What a difference a couple of months makes.

14 June, 2019.

It was late in the day, and between thunderstorms – although I didn’t realize it at the time: I thought the first downpour was the entirety of the weather and I’d headed off for a long ride in the country. The sky was still pregnant with potential though, and I stopped atop one rise to quickly record the dense wash of sky and the long shadows. A little later, I realized the rain was a sandwich and I was the filling. For the better part of forty minutes I pedaled through showers, enjoying the breeze and the feel of rain on my face, and hoping the kit on my back remained dry.

I’ve been working almost exclusively in my Stillman and Birn sketchbooks recently. I like the paper in these books for sketching with pens quite a lot, and they are better than acceptable for adding watercolor. Strathmore Aquarius II also does an excellent job with this particular combination, and excels with pencil and watercolor. It’s why I make “sketching pamphlets” from that paper – accordion-fold booklets that are light and easy to carry with me for watercolor sketching. On this day I selected a pamphlet that was nearly full: One small spot remained untouched, and today I would finish it with my impression of the post-rain/pre-rain farmland I encountered.

Those sketches of houses were made in March, and wow! What a difference the world has undergone in that short time! And wow! What a difference my color selections have undergone as a result!

Greens fight me when I toy around with gouache, and I feel like they are overworked. The same colors are more readily accessible to me in watercolor, which I think it is likely due to their transparency of pigment.

I’m drawn to dramatic skies, and that looming rain holds more visual appeal for me than the clearest and bluest of atmospheres. I’ve a vivid recollection of swiftly laying down the grays of the sky in that house sketch to the left of yesterday’s scribble. It was so satisfying to capture some essence of that day! Each stroke was deliberate and intentionally restrained, intentionally leaving some parts of the white paper untouched. And suddenly, in a matter of seconds, it emerged. Sometimes, watercolor is infuriating, and sometimes it’s just magic. I live for those latter moments.

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Watercolor and pencil on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

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Travel kit for the Amsterdam Symposium.

13 June, 2019.

A lot of thought is going into the kit I plan to use for documenting the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Amsterdam. I prefer to travel as light as possible, and frankly I’d be perfectly happy limiting myself to the top two pens and my sketchbook. (And let’s be frank: the jury is still out. My final kit might very well wind up being precisely that spartan.)

I rarely ever use a pencil, so the Blackwing and sharpener are purely backups. In all likelihood, they’ll never leave my backpack. The decision about watercolor kit has proven more problematic. The Pocket Palette is what I’m leaning towards. It’s super portable, dries relatively quickly, and I like using it. It’s my second favorite travel palette – and therein lies the rub. My favorite palette is a little larger and as I think about cramming it into my hip pocket, uncomfortably thicker. But it has considerably more mixing area. So stay tuned. Things may change.

Back to the pens: in addition to my fude-tip fountain pens, these two are my “go to” sketching tools. Much as I love the fountain pens though, I’m simply not wanting to carry a bottle of ink with me. That leaves me with the Uni-Ball Vision and the Pitt “Big Brush.”

For the past year or more, it seems like the Uni-Ball is somehow in my hand whenever I’m sketching. The only thing that would make it more perfect for my needs would be the ability to generate a variable stroke. (You know? Like my fude-tip fountain pens do so well?) The Pitt pen only gets used for filling areas with solid black, but it does that job so well that I can’t imagine not having it available.

I’ll be carrying a Stillman and Birn Sketchbook, plus a couple of hand made, accordion-fold sketching pamphlets constructed out of Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

And that’s it.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

12 June, 2019.

I’m experimenting with something very different: an Apple Pencil, iPad, and Procreate. As I play around with this digital medium, I realize that many of the artists using it seem to have adopted one of two styles: a clean, sterile cartoon approach or a clean, sterile realistic approach. It’s difficult to see evidence of the artist’s hand in either, and equally difficult to be able to distinguish between artists at all, in fact – the styles look “learned” and feel like they’re artistic canon. Most of that stuff makes me swallow hard and say “Ugh.”

