Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Mail Truck


5/8/21 Wedgwood neighborhood

Years ago in a life-drawing workshop, the instructor said something that has stayed with me ever since. Mark Kang-O’Higgins approaches every pose, regardless of duration, as if it were only 30 seconds long. Even if he knows the pose will last 20 minutes (or two hours or several weeks, for that matter), he captures the entire gesture in half a minute. Then he spends the rest of the duration shaping and refining that initial gesture. Finally, at the very end of the duration, he puts in details. That way, no matter how much time he has, he will always have captured the most essential part of the pose.

The method he describes is basically what I practice whenever I do life drawing, but it is just as applicable when urban sketching, too. When I spotted this mail truck, I didn’t know if the carrier would return in 30 seconds or 15 minutes, so I captured the truck’s “gesture” (if a mail truck can be said to have one) as quickly as possible – probably less than a minute. Then I marked the essential shadows and other dark areas. For the remaining time (which turned out to be a leisurely 20 minutes or so), I continued to refine the shapes and put in details. I was completely done with the truck and already working on the willow when the carrier finally appeared. It turned out he was inside the truck all that time. He came out to deliver one package, then drove off. But even if the truck had disappeared after five or 10 minutes, I think I had enough on the page that I could have finished it. This method is especially useful when sketching people, who tend to walk off at the most inconvenient times.

Come to think of it, this lesson that has stayed with me is a version of the same advice I’ve heard from nearly every urban sketching instructor or author: Start with the large shapes first, then get progressively smaller and more detailed as time allows.

Monday, May 10, 2021


5/7/21 Roosevelt Square Starbucks

Pouring and sleeting as I drove around on errands, I was disappointed that I probably wouldn’t be able to sketch that afternoon. By the time I finished at the pharmacy, though, the rain had stopped, so I dashed into the Starbucks next door. I got the only dry table under the awning and the only dry chair (no competition – I was the only customer at the time). Chillier than I would normally tolerate for sketching outdoors, it felt exhilarating (even though I had to pull the hood up on my raincoat). And then the sun came out!

Except for one nerve-wracking adventure last July, when I didn’t even sketch, it was my first visit to Starbucks (or for that matter, any coffee shop) in more than 14 months. To sketch an umbrella’d table on an ordinary Starbucks patio felt like sheer luxury. How I have missed this tiny bit of normalcy.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Review: DOMS Aqua Watercolor Pencils


DOMS Aqua Watercolor Pencils (I had difficulty photographing
this box, which is entirely metallic and highly reflective. I kept seeing
myself, which is perhaps in line with the introspective turn this review takes.)

India-made pencils are known for being low priced, and yet many are of surprisingly high quality, especially graphite pencils. Most of the colored pencil sets I recently compared are probably marketed to children and are not artist quality, and yet at least the DOMS Supersoft and Sivo Vivid are of good quality – certainly better than most colored pencils intended for kids (or adult coloring bookers, for that matter).

I happened to stumble upon a set of DOMS Aqua Watercolor Pencils on Amazon while I was researching prices for that comparison review. My tendency is to look askance at any watercolor pencil as low priced as these (12 for $7.99), but my pleasant surprise with DOMS Supersoft and Indian pencils in general made me think again. It was a low-cost gamble that I couldn’t resist. (Note: The Amazon product title includes the words “artist grade,” yet nowhere on the packaging does the product claim to be artist grade. Clearly the meaningless term has been included for search purposes only.)

The set of 12 includes a sharpener and a small paintbrush.

The package design (which coordinates with the DOMS Supersoft) indicates a children’s product. In addition, the pencil has a space designated for writing the owner’s name – a definite sign of school-age marketing.

Making the dry swatches (three layers per swatch on Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper) seemed hopeful: Although the hues didn’t match perfectly, the Aqua pencils applied with a soft, somewhat waxy consistency that was similar to the DOMS Supersoft non-water-soluble pencils. When I swiped each swatch with a waterbrush (my usual test method: two swipes, no scrubbing), however, I was sadly disappointed by their low pigment content. This is exactly what I would expect for the price and for any set marketed to children, but I am ever optimistic.

Swatches made on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

If they had been hard, dry and unpleasant to apply, I would have stopped there. But from my experience using the Supersofts, at least I knew they wouldn’t be terrible. It was raining, I was in a generous mood, and my lemon was still viable.

