Sunday, December 31, 2023

Observing Makes it So


11/29/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

An avid urban sketcher, a friend often draws fellow passengers during his subway commutes. On one ride a while back, all his views of other people were blocked, so he ended up sketching a backpack. He sounded a bit apologetic about the subject matter on his Facebook post. I commented, “Everything is worthy of sketching because observing it makes it so.”

Although viewers may have varying levels of interest, to the sketcher (or maybe I should say, to this sketcher), the relative value of majestic Mt. Rainier or a rock in the driveway is the same: The attention I give it – that close observation for however long I choose to take – is what gives it value.

This principle is never more true than when I’m out walking and stop to sketch whatever I happen to come upon. Without intention or focus, these sketches might seem aimless, but for me, the act of drawing – not the drawing itself – shapes its meaning.

11/30/23 Seattle skyline from Maple Leaf Park

That’s it – that’s all I got for this year’s last year-end review post! Happy new year and happy sketching in 2024!

12/17/23 Mt. Rainier from Maple Leaf Park

12/21/23 Foggy Maple Leaf Park

12/27/23 Green Lake neighborhood
12/20/23 I had missed most of the action by the time I arrived.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The “Hairy” Brush Pen is Back


12/20/23 I love the dry-brush look of the hairy bristles!

It’s probably obvious that I love brush pens of all types. Several years ago when I did some massive comparison reviews of lots of brush pens, one of the distinctions I made was between the “hairy” kind and the “non-hairy” ones. Hairy brush pens have actual bristles, usually synthetic, of the type that are found on paint brushes. Non-hairy pens have tips made of foam, felt or some other formed material with varying degrees of flexibility.

These two types of brush pens represent a long-standing dilemma: I prefer the more organic, variable look of hairy brush pens, but when I’m trying to make a quick-as-possible sketch on location, those are harder to control (this was especially true when I sketched on public transportation a lot more than I do now). Eventually I decided that the tradeoff for speed and efficiency was more important on location, and I switched to firm-tipped, non-hairy brush pens as my go-to. They still have some of the line variability of hairy brush pens, but they are much easier to control – a good compromise.

I’m not sure what prompted it – maybe some YouTubes I was watching – but I recently got the urge to use a hairy brush pen again. I picked up my old Pentel pocket brush pen, which has long been a favorite, even though I keep buying more to try. It had been unused for at least a couple of years, still filled with Platinum Carbon Black ink – and it flowed just as well as if I had been using it daily! (Several others I tried had dried up or just weren’t flowing well, even if full of ink.) What a reliable workhorse.

12/13/23 Good to have the hairiness back!

Keeping my usual
Uni Pin brush pen in my bag, I added the Pentel. In a couple of these sketches, I used the Pentel for the trees and the hard-tipped Uni Pin for the windows, excavator and other human-made structures. That organic, dry-brush look is made for trees! I love how the difference in line character between the hairy and non-hairy pens highlights the contrast between natural and human-made forms.

12/16/23 Pentel brush pen, colored pencil

12/18/23 Uni Pin and Pentel brush pens,
Posca marker

12/23/23 Uni Pin and Pentel brush pens, colored pencils

12/26/23 Pentel brush pen

Friday, December 29, 2023

More Pups: Proportion is Key

12/24/23 Maggie
(reference photo by Steve McCleary)
12/22/23 Kenny
(reference photo by Bobbi Letsinger)

These pups belong to a couple of Facebook friends who occasionally share pet photos. Being able to draw from fun animal photos and then surprise their delighted owners is one of the best uses of social media I’ve discovered!

As is often the case, the drawing lessons I learn are not always expected until I start drawing. One important principle I am learning from my pet portraits is the same one that holds true for human portraiture: In terms of resemblance, capturing individual features and other details accurately is not nearly as important as overall proportions.

Obviously, the pressure for resemblance is way, way lower for animals than it is for humans (especially humans I know and love). For one thing, one tabby cat looks fairly similar to another tabby cat, and it’s hard to tell one golden retriever from another (though I’m sure their owners would beg to differ). The weird thing about animals, though, is that if I get proportions just slightly off, especially in the eyes, they look like entirely different species. Like the raccoon I started to draw and then abandoned: The eyes were too close together, giving it a ratty look.

I thought about that when I finished sketching Maggie. Her eyes got just a bit too close together, and my drawing makes her look slightly bearish (though I’m pleased that I captured her wide smile well).

By contrast, Kenny might look like I exaggerated the size of his ears, but I actually measured twice because I could hardly believe they could be that large! They are proportionally accurate, as are his eyes. I think I captured a good resemblance, even though the technique I used is more cartoony and less realistic, which I thought suited his whimsical expression.

Proportion is key.

