Monday, November 30, 2020

Night Sketching Sketch Kit

11/26/20 across the street, Maple Leaf neighborhood

If you’ve ever painted your house, either interior or exterior, you know that there’s no such thing as “white” – only hundreds of tints that are very close to white. My (admittedly large) stash of Prismacolors includes a staggering number of near-white hues that could rival any paint chip book. Until I started using sketchbooks with black and brightly colored pages (mainly for my pandemic hand series), I didn’t have much use for all those near-white pencils. Now I have a new use: night sketching.

Actually, I’m a morning person, so I prefer pre-dawn sketching, which is when I did the one above, again through our livingroom window. At first all I could see were the porchlight and the silhouette of rooftops against the sky’s warm light – warmer near the horizon than above. Then our neighbors turned on some interior lights, which were also warm compared to the porchlight. The distinctions are subtle, but it was fun looking through my range of near-whites to find the ones I wanted. I also used black to draw the wires and windows over the whites.

Here’s the whole kit: a pile of near-white Prismacolors, one black Prismacolor, one full-white Derwent Drawing Pencil (the most opaque white I’ve used) and my clip-on Mighty Bright XtraFlex2 book light. I use the small flashlight to illuminate the pile of pencils. (The three pencils on top were the ones used in this sketch.) The sketchbook is a Stillman & Birn Nova Trio in the 7 ½-by-7 ½-inch softcover format.

Night sketching kit

So far, I’ve been using a simple zipped canvas pencil bag (a freebie from a merchant) since I’m only hauling the kit from room to room. But who knows – maybe I’ll be inspired to do some nighttime car sketching when the holiday lights are in full swing. If so, I’ll toss in a few Posca paint markers for color.

Sunday, November 29, 2020



After she had been on a ventilator for nearly two weeks and was stable for a few days, Toni’s family thought she had turned a corner toward recovery. But COVID-19 is a cruel, unpredictable illness; I’ve heard many stories about the various paths it can take to ravage the body. Just as her family was starting to be relieved, she took a turn for the worse, and now her doctors have suggested that she be taken off life support tomorrow.

Here is how her sister Fran describes what Toni is going through right now:

Today Toni is struggling more than ever. She is in a lot of pain as she is being weaned off the sedatives. In addition to her ventilator tube and feeding tube, Toni has a chest tube inserted into her side ribs and lung and feels pain every time she takes a breath (sometimes she breathes over the intubation). She is growing weaker and has air pockets under her skin from the lung collapse, which also causes great pain. The air pockets won’t go away until she is off the ventilator …and in order to get off the ventilator, she has to come off the sedation because under sedation, she can’t breathe on her own. But when she starts coming off sedation, the pain is great. Her lungs are inflamed with COVID-19 pneumonia. When the doctors lower the sedation, she struggles with her breath. It becomes rapid breathing and she goes into respiratory distress. It’s a series of Catch-22s. Her COVID-19 pneumonia is severe. According to Toni’s lung specialist, for two weeks there has been no improvement from the point of view of pneumonia.

Not many people would knowingly and deliberately inflict this kind of suffering on others. Imagine, though, inflicting this kind of suffering on others unknowingly.

It is happening every day.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Drawing Classical Couples


11/24/20 Rebecca and Aleks, 15-min. pose (I forgot to snap the image of the work that this pose emulates)

One of the outcomes of the pandemic is that opportunities for life drawing abound. Of course, they are all on Zoom, which isn’t necessarily a benefit, but in a desperate pinch for something to sketch, it’s possible to find a life drawing opportunity almost every day of the week. I had been receiving regular notifications through MeetUp from Life Drawing Plus, and last Tuesday’s theme sounded especially intriguing: Drawing Classical Couples. I decided to give it a try.

The model couple, Rebecca and Aleks, were based in Barcelona, while the co-hosts and organizers were in Manchester, UK. Nearly 70 participants logged on from all over Europe and North America – now that’s something that could never occur in an actual life drawing studio! (It was fun to look around the “room” and spot a few European sketchers I know.)

Before each pose, the hosts showed an image of a classical sculpture or painting and gave a brief description of the artist or art history period. For two- to 20-minute durations, Rebecca and Aleks emulated the works with their impressive (and likely difficult to hold) interpretations. It was one of the most fascinating life drawing sessions I’ve participated in! Below, I show the image (please excuse the poor quality; my laptop’s screenshot function sometimes doesn’t want to work, so I snapped these with my phone) with each sketch of the corresponding pose.

5-min. pose (I wish this had been a longer pose;
I would have enjoyed the double portrait.)
"The Kiss" - Auguste Rodin, 1889

15-min. pose

Renaissance era fountain depicting Greek mythology

20-min. pose
Renaissance era fountain, Vienna

15-min. pose (Imagine holding this pose for 15 minutes!)