I think a lot of these digital artists are missing the boat. The untapped potential here is to use this medium to express one’s individuality rather than simply adopting someone else’s style. One thing that appeals to me – so far, at least – is the ability to lay down “sloppy” layers of paint and then plop a line drawing on top of those layers. After doing a test drive this afternoon to familiarize myself with the tools, I’m interested in pushing things into a bit more experimental state than many of the examples I perused on the Procreate site.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of value in having a tool that will generate less avant garde imagery so easily. And while I don’t know if I feel like this is a legitimate sketch or not, it’s kind of fun to create a “painting” so fast.

It’s exciting and a bit seductive – and yet… things come together so quickly that I worry stuff will get overlooked. I like to mull over my artistic decisions a little bit. Details around the mouth in this sketch, for instance, bother me as being a bit out of proportion. It’s also easy to get sloppy and just move the stylus back and forth in a scribbly motion rather than what I would do with a real brush.

I tried to paint this using a limited palette as I would with actual paint. A lot of examples I saw felt like the artist had too many options, too many colors. Rather than making decisions, some were making absolutely NO decisions.

Still… there are a lot of possibilities with this digital media.

Backyard sketch.

10 June, 2019.

Hmmm. My backyard could use a little love. The shed is covered in vines and sticks are piled around the base of one of the Cottonwood trees. Both wheel barrows are leaned up out of the way: It’s difficult to push stuff around when the bearings are shot and the tires are flat.

I made this tiny 3 x 5 inch gouache study this afternoon and discovered something – even though I hate Viridian, it’s a very useful color to mix with white for a few cool green highlights.

The struggle for believable greens is apparently a lifelong challenge.

Messner Bee Farm

9 June 2019.

Yesterday morning, Urban Sketchers Kansas City visited the Messner Bee Farm. The place is an anomaly, a working farm encased in tall trees and lush vegetation in a park-like setting, surrounded by urbanization and only yards from a city thoroughfare. I had no idea this place even existed!

The buildings are an interesting compilation of quaint old structures, semi-classic stone residence, and functionality. Across a meadow are rows of bee boxes, the source of the farm’s honey. It’s a compact operation, and a matter of walking only a few feet to move from one interesting spot to the next – perhaps I unconsciously mimicked that characteristic when I crammed so much visual information onto one sketchbook page?

I’ve been painting in gouache for the past couple of days, so I felt an urge to dive back into my mainstay: pens. I stray from time to time, but never wander too far away from working with line and space.

Where once stood the Walking Wall.

8 June, 2019.

Sketching a place forces one to look more closely. Take, for instance, this house and empty lot across from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I’ve driven past countless times and yet I never even noticed there was a vacant lot at all, nor did I pay much heed to the wonderful house peering out from under the adjacent trees. But now, traced across the surface, are the lingering marks of Andy Goldworthy’s Walking Wall installation (which has now wandered across the field, across the road, and is meandering around the northern elevation of the museum.) This wonderful detail has become part of the history of the property.

My intention was to experiment with another limited color palette that intrigues me, the so called “Zorn Palette.” The Zorn Palette is really limited, relying upon Yellow Ochre, Vermillion, Ivory Black, and Titanium White. The black has cool tones so it replaces blue in the triad and the ochre yields some green-ish properties. While this palette works easily for portraiture I find it a fun challenge to incorporate into an urban plein air sketch.

The field, barren as it appears on first glance, is actually the more visually interesting aspect of this scene. The path of Goldsworthy’s Walking Wall will fade with time, and eventually be reclaimed by nature or developers, whichever reaches the property first. Meanwhile, some of the story gets told through these sketches, and I’ll forever notice previously overlooked detail on this patch of ground.

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Gouache in Stillman and Birn gray Nova sketchbook (top), Uni-Ball Vision pen in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.

Experimenting with another limited palette.

7 June, 2019.

The limited palette I used to create a couple of thumbnail sketches yesterday felt like it needed to be adjusted. The tube of Primary Yellow created highlights that didn’t seem to harmonize with the other colors. I’m not sure why they would be; usually fewer colors results in greater color harmony, not less. Nevertheless, I made this 3 x 5 inch thumbnail of my magnolia tree using a sort of “faux Geneva Palette” (The actual Geneva Palette is a “Primary Plus One” oil kit of Cadmium Yellow, Pyrrole Rubine, French Ultramarine, Burnt Umber, and Titanium White; the hues are only available in oil paint. Mine is comprised of Lemon Yellow, Scarlet Lake, Ultramarine, Titanium White, and Burnt Umber.)

