Sunday, June 30, 2019

Yoga, Music and Dogs

6/25/19 Murphey enjoying his shavasana

It’s becoming a delightful tradition for me. My yoga instructor Fran Gallo offers an outdoor class at Meridian Park in the summer, and she invited me to come and sketch her students. Last week we all had the added treat of live cello and guitar music.

Last year, it was sunny and warm, and two years before that it was a chilly, breezy June-uary evening. Though the clouds were coming in during last week’s class, the temperature was just right for yoga and sketching.

The large class formed a loose circle, so wherever I looked, I could see yogis and yoginis in the same pose from different angles. All my practice at life drawing helped immensely in capturing their poses, but even so, it’s always an interesting challenge. One thing I know from my own practice in Fran’s class is that we always work symmetrically. If we do a pose on the right, we will eventually do it again on the left – and some students always seem to do it backwards! It was a key opportunity for me: If I couldn’t complete a gesture, I knew I had to wait only a bit, and when it was repeated on the second side, I looked for someone working on the “wrong” side. The most challenging pose to sketch was eagle – those wrapped legs! That’s a pose I never get to practice at life drawing.

During the restful shavasana, my best model was Murphey, whom I remember sketching a previous year. I never saw him do downward dog, but he was a master at shavasana.

As one of my Facebook friends commented when I posted these sketches, “Yoga, music, dogs – what more could you ask for?” Indeed.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Bardahl from Behind

6/25/19 Ballard neighborhood

An errand in the Ballard neighborhood a few days ago brought me right past the old Bardahl Oil sign and the bright yellow building it stands on. Since I had sketched it from the front several years ago, I decided to sketch it from behind this time. When I went back to find my previous blog post, it reminded me that I had actually sketched it from the back before, too. In that one, I misspelled Bardahl on the building. This time I didn’t notice until I saw my sketch posted on Instagram that I completely forgot to put the letters on the building!

Friday, June 28, 2019

Tsunago: The Ultimate Geek Tool

The early roots of a dream.

One of my earliest memories of colored pencils is of the Empire Sunset Dual-Kolors with a different color on each end. Endlessly impressive when I was five years old, bicolor pencils are still at the height of pencil coolness for me. So much so, in fact, that my dream for the past several years has been to be able to make my own. Of course, I can easily buy bicolored pencils (and unlike those nostalgic Dual-Kolors, some contemporary bicolors contain useable pigment), and I do, but I have reasons for wanting to make my own pairings. For example, it would be handy to have a soft and a hard core of a single hue on either end of one stick. Or to simply build a set of water-soluble bicolor pencils, which do not exist commercially – I could carry twice as many colors in the same space.

6/22/19 The Tsunago
Imagine my thrill when I discovered the Tsunago, a Japanese device that joins two pencils together. Most of the marketing information I read about the product promoted it as a way to thriftily use up a pencil stub that is getting too short to hold comfortably by attaching another stub to its back end. But I instantly saw its greater potential: I could join the back ends of two colored pencils, and voila! A bicolor pencil!

After reading more about it, however, I learned that it only worked on standard graphite pencils, not colored, and it was apparently a finicky, high-maintenance bastard anyway. The concept was genius, but the execution less so – especially at a price of more than $30 for the gadget. Discouraged, I put the Tsunago on a back burner – but not the dream.

Fast-forward several months, when I had the opportunity to swap some pencils for a used Tsunago that had thoroughly disappointed its owner. For the price of a few pencils, my dream was rekindled!

Before beginning, I downloaded written instructions and viewed a few YouTube videos, one of which was made by the manufacturer. The instructions were explicit that the device is intended for hexagonal or round pencils 7 to 8mm in diameter (most standard pencils) and with cores of 3mm or less (eliminating most colored pencils). Furthermore, the ideal length for the joined pencils is 18cm or less (the length of a standard new pencil). This means that each pencil to be conjoined should be about 3½ inches long (the fabled “Steinbeck length”).

A few warnings in the instructions made me a bit leery, such as “You may form blisters on your fingers when opening holes in numerous pencils at once.” One video cautioned that the device should be avoided by people with arthritic hands or bad wrists. How bad could it be? Nonetheless, I proceeded with caution.

The concept of the tool is simple: On the tail end of one pencil, drill a hole (the “female” part, in hardware parlance). On the head end of a second pencil, shave off some of the outer wood while leaving a peg made up of the pencil’s graphite core and enough wood around it to support it (the “male” part). Apply a bit of wood glue into the hole, and insert the peg into the hole. Done. Simple, right?

