Thursday, April 30, 2020

Urban Bunnies

4/21/20 urban bunnies in Maple Leaf

In some neighborhoods, feral rabbits are a common sight, but not in Maple Leaf. Until this year, I rarely saw any. Of course, it’s possible that I’m just walking more in my own neighborhood than I ever have before, so I can more easily see them. In any case, I’m always delighted to spot an urban bunny.

This pair was happily chewing grass on someone’s lawn as we came by. I would enjoy sketching bunnies any time, but simple things are a special treat these days.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Ivy-Covered Kwanzan

4/21/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

On one of our neighborhood walks, I spotted this late-blooming Kwanzan variety of cherry tree that was still at peak. Distinctively bright pink instead of nearly white as many decorative cherries are, it’s irresistible. An unusual feature of this tree is that its entire trunk is covered with ivy, and the ivy is climbing up into many of its branches, too. A few days later, I went out in my mobile studio to capture it before the pink was gone.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Vintage Colored Pencils: Caran d’Ache Polycolor

Among my favorite vintage specimens is this gem: a small set of Caran d’Ache Polycolor colored pencils. The cardboard box is tattered and fragile, but the pencils are still perfect. The set is possibly old enough to call an antique.
Possibly my oldest colored pencils!

The lightly stained and varnished natural finish on the round barrel is still as lovely as the day the pencils were made. Interestingly, the barrel is slightly larger than conventional colored pencils; in fact, it is exactly the diameter of contemporary Luminance and Museum Aquarelle pencils, two of Caran d’Ache’s premium lines. I wonder if the Polycolor was presented as top-of-the-line in its day? The Luminance’s understated, natural finish, especially, evokes this ancestor’s design.

The cores are surprisingly thick for old colored pencils; alas, unsurprisingly, they are hard, dry and stingily pigmented. (As is often the case with vintage pencils, I adore and appreciate their designs, but I’m happy that I have many better options to use.)
Surprisingly thick cores

These were considered indelible "copying" pencils.

Bonne Mine, an advertising mascot, is shown in Caroline
Weaver's book as being used in the 1920s.
I had fun sleuthing the possible age of this little set. The appearance of Bonne Mine ("looking good"), the hat-tipping mascot, on the box lid is one clue. According to Caroline Weaver in her book on pencil history, The Pencil Perfect, Bonne Mine came onto the Caran d’Ache scene in the 1920s to give a quirky edge to the Swiss company’s advertising.

For further clues, I also used the logos I snapped from Caran d’Ache’s website around the time of its anniversary celebration (the page is no longer live). The logo on the box looks like the one shown as being used around 1929 (below). By the ‘40s, the logo had changed to a more modern look. That leaves me to deduce that this set was made as early as 1929 or into the ‘30s. It is possibly even older than the Caran d’Ache Prismalo set I had previously thought was the oldest in my collection! It certainly qualifies as an antique.
This logo from 1929 appears on the box lid.

The German reads (translated by Tony Messent): Copying and Indelible Pencils
2014, 2030, 2016 “Grimsel” writing and copying, violet - hard, medium, soft
2004, 2028, 2006 “Furka” writing, black and copying, violet - hard, medium, soft
2018 green, writing and copying
2020 red, writing and copying
2022 blue, writing and copying
2024 yellow, writing and copying
2026 wine red, writing and copying 
Made in Switzerland 

Monday, April 27, 2020

360 East

4/20/20 4th Ave. NE & NE 85th St., Maple Leaf neighborhood (facing east)

This is the same traffic circle I sketched from previously at about the same time of day; this time I faced east. That blue strip you see toward the center is the Chevron station where I last filled my tank in February (it’s still half full). Just above it is the cross atop St. Catherine of Siena Parish, which I sketched years ago.

Overhead somewhere, a junco called repeatedly with its nonmelodic, high-pitched machine gun. The temperature was ideal for sketching in the sun. It felt so good that I could almost forget . . .

