Getting with it

26 January, 2018. After sketching out this scene on a primed 4 x 5 inch piece of illustration board, I decided the color was too garish, too cartoonish. I went back in a few days later to tone down some of the raw color, all the while trying to decide for myself if I really consider gouache to be interesting enough – and let’s be honest, fun enough – to dedicate time toward mastering. Aspects of gouache remind me a little of oil. Attractive as I find that, the jury is still out for me.

Even when I’m not especially “feelin’ it,” pen and ink just seems to resonate for me, much as watercolor tends to do. —–

I find it a little bit interesting how the sketches on two facing pages, two entirely different subjects, can sometimes look like they were planned to be a single drawing. That’s what happened here; I like the serendipity and I like the composition that came about by pure chance.

I go through patches where few sketches seem to get made. At such times I have to force myself to get with it again. I did so by making sketches of the Cuban musicians performing at a recent art opening at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. After scanning my drawings I added the color digitally. I really like the mechanical look of the color, which comes off almost like some sort of print making process. It seems to fit harmoniously with the clearly hand drawn look of the line work.

I find myself drawing quite a few musicians performing on guitars, but this is the first bongo player I’ve sketched. I confess to a fascination with the instrument and have secretly coveted a set of drums for many years.

One thing I’ve done in the studio recently that has me feeling enthusiastic is going back to some of my small sketches and working them up again on large sheets of watercolor paper using India ink and a large watercolor brush. The loose line quality is exciting to look at and makes me want to do more large stuff. I’m thinking about making a collage background using found pieces of newspaper and trash from some of my locations, coating it with a clear coat and painting patchy acrylic over it so that only some of the text is still visible, and then redrawing one of my sketches very large and in much the same manner as the two pictured here.


Restaurant Week

14 January, 2018. It’s Restaurant Week in Kansas City and I’ve dedicated some time with a pen and sketchbook to a favorite subject of mine: observations of the world of dining and  foods. The sketch above, drawn directly as most of my recent sketches are, has been really popular ever since I added it to my Flickr account. I’m very happy with the body language and rendering of the figures, and I’m particularly taken with the two profiles on the right.

Lounging in a bar can be a great opportunity for people watching, not to mention people sketching. Depending upon how crowded a place is, it also presents an opening for interacting with curious patrons around you interested in checking out your sketches. I find that larger crowds mean more anonymity, and fewer gawkers. Conversely, a quiet setting seems to encourage others to strike up a conversation with a sketcher.

This was an interesting sketch of a fellow seated a couple stools down from us at Rock and Run in Liberty, Missouri. Long, curly locks of white hair and an even longer wavy beard of snow bushed out from under a camouflage ball cap. He was meeting up with a small group of younger people – relatives, I presume – but none were as visually interesting so I left them out of the picture, and thus also from the visual story as well.

Great weather earlier in the week, especially for January was a stark contrast to the following day when the roads are iced over and all the local schools closed. As late afternoon closed in I found myself with a few free moments and a ready subject at hand, only to discover the only tools in my car were a roller ball pen and a couple blank sheets of sample paper that I’d forgotten was in the trunk. No paint, no fountain pens.

I kept the roller ball ink flowing and enjoyed the fact that I could lean against the trunk of my car to sketch and enjoy the fleetingly nice weather.

This sketch is 4 x 5 inches on gessoed illustration board. I’ve just playing around with gouache lately, as I did on the following day of icy roads and frozen afternoon. Too much a sissy to go out and paint on location, I worked from one of my old photos for reference…which brought me ’round to one of two quibbles: Painting from a photo leaves me a little cold; my colors feel too beholden to the photo, so shadows tend to be lifeless and dead. I mentioned two quibbles, the other being: Black. Damn it all, I NEVER use black in a color piece, except as line work. And here’s the reason why – it overwhelms everything else. I’d much rather build up shadows from mixtures of my primaries plus a nice “mixing” green. I decided to check to see if Holbein or WN makes my favorite watercolor green mixer, Perylene Green, in gouache. I was dismayed to find the answer to that question is no.


Plein Air Gouache

7 January 2018. I gave up oil paint quite a while back, nervous about the long term effects of solvents and other toxins on the body. I always loved the sort of sloppy, thick way of painting though, and I also kind of miss working en plein air. Right or wrong, I make a distinction in my mind between urban sketching/location sketching and plein air painting. I’ve toyed with using gouache as a substitute and while the experience is definitely different than working in oil, a familiar and sort of similar aesthetic is there.

Be that as it may, I’m experimenting at the moment. I won’t be giving up my pens or watercolor – those have become too much a natural extension of my sketch “hand” to relinquish! Rather, I’m wanting to supplement with an approach that might take on a more finished appearance.

For yesterday’s USkKC monthly sketch out, I brought along a small kit of gouache paints, a water brush (but dang it all, I forgot water and a paper towel!), and a couple of 4 x 5 inch panels of hot press illustration board that I had coated with acrylic gesso. I feel like perhaps I should be working with a flat bristle brush instead of the water brush because I’d like to work the paint in a more ala prima style. Perhaps I’ll give that a shot this afternoon to see how that works.

