Sometimes You’re Hitting on All Cylinders…

19 February, 2017. In watercolor I often search for that elusive, restrained quality – hoping to leave out as much detail as possible, yet still render a convincing and believable image. I felt it almost immediately with this little 9 x 7 inch sketch, starting with the main triangular form immediately above the front porch as I quickly and loosely slopped down the pale cerulean blue wash, leaving pure white to define the negative shapes. Then I moved on to the big shadow area under the porch, which was what caught my attention in the first place. I just wanted to paint the shadow, accurate to a level of believability, but without extraneous detail. And to be honest, I was pretty excited when it worked. In real life, these colors are kind of bland, but the limited palette of blues, complimented only with very slight mixtures of yellow ochre are quite pleasing to my eye.

This little 5 x 7 inch sketch also felt restrained – surprising, in a way, because I used a flat brush for the entire painting. Why surprising? Well, mostly because I almost never use a flat at all. I’m awkward with them. I’m not certain even why I did so, but happy that I did. Possibly, all of the rectangular shapes and flat colors informed my decision.

This 5 x 7 inch sketch almost feels overworked, and presents more detail than in the previous two. I always enjoy finding ways to loosen things up with blooms, as happens in the pavement foreground here. But the orange theatre almost comes off looking like gouache, the yellow ochre blend coming off a bit opaque. Still, the shadow feels about right, and in addition to that Art Deco sign, rendering the shadow convincingly was my goal.

All sketches were made with a limited palette, using water brushes on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Rock Island Spur Trail

18 February, 2017. Yesterday was the most incredible February weather I can ever recall. A good chunk of my day was devoted to bicycling a section of the newly opened Rock Island Spur Trail. A Rails-to-Trails initiative that connects the southern most section of the Kansas City area to the Katy Trail, the Rock Island Spur Trail also offers snapshot views of scenes not always obvious or accessible by car. I love to explore and discover new places, especially small towns, “discardia,” and architectural elements.

Emerging from a bank of trees, the trail crosses a paved road a few miles along the route out of Pleasant Hill, Missouri. There is an unimproved trail head at this location that abuts a property I imagine to be a “personal” salvage yard. In other words, it doesn’t appear to be a commercial operation; a pungent, thick smoky fire was burning – tires perhaps? – and the land was very overgrown and littered with wrecked and inoperable cars and trucks and other “discardia.” Trees had taken root and sprouted from the midst of literally everything. This 60’s era sedan has an orange New York license plate attached to the front.

I find “discardia” interesting. Such things, whether they be architectural, vehicular, or simply everyday detritus, are signs of human touch – of human impact. There’s history to be found in these artifacts of our existence … but it’s fleeting, because they are quickly disintegrating. As they return to their constituent elements, whatever sights they’ve born witness to are also disappearing.

Small towns throughout the Midwest are often an intriguing mishmash of architectural styles, with a few extant examples of Federalist style and Antebellum homes to be found if one searches, along with a smattering of Victorian “Painted Ladies,” Art Nouveau, and – more often than not – cautiously woven together Art Deco elements. Of course, bungalows and later box style structures still are the predominant structures, but they bore me and I choose to ignore them unless there is something unique to pique my curiosity about them.

On this particular afternoon, I’ve chosen to carry an even more Spartan kit than usual: a pen and small pad. They seem to suffice as I quickly scribble impressions from time to time, before pedaling off down the trail. (Uni-Ball Deluxe Micro pen in 4 x 5 inch lightweight sketchbook.)

Zoned out.

27 January, 2017. I had to laugh. During my painting class yesterday, I noticed one of my kids had zoned out. Wasn’t watching videos. Wasn’t causing any trouble – as a rule, he’s a pretty great kid. But he was just stationary, unmoving, solid as a rock.

I’d been at an adjacent table giving one-on-one assistance, so my drawing tools were already sitting out and at hand. I opened the sketchbook to a fresh spread and quickly sketched him using a Kuretake No. 40 brush pen (the color was added later in the day.)

Finishing the sketch, I drifted his way and tapped him on the shoulder to see if anything was wrong. With a startled look he snapped right out of it. He said he was just day dreaming and asked how long I’d been watching. I told him he’d held still long enough that I had been able to make a sketch of him. Big grin and an honest laugh!

It was a real teachable moment… no recriminations whatsoever. He was very interested in the drawing and wanted to take a cell phone photo of the sketch to send to his mom. I showed him how the brush pen worked and let him try it too. He’s very interested in becoming a better artist and really is quite diligent. No idea why he zoned out on this particular morning, but it turned out to be a solid opportunity for making a solid connection with him.

And this is why I teach art.

(Kuretake No. 40 brush pen and gouache in Canson 180 sketchbook.)


20 January, 2017. Thank goodness for good weather and an opportunity to get outside on my own to ride for a couple of hours. I needed to be away from the three ring circus that is our political system, broadcasting from every media outlet 24/7. Never in my memory have we been so divided as a country as we are at this moment. Social media is fuel on a raging fire, too. Had I left my iPhone at home I’d have escaped the lunacy…but no. I heard it ping, letting me know I had a message, and made the mistake of checking it. I wish I hadn’t. I was getting trolled on Facebook by a smug “why can’t you live and let live, get over it because we won it all” nutball.

