Urban Exploration

22 April, 2018. It’s a two-post day today. Earlier I shared some of the gouache studies I’ve made for my 100 day project. Now, it’s time to share a few urban sketches.

I’m told this Art Deco structure (above) won’t be around much longer and I was encouraged to document it while it was still possible to do so. I decided to start with this quick contemporaneous sketch of the location. There’s another, perhaps slightly more interesting facade on the east facing elevation. I’ve begun to pencil that in with greater detail and precision. I’ll need to revisit the location again to block in color.

It’s a very interesting neighborhood and it makes me wonder what this place looked like in its heyday.

Finished scouting for the day, I was driving back north. I’d only gone a few blocks when I encountered this interesting cluster of buildings. The looming silhouettes intrigued me most of all. Pulling over for a few minutes, I grabbed a pen and I decided that maybe I wasn’t finished scouting after all.

As it turned out, the silhouette of downtown Kansas City also caught my eye and I had to find a stopping point to block it in. The color was added at home as my perch was a bit precarious… that may explain my hurried caption which should more correctly state that this is a view of the city facing west.

A few days later, and a few hundred miles south, I found myself wandering around some of the towns in Northwestern Arkansas. I don’t know if this was the first Saturday morning market of the season or if it’s always such a thriving spot each week, but the Bentonville Square was bustling with activity. On two of the corners, young boys were playing fiddles, busking. Bread, chocolate, vegetables, arts and crafts – everything was there and in abundance.

A lot of the time my sketches are composites. People move around and I draw what happens to be in front of me at the moment: It’s an organic process and I enjoy the challenge of not only sketching, but also looking for observable elements that can turn a scribble into an interesting composition. This sketch is one of those organic composites in which serendipitously the various people I drew seemed to be engaged in conversation. When I noticed this was happening I looked around for an interesting structural element to add to the scene… the Tyson’s sign fit the bill quite nicely!

This guy had a long white beard. He was quite stocky and, frankly, looked like a pretty rough character. The tiny little dog that he was walking lent a less formidable character to his persona.



Rockin’ the Challenge

22 April, 2018. The 100 Day Project continues and I’m proud of myself for not giving in to impatience. I think the secret to avoiding the tedium of a long term challenge has been to work small. The 4 x 3 inch format that I arbitrarily chose lets me get lost in the work, and then emerge somewhat triumphantly energized to start another.

I began this challenge working from a couple of vacation photos. As my confidence with the gouache medium began to grow I started to take liberties with each new image.

The 4 x 3 inch format allows me to set up six to a page. With several on a single page, it’s easy to compare what I’m doing with what I’ve done. I find myself constantly evaluating whether I’m growing and learning.

This one has a sort of Cezanne thing going on – not a consciously intentional gesture or homage, I assure you! It just sort of happened. It’s also very “watercolor-ish” and has some transparent glazes that are apparent, rather than the more characteristic opacity of gouache. I have greater difficulty getting opaque colors when reactivating dry paint on the palette than I do when I work with paint freshly squeezed from the tube.

Although the forms are rather cartoonish, I’m pleased with the vibrancy of the warms against the cools.

I’m starting to hit my stride in this piece. The water is absolutely opaque but “feels” transparent.

The problem with doing a daily challenge is that some days there’s little opportunity to continue working on what has turned into a series. I was in the classroom with students, teaching the use – of all things – gouache. This apple was the result of my work on that day.

My confidence has begun to get to the point that I felt I could be heading outdoors to paint on location. This little one was the second of three plein air pieces I’ve generated in gouache over the past couple days. Notice that I blocked in the main shapes with pencil, which is still evident in the thinnest areas of paint application. One of my goals is to move beyond the need for pencil. Which leads me to…

… this plein air piece. No pencil, just several layers of applied paint, and the first piece that feels to me like I’m heading in the direction I’d like to see this 100 day experiment go. Next up: a plein air experiment with the so called Zorn palette – Ivory Black, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, and White.

(Not really) Sweating the Small Stuff

14 April, 2018. Art making is really the same thing as “choice making.” You make, for instance, a conscious decision to mix particular colors together or to place a certain mark  in a certain place on a certain surface. I think “choice making” is what it is about “art making” that is satisfying. For me, personally, there is a reward in knowing when the decisions I make have resulted in a visual or technique that brings me joy.

That’s the neat little surprise I found upon entering into this internal pact I made with myself to pursue a 100 day project. To slightly digress, my idea was to increase my comfort using gouache by making a 4 x 3 inch sketch every day for 100 consecutive days. I’d focus on application and selection of color, as well as simplicity of shapes.