On the Square, and Thereabout

7 January, 2018. This is a “two-post morning” for me, and I’ll begin with my New Year’s weekend in Arkansas. First off, it was cold – not bitterly so, but cold enough that my fingers got pretty stiff pretty quickly. So sketching from the front seat of a running car with the heater going full blast was the order of the day. One cool encounter – or perhaps “rediscovery” is a better way to describe it – was when we came across a neighborhood I lived in for one year in 1971. Being eleven at the time, my memory of the place isn’t totally clear, but it’s changed a lot, and not especially for the better. Buildings have come and gone, grocers have left and the new tenants have evolved into what seems to be weird businesses when viewed through the distorted memory lenses of an eleven year old. But the bowling alley is still there, the place where I was a member of a league, and I think fondly of those times.

Driving twenty minutes south, we parked and began to wander around the Fayetteville town square. This location is probably housing attorneys or something now, but I imagine it was once some sort of mercantile.

To the immediate right of my imagined mercantile is this interesting architectural design. Again, if I let my imagination run away from facts, it seems like a perfect location for a corner drug store. Was there once a soda fountain? I hope so.

Turning around from my view of the corner drug store, the street scene reveals structures that are a bit more modern, with an older, more stately tower sandwiched between. The day, gray and on the verge of twilight, feels sort of sad and derelict, so I decided against adding color – why overstate the sense of loneliness?

Still standing in the same spot, I turn once more. On the side of a rather ugly building is this nice example of a period clock. What a great architectural detail!

It’s not long before the elements get to me. I pull on a pair of gloves, but they do little to warm my chilled fingers. We stroll through a couple of small stores and then head out in search of warmth and sustenance. At a local steak house, I nurse a beer and make short gesture studies of the other patrons and the staff as I wait on the arrival of a bowl of steak soup.

The pockets of my L.L. Bean field jacket are roomy enough to carry a sketchbook and several pens, along with my tiny watercolor kit. This allows me to sort of randomly select a different tool each time I draw. Primarily though, I either used a Sailor Fude de Mannen fountain pen with black ink or a Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen loaded with a warm orange-ish ink.


Man, it’s cold!

28 December, 2017. Cold, and getting colder. A couple of people I know went riding, but me? Nope. I stayed in the car and sketched as quickly as possible. Color? Nope, just quick lines with my fountain pen. I added the washes from the comfort of home, where it still seemed cold to me.

Frankly, I can’t imagine they rode around for any length of time. I’ll ride down to about 30 degrees, but below that mark I’m a big sissy. I may sketch or paint in colder conditions, but not much. Water and ink freeze quickly, and my fingers get really stiff. I can’t draw wearing gloves. And I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anyone about how tough a location artist I am.

I got to thinking about an idea for an assignment for my drawing students and began digging through some of my old travel photos for added inspiration. I dunno – maybe some sort of poster illustration? I kind of like the sketch, but I’m not sure it’s got legs enough to make it as starting point for a class assignment. I’ll think on it some more.

A day later I found it too miserable to go outside, even to sit in the car and draw. I decided to use my time productively by making some new sketchbooks. One houses my favorite watercolor paper, Strathmore Aquarius II. The other is made from Fabriano Artistico. It’s a 140 lb. paper and was pretty tough to score and fold – normally a signature would be four folded sheets, but this stuff only allowed me to do two.

I check the thermometer. Yikes! It’s too cold to be outside sketching this week. So I start thumbing through my sketchbooks in search of unfinished sketches to ink and plop some color onto. That color is a bit arbitrary since some of these were penciled in three or more years ago… I don’t recall what the original colors might have looked like.

I’m heading to Arkansas tomorrow where it’s supposed to be a whole lot warmer – at least for a day or two. The New Year is supposed to ring in around 10 below zero, so I’ll be looking for indoor places to sketch. 

Thinking small.

25 December, 2017. It’s been especially difficult these past few weeks to find time to draw or paint. Wrapping up the Fall Semester, collecting and grading finals, preparing for family and the holidays – it’s all been one great big time suck. To the rescue came my USk friends Peggy and Liz, who organized an Artist Trading Card swap with USk Mexico.

Artist Trading Cards, or more commonly “ATC’s,” are a small format art form. At 2.5 x 3.5 inches in size, they are the same size as a standard baseball card. More to the point, they are small. Squeezing in time for a fifteen minutes sketch was easy, and just a bit of a life saver for a time-strapped artist.

Even though I abandoned large format painting years ago in favor of sketchbooks, ATC’s are a decidedly teenie-weenie format as the example above illustrates. It’s nice having something small to carry, and it’s also attractive being forced into super quick sketching.

All of these were inked directly (no pencil) using a Sailor fountain pen with a Fude de Mannen nib, and the color is quickly painted gouache on pre-trimmed Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper. It’s challenging to work so small and not every subject works neatly with the baseball card size of the artwork. Some of my “street portraits,” for instance, really screamed out for a little larger size.


Over a couple days time I sketched out about a dozen, discovering along the way that too much detail was just too much detail. It seemed important to approach composition as if I was designing a postage stamp – to think small. The ATC’s I feel worked the best seemed to follow that principle.


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.