Wednesday, November 30, 2022

In the News: Travel Sketching


My sketch made in Amsterdam in 2019.

The Seattle Times recently featured several USk Seattle members, including me, in an article about travel sketching. Although writer Colleen Stinchcombe didn’t relate our sketching experiences directly to urban sketching, I don’t make much distinction between the two. After all, travel sketching is nothing more than urban sketching while away from home. In any case, I was thrilled that one of my sketches from Amsterdam was included.

The print edition was published Nov. 27. You can read the full article online. And of course, my blog has many posts related to my experiences sketching on my travels.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Foggy Thanksgiving Morning


11/24/22 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Thanksgiving morning dawned in a deep fog. As I prepped for the day, I watched it get thicker and thicker. By late morning, the sun was making a valiant effort to burn it off, and I saw a strange effect: I could barely see across the street, yet the fog right in front of the sun must have thinned enough for shadows. Even as I finished the sketch, the fog dissipated, and the rest of the day was clear and bright.

Monday, November 28, 2022

My Take on the Zorn Palette (and Thoughts on Painting)


11/18/22 Neocolor I in Shizen Design journal

I first learned about the Zorn palette from Ching, who has been using it to paint portraits in gouache and oil. Coincidentally, around the same time, a book I was reading mentioned the Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860 - 1920) and his palette, and I became even more curious. Some quick Googling has been the extent of my research so far, but his work warrants further study – and his intriguing limited palette warrants exploration!

In a nutshell, his palette is Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium and Ivory Black, plus white to tint the other colors. (This website has an explanation.) The first three hues function as the primary colors. At first, I couldn’t wrap my head around black as stepping in for blue, but Ivory Black is apparently on the cool side. The mixes would be subdued and earthy, and I could see that the palette could work for portraits, which were Zorn’s main body of work.

Of course, without using liquid paints, I don’t have the benefit of pigments actually mixing and blending. I’m used to working with optical mixing, though, when using colored pencils, so the gears in my head started spinning.

My first two tries were with Caran d’Ache Neocolor I wax pastels (the non-soluble kind) in a red Shizen Design journal. My thought here was that the red paper would serve as an “underpainting.” On the portrait of the blond man (top of post), I didn’t blend at all – I was just getting used to the palette by using black for shading, white for highlights and ochre for hair.

My portrait of the poor younger woman (below) turned into a mess. When I layered black and ochre on the red paper, the result was a ghoulish green! And yet I could see that the red “underpainting” gave a warm glow to her forehead, so maybe my concept was sound.

11/19/22 Neocolor I in Shizen Design journal

Next I used Neocolor II water-soluble wax pastels in my white Hahnemühle watercolor sketchbook so that I could try my hand at wet-mixing of the pigments. (This is the same young woman I abused with ballpoint ink during InkTober; I figured I couldn’t do any worse damage.) Although I gave her a bad case of acne and blotchy skin, I clearly saw the potential for this palette in portraits. Ochre and cadmium red make the basic skin tones, and black would easily darken it.

11/20/22 Neocolor II in Hahnemuhle sketchbook

For the older woman’s portrait, I went back to the red notebook, which has very thin paper. I knew it wouldn’t hold up to much water blending with Neocolor II, but I did it anyway (mostly on the shady-side cheek). Instead of black, I used Payne’s Grey, which has a softer look while still following the basic principle of a cool “black.” Avoiding the ghoulish skin tone this time, I really like the way the red “underpainting” came through (and shows off the white highlights so well).

11/22/22 Neocolor II in Shizen Design journal

Finally, in the last portrait shown here, I used Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles in the same three hues as the previous portrait (with Payne’s Grey instead of black). In my Hahnemühle watercolor sketchbook, I had the option of using water if I wanted to, but after applying the color dry, I preferred the softer look of optical mixing. Maybe next time I’ll try water again and see if I can avoid the blotchy acne look.

