22 April, 2017. The City Market is a rich resource for the urban sketcher in Kansas City. Without moving a step, even the most casually observant sketcher is blessed with a scene rife with the broadest variety of people, booths and stalls, vehicles, and architectural detail. I mean, c’mon! When was the last time you actually saw a one man band? I certainly can’t recall when I have!

This sketch was penciled and partially inked on site – my wife hurried me along because we had freshly cut flowers and vegetables to shop for. Still, the guy was such a neat surprise that I had to give him a couple minutes of “pencil time.” I confess that I had to take a few liberties with the instrumentation because I simply couldn’t figure out how and where all that stuff was hooked up, or what I was even actually seeing. I used a simple yellow Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil for the basic sketch, and a Pilot Varsity for the ink. I like using the Varsity from time to time so that I can reactivate the ink with a water brush and wash in some tones on site or, as I did here, later on.

There were quite a few buskers at the Market on this morning. This fellow was part of a quartet. Although I made a couple of gestural sketches of the group from the front, this rearward point-of-view interested me the most. I particularly like the pipe clenched between his teeth. The Beaver-colored ink remains water-soluble until it cures – which actually takes quite a while – so I’ve got time to scribble with my Lamy fountain pen and decide later if I want to use a water brush to add tones. I was pretty minimal with that effect here.

I was also intrigued to find out we’ve got a busker’s fair coming up in June at the City Market. I hope I’m in town at the time because it sounds like a terrific sketching opportunity!

Here’s another sketch where I took a few liberties. For one thing, she doesn’t actually have gray hair…I just felt like it worked better with the subdued colors I brushed in later. Also, she was moving around a lot. Her customers were lined up and her booth was in demand. So a quick gestural sketch in pencil, then a sort of collage of the components of her stall – and after than, no more sketches at all…because I somehow managed to lose my damn pencil along the way!

This sketch, like the one above it, was inked with a Safari Medium Nib fountain pen using Noodler’s Beaver-colored ink. The season is changing, and so are some of the colors on my watercolor palette. Thus, I’m a bit more tentative with wash at the moment, and will probably remain so until I’m more confident with the color changes.

(Kansas City, Missouri City Market, in the River Market area.)

Illustrating the Edible

19 April, 2017. In preparation for the graduate course I’m teaching in June at the Kansas City Art Institute – “Illustrating the Edible,” I’ve begun working on “urban dining” sketches. There’s a better than even chance that I’m using these warm up sketches as an excuse to try out a few new eateries…

Our need for and love of food is something that binds us all together. Experiencing a culture, for instance, through its food is a must, and it’s one of my favorite things I look forward to when I travel. Recording a visit with sketches – whether it’s across an ocean, or just across town – is a fun way to relive memories.


I am interested in documenting food rituals, and I think this has become a common shared experience. Witness, for example, how many of your friends do this with a cell phone on social media. Doing so with a pen or brush or pencil allows one to merge interesting pictures with narrative, we learn to use our art to find and tell stories about the food, preparation, and dining experiences around us. My plan for the workshop portion of the course is a collaboration with local chefs and eateries to explore the world of food and wine, and then to make drawings, sketches, and doodles before we dig in!

I sometimes like to incorporate a typographic design into a sketch as I’ve done with these. It’s interesting to me to play around with letterforms, to experiment with them to see what sort of “typographic voice” emerges. Does the lettering choice harmonize and accentuate the visual story? Or does it fight with the drawing? These are the questions I ponder as I draw, planning the composition to allow for words to integrate into the composition rather than simply get stuck into whatever space remains. (Uni-Ball Deluxe pen, watercolor wash with water brush, in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Get Outside and Keep Things Simple.

16 April, 2017. At the start of this last week I found myself desperate to draw. I introduced the last assignment of the semester to my drawing and painting students, and began to sketch alongside them, toying around with a colored ground, an Omni-Ball Deluxe pen, and a white Cray-pas. It felt so academic…I needed to get outside!

