Monday, January 22, 2018

Third Place Commons Filled with Sketchers

1/21/18 Lots of sketchers at the giant chessboard!

The “third place” – a concept popularized by Ray Oldenburg in his book, The Great Good Place – is where people gather to create a sense of community. I’d say that yesterday at Third Place Commons in Lake Forest Park, Urban Sketchers Seattle formed a large part of the typical Sunday morning community there – we had an amazing turnout of close to 40! (It probably didn’t hurt that Urban Sketchers had been featured on NBC Nightly News the day before!)

The giant chessboard is always an eye-catching focal point, and I managed to get Kathleen, Olivia, Gabi and Steve all in my sketch.
1/21/18 Third Place Commons parking lot

I spent so much time chatting with sketchers, including many I hadn’t seen in months and even years, that I barely had time for a second sketch. I wandered over to the large windows in the very back, which look out over the parking lot, power lines, and lots of fir trees fringing the main thoroughfare. 

I didn’t get a formal group photo, but here’s most of our group trying to get close enough to the throwdown to see the sketchbooks. It was great to see so many sketchers on the first main meetup of the year!

Queuing up to see the throwdown!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

My Haiku and Sketches in Plumbago!

Published in Plumbago!
Who knew I still had some poems in me? 😉

Plumbago is a periodic ‘zine published by Andy Welfle, a co-host of the Erasable podcast about pencils. In issue No. 2 (now sold out) my blog post about the various ways I use Field Notes was republished. The just-released issue No.3 has a literary theme, so I submitted some urban sketches made with pencil and wrote a haiku to go with each. It’s been decades since I wrote any poems (I have a master’s degree in creative writing, but I stopped that kind of writing when I reached my 30s), so I did it as much as a personal challenge as anything else. Shown below are the three I submitted; the first two are published in Plumbago. 

All proceeds from this issue of Plumbago are being donated to victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Vintage Colored Pencils, Part 2: Eberhard Faber Mongol

I love the logo and typeface!
Box front

Of all the vintage colored pencils in my modest collection, the logo and typeface on the Eberhard Faber Mongol set are my favorite. They are identical to branding on Mongol graphite pencils of the same era (I assume) that I’ve seen online (Three Staples has good photos). Instead of a ferrule and eraser as on the graphite pencils, the round-barreled colored pencils sport a jaunty brass-colored end cap with a black band. I wish I could learn more about these pencils, but most of my Internet searches led to their graphite cousins.

The only water-soluble pencils in my vintage collection, the almost-complete set of 36 came as part of an inexpensive mixed lot I found on eBay. The box they came in is rather tattered and fragile, but it can open up to form a hinged stand (shown well on Rad and Hungry’s blog). The copyright date says 1950; made in the USA by Eberhard Faber Pencil Co., Brooklyn, NY.

Inner box panel

Inside are instructions for “A New Technique” and an invitation to “Paint with Pencils” using brush and water. As you might guess, I was thrilled to grab some old pencils that are water-soluble, since that characteristic seems harder to find in my vintage searches. (Anyone know of other brands?)

Unfortunately, they aren’t watercolor pencils I am encouraged to use. After swatching the colors, I didn’t make a sketch sample as I did with my other vintage pencils. The Mongols apply very hard and dry, both the dry and the washed colors lack intensity, and the pigments don’t dissolve easily. They remind me of novelty pencils or inexpensive sets made for kids.
Pigments lack intensity; washes are wimpy

I’m not disappointed, though. I treat these pencils like flowers; they don’t have to do anything but be pretty and increase my happiness.

Friday, January 19, 2018


1/18/18 1-minute poses
I recently read the book, Undressed Art – Why We Draw, by Peter Steinhart. While it is mainly about art and the human compulsion to draw, it is also about the relationship between the artist and the life drawing model. Although it’s mostly unspoken, a certain level of communication goes on between the model, who is willing to take off his or her clothes for a roomful of people, and the artists who show up to draw this naked person. 

