Monday, February 28, 2022

Grounded by the Sky


Lately my skyscapitos have been of more sunsets than sunrises. The day will start out foggy or cloudy, but if it doesn’t rain (or snow!), we often get sun breaks by late-afternoon that can result in a lively sunset.

Now that I’m attempting to draw daily from my imagination or memory as my 100 Day Project, some days go by in which the only sketches I make are from my head, not from observation. That feels strange to me, as if I haven’t really drawn yet. I find that if I’ve begun the day with a sketch from imagination but didn’t have an opportunity for an urban sketch that day, I like to end it with a sketch of the sky from observation. To balance a drawing from inside my head with a drawing outside the window is grounding: I’m back in the real world.

From the cartooning workshop I took several months ago, I know that many people draw as regularly as I do, but they do so mainly from their imagination. My classmates, whose sketchbooks were filled with characters they had created, talked about how much more difficult it was for them to draw from observation. I was astonished to learn this, as it is so much the other away around for me.

I have been thinking about this ever since: Is it simply a matter of practice and experience? After drawing regularly but almost exclusively from observation for more than a decade, drawing from my mind feels foreign. If I had drawn more from imagination all along, would I be feeling more balanced now? I am endlessly fascinated by the creative learning process.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Book Review: Every Person in New York


“There’s something about the idea of every person in New York that my mind could get around, more so than the idea of every person in America, or every person in the world. In New York I could realistically, physically, get around the city to draw more than I could get around the entire world. Living in New York is something I think about a lot and I was looking for more ways to learn about it. . . . The project is now over six years old. Every day I am in New York I draw for this project, and I’ve drawn over 30,000 people (I still have a bit to go).”

So explains Jason Polan in the introduction to his book (which has no page numbers but is an inch-and-a-quarter thick), Every Person in New York, about what compelled him to begin drawing everyone in a city of more than eight million. He was an urban sketcher following the Manifesto, perhaps without even knowing about it. In fact, he was possibly more literally “truthful to the scenes we witness” than most of us, who may take artistic license when drawing people who walk off. Instead, Polan tried . . .

“. . . to be as authentic with the drawings as I can. I only draw the person while I can see them. The majority of the drawings are done (mostly) while I’m looking at the person, not at the paper. If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple. If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that had been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg – it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.”

Looking through the massive collection of sketches done from 2008 through 2014, I couldn’t help but be moved by that authenticity and lack of self-consciousness. The works have a pureness of motive like children’s drawings, “certain things I find that I’m so excited to see and draw and share.”

Some sketches are nothing more than scribbles. Among my favorites are ones in which he tried to capture large crowds milling about a museum or train station; those masses of scribbles are exactly what it’s like to draw such a crowd. Others are exquisite gestures or portraits. There is no doubt that each was captured from direct observation in a brief moment in Polan’s day.

While most of the drawn are anonymous strangers, quite a few are celebrities, whom he names, sometimes with an excited exclamation point. “Christina Aguilera on Mercer June 11, 2010,” is sketched right next to “man eating pizza at Ray’s on Prince Street He isn’t wearing any shoes June 11, 2010.” Occasionally the sketches are autographed by the subject. Every drawing is documented with a date and sometimes the time.

Published in 2015, Every Person in New York is optimistically designated Volume 1. Very sadly, there will never be a Volume 2. In 2020, Polan died at the age of 37. I viewed every drawing with amazement that he chose to spend his short life documenting New York in such a unique, singularly focused way – and gratitude that he chose to share that documentation with me. That, by any definition, is urban sketching.

Saturday, February 26, 2022



2/16/22 I-5 and downtown Seattle from Maple Leaf

After a cloudy morning that looked like it could go either way, the sun won. I didn’t care what or where I sketched – I just followed my nose out the door. Walking only a few blocks, I came to a spot I pass frequently by car but don’t often stop for on foot. From this corner, I can see Interstate 5 snaking away toward downtown Seattle on the horizon. Lots of houses, trees and cars cluttered the foreground view, but I decided to ignore most of that. I don’t often have this impression of I-5, but surrounded by dark trees, the freeway looked kind of pretty, shining in the afternoon light.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Review: Rite in the Rain Paper


2/14/22 Graphite on Rite in the Rain looseleaf paper. See the raindrops? No problem for this paper.

