Story.

(Number three in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

20 August, 2018. So, you’ve got yourself a pen. Maybe it’s a fountain pen. It fits your hand perfectly, and it makes the most wondrously wonderful lines possible. Your pen (or brush or pencil or crayon or sharpened stick – really, it doesn’t make any difference what it actually is) pairs so remarkably well with the paper in your equally wonderful sketchbook that you cannot wait to make marks upon that most pristine of surfaces, the empty page. You know exactly what you want to draw (or paint or scribble, et. al.) Pen and sketchbook in hand, you are poised. I have but one incredibly poignant question to ask of you.

Why are you drawing this thing?

Seriously. These marks you wish to leave upon the page? What is driving you to make them? What interests you so much about this subject that you want to spend time making the marks?

In other words, what is the story?

Now hear me out. I realize not every scribble tells a story. (Even as I typed those words, I questioned the veracity of my statement. Maybe I should more accurately say that not every scribble is intendedto tell a story.) But the potential for narrative is one potentially important aspect of sketching. So why are you sketching thissubject in the first place? What will be different about your subject tomorrow? Later today? In five minutes?

Who is being depicted? Where are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? How did you get there? How much of the story are you willing to reveal, and how much are you wanting to hint at? How much remains obscure, so that only you know the story?

I’ve always considered myself a simple storyteller. In the classroom I usually rely on things that have happened or experiences I’ve encountered to make a point, to facilitate the “teachable moment” with my students. My sketches – and your experience may differ – well, anyway,mysketches are usually a response to that which is in front of me at a given time and place. It’s why I often choose to notate my sketches with date and location. And it’s why I often choose to elaborate upon those scribbles with text.

I often find myself unconsciously doodling on any scrap of paper that happens to be at hand, reacting to my immediate environment. The energy of those initial strokes of the pen are what most intrigues me – I interpret these loosely sketched marks as a sort of fresh shorthand for bigger, broader narratives… a conversation, if you will, only part of which the rest of the world is privy to. I feel a gestural mark communicates more through simplicity than can be told through great detail.

in a sense, we’re all making marks, most of which are scrawled upon the world and the people around us – farmers use a plow, builders a hammer, and sketchers a pen. Personally, I treasure those marks, those small moments and interactions with the everyday ordinary, and the overlooked. I choose to pause for a moment to observe these encounters in search of the story fragment that is there if we but watch for it.

So again: why areyou drawing this particular subject? What is the story you have to tell?

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Focus.

(Number two in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

12 August, 2018. One of the more difficult concepts to teach young art students is the idea of emphasis. Novices sometimes have blinders on when they start to draw, and this tends to emerge on paper in one of two ways. Some find themselves focusing only on the object of their attention, to the exclusion of all else. They find themselves with an object plopped in the middle of the paper with no context to place, time, or relationship to the world. A billion or two very unsatisfying sketchbook pages look exactly like this.

Others go in the opposite direction, drawing everything in their line of sight, and even some things that aren’t. I know a few artists who pull this off very well, but it’s important to note that what they are interested in sharing is the overall texture of a place or thing: all of that incredible detail is the subject. For the rest of us, too much stuff is visually overwhelming.

What I ask myself to consider as I sketch is pretty simple: Why am I drawing this thing or place? What exactly caught my attention in the first place? An object? A building? A person? When I can answer that question I know where to focus my attention, and thus my drawing. I draw that. Everything else in the sketch that contributes to the story is important. Anything that does not is a distraction from the story and from the focal point.

So I don’t feel obligated to include tons of detail in those areas that are a distraction. Maybe they don’t even need to be drawn at all, or perhaps they need to be simplified into basic shapes or values.

In the sketch above, made at yesterday’s plein air event, Paint the Forest, I was interested in the way that light played across the ground, tracing the topography of Line Creek Trail. Patches of light struck some of the other plein air artists ahead of me. And the receding perspective of the path itself helped to create leading lines, emphasizing these interesting areas.

All around was a cacophony of tree limbs and branches and foliage and trunks and all sorts of stuff. But none of it mattered, visually, because to focus on them would have meant taking away from those areas that interested me most. So all of that stuff got simplified into three elements:

  • simplified verticals and horizontals
  • simplified solids (or quasi-solids)
  • simplified lights and darks

The path and the people are also simplifications, but they contrast from the surrounding spaces, crossing over or separating from them, contrasting by breaking from the patterns of striating light and shadow. Those surrounding spaces have just enough visual information to communicate a sense of place and, perhaps, a bit of theatricality. But because they are intentionally abstracted into directional shapes and patterns, they aid the viewer by moving the eye into and through the drawing.


5.5 x 8.5 inches, using a fude tip fountain pen and Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen on Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series paper.

Scale.