Unless you count Drawing Jam in December, yesterday was the first time I had been to a life-drawing session at Gage in more than six months. Feeling very stiff and rusty, I thought about what I’d read in Steinhart’s book and was very grateful for Shauna, our model that day. One of my favorite Gage models, she has an open expressiveness with her poses that somehow makes it easier to engage with her with my pen or pencil. She has a delightful spontaneity – or makes it seem she does – even as she must be completely in control to hold dynamic poses for up to 20 minutes. During the one-minute poses, the music we were listening to changed to the theme song from “Rocky,” and she put up her dukes! Perhaps it was a well-rehearsed pose that she’d done before, but I felt entertained. She also moved with such fluidity that it helped me past my own creakiness.

1/18/18 2-minute poses
1/18/18 5-minute poses

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Vintage Colored Pencils, Part 1: My New Year’s Resolution

Happiness is a bouquet of vintage colored pencils.
My one and only resolution this year is to remove unwanted and unneeded stuff from my studio. I’m relatively good about regularly getting rid of clothing, kitchen goods and even books, but my biggest hurdle has been my studio: all the fabric, yarn, rubberstamps, beads, paper and what-all from the many crafts I was heavily into at various time but haven’t touched in years. I guess some part of me always thinks I might get back to them someday, but I decided it was time for them to go.

During the first half of January, I packed carton after carton and hauled them over to Seattle ReCreative, a nonprofit store I discovered only recently. It’s like a thrift store, except it carries only art and craft supplies, and it gives those supplies to local schools. In addition, it offers a variety of art classes to children, and all the class materials are supplied free from donations by people like me who want to get rid of their stuff. Win-win! I was very happy to discover this store only a mile from my house.  

When I made an initial visit to find out whether my intended donations would be welcome, I couldn’t resist walking through the store. I told myself over and over that I was there to move stuff out of my house – not bring stuff back in! I did just fine past the fabric, yarn, rubberstamps, beads and paper – but then I spied a neatly sorted tray of colored pencils.

Now, I’ve been in many thrift stores where the only pencils for sale are part of a huge plastic bag of miscellaneous writing utensils, and you must buy the whole bag. Or there’s a bucket of crayons and pencils that look like they have been chewed by kids or dogs, and I’m not inclined to dig through them for possible gems. At Seattle ReCreative, there was such a bucket of the usual Crayola colored pencils, but in addition, some volunteers had picked out a small selection and even sorted them by color. These looked worth going through!
The logos and typefaces alone are worth the price of admission.
And go through them I did, one by one. Most were older, art-quality pencils, some never sharpened or nearly full length. I left the store with a modest fistful of old Berol and Eagle Prismacolors, Verithins, Eberhard-Faber Mongols and various others. The nostalgia-inducing logos and lovely typefaces alone were worth the twenty-five cents I paid per pencil.

As I sharpened them up and made a sketch, I recalled a post on the Well-Appointed Desk in which Ana had talked about vintage colored pencils and how the older Prismacolors were superior in quality to contemporary ones. As someone who had tossed a box of modern Prismacolors years ago because the cores kept breaking (as if they were already broken inside the wood), I had made a mental note when I’d initially read the post: Old is better.

My finds at Seattle ReCreative and re-reading Ana’s post piqued my curiosity. I started searching the Internet for information about colored pencil history. And as anyone who “collects” anything does, I went to eBay, where I picked up a modest assortment of vintage pencils for about the same price as the thrift store. (May I just pause here to say that I’m annoyed that products manufactured in the ‘90s are considered “vintage”? Why does “vintage” keep getting more and more recent! End of old fart’s rant.)

One day, Ana and I were chatting about vintage colored pencils, and the next thing I knew, she kindly sent me a bunch of unsharpened Eberhard Faber Colorbrites and others! Suddenly it seemed I had a collection! (Yes, I’m well aware that I’m still moving stuff out, not in. But it’s just a few pencils. 😉) 

Stay tuned – I’m going to review specific pencil brands in upcoming posts. 

Here's all the stuff I got rid of. Surely a few pencils will take up less space than this!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Expensive and Unpleasant

1/15/18 Maple Leaf neighborhood

The other day when the sun crossing a window unexpectedly cast shadows on some pears I was sketching, it suddenly added urgency to a normally leisurely still life. But it also signaled another urgency: The sun’s out – what am I doing inside? Time’s a-wastin’! 

