Recipe Gone Awry.

30 December, 2018. It’s a Sunday morning, cold, and I’m too slothful to wander outside to sketch today. One of the dogs is curled up on a throw rug at my feet, enjoying the warmth of the studio while I thumb through sketches in search of something to draw.

I pause for a moment to look at this pencil sketch from my recent trip to New Orleans. This is “Gumbo Marie,” a chef at the New Orleans School of Cooking who taught a group of us how to prepare gumbo her way – the “correct” way. I’d scribbled down something she said, a quote that I really love and thought summed up her personality way better than my sketch did.

Did this pencil study excite me enough to go any further with it? I really wasn’t feeling it, so I kept thumbing through pages. Eventually, finding little to get me pumped up I found my way back to these sketchbook pages.

So here I am, nearly a month returned from my visit. My memory is fading quickly. With only a vague plan in mind for where I’m going to take things, I jump in with a pen, leaving my penciled field notes in place. As usual, I begin to look for ways to contrast large black areas against the inked focal point. I’m a little unhappy to have lost the energy of the pencil lines. They created an impression of the person and the inked lines are “too” precise. To me, they look like something from a coloring book.

After a little deliberation, I decide to take it easy with the white pen I’ve begun to use. Instead, I add some touches of color with gouache. I sure like how the painterly characteristics wipe out the “coloring book” appearance of the “too deliberate” line drawings.

I re-read Marie’s quote now and chuckle to myself. It kind of applies to the backward approach I’ve used to develop this sketch. But like a surprising twist to a recipe gone awry, I wind up liking how the dish turned out after all.

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Restoration of a Revival

29 December, 2018. Peeking over the walls of some rather more industrial looking structures in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District is the spired belfry of the restored Webster House. Originally designated Webster School, the building is an example of Richardson Romanesque architecture, a 19th Century American style that was itself a revival of thousand-year old Roman designs. 

When you look closely, Kansas City is filled with architectural surprises. My personal knowledge of architectural styles has always been very limited, but my personal tastes are broad. While fairly well defined, those tastes continue to evolve as I discover – or rediscover –  interesting structures in and around my home town. Richardson Romanesque is one description with which I was previously unfamiliar, but which holds some interest for me. (Studying examples of the style, an eventual move toward Beaux-arts decoration kind of helps makes sense of the stylistic evolutions to me.)

The internet is a rich repository of information and makes it easier to learn about and distinguish between the dizzying variety of design styles, many of which are a sort of “collage” of things that came before. One thing that intrigues me is the patchwork quilt of human-made stuff that results over time, whether that’s a bird’s eye view of roads and fields, or the hodgepodge mixture of building additions that take place over time. The Crossroads Arts District is a good example of structural collage, buildings of various purposes and eras that are nestled one next to the other in a sort of “roll of the dice” city plan.

Proportion and Continuity

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

“Proportion” is a word that gets used a lot in art, but seems to me to be largely misunderstood. So let’s begin with a bit of common ground by establishing what I am referring to when I talk about proportion in sketching, which is the relative size and scale of the various objects appearing in your drawing.

In the observed world (see my reference photo above), a sketcher might consider various proportions. For instance, when I draw something is the width of an object proportionally accurate when compared to the height of that object? Is the size and shape of that entire object proportionally accurate when compared to other objects within the motif? What about the space between objects? Or the scale of objects appearing closer vs. further away? If one’s objective is to make a photographically accurate rendering, proportionality becomes a very important factor.

So does that mean proportionality is no longer important if one is making a sketch that is purposefully not photographically accurate? A drawing in which exaggeration is intentional? I would argue that proportionality is, in fact, of even greater value to the artist if one is hoping for a degree of authenticity or believability.

My sketches are nearly always exaggerated in some manner. I choose to use line and shape as a means of expressiveness. Compare the shape of my buildings above to the photograph – there are significant differences in the forms themselves, not to mention the placement and spacing. But while the drawing couldn’t be placed over the photograph on a light box with any degree of accuracy, I feel like it is true to the place. Artists make decisions about what to include and what to leave out all the time. So too do we make decisions about proportionality.

