Peaceful simplicity.

1 May, 2019.

I love to create sketches that are left with an “unfinished” – or at least half-finished – appearance. It amuses me to allow viewers an opportunity to complete the work in their minds. A gray background limited to black and white demands elements be simplified, distilled down to their core essence. This sort of sketching becomes a visual game of formal qualities, choreographing elements of line, space, shape, and value.

Hiking along a wooded path, the trees form patterns of linear verticality. It’s easy to picture this space, divided into shapes of black, gray, and white. In fact, the intellectual challenge of mentally assembling this visual puzzle is enjoyable. Choosing what to eliminate and what to keep in a sketch like this is an exercise in peaceful simplicity.

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Bent nib fountain pen, Uni-Ball Vision pen, and white gouache in a gray Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

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Like a root.

29 April, 2019.

It’s a blustery day, and for the moment warm. But clouds are predicted to march in on these terrific gusts of wind and the temperature drop quickly this afternoon. The dog and I walk along a mountain bike trail, following a meandering track through dense wood, up hill and down dale. The trees surround us like a loose sweater, providing a shield from the growing squall. Overhead, the boughs are swaying though, and every now and again there is a sharp snap!as a large limb breaks, then tumbles, smashing its noisy way through lesser appendages to the ground.

Stopping to study and admire a particularly mad tree, I pondered how I might go about making a sketch. Like people, every tree has it’s own unique personality. Whereto begin a drawing of a tree is a decision fraught with choice – in fact, the starting point is seldom a random one for me. The process is a lot like a road map, branches tracing a route stretching away from home. And it occurs to me – not for the first time, either – that a tree often looks like an upside-down root system. 

This particular tree is wild and uncontrolled, frenzied arms stretch out frenetically. There is nothing symmetrical about the chaos, and yet, after all, there actually is

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Fude bent nib fountain pen and Uni-Ball Vision pen in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

An unexpected companion.

13 March, 2019. Hiking along wet trails with a notion to sketch as I walked, I encountered an unexpected companion emerging from the woods, a curious and talkative soul. And while I made far fewer drawings than originally planned, I learned a lot about the 1834 stop Joseph Smith made over the adjoining hill and the cholera graves near the adjacent gully; about Jolly Wymore, the first victim of Jesse James in the first daylight bank robbery; and the train that had once run across the rail bed on which I now trod. Arrowheads and glaciated boulders, wounded veterans, and a hidden well spring, the depths of which are now cemented over. I saw many interesting trees as we strolled along a muddy path, but none – save this one – found their way into my sketchbook.

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Brush pen loaded with Noodler’s Bulletproof Ink and Uni-ball Deluxe in a Canson 180 sketchbook.

An old sort of yard.

5 March, 2019. I’m sitting there, just stretched out in my arm chair staring out a window overlooking a snow covered backyard and wondering where, oh where Spring is hiding. Violet shadows stretch across an alabaster blanket and there are no middle tones to speak of. I really should be painting this scene: it’s pretty much perfect for watercolor.

But it’s also perfect for a quick pen sketch, scrawly and scribbly and just kind of raw. It’s an old sort of day, and my yard is an old sort of yard. The Cottonwood trees are tall. Even bereft of leaves, the long limbs still wrap themselves around the place. Atop my shed, an otherwise rusted roof is brilliantly white for the moment; it also hides ten thousand fallen branches and vines. Inside, half a cord of wood and a riding mower and two dozen fishing poles – only the wood will see daylight while the snow remains. Behind the shed, weeds twist and tangle, just as scribbly as my pen lines. Somewhere underneath it all my rhubarb sleeps, waiting, like me, for Spring.

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Fude-tip fountain pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.

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.

And yet…

21 January, 2019. Man, this paper is a pain in the keister! Ink bleeds like crazy. My super compliant Caran D’Ache pastels don’t want to stick, and dragging the nib of my pen across the paper is a lot like driving a Jeep across the surface of the moon. It seems to suck ink right out of my pen reservoir too. Oh, and forget about activating those water soluble pastels with a brush.

And yet…

Drawing on lousy paper is fraught with frustrations. Marks happen by chance. There’s just something about the unpredictability that makes sketching an appealing act of happenstance.

