Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Cyan Sky


3/18/23 Gas Works Park

I’ve been grumbling for months that we’ve had the longest winter ever (and tree experts say our cherry blossom season will begin weeks later than usual). On St. Patrick’s Day, The Seattle Times confirmed it: The temperature finally hit 60 degrees for the first time in 147 days! Then Saturday it got up to a sweltering 63 with “the bluest skies you’ve ever seen.”

We took the top down and headed for Gas Works Park, where it looked like mid-July, based on all the shorts and T-shirts we saw. This probably isn’t the best composition I’ve made at the park, but sometimes the main focal point must be the cloudless, cyan sky.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Jump Start


3/16/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Driving home from an early appointment, I stopped in a part of the neighborhood where I rarely walk. It was still chilly (frost was on the windshields and rooftops yet again), but at least the sunshine was bright. Instead of picking a sun-lit view, I faced the sun so that I could get these fantastic tree shadows coming toward me (at left).

Unfortunately, I got so excited about the sunshine that I didn’t realize I had left my headlights on (it wasn’t the first time I’d done that while sketching, but it had been a decade since the last time, so that’s not too bad). After our roadside assistance service gave me a jump start, I was told to drive around or leave the engine running for at least 15 minutes. Easy enough: I found another pair of beautifully backlit trees (below, sketched with the engine running).

3/16/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

3/15/23 Green Lake

The previous day, I had spotted a tree at Green Lake that was not a conifer but nonetheless was not deciduous, either: I’ve seen it wearing dark green foliage year-round. (I made a note to self to try to identify it.) I started out using my winter secondary triad as usual, but the sun was dipping in and out of clouds, and I wanted to capture that sudden crown of light (at right). Orange just didn’t seem bright enough, so I stepped outside the triad with yellow. (Holy cow, Tina broke her own color rules! There’s hope for her yet!)

I am well over halfway done in the first week of my 30 Trees in 30 Days challenge. Maybe I should have made the challenge for a hundred trees after all!

3/15/23 Green Lake neighborhood

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Chilly Lessons

3/12/23 My latest class palette

 Week 4’s lessons in Kathleen Moore’s Winter Sketchbook class were a mixed bag of fun and frustration. Per Kathleen’s suggestion, I looked for Burnt Sienna in my stash, but the closest I found was Quinacridone Sienna. It’s a bit more intense than its burnt counterpart, but it mixes well with French Ultramarine to make a wide range of grays and browns, so I think it will do the job. I also added a few other paints to my palette: Cobalt, Phthalo Turquoise and Veridian (the latter was also Kathleen’s suggestion for Pacific Northwest fir trees).

Using watercolors is an ongoing struggle – getting the color mixes I want, controlling the intensity, and acting fast enough before they dry. The icicle assignment is the result of all three frustrations.

3/13/23 watercolor and Posca paint marker

The assignment to paint water drops on leaves was a fun challenge because I’ve never tried sketching water drops before. I don’t think they are very convincing, though. I touched up a few shadows with watercolor pencils where I didn’t feel they were dark enough. In No. 2, I used a
Posca paint marker (which Kathleen likes to use for any small areas of white) for the highlight, but it hardly shows here; the paint became slightly translucent instead of opaque. In the other tries, I simply left the white of the paper for the highlights, which I prefer in appearance.

3/13/23 watercolor, watercolor pencil, Posca paint marker

The water drop exercise was also a good lesson in lifting: The green backgrounds were painted first, then the oval shapes lifted out quickly before drying. Slightly more intense color was then painted inside the water drop again. I used Manganese Blue in all but No. 3, where I used French Ultramarine. Ultramarine was much harder to lift out.

The snowflakes were fun: First I painted a splotchy blue background. Then, for the smaller snowflakes, I tried using the Posca marker again. I like the result, but I’m not a fan of the Posca: It tends to flow unevenly and requires constant priming and shaking to keep the white paint opaque. For the largest snowflake, I used a tiny paint brush and white gouache. I enjoyed that one more – the tiny brush was easier to wield than the finicky Posca.