Keeping things basic, I headed out on several occasions for an hour or two of bike sketching. This is simple enough: stow a pen and a couple scraps of paper into a bike bag or jersey and head out with no other purpose or destination in mind than to explore. I find that some of the most satisfying excursions happen when I open my eyes up to places I visit slowly on foot or by wheel. This was a little house I’ve bicycled past a thousand times before, but today it just needed to be sketched. Using a Pilot Varsity and hitting the line work very minimally with a water brush creates a very pleasing monochromatic wash effect.

A little further down the road I encountered this very cool community service project, something I never noticed until today. In fact, I’d ridden past it and was already a dozen yards down the road before it occurred to me what I’d seen from the corner of my eye. I turned around to investigate further. (Pilot Varsity and water brush)

I’d issued a “mini-challenge” to our USk group earlier this week to draw people doing yard work. It seemed appropriate for the weather, and to my chagrin I realized I hadn’t participated much at all in the challenge. Yard work was taking place in the yard behind my studio and I quickly scribbled out my impression. And then I hopped on my bike and headed back out into the world beyond my drawing table. (Pentel Pocket brush pen)

This sketch of the Clay County Archives Museum is such a “post card” moment. A part of me feels like making a tighter version of this sketch in a larger format. The larger part of me prefers to overlook such preciousness and simply enjoy the energy of the sketch. (Pencil and watercolor)

OK. No actually bike sketching took place here because it’s my backyard, but it’s included because I sketched it right after I got home and put the bike away. (Pentel Pocket brush pen)

And then yesterday rolled into view. A beautiful morning to ride and get in some bike sketching…although if I am to be perfectly honest, I got in a lot more biking than sketching!  (Pilot Varsity and water brush)

My takeaway for the week is twofold:

  1. Get outside! (Breathe and enjoy the freshness of spring.)
  2. Keep it simple. (This applies not only to the drawing, but to the tools and the method of encounter as well.)


9 April, 2017. I make no secret of my disdain for “preciousness” with my students. I feel like it’s a death knell for an artist to think of their sketches as “too precious” to make mistakes or to draw over and over and over again. I don’t care who you are as an art maker, no one is perfect. (Think: da Vinci or Michelangelo, and go back and look at their sketches…great stuff, but even they found room to make revisions as the sketch progressed.)

Frankly, I think there’s a lot of charm in the imperfections of a hand drawn work.

I like scribbling and correcting as I draw. Sometimes my sketches come out looking a bit cartoonish, and other times they are happily convincing.

Today I met up with a couple of Urban Sketchers from Minneapolis and enjoyed a short, impromptu sketch out in the River Market. On this particular Sunday, tables were set up for a busy flea market. Hot dogs sizzled on grills, and an overwhelming variety of food smells wafted across the rather brisk winds that buffeted the area. I enjoy the opportunity to draw people in places, and today provided ample subject matter for my pen.

A post shared by Amber Sausen (@ambersausen) on Apr 9, 2017 at 3:47pm PDT


I’m not sure why, but I’ve been taking some of my recent black and white sketches and touching them up with gouache. One of my new acquaintances from Minneapolis told me that there seems to be a gouache fad among urban sketchers at the moment. Am I riding the wave of a fad? Or simply using a medium to keep things fresh? I don’t really know for sure, but it does give me the chance to add color to a sketchbook that otherwise doesn’t lend itself to doing so. Watercolor doesn’t react as I’d like and dries too fast. Gouache, on the other hand, can be built up and painted over on this paper.

On the other hand, I’m not tossing my watercolors into a drawer anytime soon. I like using it on Strathmore Aquarius watercolor paper for quick sketching. Sometimes, when I’ve run dry of sketch time, I’ll do as I did this week and draw my students drawing. Take what you can get when you can get it!

Union Station: Inside and Out

1 April, 2017. Yes, it’s All Fool’s Day, but the second outing of USk/KC was no joke. We’ve had a remarkable response to the group, and an equally remarkable turnout to events. The enthusiasm is heartening and I am encouraged to think that we’ll be able to keep the motivation and participation high.