11/23/22 Museum Aquarelles in Hahnemuhle sketchbook

Related introspection: Every now and then, someone will ask me when I’m going to start painting. The question assumes two things: That painting must be the end-all, be-all of any art-making endeavor; that all these 11 years of sketching must just be a lead-up to eventually making paintings. (I don’t count the first several years of my sketching life when I used watercolors; I don’t consider those efforts “painting,” as I was simply using watercolor as a coloring agent for ink-drawn sketches). I don’t believe that painting is always the ultimate end result of art-making or that it should be.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been actively studying principles and concepts that I have been learning from painters: composition; color temperature; underpainting; and now the Zorn palette. I think many beginning painters struggle because they are trying to grasp those painting principles while also learning to draw and apply paint – that’s a lot to take in all at once. No wonder so many give up after a few classes.

Although I don’t have much interest in pursuing painting at the moment, someday I might. If and when I do, I’ll be relieved to have practiced a few important painting principles before I ever dipped a brush into paint, and it will be easier to focus on painting techniques instead of principles.

(All reference photos were by Earthsworld.)

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Before and After: Still Eyeballing It

I’m still eyeballing proportions when I sketch portraits, and I may never go back to measuring. Eyeballing is more challenging, but I think I’m learning more by forcing myself not to rely on measurements (which aren’t always surefire anyway). To test how well I’m doing in terms of resemblance, I chose four reference photos that I had drawn from previously with measurements and drew each a second time, this time without measuring. All of the first attempts were made when I was just beginning to practice crosshatching of portraits. (All reference photos by Earthsworld except as noted.)

The set below is satisfying because it shows the biggest improvement. In my first attempt, my result looked nothing like the poor guy – not even a distant relative. In that case, I was trying to exaggerate features, but got bogged down by “realism.” I started to measure, then decided not to measure because I was trying to exaggerate, but I recall an ambivalent, confused, messy process, and it shows in the result. In the second attempt, I got both a better resemblance and a better tonal range from crosshatching.

10/17/22 Bic ballpoint

11/13/22 Bic ballpoint

The set below is interesting because I chose a radically different approach on my second attempt – using only white on black paper. Despite the minimal effect, I think I got a slightly better resemblance, and proportions are more accurate.

10/21/22 Bic ballpoint

11/13/22 white colored pencil

The face of the turbaned man was one of my favorite human reference photos from France Van Stone’s crosshatching courses. Unfortunately, I felt that I hadn’t captured him well, despite the squarely positioned face, which should have made it easier. In my second attempt, I used graphite without measuring. Looking at them side by side, I realize that my first attempt in blobby ballpoint wasn’t so bad after all; in fact, I think it’s a stronger resemblance. Huh.

10/9/22 Bic ballpoint

11/15/22 graphite

Reference photo provided by France Van Stone

When I crosshatched this young man in dreads the first time, I was disappointed by the distortions, despite my careful measurements. The slight turn in his face was difficult for me. In addition, I was bummed that my beginning crosshatching skills didn’t capture the beautiful highlights on his skin. In my second attempt, I’m much happier with the overall approach of using white and black on red paper, but I still didn’t capture his resemblance. Despite that, I think it’s a better portrait because it’s not distorted. If I weren’t looking at the photo reference alongside it, I’d be mostly happy with it.

10/3/22 Bic ballpoint

11/21/22 Neocolor I wax pastels

Reference photo provided by France Van Stone

This last exercise is different from the others in that I had not drawn from this reference photo previously. This is probably one of my most accurate in terms of resemblance without measuring. Again, I really love this approach of white and black on red, which is such an easy, straightforward way to capture shadows and highlights (which I’ve been using ever since I learned the trick years ago with red Field Notes Sweet Tooth books).

