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.)


Sketching and Dining

24 February, 2017. The only reason we found ourselves at a casino in the first place is because I wanted oysters for dinner and Pearl’s is relatively nearby. Pearl’s is a good choice, quiet and friendly – and I have a good view of everything in the prep area from a comfortable seat at the bar.

Food, beverage, and sketchbook are a good fit for me. I find it relaxing to sit at a countertop in particular, soaking up the atmosphere around me and scribbling at my leisure. A convivial attitude goes a long way, and I don’t mind escaping from the hustle bustle and elbow throwing crowds. A little background jazz thrown in for good measure wouldn’t hurt either!

I hadn’t sketched with my Lamy Safari in a while, so this was an opportunity to work loosely. (The color was added later.) It’s always startling to me just how markedly different two tools, both of which are called “pens”, can be in practice. I find the loose, casual linearity easy to achieve with a Lamy fountain pen, while the marks of a brush pen tend to be made much more deliberately. The cruder line quality can be used to great effect if one is willing to allow a more graphic style to emerge, as in my second sketch below.

Casinos are just plain weird to me. They create this entire world that appears to be a town or a street or some other place that is outdoors – entirely indoors. All the benefits of being outside without all that pesky nature and fresh air…

As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of the places. Everyone seems to have a walking attitude of quiet desperation. While my wife played at the tables for a few minutes after dinner, I sat on a bench along the “street” and sketched, amusing several passersby. I didn’t start out with the intention of creating some sort of film noire look, but the brush pen and black ink and the place itself just sort of conspired to make it so. (Kuretake No. 40 brush pen in Canson 180 sketchbook)

Sometimes You’re Hitting on All Cylinders…

19 February, 2017. In watercolor I often search for that elusive, restrained quality – hoping to leave out as much detail as possible, yet still render a convincing and believable image. I felt it almost immediately with this little 9 x 7 inch sketch, starting with the main triangular form immediately above the front porch as I quickly and loosely slopped down the pale cerulean blue wash, leaving pure white to define the negative shapes. Then I moved on to the big shadow area under the porch, which was what caught my attention in the first place. I just wanted to paint the shadow, accurate to a level of believability, but without extraneous detail. And to be honest, I was pretty excited when it worked. In real life, these colors are kind of bland, but the limited palette of blues, complimented only with very slight mixtures of yellow ochre are quite pleasing to my eye.

This little 5 x 7 inch sketch also felt restrained – surprising, in a way, because I used a flat brush for the entire painting. Why surprising? Well, mostly because I almost never use a flat at all. I’m awkward with them. I’m not certain even why I did so, but happy that I did. Possibly, all of the rectangular shapes and flat colors informed my decision.

This 5 x 7 inch sketch almost feels overworked, and presents more detail than in the previous two. I always enjoy finding ways to loosen things up with blooms, as happens in the pavement foreground here. But the orange theatre almost comes off looking like gouache, the yellow ochre blend coming off a bit opaque. Still, the shadow feels about right, and in addition to that Art Deco sign, rendering the shadow convincingly was my goal.

All sketches were made with a limited palette, using water brushes on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Rock Island Spur Trail

18 February, 2017. Yesterday was the most incredible February weather I can ever recall. A good chunk of my day was devoted to bicycling a section of the newly opened Rock Island Spur Trail. A Rails-to-Trails initiative that connects the southern most section of the Kansas City area to the Katy Trail, the Rock Island Spur Trail also offers snapshot views of scenes not always obvious or accessible by car. I love to explore and discover new places, especially small towns, “discardia,” and architectural elements.

Emerging from a bank of trees, the trail crosses a paved road a few miles along the route out of Pleasant Hill, Missouri. There is an unimproved trail head at this location that abuts a property I imagine to be a “personal” salvage yard. In other words, it doesn’t appear to be a commercial operation; a pungent, thick smoky fire was burning – tires perhaps? – and the land was very overgrown and littered with wrecked and inoperable cars and trucks and other “discardia.” Trees had taken root and sprouted from the midst of literally everything. This 60’s era sedan has an orange New York license plate attached to the front.

I find “discardia” interesting. Such things, whether they be architectural, vehicular, or simply everyday detritus, are signs of human touch – of human impact. There’s history to be found in these artifacts of our existence … but it’s fleeting, because they are quickly disintegrating. As they return to their constituent elements, whatever sights they’ve born witness to are also disappearing.

Small towns throughout the Midwest are often an intriguing mishmash of architectural styles, with a few extant examples of Federalist style and Antebellum homes to be found if one searches, along with a smattering of Victorian “Painted Ladies,” Art Nouveau, and – more often than not – cautiously woven together Art Deco elements. Of course, bungalows and later box style structures still are the predominant structures, but they bore me and I choose to ignore them unless there is something unique to pique my curiosity about them.

On this particular afternoon, I’ve chosen to carry an even more Spartan kit than usual: a pen and small pad. They seem to suffice as I quickly scribble impressions from time to time, before pedaling off down the trail. (Uni-Ball Deluxe Micro pen in 4 x 5 inch lightweight sketchbook.)

Zoned out.

27 January, 2017. I had to laugh. During my painting class yesterday, I noticed one of my kids had zoned out. Wasn’t watching videos. Wasn’t causing any trouble – as a rule, he’s a pretty great kid. But he was just stationary, unmoving, solid as a rock.

I’d been at an adjacent table giving one-on-one assistance, so my drawing tools were already sitting out and at hand. I opened the sketchbook to a fresh spread and quickly sketched him using a Kuretake No. 40 brush pen (the color was added later in the day.)

Finishing the sketch, I drifted his way and tapped him on the shoulder to see if anything was wrong. With a startled look he snapped right out of it. He said he was just day dreaming and asked how long I’d been watching. I told him he’d held still long enough that I had been able to make a sketch of him. Big grin and an honest laugh!

It was a real teachable moment… no recriminations whatsoever. He was very interested in the drawing and wanted to take a cell phone photo of the sketch to send to his mom. I showed him how the brush pen worked and let him try it too. He’s very interested in becoming a better artist and really is quite diligent. No idea why he zoned out on this particular morning, but it turned out to be a solid opportunity for making a solid connection with him.

And this is why I teach art.

(Kuretake No. 40 brush pen and gouache in Canson 180 sketchbook.)


20 January, 2017. Thank goodness for good weather and an opportunity to get outside on my own to ride for a couple of hours. I needed to be away from the three ring circus that is our political system, broadcasting from every media outlet 24/7. Never in my memory have we been so divided as a country as we are at this moment. Social media is fuel on a raging fire, too. Had I left my iPhone at home I’d have escaped the lunacy…but no. I heard it ping, letting me know I had a message, and made the mistake of checking it. I wish I hadn’t. I was getting trolled on Facebook by a smug “why can’t you live and let live, get over it because we won it all” nutball.

Sad. Just sad.

(Quickly sketched from a photo on my treacherous iPhone using an Omni-Ball Micro pen)