Travel Sketching

22 July, 2017. Sketching while traveling is a unique experience in some ways. For one thing, one is encouraged to observe the world as though one has never seen it before because in all likelihood this may be the first time to encounter a place, people, custom, or event. I feel a degree of freedom to simply scribble notions of these encounters in the form of sketches which, often enough, tend to fluctuate between medium. Do I have time to sit and observe? Am I feeling rushed? Or wanting to move along soon to eat? Is the opportunity fleeting? Events of the moment predicate the tool I use to sketch.

Watercolors are like a puzzle. For me, they are spontaneous and less about planning than one might imagine. Instead, they are more likely to be an exercise in figuring out what to place where, and how much detail to labor over or ignore. I place a colored shape and then look at the page to figure out where to work next, repeating this approach over and over again, moving from left to right, top to bottom. It could hardly be described as a science because I work mostly from my gut. I do consider contrasts of cool to warm colors, as well as contrasts of value, but the approach is definitely a different mindset than when I use pens to sketch with.


Working on the thin, cheap paper of a sketchbook with watercolor can be challenging. You have to not work the paper too much or risk rubbing clear through the sheet! A light and restrained touch is better than overworking, and results in nice blooms of color that I especially appreciate seeing appear. During my recent travel to the islands of Hawaii, I found myself using this approach to capture scenes that were, for the most part, without motion or movement.



Pens are also a tool of spontaneity for me, but much more visceral than painting. Even when I add watercolor after the fact, the line tends to be the most important, most informing aspect of the drawing. Sometimes precious, but more often than not nearly schematic, my lines are the truest extension of my hand and the most comfortable means of expressing a visual that I know.

Pens work better for me to capture the gestures or caricatures of people doing whatever it is they are doing. I like incorporating “field notes” into my sketches as a reminder of the experience.







Pencils are the most basic of drawing instruments and the thing nearly every one of us learned before any other tool or drawing instrument. Although my curriculum determines that I teach the broad range of dynamic value one can generate with a pencil, my own pencil sketches tend to be quite loose and expressive. I have to make conscious decisions to do things a certain way so that if I wind up adding color later the sketch isn’t constrained too much by one media or the other. I don’t want the drawing to dictate the entirety of the painting.

Close to Home


22 July, 2017. I’ve been on the road so much this month that there’s been little opportunity to update this blog. There has, however, been ample opportunity for sketching, both close to home and while traveling. Thus, after neglecting the blog for the past few weeks I will be adding two posts in a single day.

Let’s begin with sketching in and around the small town I call home. Liberty is a community of something like 25,000 residents with a quaint town square and older neighborhoods and lots of green space. It’s really livable, and I bicycle the streets nearly every single day. People say hello to one another on the street and the square tends to attract interesting shops and eateries, one of which is Morning Day Cafe. If prompted, I would describe the place as a quasi-hippy/new age/Earth Mother/whole grain eatery and mixology center, and perhaps my sketch (above) hints at that just a little bit. It is a fun, friendly place to eat and chat, and the food is great.

The neighborhood streets in the older part of town are lined with large shade trees and houses dating from the fifties to antebellum, with the assorted range of architectural styles one might imagine that diversity to encompass.

I feel as though half the town is undergoing some sort of renovation at the moment.

The road, sidewalk, and street parking, along with some adornment on the square have been part of a massive restoration and improvement. The side streets are getting repaved and re-striped, and one is certain to see construction equipment throughout the town.

I enjoy the variety of architectural styles in evidence. I take particular joy in closely examining structures and discovering some neat little detail or ornamentation. It’s fun to keep my bike sketches a little bit loose and scribbly looking, to capture more of an impression rather than to draw as a true documentarian.

As many times as I’ve wandered down the street in search of an afternoon’s subject matter, I know if I look closely enough I’ll find plenty to draw close to home.

Sweatin’ some small stuff.

There’s a Blick art supply store right next door to the residence hall at MIAD, and right there in the window are racks and stands filled with sketchbooks. One that caught my eye was a sketchbook produced by Crescent, it’s claim being that the pages are bleed-proof. I was intrigued because I sketch on both sides of the page in my sketchbooks, and here, right in front of me, was a book designed to do exactly that. So I bought a small one to try out.

It’s a convenient size to carry around – not very thick at 60 or so pages, and easy to fit into a hip pocket at 3.5 x 5.5 inches. But despite their claim that the pages lay “flat,” it’s simply not the case. My usual commercial sketchbook, the Canson 180 is designed to lay flat, and does. The Crescent book loses real estate at the gutter, so useable width is actually more like 3.25 inches.