Polychromos colored pencils and Uni Pin technical pens (various sizes in black, gray and brown)

Polychromos and Prismacolor colored pencils

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Sketch Journal: Ugly Wins Again


From memory

As effortless as it is for me to draw every day, and as committed as I am to my daily sketching practice (which I’ve kept up for more than a decade now), I sure have a crappy track record with a daily sketch journal. Maybe I just make too big a deal of it somehow being a separate process from the daily sketching I do anyway, but I can never seem to get the visual journal habit to stick.

What do I mean by a “sketch journal” or “visual journal”? The label isn’t important, but it’s more about the process. For example, an urban sketch is about a place or event – that’s the “story” that is being documented. Drawing from photos or still lives is usually about exploring specific approaches or media. A sketch journal, on the other hand, documents the sketcher’s day, whatever that day may include. And often you can do both at the same time.

In the past several years, I’ve tried numerous forms. I think my “Scribble Journal” format lasted the longest because I incorporated the sketches (mostly from imagination/memory) with my daily written entries (I gave an update a year later). Eventually, though, that morphed into more and more writing and less and less sketching, and now it’s back to nothing but writing.

From memory

Last year I tried incorporating sketches, collage and other smatterings right along with the random notes I keep in my daily-carry Field Notes – what  I called myWhatever Journal.” That format met the sketch journaling need while also satisfying my desire for chronological continuity. I really enjoyed that format for its portable casualness (essential if I want to keep up a sketch journal habit) – but then Uglybooks came into my life. And that was the end of that.

With my current attempt, I have circled back on the Whatever Journal idea, with an ironic twist: I’m using Uglybooks!

Before starting anew, I reviewed the various formats I’ve tried in the past to identify which aspects were satisfying. The daily-carry portability of the Field Notes-based Whatever Journal seemed to be the best format – it’s always with me whenever I have a moment to sketch. When I started sketching in Uglybooks, I thought I could transfer the same idea from Field Notes to the colored books, but I was too fickle. I kept switching to a different color book before the previous book was filled – and there went my chronological continuity (an aspect that’s important to me to retain with a sketch journal).

From imagination

What’s different this time? The main difference is that I’ve finally gotten past the novelty of having so many different colors of Uglybooks to explore. Since summer, I have been going back to previously begun Uglybooks and sticking to only one book at a time until it is full. (I can hear your skepticism all the way over here!) And I’m committed to keep doing that until I’ve filled them all, at which time, I’ll crack open a fresh one and keep using it until it’s full. I’m saying it aloud here to keep myself honest!

(I should note that I do have a few special-purpose Uglybook colors, like black and dark blue, that I don’t mind reserving only for their ideal purposes.)

One reason I’m optimistic that this format might stick is that I already sketch often in the daily-carry Uglybook on my regular fitness walks. By evening, if I realize I haven’t yet made a sketch in it, I think about something that I observed that day. (Focusing on observations rather than feelings or thoughts is something I worked on and valued during my 100 Day Project earlier this year.) Then I sketch from memory or imagination (which also gives me practice in drawing without a visual source, which is a skill I’d like to continue developing).

Since I came up with this idea late in the calendar year, I was tempted to begin the new habit on Jan. 1. But that’s just setting myself up for “resolution” failure. I simply began randomly one day this month, which somehow reduced the pressure of it being “a thing.”

I had photo asssistance to draw this! 

Like previous attempts at sketch journaling, I won’t necessarily share the pages publicly. But shown in this post are a few examples that capture the essence of the contents.

At this point, you may be wondering: Since I already sketch daily and have for many years, why do I have this need to keep a separate “sketch journal” at all? I’m not sure – but it seems to scratch an itch that other types of sketching do not. Long before I began sketching, I used to see examples of how others use drawing to document their days, and that process appealed to me. Having a visual aspect to my daily journal habit has been a desire ever since. While I’m doing it, I enjoy it, yet I eventually let it lapse. Like my general drawing habit that took many years to finally “stick,” maybe I just need to find the process or subject or focus that resonates the way urban sketching does. So I keep trying different things.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Geek Flair

Vintage Caran d'Ache pin and CMYK pin!

Nothing brightens a dark winter’s day like new geek flair! My latest finds are from the shop Present & Correct across the pond. I had seen the vintage (1960s) Caran d’Ache pin on eBay years ago, but it was already sold, and I’ve been looking for one ever since. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that P & C was carrying a supply of them – and at half the price it went for on eBay! 

As for the CMYK pin . . . Im flying my primary triad geek flag!

Also in my order: pencil "stamps"!

Tuesday, December 26, 2023



12/21/23 Hungry "Kittens," hoping for her next meal soon.

