Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Across the Street

3/26/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Our neighbor across the street has a cherry tree that I watch from our upstairs bedroom window, waiting for it to peak. I think this is it – a bit earlier (March 26) than two years ago when I sketched it on April 6, standing on the sidewalk. This time I sketched through the window, longingly thinking about the cherries at the UW Quad, which must be at peak by now, too.

Monday, March 30, 2020

“Drawing is Bigger than Art”

3/13/20 Appropos to nothing except that it's part of my daily drawing practice.

A while back I mentioned the exchange I had with someone who had questioned the value of drawing if the result isn’t good. “Do you think it’s folly for someone who likes art a great deal but still draws like a kid to keep drawing?” I tried to explain my belief that the act of drawing has value far beyond whatever shows up on the paper.

Two friends on social media recently shared items that address much of what I was trying to express. The first is an excellent TED Talk by Ralph Ammer, an artist, animator, writer and design educator. While most people see drawing as an artistic skill, it’s much larger than that – it is a thinking skill.

The second is an interview with David Gentleman, age 90, a British artist who still draws daily. This bit of wisdom spoke directly to me:

“Drawing is always a challenge. If drawing was easy, it would be boring. What I really like is that it is extremely interesting. It teaches you instantly how to look at something more in depth than anything else would make you look.”

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Daily Hands


After sketching my hand for a few days, I got it in my head that this would make a good personal challenge: Sketch my hand every day until this global disaster is over (or until I get tired of the series, whichever comes first; I always like to leave myself an out). It’s concrete, challenging and achievable – I can do this.

It has occurred to me that the disaster being “over” may not be a solid date. I’ve heard experts say that we are likely to go through several cycles of widespread infection followed by periods of control and back again. I don’t know how I’ll know when it’s “over,” but I must believe that that day will come. I must.

I’m posting my hands daily on my Instagram account, but here on my blog I’ll save them up and post a few at a time.





Saturday, March 28, 2020

Notable Pencils: Utrecht Color

Utrecht Colored Pencils

Not too many years ago, Seattle had several good brick-and-mortar art supply stores. One was Utrecht on Capitol Hill. Catering to art students at nearby Gage Academy and Seattle Central College, it was the first store where I found a full selection of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks when they first came out (maybe around 2012). Just beginning as a sketcher then, I was intimidated by all the painting supplies I saw at Utrecht, but I found the staff pleasant, knowledgeable and helpful, so I kept going there for sketchbooks.

Only a couple of years later, Utrecht was purchased by Blick, and the building occupied by Utrecht eventually opened in 2014 as the brand new Starbucks Roastery and Reserve. I got a good deal on several S&B sketchbooks at Utrecht’s closeout sale, feeling sad for the glum-looking staff who seemed uncertain about their future. Later I learned that Blick had bought the entire chain of 45 Utrecht stores. Eventually Utrecht’s Czech Republic-made products became Blick-branded.

This backstory is the reason I own a used set of Utrecht Color pencils, which I picked up a while back at Tinkertopia. Stopping at the art and craft supply thrift store to drop off my donations of art supplies that I was getting rid of, I was not supposed to buy anything, but I couldn’t resist poking around. Digging through the pencils, I found this barely used set. I knew they couldn’t be considered “vintage,” but I also knew that Utrecht-branded pencils no longer existed. In a moment of nostalgia and desire to preserve a former pencil name, I felt compelled to grab them.

I remembered that in the set of Blick Studio colored pencils I had purchased a few years ago, one of the 24 pencils was branded Utrecht Color, and it looks just like the ones in the Utrecht set. Product information on Blick’s site then said that while some sets may contain a mix of Blick- and Utrecht-branded pencils, the quality was identical (well, the core quality might be the same, but the Blick Studio pencils have unfinished ends, while Utrecht Color pencils have attractively rounded end caps). According to Blick’s site now, Blick Studio colored pencils are still made in the Czech Republic.

(This is part of my series of occasional posts that are not really reviews but stories about products I find notable for one reason or another.)

Friday, March 27, 2020

Corona Hours

3/23/20 Maple Leaf Ace Hardware Store

I have a hunch that a full lockdown is close (voluntary social distancing wasn’t working, and even the current severe restrictions might not be enough), so I went out in my car looking for a way to document these crazy times before I lose that freedom. First I drove past my neighborhood Maple Leaf Park for any signs of closure, which the city had begun the day before, but I didn’t see anything from the street. Although a few people still walked around the park’s periphery, the playground was empty (last week we were dismayed to see it full of kids playing together while their parents chatted, just like normal).

