Monday, August 15, 2022

Old Favorites at the Olympic Sculpture Park


8/13/22 Calder's Eagle framing the Needle
After the blistering heat of the previous outing, USk Seattle lucked out on Saturday – a mostly sunny morning with temps in the mid-70s! Although we’ve met at the Olympic Sculpture Park several times, and I’ve also sketched there on my own, the group hadn’t met at the park in five years (the last time was part of our Pity Party Weekend after the Vancouver, B.C., West Coast Sketch Crawl was cancelled). I was happy to get back there again, especially on such a perfect morning.

I was so happy, in fact, that I made no attempt to resist the cliché image every photographer likes to capture at the park: the Space Needle under the legs of Alexander Calder’s vermilion Eagle. Nine years ago, I made a nearly identical composition, and when I looked back at it, I realized how much the surrounding trees had grown. The first time I had sketched it, most of the Needle’s body was visible; this time, I barely framed its head.

Richard Serra’s Wake, another work that I have sketched before, called to me again. The series of gracefully curved monoliths needs people nearby to show their scale, and David sketching it conveniently gave me just that.

David sketching Serra's Wake

Leading up to and between those two sketches, I made a couple of other small sketches. One was a study for a full view of The Eagle that I decided was better as a thumbnail. The other was of Roxy Paine’s Split, which is one of several works at the park that I have avoided. It’s a shiny, metallic, realistically shaped tree that, in a sketch, can look just like an actual tree – I don’t really know how to draw it so that it’s obviously an artwork. I tried a small composition in black and white that probably looks like an ordinary tree.

Paine's Split
Calder's Eagle

The trip downtown was an opportunity to sketch more than sculptures – people! I caught several light rail commuters and even yoga students at the park participating in the largest class I had ever seen. Still rusty from the pandemic, my people-sketching skills needed the practice. 

Link light rail commuter
Link light rail commuter

Link light rail commuter

Link light rail commuter
(the only one besides me who wore a mask)

Link light rail commuter

Yoga students

One of our biggest turnouts ever!

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Maple Frame


8/9/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood

One of the sections in the book Spotlight on Nature that inspired me most was related to the role nature plays in any urban composition. For me, the most important natural element is trees. Thankfully, they are everywhere in the urban environment (and I hope that remains true). Just like cars, they are unavoidable, so I may as well use them, whether or not they are a key element in a composition.

An idea mentioned and shown in the book was to use a tree as a framing device, and now I look for tree frames whenever I take walks.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Kona Kitchen


8/8/22 Kona Kitchen in Maple Leaf

One of our favorite neighborhood restaurants is Kona Kitchen. Just a few blocks from home, it was an easy takeout meal (my favorite is Hawaiian-style fried rice with scrambled eggs on top) in the Before Times and continues to be After. In fact, in the early months of the pandemic, we learned that both the owner and her husband had died of COVID, and we tried to patronize the family-owned restaurant even more after that. Even though we didn’t know them personally, their deaths felt personal: They were among the first of many people we were somehow connected with (if only peripherally, like this couple) that would eventually perish of COVID.

Across the street from Kona is Café Javasti, which makes some of the best scones in town. I usually get things to go, however, because they have only a couple of small outdoor tables. Walking by the other day, I saw an open table, which gave me an opportunity to finally sketch Kona Kitchen.

I wasn’t thinking about it at all when I decided to stop there, but the Beya Rebaï -inspired palette I’m using turned out to be a good fit! Kona’s colors are blue and orange with brown “thatched” awnings that evoke the Hawaiian theme.

The palette’s pastel tints are teaching me an interesting way to convey low-contrast values. The Kona building is white, and on that bright morning, it was almost equally lighted on both sides of the corner – a frustrating lighting situation for sketching a building (and of course that situation also happens on overcast days). Using the cast shadows as a guide, I figured out the side that was a little less lighted (though it was difficult to see any contrast). I colored both sides with Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle’s Apricot (041) but activated it only on the slightly less lighted side. Keeping a pale tint of a warm color and a cool color in my kit would be handy for this purpose (which comes up relatively often).

