27 January, 2019. Ah yes, another pleasant hour toying with my watercolor kit while the wind howls, fierce with cold. All the while, I dream of warmer times, perspiration on my back and the comfort of a cool breeze. The chill I feel isn’t from the evaporation of that trickle of sweat, but from the hard, cold wood floor of my studio space; the windows rattle and leaves fly past traveling on the gusts of wind. I return my attention to the half sheet of watercolor paper, the first wash almost dry enough now for the glaze that follows. I ponder the technicalities of painting something so much larger than the page of even my largest sketchbook. My discomfort translates into an exploration of an approach I’ve seldom embraced these last several years, that of working large. And though this is far and away much smaller than those enormous canvases I once smeared with thick layers of oil – still! This is bigger than the hand held sketches I churn out as I wander through life. To do something new and uncomfortable is the artist’s way.
This is the second painting I’ve made of this subject. Does two constitute the start of a series, or is it simply the continuation of a passing thought?
Watercolor on 300# Arches Cold Press, approximately 20 x 13.5 inches.
(Number eight in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)
26 January, 2019. Last night I finally visited a jazz bar that opened about a year ago. It is, quite literally, down the hill from my house and I offer no excuses for having waited so long – especially considering that the atmosphere is convivial and the jazz trio, A La Mode, was excellent.
As usual, I had a sketchbook and pen with me. The only seats were two large, comfortable leather armchairs right in front…it’s like they had save the two best seats in hopes of a sketcher showing up, and we gladly claimed them as our own. The show was good, and so was the subject matter. The stars seemed to be in alignment – so why was I feeling so uncertain about my sketches?
Sitting comfortably, pen in hand, and with what I perceived to be dozens of fellow patrons immediately behind me, looking over my shoulder to check out the art dude, my scribbles just felt crude and uninspired. Proportions were wonky. Nothing jumped off the page. No magic was there.
I do this to myself sometimes. Often enough, a sketch comes together effortlessly. When that doesn’t happen, I question myself, my choice of tools, my subject matter – everything. Maybe I’ll wind up overworking things or maybe I’ll be filled with self doubt. Flop sweat.
Regardless, I kept at it – scribbling and enjoying the music. And after an hour or so, I closed my book, paid the tab, and drove home. Once there, I opened up my sketchbook to see what I had captured: Mostly gestural sketches. Frankly, I was disappointed with the sketches and with myself. Even more frankly, I went to bed feeling like they were nothing more than warmups, and that my warmups were a train wreck.
This morning I find I’m actually pleased with some of them. I like the bass player so much that I am debating doing a much larger second version on a full sheet of watercolor paper using a big sloppy brush and India ink… but how is this possible? Last night everything seemed to have no potential whatsoever. This morning, those same sketches somehow evolved.
I think we get too close to what we’re doing sometimes. We become judgmental about our work, our style, our choices. And when that happens we don’t always give ourselves – or our ideas – a chance to gestate. We don’t give ourselves a chance to see what it is that we actually drew.
So the idea I’m sharing today is quite simple to state, but incredibly difficult to actually do: Don’t judge.
At least not now.
Sleep on it before you reach any conclusions about your work. Put a little time and distance between yourself and your drawing. Too often and too easily, we allow self doubt to morph into self reflection, and nothing productive can come from that. Examine your sketches and your practices critically, but always with a fresh pair of eyes.
23 January, 2019. The botanical garden wasn’t huge. Divided into many small sections and organized thematically, it was a pleasure to explore the many varieties of plant life on display.
It was last August, I think – or at least so my field notes and references indicate. I distinctly recall the day was very hot. Moving quickly out of the sun and under the different canopies of green provided some respite. Gradually – even somewhat quickly – a slight breeze became evident, and the perspiration running down my back evaporated, my damp shirt dried out. And ironically, was immediately wet again as the skies opened up and it began to rain.
It was far from a deluge – a gentle sprinkle only, and there was no longer a need for shelter – not from the sun, and not from the rain either. Meandering, I entered one enclosure of foliage, a Japanese-influenced water garden. There, among the lily pads and green stems and fronds was a school of gold fish. Idly, they hovered in place, inches below the surface. Everything was calm, everything seemed perfect. The moment was golden and I was charmed enough to make a few quick sketches while I stood there.
Today is cold and icy. Schools are out because the roads are too dangerous for students to travel, and I am daydreaming – not about snow, but about August days and t-shirts and walking shorts and cool shade over a pool of still water.
These daydreams call for a large sheet of watercolor paper and paint freshly squeezed from tubes. I take many liberties along the way, deviating from my summer references so that colors are the important things this morning. I don’t consider myself to be a watercolor technician, but I get out a bottle of liquid frisket, an idea in mind as to what I’d like to accomplish. Who knows? Perhaps the liquid just old and spent, or – more likely – I simply don’t know what I’m doing with it, but to my chagrin I discovered it wouldn’t release from the paper.
Lost in my August watercolor reveries, there are no worries though. I simply leave the frisket in place and incorporate it into my finished work.