A couple blocks north of the park, I passed the Maple Leaf Ace Hardware store (which I sketched from a better angle a few months ago). Its readerboard posted reduced “Corona Hours.” Staying in my parked car across the street, I wasn’t especially pleased with the composition, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Boxy ‘80s

3/20/20 Wedgwood neighborhood

Driving around the Wedgwood neighborhood, determined to find a sketch, I was first attracted to the spindly tree. Then the car caught my eye. I don’t usually include many details of cars that happen to be in my windshield view, but I vaguely recognized the car from the boxy ‘80s era. Frankly, I think it (and most of that era) is ugly, but I’m also fondly nostalgic about that time, maybe because it’s when I got my first “real” job and bought my first new car (a 1983 Mazda GLC). I couldn’t find identifying marks on the car, but after posting the sketch on social media, a Facebook friend identified it as a 1988 Toyota MR2.

It was a heartbreakingly beautiful day.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020


3/19/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

We’ve been getting notices from the city for weeks, so we knew a disruption was coming to a major intersection in our neighborhood. I put myself into position to sketch an excavator that was moving dirt from a hole in the street to a dump truck. Shortly after I started sketching, a pumper truck came in, completely blocking my view. I abandoned the first sketch and moved to where the action was. I’ll be back – I think this intersection is going to keep me busy for a while! (With the tighter restrictions, I won't be going back to sketch this. So close and tempting, though.)

Editorial comment: I’ve always thought that spitting (repeatedly!) in the street is a disgusting habit, but right now, it’s downright irresponsible.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Notable Pencils: Apsara Dual Combo

Apsara Dual Combos -- mostly graphite, a little color!

As you know, a large part of this blog is about reviewing sketch materials I’ve used, for better or worse. In general, products I review are those I’ve used long enough to form an opinion about whether I (or anyone) would want to continue using them. 

What you might not know (but probably suspect!) is that I also own quite a few art products that were not necessarily purchased or acquired for use. I won’t call them “collectibles,” as that term has connotations of monetary value. Let’s just say they are “notable” for one reason or another. Now that I have so much additional time at home that I used to spend otherwise engaged, I thought I would occasionally bring out notables for your (and my) amusement. 

A friend in the UK who knows I have a thing for bicolor pencils sent me a set of Apsara Dual Combo pencils. Apsara, a brand name of the Indian pencil manufacturer Hindustan, makes excellent, inexpensive graphite pencils (for example, the Absolute Extra Strong is a reliable workhorse that I keep in my car). What’s notable about the Dual Combos is that they are mostly graphite until you get to the inch and a half of colored core on the opposite end!

“Write – flip – colour” says the pencil tagline. “Colour your thoughts” says the package. I’m not sure who the target audience is for these pencils – perhaps editors or teachers who write mostly with graphite but occasionally need a touch of color for underlining or marking? I don’t know, but I’m tickled that they exist.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Why Did the Turkey Cross the Road?

3/18/20 Turkey crossing the road

A white chicken was pecking around on the sidewalk. Suddenly she started crossing Eighth Northeast. “Turkey! Come here, Turkey,” called a woman from across the street, rattling a bucket of feed. So that’s why she crossed!

(Seeing this chicken and taking 10 seconds to sketch her made me happy the rest of the day. I hope you are finding moments of joy, no matter how small.)

Sunday, March 22, 2020



Back in 2012 when I first began this blog, as a follow-up to making 100 self-portraits, I had given myself the challenge of sketching my hand 100 times. Over the years, I have continued to use my own hands as drawing models occasionally (you can see all the posts here). While it’s not as difficult or intimidating as the face, the hand is still challenging in terms of form and proportion. It is also “handy,” and lately I’ve been taking advantage of that.

Like everyone, I’ve become more aware of my hands lately than I ever have before. (Why are they constantly wandering up to my face?) As a result of all that regular washing, I’ve also become more aware of their dryness. If you want to learn about every wrinkle or crease on your hands, just draw them.


