31 July, 2019.

One of the more charming aspects of European culture, the cities we visited in The Netherlands in particular, is the outside culture. Many – perhaps even most – of the cafes, bistros, and bars have very limited table space indoors. Walking the narrow streets in the morning is a very different experience than walking them late in the day. Tables and chairs appear, seemingly out of nowhere and quickly fill with passersby. Cars and bicycles and motorbikes thread their way through a labyrinth of people enjoying a glass of bier and, perhaps, bitterballen (a Dutch meat-based snack that was, to me, very much like a deep fried hush puppy filled with gravy and ground beef.)

Umbrellas are nearly as ubiquitous to these streets as bicycles. The buildings are tall and skinny and close together. And sidewalk life seems to me to be so civilized and comfortable. The Dutch have a word, gezellig, that very neatly sums this up. There’s no direct English translation of the word, but it is used to describe a feeling of coziness or enjoyment – what we might call good vibes. Gezellig, indeed.

Sketched with Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Back from a land of windmills, bikes, and canals

30 July, 2019.

My biggest regret was not bringing my bent nib fountain pen with me. The Netherlands is a world filled with expressive lines that both excited and energized me. Nevertheless, the pens I did bring served me very well for working on location, and as the days passed I found my drawings achieving a greater degree of honesty and authenticity.

I was in The Netherlands as one of the three international correspondents for the 2019 Urban Sketchers Symposium in Amsterdam. Travel was planned so that I could arrive a week early to draw and explore Leiden, Delft, Kinderdijk, and other equally charming Dutch places.

Kinderdijk is a World Heritage Site – a legally protected landmark selected by UNESCO as having cultural, historical, scientific, or other form of significance. Kinderdijk is located near Rotterdam, and is distinct for the 19 picturesque, pristine, and functioning windmills that line canals in the area.

Sketching here was very pleasant. Running closely parallel to the canal is a hiking and biking path. There are numerous places to pause, sit on a bench, and picnic. On the water side of the path are many more patches of grass with clear views of the windmills. Sitting in the soft grass and drawing was a real pleasure, and as the day passed from morning into afternoon I noticed that other Urban Sketchers visitors had their kits spread out on the grass as well.

Although I carried a watercolor kit, nearly all of my sketches on this trip were made with a Uni-Ball Vision pen and a Pitt “Big Brush” in a Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Radio silent

Hey folks, I know I’ve gone “radio silent” since the middle of July. I am in Amsterdam for the international Urban Sketchers symposium as one of the three correspondents. I promise plenty of stories and sketches when I get back next week. Until then, ciao!

“Final” kit

16 July, 2019.

Ha ha ha ha! Final kit?

Well, it is final, as of five minutes ago. But I’ve still got lots of time before my flight to reconsider the contents of my kit all over again. And again. And again.

I do this every time I travel: overthink, rethink, overlook, reconsider, revise.

Urban Sketching Kit
Water brushes (I will definitely leave one of these at home.)
Compact retractable watercolor palette (This is my favorite palette. Folded up it fits into my hip pocket.)
Pitt Big Brush pen (Used for solid fills of black)
Uni-Ball Vision pen (My primary sketching tool. Pens easily fit into my pocket.)
Canson 180 degree sketchbook (Really great for pen work)

Plein Air Kit
Escoda Travel Brush (I love this convertible brush!)
Spray bottle (Gotta keep the palette wet!)
Collapsible Water Cup (
Blackwing Pencil and sharpener (Pretty tough to beat this pencil)
Bulldog clips (Sometimes you just gotta clamp the paper down)
Watercolor booklet that I made from my favorite paper (I cut up a stack of Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper and sandwiched them between two pieces of mat board, then had them spiral bound together.)
Larger travel palette (A new addition for me, but I was very pleased with it as a plein air palette last weekend.)

Stillman and Birn sketchbook
Paper towel

So, that’s it. My final kit…


…unless I decide to bring along my Duke 551 fountain pen too…

…which would also mean bringing a bottle of ink…

Packed and ready to go.

15 July, 2019.

Urban Sketchers Symposium, here I come. In about 48 hours I’ll be in the air enroute to Amsterdam, at which point this blog may go radio silent for a few days while I do the actual traveling part of “travel.”