I didn’t want to labor over details. The fish is a simple silhouette, wetted with clear water, then Cad Red Light dumped onto the wetted surface. I dragged a touch of Cad Yellow Medium into the center while still wet, and one of my blues – I forget which – along the wet edge of the wash. Then left it alone.
The sun has come out and glances across my drawing table. For a few minutes on this frigid day I feel warm.
22 January, 2019. Scrolling through Instagram late this afternoon, I saw a couple of very painterly looking images and suddenly felt like playing around with my Caran d’Ache water-soluble crayons. Illustrated here is the same sketch, before and after activating the pigments with a water brush. As it happens, I rather like both versions for different reasons.
In this, the initial rough in of colors and values, I enjoy how unfinished it looks. The scribbled lines leave a lot for one’s imagination to fill in the blanks. It feels fresh.
After simply adding water and one or two additional touches of color, it’s always amazing to me how much more “solid” these Neocolor II sketches become. The colors are rich – which I also enjoy. And it’s not at all necessary to get lost in the details: Simplicity doesn’t mean one can’t create a convincing image.
So there you have it: one drawing, two finishes. I could have stopped at the rough and been perfectly happy. What do you think? Which version do you prefer?
21 January, 2019. Man, this paper is a pain in the keister! Ink bleeds like crazy. My super compliant Caran D’Ache pastels don’t want to stick, and dragging the nib of my pen across the paper is a lot like driving a Jeep across the surface of the moon. It seems to suck ink right out of my pen reservoir too. Oh, and forget about activating those water soluble pastels with a brush.
Drawing on lousy paper is fraught with frustrations. Marks happen by chance. There’s just something about the unpredictability that makes sketching an appealing act of happenstance.
From time to time I’ll cut up a brown bag from the grocery store to draw upon. It’s a bit like butcher paper, but not as nice. The paper in this sketchbook is awful. It seems to have been formulated from some sort of oatmeal/palm frond/sandpaper/asteroid pulp recipe. The surface is irregular and looks hand made (although I doubt it actually is.)
The cover is laughably kitschy, but it does brighten up an otherwise cold and gloomy looking January world. It’s an embarrassingly “touristy” look, quite frankly, and the binding, while functional, is inset so far from the spine that a lot of real estate is lost: the effective useful drawing area is much smaller from side-to-side than it would appear at first glance. And that twig! It’s an entirely decorative accent (as is the cut out fish); it makes me chuckle just a little bit. This is a sketchbook you simply cannot take seriously.
It is a fun surface to mark upon. In a way, it reminds me of the crummy manilla paper I used for pen and ink drawings when I was a kid. I’d no idea at the time that “artist paper” was even a thing and so I used dip pens and India ink over terrible paper that was only barely workable. And doing so meant braving the frustrations of the inevitable ink spatter and blobs. As an adolescent, those frustrations led to more than one bottle of ink getting thrown across the room.
I’m also reminded of Renaissance era artist sketches. As I was floundering my way through the world of dip pens, the twelve year old me was gifted art books by my aunt. One book I particularly recall was illustrated with ink sketches by Rembrandt. The lines were spare and at the same time incredibly expressive. The sketches were made with what I imagine was a crude dip pen and represented a very handmade process. The paper never allowed a “perfect” line to be formed. I suspect now that Rembrandt’s paper had discolored over time, but everything about the paper in my sketchbook reminds me of his drawings: the color, the way lines are broken and skitter across the surface. Such paper encourages one very simplistic approach to drawing, a sort of imperfection that I find attractive.
Once upon a time, in a life before I was an art educator, I was a designer and illustrator. It was how I made my living. With the advent of Instagram and various other social medias, I’ve noticed a cascade of younger art makers are labelling themselves as illustrators. I sort of wonder how many of them realize that illustrators, for the most part, make art for someone else – that illustrators are hired to express the ideas of others. Illustrations are assignments generated by others and executed by illustrators. I wonder if that label of “illustrator” is self bestowed as a means of validating their art making. I hope not.
Illustration is a valid form of art making, but I no longer consider myself to be an illustrator, except in the very broadest sense of the word. I draw what I enjoy, when I enjoy, and where I enjoy. Any “assignments” are my own and no apologies are necessary for how crudely my marks are made.
18 January, 2019. Boy, am I ever done with this weather! As I write this, the world outside my window is layer upon layer of opaque white, actually quite lovely looking in a very graphic sort of way. But I’m stuck indoors so much that I’m going just a little batty. Snow, cold, frozen fog, drizzle – none of it is particularly conducive to getting outside.
I’ve been staying pretty close to my neighborhood, especially last weekend when a big snow storm hit us. Finally, deciding I really couldn’t wander from one end of the house to the other yet again, I got into the four wheel drive and headed out to explore. The world was, as my sketch above indicates, entirely black and white.
Down the hill from here is a Chinese restaurant that I visit every now and then. With the Subaru already warmed up, the cold was braved and spring rolls helped to assuage the gloom of winter.
Uni-Ball Vision pen in Crescent sketchbook, page size is approximately 3.5 x 5 inches.
