Group supervision.

19 June, 2019.

Apparently – and this is just my opinion, of course – it takes an entire group to oversee the task of one person. In this case, it was a truck driver who I’m certain was very appreciative of the various conflicting input he was getting while backing a trailer into the loading bay.

Duke 551 Confusius bent-nib fountain pen in Moleskin journal.


Embracing imperfection.

18 June, 2019.

I began a new sketchbook a couple days ago. No, I hadn’t filled the Stillman and Birn book I’ve been working in yet. This is a sort of side project that occurred to me in the moment, a thought of “embracing imperfection.”

For this book, I’m placing severe restrictions on myself: It’s entirely in ink, black and white; it’s entirely drawn with my bent-nib fountain pen, which allows me to create a lot of line variety; no pencil lines are allowed! I think I referred to this in my Instagram post as “no pencil parachute.” I rather like that turn of phrase.

I must have needed this shift because my first couple days have been prolific. I’ve begun with people and things I encountered while wandering around downtown Kansas City and the Crossroads Arts District on Fathers Day. A sort of theme seems to be emerging, so I’m going to remain open to see if this is only a visual thesis, or if a narrative thread materializes as well.

But back to the idea of embracing imperfection, it’s not the first time I’m dedicated a sketchbook to a self-imposed restriction. I’ve made others in which I challenged myself to work directly with a pen. I hatehow making art often devolves into a search for perfection: perfect lines, perfect shapes, perfect proportions, etc. It’s a crippling attitude for anyone new to drawing, and frankly it’s just as crippling to seasoned sketchers. So rather than seeking perfection, I’m interested in just letting my pen be the response mechanism to chance encounters of the vernacular sort. 

I noticed that this approach almost immediately took on a “comic book” look and feel. It’s not only very graphic, but some of the distortions feel at home in a graphic novel environment as well. My choice to weave words and commentary into a page reinforces that characteristic.

One of the idiosyncrasies of urban sketching is that drawings generally provide a sense of context, of surroundings. I particularly like that aspect of urban sketching. It’s interesting to me that a seriesof drawings from a place doesn’t always need to provide a visual background to be part of the series. Sometimes the lack of background speaks much louder, yet at the same time still seems to be one with the landscape presented in those images that appear sequentially before and after.

As each sketch emerges, the book takes on a life of its own. “Embracing imperfection” means allowing myself permission to just let mistakes happen. Not worrying about making “perfect” drawings pushes me to play with the pen: some things work, other things don’t. But interestingly, there’s a holistic impression becoming apparent to me that I find very appealing.

Some drawings start out as simple subjects. I’m not really sure where I’m going with them: they sort of emerge. And the simplest of subjects, in some cases, suddenly bloom into more complex compositions. I can’t explain or even predict how this is happening, but it’s exciting and a bit terrifying all at the same time. It’s a lot like playing a jazz solo – I know the tune and I know the instrument and I know the key, but I don’t always know where I’m going to go next. In fact, the path – defined as it is by instrument and tune and key – is still improvisational, an invention. And while my drawings are of a place and time, still there is inventiveness and decision in what to include and what to leave out. Listen to Miles Davis sometime. His genius is not so much about what he played, but in what he left out. I like that sort of inspiration.

I did ask Joe to pose for me. Everything else so far has been chance encounters; this was a purposeful sketch. But Joe, this burly, bearded cyclist, just felt like part of the tapestry that is emerging, so I rolled with it.

Embracing imperfection. Normally I would clean up the scans I post here by cropping off the edges of the book, maybe cleaning up the gutter line. After my first scan I realized that it wasn’t necessary to go through that exercise with these drawings. I’ve yet to decide if it’s a precious thought or not, but it occurs to me that leaving those margins is reminiscent of the way that Richard Avedon kept the film frame on his incredible black and white 4 x 5 portraits of the West. The crude frame became an important part of the composition. Perfectly imperfect, in fact.

Drawn directly with a bent-nib fountain pen in a Moleskin journal; some solid fills were made with a Pitt “Big Brush” pen.

Beginning with one simple line.

(Number ten in a series of ideas I have about sketching.)

17 June, 2019.

I think a lot about how to compose an image. Image composition can be especially challenging when drawing in situ – where do you start? What do you leave in? What do you crop out? It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all of the stuff in front of you, and easier still to get hung up on proportionality and perspective.

I’ve learned to improve my chances of generating a holistic design by starting with one single, simple line.

The tactic is deceptively simple, and with practice is almost like blind contour drawing. First off, it’s important to realize that every scene has one or more “lines” that connect one side with the other. This is abundantly true in outdoor scenes where it’s easy to see the boundary between the sky and everything else, but if you study a scene carefully, you’ll generally find an important line that tends to separate the positive from the negative shapes.

Once I’ve studied a scene and have identified my border line, I always begin on the left side of the sheet. I draw slowly, making note of angles and little details, and especially comparing the lengths of each line segment. I don’t get hung up on hyper-accuracy; I’m more concerned with believability than I am with photographic precision. The magenta line (above) indicates the first line I drew in this demonstration sketch.

