Tuesday, May 31, 2022

My 30-Minute “Oil Painting”


5/27/22 Green Lake neighborhood

No. 1
On a cool and gusty morning, I drove around the Green Lake neighborhood to make more compositional studies, but this time I was determined to do it “right”: Stay focused on the “study” aspect (thumbnails made with the purpose of guiding a final piece) and eventually make a “real” sketch with color from a study. My intention was to approach this exercise as if I were an actual Ian Roberts workshop student (except that my final piece would not be an oil painting, of course).

To give myself an additional kick, I took a cue from Sue Heston, who likes to make multiple thumbnails of the same scene cropped in different ways. She says it pushes her to think beyond a first impression, and I thought that was an excellent approach. So often I start sketching the first composition that occurs to me, but as soon as I do, I see better options.

No. 2
The first one I made (No. 1) is my typical street composition: a car, a tree and street shadows. For No. 2, I included the sunlit side of the same tree and expanded the composition to the left to include part of a house. The last one, No. 3, includes everything in the first two. For all three, I paid attention to values, the path of the eye and the overall “design.” (However, as a true urban sketcher, I didn’t add anything that wasn’t actually there – not even the bird that showed up conveniently in No. 2!)

The tightest crop and the least like a “typical” composition for me, No. 2 seemed like the best choice for a larger, more finished sketch in color (top of page). Initially, I was going to use “reality” colors, but strangely, it felt like less thinking would be required if I used my favorite primary triad instead. (Using a primary triad used to be a challenge! Now it’s more comfortable than reality colors!? Whaaaat?? When did that happen?!) Even with the primary triad, I had enough color challenges to work out that the final sketch still felt fun and fresh – not just a re-do of one of the thumbnails.

No. 3
As you can see, I resisted straying from the thumbnail. In fact, I referred to the thumbnail several times to check the values! Score! As you can also see from the photo below, I had plenty of space available on the sketchbook page, but I still stuck with the thumbnail. It made me realize that I often keep on drawing just because I have space, but the added stuff may not improve the composition (and usually doesn’t).

There – I think I finally followed all the rules! Not bad for a 30-minute “oil painting,” which I’m very pleased with. Someone, please tell Ian to give me an “A.”

I resisted the temptation to add more stuff just because
space is available on the page.

Monday, May 30, 2022



5/26/22 Maple Leaf (more of a sketch than a study)

I’m still thinking about what makes a study a study (compared to a “real” sketch). Here are three I made during the same walk on an overcast day, which was more challenging without sharp shadows.

The first (at left) works well as a composition study, except I got too involved in making a variety of marks to indicate the various layers of foliage. Ian Roberts would have told me to make the background foliage one large block of the appropriate value. (As I sketched, a police car drove up. The resident of a nearby house came out and asked me if everything was OK. I shrugged and said, “I’m just sketching,” and showed the sketch. He was delighted to see what I was doing. He thought I had called the police.)

Not much of a study, either.

The second sketch (at right) was made on one of my favorite neighborhood streets because it’s full of poles and wires looking directly north toward Northgate. It was fun, but I couldn’t see enough differentiation in tones. I still like it as a composition, though.

The last of the three (below) is the best example of a thumbnail as Roberts describes and uses one: It’s trying out a composition with three values to see if it could hold up as a larger, more detailed work. I stopped before getting involved in details. If I like it enough to pursue as a “real” sketch, there’s room to explore so that I won’t feel like I’m just repeating what I already did in the thumbnail. I’ve noticed that some of my favorite compositions end up fitting into a square. Maybe my square Hahnemühle sketchbook is influencing how I see compositions even when Im not using it.

One more thing I really like about making these small sketches while wandering the neighborhood is that no matter how small, rough or thumbnailish they are, they still feel like urban sketches to me. They are always tiny snapshots of things I see in Maple Leaf, always drawn on location, always of the moment. Nothing very exciting is happening, but collectively, they tell the story of where I live.

A true thumbnail

Sunday, May 29, 2022

What’s the Difference Between a Sketch and a Study?


