30 Days Hath September

30 September, 2018. “30 Days hath September,” or so the phrase begins. And here we are, 30 days of the month nearly at an end; done, complete, in the books.


Our town’s annual Fall Festival was this weekend. The town square was brimming with people, wandering from booth to booth or pushing baby strollers or simply walking a dog. The carnival was in full force, and the air smelled of kettle corn, hot dogs, and cotton candy. A live country music band entertained a crowd on the courthouse terrace, and two blocks north streets were barricaded for other music venues. Teens were converging on the square from all directions as night fell, and I wheeled my bicycle through the crowd, stopping here and there along the way to make a composite sketch.

I’ll sometimes do this, create a sketch that is made up of parts of an event or place. It’s not true documentation, at least not in the sense that a courtroom sketch artist is attempting. But that’s fine by me. I’m more interested in the story of the place and time; it’s my decision what to include and what to leave out. And really, isn’t that a more honest approach anyway? Artists always edit. They decide how to crop. My sketches are often collages, scenes that never actually were, but are truthful all the same, a combination of all that I experienced. Then, like a film director, I select which scenes to include.

I like to play, to experiment. A couple of artworks on social media recently caught my attention: lightly drawn, with a scribbly, sketched quality. I looked to see what the media was and read “watercolor crayon.”

Well, heck. Here’s a tool I’d never heard of and I wanted to know more so I relied on my good buddy Google to find out what I could and discovered Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water soluble wax pastels. I’ve no idea if these are what was used or not, but I was intrigued enough to get my hands on a few.

Now let’s be very clear: I’ve no idea if these things are “my” sort of media or not. More than likely, they’re just a passing plaything. But they are fun, and very quick.

The skies were wonderful the other morning. I was on the way to work, so literally no time to sketch for longer than a couple minutes. The only thing I had in the car with me was a a small kit of these pastels – not even a water brush on hand to see how they might react to an application or two of water. A scrap of watercolor paper was in the trunk of my car.

Anyway, voila! “Drawing” with watercolor feels a little like I’m working with a very high quality crayon, very smooth and creamy. And I find myself wondering what it would be like in this sketchy style using a smoother surface. Hmm, I think to myself. Better try it.

They definitely force one to focus on the masses rather than teeny details. And Ooooo! I like these crayons a LOT more on smooth paper… so much more creamy! Sketchbook, here I come!

Next up: activating the pigment with washes, and then layers of marks over the dry washes, perhaps?

Well now that’s an interesting effect. Everything easily gets very “solid” feeling. The pigment instantly melts into the application of water, and it’s pretty easy to add more once it dries. It takes me in a different direction than the loose, light drawings that initially caught my eye, but I am thinking they make a good choice for tiny little super fast location sketches.

The colorfastness is excellent for most of those in the kit I’m using, but I’m disappointed to discover that some of the most useful pigments are rated poorly – the Olives, Periwinkle Blue, Ochre, and Carmine in particular. The colors are deceptively titled in some cases, too. “Salmon” seems anything but, for instance, and I definitely don’t see a flame in “Flame Red.”


And so it goes.

25 September, 2018. A friend of mine has made a painting or drawing every day for years now, posting to her blog every single day. It’s a remarkable achievement and I’m envious as hell.

The first several weeks of school are always busy ones for me. Art teachers need art supplies. New schools need functioning art departments. Students need to know how to hold a pencil, what the difference is between warm and cool colors, how to use linear perspective, and so forth. Most of the drawing I do, I do for my students for demonstrations, and when I do draw for myself it tends to be spectacularly quick.

And so it goes.

It’s one of the reasons I prefer the sketchbook over the easel. Grab and go.

Sunday morning I fit in a relatively short ride out to Fountain Bluffs Park and back. There are several ponds in the park. Although the foliage is still dense, the weather has suddenly begun to feel very much like Autumn, the time of year I enjoy most. Straddling my bike and standing in front of one pond, I was struck by the symmetry of the reflection: Sky above, sky below. Fountain pen scrawled incredibly quickly across the page. Scribbles become masses, shapes; those masses darken and fill, squiggly lines merge and, hopefully, convey something of the reflection I see. Birds sing, the light is perfect.