Several positives emerge from that simple line. One positive is that it’s a starting point for every other line. I’ll continue an angle, for instance, and that becomes one edge of a roof, which in turn becomes a vertical that extends down the page. I’ll return to the original line and extend other marks up or down the page. The point is that this approach creates a unified composition because every mark has that one main line as a common denominator.

Many sketchers are challenged by perspective. Either they don’t understand the science behind the concept and wind up with wonky lines going in very unexpected directions, or they understand it too well and have every angle going precisely to a vanishing point. While that might be accurate, it’s also a recipe for stiff and stale drawings. I’ve been using my “border line” strategy for a long time now to keep things a little fresher. Ironically, I’m always a little surprised by how believable the perspective winds up being. Instead of looking at and drawing houses or buildings, this strategy forces the sketcher to visually dissect a scene into line segments. By observing the angles and relative lengths of each line segment, the sketcher winds up with a close approximation of the scene perspective. I promise you, it’s startling how well it works! One added benefit is that your proportions also tend to improve.

This is not a “be all, end all” approach to drawing. Rather, it’s one idea that might help to bring a more unified look to a sketch. I like how it helps me to begin a drawing of a scene – often, the aspect of a place that made me want to draw it in the first place turns out not to be the most visually interesting thing. This strategy frequently helps me to logically build a drawing and ultimately discover things about a scene I hadn’t originally considered, and to deliver fresher ways to share a visual story.

Watercolor and Uni-Ball Vision pen in a Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.


16 June, 2019.

We got a little wet at first, but the morning dried out nicely by ten. Urban Sketchers Kansas City held a pop up sketchout at the invitation of Liberty Hospital Foundation to sketch the surroundings of The TreeHouse, a place offering amenities to guests, including sleeping quarters and quiet rooms, and the tranquility of trees, walking path, and swaths of wild flowers.

The path is certainly peaceful and calm. At one point a baby bunny hopped right up to my foot as I sketched and seemed not at all taken aback when I exclaimed in surprise, “Well, hello there!”

I struggled to get started this morning, abandoning my first page. Each time I had myself positioned to begin, the rain returned and drops of water dotted my paper making it difficult to use my pen. After two aborted tries, I waited out the rain, turned the page, and began again.

I like the weight of the Stillman and Birn Beta paper, but I’m unsure about the spiral binding. On the one hand, each page lays perfectly flat, and I really like that aspect. On the other, it’s not really possible to draw across the spread as I might do with a perfect bound or stitched book. I’m not sure which outweighs the other. What do you think?

Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.

Just around the corner.

15 June, 2019.

It’s a rainy Friday morning and my thoughts have drifted to Europe. Coincidentally – actually, is there such a thing as coincidence? – photos from my visit to Obernai, France popped up on my Facebook “memories” yesterday. I recall one morning in particular, similarly overcast. The cobblestones were wet and a little slick. I’d often go out for a stroll early, before anyone else was about to enjoy the beauty of this picturesque town. The streets are curved in many places, and it seemed like the turning of every corner brought another delightful view.

There were window boxes overflowing with flowers everywhere, potted plants introduced the green of foliage in lieu of lawns. There’s a sense of history on every door step.

Taking a step out of my reverie, I fast forward to today. Glancing at one of the photos I take pen in hand and quickly start to scribble. Soon I’ll be heading out, despite the drizzle, to sketch the home of Thomas Hart Benton. But this photo is hard to ignore and so I sketch quickly, guiltily – I don’t often sketch from photo reference and the experience is a little strange. I find myself trying to “look around” the corner to see what else is there… but of course I can’t: the photo is only two dimensional.

Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

What a difference a couple of months makes.

14 June, 2019.

It was late in the day, and between thunderstorms – although I didn’t realize it at the time: I thought the first downpour was the entirety of the weather and I’d headed off for a long ride in the country. The sky was still pregnant with potential though, and I stopped atop one rise to quickly record the dense wash of sky and the long shadows. A little later, I realized the rain was a sandwich and I was the filling. For the better part of forty minutes I pedaled through showers, enjoying the breeze and the feel of rain on my face, and hoping the kit on my back remained dry.

I’ve been working almost exclusively in my Stillman and Birn sketchbooks recently. I like the paper in these books for sketching with pens quite a lot, and they are better than acceptable for adding watercolor. Strathmore Aquarius II also does an excellent job with this particular combination, and excels with pencil and watercolor. It’s why I make “sketching pamphlets” from that paper – accordion-fold booklets that are light and easy to carry with me for watercolor sketching. On this day I selected a pamphlet that was nearly full: One small spot remained untouched, and today I would finish it with my impression of the post-rain/pre-rain farmland I encountered.

Those sketches of houses were made in March, and wow! What a difference the world has undergone in that short time! And wow! What a difference my color selections have undergone as a result!

Greens fight me when I toy around with gouache, and I feel like they are overworked. The same colors are more readily accessible to me in watercolor, which I think it is likely due to their transparency of pigment.

