Catch as Catch Can.

22 May, 2017. Signs, signs – everywhere the signs! Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. So, it’s been catch as catch can this week, grabbing sketches wherever and whenever, and not really getting a chance to do any sort of sitting around absorbing the place. It’s not my favorite approach, but sometimes it yields a bit of gold. This tightly cropped scene of signage captured my attention almost immediately. But of course I only had a couple minutes to scribble. It was sprinkling, I sketched, I made a quick snapshot to reference for color later. Then I scooted.

A convivial pub often offers a rich assortment of subjects to draw. It was a Friday night, immediately after work and the local brew pub was hoppin’! A pint of Riley Porter for me, a glass of Vignoles for her, and a game of scrabble at the bar. I sketched while I waited (and waited) for my turn. This particular week was done, and it really couldn’t have ended much sooner.

It was a wet day in an older part of the city. Sitting in the front seat of my car, making a really fast sketch, I found myself impatient to “git ‘r done.” Suddenly, I realized what I’d at first thought to be a rather pedestrian subject had captured my artistic interests. I focused on creating a silhouette of the structures via line, and got pretty loosey-goosey with the interior details. After working with the Uni-Ball to draft the main (and rather sparse) details, I went back in with a Pilot Varsity and a water brush to add some depth and tonality.

So strange to ride through what was once simple countryside, only to discover a new multi-lane thoroughfare going in, connecting the town proper to – what? Another highway? The hand of mankind rips another swath of trees from the planet. (Uni-Ball Vision Micro on Strathmore Aquarius II, approximately 7 x 7 inches.)

Sketching Pamphlets

21 May, 2017. This is a pretty simple folded pamphlet – avoid the temptation to overthink things if you try it out for yourself!

So rather than buying sketch books, I make my own sketching “pamphlets.” These are lightweight, hand-constructed booklets that allow me to carry a thin, high quality, easy to carry sketching surface.

I begin with a standard 22 x 30 sheet of good quality watercolor paper. My favorite sheet for this purpose is Strathmore Aquarius II, which is very lightweight, relatively speaking, but doesn’t wrinkle or bow when you add washes of water and paint.

I’ll divide the sheet into four equal horizontal strips that measure approximately 7.5 x 22 inches. To keep from bulking up, I will only use three strips of paper for each booklet. Folding each in half to a 7.5 x 11 size, I’ll carefully crease the pages with a printer’s folding bone or a brayer. Sandwiching the three sheets together, I’ll then carefully stitch the centers together. At this point I will have an 11 x 7.5 inch book fold pamphlet. By carefully folding each 11 inch panel toward the center gutter, I will wind up with a double gatefold pamphlet. Although I refer to these as 5 x 7 booklets, it will actually measure closer to 5.5 x 7.5 inches.

Fold your own.

15 May, 2017. Who needs sketchbooks? I make my own double gatefold sketching “pamphlets” out of my favorite watercolor paper.

Ever since I began experimenting with my own sketching media, I’ve toyed around with folding sequences and sizes. I want the size to be easily carried without being a burden or inconvenient. And I knew I wanted to have the flexibility to draw on a single panel, two panels, or to expand out into a truly panoramic motif. After several promising attempts, I’ve begun to use a double gatefold, which is easy to cut and fold, and provides me with the flexibility I hoped for.

Notice how the sketching pamphlet in the center (above) is unfolded to reveal a very long and horizontal canvas on which to scribble. My pamphlets are small enough that I can simply tuck one into a pocket or – in a pinch – between my back and the waist band of my hiking shorts. Yet there is enough paper to provide adequate thickness so that I can draw without the whole shebang seeming floppy-floppy.

A single panel works perfectly for a simple, direct observational sketch.

Meanwhile, I can unfold the pages if I wish, and use the entire width as a drawing surface.

For the sake of simplicity.

6 May, 2017. Our local group of likeminded sketching, plein air, and doodling artists met to draw at the City Market this weekend. The place, normally bustling on a Saturday morning, was especially so on this day. The crowds of shoppers were teeming, the birds were in song, a light breeze played over the pavement and stalls of fruits and vegetables. Even the normally vacant spaces were occupied by additional sellers and street performers.

I was drawn to a quartet of older gentlemen playing stringed instruments and performing American folk music – Woody Guthrie, Pete Segar, and many others. From what I gathered, they’re not a “group,” per se. Individually, they play with other, more organized groups of musicians but thought it would be a hoot to play together on this morning. And what a treat it was that they decided to do so – they were wonderful! After standing and sketching them for a while, I eventually wandered over to a nearby park bench and claimed my stake so that I could draw and listen to their set.