5/6/21 DOMS Aqua in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

Although the swatches show low pigment, the colors activated in my sketch better than I had expected for the first two layers. In subsequent layers, however, you can see from the splotchy blotches that they didn’t blend well. I had to work fairly hard to get this degree of blending, and yet I admit that I’m not unhappy with either the result or the process. Let’s just say I’ve used many watercolor pencils that were less pleasant, and some have cost quite a bit more, so from a price perspective, these aren’t bad. Kids could do a lot worse.

When I struggled with blending, I was in the mood for a challenge, and I have enough experience with watercolor pencils that it’s sometimes fun to fight with a product. But this is exactly the kind of struggle that I would never want a beginner to have because it’s impossible for a novice to know whether he/she needs more skills or whether the product is inferior. (This would be a good time to insert my lecture about why it’s important to use the highest quality materials you can afford, especially when you are just beginning to learn a new medium. Please see this post and scroll down to “Unexpected Insight” and “The Moral of the Story.”)

 As I sketched the lemon and Roma tomato, I also had some thoughts about the colored pencil industry. Although I’ve used many intermediate-grade and even student-grade traditional (non-water-soluble) colored pencils that are of reasonable to high quality, I’ve rarely tried a good watercolor pencil that wasn’t artist grade. I wonder what it is about watercolor pencils that makes them so difficult to produce that good ones can only be found at the high end? Or is it just that I’m fussier because I love watercolor pencils so much?

In direct contradiction, as I have gained skills with using watercolor pencils over the years, I’ve found my tolerance for lower quality ones increasing (as I showed myself a few years ago when I deliberately used several pencils I knew I didn’t like). Maybe it just means I’ve learned how to turn a potential frustration into an enjoyable challenge.

(Rain seems to encourage this kind of tedious pencil-related navel gazing. Thankfully, I’m over it – for now.)

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Banana Miranda


For the past couple of weeks since my pandemic project ended, I’ve been using the time in the morning when I used to draw my hand to instead practice drawing from imagination. I’ve occasionally shown here examples of how I’ve been practicing imaginative drawing during the past year, and it’s a huge, ongoing challenge for me. I’m sure that it will get easier over time with regular practice, just like drawing from life eventually did, but right now it feels like I’ve gone back to Square 1 nearly a decade ago. Drawing from imagination is obviously using my brain in a way that never otherwise gets used (and hasn’t been used for most of my adult life).

A large part of my current study is reading books by Lynda Barry. One day when I had mentioned on Facebook how challenging it is for me to draw from my head compared to drawing what I see, an artist friend said she has the opposite challenge: She does most of her drawing from imagination, so to look at something and draw from sight takes more work. Our interesting discussion led me to ask for reading recommendations, and she heartily cited Barry’s books. I immediately checked out Syllabus, What It Is and Picture This from the library, the three titles my friend thought would be especially helpful. (I like Syllabus so much that I ended up buying a copy.)

My intention was not necessarily to draw comics, and it is still not my goal, but as a comic artist herself, Barry believes that the comic medium can give people a direct line to memory and expression. Eventually my goal is to move in the direction of drawing from my head in a more realistic way, but I figure comics are as good a way as any to engage and stretch that under-used part of my brain.

Above you see the result of my first finished attempt. It doesn’t look like much, but the steps I took to get there are interesting. Always fascinated by the creative process, I am documenting my study here. Barry’s work and teaching methods are all about being intuitive and allowing imaginative characters to grow on their own and not be pushed by their creator. I like her attitude and approach. 

When Barry teaches college courses, she takes attendance each day by requiring her students to draw a two-minute self-portrait on an index card. Using that assignment as a cue, I started out by drawing a page of selfies. With all those selfies I had made a couple months ago still fresh in my mind, the face wasn’t difficult (key was the somewhat frowny expression that I tend to have when I’m focused on drawing). To keep my pen moving (important in Barry’s process), I gave them a variety of hats.

The next day I picked the Carmen Miranda-like headgear as my favorite and elaborated on it to complete the character. Almost immediately I realized that the hat would have to be simplified if she were to become a comic character because it took too much time to draw.

Often citing the work of cartoonist and comic scholar Ivan Brunetti (whose recommended book I am studying now), Barry described the way he teaches development of a comic character: Draw a round head, rectangular body, simple limbs, simple features. These marks are intended to look not much more than stick figures. Then just let the characters move and act as they want to. This puts the emphasis on the actions of the characters instead of “how to draw them right.” I had fun with this for several days even as I struggled (below). Around this time, I gave my character the name Banana Miranda, which helped to define her attitude. (She seems to practice yoga and carry a pencil constantly. If my character is accused of being autobiographical, I will deny it vehemently and point out that I don’t have a hat with a pineapple and bananas on it.)

