Friday, January 31, 2020

The Never-ending Foreshortening Challenge

1/28/20 Wedgwood neighborhood

As she was demo-ing her process for measuring and drawing an artichoke’s bracts, our instructor talked about the challenges of foreshortening. She has been drawing and teaching drawing for decades, yet foreshortening can still be a challenge. Even now, she must fight what her brain is telling her is true so that she can draw what she actually sees.

I met this news with some dismay: Even after decades of practice (and certainly no evidence of struggle in her work), foreshortening continues to be a challenge! No wonder it is still difficult for me.

Cars are my favorite subject to practice foreshortening, since I encounter them so readily, often parked at funny angles. If one is sharply foreshortened, it’s a bit easier to simply draw a sliver of its side. The three-quarter view I attempted in this sketch is by far the hardest for me. It’s a continual battle with the brain that insists that the side of a car must be wider than its front.

This is what I meant when I said a few weeks ago that even if plants are not of primary interest to me as subject matter, I know that focused drawing practice of any subject matter is informative for and can be applied to any other subject matter. Artichokes, cars . . . the challenges are the same.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Drawing Plants with Accuracy

1/28/20 Exercise completed. The most accurately drawn produce I have ever
attempted! We were instructed not to do any shading in this exercise --
only vary the line weights to suggest depth.
During the long, dark winters, I like to sink my teeth into a meaty, challenging class at Gage Academy. This year, I’m trying 10 weeks of botanical drawing, taught by botanical illustrator and painter Kathleen McKeehen. With an emphasis on learning to draw plants with scientific accuracy, it’s still an art class, and McKeehen balances precision with individual expression.

The first week, we learned measuring techniques with twigs and branches
as our subject. 
The first class focused mainly on learning to take precise measurements of specimens to draw them at exactly life size. The techniques were not too different from others I’ve learned in drawing classes – holding up a pencil or ruler to estimate an angle or gauge proportions, for example – but I’ve never measured a drawing subject with this degree of precision before. It felt tedious and time-consuming at first, but I got the hang of it fairly quickly.

It’s important to note that although McKeehen stresses measuring for accuracy, she encourages us to take measurements after making tentative lines by observation only. It’s not a mechanical connect-the-dots method, she said. We’re training our eyes to see by drawing first, measuring to check how accurate we are, and making corrections as needed. (This was a huge relief to hear, as I’m not interested in learning methods of mechanically reproducing something I’m looking at; that’s easy enough to do with software or an old-fashioned projector.)

Before measuring the artichoke, we made a few gestural
sketches from observation to try different views.
This felt like "normal" sketching to me.
By the second class, we applied the measuring methods we learned to an artichoke. It was fascinating to understand how the structure of so many botanicals – a pinecone, tree branches, the center of a sunflower, an artichoke – is based on the Fibonacci mathematical sequence (which appears in other natural structures also, not just plants). A few days ago, an artichoke was nothing but a bunch of petal-like leaves that get dipped into a mayo and lemon juice dressing. But as soon as I understood the spiraling pattern that the Fibonacci sequence creates, I could see it! The bracts (as I learned they are called) are not random.

For the first several weeks, we will be focusing strictly on line drawings only. It was hard for me not to add shading to the finished exercise (top of post), but that will happen soon enough. The class is very challenging in a way that I have not experienced before, and I’m enjoying it immensely. It feels especially satisfying to make studies from life, not photos.

(By the way, this is not the season to be drawing artichokes . . . holy cow, was it expensive! I was going to buy two so that we could each have one as an appetizer when I finished the drawing assignment, but I told Greg we are sharing this one!)

I made a rough drawing of the artichoke on tracing paper
while taking precise measurements to check.
Once I has happy with my rough drawing, I
traced the final lines to another sheet of tracing paper.
Then I quickly transferred the drawing to
good paper to finish it (top of post).

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Back to Normal: Efficiency is as Important as Compactness

Bicolors: Not as efficient as they seem.
I used my slimmed-down sketch kit for more than a month, and my minimalism challenge was a successful one this year. I needed to make kit revisions only once, and my frustration at not having what I wanted was minor.

