Monday, January 24, 2022

My $25 Sketch Kit

Is it possible to build a high-quality sketch kit for $25?

 The Art Supply Posse podcast took on a fun challenge: Build a beginner sketch kit for $25 or less! Although I’ve built myself many types of sketch kits for various purposes – minimalism, wet weather, life drawing, physically tiniest, nocturnes – I’ve never put one together with an eye on whether it could be purchased for $25. Game on!

The important factors would be versatility and value – a kit that could serve as many of my sketching needs as possible for the lowest cost. For me, that would mean the kit would have to meet my urban sketching needs, which might eliminate some specialized needs like sketching at night or life drawing. If you’re considering building your own, it would be key to consider how you would use your kit the majority of the time.

If cost were the only factor, it would be easy enough to assemble a watercolor pencil sketch kit inexpensively. Cheap colored pencils are a dime a dozen. But of course, I’d want it to be a good sketch kit that I would be satisfied using on a daily basis – that’s a bit more challenging, but certainly possible.

Let’s do the fun part first: the watercolor pencils! Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a luxury user in this department since I was spoiled early on by Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles: Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going to make it into this kit. But Caran d’Ache Supracolors would be only a minor compromise (after all, they would be my choice if I absolutely had to choose only one colored pencil – it’s that versatile). The key is to carefully select a basic, open-stock palette ($2.69 each at Blick) instead of buying a pre-packaged set. And that palette would be four CMYK-based hues: Gentian Blue (370), Purplish Red (350), Canary Yellow (250) and Black (009). Yes, it’s challenging to use only these four colors, but my experiments have been lively, informative and fun.

Open-stock Caran d'Ache Supracolors... 

... in a CMYK palette.

An essential partner for watercolor pencils is a waterbrush. My choice would be a Kuretake in the compact, versatile medium size ($5.75 at JetPens). There are cheaper brands, but they lack the plug between the brush and reservoir, which I find important for controlling water flow.

With watercolor pencils as the color medium, a pen is optional. I use one so often, though, for line drawings without color that I consider it an essential sketch kit item. Any of my favorite fountain pens and inks would blow my kit budget big-time, so my choice is a Uni Pin brush pen ($2.45 at JetPens), which is currently the pen I use most for sketching anyway. Containing waterproof, pigment-based black ink, the tip lasts longer than most firm-tipped brush pens under my heavy hand – at least as long as the ink – so it’s a good value.

The clincher is the sketchbook: I’m picky about paper quality, and I don’t think compromising on paper is ever a good idea. My long-time favorite Stillman & Birn Beta softcover or my current Hahnemühle watercolor book would put me way over budget. I have an easy solution, though: Go back to hand binding sketchbooks, which I did for many years (and if I ever travel again, I intend to make a book for each trip as I always used to). My favorite paper for that is Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper in the 9-by-12-inch size (30 sheets for $8.84 at Blick) which folds nicely into 6-by-9-inch signatures. With the same 52-page count as a 5 ½-by-8 ½-inch Stillman & Birn, I could make a book for about $4, including bookbinding thread and cardboard covers.

The final essential piece in this urban sketching kit would be a portable pencil sharpener. Here’s where I am saved by putting Supracolors into the kit instead of slightly girthier Museum Aquarelles: The barrel is a standard size, so any sharpener will fit. (The few handheld sharpeners I own that fit Museum Aquarelles would put me over budget.) The Kum wedge is not the best handheld sharpener in the world, but it gets the job done sufficiently, and for only $1.95 at Blick.

Here’s my tally:  

Supracolors: 4 x $2.69 = 10.76
Waterbrush: 5.75
Brush pen: 2.45
Handbound sketchbook: 4.00
Sharpener: 1.95
            Total: $24.91

High quality, compact and essential for $24.91!

