Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Review: Viarco ArtGraf Water-Soluble Soft Carbon Pencil


3/27/21 Northgate neighborhood (Viarco ArtGraf water-soluble carbon pencil in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook)

The Viarco ArtGraf has been my favorite water-soluble graphite pencil ever since I first picked one up. It has a beautiful, dark wash, especially in 6B. Although I had tried the carbon version when I was in Portugal a few years ago, its scratchiness made it less appealing than graphite. When a pencil acquaintance in Portugal generously sent me several recently, I decided it was time to give the Viarco ArtGraf water-soluble soft carbon pencil another try.

Viarco ArtGraf water-soluble soft carbon pencil

Compared to graphite, carbon feels rougher, but the Viarco is also softer than some other carbon pencils I’ve tried. As such, it can be delicate to sharpen. Instead of a hand-crank, I use a handheld M+R brass sharpener, which does the job beautifully. Look at that thick core!

Thick core!

I made test swatches of the Viarco carbon next to the Viarco 6B water-soluble graphite and an Ivory Black Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle. For each swatch, I made one pass, heavily applied. I smudged each swatch with a finger (seen toward the top of the swatches). Then I gave each a swipe with a waterbrush (no scrubbing). After the washed areas were completely dry, I gave each a swipe with a clean waterbrush to see whether the previously water-activated material would be reactivated with additional water (shown toward the bottom of the swatches).

Tests made on Canson XL 140 lb. mixed-media paper

The water-soluble carbon is the blackest of the three even when dry and clearly results in the darkest, richest wash. Carbon also doesn’t have the reflective sheen of graphite, which makes it appear darker that way, too. The downside is that dry carbon smudges even more than soft graphite does. The washed areas, however, are smudge-proof once dry.

3/27/21 ArtGraf carbon and Primo Bianco white
chalk pastel in Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook

As for water-activation, dried washes of all three pencils show only traces of reactivation when more water was applied. I think all three would be safe to use with watercolor or other water-soluble materials after drying completely. The risk, though, is that if you have even one tiny particle that was inadvertently left unactivated initially, it may result in an undesirable spot of blackness.

My first test sketch with the Viarco carbon was my hand, which was also my first use of a waterbrush using my non-dominant right hand. Since wielding a brush requires more dexterity and control than a pencil, I was a bit tentative in my strokes and was startled by the solid blackness of the activated marks! It’s as dark and opaque as sumi ink! Yowza, this pencil is not for the faint of heart, but it emboldened me quickly.

Of course, for me, the most important test of any medium is taking it out in the field. After an errand in Northgate, I drove around looking for pink blossoms to sketch, but all I found was a white-blossomed apple tree (or perhaps a white plum, as suggested by an arboreally knowledgeable friend; sketch at top of page). Since the hand sketch had taught me that a little goes a long way with this pencil, I put in the shaded areas of the apple tree less aggressively than I might have with other media (such as a Museum Aquarelle). I used heavier elbow grease on the dark foliage behind the apple. Then I used my spritzer to activate all foliage. It would have been alarming to see the carbon explode with rich blackness if I didn’t love it so much!

My only caveat with Viarco pencils is that the company seems to have some issues with consistency. I’ve had several ArtGraf graphite pencils, and one had a core that was so badly shattered inside the wood that I had to toss it. Others have been fine. The photo of this carbon pencil’s backend shows that its core is slightly off-center, and another I received is further off-center. So far, it hasn’t been a problem when sharpening or using, but it’s something to consider, especially given the softness of the material.

Even so, Viarco’s pencils are the best I’ve used for the quality I adore in water-soluble products: A strong, rich wash, even with a light application. Whoa, baby – this pencil is hot!

Incidentally, I thought of instructor Kathleen Moore (of the graphite tree-drawing class I finished last month) at least twice as I made the apple tree sketch. A reminder that all of us in her class heard over and over was that our darkest values needed to be darker; we all suffered from some wimpiness in that regard. With this carbon pencil, wimpiness is not possible!

The second lesson that I heard in my head was equally important: The darker trees behind the apple were not of interest to me, so my first inclination was to make them vague, gray scribbles. But then I remembered Kathleen’s advice that the best way to bring a light-colored object forward is to emphasize the darkness around it and even exaggerate it. With the carbon pencil, it didn’t take long to lay in a heavy, dark scribble instead of a vague, gray one. And of course, Kathleen was right.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Zoom Faces


3/25/21 A few Facebook friends on Zoom

The last time I sketched a Zoom social gathering, I was disappointed that I couldn’t seem to break out of the Brady Bunch grid. This time when the same group gathered, many of the same people were present, but I focused on sketching only those I hadn’t sketched before. This helped me to avoid the grid and try for a more organic composition. It’s nothing radical, but at least I am trying to break out of the box.

