Friday, July 31, 2020

The House on the Corner

7/24/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood
More attitude in the 'hood.

I admire this pretty little Tudor house each time I walk by – the turret-shaped roof detail (I’m sure architects have a proper name for it); the weathervane at its peak; the lush, multi-layered landscaping that all but obscures the entryway. Two details I didn’t notice until I started sketching: That the turret is asymmetrical because of the complicated roofline (most of which I conveniently omitted); and that the flag is upside-down.

If I had a flag to put up, I would be flying it upside-down, too.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

News Flash: Colored Pencils Are Not Paints

Not much new here for me -- except for one key insight
that blew my head open!

I’ve read plenty of books about color theory. Long before I began sketching, my work with fibers, beads and abstract collage depended on color as the primary element, so I spent a lot of time studying and experimenting with color. Most of these books had one thing in common: They were written for painters. The lessons – how to mix primaries to create secondaries, for example – involved pigments suspended in liquid binders or solvents, also known as paints.

One of those basic lessons was that mixing either three cool primaries or three warm primaries will result in vibrant, cohesive palettes. If you mix warm and cool primaries together, your result might be lovely subdued hues – but more likely mud. Since I was working mostly with media that didn’t involve mixing paints, I learned the mixing rules mostly as theory (though it was an important way to learn concepts such as color temperature and intensity, which apply to any medium).

Make your own color wheel.
Years later when I began sketching and dabbling in watercolors, I tried to use what I had remembered about color theory to mix paints, but I was having enough trouble learning the pigment/water balance and never really got around to mixing colors. Eventually I switched to colored pencils, which I found to be far more forgiving than watercolors.

Fast-forward to last winter when I became interested in studying primary triads with colored pencils (surely you remember all those apples I sketched?). I recalled what I had learned from those color theory books and even went back to a few to refresh my memory. For most of those experiments, I applied the basic principle of staying within warms or within cools to create harmonious triads. (Although sometimes I deliberately mixed warms and cools, just to see what would happen.) Yet somehow I stumbled on surprises – mixes that I had expected to be vibrant were more on the dull side. Or haphazard triads turned out beautifully. My results seemed hit or miss, despite what I thought I knew about color theory. Still, I enjoyed my studies immensely, even when I ended up with mud, because each triad taught me something about how colored pencil hues interact with each other.
Lots of exercises like this.

 Fast-forward again to a few weeks ago when I was scrolling through colored pencil technique books on Amazon and stumbled upon Colors – A Workbook: Matching, Mixing and Selection for Colored Pencils, by Amy Lindenberger. The description sounded like basic color theory, with one major exception – it was written for colored pencil artists, not painters. I rarely buy books anymore, especially hard copies (my book cases are bulging, and the library’s e-book selection grows by the day), but this one sounded interesting.

As I thumbed through the book, I saw that the bulk of it is about the color theory that I’d already learned. It also contains many pages of color blending and color-wheel-making exercises – the kinds of exercises I had my fill of when I took Suzanne Brooker’s colored pencil class several years ago. I thought the book was going to be a waste, until I started reading the introduction – and the proverbial light bulb suddenly switched on over my head:

According to Lindenberger, the traditional color wheel based on the three primaries – red, yellow, blue – relies on pigments that paints and other media are made of. But mixing those primaries using colored pencils gave her a lot of trouble. She got unexpected muddy results just like I did. Ultimately, after much trial and error, she found that the best colored pencil triad came from Process Red (994), Canary Yellow (916) and True Blue (903, all Prismacolor Premier numbers) – which are not the typical red, yellow and blue we think of when we make a color wheel. In fact, they are much closer to the magenta, yellow and cyan used by the color printing process, which sprays layers of ink, one over the other. “If you have a color printer,” she wrote, “you will notice that the magenta, yellow and cyan inks are almost a dead match for the Prismacolor Premier Process Red, Canary Yellow and True Blue pencil colors.”
Not your traditional primary triad: Prismacolor Process Red, Canary Yellow, True Blue 

Geek note: My triad is made of three generations of Prismacolors!

This made so much sense! Unlike paint pigments that are blended together with their liquid binders, colored pencil layers are optically mixed like transparent glazes – and like printing inks. Eureka! It felt like the author was explaining what I myself had observed during last winter’s triad experiments, except I didn’t understand enough about it to articulate or formulate what I was observing. The light bulb that snapped on was worth the price of the book!

