Galveston people.

29 March, 2019. Gumbo for dinner! I understood that Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar made great stuff, and wasn’t disappointed. The roux was chocolate in color – way beyond “peanut butter” roux. The aromatic and richly colored concoction was hypnotic in a way: what would be revealed under the inky pool? Well, chunks of chicken and andouille sausage, of course, along with okra. But no corn bread side, sadly. Sigh.

Our server was hip and cool and patient and just a little bit wacky. And everyone at the counter was called “babe.” I felt right at home.

The “Pleasure Pier” – what, I wondered, could this place be with a name like that? Having passed dozens of adult stores along the Interstate on the long drive south, it occurred to me that there would be a red light at the entrance. Happily, it turned out to be an amusement park.

Closer to my hotel, people staked out a warm spot on the beach, sheltering from the wind in huddled groups.

Uni-ball Vision pen and watercolor wash in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.


Intersecting with life

2 February, 2019. One of the interesting things about Urban Sketching is the way that the act of drawing can sometimes very unexpectedly intersect with unsuspecting members of the general public. Let me give you an interesting example from this morning.

Today is the first Saturday of the month, the day our chapter congregates and descends upon a prearranged location. Our group of sketchers arrived at an unusual eatery called The Parlour with the intention of drawing what we eat, as well as those eating around us. The Parlour is a very casual, leisurely place comprised of several food vendors and bars, each with their own specialty product. Spread out over two floors in a sort of food court fashion are tables and arm chairs – exactly what the name implies, a place for patrons to “lounge” and visit. It’s definitely a “no pressure” vibe.

Our group was large today, with maybe forty of us dragging around bags full of sketching and painting supplies. We arrived early and claimed one end of the second floor, staking out numerous tables and arm chairs. Then we ordered food and proceeded to sketch our fare.

A couple in search of seating wandered through, not realizing we were all together. Sitting across from me they suddenly noticed everyone had sketchbooks and they made a move to leave. Before they could rise, one friendly member of our group greeted them and asked them to stay with us. They learned much about our chapter and Urban Sketchers. And within minutes they both had pens out and were making Artist Trading Cards with others in our band.

And while they sketched, I drew them drawing and munching on empanadas.

Recipe Gone Awry.

30 December, 2018. It’s a Sunday morning, cold, and I’m too slothful to wander outside to sketch today. One of the dogs is curled up on a throw rug at my feet, enjoying the warmth of the studio while I thumb through sketches in search of something to draw.

I pause for a moment to look at this pencil sketch from my recent trip to New Orleans. This is “Gumbo Marie,” a chef at the New Orleans School of Cooking who taught a group of us how to prepare gumbo her way – the “correct” way. I’d scribbled down something she said, a quote that I really love and thought summed up her personality way better than my sketch did.

Did this pencil study excite me enough to go any further with it? I really wasn’t feeling it, so I kept thumbing through pages. Eventually, finding little to get me pumped up I found my way back to these sketchbook pages.

So here I am, nearly a month returned from my visit. My memory is fading quickly. With only a vague plan in mind for where I’m going to take things, I jump in with a pen, leaving my penciled field notes in place. As usual, I begin to look for ways to contrast large black areas against the inked focal point. I’m a little unhappy to have lost the energy of the pencil lines. They created an impression of the person and the inked lines are “too” precise. To me, they look like something from a coloring book.

After a little deliberation, I decide to take it easy with the white pen I’ve begun to use. Instead, I add some touches of color with gouache. I sure like how the painterly characteristics wipe out the “coloring book” appearance of the “too deliberate” line drawings.

I re-read Marie’s quote now and chuckle to myself. It kind of applies to the backward approach I’ve used to develop this sketch. But like a surprising twist to a recipe gone awry, I wind up liking how the dish turned out after all.

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.


10 November, 2018. Dinner. Drinks. Atmosphere. I really enjoy sitting in restaurants and bars, drawing the people around me. People are interesting, aren’t they?

