Embracing imperfection.

18 June, 2019.

I began a new sketchbook a couple days ago. No, I hadn’t filled the Stillman and Birn book I’ve been working in yet. This is a sort of side project that occurred to me in the moment, a thought of “embracing imperfection.”

For this book, I’m placing severe restrictions on myself: It’s entirely in ink, black and white; it’s entirely drawn with my bent-nib fountain pen, which allows me to create a lot of line variety; no pencil lines are allowed! I think I referred to this in my Instagram post as “no pencil parachute.” I rather like that turn of phrase.

I must have needed this shift because my first couple days have been prolific. I’ve begun with people and things I encountered while wandering around downtown Kansas City and the Crossroads Arts District on Fathers Day. A sort of theme seems to be emerging, so I’m going to remain open to see if this is only a visual thesis, or if a narrative thread materializes as well.

But back to the idea of embracing imperfection, it’s not the first time I’m dedicated a sketchbook to a self-imposed restriction. I’ve made others in which I challenged myself to work directly with a pen. I hatehow making art often devolves into a search for perfection: perfect lines, perfect shapes, perfect proportions, etc. It’s a crippling attitude for anyone new to drawing, and frankly it’s just as crippling to seasoned sketchers. So rather than seeking perfection, I’m interested in just letting my pen be the response mechanism to chance encounters of the vernacular sort. 

I noticed that this approach almost immediately took on a “comic book” look and feel. It’s not only very graphic, but some of the distortions feel at home in a graphic novel environment as well. My choice to weave words and commentary into a page reinforces that characteristic.

One of the idiosyncrasies of urban sketching is that drawings generally provide a sense of context, of surroundings. I particularly like that aspect of urban sketching. It’s interesting to me that a seriesof drawings from a place doesn’t always need to provide a visual background to be part of the series. Sometimes the lack of background speaks much louder, yet at the same time still seems to be one with the landscape presented in those images that appear sequentially before and after.

As each sketch emerges, the book takes on a life of its own. “Embracing imperfection” means allowing myself permission to just let mistakes happen. Not worrying about making “perfect” drawings pushes me to play with the pen: some things work, other things don’t. But interestingly, there’s a holistic impression becoming apparent to me that I find very appealing.

Some drawings start out as simple subjects. I’m not really sure where I’m going with them: they sort of emerge. And the simplest of subjects, in some cases, suddenly bloom into more complex compositions. I can’t explain or even predict how this is happening, but it’s exciting and a bit terrifying all at the same time. It’s a lot like playing a jazz solo – I know the tune and I know the instrument and I know the key, but I don’t always know where I’m going to go next. In fact, the path – defined as it is by instrument and tune and key – is still improvisational, an invention. And while my drawings are of a place and time, still there is inventiveness and decision in what to include and what to leave out. Listen to Miles Davis sometime. His genius is not so much about what he played, but in what he left out. I like that sort of inspiration.

I did ask Joe to pose for me. Everything else so far has been chance encounters; this was a purposeful sketch. But Joe, this burly, bearded cyclist, just felt like part of the tapestry that is emerging, so I rolled with it.

Embracing imperfection. Normally I would clean up the scans I post here by cropping off the edges of the book, maybe cleaning up the gutter line. After my first scan I realized that it wasn’t necessary to go through that exercise with these drawings. I’ve yet to decide if it’s a precious thought or not, but it occurs to me that leaving those margins is reminiscent of the way that Richard Avedon kept the film frame on his incredible black and white 4 x 5 portraits of the West. The crude frame became an important part of the composition. Perfectly imperfect, in fact.

Drawn directly with a bent-nib fountain pen in a Moleskin journal; some solid fills were made with a Pitt “Big Brush” pen.


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.

Cheap oysters

8 December, 2018. The oysters are only 75 cents each, and I am totally happy. The wine is crap, but it’s also cheap so all seems good in the world.

Like so many other places in New Orleans, we chat with people at the bar about sports, movies, art, horses – pretty much anything and everything, and I find myself almost with anything more to say.

Until I find out about a place that serves 25 cent oysters. We head there the next afternoon and two of us consume four dozen. 

Hangin’ out in trendy hipster spots

16 February, 2018. Our small town is growing up. The two lane streets have evolved into four and six lanes and still regularly fill to overcapacity traffic twice each day. Every manner of franchise has located along those main roads. And we’ve begun to attract the hipster crowd with trendy spots.

Of course, that means a bearded, slightly rumpled art guy armed with a pen and a sketchbook fits right in at the bar.

I’m not sure why, but when I sketch guys they seem to be entirely unaware. Ladies, on the other hand, are almost immediately mindful of the scrutiny. I sometimes worry that sketching people in public might be viewed as voyeuristic in some sense.