My objective was to keep it simple, keep it loose, and really shoot for the “less is more” approach. Sometimes it takes me several pages to loosen up and shake the tight-ass scrawls, and this was to be the case today as well. In fact, the sketch above was my last of the morning. After having drawn the same guys several times, I finally got to the point that I “knew” my subject and could design the sketch. I really like how the black and white turned out, and I’m especially pleased to have remembered to get a good image of it before adding loose patches of watercolor wash. In almost every way, the color is there to create a more holistic image: there’s a bit of “push/pull” taking place in the interaction between cools and warms, and the placement of color and value helps to direct the eye in a circular motion, reinforcing what was begun with the linear composition.

Really. Is there anything more joyful sounding than the plucking of a banjo? And is there any musical instrument that can go from such joy to such intense melancholy in but the briefest of moments?

From my park bench seat, my view took in outside dining, architecture and a variety of architectural details, people shopping, performers performing, and sellers selling. In keeping with the idea of simplicity, I began this outdoor dining sketch by focusing on the silhouette “line” of people and objects that cuts through the bottom center horizon. Notice that it’s (mostly) a single, uninterrupted line. This is a great architectural exercise that I find works to tease out the most important elements of a skyline, or even a landscape. Turns out that it works well for people too – at least in this case. I really love it when a sketch gets distilled down into the barest minimum of essential elements, and for that reason alone I find myself incredibly happy with where this one wound up – not to mention the enjoyment of the process/path I took to get there. Once the sketch began, the rest was intuitive. It’s at such times, when using the pen is like riding a bicycle, that I’m often at my most content.

(Drawn on location in the Kansas City, Missouri City Market using an Omni-Ball Deluxe and watercolor wash on Strathmore Aquarius II paper.)


30 April, 2017. Only one word can describe my three day weekend: “AAAAAARGH!”

This was intended to be a long weekend of getting outside, touring through several small towns to explore turn-of-the-century/Fin de siècle architecture. Instead, I was rained in for nearly the entire three days, with only the briefest of respites.

Stuck in Arkansas because flash flooding closed – literally! – all of the roads leading back into Missouri, I managed to get out of my hotel in Eureka Springs with a sketchbook and pens between cloud bursts. Sheltering under a couple of awnings, SOME of what I’d planned to sketch got scribbled on paper. However, I had some pages that got ruined when sudden downpours came out of nowhere, and I was myself drenched to the bone.

The rain was incredible, by the way. At times the middle of the day was as dark as night. In Berryville, Arkansas, what had been a low lying area transformed into a raging river, at least 300 feet across. Roads were entirely submerged, and road block warning signs urging motorists not to proceed any further could be seen hundreds of feet away, barely visible and barely above water. Oh…and my credit card got compromised, so Shazam cut it off Saturday morning. No problem, I thought. I have actual money at the lake house back in Missouri…

Sketching – even as a waterlogged exercise – was my catharsis.

(Uni-Ball Deluxe, Pilot Varsity, Pentel Pocket Brush Pen; each page is approximately 5 x 7 inches; Eureka Springs, Arkansas.)


22 April, 2017. The City Market is a rich resource for the urban sketcher in Kansas City. Without moving a step, even the most casually observant sketcher is blessed with a scene rife with the broadest variety of people, booths and stalls, vehicles, and architectural detail. I mean, c’mon! When was the last time you actually saw a one man band? I certainly can’t recall when I have!

This sketch was penciled and partially inked on site – my wife hurried me along because we had freshly cut flowers and vegetables to shop for. Still, the guy was such a neat surprise that I had to give him a couple minutes of “pencil time.” I confess that I had to take a few liberties with the instrumentation because I simply couldn’t figure out how and where all that stuff was hooked up, or what I was even actually seeing. I used a simple yellow Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil for the basic sketch, and a Pilot Varsity for the ink. I like using the Varsity from time to time so that I can reactivate the ink with a water brush and wash in some tones on site or, as I did here, later on.

There were quite a few buskers at the Market on this morning. This fellow was part of a quartet. Although I made a couple of gestural sketches of the group from the front, this rearward point-of-view interested me the most. I particularly like the pipe clenched between his teeth. The Beaver-colored ink remains water-soluble until it cures – which actually takes quite a while – so I’ve got time to scribble with my Lamy fountain pen and decide later if I want to use a water brush to add tones. I was pretty minimal with that effect here.

I was also intrigued to find out we’ve got a busker’s fair coming up in June at the City Market. I hope I’m in town at the time because it sounds like a terrific sketching opportunity!