After he read my review of the waterproof Karst Stone Paper Journal, a Facebook friend kindly offered to send me a few sample sheets of Rite in the Rain paper. Although I was familiar with the Rite in the Rain name – the company that makes it is just down the road in Tacoma – I was not curious enough about its “all-weather” notebooks to try one (though I like the company’s tagline: Defying Mother Nature). But since I’ve tested both Expedition and Karst, what the heck – why not give Rite in the Rain a try, too?

Rite in the Rain tears like ordinary paper.
Cruising through the company’s website, I see that Rite in the Rain offers a variety of form factors – spiral bound, hardbound and looseleaf notebooks and even index cards. With only a couple of unruled options, it’s obvious that its main customer base is industrial, scientific and other outdoor workers – not sketchers. The blank and ruled sheets I was given are 4 ½-by-7 inches and punched for looseleaf use.

Unlike Stone Paper or Field Notes Expedition, both of which feel more like plastic than paper, Rite in the Rain feels like ordinary paper, though perhaps lightly coated. Also unlike the other two, which are nearly indestructible by normal means – when I’ve tried to tear them, they simply warp – Rite in the Rain tears easily like normal paper, both wet and dry.

I had heard that, as with Expedition’s Yupo paper, not many pens would work on Rite in the Rain. Any ink that remains a bit wet for a while would smear easily and quickly, I was told. I tested some common writing instruments below on a dry sheet and confirmed that smudging can be a problem, though it smeared less than Yupo in most cases.

Variety of media on dry Rite in the Rain paper

However, like Yupo, as soon as I spritzed the page with water, the gel pen and other water-based inks floated away. Graphite and colored pencil, ballpoint ink and Sharpie ink did the best.

Spritzing with water made many inks bead and float away.

I already knew that soft graphite would probably be my best bet sketching on this paper in actual “all-weather” situations (also known in these parts as “rain”). I kept a couple sheets in my walking bag for an opportunity to give it a field test. The sketch at the top of the post is the result (I blew it up larger than life so that you could see evidence of actual Seattle DNA on the surface). The mild tooth feels like ordinary paper, and my Gekkoso 8B pencil took to the surface well. As expected, the paper was unaffected by rain, as was the soft graphite. Once the page dried completely, it looked good as new.

As a sketching surface, I prefer Rite in the Rain to both Expedition and Karst Stone – it could pass for “normal” paper. But I don’t see any form factors that I would want to use for sketching, so I won’t pursue it as active option. I appreciate knowing, though, that Rite in the Rain offers so many different choices in a waterproof paper. If the primary use is not sketching, I would recommend it over the other two alternatives to people who need a waterproof notebook to do their field work.

Incidentally, I love the image below (swiped from the website) and this product description of the hardcover book (the only one with an unruled page option): “Everything from the cover, the paper, the sewn-in pages, even the glue is designed to survive mother nature’s wrath.” So maybe sketchers are among Rite in the Rain’s field users!

Image from Rite in the Rain website

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Yellow Door


2/18/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood

A couple of days after I discovered the charming houses on a street we rarely walk, I went back for another sketch. The mid-40s is still too cold for me to stand around for much longer than a few minutes, so I knew it would be another quick one. I found a cute Tudor, an architectural style that I have a penchant for (and have many to choose from in Maple Leaf). Although the siding was dark grayish-blue, its bright yellow door surprised me.

Here’s an addendum to the insight I had when I wrote about the first house: The reason I used to need the better part of an hour to draw a house like this was that I had to measure everything carefully to get it “right.” In addition to the realization that there’s nothing special about houses as subject matter, something else happened during my 10-year drawing life. It’s not that my experience has enabled me to get it “right” in only seven minutes; I don’t know if it did. But the difference now is that I don’t care.