1/22/22 Central District (Caran d'Ache Supracolor pencils 
on Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper)
You’ll note that I haven’t used the term “beginner” for this starter kit as the Posse did; it’s an idiosyncratic kit for myself. But if I were recommending one for a beginning urban sketcher, would it be any different? Not much. I might take out the brush pen and suggest replacing it with any pen or pencil of choice. The best way to start sketching is to use a drawing instrument that is already familiar and comfortable. Everything else, though, is a perfectly good, basic watercolor-pencil-based urban sketching kit – and very compact and portable, too!

It’s easy enough to add up some supplies to equal $25, but I thought it was only right to put my money where my mouth is. I brought the budget kit with me the next time I went out and made the sketch at right. (Part of the house really was cyan blue and so was the sky!) I inadvertently cheated when I grabbed the spritzer from my bag without thinking, but since the spritzer is a reused bottle of hand sanitizer, technically it adds zero cost to the kit. My budget is intact. Indeed, it’s a perfectly good kit that I am happy to use. (Maybe not indefinitely, but I consider it a starter kit.)

(Whew! It’s been a while since Ive had to use a calculator to write a blog post! I need a nap.)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Crown Hill House


1/19/22 Crown Hill neighborhood

When I was working on my series of Maple Leaf architectural styles, I almost always had to stand on the sidewalk across the street to get a good view of the house fronts. I can’t sketch much from my mobile studio unless I turn myself uncomfortably sideways, so I usually leave house sketching for warmer days.

Looking for a sketch in the Crown Hill neighborhood, I discovered a few residential streets that end at the cross street without going through. That means I can face the fronts of some houses while parked on the perpendicular street: Ideal winter sketching from my car. This green house with a blue roof caught my eye. The recessed area at the bottom of the stairway is the front entrance at street level, which is unusual for houses of this style. My guess is that it has been remodeled significantly, maybe to accommodate a resident who wanted easier access to the street. That tall tree at left? In a few months it will conceal most of the house, so I’m glad I caught this sketch now.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Blindingly Fun


1/18/22 Ching, Tina and Natalie

While chatting with friends on Zoom the past two years, I’ve sketched a variety of subject matter. Easiest is a small still life like a pastry on my desk. I recently tried sketching the view through a window while online with USk Seattle. Most commonly, I sketch the people I’m chatting with – whether they know it or not. That’s probably the most challenging, though I thoroughly enjoy it. They’re all fun in different ways.

Last week when I Zoomed with Kate and Roy, I tried blind contours, and that’s possibly the most fun of all – and the results are always amusing. This week I made blind contours of Ching and Natalie. Perhaps I’m starting my Picasso phase.

If you socialize on Zoom, I highly recommend making blind contours! In fact, I recommend it even in a business meeting on Zoom. I guarantee that the meeting will be more fun that way, at least for you (sharing results with business colleagues not recommended 😉).

Friday, January 21, 2022

Like Snow, But Better


1/17/22 Foggy in Maple Leaf

Fog is like snow: It completely changes the way I see ordinary views. With nothing but tones and values, and most details hidden, drawing those ordinary views feels fresh again.

We often get morning fog this time of year, and I enjoy the way it teaches me how far away familiar things are. Even during the half-hour or so that I sketched this, distant trees came in and out of view as the fog’s density changed constantly.

The best thing about fog, though, is that I know how to drive in it, and shoveling is not required.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Through the West Window


1/16/22 West view sketched while Zooming with USk Seattle

USk Seattle is back on Zoom, at least until it warms up enough so that we can meet safely outdoors again. Instead of doing only a “hold up” of previously made sketches, we tried something different: Sketch together while chatting online. Apparently USk Poland, whose members are geographically spread throughout the country, has been sketching together online since before the pandemic. Thanks to Carol for suggesting the idea, we gave it a try, and it was a lot of fun! We had more time to chat than we usually do at real outings. With more than 20 in attendance, we’d never be able to sit at the same café table for wintertime sketching, even during “normal” times. Meeting on Zoom would not be my choice if it were safe to meet in person, but it does have its benefits.