And the size, while convenient to carry, is a bit inconvenient to actually use. Drawing in a book that is only appreciably larger than a credit card requires a lot of awkward gyrations. Frankly, this smaller size makes me work too hard to work out a sketch. Thus, I’d recommend the next size up, which is in that middle ground of around 5 x 7-ish inches. I like that size for sketching. It is still small enough to fit onto a sidewalk café table or lap. I can tuck it into my waistband at my back. And I feel more comfortable working in the slightly larger size.

On the positive side, the small proportions forced me to work simpler, to focus on shapes and use of space, and to regard color as a graphic element – something I appreciate in the work of others, but don’t always do myself.

It’s not bad to work in, but watercolor absorbs into the paper very quickly and you must work fast if you wish to move it around on the sheet. Pause for a second and it’s already begun to dry, and your painted surface develops very obvious streaks. If that’s what you’re going for, it’s a great sheet. Me, I found that at first I felt safer keeping color to small spots.

As I began to treat the page and the color more graphically, I found simplifying the color and treating it as one of the primary graphic elements to be a satisfying strategy.

That approach also tended to change the composition pretty dramatically. I began to look for ways to leave a negative spaces that could be filled with color, and which would serve to focus a viewer’s attention.

When I was sketching the image of the woman and her dog (above), the emphasis was much broader than it is with color used to create a clear focal point. While still in black and white, the background was more of a tapestry of detail. Now it’s a unifying element.

Here’s another example of an image where the simplicity of black and white clearly works. But the addition of color (below) changes the complexity entirely.

When all is said and done, this is an interesting experiment as well as an intriguing experience. But I don’t anticipate forgoing my preferred sketchbook, sketching pamphlets, and – especially! – sketchbook size.

Sidewalk Sketching in Milwaukee

28 June, 2017. I was in Milwaukee all of last week, in a professional development workshop at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD.) The workshop itself was well worth the long drive and I wound up really enjoying my stay in Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward. The opportunities for street sketching were literally everywhere – all I had to do was plunk myself down at a sidewalk café, order a glass of wine or beer, and then use my pen to observe life in progress, all around me.

I gravitate toward moments of thoughtfulness sometimes, and the gentleman at the top of this article caught my attention for that very reason. He seemed to me to be one of the world’s great listeners, focused entirely upon what his unpictured companion was saying.

Some people out on the street – passers by, that is – seem to avoid eye contact at all costs, while others flash you a quick smile. It’s just a quirky little facet of human nature that I’ve noticed. I would swear that I passed this same woman at least three times during the six days I was there, and each time she maintained a steadfast and unwavering gaze directly in front of her.

I chuckled to myself as I watched this young woman, clearly bored with the table conversation of the larger group around her, surreptitiously check and recheck her cell phone for something more interesting. Eventually she seemed to begin to read something lengthy – a book, I’m hoping!

Each morning around 5.30 I’d jump on my bike and ride the path that runs alongside the lake. It meanders through neighborhoods and parks and abuts various buildings. A few miles into my ride, I would pass the Northpoint, a burger and shake joint that looks like it’s been established at the current lakeshore location for a long time. One morning, well before the place was set to open, I noticed a large Yoga group using the site to exercise.

The lakeside path is quite wonderful and caters to a variety of early morning joggers, walkers, and cyclists. Some are commuting to work, others are getting in their exercise or morning constitutional. Many, like me, are simply enjoying the exhilaration of being outdoors for a grand morning.

The majority of my sketches were made after the workshop concluded each day. Around five, the streets would become active and sidewalk tables would begin to fill. Quick sketches of people were easy and models were ready to hand and in abundance.

I was impressed by the number of cyclists in evidence in my neighborhood. Riders were everywhere, bells were in use, and everyone was polite about the roads, sidewalks, and paths. It all seemed to fit together quite naturally.

(Everything was drawn with a Uni-Ball Micro Deluxe pen in a Canson 180 sketchbook. I don’t think I used a pencil to rough in anything all week long, and I’m overall pretty happy to have kept the observational drawings light and moderately fresh, without overworking things to death.)

Sapped.

17 June, 2017. This past week was The Big BAM Ride, a long distance bicycle tour I’ve been looking forward to for the past couple of months. The route transects the state of Missouri, from the western border to the eastern, meandering through a variety of small towns and rural country along the way. I really thought I’d be stopping along the route to make more sketches, but things were so damned oppressively hot, the wind was so exhausting, and the hills wore on me more than I expected. Sketching took more energy than I had; I was nearly sapped!

