Sketching Around Town

19 October, 2017. A couple of weeks ago someone posted to the Urban Sketchers Kansas City Facebook group a plea for sketchers to document the Lane Blueprint building at 15th and Main. The Lane building is slated for demolition despite the valiant efforts of local groups. I’ve many memories of working with Lane back in my early days as a graphic designer, so I made an effort to travel south of the river for a downtown sketching mission. It’s not an especially attractive structure but it represents Kansas City history, and that certainly counts for a lot.

That same afternoon I meandered further south to Westport, a block or two from our former studio on Main. Yes, I’m still carrying around a variety of papers and yes, this seems like an odd one for this type of sketching. I thought I might try hitting it with spots of color but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I’ve always been a little intrigued with alleys and the spaces between and behind buildings. They have this sort of overlooked and forgotten sort of appeal to me. I came across this scene while scouting locations for a urban plein air workshop I was supposed to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute this month.

Back in our old stomping grounds, right across the street from our old studio, people loitered on the street corner. I cringe a little seeing how these cool old buildings have been repurposed for such mundane things as tax preparation. I feel like they were meant for better stuff.

I swear this scene wasn’t nearly as mysterious as the drawing makes it seem. It’s a byproduct of the positive/negative emphasis I’ve been focusing on in many of my sketches lately. I rather like the “Dutch Angle,” which is a cinematic convention I use in my photography, and for which I can thank the late, great Robert Krasker. (If you’re unfamiliar with the framing technique, be sure to check out Krasker’s camera work in the 1949 Carol Reed film noire The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.) Come to think of it, even the sketch itself seems reminiscent of that film. I haven’t watched it in a good long while, maybe I need to revisit it soon.

It’s not just forgotten alley ways that intrigue me: I also just love old diners. Passing Lucy’s Diner one day led me to promise myself breakfast there the following morning. OK, so the food turned out not to be especially great, but the ambiance made up for it. And having left my pen out in the car, I found myself scratching the scene out with a pencil instead.

Urbanization is evident in nearly every corner of Northwest Arkansas as evidenced by the imminent demise of this old barn, soon to be replaced by – what? A housing development? More retail?


Fresh Set of Eyes

8 October, 2017. I came into this past week with almost no sketches at all. It happens. I am, after all, focused on teaching design and drawing. My own work takes a backseat to the work I do with art students.

I ended the week making a few sketches as I scouted locations for my upcoming urban plein air workshop through the Kansas City Art Institute. The most interesting of those is one I made on the east side of the Country Club Plaza (above.) It’s an iconic part of Kansas City with blocks of architecture influenced by Spanish design. The sketches were intentionally kept simple by using a brush pen.

Three days in the mountains on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday lent me a pair of “fresh eyes.” I flew out to Colorado and hiked in the lower elevations around Colorado Springs. Getting to focus on organic forms is a nice break from more precise structural subject matter. I kept coming across rocky banks of exposed tree roots. I confess that the tentacle-like limbs intrigue me.

Higher up on a ridge and just off the marked trail is a rocky outcrop. I’m carrying a lightweight three-legged camp stool these days, so setting up a comfy location to draw was easy. With so much to take in, it’s often difficult for me to simplify. If you’ve followed my recent sketches, you’ll notice a trend. I’ve been interested in exploring positive/negative space in my drawings. (It’s probably not a coincidence that this happens to be the exact topic my curriculum is focused on at school.) This leads to my drawings having a distinctly graphic appearance, not unlike comic book artwork.

I find myself making fewer watercolor sketches at the moment. Because of this, I often don’t have watercolor paper in my kit. Sketching with paint on lightweight sketchbook paper is sometimes a dicey proposition – but it’s also an opportunity to keep the sketches loose and fresh. I should probably do more of it.

Although I enjoy getting out in the woods, it wasn’t not long before I found myself surrounded by human-made structures once again. Manitou Springs, which was once a quaint and charming small town, has changed a bunch since my last visit a couple decades ago. I strolled up and down streets filled with touristy shops and wound up collaging together sketches of architectural odds and ends.

Testing New Sketching Paper Stocks

1 October, 2017. A couple of weeks ago I received a couple of sample packets of art papers from Canson. A few of those sheets got shared with some of the participants of our last Urban Sketchers meet up and I asked for those sketchers to share their experience using the papers with me. Most of the sheets remained in my hands though, and I tested a few today.

