Thursday, June 17, 2021

Homework Break

 

6/15/21 Maple Leaf neighborhood

This is my final week in Kathleen Moore’s class in drawing nature with colored pencils. I am overjoyed that we are required to do this week’s studies in the field! Our record-breaking rain earlier this week had me worried that I wouldn’t have many dry opportunities to complete the homework, but Tuesday dawned partly sunny. I went out shortly after breakfast for the first study.

While I enjoyed working on a challenging study of a Japanese maple (I’ll show it soon as part of the classwork discussion), something right across the street from the tree caught my eye. Wrapped in yellow CAUTION tape, its shovel in repose, an excavator looked like it was there for the long haul.

After I finished the tree, I took a break from my assignments. And none too soon: A work crew arrived and started moving the cones away, and a second excavator arrived on the scene. So it wasn’t there for the long haul, after all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Patio

 

6/14/21 Columbia City's Patio

Although a friend and I are both fully vaxed, we still feel more comfortable dining outdoors rather than inside restaurants. When I learned from Kate about Columbia City’s Patio, it sounded like exactly what we were looking for.

I had never heard of it (as you know, I haven’t gotten out much the past 15 months), but it isn’t new – it’s been open nearly a year. Shared by a variety of nearby venues, the community seating is covered by a large tent on a closed lane in the middle of the Columbia City neighborhood’s business district.

On a warm but rainy Monday, the lunchtime wait would have been 45 minutes at popular Geraldine’s Counter if we had wanted a table inside; many people were waiting outside the door. To be seated in The Patio, however, all we had to do was walk right in, place our order, and carry our takeout to the table of our choice. Good food, outdoor seating, and no wait. Triple win!

I arrived a few minutes early so I could make a quick sketch. (The drizzle was no match for my hardy, waterproof Expedition!) All the “Do Not Enter” signs and traffic cones may look forbidding, but they are there just to make sure cars don’t get confused. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch even in the rain.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Traffic Control

 

6/12/21 U-District farmers market

The same sax busker I sketched a couple of weeks ago at the U-District farmers market was there again on Saturday. Like last time, he was in the closed street just outside the market entrance, where the guy with the counter manages shopper traffic.

It’s harder to sketch at the market now because lingering is discouraged, and there’s no place to stand without getting in the way of shopper traffic flow. Busking is prohibited inside. Still, on a gorgeous morning, my shopping bag full of farm-fresh asparagus, strawberries and tomatoes, I was happy to sketch from the fringe.

Monday, June 14, 2021

It’s Good to Be Back

6/13/21 Gas Works Park

Something I missed during the pandemic that no amount of Zooming or Facebooking could replace: sketching with my USk Seattle homies. For the first time in 15 months, we were back in action – at my favorite park!

Although the weather media had been giving dire warnings of “tropical storms” and 98 percent chance of rain all day, urban sketchers obviously live charmed lives, because we barely felt a drop or two all morning. I probably spent as much time catching up with friends as I did sketching, yet somehow I managed to capture four views of Gas Works Park – two facing the Space Needle and two thumbnails inside the old pump house. Being with my tribe is apparently inspiring.

This was as “normal” as I’ve felt in a long, long time. It’s good to be back.


It's good to be back!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

An Infinite for Ballpoint Pen Day

 

6/10/21 Observing National Ballpoint Pen Day on trash day
Last Thursday was National Ballpoint Pen Day, which I have observed each year since I found out about it. On June 10, 1943, Hungarian brothers László and György Bíró became owners of the patent for the ubiquitous pen type that most of us associate with cheap disposables and promotional giveaways.

Ever since a few InkTobers ago when I committed to giving ballpoint a serious try, the basic, cheap Bic has been my first choice for drawing. Despite its lowly reputation, Bic ballpoints contain a unique type of ink that is ideal for building layers of subtle values, just like graphite. Although I’ve tried, I’ve not yet found an ink in other pens that responds in quite the same way. The gloppy, viscous ink in Bics that is not pleasant to use for writing is exactly what makes it great for drawing.