These sketches lack my preferred spontaneity and simplicity. I’ll blame the heat and my swollen, dehydrated fingers, but the only place I wound up making sketches was in and around Lexington, Missouri. As such, these only represent a few meager furlongs of a ride spanning hundreds of miles.

(Sketches created using a Kuretake No. 40 brush pen and Omni-Ball Micro.)

Unfocused.

10 June, 2017. After teaching a three-day workshop with a singular subject focus last weekend, my sketching this week was sporadic and decidedly UN-focused. And a bit of randomness felt good after having stayed on target for the entirety of my workshop, as well as the Urban Sketchers International Day in the Life event that followed me.

Keeping things loose, trying diligently to represent only what is necessary, and making sure that there’s no question my images are drawn by hand – those are my goals.

Although these are two opposite pages in the sketchbook, and of two different subjects and locations, I like they way they seem to be a single composition.

(Top sketch: Kuretake No. 40 brush pen; middle sketch: Omni-Ball Deluxe roller ball pen; bottom sketch: LAMY Safari medium nib fountain pen loaded with Noodler’s Beaver color ink.)

Illustrating the Edible

34219262464_b2a5729273_b

4 June, 2017. I had a great time leading this weekend’s Kansas City Art Institute graduate sketching workshop, “Illustrating the Edible.” Working with art teachers is always a powerfully positive experience, and this group was no exception. I have a pretty loyal following of workshop participants, and I usually know the majority of attendees. However, this weekend I had a group of art teachers who were nearly all new to me.

35063149885_747dd08017_b

The first stop on our three day workshop was at The Cellar Rat, where my group enthusiastically embraced sketching (and sampling!) during a wine tasting. Located in the Crossroads Arts District, the wine shop and the surrounding neighborhood was packed for our monthly First Fridays art walk. So, the opportunity for sketching subject matter was rich, no matter where each artist positioned his or herself. Our focus this weekend was on food: dining, socializing, preparation, shopping, and growing – and the wine tasting was an excellent way to kick things off. Drawing people who are in constant motion can be challenging, and sipping a glass of wine while attempting to do so might have helped to calm the nerves of those made nervous at stepping outside their comfort zone!

Our Friday evening visit to The Cellar Rat was intentionally leisurely and fun, providing those who wished to do so the freedom of an enjoyable romp through the Crossroads District. Saturday’s schedule was considerably busier, beginning at The Missing Ingredient. The Missing Ingredient is an subsidiary of the restaurant development company, Bread n Butter. Using hydroponics and specialized grow lights, they are local producers of greens, herbs, and even edible flowers for local restaurants.

I always find my mark making is pretty rigid and tight when I first start sketching, so to warm up I arrived at the warehouse a little early. Moving around the page very quickly, I roughed in the main shapes without any penciled construction lines. My goal was to loosen up and emphasize the key shapes…zero in on the important stuff, and restrain myself from adding unnecessary details.


Once my group arrived, we descended upon the place. Inside, and beyond the initial office area, there is a large open area which is filled with row after row of plants. Our hosts welcomed us to set up and sketch anywhere that was convenient. I was impressed with the sheer number of lettuces, not even to mention the variety of other greens on hand. The vertical grow spaces had just been harvested of edible flowers.

Our next location was an upscale restaurant named Stock Hill. Elegant and sophisticated, the interior architecture is both impressive and comfortable. Although we were supposed to be with Chef during our visit, some wires got crossed and we missed out on the opportunity to document the processes he goes through in preparing the kitchen and staff for the day. Instead, my sketchers focused in on the environment: lights, stairs, table settings, and so forth. I felt fortunate to have been able to capture a small kitchen prep scene earlier during breakfast before the workshop day schedule had begun.

Fate is a cruel mistress – even though we were touring various food venues of the city, I wound up inhaling a McDonald’s cheeseburger on my way to our next location of the day. Rushed as I was, I couldn’t resist adding small touches of color to my breakfast sketch while I chewed on my rubberized burger.

And while the event had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my workshop, I pulled over for three or four minutes to sketch a demonstration. The ladies in front, seeing me pull up and look, did me the favor of posing and shaking their sign and flag!




The final location for our day was the City Market, a place I’ve visited many times for both shopping and sketching. It’s a place where people of all types find themselves shoulder to shoulder in search of grown foods, a happy hunting ground for mimes and street musicians, where the air is rife with the aroma of meat grilling. In some respects, I expect it’s somewhat divine.

