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.

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

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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.

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.

Old roads, new to me.

25 November, 2018. There’s a new road on the south end of town, cutting across pastures, rolling hills, wooded bluffs and creeks, and eventually connecting the incorporated side of town with a highway to the east. This is a welcome extension for many: the alternative is a wide boomerang route, but happily – for me, anyway – few have discovered the new route. For the moment, it’s largely untraveled. 

There is also a bicycle path that parallels the extension. I’m always curious to find out where roads go for some reason. I tend to suspect that just around the next corner there’s something really worth seeing, something worthy of the extra trek. 

Pedaling along the path I found that this new extension opened up a more ready access to some roads that I kind of knew were there, but was unsure of how to get to. I filed away a plan to explore them on the very next nice day.

Despite the fact that as I type these words I’m sitting here waiting on a forecasted blizzard, yesterday was perfect. It was a day for raking leaves, for enjoying the sun, for being outside as much as possible – all of which I took full advantage. The day was, in fact, “the very next nice day.”

I ride a randonneur bike, which is a road bike set up to travel over distance and various terrain in unsupported fashion. One characteristic of many randonneuring bicycles is a large front bag with which one carries the necessities for a long, unsupported ride. It’s also a nearly perfect setup for an urban sketcher or plein air painter of my ilk. My kit fits neatly into the bag, and makes chance encounters along my route as simple as pulling over and leaning my bike on the grass while I sketch.

The roads I explored yesterday are typical of most backroads one travels in this part of the country. Farmland is a mixture of grazing cattle and large swaths of field crops: corn, soybeans, milo. Some patches of ground are hay fields, the rectangular bales I hauled for a few cents each in high school having long since transformed into large, round stacks. They are so large and heavy that it takes a tractor with a special fork attachment to carry and transport them.

Old roads, new to me: I see ponds and creeks I had no idea existed. Surprisingly, there are few farmhouses. I presume that until the recent thoroughfare went in, access was difficult. I am saddened at the thought that this will likely change now: I foresee these glad fields evolving into housing developments before too many more turns of the calendar page.

Gouache in Stillman and Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, approximately  4 x 4 inches.

Oh, deer.

19 November, 2018. On a very chilly evening last week, I took a shortcut through the parking lot of a local lumberyard. Pedaling across the pavement, the first thing I noticed was a black 1962 or ’63 Impala illuminated under the tall light pole, the lid of the trunk partially raised.

It’s important to understand how truly enormous the storage space is in this vintage American automobile… it’s large enough that some of the tiny British and Italian sports cars I’ve owned over the years might come close to fitting inside. Certainly there would be ample room for my racing bike, and perhaps even several other bikes as well.

There was, in fact, ample room for the dead buck, which was the second thing I noticed. 

In Missouri, this is the time of year when one walks through forest and field wearing bright orange clothing. To do otherwise would be foolhardy. Outside of town, the world is populated with grizzled, gun toting individuals dressed in camouflage. Ducks, geese, deer, turkey, squirrel, quail, pheasant – and soon rabbits – are all in hiding from pickup trucks and John Deere hats… and apparently even vintage cars.

USk 24 Global Hour Sketch Walk

19 November, 2017. Although I couldn’t be in Kansas City at the time, I contributed to the #USkGlobal24hrSketchWalk in celebration of the 10th year of Urban Sketchers from where I happened to be that weekend, Northwest Arkansas. I was bicycling the Razorback Greenway Trail between Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville. I stopped now and again to check out some of the more interesting historic houses and was just off of the Bentonville Square when I came across this one. It’s definitely not what I would describe as “historic,” but uncharacteristically of me, the modernist architectural influence spoke to me: The placement of the home, the respect for the neighborhood and the trees – rather than an eyesore, it fits in remarkably well.

As happens nearly every year, I manage to experience the massive migration of birds heading toward a generally southward destination. Column after column of birds flock together, relentlessly winging their way past. Looking to the north, one cannot see the end of any given column: birds simply disappear over the horizon in one meandering and seamless river; so too do those birds moving overhead and departing in the opposite direction. Sometimes they gather in the trees around my house for a day or two, blackening the branches with their masses and making the loudest din. Maybe that was so on this day, but I was many, many miles from home. I felt a sort of comfort happening upon these birds on this day at this time.

Our Saturday morning began with a visit to yet another local diner in the Bentonville/Rogers area. The place was incredibly busy, but we managed to almost immediately grab a seat at the counter. I sketched the view from my seat while we waited on pancakes and sausage and bacon and grits, all the while managing conversations with passers-by, folks intrigued by the sketch. I met a server who told me, “I’m an artist too,” and I quizzed her on where the local art store might be found. (There isn’t one.) Another woman said she could just stand there all day and watch sketches unfold, and that brought a smile to my face.