Caring that it“right”: For many, it’s the biggest barrier to drawing. Not caring: I wish I knew how to give it out to others. I could make a million bucks as an instructor if I did. Unfortunately, I don’t know how.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Ever-Versatile Mini Sendak

Happily rolling along with the mini Sendak

 You may recall that I started using the Tombow Irojiten pencil roll a few months ago. Despite my many fantasies (as described in that post), I didn’t think that a roll-type case would meet my general sketching needs: When on location, I prefer to stand, and unrolling a case that I had nowhere to lay out seemed unwieldy. In the winter, though, I do most of my urban sketching from my car or in coffee shops, where I thought a roll could work. I had hoped the Tombow roll experiment would allow me to indulge in my Parisian café fantasies, at least temporarily. (Alas, I didn’t know then that omicron would dissuade me from spending much time inside coffee shops for yet another winter, but I digress.)

After about a month of use, I made several observations: As I had feared, the Tombow roll’s natural-colored canvas got dirty fast, and not in a way that I would describe as a charming patina. In addition, the Tombow’s elastic loops are ideal for pencils, but thicker pens and markers are a struggle to get into the loops, which is limiting.

At the same time, the efficient ease of folding up my supplies appealed to me. I used it to sketch in coffee shops only a few times (you can see it in action at the Nordic Museum’s Freya Café), but I used it plenty of times in my car, where I just propped it up against the steering wheel – convenient and handy. The longer I used it, the more I thought, maybe I could be a roll-type gal after all (at least in winter)!

You can see where this is going: I wanted to use a roll, but not the Tombow. A Christmas gift card and a big post-holiday sale at Peg & Awl came together: The Sendak Mini Artist Roll that I had been coveting for years finally became mine!

Upper flap protects pencils and other tools

Peg & Awl’s Sendak rolls (mini and full size) are made of durable waxed canvas in several color options. I chose dark moss, which I knew would hide dirt well (mine is already starting to gain a scuffed patina that I would describe as charming).

One zippered compartment for small tools like sharpener and blending stump

I use the single narrow zipped pocket to hold a sharpener and a blending stump. I could put more in there, but I’m keeping in mind how much I enjoyed the Tombow’s svelte folded profile. (I affectionately think of the Tombow as a pencil sandwich instead of a roll; I don’t want the Sendak to turn into a bulging burrito.) The other pockets and slots are for my limited watercolor pencil palette, one brush pen and a waterbrush – the key essentials in my sketch kit. (I still carry other non-color tools and supplies in my supplemental accessory organizer, though its contents change over time.)

Current materials: A couple of Durer watercolor markers, watercolor pencils, a Uni Pin brush pen, a waterbrush

One benefit I noticed immediately is that it’s much easier and faster to slip pencils into the Sendak’s slots and pockets compared to the elastic bands in either the Tombow or my long-time-favorite sketch bag accessory, the Tran Portfolio Pencil Case. (As much as the Tran Portfolio has served my needs for years, getting pencils back into the loops has always been frustrating – like randomly stabbing into the black hole of my bag.)

Another upside is that thicker items like the Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolor markers that I have been trying lately fit easily into the pockets – they would not fit into elastic loops designed for pencils. Overall, the mini Sendak’s elegant design is more flexible and versatile for a variety of tools and materials.

When sketching from the car...

...I prop the mini Sendak against the steering wheel.

Versatility – that brings me to my biggest and most exciting discovery about the mini Sendak: Like my Miata, it’s a convertible! While sketching from my car or at a table, I can unroll it, use it, and roll it back up again.

This Starbucks had no cafe tables, but a courtyard bench worked just as well.

Thats all fine and good, but what about when I’m standing on the sidewalk? What I loved most about the Tran Portfolio is that it kept all my pencils upright and fully accessible just by opening my bag. In the same way, when I’m sketching on location, I simply keep the opened Sendak standing inside my bag. During outdoor-sketching season, I’ll leave it that way. Imagine my glee when I realized that it works well both ways – while I’m either sitting or standing! The mini Sendak is my year-round convertible.

Opened and standing upright, the mini Sendak fits nicely inside my usual "small" size Rickshaw Zero Messenger bag. I pulled it up for the photo, but it tucks in all the way to the bottom.