It’s nice to sketch in places like these though – they’re nice, kind of chic, and still casual enough that one isn’t out of place in blue jeans and leather jacket. Patrons range from urban professional to hoodie, and everything in between; gray hairs, bald pates, unnaturally colored mops… it’s all good.

Catch as Catch Can.

22 May, 2017. Signs, signs – everywhere the signs! Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. So, it’s been catch as catch can this week, grabbing sketches wherever and whenever, and not really getting a chance to do any sort of sitting around absorbing the place. It’s not my favorite approach, but sometimes it yields a bit of gold. This tightly cropped scene of signage captured my attention almost immediately. But of course I only had a couple minutes to scribble. It was sprinkling, I sketched, I made a quick snapshot to reference for color later. Then I scooted.

A convivial pub often offers a rich assortment of subjects to draw. It was a Friday night, immediately after work and the local brew pub was hoppin’! A pint of Riley Porter for me, a glass of Vignoles for her, and a game of scrabble at the bar. I sketched while I waited (and waited) for my turn. This particular week was done, and it really couldn’t have ended much sooner.

It was a wet day in an older part of the city. Sitting in the front seat of my car, making a really fast sketch, I found myself impatient to “git ‘r done.” Suddenly, I realized what I’d at first thought to be a rather pedestrian subject had captured my artistic interests. I focused on creating a silhouette of the structures via line, and got pretty loosey-goosey with the interior details. After working with the Uni-Ball to draft the main (and rather sparse) details, I went back in with a Pilot Varsity and a water brush to add some depth and tonality.

So strange to ride through what was once simple countryside, only to discover a new multi-lane thoroughfare going in, connecting the town proper to – what? Another highway? The hand of mankind rips another swath of trees from the planet. (Uni-Ball Vision Micro on Strathmore Aquarius II, approximately 7 x 7 inches.)

Fold your own.

15 May, 2017. Who needs sketchbooks? I make my own double gatefold sketching “pamphlets” out of my favorite watercolor paper.

Ever since I began experimenting with my own sketching media, I’ve toyed around with folding sequences and sizes. I want the size to be easily carried without being a burden or inconvenient. And I knew I wanted to have the flexibility to draw on a single panel, two panels, or to expand out into a truly panoramic motif. After several promising attempts, I’ve begun to use a double gatefold, which is easy to cut and fold, and provides me with the flexibility I hoped for.

Notice how the sketching pamphlet in the center (above) is unfolded to reveal a very long and horizontal canvas on which to scribble. My pamphlets are small enough that I can simply tuck one into a pocket or – in a pinch – between my back and the waist band of my hiking shorts. Yet there is enough paper to provide adequate thickness so that I can draw without the whole shebang seeming floppy-floppy.

A single panel works perfectly for a simple, direct observational sketch.

Meanwhile, I can unfold the pages if I wish, and use the entire width as a drawing surface.

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)

Belly up, folks.

16 December, 2016. Belly up, folks, because it’s a cold night out there – damn cold when you think about it, and only getting colder. So belly up, hoist a glass or two, and enjoy an hour of good company while you wait on your platter of fish and chips. From time to time the door will open and you’ll briefly shiver as the crowd grows, another soul or two added into the scrum. (Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen and watercolor wash on Strathmore Aquarius II.)

BikeMo 2016

3 September, 2016. What a beautiful day for a ride through Rocheport, Boonville, and the surrounding hills, farms, and countryside, This year’s BikeMo Ride was followed by live music, wine, and a very welcome ice cold beer, all at the winery finish line atop the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. Yeah, baby!

I didn’t make nearly as many ride sketches this year as I did last August, and I didn’t even get around to inking my pencil sketches until today, an entire week later. (Rocheport, Missouri; Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen and watercolor wash.)

Tour de Jazz KC

21 August, 2016. I realize it’s been a while since I last updated this site. This is largely because I literally haven’t made a single sketch in a couple of weeks. School is starting back up and I’m getting things prepared for my students so that they can be hitting the ground drawing.

I remedied that situation yesterday though. I participated in a charity bike ride with a live music theme, the inaugural Tour de Jazz KC. Each of the rest stops along the way had live music provided by local jazz musicians and session artists. And man, they could jam!

Because I was a rider in the event, my stops were brief and my sketches were just as brief. I scribbled a few pencil marks on paper and made a couple of iPhone photos for reference. Then headed down the road to the next SAG stop, usually another ten miles or so along the route.

This afternoon, I threw the windows open in my studio to enjoy a wonderfully pleasant day. I pulled out my pencil sketches and my pens and began to rework things on Strathmore Aquarius II paper.

Not everyone I saw was a musician. This guy just seemed to embody the entire jazz “thing” with his attitude and jaunty angle of his derby.

(Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen with watercolor washes; American Jazz Museum and forty-some-odd miles of roads issuing forth from that location in and around Kansas City, Missouri.)