Meeting in the Middle

16 September, 2017. Family reunion time, kin from around the state piled into cars and trucks and vans and met up in the center, in a Sedalia, Missouri park. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents lounged around picnic tables and in folding chairs, catching up on the latest family news. Kids screamed and laughed and ran back and forth from the playground to the picnic tables, grabbing yet another slice of watermelon or pecan pie. Adults clustered into small groups, segregated almost exclusively along gender lines, the older men reminiscing and the younger dudes clutching bottles of beer and staring at nothing in particular, talking about MIZZOU football, never making eye contact. Women seemed deeply involved in actual conversation, occasionally one wandering off to hug a crying child, all the while running the entire event operation like a team of seasoned Navy captains. (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, in Canton 180 sketchbook.)


It’s all about the story, I suppose.

10 September, 2017. Sketching out in public, as I’ve mentioned countless times before, often results in conversations and gawkers and curiosity. Artists making art are an exotic encounter for many people, and it’s not unusual for a passerby to stop, look over my shoulder, and even share a little story about whatever it is I’m drawing at the time. They might tell me about a sister or a cousin or a neighbor who also makes art of some kind or other. In a hopeful voice they mention Do you happen to know them? I think folks sincerely believe artists have a club that we all belong to and as card carrying members we must – obviously! – all know one another quite well.

I’m interested in hearing their stories, especially when they offer some kind of insight into whatever it is I happen to be sketching at the time. The hardware store (above) was a block or two from the meet up location for our monthly USk sketch out and I just love the place. It seems to me to be one of the last truly authentic hardware stores, but beyond that I really knew nothing at all about it. My friend Peggy asked if I’d ever been in there. I told her I’d always wanted to but had not. Oh, you’ve GOT to go in there, she exclaimed. And now, that little tiny story has me pining to get inside the building. I want to see the old wood floors she described to me. I want to meet the people and explore the aisles to see what cool old surprises I might discover. And I want to do that with my pen and pad in hand.

People – artists included – want to know what I plan to do with my sketches. Do I exhibit them? Frame them and sell them? And yes, sometimes I make prints and sell those. Sometimes I hang work and exhibit it. And because I love books, I kind of have a book project in the back of my mind – my sketches probably are best suited to that format anyway. But mostly, I don’t do anything with them. They’re a visual means of sharing a moment in time, telling the story of where I was and what I was thinking for the twenty minutes or so that I spent scribbling in my journal.

The sketches are a sort of “back up drive” for my memories. I’ve tried repeatedly to find a good location to sketch the water tower depicted in the background of the sketch above. It’s a cool structure and I’m fascinated by it. It’s easy to see as we zoom by on the highway, but finding a convenient sketching location in the warehouse district in which it’s located has defeated me time and again. And on this morning, I was once again defeated – it became an important element in the background of a sketch that started out as a skyline idea… and then evolved into a drawing focused on trash cans!

Maybe it’s the art teacher in me, but I enjoy chatting with our newest sketchers. They’re often curious about what to do on location – how to start a sketch, what techniques are appropriate, etc. Each of us brings a unique vision and a unique approach to handling materials and media. A lot of the “whizzbang” of sketching comes from doing a lot of sketches, practicing and getting comfortable with the tools. One of our members, Liz, has gotten progressively better with her watercolor over the past six or seven months from simply sketching every day. Her renderings are really confident now, with a nicely refined touch of color.

When others ask me about how to get started, I will often share one of several strategies I use to develop a composition. I figure if the design is interesting, the sketch can develop around it. But a great drawing without any context or content just boors me. Case in point: the barber shop above caught my attention. I wasn’t sure how to approach it because most of the building really doesn’t have much character. The interesting parts are around the barber pole, the door, the window, the signage. That’s it. And having run out of ink in my brush pen I penned in the gestural contour lines and left it at that. I felt like the drawing had failed and I didn’t even show it to anyone when we met up after the sketching ended. But back at home with a refilled brush pen I considered where I might add the solid areas of black. And sure enough the contrast and drama of the black fills resulted in a much more interesting image, and one in which I feel like I now need to know more of the story of this place.

I rode my bike to the street fair where we were sketching yesterday. Straddling the bike, I whipped out a pencil to scribble in the gesture lines for the sketch above and the one below. The woman glared at me the entire twenty seconds that I sketched her and I simply didn’t have the guts to refine and ink it while I stood there. Ink, in this case, came later from the safety of a park bench.

(Uni-Ball Deluxe, Kuretake No. 40 – at least until the ink ran dry! – on various Canson papers; North Kansas City, Missouri)

All the World’s a Comedy.

2 September, 2017. I find that a lot of my sketching takes place in restaurants and pubs. OK, so I enjoy good food, great wine, and people watching. Sketching those around me is, I recognize, just a little bit voyeuristic. But I have always loved the idea that the world is a comedy in which we are all the players. The snippets of observed life from the tables around me are edited scenes in which we may only be privy to the briefest view of a much longer narrative. In fact, I feel like these sketches can be considered a second cousin to the art of street photography.