For this event, we met at Kansas City’s historic Union Station. It’s chilly outside and quite naturally we mostly gathered indoors for comfortable and abundant seating in the cavernous building. As always seems to happen, the act of drawing, sketching, and painting is a curiously voyeuristic action, not on the part of us, as artists, drawing from observation. But also on behalf of people around us. I stopped sketching numerous times to engage in friendly conversation with the curious.

I don’t see these interruptions as a negative, by the way. In fact, the more artists and sketchers connect with these curious observers, the more it becomes apparent that we’re not some special, “precious,” and select group. There is, in fact, little that separates people other than interests. How wonderful that we have this opportunity to chat, to advocate for our particular interests, and to share what it is we are doing. Maybe – just maybe – this passing chat will encourage another to pick up a pen or pencil next weekend.

I made several sketches this morning, beginning with the one at the top of this thread. That particular sketch went through quite a lot of evolution, emerging from the initial pencil marks first as a contour drawing in thinly inked lines, and then getting blocked in with heavier marks using a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Later on, when we gathered together around the food tables across the street at Crown Center, I felt like the sketch looked unfinished so I pulled out the gouache kit and began to add color. I wanted to contrast the cool gray of the overcast sky and the murkiness of the architectural detail around the arched window with a warmth on the highlighted interior of the arch. These color temperatures were intentionally enhanced for dramatic effect, and in fact I went back in even later to add another layer of color to make the sketch feel a little more “complete.”

I was having difficulty loosening up. Maybe I shouldn’t have started with rigid geometry this morning. I find that I get more energy when I focus on more organic shapes as the primary subject matter. That led me to working on very fast gestures of people. After this exercise I began to feel like I could “move” my hands without getting too tight.

By this time, I’d been moving around inside the building for most of the morning and decided to change my perspective entirely by heading outdoors – sort of. An elevated glass walkway connects Union Station with Crown Center, and by positioning myself over the street I wound up with a nice, elevated view of the exterior. I was standing while I sketched, and as sometimes happens wound up getting into the idea of loose lines that define contours and shapes without getting lost in details. The perspective was convincing, and later on after adding some really quick splashes of watercolor, I netted a sketch that feels fresh and not terribly overworked.

I’m still not sure if I like gouache or not. Watercolor, which used to be such a difficult medium for me to manipulate, has become so effortless that I find myself treating it in a rather unfairly cavalier way these days. We also found ourselves discussing how to correctly pronounce “gouache” over lunch today. (I’m notoriously bad about simply making up pronunciations, and I wound up Googling it. Turns out there are at least three “correct” pronunciations and my version seems to be the “most” correct.)

Heading back to my car after our group had shared sketchbooks and enjoyed a light lunch, I realized I had missed an opportunity to sketch the trains on display outside the station. Whatever was I thinking? Guess I’ll have to head back out there again sometime soon!


Being There

26 March, 2017. We’re back home after a week of sun, sand, and invitingly warm people near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Despite any preconceived notions about raucous Spring Break partying, we actually experienced none of the commotion of drunken young adult Bacchanal, fountains of beer, or wet t-shirt contests – all of which was fine by me.

Nowhere was this more apparent than when we made connections in Dallas. My first sketch of the trip was a really quick one of an elderly gentleman napping as he waited for our flight to board. The surrounding seats were nearly empty, nor were there any loud, obnoxious college frat boys wearing those ridiculous beer hats you see on television. Although I brought along both my sketchbook and my watercolor sketch pamphlet, opportunity and convenience conspired to make the Canson sketchbook my favored choice on this trip. This meant most of my sketches were made with a pen or a brush pen: I used very little watercolor, and when I did it tended to be a bit cartoonish, as in the example above.