The other thing I attempted, which is an earnest goal, is to draw quick portraits like these in a more cartoony style. I still want to capture the person’s essence and some degree of likeness, but in a less literal way. Which lines are essential in describing the expression and character? Identify those and leave the rest out. Some faces are easier to do than others in this way. If a face is side-lighted, I use that to help me leave the lighted side unstated. I think I captured Dianna best in the cartoon style that I am attempting.

While sketching, I am also listening, which is easy, but the huge challenge is talking! I admire art instructors who can speak while they give demos because I find that part of my brain shuts off when I’m trying to draw!

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Worst Sketchbook


Nearly 10 years ago, only a few days after I had committed to a daily sketching habit and learning to draw, we took a long weekend trip to Orcas Island. I felt both excitement and anxiety: It would be my first travel experience as a sketcher (never mind that Orcas was only a couple of hours from Seattle by car and ferry)! Possibly my first urban sketch would occur! That was the excitement part. The anxiety was about many things, but especially about leaving my routine: Would I break my daily drawing commitment already? (It had happened before during previous drawing attempts, so the anxiety had grounds.)

Shopping in the village of Eastsound, I walked into Darvill’s Bookstore (I’m thrilled to find this link and realize that the shop still exists). There I found a selection of gorgeous leather-bound sketchbooks handmade by Susie Shipman of Island Bound Books (I’m happy to see that she, too, is apparently still making books). The one I fell in love with had a soft, dark purple cover that felt a bit worn – as if it had already been broken in by another artist to give me a head start. However, inside the inch-and-a-half-thick book were 320 7-by-7-inch high-quality pages – all viciously blank. No head start here. Its price was $160 – well worth the impeccable hand stitching and luxurious materials, but a gulp nonetheless.

Beautifully hand-stitched spine and a woven-cord closure.

Ornate flyleaf paper

An inch-and-a-half thick! Could it be any more intimidating!

Before I could chicken out, I bought it immediately. By golly, this book would make me keep my commitment! If I was tempted to quit, the price would guilt me into continuing!

I guess it worked: Six months later, I finished filling it. Even now, it is my most precious sketchbook because it represents both my commitment and my struggle. Completing the sketchbook and how that felt was the subject of one of my first blog posts. Now, more than a hundred filled sketchbooks later, I felt like writing about it again, this time with retrospection (and it’s a good opportunity to show more images of the book).

Nothing but a telephone number and my first name for ID (and a good reminder that's still valid today). 

I was working on my 100 hands, so the book contains many of them.

What prompted me was a discussion in a stationery-focused Facebook group. A member posted about his difficulty in using a beautiful journal. He felt he had to write about something “important” or risk “ruining” the book with his mundane thoughts. I think this is a common fear among sketchers, too (especially beginners but even those with years of experience), when faced with a fresh sketchbook. One “bad” sketch could ruin the book, so each sketch must be perfect. What a terrible pressure – especially if the sketchbook is of high quality and expensive. Surely such pressure could stop a fledgling drawing habit in its tracks!

I was also working on making 100 selfies, so the book contains lots of those, too.

A good solution, especially for beginners, is to burn through lots and lots of inexpensive sketchbooks – the more, the better. The corollary is to avoid using any challenging media with those cheap sketchbooks – stick with pencil or ballpoint. By the time a stack of those is filled, and the sketcher wants to explore new media, the drawing habit will be firmly entrenched. An upgrade to a better sketchbook wouldn’t be intimidating (or at least it would be less so).

I think many new sketchers spend a lot of time, energy and money acquiring different types of sketchbooks, likely influenced by their favorite sketchers, and switch gears at the drop of a YouTube. That was my next phase after the handmade leatherbound book – trying lots of sketchbooks and often using them inappropriately with the media du jour. It’s fine to experiment, but not if acquisition and trial of materials keeps one from the task at hand – sketching. The simpler and more familiar the materials are, the more likely they will be used with confidence and without impediment, and the more sketches will be made.

Not that I would have listened, but that would have been the advice I would have given to myself back then – simple, inexpensive materials – not to buy a handmade work of art for $160! In retrospect, it wasn’t the best choice for other reasons. Could I have chosen a more bulky, heavy and conspicuous book for urban sketching? I’m amazed now that I hauled it around to coffee shops and unwrapped that substantial cover each time I sketched. It’s probably the worst sketchbook for a beginner. It’s intimidating to think about even now! I applaud my novice self’s courage (and wonder whether I still have the same gumption I had then).

