December Sketch Out

3 December, 2017. Yesterday was our monthly Urban Sketchers meet up, and what is really exciting for our group is how much things have evolved and grown in the ten months since we first decided to organize. Case in point: Our group simultaneously met in two locations Saturday morning – the Family Tree Nursery in the north part of the metropolitan area, and the Family Tree Nursery many miles to the south, on the Kansas side of the border.

I think it’s remarkable that USkKC has the interest, motivation, and numbers to support a split event in this manner. Much of the credit for that goes out to a couple of caring group administrators, Peggy Wilson and Liz Vargas.

The nursery in Liberty is literally just down the street from my home and studio, so that’s where I found myself sketching. While many of the others were indoors, developing sketches of the various flowering plants and vines I took advantage of a rare warm December morning to focus on the exterior.

As I thumbed through my sketchbook to the next blank page, I came across this drawing from the previous day and realized I’d neglected to scan and include it with yesterday’s post. Whoops!

(Sailor Fude De Mannen fountain pen with Noodler’s ink and Faber-Castell “Big Brush” Pitt Pen for the large fills. Page size is approximately 5 x 8 inches in a Canson 180 sketchbook.)


Everyday Life

1 December, 2017. Sometimes teaching art is a busy, move-around-the-room-and-get-pulled-in-eighteen-directions-at-once, constantly in motion thing. And sometimes it’s a sit back and watch, try not to hover too much affair like it was Friday. My Design Team is comprised of four high school kids who were competing with kids from other schools at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in the culminating activities of a Design Challenge. A Design Challenge is an interesting competition that blends the art of the design world with timed, creative problem solving of a real world design assignment. Students often have only a few hours to analyze a design problem, ideate, prototype – and then be judged. My role was to encourage and cheer on the process of ideation, but to keep my fingers out of the pie. The design problem had to be entirely owned by the kids. Rather than immersing myself in ennui I used my pen and sketchbook to stay connected to my surroundings. The everyday life of museum staff, rounded up to act as judges for the event, created the opportunity for me to observe and try to capture body language.

The act of capturing body language holds a particular interest for me. I like drawing people and I like to establish just enough additional detail to suggest a location, without getting lost in the weeds of unnecessarily sketched out minutiae. Frankly, it can be tough to get a good sketch unless I situate myself someplace where I have a good line of observation of people who are moving around a lot. The Rock & Run Brewery and Pub, located on our town square and perhaps only a twenty minute walk from the house, is such a place and I’ve taken advantage of the welcoming sketch environment on several occasions. The challenge for me is to not get distracted by all of the movement, the hustle and bustle, and to focus in on what’s really catching my attention at that moment. Essentially, I feel most successful when I “crop out” the rest of the world and treat my subject as a close up.

In my last post I wrote about the pen I’ve been trying out, a Sailor Fude De Mannen fountain pen. Both of the sketches here were done entirely with that pen, and drawn directly – in other words, no pencil. The solid area of black was filled in with Faber-Castell “Big Brush” marker, which is loaded with India ink. I picked up the Faber-Castell marker a few weekends back when my Pentel Pocket Brush Pen ran dry and I realized I had no extra cartridges with me. I was out of town and to my dismay, the local Michael’s stocked no Pentel products at all, let alone the cartridges I needed. Searching the shelves I came across the Pitt pens and noticed the “Big Brush” model. Figuring what the hell, I paid for the pen and gave it a whirl. And boy, was I happy to have done so! First off, it’s a great fill pen: the nib is large, but comes to a point and makes blocking in against detail very easy. The ink has a ready and generous flow without pooling up. And wonder of wonders – the ink doesn’t bleed through the page like a permanent marker does. It sits on top of the page (It’s India ink, remember?), where it dries without saturating the fibers of the paper.

I continue to enjoy the Sailor pen as well. What I’m coming to realize as I continue to experiment with different drawing tools is that finding “the one” drawing instrument is something of a fool’s errand. But some tools pair together better for my sketching approach than other couplings. For instance, the pairing of a Uni-Ball and a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen has worked very well for my needs. A Varsity Pilot and a loaded water brush are equally great partners, and create a very different look to a sketch made on watercolor paper. Despite the differing stylistic results, I find both pairings of tools to have the right characteristics for me to sketch freely and loosely.