Beginning with the sketch at the top of this post, the paper I used was Canson 98lb XL Mix Media. Canson describes this as best used for pencil, pen and ink, color pencil, and charcoal, and it is (so far) my favorite of the papers Canson has sent to me to try out. I like how the ink from a Uni-Ball lays down easily and uniformly with no appreciable drag. Similarly, the large blocks of black were applied smoothly with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. There is a tooth to the paper, but no friction as I run either drawing tool across the surface, and that’s a valuable characteristic for my style of drawing. I did not try watercolor wash on this surface as it seemed a bit light, but if I order a few large sheets to work with down the line I will do so.

A close second was the Canson 70lb XL Recycled Drawing sheet. Very similar characteristics to the previous sheet tested, only a bit lighter weight. Holding it up to the light, it is a bit more transparent than the Mix Media stock – perhaps that has some value for some sketchers. I like that it didn’t scrunch up with the application of large areas of black. In fact, none of the Canson sheets I’ve tested in these sample packs have wrinkled at all, but my washes do tend to be less wet than many other artists. Your experience may differ from mine.

The 130lb Mix Media is appreciably heavier, so I tried a bit of watercolor wash over a fountain pen sketch laid down with a water soluble Noodler’s ink. This too, is a good paper for sketching. I’m not sure which of these Canson papers are available in sheets rather than sketchpads, but I’m impressed with how the Mix Media accepts ink and water media. No, it’s not a watercolor paper. But it does acceptably well with watercolor, and I am willing to bet it will be an exceptional surface for gouache.

This sketch was also made on the 138lb Mix Media stock. For some reason I wound up with two sheets in the sample packs. Because I was doing a blind test, selecting sheets at random without reading the identification marking on the front of each page, a duplicate sketching test took place. If I learned nothing else, I found that this particular sheet seems to be consistent in quality.

For the sake of comparison, I also worked on a true watercolor sheet made by Fabriano. This sheet takes pencil very well, and – of course – watercolor. I used a bit of liquid frisket to mask the whites, recalling that some sheets tend to remove paper fiber when removing the mask. I did not experience that at all on this sheet.

The final sketch (which, in fact, was actually the very first I made this morning) was also made on the Fabriano Artistico watercolor sheet. I used a dip pen with my recently acquired “Blue Pumpkin” nib to make the sketch, and added watercolor washes of blues, yellows, and ochres. A couple of observations:

  • Taking a dip pen into the field is a pain in the butt, and I don’t think I’ll repeat that experiment.
  • However, the Blue Pumpkin is a legitimate artist tool, very flexible and has an excellent range of line weights that are possible with only a minimal change in stylus pressure. I’ll definitely keep it for studio sketching.
  • Fabriano Artistico is designed to be a watercolor paper. Ink and pens don’t really glide across the surface as smoothly as I’d like, or as well as on the Canson drawing papers. Really, that is to be expected. The best combination of drawing and painting surface I’ve found is still the Strathmore Aquarius II sheet. But I look forward to ordering some test sheets of the Canson XL Mix Media in a couple of different weights. I’m feeling pretty positive about it, and I’d love to discover I’ve a second sheet to keep stocked in the studio.

Meeting in the Middle

16 September, 2017. Family reunion time, kin from around the state piled into cars and trucks and vans and met up in the center, in a Sedalia, Missouri park. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents lounged around picnic tables and in folding chairs, catching up on the latest family news. Kids screamed and laughed and ran back and forth from the playground to the picnic tables, grabbing yet another slice of watermelon or pecan pie. Adults clustered into small groups, segregated almost exclusively along gender lines, the older men reminiscing and the younger dudes clutching bottles of beer and staring at nothing in particular, talking about MIZZOU football, never making eye contact. Women seemed deeply involved in actual conversation, occasionally one wandering off to hug a crying child, all the while running the entire event operation like a team of seasoned Navy captains. (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, in Canton 180 sketchbook.)

It’s all about the story, I suppose.

10 September, 2017. Sketching out in public, as I’ve mentioned countless times before, often results in conversations and gawkers and curiosity. Artists making art are an exotic encounter for many people, and it’s not unusual for a passerby to stop, look over my shoulder, and even share a little story about whatever it is I’m drawing at the time. They might tell me about a sister or a cousin or a neighbor who also makes art of some kind or other. In a hopeful voice they mention Do you happen to know them? I think folks sincerely believe artists have a club that we all belong to and as card carrying members we must – obviously! – all know one another quite well.

I’m interested in hearing their stories, especially when they offer some kind of insight into whatever it is I happen to be sketching at the time. The hardware store (above) was a block or two from the meet up location for our monthly USk sketch out and I just love the place. It seems to me to be one of the last truly authentic hardware stores, but beyond that I really knew nothing at all about it. My friend Peggy asked if I’d ever been in there. I told her I’d always wanted to but had not. Oh, you’ve GOT to go in there, she exclaimed. And now, that little tiny story has me pining to get inside the building. I want to see the old wood floors she described to me. I want to meet the people and explore the aisles to see what cool old surprises I might discover. And I want to do that with my pen and pad in hand.

