Wet, Rainy Swamp

28 October, 2017. We’d been cyclo-touring through Northwest Arkansas and the weather turned to crap during the night – winds, rain, thunder. Arriving the next day at a very large art and craft festival in War Eagle, we discovered the grounds had turned to swamp. Meanwhile, the rain returned and everyone and everything was wet and cold.

Inside the mill there is a restaurant on one of the upper floors and a sort of mercantile operation on the lower level. A small kitchen to one side was baking a cake using the mill’s flour, and near the back a group of five or six men were plucking various stringed instruments. I gravitated toward them as they interested me the most on this miserable day. Jockeying for a good view, I was stymied by the fact that they were circled up – no matter how I positioned myself I found I would have been drawing a whole lot of backs if I tried to draw the group in its entirety. I considered this for a moment, the idea of using two backs as a framing device with the main subject smaller, due to foreshortening. It’s still an idea that appeals to me so I may eventually do just that. But it was more than music that pulled me over to the group in the first place: I’ve always been fascinated by banjo picking. The fellow on the chair was nonchalantly plucking away on his, with little extraneous movement. And thus, he became my subject of the moment.

Outside, the rain waned, diminishing briefly and then coming down again, seemingly unabated. The exhibitors west of the mill bridge were fortunate to have covered tents and a long wooden barn for protection from the elements. Those on the mill side of the bridge had only the exhibition tents they’d brought with them for the show, and in many cases that was barely adequate. In any event, most structures and canopies were surrounded by slimy mud and large pools of water. Outside the barn, one exhibitor stood ¬†close to the doors, sheltered by the overhang of the roof, smoking a cigarette and bracing himself for a cold, wet day of hawking his product.

This type of event and this type of weather reminds me why my choice of kit works well for me. A moderately sized sketchbook fits comfortably into the waist of my trousers and my two pens into a shirt pocket, or even the front pocket of my jeans. I am reminded – not for the first time! – that I really need to check my brush pen for adequate ink before wandering outdoors. Once again, I only discovered that I was virtually empty after starting to do the black fill (above). Unable to continue much beyond a sort of scumbled gray to the mid-ground, I gave up and filled those areas with a brush and India ink after returning home a few days later. (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Pentel Pocket brush pen, Crayola brush, India ink in Canton 180 sketchbook; page size is approximately 5 x 7 inches.)

Sketching Around Town

19 October, 2017. A couple of weeks ago someone posted to the Urban Sketchers Kansas City Facebook group a plea for sketchers to document the Lane Blueprint building at 15th and Main. The Lane building is slated for demolition despite the valiant efforts of local groups. I’ve many memories of working with Lane back in my early days as a graphic designer, so I made an effort to travel south of the river for a downtown sketching mission. It’s not an especially attractive structure but it represents Kansas City history, and that certainly counts for a lot.

That same afternoon I meandered further south to Westport, a block or two from our former studio on Main. Yes, I’m still carrying around a variety of papers and yes, this seems like an odd one for this type of sketching. I thought I might try hitting it with spots of color but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I’ve always been a little intrigued with alleys and the spaces between and behind buildings. They have this sort of overlooked and forgotten sort of appeal to me. I came across this scene while scouting locations for a urban plein air workshop I was supposed to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute this month.

Back in our old stomping grounds, right across the street from our old studio, people loitered on the street corner. I cringe a little seeing how these cool old buildings have been repurposed for such mundane things as tax preparation. I feel like they were meant for better stuff.

I swear this scene wasn’t nearly as mysterious as the drawing makes it seem. It’s a byproduct of the positive/negative emphasis I’ve been focusing on in many of my sketches lately. I rather like the “Dutch Angle,” which is a cinematic convention I use in my photography, and for which I can thank the late, great Robert Krasker. (If you’re unfamiliar with the framing technique, be sure to check out Krasker’s camera work in the 1949 Carol Reed film noire The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.) Come to think of it, even the sketch itself seems reminiscent of that film. I haven’t watched it in a good long while, maybe I need to revisit it soon.

It’s not just forgotten alley ways that intrigue me: I also just love old diners. Passing Lucy’s Diner one day led me to promise myself breakfast there the following morning. OK, so the food turned out not to be especially great, but the ambiance made up for it. And having left my pen out in the car, I found myself scratching the scene out with a pencil instead.

Urbanization is evident in nearly every corner of Northwest Arkansas as evidenced by the imminent demise of this old barn, soon to be replaced by – what? A housing development? More retail?

Fresh Set of Eyes

8 October, 2017. I came into this past week with almost no sketches at all. It happens. I am, after all, focused on teaching design and drawing. My own work takes a backseat to the work I do with art students.

I ended the week making a few sketches as I scouted locations for my upcoming urban plein air workshop through the Kansas City Art Institute. The most interesting of those is one I made on the east side of the Country Club Plaza (above.) It’s an iconic part of Kansas City with blocks of architecture influenced by Spanish design. The sketches were intentionally kept simple by using a brush pen.