Add to that mix the pairing of the Sailor and Faber-Castell pens I’ve used this week. The Fude tip of the Sailor fountain pen is proving to have a lot of appeal to me, sharing characteristics of both a pen nib and a bouncy brush. And because in order for one to take full advantage of the nib’s properties of line variation, one must be aware of the angle at which the nib is placed on the page, I find myself being a more active participant in the decisions about line weight. With a pen point that has one line weight, it’s too easy to grow complacent and simply rely upon the fluid motions of one’s hand and arm. And while those are important considerations, I know myself well enough to understand that complacency can quickly evolve into a sort of drawing laziness. Actively having to keep my hand angle moving back and forth seems to have a positive effect on line dynamic.

I’ve said it many times before, but it bears constant repeating: Perfection is not the goal of the artist. Evidence of the artist’s hand, along with all of the imperfections that come with it, are of far greater visual interest than a perfectly consistent inked line.

Selfie with a Pen

25 November, 2017. I’m testing out a new pen this morning – a Sailor fountain pen with a Fude nib. At first I found using it to be a little bit odd, but after a few minutes the back and forth tilt of the hand that’s necessary to get varying line widths becomes (mostly) intuitive. I like how the line quality reminds me of stuff I admire by Ben Shahn and David Stone Martin – in other words, embracing the imperfections of line.

This is the pen and converter I purchased earlier this week on Amazon, a Sailor Fude De Mannen. At $14.99 for the pair ($9.99 for the pen only) I could hardly take a pass on trying it out. The nib is oddly shaped, with a funky upturned point. I’d come across it when shopping for my last Lamy Safari and decided it was not going to yield the kind of results I wanted… it looks too much like a calligraphy nib – and I suppose that’s exactly what it is. So I clicked on past and forgot about it until I saw it mentioned again in Mike Daikubara’s nifty little book, Sketch Now Think Later. Daikubara says the Sailor pen is his current favorite, noting that the bent nib “allows the pen to create brushlike lines, but with more control than a regular brush.” That statement intrigued me enough to revisit Amazon and reconsider the pen.

So, it’s clearly an economy pen. Mine doesn’t seem to scribble as smoothly as my Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pens, nor does it have the tip flexibility of a dip pen with a Blue Pumpkin nib. Heck, for the price of the entire Sailor pen – shipped! – I’d be out of pocket essentially the amount of scratch it takes to get three Blue Pumpkin points. But I rationalize that I wouldn’t freak out too much if the pen gets misplaced or lost as I would if my more expensive Kuretake No. 40 were to disappear.

I continue to find myself searching for tools that aid me in my quest to make “the artist’s hand” more present, more important in my sketches and drawings. The Sailor pen meets that criteria, feeling a lot like a dip pen that you don’t have to keep dipping into a bottle of ink. Because it’s a fountain pen, that fact alone allows a lot more freedom and flexibility of hand movement than a dip pen. Rather than varying the pressure of the nib to change line weight, you have to change the angle at which you are laying down strokes. As I alluded to earlier, the act of doing so is somewhat disconcerting at first. But I found myself easing into the change of angle after just a few minutes of pen movement.

The sketch (above) was my first attempt at using the Fude-style nib, other than a handful of lines scrawled on scratch paper to see if the ink was flowing. I quickly realized how handy it is to have a single pen that can lay down both thin and thick lines. I sketched directly with the pen, with no graphite lines to guide my ink. Thus, my initial experiment was to not only see what sort of line quality I could generate, but also to see how comfortable it would be to use it in a rather improvisational sort of way. I like it so far, and will carry it around for a while to see how it responds in different situations and on different papers.

(Sailor Fude De Mannen fountain pen loaded with Noodler’s ink in a Canson 180 sketchbook; page size is approximately 5 x 7 inches.)



USk 24 Global Hour Sketch Walk

19 November, 2017. Although I couldn’t be in Kansas City at the time, I contributed to the #USkGlobal24hrSketchWalk in celebration of the 10th year of Urban Sketchers from where I happened to be that weekend, Northwest Arkansas. I was bicycling the Razorback Greenway Trail between Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville. I stopped now and again to check out some of the more interesting historic houses and was just off of the Bentonville Square when I came across this one. It’s definitely not what I would describe as “historic,” but uncharacteristically of me, the modernist architectural influence spoke to me: The placement of the home, the respect for the neighborhood and the trees – rather than an eyesore, it fits in remarkably well.

As happens nearly every year, I manage to experience the massive migration of birds heading toward a generally southward destination. Column after column of birds flock together, relentlessly winging their way past. Looking to the north, one cannot see the end of any given column: birds simply disappear over the horizon in one meandering and seamless river; so too do those birds moving overhead and departing in the opposite direction. Sometimes they gather in the trees around my house for a day or two, blackening the branches with their masses and making the loudest din. Maybe that was so on this day, but I was many, many miles from home. I felt a sort of comfort happening upon these birds on this day at this time.

