Direct sketching

19 August, 2017. Today felt like a good time to get back to basics – a sketchbook, Uni-Ball Deluxe, and my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen. I love direct sketching with the Uni-Ball, without the “safety net” of a light graphite sketch. And though I’ll occasionally use the Kuretake to do a little direct sketching also, today it was fun to use it to add shadow and depth accents.

I like the graphic quality of this approach. Strong lights and darks remind me of how some of my favorite European underground cartoonists from the 70’s made their drawings.  (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, Canson 180 sketchbook – approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.)

I need time to absorb the stories.

13 August, 2017. There are occasions when time and opportunity don’t allow me to sketch quickly enough. Case in point: Yesterday, I saw a woman walking two pigs on a leash through a lumberyard. Not pot belly pigs mind you, full sized pork chop bearing hogs. And I would have loved to sketch that scene! But the moment was there and gone.

I think this is part of the reason I enjoy sketching in diners so much. Interesting scenes and stories play out all around you, and for the most part these narratives can be captured with a much greater ease than, say, jotting down a quickly passing woman and her porcine pets.

Wesner’s Grill was, for me, a jewel of a find. It looks as though it’s been around for generations and the staff and customers are exactly what you’d expect to find here – almost as though they’d been hired by central casting. Said out loud, it sounds eerie but nope! The experience was as cheery as I could have hoped.

Me: “I really don’t do eggs.”

Server: “That’s ok, hon. No problem – take a look over on this page because we got all sorts of different omelets.”

Was she pulling my leg? Her smile was disarming and I chose to believe she was. Because even the mistakes were charming. My wife asked if onions could be added to the hash browns, which was duly noted on the order. Then she asked for one blueberry pancake, which was also duly noted…immediately under the request for added onions. Believe it or not, the pancake arrived with onions baked into it. We presumed it was some quaint local thing, but when we mentioned it to the server her jaw dropped. Then we all seemed figure out what had happened at the same time and all of us – and I mean the folks seated over at the counter, our server, the cook, and the two of us – well we all began to laugh uncontrollably. Because, for one thing, we ate those blueberry onion pancakes. And for another thing – odd as it may sound – they tasted pretty darned good.

Stories. I need enough time to absorb the stories when I sketch.

(Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen loaded with Noodler’s; inked in Canson 180 sketchbook.)


12 August, 2017. I’m in Rogers, Arkansas this weekend to help Kim get her new apartment set up. Neither of us know the area very well, so before we got the day of lugging heavy furniture up narrow stairs begun, I headed out on my road bike to explore.

My childhood memories of this place are that it was extremely rural and more than a bit like Mayberry. As I ride around, it is quite clear that things have changed a lot; urbanization has blanketed the area with high end retail, offices, restaurants, and lots and lots of paved roads.

But top a hill and just as clearly, the roots are still in evidence, pockets of the original rural landscape still exist. In a flash, I pedaled down a divided eight lane avenue, through a light, and past a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, there to discover this pasture and barn. (Blackwing pencil in Canton 180 sketchbook.)

The Dog Days of Summer

5 August, 2017. We’re at Table Rock Lake again, which makes two weekends in a row. The arrival of August means I’ll be working with a fresh new batch of art students very soon. Meanwhile, we’re busy setting up a second household in Arkansas, not far from the dockside chair where I am currently sitting. In search of a few items with which to outfit the new digs, we’ve been engaged in a favorite pastime: prowling country auctions.

Generally speaking, a country auction means that lots of people mass into a scrum-like crowd, circling the auctioneer. Because you have to jockey for position just to see what is being sold at the moment, I discovered that the best strategies for sketching while waiting for something interesting to come up was two-fold. First, throw out any preconceptions of drawing what you see right this minute and capturing a snapshot moment. Things move way too fast, crowds are in constant motion, and the organization of people and things are in a constant state of change. Instead, I like to think of each sketch as a sort of collage: draw part of one person’s body, then when they move away, wait for an appropriate new person to move into view and use my new model to continue the drawing. By doing this repeatedly, a sketch eventually emerges. I like that this approach also means I can make compositional decisions about who to include and where to place them.

Secondly, don’t try to draw the entire crowd. It’s too much to take in. Sometimes an auction is so big the auctioneers will run two rings. When that happens, the crowd divides and generally one ring has fewer bidders. That was the case in the sketch above – the second ring was going to focus on tools but had only gotten to garden rakes and ladders and such. Few bidders were interested in these items, so the crowd was much more sparse than when the auctioneers go to the more desirable items.

One thing that I found to be an interesting challenge is that everything tends to be a clutter: people are grouped together around piles or rows of what appears to be total crap. Boxes look like trash until someone decides to dig through and “discover” the treasure hidden within. (To be fair, more times than not, there’s no treasure at all. It’s exactly what it looks like: trash.) But, it’s an interesting visual art opportunity to explore space and organization. I had fun working in pencil during my afternoon of bidding, emphasizing the representation of spatial characteristics of people and things.

And although no one said a word to me, I sensed that this was likely the first time anyone in this rural community had ever seen an artist at work. There were certainly more than a few interested folks looking over my shoulder as I scribbled into my sketchbook.

Closer to home, I’ve started looking for locations for my upcoming Kansas City Art Institute graduate workshop, “Crossroads Plein Air.”

I played around a bit with a dip pen and and orange-ish-brown ink on Fabriano paper. I’m totally in love with the loose look of the lines and the sloppy play of watercolor washes!

And just for something different, I stopped on a recent bike ride to make this watercolor sketch, focusing entirely on color and shape.


Fresh Fruit

24 July, 2017. It’s hot, and just getting hotter still, so even shopping for fresh fruit at the local farmers market has become a chore. Painting on location? Well, sketching on location.  I don’t have to worry about pencil lines drying on the page as quickly as I place them like I do with watercolor. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I added color after returning home – where, incidentally, we managed to lose electricity and air conditioning for 30 hours during triple digit heat. Ugh. (Liberty, Missouri • pencil and watercolor, approximately 7 x 7 inches on Strathmore Aquarius II.)

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.)


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.)