And yet…

21 January, 2019. Man, this paper is a pain in the keister! Ink bleeds like crazy. My super compliant Caran D’Ache pastels don’t want to stick, and dragging the nib of my pen across the paper is a lot like driving a Jeep across the surface of the moon. It seems to suck ink right out of my pen reservoir too. Oh, and forget about activating those water soluble pastels with a brush.

And yet…

Drawing on lousy paper is fraught with frustrations. Marks happen by chance. There’s just something about the unpredictability that makes sketching an appealing act of happenstance.

From time to time I’ll cut up a brown bag from the grocery store to draw upon. It’s a bit like butcher paper, but not as nice. The paper in this sketchbook is awful. It seems to have been formulated from some sort of oatmeal/palm frond/sandpaper/asteroid pulp recipe. The surface is irregular and looks hand made (although I doubt it actually is.)

The cover is laughably kitschy, but it does brighten up an otherwise cold and gloomy looking January world. It’s an embarrassingly “touristy” look, quite frankly, and the binding, while functional, is inset so far from the spine that a lot of real estate is lost: the effective useful drawing area is much smaller from side-to-side than it would appear at first glance. And that twig! It’s an entirely decorative accent (as is the cut out fish); it makes me chuckle just a little bit. This is a sketchbook you simply cannot take seriously.

And yet…

It is a fun surface to mark upon. In a way, it reminds me of the crummy manilla paper I used for pen and ink drawings when I was a kid. I’d no idea at the time that “artist paper” was even a thing and so I used dip pens and India ink over terrible paper that was only barely workable. And doing so meant braving the frustrations of the inevitable ink spatter and blobs. As an adolescent, those frustrations led to more than one bottle of ink getting thrown across the room.

I’m also reminded of Renaissance era artist sketches. As I was floundering my way through the world of dip pens, the twelve year old me was gifted art books by my aunt. One book I particularly recall was illustrated with ink sketches by Rembrandt. The lines were spare and at the same time incredibly expressive. The sketches were made with what I imagine was a crude dip pen and represented a very handmade process. The paper never allowed a “perfect” line to be formed. I suspect now that Rembrandt’s paper had discolored over time, but everything about the paper in my sketchbook reminds me of his drawings: the color, the way lines are broken and skitter across the surface. Such paper encourages one very simplistic approach to drawing, a sort of imperfection that I find attractive.

Once upon a time, in a life before I was an art educator, I was a designer and illustrator. It was how I made my living. With the advent of Instagram and various other social medias, I’ve noticed a cascade of younger art makers are labelling themselves as illustrators. I sort of wonder how many of them realize that illustrators, for the most part, make art for someone else – that illustrators are hired to express the ideas of others. Illustrations are assignments generated by others and executed by illustrators. I wonder if that label of “illustrator” is self bestowed as a means of validating their art making. I hope not.

Illustration is a valid form of art making, but I no longer consider myself to be an illustrator, except in the very broadest sense of the word. I draw what I enjoy, when I enjoy, and where I enjoy. Any “assignments” are my own and no apologies are necessary for how crudely my marks are made.

Even when they are made on crummy paper.

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Winter Gloom

18 January, 2019. Boy, am I ever done with this weather! As I write this, the world outside my window is layer upon layer of opaque white, actually quite lovely looking in a very graphic sort of way. But I’m stuck indoors so much that I’m going just a little batty. Snow, cold, frozen fog, drizzle – none of it is particularly conducive to getting outside.

I’ve been staying pretty close to my neighborhood, especially last weekend when a big snow storm hit us. Finally, deciding I really couldn’t wander from one end of the house to the other yet again, I got into the four wheel drive and headed out to explore. The world was, as my sketch above indicates, entirely black and white.

Down the hill from here is a Chinese restaurant that I visit every now and then. With the Subaru already warmed up, the cold was braved and spring rolls helped to assuage the gloom of winter.

Uni-Ball Vision pen in Crescent sketchbook, page size is approximately 3.5 x 5 inches.

Snowbound sketches on cruddy paper, and lovin’ every second.

15 January, 2019. So we’re snowed in and cleaning up over the weekend, and come across a forgotten and unused sketchbook filled with seriously crummy paper.

The sketchbook is made from banana leaves or palm fronds or something similar…loads of texture and flecks of crud. I figure it’ll probably be like sandpaper on my fountain pen, but decided what the heck, what’ve I got to lose?

Those of you who know me, know I almost always work from life on location, but we were pretty much snowbound for the most part. Another thing we stumbled upon during cleaning was some vacation photos from 2009. (Yes, we need to clean more often.)

Anyway, I made several quick ink sketches on the banana paper (or whatever) using my photos as reference. It was fun looking through images of Scotland from a decade past; memories of particular places and events suddenly felt like they’d happened just yesterday. Even the terror of finding myself on a trail high up in the mountains that required me to do a bit of rock climbing to get to the other side brought back a chill and cold sweat. (Prudently, I returned the way I came up rather than doing the mountaineering thing.)



