Light and Shadow

30 November, 2019.

I remember reading that Edward Hopper once said all he really wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house. I think of that simple statement every time I see warm cast light upon the exterior walls of a building. This sketch notwithstanding, I can’t really claim that Hopper’s work has obviously influenced my own. There are many other artists who’ve more directly impacted my thinking – the drawings and prints of Ben Shahn, for instance.

But that emotional reaction to light – I get it.

Light is color. Light at the end of the day is warm, and shadows are cool; color compliments.

I’m always a little surprised, and more than a little pleased to discover how wide a range of color can be achieved with three paints and a tube of white. Paintings and drawings are always an interpretation; when one works with a limited palette this is especially true. Paintings are not photographs: we choose what to include and what to leave out, and when we have limited colors to mix, creating a convincing scene it becomes less about “accurate” color and mostly about nailing down the values.

In other words, light and shadow.

5 x 7 inches, gouache on illustration board, surface tinted with neutral gray acrylic ground.

Jazz Accordion

29 November, 2019.

He was playing jazz accordion, this particular street busker.

Not so strange, this place being Kansas City. When you think about the roots of jazz, Chicago, New Orleans, and Kansas City come to mind. I once heard the drummer David Basse say that when you talk about “jazz” in Kansas City, you’re really talking about blues.

Maybe. Maybe not – but he’d probably know better than me. Either way, this guy was playing a jazz standard and getting ignored by nearly every passerby, his open case nearly empty.

It wasn’t for lack of talent – he was quite good, in fact. I couldn’t imagine riffing on an accordion, either, which he managed very well. Although I picked up several instruments, those requiring two hands proved elusive. The accordion is doubly difficult because one side is a keyboard and the other is comprised of rows of buttons that play chords.

My dad was a better than proficient accordion player. I recall many nights sitting on the back porch under the stars as he played a variety of tunes. As I got taller and a bit stronger I attempted to play it myself, but was quickly disillusioned. It felt like I needed two brains to harmonize my hand movements on the different keys and to pump the damn thing at the same time. I never got beyond the most basic of skills, let along reach that magical state where playing was like the automatic motions of riding a bike.

I don’t carry much in my pocket, but I placed what I had into the case. We nodded at each other and parted.


26 November, 2019.

We actually have a pair of them, these shuttlecocks.

It’s not the first time I’ve painted them out here on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – the geometry sure seems simple enough, but drawing these damn things can still be a challenge.

Rather than working directly as I do with pens or watercolor, gouache seems to demand a working plan before placing brush to board. It’s not often I rely on a pencil to start my sketches or paintings, so perhaps it’s a confidence thing – gouache takes on a much more “finished” appearance than any of the sketchier medias I use.

I’ve discovered the plexiglass palette that’s part of my new plein air pochade box is pretty much perfect for gouache, which was a very pleasant surprise. Spritzing the dried paint with a spray bottle instantly rewets everything, and because it doesn’t absorb it’s very easy to clean – not that I ever clean my palettes!

The tripod I recently added to the kit doesn’t seem to have saved me any grams of weight – it feels just as heavy as the antique tripod I’ve been using -but it does fold down to a much shorter overall length. At around 12 inches or so, it easily fits into the kit I carry in a shoulder bag. It’s mostly stable enough to use for the style of location painting I prefer, but a couple of times I was left to wonder if a weight dangled from the center post might not stabilize things further still. This is why I test my kit before using it for anything important.

Gouache on Crescent 200 CP illustration board. The limited palette I am currently using is Yellow Ochre, Titanium White, Geranium, and Prussian Blue. It’s surprisingly cooler than I’d anticipated – which is not a bad thing – but plan to see a warmer red pop up at some point. Cadmium Red Light is currently languishing on my drawing table, for instance.

Sunday Sketching.

25 November, 2019.

It is such a fine day, and I find myself with so many viable options for whiling away the next few pleasant hours.

At first I paint with gouache, then out comes my pen. And finally, as I watch cyclists ride past, the craving hits me hard. It’s time to ride.

Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.


24 November, 2019.

I’ve been making some unreal sketches recently.

You guessed it – “unreal,” as in they don’t exist in reality, other than as pixels. Digital art is something I know quite a lot about. I was one of the earliest adopters of the computer as a design tool – an untimely broken arm led to my creative director hooking me up with a Macintosh not long after the famous 1984 commercial aired during the Super Bowl in 1984. But after decades of creating designs and illustrations using increasingly more sophisticated Adobe applications my need to work with tools I could actually touch – paper, pens, paint – began to outweigh the practicality of the computer studio. Analog, which had coexisted beside Digital as a subordinate for my entire career as an illustrator, designer, and educator, took lead role in my world. Digital was used purely to facilitate: scanning, clean up, archiving, printing…but very little in the way of content creation.

This recent foray into digital drawing has been interesting. Frankly, the technology is swiftly catching up with the effects of traditional media – at least so far as the end product is concerned. These sketches strongly resemble what I do with an actual pen.

What is not as satisfying, however, is the actual act of mark making. The Apple Pencil is amazing, no question about it, but the very real and tangible gratification of making marks on paper has yet to be surpassed. Sketchbooks, for instance, represent something that my hand has touched, and that’s still very important to me.

Apple Pencil and Procreate on iPad.

Chinese Restaurant

23 November, 2019.

I’ve known the couple who own and operate Hunan Garden for thirty years. They welcome us personally on every visit and they make great food from scratch. Even though they moved the restaurant from just down the street to twenty miles across town I won’t hesitate to jump in the car.