Our Saturday morning began with a visit to yet another local diner in the Bentonville/Rogers area. The place was incredibly busy, but we managed to almost immediately grab a seat at the counter. I sketched the view from my seat while we waited on pancakes and sausage and bacon and grits, all the while managing conversations with passers-by, folks intrigued by the sketch. I met a server who told me, “I’m an artist too,” and I quizzed her on where the local art store might be found. (There isn’t one.) Another woman said she could just stand there all day and watch sketches unfold, and that brought a smile to my face.

When you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone…I love it when a sketch just flows out, when most of the proportions mostly work – no pencil or construction lines, just inked lines, and a five or six minute sketch just feels sort of satisfying. More and more I’ve abandoned any semblance of preparatory pencil sketch, opting for the immediacy of inked lines. There’s something very real and honest about those marks that appeals to me.

Tweed Ride

5 November, 2017. I look forward to our annual “Tweed Ride” every year. First off, I get to combine two of my passions – sketching and vintage bicycles. But more to the point, it’s just a cool, genteel event. Kindred souls get gussied up in their best thrift store version of 1930s and 40s era attire. We ride bicycles, slowly and leisurely. It’s a celebration of quieter, bygone time, a day when the bicycle was a very important mode of transportation and two thousand pounds of steel didn’t rule every paved road.

Our local Tweed Ride begins and ends in the old Northeast section of the city, adjacent to the Kansas City Museum. The neighborhood is a rich subject by itself – the museum, the houses… someone could spend months documenting the great architecture. Our gathering place is a park next to Cliff Drive, with some interesting architectural follies that provide a great spot for milling about in tweedy high fashion, lean vintage bicycles against tall stone columns, and socialize in well-mannered, courteous, and decidedly polite company. After the ride, we picnic and perhaps enjoy a cup of tea (or a glass of wine from a wicker basket that – in our case – also housed a luncheon of goodies from a local gourmet eatery.)

Turns out that I’ve sketched several of the musicians providing entertainment at previous events. I started with pencil and quickly decided those drawing had already been done and didn’t really interest me to do again, so I focused on the one guy I’d not seen before – the accordion player.

Diners, Dives, and Drawing.

1 November, 2017. I love to draw diners. I love how folks can grab a stool and belly up to the counter, get shoulder to shoulder and order a burger and fries, maybe a cup of coffee or a malt. And almost certainly, leave room for a slice of pie topped with ice cream.

Tables have almost no business in such a place, but booths are ubiquitous as are the flourishes of chrome and large circular clocks and esoteric wall and counter decor that is unique to each and every greasy spoon. These places and the people who frequent them, the people who operate them, are as American as the slices of apple pie clearly visible under glass.

People are real in diners. Truck drivers and laborers of all sorts. Retail workers. Exhausted and happy to be off their feet for a little while. Meanwhile, servers scurry about, pouring fresh cups of coffee and taking or delivering orders, quaintly referring to customers as “Darlin'” or “Hon.” A diner is one of those places where your server still wears her hair up in some sort of bun that I am convinced they all had to go someplace to learn how to do to achieve some sort of uniformity.

Diners are perfect places to draw. If you sketch on site, you’ll invariably find the act will invariably initiate a robust conversation with your server (is it ok to still refer to servers as “waitresses” in diners?) She’ll have an aunt or cousin or neighbor who is an artist or likes to draw or paint, and that, my friends, is all it takes to complete the circuit, a personal connection between her artistic acquaintance and your yet-to-be-scribbled-upon sketchbook page.

Menus are often a single, large sheet of cover stock coated with peeling laminate. And menu items are pretty much universal from one joint to another, although there’s usually some sort of local specialty that each is “famous” for – perhaps a massive Pork “T” or a derivation of an open face. Regardless of the quality, it’s honest food.

(Uni-Ball Vision Micro and Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, in 5.5 x 8.5 inch Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Wet, Rainy Swamp

28 October, 2017. We’d been cyclo-touring through Northwest Arkansas and the weather turned to crap during the night – winds, rain, thunder. Arriving the next day at a very large art and craft festival in War Eagle, we discovered the grounds had turned to swamp. Meanwhile, the rain returned and everyone and everything was wet and cold.

Inside the mill there is a restaurant on one of the upper floors and a sort of mercantile operation on the lower level. A small kitchen to one side was baking a cake using the mill’s flour, and near the back a group of five or six men were plucking various stringed instruments. I gravitated toward them as they interested me the most on this miserable day. Jockeying for a good view, I was stymied by the fact that they were circled up – no matter how I positioned myself I found I would have been drawing a whole lot of backs if I tried to draw the group in its entirety. I considered this for a moment, the idea of using two backs as a framing device with the main subject smaller, due to foreshortening. It’s still an idea that appeals to me so I may eventually do just that. But it was more than music that pulled me over to the group in the first place: I’ve always been fascinated by banjo picking. The fellow on the chair was nonchalantly plucking away on his, with little extraneous movement. And thus, he became my subject of the moment.

Outside, the rain waned, diminishing briefly and then coming down again, seemingly unabated. The exhibitors west of the mill bridge were fortunate to have covered tents and a long wooden barn for protection from the elements. Those on the mill side of the bridge had only the exhibition tents they’d brought with them for the show, and in many cases that was barely adequate. In any event, most structures and canopies were surrounded by slimy mud and large pools of water. Outside the barn, one exhibitor stood  close to the doors, sheltered by the overhang of the roof, smoking a cigarette and bracing himself for a cold, wet day of hawking his product.

This type of event and this type of weather reminds me why my choice of kit works well for me. A moderately sized sketchbook fits comfortably into the waist of my trousers and my two pens into a shirt pocket, or even the front pocket of my jeans. I am reminded – not for the first time! – that I really need to check my brush pen for adequate ink before wandering outdoors. Once again, I only discovered that I was virtually empty after starting to do the black fill (above). Unable to continue much beyond a sort of scumbled gray to the mid-ground, I gave up and filled those areas with a brush and India ink after returning home a few days later. (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Pentel Pocket brush pen, Crayola brush, India ink in Canton 180 sketchbook; page size is approximately 5 x 7 inches.)

Sketching Around Town

19 October, 2017. A couple of weeks ago someone posted to the Urban Sketchers Kansas City Facebook group a plea for sketchers to document the Lane Blueprint building at 15th and Main. The Lane building is slated for demolition despite the valiant efforts of local groups. I’ve many memories of working with Lane back in my early days as a graphic designer, so I made an effort to travel south of the river for a downtown sketching mission. It’s not an especially attractive structure but it represents Kansas City history, and that certainly counts for a lot.

That same afternoon I meandered further south to Westport, a block or two from our former studio on Main. Yes, I’m still carrying around a variety of papers and yes, this seems like an odd one for this type of sketching. I thought I might try hitting it with spots of color but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I’ve always been a little intrigued with alleys and the spaces between and behind buildings. They have this sort of overlooked and forgotten sort of appeal to me. I came across this scene while scouting locations for a urban plein air workshop I was supposed to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute this month.

Back in our old stomping grounds, right across the street from our old studio, people loitered on the street corner. I cringe a little seeing how these cool old buildings have been repurposed for such mundane things as tax preparation. I feel like they were meant for better stuff.

I swear this scene wasn’t nearly as mysterious as the drawing makes it seem. It’s a byproduct of the positive/negative emphasis I’ve been focusing on in many of my sketches lately. I rather like the “Dutch Angle,” which is a cinematic convention I use in my photography, and for which I can thank the late, great Robert Krasker. (If you’re unfamiliar with the framing technique, be sure to check out Krasker’s camera work in the 1949 Carol Reed film noire The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.) Come to think of it, even the sketch itself seems reminiscent of that film. I haven’t watched it in a good long while, maybe I need to revisit it soon.

It’s not just forgotten alley ways that intrigue me: I also just love old diners. Passing Lucy’s Diner one day led me to promise myself breakfast there the following morning. OK, so the food turned out not to be especially great, but the ambiance made up for it. And having left my pen out in the car, I found myself scratching the scene out with a pencil instead.

Urbanization is evident in nearly every corner of Northwest Arkansas as evidenced by the imminent demise of this old barn, soon to be replaced by – what? A housing development? More retail?

Fresh Set of Eyes

8 October, 2017. I came into this past week with almost no sketches at all. It happens. I am, after all, focused on teaching design and drawing. My own work takes a backseat to the work I do with art students.

I ended the week making a few sketches as I scouted locations for my upcoming urban plein air workshop through the Kansas City Art Institute. The most interesting of those is one I made on the east side of the Country Club Plaza (above.) It’s an iconic part of Kansas City with blocks of architecture influenced by Spanish design. The sketches were intentionally kept simple by using a brush pen.

Three days in the mountains on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday lent me a pair of “fresh eyes.” I flew out to Colorado and hiked in the lower elevations around Colorado Springs. Getting to focus on organic forms is a nice break from more precise structural subject matter. I kept coming across rocky banks of exposed tree roots. I confess that the tentacle-like limbs intrigue me.