And then my sketchbook is back in my bag and I’m back on the road, turned toward home.

And so it goes.

Brush Creek Art Walk

16 September, 2018. I was invited to judge the 7th Annual Brush Creek Art Walk, a plein air event that has grown in stature and size in only a few short years. As the name implies, the event takes place along Brush Creek, which is located adjacent to Kansas City’s swanky Country Club Plaza and extends eastward into some less traveled pathways. Dappled with trees, foliage, a nature center, bodies of water, easy footpaths, and surrounding architecture, Brush Creek has evolved over the last two decades into a soft, green urban destination for families, walkers, and joggers. It meanders past the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, with a spectacular corridor view of the long landscaped lawn and our iconic shuttlecock sculpture.

The three-day event kicked things off on Friday, with a nocturnal quick paint. We gathered at one of Kansas City’s iconic fountains, near the corner of Broadway and Nichols on the Plaza and waited for the timed start. As the judge, my sketches were an act of camaraderie and participation so the pressure was off to produce a “finished” artwork. I began by making several compositional studies, realizing within minutes that I could easily stand in one place and develop a dozen worthwhile ideas. Simply turning in my spot thirty degrees offered up a completely different perspective from the previous study.

As night fell, the sky turned a deep, rich shade of blue. The architecture became silhouettes at first, and then sections began to glow with golden patches of highlight as the building illumination kicked in. From my perspective, the view was just a little bit magical! And could I capture that color?

Well, not really. But it was fun trying to mimic it.

Artist participation was terrific. I knew many of the painters and sketchers, and enjoyed getting to know others whose names I knew but had never previously met. Many other artists were new to me and the opportunity to meet and get to know them was one of the best things about this event. There’s little in the way of social community for artists, so it’s good to relish gatherings like these.

The paintings were impressive. Situated as we were, artist and public intermingled, chatted, got to know one another, and artworks sold on the spot. Who knew it would be so much fun and so easy to advocate for art?

As the first day concluded, I strolled the lineup of paintings with the purchase award patron, narrowed the competition to a field of five, and selected one purchase recipient.

Saturday morning dawned with a hot, mostly sunny day. Artists were out and eager to get started.

I gave a demonstration and talk along the path, chatting with participants about my own personal ideas relating to compositional design, defining areas of contrast through value and/or color, and how I “edit” a scene to distill down the visual to what is essential. This is the sort of situation where I tend to flourish – I enjoy interacting with people of a similar bent and interest. Questions and thoughtful replies are welcomed. Folks enjoyed their coffee, their feet shuffling in the damp grass, while I got the chance to warm up as I spoke.

I made this demonstration sketch, chatting about random ideas as they occurred to me: the rule of thirds, respecting the motif, creating a pattern of shadow to create visual flow, and not taking myself too seriously. I like to play with my marks, and I’m not interested in photographic accuracy either. The most enjoyable part of a sketch is simply allowing the pen to “dance” around the page.

Every now and then I had to turn my back to the group to place marks on the paper. Jennifer Rivas got a nice close up documentary photo of me scribbling early in the drawing.

As the morning quick paint got started, I finished my demonstration sketch. I work fairly quickly and with a three hour time limit, I had plenty of time to walk around and look over the shoulders of artists as they worked as well as to make another value study.

Wandering past one especially pleasant location, I happened upon several other sketchers, a vacant park bench, and these logs basking under a bright sun. Bleached by the weather, they were practically glowing; the shadows were a dense black, with few middle tones present. Those that were visible showed the texture of the wood. Working on gray Stillman and Birn Nova series paper with a bent nib pen, a Uni-Ball, and a white Uni-Ball Signo, I worked the shadow shapes back and forth. I was trying to capture believable shapes quickly because they were changing just as quickly as the sun drifted across the morning sky into an overhead position.

