Location Scouting.

24 February, 2018. My location scouting trip into downtown Kansas City last weekend was very productive. In search of Art Deco architecture and features that would be accessible to our local Urban Sketchers for the April sketch out, I found ample opportunity to engage in street sketching.

Recently I was engaged in a short conversation with a passer-by whose interest was piqued by my sketching. We chatted for a couple of minutes; she asked to look at some of the pages in my sketchbook and then parted ways with a profound comment: “You’re like a street photographer with a pen!”

I rather like that sentiment. (In fact, I appropriated it and added it to my Instagram profile.)

Off and on I’ve toyed around with a pen drawing on brown paper. Most recently, I chopped up a piece of Canson paper that I had leftover from a pastel lesson I taught a year or so back. The surface takes a Uni-Ball Deluxe pen nicely and does a better than average job accepting the white lines from the crappy white gel pens I purchased off Amazon not long ago. (The manufacturer has sent me replacements with “fresh ink” to see if my experience improves. I’ll try them out this weekend and report back, this time naming product names.)

I intentionally tried to make this sketch look sort of wide angle…I feel that it maybe looks more distorted than “fish eye,” but the depth seems to work ok. There’s no story here, it’s just me fooling around, but I think that’s an important aspect of sketching: experimenting and trying new things.

I’d hoped to find a little more architectural ornamentation on the City Hall building I was scouting but was disappointed this was kind of all there was to be found on the north side of the structure. It’s a pretty interesting decorated light though, and quite large – I’m guessing four feet tall or more. Although there’s much more detail in the actual unit, I focused on shapes and simply implying the cutouts.

Iced In.

20 February, 2018. We had a totally unexpected snow day today (or more accurately, ice day), soooo – no school! I started off a day of drawing by adding white ink and lettering to a line drawing I began downtown a couple of days ago. I like the challenge of working with black and white pens on a toned paper, but it does force me to work differently, less fluidly and much more deliberately. The technique does work with human subjects, but it’s tougher for me to be as gestural as I’d like. Architectural subjects feel more natural with this pairing of tools and paper.

I posted this urban sketch a couple of days ago. I like the sort of psychological tension present in the sketch and promised myself that I’d have a go at a slightly larger version in color. For some reason I felt like it needed to be done in gouache, and that feeling persisted, nagging at me, insistent that watercolor would not be the right move. It was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched and I couldn’t at first figure out why.

I awoke this morning and suddenly knew what it was buzzing around in my head. The sketch and the hues I had in mind reminded me of a painting by one of my favorite artists, Ben Shahn.

In his 1939 painting Handball, Shahn’s figures are dwarfed by a huge white wall that dominates the entire composition. The chalkiness and graphically flat colors could only be achieved using gouache. Subconsciously I must have had in mind the similarities: an urban setting, a large white wall, the viewer being presented with the figure’s back. And, of course, gouache.

I had no desire to copy Shahn’s artwork, nor be unduly influenced by the painting itself so I purposely avoided looking it up online until I was finished with the color sketch. Having now done so I decided that leaving the stark white areas unpainted as I might with watercolor was probably a mistake. It feels less than complete and I think it will be a good idea to go back in and paint the whites, leaving some subtle undulations of hue as I did with the blue-gray of the sky. Shahn’s painting demonstrates how that painted “white” results in an overall more holistic feeling. Using a limited palette works well in his painting and I feel in good company having relied on that strategy myself.

I decided to track the progress of development so that I’d have a record to share with my drawing/painting students when I introduce gouache in a few weeks. It also helps me to revisit the decisions I made during the process of painting.

The colors seem a bit raw to me and I wonder if painting the whites will change that for the better – or make no difference at all. I feel like this one is still just a study for a more finished piece, perhaps larger still.

Approximately 8.5 x 11 inches (21.6 x 28 cm), gouache on 140# watercolor paper. Ben Shahn’s painting Handball is part of the MoMA’s permanent collection.

A little perspective and space please.

18 February, 2017. The sun came out, the temps began to rise, and lo! It was also the weekend! Sketchbook in hand, pen in pocket, and car parked on the street near 12th and Grand, I walked around downtown Kansas City to reacquaint myself with the blocks around City Hall and the County Courthouse. These structures are designed in the Art Deco style and I figured the time was opportune to do a little location scouting in advance of the USkKC Art Deco sketch out I’ll be facilitating in April. The view above caught my attention as I was parking my car. I like the point-of-view that emphasizes a dramatic perspective, differing eye levels, and the layering of overlapping buildings. City Hall is the large structure on the left, but I was more interested in the depth than in focusing on the architectural design.

