At its very best, sketching is an act of invention.
Playful lines, celebration of the imperfect, joy in those imperfections and mistakes and a happy dance around happenstance. Drawing on paper, watching as ink bleeds or soaks through a crappy sheet in an unexpected manner, scanning, correcting, and then altering – as I did here – it’s a sort of jazz improvisation.
I made this simple sketch, then added a simple, stark black background on my computer to heighten the visual drama. The two trees were inverted digitally, and I’m happy with the result.
Last Saturday morning was partially dedicated to unrolling, cutting, scoring, and folding three new concertina-fold sketching pamphlets. I don’t always sketch on these things, so I figured I’d be set for a while.
Somehow, I got the wild hair to use each of them to generate one single drawing – albeit a sketch made up from various sources I encountered. And that’s how I wound up here, today, Saturday morning a week later, with all three of those sketch pamphlets completely filled with inked lines.
It’s an interesting concept, creating one really long drawing. First off, there’s a sort of narrative that begins to unfold – in this case, a sort of memoir of an afternoon journey. There’s also an element of chance because each subject is a separate encounter. Each addition to the sketch is an improvisation, an impromptu add-on.
I mostly used my big, heavy, very juicy Duke 551 fude-nib fountain pen, a drawing instrument I dearly love drawing with. I’ve found an ink/paper combination where the lines don’t reactivate if I decide to toss a bit of watercolor wash on top later. In fact, I did so, but it was less satisfying than I had hoped. The black lines are all the magic I desire, personally.
We drove along old US 24 Highway, roughly in the direction of my hometown, passing through farm country and apple country and peach country. Corn and bean fields lie fallow this time of year, and the apple barns are empty. From time to time we roll past a small winery, the gravel parking area playing host to two or three cars. I imagine couples pulled over for an impromptu tasting, pretending to enjoy the cloyingly sweet wines of Missouri river country.
Saturday morning I cut, scored, and folded several concertina-style sketching pamphlets using various heavy art papers. A couple are made from Arches watercolor paper, and others – like this one – use a roll I’ve had long enough that I don’t recall what it even is. BFK Rives Printmaking Paper, possibly? Honestly, it’s been in the closet so long that the paper grains have “curve memory” and I had to use my bookbinders press to flatten the folded pamphlets.
Someone on Instagram asked me about how I planned out this 40 inch wide drawing.
Look, most of the time I just start drawing and let my pen make decisions for me. A sketch like this is mostly spontaneous, with almost no planning at all, no “vision” of an end product. It just is.
No, what drove me most was a desire to use my fude-nib fountain pen. It uses so much ink I had to refill it three times during this sketch… and most of the fills were done with a Pitt Big Brush marker. And ironically, I didn’t really capitalize on the variable line width that characterizes this particular pen.
This has been a little off-and-on side project of mine for a while, a sketchbook dedicated entirely to inked lines, no color or wash, and definitely no underlying pencil drawing. Just direct sketching.
Oh, and it’s also a celebration of imperfection.
“Imperfection,” to me, is that quality that makes something visually interesting. It’s evidence of “the artist’s hand.” It’s what happens when we simply enjoy making marks on paper. It’s “not perfect.”
Which, in a way, is just perfect.
I took scans of the drawings in this sketchbook and used Photoshop to composite them into one very long strip. I calculated and added and measured and then measured again to make sure all of the folds hit right where I wanted them to hit.
And then true to the nature of this series, nothing lined up, and some page sizes seemed to be off.
I had to print everything out in 8.25 inch tall by 36 inch wide strips, then add white paper edges and bookbinder’s glue to join the entire concertina-fold booklet.
With seven 36 inch wide sections joined, the entire booklet is twenty-one feet wide when spread out flat.
Why create a twenty-one foot wide booklet? I dunno.
Just because, I suppose.
Later this morning I’m going to create a couple of new sketchbooks out of heavy Arches watercolor paper, probably in a star book configuration. I’m interested in pushing the narrative quality further, maybe some sort of sequential sketching. This seems like a good time to just let chance, opportunity, and events drive the work.
Late last week I joined my Italian friends from Urban Sketchers Liguria for an hour of sketching and live music. Through the magic of Facebook and the internet, we were all of us able to sketch together virtually while enjoying the sounds of Simon Dietzsche.