The Fisherman engulfed by a Siren - Knut Ekwall 1843-1912

Friday, November 27, 2020

Vintage Colored Pencils: Canada- and USA-made Prismacolors

Canada-made Prismacolors

(Warning: Extreme colored pencil geekiness ahead!)

During my casual browsing of eBay listings for vintage Prismacolors, I occasionally see Eagle- and Berol-branded sets that were made in Canada. I was curious whether Canada-made Prismacolors were different in any way from Eagles and Berols made in the US during the same era.

According to Erick Lee, whose blog, Pencils, Eh, is a wealth of information about vintage Canadian pencils, Prismacolors were produced in Canada until mid-1992. In response to an inquiry, Erick kindly translated part of a La Tribune (Sherbrooke, Quebec) newspaper article from July 28, 1992: “While manufacturing production at the Bérol factory in Drummondville was to cease no later than June 1992, it was extended until mid-August, production director Yvon Fournier said yesterday. The company announced, on October 2, 1991, the end of its production at its factory on Janelle Street, leaving only the storage and packaging of the company’s products, made in the United States, which reduced its staff from 88 to 30, meaning 58 direct job losses.”

That was a sad day for Canadian Prismacolor users, I’m sure (not to mention the factory workers).

The reason for my inquiry was that I had snapped up a mint-condition set of Berol Prismacolors on eBay one day. The box was clearly labeled made in Canada. When I opened the sealed box, however, I was disappointed to find that all but one pencil were made in the USA. Erick surmised, “I'm guessing the pencils are from mid-1992. That is when Berol ceased production but they kept packaging American pencils. Canadian packaging has to be bilingual so they just trucked in the pencils from the US and put them in Canadian packages to sell in Canada. They must have had leftover packages that said made in Canada during the transition.”

I couldn’t blame the seller since the box had been sealed, but I realized that if I wanted to try some Canada-made Prismacolors, I would have to look for open lots showing images of pencils stamped “made in Canada.”

Over time, I did acquire exactly that – small lots of random, used Prismacolors that I purchased, and others were given to me by a friend. One recent rainy day, I pulled out a selection of colors among my Canadian Eagles and Berols and tried to match as many as I could to specimens from the same era in my USA-made Prismacolor stash. I didn’t have Eagles and Berols for all the colors I chose, so I filled in with vintage Sanfords in some cases.

Comparison swatches and a few notes are shown below (swatches made in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook). For the most part, I detected little difference between Canada- and USA-made pencils from corresponding eras. A few notable exceptions were Canadian Eagle-branded 912, 910 and 932 (two greens and a violet) that seemed a bit gritty rather than the expected smooth and creamy of their US-made counterparts. The Canadian Dark Green 908, both Eagle and Berol, felt slightly dry. Insignificant differences overall, I’d say.

A more surprising (and potentially alarming) shift was in some hues – mostly among the US-made colors I compared. The most significant was Apple Green 912: the US-made Eagle and Sanford look like two different colors to me. Dark Green 908 showed a smaller shift from Berol to Sanford on the US side, and a similar shift from Eagle to Berol on the Canadian side. Both 908s on the US side look different from the 908s on the Canadian side. There’s a similar difference between the Canadian and US Yellow Orange 917. These shifts are not a huge deal – unless you happen to be working on a piece with large areas of one color and were trying to seamlessly blend different pencils of supposedly the same hue. (Thankfully, that’s not me and is unlikely to ever be, but I’m certainly sympathetic to any artist in this situation.)

I noticed another interesting difference among the Canadian pencils: While all the Canadian and US Eagle specimens I have are labeled with color names in English only, the Canadian Berols have no color names. Since bilingual French and English labeling was mandated in 1969, perhaps Berol decided it was easier to leave the colors unnamed during the transition. (All pencils include Prismacolors’ universal color numbers, of course.) Every USA-made Prismacolor I’ve ever seen, vintage or otherwise, has been consistently labeled with both color number and name. USA-made Prismacolors from Berol through contemporary include color names in both English and French, so obviously the same pencils could be sold in both the US and Canada.

Canada-made Berol: no color names

US-made Berol: bilingual color names

The Eagle era, both in Canada and the US, included color names in English only.

The image shown below is strictly eye candy (or maybe eye chewing gum, depending on your point of view). I know that most collectors want their specimens to be as clean and pristine as possible, but I adore evidence of previous owners (well, except maybe bite marks). Alex and Sylvie have made their ownership known. I feel a small kinship with these Canadians, and I’m delighted to be using their pencils after all these years.