Eventually I knew she would need a sidekick to interact with. I chose a character who was already fully developed: a bird that came out of my scribblings from Alexandra Gabor’s Sketchbook Revival workshop.

Barry likes to work in the four-panel comic format, and I tried a few, but I had difficulty stretching a story to that length. I settled on the single-panel format you see above.

What’s next? I don’t know if Banana Miranda is a one-trick pony or whether she will have more to say in the future, but I’m open to wherever she wants to take me (or not).

Friday, May 7, 2021

Fire – Under Control


5/5/21 Fire engines at controlled burn site, Ballard neighborhood

Speaking of fire, I had a rare opportunity on Wednesday to sketch a controlled burn. Michele let me know that the fire department was planning a firefighters’ training session over three days in the Ballard neighborhood. A house that was planned for demolition would be burned for training purposes.

Arriving shortly after the morning session was to begin, I got a great parking spot facing the intersection where a couple of the fire trucks were staged. Wearing oxygen tanks, firefighters ran back and forth with ladders, hoses and other equipment.

House on fire!

My view of the burning house was partially blocked by a parked car, but I could see the roof where most of the action was. (Eventually a fire engine blocked my view entirely, but I had captured what I wanted by that time.) I wouldn’t have had a problem with standing on the sidewalk to sketch, as only a few people were watching, but the huge cloud of smoke rising from the back of the house kept me inside my car. (I had déjà vu of our terrible wildfire weeks last summer when we could smell smoke even through our sealed doors and windows.) Though the front door facing the street was a bit charred, most of the burning must have been on the backside of the house. Dozens of firefighter trainees had various roles, many climbing to the roof and working their way to the back.

I appreciated the unique opportunity to see an interesting training process. It was the most human activity I had sketched since the pandemic began!

Thursday, May 6, 2021



5/3/21 Arson in Maple Leaf!

The whole front end of the car was gone – engine parts, metal shards and glass spilling out like entrails. The grass next to the car was charred, as was the pavement. What in the world…?

As I was sketching, a curious neighbor came by, wondering if I was the insurance investigator. (A sketching insurance investigator! What a job that would be!) He gave me key points of the story, but I got the details from the owner’s uncle, who also came by:

At 2 a.m. that morning, the burning car had been reported, and by the time the owner heard about it an hour later, the fire had been put out. For some reason, the car had been parked half a block away from where the owner lived (with the man telling me the story). At the house that the car had been parked in front of, police found evidence of attempted arson (no damage there, thankfully). The windshield was intact, but I noticed that the driver-side window was completely broken out.

The uncle told me that his nephew had owned the car only for a short while. We were both stunned that this could happen in little ol’ Maple Leaf!

I don't usually post a photo of the same thing I sketched, but I had difficulty
capturing the details of the mess I saw, so I thought I'd provide it. I don't have much
 experience sketching burned-out cars (thankfully)!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Indian Colored Pencils Comparison


My Indian colored pencil collection (most were given to me by generous fellow pencil aficionados).

A recent discussion among the pencil cognoscenti (also known as the Erasable Podcast Pencil Community Facebook group) prompted me to pull out all the India-made colored pencils in my collection. Although I already knew that Sivo Vivid is a favorite (it’s one of my picks for wallet-friendly colored pencils), I had never done a side-by-side comparison. One rainy morning, I decided to swatch a few select colors from each set and see how they stacked up.

The Nataraj and Apsara Dual sets are very hard, dry and low in pigment. I would not recommend them. The Camlin Premium Bi-Colours have much better pigment and are soft enough to be pleasant to use. (Note: My set says “Camlin,” but I could find it on Amazon only as “Camel” with the same camel logo and all other parts of the packaging identical. I’m assuming this is a name change of the same product.)

Interestingly, Nataraj, Apsara and Sivo are all made by the same company, Hindustan, which also makes many types of graphite pencils. Camlin/Camel is made by Kokuyo.

5/2/21 DOMS Supersoft in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

The two sets made by DOMS Industries –
 DOMS Supersoft and Zap Bicolours – are as soft and pigmented as my previous recommendation, Sivo Vivid. (By soft, I don’t mean Prismacolor soft; I mean closer to Polychromos.) I would happily add them to my recommended India-made pencils, although they may be harder to find. I couldn’t find an exact match on Amazon for the Zap set I have (and the price I’m currently seeing on the Supersofts, 12 for $36, is way over-inflated; I’m sure I’ve seen them for much less).

