To color, or not to color?

21 July, 2018. There are times I worry my sketches are getting a little too precious. I really prefer they be incomplete thoughts rather than finished artworks. I like to experiment, so I kick myself when I begin to wonder if I’ve taken a sketch “too far.” I mean, that’s really sort of the point in the first place, isn’t it?

So here I find myself in a dilemma of sorts. I am enjoying my recent foray into gouache over toned paper. I’m enjoying the effect of black and white inks over toned paper. And I’m enjoying the way the two approaches blend together. The dilemma is that I like the look and the story-telling qualities that result from both approaches. I asked myself if I’ve gone too far by adding the color (or, conversely, should I have added color to my black, white, and gray sketch?) The mood, atmosphere, and even expressiveness changes with the addition of color. One person says color makes the scene “happier,” while another vehemently disagrees.

I like how the absence of color de-emphasizes the skin color of my subject in the black and white version. In the color version, the emphasis is on the shapes created by the group of people. It makes me realize how much my choices can affect the narrative. Color, value, contrast, etc. are more than just Elements of Art; they are story telling devices.

I find I have little in the way of drawing consistency, by the way. Sometimes my figure drawings seem to just fly off the pencil or pen and onto the paper, other times I find myself making much more expressively cartoonishly exaggerated characterizations. The pencil of this one felt stiff at the time I was sketching it out, but a day later I found myself admiring the construction as I began to add inked lines to the page. Inventing the fabric patterns that I kind of sort of think I recall was the most fun part of moving from pencil to ink.

By the way, if you’re not dividing your page into thirds to remind yourself how to place key elements of your design, you’re missing out on a compositional device that I find very helpful. I’m not a slave to the practice, but it sure does help to keep sketches from looking like the subject was just plopped down in the center of the page. I really believe that asymmetrical balance is far more interesting than symmetry of design.

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The Heat Is On


18 July 2018. It is densely humid. The temperature is flirting with one hundred degrees: in a word, the heat is stifling. Along Prospect Avenue, to those who are observant there is a concrete “park” – in other words, an expanse of off street pavement. Perhaps a building once stood on this spot, or even two. It’s difficult to accurately gauge.

And it’s really of no concern to a group of eighteen or twenty children running around, happily oblivious to anything beyond the boundary of tarmac and broken concrete and old foundation. Adjoining the sidewalk stands a tall tree, its canopy offering a trifling umbrella of shade. Standing watch within the meager cover – sitting, actually, in two folding lawn chairs – are a pair of women, mothers. They chat, one watchful and ever vigilant eye on the youngsters.

Games are invented on the spot, the rules constantly evolve, kids run and skip, visible waves of heat rise from the ground, generating an atmospheric disturbance ignored by all.

I inked the basic drawing with a fude-tipped fountain pen and filled the black areas using a fat marker loaded with India ink. The fude tip is flexible, with a wide range of line widths possible; it was an excellent choice to generate the expressive quality I hoped to achieve in this sketch.

I’ve unexpectedly returned to using a pencil to draft the construction drawing rather than making a direct ink sketch as I’ve been wont to do for a while.

 

Structures

10 July, 2018. There’s beauty in the sometimes haphazard way we cobble together the structural aspects of our world to make the places we live and work and play functional. Wood and stone, gravel, wire, logs – they’re all the Legos we put together, take apart, then put back together again. The configurations evolve as our needs change. Things get nailed in place, leaned up against a wall, tied to something else.

Light falling upon the most pedestrian of things, the most utilitarian of buildings, can result in the most dramatic of atmospheres, the most touching of aesthetic experiences. Places of work intrigue me. People toil in these places, and when they’ve left, gone home; when they are occupying another space, the emptiness left in their wake is powerful. The loneliness is poignant.

My tools of the moment are a Uni-Ball Vision pen, a Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, a limited palette of gouache and a flat brush. The gray-toned paper in my Stillman and Birn sketchbook is pretty close to perfect for my present needs. 