The long and short of it is that even though I had to keep cleaning off my constantly clogging pen nib, I had a blast trying something new and artistically “wrong.” It was fun forcing my pen to do something it didn’t really want to do, the paper sucked ink out of the reservoir like a sponge, and the unexpected line quality was exciting to watch unfold.

Visceral Reactions

13 January, 2019. I’m finally getting around to scanning some of the past week’s sketches. This is from my kinda-sorta on-again-off-again sketch series of skies.

To be perfectly clear, these little sketches are not intended to be anything other than a quick impression. I’m making little attempt to be realistic and only barely representational. It’s just a fun way to play around with color – a little playfulness without getting too serious about doing so. Even with my more representational work I always look for the abstract in a scene and this is a fun way to do that.

My sketches are often a narrative response to a place or time or event. These sketches of skies are more visceral. The start and end of a day can be more of an aesthetic experience, and if I really explore my intentions here I’d probably find it’s aesthetics driving me. But frankly, I’m not thinking deeply or analyzing my motivations…I’m simply tossing paint on the page for the pure pleasure of doing so.

Watercolor on Arches rough, 7 x 7 inches.

Baseball History

6 January, 2019. There he is, Satchel Paige, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, looking for the signal from catcher Josh Gibson, one of the greatest power hitters of all time. In the outfield stands Cool Papa Bell, deceptively languid. He is considered by many baseball observers to be one of the fastest men to ever play the game, and he calmly stands waiting for anything to be hit remotely in his direction. 

We’re at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum today. Our January First Saturday sketch walk has us visiting with some of the legends of baseball in a location that almost immediately turned into one of our chapter’s favorite spots to sketch. The museum exhibits are wonderful. Wandering through the space, sketchers seem to be around every corner, in the lobby, outside sketching in the 18th and Vine Jazz District. One particular highlight of our morning is the exhibit in the central part of the museum, a baseball field populated with statues of baseball legends at their positions, ready to play ball. On and around the field USkKC sketchers have positioned themselves and are sketching with intensity.

Uniball in Canson 180 sketchbook, color added digitally after scanning; page size is approximately 8 x 10 inches.

A perfectly good building.

4 January, 2019. My friend Peggy asked me if I’d had a chance to sketch the building at 47th and Pennsylvania yet. I’m still on break between semesters so my brain is set to “Pause” at the moment – I admitted I had no idea which building she was talking about.

“It’s the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the Country Club Plaza, and you better get down there before they tear it down!”

Wednesday morning dawned, bright and cold, the first day of commerce in 2019. I stood in the shadow of McCormick & Schmick’s, studying the scene before me: The fencing and hardhats and construction equipment that surrounded what I think is an iconic Plaza structure was incongruous with the building and all of it’s architectural fellows. My understanding is limited – unless someone comes along to save it, the location is going to be used for a new building. It seems like a terrible waste to me, and – once again – a terrible loss of our own history. I haven’t seen drawings of the new building yet, but I’m fearful of a tall gray box with lots of mirrored glass.

Standing on the sidewalk, I sketch quickly. Although I’ve brought two pair of gloves, I immediately discover that one pair is too thin and my hands are in pain from the cold within minutes. The other pair is much warmer, but so thick that it’s virtually impossible to handle my pen with any dexterity at all. Those are abandoned and I finish the sketch with my fingers numb.

Later, when I archive my sketch onto Flickr, I caption it “yeah, just tear it down you fools.” Small solace, I know.

After freezing my hands to the point of numbness, I collected myself and my sketch kit and retired to the warmth of a favorite restaurant for lunch. To my surprise, I discovered there were some unused pages at the back of this small Crescent sketchbook. That discovery delighted me far more than it should have – like the twelve year old that I am at heart, I find undue glee in trifling happenstance.

Scrambling outside to sketch on one of those empty pages, the world had warmed a little. Gloves were comfortable, but no longer necessary. I quickly sketched the entrance to McCormick and Schmick’s.

And immediately behind the restaurant, construction workers in yellow vests continued to work, unabated.

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Uniball Vision and Pitt “Big Brush.” The top sketch is approximately 8 x 10 inches in a Canson 180 sketchbook; the lower sketch is in a Crescent sketchbook, the page size is about 3 x 5 inches.

Urban Sketchers Symposium Correspondent

1 January, 2019. I’m very excited to finally be able to share the news that I’ll be traveling to Amsterdam this year as a sketcher-correspondent for the 2019 International Urban Sketchers Symposium!

The International Urban Sketchers Symposium is dedicated to fostering and celebrating the practice of on-location sketching in the host city. The event offers valuable field-sketching instruction and opportunities for participants to network and socialize. Following our spirit of “sharing the world, one drawing at a time,” we aim to bring the Symposium to new cities and countries every year. PortlandLisbonSanto DomingoBarcelonaParatySingapore Manchester and Chicago have hosted previous editions of the Symposium.

At the end of a highly competitive, rigorous selection process, three outstanding candidates were chosen to cover the Amsterdam symposium as correspondents: Mark Anderson(Liberty, Missouri, USA), Mariia Ermilova (Tokyo) and Gwen Glotin (Amsterdam). The USk Editorial Team and Executive Board are pleased to have selected a strong, committed team for the important volunteer role of reporting on the 10th annual USk Symposium. (Read more…)

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Click here to learn more about Urban Sketchers

Recipe Gone Awry.