People – artists included – want to know what I plan to do with my sketches. Do I exhibit them? Frame them and sell them? And yes, sometimes I make prints and sell those. Sometimes I hang work and exhibit it. And because I love books, I kind of have a book project in the back of my mind – my sketches probably are best suited to that format anyway. But mostly, I don’t do anything with them. They’re a visual means of sharing a moment in time, telling the story of where I was and what I was thinking for the twenty minutes or so that I spent scribbling in my journal.

The sketches are a sort of “back up drive” for my memories. I’ve tried repeatedly to find a good location to sketch the water tower depicted in the background of the sketch above. It’s a cool structure and I’m fascinated by it. It’s easy to see as we zoom by on the highway, but finding a convenient sketching location in the warehouse district in which it’s located has defeated me time and again. And on this morning, I was once again defeated – it became an important element in the background of a sketch that started out as a skyline idea… and then evolved into a drawing focused on trash cans!

Maybe it’s the art teacher in me, but I enjoy chatting with our newest sketchers. They’re often curious about what to do on location – how to start a sketch, what techniques are appropriate, etc. Each of us brings a unique vision and a unique approach to handling materials and media. A lot of the “whizzbang” of sketching comes from doing a lot of sketches, practicing and getting comfortable with the tools. One of our members, Liz, has gotten progressively better with her watercolor over the past six or seven months from simply sketching every day. Her renderings are really confident now, with a nicely refined touch of color.

When others ask me about how to get started, I will often share one of several strategies I use to develop a composition. I figure if the design is interesting, the sketch can develop around it. But a great drawing without any context or content just boors me. Case in point: the barber shop above caught my attention. I wasn’t sure how to approach it because most of the building really doesn’t have much character. The interesting parts are around the barber pole, the door, the window, the signage. That’s it. And having run out of ink in my brush pen I penned in the gestural contour lines and left it at that. I felt like the drawing had failed and I didn’t even show it to anyone when we met up after the sketching ended. But back at home with a refilled brush pen I considered where I might add the solid areas of black. And sure enough the contrast and drama of the black fills resulted in a much more interesting image, and one in which I feel like I now need to know more of the story of this place.

I rode my bike to the street fair where we were sketching yesterday. Straddling the bike, I whipped out a pencil to scribble in the gesture lines for the sketch above and the one below. The woman glared at me the entire twenty seconds that I sketched her and I simply didn’t have the guts to refine and ink it while I stood there. Ink, in this case, came later from the safety of a park bench.

(Uni-Ball Deluxe, Kuretake No. 40 – at least until the ink ran dry! – on various Canson papers; North Kansas City, Missouri)

All the World’s a Comedy.

2 September, 2017. I find that a lot of my sketching takes place in restaurants and pubs. OK, so I enjoy good food, great wine, and people watching. Sketching those around me is, I recognize, just a little bit voyeuristic. But I have always loved the idea that the world is a comedy in which we are all the players. The snippets of observed life from the tables around me are edited scenes in which we may only be privy to the briefest view of a much longer narrative. In fact, I feel like these sketches can be considered a second cousin to the art of street photography.

Right or wrong, fairly or unfairly, these sketches reflect the observation of a moment or two. They are the most memorable aspects – to me, at least – of a given time and place, the  distanced confluence of my world with that of others who I will likely never again chance upon. And it’s out of these briefest of encounters that I enjoy weaving my own narrative, a sort of cartoon of life.

(Sketched with a Uni-Ball Deluxe and Kuretake No. 40 brush pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Direct sketching

19 August, 2017. Today felt like a good time to get back to basics – a sketchbook, Uni-Ball Deluxe, and my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen. I love direct sketching with the Uni-Ball, without the “safety net” of a light graphite sketch. And though I’ll occasionally use the Kuretake to do a little direct sketching also, today it was fun to use it to add shadow and depth accents.

I like the graphic quality of this approach. Strong lights and darks remind me of how some of my favorite European underground cartoonists from the 70’s made their drawings.  (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, Canson 180 sketchbook – approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.)

I need time to absorb the stories.

13 August, 2017. There are occasions when time and opportunity don’t allow me to sketch quickly enough. Case in point: Yesterday, I saw a woman walking two pigs on a leash through a lumberyard. Not pot belly pigs mind you, full sized pork chop bearing hogs. And I would have loved to sketch that scene! But the moment was there and gone.

