Sunday, April 23, 2017

David Chamness Frees Us from Worry and Details

4/22/17 ink, watercolor
As all construction sites are, the building going up at Ninth and Howell in downtown Seattle is a formidable and intimidating sketch subject. But David Chamness promised us “freedom from worry and the details” as we tackled the site in his USk 10x10 workshop. He encouraged us to stay loose and fast with the sketch while having fun and engaging with passers-by.

On a cloudy but fortunately mostly dry morning yesterday, a dozen of us began by making small thumbnails to divide the intimidating scene into manageable compositions. David suggested taking smartphone photos to help us view various compositions. Giving a brief drawing demo, he explained how to identify the horizon line and vanishing point and how to take relative measurements of elements and angles with our pens.

Next we drew a complete scene using one of our thumbnails as a reminder of the composition. (“Look at the thumbnail briefly, then put it away and look at the actual scene while you draw,” he said, “don’t draw from the thumbnail.”) David urged us to draw with bold, confident ink lines, not dashed, sketchy pencil lines. (“You don’t want to draw it twice or spend time erasing.”) As we drew, he gave us more pointers like using the whole arm – not just wrist – to draw long, straight lines, and using the “rule of thirds” to make interesting compositions.

David giving a watercolor demo.
During a brief watercolor demo, David showed us his signature painting style: bold, sometimes “unrealistic” colors put down quickly with a large brush. Moving from lightest to darkest colors, he showed us how values support the forms and shapes in the drawing. He also moves from the top down on the page to avoid dragging his hand through wet paint. After the demo we made our final sketch of the workshop – on large paper, at least 9-by-12 inches, and finished with watercolor. (He recommends taping a sheet of watercolor paper to a board for support.)

Shown at the top of the post is my final sketch. Whenever I take workshops, I usually end up feeling like the resulting sketches are not my spontaneous responses to the subject because they are assigned by the instructor, who has a specific objective in mind for the exercise. I maintain the attitude, however, that I’m there to learn more than to make spontaneous sketches, so the results don’t bother me. I have to say, though, that this sketch is one of few workshop sketches I actually like because it did feel like a genuine, fresh response. Influenced by David’s approach and feedback, it is looser and bolder than most scenes I’ve sketched under the duress of being intimidated by huge and complex subject matter. Free of worries, indeed!
A few thumbnails

Incidentally, this was the first time I used watercolors on location since I committed to using colored pencils exclusively last fall. Although I haven’t missed watercolors, it was fun to splash around with a wide brush (I even used a real ¾-inch brush recommended by David instead of my usual waterbrush) to make bold streaks of color. While I’m generally more attracted to the finer lines and details I can get with colored pencils, there’s a place for loose, splashy marks, too. I’d like to find a way to get both from one medium, but that’s a tall order.

One thing that was definitely confirmed, though, was that I don’t like the extra baggage that painting requires – somewhere to sit; supporting a painting board with my lap; bending over to dip into paints, a mixing tray and water; cleaning up afterwards. Each sketching medium has its pros and cons. I think I’ve made my choice with colored pencils, but every choice means giving up the benefits of the alternatives not taken. 


Our intimidating sketch subject!

Workshop students hard at work.


A bus shelter makes a handy studio.

David helps Svetlana take a measurement.
Final throwdown and critique.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cloud Experiments

4/20/17 water-soluble colored pencils, ink
A couple of days ago we got a brief reprieve from the relentless rain and wind, so I ran out the door before it started again. It was still chilly and breezy, so I drove up the street and stayed in the car to sketch this. Although there was enough sunshine to cast shadows (what a treat!), huge, gray, billowing clouds hung low – a typical Seattle sky much of the year.

In just about every way, I am enjoying using colored pencils more than watercolors when sketching on location, but one element I haven’t been able to do successfully with colored pencils is the sky. Sure, I can take several hours to do it with dry colored pencils or a little less time with water-soluble colored pencils, but that doesn’t work on location. So I’ve been looking for shortcuts.

For a few years I’ve been using a waterbrush filled with ink to make a quick splash of blue sky, but that handy trick doesn’t work as well with clouds. I tried a waterbrush filled with gray ink for quite a while, but I haven’t been happy with the results.