3/13/23 watercolor, Posca paint marker, gouache

Overall, I did not at all engage with the reference photos (randomly sought from the Internet). I know it would have been difficult to sketch water drops and icicles from life (you would have heard me complaining about different things then), and the snowflakes would have been impossible. Nonetheless, I would have much preferred sketching actual natural materials in the studio, like the moss and rosehips from the first week.

Another frustration has nothing to do with the class: I’m over winter, and I’m over snow and ice! Maybe I’ll move on to spring subjects and see if anyone in my class notices. 😉

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Book Review: Exploring Color Workshop


Exploring Color Workshop by Nita Leland 
(All the Post-its tell me that it's time to buy my own copy!)

When I first began sketching, using color seemed easy because I applied it the way I would in a coloring book: Draw the outlines of the shapes I saw, then color them in with hues that matched “reality” as closely as possible. But the more I studied and eventually understood values, the more confusing color became. In fact, I became downright flummoxed and intimidated by color.

In recent years, I’ve made a conscious effort to learn how to use color in support of values – not just coloring in shapes. I still struggle constantly, but studying concepts like color temperature, especially in Sarah Bixler’s workshop more than a year ago, helped me to understand color and values in a whole different way.

Around the same time, I started experimenting with limited palettes, especially CMY-based primary triads and secondary triads, which again changed my perspective of how colors can be used in a more cohesive, harmonious way. In addition to giving me intriguing mixes to play with, such limited palettes encourage me to be less literal with color (Notice all my purple trees lately? And green faces?).

All of that is lengthy preamble for what must be obvious: I’ve become increasingly fascinated with learning how to use color in dynamic ways. Going through every book in the library on the subject, I’ve found the best of the bunch so far to be Exploring Color Workshop (30th Anniversary Edition) by Nita Leland. A long-time writer for North Light Books, Leland has published numerous titles on the topic of color. Originally published in 1980, Exploring Color Workshop was revised in 2016 with new exercises and lessons. Another update is information and discussion of “modern pigments” – the ones that make CMY triads!

A demo of using different variations of primary triads to paint the same scene.

Showing how toned supports and underpainting affect the final hues, temperature contrasts, limited palettes, triads based on both traditional and modern pigments – everything I love is here, plus lots that I didn’t know I loved until I saw it!

Examples of analogous color scheme

Going far beyond basic color theory and color wheels, Exploring Color Workshop shows contemporary art works (and references master works that can be easily found online) that use a monochromatic scheme, for example, or a high-key modern palette. Although I understand those words, it’s hard for me to picture a “high-key modern palette” just by looking at a color wheel, but the painting shown on the page makes it instantly clear.

Example of strong contrasts in color intensity

The “workshop” part of the book consists of 89 exercises to further understand concepts. The author encourages creating a color journal specifically for the purpose of studying color, storing results and notes from the exercises, and ultimately documenting the development of a personal palette. I experiment with palettes all the time, yet I tend to make the mixes and notes next to sketches or in random sketchbooks, so it’s hard to find them again. (In fact, one reason I post my palettes here on my blog is so that I can refer to them!) As soon as I read this idea, I decided to start keeping a dedicated color journal that would serve much better as a reference tool than my current methods.

A demo on using an underpainting to unify a color palette

Although the primary audience is obviously painters, the author addresses artists of all kinds of media, including collage and fiber, so most of the exercises can be done without mixing liquid paints – for example, dry media or magazine cut-outs could be used. I think I could use colored pencils for almost all exercises and still get the concepts.

A self-portrait demo that begins with darks

Another significant part of the book are the stepped-out demonstrations by the author, usually in the form of paintings or sketches, to illustrate concepts.

For diehard color geeks, the book also includes reference tables of ASTM pigment names and their color index numbers. More useful to me are charts comparing various characteristics of pigments, such as staining and granulation tendencies.

After my first pass, my library copy was bristling with Post-its on pages that I need to study further. That’s usually a sign that I might as well buy my own copy, which I did.