Friday, August 12, 2022

Alien Palette


8/7/22 A house behind ours

Trying to stay cool during our second (shorter) heatwave of the summer, I went out on our breezy back deck again (above). Although I keep saying there’s nothing back there to sketch, I somehow manage to come away with something every time, don’t I? I’m not saying it’s a gorgeous work, but if I put some color on the page, that’s good enough for me.

In this case, the color is the alien palette in Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles that I’ve been trying, inspired by Beya Rebaï's Neocolor II sets. Discovering that the palette I had picked out lacked a good blending yellow, I added Olive Yellow (015), which is the closest I could find to Rebaï’s Chinese Green (730) in Neocolor II. It sufficiently warmed up minty Beryl Green (214) for foliage. I do like Prussian Blue (159) for deep shadows and have used it before, though typically in the winter, not the dog days of summer (which, according to the Romans, are led by Sirius rising with the sun, and “the heat from the two stars combined is what made these days the hottest of the year, a period that could bring fever or even catastrophe.” Curious about that expression, I finally looked it up).

Starting to sweat on the deck, I went upstairs and turned on the AC in my studio, but I wanted to continue playing with this palette. Through the window, I noticed that our neighbors had put up several umbrellas to keep the heat away from their southern windows, which gave my sketch a few spots of color. I usually see the Seattle sky as a relatively cool blue, but on this hot afternoon it looked warmer than usual. Turquoise Blue (171) felt right (below).

With an unfamiliar palette on this overly familiar scene, I ended up using all the colors except Vermilion – probably too many colors for a small composition and more than I would typically use. I have to remind myself of the old adage: Just because the colors are in my palette doesn’t mean I have to use them. (It’s not an adage? It should be.)

8/7/22 Familiar view, unfamiliar colors

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Angel Spectators


8/13/22 Maple Leaf Park

While the rest of the city rejoiced the return of the Blue Angels after a two-year COVID hiatus, my attitude was bah-humbug. Call me jaded: I grew up on Lake Washington, hearing the roar of hydroplanes and seeing the Angels fly past my face from our back deck. Driving through summer-weekend traffic to bake in the sun for hours to get a good viewing spot doesn’t appeal to me much.

Greg still enjoys seeing them, though, so we lazily walked the few blocks to Maple Leaf Park, where the Angels were visible as tiny dots with contrails. The last time we did that was in 2018 on a much cooler day that had attracted a small neighborhood crowd. Last Saturday afternoon the temperature was in the low 80s with no shade anywhere. Although the center of the park was busy with a large volleyball tournament, the south end where the jets could be seen attracted only a half-dozen or so. Curmudgeon that I am, I was more pleased to see Her Majesty quietly in the background.

I prefer to sketch Mt. Rainier from the north end of the park, where the view is unobstructed by trees, and I also prefer the morning light. But in any light and from any direction, Her Majesty is grand.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Lake City Potato


8/5/22 Lake City

On Lake City Way where the major arterial is divided, a sculpture sits in the middle of the divide near Northeast 123rd. I always call it “the baked potato” (with a knife going through it), but every time I’ve tried to find its actual name or artist, I’ve come up empty. (I searched again before writing this post, but I struck out again.) When Greg had a quick errand nearby, it was a good opportunity to finally sketch it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Museum Aquarelles Inspired by Rebaï Palette


8/4/22 University Village

As I concluded in my review of Caran d’Ache Neocolor II, the water-soluble waxed pastels will unlikely become a go-to urban sketching material. However, illustrator Beya Rebaï’s palette, the basis for the limited-edition sets, is so far off from my usual palette that I became intrigued trying to use it. It’s worth further exploration – but with my beloved Cd’A Museum Aquarelle pencils! 

I had never compared the Neocolor color line with Museum Aquarelles, but since they are both made by Caran d’Ache, I assumed I’d find most colors to overlap. I was surprised that this was not the case. Of the 20 colors in Rebaï’s warm and cool sets, I could find only seven overlapping with Museum Aquarelles (and several of those are significantly different in hue or intensity, though they share the same numbers).