Sunday, April 26, 2020

"This is What a Revolution Looks Like"

Last week, 2,000 demonstrators appeared in Olympia to protest the ongoing stay-at-home order. Three Republican state lawmakers helped lead the rally against Governor Inslee, who is considering extending the restrictions beyond the original May 4 end date. In particular, Rep. Robert Sutherland (whose district has been one of the hardest hit by the virus), had this to say (quoted by the Seattle Times): “’We’re starting a rebellion in Washington, we’re not listening to this governor, we’re taking our state back. When we go fishing, they’re going to send their guys with guns, and they’re going to write us tickets,’ said Sutherland, who carried a pistol tucked into his pants. ‘Governor, you send men with guns after us when we go fishing, we’ll see what a revolution looks like. You send your goons with guns, we will defend ourselves.’”

The next day, I learned from a friend that three family members of a mutual high school classmate had all died of COVID-19. I would like to hear Rep. Sutherland explain to my classmate how his right to fish is certainly more important than the lives of my classmate’s two sisters and mother. In fact, I’d like to hear him explain the same thing to the families of the 99 people in his own district who have died so far.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Sketch Kit: Pandemic Edition

My current daily-carry sketch kit

It would not be an overstatement to say that most people on earth have had to make at least minor and sometimes major changes to their habits and lifestyles through this pandemic. While it’s been an upheaval and ordeal for many, we’re fortunate that adjustments to our retired lifestyle have been relatively few on the day-to-day level. Washing my hands constantly, avoiding touching my face, wearing a mask in public, regularly sanitizing often-touched household surfaces, shopping online for groceries (and everything else) – they’re all things I never considered a couple of months ago, but now they’re part of my normal routine.

My sketch kit, too, has changed to accommodate my corona consciousness. Sketching on location used to be something that I could do wherever I chose, with or without friends (my main grumble being inhospitable weather). Or I could indulge in it spontaneously during my walk/sketch fitness outings. I’ll never again take those luxuries for granted. Now urban sketching is a treat that must be planned and considered carefully.

On my daily walks, I’ve continued to take the mini-size Rickshaw bag I used for my walk/sketch fitness outings. Planning the current materials I carry for the subjects I’m likely to see and the speed at which I need to sketch, I removed the ballpoint pen and graphite pencil, which are only for leisurely times. The current selection are six urban colors of Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles, a water-soluble graphite ArtGraf pencil, a Uni Pin brush pen, a waterbrush and my water spritzer bottle (which, ironically, contained hand sanitizer – a product I never used back then – when it was purchased; I recall pouring it down the drain because I didn’t like the scent). The kit seems spartan – even less than what I carried during my winter minimalism challenge – yet it’s plenty during these dire times.

Ironically, the only times I now use my full (formerly) daily-carry Rickshaw bag is to sketch in the backyard or from our upstairs deck. I don’t have anywhere else to carry it.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Not-Quite Life Drawing

4/18/20 20-min. pose

As has become all the rage for many activities, “life” drawing (if it can be called such) opportunities are now available as live video streams. I had been seeing other sketchers share their drawings made from live streams, and I wondered what the experience would be like. (Unlike some sketchers who routinely sketch while watching TV, I’ve done this only once: When I sketched the televised presidential debate four years ago from an appropriate “throne.”) It’s obviously not “life” drawing, but it’s not drawing from a still photo, either. I’m not sure exactly what it is.

Just as I was pondering this question, one of my favorite Gage models, Shawna Holman, announced that she was offering the same. Curious, I decided to participate. Using the Zoom platform, Shawna gave us two hours of the standard Gage short-pose sequence of 2-, 5-, 10- and 20-minute costumed poses. The harsh lighting was uneven compared to a studio spotlight, but that made it easier to see values.

The videoconference platform is interactive, so during the breaks, we could give Shawna feedback about positioning or lighting, and her response improved the later poses. It was also fun to see and chat briefly with other participants that I know from Gage.