Speaking of my hands, long before I began sketching, I made art out of various media, including beads and fiber. I had an old website where I used to promote that work, but I recently took down the site. I've put a small selection of the work on the top tab called Legacy Art.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Out Again

3/16/20 Mt. Rainier from 5th Ave. NE overpass

Toward the end of my daily walk around the neighborhood, which has become my regular sanity saver, I took the route across the Fifth Avenue Northeast I-5 overpass. I was counting on The Mountain being out, and it was – a glorious, life-affirming sign that someday all will be well again.

I thought about the similar sketch I had made just about a month earlier from the same spot. At that time, I complained about how the traffic was noisy and unpleasant.

We were so innocent then.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Vintage Colored Pencils: Staedtler Mars Lumochrom

Vintage Staedtler Mars Lumochrom pencils
I used to assume that colored pencils were always intended for making art. But since I began collecting vintage colored pencils, I’ve come to realize that in other eras, they had more industrial purposes. Some copyeditors and teachers, of course, probably still use red pencils to mark copy. But at some point, drafters, engineers and other makers of technical diagrams used colored pencils.

Recently a very generous friend in the pencil community gave me a beautiful set of vintage Staedtler Mars Lumochrom pencils. Instead of the typical colorful artwork on the box, the conservative blue tin shows only the Staedtler logo and an icon that clearly represents a technical diagram. Apparently it wasn’t too long ago that drafters still color-coded their work with pencils like these. Lumochrom pencils were in production from 1973 through about 2004. My set is from before 2000.

After Staedtler stopped making Lumochroms in woodcased form, the German company began using the Lumochrom name for its colored leads for mechanical pencils (though lately colored leads are being sold in packages without the Lumochrom name, so perhaps the name is no more).

As many older pencils had, the Lumochroms have lovely endcaps. I adore the white scallop – such a nice touch that reminds me of some contemporary Japanese pencils.
Lovely endcaps!
My set is printed with branding and color numbers in the right-hand orientation, but my friend included a couple of older Lumochroms with a lefty orientation. I have some vintage Staedtler Mars Polycolor and Stabilo Schwan pencils also with lefty printing, so maybe it was a German thing back then (Staedtler’s modern pencils all have right-handed orientation).
A couple of older Lumochroms with lefty orientation
Although I suspected they would be too hard to draw with easily, I gave them a whirl anyway. Indeed, they are very hard – maybe just a smidge softer than vintage Verithin pencils, which are among my picks for colored pencils that are hard enough to write with. The pigment, however, is smooth and transparent, and of course the hard cores are ideal for drawing small details. I’m sure that technical people enjoyed using these to make diagrams and to write with.

3/7/20 Lumochrom pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook
(It may seem frivolous to talk about old colored pencils while a deadly virus attacks the globe. But sequestered at home, I find comfort in being surrounded by color and other things that bring me joy. I hope you are staying well and coping in whatever way makes you happy.)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

It’s Back to Beta Time

3/15/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

After I filled my last everyday-carry Stillman & Birn Zeta, I switched to an S&B Epsilon, which I use frequently for still lives at my desk but had never used as a daily sketchbook. When I use soft graphite, I often leave the facing page blank (since it tends to get smudgy), so it seemed more economical to use Epsilon’s thinner pages instead of Zeta. And I like the surface with both graphite and colored pencils. But what I hadn’t thought about was that the thinner pages are also less opaque, so ghosting is visible. It’s full now, and I probably won’t use it again as a daily-carry.

Today is the equinox, and I’ve been seeing lots of pink blossoms and yellow daffodils on my neighborhood walks, so I’m optimistic that I’ll be using my spring palette soon (I want to feel optimistic about at least one thing). It’s time to switch back to a S&B Beta, which is still my favorite with water-soluble colored pencils.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


3/9/20 graphite on Strathmore 300 Bristol smooth

I admit it: I am not a fan of kale. I have tried it at salad bars and in alien forms such as “chips” (all of which helped me determine that I wasn’t a fan), but the first time I bought some at the store was for last week’s botanical drawing class lesson in textured leaves. I had to read the label to identify it because the huge, bumpy leaves didn’t resemble what I’d tasted earlier. I was instantly intrigued by that challenging texture!

Instructor Kathleen McKeehen recommended that I use a small cardboard viewfinder to select an area of about 2 to 3 inches square within the leaf – not try to draw the whole leaf. It’s a good thing I took her advice, because what you see here is all I accomplished during the three-hour class. More than anything else I’ve drawn before, the hills and valleys of my kale leaf recalled the landscapes I drew from photos in previous classes. The large center vein was like a river.