Here’s another sketch where I took a few liberties. For one thing, she doesn’t actually have gray hair…I just felt like it worked better with the subdued colors I brushed in later. Also, she was moving around a lot. Her customers were lined up and her booth was in demand. So a quick gestural sketch in pencil, then a sort of collage of the components of her stall – and after than, no more sketches at all…because I somehow managed to lose my damn pencil along the way!

This sketch, like the one above it, was inked with a Safari Medium Nib fountain pen using Noodler’s Beaver-colored ink. The season is changing, and so are some of the colors on my watercolor palette. Thus, I’m a bit more tentative with wash at the moment, and will probably remain so until I’m more confident with the color changes.

(Kansas City, Missouri City Market, in the River Market area.)

Illustrating the Edible

19 April, 2017. In preparation for the graduate course I’m teaching in June at the Kansas City Art Institute – “Illustrating the Edible,” I’ve begun working on “urban dining” sketches. There’s a better than even chance that I’m using these warm up sketches as an excuse to try out a few new eateries…

Our need for and love of food is something that binds us all together. Experiencing a culture, for instance, through its food is a must, and it’s one of my favorite things I look forward to when I travel. Recording a visit with sketches – whether it’s across an ocean, or just across town – is a fun way to relive memories.


I am interested in documenting food rituals, and I think this has become a common shared experience. Witness, for example, how many of your friends do this with a cell phone on social media. Doing so with a pen or brush or pencil allows one to merge interesting pictures with narrative, we learn to use our art to find and tell stories about the food, preparation, and dining experiences around us. My plan for the workshop portion of the course is a collaboration with local chefs and eateries to explore the world of food and wine, and then to make drawings, sketches, and doodles before we dig in!

I sometimes like to incorporate a typographic design into a sketch as I’ve done with these. It’s interesting to me to play around with letterforms, to experiment with them to see what sort of “typographic voice” emerges. Does the lettering choice harmonize and accentuate the visual story? Or does it fight with the drawing? These are the questions I ponder as I draw, planning the composition to allow for words to integrate into the composition rather than simply get stuck into whatever space remains. (Uni-Ball Deluxe pen, watercolor wash with water brush, in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Get Outside and Keep Things Simple.

16 April, 2017. At the start of this last week I found myself desperate to draw. I introduced the last assignment of the semester to my drawing and painting students, and began to sketch alongside them, toying around with a colored ground, an Omni-Ball Deluxe pen, and a white Cray-pas. It felt so academic…I needed to get outside!

Keeping things basic, I headed out on several occasions for an hour or two of bike sketching. This is simple enough: stow a pen and a couple scraps of paper into a bike bag or jersey and head out with no other purpose or destination in mind than to explore. I find that some of the most satisfying excursions happen when I open my eyes up to places I visit slowly on foot or by wheel. This was a little house I’ve bicycled past a thousand times before, but today it just needed to be sketched. Using a Pilot Varsity and hitting the line work very minimally with a water brush creates a very pleasing monochromatic wash effect.

A little further down the road I encountered this very cool community service project, something I never noticed until today. In fact, I’d ridden past it and was already a dozen yards down the road before it occurred to me what I’d seen from the corner of my eye. I turned around to investigate further. (Pilot Varsity and water brush)

I’d issued a “mini-challenge” to our USk group earlier this week to draw people doing yard work. It seemed appropriate for the weather, and to my chagrin I realized I hadn’t participated much at all in the challenge. Yard work was taking place in the yard behind my studio and I quickly scribbled out my impression. And then I hopped on my bike and headed back out into the world beyond my drawing table. (Pentel Pocket brush pen)

This sketch of the Clay County Archives Museum is such a “post card” moment. A part of me feels like making a tighter version of this sketch in a larger format. The larger part of me prefers to overlook such preciousness and simply enjoy the energy of the sketch. (Pencil and watercolor)

OK. No actually bike sketching took place here because it’s my backyard, but it’s included because I sketched it right after I got home and put the bike away. (Pentel Pocket brush pen)

And then yesterday rolled into view. A beautiful morning to ride and get in some bike sketching…although if I am to be perfectly honest, I got in a lot more biking than sketching!  (Pilot Varsity and water brush)

My takeaway for the week is twofold:

  1. Get outside! (Breathe and enjoy the freshness of spring.)
  2. Keep it simple. (This applies not only to the drawing, but to the tools and the method of encounter as well.)


9 April, 2017. I make no secret of my disdain for “preciousness” with my students. I feel like it’s a death knell for an artist to think of their sketches as “too precious” to make mistakes or to draw over and over and over again. I don’t care who you are as an art maker, no one is perfect. (Think: da Vinci or Michelangelo, and go back and look at their sketches…great stuff, but even they found room to make revisions as the sketch progressed.)