Simon Dietzsche…Is that the name of the band, I wondered to myself? Or is it the name of the lead singer? I never heard one way or another, and to be fair I didn’t ask either. It’s an interesting experience listening to music sung in another language. In places, the rhythms and voice patterns are unfamiliar, yet the music, the instrumentation, the beat is resoundingly and at once a very common tongue. It is the lingua franca that binds us, all of us, together.
Whoever was operating the camera for this virtual concert could have done us all a favor and slowed down the panning. My head was spinning from trying to keep up with the movement! The experience of watching people on a screen is far different that in person. The camera creates an unnatural point of view, and the context is completely different than what one would normally have as someone in the crowd. This event was particularly challenging: broadcast concerts tend to rely on multiple cameras, of course, but they are usually stationary. My sense is that the camera was probably something like an iPhone, which made it easy for the operator to weave in and out, between and among the members of the band.
Oddly, it wasn’t distracting after a few minutes of adjustment. Sketching became a memory exercise, and a constant check and recheck of detail and waiting on the camera to return to the subject I was drawing. Sketching was a sort of performance art, a dance choreographed with the scene as it was revealed. Participation in the mise en scène. In a way, the experience was more intimate than it might otherwise be. More than anything else, it was abundantly clear how much I miss the opportunity to bathe in live music.
I discovered that people sketching is still possible if you stand outside and look through the plate glass windows of a store. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, one looks suspiciously like one is casing the joint. But surprisingly, people are still shopping, much to my surprise and consternation.
Like most people, I’m quite happy to bid 2020 adieu. Good riddance. Be off with ya, mate.
But that isn’t my topic this morning. 2020 is over now. And to be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the past. I’m frankly more interested in the “now,” and what’s next. I suppose it’s interesting to see the stats on my Flickr account, Instagram, even this blog. The “Top Nine” thing? Yeah, I do it. It’s always a surprise, but never instructive. It’s never reflective of the sketches I like best, it doesn’t say anything about what worked out for me, even when it was difficult to pull off. I know it’s cynical to say, but the “Top Nine” is only reflective of what has caught the eye of others, a momentary glance and a quick, easy flick of a finger. There we go: “Like.”
2020 has been a year for the ages. Thinking back, I realize I went through several phases – tons of sketchbooks, a brief sojourn drawing a cartoon strip as a means of responding to the surreal world of a pandemic, from pen and ink to Apple Pencil to watercolor and then cycling back again. My students transformed overnight from rowdy kids to neat rows of small videos; art lessons turned my home studio into a broadcast center. My workshops all became digital, and my iPhone and iPad got a few new friends in the form of boom mics, lighting, iPad stands, etc. A lot changed, and a lot remained constant.
A theme seemed to emerge in many of my sketches – or at least I felt comfortable putting a label on it: Lonesomeness.
To be clear, not loneliness, which I conflate with sadness.
No, lonesomeness, to me, is a positive quality. A characteristic of being apart. Alone, but not lonely. Refuge, maybe?
I’ve been aware of this theme for several years now, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’m intrigued by abandoned places, certainly, but it’s more than that. People, for instance, can find a place of refuge away from others or even in a crowd.
Places can be particularly endowed with a sense of lonesomeness. I find myself drawn to houses nestled deep in an old neighborhood, homes I encounter along country roads. Surrounded by trees or fields of corn or other houses – there is a sense sometimes of being apart, distanced from everything else.
Dining out – you remember dining out? Well, dining out has always been a subject that interests me. The conviviality of a pub, the intimate conversation at a table, the raucousness of friends around a high top. For some it’s also a comforting way to be alone. I’ve sat and sketched many people over the years who by choice or happenstance were dining alone. In 2020, we stopped going to restaurants, stopped dining out, and I miss that opportunity to people watch, to people sketch.
In 2020, the majority of people sketches I made were sketched from afar. “People” became a sort of abstraction, more an idea than an actual person.
I’m happy to put a name on this theme: Lonesomeness.
This year I’ve only got one “in person” workshop set up. Everything else is either already online, or on the drawing table to be online. I plan to do most of my work with pens, which I consider to be a more expressive drawing tool than most other media. If I believed in new year resolutions – a practice I profoundly reject, incidentally – other than cleaning off and organizing my drawing table, I’d say that my goal this year is to explore the expressive nature of lines. But who knows?