On the swatch page below, I picked out all the Museum Aquarelles that matched Rebaï’s Neocolor palette (marked with *) and added others that are not part of the palette but look like they could be. Then I chose four warms and four cools to use (circled). My selections are the lower-key hues that are closer to the way I use color while still staying true to her palette.

Four warms and four cools inspired by Rebaï’s palette

On the first drizzly day in weeks, I found a great sheltered area at U Village from which to sketch umbrella’d tables. The palette worked well for the umbrellas and large tree trunk, which required mixing several colors into a dark, interesting neutral. But then it was time to mix colors for the foliage, and the only green was the minty, non-natural-looking Beryl Green (214) (which was perfect for the umbrellas). I tried mixing Prussian Blue (159) with Apricot (041), the closest I had to yellow, but the result was still too close to the synthetic green of the umbrellas. I might have to pull in a yellow from my normal palette.

Its going to take some practice to use this palette, but I like it for summer. I’m also happy that it keeps me from using my comfortable default colors. We’ll see how long I stay with it before I start drifting back to my own palette.

Even more than favorite tools or media, I think we all have a color comfort zone that’s difficult to push out of. Learning to use a new tool or media is a matter of practice, but favorite colors are much more idiosyncratic and emotional. When I found the Museum Aquarelle pencils in Rebaï’s palette, several had not yet been sharpened past the factory sharpening, which shows how little I had used those colors. It’s a fascinating exercise to deliberately use colors I’m not typically attracted to!

Monday, August 8, 2022

Review: Caran d’Ache Neocolor II (Beya Rebaï Limited Edition Sets)


Limited-edition Beya Rabaï sets of Neocolor II

A few months ago when I was loosely sketching some tulips with Caran d’Ache Neocolor II crayons, I realized that I had not yet written a review of these water-soluble wax pastels. I suppose it’s because I don’t use them on location unless the location happens to be my own backyard. They are more fiddly to hold and look for in my bag compared to pencils, and I’d rather be seated at a table so that I can spread them out easily. In addition, the soft, chunky sticks are better used with a sketchbook larger than I like to carry. It means that I don’t use them often, even though I do love them. In fact, they are probably one of my oldest art materials that I still use, going all the way back to my abstract, mixed-media collage days more than 12 years ago.

(Please note that in this review I’m referring to water-soluble Neocolor II, not non-soluble Neocolor I, which I began playing with earlier this year. I wish Caran d’Ache would come up with more distinctive product names to distinguish between these lines! I bet there’s a lot of confusion at stores.)

Cold set and warm set

With that long history, it’s funny how I seem to “rediscover” Neocolor IIs every year or so. A product review is long overdue. What prompted me to finally write one was the recent release of two limited edition sets in collaboration with the French illustrator Beya Rebaï. According to Caran d’Ache’s website, “The artist and Caran d’Ache have joined forces to dream up two assortments of 10 Neocolor® II Aquarelle pastels. One in cold shades, playing on a range of blues, greens and pinks. The other in warmer tones with a range of yellows, oranges and umber. Two original palettes consisting of the artist’s favourite colours.”

I adore this wrapping paper and stickers from Papeterie! 

If I’d had a normal amount of patience, I would have waited to get the sets at Blick. Lacking that, I opted to order them from Germany before they were available in the US. (Surprisingly, though, I paid about the same as I would have at Blick for the products and even the shipping because the latter has gone through the roof lately [except when Blick occasionally offers free shipping deals]). The benefit of ordering from Papeterie in Berlin is that the sets came wrapped in lovely Cd’A-branded paper and adorable stickers! (Yes, I’m a Caran d’Ache fan, but I also appreciate shops that give customers a nice hand-wrapped touch like that.)

Sleeve slides off to reveal the classic red Caran d'Ache tin.

