Two things in particular resonate for me in a drawing: line and shape. For years my line drawings have relied heavily on those characteristics. When I wander aimlessly into color, line and shape help guide my compositional decisions. And when I explore value as I’ve done in the architectural subject matter I’ve explored these past seven or eight months, line and shape are ever present.
I rely on line and shape to help me define where to place lights and darks in a drawing. It all begins with a fundamental and simple sketch. Lines form shapes.
And shapes are best defined by contrasts of value.
And compositional design is a vital part of my exploration. If the design doesn’t work, it really doesn’t matter to me how skillfully or clever I’ve been with my pencil or pen.
I lived some of my early years in the Ozarks, and pretty much all of my teens in small town America. Driving through southwest Missouri over Spring Break, wandering along the roads less traveled, it’s a lot like stepping into a time machine for me. The houses along the way remind me of the residences of my friends and my family. I’ve taken a great deal of liberty making these sketches: the proportions are often wildly at odds with the reality of a place, and in some instances I’ve invented details out of whole cloth. But they are also quite truthful in the way they make me feel, the way they transport me to places of comfort and nostalgia and memory.
Another #oneweek100people challenge has come and gone. Prolific sketchers Marc Taro Holmes and Liz Steele facilitate this online sketching challenge. The goal is simple, if a bit daunting to some: sketch 100 people in one week (or to be more accurate, five days. I guess sketchers are slaves to a standard work week!)
I’ve participated in various ways in past challenges by setting a theme for myself. One year I think I managed to get all one hundred into a single drawing! For 2023 I kind of bounced around a bit. Initially I thought I’d attempt the challenge by making Procreate paintings (top and immediately above.) But despite having a very clear concept in mind, I quickly grew bored with that approach, and honestly boredom with the digital process is the thing I ultimately find least satisfying with this medium. With more traditional mark-making tools on paper I am constantly screwing up, and that keeps me much more engaged!
More satisfying was to pick up a pencil and steal photo references from the USk sketch out last weekend, treating myself to a couple of self-portraits. While I was at it, I robbed some photo references from a friend’s camera roll and sketched an Irish music session, adding a few dabs of color along the way (below.)
Ultimately though, I wound up mostly sketching my art students as they painted their projects this week. We are days away from Spring Break, my kids are mostly crazy and bouncing off the walls and ready to end the term, and there’s a lot of “catch as catch can” in these drawings. A LOT of refinement took place after classes ended simply because the initial scribble was usually a super fast gesture. And a LOT of times it was impossible to even do a gesture because kids needed attention – I had to stop at one point because a girl decided she wanted to eat tempera paint. Ugh! But I think it’s valuable for my kids to see me making art and drawing along with them too. It’s amazing to me that they often don’t realize their art teacher CAN draw! And we have some important conversations along the way: “Well, yeah, my drawings aren’t too bad. But you do realize I have been practicing this four times longer than you’ve been alive, right?”
So, did I make it to one hundred this year? Not even close. I didn’t count them up; I didn’t feel the need to. What was important to me this time around, wasn’t quantity but fluidity. People sketches don’t feel “right” to me if they are stiff – and a lot of my sketches were too stiff. The flute player (above) seemed to come close to the settled weight of the figure and casual repose I’d feel fortunate to be able to capture with regularity. Sparse line and basic shading is important to me, too. The value of this challenge is that the volume of sketches made sort of teases out those characteristics.
Some people revere the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, others don’t. I fall into this latter category, to be quite … um, frank. I don’t care for all the odd interior angles, and I especially don’t cotton to the compartmentalized and dark corridors and spaces that seem to be integral to some of his structures. But an opportunity to sketch a Wright design was presented to Urban Sketchers Kansas City, and that sort of thing is definitely worth the gas to get there.
The Community Christian Church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is located at 46th and Main in Kansas City, Missouri. From across Main, the building feels much more horizontal than it actually is, so I made a second, more exaggerated sketch and it seems to feel more “truthful” to the place than my first drawing. There was a chill in the air, so there were only three or four of us sketching outdoors – my friend Judy recognized the extreme horizontality of the building right away and dashed off a fountain pen study that acknowledged the characteristic before, like me, heading indoors to warm up chilled hands.
Immediately next to the Wright building on Main is a place with an odd mixture of styles. The Ponce De Leon building is, I think, apartments. It is tightly nestled into a couple of steep, very narrow streets, along with numerous other apartments of rather more pedestrian design just adjacent to the Country Club Plaza. The geography is part of what I find disconcerting about the Wright building: the design relies so much on width rather than the verticality of the surrounding buildings that it feels oddly out of place, wedged into the neighborhood rather than fitting comfortably into place.
Main is currently running a single lane north and a single lane south, with the normal southbound lanes blocked off for construction of an extension of trolley rail tracks. In a word, the road is a mess! Parking for our group was found, eventually, along the twisting roads that meander behind the Community Christian Church, up and around the hill to the Kemper Museum and the Kansas City Art Institute. In fact, I might have parked at the museum and saved myself a few steps to the church.
Attendance was good – perhaps thirty-five or more sketchers, I’d guess, with several “first-timers.” I packed light, with just a pencil and sketchbook, and a folding stool that fits into my shoulder bag. Wish I’d brought gloves too!