This is an “earthy” palette with a bias toward warm tones. Frankly, it will probably be of greater use after the greens of Spring evolve into summer colors. I like that a useful orange and something very similar to ochre can be generated. The pure red of the Scarlet Lake is opaque and really pops when contrasted against a dark color. Some of the lighter hues can quickly turn “chalky,” and though that can be useful, it gets a little much at times.

Another limited palette that intrigues me is the so-called “Zorn Palette,” which I toy around with from time to time. Comprised of Vermillion, Yellow Ochre, Titanium White, and Ivory Black, sketches rely heavily on the artist’s ability to sort out accurate tones.

Attempting to Cure Pure Laziness.

6 June, 2019.

I’ve been so lazy the past week or so. Sketching? Not much. Painting? Zippo. Anything of consequence? Absolutely not. It’s summer break, the semester came to an end last week, and I think my slothfulness has been some sort of therapeutic and zen-like state of mind. Pure laziness for the sake of laziness.

Even the dogs have been mining this state of mind, laying around on a throw rug under my chair. Like me, their brains seem to be more intent on just resting.

But summer break is a fleeting thing, and not to be wasted. I am making an attempt to emerge from the fog. It’s not easy, reclaiming one’s energy once it’s been tapped, but I took a stab at it today by heading out to Fountain Bluffs. My only goal was to push through the veil and simply get marks on paper.

I began by dividing up a sketchbook page into four 3 x 5 inch rectangles. This exercise forces me to work small, and since I planned to “wake up” by sketching with gouache, it also forced me to focus on dominant shapes rather than tiny details.

I’d no intention of making a “finished” painting at all. Keep it small. Keep it quick. Don’t overthink things. No intention of even making a “study” – that would be too deep for what I needed, which was simply “activity.”

These little sketches are about the size of a playing card, only slightly larger than an artist’s trading card (ATC). The flat bristle brush is half an inch wide.

After a few minutes, the shapes all start to become abstractions and the world – in my mind’s eye, at any rate – begins to flatten out. Patterns begin to emerge. Later, I am bothered that the yellow seems to be too garish and I question whether I should adjust my palette before heading out for another thought-free plein air outing. But at the time, the only consideration is to do it, to make something, to see the world and to be there in it.

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Gouache in a gray Stillman and Birn Sketchbook; Uni-Ball Vision pen in a white Stillman and Birn Sketchbook.

Arc.

5 June, 2019.

The Rosedale World War I Memorial Arch is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe – which in fact, was the inspiration for John LeRoy Marshall’s early 20th Century design.

Easily viewed from I-35, it’s quite a climb to bicycle up to the base of this monument. I’d never been up there before Monday evening, and I was immediately grateful for the lowest gears on my bike!

Standing in the shadow of this structure, one isn’t as much impressed by the size as by the sentiment. The original in Paris is a surprisingly huge thing, and this is definitely a little brother in comparison. But the effect up close is much grander than the view of a solemn lighted tribute seen from the far off highway below. The lung busting ride up was well worth the effort.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor wash in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Connection only.

4 June, 2019.

I don’t recall this stretch of Wornall Road being so visually busy looking when I lived a few blocks away. Granted, that was quite some time ago, but driving north on the road this morning one is left with an overall impression of signs, along with the intently purposeful repetitious verticality of poles.

The signs are mostly faded and could easily be used in a design textbook to represent the graphic vernacular of the decades leading up to the seventies. They form a patchwork quilt of rectangular advertisements, shilling products and credit and automobile sales and booze against a further backdrop of thrift stores and plumbers workshops and buildings that have been repurposed time and time again.

This is a road to drive down, to get from one place to another. It’s a connector, but not a destination in and of itself. Not anymore.

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Uni-ball Vision pen in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.