With the sketch above I tried an idea I’ve been playing with at home – it’s similar to the waterbrush trick but using water-soluble colored pencils. I first spray the paper with a light mist, then use a clean brush to spread it evenly. I hit the wet paper with the blue ink. Then I put down a swatch of gray colored pencil on a piece of scrap paper. I use a second waterbrush (filled with water) to pick up the gray pigment, then dab it onto the wet paper. The effect is better when the paper has dried just a touch – but not too much.


Below are some practice clouds I’ve been doing at my desk. I’m not completely happy with the effect, but I’m happy with the speed and efficiency, and especially the mechanical ease of doing all of this while standing and without juggling paints. 


Friday, April 21, 2017

The Secondary Triad

4/20/17 water-soluble colored pencils (photo reference)
This week’s lessons in my colored-pencil class are depicting distance and using the secondary triad. I’m not too pleased with my result in terms of showing distance, and I wasn’t at all inspired by my photo reference of a marshy field – something I would probably never choose as subject matter on my own. On the other hand, I love the secondary triad palette I used and the process for mixing those hues!

During most of the previous lessons, we’ve used a primary triad palette (red, yellow, blue) with a warm and a cool of each hue – a classic paint-mixing structure. When I used watercolors, my tiny paint box allowed only eight half pans, so I generally carried some variation of a primary triad with a couple of secondary or other “convenience” colors. I’ve also experimented with colored pencil primary triads on my own, so I’ve gotten used to mixing primaries.

This week when Suzanne introduced the concept of using a secondary triad, I was very excited! Orange, green and violet is my favorite color combination for almost everything (someday I might show you my dishware, towels and downstairs bathroom), and I’m always attracted to it when I see it in the work of others. (One of my favorite urban sketchers who uses the secondary palette beautifully is Richard Sheppard.) But I’ve never consciously used it as a painting palette myself. It was high time for me to use it with pencils!
 
The secondary triad palette I used for the exercise above.
While picking out warms and cools of the primaries is easy, it took a little more thinking to choose the secondaries, mainly because I don’t do it often. Finding the right purples and greens was relatively straightforward, but the oranges were more challenging – it’s strange to think of any orange as being cool. With Suzanne’s help, and keeping in mind the marshy subject matter of the photo reference, I chose a dark reddish orange for the cool and a yellower one for the warm.

Mixing the cool green and cool violet for the darkest shadows was fun and surprisingly rich (instead of garish, which I feared).


My uninspiring photo reference.
I’m going to be using this palette again . . . in fact, I think it will be ideal for Italy next month! 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Follow-Up Review: Baron Fig Paper

Baron Fig Vanguard: standard edition at left (the plain gray covered
with my own stickers) and the limited-edition Infinity.
Ever since I supported its Kickstarter campaign several years ago, New York stationery maker Baron Fig has captured my attention on and off. The hardbound Confidant I initially reviewed held more promise than usefulness, but I was happy that I held onto it. Nearly two years later when I became interested in sketching with graphite, that notebook’s paper turned out to be one of my favorites.

Spotting my review about graphite sketching, Andi at Baron Fig got in touch asking permission to tweet it. I mentioned that I was considering trying a more portable softcover Vanguard, and she kindly offered to send me one in the same A5-ish Flagship size. (She also sent an Archer pencil, which had been recently released.) All winter as I sketched the graphite-gray landscape, the Vanguard became my everyday-carry pencil sketchbook.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when Ana at the Well-Appointed Desk noted that the paper in the limited Black Box edition had changed – it was now toothier and more creamy than white. I was actually fond of the old Vanguard’s slightly-but-not-overly-toothy surface, so I wasn’t sure if I’d find the change to be an improvement or not. A short time later, the next Vanguard limited-edition Infinity came out, and I was curious enough about the new paper to order one.

Initially I was a little disappointed by the additional tooth, but I got over that quickly because I discovered other differences that were definite improvements. I ran through my usual battery of media tests – graphite, water-soluble colored pencil, fountain pen, brush pen, Pitt marker. Although the weight (unspecified by BF) feels the same, the new paper has more sizing, so the water-soluble materials washed nicely when brushed lightly with water instead of sinking into the paper immediately. On the old paper, the reverse side shows a little bleed-through where I gave the scribbles a wash. The new paper shows almost nothing. The paper is still not intended for wet media, of course, so the page buckled where I got it wet, but not too badly.