By the way, I did make my very first urban sketch that weekend on Orcas Island (though, ironically, not in the new sketchbook). We had just missed our planned ferry ride home, so we had a long wait ahead. In the true urban sketching spirit, I filled the time by filling a page.

9/25/11 My first urban sketch, Orcas Island, Washington

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Last Couple of Miles


In some ways, my pandemic hand series is easier to continue because I know it’s so close to ending. On the other hand, it’s also harder for the same reason. It’s an odd state. Maybe this is how marathon runners feel on those last couple of miles.

To keep myself challenged and motivated during the final push, I started using my right hand again. It’s been six months since I practiced drawing with my non-dominant hand. That time, my practice lasted for 63 days; I certainly hope this practice will be shorter!

With my first righty drawing, I felt so rusty that I was afraid I was going to have to start all over again. After a couple more, though, my hand started getting its chops back. It helps that Art Stix are soft, thick and forgiving. It probably also helps that the previous practice made me more ambidextrous in general. It feels natural to do some simple tasks with either hand now  scooping peanut butter from a jar, spreading it on toast.

To add to the challenge and tie the righties together visually, I decided to use my gray Stillman & Birn Nova. Of all the toned paper colors I’ve tried, cool gray is my least favorite. I’ve used it on and off for urban sketching in the winter because it matches our months-long sky so well. (Maybe that’s the problem – it reminds me too much of overcast skies.) I’m not sure why, but I have difficulty using gray as an undertone that I don’t have with warm tan and beige papers. Bright white doesn’t seem quite as bright on gray, and some colors look dull.

About half of my 92-page gray sketchbook remains. Let’s see if I can be fully vaccinated before I fill the book.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Toni’s Epic Journey Continues


3/25/21 Toni (from video still)

After more heartbreaking setbacks, Toni reached the point last week at which her doctors believed her lungs were strong enough to be taken off a ventilator permanently. Her sister Fran has been with her daily since January, sometimes spending 12-hour days at her side. Fran has been Toni’s coach during the painful, arduous process of being weaned from the mechanical device that has kept her alive since November when COVID-19 began ravaging her body.

With this huge milestone reached, Toni could finally leave the hospital and move to a rehab facility, where the long journey will begin to heal the rest of her body, including regaining basic skills like standing and walking. Five months of hospitalization will do that.

A few days ago, Fran posted a short video on Facebook of Toni being lifted into the ambulance that would take her to her next phase of recovery. Clutching several stuffed toys, a shiny, star-shaped balloon bobbing behind her, Toni gave her sister a thumb’s up. I knew she was smiling behind her mask. Seeing the video brought me to tears, but this time of joy.

We will not hear many COVID stories as epic as Toni’s; most in her condition would not have survived. Toni has beaten the odds.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Tonal Garlic

3/24/21 graphite on Yupo; colored pencil on Stonehenge Aqua Black and Fawn

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my pandemic hand series, it’s how to have fun with toned paper. My initial intentions with using brightly colored papers were simply to keep myself entertained and to give each sketch a visual spark. It didn’t take long, though, to remember how handy (ha) colored paper can be for studying values. Using any color as the mid-tone, applying white and a dark color for two other values is expeditious. I like the way the colored pages trick me into thinking I’ve found a convenient shortcut when, in fact, I am learning more about values.

I’m still playing with Legion Stonehenge papers for reviews I’m writing, and the sample set includes a lovely Fawn color (slightly warmer and lighter than Stillman & Birn’s beige) that I am enjoying. This subtle tone also offers the additional challenge of transparent colored pencils interacting with a warm undertone.

As for black, you already know how much I love working with that brain-busting challenge. I’m not sure I like the strong texture of this Stonehenge cold press, at least with colored pencil, but I bet the paper’s heavy weight would be nice with gouache.

(Visit the Well-Appointed Desk for my full reviews of these paper samples.)

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Essential Workers


3/21/21 Life Drawing+ organizer and host Agata wears a big straw hat to talk about the
challenges of offering online life drawing. (5 minutes)
For many years, Life Drawing+ offered open sessions and classes with live models in a traditional Manchester, England, life drawing studio. When the pandemic closed the studio, organizer Agata wasted no time in moving the models to what may have been the first life-drawing program on Zoom: It began only a week after the UK’s lockdown a year ago. While life drawing online has become commonplace during the past year, the Life Drawing+ program is still the most innovative and creative that I have participated in. Some of my favorite sessions have included dramatic lighting, a lesbian couple, and a drag queen with elaborate accessories.