Friday, March 17, 2023

30 Trees in 30 Days

3/14/23 Green Lake

During the One Week 100 People challenge when I was also sketching lots of trees for Kathleen Moore’s class, I quipped that perhaps I should initiate a One Week 100 Trees challenge. As sketch subjects, they are similar: Ubiquitous, unique and challenging, yet trees do have one big benefit over people – they don’t move. How hard could it be?

As I was again lamenting the lateness of spring, Facebook showed me some sketches I had made in prior years during the same time period – blossoming pink trees! This year, we are nowhere close to pink trees; our exceptionally long, cold winter has put them way behind schedule.

3/13/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

That did it: After sketching a tree one cold, drizzly morning, I impulsively declared that it was my first of 30 trees for the “30 Trees in 30 Days” challenge! (A hundred seemed excessive, even for a tree lover like me.) To qualify as a challenge, all I need is a hashtag, right? It turns out that #30trees30days already exists!  Not many had used the hashtag, though, so I was about to change that.

The rules are simple: Sketch 30 trees in 30 days. Start anytime, in any medium, size and style. Sketching from photos is OK, but from life is always better. The purpose is mainly to appreciate the beauty of all trees in all seasons – bare or fully leafed; green, red or pink. Trees are everywhere for both urban sketchers and nature journalers. Meanwhile, we all get practice sketching this challenging subject.

I began March 13, and I’m hoping that by the time my 30 days are up, I really will be sketching pink!

Join me anytime!

3/14/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Mini Review: Kita-boshi Bicolor/Single Color Set


Full-length and bicolors in one set!

The most hazardous outcome of getting COVID was my Visa bill after self-administering online retail therapy during the week I was quarantined. One of many purchases (you’ve seen at least one already; you’ll eventually see others, I’m sure) was this unusual set of colored pencils from Kita-boshi: It contains both bicolors and single-color, full-length pencils!

I already knew that Kitaboshi (the company seems to be inconsistent in its use of the hyphen in its name, so I will be, too) makes excellent graphite pencils with a beautiful natural-finish barrel. Kitaboshi’s “branding” seems to be none at all: The round, natural barrel on the colored pencils is elegant and even more understated than the graphite pencils; no logo or any other text appears. The bicolors are divided with a simple metallic gold band. According to the package, the pencils are made of “genuine incense cedar” (the only English text), and their delicious scent confirms this.

The same lovely barrel appears on its Wood Note Double Color set of bicolors, which I’ve had for a while. I figured the cores in my new set would be the same as the Wood Note pencils, and they are: Neither hard nor soft, and with average pigment. Not exactly a rousing endorsement, but what an intriguing set!

Kitaboshi Wood Note bicolor pencils

Beautifully understated, totally unbranded

Package back

What, exactly, is the strategy for half the pencils being full-length and the rest bicolors? Perhaps the full-length colors (basic primaries plus a peachy hue that some would label “flesh”) are used more often than the halves (secondaries, pink, brown, gray, white)? Or maybe Kita-boshi staff sat in a conference room, and someone in marketing shouted, “Hey, there are no colored pencils on the market that include both bicolors and single colors!”?

In fact, they are on the market already. With further research, I discovered that this wasn’t Kita-boshi’s only set of the intriguing mix: At least one other set exists on eBay. So maybe this is Kita-boshi’s thing.

It’s a mystery (especially since I can’t read most of the packaging information, which could contain the answer). In any case, I didn’t care (I blame COVID, but you already know I would have bought them in full health).

2/22/23 Kita-boshi pencils in Uglybook sketchbook 
(Earthsworld reference photo)

I got my set from Yoseka Stationery, which is a delightful New York City shop with many unique items. I had already recovered by the time my order arrived, but it lifted my spirits just the same to receive a handwritten note from owner Daisy and my pencils wrapped like a gift. I love shopping at small indie shops!

I heart Yoseka!

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

FOMO PSA: Albrecht Durer Magnus Watercolor Pencils

Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Magnus Watercolor Pencils

I laid it on the line right there in the title: I bought Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Magnus watercolor pencils because I feared missing out!