30 December, 2018. It’s a Sunday morning, cold, and I’m too slothful to wander outside to sketch today. One of the dogs is curled up on a throw rug at my feet, enjoying the warmth of the studio while I thumb through sketches in search of something to draw.

I pause for a moment to look at this pencil sketch from my recent trip to New Orleans. This is “Gumbo Marie,” a chef at the New Orleans School of Cooking who taught a group of us how to prepare gumbo her way – the “correct” way. I’d scribbled down something she said, a quote that I really love and thought summed up her personality way better than my sketch did.

Did this pencil study excite me enough to go any further with it? I really wasn’t feeling it, so I kept thumbing through pages. Eventually, finding little to get me pumped up I found my way back to these sketchbook pages.

So here I am, nearly a month returned from my visit. My memory is fading quickly. With only a vague plan in mind for where I’m going to take things, I jump in with a pen, leaving my penciled field notes in place. As usual, I begin to look for ways to contrast large black areas against the inked focal point. I’m a little unhappy to have lost the energy of the pencil lines. They created an impression of the person and the inked lines are “too” precise. To me, they look like something from a coloring book.

After a little deliberation, I decide to take it easy with the white pen I’ve begun to use. Instead, I add some touches of color with gouache. I sure like how the painterly characteristics wipe out the “coloring book” appearance of the “too deliberate” line drawings.

I re-read Marie’s quote now and chuckle to myself. It kind of applies to the backward approach I’ve used to develop this sketch. But like a surprising twist to a recipe gone awry, I wind up liking how the dish turned out after all.

Restoration of a Revival

29 December, 2018. Peeking over the walls of some rather more industrial looking structures in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District is the spired belfry of the restored Webster House. Originally designated Webster School, the building is an example of Richardson Romanesque architecture, a 19th Century American style that was itself a revival of thousand-year old Roman designs. 

When you look closely, Kansas City is filled with architectural surprises. My personal knowledge of architectural styles has always been very limited, but my personal tastes are broad. While fairly well defined, those tastes continue to evolve as I discover – or rediscover –  interesting structures in and around my home town. Richardson Romanesque is one description with which I was previously unfamiliar, but which holds some interest for me. (Studying examples of the style, an eventual move toward Beaux-arts decoration kind of helps makes sense of the stylistic evolutions to me.)

The internet is a rich repository of information and makes it easier to learn about and distinguish between the dizzying variety of design styles, many of which are a sort of “collage” of things that came before. One thing that intrigues me is the patchwork quilt of human-made stuff that results over time, whether that’s a bird’s eye view of roads and fields, or the hodgepodge mixture of building additions that take place over time. The Crossroads Arts District is a good example of structural collage, buildings of various purposes and eras that are nestled one next to the other in a sort of “roll of the dice” city plan.

Proportion and Continuity

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

“Proportion” is a word that gets used a lot in art, but seems to me to be largely misunderstood. So let’s begin with a bit of common ground by establishing what I am referring to when I talk about proportion in sketching, which is the relative size and scale of the various objects appearing in your drawing.

In the observed world (see my reference photo above), a sketcher might consider various proportions. For instance, when I draw something is the width of an object proportionally accurate when compared to the height of that object? Is the size and shape of that entire object proportionally accurate when compared to other objects within the motif? What about the space between objects? Or the scale of objects appearing closer vs. further away? If one’s objective is to make a photographically accurate rendering, proportionality becomes a very important factor.

So does that mean proportionality is no longer important if one is making a sketch that is purposefully not photographically accurate? A drawing in which exaggeration is intentional? I would argue that proportionality is, in fact, of even greater value to the artist if one is hoping for a degree of authenticity or believability.

My sketches are nearly always exaggerated in some manner. I choose to use line and shape as a means of expressiveness. Compare the shape of my buildings above to the photograph – there are significant differences in the forms themselves, not to mention the placement and spacing. But while the drawing couldn’t be placed over the photograph on a light box with any degree of accuracy, I feel like it is true to the place. Artists make decisions about what to include and what to leave out all the time. So too do we make decisions about proportionality.

In fact, I find that continuity is much more useful in a drawing than photographic accuracy. Whether your shapes are drawn in a quirky or cartoonish way, or very accurately, the goal is to shoot for consistency throughout the drawing.

To make my point, I’ve shared four images of the same subject this morning: two are variations using line, one is a loose watercolor sketch, and the other is a photographic reference of the location I sketched. The line art and the watercolor are stylistically different; neither are “accurate” to the photograph. But I feel like both are “truthful” representations of the place and time. You’d probably recognize the place from the sketches. Proportionality has been used to “stretch” the otherwise squat vertical objects in a very horizontal motif. Perhaps this exaggeration of proportion helps to communicate the personality of the structures and place and time better than photographic accuracy might.

To pull this off, sketchers must be consistent in the way that proportions are exaggerated. To do otherwise risks creating a sketch that, while perhaps quite skillful, is somehow less believable, less convincing to a viewer.