I made two hacks to meet my needs better. The Sendak’s diagonally slanted cut of the lower slots is intended to accommodate implements of various lengths. But as some pencils get shorter and shorter, they begin to disappear into even the shortest slots, and then they are difficult to retrieve. I devised an easy solution: When a pencil gets too short, I drop a plastic, flat-bottomed pencil cap (like the Sun-Star Sect) into the slot, which gives the pencil a leg-up.

The red pencil would sink all the way to the bottom of the slot and be difficult to pull out...

... but putting a pencil cap in the bottom of the slot gives the pencil a boost.

Similarly, the upper pockets are the right depth for longer pencils, but even medium-length pencils can disappear inside them. I put a small piece of foam at the bottom of the pockets to make them a bit shallower. When I use brand-new pencils, I can pull the foam out.

These hacks require my pencils to be arranged according to height rather than by color. Since both the Tran Portfolio and the Tombow enabled me to arrange my pencils by color (though the order was idiosyncratic and not necessarily a conventional rainbow), at first I was afraid this would be a problem. But during these pandemic years, I got used to the free-flowing pencils in my small Rickshaw case, which doesn’t keep them in any order. Even in my full sketch kit, I carry few enough colors (currently 16, and my goal is always no more than 20) that it’s not difficult to find the ones I want. The important part is that the pockets and slots keep all implements upright, visible and easily accessible, just like the Tran Portfolio did. An improvement over the Tran, though, is that the pencils are just as easy to return to their slots as they are to pull out.

The only mini Sendak detail that I’m not crazy about is the leather belt and buckle that secure it. Fastening the buckle is fussier than I like – the Tombow’s easy elastic band was more my style – but I can live with it. I hope the leather will soften over time and become easier to fasten.

I’m thrilled that the ever-versatile mini Sendak is meeting my needs in ways I had not expected. I don’t often sketch my sketch materials and tools, but this one deserved a “portrait.”

Updated 4/16/22: See how I use both the mini Sendak and her big sister to keep everything in my bag organized.

2/7/22 My convertible mini Sendak

Tuesday, February 22, 2022


2/20/22 Studio clutter

The last time USk Seattle met on Zoom, I sketched out the west window. As you know, I don’t have a problem with sketching the same scene again (and again and again), but I was in the mood to try something different. I’m not much into drawing stuff in my own home, and especially not cluttered, messy areas. However, that was all I could see in either direction of my studio. We just got a new canister vacuum cleaner that I have not used yet, but the disassembled parts have been on the floor for several days. They add to the basic clutter that’s here all the time.

Technical note: The Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolor markers that I’ve been playing with lately are too bulky to carry around on location in large quantities, so this sketch outing at home was a good opportunity to give several colors a shot all at once. It’s quick and easy to put down rich, vibrant hues with these markers – much faster than with watercolor pencils. However, the hues are always rich and vibrant, whether I want them to be or not. One thing I love most about graphite and colored pencils is that tones can be modulated slowly and gradually. These markers are either on or off – not much in between. I’m having fun playing with a new medium, though – it’s been a while since I have.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Ten Minutes: My Choice

2/16/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood

 A recent morning walk took us down a street we sometimes drive but rarely walk. On foot instead of speeding by in a car, I noticed several houses with charming details, like this one with the arched portico (I hope that’s the right architectural term). I started to make a mental note to return when it was sunny and warm so that I could take my time to make a proper color “portrait” in my larger sketchbook. But I realized that by then, the tree would be leafed out, obscuring much of the house. I decided to stop on the spot. I might come back to do a color portrait someday anyway, but at least I had captured the 10-minute version.

I didn’t think about it while I sketched, but when I had finished, I found myself feeling strangely emotional. There was a time when I would have been so intimidated by drawing Architecture (with a capital A), which involves scary stuff like perspective, angles and parallel lines, that I would have either avoided it or waited until I had lots of time – an hour or more – before attempting a house like this.

It wasn’t even very long ago. In 2018 when I had just begun my series of Maple Leaf architectural styles, I was past the intimidation stage, but I still allowed plenty of time because I wanted to measure the angles and proportions, block in the main shapes carefully and measure again. I couldn’t draw a house in 10 minutes, even if I wasn’t intending to make a portrait. Although by then I enjoyed the challenge, drawing houses was never easy.