You know what I mean, right? Faces, body language, expression.

It’s a little voyeuristic I know, using pen and paper to spy on my fellow diners.


So, I recently stumbled upon another sketchbook with paper I like. Made by Canson, ink and washes of color sit on top of the paper without bleeding through the page. The water-soluble pastels I’ve been drawing with recently seem to like the surface as much as I do.

I picked up two sketchbooks – they were on sale for half price at a local art store, so I figured “what the heck.” I’m working my way through the pages fairly quickly, and so went shopping for a couple more, only to discover no more on the shelf at the shop. No sign of them online either. And – frustratingly! – Canson informed me they’ve been discontinued. I’m waiting to hear back from Canson, to find out if the paper is available in sheets. Heck, I’ll make my own sketchbooks out of the stuff… I do it all the time with the other paper I really like to use, Strathmore Aquarius II.


Street Busker

11 October, 2018. The life of a street musician must be a tough one. I often wonder what’s running through their heads as they busk for a living. Do they feel invisible to the general public? Or perhaps there’s a sense they are on public display, not unlike creatures of the wild, penned behind bars in the zoo, a curiosity for passersby. In any event, I feel an obligation to these souls who put themselves out there. It seems only fair to treat them with sensitivity when they are the subject of a sketch, as they often are in my sketchbooks. Toss them a buck or two when you can, folks.

Hastily scrawled with a Uni-Ball Vision in a Canson 180 sketchbook. Color added digitally.

Restaurant Week

14 January, 2018. It’s Restaurant Week in Kansas City and I’ve dedicated some time with a pen and sketchbook to a favorite subject of mine: observations of the world of dining and  foods. The sketch above, drawn directly as most of my recent sketches are, has been really popular ever since I added it to my Flickr account. I’m very happy with the body language and rendering of the figures, and I’m particularly taken with the two profiles on the right.

Lounging in a bar can be a great opportunity for people watching, not to mention people sketching. Depending upon how crowded a place is, it also presents an opening for interacting with curious patrons around you interested in checking out your sketches. I find that larger crowds mean more anonymity, and fewer gawkers. Conversely, a quiet setting seems to encourage others to strike up a conversation with a sketcher.

This was an interesting sketch of a fellow seated a couple stools down from us at Rock and Run in Liberty, Missouri. Long, curly locks of white hair and an even longer wavy beard of snow bushed out from under a camouflage ball cap. He was meeting up with a small group of younger people – relatives, I presume – but none were as visually interesting so I left them out of the picture, and thus also from the visual story as well.

Great weather earlier in the week, especially for January was a stark contrast to the following day when the roads are iced over and all the local schools closed. As late afternoon closed in I found myself with a few free moments and a ready subject at hand, only to discover the only tools in my car were a roller ball pen and a couple blank sheets of sample paper that I’d forgotten was in the trunk. No paint, no fountain pens.

I kept the roller ball ink flowing and enjoyed the fact that I could lean against the trunk of my car to sketch and enjoy the fleetingly nice weather.

This sketch is 4 x 5 inches on gessoed illustration board. I’ve just playing around with gouache lately, as I did on the following day of icy roads and frozen afternoon. Too much a sissy to go out and paint on location, I worked from one of my old photos for reference…which brought me ’round to one of two quibbles: Painting from a photo leaves me a little cold; my colors feel too beholden to the photo, so shadows tend to be lifeless and dead. I mentioned two quibbles, the other being: Black. Damn it all, I NEVER use black in a color piece, except as line work. And here’s the reason why – it overwhelms everything else. I’d much rather build up shadows from mixtures of my primaries plus a nice “mixing” green. I decided to check to see if Holbein or WN makes my favorite watercolor green mixer, Perylene Green, in gouache. I was dismayed to find the answer to that question is no.


Diners, Dives, and Drawing.