Magnus tin with sleeve removed

Before I get into the Magnus pencils, here’s a little background on my use of the standard
Albrecht Dürer watercolor pencils, which I initially reviewed in 2018. One of my oldest sets of watercolor pencils (I’ve had it since my mixed-media collage days more than a decade ago), Albrecht Dürer was my top watercolor pencil choice before I discovered Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles. Although it’s difficult to compare pencils on the opposite ends of the hard/soft spectrum, and although Faber-Castell’s artist quality watercolor pencil line has good pigment overall, the Albrecht Dürer pencils have characteristics that I don’t care for compared to Museum Aquarelles or even Caran d’Ache Supracolors (closer to an equivalent match to Dürers in quality). Except when I need a hard watercolor pencil, I don’t usually reach for Dürers.

As for the Magnus line – a limited selection of colors housed in a jumbo-sized barrel – I had bought a few colors several years ago with specific purposes in mind. One was to apply wide swaths of color efficiently to large sky areas. I do like the hefty barrels that are comfortable to grasp, and the 5.3mm core is unsurpassed by any other watercolor pencil, at least in size (I have a wild, crazy fantasy that Caran d’Ache will make even a few colors of Museum Aquarelles with Magnus-size cores!). Magnus are big by any standards. But again, once I got my hands on Museum Aquarelles, all other pencils seemed forgettable. And forget I did; I hadn’t thought much about Magnus since then.

Until a few weeks ago. That’s when I heard from two blog readers within days of each other that Faber-Castell was discontinuing the Magnus line. Before reacting irrationally, I first checked out the tip: Was it true? A quick search on Faber-Castell’s website confirmed that it was (scroll down to the response to a customer’s question).

Initially, I wasn’t alarmed – I obviously wouldn’t miss them. But then I started picturing myself a year or two from now suddenly having a purpose for jumbo-sized, artist-quality watercolor pencils, and I couldn’t think of anything comparable. (Heck, what if I have arthritis some day, and jumbo pencils are less painful to use?) Cretacolor offers jumbo-sized MegaColor colored pencils in various sets, including metallics, but not watercolor pencils (and I’m not a fan of Cretacolor’s watercolor Marino line anyway). By then, the Magnus sets would be hard to find except overpriced on eBay. Hmmm. Better safe than sorry.

Annoyingly, even though Dürer Magnus pencils are available in 30 colors, the largest standard set includes only 24; to get the complete set of 30, you need to buy the fancy, wood “gift” box. I got the standard set of 24 at Blick. The other six colors (Cream 102, Leaf Green 112, Middle Purple Pink 125, Cobalt Green 156, Dark Indigo 157, Mauve 249) are available open stock, and most are still available at Blick as of this writing. ArtSnacks also offers them open stock.

Set of 24 plus the 6 other colors. The set includes a small watercolor brush.

Before my Magnus pencils had arrived, I was doing a little digging to see what others in the colored pencilsphere were saying about their demise. Not much, it turns out – not even speculation about why Faber-Castell is discontinuing them. But I found one YouTuber with the opinion that the Magnus formula is slightly different from and inferior to the standard Dürer formula. That gave me something to compare.

As I made the sketches below – one with standard Albrecht Dürer and one with Magnus in the same two colors – they felt and looked the same (those chunky barrels sure are comfy to hold, even without arthritis). 

3/5/23 Albrecht Durer Magnus pencils in Hahnemuhle sketchbook 
(both portraits from Earthsworld reference photos)

3/5/23 standard Albrecht Durer pencils in Hahnemuhle sketchbook

While I was making swatches, however, my standard Dürers felt slightly softer, and the washes might be ever-so-slightly heavier in pigment. I’m not sure the difference is significant, though, if any exists. (It’s important to note that my standard set is more than a decade old, so it’s actually a bit surprising that those older pencils don’t show degradation compared to the much fresher Magnus set.)

Albrecht Durer Magnus

Standard Albrecht Durer 

To sharpen them, I use my Cretacolor Mega sharpener, which does a beautiful job.

A nice point from the Cretacolor Mega sharpener.
Sorry – nothing dramatic to report about Magnus pencils. This post is mainly a PSA: It seems the hoarding hasn’t 
yet begun, so if you want them all, now is the time. Relieved that I got mine!