Alex and Sylvie: Previous owners.

11/21/20 vintage Canada-made Prismacolors in My Colors notebook

Could there possibly be a better way to spend a rainy afternoon?

Thursday, November 26, 2020


11/22/20 Toni (from photo)

 Last Friday, I participated in a healing circle for Toni, who is struggling mightily against COVID-19. A cancer survivor years ago, Toni is a fighter, but her foe is formidable. Fran, my long-time yoga instructor and Toni’s sister, asked her students to join family and friends in the circle to send healing energy to Toni.

The circle leader had encouraged us to participate with prayer, meditation or “whatever was our personal tradition.” I had never been to a healing circle before, let alone on Zoom (what a bizarre platform for making a spiritual connection! Zoom feels about as spiritual as the TV remote or an air conditioning unit!). The leader had put on some music that I thought was weird (but maybe that music is important to Toni? I guess I should listen). It lasted 20 minutes, and although I tried hard, I felt uncomfortable and distracted the whole time.

Prayer? Meditation? What is my “tradition”? I don’t have one. Of course, I meditate during yoga, but that’s because Fran leads it! That’s why I take classes! I don’t know how to meditate on my own. The participants that I could see all had their eyes closed, deep in prayer or thought, but I didn’t even have the courage to turn on my video because I didn’t want them to see how distracted I was.

At the end when we were invited to share comments, I couldn’t turn on my audio. I didn’t have anything I could say. Although Fran has told many stories about Toni so I have a general sense of her as a person, I have never met her, so I didn’t even have an anecdote about her to share. (Edited 12/4/20: Here's a blog post by Fran that taught me much about what Toni is all about.) Although I was hoping Toni would receive the healing energy that I was trying to send, I felt I had failed her and her family. I didn’t know how to make a spiritual connection with someone I hadn’t met, and I spent the whole time thinking about how wrong I was doing it.

I thought about Toni the rest of the day. I finally realized that whenever I draw something, I make a connection with it – even if it’s a trash can, a head of garlic, or a stranger on the bus. I realized then that I needed to draw Toni to connect with her.

In her blog posts and email updates about Toni’s health, Fran has included many photos of Toni at various ages. I don’t like to draw from photos, especially of people, and certainly people I don’t know. It feels like an academic exercise to copy the paintings of masters or simply duplicate an image. But it was all I had.

Studying Toni’s face, I tried to channel Gary Faigin and the portrait workshop I took from him last year. Faigin says that capturing a likeness is not about getting every eyelash and other facial details exactly right. It’s far more important to accurately gauge proportions and describe the planes of the face with shadow and light. I tried my best to do that, but I also knew it was important to capture her “essence.” It’s not enough to describe the shape of her radiant smile – her essence is in the light behind the smile (Fran says Toni always lights up the room with her presence).

In the reference photo, she is wearing a pendant, barely visible, on a gold chain. It’s the kind of detail that I might omit in a sketch. I noticed, though, that she is wearing the same pendant in every adult photo I saw, whether she was dressed up for a special occasion or in a tank top. In one photo, I could see that the pendant holds someone’s portrait. If Toni always wears it – a face close to her heart – it’s obviously special to her. It belonged in the drawing.

I had to stop many times as I drew because I could not see through my tears. I don’t know if I captured either likeness or essence, but I do know that I made the connection I needed. All my healing energy went to Toni as I drew.

Most would say that the act of drawing is neither prayer nor meditation, but it is obviously my personal tradition. Today I am thankful to Toni for teaching me this.

Updated 11/28/20: Toni is not doing well. Here is her sister Fran's update.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020



11/20/20 Katlyn, 10-min. poses

Aside from sketching on location (both with my Urban Sketchers group and by myself wherever I want to go), the sketching-related thing I miss most during the pandemic is life drawing. Real life drawing, as in seeing the model in the same room, three-dimensionally, from life. From the beginning, “life” drawing on Zoom was an oxymoron: How can it be from “life” if it is on my laptop screen? But like everything related to our COVID lifestyle, I started getting used to it. It’s the new normal.

11/20/20 5-min. poses

And yet it’s not normal at all. It isn’t “life” at all – it’s a flat screen showing a jaggy, often poorly lighted image of a model trying to do his or her best under the circumstances.

When the pandemic first began, I quit doing yoga and didn’t start up again for four months. Boy, did I regret that – nothing disappears so quickly as flexibility if you stop stretching in ways you used to regularly for 10 years (I’m practicing yoga more than ever now, and my flexibility is almost back to where it was before I quit, thankfully). In the same way, I don’t want to stop practicing life drawing because it will be much harder when I eventually go back. And life drawing is especially welcome during these wet, cold months when sketching outdoors is difficult or impossible.  