On Thursday, however, I thought I’d try something new: a Caran d’Ache Infinite. At six bucks, it’s pricey for a plastic-body ballpoint but very inexpensive for anything made by Caran d’Ache! It’s a fantastic writing pen – smoothly flowing with the gentlest knock I’ve ever used. Alas, as expected, the ink doesn’t layer the way a crappy Bic does. The thin, smooth ink is very nice for writing but just doesn’t have the same oomph. I’ve found this to be true of high-quality Japanese ballpoints, too, like the Uni Jetstream: The sad paradox is that if it’s good to write with, it probably isn’t as good to draw with.

I popped the Infinite into my bag for quick jots, which is what it was made for. As for drawing, I’ll stick with Bic Stics.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Pampas Grass and Other Challenges

6/9/21 pampas grass, Maple Leaf neighborhood

A few days ago I showed a homework assignment for my Drawing Nature class this week. Here are the rest – more studies in capturing textures, patterns and all-important values with colored pencils. In her demos, Kathleen Moore made a variety of small studies – sea grass, moss, bark, distant trees – and encouraged us to try as many as we could from life.

The most challenging I tried was the pampas grass, above. The slender, blade-like leaves were bright yellow-green in the sunlight; the feathery plumes were nearly white. The base of the plant was dark under the leaves. I tried to get the base as dark as possible, but that muddied the bright green leaves, and it was difficult coloring in the narrow spaces between the leaves. To make the whitish plumes show, I used a dark-green background and almost lost their feathery texture. I hope I retained enough to evoke pampas.

6/7/21 moss on our rockery

The small lumps of moss (left) were challenging in a different way. First was finding the fascinatingly complex mix of hues I could see – I used nine pencils, none of which were “moss green”! It was relatively easy to capture the soft, fuzzy texture with colored pencils, but the actual hues were much richer and deeper. If I kept blending to make deeper colors, I was afraid I’d lose the texture. Most interesting from a natural perspective were the long, reddish threads above the moss that I had never noticed before.

For the Japanese maple study, I recited Kathleen’s mantra: “Analyze the simple, overall shapes and patterns – not details. If you can’t see it when you squint, don’t draw it!” Squinting wildly, I tried to evoke the patterns of light and dark as well as the pointy shapes of maple leaves while resisting the temptation to draw each leaf.

6/8/21 Japanese maple

The two single-leaf studies below were for the purpose of trying specific techniques she demo’d. In one demo, as an alternative to using mineral spirits, she painted a light wash of watercolor to give her sample an initial base of color before applying colored pencil. I used watercolor pencil, which I activated and then finished with dry pencil. I also practiced making pencil strokes to indicate shape. These techniques are part of my regular practice and were not new to me, but I did enjoy watching her demo using watercolor paint. (My assessment: Why get out paints when colored pencils are already in your hand?)

watercolor pencil activated with water; dry pencil applied over; pencil stroke direction indicating the leaf's curves

The second leaf study (I found a dead one in the wastebasket after Greg had cleaned up our bedroom plant) was an experiment with embossing. I didn’t have the embossing stylus that she had recommended for this purpose (a tool that Crystal Shin also uses), so I used a freshly sharpened white Verithin instead. It was a bit too sharp, and the point snapped off as soon as I began using it, but otherwise, it worked well for this purpose. After impressing white lines into the paper to emulate veins, color applied over the lines will skip over them, leaving them white. The white pencil gave me another idea – retaining the white of the paper for the highlights at the bottom of the leaf. The white waxy pigment acts as a resist for color (lightly) applied over it. It was effective as a resist, but I think saving out the white of the paper the hard way looks better.

embossing with a white Verithin and using white pencil as resist

Although I didn’t have time to make studies for the other techniques she demo’d, I made small swatches to sample them (below): erasing out highlights, using a Sakura Gelly Roll for white lines, and sgraffito using the dull side of an Exacto blade. The latter technique is fraught with peril: If done gently, scraping off a bit of color can be an effective way of recapturing small white lines or marks, but it’s easy to damage the paper’s surface. I’d do this only as a last resort.

samples of erasing, Gelly Roll, sgraffito

Using an eraser for highlights works beautifully with graphite, but it’s iffy with colored pencils. A good plastic, kneadable or electric eraser can take out light layers of colored pencil, but multiple layers (as in my swatch) will likely be permanent.