4/18/20 2-min. poses
Here’s one interesting observation I made: At Gage’s studio, every participant has a slightly different view of the model. In a live stream, we all have exactly the same view, which immediately became apparent during the breaks when we shared our work.

No, it’s not the same as real-life life drawing, but it’s also not the same as drawing from a recorded video, and it’s definitely not the same as using static images. I wouldn’t choose to do it if Gage’s studio was available, but I truly appreciated the opportunity for the life-drawing practice that I’ve been craving during these stay-at-home weeks. Shawna is offering sessions regularly, so I’ll be back for more.

One major benefit of online life drawing is that it’s not limited to those who can commute to the studio! If you are interested in giving this kind of life drawing a try, contact Shawna through Instagram.

4/18/20 10-min. pose

4/18/20 5-min. poses

Thursday, April 23, 2020

360 West

4/16/20 4th Ave. NE & NE 85th St., Maple Leaf neighborhood (facing west)

As I’m sure every other urban sketcher has found, this sheltering-at-home state of the world is frustrating. Being outdoors for exercise and fresh air is approved of and even encouraged, so we’ve been walking daily around the neighborhood. That’s a pleasure in itself – we are discovering beautiful houses and gardens we otherwise never would have noticed – but I haven’t felt like I could stop for a sketch the way I easily could in my pre-pandemic life. The sidewalks are narrow, so if a pedestrian came by, I would need to step into the street to allow them space. There’s little car traffic on these residential streets, so that would be safe enough, but it would be distracting and disruptive to have to keep my eye on passers-by.

Nonetheless, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ve been paying attention to the traffic circles and the views around them. I realized I could comfortably stand on one to sketch (heck, I could probably bring a stool if I wanted to) and easily stay much farther than 6 feet from any passing pedestrian, and I’m also safe from cars.

This view faces west from Northeast 85th and Fourth Northeast. It was such a clear morning that I could see a peek of the Olympics in the distance. I hope to sketch in the other three directions eventually, creating a 360-degree view of this intersection.

Edited 5/13/20: Here are the completed four directions. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Product Review: Koh-i-Noor Polycolor, Retro Edition (with Vintage Comparison)

From left: old and old-looking new

A while back, Koh-i-Noor released a “retro” edition of its Polycolor colored pencil line to honor the product’s heritage. The box and pencil were designed with the Hardtmuth family crest and other elements from the early 1900s. Before I got this set, I had a small set of truly vintage Polycolors, though not from as far back as the early 1900s; my set is more likely from the ‘60s or ‘70s. I thought it would be fun to put them side by side in this review.

First, the genuinely vintage set: Like other Koh-i-Noor sets of the same era (I also have Flexicolor and Mephisto sets), the 12 Polycolors come in a simple cardboard box with an easel back.

Easel box, thick cores

Made in the USA by a company that has been producing pencils since 1790, these pencils display beautiful typefaces and dingbats imprinted in gold on a simple, round barrel.
Lovely typefaces and dingbats

Although their cores are relatively thick, they are very hard, dry and low in pigment. Alas, I didn’t even sketch with them after making the initial swatches because I knew the task would be laborious and unenjoyable.

By contrast, the contemporary retro-look Polycolor set comes in a textured, dark red box emblazoned with an ornate gold crest of the L. & C. Hardtmuth family. According to the insert, “The upper part of the box is sealed with the signature of Franz Hardtmuth himself, whose portrait is featured on a product for the first time in this form in the modern history of KOH-I-NOOR HARDTMUTH, and therefore, confirms the unique character of this product. In addition, the refined nature of Polycolor pencils is highlighted by the coat of arms of the incorporator’s family, printed on the face of the packaging.” To its major credit, the set came in a plain, cardboard outer wrapper with a barcode so that the commemorative box could be barcode-free (a barcode would surely spoil the retro look, wouldn’t it?).