Sad. Just sad.

(Quickly sketched from a photo on my treacherous iPhone using an Omni-Ball Micro pen)

Objects of Desire

20 January, 2017. This past week I began to introduce gouache to my painting students. It’s a media that seems to be remarkably unfamiliar to students, and surprisingly even to many art teachers of my acquaintance. Essentially, gouache is an opaque watercolor. Practically speaking I see it handling somewhere between traditional watercolor and tempera. I know a lot of classroom tempera paint is really crude stuff, so I don’t mean to sound disparaging. Good quality gouache is far and away superior to the gloppy tempera paint that comes in gallon jugs.

Normally I would be teaching acrylic right now, but I’ve grown weary of replacing brushes and scrubbing out palettes crusted over with dried paint – not to mention the annual ritual of having a plumber come out to fix the pipes under the sink, clogged with glops of acrylic. Gouache is a good alternative for teaching opaque painting that is far more gentle on brushes, palettes, and pipes. A plus is that while acrylic tends to intimidate my students for some reason, they are taking to gouache quite naturally.

I plan for my art students to complete two paintings before we transition to watercolor. The first prompt is “Objects of Desire,” in which learners are asked to create a painting of a luscious, tempting, scrumptious dessert of their choosing. We’re working in a relatively small size – the example I made in yesterday’s class (above) is the same size and support specified for students (10 x 10 inches, on illustration board.)

I don’t know how many different ways there are to approach painting in gouache. As always, I stress that there will generally be more life and vitality to a painting if it’s done from life rather than a photographic reference. (It’s fun to look around the art room and see that some kids have done as I did in the example above, and brought in something yummy to draw and paint.) In any event, I always begin with sketches on scrap paper or in a sketchbook to work out my general composition, then very lightly transfer a drawing onto the support. I find I’m more successful keeping the construction lines less detailed rather than more to allow for a more fluid application of line or color.

Gouache is a good way to introduce a valuable concept to students interested in moving into painting with oils: painting gradually thicker layers over thin. The reality of oil requiring this approach to ensure proper binding of layers isn’t relevant to gouache, but I find that subsequent thicker, more opaque layers of gouache lay down more easily when brushed over a light underpainting. The underpainting also helps me to visualize how local colors harmonize and to consider ideas about value placement. It’s quite a bit different than how I approach watercolor.

The end result has an interesting matte quality, with what I would describe as a sort of “pastiness” where the opaque white mixtures are built up. I enjoy the ability to work with flat colors that are more design-like than some other medias might naturally turn out.

Out of the Ice

17 January, 2017. I’ve heard that timing is everything. When we scheduled a three day weekend in Florida a couple of months ago, we figured it would be a welcome respite from our normally cold January weather. What we didn’t realize is that we’d be fleeing the Midwest just ahead of a big ice storm. Great timing!

So for three days I hung out on Cocoa Beach, just me, a bag full of Tommy Bahama shirts, and my sketchbook. My travel kit is small, so these are pretty much all brush pen or Lamy Safari fountain pen.

Cold ride.

2 January, 2017. I sketched this out with a brush pen a couple of days ago. I’m not even sure if I like it or not, so on a lark I scanned it in and added color layers in Photoshop. (Kuretake #40 brush pen in Canson 180 sketchbook. Color, courtesy of Adobe.)

There’s a time and place for this sort of thing, I suppose, but it feels a little too much like a magazine illustration for my tastes…too much contrast between the looseness of brushed lines and the hard, mechanical shapes of color, I think.

This is my story.

1 January, 2017. I had fun working on an illustration this afternoon. This sketch is my donation to the HALO art auction. The auction is emphasizing the power of story this year, which I think is a nice fit for my approach to sketching. As I said, this was fun. I enjoyed using the fountain pen to scribble, and then allowed the watercolor to pool and bloom and “melt” the line work. The more I experiment with limited color, loosely drawn and painted elements, and simply leaving some areas completely unpainted, the more I enjoy the direction my sketching has traveled. (Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen and watercolor wash on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper; typography was added in Photoshop.)

Belly up, folks.

16 December, 2016. Belly up, folks, because it’s a cold night out there – damn cold when you think about it, and only getting colder. So belly up, hoist a glass or two, and enjoy an hour of good company while you wait on your platter of fish and chips. From time to time the door will open and you’ll briefly shiver as the crowd grows, another soul or two added into the scrum. (Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen and watercolor wash on Strathmore Aquarius II.)

One Day Before Thanksgiving

23 November, 2016. Bubba’s car is on the fritz so I had to pick him up from work yesterday. Due to the holiday, he only clocked half a day so it happened that we were heading home – and right past the turn off for The Local Pig – at 11:30. Well, that seemed like fate to me!

We stopped to shop at the meat market for what I consider to be the best smoked and brined chops I’ve ever had, and ate lunch from their food truck. Normally, the Pigwich has a long line of hungry, patient patrons but the crowd was small on this chilly November day. Bubba sat on one of the benches immersed in a video game of some sort while our sandwiches were being prepared and I used the opportunity to use him as the subject for a quick sketch.

(Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen on Strathmore Aquarius II)