Tuesday, March 14, 2023



3/11/23 Roosevelt neighborhood

3/4/23 Ravenna neighborhood

Speaking of trees, Kathleen Moore’s class has put trees on my mind, front and center (not that they are ever too far from there while I’m urban sketching). Winter is an ideal time to study and appreciate the branching structure of trees fully visible without their leaves. She warns us to avoid what she calls “spaghetti branches” – the tendency for trees to look like a tangled mess of curly branches when we fall into unconscious scribbling as we draw. If we observe closely, she says, we’ll see that branches may look curved from a distance, but their growth structure is a series of “elbows and knees” (another Kathleenism) with nodes instead of joints. Tree limbs look more natural if they are drawn as straight line segments.

Trunks, too, can be appreciated more easily in winter because we’re not distracted by the full crown of leaves the rest of the year. I always love observing and drawing the lumpy bumps, often covered with moss, on some trunks.

When trees are personified, they tend to be described as regretful about losing their leaves each fall and being bare all winter. But as I was sketching the tree at the top of the page, I started wondering: What if trees look forward to showing off their lean, strong bodies without the encumbrance and weight of all that foliage?

Monday, March 13, 2023

Review: Be Goody Color/Graphite Bi-Pencils


Be Goody colored and graphite bi-pencils from Daiso

I’ve seen the name Be Goody, a Japanese pencil brand, on novelty colored pencils as well as graphite pencils. I hadn’t paid much attention to it until I saw these interesting specimens at my neighborhood Daiso store: They have a colored core on one end and graphite on the other!

Swatches made in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

If a pencil has two different colors on it, I’d call it a bicolor, but I’m not sure what to call these . . . how about bi-pencils? In any case, the bi-pencils pair Vermillion or Prussian Blue with B or 2B graphite. Like many Japanese pencils intended for school kids, the reverse side offers a space for a name. And like most Japanese pencils, even those made for children, the barrels are attractive (except for an ugly barcode that at least sharpens off early in the pencil’s life from the graphite end), and the cores are well-centered.

A space for your name.

Each Daiso two-pack contains either B or 2B graphite with vermillion on one pencil and blue on the other.

As far as color goes, the vermillion is on the pale side, and the cores are middle-of-the road in softness. When I made the swatches, I thought they were on the hard side, but as I made the sketch below on mildly toothy Uglybooks paper, I was pleasantly surprised by their softness (for an editing pencil). I’d say they are comparable to the well-known Uni Mitsubishi Vermilion/PrussianBlue bicolors.

I went through a period several years ago when I sketched regularly with red/blue bicolor pencils to help me identify values. It was really handy to be able to flip the pencil back and forth as I drew – the ultimate in a simple sketch kit tool. Maybe this is idiosyncratic, but the only downside I found with sketching with the Be Goody bi-pencils is that my habit from those value studies made me expect to find blue and red on opposite ends – and instead I’d find graphite.

3/11/23 Be Goody vermillion, Prussian blue and 2B graphite 
in Uglybooks sketchbook (Earthsworld reference photo)

The B and 2B graphite are what I would call smooth, competent, reliable Japanese graphite grades. Nothing special but no surprises, either – they are beautiful for both writing and drawing.

I think editors, teachers and others who still mark papers by hand (I hope you are still out there) would find the colored ends hard enough to write with. (A few decades ago when I was still editing professionally on hard copy, I would have happily used these pencils, but sadly, that was long before pencils became an important part of my life.)

Although these colored/graphite bi-pencils are not unique, they are unusual. The only others I own are the Caran d’Ache Graphicolors, which are available in red/graphite and highlighter yellow/graphite (as well as the more conventional red/blue pairing). The red/graphite shown in the photo below is one with the (sadly now closed) New York City pencil purveyor CW Pencils name. It was also made by Caran d’Ache. (Are there other colored/graphite bi-pencils? Leave a comment if you know of one!)

The only other colored/graphite bi-pencils I own, made by Caran d'Ache.