15 January, 2019. So we’re snowed in and cleaning up over the weekend, and come across a forgotten and unused sketchbook filled with seriously crummy paper.
The sketchbook is made from banana leaves or palm fronds or something similar…loads of texture and flecks of crud. I figure it’ll probably be like sandpaper on my fountain pen, but decided what the heck, what’ve I got to lose?
Those of you who know me, know I almost always work from life on location, but we were pretty much snowbound for the most part. Another thing we stumbled upon during cleaning was some vacation photos from 2009. (Yes, we need to clean more often.)
Anyway, I made several quick ink sketches on the banana paper (or whatever) using my photos as reference. It was fun looking through images of Scotland from a decade past; memories of particular places and events suddenly felt like they’d happened just yesterday. Even the terror of finding myself on a trail high up in the mountains that required me to do a bit of rock climbing to get to the other side brought back a chill and cold sweat. (Prudently, I returned the way I came up rather than doing the mountaineering thing.)
The long and short of it is that even though I had to keep cleaning off my constantly clogging pen nib, I had a blast trying something new and artistically “wrong.” It was fun forcing my pen to do something it didn’t really want to do, the paper sucked ink out of the reservoir like a sponge, and the unexpected line quality was exciting to watch unfold.
13 January, 2019. I’m finally getting around to scanning some of the past week’s sketches. This is from my kinda-sorta on-again-off-again sketch series of skies.
To be perfectly clear, these little sketches are not intended to be anything other than a quick impression. I’m making little attempt to be realistic and only barely representational. It’s just a fun way to play around with color – a little playfulness without getting too serious about doing so. Even with my more representational work I always look for the abstract in a scene and this is a fun way to do that.
My sketches are often a narrative response to a place or time or event. These sketches of skies are more visceral. The start and end of a day can be more of an aesthetic experience, and if I really explore my intentions here I’d probably find it’s aesthetics driving me. But frankly, I’m not thinking deeply or analyzing my motivations…I’m simply tossing paint on the page for the pure pleasure of doing so.
6 January, 2019. There he is, Satchel Paige, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, looking for the signal from catcher Josh Gibson, one of the greatest power hitters of all time. In the outfield stands Cool Papa Bell, deceptively languid. He is considered by many baseball observers to be one of the fastest men to ever play the game, and he calmly stands waiting for anything to be hit remotely in his direction.
We’re at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum today. Our January First Saturday sketch walk has us visiting with some of the legends of baseball in a location that almost immediately turned into one of our chapter’s favorite spots to sketch. The museum exhibits are wonderful. Wandering through the space, sketchers seem to be around every corner, in the lobby, outside sketching in the 18th and Vine Jazz District. One particular highlight of our morning is the exhibit in the central part of the museum, a baseball field populated with statues of baseball legends at their positions, ready to play ball. On and around the field USkKC sketchers have positioned themselves and are sketching with intensity.
Uniball in Canson 180 sketchbook, color added digitally after scanning; page size is approximately 8 x 10 inches.
4 January, 2019. My friend Peggy asked me if I’d had a chance to sketch the building at 47th and Pennsylvania yet. I’m still on break between semesters so my brain is set to “Pause” at the moment – I admitted I had no idea which building she was talking about.
“It’s the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the Country Club Plaza, and you better get down there before they tear it down!”
Wednesday morning dawned, bright and cold, the first day of commerce in 2019. I stood in the shadow of McCormick & Schmick’s, studying the scene before me: The fencing and hardhats and construction equipment that surrounded what I think is an iconic Plaza structure was incongruous with the building and all of it’s architectural fellows. My understanding is limited – unless someone comes along to save it, the location is going to be used for a new building. It seems like a terrible waste to me, and – once again – a terrible loss of our own history. I haven’t seen drawings of the new building yet, but I’m fearful of a tall gray box with lots of mirrored glass.
Standing on the sidewalk, I sketch quickly. Although I’ve brought two pair of gloves, I immediately discover that one pair is too thin and my hands are in pain from the cold within minutes. The other pair is much warmer, but so thick that it’s virtually impossible to handle my pen with any dexterity at all. Those are abandoned and I finish the sketch with my fingers numb.
Later, when I archive my sketch onto Flickr, I caption it “yeah, just tear it down you fools.” Small solace, I know.
After freezing my hands to the point of numbness, I collected myself and my sketch kit and retired to the warmth of a favorite restaurant for lunch. To my surprise, I discovered there were some unused pages at the back of this small Crescent sketchbook. That discovery delighted me far more than it should have – like the twelve year old that I am at heart, I find undue glee in trifling happenstance.
Scrambling outside to sketch on one of those empty pages, the world had warmed a little. Gloves were comfortable, but no longer necessary. I quickly sketched the entrance to McCormick and Schmick’s.
And immediately behind the restaurant, construction workers in yellow vests continued to work, unabated.
Uniball Vision and Pitt “Big Brush.” The top sketch is approximately 8 x 10 inches in a Canson 180 sketchbook; the lower sketch is in a Crescent sketchbook, the page size is about 3 x 5 inches.