In fact, I find that continuity is much more useful in a drawing than photographic accuracy. Whether your shapes are drawn in a quirky or cartoonish way, or very accurately, the goal is to shoot for consistency throughout the drawing.

To make my point, I’ve shared four images of the same subject this morning: two are variations using line, one is a loose watercolor sketch, and the other is a photographic reference of the location I sketched. The line art and the watercolor are stylistically different; neither are “accurate” to the photograph. But I feel like both are “truthful” representations of the place and time. You’d probably recognize the place from the sketches. Proportionality has been used to “stretch” the otherwise squat vertical objects in a very horizontal motif. Perhaps this exaggeration of proportion helps to communicate the personality of the structures and place and time better than photographic accuracy might.

To pull this off, sketchers must be consistent in the way that proportions are exaggerated. To do otherwise risks creating a sketch that, while perhaps quite skillful, is somehow less believable, less convincing to a viewer.

Christmas Eve.

24 December, 2018. It’s Christmas Eve and I have one gift left to pick up. The store has called to let me know it has finally arrived – yes, with only one day left to go. I have qualms about heading out to a shopping area on the day before Christmas. Will I have to slog my way through crowded streets, weave through throngs of shoppers in search of last minute purchases?

Thus, I leave early, arriving before the stores open, and – hopefully! – before others arrive. This way I can sketch a little, walk a little, pick up my gift item as the store opens, and then swoop out toward home as the masses are arriving.

The plan is successful… whew!

Handmade Sketching Journals

16 December, 2018. I made up a few sketching journals last week and almost as an afterthought posted photos of the results. I do this to document my process and thinking, so I was caught by surprise by the reaction: a lot of people contacted me privately, they wanted to know more. A few asked if I would construct a journal for them.

My answer was no. I make sketching journals that are customized to my needs and wants. They are made to various non-standard sizes I like, using my favorite papers, some of which are not available in sketchbook formats. I only make these three or four or five at a time, so doing this as a “commercial venture” would not be a good business model. Plus, it’s fun to do and I encourage others to jump on board and enjoy the rewards of “making” yourself.

This is what a sketching journal looks like when I pull it off the shelf. It’s very simple – in this case, it’s just a piece of colored poster board cut to size, scored in two places to allow for the thickness of a sheaf of paper to be inserted, then folded into a “portfolio.”

Here you can see the depth of the sheaf of art paper, which is slightly thinner than the gusset I’ve scored and folded.

The paper is dimensionally smaller than the fold size of the cover. I do this to protect the art paper.

The art paper is concertina-folded. The sheaf of art paper is comprised of several concertina-fold pamphlets. I like to leave any deckle or rough edges showing whenever feasible.

Importantly, I don’t bind the paper into the portfolio-style cover. Much experimentation with hand made journals has led me to conclude that accordion-fold signatures are too awkward to work with in situ. By leaving the sheaf loose leaf, I wind up with far more sketching options. 

First off, I remove one pamphlet at a time, and only as I need a new drawing surface. The other pamphlets remain safely between the covers, usually stowed in my sketching kit. Secondly, the format allows me to consider options of working on a single panel, or on multiples – in either horizontal or vertical orientation. Should I choose to pursue an extreme horizontal or vertical, that option is viable. It’s much easier to handle a thin pamphlet than it is to awkwardly wrestle a book offering the same folding patterns.

The paper I’ve used in this most recent stack is two of my favorite to draw and paint upon: Strathmore Aquarius II and Stillman and Birn Nova Series (grey).

Decorative lighting

10 December, 2018. Near Lafayette Cemetery Number One in the Garden District of New Orleans, it’s not uncommon to encounter decorative Art Nouveau and Beaux-arts wrought iron railings, gates, and lamps. This is one of a pair of lamps that emerge from a tall hedge which itself – I presume – further envelopes an equally tall iron fence. The twin to this was fifty yards further along the walk and in disrepair, the housing long gone and the strut all that remains.

I was childishly delighted to notice many of the lamps along the street, in yards, and on homes were in full working order – rather than electric, the ones that caught my eye sported a flickering gas flame.