The Caran d’Ache Graphicolors are $2.80 each at Blick; the Be Goody bi-pencils are $1.75 for a 2-pack at Daiso. A much better value, the Be Goody bi-pencils are all-around decent in an unusual, practical form.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Trees, Trees, Trees – and More Watercolor Frustrations


3/6/23 water-soluble graphite (from life)

Kathleen Moore’s classes always pack a punch, both in high-quality content and challenging homework assignments. The past week’s homework was especially time-consuming with several hour-long recorded demos to view and multi-part assignments – all of which I was trying to complete while also sketching a hundred people (the fun part was that Kathleen herself is an urban sketcher, and she participated in the One Week 100 People challenge, too – it was fun to sketch with her at the last USk Seattle outing)!

The week’s focus was winter trees, and the first exercise was the most fun for me: Make lots of small, quick gesture sketches of fir trees in graphite or ink. Standing on the Interstate 5 overpass at Northeast 80th to make these (above and below), I chuckled to myself about how similar these gestures were to the ones I was making of people – trying not to make generic symbols but to capture unique individuals. (Hmmm… maybe I should initiate a One Week 100 Trees challenge?)

3/6/23 water-soluble graphite (from life)

3/6/23 Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen, FM nib (from life)

The week went downhill from there as watercolor hit the picture. Using a photo I took from the I-5 overpass, I attempted to show subtle differences in fir tree hues and shapes painting direct to watercolor. In the first example, I used only the CMY triad I had showed earlier – what a frustrating, muddy mess! While I had so much fun using that same sunny triad last summer with watercolor pencils, Manganese Blue Hue won’t get dark enough to mix a dark evergreen. In the second attempt, I brought in Sap Green, and that helped a bit.

3/8/23 direct watercolor in Hahnemuhle sketchbook (photo reference)

I asked Kathleen which colors to add to my limited palette to give me a wider range. Conceding that Manganese Blue Hue is a too pale to mix a good dark, she suggested the standbys Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine for neutrals and also to help create darks in other mixes. She also suggested Veridian as a useful, convenient green in the Pacific Northwest.

Well, that was disappointing! I had the unrealistic expectation that CMY could be a one-size-fits-all triad! I bet the pale Manganese could work well on a luminous summer day. The seasonal approach I’ve been using with watercolor pencils might make sense with watercolors, too.

3/8/23 watercolor in Hahnemuhle sketchbook (photo reference)
The next two assignments were about snow-covered fir trees (both from photos, of course; thankfully, we may be snow-free until next winter). The first reserves white for the snow. For the second, I didn’t show the snow on the hemlock branches very well, but let’s just say the snowstorm was just beginning. I splattered a white watercolor pencil to show the falling snow (next time, I might try gouache).

3/8/23 watercolor in Hahnemuhle sketchbook (photo reference)

Grass in a snow field (Kathleen’s reference photo) was my favorite of the week – simple hues of brown and blue and a mix of brushwork and colored pencil lines to show the varying grass strands.

3/8/23 watercolor in Hahnemuhle sketchbook (photo reference)

The next exercise (an imaginary landscape) was in atmospheric perspective – the distant tree line in a cooler hue than the closer tree line, and the foreground tree warmest of all. I didn’t care for most of my trees here (strangely, some of those squared-off trees look more like buildings on a skyline – perhaps it’s the urban sketcher in me), but I sure had fun with the clouds! The mix I made with Alizarin Crimson and French Ultramarine looked gray in the mixing tray, but when the mix hit the wet page, the hues separated into an intriguing result.

3/8/23 watercolor in Hahnemuhle sketchbook (from imagination)

3/9/23 watercolor in Hahnemuhle sketchbook
(photo, imagination and my urban sketching principles
tossed out the window)

The last assignment, a deciduous tree in a snowscape, blew my brain out in multiple ways. I started with a reference photo of a tree I love at Green Lake – but without any snow in sight. I eliminated multiple trees right next to it, put in a small tree in the distance, and faked in all that snow – including imagining how snow might look clinging to the tree bark (painted with gouache). This urban sketcher, who has spent the past 11-plus years “being truthful to the scenes I witness,” was challenged, to say the least.

Whew! I need a nap.

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