11/20/22 Neocolor I wax pastels

Although I’m continuing to study portraiture, I want to move away from focusing too much on resemblance and work more on form and color. To that end, I probably wont show the reference photos as often. It’s hard not to think about resemblance, but I think better resemblance will come over time as I continue honing my eyeballing skills. Even if I get more accurate results by measuring, I’m going to avoid it just to keep pushing myself to observe more closely.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Mini Review: Pentel Fude-Hajime Brush Pen

Pentel Fude-Hajime Brush Pen

Not that I ever need yet another brush pen, but this one sounded a bit different: According to JetPens’ description, the Pentel Fude-Hajime brush pen “features a convenient nylon brush tip that is specially designed for beginners. The nylon tip is both stiffer and shorter than other brush tips, which is designed to be easy to control.” Kind of a brush pen with training wheels.

11/21/22 Pentel Hajime brush pen in Uglybook notebook

Although I don’t really put myself in the “beginner” category for brush pen use, I was curious about a true bristle (“hairy”) brush that could be stiffer and therefore easier to control. I love both bristle and formed-tip (“non-hairy”) brush pens and have used both types for years. The past couple of years, the Uni Pin brush tip has made me lazy by being so easy to use (as well as sturdy under my heavy hand), so it has been my go-to. It was a good time to give the Hajime a try and put a hairy brush pen back into my hand. In fact, it had been so long since I had sketched with a hairy bristle that one with training wheels might not be a bad idea.

As you can see from my sketches, the Hajime offers a good range of line variation. I like the dry-brush effect as only a hairy brush pen can do. But is it stiffer and easier to use than other hairy brush pens? I don’t know about that.

Left: Pentel Hajime; right: Pentel Pocket

I put the Hajime side by side with a Pentel Pocket brush pen, which has long been one of my favorites. The Hajime’s brush is definitely shorter than the Pocket’s, but I don’t feel much difference in the bristles. Perhaps the shorter length makes it slightly easier to control.

The disposable Hajime’s ink is water-soluble, while the Pocket can be refilled with any ink you want (and therefore puts less plastic in the landfill). If you’ve never used a hairy brush pen before, I guess the Hajime is as good a place to start as any. But if you already have and love the Pocket or another similar brush pen, skip the Hajime.

So it’s a perfectly good brush pen – if you consider only the brush. But the deal-breaker for me? The dang cap: It must be turned around before it can be posted! I’ve run into this with a few other Japanese brush pens too, and for the life of me, I cannot see why it would ever be a good idea to break the convention of caps that post the right way! The Japanese are usually so good with product design . . . why, why, why would they do this? Every time I’ve used a brush pen with a cap that posts backwards, at some point, I unconsciously cap it again by trying to jam the end of the cap onto the brush, splaying the bristles and making a mess.

On location when I want everything to be as easy and efficient as possible, having to think about which way the cap posts (and inevitably getting it wrong) makes this pen a stay-at-home.

(We all know how much I love colorful trees in the fall, but I also love bare trees. If you have a brush pen in your hand, they are begging to be drawn.)

Friday, November 25, 2022

Sweet Gums One More Time


11/18/22 Green Lake

My favorite sweet gums at Green Lake are past their prime, but I hadn’t yet sketched them up close (here they are from across the lake, and here from a view that shows only the tallest purplish one). One reason I hadn’t sketched them from the best spot is that the parks department is building a new community boat house nearby, and the construction mess is noisy. The construction trailer was right behind me as I sketched, and the (thankfully temporary) utility poles stand right in the way. Some sketchers would find the ugly poles objectionable and simply leave them out of their sketches. I draws ‘em like I sees ‘em: The poles document the ongoing project.

