Thursday, December 31, 2020

Never a Waste

12/29/20 The end of the year is a time for reflection.

It has been a surreal, sometimes devastating, often monotonous and mundane year. And yet, with the privilege of retirement, no financial pressures and the luxury of time, the pandemic has turned into an involuntary, prolonged artist’s retreat for me.

Instead of traveling to distant cities full of exotic views, I challenged myself to find inspiration in the overly familiar, usually within walking distance. The past summer was the first in many years that I didn’t travel at all, and it was pure pleasure to enjoy the best outdoor-sketching weather of the year (better summer weather than anywhere on earth, I might add, gloatingly. Well, except for those two weeks of terrible smoke).

As much as I miss regular outings with my Urban Sketchers group, they take time, both to attend and to plan and organize. With all that time freed up, I pushed myself to pursue ideas I’ve been thinking about for a long while, like learning to draw more from memory and imagination.

Other than Urban Sketchers, the thing I missed most this year was drawing people – living, breathing people going about their day. Studio life drawing, my favorite wet-weather pastime, was right up there, too. But I tried to compensate for both by keeping up my life-drawing practice on Zoom. It was fun at times, and the series of models from the LGBT community was informative as well as entertaining. Even when it was frustrating, the practice was still better than nothing. In one way, it was better than actual life drawing: I could practice drawing from memory by covering the screen.

Who would have thought I’d ever draw my hand daily for 291 days (so far)? Not me – absolutely not me – let alone draw with my non-dominant hand for 63 consecutive days. But here I am, still doing it, and still learning from each one.

Despite my deep skepticism, I even tried a live Gage Academy class on Zoom. I know that online learning is not new, and I’ve taken my share of non-interactive video-based courses, so learning from a screen should not have been too large a leap. My reluctance, however, came from my experience of taking many stellar in-classroom courses at Gage. I knew that Zoom classes could not possibly be as good, and I was right. Still, I don’t regret taking the class – I used it to pursue my personal goals of working from my memory and imagination. As with online life drawing, I got out of the class what I put into it, so it was not a waste. In fact, I signed up for another Gage class that begins in January. With my expectations appropriately adjusted, I’ll probably adapt more quickly.

Twenty-twenty was a year that I would not want to repeat under any circumstance. But any opportunity for creative self-growth isn’t time wasted, and I’m grateful for my circumstances that enabled me to take this “sabbatical” of sorts. More importantly, this year has taught me to appreciate many things I used to take for granted: Sketching with friends; sketching wherever I want; sketching people, in and out of the studio; taking classes. When I am safe to enjoy these privileges again, I will not take them for granted ever again.

Thank you, readers, for staying with me during this difficult year for all of us. Best wishes to you in 2021, which I optimistically believe cannot be anything but better!

My selfie setup using multiple mirrors

Technical note: This selfie was made by using multiple mirrors. I learned the trick from a sketcher friend, Mark Anderson, who used a child’s three-way vanity mirror. Given that makeup hasn’t been on my radar (or face) since high school, I had to go out to Amazon to get such a mirror. That part was easy; the tricky part was setting up the three-way and my usual selfie mirror to reflect each other so that I could see my three-quarter profile. It was worth it, though, to avoid the unflattering, unforgiving, dead-on frontal view, which is typically the only self-portrait view I’ve had. This multi-angle vanity mirror offers new opportunities.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Sketch Material Wish List for 2021

I'd love a square Stillman & Birn sketchbook in a smaller size 
like the Hand Book Journal I used years ago (green cover).

To be clear, my Sketch Material Wish List does not consist of products I hope to receive or that I intend to buy for myself someday. The items that make it onto this list are products that, to my knowledge, do not yet exist – but that I think should exist. For example, I enjoy ranting about pencil manufacturers that do not make extenders that fit their own products. But more than that, I become ecstatic when a wish list item is eventually fulfilled! It’s usually my favorite year-end wrap-up post.

That’s why I’m a bit glum that I could think of only two things to put on my list this year, and I’m not even ranting about these. I suppose that means I’m mostly satisfied with all my sketch materials and tools, and I should be happy . . . but what’s the fun in that? But life goes on, so here’s my wish list:

  • A softcover, square-format Stillman & Birn sketchbook in a smaller size: For the most part, I enjoy using Stillman & Birn’s 7 ½-inch square books. The square format offers more compositional flexibility; the papers are the same as the ones I have known and loved for years; the lightweight softcover is my favorite cover type. My only complaint is that they are a bit too large for sketching comfortably on location. They’re fine when supported by a desk or my lap. Held open when standing, however, the spread is unwieldy and awkward. And they don’t fit at all in my pre-pandemic daily-carry Rickshaw bag (let alone my smaller pandemic bag).

