Monday, August 31, 2020

Kitty Corner

8/22/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

This summer, I had wanted to continue my Maple Leaf architecture series more regularly, especially since I’ve been walking through the ‘hood so often. But it hasn’t been as easy as I had hoped. To see a house well, I like to stand directly across the street, but that means that if a pedestrian came by, I’d have to pull up my mask and quickly move out of the way. As infrequently as that happens in my quiet neighborhood, it still requires keeping one eye on the sidewalk instead of my sketch subject. (Ah, how simple the Before Times were!)

Second Avenue Northeast is the widest of the streets on my route, so it offered this opportunity: a house on a corner, and kitty-corner from it was a parked car that I could stand in front of, safe from both traffic and pedestrians. It’s a nice house, too – I think of it as a quintessential Maple Leaf Craftsman, probably from around the same era as our own.

Perhaps I looked strange sketching from that marginal area, but a couple of friendly nods and smiles came my way, so maybe strangeness is OK, especially in these strange times.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Right Hand Has a Mind of its Own

I recently talked about “looseness” and how difficult it is for me to convey a sense of looseness when my natural tendency is to be “tight.” When I have consciously tried to “loosen up” (as I have sometimes been urged to do), the results are often just sloppy, not loose (which are not the same thing, though I think some people believe they are). It’s gotten easier over time, but it’s still not something that comes easily or naturally.

What I said above was all about my left hand. Last week, I observed something intriguing about my non-dominant right hand: It seems to be developing its own personality – one that is much more open to “looseness.” Looking for more media that would be friendly toward my weaker, clumsy hand, I tried using Prismacolor Art Stix – chunky, crayon-like sticks of pigment. Not only are they easier for my right hand to manipulate (just like big, fat crayons for preschoolers), they also demand a looser approach because fine marks and lines are impossible to make with them. And my right hand took to them like, well, like a preschooler to big, fat crayons (beginning with Day 165)!

My right hand could teach a few things to my left. In 30 days or so when this red notebook is full, I’ll switch back to my left hand for these daily drawings. We’ll see what the left has learned from the right.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Product Review: Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz Watercolor Pencils (Woodcased and Clutch Leads)

Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz Watercolor Lead Set

Mechanical writing pencils have never appealed to me the way woodcased pencils do. I’ve been told the advantages – the leads don’t need to be sharpened, the points stay consistent (though that’s not necessarily an advantage to me), and the barrel itself doesn’t shorten continually as woodcased pencils do – but they have never been my thing. I do use larger clutches for messy drawing media such as charcoal, sanguine and chalk, but that’s mainly because they come between my hand and the messy stuff. Otherwise, I haven’t found much use for mechanical clutches, either. (Except for my rainbow-swirled Koh-i-Noor 5.6mm clutch with Magic leads – I do love those! But then, I can’t imagine not loving a rainbow-swirled anything.)

2mm colored Caran d'Ache leads: better than most
Colored leads for mechanical pencils and clutches have occasionally caught my attention, but when I’ve tried them, I was inevitably disappointed. They are made for writing and technical drawing, so the leads tend to be very hard and low in pigment. The two exceptions are the Koh-i-Noor Diamond Lead Holder Drawing Pencils and the Caran d’Ache 2mm colored leads (I reviewed both at the Well-Appointed Desk). Both are much softer than typical clutch leads and have good pigment, especially the Caran d’Ache leads, which are even water-soluble. Still, with only six and four colors respectively, neither set makes for very robust drawing and coloring.

When I first spied a set of Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz watercolor pencil leads, I had two nearly simultaneous reactions: excitement and skepticism. I’m always excited to learn about a new watercolor pencil from a brand that I’ve been at least somewhat happy with. But my general disappointment with colored leads made me doubtful that this Koh-i-Noor set would be satisfying to use. Still, it was a set of 24 colors – the only full color range of clutch leads I had ever seen – and water-soluble, to boot! My curiosity outweighing both excitement and skepticism, I clicked “add to cart.”

The Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth Mondeluz line wasn’t new to me; I already had a woodcased set of the Czech company’s watercolor pencils. It had been a while since I had used them, however. While I waited for the lead set to come, I pulled out my woodcased Mondeluz pencils to refresh my memory.

Although the soft pencils are dusty to apply, producing crumbs that must be blown away regularly, they have good pigment content and layer easily. I tested them first by sketching some delicious plums my friend Alice had dropped off. I hadn’t recalled being impressed one way or the other by the Mondeluz pencils when I had used them previously, but I really enjoyed making the plum sketch. The hues were rich, and applying multiple dry-wet-dry-wet cycles produced good results.
8/11/20 Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz woodcased watercolor pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
Encouraged, I took them out a few days later to try them in the field (yes, our upstairs deck counts as “in the field”). Using my water spritzer to activate the foreground tree, I didn’t get a vibrant burst of pigment (compare with the trees left dry in the background), so they don’t work quite as well with my fast-and-furious road technique. Still, I found them sufficiently soft for my methods. I looked forward to the Mondeluz clutch leads to arrive to see how similar they were to their woodcased brothers.
8/13/20 Mondeluz woodcased watercolor pencils in S&B Beta sketchbook
I’m not picky about colored pencil packaging. Fancy boxes, tins and cases don’t impress me much because I prefer to store and use pencils upright in jars and mugs. (The one exception is Tombow Irojiten, which has packaging as beautiful as any I’ve seen for a colored pencil! But I digress.) When my set of Koh-i-Noor leads arrived, however, I was deeply annoyed. Shipped all the way from the UK in a thin padded envelope, the flat tin was wrapped in polyethylene, but the unhinged lid can be removed completely. It must have loosened in transit, because when I opened the tin, the contents looked like this:
Here's what the set looked like when I first opened it -- a mess!
The shallow slots do not hold the leads in place, at least in shipment, and I question whether they would be held in place even in a relatively immobile retail setting. Miraculously, only one lead was broken. After replacing the leads in the tray, I gently tipped the closed tin vertically at my desk, and all the leads shifted out of their slots again. The tin must be stored perfectly horizontally at all times. Worst pencil tin ever!

The photo at the top of the post shows how the set looked after I put everything back in place. In addition to 24 3.8mm colored leads, the set includes two graphite leads, one Progresso woodless graphite pencil, a brush, a sanding block and three Versatil lead holders.

Three lead holders were exactly what I needed to make my now-standard primary triad apple test sketch. Unfortunately, they are among the worst lead holders I have ever used. That’s not saying much, since I don’t have many clutches and mechanicals, but they are still terrible – very heavy and unbalanced. I must find different 3.8mm clutches if I’m to continue using these leads, but so far, I’ve had no luck. (Please let me know if you’ve seen any!)

Still frowning about the bad tin and now the bad lead holders, I was ready to pan the whole set – but to my surprise, the leads are quite good. They layer and blend well, and the pigment is rich and vibrant. Waxy, crayony and less crumbly than the woodcased Mondeluz pencils, they are softer than their woodcased counterparts and thicker, too.
8/14/20 Mondeluz watercolor leads in S&B Beta sketchbook
Using a knife is faster and easier than the sanding block.
Sharpening the leads proved to be more tedious than I expected. No lead pointer was provided with the set (I unscrewed a lead holder to see if one might be inside as it sometimes is, but no), so I used the sanding block that was included. After quite a bit of sanding, I refreshed the points satisfactorily, but for the second sharpening, I just used a knife – much faster and easier.