5/14/22 Green Lake
In one of the first videos I viewed in Ian Roberts’ enormous collection of tutorials, he explains the difference between a thumbnail and a sketch. A thumbnail is a small, rough “roadmap” to quickly crop the composition’s shape and identify the value masses in preparation for a painting, especially when working plein air. If one has time in the studio, a thumbnail could be further developed into a more refined sketch to understand more about how elements overlap, develop tonal subtleties and otherwise hone the composition (Roberts has posted 30 days’ worth of these types of sketches on Instagram). By resolving potential issues with a thumbnail or sketch before putting brush to canvas, the painting is more likely to be successful.

Although I’m enjoying exploring small studies (my generic term for scribbles in my sketchbook that aren’t “real” sketches) according to Roberts’ composition principles, my “studies” often morph into “real” sketches. I forget that I’m supposed to be learning from the study and not just having fun making a sketch. This might be partly because I know that my final outcome will not be an oil painting, so my range from rough to finished is not as wide as it would be for a painter. But maybe it’s mostly the element of intention: I start to have fun and forget the intention to study.

5/25/22 Roosevelt neighborhood

It happened one morning on my way home from errands. With frozen foods in the car, I didn’t have much time, but I knew I could easily make a thumbnail or two. I saw some interesting shadows next to a construction-area fence (at left). Somewhere along the way, I got interested in the details, and it was no longer a study. I had fun, so it’s not a problem, but its purpose was lost. (I was still quick – my frozen foods didn’t thaw!)

There’s also the element of expectation. A sketcher I follow was complaining that, compared to sketches she consciously plans to make, she often prefers the casual, spontaneous sketches she dashes off while waiting for something to happen. I related to her comment immediately, though in a slightly different way: I often prefer my studies to whatever “real” sketches that the studies were supposed to prepare me for. I have no expectations for the studies, and they often come off as simple, direct and fresh – which is all I want from a “real” sketch!

A good example happened at Green Lake recently (top of post). Enjoying al fresco coffee with Greg, I spotted a scene down the street that I wanted to sketch, but I didn’t want to take a half hour to make it. I promised I would take no more than five minutes (he knows I’m good for it). It was an ideal situation for a thumbnail (by Roberts’ definition): I saw an interesting composition that I could explore quickly by noting the values (I used yellow and blue, but they were more for values than color). If I wanted to, I could come back later to make a larger sketch in full color. When I finished in the promised five minutes, I liked this little study dashed off in my Field Notes as much as any “real” sketch I might have made of the same scene. It captured the moment, and it feels complete. Is it a study? Or is it a sketch?

Not that I care about the labels used, but I do care about my intention. If I intend to practice deliberately and learn from it, I don’t want to go on autopilot and just do my usual thing. In this case, it was the best of all worlds: I made a quick notation of values that ended up being a fresh, complete sketch – and I like the results.

5/25/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood
And sometimes this happens: I was out walking in the ‘hood one beautiful day, making compositional studies. Early afternoon, the sun nearly directly overhead, I spotted a traffic circle tree with a fringe of backlighting. I thought about making a study, but I love that type of lighting too much, and I didn’t want to kill the freshness by making a study first. I went straight in with a “real” sketch (at right). When I was done, I drew a box around it – a retroactive study! 😉 But as soon as I did, I realized I had put the tree smack-dab in the center – an issue I would have spotted if I’d made a thumbnail first! I cropped it digitally later (below) to show what that thumbnail should have taught me.

Cropped to improve the composition

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Tedious Operation


5/24/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Heading out into the neighborhood to make some composition studies, I passed this excavator, but it was on its lunch break, so I kept going. I wanted to see it in action! By the time I returned, it was back at work, digging out soil next to the house. Apparently there wasn’t enough room to park the dump truck nearby. The excavator was scooping out dirt and releasing it into a small, motorized container that looked like a wheel barrow – except the operator was standing up in back of it. When it was full, the little machine would move the dirt over to the dump truck parked on the street. It looked like a tedious operation that could have gone a lot more efficiently if the dirt could have been dumped directly into the hauler.

Not that I cared about efficiency. The excavator moved quickly, but its motions were rhythmic and repetitive. I would draw a bit, then wait for it to return to the same position to draw a bit more. It was the most heavy-equipment action I’ve had in a long time!