The “surprise,” if you will, comes around each time I begin a new small composition. The 4 x 3 inch format really forces me to make very intentional decisions about size, placement, and shape. Every time I stroke the surface with my brush, it’s a very intentional act. I immediately realize how lazy I can be with larger paintings: short cuts are often deliberate – and appropriate – but, sometimes they simply come off as laziness.

These small paintings engage me in the composition and help me to recognize which shapes are important and which can simply be ignored. With each passing day I am finding that brushstrokes can be used to create greater visual meaning. Deliberate placement and scaling is taking on the graphic characteristics that I prefer to employ.

I’m a big believer in asymmetry, as well as finding ways to design a composition with a “visual triangle.” By that I mean that three visual points are established by emphasizing carefully considered subject elements or areas of contrast that draw the viewers eye around the composition in a somewhat triangular path. Sometimes this is very obvious and other times not so much – but I always make the attempt to do so.

I think it’s easier to plot a composition in a small sketch than it is to just leap into a larger work. Could be that I’m rebelling against so many years of designing big painting. I certainly enjoy the immediacy of sketchbook work and small paintings. I’m still in search of an energetic brush stroke in gouache to compliment the loose calligraphy of lines I relish in ink drawings.

100 Days

10 April, 2018. Just to be clear about a couple of things right off the bat:

  1. Neither of these sketches is either a plein air study or an urban sketch. They were both made by looking at old vacation photos.
  2. I only dibble dabble with gouache.

The thing is, I’d like to be a better practitioner of gouache. Once upon a time I was pretty handy with oils. I quit because the requisite solvents made me nervous. I feel like gouache might be a way to revisit the way I once painted in oil – thickly, and with a certain degree of abandon.

So I made a commitment to improving by jumping on the “100 Day Challenge” band wagon: I will make one 4 x 3 inch gouache study every day for the next one hundred days. Furthermore, I’ll focus on color and shape; given the small format, that’s probably a wise restriction on my part.

Oh, and I’ll do this without giving up any of my “being there” pen and brush urban sketcher drawings.

The timing is good for me – I just introduced my drawing students to gouache. So, for at least the next couple of weeks it will be appropriate for me to paint alongside them in the same media. They’re working from photo references and as much as I chafe at doing so myself, it is a good way to get in the practice.

Art making in a rural community

7 April, 2018. I was recently asked to contribute a small sketch to an exhibition. I get a lot of requests of this nature, so the invitation in and of itself wasn’t remarkable. What was unusual was that the request came from a student in a small, rural high school, a young lady interested in the role art plays in communities such as hers. Having graduated from a small town high school myself, it got me thinking.

The small sketch I sent to her was painted on a 4 x 6 inch piece of illustration board that she provided to each exhibitor. I explained that mine was a quick sketch using gouache to represent a rural landscape I’d recently encountered. I’m an avid cyclist; it’s not unusual for me to take off with no set destination in mind, only to discover hours later that I’m on a paved country road sixty miles from home. I carry sketching supplies with me when I ride, and my little sketch began life as a quickly scribbled pen drawing of a recently burnt field. I’m sure this practice is common in other places as well – in the Midwest, one will often come upon a soot-blackened field in the early Spring months: one good rain later, and the field turns into a blanket of fresh greens. My colors were added later on: I built up a couple of layers of loosely blocked in hues and explained to her that I was using gouache, which is an opaque watercolor media. My work is usually very loose with a lively approach to line work, but I like to play and experiment. This sketch is an example of that sort of artistic play and reinterpretation of a scene.

Rural communities. I think the internet and social media make it much easier today for artists in rural communities to be part of the “outside world.” About a year ago I began to interview artists from around the world for Drawing Attention, the official magazine of Urban Sketchers. Despite what the name may imply with the word “urban” in the title, many of the artists I write about live and work in very remote areas. Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Etsy – among many other platforms – provide a means for artists to “shrink” the world down to a manageable size. I’ve often wondered if nineteenth century artists might not have been very envious of our twenty-first century connectivity!