Sunday’s theme was to sketch a room, through a window or whatever we could see from wherever we were. The view through my west-facing window, which I have sketched several times as color temperature or value studies, made a convenient primary triad study this time. The fog gave everything a challenging mid-value tone, but I tried to liven things up with exaggerated hues.

Technical note: Since I started using a Hahnemühle sketchbook last month, I haven’t had many opportunities to use a spritzer to activate watercolor pencil where I’ve drawn trees or other foliage. My favorite spritzing bottle was downstairs in my bag, so during the Zoom, I made do with another one I keep on my desk. This one puts out a heavier spray, so I over-spritzed a bit, but even so, I’m pleased by how well the paper takes the water.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Lights Off


1/15/22 Wedgwood neighborhood

After an errand in Wedgwood, I was planning to stop somewhere, anywhere, for my typical sketch of “nothing.” I had pulled over facing a random traffic circle when I noticed a man putting up a ladder next to a tree. Then I realized that the whole row of tall trees was wound with lots and lots of lights: He was going to take them all down.

No wonder so many procrastinate long after the holidays: Taking down lights is a pain.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Late Bloomer (and Thoughts on Lines)


1/14/22 colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

Here’s the fifth and last amaryllis blossom that I was worried wouldn’t bloom because it was so far behind the others. Obviously, I didn’t need to be concerned!

For this final drawing, I used the methods I have studied in Crystal Shin’s botanical illustration workshops. While the nature journal sketchbook pages were done by making a line drawing first, I made this drawing entirely with colored pencils and with the intention of trying to make the initial contour lines disappear as much as possible. Using both methods back-to-back on the same subject got me thinking about the differences, though they are still mostly muttered musings. Being the process-oriented sketcher that I am, I thought I’d mumble out loud in this post to see if I could clarify and articulate my thinking.

When I first began sketching and for several years after, I used the “coloring book” method of making an initial line drawing, then coloring it with watercolor. Popular with many urban sketchers, it must be one of the most intuitive and natural ways to draw, since we all did it as children. The actual coloring books we used as kids reinforced the method: The line drawing was done for us, and all we had to do was color within the lines. Prehistoric cave artists also seemed to use a similar approach. Drawing a line around a shape is the most straightforward way to distinguish it from whatever is around it.

Around the time I started using colored pencils on location, it no longer made sense to use a pen to make an ink line drawing first: I’m already holding a colored pencil in my hand – why not use it to draw the contour lines? So I did. It then became natural to make the initial contour lines blend in with whatever color filled in the space.

Ultimately, when I started learning to make more formal drawings with graphite and colored pencils, the technique was the same as what I was doing in the field. In classes and books focused on classical realism, we are taught that the line (as in a contour drawing) does not exist in reality. A visible outline tends to flatten a shape into a comic character (such as Charlie Brown, not a highly rendered comic book Batman). Since a goal of classical realism is to render a form as three-dimensionally as possible, eliminating a visible contour line helps to reinforce the illusion of form.

Lines define shapes but flatten the forms.

Although I’ve studied all of this in various ways, it wasn’t until I sketched the amaryllis repeatedly that I started thinking about these concepts more actively. In the nature journal sketches, the ink contour lines help to efficiently define one petal from another, a bud from a leaf, or a change in plane. On the other hand, the outline does seem to flatten the forms, even when I tried to use color and values to help show dimension. I like the style for a nature journal format, so I’m not arguing against it; I just became aware of the effect.

My drawing at the top of the post is closer to the approach painters take, which is to avoid the visible line. Painters may make a pale graphite sketch to guide them, but they use a brush to make the shapes, and the under drawing disappears. Without ink lines, I had to work harder to distinguish one petal from another with subtle color or value changes, but it was somehow easier to create the illusion of form without the lines.