Friday, May 27, 2022

Spring at Last


5/21/22 An unusual tree with foliage growing all the 
way up its trunk. Just for fun, I sketched it on the
diagonal in my square Hahnemuhle.

Last Saturday was one of the best days so far this spring – sunny and 67 degrees! We spent the afternoon just enjoying the neighborhood – a walk, a coffee shop with lots of outdoor seating, and Maple Leaf Park.

I felt no pressure to sketch anything in particular, not even a composition study. While we enjoyed coffee, I caught a couple of patrons at the café and a tree across the street with foliage growing up its entire trunk. Then at Maple Leaf Park, I captured a few Pedalheads bicycle students queuing up for their turn to learn some kind of maneuver. At the playground, kids on the swings gave me an opportunity to catch their gestures.

It was low-key sketching on a well-deserved day in what has turned out to be one of our wettest, coldest Mays on record! Spring: Bring it!

Blue Saucer Coffee patrons

Playground swingers

Pedalheads students queuing up for their turn

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Roosevelt Way


5/19/22 Roosevelt Way Northeast, facing south toward Maple Leaf

Maple Leaf is straight up the hill from Northgate. Whenever I have an errand at Northgate, I like to go home via Roosevelt Way Northeast to see this view: The dense deciduous foliage fringed by dark conifers against the sky, and at the very top of Roosevelt is the Comcast tower that marks the center of Maple Leaf.

Values and composition study

Early afternoon, the sun was almost directly overhead, top-lighting all the trees when it wasn’t darting behind clouds. Dutiful disciple of Ian Roberts that I am, I made a values/composition thumbnail study first (at right). Unlike other times, though, when the thumbnail stole all the energy, leaving me nothing for the “real” sketch, this study actually served me in the way it was supposed to. (I think it helped that I spent very little time on the sloppy thumbnail. . . when I spend more than a couple of minutes on a study, my brain gets fooled into thinking it is sketching, not just studying!) During a sunny moment, I decided on the composition and scribbled in the values hastily. While I made the color sketch and lost the sun occasionally, the value study was helpful reference. For the most part, I even stayed with the thumbnail’s plan. The only change I made was to make a little more room for the sky so that I could put in some clouds. Well, there was one other thing: I cropped it more tightly on the right, so the recycle bin had to go, but I put in the less-prominent mailbox instead.

I like this composition, especially the balance between the car on the right and the high-contrast foliage on the left. My eye keeps moving without getting stuck anywhere or, heaven forbid, wanders off the picture. Where does your eye go?

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Arboretum Without Color


5/18/22 Washington Park Arboretum

At this time of year, the Washington Park Arboretum is ablaze with brilliant color from the rhododendrons and azaleas. We chose a balmy afternoon to take our fitness walk through the park, which meant that I didn’t have my full sketch kit and colors with me. Ironically, the last two times I drew at the arboretum were with Kristin Frost’s class last summer, when we used only graphite! No color? The horror!

It was actually nice to enjoy all that color without the pressure of trying to capture it as brilliantly (with usually disappointing results). I was happy to sketch nothing more than a composition study and the tortoise we spotted in a pond.

Despite the lack of color in my sketches, I won’t deprive you of the eye candy.

That yellow tree is a type of oak. I might use this photo as a composition study sometime.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Whew! 100 Days Done!

Soap Dispenser fantasizes about operating heavy machinery.

I’ve done quite a few drawing challenges during the past decade. Other than my pandemic hand series, which I did not know was going to last 407 days when I began, most have lasted no more than InkTober’s 31 days. A hundred days – more than three months – is substantial, but I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was! Now I know that 100 days is a dang long time, and if I ever do it again, I’m going to think more carefully before I commit to it!

Faucet Handle thought the vintage rain bonnet would be cool,
but now she realizes that it would help if she had a chin.

Despite my moaning and groaning throughout, I am now very happy and pleased that I completed the 100 Day Project. Although developing my imaginative and memory-based drawing skills has been a desire for more than a year, I know I would not have committed to serious practice of those skills without this project. It is satisfying to have grown my confidence in my ability to draw from my head.