When you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone…I love it when a sketch just flows out, when most of the proportions mostly work – no pencil or construction lines, just inked lines, and a five or six minute sketch just feels sort of satisfying. More and more I’ve abandoned any semblance of preparatory pencil sketch, opting for the immediacy of inked lines. There’s something very real and honest about those marks that appeals to me.

Tweed Ride

5 November, 2017. I look forward to our annual “Tweed Ride” every year. First off, I get to combine two of my passions – sketching and vintage bicycles. But more to the point, it’s just a cool, genteel event. Kindred souls get gussied up in their best thrift store version of 1930s and 40s era attire. We ride bicycles, slowly and leisurely. It’s a celebration of quieter, bygone time, a day when the bicycle was a very important mode of transportation and two thousand pounds of steel didn’t rule every paved road.

Our local Tweed Ride begins and ends in the old Northeast section of the city, adjacent to the Kansas City Museum. The neighborhood is a rich subject by itself – the museum, the houses… someone could spend months documenting the great architecture. Our gathering place is a park next to Cliff Drive, with some interesting architectural follies that provide a great spot for milling about in tweedy high fashion, lean vintage bicycles against tall stone columns, and socialize in well-mannered, courteous, and decidedly polite company. After the ride, we picnic and perhaps enjoy a cup of tea (or a glass of wine from a wicker basket that – in our case – also housed a luncheon of goodies from a local gourmet eatery.)

Turns out that I’ve sketched several of the musicians providing entertainment at previous events. I started with pencil and quickly decided those drawing had already been done and didn’t really interest me to do again, so I focused on the one guy I’d not seen before – the accordion player.

Sapped.

17 June, 2017. This past week was The Big BAM Ride, a long distance bicycle tour I’ve been looking forward to for the past couple of months. The route transects the state of Missouri, from the western border to the eastern, meandering through a variety of small towns and rural country along the way. I really thought I’d be stopping along the route to make more sketches, but things were so damned oppressively hot, the wind was so exhausting, and the hills wore on me more than I expected. Sketching took more energy than I had; I was nearly sapped!

These sketches lack my preferred spontaneity and simplicity. I’ll blame the heat and my swollen, dehydrated fingers, but the only place I wound up making sketches was in and around Lexington, Missouri. As such, these only represent a few meager furlongs of a ride spanning hundreds of miles.

(Sketches created using a Kuretake No. 40 brush pen and Omni-Ball Micro.)

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.

Rock Island Spur Trail

18 February, 2017. Yesterday was the most incredible February weather I can ever recall. A good chunk of my day was devoted to bicycling a section of the newly opened Rock Island Spur Trail. A Rails-to-Trails initiative that connects the southern most section of the Kansas City area to the Katy Trail, the Rock Island Spur Trail also offers snapshot views of scenes not always obvious or accessible by car. I love to explore and discover new places, especially small towns, “discardia,” and architectural elements.

Emerging from a bank of trees, the trail crosses a paved road a few miles along the route out of Pleasant Hill, Missouri. There is an unimproved trail head at this location that abuts a property I imagine to be a “personal” salvage yard. In other words, it doesn’t appear to be a commercial operation; a pungent, thick smoky fire was burning – tires perhaps? – and the land was very overgrown and littered with wrecked and inoperable cars and trucks and other “discardia.” Trees had taken root and sprouted from the midst of literally everything. This 60’s era sedan has an orange New York license plate attached to the front.

I find “discardia” interesting. Such things, whether they be architectural, vehicular, or simply everyday detritus, are signs of human touch – of human impact. There’s history to be found in these artifacts of our existence … but it’s fleeting, because they are quickly disintegrating. As they return to their constituent elements, whatever sights they’ve born witness to are also disappearing.

Small towns throughout the Midwest are often an intriguing mishmash of architectural styles, with a few extant examples of Federalist style and Antebellum homes to be found if one searches, along with a smattering of Victorian “Painted Ladies,” Art Nouveau, and – more often than not – cautiously woven together Art Deco elements. Of course, bungalows and later box style structures still are the predominant structures, but they bore me and I choose to ignore them unless there is something unique to pique my curiosity about them.

On this particular afternoon, I’ve chosen to carry an even more Spartan kit than usual: a pen and small pad. They seem to suffice as I quickly scribble impressions from time to time, before pedaling off down the trail. (Uni-Ball Deluxe Micro pen in 4 x 5 inch lightweight sketchbook.)