Test 1: Two Blackwing pencils (with ferrules removed)
Before tackling the unadvised colored pencils, I decided to practice on two Blackwing pencils of the recommended barrel shape and size, core diameter and length. However, instead of adjoining one head to the other’s tail, I chose to join them tail to tail, making both ends useable (and frankly, much more practical than simply adding on a slightly longer tail). This meant that I had to first remove the ferrules on the two Blackwings. In addition, the adjoining edges must be flush, so I also had to carefully saw off the ratty end of one Blackwing where the ferrule had been attached. This took more work than I expected; snapping a pencil in half is much easier than cutting it carefully. In fact, after cutting, I had to file off the rough edges.

Raw end of Blackwing cut off.
Step 1

Step 1 in progress. I still have a ways to go... the end of the
blue pencil must reach the red line.
The multiple parts of the Tsunago are clearly labeled to guide the sequence. Step 1 is to drill out a hole, and with an actual drill, this step would be fast and easy. Instead, the tool at Step 1 is more like an awl. (It’s dark inside Step 1’s cavity, so I couldn’t photograph it.) You must rotate the pencil carefully (to keep it centered) while also pushing with firm but not excessive pressure (which could splinter the wood). The awl slowly augers away at the graphite and some of the wood. This step must continue until the end of the pencil reaches the red indicator line – about an inch of augering. In the written instructions and the videos I viewed, no one mentions how long this step takes. It took me a good 15 minutes, at least (and I started to understand the warnings about arthritis and bad wrists).

At the end of Step 1, I had a decent-looking hole in one Blackwing.
Step 1 hole completed.

For Step 2, I realized it would be easier to shave away the wood on the sharpened point end of the second Blackwing rather than the rough tail end that had been inside the ferrule. To ensure a flush end, the point must be shaved all the way down to the pencil’s collar (where the sharpened part meets the paint). A breeze compared to Step 1, this step took only a few minutes.

Step 2
Step 2: Blackwing peg formed

The tool in Step 3 refines the shaving that was completed in Step 2. Rough fragments of wood are filed away, producing a smooth peg.

Step 3: Peg is refined
Step 3

Per the instructions, I first tested the fit by inserting the white Blackwing Pearl’s protrusion into the blue Blackwing 73’s hole by using a firm twisting motion. The joint felt snug and secure, so I proceeded with the final step.

I applied a few drops of wood glue into the hole, using a toothpick to poke the glue down into the channel as much as possible. Then I Tsunago’d the two pencils together. After wiping away the excess glue, I could see that the join wasn’t as clean as I would have liked – the edges of both pencils probably weren’t perfectly flush – but I was happy with my first Frankenpencil attempt. I had a very practical, double-sided Blackwing – one side with the softest MMX core, and the other with a slightly harder Pearl core.

Wood glue conveniently found on the spouse
man's work bench.
Cavity filled with glue.

Not a perfect join, but not bad for a first try.

First completed Frankenpencil! It's the same length as an unsharpened Blackwing.

Encouraged, I decided to attempt the pairing I was most interested in: Two colored pencils. Within the limitations of barrel and core size, most of my colored pencils were eliminated, but two seemed possible. One was a Mitsubishi vermilion/Prussian blue editing pencil (I’ve been using it frequently lately for value studies), which has a core diameter of 3mm. The second was an orange Blick Studio colored pencil, which has a 4mm core – only a bit larger than the recommended maximum (I made a conscious choice to take the risk). Pairing the blue side of the Mitsubishi with the orange Blick would give me an interesting complementary unit for more bicolor studies.
Test 2: colored pencils

My first step was to hack off the blue end from the editing pencil. (Yes, I am aware of the deep irony of splitting apart an existing bicolor pencil to experimentally conjoin half to another pencil. But Dr. Frankenstein would not have let irony stop him, and it wasn’t about to stop me.) I wanted to retain as much useable blue core as possible, so I measured against the red indicator line in the Tsunago’s Step 1 chamber, cutting with a full inch of allowance on the vermilion side. I sanded the raw end to make it as flush as possible.
The rough hacked end had to be sanded smooth.

I measured the cut carefully so that I would have as
much useable blue core as possible.

Step 1 complete.

Compared to the Blackwing, drilling out the Mitsubishi was slightly easier and took less time, either because the pigment core is softer than graphite or because I had gained experience as a Tsunago driller (probably both). The hole looked clean and precise.