Finally, here’s the Prismacolor palette I used for all of these studies. As I’ve learned many times, despite how many green pencils I may have, I never seem to have enough of the right greens. Some are useful for recycle bins and Seattle street signs but are not even close to what I see in nature (at least Pacific Northwest nature).

Prismacolor palette used in these studies

Friday, June 11, 2021

Out of Practice at Café Arta

 

6/9/21 Cafe Arta patron (I know they all look different, but 
these are the same guy.)

Café Arta is the café and pub adjacent to Third Place Books. I sketched its patio from the parking lot a few weeks ago, thinking that it would be a pleasant place to sketch someday soon. Someday came, and it is, indeed, a lovely patio to enjoy your choice of sunshine or shade and a good meal or snack.

Enjoying coffee and a decadent slice of chocolate cake as I sketched a couple of patrons, I proved a myth wrong: Contrary to popular metaphor, it is not like riding a bike. Sketching is more like playing the piano (which I haven’t done in five decades, but I remember what it was like): regular practice is essential – with emphasis on the regular.

I warmed up with a few quick gestures of a man who changed positions frequently. Then another man looked like he would stay in one position while he ate a large sandwich. I barely had time to finish as he wolfed it down faster than I expected. Either that, or I’m just slower than I used to be.

Rip Van Winkle missed a lot of practice in 14 months.

I know he looks similar, but he's a different guy.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Teeny, Tiny Sketch Kits, Part 1

Made during my first year of sketching, this
watercolor kit in a TJ's mint tin served 
me for many years. It will probably always
be my smallest.
What is it about teeny, tiny sketch kits that I find so appealing?

When I first got started nearly a decade ago, I became fascinated by all the tiny watercolor sketch kits people were putting together. It seems to be a collective obsession of the urban sketching world. Of course, I made my share of them. My tiniest was a Trader Joe’s mint tin containing eight-to-16 colors, which went through a few evolutions. It served me well through my watercolor years.

Long after I had stopped using watercolors on location, I was still enamored with tiny kits. When I saw an adorable, handmade palette at the Amsterdam symposium two years ago, I grabbed one, even though I knew I had no current use for it.


This adorable palette was handmade by Charlie's Urban Sketch Factory.


My adoration of tiny kits has nothing to do with my annual minimalism challenge, which is about simplifying the number of implements and materials in my bag. The tiny kit intrigue has more to do with compactness than simplicity.

In fact, it’s not even about practicality: A tiny watercolor palette might be easier to carry, but is it easier to use than a full-size one? Not really. And yet I don’t seem to be alone in my fascination with size (or lack thereof).

The pencils in this Polychromos travel set
are 3/4 length. The tin design is a reproduction
of a 1908 tin.

Mini-sized versions of colored pencil sets are not as easy to make as their watercolor counterparts. Itsy-bitsy novelty pencils are available, of course, but if the barrels are the diameter of toothpicks, they are impractical to use. If the pencils are simply short with a standard diameter, however, there’s potential.

The Uni Water Color Pencil kit rekindled my interest in building a mini kit.

Recently I showed the mini-size Mitsubishi Uni Water Color Pencil travel set in my review of its full-size big sister. But I know you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s not the only mini-size set I own. I also have a travel-size Faber-Castell Polychromos set (I got mine at CW Pencils, but I don’t see it there anymore), which has three-quarter-length pencils that come in a replica vintage tin; a vintage Mitsubishi Winnie-the-Pooh set; and a Tombow mini set.