A few more comments about this final amaryllis drawing:

I wanted to make a “portrait” of this one late bloomer without drawing all the other blossoms, but I also wanted to somehow indicate that it was part of a larger plant. I tried ghosting the other blossoms lightly in the background, but now I think the drawing just looks unfinished. I’m not sure I like the effect, but it was something to try.

Faber-Castell Polychromos, Caran d'Ache Pablo, and vintage and 
contemporary Prismacolor pencils used in this drawing.

I had technical difficulties with lighting. The amaryllis is so tall that I had to put it on a box on the floor to put the blossom at the right height for me to see. It was not at all an ideal placement for either my desk lamp or the window, so it’s actually backlit (but not well). But as I’ve talked about here before, I enjoy approaching botanical drawing in the same way that I make urban sketches: Accepting whatever conditions I have to capture whatever is possible.

Of course, I could have put the blossom under ideal lighting and taken many photos to draw from; I’m sure that’s what a botanical artist would have done. The result would likely have been better, if by “better” you mean something that looks closer to a photo. But I don’t want to replicate a photo; I want to express life. (Maybe I should put that on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. 😉)

Monday, January 17, 2022



12/29/21 - 1/11/22 ink and colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

I have never been big on house plants, mainly because they usually drop dead as soon as I walk into the room. However, the amaryllis that a friend gave me has brought me much pleasure in more ways than one. First, it has been growing and changing so quickly that it’s simply fun to watch; it’s almost a pet more than a plant. Now that it has bloomed, it is giving our kitchen a much-needed splash of color during these dismally dark winter days. Most of all, I have so enjoyed documenting its changes in my sketchbook. I filled a spread in my 7 ½-inch square Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook with two weeks of its growth.

From a coloring perspective, these two sketches were my favorite to make.
It was so much fun to make the subtle transition from green to red on the buds.

Now that all five blossoms are fully opened, I think I have only one more sketch I want to do: a portrait of a single blossom.

Speaking of five blossoms, I was curious about why one bud was so far behind her sisters (noted as No. 3 in the sketch). I realized it had been tucked behind another, so I gently pushed the showy sister’s petals away. Exposed to the window directly now, the fifth blossom perked up! See below for a few photos I took whenever I sketched.

Technical note: This line-first-filled-in-with-color style (which I call the “coloring book” method) is the way I started when I first began urban sketching. It’s an efficient, straightforward technique that many sketchers use. I gave it up gradually as I made the transition away from watercolors and toward water-soluble colored pencils; it has been years since I’ve used it on location. Using it again here gave me a lot to think about related to drawing with lines. Stay tuned as I try to clarify those thoughts by mumbling aloud.




1/11/22 Four blooming blossoms, but the fifth is still tight.

1/12/22 I curled a neighboring petal away from the fifth bud to expose it to the window.

1/13/22 The one on the right is the late bloomer -- open by the next day!

Materials used: Mostly Polychromos and few Pablo and Prismacolor pencils. 
Line drawings done with Sailor Naginata fude de Mannen fountain pen. Notes made
with Uni Pin pen.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Sketchwalk, Literally


1/12/22 Maple Leaf Park

After weeks of near-freezing temperatures, precipitation of various types and high winds, last Wednesday was a well-deserved treat: My weather app got up to 56 degrees! While not exactly sunny, it still felt wonderful to walk a few laps around Maple Leaf Park without gloves.

As I looked around for something to stop and sketch, it suddenly occurred to me: Why stop? Why not sketch while we walk? It wouldn’t be the first time. Five years ago when I took part in Seattle’s Women’s March, I was well-prepared with easily portable sketch gear, though I wasn’t sure how or whether I would be able to sketch during the event. It turned out that 130,000 people walking together are not especially brisk, so it was easy to sketch as I marched.

I guess I still have the chops to take the term “sketchwalk” literally.