A key component was the Caran d’Ache Bicolors, which held so much potential. I wish I could say that these compact watercolor pencils solved all my portable color needs, but as I suspected even before I began the challenge, there’s more to an ideal kit than compactness.

Putting two colors into one pencil seems like a space-efficient solution, but only if they are the right colors. If not, they are a false space economy, at least for me. Halfway through the challenge, I had already swapped out some colors. (Now more than ever, I long for a device like the promising-but-ultimately-unsuccessful Tsunago that would enable me to make my own bicolored pencils.)

In an ultra-compact kit, use efficiency is as important as space efficiency. Because the Cd’A Bicolors are quite a bit harder than my favorite Museum Aquarelles, they didn’t need to be sharpened as often. That was a benefit I hadn’t even anticipated with my tiny walk/sketch fitness program kit, which has no room for a sharpener. But major drawbacks with the harder Bicolors are that they take longer to apply and contain less pigment. Often I skipped color altogether to get done quickly (since I was usually cold). Even at times when I had my full-size, everyday-carry bag and sketched in a comfortable place, I found myself using less color because it would take longer to use.

More than additional hues, what I missed most during the challenge was the softness and heavy pigment of Museum Aquarelles. Both traits make sketching more efficient, and I believe strongly in using sketch materials that facilitate rather than impede sketching. The challenge reinforced that belief.

ArtGraf pencil: Handy at the museum as well as on the street.
The flip side of using less color was that I found myself using graphite more: the ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil (the only graphite I carried during the challenge). In fact, the more I used it, the more I loved its 6B softness and its water solubility, which deepened its darkness even further. As a monochrome tool, it makes a huge bang for the space-efficiency buck.

Challenge completed, I put back all the materials I took out of my everyday-carry (below): my usual full palette of colors, a second waterbrush, a second graphite pencil and my spritzer. Other than the Museum Aquarelles, I didn’t miss the other items much, but that’s mainly because they are more seasonal tools. (I use the spritzer on foliage and the second clean waterbrush for blue sky, neither of which I’ve seen much of lately.) Although it’s always an informative exercise to minimize, even temporarily, this year’s challenge made me realize that my kit is always pretty dang trim. Now I appreciate its well-chosen contents even more.
Everything back in: I missed those Museum Aquarelles.

As for my ultra-slim walk/sketch kit, which I’ll continue to use indefinitely, I heeded everything I learned from this year’s minimalism challenge and made revisions accordingly. Without increasing the number of tools, I swapped out a few judiciously chosen Museum Aquarelle colors for the Bicolors (below). The ballpoint pen came out, but all the rest – the waterbrush, the Uni Pin brush pen and the ever-useful ArtGraf pencil – served me well and will remain.

1/29/20 8 a.m. update: I guess it’s just as well that the Bicolors ended up not being my ultimate colored pencil: It has been confirmed that the set is a limited edition! Around the holidays, I was poking around on Caran d’Ache’s English-language site, and I noticed that the Bicolors were no longer listed. Likewise on the UK and other European versions of the Cd’A site. After rumors started circulating in the pencil community, I decided to check it out, and it’s true: CW Pencils was notified by its distributor that its current stock was the last of it. So if you want a set, don’t wait – CWP is apparently the only shop on earth with any left, and there will be no more afterwards!

Fitness walking kit: I replaced the Bicolors (at left) with 6 carefully chosen Museum Aquarelle colors.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020


1/24/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

The days and days of relentless rain were starting to get to me. My weather app said it would be dry for about an hour: Certainly enough time for a sketch, so I dashed out the door. Just a few blocks from home, this was my reward!

I knew the excavator would be swiveling back and forth repeatedly, pausing briefly in the same two positions, so I caught a couple of gestures (though in my haste, I see now that I forgot the second track on one!). Less than 15 minutes later, it started raining again, so that was the end of my sketch, but it felt great to get outdoors.