Though I’m happy that I got a good start on it, I may or may not finish this drawing. Like eating kale, once is enough.

(Sadly, the kale lesson was my last in this class. . . Gage Academy closed a couple of days later.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Demo: Stay Sharp

From top: Caran d'Ache Pablo and Mitsubishi Hi-Uni

In the pencil communities where I hang out, we talk a lot about sharpeners – portable, hand-crank, electric and even knife. I have more than my share of all types because staying sharp – or consciously choosing something other than a sharp point – is critical to controlling the tool and getting the most of its use.

The other day in my post of the bell pepper drawings, a comment I made to a reader about keeping my pencils sharp prompted another reader to ask me to elaborate on how pencil sharpness relates to achieving a smooth tonal appearance. It was a very good question, and I thought it deserved a post to fully answer.

In all the graphite and colored pencil classes I’ve taken (as well as in most how-to books I’ve read on those media), the instructors always stress the importance of sharpening often. The reason is straightforward: The sharper the pencil, the better the point is able to deposit graphite or pigment onto all areas of the paper’s surface, especially in the recessed parts. Even paper that appears or feels smooth still has a subtle tooth. If the pencil point is dull, it deposits graphite or pigment unevenly, skimming over the high points on the paper’s surface and leaving the recessed areas uncovered. Then on future layers, different bumps and divots get covered, and the result is an uneven patchiness of coverage.

To demonstrate this, I went through my pencils and dug out the dullest points I could find. (This wasn’t easy, as I tend to keep them all sharp so that they are always ready for use.) I found a blue Caran d’Ache Pablo colored pencil and a Mitsubishi Hi-Uni in grade HB.

I chose a couple of different papers, both of which I enjoy using with colored pencils and graphite: a Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook and Strathmore 300 Bristol smooth. Both have relatively smooth surfaces, but the Bristol is smoother. In each test case, I applied eight layers of graphite or pigment. Here are the results:
Stillman & Birn Epsilon

Strathmore 300 Bristol smooth

With the dull points, blobs of graphite or pigment get deposited unevenly, and once they are on the paper, they won’t smooth out when future layers are applied. It’s more apparent on the smooth Bristol (which surprised me – I thought it would be more apparent on the Epsilon). It’s interesting that on the Bristol paper, the same number of layers with the sharp Pablo look less intense than the dull Pablo. I wasn’t conscious of it, but I may have been pushing harder on the dull Pablo simply because its dull point was uneven, and I kept having to rotate it.

3/8/20 graphite in Epsilon sketchbook
I do enjoy deliberately using dull pencils for specific effects. On location, for example, when I’m sketching trees or other foliage, and I want a rough, organic look, I use the flat, broad side of the pencil core or grind it into the paper hard so that the point will flatten quickly because I want those broad, irregular strokes. Other times I have cut thicker cores into chisel tips with a knife to make interesting marks. But for a smooth result, the sharper, the better.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Heavy Load, Heavy Heart

3/11/20 Green Lake neighborhood

On Wednesday after Governor Inslee proclaimed a number of restrictions in three counties to control the spread of COVID-19, everything I enjoy doing or that were long-standing regular parts of my life suddenly stopped. The other USk admins and I immediately cancelled sketch outings. Within hours, Gage Academy (where I take classes and attend life drawing) and my favorite museums announced closures. My Jazzercise class soon followed. My yoga studio is still operating, but I decided to stop attending. The neighborhood food store where I occasionally shop announced it was closed because an employee had tested positively for COVID-19.

Washing hands compulsively, wiping down home surfaces with 91 percent isopropyl, hunkering down at home – that’s everyone’s life now.

It’s funny: I thoroughly enjoy staying home and have many interests that keep me busy here, not the least of which is drawing. And yet when I know I can’t come and go anymore without thinking about potential risks, it feels more like a cage. My cabin fever (though I guess I shouldn’t use the expression “fever”!) has been much worse than during those several days last year when we were snowbound.

3/12/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood
My sanity saver has been walks through the neighborhood and around Green Lake. As far as I know, there’s nothing unsafe about walking: I keep my hands to myself, everyone stays at a safe distance (I spotted a friend at the park, and we both waved but kept walking), and in the ‘hood, I rarely even see neighbors. It feels especially good to move, breathe fresh air, and have life affirmed by birds and budding trees. When it warms up a bit, it will be even easier to forget about this global disaster for the duration of a walk.