In any case, this didn’t turn out to be my best sketch of the sweet gums. I had difficulty reserving the white for the poles as I colored and then spritzed the trees. Trying to wipe some errant color from a pole, I inadvertently dragged the tissue through the tree, turning the bright colors into mud. And my scene seems to be lit by more than one sun, based on all the different directions of shadows! HA! Oh, well, we win some, we lose some. Regardless, it was one of the last spectacularly sunny (though cold) days before the more typical rain settled in, and I was happy to stand in the warm sunlight.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Retreat at Green Lake


11/17/22 Retreat, Green Lake neighborhood

In the Before Times, Zoka Coffee had been my favorite wintertime sketching spot for years. Last year after I got vaccinated, I went back eagerly, but somehow, it just didn’t seem the same. Now freshly boostered again, I was ready to get back into coffee shop sketching, and it was time to find a new venue.

Retreat is a newish spot at Green Lake where we enjoyed al fresco lunches or coffee several times during the summer. In the afternoon, it is usually mobbed with the queue overflowing onto the sidewalk. I had noticed on my morning walks, though, that it isn’t crowded at all in the early hours. Compared to Zoka, it’s much larger, it has a more interesting interior, and it also has a very different vibe with a wider range of music genres. I decided to give it a shot last week.

As I’d hoped, it wasn’t crowded, so I had my pick of tables. Unfortunately, I chose a spot that left most patrons backlit against large windows with their faces difficult to see. (Before I left, I cased the joint thoroughly, so I have a better idea now of where to sit next time.) Fueled by good coffee and a decent (but not perfect) blueberry scone (yes, I’m picky about scones), I filled a few pages in my orange Uglybook, trying to get my people-sketching mojo back. Making all those portraits from photos the past couple of months was good practice, but it made me crave sketching people from life all the more. It felt good to be back at it.

Speaking of Uglybooks, the sketch at the top of the page is the first time I opened one up to sketch across the gutter. When I did, I realized that it is only a tiny smidge smaller than an A5 page! Often while sketching at Zoka, I had wished I’d had a toned sketchbook in A5 size so that I could use white pencil or gel pen for the window light. But I knew that as soon as I brought one instead of my usual white sketchbook, I would want the white one (and I had no intention of lugging around two A5 sketchbooks). Now that a color Uglybook is a daily-carry, it gives me the option of toned paper that is nearly as large as an A5. Sweet! Uglybooks are becoming more versatile every day.

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Nordic Museum Interior


11/16/22 National Nordic Museum

We’ve visited the National Nordic Museum several times since it reopened in 2018, and we always enjoy both the exhibits and the café. Since I’ve already sketched many of the more sketchable artifacts, this time I focused on the building’s interior. The distinctive, modern architecture includes walls that slant at unexpected angles and polished, reflective floors. The upper-level exhibits are on two sides of the building connected by bridges. It’s all confusing and challenging, but it helped to keep the studies small. I had fun with the tall, skinny compositions.

Sketching interior views like these hasn’t always been of interest, but my 30-day challenge in studying compositions with IanRoberts’ concepts opened my brain to new ways of seeing. Now I find myself looking for compositions everywhere without consciously making that my goal.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Whimsy! Caran d’Ache Colour Treasure Maxi Graphite Pencils


Caran d'Ache Colour Treasure Maxi graphite pencils

When Caran d’Ache announced its Wonder Forest holiday collection in 2021, of course the limited-edition Prismalo bicolor set got my full attention, but none of the other products in the collection interested me much. The two model-849 ballpoint pens were OK, and the lovely forest green Sharpening Machine would have been nice if it didn’t leave bite marks on pencil barrels. Fortunately for my purse, nothing tempted me.

This year, however, is a different story. Caran d’Ache’s holiday Colour Treasure collection not only includes a new Prismalo bicolor pencil set; it also includes a set of Maxi graphite pencils. With ballpoint pens usually dominating the Swiss company’s gift offerings, pencils are getting equal billing this year. Until recently, I wasn’t enamored with Cd’A graphite, but I’ve lately had better experiences, so I grabbed the Maxis.

The shiny, metallic gold tin is identical to the one containing the bicolors set.