I propose that a 5 ½-inch or even 6-inch square would be ideal. When I first began sketching, I enjoyed filling several 5 ½-inch-square Hand Book Artist Journals. Portable and discreet for a new sketcher, the book was easy to use even when standing. Its panorama potential was even better than the more typical A5-size landscape book. I hope a smaller square is something S&B would consider.

No handheld sharpener performs as well 
as a good desktop hand-crank.

  • A portable sharpener that performs as beautifully as a desktop sharpener: Since I switched to my minimally sized pandemic sketch bag, I haven’t carried a sharpener at all. I simply check my pencil points now and then and sharpen at home with one of my many desktop options. (I have run into trouble a couple of times, though, when I forgot to sharpen one or dropped a pencil on the sidewalk and chipped the point. But like everything related to the pandemic, I’m making do.)

Sharpening at home is such a satisfying and even pleasurable experience compared to using a single-blade portable. Although the plastic-covered Mobius + Ruppert sharpener that I’ve been using for the past couple of years is the best I’ve found (since it fits my favorite, size-challenged Caran d’Ache pencils), it can’t hold a candle to a good hand-crank (my current favorite is the Carl Angel 5 Royal, shown at right, which I’ll review sometime) or electric sharpener. This wish list item may be a grail riding on a unicorn, however. It’s probably not possible for any single blade to sharpen as well as helical blades.

I feel better now, though, than when I started writing this post. If I have a grail riding on a unicorn to hunt, then my life has meaning.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020



12/23/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

When I was a kid, snow was a huge deal. Even a couple of inches could shut down the whole Seattle area, and certainly school. Yay! Snow day! Before the first inch had accumulated, I would be out there building my snowman. Often, the first inch was all we got, so the snowman would be partly grass and mud. Still, it was a day off from school, and in a day or two, it was back to the usual rain.

We got our inch or so last week, and by the next morning, it was gone, but the temps stayed in the 30s for several days. Walking in the neighborhood, I spotted this stalwart fellow (at left), grassy and listing but still on duty, the lawn around him completely clear. Snowmen in Seattle have a hard time maintaining their dignity.

The next day, I saw another (below). This one had better posture, but unfortunately, he had no common scents (anymore).


Tina and her snowman, circa early '60s

Monday, December 28, 2020

A Zoom Christmas


12/25/20 The Koyamas' Christmas gathering

Like many families this year, our Christmas visit with my family was on Zoom. I’m sure the need for virtual visits was hard on many families whose tradition is to have large gatherings at a central location. My family, however, living on both coasts, has never gathered for Christmas; instead, we usually get together in the summer when we can do things outdoors. Having gathered on Zoom for a birthday, a memorial service, a 50th wedding anniversary, and now Christmas, it’s ironic that I’ve (virtually) seen my family more often this year than usual. It wasn’t the same as really seeing them, of course, but during a time when I’ve come to appreciate family and friends more than ever, it was wonderful to be able to connect this way. We were all there, healthy and happy. This year, that’s more than many families can say.  

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Jumping Around


Prismacolor Art Stix

I jumped around among dry materials, ballpoint and even fountain pen ink with a brush this week. While the change-up gives me an interesting jolt each time, it’s less productive as a practice. I think I learn more when I stick with one medium or approach for a while. I already know this, of course, from my years of being fickle with sketch materials in the field, but it’s a lesson I must learn repeatedly.

Nonetheless, having to mentally pivot from the slow build-up of pencil or ballpoint to the fast, broad strokes of a brush is a different kind of workout. My Jazzercise instructors always used to talk about the importance of changing workout routines regularly so that muscles don’t get accustomed to the same movements, which causes the workout to become less effective. Maybe it’s the same with drawing.

Art Stix

Art Stix, Derwent drawing pencil

Art Stix, Prismacolor

Bic ballpoint, Gelly Roll

Bic ballpoint, Gelly Roll

Diamine Sargasso Sea ink, Prismacolor

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Eri and Vanessa

12/22/20 Vanessa and Eri, 20-min. pose

The last session in Life Drawing Plus’s series of LGBT models featured Eri and Vanessa, an Oakland couple. Vanessa leads a project to help women Reclaim Ugly, not by rejecting beauty but by rejecting beauty standards.