Step 2 with the orange Blick was a different matter. Inserting and twisting the point in the Step 2 sharpener, the point broke off inside almost immediately. After dislodging the broken core, I continued shaving off the wood, but I could see that the blades were cutting the core, too. It suddenly became very clear why a 3mm core is the maximum recommended. I kept shaving away, hoping that a thin veneer of wood would be retained around the core to build a workable peg.

The point of the Blick when I began Step 2.
The point broke off almost immediately inside
the Tsunago.

I kept going with Step 2, even though I had a bad feeling about it.

I tried inserting the resulting peg (orange core with fragments of wood around it) into the Mitsubishi’s hole, but after a couple of twists, the protrusion broke off inside. It was a clear, total failure. I fully understood now why it’s critical for the core to be 3mm or smaller – at least a millimeter of wood must support the peg’s core. 

Looking worse after the test insertion.
Total failure.

On the upside, the Mitsubishi’s hole was fine, so at least in theory, two colored pencils could be conjoined if both have cores of 3mm or less. The downside is that I don’t often use colored pencils with cores that small (the editing pencil is a rare exception). In retrospect, I might have been successful if I’d drilled the hole in the orange Blick pencil and made a peg on the Mitsubishi pencil. (Perhaps I’ll save that experiment for the next snowstorm.)

Before I put away the Tsunago, however, I had one more idea: A while back I reviewed the Viking Verso. This unique, innovative pencil has an HB grade graphite core on one end and a 4B grade on the other – a versatile graphite pair for drawing. At the time that I was using it, my Tsunago thoughts were reignited – and now that I owned a Tsunago, it was time to give that idea a try.

For my last Tsunago experiment, I paired a classic Blackwing with the softest core, which is about a 3B or 4B grade, and a Mitsubishi Hi-Uni with an 8B grade. While grades 9B and softer in the Hi-Uni line have extremely thick cores, the 8B’s core is exactly 3mm, so I knew it would qualify for the Tsunago treatment. The Blackwing has a standard writing core of about 2mm.
Test 3: graphite cores of different grades

The hardest part about this experiment was the initial prep step: It broke my heart to cut off the Hi-Uni’s gorgeous end cap (ahhh, the sacrifices I make for geeky science), which is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. In fact, I was nearly in tears trying to saw it off, especially when I realized that it’s made of plastic, not varnished paint like the rest of the pencil, and the knife wasn’t going through at all. After making a shallow groove in the cap, I took some pliers to see if it would snap off at the groove, and that’s when the cap popped off. After that, it was easy to cut through the bare wood.

Alas, the gorgeous end cap had to go.
Drilling through the Hi-Uni for Step 1 went well, as did shaping the peg on the Blackwing. The Uni-Wing Frankenpencil lives! It’s going to be a useful drawing pencil, too.

Step 1 completed.

Step 2 completed.

Two successful Frankenpencils; one total failure.

Why Use a Tsunago?

If you’ve stayed with me through this long and perhaps tedious review, I owe you some final thoughts to help answer the question, Why would anyone use a Tsunago? If your intention is to save money and reduce pencil waste by using up more of a pencil stub, forget it. Just get yourself a simple, inexpensive pencil extender. If you use a specialized pairing of graphite pencils such as my Uni-Wing experiment, and you travel so light that carrying one stick instead of two is important, those might qualify as legitimate needs for a Tsunago. Be prepared to spend at least an hour putting together your pencil.

Frankly, though, I can think of only one reason to use a Tsunago: to earn absolute, undeniable credibility as a bona fide pencil geek.

Would Darth Maul use a Tsunago?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Mysterious Viaduct Demolition

6/21/19 Viaduct demolition viewed from Steinbrueck Park

After the sketch outing downtown, I met Greg by the Pike Place Market, where he was shooting video again of the ongoing demolition of the viaduct. From Steinbrueck Park at the north end of the market, I spotted a crane with its cables attached to one end of a concrete support. A saw was cutting off the end of the support, and water was spraying out near the blades. Just after I finished the sketch, the end piece separated, and the crane hauled the piece away.

It’s a mystery: If the whole thing is coming down anyway, why cut off that piece? I had no one to ask.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Questions to Ponder While Sharpening Colored Pencils

6/19/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

It pains me to say this: As much as I thrive on color – seeing it, using it, collecting it – I have come to realize that when I limit my palette to one or two hues, I tend to make better drawings. I started to feel an inkling of this last year when I began sketching with graphite more. And during the past couple of months when I’ve used only two colors, I’ve noticed the same thing.