I dashed outside and walked a couple of blocks, where I’d earlier seen a red and white excavator. It was still, but the lawn and soil around it was already ripped to shreds. As I sketched, the owner of the house came out to chat with her neighbor, describing the expensive and unpleasant project under way. Sewers are involved.  

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Pears on Location

1/15/18 Bartletts in the sun
Compared to urban sketching, drawing still lives in my studio is easy. While capturing the hues and forms of produce has many of its own formidable challenges, the lighting comes from my flexible desk lamp, I point it exactly where I want the highlight to be, and if I’m interrupted, I can come back hours later to finish. As long as the fruit doesn’t go bad (the pear on the right is getting close), nothing will change. It’s sort of the opposite of sketching on location, where the light is constantly moving, changing in temperature and intensity, and other conditions are unpredictable and inconsistent.

An interesting thing happened yesterday morning with a couple of Bartlett pears. As usual, I had polished their skins to get a strong highlight, turned on my lamp, and started sketching. I was about halfway through, leisurely coloring them in, when the sun unexpectedly broke through clouds just as it was passing across a side window. One pear cast a strong shadow against the other, but the spotlight from my lamp still reflected on the rear pear’s shiny skin, causing an unusual circumstance of a highlight inside a shadow that was too good to miss.

Suddenly it was just like drawing on location: I had to immediately draw all the shadow shapes so that they would be consistent with the angle of the sun (I had to fudge one that I missed initially) and color the forms as quickly as possible to avoid missing interesting nuances in the pears’ lumps and bumps that I couldn’t even see before the sun appeared.

Who knew making a still life could be so exhilarating! 

But wait . . . sun passing across a window. . . ? That’s my cue . . .

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Dose of D

1/14/18 Maple Leaf Park

This time of year – the holidays are long over, and spring seems far, far away – could be the dictionary definition of doldrums. Day after day of gray skies and rain – even people who don’t suffer from seasonal affective disorder start to feel a bit gloomy. As a native of these parts, I’m used to it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get tired of it.

That’s why yesterday was such a treat – sunshine all day! It seemed like the whole city was outdoors, sucking up their megadose of vitamin D. The forecast for the foreseeable future is gray and rain again, but if we can have an occasional day like yesterday, getting through the winter won’t be so bad. 

Greg and I didn’t do anything special. We just walked up to Maple Leaf Park where I sketched the same old water tower I’ve sketched many times. When it’s so sunny that I have to wear shades, I could sketch a rock on the pavement and be happy.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Autumn Sketchbook Bound

Autumn 2017 sketchbook

My sketchbook from August through December is finally bound. On the covers are the Funko storefront from the October USk outing and the Space Needle under construction in December.

I usually bind six signatures together, but I filled a seventh before switching to a Stillman & Birn Nova for my minimalist challenge, so I decided to squeeze the seventh into the same book to maintain chronological continuity. I’m not sure it was a good bookbinding decision, though – seven signatures is pushing it for paper of this thickness (140 pound). The spine, where the signatures are folded, is always thicker than the fore edge, so the book doesn’t lay as flat as it does with six signatures. Also, I try to avoid knotting the thread in the middle of Coptic stitching, so I had to use an extra-long piece to get through seven signatures, and pulling all that thread through became unwieldy.

My typical rate for filling six signatures is about two to three months, so this book might break a record by including five months of sketches (although I had a similar experience last winter, too). I didn’t feel like I was sketching less than usual, so I tried to figure out why it took me so long to fill – and then I remembered that I had been occupied with my graphite drawing class for most of that period. Lots of days I spent many hours on homework assignments, and the only additional drawings I made were small quick ones in a Field Notes notebook, especially during InkTober. 