I couldn’t stay for the whole session this time, so I missed the discussion (and holiday party to raise funds for the Black Trans Foundation that followed the life drawing), but I imagine it was informative and illuminating, as all the discussions from this series have been.

Two things struck me as I drew Vanessa and Eri: One was that their proportions were very different from most life drawing models I have sketched, so I had to discard my usual guidelines for whatever is “average.” Once I did, it was easier to abstract what I was seeing into shapes and shadows. Secondly, I was moved by the tenderness and love they expressed for each other in their poses. I hope I captured their beauty and affection.

15-min. pose

15-min. pose

2-min. poses

Friday, December 25, 2020

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Gloom of Night


12/21/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Our poor postal service has been more burdened this holiday season than usual. Mail has been backed up at distribution centers for weeks, and my social media feeds are filled with complaints about delivery delays. I feel bad for postal workers; under COVID restraints and with many other issues, they are still doing the best they can.

The solstice was not only the darkest day of the year; it was also wet, windy and eventually snowy. Staying warm and dry, I sketched this mail truck through my rain-drenched windshield. As I was finishing up, the mail carrier appeared and opened the hatch: It was packed to the brim with Amazon packages. Thank you, postal workers, for all you have delivered to me and for me this year when I have needed your services more than ever.

Best wishes for a safe and happy Christmas from Weather Bunny
and her family (and me)!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Bartell’s Wreath


12/21/20 Roosevelt Square Bartell

One of my favorite holiday traditions has been to sketch Santa at shopping malls and stores – as many as possible (some years I even get competitive with myself and try to beat the previous years’ records). Feeling a bit melancholy that I couldn’t do that this year, I thought I would drive around Northgate Mall and see if I could find exterior decorations to sketch. Construction has been going on there for quite a while, though, so it was even more dismal than it might be anyway: No decorations anywhere. The parking lot looked nearly empty, too, considering that it was five days before Christmas. It was kind of pathetic.

After picking up a prescription, I noticed a large wreath outside Bartell Drugs. It might be as retail-festive as I was likely to find that day. The “atmospheric river” had begun, but rain streaming down the windshield as I sketched seemed to fit the mood. (Unfortunately, the Field Notes Signature’s paper wasn’t up to the job . . . it doesn’t look nearly as rainy as I wanted it to.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Tina’s 2020 Tops and Flops

Top product of 2020: portable desk easel

Here’s my annual post in which I review my favorite new-to-me products and, more recently, the biggest product fails of the year (see the posts from prior years, among the most popular on my blog: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.)

This has been such an unusual year – I hardly sketched outside my own neighborhood, let alone in other countries – that I didn’t explore many new materials for on-location sketching. My slimmed-down pandemic sketch kit (even with later additions of more colors) is still working well as my daily-carry during neighborhood fitness walks. I’ve enjoyed keeping it as light and simple as possible. (Will I even do my annual minimalism challenge this winter? I’m still muttering to myself about that.)

Overstuffed: Tran Portfolio, how I miss you.

Interestingly, there’s only one item that I usually carried in my larger, Before Times Rickshaw bag (see on my
Favorite Art Materials page) that I sorely miss: my Tran Portfolio Pencil Case. Although my current pandemic bag is much smaller, I’m still carrying quite a few colored pencils, pens and a waterbrush. Unfortunately, the bag is too small to accommodate the Tran Portfolio, which used to keep all those long, skinny tools so beautifully organized and easily accessible. In the smaller Rickshaw bag, I’m making do with a small pen case (above) to keep the implements upright and accessible (an essential attribute of any sketch kit I carry), but it’s not ideal. All the pencils in the main compartment get jumbled together into a bulky lump, and I’m often digging for the colors I want. Like everything about the pandemic, I’m getting by, but I long for my old daily-carry.


Let’s get on with it. Not surprisingly, all my “tops” this year are things I use in my studio instead of in the field:

Art Stand portable desktop easel (top of page): I bought this handmade desktop easel after seeing instructor Crystal Shin use it in her colored pencil botanical illustration workshop. She finds it invaluable for improved ergonomics when she’s working on her painstakingly labor-intensive drawings. Although I don’t want to work on drawings that take that long, I still find my easel indispensable for desktop drawing for two reasons: One is that the tilted angle of the drawing board reduces the visual distortion that can occur when the drawing surface is horizontal. The other is that graphite and even colored pencils can reflect quite a bit of light from my desk lamp, making it difficult to see what I’m working on when the paper is flat on the table. I use the easel daily for my hand studies, and my “model” can pose at the same angle as the paper. It’s my best investment of the year.