The day was hot, and the artists were too! But my seat under the canopy of walnut trees was excellent and all I had to do was be mindful of walnuts dropping like messy little bombs from above.

The Brush Creek Art Walk wraps up today with a sunset quick paint.

Miscellaneous Weekend Sketching

10 September, 2018. I made a lot of loose, unfinished sketches this past weekend. Urban Sketchers Kansas City met for our First Saturday Sketch Out at Crown Center. The morning was overcast and a brisk autumn sort of weather – my favorite sort of conditions for being outdoors, in fact! We had an excellent turn out and had planned on sketching the participants in a sidewalk chalk drawing competition, but Mother Nature had other plans. I’d been sketching no more than ten minutes before the skies opened up on us. Having sketched in the rain the evening before I had no intention of getting soaked on this morning. Along with all but the most hardy, I headed indoors.

Comfortably seated in the food court I saw a fellow Mark in a corner and quickly penciled in his likeness. The light coming through the bank of windows at his back was diffused and quite beautiful, and I wish I’d been able to capture it. Nevertheless, I quite like the pencil sketch on its own merits.

Later on I tried to make a color version, but it just seems to lack the spontaneity of the original in situ pencil drawing.

Outside, the chalk artists were situated under tents in some locations, and they made some marvelous sidewalk paintings. I discovered that some artists grind up their chalk and “paint” it onto the surface. What a great idea!

Sunday morning I explored a park along Brush Creek, near the Plaza in Kansas City. I’m judging the Brush Creek Art Walk, a plein air event next weekend, and thought I’d immerse myself in the same area the artists will be competing in. I’d like to be in rapport with the painters before rendering judgement on their work and thought this might be a sensitive way to do that.

Even though these are small sketches, I thoroughly enjoyed making free studies as I wandered around under the trees. The trunks greatly interested me, some because of the repetitious vertical lines they created under the canopy of foliage, and others because of their serpentine character.


Etchr Mini Slate

8 September, 2018. A few of us donned rain gear and braved the elements to sketch on location at the City Market last night. I just “knew” the conditions wouldn’t be optimal for watercolor; despite that, some of my fellow sketchers did just fine with water media.

I hedged my bets though, and decided to work strictly with pens. Surprisingly, the drizzle failed to stifle the crowds and the live band had a pretty good attendance under the canopies. I tend to move around frequently as I sketch, and even a lightweight easel can restrict mobility. The dilemma for me is that I do enjoy having a stable platform on which to draw or paint. Hardback sketchbooks meet that need better than softcover options, and if there’s a place to sit or comfortably lean this is my preference for drawing in situ. However, I do find myself juggling pens, paper towel, sketchbook, and whatever else I happen to feel at the time it’s important to be holding: one only has two hands, after all.

As I’ve done off and on this summer, last night I carried an Etchr Slate Mini. I’ve tried and failed in the past to adequately describe this product: It’s a sort of combination shoulder slung satchel/portable art material storage/drawing platform. The closest product with which I’m familiar that I can compare it against is a pochade box.

(photo credit: Etchr Lab)

Shown here in “Supported Mode,” you can see how it functions as a drawing platform. There are lots of ways to carry pens and art stuff that work just fine – I’ve variously used shoulder bags, backpacks, a photojournalist vest, or simply stuffed my shirt and pants pocket. Bags, once you are ready to sketch, need to be tossed aside. I really don’t need yet another ingenious method for carrying pens, so it is this Supported Mode feature that provides the greatest value to me for location sketching. Once I’ve got the satchel flipped open and positioned, I can speedily move around with ease. Converting from carry mode to a drawing platform is quite simple and quick. As I’ve grown accustomed to using the Etchr Slate Mini, I’ve found that spinning it from my back to front and flipping it open is a matter of 20 or 30 seconds effort.