That’s not to say the design isn’t interesting. The building is tall, with the characteristic symmetry and verticality one associates with Art Deco. It’s relatively easy to make a dramatic visual when one realizes that the architectural design is such that it augments the effect of perspective by “stair-stepping” the lengthy building blocks.

Realizing that our sketch group would have no problem finding interesting things to draw I began to wander further afield, coming upon this opening several blocks north of City Hall. Emptiness is not something one encounters often in an urban environment like downtown Kansas City. Usually nature – and developers – abhor a vacuum and immediately fill it with an ugly building. So this spot caught my eye and I realized right away that the odd balance, the shifting of layers between background, middle ground, and foreground, it all appealed to me. I like the composition immensely and am already planning a larger color painting based on this sketch.

I think too that this one intrigues me because of the inherent narrative that is present. Who is this guy? What is he looking at? What is going on? These question beg to be answered. The space and balance creates a narrative tension. The front of the car just peeking out seems to heighten that tension.

The main focus of my morning location scouting turned out to be something I had not gone in search of: an emphasis on perspective and space. I was intentional in electing to keep the shapes simple, leave out lots of detail, and to embellish the silhouettes of buildings with minimal adornment. It’s ironic that leaving out detail can often create a greater sense of place than incorporating more. In any event, it allows me to focus attention on those things that interest me the most.

My approach continues to be to work directly, unaided by pencil lines. Starting with a pen – in this case a Sailor Fude de Manner fountain pen – I begin to draw, trusting my intuition to place elements in the most visually functional way. I’ll often consider the figure/ground relationship as I sketch, making notes to myself of what parts I will later isolate as negative space. Sometimes I’ll jumpstart my thinking with a fat pen as I did with the sky in the sketch of City Hall (near the top of this page.) Sometimes I will composite my sketches, drawing one figure first and then overlaying others into the sketch to effect a layering and to better organize space. But I’m nearly always trying to consider how to focus on the “main character” in my visual story, be it person, object, or structure.

One of the things I teach – hammer, actually! – in my design classes, is the various strategies for creating emphasis in an artwork or design. Compositionally, relying on proximity, contrast, isolation, and difference have become almost second nature for me as I sketch.

Hangin’ out in trendy hipster spots

16 February, 2018. Our small town is growing up. The two lane streets have evolved into four and six lanes and still regularly fill to overcapacity traffic twice each day. Every manner of franchise has located along those main roads. And we’ve begun to attract the hipster crowd with trendy spots.

Of course, that means a bearded, slightly rumpled art guy armed with a pen and a sketchbook fits right in at the bar.

I’m not sure why, but when I sketch guys they seem to be entirely unaware. Ladies, on the other hand, are almost immediately mindful of the scrutiny. I sometimes worry that sketching people in public might be viewed as voyeuristic in some sense.

It’s nice to sketch in places like these though – they’re nice, kind of chic, and still casual enough that one isn’t out of place in blue jeans and leather jacket. Patrons range from urban professional to hoodie, and everything in between; gray hairs, bald pates, unnaturally colored mops… it’s all good.

Wine, Pens, and Story.

11 February, 2018. This morning I’m reflecting on a couple of things that interest me – wine, sketching, experimentation, and storytelling.

Having been attendees of the Cellar Rat wine club for more than a few years, we finally availed ourselves of a previously untapped membership perk: a wine class. Mark, the personable and very knowledgeable Cellar Rat manager has led many a varied such event. This theme of this particular evening was wines from unusual places, featuring bottles from spots around the globe one might not immediately associate with grape growing. There were, for instance, bottles from Macedonia, Mexican Baja, and the Canary Islands, all of which were part of an interesting and fun evening of exploration.

Good wines – to me at least – are a natural accompaniment to food and companionship. The magic of this evening was bringing together a dozen strangers around a long, simple table to enjoy the fellowship of the palate (as opposed to the palette I more usually concern myself with.) We sampled from eight bottles, and marveled at the variety of changes taking place on the tongue as we paired each with different harder cheeses – an interesting locally produced white Cheddar, a wonderful Spanish Manchego, and a slightly pungent and very tasty Sardinian goat cheese.