Old paper
New paper

 
Old paper (reverse)
New paper (reverse)


Perhaps a more significant consequence of this paper change is greater durability where the binding is stitched. When sketching on location with a softcover sketchbook, my habit is to fold the side that I’m not using backward, making the book easier to hold with one hand. When I did that with the old Vanguard, I noticed that the pages would tear away a bit from the stitching, especially near the bottom. I’m not seeing that at all with the new Vanguard. Perhaps the binding is exactly the same, but the paper might be slightly stronger, so it’s not tearing from the stress of bending the page away from the stitching.

Old binding
New binding

Incidentally, one thing I really appreciate about all of Baron Fig’s notebooks (hardcover and softcover) is that the bindings open completely flat, which makes them easier to use as well as scan.

Tombow marker on new Vanguard paper
Since the paper is not appropriate for heavy washes, I wouldn’t make the Vanguard my standard, everyday sketchbook. But now that I know the paper can stand up to various media besides graphite, I’m using it more. Last month when I took Sue Heston’s urban sketching workshop, she had suggested tonal markers, so I grabbed pigment-ink-based Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens and water-based Tombow Dual Brush markers to use in the new Vanguard. The paper held up to both types of markers beautifully with no bleed-through at all, even where I applied the markers solidly. (I don’t have any alcohol-based markers to test, but I’m guessing they would still bleed through.) It’s great for fountain pen line drawings washed lightly for shading, too.

While the gray cover, standard edition Vanguard is available in a choice of rulings, including blank, the limited-edition Infinity is available only with dot-grid ruling. (Strangely, the pale gray dots apparently resist water-based marker ink, because the dots show up white. The Pitt markers obscured the dots completely.)


The standard edition pocket-size Vanguard is also available with blank paper. Hmmm . . . that might be worth trying now.

Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens
Fountain pen ink and colored pencil

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Game Changer

4/14/17 water-soluble colored pencils, 140 lb. paper (detail)
Learning to use multiple dry/wet/dry/wet layers of water-soluble colored pencils has become something of a game changer for me. These pencils that I love so much (though previously for mostly irrational reasons) have suddenly become much friendlier and more forgiving. I have more time to think or change my mind.

The first sketch I made from life with watercolor pencils after learning that basic technique was the lightship moored outside MOHAI last Friday with Urban Sketchers (detail at right). Although I had tested the red pencil I used on the ship before applying it, I didn’t like the garish pinkish tone it took on when I wet it. So after that dried, I went over it again with a brick red pencil and applied water again, and I liked the result better. In the past, I would’ve assumed I was simply stuck with that initial garish color. I’m not sure why it had never occurred to me to try adding more layers, but sometimes incorrect beliefs get planted firmly and have to be weeded out severely!

4/15/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta
The next day I tried sketching the over-ripe red Bartlett with multiple layers of dry/wet/dry/wet (at left). Once I got the hues the way I wanted, I applied additional dry pencil to some areas and then dabbed the waterbrush to get the mottled skin. Except the stem, the result looks more like pure watercolor, and in this case, I like the painterly look. I left the pear’s shadow dry to contrast with the fruit. I’m not sure whether I like it, but its texture definitely contrasts with the fruit.

On Monday I attempted a red bell pepper (much more challenging than an apple or pear!). In my first attempt at applying water to the pepper’s shadow (below, top) made of a blend of red and green, I didn’t move the brush fast enough, so I got an annoying line where the water started to dry. This is the kind of thing that happens to me a lot with watercolor paints, and as far as I know, there’s no way to fix it (and attempts to do so usually end up looking worse than before).


With the pepper’s shadow, however, I thought I’d see what would happen if I tried again: After it was completely dry, I reapplied light layers of the same red and green pencils. Then, remembering to move the waterbrush more quickly and consistently, I washed over the shadow, and I managed to obscure most of the previous attempt’s telltale drying line (below, bottom). Much more forgiving than pure watercolor paints – and also more forgiving than I ever knew water-soluble colored pencils could be!