In fact, it still isn’t; this quick pencil sketch was still challenging. But somewhere along the way in my 10-year drawing journey, I left behind the feeling that architecture was somehow special or different from any other subject. There’s nothing special about houses. It won’t be as accurate, but I can draw one without measuring just as I can draw people in public without gauging their proportions. An amaryllis can be sketched gesturally in a short time or as a carefully observed botanical study. A building, a human body, a potted plant, a tree, a car, a trash can – everything requires close observation to draw accurately, but any subject matter can also be drawn quickly and gesturally. It’s a different intention and approach.

Walking home after the sketch, I felt joy in the liberation: Houses or house plants; 10 minutes or 60: It was my choice. The more I draw, the more choices open to me.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Minidoka Desert


2/19/22 (from a 1945 photo)

Iconic pipe in his mouth, my dad is holding a wide-brimmed hat of the type that I never saw him wear by the time I was born. My mom is smiling, her arms wrapped around my second brother Frank, who seems distracted by whatever he is eating. My oldest brother Richard, wearing what looks like a captain’s hat, squats in front. It could be a photo from a family picnic – except for the bleak desert landscape and the lone tower on the horizon. It looks like the middle of nowhere.

This sketch was made from a rare photo of my family taken at Minidoka Relocation Center, Idaho, in 1945. “Internees” were prohibited from having cameras, but a visiting friend in the US military, who was allowed to have a camera, took the photo.

Eighty years ago yesterday, President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order that would imprison 120,000 Japanese Americans at Minidoka and other relocation centers for the duration of World War II. Our mom was pregnant with Frank the day it was signed.

In my mother’s scrapbook, which was translated after her death, she wrote: “[Richard] doesn’t know yet that he will have a brother soon. He is still the center of his parents’ attention. We are not allowed to take pictures in camp. I wonder when I’ll be able to take photos of them together.”

Please think about that day in American history and how it affected so many people, including my parents and brothers.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The 100 Day Project


I was innocently scrolling through my Instagram feed when I came upon a post by an artist who declared her intention to participate in The 100 Day Project. It would begin the next day, Feb. 13. Although I vaguely recollected seeing the project hashtag in previous years (this is its ninth year), it had been otherwise off my radar.

The project is wide open – participants can draw, paint, sing, dance, write haiku – anything creative (and maybe not even very creative) goes, as long as the commitment to do it for 100 consecutive days is made. In a cocky moment, I said to myself, “Ha – I’ve drawn my hand for 407 consecutive days; 100 days is for amateurs.”

Then I started thinking longer, and I reminded myself that I haven’t been doing many imaginary drawings lately. Compared to drawing from life, which I have been doing nearly daily for more than 10 years, drawing from my head is so much more difficult. And yet I’d like to develop that skill that I had as a child and apparently left behind (as so many adults do). Maybe doing it for 100 consecutive days is just the kick in the pants I need.

And so, with less than a day to mentally prep, I committed to taking part in the project: I will draw from my imagination for 100 consecutive days beginning Feb. 13.

One thing I appreciate about the project is that the coordinators recommend an activity that will take no more than five to 10 minutes a day, which is more likely to be sustainable. A doodle in a few minutes – I can certainly manage that! Overall, the project has almost no rules: “Anything is okay, it’s your project. The rules are made up.” The only objective is to motivate creativity. I like that.

I’ll check in here periodically to show my progress. I’m posting daily on Instagram with my hashtag #miatagrrldrawsfromherhead.

Technical note: My immediate inclination was to start a fresh sketchbook dedicated to this project; I like the “neatness” of keeping all the project sketches together. Then it occurred to me that this is exactly the kind of thing that belongs in my daily-carry “whatever” journal. The book is always on me; I am not using specific materials or tools – just grabbing whatever is accessible and comfortable. Just like the project itself, my casual pocket journal promotes ongoing, integrated creativity: It’s not about the product but the process. The medium is the message.

On Day 3, I remembered that it's always easier to do a project like this in
a series or with a theme. So for the next several days, I decided to show my hair-dos
through the decades, beginning with the Farrah Fawcett '70s.

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