I went back to my primary triadic sketches and picked out the ones I had favored (below). In each case, the “red” I had used was closer to magenta, carmine or pink rather than a true red – yet when mixed with a warm yellow, the result was a vibrant red. The blues I used varied more, and I didn’t try many close to cyan. But the luminous pear I had sketched on Dec. 23 (third sketch below) included Prismacolor watercolor pencil True Blue (2903, which is the watercolor version of 903) and Carmine (2920). The yellows used in my favored triads were close to canary. (It’s easier to see the triad hues used if you look at the mixing swatch rather than the sketch.)

1/6/20 Winsor Newton watercolor pencils
(Carmine, Sunflower, Midnight)

1/23/20 vintage General's Kimberly (705, 713, 703)

12/23/19 vintage Prismacolor watercolor (Carmine, Sunburst Yellow, True Blue)

Of course, I had to try sketching an apple using the Prismacolor triad that Lindenberger recommended. The vibrancy is especially apparent in the secondaries (orange, green, violet) that result from Process Red, Canary Yellow and True Blue in my mixing swatch.
7/23/20 vintage and contemporary Prismacolor (Process Red, Canary Yellow, True Blue)
It’s satisfying when a book explains something I was on the verge of understanding on my own – but I needed that additional insight to fully understand it. Maybe next winter I’ll make a new set of triadic apples – this time looking specifically for variations of the hues Lindenberger recommends.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

My First Pandemic Sketchbook Filled

Four months of pandemic sketches

Ever since I stopped binding my own sketchbooks last year, I haven’t been ritualistically showing my sketchbooks as I finish filling each. I am this time, however, because it feels important and even poignant to mark it this way.

The sketch on the first page was made on March 15, just a few days after Gov. Inslee started closing down the state. The pandemic had begun to feel real. We had taken a walk through our neighborhood, where everything seemed so normal that it was hard to accept that something terrible was happening. I sketched a very mundane traffic circle where daffodils bloomed, giving me hope and optimism (though nothing else did). The next day I felt so much fear and anxiety that I had to calm myself by spontaneously drawing my hand (and that became Day 1 of my ongoing hand series).

As I page through the book, every sketch done on location, almost all within a mile from home (and one no further than our driveway), I can clearly recall my feelings as I made them. The sketches toward the beginning of the book were made almost furtively. (What if we have a full lockdown like other countries were experiencing? As an “unessential” activity, would urban sketching be outlawed?) Vulnerable, tentative, hesitant: I don’t know if my feelings show in the sketches, but I remember feeling them.

As my anxiety decreased over time, I found ways to sketch safely in my quiet neighborhood or in my car, and I made a conscious decision not to let fear keep me from doing what I love most.
A fresh sketchbook, stickered with attitude.

It took me more than four months to fill this softcover Stillman & Birn Beta, which, during a normal spring and early summer, I would have filled in half the time. Of course, I am also sketching in several small notebooks while out walking, and I sketch at home in other sketchbooks, so it isn’t that I have been sketching less (in fact, I think I’ve been sketching more than usual). But typically, whatever main book I’m using for urban sketching is a meter for the pace of my life. When I’m traveling, I fill several pages a day. When I’m sheltering-at-home, not so much.

I was about to put this Beta up in the bookcase next to the others. Before I did, I slapped the masked Weather Bunny sticker on the cover as a reminder of its contents. 

Then I cracked open the next sketchbook.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Last Black Page

I filled the last page of my Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook a few days ago with the 60th hand sketch on black paper (of a total of 132 to that point). Learning to draw white on black was a thoroughly enjoyable challenge that, at first, was much harder than I expected it to be. To stay motivated, I pulled out every white and near-white drawing material in my arsenal – mostly colored pencils, but also a few grease, pastel, chalk and “white charcoal” (huh?) pencils. Like anything, it got easier over time, but it never stopped being challenging.

Nearing the end of that book, I bought a second black Nova, in case I wanted to keep going. Certainly there’s more to learn by focusing on white on black, but it’s time for a change. Those of you who follow me on social media already know what I’m up to. I’ll report back here in a few days with the change-up.

Meanwhile, Governor Inslee has clamped down on restrictions in most Washington counties as we are “on the path to runaway transmission rates of COVID-19,” according to state health officials. With restaurants and bars reopening a couple of months ago for restricted indoor service, it’s no surprise that infections are up. None of the changes makes any difference to us; we’re still behaving the same as we have since mid-March. (My brave and daring foray to Starbucks a couple of weeks ago was a momentary distraction, just to see if I could feel normal again.) Looks like I have plenty more hand sketches to do.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Greens Frustrate Me

The greens in my palette.

I probably spend more time thinking about the greens in my urban sketching pencil palette than any other hue. When I’m sitting in my comfy studio with plenty of time to layer and mix, I thoroughly enjoy looking for a variety of greens to use together or just the right combination of yellow and blue to layer a lovely green. On location, however, I want to carry as few pencils as possible and still be able to convey a variety of local foliage. I would like to have a good range of greens to choose from so that I can vary my selection as needed.

That’s why greens often frustrate me when I look through my (admittedly vast) colored pencil collection. A typical large set of colored pencils will have several weird greens that are mostly useless for urban sketching because nothing in the natural world resembles them. (I’m sure other artists have uses for those greens, but I always look at any selection with urban sketching in mind.) When I took Crystal Shin’s botanical drawing workshop, she mentioned how unreliable the names of pencil colors are (and urged us to test colors on paper before choosing them, as the barrels can be equally unreliable). She showed us many examples from her own collection – “Grass Green” and “Leaf Green” were two. She laughed about how neither hue resembles anything she’s seen on a plant. I was relieved to hear her say this, because I have ranted many times to myself about some ridiculously unnatural colors that show up among green colored pencils, most often labeled “grass green.” After finding so many odd greens in sets, it’s now my rule to buy most greens open stock.

Caran d'Ache Emerald Green: Ideal for Seattle's
compost and recycle bins.
There’s one exception to my comment about most unnatural greens being useless for urban sketching: Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle Emerald Green (210; also available in the Supracolor line with the same number), also known as Seattle Recycle Bin Green. I use the same green for Seattle street signs. (OK, so it may not be an important hue for most urban sketchers, but we all know that color palettes are personal and idiosyncratic.) During my minimalism challenges, I usually take this green out, and I always regret it. It can’t be mixed easily, and it’s important to me to visually distinguish trash cans from foliage (example at right).

Back to more “natural” greens: I currently carry four in my daily-carry, which is a significant portion of my full palette. Caran d’Ache Olive Yellow (015, available in both Museum Aquarelle and Supracolor) is a relatively recent addition. I used to bring it along in early spring when brand-new leaves take on that special hue of yellow-green. Then when I started seeking out backlit views, I realized it was just right for that nearly yellow, light-filled green that fringes foliage. Now Cd’A Olive Yellow is a permanent part of my palette.

I tend to use Caran d’Ache Olive (249, Museum Aquarelle and Supracolor) as my neutral green, then bring in the others for the sunny or shady side.

Museum Aquarelle Light Olive (245) used to be my sunny-side green, but I use it less often lately because Olive Yellow is so much sunnier. I might eventually remove Light Olive.

As I already discussed at length in my post about traditional colored pencils, one green in my palette is unique and apparently has no match in any other line I own: Museum Aquarelle Dark Phthalocyanine Green (719). Useful for both pines and the shaded side of deciduous trees, this versatile green pulls a lot of weight in my palette.

7/21/20 Here's how I like to use several greens that go well together to represent
 foliage in the shade or sun.
I occasionally bring in other greens (usually seasonally, like a bluer one in winter), but these three – 015, 249 and 719 – have become essential because each works well individually while also harmonizing together. Painters create a cohesive palette when they mix a variety of colors from a small number of hues that play well together. With pencils, I’m not mixing in the same way that painters do, but each pencil must earn its keep in my bag by playing well with others, too.

I bet every sketcher, even those with deliberately limited palettes, has some essential greens they rely on. What are yours?

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Another Palm (Plus Safe-Sketching Tip)

7/20/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

The palms of Maple Leaf series continues.

We had a short heatwave last week, so I made it a habit to go out sketch-walking early in the day. When the temperature is in the high 60s, and the sun is still low enough that it’s possible to find shade (though it was gone before I finished), urban sketching is heavenly. And this sun-streaked palm made me feel far away.

A safe spot in quiet Maple Leaf.

Here’s a safe-sketching tip if you can find a quiet residential street: Sketch just in front of or behind a parked car. You’ll be safe from traffic, and you’ll also be out of the way of pedestrians on the sidewalk. In my quiet ‘hood, I rarely see others, especially in the early morning, so I don’t need a mask. It almost feels like the “before time.”

Saturday, July 25, 2020

On Location with Traditional Colored Pencils

7/14/20 across the street in Maple Leaf

When I’m working on a closely observed botanical drawing or still life in the comfort of my studio with plenty of time to build layers and details, I enjoy using traditional (wax- or oil-based) colored pencils. In fact, I prefer them to watercolor pencils for those types of works because water activation can sometimes muck up carefully rendered details. It’s a time-consuming medium that requires many layers applied slowly to develop rich hues. On location, I almost always use water-soluble pencils instead because they are so much more expeditious. Every now and then, however, I get in the mood to use traditional pencils in the field to see if I can teach myself some shortcuts to make them easier to use. A couple of weeks ago, I conveniently sketched a beautifully backlit scene across the street from our front porch in my preferred manner – with watercolor pencils. I liked the scene so much that I decided I wanted to do it again a while later, this time using traditional colored pencils.