Uni-Ball Vision and watercolor in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Day one

18 November, 2019.

I introduced oil pastels to my art students this afternoon. My room was clean and well organized and everything was all set for the fracas that is a group of eighth graders armed with oil paint in a stick.

I gave a short demo to show how to blend these big, clumsy crayons. A bit of oil applied with a Q-Tip to “melt” the applied color seemed to be at the top of everyone’s list of techniques to try. Sgraffito? Not so much.

About fifteen minutes in and the chaos began to subside. Because my kiddos will run if they think their image is getting captured, I had to camouflage my sketchbook by obscuring it behind my iPad. One super fast sketch later and I had a sort of composite outline drawing, color and fills and lettering to get added later on.

Art class is often a mixture of nearly controlled pandemonium, poor behavioral choices, and moments of sublime clarity. Kids are kids, and that simply means they are ridiculously goofy. They do and say some of the most confounding things; it’s impossible to get angry, though – one minute they’re throwing pencils across the room and the next minute someone is eating a glue stick.

And then there are the moments when something sticks.

I’m looking forward to those moments in the coming weeks.

Uni-Ball Vision pen, Pitt Big Brush pen, and watercolor in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Dang, my hands got cold!

17 November, 2019.

I thought it would be a good idea to pack up my gouache kit and head down to La Benite Park, along the Missouri River. The skies are overcast, and the wind is steady. And as I quickly figured out, standing next to the river one has very little in the way of a wind break.

My hands felt cold. I speedily blocked in colors, and for once I was hoping the gouache would dry fast. The park was mostly empty, but occasionally one would pull in, a parent would watch a couple of kids run to the jungle gym, and then they’d park themselves, hunched up, on one of the benches looking out over the river. No one gave the artist a second glance.

The ground is thick with sand – the Missouri River frequently floods this park. Across the river the leaves are dry and mostly yellow ochre in color. They blanket the ground on this side of the water.

The long, tall bridge spanning the river sings as cars buzz across. Aside from the rustle of leaves, it’s the only sound I hear. Even the kids on the playground are quiet.

My hands get colder still, and I pack it in for the day.

Gouache on Crescent 200 CP illustration board, 5 x 7 inches.

My backyard.

14 November, 2019.

A couple of days ago I shared a new Pochade Box I am trying out. What I didn’t share at the time was the sketch I was working on as I tested it. Frankly, I didn’t want to muddy the waters by trying to objectively consider the merits of the product and also reflecting on the sketch at the same time.

There are several things that make me happy about this sketch, the first being the process. I’ve struggled with gouache as a media for painting en plein air, mostly because I’ve been desperately trying to replicate some of the ala prima approach I once used when I painted in oils. Gouache dries so quickly that I haven’t been able to recapture that same sense of immediacy. Maybe because I was focused on the new tool, or maybe because I finally just accepted that this is a different media than oil paint – who knows, really? – but I began by laying in some very quick covering washes of color that I allowed to dry first. Those washes made a huge difference to me; I loved having a base to paint detail over.

The washes of color worked, and I attribute that to the Crescent 200 CP illustration board I was testing. My gouache seemed to really love this surface. Plus, the board is very sturdy and a perfect match for the new Pochade Box. The size of the study is 5 x 7 inches; the board is 6 x 9 inches, leaving a nice white border. I masked off the sketch with blue painter’s tape – that sort of clean margin satisfies a small OCD part of my brain!

I rebel against taking dozens of tubes of gouache out into the field. Even though this test was done in my backyard, only ten steps from my studio door, I wanted to work with a limited triad.

The day presented me with nice light and some interesting shadows over and around my shed. A part of me wishes I’d made the side of the shed a pale blue instead of tinting toward magenta but that’s ok – it’s what experiments are for, right?

The color triad I used included a mixing white, Yellow Ochre, Geranium (a sort of magenta-ish hue) and Prussian blue. This combination yields a nice range of colors, with interesting possibilities for hues in the violet range, some nice oranges, and warm greens. I easily mixed some neutral and warm grays as well – in fact, I feel like there are some real possibilities just in the gray range. I’d originally considered using a warmer, more orange-ish red but I’m glad I didn’t now.

Painting over the dried washes worked very well. Some color reconstituted, but I found that easy to work with. I was challenged by the lights – light colors in gouache will darken as they dry – and had to go back over some areas a couple of times to get to the value I wanted. Eventually I managed something close to my target, and in doing so I found I was also capturing a luminous quality that I often find elusive.

All in all, I’m happy with this combination of paints and tools. I feel like I may be able to push this kit.


Stupidly, no story to be told.

13 November, 2019.

I wish there was a witty little story to accompany this drawing. It sort of begs for one, doesn’t it? But the truth of the matter is that this encounter was fleeting, just a chance observation of this bearded fellow sitting on the concrete near Summit and Southwest Boulevard Sunday afternoon.

Some sketches just happen. This one certainly did – the lines seemed to know where they wanted to go, and I simply provided a hand to hold the pen. I didn’t have the guts to go over and talk with the guy. I wondered if he had food or shelter. I wondered what he would do on Monday and Tuesday, when the temperatures are going to drop far below freezing. And I wondered if I was stereotyping him, unintentionally being judgmental.

The fact of the matter is that I should have stopped and listened to his story if he was willing to share it.

Duke bent nib fountain pen in a Moleskin journal, approximately 5 x 7 inches.