To commemorate the weekly program’s first anniversary, Agata presented a variety of first responders and other essential workers from the UK. Instead of modeling in the traditional sense, they were interviewed by Agata about how the pandemic has profoundly affected their lives and livelihoods. They dressed in uniforms or held props of their trades as they told stories of courage and resilience.  

First up was Agata herself (above), who talked about the challenge of helping models continue to earn a living by putting them on Zoom instead of up on a studio platform. How much easier it was, Agata said, to simply invite artists to come to the studio instead of having to remotely teach models how to use video in the best ways possible.

Amanda is a volunteer at a vaccination site. Wearing a high-visibility neon green vest, she talked about how she reassures vaccine recipients and makes sure they wait at the facility the required 15 minutes after vaccination in case of an allergic reaction.  

Amanda, vaccination site volunteer (5 minutes)

Alan, who normally delivers produce to restaurants and stores, suddenly found himself many times busier once the pandemic hit. Suddenly food became difficult to buy in stores, so individuals began calling him to deliver produce directly. He said he appreciates the contact with customers, many of whom are shut-ins who have told him, “You are literally keeping me alive.”

Alan, food distribution (10 minutes)

Organic farmer Lindsay also found herself much busier when the pandemic hit. A seller at a farmers’ market, she had initially panicked when the market was closed, but then she started receiving “a hundred emails a day” from customers asking if she could deliver produce directly. When they couldn’t buy produce easily from stores or markets as they had in the past, they became more aware of where their food comes from.

Lindsay, organic farmer (15 minutes)

Helen, a teacher, had to face the enormous challenges of learning how to teach teenagers online. She talked about how difficult it is for young people to have only their families for company and not to have social interactions with peers.

Helen, middle-school teacher (15 minutes)

Unlike food producers and distributors who suddenly found themselves in greater demand, Steve, an emergency room nurse, had the opposite experience. He said that some people who needed urgent medical care became hesitant to seek help because they were afraid of catching COVID at the hospital. Part of his work has been to educate patients about how they still need to take care of themselves and seek medical attention if they need it.

Steve, emergency nurse (5 minutes)

An art director, Alan found many of his income sources drying up. To supplement his dwindling income, he became a parcel courier (my impression was that the retail service he worked for was similar to Amazon). As retail customers began buying more and more products online, the need for couriers expanded rapidly. Paid by the parcel, not the hour, he had to learn very quickly how to make deliveries at a fast pace. He eventually came to enjoy some aspects of the job, such as the relative flexibility and the small interactions he has with customers.

Alan, courier (15 minutes)

A surprising “model” in the session was Elizabeth, who designs and builds bicycles. She has built more than 50 bikes. Her small business has boomed during the pandemic. In addition to the many commuters who started bicycling to avoid public transportation, others sought the “liberation” biking provided – fresh air, an opportunity for fitness, feeling free when so much of life felt oppressive.

Elizabeth, bike maker (15 minutes)

The last “model” of the session was Elaine, a microbiologist working in the field of infection prevention and control and specializing in children. She chose to hold a COVID testing swab as her prop because it best represented what she has been studying the past year – and she has tested herself numerous times. Part of her work has been to figure out how to conduct COVID testing in countries that may not have reliable access to electricity, computers or other technology. Elaine also talked about the false impression many have that children do not catch COVID easily or that they don’t have symptoms. In fact, although not many children die of COVID, many do suffer serious, long-term consequences.  

Elaine, microbiologist (15 minutes)

This session was probably the most meaningful sketching I have done during the pandemic. I was moved by their stories and felt honored to sketch them in recognition of the work they do so that people like me can stay safely at home. And many thanks to Agata for making it possible for artists around the world to draw them and hear their stories.

Proceeds from this session, which are normally paid to the model, are being donated to two international charities nominated and selected by the essential workers and the artists who participated.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Second Pandemic Sketchbook Filled


Filled with eight months of sketches.

Last July I filled my first sketchbook from the pandemic and then started a fresh one. (By “sketchbook,” I mean the largest one that I use exclusively for urban sketching; I have several others that I use simultaneously, like my small Field Notes for quick captures.) Nearly eight months later, the second one is finally full. That’s a record-breaker for me in terms of longevity: In the Before Times, I typically filled a 52-page Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbook with urban sketches in two to three months, regardless of season. Although I still sketched plenty at home during that period, it’s clear that the pandemic was, shall we say, an inconvenience to my lifestyle.