Now that I’m working consistently in the S&B Nova (except for the usual occasional Field Notes sketches), I won’t be using handmade signatures for a while. On the one hand, I miss carrying the slim, lightweight signatures. On the other hand, it’s nice to have 92 contiguous pages in a single volume. I haven’t worked this consistently in one store-bought book in years – and while I use several sporadically for certain purposes, this is the longest continuous run I’ve had in any one S&B softcover, ever. I’m not sure it’s going to persuade me to stop bookbinding altogether – there’s still too much to love about binding my own – but it’s reassuring to know that the S&B softcover is holding up well as a daily-carry. If I ever do decide to stop binding, I know that I’d be happy with this line of books long-term.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Still Gabbin’ & Grabbin’

1/12/18 Seattle USk Gab & Grab at the Northeast library branch

For the fifth year, Seattle USk held its annual Gab & Grab yesterday – an opportunity for an informal show-and-tell of our favorite sketch supplies and a place to share books and materials we are no longer using. Our tradition is to do it early in the year to perk up the post-holiday doldrums when it’s too wet and cold to sketch outdoors. Usually held in the meeting room of public libraries, it’s fun and well-attended.

Earlier this week as I was pulling together supplies to give away, I was trying to recall how many times we’ve done it, and I realized I’ve been remiss in documenting this popular event. I don’t have a single blog post about it and apparently took only a few photos. Even more shocking – I’ve never sketched at one! Whaaaat?! 

To correct that omission, I decided I would document this year’s event with sketches. The photos below are from 2014, our very first Gab & Grab.

Nilda and Peggy at Third Place Commons for our very first Gab & Grab.


Friday, January 12, 2018


1/11/18 Zoka Coffee
As other sketchers have discovered, by far the easiest victims to draw in a public place are the ones engrossed in their devices. One thing I’ve noticed is that some people keep one hand on a device even when they are socializing with other humans – live and in person – sitting across from them at a table, especially when there are more than two in the party. So while one person is talking and at least one other is listening, the other(s) will sneak a look at their phone and scroll a bit (certainly something on their Facebook feed is more engaging than the people at their table).


It seems rude to me. Regardless, I take advantage of their rapt attention to their devices by putting them in my sketchbook.

Thursday, January 11, 2018


1/10/18 Feeling blue -- and brown.
In addition to still lives, another thing I don’t particularly enjoy but find myself doing a lot of in winter is self-portraits (when I first started sketching, I made a hundred of them). Of course, sketching any portrait is challenging, but there is something about drawing one’s own face that is especially daunting, and it has nothing to do with drawing.
1/9/18 Channeling my inner Obi-wan Kenobi

It’s vanity.

Looking at myself in the mirror only minutes after my first coffee is bad enough, but then to have to scrutinize every flaw and commit it to paper is humbling indeed. The upside, however, of starting the day with a selfie is that whatever else you draw the rest of the day is bound to be less frightening.

As long as I’m humbling myself, here are a couple of selfies from that hundred I made six years ago.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Warty Noses

1/8/18 Roosevelt Way Northeast
Roosevelt Way Northeast, the main north-south arterial going through the Maple Leaf neighborhood, is lined on both sides with gnarly, knotty old trees. Although their trunks are not as stout or tall as some other trees in the ‘hood, they are covered with moss and massive, distinctive burls. Thin sprouts pop out from the knots like errant hairs that need to be plucked. I always think of wicked witches in storybooks who had long hairs growing out of their warty noses. 

Any time I have need to park near one of those trees, I get the urge to sketch it. Last fall I sketched one during InkTober, and a couple years ago I sketched a few others. Toothy Stillman & Birn Nova paper is just right for capturing the bark’s rough, mossy texture with a soft pencil.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Still Life Weather Continues

Despite how many I make, sketching still lives is not my favorite thing. Apples and avocadoes are not particularly challenging to draw, so I don’t do them for drawing practice, but they are very challenging for practicing form, color and light. (They could make good compositional practice, too, if I ever stacked more than a couple of apples at a time.) 

Sometimes I like to sketch the same piece of produce twice – once in color; once in graphite – because I learn different things when I have color and when I don’t. I find shiny fruit easier for conveying form because I can rely on the bright highlight to do a lot of the work. The avocado with its dull, bumpy skin was much harder.

Sometimes I just crave using bright colors, and the gray winter landscape just isn’t doing it for me, so a tomato and a banana keep me happy. Mostly, though, still lives entertain me when it’s too wet to play outside.