During the first month or so when I was focusing on developing my visual memory, it was frustrating and discouraging not to see more progress day to day. But on Day 45 when I made a significant breakthrough, I realized I had been making progress all along, even if it wasn’t always apparent. That’s when I made the switch to pure imaginative drawing instead of memory, and it became fun.

Perhaps “fun” is an overstatement: On many, many days, I nearly quit simply because I couldn’t think of an idea, or if I had an idea, it was too complicated to draw. And yet somehow I managed to pull something out of my head each day. My respect and admiration for daily cartoonists grew immensely as I understood the relentless pressure of coming up with a creative idea every single day.

When she's bored, Scissors experiments with makeup.
She especially likes lash extensions

Just as important, while I have always appreciated drawing from observation, I feel that way more than ever now. No matter how challenging a subject might be, it’s still easier to draw it from sight than from my head!

In a recent post, Art vs. Entropy busts the myth that “true” artists can simply imagine anything they want to in their minds and then plop that image onto paper or canvas. There may be some artists who can make it look as if they are doing that, but I have no doubt that many, many years of practice and experience are behind that so-called “natural talent.” The past 100 days have certainly shown me that it takes a lot longer than 100 days!

Thanks for coming along on my (overlong) journey! To see all my 100-Day sketches with one click, see this Flickr album.

When Faucet Handle is feeling blue, she puts on '80s dance music.
Nothing like shakin' your booty to put you in a better mood.

Soap Dispenser can't imagine what life was like before public libraries were invented.

Faucet Handle really gets into mashing down her over-stuffed recycle bin.

When her bike goes too slowly, Faucet Handle gives a tire a swift kick because that seems to work with cars.

When she's feeling stressed, Scissors
finds a quiet place to hang out and meditate.

This was the only time I tried writing the caption directly
on the image.

Party time! Soap Dispenser, Faucet Handle and Scissors are celebrating the last day of The100 Day Project so that they can go back to living their normal lives without being Instagrammed every day!

Monday, May 23, 2022

Roosevelt Station on My 10th Anniversary


5/20/22 Roosevelt Light Rail Station

On May 20, 2012, a cold and rainy Sunday, I attended my first-ever Urban Sketchers sketch outing. I usually commemorate my USk anniversary at whatever outing I attend during the month of May each year, so I wasn’t necessarily planning an event to fall on May 20. But as it turned out, Friday was forecast to be dry and fair, so I took a chance to see who might be able to show up on short notice on a weekday afternoon. Although it was a small group, there was no shortage of enthusiasm.

Last October right before Roosevelt Light Rail Station opened, I sketched its colorful southern entrance. This time I stood at its northern entrance so that I could still include the yellow sculpture that marks the station. Just like the first time, I found the station daunting, and I wished I hadn’t bitten off such a large piece to chew! (Ironically, back in October, I had found a much less-daunting composition and even made a thumbnail to remind myself of it. I liked it better than the larger sketch I had made first. But I didn’t remember until I looked back at the blog post just now and saw it! It’s a better composition, too. OK, next time.)

5/20/22 Roosevelt neighborhood

Feeling a bit cowed by that, I wandered around the station to look for a second sketch, but nothing grabbed me. On an adjacent street, I saw what I thought would make a good composition study, so I pulled out my Field Notes to make a quick thumbnail. Then I found myself interested enough in it that I kept filling in details, and what the heck – the thumbnail turned into a “real” sketch. I like it a lot more than the color sketch I had made first! Hmmm, I’m detecting a pattern.

In any case, I appreciated having other sketchers to share the fun with. I was feeling a bit shy and trepidatious when I went to my first outing, but joining Urban Sketchers has been one of the most rewarding and inspiring decisions I’ve ever made. It’s been a fantastic 10 years, and I hope to continue for many more to come!

Ching, Paul, Sunny and Tina

Sunday, May 22, 2022



5/16/22 Wedgwood on trash day

I’ve noticed a pattern: Whenever I make a composition study and then try to make a full-size, color sketch afterwards of the same composition, I lose steam. It feels like I’ve already made the sketch, and the freshness is gone. It’s a problem that I need to resolve if I want to learn from the obviously valuable tool of making thumbnail studies.