The design of the five HB-grade graphite pencils is similar to the Klein Blue graphite Maxi (which I reviewed last year at
the Well-Appointed Desk). The jumbo-size barrel has the same lovely matte finish and slightly convex, uncovered end. While the Caran d’Ache/Klein Blue co-branding was printed in white, Colour Treasure Maxi pencils have a gold embossed Cd’A logo befitting holiday cheer.

Top: new Colour Treasure Maxi; bottom: Caran d'Ache/Klein Blue collaboration

A slightly convex, unfinished finish

I was tickled to see that, coming from a company that gives the impression of being somewhat formal (some would say stuffy), each Colour Treasure Maxi pencil displays a whimsical expression.


Comparing each with the Klein Blue, I found the HB graphite to be the same (see my review at the previous link to learn more about that). It’s a thick 5mm core, and the chunky barrel is comfortable to write and draw with. I love the feeling of the matte finish in my hand.

11/15/22 Colour Treasure Maxi HB pencil in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook

Of course, I would have preferred something softer, but as I learned with Cd’A Grafwood pencils last summer, sometimes a pencil just needs to be paired with the right paper. Grafwood, which is too “slippery” for my taste on smooth paper that I would normally prefer with graphite, feels beautiful on velvety Stonehenge Lenox Cotton. With the Maxi, I tried Stillman & Birn Alpha, which has a slightly coarser tooth than Lenox Cotton. I think I prefer Lenox, but I’m on the right track to stay with toothy paper. I prefer Caran d’Ache graphite when it has something to grab.

These fun, colorful Maxis are good drawing pencils – but the bad news comes from the back end. I initially noticed that the factory sharpening revealed slanted collar tops (where the graphite meets the wood) – usually a sign of off-center cores. The bare ends tell the full story.

Slanted collar tops

Three of five cores are clearly off-center, and one is a bit off-center.

I have never seen any off-center cores on Cd’A’s high-end colored or graphite pencils. Maybe these holiday Maxis are considered novelty and not high end, but at this price (five for €24 at Penworld), it’s disappointing to find anything but perfectly centered cores.

OK, I’ll forgive you this time, Caran d’Ache, but only because the Maxis are lovely and also fun.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Wallingford Center: For the Hardy, Hardcore or Cozy

11/19/22 Wallingford Center behind trees

Located inside the restored Interlake Public School building, Wallingford Center is a spacious retail and business venue that was originally built in 1908. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s an ideal winter meetup location for USk Seattle because it offers shelter if the weather is bad and an old surrounding neighborhood if the weather is hospitable. On a brilliantly sunny but cold Saturday, a strong turnout of urban sketchers bundled up for the morning, though I must say that not many were hardy (or hardcore) enough to sketch outdoors.

Taekwondo Institute building
Chilled the whole time, even while standing in the sun, I’m not sure I qualify as hardy, so I must be hardcore. I started out with a sketch of an old building at the corner of North 45th and Burke Avenue North, which is currently the home of the Taikwondo Institute (at right). The building is actually blue and yellow, neither of which I have in my secondary triad palette, so I looked at it as a study in cool and warm by using dark violet and orange.

Needing to warm up, I went inside Wallingford Center, where the majority of sketchers had smartly and comfortably settled in. I think some of the center’s boutique shops didn’t survive the pandemic; I saw several shuttered spots and not many shoppers. In fact, I saw almost no one besides sketchers! At the end of one corridor, I found a beautiful, quarter-round-shaped window in the wall between the main hall and a stairwell. It was just the kind of thing I like to take on with a small value study.

Inside Wallingford Center

After that short break, I put my down parka and gloves back on to venture outdoors for one more sketch. The entrance of Wallingford Center with columns was mostly in shade, but from across the street, I got a good view of the airy, orange tree in front (top of post). I wanted to be sure to get the open panel truck, so I put that in first, and sure enough, it drove off shortly thereafter.

The hardy...

... and the cozy!

Not exactly mobbed with shoppers.

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