I have been called “intrepid,” but it’s really just low tolerance for cabin fever.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Vintage Colored Pencils: General’s Kimberly Watercolor and Color-tex

Vintage General's Color-tex traditional pencils
and Kimberly watercolor pencils

Years ago when I hadn’t yet begun sketching but was playing with lots of mixed media, I had a small set of contemporary General’s Kimberly watercolor pencils. They were hard, dry and low in pigment, so as soon as I learned about all the better watercolor pencils available, I gave them away.

Although I didn’t value the pencils themselves, I started thinking more about the General Pencil Company, of Jersey City, New Jersey, which is still owned and operated by the same family that has been making pencils in the US since 1889. During the 19th century, many US pencil companies existed, but by the 20th century, most had been purchased, consolidated and renamed. (My vintage collection includes colored pencil examples made by several of those American makers before they disappeared or began manufacturing elsewhere, including Eberhard Faber, Wallace, American Lead Pencil Company and Empire.)

Of those many American companies, General and Musgrave Pencil Company of Shelbyville, Tennessee, are now the only remaining pencil manufacturers still making pencils in the USA.

I know that Musgrave doesn’t make colored pencils (and maybe never has – I’ve not seen any). That means that General is the only current colored pencil maker in the US of A! This realization put me in a sudden patriotic tizzy. First I went looking for and found the incomplete set someone had given me of old General’s Color-tex pencils, which are the “wet proof” counterpart to Kimberly watercolor pencils. Then I searched eBay for vintage Kimberly watercolor pencils and found them to be ubiquitous and inexpensive (cheaper than contemporary ones).

The two boxes have the same design and undoubtedly are from the same era (see above). The backs are also identical.

Both sets feature this slide-out tray.
The backs of both boxes are identical.

The designs of the two types of pencils are also very similar – so much so that it would be easy to get them mixed up if they were spread out on a desktop. They both have identical metal end caps.
Top: Kimberly "Carbo weld" water-soluble colored pencil; bottom: "insoluble" Color-tex

Both the Kimberly watercolor and Color-tex pencils have “thin leads” (not all of which are well-centered).
Thin cores, not always centered.

Test scribbles indicated that both are, indeed, as hard, dry and low in pigment as I remember the contemporary Kimberly pencils being. I didn’t bother to sketch with the Color-tex pencils, but I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try a sketch with the watercolor set. As expected, the scant pigment didn’t dissolve well, and it took quite a bit of work to get even this much color on the apple. After the first activation with water, the pigment was pretty much done; no further pigment could be applied (which is often the case with low-pigment pencils).
1/23/20 vintage General's Kimberly watercolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

Caran d’Ache they are not (nor Faber-Castell, Derwent nor Staedtler). I couldn’t help feeling sad and bittersweet that these represent the only colored pencils still made here.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Blurry Window

1/22/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

The views through all my wet windows are blurry. In particular, looking through my studio roof window, which is slanted with the roof pitch, is like wearing old glasses. I sketched this with an ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil, then spritzed liberally.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

It’s All in the Timing

1/21/20 Northgate

The sun came out, so I dashed out to meet it. My walk/sketch took me to Northgate, where I needed to have my glasses adjusted at the optometrist’s office. Right in front of his office was this excavator and several bright yellow brethren, waiting for action.

My timing was impeccable. A few minutes later, the rain started again.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Vintage Colored Pencils: Eagle Magicolor

Eagle Magicolor watercolor pencils

An amazing vintage item crossed my eBay path recently: a totally unused set of Eagle Magicolor watercolor pencils. (In terms of an exciting find, it was second only to the set of Caran d’Ache Prismalo watercolor pencils, likely from the ‘30s, that I stumbled upon last fall.) My interest in Eagle has focused mainly on vintage Prismacolor and Verithin pencils, and once I acquired some from the various production eras, Eagle fell off my radar. I had never heard of the Magicolor name before, nor did I even know that Eagle made a watercolor pencil – yet there it was in a generic “vintage colored pencil” search. Fortunately, the item had a “buy now” option (auctions give me jitters), which I certainly did!

