Saturday, November 30, 2019

Someone’s Home

11/27/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

This is the same maple I’ve sketched twice this fall – once on Oct. 9 and again on Oct. 23 (you can see them both here) – when it still had leaves. It’s almost completely bare now, but when I drove by a few days ago, I discovered that squirrels had made a nest in it. Maybe it was always there, hidden in the leaves.

Friday, November 29, 2019


11/26/19 Green Lake neighborhood

The Interstate 5 overpass at 65th and Ravenna is not a pretty sight. I drive under it regularly, and the spot is noisy and dark. Nonetheless, it’s a fun place for a values study. As I was sketching, I saw a tree growing between the two sets of freeway “legs” that I’d never noticed before.

I sketched the opposite side of the freeway in the same neighborhood a couple of years ago.

Thursday, November 28, 2019


11/26/19 Zoka Coffee patron
Every winter I am challenged by the puffy coat. The reflective surface is more difficult to render than it seems like it should be. I always expect the brightest part of the reflection to be at the top of the puff, but when sketching indoors, it’s usually just above the lower stitching. It’s not easy to describe, but let’s just say it’s not where I think it will be.

At Zoka Coffee the other day, this apparently chilly young woman kept her down jacket on the entire time she worked, so I had two chances to try it.


Happy Thanksgiving – I hope youre having a warm and cozy one!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Rialto Theater

11/25/19 Rialto Theater, Tacoma

A lunch meeting brought me to the Bostwick Café, which has a perfect view of the historic Rialto Theater across the street in Tacoma’s Antique District. I arrived just early enough to sketch it quickly before the meeting. Nearly six years ago, the Bostwick used to be a Tully’s, where I remember meeting with USk Seattle and sitting at the same table to sketch the Rialto. Built in 1918, the theater has a curved classical façade that caught a bit of the morning light.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Foggy Again

11/22/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

It’s not uncommon to wake to thick fog this time of year, but I know that it can burn off by mid-morning. To sketch it, I must catch it as early as possible. With full light when I finished breakfast, I opened the livingroom shades to see how far I could see: Trees a half-block away were barely visible. By the time I finished, the fog was already thinning.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Get a Grip

11/20/19 Cretacolor Mega Color Pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

While I’m in the act of sketching, especially on location, I’m not much aware of my physical actions – my full attention is on whatever I’m drawing and how I render it. But one day recently when I was covering a large area of the page heavily with pigment (the foliage and shadows in this sketch), I became aware of how I had changed the grip on my pencils as I colored. I’ve seen instructions in drawing books about various grips, but it’s not the kind of thing I remember or think about when I’m actually drawing. For me, the changes are mostly intuitive.

Out of curiosity, I started paying closer attention to how I hold pencils at life-drawing sessions, and I realize I change the grip frequently, depending on the task. To quickly block in a shape while measuring, I hold the pencil fairly loosely. While I’m drawing the main contour lines and small details, I hold it more conventionally as I would if I were writing (fingers close to the point and the back end of the pencil supported by the crook between the thumb and forefinger). And when I’m shading large and even relatively small areas, I hold the pencil as if it were a piece of chalk or charcoal (the pencil inside my fist, shown below).

The "crayon grip"

I became especially intrigued by this latter grip – the way a young child holds a thick crayon – because I use it to cover a lot of ground expeditiously. I don’t like to waste life-drawing time doing any navel- (or hand-) gazing, but later at home, I decided to try sketching a pear entirely while using this “crayon grip.” Remembering that I had some Cretacolor Mega jumbo-sized colored pencils that are probably intended for children, I figured these chunky pencils would prompt me to maintain that grip. 

As expected, the crayon grip is useful for applying lots of pigment quickly when fine details are not needed, but I was able to easily draw the contour of this simple shape, too. I switched to my conventional writing grip only for the stem, its shadow and the slivers of the darkest cast shadows under the pear. The crayon grip was especially useful when loosely hatching the large cast shadow. I didn’t have to watch myself to make sure I kept using the crayon grip; it does feel intuitive to me.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering: Except for doing an exercise like this, I don’t recommend these pencils. They contain more binder than pigment, so after a layer or two is applied, the pigment starts to slide around on the waxy surface below, causing the dark chunks and blobs you can see on the right side of the pear instead of blending with the previous layers.)