Although I’ve been having a ball sketching pet portraits from photos lately, I enjoy drawing animals from life a lot more – but I don’t have many opportunities for that. Who knew that getting a haircut would give me that?

“Kittens” is not the soft, cuddly animal you might imagine if you heard her name – she’s a snake. Fed only a couple of times a month, she was due for her biweekly mouse on the day of my appointment, so she restlessly wandered around her tank as I sketched (I guess I would be restless, too, if I hadn’t eaten in a fortnight). While my hair was being buzzed, I learned that she is mostly quiet and still when she’s full and happy. I’m not a huge fan of snakes, but I must say that Kittens has beautiful, varying patterns on her skin, especially on her underbelly (underbody?).

This was my first time at Hugo’s Barbershop, and I like the cut I got, so I’ll probably be back – especially now that I know there’s a snake in residence. (Doesn’t every sketcher choose their barber based on whether the shop has a snake?)

Monday, December 25, 2023

Silent Night, Colorful Night


12/21/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

At the risk of sounding bah-humbuggy, I’m going to come out and say it: This house has too many lights. I’m all for freeform artistic expression, but this is just messy. It’s the same house I sketched last week in the early morning when only the tree lights were on. Despite my esthetic objections, I sketched it again one evening when all the lights were on because it was a good excuse to use all my Posca glitter pens.

Enough picture-taking! I got work to do here!

And speaking of excuses, this post is a good one to trot out this photo, circa 1960s. What I was really looking for was the photo of myself with Santa, which I know is somewhere in my massive collection of digitized family photos, but I found this one from a Christmas morning first.

Merry Carrots from Weather Bunny!

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Instagram Top 9


As I’ve done for a few years, I joined the Instagram silliness of sharing my Top 9 posts of 2023, based on the number of hearts I received. Although I don’t pay much attention to the quantity of “likes” or other reactions on social media, I do find it amusing to see the wide range of images that my followers seem to favor. I thought last year’s was a more eclectic mix that was a surprisingly accurate reflection of my interests.

This year’s Top 9 seem to be about friends and moments we’ve shared, which I certainly value more than objects or sketches. It was good to see my reportage on Luma the Cedar in the print version of On the Spot and my participation in the “Sketching Cascadia” exhibit, both of which were certainly highlights of my year.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

More Pet Portraits (and Paper/Media Intrigue)

12/18/23 photo reference by Andrew Banks

ArtGraf "tailor shape" block, Uni Pin and Polychromos

Roz Stendahl often talks about the challenging fun of painting on papers not intended for wet media. Even if a paper is generally considered unsuitable, she adjusts her “normal” working methods to get whatever effect she wants to achieve from the incompatible mix of media and support. Chandler O’Leary (RIP) used to favor the weird, waxy, manila-folder-like paper in Moleskine sketchbooks for watercolor sketching. While fine for most pens, that paper is among the worst with wet media: The sizing (or lack thereof) allows the paint to sink in almost immediately, and pigments look dull and flat. But Chandler liked the unique, comic-book-like results she got with the paper and learned to work with it to get what she wanted.

I thought of both Roz and Chandler as I continued making more pet portraits on Field Notes Birch Bark edition covers. I know the paper is not intended for wet media (heck, it’s probably not intended for any kind of media – it’s a cover stock, not art paper), and yet I’m intrigued by some effects I’m getting.

Below I’ve compared various media on Birch Bark cover stock (which is 110-pound Mohawk Loop) and Hahnemühle Akademie Aquarell sketchbook paper. You can see how the watercolor doesnt flow or wash on the cover stock the way it does on appropriately sized watercolor paper.

Various media on Birch Bark cover stock

Most of the same media in Hahnemuhle Akademie Aquarell sketchbook

The first time I was surprised by the cover stock (and the media, too, for that matter) was when I sketched the kitty named Tucker (shown in my post about Viarco ArtGraf water-soluble graphite). Without appropriate sizing, the medium expresses a great texture, especially when worked wet-in-wet. I like it better on this cover stock than I do on “appropriate” paper.

Encouraged by that attempt, I sketched Bailey, the handsome chocolate lab (top of post), with Viarco ArtGraf “tailor shape” blocks (which are made of debatable materials, but it’s believed that they’re at least partly graphite). The paint, which doesn’t glaze transparently like watercolors, looks more like gouache, and I like the flat, matte look.

I tried watercolors first, but I didn't like the effect. 

Now it was time to pull out the big guns – actual watercolors – and I chose what turned out to be the most challenging pet so far: a “nosy be panther” (what??) chameleon named Sirulean! Using
Kuretake Gansai Tambi watercolors (which I chose because the set includes a blue that I thought would be close to the hue I needed), the pigments did exactly what I would expect from inappropriately sized paper: They sunk in immediately (at left), and successive layers did not glaze or even particularly deepen the values as they would on watercolor paper.