Shiny DIY printing kit

Shiny DIY Printing Kit
: When I purchased this, I wondered if it would become tedious and time-consuming to change the date every day to stamp my daily hand sketches. But it turned out to be an ideal way to pull the series (drawn in many different media and paper colors) together visually. I enjoy using this fun stamp set, too – it takes only seconds to change the date.

Prismacolor Art Stix: Who knew that these colored-pencils-disguised-as-crayons (below) would be so much fun? They’ve been around a long time, but I didn’t discover them until this year. And their amazing scent – ahhhh! Sometimes I open the box and inhale just for kicks!

Prismacolor Art Stix: I inhale!

Boku-Undo E-Sumi Watercolors: A product I tried for InkTober and then reviewed at the Well-Appointed Desk, this palette of sumi inks/paints turned out to be more than a whim. I was delighted by how much fun they are to use. In rich shades of off-black, they behave like watercolors, but it’s much easier to maintain super-saturated washes. Almost as important as the fun, though, is that these inky paints pushed me to think about drawing in a different way.

Boku-Undo: inky-painty fun

Honorable mention: vintage General’s Multichrome: Since it’s not a product that can be easily purchased anymore, it’s not fair to put it on my “tops” list, but my most exciting vintage find of the year at least gets honorable mention. Why would this American pencil maker (one of only two still producing pencils here) take this excellent colored pencil out of production, yet retain its mediocre Kimberly line? As the only US-made colored pencil set (Musgrave in Tennessee still makes a few colored pencils, but not sets), a box of Kimberly is not something I would wave patriotically on the 4th of July. General’s Multichrome, however, I would proudly put out as worthy competition to many contemporary colored pencils.

Ah, Multichromes. . . why did General's foresake you?


Koh-i-Noor Versatil 5356 lead holder: When I reviewed the Koh-i-Noor Mondeluz watercolor pencil leads last summer, I was intrigued by the novelty of using colored pencils this way. (Colored pencil leads are certainly not new, but I had never found any before these that were worth using beyond test swatches.) What I was not impressed with were the three Versatil lead holders that came with the set. Extremely heavy and awkwardly balanced, the clutch barrels are also completely round, so they roll off the desk easily – which can result in breaking the lead. Although I’m no pro at using lead holders, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that this design is among the worst ever.

I set out to find a replacement, but the 3.8mm lead size is not easy to accommodate. I finally found a Pilot Croquis clutch that fits. As I said, I don’t use lead holders often enough to evaluate fully, but the Croquis does the job. It’s lightweight and comfortable to hold, and the plastic barrel doesn’t roll off my desk. Good enough.

The truly awful Koh-i-Noor Versatil replaced by the Pilot Croquis.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Like Breathing

11/30/20 chimney maintenance

Most of my urban sketches the past few weeks have been small, quick ones made during my neighborhood walks. Knowing that I have walked these same four-by-ten blocks nearly every day for the past nine months, you’d think I’d run out things to sketch, and some days, I do feel that way. In yoga class, I am reminded that every breath I take is essential nourishment for my body (and breathing easily and freely is not something to take for granted; ask anyone who has suffered from COVID-19). I try to look at my walks the same way: Every sketch nourishes my soul in some small but essential way.

Every sketch is still worth making.

12/11/20 Tree being taken down

12/17/20 A pair of crows we've observed twice on 
the same wire, cooing and preening together.

After sketching from the middle of the street
(the crane was blocking the street, so I was
safe), I tried to grab a trophy shot, but the rig
was barreling toward me too fast. The 
driver waved and smiled as he passed.

12/17/20 I had missed all the action by the
time I got there... they were already taking
the crane down. I saw later that they had 
delivered a new utility pole.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Tina’s Top 10 Memorable Sketches of 2020

2/14/20 from the 40th floor

Every year around this time, my personal tradition is to write a few year-end posts: my most memorable sketches of the year; products that were new to me that turned out to be favorites (or not); my sketch material wish list; and finally, some reflections about sketching (you can read posts from previous years here). As it has been for everyone worldwide (How bizarre to even say that! How many events affect everyone worldwide at the same time?), 2020 has been so strange that I almost hesitated to write these posts. Talking about my favorite sketch materials seems so trivial when a global virus has taken so many lives. Do I even have memorable sketches?

