something I do during a substantial chunk of planned spare time) to a lifestyle (something that doesn’t require much thought or prep because it’s integrated into my ordinary day).

That shift changed not only my sketch kit; it also changed my attitude and ultimately the amount of time I “needed” to make a sketch. I still have many occasions when I consciously set aside a chunk of time to sketch subject matter that particularly appeals to me or that I want to observe closely, and every time I go out with Urban Sketchers is such an occasion. But day to day, sketches fit into whatever slot of time is available. And that means I sketch regularly, which is important to me in maintaining a practice and a habit.

Yesterday after running an errand, I returned to my car and realized that I still had 29 minutes left on my meter. I had paid for that time; I intended to use it – and I spent exactly 29 minutes on the sketch at the top of the page. How did I know it would take me exactly 29 minutes? I used one page of my standard 6-by-9-inch DIY sketchbook, and almost amazingly invariably, it takes me about a half-hour to make a sketch of that size (with color, a little longer – maybe 35 or 40 minutes). As you can see, I also didn’t spend any time looking for appealing subject matter or the right angle – I just drew what I saw through the wet windshield.

11/17/17 Furry commuter
A few days ago on the bus, I spotted a puppy in the aisle nervously twitching and circling his standing human’s feet. That small sketch took a few seconds because I knew that’s all he would give me. (Actually, it probably took a minute longer than that if you count the time I waited for him to face me.)

The hooded man on a different bus took five minutes. I know this because at the point that I started sketching him, it takes five minutes to reach the transit station. (There was a small risk that he would get off at an earlier stop, but I could tell by the way he was sitting that he probably wouldn’t.) I finished most of the sketch in probably four minutes, then used the remaining time to add a little more detail, like the stitching around his hood and a few more hairs on his beard.

11/17/17 Hooded commuter
On rare occasions I have what would be considered optimal circumstances by most sketchers’ standards. One was in Varenna, Italy, last May. Greg was fully occupied with photography, so I didn’t have to worry about him. It was a beautiful morning – warm but not hot, a partly cloudy sky, not windy. Lake Como and the mountains around it were exactly the hues of the secondary triad palette I had just learned about in my colored pencil class and was eager to try on location.

In class, working from a photo, I would have probably taken many hours to complete a drawing, and I knew I didn’t want to spend that long, but I wasn’t sure how much time it might take. The landscape-format panorama spread I used is just a little smaller than two 9-by-6-inch pages in my regular DIY sketchbook, and remarkably, my Lake Como sketch took just about an hour. Even under optimal conditions, I still seem to sketch at about the same rate. Maybe that’s just the limit of my sketching patience. (I really didn’t set out to develop such a reliable time frame, but it’s convenient.) In any case, I had to focus my attention on the aspect (color) that was important to me about this composition so that I would have time for it. (And drafting took very little time, because I decided these mountains didn’t require much accuracy.)

5/17/17 Lake Como

I wish I had a formula for developing a strategy like this, but as I mentioned earlier, I think it just requires some experience. When beginning sketchers tell me they need “more time” to sketch, I jokingly respond with, “Just lower your standards.” It sounds snarky, but I’m being realistic to my own experience. If you spend less time looking for “inspiring” subject matter, you learn to find something interesting about whatever is in front of you. If you’d like to sketch the whole puppy, lower your standards and sketch only his face, which is all he’ll sit still for. If color is important to you, don’t worry about getting the shape of the mountains right. If you have limited time (which is almost always), spend some of it deciding what’s important to you about what you see, and focus on that – not on everything. 

It’s not important to find out whether a 6-by-9-inch sketch takes you a half-hour; your process might or might not lead to a reliable time frame. What is important, though, is sketching regularly, because that’s what gives you the experience that helps you gauge how much of a sketch you can do before your meter runs out (or whether you care). 
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