Seeing a potential sketch in the Wedgwood neighborhood, I dutifully started making a composition study first. I observed the values and put in the prominent lines, but then I stopped without filling in the shapes and values. I wondered if that would keep the process fresh enough for me that I could make the “real” sketch.

Indeed, that did seem to do the trick – I still had enough to do that I hadn’t already done in the thumbnail, and that made the sketch fun (at left). When I had finished, though, I realized I hadn’t paid attention to the much-tighter cropping I had done in the thumbnail – even though that was a significant part of observing the composition.

Cropped to match the thumbnail study at left
Much of what Ian Roberts talks about is cropping – doing it tightly enough that unnecessary details are eliminated, which strengthens the value masses and other shapes that lead the eye through a composition. After I got home, I decided to crop my sketch digitally (at right) to match the thumbnail I had originally made. I hate to lose the top of that tree in the background, but I do like that the trash cans are less centered. Cropping more tightly changes the focal point, though: Now it’s all about the trash cans, and that wasn’t my intention. Maybe what I was missing at the (incomplete) thumbnail stage was knowing where I wanted the focal point to be.

Unfinished study

Saturday, May 21, 2022



5/16/22 Green Lake

On my weekly walks around Green Lake with a friend, I see all kinds of sketchable compositions, but when I go there with the intention of sketching, they seem to elude me. I had to pick my way carefully through the grass to avoid the abundance of goose poop to make this study. By the time I finished, I didn’t like the composition enough to make a full-size sketch. I just wasn’t feeling it that day.

Walking back to my car, I spotted a few of the poop producers. Despite my ambivalence toward Canada geese and what they leave behind, I have none about sketching them. They are beautiful birds that move slowly enough to be sketchable. Poop or no, they made my trip to Green Lake worthwhile.

Productive poop machines at Green Lake

Friday, May 20, 2022

Crinkly Tulips


5/15/22 tulips (Neocolor II in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook)

Imagination, composition, color masses, color temperature – I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. I love it all; I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy challenges that require thinking. But sometimes I get tired of thinking.

A week after I had brought home a bouquet of tulips, they had reached my favorite stage: crinkly, curly and fading, but not yet falling apart. All I wanted to do was respond to them with some scribbly color. Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble wax pastels were ideal.

Have I really not yet written a review of Neocolor II? Of all the products I currently use, Neocolor II may be one of my oldest. It goes way back to my mixed-media collage days. Although I don’t use them often, I seem to reach for them intuitively when I’m in a loose mood. Maybe one of these days I’ll take them out for some serious play and write that review.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Faces in Clouds


 I’m a huge fan of David Zinn’s whimsical sidewalk chalk art. He takes “urban sketching” to a new level – down on the pavement on hands and knees! Although I don’t have any intention of drawing on the sidewalk myself, I read his how-to book, The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds, just because I was curious about his process.

The rest of us might see only a broken brick or a weed growing through a pavement crack, but Zinn sees rabbits, pigs or other zany imaginary characters – and uses chalk to bring them to life. Zinn describes what he does as pareidolia – the natural human tendency to perceive a meaningful image in a random or ambiguous pattern.


We all see faces or animals in clouds. One of the exercises in Bert Dodson’s Keys to Drawing with Imagination encourages readers to take advantage of pareidolia by observing clouds more closely, and then drawing what we see in them. (He recommends taking photos of clouds and drawing from them later, but you know me – I think its more fun to draw from life.) Seattle has no shortage of clouds, so I have been trying to be more observant of them – and drawing the images I see.

The exercise reminds me of the fun technique I learned last year during illustrator Alexandra Gabor’s segment of Sketchbook Revival. She taught us to doodle random, closed shapes, which we then turned into the animals, people or whatever we saw in the shapes. Just recently I learned of another similar technique: Make random blobs with watercolor, then draw the animals that the colored blobs evoke.

These are all fun, low-pressure ways of encouraging imaginative drawing because they rely on something that most human brains do naturally without much effort. The drawing part might not come naturally, but at least the seeing and then imagining part does.


After making the sketch at left, I remembered to snap
a photo of the cloud that inspired it. It was changing quickly.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...