11/20/19 Luminance pencils in S&B Epsilon sketchbook
Next I tried using much more highly pigmented Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils, which are the same diameter as Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils; both are just a smidge wider than conventional pencils. (I chose the same pear but at a different angle so that its unusually pronounced cleavage would be more apparent; maybe it’s part peach?) Obviously, I had caught myself using the crayon grip during life drawing with conventional sized pencils and on location while using Museum Aquarelle pencils, so I didn’t think the barrel size would matter, and it didn’t. However, the softness of the core does make a difference. With softer Luminance pencils, it was much easier to use the side of the core with the crayon grip and lay down lots of pigment quickly. In other words, the crayon grip works best with crayon-like pencils. And of course, generous pigment also makes a difference for the obvious reasons that it is applied quickly and blends more easily.

I’ve known for a long time that one reason Museum Aquarelle is my favorite on location is that it is the softest watercolor pencil I’ve used and is therefore very easy to apply quickly when I need to. While I prefer harder pencils for certain applications, softer ones serve me better when speed is important. That’s also one reason why Derwent Drawing Pencils are my favorite at life drawing.

I seem to have tapped into my inner crayon-using, 2-year-old self.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The P.O.

11/19/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

Surrounded by fencing and weedy-looking plants, the Wedgwood post office parking lot is not a pretty place. Still, I enjoy the challenge of sketching cars there because I know their owners will be back soon (normally; the holiday season is upon us, however). When I feel like sketching there, I back into my own space, finish my postal errand, then sketch whatever car is in front of me when I get back. On this day it was a silver Mercedes that I’m certain I’ve sketched before.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Cleaning Out My Life-Drawing Tools

All the dry materials I carried in my life-drawing bag before I cleaned it out.

Last Monday was the last life-drawing open session for the year before Gage takes a lengthy winter break, and I wasted maybe a minute of a 10-minute pose digging through my pencil bag, looking for my rainbow pencil. It made me realize it’s time again to clean out my life-drawing tools!

Nearly two years ago I went through the same thing: Whenever I came across a material that I thought would be interesting to try at life drawing, I would toss it into the bag – without taking anything out. Like bunnies hiding in my bag, they silently multiplied. Since that bag is not my daily-carry, and I don’t have to carry it far, excess weight is not an issue. But when I have so many tools that I can’t easily find what I want, it’s a problem.

The photo above shows all the dry materials I had been carrying. At left are the ones I use 80 percent of the time: a few Derwent Drawing Pencils and a Viarco ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil. The rest, shown at right, are used occasionally – lots of other soft colored pencils and water-soluble colored pencils, Conte in various colors, soft graphite and the elusive rainbow pencil. I love them all for different reasons and different lengths of poses, but I don’t need all those color choices to complicate my decisions when time is short.

The ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil in 6B has become a unique, essential life-drawing tool. I’ve tried many water-soluble graphite pencils, but none is as dark and soft as this one. According to that blog post from two years ago, I saved water-soluble pencils for 20-minute poses because I needed the time. Since that time, however, I’ve come to use the ArtGraf even for five-minute poses. (That’s very gratifying because it means I’m gaining greater control of my eye, hand and materials and drawing faster when I want to.) It’s a permanent resident of my life-drawing bag.
Viarco ArtGraf: unique and indispensible

For poses of 2 minutes or less, my favorite tool is a brush pen filled with water-soluble ink (the type with a refillable reservoir that can be squeezed to dispense the ink, such as Kuretake Brush Writers and Pentel Color Brush Pens). These I managed to keep under control because I haven’t been acquiring new ones; I just refill them when they go dry. I like to carry a few colors so that I can track poses of different durations. A quick swipe with my usual Kuretake waterbrush is for easy shading. Happily, I didn’t need to do any minimizing of these wet materials.
Essential for short poses: water-soluble ink-filled brush pens