Monday, January 8, 2018

Sakya Lion

1/5/18 Sakya Monastery lion
More than three years ago on a sunny afternoon, I sketched the Sakya Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Greenwood neighborhood. The bright orange and yellow building was irresistible, not to mention the beautiful details all around it. I’d like to go back and sketch it again sometime, especially the huge bell and other percussion instruments on the side of the building that I didn’t get around to back then. (But I’m going to wait until I’m past my minimalism self-challenge so I can use full color, of course.) 

On my way to an errand in Greenwood the other day, I wasn’t planning to sketch the monastery, but I spotted a parking space right across from one of the fierce-looking lions flanking the entryway, so I abruptly pulled into it. I guess it called to me. It was too cold and drizzly to get out of my car, but I could easily sketch the lion from the side window.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Product Review: Moleskine Drawing Pencils

Moleskine graphite drawing pencils
Last year Moleskine released two sets of pencils as part of its Art Collection – watercolor pencils and graphite drawing pencils. In my review of the watercolor set, I mentioned features that are common to both, such as the unique square barrel, matte black finish and semi-gloss end caps (please read the introduction to that post first). In this review I’ll talk about specific qualities of the graphite drawing pencil set.

Like their colorful cousins, the Moleskine graphite pencils have the same design esthetic that fits well with most Moleskine products. While the colored pencils have end caps of consistent length, the graphite pencil set’s end caps are stair-stepped to indicate the different grades. I love this kind of detail that makes the set look wonderful in the tin.

The five graphite grades – H, HB, 2B, 4B and 6B – are sensible and functional, and they span the range I use most often. Although most drawing sets include every grade within a range, I usually find that there’s so little difference between, say, a 3B and a 4B that skipping grades is perfectly adequate.

The grades are clearly stamped in black on the silver end caps, which I appreciate for clarity and ease of identification. My only complaint about this clean, unfussy appearance is that I wish the grade were stamped on each of the four sides so that the pencil wouldn’t have to be turned to identify the grade.

Like the Moleskine colored pencils, these look so pretty in their box.

On the colored pencil set, the (overblown) color names are printed in glossy black on matte black. To match that lovely (though difficult to read) design touch, the graphite pencils are stamped with nonsensical descriptions such as “Echo” (4B) and “Respire” (HB). The enclosed brochure explains these descriptions this way: “From the rumbling echoes of smooth and dark 6B and 4B. . . to the natural sigh of HB. . . How are your sketches sounding today?” (The color names are silly, but these are downright ridiculous.)

Despite the names, like the colored set, the printing is in the southpaw direction, which delights me because I encounter it so rarely in the pencil world.

I compared the cores grade-for-grade with Mitsubishi Hi-Uni and Staedtler Mars Lumograph, the two drawing pencil lines I’m most familiar with. Moleskine is easily comparable to Hi-Uni in darkness. In feel, however, it’s closer to Staedtler, which is rougher than Hi-Uni at these grades. While sketching with the Moleskine pencils, I also hit gritty spots occasionally. Despite being spoiled by the silky smoothness of Hi-Unis, I didn’t find the feedback of the Moleskines objectionable; in fact, it’s pleasant, especially in a Baron Fig notebook, which I used for these test swatches.
Core grade comparison in Baron Fig sketchbook

Using grades H through 4B, I made the small test sketch in a Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook, which is much toothier than Baron Fig paper. I tend to prefer a smoother core on toothy paper, but sketchers who appreciate more feedback might prefer Moleskine. 

1/3/18 Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook

Another surprise was using the square barrel. Hex, round, triangle, even pentagon – I’ve used ‘em all for writing and most for drawing and coloring – but this was my first square-barreled pencil for either writing or drawing. I thought it might be uncomfortable, but the square didn’t faze me at all. In fact, the barrel looks so sleek and distinctive that I wish more pencils came square. 