(Number one in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

4 August, 2018. I’ve been gathering my thoughts around a list of topics I consider to be important for a positive, fun, and personally successful sketching experience. I started out with a couple of “non-rules,” simple guidelines and suggestions I found myself sharing with my drawing students and fellow sketchers. My list eventually grew to ten non-rules I more or less follow in my own work. And like most such things, I do tend to ignore one or all of them from time to time. But invariably, when I find a sketch is somehow personally dissatisfying, a quick analysis generally reveals I’ve ignored one of these ten principle ideas. So there you have it: I ignore my own advice at my peril.

So, principle number one: Scale. What do we mean by “scale?”

Fundamentally, it refers the size of things. In a drawing, scale refers to the size of one object in comparison to others. If you make a sketch of a very tall tree with a person standing in front of it, the drawn scale of those objects is important viewer information. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’ve drawn the very tall tree so that it is about the same height as the person. Because we know the tree is in reality very tall, a viewer may assume the tree is in the background, far off in the distance. Otherwise how would it appear to be the same height as the person? If instead, we want the person to appear to be near the tree, it may be that we draw it so large that only part of the trunk and lower branches are visible; the scale of the tree is much larger than the person.

The concept is probably pretty obvious, and I’m certain a long and tediously academic discussion could be formed around this topic. Let’s keep things simple and more to the point by considering how scale in your sketch influences the viewing experience:

Be aware of the size of your drawn objects relative to each other and relative to the page. Ask yourself: Is everything of similar size in your drawing? (Booooo-ring!) Try to make somethings more important than others by varying the size of objects.

In the sketch above, I’ve used scale to create the illusion of a crowd that extends into space. The size of the people vary and a viewer understands that some are closer, while others are further away. Compare the size of people to the car in the near ground. We understand that the car is closer than most of the crowd, not only because of the overlapping shapes, but also because it’s quite a bit larger than the comparatively small people in the background. Extending that thinking further, even the people in the middle ground are large in comparison to the buildings, again cluing the viewer in on how much distance exists between them, and between the buildings and us, the viewers.

I enjoy finding ways to communicate the illusion of space as simply and efficiently as possible. Pay attention to how you manipulate scale in your sketches. I think you’ll find this is an effective tool for designing a more visually interesting composition.

Thumbnails are important.

2 August, 2018. I’m in charge of this month’s Urban Sketchers demo tomorrow night. A lot of sketchers seem to be curious about the attention I’ve been giving to gouache on gray-toned paper, so that’s going to be my focus. But it occurs to me that the technique is really only a delivery vehicle; unless the drawing or painting has been designed to create visual interest the technique really doesn’t matter much. With that in mind I decided to outline some of the steps I occasionally take when I plan a “people” sketch.

The first thing to understand is that people move. They are there and then gone. So it’s important to capture the gesture as quickly as you can (see above) if you want your figures to be believable. Focus on the most basic key lines. I seldom spend more than ten seconds doing so. (Think about it: In ten seconds, your subject is gonna be a hundred yards away, so you have to work quickly.)

Once you’ve got a gesture that you like, and a location that tells a story, take a piece of scrap paper (or better yet, tracing paper!) and place it over the gesture. Use the gesture as a guide for planning the form and how the clothing drapes. 

It’s ok to think about some general detail, but don’t focus on eyelashes or nostrils at this stage!

Figures move, but your “stage” does not. You can take more time to make as many thumbnails of the “space” as you like to ensure that the figure is placed in the most interesting position. Look for details that imply depth and scale now.

Design is important. It’s what makes a visual story interesting. Think about design as you redraw the sketch, dividing the composition into thirds. (Asymmetry is always more interesting than symmetry.) Experiment with eliminating detail, and with the figure ground relationship by massing values. Now, you’re ready to make a drawing.

This is the handout I plan to have on hand for tomorrow night’s demonstration. I’m hoping it will provide a little context before just diving into the technique. Feel free to download the image.

Experimentation

29 July, 2018. I’ve been pretty busy this past week getting the Art Department ready for the start of classes in a couple of weeks. Long story short: Not a lot of time to paint or sketch – but plenty of opportunity to be pondering ideas.

Occupying my thoughts has been gouache and limited color palettes. Gouache continues to intrigue me as a media, and I love how a minimalist approach to color results in harmonious combinations. A surprising number of people have asked me about using gouache as a plein air media, so just to prove to the more incredulous I made this 6 x 9 inch sketch. The colors on my palette are Perylene Violet, Ultramarine, Yellow Ochre, and white – the jury is still out for me on this particular triad, by the way.

I tried as best I could to make a photo from the same point-of-view as my painting position, but the wide angle lens of the iPhone tends to exaggerate reality somewhat. I wanted something to look at to later compare the location color to what results from the use of the limited palette. Sketchers can’t get hung up, however, on making a “photographic” color match. In fact, I think a successful sketch relies more on value contrasts, color massing, and a certain degree of loose invention.