Last night I made several sketches. As the wind changed, I’d suddenly discover that light drizzle was blowing onto my paper. Rather than picking up an easel, supplies, and stool, then searching for a new and more sheltered position, I simply took a step or two over and continued to draw unabated.

What’s the downside for me? I could nitpick at a couple of design flaws in the system – the zipper around the netting covering the art supply area sometimes feels a little forced going around tight turns in the bag. It really does bug me that it’s not a smoother operation, but I can live with it. The biggest issue for me, and which is why I don’t carry this bag everywhere, is the experience I had carrying it for several hours each day during my June sketching trip: I began to feel back pain.

So for an hour and a half or so of sketching on the move last night, the Etchr was just about perfect. Carrying it on the trail or all day through the city would not be my first option.


Line. Shape.

3 September, 2018. I love working with line and shape! I love the energy of just laying down marks, without any protective “parachute” of light pencil lines to guide me. It’s frustrating as hell when that turns into a train wreck, but just a little magical when it all comes together and just works. Working with a bent nib pen or the point of a sable brush allows me to sort of ride the wave a little, hanging in there as the lines flow and varies from thick to thin and then back again.

Line variety can still be achieved with a single weight pen, by the way. I purposely try to be as economical as possible with the lines I choose to place on the page, sometimes emphasizing various contour lines by going back over them a time or two or three to vary the implied wieght.

Imperfection of line appeals to me. Overlapping and transparency and imprecision.

I don’t lose much sleep trying to make the fills of a shape “perfect,” either. It feels like an important thing to do, revisiting the concept of artist’s hand. None of us are perfect; neither are most of the marks we make on paper. Those imperfections are part of what makes us human. It’s the choices we make about where and how we make those marks that are the most interesting.

Be cool.

(Number five in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

3 September, 2018. It’s Labor Day weekend, I’ve been incredibly tied up with the business of teaching all week and, frustratingly, there’s been no opportunity to sketch. Traveling down to Northwest Arkansas to bicycle, hike, and explore, three days were blocked out on my calendar to remedy the dearth of drawing activity.

A very pleasant afternoon diversion came about through a visit to the small, but very diverse Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks. There we strolled under canopies of local and exotic foliage, through beds of strangely wonderful plants, flowers and fruits coming in an assortment of sizes, shapes, and configurations. And the color!

All weekend long I’d been sketching with pens. I love playing with positive and negative shapes, and the drama of the figure ground relationship can be a very playful visual tool. And color can benefit from that visual trickery and mind play as well.

I love to separate space, not just through the juxtaposition of positive and negative shapes but also by contrasting cools against warm colors, and brights against muted, neutral tones, compliments of color temperature, compliments of hue. Chromatics are important to me – contrary to what I do with a pen, my paints never include black. Shadows are cool, as are far away objects, which also tend to be grayed and muted. Highlights are warm; objects closer to the viewer are not only warm, but also very crisp. It’s a very simple recipe for color that serves me well when I sketch.

As with my drawings, placement of elements are given additional thought. I don’t hesitate to move objects around in my studies, neither do I worry about making a photographic documentation of the colors. If it suits my purposes to “bounce” the eye around a little, I’ll make a note to myself to create focal distractions that break up the flow. You’ll notice in my color study (above) that I’ve indicated which lily pads I thought should be yellow by marking them with a penciled “Y.”

All of which is sort of academic, really, because the viewer is ultimately drawn to the brilliant warm orange of the goldfish, which contrasts beautifully against the deep cooler complimentary violet shadow of the water. That violet blends into a muted blue-green at the termination of the shadow, contrasting values of shadow against the reflection of sky.

Incidentally, this particular study was done on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper using my kit of Nicholson’s Peerless Transparent Watercolors. These are unique dry pigments, bound to pieces of paper – I’m doing a terrible job of describing them, I realize, so just go check them out online – but which are amazingly transportable. I almost never carry them with me because I’m so handcuffed to my travel kit. This weekend I wanted to travel as light as possible and carried the Peerless stuff with me… well, just because.