Unlike their colored pencil counterparts, which I deem an overpriced novelty, the Moleskine graphite drawing pencils are a decent, functional set that I will happily use. At $14.95 for five pencils, they are a bit pricier than Mitsubishi Hi-Uni, which is considered high-end for pencils. Wearing the Moleskine name, however, they are priced as expected for those lovely design elements. If you’re a pencil geek like I am, I think the square barrel alone is worth it.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Product Review: Moleskine Watercolor Pencils

Back in the day, this rack of Moleskines would have made
me swoon. I guess it still does.
As it may have been for many stationery addicts, the Moleskine notebook was my gateway drug. Way back (and I mean way back, like before Facebook, blogs, maybe even the whole Internet), I’d occasionally find Moleskine journals in nicer stationery stores and fondle them lovingly, imagining the possibilities. When I began sketching, one of the first sketchbooks I bought was a Moleskine (the kind with the weird manila-envelope paper; see one on my archive page). Eventually as the paper quality declined and so many other notebooks and sketchbooks came onto the market, I stopped buying them. But every now and then I’ll pass a spinner rack of the huge variety of notebooks they produce, and on some level, the name Moleskine still gives me a small tingle from the memory of that stationery high.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I discovered that Moleskine had come out with sets of colored and graphite pencils, I felt that tingle again. (This post will cover the colored pencils; tomorrow Ill review the graphite drawing pencils.)

Moleskine watercolor and graphite pencil sets

Before I get to the details of the Naturally Smart Palette Watercolor Pencils, I thought I’d point out a few things that are common to both pencil sets, which are part of the Moleskine Art Collection. Designed in Italy, both sets of cedar pencils are manufactured in Vietnam. 

Both pencil sets feature a matte black barrel with sparks of narrow stripes, text and M logo in glossy black. But the more distinctive physical feature is that the barrels are square with semi-gloss end caps (the colored pencil caps indicate the core color; the graphite caps are silver). In my vast collection of colored pencils and growing collection of drawing pencils, these are the only ones with a square barrel. At first I wondered if the square shape would hinder drawing, but I forgot about it immediately, so it wasn’t a problem at all.

Square barrels and shiny end caps
I love the way they look in the box!

My initial thought was that these colored pencils are slightly over-designed (perhaps to justify the price), but the more I looked at them, the more I liked them. They fit beautifully with the rest of Moleskine’s design esthetic – mostly matte black, touches of color, squared off and tidy.

As mentioned earlier, the end cap colors indicate the core colors. A color number is stamped on one side of the end cap. For the name of the color, however, you have to tilt that side of the pencil toward the light so that you can see the glossy black text. And those color names? “Breathe Green,” “Plunge Blue,” “Rave Purple,” “Pulse Red.” A bit over the top, though not as bad as the copy on the mandatory brochure: “Hold your breath as you explore plunging blue depths, or capture the fleeting reflection of dazzling pure white.” (Whew – I’m sweating.) But I give Moleskine bonus brownie points for printing the pencil text for lefties!

Left-handed pencils with silly color names

The color range is typical of a set of 12, although the two greens are too similar to be useful. Relatively dry in application, they feel like average novelty colored pencils (which is disappointing after that blush-producing copy). Activating the swatches with a waterbrush takes quite a bit of scrubbing, and the washed colors are not as rich as I want them to be. That said, the hues are true to their dry state, which is often not the case with water-soluble colored pencils. 
Swatches in Canson XL mixed-media sketchbook

I also tested them in a couple of other ways that I like to use water-soluble pencils. First, I smeared water on the page with a waterbrush; then I ran a pencil through it. In the second test, I “licked” the pencil tip with a waterbrush and applied the color to the paper with the brush like traditional watercolors. In both cases, if there’s plenty of pigment, the color will show as rich and vibrant. These are somewhat lacking.

Tests in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

Given the test results, I didn’t have high expectations for performance in a sketch. Again, I find the pencils to be very average in vibrancy and ability to blend and activate with water. 

1/2/18 Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

I mentioned earlier that Moleskine watercolor pencils fit the brand’s esthetic perfectly. Unfortunately, similar to the notebooks with engaging concepts and designs but inferior paper, these pencils look and feel better than they perform. They really are no worse than most novelty watercolor pencils, but at $24.95 for 12 pencils, they are not novelty priced.
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