This might be the house I really want to live in, if it were to be tightly nestled in among a grove of walnut trees. I imagine very little yard, only paths that radiate out into the trees, and from there the road and fields and brooks. The house is squat and square with a wide open floor plan so that cooking and dining and entertaining and leisure are all of a single place. There is a single room above, the main bedroom, and out front a deep porch runs the width of the place. My studio is a separate and small structure, a shed really, but close by. In the fall, walnuts drop from above, striking the roof like a drum. Squirrels scurry about – but don’t venture too close, because the cats, seemingly dozing, are in actuality quite ready to pounce.
It’s not a really old barn, not like many that can be seen from nearly every rural road, country lane, and backwater highway in the state: tall, imposing, and often leaning hazardously in one direction or another. This one is solid, a useful farm building. There’s little doubt it protects a tractor or bales of hay or various farm implements – or perhaps all of those things, and more.
Growing up on a farm, a barn is often a hub of activity, a place where workdays both begin and end, a building where kids of various ages are gathered. There’s work to be done, but a barn is also a place to play, the building behind which teenage boys sneak a first smoke or stuff a lower lip with snuff, where younger children climb onto unused tractors and pretend to drive or climb rickety wooden ladders and mess around in a thick covering of ancient and itchy straw. Sometimes there are animals, especially if the place raises hogs or it’s a milking operation. Boys, in particular, may dare each other to jump from the loft, and the painful lesson they learn is that legs and arms can be broken. They are not, despite their proclivity otherwise, invincible.
Barns often find their way into plein air paintings. Sentimentality and nostalgia run deep, and even those people who’ve never stepped foot on a farm sometimes feel a kinship to these structures, these geometric and huge boxes of wood, and red paint, and galvanized steel, and hex signs.
Sometimes light seems perfect. It strikes a person or a place or a thing just so, and one can do little other than stop and marvel. Stuff most mundane can be instantaneously transformed into that which will stop one in their tracks. A simple white house glowing against a background of dark; cast shadows contrasting against brightly lit planes. Light and the absence of light combine in the finest moments – indeed, in the rarest of moments – in the most abstract ways. Patterns emerge, sometimes complex textures even, but it’s the simplicity itself that is most striking. Such moments are often fleeting; they should be cherished in our memory, to be recalled on the remaining gray days of February.
The blacktop is curvy with lots of ups and downs, and contrasts sharply with the interstate highway, many miles behind. At first the homes are expensive examples of McMansions with well manicured lawns and pricey looking pickup trucks displayed upon equally expensive looking drives. But once one travels the curvy road for a mile or two – once the road becomes less convenient for highway access and commuting into the nearest large city – well, the homes begin to be spaced further apart. They are quickly replaced by older farm houses and barns and even the occasional one room school house. Sheds and large round bales of hay; cows, hogs, chickens, and even once a barnyard filled with alpacas; a three-wheeled bicycle with a for sale sign, dogs lounging in the front yard or trotting across a pasture. Small towns suddenly appear and then are gone every eight to ten miles. The thoroughfare is little traveled by any but the locals, and the towns themselves are largely forgotten beyond those locals. Houses and buildings, once impressive in many instances, are crumbling into ruin. They engage one’s imagination: what would it take to restore one of them to their original splendor? The answer is depressing: a lot. And beyond those particular structures, one encounters many others of more humble design, also in a state of decay. The towns sometimes boast a single remaining industry – a feed manufacturer, for instance, or an auction barn. It’s difficult to imagine them employing more than a half dozen locals, so one is left to wonder what it is that sustains those who remain. Signs mark the point at which each town limits begin. The signs bear nineteenth century birthdates and boast populations of 192, 217, 89, and so on. One major intersection in each, with a single stop sign. There’s a smell of grain, of cattle, of decay, and of tractor fumes in the air, but the places are still. There are no sounds, not of people or cars – only the random shriek of a hawk in the distant sky.
I’ve been queried a couple times recently about my sketching tools. I’m not going to rehash pens or pen nibs because I’ve posted extensively about those tools in the past.
Sketching tools don’t get a whole lot simpler than pencils. As an artist, I’ve always felt most comfortable with pens and pencils. Back in high school, I became familiar with the different grades of drawing pencil in Drafting class. As we became more proficient with those tools, most of us graduated to lead holders, and eventually to Pentel mechanical pencils. Graded leads are available for both, and the Pentel was the tool of choice for drafting. I held on to that lead holder though: it’s always been a terrific sketching companion, and since about 1976 I’ve carried it on my person, along with a kneaded eraser. It’s loaded with 6B graphite, and lasts a lot longer than most drawing pencils seem to do in my art classes!
Once, I misplaced that damn lead holder and I was absolutely devastated about the loss. It eventually turned up – thankfully! – but I ordered three replacements off of Amazon. They’re nice, a bit lighter, and maybe a bit less quality construction. They do the job, and I keep other grades of lead installed, but sentimentally I usually reach for my original holder. It’s got patina and knicks and shows usage… what is known in the bicycle world as “beausage,” a combination of “useage” and “beauty.”
A relatively recent sketching tool I have relied on for the past five or six years is the Blackwing Palomino pencil. It’s difficult to express why this pencil seems superior to others, but the lead goes down super smoothly. It’s dark and soft and I like the eraser. My only complaint is how often they need to be sharpened. (They are also pricey. But I’m willing to pay the extra in this case.)
I like how sharp the point be on the lead holder. It’s great for making quick outline and contour sketches.
6B graphite has the potential to yield a wide range of values, but I also like what happens when a drawing is scanned and the whites of the paper are digitally “cleaned up.” There’s an attractive graphic quality that results: