Day one

18 November, 2019.

I introduced oil pastels to my art students this afternoon. My room was clean and well organized and everything was all set for the fracas that is a group of eighth graders armed with oil paint in a stick.

I gave a short demo to show how to blend these big, clumsy crayons. A bit of oil applied with a Q-Tip to “melt” the applied color seemed to be at the top of everyone’s list of techniques to try. Sgraffito? Not so much.

About fifteen minutes in and the chaos began to subside. Because my kiddos will run if they think their image is getting captured, I had to camouflage my sketchbook by obscuring it behind my iPad. One super fast sketch later and I had a sort of composite outline drawing, color and fills and lettering to get added later on.

Art class is often a mixture of nearly controlled pandemonium, poor behavioral choices, and moments of sublime clarity. Kids are kids, and that simply means they are ridiculously goofy. They do and say some of the most confounding things; it’s impossible to get angry, though – one minute they’re throwing pencils across the room and the next minute someone is eating a glue stick.

And then there are the moments when something sticks.

I’m looking forward to those moments in the coming weeks.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen, Pitt Big Brush pen, and watercolor in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Dang, my hands got cold!

17 November, 2019.

I thought it would be a good idea to pack up my gouache kit and head down to La Benite Park, along the Missouri River. The skies are overcast, and the wind is steady. And as I quickly figured out, standing next to the river one has very little in the way of a wind break.

My hands felt cold. I speedily blocked in colors, and for once I was hoping the gouache would dry fast. The park was mostly empty, but occasionally one would pull in, a parent would watch a couple of kids run to the jungle gym, and then they’d park themselves, hunched up, on one of the benches looking out over the river. No one gave the artist a second glance.

The ground is thick with sand – the Missouri River frequently floods this park. Across the river the leaves are dry and mostly yellow ochre in color. They blanket the ground on this side of the water.

The long, tall bridge spanning the river sings as cars buzz across. Aside from the rustle of leaves, it’s the only sound I hear. Even the kids on the playground are quiet.

My hands get colder still, and I pack it in for the day.

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Gouache on Crescent 200 CP illustration board, 5 x 7 inches.

My backyard.

14 November, 2019.

A couple of days ago I shared a new Pochade Box I am trying out. What I didn’t share at the time was the sketch I was working on as I tested it. Frankly, I didn’t want to muddy the waters by trying to objectively consider the merits of the product and also reflecting on the sketch at the same time.

There are several things that make me happy about this sketch, the first being the process. I’ve struggled with gouache as a media for painting en plein air, mostly because I’ve been desperately trying to replicate some of the ala prima approach I once used when I painted in oils. Gouache dries so quickly that I haven’t been able to recapture that same sense of immediacy. Maybe because I was focused on the new tool, or maybe because I finally just accepted that this is a different media than oil paint – who knows, really? – but I began by laying in some very quick covering washes of color that I allowed to dry first. Those washes made a huge difference to me; I loved having a base to paint detail over.

The washes of color worked, and I attribute that to the Crescent 200 CP illustration board I was testing. My gouache seemed to really love this surface. Plus, the board is very sturdy and a perfect match for the new Pochade Box. The size of the study is 5 x 7 inches; the board is 6 x 9 inches, leaving a nice white border. I masked off the sketch with blue painter’s tape – that sort of clean margin satisfies a small OCD part of my brain!

I rebel against taking dozens of tubes of gouache out into the field. Even though this test was done in my backyard, only ten steps from my studio door, I wanted to work with a limited triad.

The day presented me with nice light and some interesting shadows over and around my shed. A part of me wishes I’d made the side of the shed a pale blue instead of tinting toward magenta but that’s ok – it’s what experiments are for, right?

The color triad I used included a mixing white, Yellow Ochre, Geranium (a sort of magenta-ish hue) and Prussian blue. This combination yields a nice range of colors, with interesting possibilities for hues in the violet range, some nice oranges, and warm greens. I easily mixed some neutral and warm grays as well – in fact, I feel like there are some real possibilities just in the gray range. I’d originally considered using a warmer, more orange-ish red but I’m glad I didn’t now.

Painting over the dried washes worked very well. Some color reconstituted, but I found that easy to work with. I was challenged by the lights – light colors in gouache will darken as they dry – and had to go back over some areas a couple of times to get to the value I wanted. Eventually I managed something close to my target, and in doing so I found I was also capturing a luminous quality that I often find elusive.

All in all, I’m happy with this combination of paints and tools. I feel like I may be able to push this kit.

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Stupidly, no story to be told.

13 November, 2019.

I wish there was a witty little story to accompany this drawing. It sort of begs for one, doesn’t it? But the truth of the matter is that this encounter was fleeting, just a chance observation of this bearded fellow sitting on the concrete near Summit and Southwest Boulevard Sunday afternoon.

Some sketches just happen. This one certainly did – the lines seemed to know where they wanted to go, and I simply provided a hand to hold the pen. I didn’t have the guts to go over and talk with the guy. I wondered if he had food or shelter. I wondered what he would do on Monday and Tuesday, when the temperatures are going to drop far below freezing. And I wondered if I was stereotyping him, unintentionally being judgmental.

The fact of the matter is that I should have stopped and listened to his story if he was willing to share it.

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Duke bent nib fountain pen in a Moleskin journal, approximately 5 x 7 inches.

A first look: u.go Plein Air Pochade Box

12 November, 2019.

This nifty pochade box arrived on my doorstep a couple of days ago. Made by New Wave Fine Art Products, this is the smallest of their pochade boxes at 6 x 8 inches. Pictured here is an optional side tray – two can be fitted, one on each side, for brushes, cups, paint tubes, etc.

Board or canvas is held in position with lightweight metal arm. The arms are in turn adjusted and held in place with built-in rare earth magnets, which are surprisingly strong. The arms are also surprisingly stable. Shown here is a piece of illustration board measuring 8 x 10 inches. There is an optional arm extension available for larger substrates, but with the stock arms I can’t imagine painting anything much larger than what is shown in my example here.

To get some sense of size, you can see I’ve got room for a decent size water cup and four tubes of paint. With a second tray, I could add all of the paint I might have a need for.

I’m intrigued by this product and will be using it in the coming months for painting en plein air with gouache. It sure is a pretty little kit, although heavier than the size might imply.

Meanwhile, this doesn’t solve any problems at all for me for working in situ with watercolor, so I’m still pondering a solution that works for me. I don’t think an “off the shelf” product is going to do the trick, so I’m probably going the DIY route to improve my current set up.

I’m feeling torn.

11 November, 2019.

The work week having come to a close, we were at Conrad’s for small plates and large beers. I was a little nervous because my pens and sketchbook had been left behind and I planned to rely entirely on an Apple Pencil and iPad to sketch with. Frankly, it still feels a little bit like “cheating” when I sketch this way, but I’ve just finished interviewing Uma Kelkar about her book, Urban Sketchers Handbook: Drawing With a Tablet, currently ready for pre-order on Amazon. Like me, she works in traditional medias – but her foray into the digital realm has convinced me that I need to not sell it short.

As I scribble, the scene around me changes. Tables begin to fill. Patrons move and leave. I don’t erase, even though it would be easy enough to rely on the “Undo” option. The line, once placed, should be a mark of permanency, a record of time. At least that’s how I feel about lines I make in my sketchbook. Should I feel differently about virtual lines?

I miss the feedback of my pen, the drag as the point moves across paper. The screen is very slick, with absolutely no drag whatsoever. I’ve experimented with a lot of papers. I’m very sensitive to the resistance of pen point on a surface: there’s none at all here. I tell myself it’s like any other media and I’ll eventually get used to it.

I suppose that’s reasonable.

The variety of tools available is pretty amazing, but the names throw me off. The brushes, for instance, look nothing at all like “gouache” or “watercolor” or “oil paint.” I badly want a palette on the screen that resembles a painter’s palette, colors I can pick up on my brush and mix as I would do back here in the real world. I don’t like “painting” with an RGB color wheel. In fact, it bugs the hell out of me.

On the other hand, many of the brushes are quite useful. I learned to spatter with a couple of them, which took the artificial edge off of the colors I’d initially placed over the sketch. Making things look imperfect left me feeling much happier.

With glasses drained and small plates emptied, there was nothing to put away, no palettes or brushes to be cleaned, no dingy water to be poured out – no hands to be cleaned!

OK, I’m still not sold – not entirely. But I’m not going to give digital the heave ho either.

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iPad, Apple Pencil, Procreate.

Wrong place, right time.

10 November, 2019.

I’m standing in line at the small cafe, pondering the menu board. Mmm, I think. There’s a grilled Brie sandwich with slices of apple, and slathered with other tasty things!

My mind is immediately clear. Grilled Brie it is.

As I wait my turn, I shrug off my shoulder bag and tripod. They are placed on a small table to hold a spot for me and the other sketchers I’m meeting.

Looking around, it occurs to me that we’re going to be pretty snug at that table. I’m also wondering where everyone else is – I’m a little early, but not that early.

It’s my turn now, and I’m a little apprehensive. I ask if this is Caddy Shack. The girl behind the counter thinks I’m joking at first, then seeing I’m definitely and honestly in the wrong place she directs me to the correct location a few blocks away.

I collect my bag, my tripod, and my dignity and leave.

Neat-o.

6 November, 2019.

My pen ran out of ink on me this past weekend. I’d been making sketches at our annual Tweed Ride, an event where the cyclists get all gussied up in their finest version of whatever they imagine 1920’s British riders wore. It’s fun, it’s leisurely, and the outfits are always a treat. It’s like riding across the set of Downton Abby.

But I digress: my empty pen. I was forced to use a pencil, which I’m not fond of doing mostly because I find myself getting too tight and adding more detail than I like. But it is what it is. I made a loose scribble, and was done for the day.

Back home, I went back over the pencil sketch and tightened things up (See? I told you.) My version of “tight” is probably everyone else’s version of slightly tidying up the scribble. A quick scan and an Airdrop to my iPad later, and I’d brought the pencil into Procreate to play.

I’ve mostly found this tool helpful for planning purposes. Toying around with colors, for instance, has been a very focused way to try variations before committing myself to a studio painting. It’s also been a wonderful way to explore looser, more graphic scribbles. I’m just not sure if I like it as a tool for creating finished work.

All the same, I created a layer over the top of my pencil sketch and began to scribble with my Apple Pencil set to one of the ink tools. A nifty feature in Procreate is that it records every action you take and outputs it in the form of a time-lapse video. As I said in the title above, “Neat-o.”

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Original sketch in Stillman and Birn sketchbook using a yellow No. 2 pencil. Scanned and brought into Procreate, “inked” with an Apple Pencil.

Musical Corollary

5 November, 2019.

I enjoy listening to people playing music as much as I do sketching them doing so. I was once an aspiring musician, myself. But sadly those aspirations didn’t match my ability. I’ll watch, raptly, perhaps a little enviously, as fingers fly over keys or frets, seemingly without effort or thought. I comfort myself in the thought that the corollary – for me, anyway – is my pen.

Tweed Ride 2019

4 November, 2019.

Somewhat appropriately, the Saturday following Halloween this year was a day of dress up. That evening, we attended a charity gala where the theme had something to do with the Rat Pack. I found myself in a gray blazer, thin necktie, and slicked back hair ala Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford, in a nod toward the early 1960’s.

That morning we took a step further backwards for the annual Tweed Ride. This involves loads and loads of twill and tweed and flat caps and handlebar mustaches, not to mention vintage bicycles of all sorts. I enjoy both the spirit of dress up as well as the opportunity to sketch the crowds as we lounge around, picnicking at the Colonnade after a very leisurely ride around Cliff Drive in the Old Northeast.

I’m always a little taken aback at how in depth and in character some participants get. As it happens, my winter attire leans toward the “tweedy” in the first place, so I sometimes feel like I’m dressing for work rather than stepping into costume!