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.

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Suggestiveness

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.

Sleep on it.

(Number eight in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

26 January, 2019. Last night I finally visited a jazz bar that opened about a year ago. It is, quite literally, down the hill from my house and I offer no excuses for having waited so long – especially considering that the atmosphere is convivial and the jazz trio, A La Mode, was excellent.

As usual, I had a sketchbook and pen with me. The only seats were two large, comfortable leather armchairs right in front…it’s like they had save the two best seats in hopes of a sketcher showing up, and we gladly claimed them as our own. The show was good, and so was the subject matter. The stars seemed to be in alignment – so why was I feeling so uncertain about my sketches?

Sitting comfortably, pen in hand, and with what I perceived to be dozens of fellow patrons immediately behind me, looking over my shoulder to check out the art dude, my scribbles just felt crude and uninspired. Proportions were wonky. Nothing jumped off the page. No magic was there.

I do this to myself sometimes. Often enough, a sketch comes together effortlessly. When that doesn’t happen, I question myself, my choice of tools, my subject matter – everything. Maybe I’ll wind up overworking things or maybe I’ll be filled with self doubt. Flop sweat.

Regardless, I kept at it – scribbling and enjoying the music. And after an hour or so, I closed my book, paid the tab, and drove home. Once there, I opened up my sketchbook to see what I had captured: Mostly gestural sketches. Frankly, I was disappointed with the sketches and with myself. Even more frankly, I went to bed feeling like they were nothing more than warmups, and that my warmups were a train wreck.

This morning I find I’m actually pleased with some of them. I like the bass player so much that I am debating doing a much larger second version on a full sheet of watercolor paper using a big sloppy brush and India ink… but how is this possible? Last night everything seemed to have no potential whatsoever. This morning, those same sketches somehow evolved.

I think we get too close to what we’re doing sometimes. We become judgmental about our work, our style, our choices. And when that happens we don’t always give ourselves – or our ideas – a chance to gestate. We don’t give ourselves a chance to see what it is that we actually drew.

So the idea I’m sharing today is quite simple to state, but incredibly difficult to actually do: Don’t judge.

At least not now.

Sleep on it before you reach any conclusions about your work. Put a little time and distance between yourself and your drawing. Too often and too easily, we allow self doubt to morph into self reflection, and nothing productive can come from that. Examine your sketches and your practices critically, but always with a fresh pair of eyes.

What do you think?

22 January, 2019. Scrolling through Instagram late this afternoon, I saw a couple of very painterly looking images and suddenly felt like playing around with my Caran d’Ache water-soluble crayons. Illustrated here is the same sketch, before and after activating the pigments with a water brush. As it happens, I rather like both versions for different reasons.

In this, the initial rough in of colors and values, I enjoy how unfinished it looks. The scribbled lines leave a lot for one’s imagination to fill in the blanks. It feels fresh.

After simply adding water and one or two additional touches of color, it’s always amazing to me how much more “solid” these Neocolor II sketches become. The colors are rich – which I also enjoy. And it’s not at all necessary to get lost in the details: Simplicity doesn’t mean one can’t create a convincing image.

So there you have it: one drawing, two finishes. I could have stopped at the rough and been perfectly happy. What do you think? Which version do you prefer?

Visceral Reactions

13 January, 2019. I’m finally getting around to scanning some of the past week’s sketches. This is from my kinda-sorta on-again-off-again sketch series of skies.

To be perfectly clear, these little sketches are not intended to be anything other than a quick impression. I’m making little attempt to be realistic and only barely representational. It’s just a fun way to play around with color – a little playfulness without getting too serious about doing so. Even with my more representational work I always look for the abstract in a scene and this is a fun way to do that.

My sketches are often a narrative response to a place or time or event. These sketches of skies are more visceral. The start and end of a day can be more of an aesthetic experience, and if I really explore my intentions here I’d probably find it’s aesthetics driving me. But frankly, I’m not thinking deeply or analyzing my motivations…I’m simply tossing paint on the page for the pure pleasure of doing so.

Watercolor on Arches rough, 7 x 7 inches.

Gesture

9 December, 2018. Gesture sketching is fun, fast, and immediate. They work or they suck. Period. When they work, things feel great. Lines just seem to lay down on the page in exactly the right way, exactly the right place. 

And when they don’t work… well, those pages never see the light of day ever again.

I think gesture sketches are a way of learning, of studying the world around you. They’re a kind of shorthand.


A tale of two medias.

22 November, 2018. Have you ever purchased a kit of paints? For the life of me I cannot imagine what the marketing department must have been thinking when they selected the combination of colors to bundle together that they did. And honestly, I’m thinking of just about every kit I’ve ever seen being the most useless collection of colors anyone could imagine. It must be terribly frustrating for a novice to get started and I imagine their struggles with color – which they no doubt attribute to their own lack of mixing experience – well, I have no qualms tracing the actual blame back to the ridiculous color kit chosen for them.

