Neutral colors.

3 March, 2019. My mom was having car problems and since I was overdue for a visit anyway, I drove south this weekend to see her and fix her old Ford Taurus. The problem was an easy one: the battery needed to be replaced, so after pulling it and purchasing a replacement I wandered around her neighborhood while I waited for the new one to get fully charged. She lives in a suburb of Kansas City, a small town that has exploded on the outskirts but which remains a small town at the core. The downtown is charming, as are the surrounding neighborhoods of homes built in the 20’s and 30’s.

I hadn’t planned to have the opportunity to sketch, assuming I’d be elbow deep under the hood of her car. But having come from our monthly sketch crawl my backpack was filled with sketching tools and a couple of sketchbooks. To keep things simple I chose a pencil and began to make quick thumbnails of the buildings that caught my eye. The happy thing about small pencil studies is that things don’t get overworked if I focus on the contrast of lights and darks. My tastes sometimes run toward the nostalgic, and those roomy houses with large front porches struck me as the sort of comfy place I’d love to find myself on a summer evening. 

With no plan in mind I simply sketched. It’s easier for me to maintain believable proportions if I focus on the overall shapes and how they relate to the negative spaces. In fact, I love those unoccupied spaces! By studying the empty areas my sketches aren’t bogged down with unnecessary detail: simplicity is much more pleasing to my eye.  

The day is overcast and I make note of the lack of vibrant color. I want to remember the sense of drabness later when I dab some of these studies with a variety of grays and neutral hues.


I never thought of that.

2 March, 2019. I have a sort of Jekyll and Hyde relationship with color. Some days I feel I can do no wrong. It seems like I have a real grasp of the intricacies of color relationships. I playfully toss a blob of paint into a wash and voilà! Magic!

And at other times I am at complete loss.

Color intrigues me, but perhaps not as much as the relationship of line, shape, and space does. I love to draw, and I love to design. It may be that I’m wary of devoting more thought to color, fearing such attention comes at the expense of those elements that pull me into a composition.

I might also be lazy.

Be that as it may, I’ll wager nearly everyone who enjoys drawing and painting feels like there is something elusive, something just outside their grasp. And for me it’s color. One way I offset my perceived deficiencies is to seek out and study artists and art I admire.

Yesterday’s mail brought me an advance copy of Shari Blaukopf’s new book, Working with Colorpublished by Quarto Creates. Now full disclosure: some of my own words and sketches are used in Blaukopf’s book to illustrate the color concepts she shares with readers. But much more importantly, this book is filled with Blaukopf’s own wonderful watercolors, along with a liberal sprinkling of contributions from Marc Taro Holmes, Richard Johnson, Renato Palumuti, Marion Rivolier, Inma Serrano, Pat Southern-Pearce, and a host of other incredible Urban Sketchers, all of whose work I greatly admire.

This book is the latest in a series of “Urban Sketching Handbooks,” and what I most appreciate about these titles is the way they pointedly avoid going into technical aspects. Let’s face it: There are plenty of “how to” books on the market, and a thoughtful Google search will bring up dozens, if not hundreds of excellent pages and videos demonstrating any technique in any media you can imagine. No, what the Urban Sketching Handbooks do really well is teach and inspire by example. I love to look at the illustrations and catch myself thinking “Hmmm… I never thought of doing it thatway before…”

Sunday morning light.

25 February, 2019. Sunday mornings are almost always magical. I get up early, as I do on most days. But there’s never much on my “to do” list, nor is there any real rush to get anywhere as there tends to be on work days. On sunny days, the light comes through the eastern facing windows of my kitchen, low and soft. No matter what is on the counter top, the long shadows and diffused, glowing light turns the viewing of those things into an aesthetic experience. This morning “those things” were lemons – but it could have just as easily been salt and pepper shakers, yesterday’s mail, or last night’s empty bottle of Bordeaux.

Watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II paper

These lemons were on my kitchen counter early this morning. I love the way the light struck them, and the long, cast shadows that drifted across the surface. The reflections of color on the counter top is also something that I enjoyed seeing.

I have tried to begin with highly detailed pencil sketches, only to discover that is simply too much information. If I’m painting, I have greater success beginning with as few light lines as possible to work out the composition and relative scale of things. From there, I’ll let the process kind of determine what happens. (If I’m working with pens, I’ll usually forgo any pencil lines at all and just begin drawing.)

Once upon a time I would laboriously dry brush my work. No longer! I’m more comfortable letting the water and pigment kind of “dance” around the page. It either works or it doesn’t.

Value contrast is what brings things to life in a watercolor painting. I feel particularly aware of those contrasts, as well as what is taking place in the contrast between positive and negative shapes. Although I originally thought the asymmetrical composition worked with the three lemons, I realized that the energy was on the right hand side of the sheet. I eventually ignored the third lemon and the left side of the composition, opting to crop the image to focus on the reflective glow rather than the depth of background.

A day without color.

24 February, 2019. The day is black and white – no exaggeration at all. I look around me in search of any glimpse of color, but there’s none at all. The snow is over for now, replaced by rain and a little wind and a dense fog. Whatever hues are out there, they’ve all been subject to a gauze-like filter. Shapes are indistinct; objects simply disappear beyond a hundred yards or so. In between, everything else is a graphic halftone: this tree is closer to me and I can make out 60% of the monochromatic values, that tree is a bit further off and perhaps only a quarter of the tones are visible. Beyond that is a milky nothingness.

I know there are houses and more trees. A muffled bark, soft in the distance… from what direction? And close or far? It’s impossible to tell.

The top layer of snow is melting in the rain. Tomorrow brings sun, so maybe I’ll pull on my winter cycling gear, stuff a small sketchbook into my jacket, and wheel down the road for twenty or thirty miles.