One other thing that’s occupied my thoughts has been field kit. I make no secret that I try to keep my kit as minimal as possible. I’ve got a wonderful plein air pochade box that I once used when I still painted in oils, but it – pretty much like every other similar set up – just feels cumbersome to me. I want something that I can either carry under my arm or, even better, in my hip pocket. It’s why I prefer a sketchbook and a few pocket tools.

But I want to be able to supplement that effort with kit that allow me to work a little larger from time to time, or to use for demonstration purposes. This is why I decided to just build my own, relying on a sturdy light weight tripod that I already own and a lightweight platform constructed from high grade wood. A tripod socket was installed on the underside of the platform.

The platform – I don’t have a name for this thing! – works really well and is very sturdy. It’s light enough that I can carry it along as a drawing board. I plan to add a thin lip along the bottom edge so my brush doesn’t roll off!

These acts of experimentation is fun and I like that I was able to “field test” my invention while also continuing to experiment with gouache and color.

To color, or not to color?

21 July, 2018. There are times I worry my sketches are getting a little too precious. I really prefer they be incomplete thoughts rather than finished artworks. I like to experiment, so I kick myself when I begin to wonder if I’ve taken a sketch “too far.” I mean, that’s really sort of the point in the first place, isn’t it?

So here I find myself in a dilemma of sorts. I am enjoying my recent foray into gouache over toned paper. I’m enjoying the effect of black and white inks over toned paper. And I’m enjoying the way the two approaches blend together. The dilemma is that I like the look and the story-telling qualities that result from both approaches. I asked myself if I’ve gone too far by adding the color (or, conversely, should I have added color to my black, white, and gray sketch?) The mood, atmosphere, and even expressiveness changes with the addition of color. One person says color makes the scene “happier,” while another vehemently disagrees.

I like how the absence of color de-emphasizes the skin color of my subject in the black and white version. In the color version, the emphasis is on the shapes created by the group of people. It makes me realize how much my choices can affect the narrative. Color, value, contrast, etc. are more than just Elements of Art; they are story telling devices.

I find I have little in the way of drawing consistency, by the way. Sometimes my figure drawings seem to just fly off the pencil or pen and onto the paper, other times I find myself making much more expressively cartoonishly exaggerated characterizations. The pencil of this one felt stiff at the time I was sketching it out, but a day later I found myself admiring the construction as I began to add inked lines to the page. Inventing the fabric patterns that I kind of sort of think I recall was the most fun part of moving from pencil to ink.

By the way, if you’re not dividing your page into thirds to remind yourself how to place key elements of your design, you’re missing out on a compositional device that I find very helpful. I’m not a slave to the practice, but it sure does help to keep sketches from looking like the subject was just plopped down in the center of the page. I really believe that asymmetrical balance is far more interesting than symmetry of design.

The Heat Is On


18 July 2018. It is densely humid. The temperature is flirting with one hundred degrees: in a word, the heat is stifling. Along Prospect Avenue, to those who are observant there is a concrete “park” – in other words, an expanse of off street pavement. Perhaps a building once stood on this spot, or even two. It’s difficult to accurately gauge.

And it’s really of no concern to a group of eighteen or twenty children running around, happily oblivious to anything beyond the boundary of tarmac and broken concrete and old foundation. Adjoining the sidewalk stands a tall tree, its canopy offering a trifling umbrella of shade. Standing watch within the meager cover – sitting, actually, in two folding lawn chairs – are a pair of women, mothers. They chat, one watchful and ever vigilant eye on the youngsters.

Games are invented on the spot, the rules constantly evolve, kids run and skip, visible waves of heat rise from the ground, generating an atmospheric disturbance ignored by all.

I inked the basic drawing with a fude-tipped fountain pen and filled the black areas using a fat marker loaded with India ink. The fude tip is flexible, with a wide range of line widths possible; it was an excellent choice to generate the expressive quality I hoped to achieve in this sketch.

I’ve unexpectedly returned to using a pencil to draft the construction drawing rather than making a direct ink sketch as I’ve been wont to do for a while.

 

Structures

10 July, 2018. There’s beauty in the sometimes haphazard way we cobble together the structural aspects of our world to make the places we live and work and play functional. Wood and stone, gravel, wire, logs – they’re all the Legos we put together, take apart, then put back together again. The configurations evolve as our needs change. Things get nailed in place, leaned up against a wall, tied to something else.

Light falling upon the most pedestrian of things, the most utilitarian of buildings, can result in the most dramatic of atmospheres, the most touching of aesthetic experiences. Places of work intrigue me. People toil in these places, and when they’ve left, gone home; when they are occupying another space, the emptiness left in their wake is powerful. The loneliness is poignant.