My wax- and oil-based colored pencil palette
Before I dragged my kitchen chair out, I looked at my current daily-carry palette (made up of watercolor pencils, almost all Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle) and reproduced it with a variety of brands of wax- and oil-based pencils (above): vintage and contemporary Prismacolor, Faber-Castell Polychromos, Caran d’Ache Luminance and Caran d’Ache Pablo. I chose a variety of brands mainly because I wanted to match the palette I was already used to, but it was also a good opportunity to see how I liked using various brands (soft, medium, hard) in the field.

I was able to match almost all the hues closely except one: Museum Aquarelle Dark Phthalocyanine Green (719), which is a strong, dark green without too much blue in it. I use it frequently for the shaded side of trees and other foliage, as well as for ubiquitous pines – it’s a lovely, versatile green. In my vast collection of pencils, I couldn’t find a single green that came close. I chose Polychromos Chrome Oxide Green (278), but I wasn’t convinced that it could do the same job. Of course I could blend it with other pencils to match the hue, if that were my sole objective, but on location, I try to keep my palette as slim as possible. I dont want to carry two pencils if one will do the job.

An easy commute to the porch with a kitchen chair.
Out on the porch (sketch at top of post), where I had to keep scooting my chair back to stay out of the late-afternoon sun, I was comfortable, so the 15 or so additional minutes I needed to make this sketch was a pleasure. The parts of the sketch that took the additional time were the darkest shaded areas of the trees and the conifers in the distance. The fact that the dark green was a Polychromos did not help. While I love using its relatively hard core at my desk, slowly applying layers, I kept wanting to slam the color down hard as I am used to doing with super-soft Museum Aquarelles, and that’s just not possible with hard Polychromos.

I used a Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook (which has very little tooth) for that sketch. When I looked back at the first sketch I did of the same scene, I realized I also missed the texture of the S&B Beta paper that I use for most water-soluble pencil sketches. The surface tooth gives foliage a natural texture without much effort.

The next day, I took a S&B Alpha sketchbook (which has a tooth similar to Beta, but the paper is thinner) and the same selection of pencils out for a short drive to the Ravenna neighborhood (below). Parking under a canopy of trees like the ones I had sketched the week before, I gave it a good shot: Lots of dappled shadows on the ground, a mix of foliage, backlit trees. This sketch was a frustrating disappointment. I realized immediately that the tooth I love so much with watercolor pencils is too strong with soft, wax-based pencils. Despite the additional time I spent on it compared to how long it would have taken with watercolor pencils, I couldn’t get the values and hues deep enough. It would take a lot more time and constant re-sharpening to fill in all the missed areas. I kept wanting to grab my spritzer and bring those pigments to life!
7/15/20 Ravenna neighborhood
A few days later, I walked out to the traffic circle down the street with the same pencils, but this time I took the smooth Zeta book again. Still early, the sun was directly in my face, backlighting a small maple (thankfully, my sunhat has a wide brim). This time, it took only a little longer than it might have with watercolor pencils, but the areas of intense color were small.

Looking at the result at home, I still wasn’t happy with the darkest areas of the tree. I dug through my Pablos and found Dark Green (229), which is a bit bluer than I like, but it’s much softer than Polychromos, so I easily put in a few touches. That was good enough for me. (Both stages of the sketch shown below.)

7/18/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood
A little Cd'A Pablo Dark Green added.

Lessons learned from these experiments:
  • I don’t like using hard colored pencils in the field. (I already knew this; these experiments were additional confirmation. I don’t think I can find a shortcut for the basic requirements of harder pencils that I don’t want to meet in the field.)
  • With soft traditional colored pencils, I prefer smooth paper to toothy, even though I miss the texture in foliage.
  • It’s possible to build sufficient value and hue if I give it just a little more time. And if I have the time, I do enjoy using traditional pencils on location.
  • I really miss Museum Aquarelle Dark Phthalocyanine Green. (I quickly purchased a few as soon as I realized that no other pencil could match this useful hue, which I go through a lot; it’s a color worth hoarding.)
In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of greens – and having a wide variety to choose from – in urban sketching (a post on my musings coming soon).