I pack light. My clothes are all lightweight layers that easily roll into small bundles, and which will sink wash and dry overnight. I’ve been packing the same two pair of lightweight, zip off pants for probably twenty years now. I suppose I should get a new pair, but these still look like the day I bought them and those in the store don’t look any different, stylistically. All of my clothes and toiletries fit into my backpack with room to spare, and my sketching kit is stowed away into a canvas shoulder bag.

I stuffed my folding stool into the canvas bag – it fits perfectly, and it’s not particularly heavy, but it takes up valuable space. I seldom use it in the field; I didn’t take it at all for the plein air paint out this past weekend. Do I really want to lug it around the streets of Amsterdam? (Pro travel tip: Not likely.)

I’m uninterested in making any sort of fashion statement when I travel. My clothes lean toward comfort and being inconspicuous, so think khaki and black with few graphics to be seen. Top shirts that can be wadded up and stuffed into my shoulder bag if the day gets hot. And pockets… lots and lots of pockets. It’s not so much that I will be stuffing them full of crap, but that I want to have a convenient place to stuff a pencil or a brush as I sketch.

There’s a black ball cap in the sack, plus one of my Tilley Hats – a medium brim straw fedora that’s worth the extra hassle to carry if you’re going to be outside in the sun.

My electronics are limited to an iPhone and an iPad. As one of the correspondents for the Symposium, I’ll use the phone for documentary photography and the iPad to create content for social media and the blog. If not for that responsibility I’d be leaving the iPad at home.

Importantly, I try to avoid overpacking. Every trip I find myself questioning if I’ve packed the essentials – have I forgotten something I’ll desperately need later? And every trip there always seems to be some items that never once made it out of the sack. I’ve gotten better, and I’ve trimmed things down to the basics, but there’s always room for improvement.

#urbansketchers #usksymposium #amsterdamsymposium

Quick links:
– Program & Schedule– Symposium FAQ(must read)
– Symposium registration site
– Symposium Closing Reception single tickets
Other social media platforms, you can follow Symposium news:- FB group : USk Amsterdam 2019 International Symposium
– IG: usksymposium

Weston Paint Out

14 July, 2019.

I arrived nearly two hours early for the Weston Paint Out, knowing in advance which locations I thought had the most potential. The point in arriving early was to allow me time to walk around and get my sketches made, then to sit on a bench to ponder which worked best and which one to begin with. The air was densely humid and my paper felt clammy and almost wet within the first five minutes. That made it tougher than usual to draw, and I had to take it easy not to dent the paper with my pencil point. So much for being a planner!

After scouting locations a couple of days earlier, the spot I was most excited about was an old mill at the end of the business district. No longer in operation, the place has been repurposed with a B&B, a popular bar, and an architectural salvage. The truck in the foreground was my favorite part and I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t have been moved by Saturday morning. Later on I met the owner and learned the truck was a very recent purchase.

I neglected to make good photographs of the sketches; hopefully I’ll get a chance to do so before they sell. Unfortunately, I documented these with frame glass over the paintings.

The strategy of working out the sketches first thing in the morning, then revisiting each location to paint was, if nothing else, incredibly efficient. I was able to complete each of these paintings in about forty-five minutes.

The second one completed was this view of the city park. What caught my eye was this small cluster of buildings peaking out from the foliage. I love white washed walls! The unusual roof on the left injected a touch of warm color.

After finishing the second painting, I took a break to go in search of a pastry: it was hot, I was really sweating, and breakfast had been five hours earlier – I knew I’d be getting shaky if I didn’t get something inside me quickly. Along the way I stopped to chat with Denny and Tammy, and to snoop at their work.

Sated, I strolled further up the hill to work on my third painting of the morning. The strong diagonals appealed to me, as did the repetition of the roofs.

As I was cleaning up I noticed some smoke drifting up from behind one of the buildings. The foremost structure is the Avalon Cafe and I wondered if they were firing up a grill for the lunch crowd. The paint in that area of foliage was plenty dry, but I hadn’t used a staining pigment: “Lifting” it with a damp paper towel leaves the area hazy and smoke-like.

Meandering back down the hill near the spot where I’d begun my morning, I stopped at this cool, restored Phillips 66. I don’t know if it’s because I was getting tired or if the angle was just wonky, but this one whipped me. By this time I was getting quite a few passers-by stopping to chat, and the pauses were more than welcome. Instead of finishing it, I tossed it in the back seat of my car.

