Even Creepier.

16 April, 2019. I shared the black, gray, and white version of this a couple of days ago. That iteration had a distinctly “comic book” sort of vibe to it, but I missed the vintage colors and beat up paint… those were part of what drew me in to this object in the first place. And to be honest, I’d planned to add spots of color all along. The highlights where what interested me most of all, and that’s where I’d left the drawing originally. However, now that the color has been incorporated it all feels much more complete.

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Fude tip fountain pen, Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, and gouache in Stillman and Birn gray sketchbook.

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Just killing time before a meeting.

31 March, 2019. I was at the state capital for a couple of days earlier this week to meet with other fine arts directors and curriculum coordinators. Meetings involve sitting – usually lots and lots of sitting. And sitting is something I’m ill suited for, quite frankly. I tend to be in motion most of the time.

So to offset the hours of inactivity I arrived in Jefferson City early enough to wander the streets and take in some of the buildings. One thing I’d never noticed before was the number of pointed roof tops. Although East High Street is clearly a typical Midwestern street, if you look around some of the architectural features take on a decidedly central-European flair.

This surprising discovery in the midst of that which is otherwise quite familiar made me ridiculously happy for some reason. Maybe it’s because I may not have noticed these little details had I not been killing a little time, enjoying the quiet of an early morning street.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and Caran D’Ache crayon wash in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

I never thought of that.

2 March, 2019. I have a sort of Jekyll and Hyde relationship with color. Some days I feel I can do no wrong. It seems like I have a real grasp of the intricacies of color relationships. I playfully toss a blob of paint into a wash and voilà! Magic!

And at other times I am at complete loss.

Color intrigues me, but perhaps not as much as the relationship of line, shape, and space does. I love to draw, and I love to design. It may be that I’m wary of devoting more thought to color, fearing such attention comes at the expense of those elements that pull me into a composition.

I might also be lazy.

Be that as it may, I’ll wager nearly everyone who enjoys drawing and painting feels like there is something elusive, something just outside their grasp. And for me it’s color. One way I offset my perceived deficiencies is to seek out and study artists and art I admire.

Yesterday’s mail brought me an advance copy of Shari Blaukopf’s new book, Working with Colorpublished by Quarto Creates. Now full disclosure: some of my own words and sketches are used in Blaukopf’s book to illustrate the color concepts she shares with readers. But much more importantly, this book is filled with Blaukopf’s own wonderful watercolors, along with a liberal sprinkling of contributions from Marc Taro Holmes, Richard Johnson, Renato Palumuti, Marion Rivolier, Inma Serrano, Pat Southern-Pearce, and a host of other incredible Urban Sketchers, all of whose work I greatly admire.

This book is the latest in a series of “Urban Sketching Handbooks,” and what I most appreciate about these titles is the way they pointedly avoid going into technical aspects. Let’s face it: There are plenty of “how to” books on the market, and a thoughtful Google search will bring up dozens, if not hundreds of excellent pages and videos demonstrating any technique in any media you can imagine. No, what the Urban Sketching Handbooks do really well is teach and inspire by example. I love to look at the illustrations and catch myself thinking “Hmmm… I never thought of doing it thatway before…”

A day without color.

24 February, 2019. The day is black and white – no exaggeration at all. I look around me in search of any glimpse of color, but there’s none at all. The snow is over for now, replaced by rain and a little wind and a dense fog. Whatever hues are out there, they’ve all been subject to a gauze-like filter. Shapes are indistinct; objects simply disappear beyond a hundred yards or so. In between, everything else is a graphic halftone: this tree is closer to me and I can make out 60% of the monochromatic values, that tree is a bit further off and perhaps only a quarter of the tones are visible. Beyond that is a milky nothingness.

I know there are houses and more trees. A muffled bark, soft in the distance… from what direction? And close or far? It’s impossible to tell.

The top layer of snow is melting in the rain. Tomorrow brings sun, so maybe I’ll pull on my winter cycling gear, stuff a small sketchbook into my jacket, and wheel down the road for twenty or thirty miles.

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Fude-tip fountain pen, Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series sketchbook; approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.

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.

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.