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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Tranquility.

16 June, 2019.

We got a little wet at first, but the morning dried out nicely by ten. Urban Sketchers Kansas City held a pop up sketchout at the invitation of Liberty Hospital Foundation to sketch the surroundings of The TreeHouse, a place offering amenities to guests, including sleeping quarters and quiet rooms, and the tranquility of trees, walking path, and swaths of wild flowers.

The path is certainly peaceful and calm. At one point a baby bunny hopped right up to my foot as I sketched and seemed not at all taken aback when I exclaimed in surprise, “Well, hello there!”

I struggled to get started this morning, abandoning my first page. Each time I had myself positioned to begin, the rain returned and drops of water dotted my paper making it difficult to use my pen. After two aborted tries, I waited out the rain, turned the page, and began again.

I like the weight of the Stillman and Birn Beta paper, but I’m unsure about the spiral binding. On the one hand, each page lays perfectly flat, and I really like that aspect. On the other, it’s not really possible to draw across the spread as I might do with a perfect bound or stitched book. I’m not sure which outweighs the other. What do you think?

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.


Music, pretty much everywhere

7 December, 2018. The trumpet player is one in a quartet of jazz musicians. He’s heavyset and lounging in his chair; I worry that it’s going to break because it seems to bend under his weight and audibly creaks when he rocks back and forth. He leads the group with a version of Saint Louis Blues and while no one would mistake his horn playing for Louis Armstrong there’s something else. When he sings, his voice sounds a lot like Pops. 

Our server asks if she can show him my sketch and I nod. When the band breaks, he grabs a plate of food and comes over to chat. “Ah, an artist,” he says. I pat him on the arm and correct him: “No, there are two artists here,” nodding at him. He grins and waddles off, horn in hand to play another set.

If you’re not in New Orleans to listen to jazz, you’re missing out. It’s everywhere. At breakfast in a French Quarter place called Buffa’s, a group of elderly musicians are jamming. The trumpet and trombone players are both women, and their horns are smoking as they hammer out standard after standard, filling every bridge with improvisational solos.

It’s not unusual to encounter street musicians or small marching bands or just some guy sitting in an empty area playing his horn, presumably to warm up his chops. In Louis Armstrong Park, a lone trombonist is pacing behind a cluster of buildings, wailing away as he tried out different variations.

Banjos are so much a part of the Bluegrass music scene that it’s easy to forget they are also solidly at home in traditional jazz.

Musicians lean back or lean over and get completely lost in their sounds. They are the very essence of cool.

And on the street, waiting for a customer, the shoe shine man is singing Scat.

Snow Day.

26 November, 2018. Today is a “snow day” in Kansas City. If you live in in the south, you have no idea what that is; despite all the unpredictable types of weather you experience, snowfall isn’t one of them. And if you live in the mountains, or up north – or especially if you reside as I once did in Alaska, snow is such an integral part of cold weather that it seldom has a travel impact on your world in the way that the brutal combination of windchill, temperature, and snow fall does to those of us in the Midwestern and Plains states. Snow paralyzes traffic. Roads turn into dangerously slick channels down which automobiles slide through yards, ditches, and into trees and other cars. Black ice is a real thing, and scary as hell.

And school is called off, mostly because it’s unsafe for kids to huddle at bus stops when the windchill can cause physical harm. That’s a “snow day.” 

Everyone else has to go to work, but teachers and students are off. I hate snow days because we have to make them up – for every day off, we have another added to the end of the Spring school term, thus shortening my summer break. 

But the first heavy snowfall of the year is also a remarkable thing. Yesterday we experienced blizzard conditions with formidable winds, hours of snowfall twisting into bizarre and fantastic drifts, visibility limited to a few hundred feet. Watching it accumulate all afternoon from the comfort of my studio window is something of a treat. And today the sun has emerged – it’s still quite cold, mind you, and no chance of things melting off. It is, after all, a “snow day” and so I’m at home instead of in the classroom. The morning light casts a warm highlight across the snow-covered ground behind my house; the shadows are an exercise in color theory, perceptibly blue. In the distance, trees that weeks ago were aflame in red and orange are now dissembling hues of grey.

If I were a true plein air painter I’d be outside capturing this scene. But it’s warm inside, my portable easel is conveniently positioned at a window, and, well … after all, it is a snow day.

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