While the tin sleeves indicate that they are limited editions, the tins themselves are the same iconic red used to hold the Wonder Forest Bicolor set and other products in Caran d’Ache’s “professional” product line (Supracolor, Pablo, Neocolor I, Neocolor II, gouache, Fibralo markers, Fibralo brush tip markers). I always find it amusing that even when the tin contains brush markers or gouache, the white icon on it represents hexagonal pencils – likely alluding to Caran d’Ache bringing the first water-soluble colored pencils to the world in the form of the Prismalo line in 1931.

So what’s special about these Beya Rebaï sets? Are the colors themselves new or different from the regular Neocolor II line? No – they appear in standard Neocolor II sets and can be purchased open stock. As is my habit with most of my higher-end colored pencils, I have acquired lots of Neocolor IIs open stock over the years, but I’d never purchased a set of any size. These were a good excuse to finally have some tinned sets.

I was also attracted to Beya Rebaï’s selected palettes, both “cold” and warm. All those pastel peaches and pale blues – they are not part of my usual palette all, nor are they much of an urban sketching palette (except maybe in Italy’s Cinque Terre or Positano!). In addition, I was intrigued that the cool set included a pink and a red-orange that I would have put into the warm set. Clearly, they are intended as lovely complements to the cooler hues. I thought it would be fun and challenging to use a palette so different from my own.

Swatches in Stillman & Birn Beta

Swatches in Stillman & Birn Nova

The top swatches were made in a Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook. I also made swatches in a black S&B Nova sketchbook to see how opaque the colors are. I love the way the paler colors pop on black. As expected, however, they tend to become less intense and dull on the dark background when activated with water. Although richly pigmented, compared to Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, they don’t dissolve as easily and require a bit more scrubbing.

These limited-edition sets also come with access to two 30-minute online videos of Rebaï demo-ing a few techniques using Neocolor IIs and explaining inspiration for her palettes.

5/12/22 No wimpiness allowed.

One thing I love about Neocolor wax pastels (both insoluble and water-soluble) is that they demand boldness. Unlike colored pencils, which can be used very delicately, it’s almost impossible to lay down lipsticky, crayony, water-soluble wax pastels and be timid about it. You can’t be wimpy with these bad boys, even if you want to. Even after years of using colored pencils, I can still succumb to wimpiness. Putting Neocolors in my hand is a good shove in the bold direction that I can always use. They also encourage looseness, which is another benefit to me.

On the first overcast morning after our heatwave broke, it was cool enough to sketch from my car. As I mentioned, the Neocolors are a bit cumbersome to handle while standing, so using my mobile studio was a convenient solution. Driving around Northgate after an errand, seeing nothing that seemed appropriate for those cotton candy-like, summery tints, I realized that it’s just a matter of seeing the palette as a range of cools and warms instead of specific hues. A-ha – color temperature to the rescue! It immediately became less intimidating to use an unfamiliar palette that someone else had picked out for me.

The Neocolor IIs are in plastic bags to keep them
from sliding down into the Sendak pockets. Not ideal,
but tolerable in my mobile studio.

But how’s this for weird? I happened to pull into Northgate Plaza, a typically blah strip mall, and the Rockler Woodworking store had a peach and blue color scheme! So my first sketch with the palette turned out to be a no-brainer (though I forgot to note which colors I used, I think they were mostly English Red ([063], Saumon Rose [071], Light Blue [161], Prussian Blue [159] and Dark Green [229]). I thought my A5-size Hahnemühle sketchbook would be a bit cramped for these chunky sticks, but I made it work. 

8/2/22 Neocolor II in Hahnemuhle sketchbook, Northgate Plaza (which serendipitously coordinates well with the palette)

The sun came out in the afternoon, so I took the Neocolor IIs to Evergreen Washelli cemetery (
8/2/22 Neocolor II in Hahnemuhle sketchbook
I showed this sketch yesterday and wrote about what I learned about the interesting shape of this monument). I love that bright yellow (called Chinese Green [730]) for the sunny side of blue-green foliage made with a combination of Malachite Green (180) and Dark Green (229). The monument is off-white, which is something I would typically leave paper white. With this palette, however, I tried Sahara Yellow (521) for the sunny side and a mix of one of the peaches and one of the blues (I forgot to note which) for the shaded side. It’s fun and challenging to push myself to use unfamiliar hues and mixes this way.