An elderly woman who sat across the table from me had been to many such classes, not only with this evening’s host, but across the country and in other lands. As with others around our table, one of the best things was the sharing of personal experiences and tastes – an unexpected supplement to the informative nature of Mark’s presentation of the samples. And this brings me round to one of the other things I mentioned reflecting upon: story. I always enjoy making sketches in which a story – or at least part of a story – is present. In fact, it’s not unusual for me to feel some internally driven obligation to add “field notes” or a caption to a sketch. Sometimes the words are design additions or help to otherwise visually balance a drawing as they do in the sketch above.

I also enjoy being open to using my sketches to share a part of what I experience by being present in a particular place at a particular time. Yes, in many ways my sketches can be very journalistic, kind of visual diaries – and in some sense they are rather autobiographical.

To that end, these scribbles are more journalistic or narrative in nature than artistic.

I enjoy experimenting with line and color; with expression and the expressive qualities of the materials at hand. Attempting to sketch on site often presents challenges, so “being there” and making my marks on paper requires a certain degree of dexterity and innovation. “Dexterity,” because I’m hesitant to allow my act of sketching to influence the conversation or story that may be unfolding. And “innovation,” because no matter what degree of forethought I seldom have in my hand the exact tool I’d like for that particular moment.

These sketches are simple and (I hope) the simplicity is driving an expressive nature. The tools are simple: a Uni-Ball Deluxe rollerball pen, a water brush and gouache, a Sailor Fude de Mannen fountain pen for adding a few weighted strokes.

Earlier this week I had some large format color prints delivered to me untrimmed. The paper stock is about a 65# cover weight, and a very bright white matte. Trimming off the excess, I stopped myself as I prepared to place the scraps into the recycle bin. This is nice stuff, I said to myself. I wonder how it would take a fountain pen stroke. So instead of recycling the paper, I trimmed it down to a common size and pulled aside a sheet from the stack to test out. At my drawing table I worked quickly – after all, I’d know almost immediately if the paper and my ink weren’t going to be compatible. My first sketch was simple and very gestural, and I liked how the ink flowed across the surface of the paper. My watercolor kit was across the room and a kit of gouache I’ve been playing with recently was ready at hand. Too lazy to walk across the studio, I dipped my water brush into the paint, ready for the paper to cockle once water was on it. Yet, the surface remained flat. Hmm, I thought to myself. This needs a field test.

And that’s how I came to have ink jet printer paper with me for sketching the wine class last night. At the moment I have generated about two dozen 10 x 10 inch sheets, saved from trimmings. If it turns out that I like working with this material, there’s a nearly unlimited supply of it on hand in the form of trimmings from my printer. And if not, nothing has been lost.

Experimentation and Play.

4 February, 2018. I like to play around with different ways of drawing, to experiment with various surfaces and ways of mark making. Frankly, I think it’s important for anyone interested in making art of any kind to be open to the idea of play.

This past week I’ve been playing around with some relatively simple tools: A Uni-ball, a white gel pen, and brown kraft paper, the kind grocery bags are made from. Kraft paper is pretty soft stuff, soft enough that I had my drawing students bring in and use bags for charcoal sketches a couple of years ago. The surface isn’t nearly as smooth as it looks, at least not once you start to drag the point of a pen across it. The gel pen, normally a tool with ink that readily flows, seemed to need extra encouragement at times and my white marks had to be decisive and deliberate, almost as if the ink was clogging. It made me wonder if paper fibers were getting picked up and traveling back inside the pen.

Meanwhile, the Uni-ball Deluxe pen continues to be worth carrying in my small kit. It’s a real workhorse and has yet to fail me. During an art room observation last week I was impressed at the concentration this young artist was giving to his assignment. The only drawing surface I had with me at the time was this brown stuff I’d made into a booklet on a whim. A quick line sketch with the Uni-ball was made on location; the lettering and white lines got added later.

I’ve continued to play around with this paper and pen combination for the past couple of days, including at our monthly USk sketch out. The three tones mimics the three-tone approach I teach to charcoal drawing in the art room and I think it has the potential for an attractive reportage style with a little bit of practice. I’m curious how the paper would handle a bit of watercolor. It’s not really high quality stuff so I’m a little leery of it coming apart.

But I think I’ll give it a try all the same. After all, I’m just playing around.