4/17/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta
(First attempt at shadow)
4/17/17 (Second attempt at shadow)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Getting Toned

3/21/17 ink, colored pencil, gel pen, graphite
Using toned paper is an ideal way to focus on values in a sketch. Every now and then I get in the mood for it and bind a sheet or two into my everyday sketchbook. Unfortunately, the 80-pound Strathmore toned paper I have is intended for dry media, so my fountain pens and some markers can bleed through.

The past year I’ve been getting my toned paper fix by using a red Field Notes Sweet Tooth notebook, which is not only bright red – the paper is heavy enough to withstand anything I’ve thrown at it, including markers and a light waterbrush wash. Both black shadows and white highlights pop beautifully on that red. But sometimes I wish the page were a little larger. I’ve also wanted to experiment with colored pencils on toned paper. . . 


Guess what? I heard from a very reliable source that my favorite sketchbook maker is coming out with a toned paper edition! I’m betting that the papers will be of similar heft and quality as the rest of its stellar sketchbook line. I can’t wait! (You heard it here first!)

Monday, April 17, 2017

An Easter Treat

4/16/17 colored pencils, ink

Although it stayed hazy all day, Easter was the warmest spring day yet – all the way up to 64 degrees in my ‘hood! After the wettest winter in decades, it was a treat to visit Maple Leaf Park without our raincoats, hats and gloves. We walked a lap around the park, and then I plunked myself down at a picnic table to make this sketch.

The forecast is not looking promising for the rest of the week, but as long as I get an occasional spring treat like that, I can manage until summer.


And here was my other Easter treat. I hope the Easter Bunny was good to you, too!


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tran Portfolio Pencil Case: An Elegant Solution

The Tran Portfolio Pencil Case, sans "portfolio."

Ever since my trip to Japan a year and a half ago, I’ve been happily using my Kutsuwa Dr. Ion organizer to keep my everyday-carry Rickshaw Zero Messenger Bag tidy and functional. (I’m sorry that I don’t have a shopping link for the Dr. Ion – sadly, it has been discontinued.) I’ve been so happy with it, in fact, that it landed on my 2016 Top 10 list.

Kutsuwa Dr. Ion bag organizer
My colored pencils stand upright in the organizer’s largest compartment, which is a requirement for any implement in my bag – I must be able to reach it easily without unzipping, unsnapping and especially un-Velcroing flaps or tabs. The only thing that has bothered me about this arrangement is that as my pencils get shorter, they fall to the bottom of the compartment or just disappear from view. I’ve been searching for a solution – some kind of vertical-standing pencil holder with elastic loops – but everything I’ve found has been contained within a bulky case or too large for my bag.

Then last week when I was cruising my Instagram feed, my eyes popped open: Intrepid sketcher and long-time blog reader Wendi showed her sketch kit, which included a strip of loops holding her colored pencils – but no bulk around it. I immediately messaged her for details. The Tran Portfolio Pencil Case comes with a transparent zip pouch to protect the pencils, but Wendi pulled out the working part and placed it directly into her bag – which is exactly what caught my eye. It seemed like a streamlined, elegant solution to my issue!

The 25-pencil case fits perfectly across the width of the Rickshaw and secures
with Velcro.
Much to my joy, it is exactly that! It fits perfectly across the width of my Rickshaw bag. What’s more, the U.S.-made Tran case has some Velcro “hook” strips on its reverse side, and guess what? All Rickshaw bags come with “loop” strips on the inside for attaching optional accessory pouches. The Tran case securely attaches – as if it were custom-made for my Rickshaw! Although the Velcro wouldn’t be necessary to keep the case in place in the bag, the pencil loops are very tight, so I think the case would tend to pull up whenever I remove a pencil if not for the Velcro.

Now each fully accessible and visible colored pencil has its own elastic loop holding it upright, no matter how short it gets. And since all the pencils stand flat against the side of the bag instead of bunched together, they are less bulky. (The Tran can also be folded into a triangular-shaped self-standing holder for use on a desk; see the Amazon page for an image or Wendi’s Instagram for an even better image.) It holds 25 pencils, which is a few more than I typically carry, so there’s room for the location-specific colors I like to take when I travel. On the other hand, 25 is a strict limit, so I won’t be tempted to carry more than I need.