Standing in a cemetery path to sketch this, however, I found the wax pastels clumsy to use, as I expected. The tins are altogether unwieldy while standing, and the crayons are too short to fit in the slots of my Sendak. I carried them in Ziploc bags, which required tedious fumbling. (If I decide to use these more in the field, I’d definitely need to come up with a better carrying and usage solution.)

Intrigued by the palette but still experimenting with how to approach it, this thought suddenly popped into my head: What kinds of primary triads could I find? Clearly, I wouldn’t find a CMYK in there, but with a stretch of interpretation, there’s certainly one (or more) triads to be found. Below are two I mixed. In both cases, for yellow, I used Chinese Green (730), and for red, Vermillion (060). The only variable is the blue – Malachite Green (180) in the top trio and Prussian Blue (159) in the lower.

Two primary triads from the Rebaï palette

Neither triad mixes a violet, but the grays/browns that result from the red/blue mixtures are interesting neutrals. I preferred the green that came out of the top combo, so I decided to focus on that triad for my next sketch. Sipping an iced latte at Green Lake’s Retreat Coffee, where I had a table to make handling the Neocolors easier, I looked up and saw an intriguing shadow and composition across the street (below). This odd triad is hardly recognizable as a primary one, but once again, I let color temperature be my guide. The buildings were slightly warmer than the street shadows, and I like the contrast against the bright yet cool trees.

I know that some sketchers enjoy using color “recipes” that other artists develop, and many seem to find this easier than working out their own palettes. I suppose my recent explorations of the CMYK-based triad is the closest I’ve come to a “recipe,” but that still requires interpreting hues that can vary widely. In general, I’ve spent so much time exploring and honing my own idiosyncratic palette that it’s actually strange and more challenging to use a store-bought palette – but fun to explore, nonetheless.

From my previous experiences using Neocolor IIs combined with Museum Aquarelle pencils, I’ve discovered that they don’t necessarily mix as well as I had imagined, even though they are similarly high in pigment. If pencils are applied first, wax pastels will layer over them easily, but not vice versa. Neocolor IIs leave behind enough of a waxy surface that pencils seem to slip and slide over it. I do appreciate how easy and efficient it is to color large areas quickly with the Neocolors, and pencils can be used for finer details. It just takes a bit of planning so that they don’t fight each other.

8/3/22 Green Lake (Neocolor II in Hahnemuhle sketchbook)

Neocolors are easy to use when I have a cafe table!

As much as I still love Neocolor IIs (and surely intend to keep using them in studio), I don’t love them more than my Museum Aquarelles and the convenient versatility of pencils, at least for sketching on location. I’m unlikely to keep them in my daily-carry bag. Beya Rebaï’s intriguing palette, on the other hand, is worth further exploration – but not with Neocolors. What am I up to? I’m sure you can guess. 😉 Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Russian Veterans Monument

8/2/22 Russian Veterans monument, Evergreen Washelli cemetery

With a bit of time to kill, I decided to do my sketchwaiting at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery, where I’ve sketched many times. It has a number of interesting monuments, including this white pyramid-shaped one near the memorial park’s northeast entrance. I didn’t know anything about this until I had posted the sketch in the Urban Sketchers Seattle Facebook group, where a member gave me enough information that I could begin researching it. I couldn’t find much detail, but I was able to confirm that it’s a Russian Veterans monument.