It was the Uni Water Color set, which came with a tiny waterbrush, extender and sharpener that fit in the same box, that put me in the tiny sketch kit frame of mind again. While the pencils in that set are good, wouldn’t it be ideal to build a tiny kit containing my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils? I have plenty of now-stubby-length Museum Aquarelles to make the kit!

Naturally, my first thought was to swap out the Uni pencils for Museum Aquarelles in that nicely designed, compact box. Unfortunately, my favorite pencils are just a smidge too fat to fit! (Sharpeners, extenders and now compact boxes: These darn Caran d’Ache pencils are almost more trouble than they’re worth! Almost.) Besides, that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?

Stay tuned for Part 2. 

Vintage Winnie-the-Pooh set


Tombow mini colored pencil set


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Homework

 

6/6/21 Through my studio window

This week we are studying scale, pattern, value and texture of plants in my Drawing Nature with Colored Pencils class. Once again, I am thrilled that we are drawing from life instead of photos, and this week’s lessons are particularly applicable to urban sketching. Unfortunately, we are having an inconvenient streak of typical June-uary weather lately – cold, windy and sometimes wet. Wishing I could go outdoors to work on assignments, I was in my studio doing some color value studies (a regular part of our weekly homework; see below) when I glanced through my rain-streaked window: Our neighbor’s crooked hedge, bush and trees were right there, conveniently waiting to be turned into homework!

“Analyze the simple, overall shapes and patterns – not details. Analyze the simple shapes of light and dark. If you can’t see it when you squint, don’t draw it!” These were the main messages of Kathleen Moore’s lesson.

It wasn’t as easy as it would be on a sunny day, but I squinted hard to see the fringe of light on top of the hedge. In her lesson demo, she emphasized pushing the darker values hard against the lighter values to bring them forward. We are also studying the varying textures we see in nature, and the cedar tree behind the hedge offered a good example (and provided the dark value behind the light). The subtle variations in greens differentiate between the hedge and the bush.

The utility pole wasn’t necessary in terms of the homework assignment, but I am, after all, an urban sketcher.

Each week we are to choose one base color and change it in value, intensity and hue in graduated steps.


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Snippets

 

6/3/21

One evening we were dining al fresco on our back deck. The light on our neighbor’s patio umbrella caught my eye, and I caught it with my Field Notes. A minute later, the light was gone.

Walking around Maple Leaf Park on a Saturday afternoon, I stopped for a few gestures of kids throwing a Frisbee. Then I continued walking.

Prolific sketcher Roy calls it sketchwaiting: What we do while we’re waiting for something or someone. When I arrived at our Green Lake meeting location, I looked around and didn’t see Kathleen yet. I started sketching a row of trees. This is as far as I got when I heard my name called.

6/2/21

6/5/21
There was a time when I used to feel a pressure to make sure every sketch I started was finished (or “resolved,” as art teachers put it) – a story with a completed story arc. The more I sketch, the less pressure I feel about this; in fact, I don’t feel any pressure at all anymore. Or maybe it’s just the way I feel these days: Any sketch or partial sketch (or even an unidentifiable mark on the page) is a declaration of joy. Life is full of these for people who walk around with a sketchbook.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Versatility

 

5/31/21 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Like trains and ferries, this excavator can take care of business from either end without turning around. I like versatile tools.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Skyline

 

6/3/21 Downtown Seattle from Maple Leaf Park

Sometimes I forget that the downtown Seattle skyline is visible from Maple Leaf Park. It’s too far away to identify individual buildings easily, but I started with the Space Needle at the far right and kept going, trying my best to get the relative heights accurately, if not the shapes of the buildings. At that distance, I couldn’t even see any cranes, though I know they are there.