Here's my view when I'm carrying the bag -- everything fully accessible.
I took the new Tran out for its first spin to the Friday sketch outing, and it works perfectly! If there’s one thing I love almost as much as sketching, it’s finding just the right solution to a sketch kit issue. Many thanks for the inspiration, Wendi!


An elegant solution!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Double Redux at MOHAI

4/14/17 ink, colored pencils
Although we knew it would be iffy, we had planned this week’s Urban Sketchers Seattle outing for Lake Union Park. That way, if the weather wasn’t on our side, we could duck into the Museum of History and Industry. True to predictions, it stayed dry all day, but that stiff, cold lake wind was more than I could bear.

Since I still had my pink colored pencil in my bag from sketching cherry blossoms, I decided to put it to good use once more – on the Lincoln Toe Truck. Pink + nostalgia: Who could resist? It’s one of my favorite old-time Seattle icons at MOHAI. Four years ago when the newly refurbished museum reopened, the Toe Truck was the first thing I had sketched there. Then a year or so later I sketched it again with USk Seattle.

The bitter wind was no warmer by the time I finished, but that bright blue sky was so inviting. . . I wanted to sketch outdoors. I wandered around the museum until I reached the café, where most of the other sketchers had already found cups of coffee to sketch by. I pulled a chair up to a window facing the Swiftsure, the bright red Coast Guard lightship moored on Lake Union. Once again, it was an icon I’d sketched at least a couple of times before – with the Regional Sketchcrawl three years ago and then again when Chandler O’Leary taught an urban sketching workshop in 2015.

4/14/17 ink, colored pencils
(Technical note: When sketching the Swiftsure, I tried something I very rarely do. First, for the ship’s body, I drew the contour in ink as I usually do – that part wasn’t different. But instead of drawing the masts, rigging and other details with ink as I normally would, I went in with a yellow colored pencil first, then used black ink afterwards only for shading and emphasis. In my own colored pencil way, this is similar to the method some watercolor sketchers use of making large shapes with paint first, then delineating some parts afterwards. I can’t “paint” large shapes with colored pencils, but this technique did keep me from getting too fussy with details as I’m tempted to do when I have a fountain pen in my hand.)


Although neither icon was new to me, I tried to look at each with fresh eyes. It’s fun and interesting to look back at my old sketches to see how my eyes have changed each time.

Friday, April 14, 2017

How to Fill a Waterbrush

The here-to-fore lowly Kuretake waterbrush.
After using every brand and style I could get my hands on, I came to the conclusion years ago that the Kuretake waterbrush works best for me. I carry one in each size at all times and use them daily. While other brands either gush too much water or not enough, the Kuretake keeps a steady, regular flow on the brush.

Now that revolutionary discoveries in my watercolor pencil class have raised the lowly waterbrush in my esteem by several notches, I thought it was an appropriate time to share a tip:

To fill the waterbrush’s reservoir, the package instructs the user to squeeze the empty barrel, place the filling hole into a glass of water or under running water, release the squeeze so that water sucks up into the reservoir, and repeat many times until the reservoir is full. Although the reservoir is small, it takes many squeezes to fill it because a bit of the water already inside always squeezes out. It’s tedious.


Step 1: Remove plug.
All you have to do is pull the black plug out (it requires a bit of prying with your thumbnail), place the opening under a running tap, and stop when full. It takes about a second. I’ve been filling it this way for all the years I’ve used the Kuretake because the very first time I got one, I didn’t read the instructions. Whenever I find out someone is doing it the “correct” way, I share my tip, for which they are eternally grateful. And now I’ve published it here. You’re welcome.

Step 2: Fill. Done.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Three Big Learnings (Plus Waterbrush Vindication)

4/13/17 water-soluble colored pencils, 140 lb. cold press paper
(photo reference)
As I mentioned the other day, although I’ve been using water-soluble colored pencils for years, everything I’ve done with them has been self-taught (or self-experimented), plus a little book learning – in other words, mainly messing around.