After eight hours of standing mostly in direct sunlight, I was ready to crash and nap. It’s times like this that I am thankful for the gods of air conditioning. 🙂

Watercolor and pencil on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Practice run.

13 July, 2019.

It’s Saturday: I’ll be painting alongside many of my artist friends this morning at a plein air paint out in Weston, Missouri. Weston is a quaint little town about thirty minutes from my home, and I don’t visit the place often enough. I love the architecture of the place, and if someone offered to trade me straight up, their little Weston bungalow for my rambling house I’d probably give it serious thought!

This study isn’t part of the event output. I made it as a sort of practice run a day or two before the event to make build a little confidence around the materials and the small size (5 x 7 inches) that will be working today.

Watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Location scouting.

12 July, 2019.

Painting en plein air and urban sketching bear significant similarities, in fact overlapping in many ways. Both approaches are mostly about “being there,” experiencing the place and time and committing oneself to getting out of the studio and working in situ. Some painters and sketchers pull off remarkable artworks out on location, work that – frankly – kind of amazes me.

Meanwhile, I attempt to take a much more minimalist path. And while I’m philosophically striving for minimalism in both plein air painting and urban sketching, I find each demands a different executional mindset for me. Watercolor may or may not wiggle its way into one of my sketches, while pens will almost always be present. In my mind, urban sketching is a very close cousin of illustration. Plein air painting feels more akin to the world of fine art to me, and I prefer to treat such work less as reportage and more like something to be framed and hung.

Most of my recent work has been urban sketches, so when I decided to participate in this weekend’s plein air paint out in Weston, Missouri, it meant that I had to get my head back into a “create a framable artwork” mode. I wanted to scout out some possible locations anyway, so I headed out a couple days early to wander the town and make note of likely scenes. A couple of 5 x 7 inch “practice” studies emerged from my stroll about the streets, including this one.

I like the effect of cast shadows here; without them, the picture isn’t very interesting. There’s a sort of nostalgia present here, like the feeling one gets walking into an old fashioned bookstore, a drug store with a soda fountain, or a rickety hardware store. The main subject here is light and shadow; they are the things that sculpt the scene and in spite of the simplicity of the sketch I am quite pleased with the effect.

Watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Captive Mom.

10 July, 2019.

No one has been very successful making a portrait of my mom. Even in group settings, the moment a camera comes out she runs for the other room, hiding from the lens as if she was in witness protection or something. It drives my younger sisters just a little crazy because there are almost no family photos of her.

She’s in short term care for a while, recuperating after knee surgery. That means she’s not mobile, and not able to scurry from the room, something I pointed out to her a couple days ago. And I’m pretty confident I said it with a mischievous look in my eye.

I began with a light pencil sketch over the gray ground in a Stillman and Birn Nova sketchbook. Mom came over to this country in the late 50’s and though it has smoothed out, she’s not lost her British accent; neither has her Irish temper, red hair, or freckled complexion faded by much. The light in her room is soft, which I would normally really prefer. But her features are pale and it’s tough to place details so I resort to something I seldom do by identifying some of the key highlights.

At home I continue my recent experimentation with the Zorn Palette. Despite that tray of various hues positioned to the right of my drawing table, this portrait study relies only on four tubes of paint: Yellow Ochre, Scarlet Lake, Ivory Black, and Titanium White. It’s a personal challenge, and somewhat academic of course, but I enjoy the pursuit.

I love how a colored ground helps to block in color and – especially – range of values.

Gouache on gray Stillman and Birn Nova series paper.

Breakfast at Kate’s Kitchen

7 July, 2019.

Up earlier than usual for a Sunday morning, we decided to go out for breakfast. Scurrying across the Northland, we landed at Kate’s Kitchen for homestyle fare: oatmeal, biscuits and gravy, sausage, etc.

Empty when we arrived, the seats began to fill, and a man was soon seated at the table directly across from us. Almost from the start he was glancing over at me. Eventually the looks became quite pointed.

As our meal was wrapping up, I saw him remove the napkin from his lap and place it on the table. Very deliberately he stood and walked over to my booth.

“Did you once own a record store on 64th?” he asked. His look was hopeful.

“No,” I replied. “I am an art teacher.”

“Oh.” He wandered back to his table looking a little dejected.

Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor wash in a Stillman and Birn Sketchbook.