1 November, 2017. I love to draw diners. I love how folks can grab a stool and belly up to the counter, get shoulder to shoulder and order a burger and fries, maybe a cup of coffee or a malt. And almost certainly, leave room for a slice of pie topped with ice cream.

Tables have almost no business in such a place, but booths are ubiquitous as are the flourishes of chrome and large circular clocks and esoteric wall and counter decor that is unique to each and every greasy spoon. These places and the people who frequent them, the people who operate them, are as American as the slices of apple pie clearly visible under glass.

People are real in diners. Truck drivers and laborers of all sorts. Retail workers. Exhausted and happy to be off their feet for a little while. Meanwhile, servers scurry about, pouring fresh cups of coffee and taking or delivering orders, quaintly referring to customers as “Darlin'” or “Hon.” A diner is one of those places where your server still wears her hair up in some sort of bun that I am convinced they all had to go someplace to learn how to do to achieve some sort of uniformity.

Diners are perfect places to draw. If you sketch on site, you’ll invariably find the act will invariably initiate a robust conversation with your server (is it ok to still refer to servers as “waitresses” in diners?) She’ll have an aunt or cousin or neighbor who is an artist or likes to draw or paint, and that, my friends, is all it takes to complete the circuit, a personal connection between her artistic acquaintance and your yet-to-be-scribbled-upon sketchbook page.

Menus are often a single, large sheet of cover stock coated with peeling laminate. And menu items are pretty much universal from one joint to another, although there’s usually some sort of local specialty that each is “famous” for – perhaps a massive Pork “T” or a derivation of an open face. Regardless of the quality, it’s honest food.

(Uni-Ball Vision Micro and Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, in 5.5 x 8.5 inch Canson 180 sketchbook.)

All the World’s a Comedy.

2 September, 2017. I find that a lot of my sketching takes place in restaurants and pubs. OK, so I enjoy good food, great wine, and people watching. Sketching those around me is, I recognize, just a little bit voyeuristic. But I have always loved the idea that the world is a comedy in which we are all the players. The snippets of observed life from the tables around me are edited scenes in which we may only be privy to the briefest view of a much longer narrative. In fact, I feel like these sketches can be considered a second cousin to the art of street photography.

Right or wrong, fairly or unfairly, these sketches reflect the observation of a moment or two. They are the most memorable aspects – to me, at least – of a given time and place, the  distanced confluence of my world with that of others who I will likely never again chance upon. And it’s out of these briefest of encounters that I enjoy weaving my own narrative, a sort of cartoon of life.

(Sketched with a Uni-Ball Deluxe and Kuretake No. 40 brush pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

A Day in the Life of an Urban Sketcher


2 June, 2017. Urban Sketchers turns 10 this November! We are celebrating this achievement with a series of events happening all over the world throughout 2017!

A Day in the Life of an Urban Sketcher celebrates the lives of sketchers around the world and how they share work online. This social media event will feature a different sketcher each month in an Instagram and Twitter takeover. The featured sketcher will show their world, one drawing, one tweet, and one Instagram post at a time. …And tomorrow, Saturday, June 3, find out just how little I know about Twitter when the USk social media follows me!

I’ll also be teaching a graduate level sketching workshop through the Kansas City Art Institute tonight through Sunday afternoon. “Illustrating the Edible” should be a fun and interesting way to tell the stories of our community through the various ways we experience food. From community farms to the City Market, from locally sourced restaurant fare to the City Union Mission, my students will be artist-storytellers, communicating the variety of ways that food connects us all. If you’re in Kansas City, look for us at The Cellar Rat this evening, Stock Hill tomorrow morning, the City Market tomorrow afternoon, and the City Union Mission on Sunday afternoon. I’ll share highlights of this weekend in a future blog post, and Saturday will be thoroughly documented on the Urban Sketchers Twitter and Instagram accounts. (Follow @urbansketchers on Instagram and Twitter and check out the hashtag #uskdayinthelife.)