More enthusiastic now, I wanted to give them a field test. Keeping in mind their softness and high-maintenance sharpening, I thought the leads would be best applied where large areas of coverage are needed but not details. I put three shades of green into the lead holders and took them out onto the front porch, along with my usual pencil palette. In the sketch below, only the trees and foliage were done with the Mondeluz leads. As I had found with the woodcased Mondeluz, water spritzing didn’t bring out brilliant hues as I always hope for, but the leads are so soft and thick – almost like pastel crayons – that they are quite compatible with my field-sketching methods. The only problem is that I don’t care much for these greens together (and you know how picky I am about greens).
8/23/20 Mondeluz watercolor leads in S&B Beta sketchbook
Now that I’ve satisfied my curiosity and found these leads more than acceptably useable, only one question remains: Why? Why use mechanical pencil leads instead of woodcased pencils? Unlike mechanical writing pencils, these soft colored leads must be sharpened to use them for any kind of detail. There’s also the bother of changing the leads (unless one happens to own 24 lead holders). For my purposes, they are best used exactly the way I used them for the front porch sketch: A few select colors for areas where softness is essential – and a sharp point is not.

Good leads but terrible lead holders.
A major drawback of this set is that replacement leads are available open stock, but only from Europe, making the shipping cost far higher than the leads. It’s unlikely I’ll use these leads enough to require replacements, especially if I have to use them with these awful clutches, but I enjoyed experimenting with them. They are somewhere between a woodcased colored pencil and a water-soluble crayon, like Caran d’Ache Neocolor II.

Which brings me to what I was going to end this review with: “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Caran d’Ache made some Museum Aquarelle leads” – until I found out that they did! At one point, anyway – this set apparently hasn’t been available for some time. I was told by a Creative Art Materials rep that the lead set was succeeded by the Museum Aquarelle pencil, which was introduced in 2013. 

Friday, August 28, 2020


8/21/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

I had just stepped out for my morning walk when I heard a noisy commotion in the opposite direction: some kind of road work on the other end of our block. STREET CLOSED and UTILITY WORK AHEAD: Hallelujah, my favorite signs (at least when I’m not driving)! With the street closed, I could stand right in the middle of it to sketch! (And my left hand was very happy to be back in action.)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

My Right Hand Goes Urban Sketching

8/19/20 Temporarily right-handed in Maple Leaf

As my non-dominant-hand drawing practice continues, I’ve been thinking about how a hand is probably one of the easier subjects to practice with: My brain is already familiar with its proportions and form from all my prior practice, and the soft, organic lines and shading are relatively easy to fudge. Impressed with my right-hand sketches, a friend said, “I can’t draw a straight line with my non-dominant hand,” and I doubted that I could, either! Softly curving fingers are one thing, but what about hard roof lines, cars and utility poles? It was time to take my right hand urban sketching!

My right hand’s speed has nearly caught up with my left, so I felt reasonably confident that I wouldn’t need too much additional time on the street. Feeling cocky one day during my walk, I took out a Field Notes Signature and my favorite Uni Pin brush pen for a couple of small street scenes (below). As I suspected, scribbly, organic trees were no problem, but the cars were much harder.

8/18/20 The date, time and location notations
are barely legible, even to me!
The brush pen was a good instrument for my right hand to use because it requires almost no pressure to make a strong mark. The ultimate test, of course, would be colored pencils, which require significant pressure as well as speed the way I like to use them in the field – quickly and aggressively. I didn’t know if my right hand was ready for that test, but there was only one way to find out.

I stood on a quiet dead-end street (top of page) where I could take my time if I needed it. As soon as I started blocking in the house, I realized that I was in the habit of starting on the right side of the page and moving left, which is natural for a lefty. Starting on the left would have been more natural for my right hand. As I’d feared, building up enough color was more difficult and took longer when I didn’t have enough muscle behind the pencil. And I had to restate the roof lines and utility pole multiple times to get them straight.

The biggest frustration was something I hadn’t anticipated at all: My bag, which I keep on my shoulder as I sketch, is set up for easy access to my left hand, not my right, which didn’t even know how to rummage through the bag properly! (Try it! Reach into your sketch kit with your other hand and grab a pencil or brush! Not so easy, is it?) Everything felt backwards.