The member had also mentioned that its shape is reminiscent of pasha (or paskha), which is an Eastern European molded dessert made of cottage cheese, cream, almonds and currants and traditionally made for Easter. According to Wikipedia:

Cheese paskha is a traditional Easter dish made from quark (curd cheese, Russian: творогtr. tvorog),[1] which is white, symbolizing the purity of Christ, the Paschal Lamb, and the joy of the Resurrection. It is formed in a mold, traditionally in the shape of a truncated pyramid which symbolizes the first Passover in Egypt, a nod to Christianity's early Jewish beginnings and a reminder that the Last Supper of Jesus was a Passover Seder. Others believe the pyramid is a symbol of the Trinity.

This is one of the best benefits of urban sketching, especially somewhere historical like a cemetery: I often learn something!

Material and color notes: If this looks like an unusual palette for me, you’re right! The material I used is also unusual for me, at least for urban sketching: water-soluble wax pastels. More on both the palette and the material coming tomorrow. (My Instagram followers got a teaser a few days ago.)

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Not My Thing


7/22/22 Green Lake neighborhood

I was sketching on one end of an alley when a young man came out of his nearby house. It was the same neighbor who had come out to see what I was doing a couple of months ago because he thought I was the one who had called the police.

“Would you draw my house if I paid you, like, $20?” he asked me. “Or is that not your thing? Because I totally respect that if it’s not.” I smiled and said it wasn’t really my thing, and he happily wished me well.

7/27/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood

That same morning, I had a different type of interaction: I was just finishing up my sketch of the LimeBike scooter and was about to take a photo when a man arrived. Giving me a vicious stink eye, he tapped something on his smartphone and rode away.

Almost all urban sketchers have stories about ways in which they’ve engaged with passers-by. Those were two of mine. It beats sketching alone in my studio any day.

7/22/22 Green Lake

7/27/22 Maple Leaf alley (where I was offered the commission)

7/27/22 Downtown Seattle from Maple Leaf

8/1/22 Hazy Mt. Rainier from the 5th NE I-5 overpass

8/1/22 Seattle Formosan Christian Church, Maple Leaf 

8/1/22 Green Lake

8/1/22 Green Lake

Friday, August 5, 2022

Sweltering Arboretum

7/30/22 Arboretum

For our last graphite class with Kristin Frost, we met again at the Arboretum. Unlike the comfortable first time, however, the temperature was 90 degrees by afternoon. I was tempted to skip it, but with plenty of huge shade trees, the Arboretum seemed tolerable.

We found a heavily shaded spot at the Woodland Garden pond that kept us relatively cool. Dense with younger trees and foliage, the area was daunting to find a composition to draw. Not wanting to fry my brain more crisply than it already was, I chose a small scope where a slender tree’s branches formed an intriguing silhouetted frame for the surrounding foliage. I knew the branches would be easy enough to complete at home, so I focused on the challenging background during class. When I asked for feedback, Kristin suggested ways to evoke the density and depth of different kinds of foliage without getting trapped by trying to draw each leaf. I was too busy sweating and staying hydrated to get much done at the park, but I made a small patch of foliage as a memo to myself.

The next day I finished the small drawing at home. Although I had taken reference photos, I didn’t need to use them much – I had done most of the hard work on location, and all I had to do was darken the values and finish the foliage in the same way that I had done the patch on location.

Despite the heat, I’m glad I stuck the class out. With Kristin’s helpful feedback and instructive demos, I feel more confident now that I can tackle challenging subject matter like thick layers of foliage as well as portraits of individual trees.

Material notes: For this class, I chose Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils, which are favorites of both Kristin’s and Suzanne Brooker’s (whose graphite class I took five years ago) but have never been mine. Much harder than Japanese pencils, they are also less smooth and sometimes have gritty spots. But as I’ve discovered with other pencils I previously haven’t cared for, on Stonehenge Lenox Cotton, the Staedtlers feel much more pleasant to use, and the paper’s light tooth retains and layers graphite beautifully. Using all my less-favored pencils for this class has taught me an important lesson: If I don’t like a particular pencil, I need to try it with a variety of papers. It might just be that I haven’t found the right partner for it.

As for Lenox Cotton, it’s now my favorite graphite and colored pencil paper, for sure! I haven’t yet used a pencil with it that has been disagreeable.

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