When I’m not preoccupied with which hues to use and whether they match or adequately express reality, I observe tone and values more closely – and the sketch ends up looking better. Maybe “better” isn’t the right term. In most cases, I prefer the full-color sketches I make because they more fully capture the moment as I saw it – the brick red building, the yellow excavator, the lime green bike. But when I limit my colors to one or two, I find that the results are often better rendered drawings.

In classical art training centuries ago, masters required their students to make monochrome studies for years before they ever began to consider color. Even in contemporary ateliers, students work with charcoal, graphite and other monochrome media for a long time before they touch paint. (I once heard Gage Academy atelier instructor Juliette Aristides say that during her own classical training, she worked with graphite for seven years before moving on to other media.)

6/17/19 Convention Center
Shortly after I began sketching, I read a book in which the author advised beginning sketchers to stick with pencil for a while and work on basics like composition, proportions, tone and value before introducing the complications of color. “No color? HA! Forget it,” I said to myself, slamming that book shut and pulling out my watercolors. Over the years, I continued to hear that same general advice occasionally from other authors and instructors – advice that I immediately dismissed.

Sometimes I wonder where my work would be now if I had heeded that advice. What if I had sketched with nothing but graphite for seven years and only just now, in my eighth year, started using color? Would I be ahead of my own game in terms of rendering accurately? If I’d done my homework in monochrome for all those years first, would it be easy now to simply add color, since all the basics would have been covered?

I suppose there’s little benefit in pondering questions asked in hindsight, but sometimes I do – while sharpening my many colored pencils.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Crest Cinema

6/23/19 Crest Cinema

When David Chamness announced that he had an art show at the Ridgecrest Public House in Shoreline, I knew I wanted to see it – he’s one of my favorite urban sketchers. I thought it would be fun to organize an ad hoc sketch outing in the neighborhood before the show’s opening reception. In fact, the historic Crest Cinema neighborhood theater, which opened in 1949, is right across the street, and I had been meaning to sketch it for a while.

Afterwards the other sketchers and I went over to see the show, which includes many of his vibrant, boldly colorful urban sketches. The show is up through July 12. 


Tim, Alex, Carol and Tina

Monday, June 24, 2019

Field Notes Releases Huskies Edition

Seeing double?

I’ve been a fan of Field Notes Brand pocket-size notebooks for years. The three-packs of paper-covered, stapled notebooks are available in standard editions that can be purchased any time as well as limited editions that are released quarterly. The company uses a variety of paper types, so I’ve found only a few editions that I like to sketch in, but I also use the other types for general notetaking. I carry one in my bag for memos and keep others around the house to track projects. They’re very handy.

When I first heard that Field Notes had collaborated with Graduate Hotels on a new edition, it didn’t mean much to me. It wasn’t until I saw images of the three notebook covers on Field Notes’ site that my eyes widened: Wasn’t that the interior of Suzzallo Library (parts of which I’ve sketched numerous times) on one of the covers? And hey . . . the building shown on a second book looked familiar, too! Then I read that the photographer had apparently shot the cover photos for this national chain in Seattle and Berkeley. . . it had to be Suzzallo! Indeed, two of the three cover images are of Suzzallo (the third shows a messy office piled with books – that one must be from Berkeley. I don’t know anything about the University of California, but surely the photographer could have found something more inspiring on that campus!).
A second book cover shows Suzzallo Library's exterior.

I ran right over to the University District, where a Graduate Hotel had opened last fall in the former Hotel Deca building. Although the Graduate chain renovated the interior, it retained many of the 1930s Art Deco details. It’s still a beautiful building.

After first explaining to the desk clerks what Field Notes were and that I was certain they had some for me to purchase (it took a while to find them in the storage room, and then another little while to figure out how to sell them to me), I was tickled to walk out with several packs. It’s not every day that Field Notes makes notebooks emblazoned with my alma mater!
The middle book's photo is the one apparently taken at
Berkeley... I'm ignoring that one.

Inside Suzzallo, I watched a young Asian woman in cap and gown with her proud immigrant parents posing for a professional photographer. Other grads in small groups took photos of themselves and each other. Although now I think of Suzzallo as the place where I struggle to capture its Gothic arches, I also always feel a wave of nostalgia for all the years I walked through its quiet, imposing hallways (I actually spent more time studying in the modern undergraduate library). Seeing the happy grads, I remembered fondly the slightly scary yet exhilarating feeling of leaving those hallowed halls for the last time as a student and marching into my future.

Officially this Field Notes edition is known as Graduate Hotels, but I’ll always think of it as the Huskies Edition. Go Dawgs!

Graduate Hotels has retained many of the 1931
building's original decor.

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