A Day in the Life of an Urban Sketcher

34874228962_df6c2bb5a5_b

2 June, 2017. Urban Sketchers turns 10 this November! We are celebrating this achievement with a series of events happening all over the world throughout 2017!

A Day in the Life of an Urban Sketcher celebrates the lives of sketchers around the world and how they share work online. This social media event will feature a different sketcher each month in an Instagram and Twitter takeover. The featured sketcher will show their world, one drawing, one tweet, and one Instagram post at a time. …And tomorrow, Saturday, June 3, find out just how little I know about Twitter when the USk social media follows me!


I’ll also be teaching a graduate level sketching workshop through the Kansas City Art Institute tonight through Sunday afternoon. “Illustrating the Edible” should be a fun and interesting way to tell the stories of our community through the various ways we experience food. From community farms to the City Market, from locally sourced restaurant fare to the City Union Mission, my students will be artist-storytellers, communicating the variety of ways that food connects us all. If you’re in Kansas City, look for us at The Cellar Rat this evening, Stock Hill tomorrow morning, the City Market tomorrow afternoon, and the City Union Mission on Sunday afternoon. I’ll share highlights of this weekend in a future blog post, and Saturday will be thoroughly documented on the Urban Sketchers Twitter and Instagram accounts. (Follow @urbansketchers on Instagram and Twitter and check out the hashtag #uskdayinthelife.)

School’s out for summer…

31 May, 2017. Yes, school is out, and this art teacher is ready to relax with a pen in hand! A four-day weekend allowed ample time to simply scribble, much of that while I lounged on a boat dock nestled in amongst a grove of trees.

Time passes along at a completely different pace at the lake. I played around with cross contour lines to develop branches that had volume and exhibited a degree of foreshortening.

Watercolor might get added in a rather haphazard way. I made no promises to myself about what a sketch might turn out like, set no goals and predicted no outcomes. With no expectations in mind, I found my hours with the sketchbook refreshing.

My model was kind enough to sit without moving, turning a page from time to time. Alas! She eventually got up, walked up to the house, and began to rummage through the refrigerator for some cold, refreshing, and liquid libation. I stayed in my lounge chair and added color.

Taking a break from the lake one afternoon, we went out to explore some of the small Ozark towns to the south of us, across the border in Arkansas.

This act of exploration had me comparing one locale to another, and my sketchbook seemed like a good way to record my impressions along the way.

While far from convenient, from time to time I experiment with a dip pen. I saved an uninked sketch so I could test out a new ink I’m curious about. While it’s not permanent, it’s also not as readily reactivated with brush and wash as a Pilot Varsity pen is. (Unfortunately, that is sort of what I was hoping for.)

I’m not sure why, but I feel compelled to create some sort of whimsical cover design for each of my sketchbooks. Annabelle was conveniently at hand to act as a model for this cover.

Catch as Catch Can.

22 May, 2017. Signs, signs – everywhere the signs! Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. So, it’s been catch as catch can this week, grabbing sketches wherever and whenever, and not really getting a chance to do any sort of sitting around absorbing the place. It’s not my favorite approach, but sometimes it yields a bit of gold. This tightly cropped scene of signage captured my attention almost immediately. But of course I only had a couple minutes to scribble. It was sprinkling, I sketched, I made a quick snapshot to reference for color later. Then I scooted.

A convivial pub often offers a rich assortment of subjects to draw. It was a Friday night, immediately after work and the local brew pub was hoppin’! A pint of Riley Porter for me, a glass of Vignoles for her, and a game of scrabble at the bar. I sketched while I waited (and waited) for my turn. This particular week was done, and it really couldn’t have ended much sooner.

It was a wet day in an older part of the city. Sitting in the front seat of my car, making a really fast sketch, I found myself impatient to “git ‘r done.” Suddenly, I realized what I’d at first thought to be a rather pedestrian subject had captured my artistic interests. I focused on creating a silhouette of the structures via line, and got pretty loosey-goosey with the interior details. After working with the Uni-Ball to draft the main (and rather sparse) details, I went back in with a Pilot Varsity and a water brush to add some depth and tonality.

So strange to ride through what was once simple countryside, only to discover a new multi-lane thoroughfare going in, connecting the town proper to – what? Another highway? The hand of mankind rips another swath of trees from the planet. (Uni-Ball Vision Micro on Strathmore Aquarius II, approximately 7 x 7 inches.)