Fude-tip fountain pen, Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series sketchbook; approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.

A tale of two cities.

22 February, 2019. A couple of days ago I shared some super quick pencil sketches I made while traipsing around downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

I’d already decided I liked one enough to use it as the basis for a color study, emphasizing a combination of washes, shapes, and the interplay of positive and negative spaces. What I didn’t expect was how dramatically different the watercolor would be from the pencil. Sure, it’s clear that they are compositionally of the same family: The subject and point of view don’t differ at all. But emotionally, expressively, the two sketches diverge. I feel like the pencil sketch has an energy emerging from the urgency of the marks. It doesn’t reveal much in the way of detail, yet I love how it has captured a sense of place. I love how the vague generalities, and maybe it’s me, but I even feel the winter season is credibly present. By contrast, the crisper edges of the watercolor have a sharpness to them, the color seems to demand a more immediate response, whereas there’s a tendency toward thoughtfulness in the pencil. To be clear, I don’t know that I favor one sketch over the other, I just find it interesting to make the comparison.

What do you think?

There’s a stillness here.

20 February, 2019. Cool colors puddle, then spread, traveling through a clear sheen of water, landing with the softness of cotton. Paper, rough to the touch, is white – but not a pure white, there’s an honesty to the “off-ness,” a nod to the organic nature of fibers from which it comes. Still, hues glow a bit, transparency allowing the surface below to redouble a sense of saturation. There’s a stillness here, and I like it.

Watercolor on Arches 180# Coldpress.

Eccentricities of character

18 February, 2019. Missouri is defined by its small towns as much as anything else, and our small towns are characterized by a distinctive period architecture. The state itself has not yet celebrated its two hundredth birthday, and while it is possible to identify sites older than two centuries it’s much more likely to encounter towns dating back to the late nineteenth century.

The structures that give our small towns their personality therefore tend to be Victorian era “Painted Ladies,” bungalows of the 1920’s, occasional flourishes of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and a variety of revivalist stylings.

Part of the charm for me is how distinctively “Midwestern” our neighborhoods tend to be. There’s a pleasant variety from one home to the next. After all – the thinking must have gone – why on earth would anyone want to build a house just like one’s neighbor?

Wander the streets and you’ll find a clear boundary evident between older neighborhoods and the new: Even in the most expensive tracts, houses have a cookie-cutter philosophy and homes associations encourage – in fact demand – a uniformity and homogeneity that I view with disquiet.

I love when a mixture of styles seems to have evolved in an organic fashion, each new structure fulfilling a particular need, and representing someone’s individuality. For some reason, I find the eccentricities of character comforting in a way that planned communities fail to ignite in me.

Perfect day.

17 February, 2019. Yet another miserably cold afternoon, a Sunday. Snow covers pretty much every surface other than those patches of road that have been plowed and treated. Every vehicle sports a topper of dirty gray snow, the wind is merciless, and my hands are quickly numb from exposure. I’ve tried – believe me, I have – but I simply cannot sketch while wearing gloves.

I hike around downtown Kansas City, a little surprised to find there’s traffic and even pedestrians. Sketching from the front seat of my car provides warmth and shelter, but a limited view. Eventually, I conclude that hoofing it is the better option.

I don’t know if the ink is freezing or too thick, but getting it to flow onto the page is an exercise in sluggish liquid behavior. So pencil, it is. Immune to the cold, my pencil responds more than adequately. Every mark is a mirror of my shaking hands. It’s impossible to add details, but that’s ok. I’ve come down here in search of a specific image – strong verticals, receding forms. I’ll focus only on the play of positive and negative spaces – it would be a remarkably simply thing to change my sketches into a world of purely abstract shapes.

I’m freezing. My hands are numb and shaking. And it really is a nearly perfect afternoon to be outside.

Enough, already!

16 February, 2019. Enough is enough, Mother Nature! I get it: Snow is pretty. But I’m weary of the indoors. Sketching on location is catch-as-catch-can from the front seat of my car. Pulling over to the side of the road to scrawl a few marks onto paper is dicey – the roads are slick and every passing vehicle is a potentially unguided juggernaut.

And conditions evolve quickly. This morning the light changed too fast for me to keep up.

Back indoors, I continue to play around: yesterday evening it was made up landscapes, wet-in-wet washes, atmosphere, negative space. It’s a purely visual experiment but I feel I’m getting repetitive. I need to work on something different.

Enough, already! Mother Nature, you won’t foil me! I am heading out this afternoon, regardless of the conditions.


13 February, 2019. It’s no secret that I enjoy telling stories through the drawings I make. My scribbles are usually a response to a particular place and time and experience. Even though I feel no sense of obligation to record the sort of detail a photographer might value – in fact, I’ll often indulge in creative license to add visual interest – I seldom make up a scene entirely from whole cloth as I’ve done with these examples.

I do like to experiment and doodle, and sometimes my scribbles suggest ideas to me, concept emerges from the abstract qualities of a sketch. The pencil thumbnail below, for instance, began as playful experimentation with values. Very quickly, I began to see a rift – a river, perhaps? – and a structure. In front of the structure is the ending section of a wall. Surrounding these elements is a whole lot of nothingness.

Perhaps it’s simply an awareness of the current political discourse that makes the blob of graphite suggestive of a barrier to me. Maybe it’s simply a reaction to the chance placement of penciled marks… honestly, I’m not terribly concerned about the genesis. However, I’m always intrigued by the formal qualities of a work – especially when those qualities imply something greater than color or bold strokes or contrast – or whatever. At heart, I am a formalist I suppose… a formalist intrigued by narrative and expression.