Artist recognition in rural areas. Many art makers seek out validation. It’s tough to create art; we often question ourselves and our abilities, and young artists in particular need encouragement – confirmation that what we do is worth the act of doing it. I was asked about artist recognition as it relates to rural art makers. The question seemed to imply that the environment might be a more limited one in terms of artist recognition, and I suppose there may be truth in that presumption. I responded that artists living in rural areas might consider engaging in public art projects in order to generate visibility. In my home of Liberty, Missouri the community recently hired a mural artist from someplace in Iowa to create a very large artwork on the town square. It occurred to me that community organizations might be a key: community theatre provides a valid means of artistic expression for those who wish to perform, as does community orchestras and choirs – why not create a sketching group? Making art doesn’t have to be limited to the “professionals” (whatever that actually means these days.) Community engagement could mean that everyone is invited to participate, regardless of one’s ability.

I come from a rural community of about 2,000 residents, Slater, Missouri. In a place this small, if you can draw you are automatically identified as “the artist.” My pathway in the 1970’s was to leave town, go to university, and begin a career as a designer and illustrator. Finding an audience was easy for me: I learned to talk intelligently, to listen to my client, and to logically solve the visual problems that confronted them in their advertising or publishing needs. When you can meet those conditions, your audience tends to find you. That also eventually led to me understanding that others could benefit from what I learned. Thus, I moved from practitioner to teacher nearly twenty years ago, but my personal accomplishments came about after “leaving for the big city.” It seems to me that some feel this is the only legitimate pathway toward artist recognition.

I’m not totally on board with the idea that “recognition” should be the end goal for an artist. I feel that an artist has a need to communicate and share. If one’s message resonates, recognition might follow. But I am aware of many people who have achieved recognition, yet accomplished very little. Those priorities seem to be switched to me: accomplish first. Is making art your vocation or your avocation? Do you make art to make a living? Or to make life more enjoyable? In the end, I often feel like my response to questions raises even more questions than I answer.

And maybe that’s what it means to be an art maker, regardless of where it is you happen to call home.

Staying Loose with Fude-tipped Pens

1 April, 2018. Harry’s is a bar I haven’t visited for ages and ages… decades, in fact, to be completely accurate. But I recently discovered that a sketch group gathers here on Thursday evenings, so I’ve come down to enjoy a libation or two and meet up with what has turned out to be a diverse group of sketchers.

The bar is quiet and on a Thursday is not especially crowded, so it’s easy to collage together a couple of subjects into a single drawing. My sketches often emerge organically.  I’ll begin by sketching some detail that catches my attention and then allow the drawing to grow out of that. Sometimes, as in this instance, two sketches on facing pages grow toward each other, overlap, and then become one. As I realize this is taking place I will begin to find lines or shapes that have common ending points to allow a collage of imagery to take place.

The following morning I had to pull over on my way to work. The full moon seemed huge in the darkness before sunrise, the pumpkin color was incredibly striking. The sketch itself took a minute or less on a loose piece of copy paper that was conveniently sticking out of my brief case. Like all of the sketches in this post, it was quickly scrawled using a Fude tip fountain pen – the two above were made with a Duke, those below were lined with a Sailer. Although the Duke seems to have a smoother ink flow, there is otherwise little difference between the line quality of these pens.

There was a time when I would not have so readily embraced the graphic line quality of a sketch such as this one, nor the mechanically flat spot color. I’ve come to appreciate the nature of such mark-making though. In some ways the strokes are rudimentary, yet at the same time I find they can also feel quite meaningful.

Lots of thick lines with a few thin marks add a little visual interest, and the tiniest bit of visual texture. I enjoy the fluidity that the heavier lines have, which is made possible with a comfortable hand position when using the Fude-tipped pens.

Our server that evening was intrigued that I would dine and sketch at the same time. After sharing that this is common for me, she exclaimed, “Draw me!” But after I pointed out that she’d need to stay near for a few minutes it was decided that her manager probably wouldn’t appreciate that sort of table attention. As a consolation, she pointed at the next table over and said “OK, draw him instead.” So I did.

Do you dream in color?

26 March, 2018. So, consider the question “Do you dream in color?” After many years of truly not knowing for certain, I can answer definitively “yes.” Here’s how I know for certain: Two nights ago I dreamed of sketching the upper portion of a building (not this one.) I could vividly see the loosely painted colors of Cadmium Red Light contrasted against Perylene Green. I recall thinking in my dream that the two colors were almost (but not quite) complimentary.

Upon waking Sunday, I told myself I needed to add those two colors to a similar sketch I’d made on Saturday morning in Eureka Springs to better recall the sensation of seeing color in my dream. Having done so, I realized almost immediately that the Perylene Green in my dream was slightly more of an Olive hue. So why is this important? I’ve no idea, really. But I felt there was some imperative and rather than question it I acted upon the imperative. I can still “see” those two hues in my head, so clearly that I am planning to mix a batch of the Perylene up and pollute it with some yellow or ochre just to get that specific color.