Travel tends to revolve around four things for us: The act of getting “there,” experiencing the cuisine of a place once you are “there,” exploring what is “there,” and interacting with the people who live “there.” We were to discover that the compound where we were staying made it incredibly difficult to leave. I can only presume the management wanted to keep all of their guests money and business in the markets and restaurants and activities they controlled. In frustration, our first meal was at a taco bar located in the glossy, high end Mercado at the center of this enormous property. In fact, the food was quite good but the experience was incredibly “Americanized.” Everyone spoke English, we were surrounded by Americans, and everything seemed to be set up to make Americans as comfortable as possible. We might as well have been in America, and we vowed to find our way off the beaten path and into town and thus, into Mexico proper. We needed to “be there.”

As I mentioned, our compound was enormous. One can easily walk for miles along the meandering paths that loop around the property, lakes, restaurants, golf course, and residence buildings. Each of these buildings had hundreds of rooms, each numbered individually. Just to provide some context, our room numbered in the 8,000 range. Our walk to the beach was a very pleasant mile or so, tracing those paths and skirting those buildings, mostly along verdant canals that in a truly Disney-esque fashion had been created to emulate the effect of authenticity. In fact, they were anything but and I refused to waste any of my time or paper on that subject matter.

We discovered that to get off the compound and into the “real world,” our mile long walk to the beach was followed by another couple of miles south, down the beach and through the pool and lobby of the final hotel of the property. (Typically, we wound up hiking over ten miles each day.) This was the one and only point of egress, and once on the street spilled out into the community. A short distance further found us at the Marina, with a small square and market, and several eateries. Along the street were vendors selling various foods from their cars or the back of pickups. Some authenticity had seeped into what we were soon to discover was a community created from whole cloth to cater to the tourist trade. The town of Nuevo Vallarta seems to exist solely for travelers who have more interest in sitting beside a pool than they do in the people and place in which they have situated themselves. I know it’s naive to say so, but it rather shocked me, this discovery.

One eatery alongside the marina combined a bit of traditional flavor with California-style fusion. The food was excellent and the people – as I found to be universally the case, regardless of where we found ourselves – were wonderful. I sketched out the scene in front of me, and as the place takes pride in “slow food,” there was ample time to not only block in the composition with pencil, but also to complete the inking and color on site as well.

One thing I’ve experienced is that when I sketch in public, people around me are curious to see what I’m working on. They’ll often surreptitiously find a reason to walk past me, to glance over my shoulder, and only very occasionally stop for a shy chat. Not so the Mexican people! No, in fact many times curiosity led to exclamations of “Excellent!” and an admiring conversation. I enjoy sharing what I’m working on with passersby, and had many opportunities to engage in warm meetings this past week.

Don’t take my comments above amiss. I enjoyed hanging out on the beach as much as anyone, and used my incredibly leisure time under the thatched umbrellas to develop “compound” gesture  drawings with a Pentel Pocket Brushpen. Every now and then I’d add a splash of color, but make no mistake: these are graphic drawings, not paintings.

I refer to these as “compound” gesture sketches because none of them represent an actual moment in time, but rather are an amalgam of moments. I’ll sketch part or all of a passing person, and then complete that person or add another as someone else walks into my field of view. Most people are actually a collage of two or more subjects. Starting at an arbitrary point on the page, I’ll continue to work out to the edges from there, every now and again going back to the original starting point and working back out toward the edges of the page. This strategy helps to create visually leading lines and a point of emphasis…as a designer, it’s almost impossible for me to turn off the need to “design” each page.

The bright sunlight and strong contrasts between light and shadow leant themselves well as subject matter to the graphic qualities of the brush pen. Growing up, one of my favorite newspaper cartoonists was Milt Caniff (Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates). I enjoy a sort of camaraderie when these brush pen drawings take on some of the graphic qualities of those newspaper comics I admired so much.

Sometimes, my sketching tends to get a little too “precious” looking, as seemed to be happening in the drawing below. That takes place after I’ve had a lot of luck working really quickly and loosely, and my hand begins to tighten up. When I see this taking place, I change drawing tools on the next page of the sketchbook.