From time to time I’ll cut up a brown bag from the grocery store to draw upon. It’s a bit like butcher paper, but not as nice. The paper in this sketchbook is awful. It seems to have been formulated from some sort of oatmeal/palm frond/sandpaper/asteroid pulp recipe. The surface is irregular and looks hand made (although I doubt it actually is.)

The cover is laughably kitschy, but it does brighten up an otherwise cold and gloomy looking January world. It’s an embarrassingly “touristy” look, quite frankly, and the binding, while functional, is inset so far from the spine that a lot of real estate is lost: the effective useful drawing area is much smaller from side-to-side than it would appear at first glance. And that twig! It’s an entirely decorative accent (as is the cut out fish); it makes me chuckle just a little bit. This is a sketchbook you simply cannot take seriously.

And yet…

It is a fun surface to mark upon. In a way, it reminds me of the crummy manilla paper I used for pen and ink drawings when I was a kid. I’d no idea at the time that “artist paper” was even a thing and so I used dip pens and India ink over terrible paper that was only barely workable. And doing so meant braving the frustrations of the inevitable ink spatter and blobs. As an adolescent, those frustrations led to more than one bottle of ink getting thrown across the room.

I’m also reminded of Renaissance era artist sketches. As I was floundering my way through the world of dip pens, the twelve year old me was gifted art books by my aunt. One book I particularly recall was illustrated with ink sketches by Rembrandt. The lines were spare and at the same time incredibly expressive. The sketches were made with what I imagine was a crude dip pen and represented a very handmade process. The paper never allowed a “perfect” line to be formed. I suspect now that Rembrandt’s paper had discolored over time, but everything about the paper in my sketchbook reminds me of his drawings: the color, the way lines are broken and skitter across the surface. Such paper encourages one very simplistic approach to drawing, a sort of imperfection that I find attractive.

Once upon a time, in a life before I was an art educator, I was a designer and illustrator. It was how I made my living. With the advent of Instagram and various other social medias, I’ve noticed a cascade of younger art makers are labelling themselves as illustrators. I sort of wonder how many of them realize that illustrators, for the most part, make art for someone else – that illustrators are hired to express the ideas of others. Illustrations are assignments generated by others and executed by illustrators. I wonder if that label of “illustrator” is self bestowed as a means of validating their art making. I hope not.

Illustration is a valid form of art making, but I no longer consider myself to be an illustrator, except in the very broadest sense of the word. I draw what I enjoy, when I enjoy, and where I enjoy. Any “assignments” are my own and no apologies are necessary for how crudely my marks are made.

Even when they are made on crummy paper.

Winter Gloom

18 January, 2019. Boy, am I ever done with this weather! As I write this, the world outside my window is layer upon layer of opaque white, actually quite lovely looking in a very graphic sort of way. But I’m stuck indoors so much that I’m going just a little batty. Snow, cold, frozen fog, drizzle – none of it is particularly conducive to getting outside.

I’ve been staying pretty close to my neighborhood, especially last weekend when a big snow storm hit us. Finally, deciding I really couldn’t wander from one end of the house to the other yet again, I got into the four wheel drive and headed out to explore. The world was, as my sketch above indicates, entirely black and white.

Down the hill from here is a Chinese restaurant that I visit every now and then. With the Subaru already warmed up, the cold was braved and spring rolls helped to assuage the gloom of winter.

Uni-Ball Vision pen in Crescent sketchbook, page size is approximately 3.5 x 5 inches.

Baseball History

6 January, 2019. There he is, Satchel Paige, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, looking for the signal from catcher Josh Gibson, one of the greatest power hitters of all time. In the outfield stands Cool Papa Bell, deceptively languid. He is considered by many baseball observers to be one of the fastest men to ever play the game, and he calmly stands waiting for anything to be hit remotely in his direction. 

We’re at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum today. Our January First Saturday sketch walk has us visiting with some of the legends of baseball in a location that almost immediately turned into one of our chapter’s favorite spots to sketch. The museum exhibits are wonderful. Wandering through the space, sketchers seem to be around every corner, in the lobby, outside sketching in the 18th and Vine Jazz District. One particular highlight of our morning is the exhibit in the central part of the museum, a baseball field populated with statues of baseball legends at their positions, ready to play ball. On and around the field USkKC sketchers have positioned themselves and are sketching with intensity.

Uniball in Canson 180 sketchbook, color added digitally after scanning; page size is approximately 8 x 10 inches.