After removing similar and rarely used colored and Conte pencils and several soft graphite pencils, I reduced the dry tools by half. Shown below are the pencils that made the cut: the ArtGraf, one very soft graphite (12B), two Conte, a Nero extra soft, five vintage and contemporary Derwent Drawing Pencils in warm hues, a few vintage Spectracolor pencils (some of the softest colored pencils I own, and therefore the easiest to use in life drawing) in cool hues, and a Camel rainbow pencil (plus a couple of tortillons to use with the Conte). That’s a manageable supply that will enable me to find whatever I need immediately. (Stay tuned for some future post when I reveal how the bunnies have multiplied again!)
Cut by half: Dry materials and tools after minimizing

By the way, I’m not the only one who has a hard time minimizing life-drawing tools. Some others whom I see regularly at Gage come into the studio with huge storage bins or portfolios full of charcoal, paint, pastels, markers, pencils and ink – yet they use one stick of charcoal the whole session. It’s a universal disease.

11/18/19 Timothy, 20-min. pose (Derwent Drawing Pencils)
11/18/19 Timothy, 5-min. pose (ArtGraf)

11/18/19 Timothy, 10-min. pose (Camel rainbow pencil)
11/18/19 Timothy, 10-min. pose (Spectracolor)

11/18/19 Timothy, 20-min. pose (Spectracolor and Derwent colored pencils)

Friday, November 22, 2019

Red Platform

11/18/19 Timothy (20-min. pose)
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how sketching apples regularly helped me to see and understand the subtle highlight that gets reflected from a white surface under the fruit – and how long it took me to see that same reflected highlight under a life-drawing model’s breasts. I ended that post with the observation that although it took me a long time to internalize that lesson, once it is seen, it can’t be unseen.

Last Monday at the Gage studio, the model’s platform was covered with red fabric, which reflected subtly on Timothy’s skin. I noticed immediately but had to wait for a 20-minute pose so that I would have time to apply the red. Lessons seen cannot be unseen.

(A lesson I never seem to learn is keeping the materials I carry to life drawing to a minimum. Time to clean out my bag! Check back tomorrow.)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Roastery as Architectural Gesture

11/16/19 Starbucks Reserve Roastery, Capitol Hill neighborhood

Arriving 15 minutes early to our brunch reservation left me just enough time for a very quick attempt at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery across the street. I’ve sketched it at least a couple of times before (both in 2016), so I chose a different angle.

Knowing I had so little time, I tossed measuring of angles and perspective to the wind and decided to approach the building the way I do short poses at life drawing: as a gesture. How does this 1920s building hold itself against a skyline of mostly glassy blue boxes (with more coming up behind it)? Where is its life and character? I hope they come through, even with wonky perspective.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Paved with Gold

11/15/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

It wasn’t the best of fall color this year, but it wasn’t chopped liver, either. I enjoyed the show while it lasted. Most leaves have either fallen off or are hanging on by a thread. Not one to go out quietly, this hacked-up tree in the Wedgwood neighborhood had paved the street with gold.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Foggy Trash Day

11/14/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

If not with rain, our autumn mornings tend to begin with fog. It was thick when I went out, but by 9 a.m. when my dental appointment was over, it was already beginning to lift. I may have over-emphasized the whiteness of this sketch; some followers on social media thought it was snow! I’ll make it my goal to make that weather distinction clearer in my sketches, because I don’t want anything that even looks like snow around here.

Monday, November 18, 2019


11/17/19 Seattle Art Museum lobby

The Seattle Art Museum’s resident Chinese camels, rams and human figure received plenty of sketcher attention yesterday morning. I was one of many USk Seattle members who were attracted to the iconic marble sculptures. Since I sketched the back end of a camel the last time we met at the museum, this time I gave a ram a try, along with the Chinese figure behind it. Unlike some brave souls, I ignored most of the long lobby stairway and its imposing decorative ceiling (you can see it in the group photo below).

After that time-consuming exercise in graphite and quite a bit of chatting, I hardly had time to catch a few gestures of sketchers (and a security guard) scattered around the lobby before it was time for the throwdown. We had an excellent turnout again with a few new faces, including a visitor from Austin.