One thing all Indian pencils have in common, including graphite pencils, is that they are reasonably priced (and some are ridiculously inexpensive). Almost all of these were gifts, so I don’t know the exact prices, but I did purchase the Sivo Vivid set myself on Amazon for about $8 for set of 36 a few years ago. (It’s a bit more now on the set I found on eBay, but still a good value.) Although they are unlikely to be artist quality, the Sivo and DOMS sets are all good quality and therefore a terrific value.

As I was searching for links and prices on Amazon for this post, I happened to spot a set of DOMS Aqua watercolor pencils. Now, I know watercolor pencils tend not to be comparable in quality to traditional colored pencils in the same price range, but for a set of 12 for 8 bucks? It was worth satisfying my curiosity. Stay tuned. (I know you love cliffhangers.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Threading the Needle


5/1/21 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Often when I sketch from my car, I’m frustrated because I know a better view could be had if I felt safe enough standing on a narrow sidewalk (or if it weren’t raining and I could get out). This view, however, was the other way around: From walking by many times, I knew that the view I wanted would be from a parked car.

Driving home from an errand Saturday morning, I saw that the ideal parking spot was available: A perfect needle-eye view of the utility poles and their wires threading through this tree.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Cherry to the Southwest

4/29/21 Southwest corner of 4th NE and NE 85th

 One of many blossoming trees on my walking route that I didn’t get around to sketching this year was this cherry. It’s on the southwest corner of the same intersection where I’ve sketched from the traffic circle several times (most recently to the northeast and the northwest corners). The house on this corner is set back from the street behind a jungle of foliage, so this cherry is the only thing clearly visible.

Although its blossoms are gone, it has an intriguing “foot” – something I hadn’t noticed when I was dazzled by its pinkness. It’s one of the best benefits of sketching: I see so much more once I open my sketchbook.

Typically, this whole street and intersection are quiet; during previous sketches, maybe only one or two cars would go by the entire time. Unfortunately, I sketched this last Thursday, which is trash day. Both the garbage and the recycle trucks came by multiple times, sometimes stopping in the middle of the intersection for a quick corner pick-up. Even a truck hauling a huge, flat-bed trailer (empty) came through! All in only half an hour!

Also in my view... but not long enough to sketch!

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Third Place Books

4/28/21 Third Place Books in Ravenna

Although Third Place Books in the Ravenna neighborhood is only about a mile away, I have spent more time and money at its other branch in Lake Forest Park. That’s because USk Seattle has met at Third Place Commons numerous times, and a stop at the book store is always fun.

To celebrate Independent Bookstore Day last Saturday, I ordered from three local shops – Phinney Books, Elliott Bay Book Company and Third Place Books in Ravenna – and they all kindly offered curbside pickup services. In addition, Blackwing put out a limited-edition pencil to commemorate the day, so of course I had to get some of those, too.

I scored an ideal parking spot at Third Place facing the trellised entryway to Café Arta and Pub, which is adjacent to the bookstore. The café has an inviting-looking patio (with heaters, a sign assured chilly potential patrons) that I hope to enjoy sometime soon.

Books and limited-edition pencils, too!

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Profoundly Ordinary

4/28/21 A rare alley in Maple Leaf

I listen to the SneakyArt Podcast. In his recent interview with Urban Sketchers founder Gabi Campanario, host Nishant Jain talked about how urban sketching is, for him, about capturing all the small moments that make up our routine, everyday lives – the kind of moments that may be overlooked as not special enough to bother sketching. He used the phrase “people doing profoundly ordinary things” to describe these moments, and I felt moved by that phrase.

As busy sketching as I have been throughout the pandemic, what I have missed most is being around people and capturing them doing profoundly ordinary things. But even when people are nowhere to be seen, mundane neighborhood scenes strike me in the same way  beautiful in their profound ordinaryness.

By the way, I highly recommend the podcast. It’s the only one I know of that focuses specifically on urban sketching. Nishant’s guest list reads like the who’s who of urban sketching, and the interviews are always well-focused, inspiring and stimulating. He also now provides a well-edited transcript for those who prefer to read the highlights instead of listening.

4/13/21 The last of the cherry trees

4/26/21 The concrete mixer left just as I finished the sketch!
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