30 April, 2016. A few years ago I discovered Urban Sketchers. The idea of a sketchbook, drawing out on location, and recording what one sees appealed to me and, indeed, aligned well with the direction I’d been heading for quite some time. I’m not a committed enough plein air painter to work that way exclusively, but carrying a pen and sketchbook pretty much anywhere meets my artistic needs very well.
And so I embraced Urban Sketchers – for a while. I taught urban sketching workshops. And I became an admin for the organization. But it was all a bit unsettling: Any time a group solidifies, codifies, and forms rules, members of the group are bound by limitations. Urban sketching embodies for me many charming characteristics of sketching, but rules… Those damn rules! They take the enjoyment away from sketching. I found myself placing restrictions upon what I would be drawing, attempting to quantify if any given page in my sketchbook “was” or “was not” an urban sketch. That sort of philosophical approach is simply too taxing, and takes me away from living in the moment – which, after all, is the truth of sketching.
I unapologetically live in the moment when I’m sketching. I make things up as I go along. Hell, I make things up, period. These drawings, scrawled out upon page after page, book after filled book, are composites of many things observed, impressions of a place, a person, a thing. They are not accurate by any means, sometimes leaning toward caricature and other times towards some ideal I have in the back of my head. Often, I’m simply inventing as I go along.
The drawing above is one such example of this approach. It’s a conglomeration of people who moved in and then out of my field of view at the local pub last night. The only “truth” is what I make of the sketch, so it’s pretty far from the “reportage” Urban Sketchers philosophically seeks out.
I feel the desire to objectively communicate the observed world is a lost cause in the first place. As visual people, we are constantly making decisions about what to include or exclude from a drawing or photograph. When one crops an image for instance, one is editing and thus interpreting the world, rather than accurately reproducing it. And heck, that’s a whole lot more interesting in the first place.
So the rules I choose to enforce are seldom those artificial ones binding me to a group, or that leave me apologetic about the subject I’ve drawn or the way I choose to go about sketching it. I make mine up as I go along, learning from my experiences what works and what does not, what I enjoy drawing and moving on when that subject begins to bore me.
Brush pens seem to be moving in and out of my wheel house these days. The Pentel Pocket brush pen has come in pretty handy, but I find that if I carry it exclusively I miss that which I find most comfortable: My Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen. Some months back, I purchased a Kuretake No. 40 Fountain Hair Brush Pen because I was intrigued by the idea of a loaded pen that sports a nib of sable, rather than the synthetic points on other pens. The sketch above is of a guy who passed me in the River Market. He was in my line of sight so briefly that I’m afraid my pencil lacked a lot of detail. Laying in inked lines later resulted in a whole lot more intimidating fella than the man who passed me on 4th Street! But not having a lot invested in the pencil meant I could be free to play around with the drawing, and seemed a worthy place for an initial testing of the Kuretake.
I found the line to lay down smoothly, but not as fluidly as a fully charged Pentel Pocket brush pen. I need to continue to work with the pen before passing judgment however, because it could very well be that it needs time to get fully charged. A very nice characteristic is the ability to create dry brush marks, to scumble, and to achieve some degree of grayscale tonality. The line is very calligraphic and will take practice to get the “touch” and figure out the sweet spot of how to hold it, and the amount of pressure to use when drawing. First impression is that I like it.
I used the Kuretake to block in line work in the sketch on the left. It took to the Fabriano Artistico HP watercolor paper I was using for the test nicely, and without skipping. Despite hearing that the cartridge ink is water soluble, I had no problem at all placing washes of color over the lines without reactivation of the ink. On the right is an initial test of a Sakura Koi water brush pen. It handles pretty much exactly as does my Niji pens, so I don’t see an advantage to one over the other. In addition to the round, I also now have a flat water brush. To be honest, I seldom use a flat brush so it’s difficult to say yet whether this will be useful.
The other “plunge” I’ve made is to order a Stillman and Birn sketchbook. I am very content with the Canson 180 book and paper, and I don’t plan to abandon my very worthy companion. When I wish to work in color, I’ve got the handmade “mini” sketch pamphlets I’ve made from Fabriano Artistico HP. But I’ve been curious about the Stillman and Birn books simply because so many sketchers seem to swear by them. It’s a bit incongruous that a book so popular isn’t carried by any of the local professional art stores in my city, forcing me to order one online if I wanted to satisfy my curiosity! I’ve done so, it’s in the back of my car, and I’ll try it out as the urge hits me.
Because after all, I’m just making this up as I go.