I’m not looking back.

31 December, 2019.

On this, the final day of the two thousand teens, my intention had been to do as so many others are doing – reflect on the past year. Scrolling back through my Flickr albums, it was fun revisiting my sketches from the past twelve months. I began collecting my favorites into a folder, those that I’m especially proud of. And then

…well… then I thought about this whole “looking back” thing. It’s not something I’ve done a lot of when it comes to art making. Years ago I was asked to curate an exhibition of my design work and I coined a term for those ideas I’d workshopped and then executed: “leftover stew.” The point being that once created, I seldom revisit things I’ve done. I’m excited during the act of creation, but once I’ve tasted it it’s time to move on to something else – pretty much the same experience as leftover stew.

So instead of looking back I spent the day working on new things and thinking about new projects. I’ve a hankering to begin a daily journal in a comic strip format. I’d already reached the conclusion that my iPad and Apple Pencil will be used to simply experiment, rather than emulate what I already do on paper. I’m anxious to spend more time doing splashy-splashy watercolor sketches. And I’d like to work on a project that goes beyond the single image narrative, something more documentary in nature.

The big thing is staying open to new challenges, different frontiers, recognizing when something better is on offer. Today, I stopped to paint a crusty old garage that caught my eye and wound up captivated by the beater vehicles beside it, instead.

Bring it on 2020, I’m ready for you.

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Watercolor and graphite in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Simulacrum

29 December, 2019.

I love to play with negative space. The interaction of solid black with completely white, nothing and something, occupied and unoccupied portions of a drawing. The contrast of dark and light. Balance and imbalance.

I also love working with pens, directly, without the “safety net” of an underlying pencil sketch. Getting ink on my fingers and under my nails. Potentially smudging a bit of ink transfer onto the drawing itself. There’s an honesty to that approach that appeals to me.

Not so long ago I began to experiment with an Apple Pencil and an iPad. We tend to gravitate towards what we know best, and because what I know is pen, ink, line, mass, it’s what I’ve been doing on the iPad. The tools sure make it look as though I’ve been using a pen of some sort. Like the sketch in this post, it’s difficult to tell how these sketches were made.

I’ve struggled with this approach – I’m not sure how I feel not having a physical product that I can touch. It’s troubling to me that I can “correct” my mistakes over and over again until I get it right – actual inked lines, good or bad, become evidence of the artist’s hand then and there: there are no do-overs. And I’m ambivalent about having taken something I know well, which is the hand-inked line, and tried to replicate it digitally.

I’ve come to the conclusion that inked lines are already perfect the way they are. The Apple Pencil is not an ink pen, it’s a simulacrum, an imitation. And that’s where I feel like I should take a left turn rather than right, ignoring how well this tool creates a likeness of my inked lines.

Not to digress much, but one of the things I appreciate about architecture is when the designer doesn’t disguise the building materials: when concrete looks like concrete, rather than attempting to get passed off as some more regal material or surface. It is what it is. And so it is with an Apple Pencil to my way of thinking. It feels like it should be used as a tool for visual experimentation. To create things in ways we simply cannot do with paper and pen.

So, no more “ink” drawings on the iPad for me, I think. My sketchbook meets that particular need. On the other hand, I think I’ve found a new playground, a new place to experiment.

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Apple Pencil using Procreate 5 Beta.

Walking

27 December, 2019.

I exhale, visible breath swirls around me, trailing off and around my back as I crunch across frozen grass, then trod the broken sidewalk toward the Plaza. A few other souls stroll the streets – a homeless man nods at me as I wait for a walk signal, his cardboard sign all but ignored by the cars pulling up to the stop light. I’ve not a cent on me or I’d toss something in his can as I pass; I hope he understands: money is no longer paper or coin, it’s a plastic card and invisible. I make a mental note to carry a buck or two in my pocket from now on, for just such times as this.

Crossing into the realm of the Country Club Plaza, the architecture makes an abrupt shift from the canyon of ten-story 1920’s era apartments that have walled my path for the past few minutes. Spanish-influenced, the buildings house the retail and restaurants of the affluent. They, in their Mercedes and Jaguars and Lexuses – Lexi? – they, pass by in heated comfort as I stand in the cold, intentionally stopping, sketchbook in the crook of my arm, to admire the tiles and arches and spires. The street slopes in odd ways and curves in even more odd ways, as if the planners had absolutely no intention of conforming to something so blasé as a grid.

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Uni-Ball Vision and Pitt Big Brush pens in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.

Trying out a new approach to sketching in color.

25 December, 2019.

This small sketch is only 4 x 5 inches. I wasn’t so much concerned with “painterliness” as I was getting the colors down onto the gray tone of the Stillman and Birn page. What would happen if the shapes were brushed in using watercolor rather than gouache? Would the colors pop – or die?

It was all needless worry, the colors are far from dead, and now I’m excited to push my little experiment a little further over this holiday break. In fact, watercolor in conjunction with white gouache combines successfully with toned paper – more so than I imagined it would.

I should back up a bit: Under the Christmas tree this morning was Nathan Fowke’s new book, How to Paint Landscapes Quickly and Beautifully. I’ve been a fan of Fowke’s gouache paintings and sketches, and follow each new Instagram post with interest. The way he simplifies shapes, then reenforces a few details is simply marvelous technique. The practice lends itself well to marvelous compositions. Meanwhile, his colors seem to glow.

I recollect reading somewhere that with the exception of white, Fowkes uses watercolor, rather than gouache. My own experience with watercolor is as a transparent media and if I’m honest I felt skeptical. His radiant colors seemed to be deftly and restrained brush strokes of opaque paint. How could this be watercolor?