Higher up on a ridge and just off the marked trail is a rocky outcrop. I’m carrying a lightweight three-legged camp stool these days, so setting up a comfy location to draw was easy. With so much to take in, it’s often difficult for me to simplify. If you’ve followed my recent sketches, you’ll notice a trend. I’ve been interested in exploring positive/negative space in my drawings. (It’s probably not a coincidence that this happens to be the exact topic my curriculum is focused on at school.) This leads to my drawings having a distinctly graphic appearance, not unlike comic book artwork.

I find myself making fewer watercolor sketches at the moment. Because of this, I often don’t have watercolor paper in my kit. Sketching with paint on lightweight sketchbook paper is sometimes a dicey proposition – but it’s also an opportunity to keep the sketches loose and fresh. I should probably do more of it.

Although I enjoy getting out in the woods, it wasn’t not long before I found myself surrounded by human-made structures once again. Manitou Springs, which was once a quaint and charming small town, has changed a bunch since my last visit a couple decades ago. I strolled up and down streets filled with touristy shops and wound up collaging together sketches of architectural odds and ends.

Testing New Sketching Paper Stocks

1 October, 2017. A couple of weeks ago I received a couple of sample packets of art papers from Canson. A few of those sheets got shared with some of the participants of our last Urban Sketchers meet up and I asked for those sketchers to share their experience using the papers with me. Most of the sheets remained in my hands though, and I tested a few today.

Beginning with the sketch at the top of this post, the paper I used was Canson 98lb XL Mix Media. Canson describes this as best used for pencil, pen and ink, color pencil, and charcoal, and it is (so far) my favorite of the papers Canson has sent to me to try out. I like how the ink from a Uni-Ball lays down easily and uniformly with no appreciable drag. Similarly, the large blocks of black were applied smoothly with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. There is a tooth to the paper, but no friction as I run either drawing tool across the surface, and that’s a valuable characteristic for my style of drawing. I did not try watercolor wash on this surface as it seemed a bit light, but if I order a few large sheets to work with down the line I will do so.

A close second was the Canson 70lb XL Recycled Drawing sheet. Very similar characteristics to the previous sheet tested, only a bit lighter weight. Holding it up to the light, it is a bit more transparent than the Mix Media stock – perhaps that has some value for some sketchers. I like that it didn’t scrunch up with the application of large areas of black. In fact, none of the Canson sheets I’ve tested in these sample packs have wrinkled at all, but my washes do tend to be less wet than many other artists. Your experience may differ from mine.

The 130lb Mix Media is appreciably heavier, so I tried a bit of watercolor wash over a fountain pen sketch laid down with a water soluble Noodler’s ink. This too, is a good paper for sketching. I’m not sure which of these Canson papers are available in sheets rather than sketchpads, but I’m impressed with how the Mix Media accepts ink and water media. No, it’s not a watercolor paper. But it does acceptably well with watercolor, and I am willing to bet it will be an exceptional surface for gouache.

This sketch was also made on the 138lb Mix Media stock. For some reason I wound up with two sheets in the sample packs. Because I was doing a blind test, selecting sheets at random without reading the identification marking on the front of each page, a duplicate sketching test took place. If I learned nothing else, I found that this particular sheet seems to be consistent in quality.

For the sake of comparison, I also worked on a true watercolor sheet made by Fabriano. This sheet takes pencil very well, and – of course – watercolor. I used a bit of liquid frisket to mask the whites, recalling that some sheets tend to remove paper fiber when removing the mask. I did not experience that at all on this sheet.

The final sketch (which, in fact, was actually the very first I made this morning) was also made on the Fabriano Artistico watercolor sheet. I used a dip pen with my recently acquired “Blue Pumpkin” nib to make the sketch, and added watercolor washes of blues, yellows, and ochres. A couple of observations:

  • Taking a dip pen into the field is a pain in the butt, and I don’t think I’ll repeat that experiment.
  • However, the Blue Pumpkin is a legitimate artist tool, very flexible and has an excellent range of line weights that are possible with only a minimal change in stylus pressure. I’ll definitely keep it for studio sketching.
  • Fabriano Artistico is designed to be a watercolor paper. Ink and pens don’t really glide across the surface as smoothly as I’d like, or as well as on the Canson drawing papers. Really, that is to be expected. The best combination of drawing and painting surface I’ve found is still the Strathmore Aquarius II sheet. But I look forward to ordering some test sheets of the Canson XL Mix Media in a couple of different weights. I’m feeling pretty positive about it, and I’d love to discover I’ve a second sheet to keep stocked in the studio.