French Luncheon

29 June, 2016. We’re just about as far from Burgundy as you can possibly get – and I mean culturally as well as geographically. And yet here we found ourselves in the small Missouri River town of Parkville, lunching on escargot and crepes, and enjoying a bottle of wine from the Alsace region. The cafe is a charming place, and the weather was nearly perfect so we ate outdoors in much the same way as we would have done in Bourgogne. (Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, approximately 10 x 7 inches.)

Whole Lotta Rain

28 June, 2016. The plan was a simple one: Spend what my weather app described as a cool, sunny morning out bike sketching. The only problem with this plan is that my app was a dirty, stinking liar. Dramatic clouds roiled in the sky and a few miles down the trail I came to the sudden realization that I was going to get very, very wet.

I wanted to paint in watercolor, but the impending weather left me feeling a sense of urgency so I roughed in a couple of sketches in pencil. I figured it would be prudent to save the inking for later, when  things didn’t look so threatening. But having set up my tiny, new palette I really did need to make at least one watercolor sketch.

I’d no sooner begun a second drawing at this location when it began to rain. I hurriedly sealed my sketchbook in a Ziplock bag, tossed the entire kit into my bike bag and rushed down the trail in a desperate, but ultimately failed attempt to outrun the storm. The wall of rain came down in a dense sheet; visibility at one point was probably less than fifty feet. And me? Well, I was drenched to the bone. (Clay County, Missouri; Pentel Pocket Brush Pen in Canson 180 sketchbook, approximately 10 x 7 inches. Watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper, approximately 5 x 5 inches.)

The Small Kit.

26 June, 2016. My small kit has evolved again. The most dramatic change I’ve made is to put away my tried and true Winsor Newton Travel Palette in lieu of a smaller, lighter kit I’ve had my eye on for a while. And when I read that The Pocket Palette (pictured above) had been updated, I figured this summer was the right time to give it a go.

I’d long since replaced the pigments in my travel kit with colors of my own selection. And out of those hues, I really only relied upon a couple of them. Having to learn to use a new palette anyway, it seems like a good time to play around with some new colors as well. This selection of pigments comes close to representing a full range of color and chromatics:

  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Pthalo Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Cobalt Turquoise Light
  • Perylene Green
  • Pthalo Green YS
  • Sap Green
  • Nickel Titanium Yellow
  • Windsor Yellow Deep
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Quinacridone
  • Quinacridone Magenta

Of these, I quickly realized that Cobalt Blue is simply redundant. And I think the Quinacridone Magenta, which I reasoned would be a nice addition for mixing with Ultramarine, may be entirely unnecessary. I’ve also added the earth color of Burnt Sienna which plays nicely with Quinacridone for rendering flesh colors. New to me is Perylene Green, which I am already enjoying for its ability to tone down or neutralize bright colors.

My drawing tools vary depending upon what I feel like doing at the moment. I’ve been using my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen a lot recently, but have found the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen to work better with watercolor when I work with Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper. Washes of water and paint don’t reactivate the Pentel ink as they do the Kuretake ink.

In any event, my drawing tools rotate out at the moment. I carry a water brush only if I am also carrying paint. I always carry my lead holder for lightly blocking in shapes. (Except when I forget. Then I have to track down a pencil…) For ink, I’m rotating between a Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen, a Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, or the Pentel Pocket brush pen I used in these examples.

The brush pen yields a bolder line on this paper, so I generally find myself saving the Lamy for when I’m carrying a sketchbook.

I sometimes think back to the days of carrying a plein air oil kit around: Easel, paints, brushes, solvents, etc. Even a “small” kit was never particularly small (or light.) It’s refreshing – not to mention energizing – to work with such limited artistic means. I encourage my students to rely on their own version of a small kit. The process of finding one’s favorite tools is as much a process of discovery as it is pragmatic.

Leveling the Playing Field

19 June, 2016. OK, so I took more than a few liberties sketching at a brew pub. First off, I kept the sketch whimsical and cartoonish because…well, just because. Secondly, this is more of a collage of the people and place than actual reportage – and I’m fine with that. I don’t draw to “report.” In many ways this is kind of a throw back to the earlier days of my career as a designer and illustrator. I’m almost constantly aware of, or seeking out pattern. I usually seek out patterns of light and dark as a compositional tool, whereas in my younger days I would often infuse a sketch, as I’ve done here, with made up patterns and texture just for the sake of liveliness, complexity, and fun.

But that all sounds a bit too much like self analysis, which translates to “boringly useless information.” The locale (which really looks nothing like my drawing) is a favorite of mine. In general, the place comes closer to the spirit of a British pub atmosphere than most other “pubs” in the United States. Here, Stateside, we treat the opportunity to come together for drinks as a means to an end: “Let’s get drunk” or “Let’s hook up.” Not so, this brew pub. Locals gather, bring their family and friends, hoist a glass or two (but never, seemingly, six or eight), enjoy excellent pub fare at meal time. The staff is friendly and the owners actively involved in the day-to-day. Often, cross table or across-the-bar conversation is organically struck up between strangers. This is especially true in my situation. I almost always have my pen and sketchbook out, and that is, apparently, an unusual sight to behold.

The act of sketching is friendly and I notice that it tends to encourage curiosity and inquiry. People rubberneck, look over my shoulder, and politely ask if they may look at the drawing. They politely ask if they are bothering me. (“Not, not at all.”) In fact, these conversation starters are always – and I do mean always – polite.

I really like this aspect. I meet people folks I might otherwise never have. There’s often a general tone of wonder and genuine interest. I almost never get the questions while sketching that I do when painting en plein air: “Do you sell your work? How much? How much? Yikes!” Sketching seems to level the playing field for some reason. Painting, on the other hand, must seem a lot more serious.