The sketch I share here was made simply to try out Fowkes’ technique, which he outlines early in his book. Frankly, it goes against everything I was taught about the “right way” to paint in watercolor – and yet it clearly works quite nicely.

What I find most interesting is that this approach allows for very dark masses, not unlike those I use when composing my ink sketches. With traditional watercolor, those masses are lost.

Next up: More small studies over the next couple of days. Let’s find out if this approach meets my needs. This sketch was done quickly and without a lot of thought about crafting my brush strokes. I want to see if I can generate the same kind of energy that I feel comes from my favorite ink sketches.

Stay tuned.

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Watercolor and white gouache in a gray Stillman and Birn Nova Series sketchbook.

River Bottom Farmland

24 December, 2019.

The river bottom farmland seems to stretch out in all directions, forever and ever. This is especially true during these winter months when the ground is bare, lying in wait for spring planting. The pancake flatness is interrupted by distant hills that to the north indicate the bluffs where the Missouri River once flowed, and to the south the banks of the river’s current location.

A massive earthquake in the early 19th century caused the river to change course, leaving some riverside communities high, dry, and miles from the now relocated current. Over the years, the meandering channel often redirected itself as flood waters caused new geographies to occur. Left in the wake of the fickle river is a flat expanse, covered by some of the richest farmland in the world.

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Watercolor and pencil in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Farm Houses

23 December, 2019.

The weather gods are looking down on us with favor. Cycling along the back roads in search of farm houses to sketch – in December, no less! – was a pleasant pastime on this day.

The sky eventually changes into a watercolor wash of pale Prussian Blue and Naples Yellow as I jotted down notes in my sketchbook, but until that point had been an unexpectedly, and very welcome brilliant blue.

Back home, Annabelle joined me in the front yard as I lounged upon one of the two rusted metal chairs on my porch. Overhead, a couple of squirrels are barking – the cat, I’m thinking, must be prowling below, stalking them from the hidden cover of the bushes. The dog woofs and a neighbor boy emerges from behind the house. We exchange waves as another neighbor collects his garbage cans from the end of the driveway.

My pen begins to stutter and I wonder if the ink is running dry. I wonder if I will need to order replacements – I can’t recall whether this is my last pen or not.
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Uni-Ball Vision pen in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Small Town, Missouri.

18 December, 2019.

My teen years were defined by life in a small Missouri town, a place that – aside from buildings falling further into decay – has changed very little. It’s a world that exists mostly because of a rural/agricultural economy. I doubt anyone is getting rich, but there are plenty of shiny trucks and SUVs around town. And this is equally true of every small town I drove through on the way down to visit. One common feature of most of these places is the filling station, where pickups gas up, farmers get a cup of coffee or a beef stick – maybe a donut. Shelves with dusty cans of vegetables. Plastic wrapped honey buns. Cherry Mash. Air fresheners that hang from a rear view mirror.

Somewhat Total Recall.

19 December, 2019.

Monday and Tuesday – no school, they were “snow days.” I wanted to paint, but a day of sitting around doing absolutely nothing on Monday left me feeling somehow exhausted. I get like this in the weeks preceding every Christmas season. Maybe leaving the “on” button engaged 24 hours a day during the school year results in me – correction: in all of us teachers – feeling wiped. It may also be that our bodies, in anticipation of the coming break, try to tell us to pause for a while.

After an afternoon of moping around the house, napping, and talking with the dog, I finally got out my sketchbook and stared for a while at the pencil sketch from the past weekend. Although I couldn’t recall precisely what the light was like, I knew the day was seriously overcast and I knew the house was white and stood out from everything else. Outside, Monday and Tuesday both, there’s snow blanketing the ground. But on Saturday, there were still patches of grass with a hint of green. Aside from the Buckeye tree in my backyard, which is pugnaciously hanging on to dry, dead leaves, the trees are bare.

Those white farm houses, at least in my memory, all seem to be similarly shingled in a warm earthy color. And I have no problem picturing the color of rusted tin roofing or the blue tint of galvanized sheets on the exterior of a shed. The colors here are not from life, but represent a recollection of such.

That dark shape in the foreground was, I think, actually a stone wall. But I’ve allowed it to become a ditch or muddy standing water or whatever your own imagination allows it to be – maybe even a short stone wall. The sky is playful. I love adding a droplet of water to a wash that’s beginning to dry, to allow a bloom to form, sometimes useful and attractive and other times simply a train wreck.

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Pencil and watercolor on Arches watercolor paper.

Old car.

17 December, 2019.

I drove past and saw this old car. I’m not terribly certain what make or model or year it is – an educated guess will get me close. Maybe really close. Curiously, there’s no badge, no insignia present. It’s oddly out of place, perched as it is on the car trailer, out here in the country. I’d expect to see a pickup, or a tractor. An SUV.

Or this car. Rusting out in a field, tires rotting, vines twisting and weaving through the innards and the loose parts. A bird nest inside.

Composition

16 December, 2019.

With most sketches I treat composition as an exercise: a balance of negative and positive shapes, a play of expressive lines, an organization of elements that adhere to the rule of thirds. Usually I will work up a sketch, enjoy the process, briefly bask in the story, and then move on to the next scribble. One and done.

But sometimes I find myself intrigued enough by the combination of elements and the subject matter that I’ll continue to play around. Convince myself that there’s more to be explored. A concept that has yet to be tapped.

So it’s been with this study. This is a rework of an idea that I was developing yesterday, and today I found myself juggling elements and playing around with the crop. Maybe it was just an exercise, or maybe I’ll wind up developing it into a nice, big, finished painting. Either way, long or short, I’m happy taking the journey.