Sketching while walking and exploring can be challenging when one is with companions. The simple fact of the matter is that companions seldom want to hang about while one makes marks upon a page. Out of courtesy, I will often make a very quick sketch, jot down a few notes, and add color later – perhaps from the comfort of a bar stool or while we wait on lunch.

My notes are usually very light pencil marks that get erased later, but my thinking is beginning to evolve. Those marks are as much a part of the process and story as the finished sketch, and perhaps should remain visible to document those initial observations.

Gesture

9 December, 2018. Gesture sketching is fun, fast, and immediate. They work or they suck. Period. When they work, things feel great. Lines just seem to lay down on the page in exactly the right way, exactly the right place. 

And when they don’t work… well, those pages never see the light of day ever again.

I think gesture sketches are a way of learning, of studying the world around you. They’re a kind of shorthand.


Cheap oysters

8 December, 2018. The oysters are only 75 cents each, and I am totally happy. The wine is crap, but it’s also cheap so all seems good in the world.

Like so many other places in New Orleans, we chat with people at the bar about sports, movies, art, horses – pretty much anything and everything, and I find myself almost with anything more to say.

Until I find out about a place that serves 25 cent oysters. We head there the next afternoon and two of us consume four dozen. 

Music, pretty much everywhere

7 December, 2018. The trumpet player is one in a quartet of jazz musicians. He’s heavyset and lounging in his chair; I worry that it’s going to break because it seems to bend under his weight and audibly creaks when he rocks back and forth. He leads the group with a version of Saint Louis Blues and while no one would mistake his horn playing for Louis Armstrong there’s something else. When he sings, his voice sounds a lot like Pops. 

Our server asks if she can show him my sketch and I nod. When the band breaks, he grabs a plate of food and comes over to chat. “Ah, an artist,” he says. I pat him on the arm and correct him: “No, there are two artists here,” nodding at him. He grins and waddles off, horn in hand to play another set.

If you’re not in New Orleans to listen to jazz, you’re missing out. It’s everywhere. At breakfast in a French Quarter place called Buffa’s, a group of elderly musicians are jamming. The trumpet and trombone players are both women, and their horns are smoking as they hammer out standard after standard, filling every bridge with improvisational solos.

It’s not unusual to encounter street musicians or small marching bands or just some guy sitting in an empty area playing his horn, presumably to warm up his chops. In Louis Armstrong Park, a lone trombonist is pacing behind a cluster of buildings, wailing away as he tried out different variations.

Banjos are so much a part of the Bluegrass music scene that it’s easy to forget they are also solidly at home in traditional jazz.

Musicians lean back or lean over and get completely lost in their sounds. They are the very essence of cool.

And on the street, waiting for a customer, the shoe shine man is singing Scat.

Neighborhoods

6 December, 2018. I haven’t been in New Orleans for nearly thirty years, but the one consistent memory I have of the place is the architecture. Unlike most American cities, New Orleans is old and a lot of structures from the early days remain intact and in use. My hotel, Maison St. Charles, is in fact a composite of two or three plantation houses.

Three stories down, a brick courtyard, a fountain, tables and umbrellas. It’s a pleasant area to sit and enjoy the breeze, night or day. Over four days, I find myself frequently sitting for an hour or so to add details to my sketches.

In the Garden District, unlike the entertainment-oriented nature of the Quarter, tightly spaced commercial buildings are dedicated to shops: galleries and antiques and other odds and ends. The road meanders for about six miles or so, and having tread the entire length there and back, wandering in and out of small shops along the way, my feet hurt. A block off the main road, neighborhoods of stately homes, the very definition of Southern gentility, stood behind gates and fences of elaborately designed wrought iron.

Algiers is almost entirely residential. Reachable by a short ferry ride, walking the neighborhood streets felt very much like I’d somehow crossed the river to 1945. One bar, a couple of restaurants, a market that was open from 9 until 1 on Sundays – none of them attached to a “Main Street,” but located haphazardly and seemingly at random places among the blocks of neat houses.