So, it’s safe to say that I’m no fan of “color kits.”

Which is why I find it remarkable to eat my own words. The neat little kit of 40 colors that Caran d’Ache selected for their Neocolor II set is something of a unicorn in the art supply world. Every time I use my kit for sketches or color studies, I marvel not only at the range but at the combination of hues.

Colors harmonize, neutralize, invigorate, and blend well with one another. There’s little frustration that one color is completely atonal when used with another in this kit. True, there are some pigments I use more than others; some may never have been used by me at all. But that will be true even in kits of colors I’ve customized and selected myself.

I am particularly fond of the olives and secondary colors in the kit.

In my earlier experiments with this media I appreciated a tendency for the pigment to act a little bit like watercolor. As I continue to uncover different ways to handle the material I am discovering the possibilities of creating more painterly effects. It’s interesting to me to see how those effects combine with mark making.

My own impatience can stymie the process of discovery at times. It really is important to allow the surface to dry naturally until it is cool to the touch with a satin sheen before adding additional layers. But that impatience also aids in unexpected discoveries as well: the white flecks (above) happened when I accidentally touched the crayon to some moisture. When I applied the dampened point to the paper, the pigment easily transferred and was much more opaque than if I applied it dry.

My watercolor studies tend toward a more hard edged and graphic appearance, even when working wet-in-wet as I’ve done recently. They are also more easily transported into the field. I’ve yet to figure out how best to carry the pastels along as an urban sketching kit, whereas I’ve turned the task of compact transportable water media into a personal science.

Due to the transparency of pigment, watercolors have more of a glow to them than the wax pastels, which are themselves quite opaque. Which is not to say that brilliant color cannot be achieved with either media; the look of that color is what is different.

Dining out, pen in hand.

18 November, 2018. It’s been a good long while since I’ve gone out “sketch dining.” My normal practice is to bring along a pen and small sketchbook, and make quick studies of the people around me. Places with high tops and open spaces are often terrific for this kind of artistic exercise, and since I was on the road I went in search of, and found, such a spot.

Oysters on the half shell and a good dark beer sounded like a winning combination to me. I’d stopped here before and the food had been excellent. This time was no exception either – in fact, the oysters were some of the best I could remember being served. My server, technically, smiled a lot. But there wasn’t much behind the smile. And while she heard me, she didn’t really listen, and I wound up ordering a basic Guinness rather than make further attempt to find out what the place actually offered.

Pens are sometimes a tool for working through frustrations and I am not especially kind at such times. Like a baseball umpire, I tend to “call ’em as I see ’em.”

Having worked through my sense of slight, I ignored my server in much the same way that I seemed to have been ignored and turned my attention to my fellow diners. Tables and booths were filling with families and couples. This being a bar and a Saturday in November, high definition screens throughout the place were blasting college football games. Servers scampered in all directions and a couple of guys across a long counter of ice and empty shells were shucking oysters.

Southern accents filled the air with “y’all” and “you’unze” and quaint local colloquialisms. Outside, the air was beginning to chill, but indoors it was warm, the beer was cold, and the oysters plump. 

And between slurps of oyster and sips of beer, I did the thing I do, which is illustrate the everyday world around me.

To study, perchance to dream.

11 November, 2018. Why do color studies? I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, although I know the intention of the practice is to prepare oneself for the execution of a larger, possibly more formal work. Speaking for myself, however, the making of a color study is play time.

Opportunity time. A time to dream a little about the interaction of colors and shapes.

I tend to reside with one foot in each of two different worlds – a world of sketching, and a somewhat contrasting place of painting. My sketches live through a search for energy and freshness, achieved when I’m on my game through the use of line. Color is often important to those sketches, but generally subservient to the pathways described by marks.

When I paint I enjoy the interplay of shapes and color, the orchestration of colors striving for a visual harmony. With paint, I tend to have a more introspective focus; I get lost in my work, whereas with sketched line the marks are free and come naturally. I would love to combine the two camps more often, and celebrate when they do – but for the most part I find myself working as muse and whimsey dictate, in one world or the other.

Line or color.

Two worlds. So closely related, and yet for me there is a chasm separating the two.

Kansas City Architecture

8 November, 2018. The neighborhood surrounding the 1910 Beaux-arts style Kansas City Museum is a place I bicycle through fairly regularly. Overlooking Cliff Drive, this must have been quite a location back in the day, and frankly it still is, though a little more worn than it was a century ago.

The museum itself is currently undergoing significant renovations, but the grounds and buildings are easily seen from the street.