Such was the case here when I moved from the brush pen (above) to using mostly a fine line marker (below.)

This wall of skillets at Estudio Cafe intrigued me enough that I went back for breakfast. Sketching with an Omnicrom marker, I found my line loosening back up again as I munched down on another excellent repast and found myself entertaining yet another group of interested patrons and servers. This sketch benefitted from the addition of heavy black lines from my brush pen later on.

One afternoon sitting around one of the many pools, I found myself intrigued by the potential for exploring negative spaces using nearly solid blacks and whites. The combination of the two pens worked hand in glove to pull off a sketch that I like very much for the composition and depth. In some ways this one feels almost like cut paper.

One of the very few drawings I made in the watercolor pamphlet was this (sort of) continuous line sketch. Sitting on our balcony, I attempted to draw some of the surrounding buildings in our compound by keeping the pen in contact with the paper as much as possible. It’s really more of an exercise than anything else, but it’s fun and helps me to refocus on the important parts of a subject.

I haven’t decided if going back into the sketch with heavier lines and watercolor wash was a good idea or a mistake. Let’s just say that it is what it is.

Meanwhile, I was still feeling a need to get off of the compound entirely and into more authentic communities. It was time for me to “be there.”

A taxi to Bucerías was just the ticket. I set myself the challenge to leave the lead holder behind and to work only with one of the pens directly. Of course, this meant that anything involving people automatically turned into a collage governed by luck and chance, but if I worked quickly enough I might pull it off.

And here’s where I got most excited: in the flea market.

Wine Tasting

11 March, 2017. I’m done – really, really done.

I have to be upfront and honest about something. I know I said I was looking forward to the “One Week, One Hundred People” sketching challenge, but around fifty or sixty I began to feel like I was really, really, really done with the assignment. I’m not good with focusing on a single aspect of drawing, to the exclusion of all else. I like my sketches to tell a story or to allow me to comment on what I’m feeling or experiencing at a particular point in time, a particular place or experience. Focusing on the number of people meant persisting and finding new ways to hold my interest. Frankly, that’s the reason why my choice of media kept changing last week – I needed to create new challenges so that I didn’t feel like every drawing was a repetition of the ones that came before. A friend of mine said, “I love drawing people so much, I didn’t want to turn it into a job.” Exactly! And by the time yesterday rolled around I just wanted to get back to using my sketches as a mode of journaling, which is how the wine tasting sketches came to be.

So, even though I didn’t reach the “hundo” mark, I am officially done with this challenge! (And the wine tasting was my unofficial celebration for reaching that finish line.)

Having run short of “sketch pamphlets” – those quarter-sheet, accordion-folded booklets of watercolor paper that I carry around for location sketches – I cut up a fresh sheet and experimented with a new stitched booklet configuration. The experiment is less a pamphlet and more like an experimental sketchbook that incorporates a bunch of gatefolds. The end result is that I have a lot of choices for motif, ranging from vertical to horizontal to very horizontal – indeed, some spreads will be absolutely panoramic in nature.

I began with the sketch above, simply adding overlapping sketches of people walking. I tried to keep the composition interesting by varying the scale of each figure or figure group. Later, I added a couple of touches of color with gouache just to establish a bit of eye movement.

Although I use my sketches to tell stories, it may be that I’m more of a fiction writer when I do so than a true reporter. I feel no qualms about taking rough pencil sketches and substantially reinterpreting them when I ink those lines and add color later on. Take this scene for instance. The tall figure on the left was actually a man. He had long hair and my pencil did a reasonably good job conveying that fact. But as I inked in the lines later on, the figure emerged as a woman. The scene, too, began to evolve, sometimes simpler than the original location, and in some places becoming more complex.

I like to leave negative space intact while I sketch, in order to provide some form of caption or narrative or commentary. I also like to include typography. I don’t like to refer to this as “lettering,” because I’m quite awful at that art. But as a skilled typographer, inventing new letterforms and arrangements comes as second nature to me. Typography is a form of architecture, and that kind of structural approach to a design simply makes sense to me.