I miss downtown. I’m ready to sketch there, but I haven’t figured out how to get there (the part I’m not ready for is using public transportation). Rip Van Winkle has to gear up for the shock – I know that so much has changed in 15 months.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Top Pot Queue

 

6/4/21 Top Pot Doughnuts, Wedgwood neighborhood

I try to observe National Doughnut Day annually. Last year, I almost didn’t; the pandemic didn’t keep me away, but shaken and outraged by George Floyd’s murder, I wasn’t feeling festive. Still, there’s nothing like sugary, deep-fried dough to (temporarily) improve one’s mood, so I went ahead with it, and I was happy that I did.

Yesterday I was feeling much more upbeat as I set out for my neighborhood Top Pot. At 8 a.m., a decent line had formed outside the door. In the past, I have enjoyed sketching the Wedgwood store’s giant donut sculpture and twin palm trees from across the street, but this time I wanted to get close enough to sketch the queue. Though the sketch itself isn’t very exciting, it tells a larger story: masked patrons standing in line six feet apart, and my vaccinated self feeling safe enough to sketch them. (A palm tree makes a cameo appearance as a shadow on the building.)

Afterwards, I got into the line myself for a classic chocolate raised ring, which I sketched at home before scarfing it down. I noticed that the store is hiring; the donut biz must be thriving. We have many reasons to feel upbeat.

By the way, like many occasions and holidays, the origin of National Doughnut Day has gotten lost over the years. It was first observed in 1938 to honor Salvation Army volunteers who gave out donuts during World War I.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Peony

 

6/2/21 Prismacolor on Stonehenge Lenox Cotton paper
This week’s class lesson was drawing a flower of our choice. In the bouquets I had purchased at the farmers market last Saturday were some irises with distinct, mostly non-overlapping petals that might have been easier. Since Kathleen used a rose for her demo, though, I knew that something with lots of spiraling, overlapping petals would be a better challenge. I chose the brilliant pink peony that I had already attempted (not very successfully) to sketch loosely a few days ago.

By the time I began drawing my class assignment, it was Tuesday. In the morning when I started, the blossom was already past its prime, but I like the look of flowers at that stage, so I thought it was perfect. During the two hours that I worked, I could see that the peony was changing before my eyes: I kept looking at it and thinking, “How could my drawing be that far off?” when I’d realize that the petals had drooped further. The temperature was heading toward 80 degrees.

My plan was to finish the drawing the next day, but by that afternoon, I realized I would not have a model by then, so I needed to continue immediately. Of course, I had taken a photo when I began (it’s part of our assignment to show a photo of the subject), but the colors, lighting and perspective are slightly different in the photo from reality, so my preference was to work from the actual peony as long as I could.

My peony on Day 1... 

Thankfully, I had focused on the blossom first, so the next day all I had left to do were the stem and leaves. (This is my urban sketching training at work: Always sketch first the people, cars or other things that may move or disappear.) The petals had drooped further, completely obscuring the leaves, so I gently lifted them, and that’s when the whole blossom fell apart.

Drawing this peony was informative and illuminating in several ways. One thing I’ve learned about using traditional (wax- or oil-based, not water-soluble) colored pencils is that as soon as I put them in my hand, my tendency is to make a tight drawing that ends up overworked and lacking freshness. I had been feeling that using colored pencils wasn’t conducive to the type of drawing I wanted to do with them, so this class with Kathleen Moore was an opportunity for a self-challenge: How can I learn to use colored pencils while retaining freshness (if not looseness)?

...and on Day 2.

My second day with the peony was the point when I would normally start to overwork a drawing. The flower was now a pile of petals, but I pulled out the photo to see if I could use that to continue poking away at it. Looking at the drawing with fresh eyes in the morning, however, I realized I liked it the way it was. It still had some freshness left without looking unfinished. Maybe I should stop! And I did.