Right or wrong, fairly or unfairly, these sketches reflect the observation of a moment or two. They are the most memorable aspects – to me, at least – of a given time and place, the  distanced confluence of my world with that of others who I will likely never again chance upon. And it’s out of these briefest of encounters that I enjoy weaving my own narrative, a sort of cartoon of life.

(Sketched with a Uni-Ball Deluxe and Kuretake No. 40 brush pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Direct sketching

19 August, 2017. Today felt like a good time to get back to basics – a sketchbook, Uni-Ball Deluxe, and my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen. I love direct sketching with the Uni-Ball, without the “safety net” of a light graphite sketch. And though I’ll occasionally use the Kuretake to do a little direct sketching also, today it was fun to use it to add shadow and depth accents.

I like the graphic quality of this approach. Strong lights and darks remind me of how some of my favorite European underground cartoonists from the 70’s made their drawings.  (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, Canson 180 sketchbook – approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.)

I need time to absorb the stories.

13 August, 2017. There are occasions when time and opportunity don’t allow me to sketch quickly enough. Case in point: Yesterday, I saw a woman walking two pigs on a leash through a lumberyard. Not pot belly pigs mind you, full sized pork chop bearing hogs. And I would have loved to sketch that scene! But the moment was there and gone.

I think this is part of the reason I enjoy sketching in diners so much. Interesting scenes and stories play out all around you, and for the most part these narratives can be captured with a much greater ease than, say, jotting down a quickly passing woman and her porcine pets.

Wesner’s Grill was, for me, a jewel of a find. It looks as though it’s been around for generations and the staff and customers are exactly what you’d expect to find here – almost as though they’d been hired by central casting. Said out loud, it sounds eerie but nope! The experience was as cheery as I could have hoped.

Me: “I really don’t do eggs.”

Server: “That’s ok, hon. No problem – take a look over on this page because we got all sorts of different omelets.”

Was she pulling my leg? Her smile was disarming and I chose to believe she was. Because even the mistakes were charming. My wife asked if onions could be added to the hash browns, which was duly noted on the order. Then she asked for one blueberry pancake, which was also duly noted…immediately under the request for added onions. Believe it or not, the pancake arrived with onions baked into it. We presumed it was some quaint local thing, but when we mentioned it to the server her jaw dropped. Then we all seemed figure out what had happened at the same time and all of us – and I mean the folks seated over at the counter, our server, the cook, and the two of us – well we all began to laugh uncontrollably. Because, for one thing, we ate those blueberry onion pancakes. And for another thing – odd as it may sound – they tasted pretty darned good.

Stories. I need enough time to absorb the stories when I sketch.

(Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen loaded with Noodler’s; inked in Canson 180 sketchbook.)


12 August, 2017. I’m in Rogers, Arkansas this weekend to help Kim get her new apartment set up. Neither of us know the area very well, so before we got the day of lugging heavy furniture up narrow stairs begun, I headed out on my road bike to explore.

My childhood memories of this place are that it was extremely rural and more than a bit like Mayberry. As I ride around, it is quite clear that things have changed a lot; urbanization has blanketed the area with high end retail, offices, restaurants, and lots and lots of paved roads.

But top a hill and just as clearly, the roots are still in evidence, pockets of the original rural landscape still exist. In a flash, I pedaled down a divided eight lane avenue, through a light, and past a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, there to discover this pasture and barn. (Blackwing pencil in Canton 180 sketchbook.)

The Dog Days of Summer

5 August, 2017. We’re at Table Rock Lake again, which makes two weekends in a row. The arrival of August means I’ll be working with a fresh new batch of art students very soon. Meanwhile, we’re busy setting up a second household in Arkansas, not far from the dockside chair where I am currently sitting. In search of a few items with which to outfit the new digs, we’ve been engaged in a favorite pastime: prowling country auctions.

Generally speaking, a country auction means that lots of people mass into a scrum-like crowd, circling the auctioneer. Because you have to jockey for position just to see what is being sold at the moment, I discovered that the best strategies for sketching while waiting for something interesting to come up was two-fold. First, throw out any preconceptions of drawing what you see right this minute and capturing a snapshot moment. Things move way too fast, crowds are in constant motion, and the organization of people and things are in a constant state of change. Instead, I like to think of each sketch as a sort of collage: draw part of one person’s body, then when they move away, wait for an appropriate new person to move into view and use my new model to continue the drawing. By doing this repeatedly, a sketch eventually emerges. I like that this approach also means I can make compositional decisions about who to include and where to place them.

Secondly, don’t try to draw the entire crowd. It’s too much to take in. Sometimes an auction is so big the auctioneers will run two rings. When that happens, the crowd divides and generally one ring has fewer bidders. That was the case in the sketch above – the second ring was going to focus on tools but had only gotten to garden rakes and ladders and such. Few bidders were interested in these items, so the crowd was much more sparse than when the auctioneers go to the more desirable items.

One thing that I found to be an interesting challenge is that everything tends to be a clutter: people are grouped together around piles or rows of what appears to be total crap. Boxes look like trash until someone decides to dig through and “discover” the treasure hidden within. (To be fair, more times than not, there’s no treasure at all. It’s exactly what it looks like: trash.) But, it’s an interesting visual art opportunity to explore space and organization. I had fun working in pencil during my afternoon of bidding, emphasizing the representation of spatial characteristics of people and things.