If the sketch is tight or representationally accurate, casual viewers often react with unabashed amazement. They know artists exist, but to their knowledge may never have met one of us. And seeing an artist at work (or in my case, at leisure) offers them a glimpse into what they often view as a different world.

I find it amusing that this reaction has never happened when I work in a cartoon-like style. Instead, a viewer might confide that he or she took art classes in high school and “I really need to start drawing again.”

And actually, I rather hope they do.

(Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen in Canson 180 sketchbook; approximately 10 x 7 inches.)

Mackinac Island

18 June, 2016. I’ve wanted to visit Mackinac Island for years. A place where there are no cars? Awesome! The island is a special and particularly beautiful place of horses and buggies, Victorian houses, and wooded hills. Sitting comfortably in a rocking chair on the wraparound porch of our B&B, I had a terrific view of a park and buildings on a lush, green hill. Our house is situated right on the shore with an incredible view of the harbor, particularly wonderful at sunset. I realize how ironic it must sound to write such a thing, given that none of my sketches included color. But the fact of the matter is that I was traveling light, and the only drawing tools I carried in my bike bag were a Kuretake brush pen and a drawing pamphlet.

The drive up to Lake Michigan was about 900 miles for us. We stopped on the way to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes – and wow! What a wonderful place for artists to visit.

What I knew about the state of Michigan before heading north was next to nothing. Discovering the land around Mackinac and the Upper Peninsula was an eye opening experience. It’s simply perfect for bicycle touring, and it’s picturesque to an extreme. (Kuretake No. 40 brush pen on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.)

A Stroll Through Downtown on a Hot Summer Evening

8 June, 2016. Yesterday was my birthday, and time to leave suburbia for dinner at The Rieger, followed by drinks in the basement speakeasy Manifesto. Built in 1915 and located in the Crossroads Art District, the old hotel supposedly hosted Al Capone when he came to Kansas City. Our new trolly system runs right past the front of the building. I like the area because of, rather than in spite of, the crumbling concrete surfaces that are parking lots and sidewalks: these elements provide a certain texture, along with a sense of age and use that appeals to me.

This sketch is part of my continued testing of Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper as a suitable medium for my portable “sketch pamphlets.” I was initially worried that Noodler’s ink seemed to reactivate after wetting, but I’ve since discovered that I just need to have greater patience. It seems that the ink takes longer to “set” on this paper than in my Canson 180 sketchbook. So the solution is to wait longer before plopping down wet washes of color.

This is the view outside The Rieger, facing north toward the Missouri River. As usual, I like to take the opportunity to combine dining and sketching. There was time for a short stroll following dinner, so we headed out the door and down the street. Even with a breeze, sidewalks and pavement that had been baking all afternoon seemed to radiate heat, and I was sweating on this, the first legitimate day of summer weather this year. The panel size of my sketch pamphlets are somewhere around 5 x 7 inches; unfolded to two panels provided me with an adequate canvas size to quickly sketch out the street scene in pencil. Ink, and then watercolor were added later at home. (Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen and watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.)

Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper

7 June, 2016. Following up on a months overdue promise to put Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper to the test, today I cut up a sheet and folded four sketch pamphlets. My plan was to try watercolor, my Lamy Safari fountain pen with Noodler’s, and my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen.

Why this watercolor paper? It’s very lightweight, yet despite that it purportedly does not require stretching. In fact, the paper is supposed to resist the buckling that takes place with similarly lightweight papers when wetted.

As always, my goal is to carry a minimum of sketching materials and to avoid hassle in doing so. A lightweight paper for my sketching pamphlets is intriguing in that it would further reduce the bulk of my kit. So today I began with a late restaurant lunch and a location sketch. At the booth across from me a couple was engrossed in conversation. This in itself was refreshing as it seems like cell phones are creating walls that prevent any real dialogue from taking place. The paper has a nice tooth to it that takes graphite well. Errant marks, if made lightly, are readily and completely erased without disturbing the surface.

I inked the sketch with my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen. Here, the tooth of the paper made the act of mark making less fluid than I like, but it also allowed some degree of dry brush effect to take place. In order to emphasize important lines it was necessary to go back over them to darken some contours.

I’d hoped to lay in watercolor washes afterwards but to my surprise both the Noodler’s ink and the Kuretake ink quickly reactivate when wetted on this paper. In my Canson 180 sketchbooks, the ink is immediately permanent. So I’m limited in the sense that my usual approach, which involves line work first with washes afterwards, won’t work on this paper. But there’s opportunity to develop some interesting monochromatic washes by reactivating the black inks from the pens with water brushes.

More to the point, does this paper do as billed? Does it wrinkle when wetted or not? To find out I thoroughly soaked portions of one panel and applied paint while wet. In other places I kept the paper somewhat dry. I’ve found this sort of thing tends to challenge most other thin papers, resulting in all manner of buckling. This did not happen with the Aquarius paper: not while I painted and not after the sheet dried. It’s pretty much mostly flat. I’m impressed.

I figured I’d test its chops even further by soaking the sheet with water and paint. With paper that buckles, one winds up with “bands” where the sheet rises and falls like hills and valleys: pigment pools in the low areas and the color is uneven. Here, you’ll notice that the color is smooth because the sheet remained flat, much like a stretched page. Flinging water droplets over drying paint creates interesting textures on this paper, and it’s also possible to create nice blooms. Pigment can be easily lifted – I think because it seems to stay on top of the paper rather than “in” it. Color didn’t seem to dry back badly either. Sometimes watercolor will dry back 25% or even 35%. At least with my limited testing, the color dried back perhaps only 10%.