I admit I allowed my left hand to assist with two tasks that were just too frustrating to put up with: Spritzing with my water sprayer (which requires strength to pump with one finger) and putting the tiny cap back onto my waterbrush (which apparently requires both accuracy and agility). Arrggh!

Speaking of the waterbrush, one of my most challenging right-hand tasks was activating the straight line of the utility pole. I missed twice, applying the water on either side of the pole! It’s true: I can’t draw a straight line.

If nothing better comes of this right-hand drawing practice, at least I will have learned never to take my left hand for granted.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

A Study in Contrasts

8/17/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

When composing a sketch, I often look for appealing contrasts, and in the typical urban environment, they are easy to find: Trees are soft and organic; buildings are hard and angular; cars are neither organic nor angular. This trailer and the tree and car behind it offered a nice contrast between the natural and the not and between monochrome and color. I also enjoyed experimenting with a squarish format. And yet something seems off about the composition, but I haven’t put my finger on it. Luckily for me, I can probably try this scene again any time, because this trailer has not moved in six months (and I doubt the tree has, either).

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Making it Look Easy

8/6/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood
8/6/20 CenturyLink worker in the rain

After sharing a few small sketches I had made while out on my neighborhood walks, a friend on social media commented that “simple is so hard to do . . . . you make it look easy.”

It was one of the most appreciated compliments I had ever received about my sketches, and it was because it was related to one of the qualities I most admire in the work of others and that I aspire to: The appearance of “easy.”

I have talked occasionally about the concept of “looseness” and my belief that it takes a long time to grow into looseness. Liz Steel recently discussed the concept on her blog. Admiring Liz’s naturally loose style, her students often ask how they can become looser. She has thoughts about her own interpretation of looseness, but through discussions with her students, she has discovered that the concept can be defined in many ways.

8/3/20 willow tree, Maple Leaf neighborhood
All of this got me thinking again about what “looseness” means to me. I think looseness is the appearance of not requiring much effort – because all the effort has come in the years of work that preceded it. Even now, after nearly nine years of practice, almost nothing I draw feels effortless, but I want to make it look that way.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Mt. Rainier Commission

8/15/20 Mt. Rainier, 8" x 10," watercolor pencil on paper (mostly from photo)

Several weeks ago, a friend commissioned a drawing of Mt. Rainier. At the time, I had just made the sketch of Her Majesty from Maple Leaf Park, so I thought it would be an easy matter to return and do another. It turned out that the day I had sketched it was the last truly clear sky for seeing Rainier easily. Well over a hundred miles away, she’s partially visible from our bedroom window, so I would check each morning, and though she might be visible on the horizon, a low haze would keep the shadows indistinct. By mid-August, I was concerned that fall’s morning marine layer would soon be upon us, and I might not have another good opportunity to sketch Rainier from the park.

One morning, I decided the mountain was visible enough, so I headed out to the park early. Even as I began sketching, I could see the sky getting hazier. After drawing the contour and blocking in a few landmarks, I took it home and finished from a photo I had taken the day I had made the first sketch.

I knew it didn’t matter to my friend whether I had done it on location, from a photo or even from memory. But it mattered to me – I really wanted to do it “live.” It didn’t feel nearly as special or memorable to me to draw from the photo. I admit that the finished piece might be “better” in some ways because I was able to take my time, comfortably seated at my desk easel, instead of standing on a ledge at the park where the view is best. But urban sketching has spoiled me: Drawing from a photo will never be as satisfying, meaningful or “life-ful” as being on location.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

My Right Hand is Growing on Me

About a month into my non-dominant hand drawing practice, my sketches probably don’t look vastly different, but my right hand feels very different. Now when I pick up the drawing instrument with my right hand, it no longer feels like I’m trying to manipulate it with a mitten on. My left hand doesn’t have the urge to grab the pencil away. I can’t say it feels “natural” to draw with my right hand, but it’s no longer frustratingly slow, either. My right is still not as strong as the left, but it probably takes a long time to build strength.