One thing that has been stuck in my head (possibly from something I read long ago) is that once you apply water to the watercolor pencil work, you can’t go back in with more pencil because the tooth of the paper has been covered by pigment activated by water. And indeed, the paper surface does feel different if you try to apply more pencil over it. So my typical method has been to apply the pencil color as heavily as I thought was needed, then activate it with a relatively heavy application of water, and whatever was the result was what I was stuck with. Needless to say, I was often unhappy with the hues (since many colors change after water is applied) or values I ended up with.

In last week’s class one of the first things we learned was that not only can you continue applying more pencil over previously water-activated areas; it’s actually a more effective way to build layers of color and value – just like working with traditional colored pencils is more effective with multiple light layers rather than one heavy layer. This was a major lightbulb moment for me! Even though the paper’s surface will feel different after some water has been used on the previous layer, it can still take much more pigment. The trick is to allow the water to dry completely before going in with more pencil.

Suzanne said that once activated with water and completely dry, the pigment is mostly permanent and won’t be moved by further applications of water. I’ve found this to be true only to a certain extent (or maybe it depends on the pencil brand) and have experienced previous layers moving a bit. If my work were highly detailed and required great precision, I might care more, but it’s usually not important to me if previous layers are slightly reactivated.

Just as is true with traditional colored pencils, at some point the paper’s tooth will be entirely covered, and the paper won’t be able to take more pigment. Another limiting factor is the paper’s weight – if it’s too thin or not sized for wet media, you won’t be able to apply many layers of water before the paper starts to break down. For last week’s assignment, I used 98-pound mixed media paper, and I thought it was a bit too light. For this week’s assignment, I used my favorite sketchbook paper, Canson XL 140-pound cold press watercolor paper, and it fared much better.

So that was my first big learning – and it really is a big one for me because it has several important implications:
1. I can control the building up of values slowly and gradually with multiple layers instead of trying to guess how light or dark the result will be after water is applied (and assuming that’s what I’m stuck with).
2. If an activated color isn’t quite right, I can just add one or more layers of different pencils to adjust the hue.
3.  I can also add or take away texture with either more water or more pencil or both, depending on what’s needed.

My second big learning was about water – and how much of it to use. During the critique of last week’s work (the trees), I complained to Suzanne that the result seemed overworked and lacking freshness because I became overly enthusiastic about my discovery (described above) and applied too many layers of pencil, water, pencil, water, pencil, water. She surmised that my issue wasn’t about excessive layers but about using too much water per application.

As I was working in class on Tuesday, she watched me as I was applying water and said, “Whoa – way too much water on your brush,” and instructed me to dab some off on a paper towel. I was applying a lot more water to the paper than necessary to activate the pencil work. Even though I rarely use it because I never take “real” brushes out in the field, in class I was using a small traditional watercolor brush. It’s not natural hair, but it’s a relatively high-quality synthetic brush. Suddenly another lightbulb snapped on: Good quality watercolor brushes are made to hold lots of water. I’m much more accustomed to using a crappy waterbrush, whose plastic bristles are not designed to hold water so much as dispense it.

When I started working on the assignment at home, I decided to switch to my familiar Kuretake waterbrush (my long-time favorite brand). I found it much easier to put a light application of water on the paper with it than with a “real” brush. While the Kuretake’s plastic bristles can’t hold as much water as a high-quality brush, it keeps flowing evenly for a while after giving it an initial squeeze – but that even flow is also relatively stingy. It’s apparently just enough to activate water-soluble pencils, because after I switched to the waterbrush I had a much easier time controlling the amount of water I applied.

Again, this was a huge learning for me, because whenever I’ve taken workshops or read books on watercolor painting, the waterbrush has been discouraged because you just can’t get the fine control with it as you can with a real brush, and you certainly can’t make big, juicy washes with it. So I’ve always believed that real brushes are superior to the waterbrush in every way (except convenience, of course), and no self-respecting watercolor painter would use one. Although it’s been the only brush I’ve used on location for most of the time I’ve been sketching, I’ve often felt I had to apologize for using such a second-class tool.

However, all of that was related to watercolor painting – not to water-soluble pencils, which require far less water. A-ha! The lowly waterbrush is vindicated at last!