Realizing that I wouldn’t get the effects I wanted with watercolors, I abandoned them and switched to Prismacolors. After the color was done, I tried drawing that scaly chameleon texture with a couple of Uni Pin technical pens, but I think I got a little heavy-handed. In any case, this frontal chameleon view is somewhat disorienting (downright intimidating to be stared down by an in-your-face chameleon), and I regret that I didn’t quite capture Sirulean’s brilliant blue hue (with pinkish markings!).

12/20/23 reference photo by Amanda Ready

Prismacolors and Uni Pin pens

With Cuppa Joe, an adorable white Scotty, I took a safer route: gray and black Uni Pin technical pens. To help bring out his white face, I used ArtGraf water-soluble graphite for the background, and I love the diffused, mottled texture that resulted.

12/20/23 reference photo by Kathleen Murray

Mostly Uni Pins and ArtGraf background

I’m learning that maybe it’s not the Field Notes cover stock alone that is so intriguing . . . maybe it’s the ArtGraf products interacting with it that has such interesting results. In any case, the notebooks and the ArtGraf products coming into my life at around the same time has turned into a material geek’s dream come true! Bring on the experiments!

Friday, December 22, 2023

The Skyscapito Sweet Spot


This time of year is the sweet spot for conveniently sketching colorful skyscapitos: Sunrise is late enough that I can easily catch it before breakfast (sometimes even after); sunset is early enough that it doesn’t interfere with dinner prep. And despite quite a bit of rain, we’ve had some particularly stunning sunsets this month.

Another sketcher had commented on how disappointing her “feeble attempt” is at trying to capture the drama of sunrise. I certainly concur every time I attempt these sketches – it’s hubris, really, for mere mortals to think we can somehow emulate the splendor of nature. But it’s also human nature (or artist’s nature?) to try anyway.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Pets on Field Notes


12/7/23 Lucky (Maria Ochoa reference photo)

After sketching a raccoon on a Field Notes Birch Bark edition cover, I wanted to make more animal portraits in this fun format. The issue was finding good reference photos that I could use free of charge (like Earthsworld’s apparently endless resource of human portraits). Unsplash, Pixabay and other free photo reference resources are available, but then I started thinking that it would be more fun and meaningful to draw pets of people I know (at least virtually).

I put out a little “contest” in the Field Nuts Facebook group of Field Notes aficionados: Post your pet’s photo, and you may win a portrait of your pet on a Field Notes cover. I gave myself full rights to choose the photos, the media and the timeframe, which means there’s no pressure on me in any way. I got more than 60 entrants (so far – the “contest” goes on indefinitely as far as I’m concerned), and I’ve been delighted by all the pets, including a few unexpectedly exotic ones, like a chameleon, a tortoise and a cockatoo! Cats and dogs make up the majority, of course, so I’ve started with a few. (I already showed the kitty Tucker in my recent ArtGraf post.)

12/10/23 Maggie (John Cline reference photo)

I find that I tend to favor dogs, not because I necessarily like them better than cats but because their heads have more form and are therefore easier to draw. But that just means I need to challenge myself by drawing more cats!

Naturally, my selection criteria include cuteness, but just as important is the quality of the reference photo – well lighted, sharp focus, and preferably with all-important catchlights in the eyes.

In addition to my Nutty contest, I made a few of these portraits as surprise gifts for friends I follow on social media who occasionally share photos of their fuzzy-faced companions.

Initially, I was going to avoid water-soluble media lest the Birch Bark notebook covers got wet during use, but what the heck – now I’m using anything, just to see how it looks. These books are meant to be used, and the covers are not fine art. I’m having a ball trying different media on this fabulous cover stock, which I’m sure was not intended for drawing on, but it’s taking everything like a champ (specific material notes are in the cutlines of the images showing the media at end of post).

12/12/23 Romeo and Denver
(Anne Badgley reference photo)

12/17/23 Bernie
(Richard Becker reference photo)

12/17/23 Kuzya (Jeff Durand reference photo)

This was my first attempt at using watercolor pencils,
and I was pleased that the cover stock took well to them. I used a black Polychromos only for the eyes and mouth, where I wanted a sharper point.

I sketched both Lucky and Maggie (at right) with black
and gray 0.5 Uni Pin technical pens -- a great combo for animals.

I hadn't inked up my beloved Sailor fude fountain
pen in a while, and Platinum Carbon ink was untested,
but at this point, I was confident that the cover stock
could take anything. Denver's ears were so much fun to
sketch with the fude!

Back to a Bic ballpoint for Bernie, which was
the first pen I tried on a Birch Bark cover.

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