Architecturally, Eureka Springs is such an unusual town, with structures built right into the side of steep hills. It’s an interesting hodge podge of styles and it’s impossible – I mean, quite literally impossible – to find a point-of-view where one is looking directly at a building from anything resembling a “normal” perspective. You’re either looking up or down, usually at the same time. I like how I can find myself positioned in this town to see incredibly odd architectural angles.

As a kid we would visit Eureka Springs and I remember listening to my parents bitch about “all the hippies” in the town: long haired cats playing guitars and wearing beads and bell bottoms and blousy shirts, rather unkempt and generally followed by an equally unkempt and long haired little kid (or two). Regardless of how mom and dad felt about the place, to me it was a pretty cool scene.

Now, the town seems overrun with bikers, farmers, red necks, and bible belters – pretty much as different a population as you can imagine from the flower children I recall from my youth. (Although trust me: there are plenty of locals of my age who are remnants of those days.) All the same, it was a genuinely delicious moment to spot a couple of real live hipsters on the street, strolling about. Culture layered upon culture layered upon culture. I love this cool little town!

I intentionally kept my sketches loose and quick. In fact, it took longer to fill in the mass of black above  than it did to scribble out all three of the actual sketches, I think. These are each a combination of Uni-Ball and a Fude fountain pen.

St. Patrick’s Day Sketching

17 March, 2018. The day began quietly for us, at table in a local bakery. Something seemed missing to me and I couldn’t put my finger on it at first; only later did I realize it was the aroma of freshly baked bread that was absent.

We arrived at eight and there was a single car in the parking lot. Standing at the counter, debating our breakfast order neither of us were aware that the restaurant area had magically filled and there was a line of people patiently waiting behind us! Snagging a table, we sheepishly lumbered over and sat down to enjoy a meal of bread, bread, and more bread, along with a side of biscuits and sausage gravy. I pulled out my sketchbook and Sailer Fude de Mannen fountain pen and began to search for something to draw. Nearby was seated a family. Dad was nursing a cup of coffee, a plate of eggs, and absentmindedly tending to junior. I began by scrawling a single line: Dad’s forehead. That evolved into eyeglasses and a nose, and then a beard. It’s wonderful when a couple of lines seem to just take off, assume a life of their own, and become a drawing.

It is, after all, St. Patrick’s Day. This area has become a bicycling Mecca of sorts, and along with that designation comes the requisite cyclist hangouts of coffeeshops and microbrew pubs. The weather was cooperating nicely so I spent a few hours riding, with a scheduled meet up at one of the brew pubs at mid-ride. Far from the raucous crowds this holiday brings out in my hometown city, the pub crawl participants were decidedly sedate. In Downtown Rogers, outside another local brewery – the “crowds” of revelers could be counted on two hands. Using a Uni-Ball Deluxe with a splashy watercolor wash, I focused on the figure/ground relationship between the sky and the silhouette of the structures. This has proven to be a compositional strategy that I like, and the challenge of keeping things simple while only including a few defining details helps me to focus on “designing” the sketch rather than filling it up with meaningless minutiae.

Later on at dinner, the place we chose seemed dead to me – in fact, the customers outnumbered the help by at least two to one and the teen help was taking a break at a nearby table, I assumed, before the dinner crowd arrived. As happened in the morning, there seemed to be some unwritten agreement among the patrons about what constituted “dinner time,” and suddenly the place was teeming. Our order, even though it was first in, felt as though it had gotten lost in the chaos and took forever to arrive. Waiting patiently, we chatted and checked out the Motown artifacts hanging on the wall, and I loosely sketched out the boy. Finally finishing his soft drink, he glanced around at the crowd and appeared to be startled; he flashed an apologetic grin at his mom behind the counter, and began to serve customers.

One Week, 100 People, 2018

10 March, 2018. #oneweek100people2018 – that’s the hashtag for this past week, the one that signifies participation in what has come to be an annual sketchers challenge: Draw one hundred people over a five day stretch. Google the phrase “one week 100 people” and you’ll see it popping up on artists’ and sketchers’ blogs right and left.

My first sketches were a sort of montage of drawings made over a day or two on a section of watercolor paper that measures about 5.5 inches tall and 28 inches wide. As I’ve noted before, my favorite watercolor paper for urban and travel sketching is the lightweight Strathmore Aquarius II sheet. Cut into four equal segments 28 inches in length and then folded into an accordion-style pamphlet, it’s easy to carry and easy to sketch on just about anywhere, standing or sitting.