1/14/22 Maple Leaf Park

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Friends on Zoom


1/12/22 Kate, Roy and Tina on Zoom

Last summer I was so optimistic that the pandemic was finally beginning to be under control that I killed my Zoom account. Although I knew I would continue to do some things virtually, I hoped never to initiate social gatherings that way again. Sadly and very frustratingly, I was overly optimistic.

To cheer myself up this winter when I had been looking forward to visiting museums and meeting friends in cafés, I reinstated my Zoom account. At least until the weather warms up and we can meet outdoors again, I’m back to chatting and sketching with friends on Zoom.

Kate, Roy and I had a good catch-up while I made blind contours. We don’t look this wacky in real life, but the world is so askew that maybe we do.

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Carrot on the Stick


1/9/22 Mt. Rainier in a rare January appearance at Maple Leaf Park.
Cold but sunny. 

Maintaining our fitness-walking routine during the winter is a constant challenge. We tolerate drizzle, but cold, windy rain is miserable, and snow can be downright hazardous (though with good boots, we did trudge through the white and then slushy stuff on a few days). A potential sketch is always the carrot on the end of my stick.

12/6/21 Cold and cloudy.

12/29/21 The Brothers, Olympic mountain range. Cold with snow on the ground.

1/10/22 Cold and drizzly.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Review: SuckUK CMYK Ballpoint Pen

CMYK 4-color ballpoint
Color-mixing chart

A unique, unusual multi-pen crossed my radar recently. You already know how much
I love multi-pens as well as experimenting with CMYK color mixing. It will come to no surprise, then, to learn that when Nina Johansson showed it, it took me about three seconds to go get one: a CMYK four-color ballpoint pen!

Lightweight plastic body

An unfortunate name.

Made in China for a company with the unfortunate name of SuckUK, the pen came in packaging with a useful color mixing chart.

The very lightweight plastic barrel has three color selectors, and the clip selects black. The ballpoints are equivalent to a Bic medium point. I’ve used quite a few multi-pens, and I must say that the CMYK’s selection mechanism is one of the worst ever. The clip lever feels wobbly. Sometimes it takes multiple tries to get the selectors to engage, and sometimes they get stuck. When changing colors quickly in the middle of a sketch, clumsy mechanisms are annoying. Granted, Bic 4-colors are cheesy, too (one of the best multis mechanically is the Uni Jetstream 4 & 1), but a Bic typically costs a few bucks – not 16.

Clumsy color selectors

I’d forgive a clumsy body, however, if the inks were good (as is the case with Bics). Cyan and magenta are reasonably close to C and M process colors, but the yellow is a bit too cool – or maybe just muddy. Occasional orange or brown streaks appear. Although I expect ballpoint ink to be somewhat blobby (and my favorite oily Bic ink definitely is), the yellow is especially blobby.

Test swatches in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

1/7/22 CMYK ballpoint in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

In my mixing test swatch, the purple, red and red-orange mixes aren’t too bad, but the green is off, and I blame the faulty yellow. Wanting to mix the secondary triad in a test sketch, I quickly gathered a bright green mug, orange scissors and a purple Nemosine fountain pen. The purple was easiest to mix; the green the most difficult. The biggest challenge, though, was the ink quality, which flows unevenly with lots of blobby bits. It also doesn’t have the pencil-like, pressure-sensitive quality that makes it enjoyable to build layers with Bic ink. So it turns out that the company name is appropriate.

Too bad – such a cool, innovative concept! If only Bic would steal it and put its fabulous, unique ink formula into its cheesy but reliably cheap body.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Willow Down

1/8/22 Fallen willow at NE 85th and 4th NE, Maple Leaf neighborhood

On our first walk after several days of heavy rain and wind, we discovered that the huge, old, magnificent willow on this corner had come down, taking part of a fence with it. By the time we saw it, the tree had already been cut into pieces.

This is the willow I had sketched last July (below) when I was sketching each corner of the intersection of Northeast 85th Street and Fourth Avenue Northeast. Difficult to sketch because the tree had always kept the whole corner in deep shade, it was a scene that confounded me for a long time. The house was barely visible behind it. Despite the challenge, I’m happy that I finally did sketch it, because now it’s gone. You never know when a sketch will end up being your last opportunity.