Nonetheless, when I thumb through those eight months, I vividly recall many beautiful summer days sketching every nook and cranny of my corner of Maple Leaf. The fall, too, was enjoyable. Often captured from my car, many brilliant maples gave me an opportunity to use more color than at any other time.

Not all the pages are pretty, though. One shows a homeless encampment in the Ravenna neighborhood that was new to me (sadly, many new ones have appeared in the past year). Another disturbing sketch shows a bright red sun rising through a smoky wildfire haze.

Sensory memories from those moments rush back with every page I turn. The book took much longer to fill, but every sketch is all the more precious – an ongoing record of my pandemic year.

According to what has become my personal tradition, I stuck a masked Weather Bunny sticker on the cover as a reminder. Then I peeled the wrapper off the next sketchbook. Unlike last July, however, I start this one with hope and anticipation.

A blank sketchbook of hope.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Haiku from the ‘Hood


In addition to being a sumi painter, my mother was a haiku poet. As a traditional homemaker, she spent most of her time at home. Sometimes when her well of haiku ideas ran dry, she complained that it was because she hadn’t gone out that week. Then she would go shopping or run another mundane errand, and when she returned, inevitably she would say that she had gotten an idea for a haiku (which she would then quickly scribble into her notebook).

She didn’t need much for inspiration – her brief poems were often about ordinary matters made extraordinary by her observations – but getting out of the house was enough to make her see the mundane anew.

I know how my mom felt. My regular walks around the neighborhood are hardly “inspiring,” yet walking out the door is usually all I need to keep scribbling visual haiku in my sketchbook.



Monday, March 22, 2021

Sixth and Lenora

3/20/21 Sixth and Lenora, downtown Seattle

As I did three weeks ago for his first shot, I dropped Greg off for his second dose at the Virginia Mason/Amazon SuperVax site, then parked a short distance away to wait. This time I found a spot facing Sixth and Lenora, where I caught a glimpse of the Amazon Spheres. In the foreground, protected by a row of orange stanchions and a fake picket fence, is a large tent used for outdoor seating by nearby restaurants. The tent occupies a traffic lane that has been closed to accommodate it. As before, it’s not a composition I would have chosen if I’d felt comfortable standing on the sidewalk, but it was still a treat to be downtown.

Sketching from my car is not a tactic new to the pandemic; I use my mobile studio every winter. Sometimes it’s frustrating because I know much better compositions would be available, if only I could get out and move a few feet. Other times I enjoy the challenge of looking for an interesting view within my parking limitations.

By the time I finished the sketch, he was done. It seems deceptively simple for a life-saving solution to take so little time to receive.

Sunday, March 21, 2021


Lengthy art projects are not new to me. During my first year of sketching, I decided to make one hundred self-portraits, and that took me a couple of months. (Can you believe it? My attempt a couple weeks ago wasn’t the first!) As if that torture wasn’t enough, shortly after that, I sketched my hand a hundred times. My longest project was when beadwork was my primary art medium. On the day after my 49th birthday, I began weaving one small piece of beadwork every day for a year, culminating on my 50th birthday. Afterwards, I mounted the 365 pieces on a single panel for display. (You can see the completed work on this page.)

All those projects had been planned, and I had made a commitment in advance to complete them. My current series of hand drawings, however, is different.

On March 16, 2020, a few days after the World Health Organization had declared a state of global pandemic, I was filled with so much fear and anxiety that I grabbed the nearest pen and paper and drew my hand simply to quiet my agitated mind. Afterwards, I felt better, so the next day, I did it again. I never intended for these sketches to become a series. (If I’d known then that I’d still be at it more than a year later, I never would have begun!) I was a month into the hands before I had committed to the series to the extent that I bought a stamp set to ritualistically count the days.

I didn’t even know what days I was counting. Unlike some artists who had begun series of sketches to endure their locally enforced lockdowns, my effort was nebulous – a self-enforced “lockdown.” It had no end date that I knew of. A large part of my ongoing anxiety was exactly that – not knowing when it would end. Something terrible being indefinite makes it much harder to bear.

By the fourth month of the pandemic, I finally realized what this series was about: It was a metaphor for personal endurance of living through a constant state of being unsafe. It became clear, then, what I was counting: The number of days until I felt safe again.

Last Wednesday Governor Inslee announced that on March 31, 2 million more Washington State residents will be eligible to receive the vaccine, and that tier will include me. When I schedule my appointment, the wait for safety will be finite. And finite feels infinitely better than indefinite. The hand series will end. And that end will be a grateful relief in many ways.

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