Luckily for me, there’s always a sketch wherever I go. Stay safe, everyone.

Technical note: It was sprinkling during both sketches. I don’t mind getting a little wet, but it’s annoying when pens stop working on wet paper. Maybe it’s time to get out my Field Notes Expedition again for these drizzly walks.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Urban Sketching from Home

Yesterday Urban Sketchers Milano invited the world’s sketchers to take part in #USkAtHome, a social media initiative to sketch from the safety of our homes and share the sketches online with the hashtag. “What we see outside the window” was the theme, which immediately called to mind last year’s snowpocalypse. I sketched from every window in our house’s main floor (here’s the kitchen and the back door).

I didn’t do much from the second floor last year, however, so I took a look around up there. Without a soft cover of snow, the view I see every day (through dirty windows, no less) isn’t remarkable. Nothing engaged me enough to want to commit to a whole page.

Then I remembered the tips I had learned at the Amsterdam symposium in two workshops that emphasized the utility of thumbnails. In addition, Sue Heston makes good use of thumbnails as small sketches in their own right – not necessarily as lead-ups to larger sketches. I took a cue from Sue and broke the page into three smaller spaces to fill with three unremarkable window views in my studio. As often happens, focusing on small areas to fit the spaces helped me choose compositions that might otherwise disappear into the vast blah-ness I usually see.

Stay safe, everyone, but keep sketching!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Another Year of #OneWeek100People Done!

3/9/20 Capitol Hill neighborhood

At the time that I wrote the post that introduced this week’s One Week 100 People challenge, the anxiety and escalating urgency of COVID-19’s spread in the Seattle area was only just beginning. Every day, updates from our local health department grow increasingly alarming, and authorities urge anyone in higher-risk groups (including those of us over 60) to stay home if possible. I found it dreadfully ironic that the annual people-sketching challenge would fall during a time when we are being told to avoid people!
3/9/20 Green Lake

Although the online challenge is not restricted to urban sketching – it welcomes drawing from photos and posed models as well as from real life – I have always done most of my 100 drawings each year from actual people going about their lives (I have also done some from posed models at life-drawing sessions). For me, it’s just more fun, as well as being more challenging. When I first started thinking about the challenge a month ago, I was looking forward to going to shopping malls, transit stations and other populated locations to get the most people-sketching bang for the buck. Now the health department and my better judgment were telling me to avoid exactly those kinds of places . . . how would I ever accomplish 100 sketches?

On Day 1, the easiest solution was to use my handy (and now regularly sanitized) mobile studio. Arriving a few minutes early for my Gage class, I parked across the street and sketched a few students and other pedestrians nearby.

That afternoon, I parked at Green Lake facing the walking path and finished off 25 sketches for the day.

3/10/20 Bellevue Square
On Tuesday, USk Seattle met at Bellevue Square mall – a special ad hoc outing to work on the 100 people challenge. As a group admin, I gnashed my teeth all last week about whether we should go ahead with the outing or cancel. With growing concern about COVID-19, was it reckless to gather? Once I arrived, I was happy that we didn’t cancel. After feeling gloomy all week, it felt good to see friends and sketch. The mall was emptier than I had ever seen, and we laughed sardonically that we’d be hard pressed to find a hundred people! (As it turned out, this would be our last sketch outing for a while. . . shortly after, based on Governor Inslee's restrictions, we cancelled outings in March and April.)

Bellevue Square is an ideal people-sketching mall. Wide-open multiple levels enable easy views looking up, down or across. In addition, stairways offer an additional interesting challenge. I chose to stand, but other sketchers enjoyed using the many tables and convenient seating throughout the mall.

Hitting my groove almost immediately, I decided to finish my remaining 75 in the 2½ hours of the outing. One hundred done!

As in previous years, my goal was to avoid portraits or details and focus strictly on making simple gestures that capture individuals, not generic stick figures. It was also an excellent opportunity to study the movement of walking, especially people coming toward or going away from me. I tried to draw the subtle differences in their legs to show that they are walking, not standing.

As for materials, I stayed as simple as possible: A Uni Pin brush pen and a Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook.

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