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Book Review: Mike Daikubara’s Color First, Ink Later


The latest volume in the Urban Sketching Handbook series 

Four years ago, Mike Daikubara put out Sketch Now, Think Later: Jumping Right into Sketching with Limited Time, Tools, and Techniques, a popular volume in the Urban Sketching Handbook series. Now the Charlotte, North Carolina, sketcher has published a sequel: Color First, Ink Later: A Dynamic Approach to Drawing and Painting on Location.

While the first volume has a strong emphasis on Mike’s philosophy and approach toward urban sketching – the why in addition to the howColor First, Ink Later is intended as a follow-up that dives directly into the how. Novices who are new to urban sketching would probably want to start with Sketch Now first to fully understand the principles behind his “color first” approach.

The difference in steps and time between his ink-first approach and his color-first approach.

Although his approach is different, his philosophy remains the same: Mike is always looking for ways to sketch whatever he wants by choosing the tools and methods that best accommodate the available time or circumstance. His watercolor-first method, which takes a bit longer, is more conducive to stationary, outdoor subjects than the line-first method, which he prefers for rapidly changing scenes or when he is sketching restaurant meals (while his hungry and ever-patient wife waits). Since I have developed my own varying sketching approaches based on similar variables, I appreciate how thoroughly and clearly Mike has analyzed his processes to present them in this book.

Mike's color first, ink later process: An optional pencil rough-in is followed by paint washes, dripping/drying, ink, more color, then final touches of black, gray or white ink.

After a detailed explanation of his five-step approach, the book presents several demonstrations based on subject matter or complexity. Using still images taken from videos he made while completing the demo sketches, he was able to show various stages of his process without having to interrupt his flow by stopping to take photos. In addition, his use of video enabled him to document exactly how long each step took. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an urban sketching book that analyzed a process minute by minute! He’s remarkably consistent from demo to demo, regardless of subject matter – a sure sign of an experienced urban sketcher.

Step-by-step demo

Since the “color” part of his color-first approach is watercolor, one section is devoted to describing his “color bucket families,” which he uses to organize his 20-color palette. This color strategy and arrangement enable him to choose colors efficiently. Rarely mixing on the palette, Mike prefers to let watercolors mix dynamically on the page. This choice not only creates more lively hues and avoids mud; it also saves him the time of trying to achieve the right hue on the palette.

Mike organizes his watercolors by "color bucket families."

Another watercolor step has both a practical purpose and a “magical” result: After the initial wash of color is applied, he allows the excess water to drip down the page, becoming a dynamic part of the composition. These unpredictable drips, which have become Mike’s signature, also have the benefit of making the wet paper dry more quickly for succeeding steps.

Washes followed by dynamic dripping

Every step he takes is economical and efficient without sacrificing artistic expression. When faced with a busy, cluttered foreground, Mike suggests simply skipping areas “that may be too complex or just not fun to sketch. Stay focused on why you wanted to sketch the subject in the first place.” Excellent advice for simplifying a scene!

Don't like the clutter you see? Skip it!

Consistent with the Urban Sketching Handbook series format, the final section is devoted to a gallery of Mike’s spectacular work made with the color-first-ink-later approach.

Color First, Ink Later is another winner in the series. I recommend it to sketchers who have already read and used Mike’s first book and have some urban sketching experience under their belts.

One more thing: This volume in the Urban Sketching Handbook series is an improvement in regard to a gripe I have had about most of the previous books. The typeface is slightly darker and, in some areas, larger, making the text much easier for these aging eyes to read.

(Quarto Publishing provided me with a  copy of this book. Opinions are my own.)

I adore this photo of Mike sitting on his teeny-tiny sketch stool! He is showing his video setup that enabled him to capture images used in the demos.

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