I think this is part of the reason I enjoy sketching in diners so much. Interesting scenes and stories play out all around you, and for the most part these narratives can be captured with a much greater ease than, say, jotting down a quickly passing woman and her porcine pets.

Wesner’s Grill was, for me, a jewel of a find. It looks as though it’s been around for generations and the staff and customers are exactly what you’d expect to find here – almost as though they’d been hired by central casting. Said out loud, it sounds eerie but nope! The experience was as cheery as I could have hoped.

Me: “I really don’t do eggs.”

Server: “That’s ok, hon. No problem – take a look over on this page because we got all sorts of different omelets.”

Was she pulling my leg? Her smile was disarming and I chose to believe she was. Because even the mistakes were charming. My wife asked if onions could be added to the hash browns, which was duly noted on the order. Then she asked for one blueberry pancake, which was also duly noted…immediately under the request for added onions. Believe it or not, the pancake arrived with onions baked into it. We presumed it was some quaint local thing, but when we mentioned it to the server her jaw dropped. Then we all seemed figure out what had happened at the same time and all of us – and I mean the folks seated over at the counter, our server, the cook, and the two of us – well we all began to laugh uncontrollably. Because, for one thing, we ate those blueberry onion pancakes. And for another thing – odd as it may sound – they tasted pretty darned good.

Stories. I need enough time to absorb the stories when I sketch.

(Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen loaded with Noodler’s; inked in Canson 180 sketchbook.)


12 August, 2017. I’m in Rogers, Arkansas this weekend to help Kim get her new apartment set up. Neither of us know the area very well, so before we got the day of lugging heavy furniture up narrow stairs begun, I headed out on my road bike to explore.

My childhood memories of this place are that it was extremely rural and more than a bit like Mayberry. As I ride around, it is quite clear that things have changed a lot; urbanization has blanketed the area with high end retail, offices, restaurants, and lots and lots of paved roads.

But top a hill and just as clearly, the roots are still in evidence, pockets of the original rural landscape still exist. In a flash, I pedaled down a divided eight lane avenue, through a light, and past a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, there to discover this pasture and barn. (Blackwing pencil in Canton 180 sketchbook.)

The Dog Days of Summer

5 August, 2017. We’re at Table Rock Lake again, which makes two weekends in a row. The arrival of August means I’ll be working with a fresh new batch of art students very soon. Meanwhile, we’re busy setting up a second household in Arkansas, not far from the dockside chair where I am currently sitting. In search of a few items with which to outfit the new digs, we’ve been engaged in a favorite pastime: prowling country auctions.

Generally speaking, a country auction means that lots of people mass into a scrum-like crowd, circling the auctioneer. Because you have to jockey for position just to see what is being sold at the moment, I discovered that the best strategies for sketching while waiting for something interesting to come up was two-fold. First, throw out any preconceptions of drawing what you see right this minute and capturing a snapshot moment. Things move way too fast, crowds are in constant motion, and the organization of people and things are in a constant state of change. Instead, I like to think of each sketch as a sort of collage: draw part of one person’s body, then when they move away, wait for an appropriate new person to move into view and use my new model to continue the drawing. By doing this repeatedly, a sketch eventually emerges. I like that this approach also means I can make compositional decisions about who to include and where to place them.

Secondly, don’t try to draw the entire crowd. It’s too much to take in. Sometimes an auction is so big the auctioneers will run two rings. When that happens, the crowd divides and generally one ring has fewer bidders. That was the case in the sketch above – the second ring was going to focus on tools but had only gotten to garden rakes and ladders and such. Few bidders were interested in these items, so the crowd was much more sparse than when the auctioneers go to the more desirable items.

One thing that I found to be an interesting challenge is that everything tends to be a clutter: people are grouped together around piles or rows of what appears to be total crap. Boxes look like trash until someone decides to dig through and “discover” the treasure hidden within. (To be fair, more times than not, there’s no treasure at all. It’s exactly what it looks like: trash.) But, it’s an interesting visual art opportunity to explore space and organization. I had fun working in pencil during my afternoon of bidding, emphasizing the representation of spatial characteristics of people and things.

And although no one said a word to me, I sensed that this was likely the first time anyone in this rural community had ever seen an artist at work. There were certainly more than a few interested folks looking over my shoulder as I scribbled into my sketchbook.

Closer to home, I’ve started looking for locations for my upcoming Kansas City Art Institute graduate workshop, “Crossroads Plein Air.”

I played around a bit with a dip pen and and orange-ish-brown ink on Fabriano paper. I’m totally in love with the loose look of the lines and the sloppy play of watercolor washes!

And just for something different, I stopped on a recent bike ride to make this watercolor sketch, focusing entirely on color and shape.