Copyright 1936
The box indicates a copyright date of 1936, but I know that’s probably related to the company and not the product. How old might this apparently rare set be? My historical research (which consisted of contacting several helpful and knowledgeable pencil collectors) didn’t yield any conclusive information. Based on the Eagle logo design, however, the consensus is that the set is from between the end of World War II and the early ‘60s.

The cardboard box is similar to the kind I’ve seen Eagle Prismacolors come in with a snap closure and hinge that enables the set to stand upright.
Hinged lid

Snap closure

Nine pencils in my set of 24 came unsharpened, and the rest had factory sharpening that showed no signs of use. (Of course, now they have all been sharpened and used by me!) The product line must have been making a transition from factory sharpening to unsharpened, so the set came with some of each. The barrel is round with glossy paint matching the core color in a design similar to Eagle Prismacolors of the same era.

Similar to Prismacolors, that is, except for one standout detail: The gorgeous gold metal end cap with wedding-cake tiers and a red stripe – be still my heart! It must be one of the most beautiful end caps I’ve ever seen!
Be still my heart!

The Eagle logo and typography are the same as in the Turquoise Prismacolor era. The Magicolor branding, however, has a distinctive look: The partly italicized Magicolor and the name surrounded by “sparks” tickle me no end.

Eagle Prismacolors and Magicolors have the same logo and typography

When I compared the Magicolors with Prismacolors more closely, I saw that the color numbers are the same – Magicolors begin with 12- and Prismacolors begin with 9-. They also have the same thick cores as Prismacolors.
Magicolor and Prismacolor color numbers are the same except for the initial 12 and 9.
Thick cores
With all these similarities with Prismacolors, I had high hopes that the Magicolors would apply with the same creamy softness and high pigment quality. In fact, the cores are harder than Prismacolors. Among my watercolor pencils, Magicolors are most like Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer in softness and application quality, and when used dry, the pigment coverage is good. Unfortunately, the pigment content isn’t as high, so when activated, the hues don’t have a rich wash (it’s most visible in the swatches under my sketch).
1/16/20 vintage Eagle Magicolor watercolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

This set of Magicolors raises so many questions: If these were made during the same era as the Eagle Turquoise Prismacolors, which are spotted fairly often on eBay, why are they so rare by comparison? (One of my collector contacts was as amazed as I was that this set appeared; he has an identical set but had never seen others before it or until mine.) Twenty-four is a modest set quantity; were there larger ones? Surely a set of 12 probably existed. Since the lower pigment content might not be up to artist quality as the Prismacolors are, perhaps they never caught on and were discontinued after a short run.

The Magicolor brand seems to have disappeared early on, but at least by the Sanford era of the ‘90s, watercolor pencils were being produced under the Prismacolor brand.  I’ve never seen Prismacolor watercolor pencils in a set larger than 36, either during the Sanford era or currently, so maybe the watercolor pencil market just hasn’t been a priority for the Prismacolor brand. (Nobody in charge has asked my opinion on the matter, of course.)

However brief Eagle Magicolor was on the art supply shelf decades ago, I am all the more thrilled to have grabbed this set to experience a part of watercolor pencil history.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Triads: Yellow as the Variable

1/15/20 Caran d'Ache Pablo (Carmine 80, Royal Blue 130, Olive Yellow 15) in
Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

In my last series of primary triadic studies, I worked on the hypothesis that yellow plays well with others: As long as red and blue are in harmony, most yellows will be friendly (though obviously some yellows are better than others). My experiments, however, were hodgepodge, done with a variety of watercolor pencil brands and color choices made intuitively.

In today’s series, I used traditional (dry) colored pencils in one brand only, Caran d’Ache Pablo. My method was more controlled: The red and blue (Carmine 80 and Royal Blue 130) are consistent in each sketch, selected because the strong, cool violet I was able to mix from them appealed to me. Then I chose three yellows as variables almost at random. I was doubtful about the triadic mix for a couple of them, but I went with them anyway to see what the results would be.