And although no one said a word to me, I sensed that this was likely the first time anyone in this rural community had ever seen an artist at work. There were certainly more than a few interested folks looking over my shoulder as I scribbled into my sketchbook.

Closer to home, I’ve started looking for locations for my upcoming Kansas City Art Institute graduate workshop, “Crossroads Plein Air.”

I played around a bit with a dip pen and and orange-ish-brown ink on Fabriano paper. I’m totally in love with the loose look of the lines and the sloppy play of watercolor washes!

And just for something different, I stopped on a recent bike ride to make this watercolor sketch, focusing entirely on color and shape.


Fresh Fruit

24 July, 2017. It’s hot, and just getting hotter still, so even shopping for fresh fruit at the local farmers market has become a chore. Painting on location? Well, sketching on location.  I don’t have to worry about pencil lines drying on the page as quickly as I place them like I do with watercolor. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I added color after returning home – where, incidentally, we managed to lose electricity and air conditioning for 30 hours during triple digit heat. Ugh. (Liberty, Missouri • pencil and watercolor, approximately 7 x 7 inches on Strathmore Aquarius II.)

Travel Sketching

22 July, 2017. Sketching while traveling is a unique experience in some ways. For one thing, one is encouraged to observe the world as though one has never seen it before because in all likelihood this may be the first time to encounter a place, people, custom, or event. I feel a degree of freedom to simply scribble notions of these encounters in the form of sketches which, often enough, tend to fluctuate between medium. Do I have time to sit and observe? Am I feeling rushed? Or wanting to move along soon to eat? Is the opportunity fleeting? Events of the moment predicate the tool I use to sketch.

Watercolors are like a puzzle. For me, they are spontaneous and less about planning than one might imagine. Instead, they are more likely to be an exercise in figuring out what to place where, and how much detail to labor over or ignore. I place a colored shape and then look at the page to figure out where to work next, repeating this approach over and over again, moving from left to right, top to bottom. It could hardly be described as a science because I work mostly from my gut. I do consider contrasts of cool to warm colors, as well as contrasts of value, but the approach is definitely a different mindset than when I use pens to sketch with.

Working on the thin, cheap paper of a sketchbook with watercolor can be challenging. You have to not work the paper too much or risk rubbing clear through the sheet! A light and restrained touch is better than overworking, and results in nice blooms of color that I especially appreciate seeing appear. During my recent travel to the islands of Hawaii, I found myself using this approach to capture scenes that were, for the most part, without motion or movement.

Pens are also a tool of spontaneity for me, but much more visceral than painting. Even when I add watercolor after the fact, the line tends to be the most important, most informing aspect of the drawing. Sometimes precious, but more often than not nearly schematic, my lines are the truest extension of my hand and the most comfortable means of expressing a visual that I know.

Pens work better for me to capture the gestures or caricatures of people doing whatever it is they are doing. I like incorporating “field notes” into my sketches as a reminder of the experience.

Pencils are the most basic of drawing instruments and the thing nearly every one of us learned before any other tool or drawing instrument. Although my curriculum determines that I teach the broad range of dynamic value one can generate with a pencil, my own pencil sketches tend to be quite loose and expressive. I have to make conscious decisions to do things a certain way so that if I wind up adding color later the sketch isn’t constrained too much by one media or the other. I don’t want the drawing to dictate the entirety of the painting.

Close to Home

22 July, 2017. I’ve been on the road so much this month that there’s been little opportunity to update this blog. There has, however, been ample opportunity for sketching, both close to home and while traveling. Thus, after neglecting the blog for the past few weeks I will be adding two posts in a single day.

Let’s begin with sketching in and around the small town I call home. Liberty is a community of something like 25,000 residents with a quaint town square and older neighborhoods and lots of green space. It’s really livable, and I bicycle the streets nearly every single day. People say hello to one another on the street and the square tends to attract interesting shops and eateries, one of which is Morning Day Cafe. If prompted, I would describe the place as a quasi-hippy/new age/Earth Mother/whole grain eatery and mixology center, and perhaps my sketch (above) hints at that just a little bit. It is a fun, friendly place to eat and chat, and the food is great.

The neighborhood streets in the older part of town are lined with large shade trees and houses dating from the fifties to antebellum, with the assorted range of architectural styles one might imagine that diversity to encompass.

I feel as though half the town is undergoing some sort of renovation at the moment.

The road, sidewalk, and street parking, along with some adornment on the square have been part of a massive restoration and improvement. The side streets are getting repaved and re-striped, and one is certain to see construction equipment throughout the town.

I enjoy the variety of architectural styles in evidence. I take particular joy in closely examining structures and discovering some neat little detail or ornamentation. It’s fun to keep my bike sketches a little bit loose and scribbly looking, to capture more of an impression rather than to draw as a true documentarian.

As many times as I’ve wandered down the street in search of an afternoon’s subject matter, I know if I look closely enough I’ll find plenty to draw close to home.