It sure is frustrating, though.

11/20/20 10-min. poses

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

7:30 p.m., 6:39 a.m.


11/19/20 view across the street, 7:30 p.m.

Inspired by the recent nighttime sketches of Swagatika Panda and Marcia Milner-Brage, I decided to give it a try myself. Unlike hardy Swagatika, who sits on sidewalks to do her nighttime sketching, I picked a cozy livingroom window with a view across the street.

I’ve sketched in the dark a few times before, usually around the holidays or during the last total lunar eclipse, so I know how challenging it is. In addition to the subject being barely visible, it’s also difficult to see one’s sketchbook. I don’t have a head lamp as Marcia had suggested, but I do have a Mighty Bright XtraFlex2 book light that I’ve used at concerts and other poorly lighted venues, and it worked like a charm for this sketch.

Once my pupils had finished dilating, I was surprised by how many subtle differences in hues I started to detect in this scene that I would otherwise describe as colorless and, except for the porchlight and string of holiday lights, “dark.” The house, which is yellow in daylight, retained a warm tone compared to the clouds, which looked bluish (though I’m not happy with the messy look I gave them). I could even detect the gold/orange tone in the small tree next to the car. The pavement and sidewalk reflected more light than I expected, too.

11/22/20 7:10 a.m.
A few days later, I woke around 6:30 a.m. and looked out the window: Pitch black, of course. Even before I put the coffee on, I grabbed my black Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook again. Looking slightly east of the scene sketched above, I started with what I could see easily – another lighted porch across the street. Within minutes, I detected the sky getting a bit brighter. Strangely, it was cool-hued near the horizon, then a bit peachy above that. . . and yikes, it was changing fast! Flat clouds drifted by rapidly as the sky got brighter and brighter. By 7:10, it was too light to qualify for “nighttime” sketching, so I called it good.

The only thing to look forward to about the long nights growing ever longer is that I’ll have more opportunities to sketch in the dark.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Vintage Colored Pencils: Eberhard Faber Colorama


Vintage Eberhard Faber Colorama
Although vintage Eberhard Faber Mongol and Colorbrite colored pencils seem to be a dime a dozen on eBay, the Eberhard Faber Colorama name was unfamiliar to me when a new old-stock set crossed my radar. As usual, I couldn’t find much historical information about it, but the logo and other branding look similar in age to the Mongols and Colorbrites.

The set of 12 came in a hard plastic box (which I think has yellowed with age; I’ve seen Mongols in boxes like these too, and they look similarly yellowed). I must give kudos to this eBay seller – although unsealed, these were possibly the cleanest vintage pencils I have ever purchased! (I have purchased other supposedly NOS pencils that were dusty or grimy.) I took a moment to admire them in their pristine, unsharpened state.

As lovely as they were in their mint condition, I buy vintage pencils to use (if only to satisfy my curiosity about what they are like). After a bit of reverence, I sharpened them all up – and what a joy that was! Look at the clean, beautiful points I got from my Carl Angel Royal sharpener! Be still, my heart.

The cores are much thicker than Mongols and Colorbrites. The unfinished ends make it easy to see their diameter.

Similar to many colored pencil sets of this era, the box lid flips around to form an easel.

Thick cores!
A classic easel box.

My initial swatches made me hopeful – pleasantly soft and with good pigment for colored pencils of this era. Although they are much softer than Mongols and Colorbrites, they are not as soft as the Eberhard Faber Design pencils of the same era.

When I sketched my hand holding the garlic (is garlic the new apple, my previous colored pencil-testing standby?), however, I became a bit frustrated that I couldn’t build up enough pigment in the darkest cast shadow areas. I ended up adding black over the blue. By vintage standards, the Coloramas are better than most, but perhaps they were intended for students and coloring book users while the Eberhard Faber Design (and later Design Spectracolor) pencils were intended for artists and other professionals.

11/18/20 vintage Colorama in My Colors notebook

Even if I won’t be using them regularly, the Coloramas are a lovely set that I’m happy to add to my vintage collection.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Subtlety of Modulation


Sometimes people who have been following this series ask (or imply through their comments) how I have managed to sketch the same subject for 251 consecutive days without getting bored. My answer is that my hand ceased to be the subject long ago. My hand is nothing but a study of form, which I find endlessly challenging. While sumi ink and brush pens enable me to explore values and form in a different, and enjoyable, way, dry pencil is the only medium I’ve used that offers a subtlety of modulation that fascinates me. I’m sure skilled painters know how to do this with a wet medium, but I need something dry. With pencil, I can fully explore the light dropping off suddenly to meet the shadow, and the shadow beginning to turn toward the light on the other side.

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