The first (above) uses Olive Yellow (15), which has a subtle greenish cast in the swatch, but thankfully it didn’t clash. This was the yellow I was most confident would mix well with Carmine and Royal Blue. The apple’s cast shadow is the most neutral of the three.

1/17/20 Caran d'Ache Pablo (Carmine 80, Royal Blue 130, Golden Ochre 33)
My second try (left) included Golden Ochre (33), which I had doubts about because it seemed a bit too cool in the swatch. I also didn’t care for the green that resulted from its mix with Royal Blue. But in the finished apple sketch, it still mixed well with the others and didn’t muddy the apple’s lively purple shaded side.

I was also doubtful about the yellow in the third try (below), Golden Yellow (120), but in the finished sketch, it turned out to be my favorite of the three. I thought it brought out a bit of sparkle where it mixed with the purple on the shaded side. I may have laid it on too strong in the cast shadow compared to the others, so it’s more warm than neutral, but it still works.

Are you bored stiff with my apples? Or are you inspired to try some triads of your own, in whatever medium you use? I hope the latter. . . I find these so much fun to do, and I’m learning so much about color mixing!

1/18/20 Caran d'Ache Pablo (Carmine 80, Royal Blue 130, Golden Yellow 120)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Honore Bakery

1/16/20 Honore Bakery

Natalie invited me to sketch with her at a new French bakery she had discovered, but I was way ahead of her – at least in terms of discovery. Another friend and I had scarfed down a few calories a while back, and Greg bought my birthday cake there in November. I hadn’t sketched there yet though, so I heartily agreed to join her at Honore.

1/16/20 Raspberry tart and chocolate cake!
First I made her wait until we had sketched the treats before we put them away. Both jobs done, we then sketched the café’s charming interior with fun décor and, of course, cases of cakes, tarts and croissants. I realized that I most often go after human victims when I sketch in cafés, and I rarely tackle the interior view. It was a delectable challenge to capture the interior without getting caught up in each strawberry or raisin.

It was also the first time since I started this year’s challenge that I regretted my minimal palette. . . I couldn’t get the rich brown of that chocolate cake (decorated with a marzipan bee!) with the colors I had.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


1/19/20 Mastodon replica, Burke Museum

Somehow the mastodon always calls to me. I’ve sketched it at the Burke Museum numerous times, but I never seem to tire of it. At the old facility, the big guy stood at the end of a dark, narrow exhibit area, so it was difficult to get any angle but head-on. In the Burke’s new digs, the replica of the 10,000-year-old skeleton guards the museum’s lower-floor entrance flooded with natural light. Looking down from the lobby stairway, this was my first attempt at sketching its entire length and girth in profile.

I love drawing all those bones, for sure, but capturing the sheer scale of this formidable monster is the real challenge: I used a full spread in my sketchbook this time, but I still didn’t have room for the tail. But at least I managed to get Suzanne and David in.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Triads: Yellow Plays Well With Others

Some of the many triad swatches I made.

From my previous primary triadic studies, I noted that the aggressive players are red and blue, while yellow is an easy-going partner. I started working on the hypothesis that as long as the red/blue combo was playing happily together as purple, almost any yellow could join in without ruining the harmony.

Using Derwent Inktense pencils (at right and below), I first tried several combos of red and blue to mix a purple I liked. I settled on Peacock Blue (820) and Poppy Red (400). Then I tried several different yellows with that combo, one at a time, and couldn’t seem to mix a bad one. I chose Cadmium Yellow (220) to make the tomato sketch.
1/9/20 Derwent Inktense in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
(Peacock Blue 820, Poppy Red 400, Cadmium Yellow 220)
1/11/20 vintage Prismacolor Watercolor pencils in
S&B Beta (Crimson 2924, Violet Blue 2933, Canary
Yellow 2916)
Working with a small set of vintage Prismacolor watercolor pencils, I had fewer hue options, but I used the same principle (at left): First I combined Crimson Red (2924) and Violet Blue (2933) to make sure the resulting purple was strong, and then I threw Canary Yellow (2916) into the mix. Happy with that, I sketched the tomato and banana.