I’m drawn to dramatic skies, and that looming rain holds more visual appeal for me than the clearest and bluest of atmospheres. I’ve a vivid recollection of swiftly laying down the grays of the sky in that house sketch to the left of yesterday’s scribble. It was so satisfying to capture some essence of that day! Each stroke was deliberate and intentionally restrained, intentionally leaving some parts of the white paper untouched. And suddenly, in a matter of seconds, it emerged. Sometimes, watercolor is infuriating, and sometimes it’s just magic. I live for those latter moments.

Watercolor and pencil on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Travel kit for the Amsterdam Symposium.

13 June, 2019.

A lot of thought is going into the kit I plan to use for documenting the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Amsterdam. I prefer to travel as light as possible, and frankly I’d be perfectly happy limiting myself to the top two pens and my sketchbook. (And let’s be frank: the jury is still out. My final kit might very well wind up being precisely that spartan.)

I rarely ever use a pencil, so the Blackwing and sharpener are purely backups. In all likelihood, they’ll never leave my backpack. The decision about watercolor kit has proven more problematic. The Pocket Palette is what I’m leaning towards. It’s super portable, dries relatively quickly, and I like using it. It’s my second favorite travel palette – and therein lies the rub. My favorite palette is a little larger and as I think about cramming it into my hip pocket, uncomfortably thicker. But it has considerably more mixing area. So stay tuned. Things may change.

Back to the pens: in addition to my fude-tip fountain pens, these two are my “go to” sketching tools. Much as I love the fountain pens though, I’m simply not wanting to carry a bottle of ink with me. That leaves me with the Uni-Ball Vision and the Pitt “Big Brush.”

For the past year or more, it seems like the Uni-Ball is somehow in my hand whenever I’m sketching. The only thing that would make it more perfect for my needs would be the ability to generate a variable stroke. (You know? Like my fude-tip fountain pens do so well?) The Pitt pen only gets used for filling areas with solid black, but it does that job so well that I can’t imagine not having it available.

I’ll be carrying a Stillman and Birn Sketchbook, plus a couple of hand made, accordion-fold sketching pamphlets constructed out of Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

And that’s it.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

12 June, 2019.

I’m experimenting with something very different: an Apple Pencil, iPad, and Procreate. As I play around with this digital medium, I realize that many of the artists using it seem to have adopted one of two styles: a clean, sterile cartoon approach or a clean, sterile realistic approach. It’s difficult to see evidence of the artist’s hand in either, and equally difficult to be able to distinguish between artists at all, in fact – the styles look “learned” and feel like they’re artistic canon. Most of that stuff makes me swallow hard and say “Ugh.”

I think a lot of these digital artists are missing the boat. The untapped potential here is to use this medium to express one’s individuality rather than simply adopting someone else’s style. One thing that appeals to me – so far, at least – is the ability to lay down “sloppy” layers of paint and then plop a line drawing on top of those layers. After doing a test drive this afternoon to familiarize myself with the tools, I’m interested in pushing things into a bit more experimental state than many of the examples I perused on the Procreate site.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of value in having a tool that will generate less avant garde imagery so easily. And while I don’t know if I feel like this is a legitimate sketch or not, it’s kind of fun to create a “painting” so fast.

It’s exciting and a bit seductive – and yet… things come together so quickly that I worry stuff will get overlooked. I like to mull over my artistic decisions a little bit. Details around the mouth in this sketch, for instance, bother me as being a bit out of proportion. It’s also easy to get sloppy and just move the stylus back and forth in a scribbly motion rather than what I would do with a real brush.

I tried to paint this using a limited palette as I would with actual paint. A lot of examples I saw felt like the artist had too many options, too many colors. Rather than making decisions, some were making absolutely NO decisions.

Still… there are a lot of possibilities with this digital media.

Backyard sketch.

10 June, 2019.

Hmmm. My backyard could use a little love. The shed is covered in vines and sticks are piled around the base of one of the Cottonwood trees. Both wheel barrows are leaned up out of the way: It’s difficult to push stuff around when the bearings are shot and the tires are flat.

I made this tiny 3 x 5 inch gouache study this afternoon and discovered something – even though I hate Viridian, it’s a very useful color to mix with white for a few cool green highlights.

The struggle for believable greens is apparently a lifelong challenge.

Messner Bee Farm

9 June 2019.

Yesterday morning, Urban Sketchers Kansas City visited the Messner Bee Farm. The place is an anomaly, a working farm encased in tall trees and lush vegetation in a park-like setting, surrounded by urbanization and only yards from a city thoroughfare. I had no idea this place even existed!

The buildings are an interesting compilation of quaint old structures, semi-classic stone residence, and functionality. Across a meadow are rows of bee boxes, the source of the farm’s honey. It’s a compact operation, and a matter of walking only a few feet to move from one interesting spot to the next – perhaps I unconsciously mimicked that characteristic when I crammed so much visual information onto one sketchbook page?

I’ve been painting in gouache for the past couple of days, so I felt an urge to dive back into my mainstay: pens. I stray from time to time, but never wander too far away from working with line and space.