11/17/19 Seattle Art Museum lobby

11/17/19 A canine commuter on my bus ride.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Stegosaurus Stenops and the Voices of Millions

11/13/19 Stegosaurus stenops at the Burke Museum
On my second trip to the newly reopened Burke Museum, I arrived shortly after the opening time. Quickly climbing the long flights of stairs to the third floor, I passed about a million or so elementary school children marching up the same stairs with their teachers. I was hoping they would stop on the second floor, but they were attracted to the same thing I was: the Jurassic period.

I found a support beam to stand against (and protect myself from the endless stream of kids) to sketch the cast model of Stegosaurus stenops, which was found in Utah during the late Jurassic. Five years ago, I sketched this vegetarian at the old Burke from a different angle – and its tail was so long that I had to continue it on a separate page. This time I faced it head-on. Just as I did the last time, I marveled at that tiny, tiny head supported by its massive body.

Although most of the million kids were more interested in
running through the exhibits, this group sketched as quietly
as I did -- and obviously enjoyed the same period.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


11/12/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

It’s been a long while since I sketched a hacked tree. I made a whole series of them a few years ago, and last summer I sketched one being hacked even as I sketched. Silhouetted against the overcast sky, this one in the Wedgwood neighborhood gave me reason to pull over.

Earlier this year, someone from Seattle City Light contacted me. She was working on developing a document for the utility’s line clearance crews (the folks who hack the trees), and she needed some art to put on the cover. Searching online, she came across several of my sketches from a few years back and asked permission to use one. The document came out in August.

Friday, November 15, 2019

For the Win

11/12/19 sketched from photo

I don’t usually like to draw from photos, and I’m not even a soccer fan, but the Seattle Times’ coverage of the Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup win included an irresistible image. I treated this sketch the way I would short poses at life drawing – just trying to capture the movement, determination and strength of both players as quickly as possible.

The cutline on Andy Bao’s photo reads: “Sounders midfielder Victor Rodriguez [in green] rifles a shot between Toronto FC defenders Chris Mavinga [not shown] and Omar Gonzalez [in red] that Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg wasn’t able to stop and Seattle had a decisive 2-0 lead in the 76th minute.”

Generally I ignore the sports section, but I must admit, some of the best photography of figures that I’ve ever seen has been on those pages.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Shawna Chooses

11/11/19 Shawna (20-min. pose)

As I filled yet another Gage punch card Monday, I thought about how I used to feel in life-drawing sessions when I first began attending seven years ago. I would return home completely drained and exhausted, partly from the mental focus but also because I was entirely tense the whole three-hour session. Completely out of my comfort zone, I found life drawing stressful.

11/11/19 20-min. pose
I got over it after a few times, and fairly soon after that I started feeling relaxed and “in the zone” during many sessions. Don’t misunderstand – life drawing is still one of the most challenging and mentally focused drawing practices I engage in – but the relaxing part is that I don’t have to do anything to prepare.

Whenever I sketch on location, I have to consider the weather and temperature, the time of day, how to get there and where to park, and once I’m there, I must choose a composition. It’s all part of urban sketching, and I enjoy the process, but there’s always a bit of tension in not knowing exactly what I might sketch or the conditions I might encounter.

At life-drawing sessions, the conditions are completely controlled, including the lighting, and the model chooses the composition. All I have to do is show up and draw whatever he or she presents for two minutes or 20. In that way, I am completely passive, and my only active engagement is in the act of drawing. I wouldn’t want all my drawing to be this way – searching for and discovering my subject and composition are a large part of the fun of urban sketching – but once a week, it’s relaxing to let someone else decide.

11/11/19 20-min. pose
11/11/19 5-min. pose

11/11/19 5-min. pose

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Sketch Kit Retrospective

11/9/19 My current sketch kit

In the eight years that I’ve been sketching, my materials and tools have changed significantly as my working methods and habits have evolved and my preferences have changed. Whenever I prep for a major trip, I review my sketch kit and report on how I’ve refined it for travel (I’ve consolidated related links on this Travel Sketching page). I thought it would be fun to put all my sketch kit photos together in one post to see the transitions all at once.