From a previous triad I had tried, I saw that Carmine (and other reds similar to it) often mixed well with others. Using the Caran d’Ache Supracolor line, I found that Ruby Red (280), which is Carmine-like, and Permanent Blue (670) made a lovely violet (below). All yellows I tried with it looked great, and I chose Gold Cadmium Yellow (530) for the apple sketch. I love this triad – clean and fresh with a strong purple. It makes me wish that the Cd’A Museum Aquarelle line included Ruby Red.

Experiments shown today were all done with watercolor pencils. I’m also working on triads using traditional pencils with a more systematic method: The red and blue remain the same in all trials, and only the yellow varies. Stay tuned!

Isn’t this thrilling?! (Yes, I’m easily amused, especially in the dead of winter.)

1/14/20 Supracolor pencils in S&B Beta (Ruby 280, Permanent Blue 670, Gold
Cadmium Yellow 530)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Cold Seat

1/15/20 Roosevelt neighborhood

Last week, after a hot tip from a friend, I found two couches on Roosevelt waiting to be sketched. After finishing one, I was too cold to get the second. Exactly a week later, I took a walk/sketch down Roosevelt again, and the couch I hadn’t sketched yet was still there – now covered with snow. With the windchill factor, it was 28 degrees, but I couldn’t resist. About 20 minutes later, my sketch was done, and none too soon – a truck came by and hauled the couch away.

Thawing my hands back at home, I was happy that I had gone out for my walk when I had. Shortly afterwards, snow started falling again – sideways. I hope you’re staying warm wherever you are!  
They didn't even bother to remove the snow
before hauling it away.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like our
snow this way: Build one snowman, and
all the snow is used up.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Giving Epsilon a Shot

Out: Zeta; in: Epsilon (with some political commentary)

I just filled the Stillman & Birn Zeta that I started in October and had used intermittently with a S&B Beta. After the Beta was full, I continued in the Zeta, thinking I’d want to start the next Beta eventually, but by then the holiday colors were over, and it was graphite season again. I haven’t been using enough color to miss Beta’s surface, especially with my current minimal kit challenge, so Zeta worked out beautifully. In fact, it’s the ideal surface for the ArtGraf water-soluble graphite pencil I’ve been using a lot lately. On these dreary, colorless days, it’s my favorite ultra-minimal tool.

That brings me to Epsilon, which I use frequently at my desk but haven’t used as an everyday-carry. I often avoid sketching on the page that faces a graphite sketch because of the smudging that occurs. Epsilon has the same surface as Zeta, but the paper is thinner, so a book contains twice as many pages. As long as I’m using mostly dry media, the lighter pages are fine, and I can skip a facing page without regretting as much of the waste of the higher-price-per-page Zeta. I’m going to give Epsilon a try for the rest of my minimal challenge.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Green Lake Arch

1/14/20 Green Lake Park

The day after Monday’s dusting, we got a little more snow overnight, but not enough to write home about. The more significant difference for me was the drop in temperature. Although my weather app said it was 28 degrees, I was hoping that my walk down to Green Lake would have warmed me enough that I could stand to sketch outdoors as I had the day before. But my hands were freezing even with the mitten tops pulled over my fingerless gloves. I retreated to Starbucks.

Thawing my hands around a tall flat white, I picked a window seat facing a row of knotty old trees. It’s one of my favorite views of Green Lake Park, but it had been several years since I last sketched it. The darker areas are the grass already showing through the scant snow.

I’ll point out a bit of history: That classical façade in the distant background at right is a piece of architecture taken from the Martha Washington School of Girls for “neglected and unfortunate young girls.” Built in 1921 near Lake Washington, the school closed in 1957, and the city bought the property in 1972. (Local trivia: Apparently ghosts have been sighted there.) The Green Lake Arch, as it is now called, was taken out of storage in 2009 and placed at the park. I always thought I hadn’t noticed the arch until recent years because so many things escaped my attention before I started sketching. But now that I’ve read this bit of local history, I realize it was erected only a couple of years before I started.

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