This drawing gave me another insight: In her demo, Kathleen had used mineral spirits to “melt” the pigment after each layer of application. Doing so took away the visible pencil strokes, giving her resulting drawing a strong painterly effect. Since using mineral spirits is optional, I decided against it for this assignment (though I have kept my mind open about it for future assignments). By avoiding its use, many of my pencil strokes are still visible and “unmelted,” which I think helps to retain the drawing’s freshness.

Beyond the relative freshness of my drawing is the larger question of what I want to do with colored pencils: Am I trying to emulate a painterly effect? If so, why not use paint?

These questions evoke conversations I’ve had with some sketchers who did not have much experience with either watercolor pencils or paints. They had hoped to achieve watercolor-painting effects with pencils, which seemed easier to use than paint. I told them that if they want the look of watercolor paintings, they should learn to use watercolor paints. Watercolor pencils have their own unique qualities (and it’s obvious that I love them for those qualities), but emulating paints is not their best.

If I wanted to achieve a painterly result from colored pencils, then using mineral spirits would help me do that. But one quality that I love about colored pencils is that they are not paints; I like seeing visible pencil strokes and the delicacy they can impart. I appreciate the beauty of the medium without trying to emulate another.

Maybe my path to achieving the look I want is to continue refining my technique with colored pencils while also learning to STOP before I pass the point of freshness. That’s a good skill to have with any medium! Anyway, writing this post has made me think more about the difference between “looseness” and “freshness.” I’ll have more to say about this later, I’m sure.

Prismacolor colors used in the peony

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Farmers Market Bouquet

 

5/30/21 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle and Supracolor in Stillman & Birn
Beta sketchbook

One of my purchases at the farmers market on Saturday was a couple of gorgeous bouquets. I think fresh flowers from local growers are one of the best bargains at farmers markets – so much less expensive than a florist, not to mention many times fresher. Before taking them to the cemetery, I pulled out a few favorites for myself. (I knew my parents and sister wouldn't mind sharing.)

I needed a peony for my colored pencil class this week. Before I did the homework assignment, though, I attempted the bouquet as loosely as possible. The result is a colorful mess. The pink peony, which was intended to be my focus, came out overworked and formless; I certainly hope I do better for class. I think I like the foliage best – loose, yet evoking the gesture of the way leaves grow.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Farmers Market Busker

 

5/29/21 U-District Farmers Market busker

About a year ago, our desire for fresh local produce won over anxiety and trepidation, and we went to the University District Farmers Market one Saturday morning. When we arrived at the opening time, however, the six-feet-apart line of shoppers already stretched around the block. Discouraged and disheartened, we turned around and went back home. We hadn’t been to any farmers market since.

Saturday of Memorial Day weekend dawned sunny and beautiful. Other than shoppers and vendors being masked, the U-District Farmers Market looked very much like the Before Times. A staff member with a counter was managing the number of people on the closed-off street, but there was no line. Saxophone music greeted us.

After handing Greg my purchases to carry, I stepped away from the market thoroughfare to sketch the saxophone busker. Of all the post-vax things I’ve done so far, this quick and simple sketch made me feel the most emotional. Maybe someday things will be as normal as they felt.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Santo Coffee Co.

 

5/28/21 Santo Coffee patrons

One of many things I had missed dearly during the past 14 months was sketching in coffee shops. After being vaccinated, I had been wanting to do it, but I was still a little uncertain about spending time indoors in public places. I needed a little push. Then I got an invitation from Carol and Natalie, and it was the push I needed.

When Rip Van Winkle woke up at Santo Coffee, she blinked her eyes and realized she had forgotten how to sketch real-life people! I had a clear view of the man just outside the window and the bright red Jump bike next to him, but I didn’t get far before another guy sat down inside and blocked that view. Oh, that’s right… that’s what urban sketching is about! The café felt busy and noisy, and I felt out of place, but it helped to have good friends (figuratively) holding my hand. I had certainly missed them, too.

Once again, the result is not my best, but I will always remember it as my first post-vax sketch at a coffee shop and part of my ongoing re-entry to the public world.



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