Compared to the first two, my third learning is less of a lightbulb moment and more of a refined confirmation of something I’ve been thinking about since I started working last fall almost exclusively with colored pencils as my color medium. I’ve always felt that water-soluble colored pencils would be more conducive to location sketching than traditional colored pencils, which require building up many time-consuming layers. I now know that to use watercolor pencils effectively, they still require multiple layers of pencil work alternating with water, so that may not seem like much of a time-saver, especially when you consider that the water has to dry completely between layers. But last week’s and this week’s assignments took probably half the time compared to exercises from the previous class, even with all those layers plus drying time (which is relatively brief because so little water is used). Here’s why:

The real time-saver is that I can apply the pencil pigment very quickly and with far less care because most of the pencil strokes do not show in the final work. While the pencils’ primary job is to apply color, the brush is the tool that does more of the work in finessing texture and shape that show in the result.

Of course, the pencil and the brush do have to work together as partners. Suzanne instructs us to make both pencil strokes and paint strokes in the same direction so they don’t fight each other. For example, in the line of dark trees in the class exercise shown here, I made vertical pencil strokes in the direction of the trees and then went over that pencil work with vertical brush strokes. Even so, I put down those multiple layers of pencil mighty fast compared with traditional colored pencils because I knew the waterbrush would come afterwards to clean up (and often conceal) messy pencil work. (Suzanne might not approve of my speedy technique, but she can only critique the result she sees. I’ll let you know if she notices! 😉)

4/12/17 (in progress)
The image at the top of the page shows the finished piece. Shown at right is an earlier stage. (I meant to stop and make a scan before applying any water so that you could see how lightly I’d applied some of the pencil layers, but I forgot.) In the unfinished image, the sky and trees are mostly done, but the reflecting water has only some of the pencil layers activated. In the finished image, you can see that I added quite a bit more pencil to the reflections and selectively added water to some layers and some areas. The sky probably has four or five alternating layers of pencil and water, yet the paper shows no sign of degradation and could probably take several more.


The length of time it took to finish this piece (probably about three hours) is way longer than what I would or could do on location, so I’m still going to have to take shortcuts to make this work in the field, and I don’t know yet what those shortcuts will be. But I’m super-excited about what I’m learning and the implications for using watercolor pencils for urban sketching! (If nothing else, I’m persistent when I want something.)

Reference photo

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This Time with Water-Soluble Colored Pencils

4/7/17 water-soluble colored pencil, 98 lb. mixed media paper
As my colored pencil class was ending at Gage, I asked instructor Suzanne Brooker if she ever offered a class in the use of watercolor pencils (which I still find to be more practical in the field than traditional colored pencils ever could be, based on what I learned during winter quarter). Although she had taught it previously, she did not have plans to teach it again. However, I persisted in pestering her, and then a few other students also expressed interest when they heard me pestering. The result was that Suzanne offered us a four-week private class in water-soluble colored pencil in her own studio! (I live my life by the rule that it never hurts to ask – or even pester – because the worst that can happen is I get the answer no. But sometimes I get the answer yes! 😊)


Four of us accepted her generous offer, and we began our four sessions last week. As before, we are working from photo references. I’m already learning things I never understood when simply messing around with water-soluble pencils (as all of my experience so far has been). Last week’s assignment is shown here – trees and foliage. I’ll have more to say about the specific techniques we’re learning after I finish this week’s exercise.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Blast of Energy from San Jose Taiko

4/8/17 brush pen, colored pencils

My niece Alix is a member of San Jose Taiko, one of the most well-known and highly acclaimed professional American taiko groups. When I heard that SJT was giving a concert in the Seattle area, my siblings and I organized a family reunion around the concert date so that we could all attend. And I invited Kate along too, because I knew she was a big fan of taiko!

What a blast of energy those eight drummers produce! Their innovative percussion rhythms combined with dynamic choreography are spectacular. They also look like they are having so much fun that they infuse their performance with sheer joy.

I tried my best to capture the spirit of that energy with a brush pen, and I found that I had to use techniques I’ve been teaching myself by sketching small birds at our feeder. Like birds, taiko drummers repeat movements rapidly but rhythmically, so if you just wait a bit, the pose you started to sketch will appear again – maybe by the same drummer, or maybe by a different one.


The photos from my phone aren’t the best quality, but I hope they help to convey some of San Jose Taiko’s kinetic music!


Alix front and center!


Proud auntie and uncle!
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