Upon reflection, I realized I do have memorable sketches, even this year. And although my slimmed-down pandemic sketch kit doesn’t contain much that’s new, my product reviews for the year show that I did try some new things in my studio that turned out to be essential. And I always have sketch materials that I wish existed! So the tradition continues after all, if only as a semblance of normalcy.

Part 1 today includes my top 10 most memorable sketches. The other posts will be written during the remainder of this year that we all know can’t end soon enough.

Feb. 14, view from 40th floor Starbucks, Columbia Center (above): These little thumbnails are nothing to get excited about. But they are memorable to me because I made them at the last official USk Seattle sketch outing before all hell broke loose. How blissfully ignorant we all were then.

3/10/20 Bellevue Square

March 10, Bellevue Square
: Less than one month later, said hell did break loose, although at this point, it felt more like a creeping anxiety. To encourage sketchers to take part in the One Week 100 People challenge, I had scheduled an ad hoc outing to Bellevue Square. Should I cancel? What if someone is sick already and doesn’t know it? What if someone catches it at the mall? I felt terribly responsible, and yet so much was unknown – was I over-reacting? With much trepidation, we proceeded. As I sketched, a man probably 500 feet away coughed loudly, and I couldn’t move away fast enough. It turned out to be the very last time we would meet for the foreseeable future: The next day, Gov. Inslee announced restrictions for all group activities.

March 16, my hand: By the following week, my stress and anxiety were at an all-time high. I looked around for something, anything, to sketch, just to calm my mind. My hand was the handiest. I felt better afterwards, and it became easy art therapy. I didn’t know then that this would become the longest sketch series I’ve ever done, but after my anxiety eventually subsided, I kept going.

April 29, 4th Ave. NE & NE 85th St., facing south: By the time spring brought improved weather, I had settled into my new normal of walking daily in my neighborhood and finding safe ways to sketch. It was an opportunity to become reacquainted with the ordinary and mundane that I otherwise never take time to see.

4/29/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

May 1, drive-by birthday party: As families waved to the birthday boy from their cars or from across the street, my heart broke.

5/1/20 Drive-by birthday party

May 23, Mitsuko Yamamoto’s memorial service: If I had been told a year ago that I
would someday sketch a dear family member’s memorial service on Zoom because a global pandemic would prevent me from attending, I would have said, “What the heck is Zoom?”

5/23/20 Memorial service on Zoom

July 14, Mt. Rainier from Maple Leaf Park: With so many working from home instead of commuting, the air was cleaner than it had been in years. On this morning, Her Majesty was more clearly visible than she had been in a long time. It was my mother’s birthday, and I felt her presence as I sketched.

7/14/20 Mt. Rainier

9/12/20 Smoky sky
Sept. 12, yellow sky: This was a sketch I remember all too well and hope never to repeat. For nearly two weeks, we were all trapped in our houses by toxic air filled with smoke from distant, deadly wildfires.

11/19/20 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 19, across the street, 7:30 p.m.
: Although this isn’t my favorite of my ongoing series of sketches made in the dark from my livingroom, it was my first, and it opened my eyes (and pupils) to a new way of seeing.

Nov. 22, portrait of Toni: As of this writing, six weeks after she was diagnosed with COVID-19, Toni is still in ICU, still not able to breathe without mechanical assistance. Her family’s regular reports on Caring Bridge document her ongoing, heart-wrenching struggle. Although I have never met her, drawing Toni’s portrait gave me a connection to her spirit that keeps on fighting. I’m still with you, Toni. Stay strong.

11/22/20 Toni

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Old Pencils


Last week I used my hand studies to become reacquainted with some pencils I hadn’t used in a while: vintage Rexel Cumberland Derwent carpenter-style pencils. With the thickest, softest core of any woodcased colored pencil I’ve found, they are delicious to use for quick studies like these. I have taken to sharpening them on both ends – one end with a blunt tip for broad strokes, one end with a point for thin lines and details. I enjoy flipping them around as I draw, Darth-Maul style.

The one sketch on white paper was done with another vintage pencil, this one much older, that is new to me: an Eagle Draughting graphite pencil. The core is close to a Blackwing with the softest core, but it seems even smoother. It feels like velvet in graphite form.

Double-ended Derwent carpenter-style drawing pencils

Eagle Draughting pencil

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