During most years, I shuffled my kit more than once, but I chose only one photo for each year as representative of the direction of my changes at the time. If you surmise that I’m somewhat obsessed with my sketch kit, you wouldn’t be wrong – but at least I know I’m in good company. (I challenge you to name one sketcher who doesn’t think about, talk about, shop for or rearrange their sketch materials regularly and often!)

11/10/10 Here's the M+R sharpener I forgot in the large sketch.
Unlike many, I don’t sketch my sketch materials much (though I like the meta-ness of the concept), but since this post is the ultimate in sketch-kit navel gazing, I decided to indulge. I must say that there’s a good reason I don’t do this often: It’s tedious and even annoying to sketch all those long, narrow objects. I wanted to keep the sketch to a reasonable size so that it wouldn’t take all day, but the tradeoff is that I couldn’t put in as much detail as I wanted to distinguish among all those long, narrow objects. If you’re interested in the details, a post from July describes most of the same items. (At right is the sharpener, which I tend to forget about because it’s kept in a separate bag compartment.)


Taken six months after I began sketching, this is the earliest photo (from March 2012 when I began this blog) that I could find of my sketch materials: a Sakura Koi watercolor kit, waterbrushes, waterproof fineliners and a few brush markers. It’s a solid, basic kit that many sketchers begin with. The Moleskine landscape watercolor sketchbook is the only one shown, but I was trying out a wide variety back then.

2012 A beginning urban sketcher's basic kit.


I dumped the fineliners for fountain pens, including my first Sailor fudes. The brush markers increased, and so did the waterbrushes. My leather “Stefano” sketchbook cover made its first appearance as I readied for my first symposium.

2013 Fountain pens have appeared.


Surprisingly few changes from the previous year except that a few more colored pencils crept in.

2014 More colored pencils.


This was an interesting year: More fountain pens were added as well as more colored pencils. I jettisoned all the brush pens except a few self-made ones (ink-filled waterbrushes).

2015 More pens and DIY brush pens.


I’m certain this was a record-breaking year – my fattest sketch kit ever. I remember it as a year of major transition. I knew that watercolors were not meeting my needs, but I hadn’t figured out what to replace them with, so I carried everything – color brush markers, black brush pens, DIY ink-filled waterbrushes, watercolor pencils and more fountain pens. A small red Field Notes (and a white gel pen to use with it) became an integral part of my daily-carry. Very sadly, I let my beloved “Stefano” go. 

2016 Whoa... did I really carry all that to the UK? Yes, I did.


During the second half of 2016, I made the final jump from watercolors to watercolor pencils, and by 2017, I had fully embraced colored pencils as my sole color medium (so much so that I committed to two quarters of study at Gage Academy). Graphite pencils made their first (and permanent) appearance (also reflecting my study at Gage). The only markers and brush pens that remained were black and gray. And the Tran Portfolio Pencil Case I had discovered the previous year turned out to be my best bag enhancement ever.

2017 The colored pencil era begins.


Last year’s kit looked very similar to my current supplies except that it still had two fountain pens in place. Not shown is the sketchbook, which was still the DIY signatures and handbound sketchbooks I had been using consistently since 2013.

2018 A stable kit.


(Sketch at top of post and photo below.) The biggest change I made this year was switching to off-the-shelf Stillman & Birn sketchbooks instead of the handbound books I’d been making since 2013. A kneaded eraser and tortillon are currently among my daily-carry for when I’m in a graphite mood (more often in winter than at other times of the year). The ballpoint pen took up permanent residence after 2018’s InkTober. And reluctantly, I realized I had been using a fountain pen less and less, so I took it out (and put it back only for this year’s InkTober).

Kit staged for the sketch, plus the usual desk mess.

During all these changes, the one constant throughout has been my faithful Rickshaw messenger bag, which has sketched with me on four continents since 2012. Although the organizing accessories within the bag have changed many times, since the beginning, I’ve always made all the primary tools stand upright to be fully accessible without the need to unzip, unroll or un-Velcro tabs, pockets and cases. So even though most of the media and tools have changed over time, my basic carrying setup has not.

Everything upright and ready for action.

My Favorite Art Materials page has details about my current kit contents. For details about any of my past sketch kits, see the Archive page.
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