A perfectly good building.

4 January, 2019. My friend Peggy asked me if I’d had a chance to sketch the building at 47th and Pennsylvania yet. I’m still on break between semesters so my brain is set to “Pause” at the moment – I admitted I had no idea which building she was talking about.

“It’s the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the Country Club Plaza, and you better get down there before they tear it down!”

Wednesday morning dawned, bright and cold, the first day of commerce in 2019. I stood in the shadow of McCormick & Schmick’s, studying the scene before me: The fencing and hardhats and construction equipment that surrounded what I think is an iconic Plaza structure was incongruous with the building and all of it’s architectural fellows. My understanding is limited – unless someone comes along to save it, the location is going to be used for a new building. It seems like a terrible waste to me, and – once again – a terrible loss of our own history. I haven’t seen drawings of the new building yet, but I’m fearful of a tall gray box with lots of mirrored glass.

Standing on the sidewalk, I sketch quickly. Although I’ve brought two pair of gloves, I immediately discover that one pair is too thin and my hands are in pain from the cold within minutes. The other pair is much warmer, but so thick that it’s virtually impossible to handle my pen with any dexterity at all. Those are abandoned and I finish the sketch with my fingers numb.

Later, when I archive my sketch onto Flickr, I caption it “yeah, just tear it down you fools.” Small solace, I know.

After freezing my hands to the point of numbness, I collected myself and my sketch kit and retired to the warmth of a favorite restaurant for lunch. To my surprise, I discovered there were some unused pages at the back of this small Crescent sketchbook. That discovery delighted me far more than it should have – like the twelve year old that I am at heart, I find undue glee in trifling happenstance.

Scrambling outside to sketch on one of those empty pages, the world had warmed a little. Gloves were comfortable, but no longer necessary. I quickly sketched the entrance to McCormick and Schmick’s.

And immediately behind the restaurant, construction workers in yellow vests continued to work, unabated.

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Uniball Vision and Pitt “Big Brush.” The top sketch is approximately 8 x 10 inches in a Canson 180 sketchbook; the lower sketch is in a Crescent sketchbook, the page size is about 3 x 5 inches.

Proportion and Continuity

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

“Proportion” is a word that gets used a lot in art, but seems to me to be largely misunderstood. So let’s begin with a bit of common ground by establishing what I am referring to when I talk about proportion in sketching, which is the relative size and scale of the various objects appearing in your drawing.

In the observed world (see my reference photo above), a sketcher might consider various proportions. For instance, when I draw something is the width of an object proportionally accurate when compared to the height of that object? Is the size and shape of that entire object proportionally accurate when compared to other objects within the motif? What about the space between objects? Or the scale of objects appearing closer vs. further away? If one’s objective is to make a photographically accurate rendering, proportionality becomes a very important factor.

So does that mean proportionality is no longer important if one is making a sketch that is purposefully not photographically accurate? A drawing in which exaggeration is intentional? I would argue that proportionality is, in fact, of even greater value to the artist if one is hoping for a degree of authenticity or believability.

My sketches are nearly always exaggerated in some manner. I choose to use line and shape as a means of expressiveness. Compare the shape of my buildings above to the photograph – there are significant differences in the forms themselves, not to mention the placement and spacing. But while the drawing couldn’t be placed over the photograph on a light box with any degree of accuracy, I feel like it is true to the place. Artists make decisions about what to include and what to leave out all the time. So too do we make decisions about proportionality.

In fact, I find that continuity is much more useful in a drawing than photographic accuracy. Whether your shapes are drawn in a quirky or cartoonish way, or very accurately, the goal is to shoot for consistency throughout the drawing.

To make my point, I’ve shared four images of the same subject this morning: two are variations using line, one is a loose watercolor sketch, and the other is a photographic reference of the location I sketched. The line art and the watercolor are stylistically different; neither are “accurate” to the photograph. But I feel like both are “truthful” representations of the place and time. You’d probably recognize the place from the sketches. Proportionality has been used to “stretch” the otherwise squat vertical objects in a very horizontal motif. Perhaps this exaggeration of proportion helps to communicate the personality of the structures and place and time better than photographic accuracy might.

To pull this off, sketchers must be consistent in the way that proportions are exaggerated. To do otherwise risks creating a sketch that, while perhaps quite skillful, is somehow less believable, less convincing to a viewer.