My tools of the moment are a Uni-Ball Vision pen, a Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, a limited palette of gouache and a flat brush. The gray-toned paper in my Stillman and Birn sketchbook is pretty close to perfect for my present needs. 

A Tale of Two Water Medias

8 July, 2018. As I’ve demonstrated on these pages the past several months, gouache media has captured my attention and a fair percentage of my sketching focus. I find myself torn in some ways: torn between using gouache as a limited tool (as above) vs. using the opaque paints to create a work in its entirety (as below). I’m also torn between gouache and watercolor. It’s easy to say well don’t be torn, use them both. But they handle so differently and have such different personalities.

I appreciate the way that gouache can be handled rather thickly – almost an impasto technique. This little color study demonstrates that brush marks can be incorporated into a media that I used to think was only suited for perfect, flat colors. There’s an energy  to this approach that can feel electric, fresh, and lively.

And so it’s been mostly gouache for me the past week or so, and definitely the past five or six months. I needed a bit less heavy handed touch so I went back to my pencil sketches and hit some of them with light washes of watercolor. Aside from water, the two paint medias are seriously different. The application of paint differs: On the one hand delicate little touches of watercolor, or bold washes of gradient color; on the other, much thicker individual strokes, opaque. The tools I use differ: with gouache it’s a stiffer bristle brush, probably made for oil or acrylic; with watercolor I prefer a nice quality round in a 12 or 14 size.

One media is energized, while the other tends to be sedate. These little sketches have a ton of “Dib-dabs” throughout.

When I got back home and made a few watercolor sketches, it felt good to simply “do.” Watercolor doesn’t require a lot of technical thought for me, whereas gouache is still new enough, still unknown enough, that I’m working towards a better understanding of it every single time I paint. Weirdly, I find myself referring to the use of watercolor as “sketching” while the process of applying gouache is painting. I wonder why I make that unconscious distinction?

I was one of the artists featured during a city-wide “Water Garden Society Tour” and felt less inclined to use gouache than watercolor. I do wonder though. I wonder if the dense shadows of foliage, painted thickly, is some of my recent practices in gouache painting emerging in my watercolor sketches. Could be there’s room for both in my life.

Color Studies

4 July, 2018. Now that my June travels have ended, numerous people have said things like “What are you up to now?” and “Must be nice to be off all summer long.” As it happens, I report back in just a few weeks so I am using every spare minute to sketch, draw, or paint. Once I’m back in the classroom, opportunities to do so will be stretched very thin for a while.

Sometime back – around a hundred days ago or so – I set myself a goal of creating 100 small gouache paintings in 100 days. I didn’t make that goal, but the point in doing so was to learn the media. And I’m feeling more and more confident as I continue to experiment with color palette, technique, and papers. Most recently I’ve been working on small color studies to explore ways to respond to light and shadow.

These are rather liberating in one sense: because the focus is on combination of color, the stress of representation is off.

A few weeks ago I wandered into a gallery and was surprised to discover they were selling work from some of my favorite artists: Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth, and Wolf Kahn, to name but a few. I’ve admired Kahn’s use of color immensely and the experience of standing in front of his monumental canvases, just soaking in the color, prompted me to begin these color studies. I want to be cautious that his influence isn’t too strong – I’d rather not wake up one day only to discover what I’m doing is simply derivative. But it’s fun and interesting, and intellectually stimulating all at the same time.

Nearly all of my recent color explorations have been in gouache. This has changed the way I’ve been approaching my sketchbook stuff: rather than working directly with a pen, I’ve been composing with pencil first to nail down shapes and proportions.

This allows me to create an inked line drawing as a second step, with time to deliberately plan out the large black negative areas that I love to incorporate into my sketches. The drama and impact of these shapes is important to me and important to composition. This also allows me to work faster in the field, because the third and final step is getting done later on.

“Later on,” because I want to ponder how color will affect the way each composition gets “read.” I am trying to take advantage of the three values: black ink, white gel pen ink, and gray of the paper, while at the same time purposely selecting areas of color painted in gouache. The effect is interesting because there are areas that are rendered that contrast with areas that are flat. It feels to me as if the space is being redefined by the lines, color, and the choice to leave some of it untouched.

There’s also a sort of storybook character to these illustrations, and that narrative quality intrigues me to no end.

I said nearly all of my color work had been made with gouache, but earlier this week I felt like working on something large. So I got out my butcher tray and watercolor kit, a couple of really big brushes, and a full sheet of Arches. This particular scene from Menemsha has been in the back of my mind for a couple weeks now – no idea why. I don’t feel like the watercolor, regardless of the scale, does it justice and may take another stab at it. This one feels to me like a study rather than a finished piece.