A Tale of Two Water Medias

8 July, 2018. As I’ve demonstrated on these pages the past several months, gouache media has captured my attention and a fair percentage of my sketching focus. I find myself torn in some ways: torn between using gouache as a limited tool (as above) vs. using the opaque paints to create a work in its entirety (as below). I’m also torn between gouache and watercolor. It’s easy to say well don’t be torn, use them both. But they handle so differently and have such different personalities.

I appreciate the way that gouache can be handled rather thickly – almost an impasto technique. This little color study demonstrates that brush marks can be incorporated into a media that I used to think was only suited for perfect, flat colors. There’s an energy  to this approach that can feel electric, fresh, and lively.

And so it’s been mostly gouache for me the past week or so, and definitely the past five or six months. I needed a bit less heavy handed touch so I went back to my pencil sketches and hit some of them with light washes of watercolor. Aside from water, the two paint medias are seriously different. The application of paint differs: On the one hand delicate little touches of watercolor, or bold washes of gradient color; on the other, much thicker individual strokes, opaque. The tools I use differ: with gouache it’s a stiffer bristle brush, probably made for oil or acrylic; with watercolor I prefer a nice quality round in a 12 or 14 size.

One media is energized, while the other tends to be sedate. These little sketches have a ton of “Dib-dabs” throughout.

When I got back home and made a few watercolor sketches, it felt good to simply “do.” Watercolor doesn’t require a lot of technical thought for me, whereas gouache is still new enough, still unknown enough, that I’m working towards a better understanding of it every single time I paint. Weirdly, I find myself referring to the use of watercolor as “sketching” while the process of applying gouache is painting. I wonder why I make that unconscious distinction?

I was one of the artists featured during a city-wide “Water Garden Society Tour” and felt less inclined to use gouache than watercolor. I do wonder though. I wonder if the dense shadows of foliage, painted thickly, is some of my recent practices in gouache painting emerging in my watercolor sketches. Could be there’s room for both in my life.

Color Studies

4 July, 2018. Now that my June travels have ended, numerous people have said things like “What are you up to now?” and “Must be nice to be off all summer long.” As it happens, I report back in just a few weeks so I am using every spare minute to sketch, draw, or paint. Once I’m back in the classroom, opportunities to do so will be stretched very thin for a while.

Sometime back – around a hundred days ago or so – I set myself a goal of creating 100 small gouache paintings in 100 days. I didn’t make that goal, but the point in doing so was to learn the media. And I’m feeling more and more confident as I continue to experiment with color palette, technique, and papers. Most recently I’ve been working on small color studies to explore ways to respond to light and shadow.

These are rather liberating in one sense: because the focus is on combination of color, the stress of representation is off.

A few weeks ago I wandered into a gallery and was surprised to discover they were selling work from some of my favorite artists: Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth, and Wolf Kahn, to name but a few. I’ve admired Kahn’s use of color immensely and the experience of standing in front of his monumental canvases, just soaking in the color, prompted me to begin these color studies. I want to be cautious that his influence isn’t too strong – I’d rather not wake up one day only to discover what I’m doing is simply derivative. But it’s fun and interesting, and intellectually stimulating all at the same time.

Nearly all of my recent color explorations have been in gouache. This has changed the way I’ve been approaching my sketchbook stuff: rather than working directly with a pen, I’ve been composing with pencil first to nail down shapes and proportions.

This allows me to create an inked line drawing as a second step, with time to deliberately plan out the large black negative areas that I love to incorporate into my sketches. The drama and impact of these shapes is important to me and important to composition. This also allows me to work faster in the field, because the third and final step is getting done later on.

“Later on,” because I want to ponder how color will affect the way each composition gets “read.” I am trying to take advantage of the three values: black ink, white gel pen ink, and gray of the paper, while at the same time purposely selecting areas of color painted in gouache. The effect is interesting because there are areas that are rendered that contrast with areas that are flat. It feels to me as if the space is being redefined by the lines, color, and the choice to leave some of it untouched.

There’s also a sort of storybook character to these illustrations, and that narrative quality intrigues me to no end.

I said nearly all of my color work had been made with gouache, but earlier this week I felt like working on something large. So I got out my butcher tray and watercolor kit, a couple of really big brushes, and a full sheet of Arches. This particular scene from Menemsha has been in the back of my mind for a couple weeks now – no idea why. I don’t feel like the watercolor, regardless of the scale, does it justice and may take another stab at it. This one feels to me like a study rather than a finished piece.