One Week, One Hundred People

6 March 2017. Just a quick post to add my first couple of sketches for the “One Week, One Hundred People” drawing challenge. (Lamy Safari Medium Nib fountain pen, Pentel Pocket Brushpen that was almost dry, some kind of crappy copy paper.)


7 March 2017. Another series of quick sketches, this time using watercolor and a water brush on a quarter-sheet of Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.


9 March 2017. Change of pace: sketching the surrounding restaurant patrons with a Uni-Ball Micro pen while waiting for dinner at Bonefish Grill. Fourteen more added to the week’s total.

10 March, 2017. Freshly refilled Lamy fountain pen, freshly folded sketching pamphlet, and a bit of crowd sketching this afternoon for my fourth round of the challenge. I’m short of the mark, though.

Busy Weekend

6 March, 2017. Saturday afternoon marked the inaugural sketch out for our newly formed chapter of Urban Sketchers, Urban Sketchers Kansas City. We simply couldn’t have asked for a nicer day, or a better start. Meeting up on the south steps of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, it was encouraging to see that a large crowd of sketching and plein air enthusiasts had gathered. I was teaching a grad course in videography at the Kansas City Art Institute all weekend, so I gave my students the assignment to shoot short documentary videos of the event.

Because I was teaching all day and evening on Friday, and all day on Saturday and Sunday, my only opportunity to sketch came the following day, early on Sunday morning before my class met at 10:00. Parking my car in the KCAI lot, I arrived early and walked toward the Plaza to sketch, then wandered north toward the Westport area.

I field tested the two-point perspective tool I built recently and was pleased with how quickly I can block in believable architectural forms. Start to finish, this was penciled and then inked in less than half an hour. Not that the speed is all that important (especially since I feel this one looks rushed), but it’s an interesting point of reference.

I was mostly focused on drawing, and only threw a few splashes of color into this side street location sketch.

Further up the hill is the old Katz Drug, now in a terrible state of repair and empty. The building has always fascinated me and I still vividly recall wandering the packed aisles in search of stuff that never got found. Our studio at one time was located just across the street from Katz, so it was conveniently located, if not conveniently stocked and organized!

This week I’ll take on the challenge of 100 people in one week, which I’m really looking forward to doing. Today is Monday, so I need to get my pen moving pretty quickly!

(Sketches made in Kansas City, Missouri with a Lamy Safari Medium Nib fountain pen, Noodler’s Beaver ink, a water brush and minimal watercolor wash; paper is Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.)

Afternoon at the Art Museum

26 February, 2017. The Bloch Galleries have reopened at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and no I wasn’t hiding my brush pen from the museum guards and avoiding eye contact with docents during the inaugural kick off event yesterday. The crowds were out in force, the newly renovated space was packed to the gills, and it was standing room only except in the most out of the way corners. Pencils are, fortunately, not frowned on in the museum. So in addition to enjoying the absolutely incredible lighting, the rooms dominated by the color of the artworks, and a handful of excellent pastries, I elected to capture some of the contemplative moments of this event.

The color, of course, was added later on. I used gouache, a media I’ve been toying with in my sketchbook from time to time recently. I’ve always enjoyed using water media to reactivate drawn lines. This is taking things a step further by taking the melted ink of the wetted line and allowing it to wash into the painted layers of color. It’s interesting that this media allows me to “correct” proportions and solidify forms that reminds me a bit of carving paint in oils. Looks nothing at all like oil paint though.

I was pleased to quickly capture the pose and attitude of this museum visitor. Sometimes the likeness and attitude just seems to flow. (And sometimes things don’t work out so nicely – a couple of my other sketches wound up stiff and disproportionate.)

I said I wasn’t hiding my pen from museum guards, but I was stalking one. This fellow seemed to know he was being observed and kept turning his back to me, so that’s what I sketched. (Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, gouache, in Canson 180 sketchbook.)