Friday, July 24, 2020

More Small Stories

7/10/20 ambidextrous sider

One part of the Urban Sketchers Manifesto is that “our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.” Sometimes when I say that to new sketchers, they reply, “Oh, I don’t have any stories to tell. . . I just felt like drawing that.” But “stories” don’t have to be a big expose, a dramatic narrative or newsworthy. As small and insignificant as they may seem, my ‘hood is full of stories. Here are some I’ve sketched in the past few weeks. A roofer and a sider doing their jobs (the sider used both a nail gun and a traditional hammer simultaneously!); the S-shaped trunk of an ornamental cherry leaning over a fence (it looked fairly old; I wonder how old); a small historic building near the former Maple Leaf Reservoir (this deserves further research and a larger sketch someday).  

They probably won’t make headlines. But they are what’s going on in Maple Leaf, and they are enough for me to sketch.

6/16/20 roofer

7/1/20 ornamental cherry tree

7/1/20 historic building somehow associated with the Maple Leaf

7/1/20 backhoe waiting for excavation to begin

7/7/20 My first walk through Maple Leaf Park since the
pandemic began... it's reassuring to see that the water
tower is still standing.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

California Dreamin’

I’ve mentioned before how much I like palm trees. I never noticed how many there are in my neighborhood until I started walking daily around here the past several months. I make a mental note each time I see one, and eventually I’ll sketch them all.

Here are two more. These Chinese windmill palms look quite different from the tall ones I’ve seen in California and Hawaii (no coconuts will ever fall from these in Maple Leaf). Yet they give an exotic touch to the landscape that enable me to go on California dreamin’.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Vintage Colored Pencils: Two Curious Bicolors

Empire Sunset Dual-Kolors: Pure nostalgia

I have a particular fondness for bicolor pencils. First, they are nostalgically special to me. 1960s-era Empire Sunset Dual-Kolors may have been among my first colored pencils, and the sight of their triple-striped barrels fills me with childhood memories.

Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered a vintage Mallard Maestro Combination #705 (below) – a blue/red bicolor that is a dead ringer for the Dual-Kolor! According to Brand Name Pencils (where I bought it), the “Mallard Pencil Co. of Georgetown, Kentucky, was established in 1945 – shortly after its founder, E.S. Mallard, was released from military service.”

So far, that is the only historical information about the Mallard pencil company that I have found, so I’m curious to learn more. The question is: Which came first, the Maestro or the Dual-Kolor? (A quick scribble told me that the Maestro is a tiny bit better than the Dual-Kolor in terms of use, but not much. They are both pretty terrible.)

Top: Empire Sunset Dual-Kolor; below: Mallard Maestro Combination
Which came first?

The second reason I adore bicolor pencils is that they are supremely practical in a compact, portable sketch kit because I can carry two colors in the space of one. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know how excited I was when Caran d’Ache released its Bicolors set last year. Not only were they made by my favorite colored pencil maker; they were water-soluble! At the time that I wrote that review, I was certain that Cd’A Bicolors were the only water-soluble bicolor pencil set ever to be made. I was wrong!

Recently I came across a curious set of inexpensive, used bicolors on eBay: Staedtler Luna Aquarells. Although labeled “vintage” by the UK seller, the box bears a barcode, so obviously the set isn’t too old. A quick Google search resulted in many images of Luna Aquarells with the same packaging, so the set may not be “vintage” at all. However, all the sets currently available are single-color sticks, not bicolors, so it’s likely that the bicolors are no longer made.

Not very vintage.

Staedtler Luna Aquarell Bicolors

Based on the pigment content, which isn’t as low as I expected, Luna Aquarell Bicolors are probably intended for the back-to-school market (the diagonally striped cores resemble stick candy!). Made in Hong Kong, the colored cores bear a whitish outer layer, which is a mark of the ABS “Anti-Break System.”

ABS Anti-Break System

I stand corrected: Caran d’Ache Bicolors are not the first water-soluble bicolors to be made! (But certainly they are the only ones worth using.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Four Corners

7/13/20 NE 91st and 2nd Ave. NE, facing west

While I was working on the series of sketches made from a traffic circle, once in each direction, I immediately started looking for other traffic circles where I might be able to do similar sets. Several blocks north, I found one with potential: The intersection was much wider, and the sidewalks farther away from houses, so I felt safe standing on the corners instead of on the roundabout itself. It turned out to be quiet; I rarely saw cars or pedestrians.

You’ve seen the south- and north-facing views previously, but I’ve included them here so you can see all four corners of the intersection of Northeast 91st Street and Second Avenue Northeast.

7/11/20 facing east

5/27/20 facing south
6/10/20 facing north

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