Island Time

30 June, 2018. The first week of travel found us in Vermont. I’d looked forward to Vermont; it’s a beautiful place and I enjoy trekking through the place immensely. After leaving there, the next leg of our journey found us heading for Martha’s Vineyard. Having never visited the island before I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, it was my favorite destination.

So we stay very near the water, and having read an ad in the local paper for six dollar lobsters, we cannot contain ourselves. Let’s head there for lunch. The girl on the pier smiled as we walked up and made a half-hearted attempt to coax us into the restaurant. However, the newspaper had made a monumental typographic error and the lobsters were not six dollars! Later, after an unsettled stomach from the meal at the place we did visit, I found myself wishing we’d taken her up on the offer, despite the difference in lobster price.

Eating always provides a ready subject matter for sketching; The Little House Cafe was pleasant, somewhat eclectic, and our fellow breakfasters chatted quietly while I sketched them.

My favorite places to sketch on the island, however, were the piers and harbor areas.

Boats tied up alongside the piers, the verticality of the logs sunk deep into the underwater ground, the weathered look of the places – I found all of this visually interesting.

Each boat has a backstory of some sort: What destination is she bound for tomorrow? Did the fishermen score an excellent haul? What was the water like where they came from?

The decking and vessels are peopled with folks moving about with purpose. No one pays me any heed as I wander about, my sketchbook out and my pen roaming the pages.

As morning morphs into afternoon, once empty parking areas begin to fill. Visitors come to the adjacent beach or to buy fish. Some are here to hire a boat or crew, while others – like me – are simply gawkers.

A narrow jetty divides beach and docking area. I sit on large rocks and watch the clouds, occasionally sketching, but not with any serious attempt at making art. A mom and child wander past, clearly curious about what I’m doing … but seem timid and never come over to visit, to ask questions, to look.

One morning I head inland to a nature preserve. I’ve been invited to make some plein air work, which I do after developing a few quick sketches.

Before getting out my paint I take a stab at finishing off the gray-toned Stillman & Birn sketchbook I’ve been working in for much of this trip. Mosquitos are eating me alive – the nature sanctuary is something akin to a swamp in places and they little vampires are abundant as hell.

A small plein air painting does eventually emerge. Later, I carefully mat and frame the work. It’s shipped off to Felix Neck for an exhibition that opens this coming weekend. Sadly, I will not be able to attend.

Most nights are calmly spent sipping wine in the backyard, walking down to the water, chatting. One night we wandered into town and listened to a blues band. A young woman wearing a Hawaiian shirt and porkpie hat looked as far from a blues guitarist as one might imagine, but she was great! The lady could play a wicked blues guitar.

Breaking down the process

29 June, 2018. On a lark, I began to take some of the black and white sketches I’d made in situ and add after-the-fact touches of gouache. The play of flat against rendered tonality, the artifice of contrasts, and the general sense of “what the heck sort of layer is going on here?” intrigued me, and appealed to my perverse delight in perplexing others. Interest in these sketchbook pages just sort of exploded on Instagram, and I’ve fielded quite a few questions over the past two or three days. With that in mind I’m summarizing a general breakdown of the process today.

First off, it’s important to note that all of these come from life observations during my recent travel to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Martha’s Vineyard. In this example, I began by roughing in some fishermen who were finishing up their day, pulled up to the pier in Menemsha Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard. Something I very seldom do is use a pencil to make a light construction drawing – usually, I just work directly with a pen and trust my instincts. But as you’ll note, I did use a pencil not only on this sketch but on all of the others in this post as well. The advantage, I suppose, is that it provides one with the flexibility to do the graphite drawing in situ, and embellish with ink, paint, or whatever later on. In fact, I began the inked lines in the field and finished them later on – frankly, I wasn’t convinced that I had a decent composition to work with. I nearly abandoned things at this point.

Later on, the contour lines inked, I blocked in the water entirely in black using a Pitt marker which is loaded with India ink. This is a compositional device, and it helps me to make a graphic statement, as well as establish points of emphasis. The contrast is a favorite tool of mine, but in this case I still wasn’t convinced the sketch had anywhere to go. I began to reconsider what elements I’d initially chosen to emphasize.