Frankly, I think there’s a lot of charm in the imperfections of a hand drawn work.

I like scribbling and correcting as I draw. Sometimes my sketches come out looking a bit cartoonish, and other times they are happily convincing.

Today I met up with a couple of Urban Sketchers from Minneapolis and enjoyed a short, impromptu sketch out in the River Market. On this particular Sunday, tables were set up for a busy flea market. Hot dogs sizzled on grills, and an overwhelming variety of food smells wafted across the rather brisk winds that buffeted the area. I enjoy the opportunity to draw people in places, and today provided ample subject matter for my pen.

A post shared by Amber Sausen (@ambersausen) on Apr 9, 2017 at 3:47pm PDT


I’m not sure why, but I’ve been taking some of my recent black and white sketches and touching them up with gouache. One of my new acquaintances from Minneapolis told me that there seems to be a gouache fad among urban sketchers at the moment. Am I riding the wave of a fad? Or simply using a medium to keep things fresh? I don’t really know for sure, but it does give me the chance to add color to a sketchbook that otherwise doesn’t lend itself to doing so. Watercolor doesn’t react as I’d like and dries too fast. Gouache, on the other hand, can be built up and painted over on this paper.

On the other hand, I’m not tossing my watercolors into a drawer anytime soon. I like using it on Strathmore Aquarius watercolor paper for quick sketching. Sometimes, when I’ve run dry of sketch time, I’ll do as I did this week and draw my students drawing. Take what you can get when you can get it!

Union Station: Inside and Out

1 April, 2017. Yes, it’s All Fool’s Day, but the second outing of USk/KC was no joke. We’ve had a remarkable response to the group, and an equally remarkable turnout to events. The enthusiasm is heartening and I am encouraged to think that we’ll be able to keep the motivation and participation high.

For this event, we met at Kansas City’s historic Union Station. It’s chilly outside and quite naturally we mostly gathered indoors for comfortable and abundant seating in the cavernous building. As always seems to happen, the act of drawing, sketching, and painting is a curiously voyeuristic action, not on the part of us, as artists, drawing from observation. But also on behalf of people around us. I stopped sketching numerous times to engage in friendly conversation with the curious.

I don’t see these interruptions as a negative, by the way. In fact, the more artists and sketchers connect with these curious observers, the more it becomes apparent that we’re not some special, “precious,” and select group. There is, in fact, little that separates people other than interests. How wonderful that we have this opportunity to chat, to advocate for our particular interests, and to share what it is we are doing. Maybe – just maybe – this passing chat will encourage another to pick up a pen or pencil next weekend.

I made several sketches this morning, beginning with the one at the top of this thread. That particular sketch went through quite a lot of evolution, emerging from the initial pencil marks first as a contour drawing in thinly inked lines, and then getting blocked in with heavier marks using a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Later on, when we gathered together around the food tables across the street at Crown Center, I felt like the sketch looked unfinished so I pulled out the gouache kit and began to add color. I wanted to contrast the cool gray of the overcast sky and the murkiness of the architectural detail around the arched window with a warmth on the highlighted interior of the arch. These color temperatures were intentionally enhanced for dramatic effect, and in fact I went back in even later to add another layer of color to make the sketch feel a little more “complete.”

I was having difficulty loosening up. Maybe I shouldn’t have started with rigid geometry this morning. I find that I get more energy when I focus on more organic shapes as the primary subject matter. That led me to working on very fast gestures of people. After this exercise I began to feel like I could “move” my hands without getting too tight.

By this time, I’d been moving around inside the building for most of the morning and decided to change my perspective entirely by heading outdoors – sort of. An elevated glass walkway connects Union Station with Crown Center, and by positioning myself over the street I wound up with a nice, elevated view of the exterior. I was standing while I sketched, and as sometimes happens wound up getting into the idea of loose lines that define contours and shapes without getting lost in details. The perspective was convincing, and later on after adding some really quick splashes of watercolor, I netted a sketch that feels fresh and not terribly overworked.

I’m still not sure if I like gouache or not. Watercolor, which used to be such a difficult medium for me to manipulate, has become so effortless that I find myself treating it in a rather unfairly cavalier way these days. We also found ourselves discussing how to correctly pronounce “gouache” over lunch today. (I’m notoriously bad about simply making up pronunciations, and I wound up Googling it. Turns out there are at least three “correct” pronunciations and my version seems to be the “most” correct.)

Heading back to my car after our group had shared sketchbooks and enjoyed a light lunch, I realized I had missed an opportunity to sketch the trains on display outside the station. Whatever was I thinking? Guess I’ll have to head back out there again sometime soon!