Three days in the mountains on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday lent me a pair of “fresh eyes.” I flew out to Colorado and hiked in the lower elevations around Colorado Springs. Getting to focus on organic forms is a nice break from more precise structural subject matter. I kept coming across rocky banks of exposed tree roots. I confess that the tentacle-like limbs intrigue me.

Higher up on a ridge and just off the marked trail is a rocky outcrop. I’m carrying a lightweight three-legged camp stool these days, so setting up a comfy location to draw was easy. With so much to take in, it’s often difficult for me to simplify. If you’ve followed my recent sketches, you’ll notice a trend. I’ve been interested in exploring positive/negative space in my drawings. (It’s probably not a coincidence that this happens to be the exact topic my curriculum is focused on at school.) This leads to my drawings having a distinctly graphic appearance, not unlike comic book artwork.

I find myself making fewer watercolor sketches at the moment. Because of this, I often don’t have watercolor paper in my kit. Sketching with paint on lightweight sketchbook paper is sometimes a dicey proposition – but it’s also an opportunity to keep the sketches loose and fresh. I should probably do more of it.

Although I enjoy getting out in the woods, it wasn’t not long before I found myself surrounded by human-made structures once again. Manitou Springs, which was once a quaint and charming small town, has changed a bunch since my last visit a couple decades ago. I strolled up and down streets filled with touristy shops and wound up collaging together sketches of architectural odds and ends.

Testing New Sketching Paper Stocks

1 October, 2017. A couple of weeks ago I received a couple of sample packets of art papers from Canson. A few of those sheets got shared with some of the participants of our last Urban Sketchers meet up and I asked for those sketchers to share their experience using the papers with me. Most of the sheets remained in my hands though, and I tested a few today.

Beginning with the sketch at the top of this post, the paper I used was Canson 98lb XL Mix Media. Canson describes this as best used for pencil, pen and ink, color pencil, and charcoal, and it is (so far) my favorite of the papers Canson has sent to me to try out. I like how the ink from a Uni-Ball lays down easily and uniformly with no appreciable drag. Similarly, the large blocks of black were applied smoothly with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. There is a tooth to the paper, but no friction as I run either drawing tool across the surface, and that’s a valuable characteristic for my style of drawing. I did not try watercolor wash on this surface as it seemed a bit light, but if I order a few large sheets to work with down the line I will do so.

A close second was the Canson 70lb XL Recycled Drawing sheet. Very similar characteristics to the previous sheet tested, only a bit lighter weight. Holding it up to the light, it is a bit more transparent than the Mix Media stock – perhaps that has some value for some sketchers. I like that it didn’t scrunch up with the application of large areas of black. In fact, none of the Canson sheets I’ve tested in these sample packs have wrinkled at all, but my washes do tend to be less wet than many other artists. Your experience may differ from mine.

The 130lb Mix Media is appreciably heavier, so I tried a bit of watercolor wash over a fountain pen sketch laid down with a water soluble Noodler’s ink. This too, is a good paper for sketching. I’m not sure which of these Canson papers are available in sheets rather than sketchpads, but I’m impressed with how the Mix Media accepts ink and water media. No, it’s not a watercolor paper. But it does acceptably well with watercolor, and I am willing to bet it will be an exceptional surface for gouache.

This sketch was also made on the 138lb Mix Media stock. For some reason I wound up with two sheets in the sample packs. Because I was doing a blind test, selecting sheets at random without reading the identification marking on the front of each page, a duplicate sketching test took place. If I learned nothing else, I found that this particular sheet seems to be consistent in quality.

For the sake of comparison, I also worked on a true watercolor sheet made by Fabriano. This sheet takes pencil very well, and – of course – watercolor. I used a bit of liquid frisket to mask the whites, recalling that some sheets tend to remove paper fiber when removing the mask. I did not experience that at all on this sheet.

The final sketch (which, in fact, was actually the very first I made this morning) was also made on the Fabriano Artistico watercolor sheet. I used a dip pen with my recently acquired “Blue Pumpkin” nib to make the sketch, and added watercolor washes of blues, yellows, and ochres. A couple of observations:

  • Taking a dip pen into the field is a pain in the butt, and I don’t think I’ll repeat that experiment.
  • However, the Blue Pumpkin is a legitimate artist tool, very flexible and has an excellent range of line weights that are possible with only a minimal change in stylus pressure. I’ll definitely keep it for studio sketching.
  • Fabriano Artistico is designed to be a watercolor paper. Ink and pens don’t really glide across the surface as smoothly as I’d like, or as well as on the Canson drawing papers. Really, that is to be expected. The best combination of drawing and painting surface I’ve found is still the Strathmore Aquarius II sheet. But I look forward to ordering some test sheets of the Canson XL Mix Media in a couple of different weights. I’m feeling pretty positive about it, and I’d love to discover I’ve a second sheet to keep stocked in the studio.