And here we are: Trying to maintain a visual flow with points of emphasis that are roughly triangular in shape, I’ve woven in spots of color. I’m using gouache because it is opaque enough to cover the gray-toned ground of the paper. It’s also matte, like the surface of the paper, so they mesh well, visually. Areas such as the top of the posts and the type get hit with a white gel pen – I rather like how that tends to pop off the gray tone of the Stillman & Birn sketchbook paper. The posts, by the way, bothered me left in the gray of the paper, so I changed them to a pattern of inked lines and decided I really hated that look. I’m much happier having used the black India ink to silhouette them. Notice that the water, which had been similarly silhouetted earlier in the process, has had a layer of gouache added, impacting the previous compositional decisions so that the visual structure is more interesting.

In Hanover, New Hampshire, on the Dartmouth campus, rain began to fall and I sheltered under one of the huge trees lining the streets there. At the corner, one pedestrian was so engrossed in something on his iPhone that he missed not one, but three crossing lights! It’s not often that I get a street subject to stand still for any length of time; realizing what was happening I quickly penciled in the basics of his figure. (I had to sort of guess at the umbrella after he’d wandered across the road.) Leaning against a tree trunk I penciled in the truck and some indications of environment, then inked the contour lines while I waited out the shower.

The same process applies here. I’m especially happy with the leading lines that make this compositional design work. The lettering, once again, was filled in with the white gel pen, as were a couple of the flourishes: the boat in the background and the highlighted edges of the plastic containers. As with all of these examples, the gouache was not added in the field, but much later on.

For this sketch, made during lunch in Edgartown, I used my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen rather than a Uni-Ball. I’m not certain, but I think this may have been the only time I used that particular drawing tool on this trip… when things are working for me, I tend to stick with them. The ladies sitting at the bar were easy subjects for the duration of my meal (which, by the by, included the first $20 hamburger I’ve ever eaten.) This was actually the first gouache experiment I made in my sketchbook. The drawing was nice but felt empty somehow. What, I asked myself, would be the worst that could happen if I added touches of gouache over the linework? Would it get too “cartoon-y?”

That experiment led to the series I’m currently working on. Meanwhile, I’m also developing some straight plein-air work with gouache. It’s just a gouache sort of time for me, I suppose.

Final note here: I want to point out that despite the emphasis on technique in this blog posting, what’s most important to me than anything else, and what works for me in all of these is a sense of story. I’m interested in making sketches that communicate some narrative component and I’m happy that one can look at these sketches and ask, “What’s going on here?” When that happens I feel that my efforts have been successful.

People and their places

28 June, 2018. As I wrote in my sketch notes, the place is pretty much what one would expect from a traditional diner, especially one built out of an old Pullman car: burgers, fries, shakes, hand-packed ice cream. Nothing green at all at the Windsor Diner, except the pickles.

We stopped very briefly. Accompanied by friends, it turned out after studiously reading the menu that none of them were up for ground beef – or, for that matter, deep-fried anything at all. My sketches were rushed as can be… seeing which way the winds were blowing, I scribbled as quickly as I could before everyone decided to load back into the cars and head for greener pastures and food. Too bad, really – I would have been happy with a burger.

I’m really interested in people and “their” place in the world, whether that’s at a bar or at work, strolling through their neighborhood, wherever they fit in. Each of us create and define our own places. I find it interesting to translate those moments into a drawing, or – if I’m feeling ambitious enough – into a painting.

Same small Vermont village: The longest covered bridge in the country, a great ice cream joint, and a museum one might pass by without a second thought… and what an oversight that would be to miss this “Precision” museum, located in the building where the first interchangeable parts were designed and manufactured. The huge structure itself is cool, but the incredibly steam-punk looking equipment on display on the inside is  a lesson in history, design, and tooling. And it’s not too much to state that the work which took place in the structure during the 19th century was largely responsible for much of the Industrial Revolution.

One volunteer, upon responding to a posed question realized he had a captive audience. I like to have never escaped!