At the bottom of the post, I’ve included my latest writing sample and the one from a couple of weeks prior. This time, I can definitely see improvement. I’m not practicing my writing at all – I’m just taking a sample once a week, so any changes in my writing are a direct result of the drawing practice.

8/6/21 writing sample

8/21/20 writing sample

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Saturday Morning

8/15/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Early Saturday morning in this alley has a special kind of quiet: Some sleep in after a long work week; chores and errands haven’t yet begun. Open summer windows reveal the soft clinking of breakfast starting. In the distance, someone opens and closes a trash can lid.

Technical note: Following the advice of nearly everyone I’ve ever learned from, I started with a thumbnail. I liked its composition, but when I mentally fixed a perspective problem, I decided I liked a square better.  

Friday, August 21, 2020

Twin Houses

8/14/20 new houses in Maple Leaf

Toward the end of June, I made a couple of quick sketches of some new houses going up in the ‘hood. Huge compared to most houses in Maple Leaf, they’re also extremely close together. I’ve been wanting to sketch more of their progress, but the street and sidewalk in front of them are narrow, so I haven’t felt comfortable taking too much time there.

I recently discovered that a short alley runs behind the properties, giving me an undisturbed view from the back. The two houses are identical, so I didn’t bother finishing the second one.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

One More Volvo

8/13/20 old Volvo, Maple Leaf neighborhood

Here’s the third and last (that I know of) Volvo in the collection on First Avenue Northeast. This one is usually parked behind the first one I sketched, so it was difficult to see its front. One morning, the other car had moved, making this one fully visible, so I jumped at the opportunity. It needs more work than the others – it’s missing a grill, license plates and probably other parts, and the hood doesn’t close completely. But someone obviously sees its potential.

A few days later, all three Volvos were together, so I couldn't resist snapping a family photo!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Place to "Waste"

Some of the "working" sketchbooks that live on my desk.

When I hear the term “sketchbook,” I most often think of the kind of sketchbook that I keep – the 100-plus handbound and store-bought books I’ve filled with sketches made on location during the past nine years. For the most part, the contents of these books are the finished product; they are not rough ideas or thumbnails for future “finished” works. But I was recently reminded of the more traditional use of the sketchbook on the website of Australian painter John Lovett.

In an article about artists’ sketchbooks, journals and diaries, he talked about the importance of keeping up a regular practice of sketching and notetaking as a way to record and generate ideas. While many pages in his sketchbooks look like mine – street scenes, travel sketches, thumbnails and value studies – he also showed pages of media experiments, studies and notations that he uses as reference.

Seeing those pages made me think it would be fun to share some of mine. In addition to those 100-plus sketchbooks you’ve seen, a page at a time, on this blog, I also have another couple dozen sketchbooks that I keep at my desk. About half of those pages are filled with still lives (like all those primary triad apples and product review test sketches) and other studies I make in the studio. The other half are experiments, scribbles, notations, color swatches and who knows what else. They are not the kinds of things I would typically share unless they are related to a review. These reference pages bristle with Post-its that I use as tabs.

I refer to these books frequently. To an art material junkie like I am, they are also just fun to thumb through.

Like the ones I take out on the street, my “working” sketchbooks are also Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. When I’ve mentioned this, some have asked me why I would “waste” good, relatively expensive sketchbooks like S&B if all I am doing is making swatches and scribbles. My answer is that I always use the same papers to test media as I would use to make “real” sketches; if I don’t, I’m only testing halfway. How media interact with the specific paper used is probably the single most important reason to test them. These good, relatively expensive sketchbooks aren’t wasted if I learn from them. That’s the whole point of a sketchbook.

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