I prepped the sheet by lettering it ahead of time, followed by adding sketches of people I observed one and two at a time. The process was pretty organic, which is not unusual for the way I approach most of my sketching.

Taking me up to 99 people, my Art I class served as captive models: I sketched them while they painted and finished up adding their assignments to a digital portfolio they owed me. I stopped at 99 on purpose, in hopes that number 100 would be something special.

As I did with all one hundred and one in this series, I drew with a Uni-Ball Deluxe. I playfully splashed washes of color onto the panoramic sheet with which I began my week, but this second drawing was made on brown Canson paper. I debated adding gouache but decided instead to use hatched lines from a white gel pen to define the negative spaces and clarify the figure/ground relationship a little better.

Number 100 and 101 didn’t turn out to be a spectacular or dramatic drawing. It happened, appropriately enough, in a rather spontaneous fashion: On the last day of the challenge I found myself eating lunch at a Chinese buffet. The place is popular with a blue collar crowd and I enjoy being shoulder to shoulder with people from all walks of life, chattering away in a diversity of languages. I think of it as a sort of miniature “everyman’s” United Nations.

The play of figure/ground relationships are borne out through the contrast of black and white. It’s a favorite graphic ploy of mine and I like the way this visual strategy allows me to keep a composition interesting without the need to add unnecessary detail.

Urban Sketching in Kansas City

4 March 2018. No, even though it might look like it, this is not the cast from the Murphy Brown reboot! Urban Sketchers Kansas City has been all over the media this past week, making broadcast appearances on two different networks, hanging art in prestigious galleries, and welcoming an influx of new members. Yesterday morning Liz, Peggy, Ivan, and I were up at the crack of dawn and hanging out in the Fox 4 Green Room in preparation for a segment that kicked off a fun and intense day of group sketching.

Behind the scenes, we got a chance to hang out with the news anchors and see what goes into the making of a news show. The television personalities walked on and off camera incredibly nonchalantly, engaged in conversation with us one second, abruptly stopping to do a promo, then picking up the chat again without missing a beat.

Our segment was a great opportunity to share with a larger audience just what in the heck an urban sketcher is, and to invite folks to come out and join us for the sketch out taking place later in the morning.

Living in Kansas City, I sometimes forget about the Country Club Plaza. The architecture of the area, inspired by that of Seville, Spain, is just about as far from a “Prairie-style construction” as you could possibly imagine.

I chide myself for neglecting to really look at an area that is for most residents a ubiquitous part of the city. I drive through the Plaza. I shop there. I dine there. But have I ever stopped to just examine the complexity and visual interest of the silhouettes that create the distinctive “look?” The answer, it seems, is no, I have not.

So, for our Plaza-themed sketch out, I used the lion’s share of my time to focus almost entirely on that part of the scene where the sky meets the architecture, filling in only enough detail along the way to generate a sense of space.

One thing I purposely try to do is include street signs and light poles. These ever present elements are not only part of the environmental tapestry, but they also help to establish a sense of scale and space.

It’s interesting to me that the light poles add so much to a composition.

I also appreciate how well this approach reinforces my personal goal to simplify, simplify, simplify. Focus on the line and shape breaks my compositions down into only those most important elements that define a scene. And from there I feel that the viewer can more easily take it upon herself to ponder what story is being told.

I extended the approach to a closer up view of some road construction. Once upon a time I read that Andrew Wyeth considered himself to be something of an abstractionist. Although his paintings look very “real,” he leaves out much that would have been observable, simplifying the elements of his composition and thus thinking in larger “shapes.” It’s a lesson I try not to take for granted. Leaving out things is just as much an artistic decision as is what to include.

The morning was wrapped up with this quick sketch of a small group of guys, leaning against a wall, arms folded across their chests in a “guy-like” conversation. They looked bored and patient and I wondered if they were waiting on partners who were in the adjacent store, shopping. Whatever the story might be, there’s definitely a story here.

Today’s tools included a water brush, Uni-Ball Deluxe pen, touches from a Sailer Fude de Mannen fountain pen when the mood hit me, and watercolor. I sketched in a 5 x 7 Canson 180 sketchbook, and carried more crap than I needed to have done in my backpack. Like a goof, I forgot to carry my pack stool though (it was in my trunk), so I stood to sketch all morning.