The museum building itself is the former Robbins and Lawrence Armory and Machine Shop. We weren’t given access to the upper floors, but from the outside it’s clear there’s much more, architecturally speaking, to see. With time to spare, I had the opportunity to sketch out this interesting detail. A bell tower? Perhaps – but I didn’t want to go back in and ask the old coot inside for fear of getting captured again.

Each small town or village we hiked through in Vermont had a distinctly historic aroma. Layers of different architectural design left the observant person with a sense of structural collage.

One side excursion we made was to visit a falconry where we got to interact with falcons and owls. The first time one of the falcons flew to perch on my heavily leather-gloved arm startled the hell out of me!

One thing of note that I always consider when I travel is the kit I choose to carry. On this trip I packed much of my kit around using an Etchr Slate Mini art satchel. It’s a (mostly) good design and probably of interest to many who walk and draw, especially for those who need a “studio” on the road. I’ll save my review of this product for a later post though.

As usual, I try to carry as little as possible. On the days I chose not to carry kit in the Etchr, I tried different combinations until I settled on one that worked well for the places we traversed and the modes of travel we chose. Usually – although not exclusively – this meant a Uni-Ball Vision pen and one of the sketchbooks I brought with me. If I carried a book with white paper then I also had a water brush and small watercolor travel palette. As our travel progressed, my preference leaned more toward the gray-toned paper of a Stillman & Birn sketchbook, so the watercolor got replaced by white gel pen.

Those tools got a lot of use as we journeyed south to Martha’s Vineyard. More about sketching on the island next time.

 

Sketching in Vermont

26 June, 2018. I’m home and relaxing in my comfortable leather arm chair. I’ve been absent from these pages for the past few weeks; June is my “travel” month. We’ve come to eschew laptops while we explore, which means no work, no writing – and no updates to this online sketching journal. But I’m back now, and it’s time to get caught up.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be posting sketches from Vermont, New Hampshire, Boston, and Martha’s Vineyard. The first leg of travel extended through large parts of Vermont and some of New Hampshire, where small towns are populated by colonial architecture before suddenly merging into dense wooded areas, rolling hills, and narrow, steep roads. I made the sketch, above, in a wire-bound Fabriano sketchbook. The thin pages take ink nicely but it took me several failed attempts to get used to the almost slick surface of the paper. Eventually, I got the hang of it but I prefer the slight “drag” my pen has on a paper with a little more tooth. The color, incidentally, was added on my iPhone using Adobe Draw. The jury is out for me on this approach – the process feel too sterile to me, even though the “product” looks interesting.

The small Stillman & Birn sketchbook I picked up before embarking is filled with a heavy, gray-toned paper. It’s worked nicely for making three-value drawings: black, white, middle gray.

And while it seemed at first that the limitations would result in a look that sort of resembles a block print, I’m discovering ways to loosen up a little. This is particularly important with the white gel pen, which demands a rather deliberate approach to the application of marks.

As usual, I found myself drawn to the architecture and the architectural detail. This little sketchbook provides a good structure for recording thoughts and sketches. The limited value range brings about a rather graphic look to the illustrations.

In the next post I’ll share sketches of people and the places in Vermont where they live.

Farmer’s Market

10 June, 2018. Saturday morning, and a pretty sparsely attended farmer’s market in Liberty. Seriously, there were perhaps only a quarter of the farmer’s stalls set up that I usually see parked around the square. I wanted to get some odds and ends for cooking, as well as painting. Some fresh young garlic seemed to fit my need: I sketched and painted it at home, then sautéed some of it for a pasta dish at dinner.

The Amish were out in force though. I always enjoy chatting with them, but I’m not sure what the protocol is for making sketches – I know that photography is off limits, but drawings? Anyway, rather than making anyone feel self conscious or – and this is more to the point – or creating a cultural rift, I draw from a distance and take liberties with the subject matter.

A pint of wild strawberries tasted mighty fine, and I supped on them as I sat on the courthouse steps and sketched the various tableau that played out below.

On the corner where the lamp shop used to be, a coffee shop has quickly evolved into the single most popular destination on the square. I see the place filled every time I pedal past, with people on the move, always going in and out.