Old-looking but contemporary set

The signature of Franz Hardtmuth himself

The semi-hex barrel displays typefaces and other elements that evoke that earlier era (as well as similarities to my set from the ‘60s or ‘70s). Unlike my old set, however, these have a nicely finished gold end cap. Contemporary Koh-i-Noor pencils are made in the Czech Republic.

Decorative typefaces and flourishes that evoke the turn of the previous century.

Finished end caps

Initial scribbles indicated that the new, old-looking Polycolors were softer than the truly old ones and applied relatively well, so I made a test sketch. Oil-based Polycolors are still what I would classify as a harder pencil – similar to Faber-Castell Polychromos. The Polycolors blend sufficiently, but I find them less richly pigmented than Polychromos. It’s a nice commemorative edition, but I can’t get excited about the cores.
3/23/20 retro edition Koh-i-Noor Polycolor in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

I haven’t tried Koh-i-Noor’s standard edition Polycolors, but other than the typeface, the barrel design is the same, so my guess is that the cores are also the same. Blicks product information says that the standard edition is made of California cedar, and these Polycolors smell like they are made of the same.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


4/14/20 Our backyard, Maple Leaf neighborhood

Our backyard is a yawner. In the nearly nine years that I’ve been sketching, the only time I have ever sketched that view was last year during snowmaggedon, and that was only after being snowbound for several days – that’s how desperate I was. Of course, even overly familiar scenes look more interesting when covered with snow.

More than five weeks into sheltering-in-place restlessness (the media came up with snowmaggedon; why haven’t they come up with a cutesy name for this?), I must have hit that point of desperation. Several days in a row, I gazed out our back kitchen window – a messy yard, an overgrown bush, our recycle bins, the fence between our house and the neighbors behind us – and all they inspired was a deep sigh.

One day right after lunch, the early afternoon sunlight set our forsythia on fire. It was enough to get me out there with my sketchbook. Meanwhile, as I sketched, a neighbor on the other side of the fence was attending a Zoom meeting with the speaker turned up. All trade secrets of that company were revealed. The meeting was as much of a yawner as our backyard.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Product Review: Shiny DIY Printing Kit

Shiny DIY Printing Kit

Whenever I finish a daily hand sketch, I date and number it. I thought it would be fun to use some kind of date stamp for this ritual, so I started looking around for one. Yoseka Stationery, a delightful New York City shop, showed something on Instagram that was exactly what I was looking for: the Shiny DIY Stamp Printing Kit.

I chose the larger kit, which includes character sets in two sizes. Also in the kit are seven platens in various shapes to set the type, a handle, tweezers and ink pad. A smaller kit is also available with one character set.
Kit contents. The round and oval platens will be fun for other projects sometime.

In addition to all the letters of the alphabet (upper and lower cases), numbers and symbols for several languages, the kit includes useful shortcuts like .com, P.O. Box, http:, etc. The character sets are clearly intended for printing things like impromptu business cards, tags or notes that might include contact info.
Two sizes of characters.

Tweezers can be used to grasp and place the tiny letters.

Useful shortcuts included.

The box is designed to organize and hold all the pieces neatly. Diagrams in the tray compartments show you where things should go so that everything fits perfectly. (I must say, however, that unless every piece is put back in its place exactly so, the lid will not close.)

Diagrams show where all the pieces go!

Setting lines of type with those tiny letters is easier than I thought it would be. Although I dont have to use the included tweezers to pick up the letters and place them in the platens, they are handy for removing letters or pushing them into place.

I used a single-line platen to make a stamp for the hashtag Ive been using (#washyourhandthendrawit) and a two-line platen for the number and date. 

Be sure to test each stamp before stamping on your finished work and fix any typos (lowercase b’s and d’s are easy to confuse when they’re backwards).

The handle makes it easier to ink and stamp, but the first time I stamped on my hand sketch, I forgot to attach the handle. I found that the platen is easy enough to ink and stamp without the handle.
Platen can be used with or without detachable handle.

I love this kit! It’s compact and easy to use. The hardest part about it will be remembering to change the date before I stamp.

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