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

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


Being there.

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

26 August, 2018. I had an early morning meeting in the city on Thursday, and misjudged the timing of my arrival so that I pulled up to the art museum way too early. Taking up pen and sketchbook, both of which were on my backseat, I walked from the car and found myself under a stand of trees, settled in on a park bench and I began to sketch my surroundings.

Ugh! My fountain pen almost immediately ran dry… what the heck? Had I forgotten to refill? (Yes.) I finished the sketch with a different pen, one I happened to have in my pocket.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these ten ideas I have about sketching lately. Some of my students think I should turn them into a book, but honestly it’s much more likely I’d hand print something and bind it together into a nifty little handmade thing. That would satisfy me more than a “how to” publication, I think.

So these ideas: they really aren’t a “how-to” book. In a sense, they are an act of immersion. A purposeful liberation. A rebellion from the perception that drawings must look “real,” and a realization that the most satisfying sketches instead look “convincing.” Believability trumps photographic accuracy every time. These ideas are about drawing with expression, and reacting to what is there in front of you. Being of the moment. Being there.

These are not hard and fast “rules,” but suggested ideas. Like most “rules,” I tend to ignore one or all of them from time to time. But invariably, when I find a sketch is somehow lacking, somehow dissatisfying, a quick analysis generally reveals that I’ve ignored one of these principle ideas. So there you have it.

“Be” there. Sketch what you see, not what you think you know. Observe. People and things move, and so do you. Give yourself permission to let that happen in your sketches. Stuff overlaps in the real world. Things are in front of other things, and they are seldom all magically lined up like glasses on a shelf. Allow yourself to draw what you see, and react to changes in your sketches… your sketches may very well be a record of what happens during the time you’re drawing and NOT a snapshot of one second in time. Think about that.

Now, go draw.

(Duke 551 Confucius Fude Nib Fountain Pen, Uni-Ball in Canson 180 sketchbook.)


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

12 August, 2018. One of the more difficult concepts to teach young art students is the idea of emphasis. Novices sometimes have blinders on when they start to draw, and this tends to emerge on paper in one of two ways. Some find themselves focusing only on the object of their attention, to the exclusion of all else. They find themselves with an object plopped in the middle of the paper with no context to place, time, or relationship to the world. A billion or two very unsatisfying sketchbook pages look exactly like this.

Others go in the opposite direction, drawing everything in their line of sight, and even some things that aren’t. I know a few artists who pull this off very well, but it’s important to note that what they are interested in sharing is the overall texture of a place or thing: all of that incredible detail is the subject. For the rest of us, too much stuff is visually overwhelming.

What I ask myself to consider as I sketch is pretty simple: Why am I drawing this thing or place? What exactly caught my attention in the first place? An object? A building? A person? When I can answer that question I know where to focus my attention, and thus my drawing. I draw that. Everything else in the sketch that contributes to the story is important. Anything that does not is a distraction from the story and from the focal point.

So I don’t feel obligated to include tons of detail in those areas that are a distraction. Maybe they don’t even need to be drawn at all, or perhaps they need to be simplified into basic shapes or values.

In the sketch above, made at yesterday’s plein air event, Paint the Forest, I was interested in the way that light played across the ground, tracing the topography of Line Creek Trail. Patches of light struck some of the other plein air artists ahead of me. And the receding perspective of the path itself helped to create leading lines, emphasizing these interesting areas.

All around was a cacophony of tree limbs and branches and foliage and trunks and all sorts of stuff. But none of it mattered, visually, because to focus on them would have meant taking away from those areas that interested me most. So all of that stuff got simplified into three elements:

  • simplified verticals and horizontals
  • simplified solids (or quasi-solids)
  • simplified lights and darks

The path and the people are also simplifications, but they contrast from the surrounding spaces, crossing over or separating from them, contrasting by breaking from the patterns of striating light and shadow. Those surrounding spaces have just enough visual information to communicate a sense of place and, perhaps, a bit of theatricality. But because they are intentionally abstracted into directional shapes and patterns, they aid the viewer by moving the eye into and through the drawing.

5.5 x 8.5 inches, using a fude tip fountain pen and Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen on Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series paper.

The Heat Is On

18 July 2018. It is densely humid. The temperature is flirting with one hundred degrees: in a word, the heat is stifling. Along Prospect Avenue, to those who are observant there is a concrete “park” – in other words, an expanse of off street pavement. Perhaps a building once stood on this spot, or even two. It’s difficult to accurately gauge.

And it’s really of no concern to a group of eighteen or twenty children running around, happily oblivious to anything beyond the boundary of tarmac and broken concrete and old foundation. Adjoining the sidewalk stands a tall tree, its canopy offering a trifling umbrella of shade. Standing watch within the meager cover – sitting, actually, in two folding lawn chairs – are a pair of women, mothers. They chat, one watchful and ever vigilant eye on the youngsters.

Games are invented on the spot, the rules constantly evolve, kids run and skip, visible waves of heat rise from the ground, generating an atmospheric disturbance ignored by all.

I inked the basic drawing with a fude-tipped fountain pen and filled the black areas using a fat marker loaded with India ink. The fude tip is flexible, with a wide range of line widths possible; it was an excellent choice to generate the expressive quality I hoped to achieve in this sketch.

I’ve unexpectedly returned to using a pencil to draft the construction drawing rather than making a direct ink sketch as I’ve been wont to do for a while.


Staying Loose with Fude-tipped Pens

1 April, 2018. Harry’s is a bar I haven’t visited for ages and ages… decades, in fact, to be completely accurate. But I recently discovered that a sketch group gathers here on Thursday evenings, so I’ve come down to enjoy a libation or two and meet up with what has turned out to be a diverse group of sketchers.

The bar is quiet and on a Thursday is not especially crowded, so it’s easy to collage together a couple of subjects into a single drawing. My sketches often emerge organically.  I’ll begin by sketching some detail that catches my attention and then allow the drawing to grow out of that. Sometimes, as in this instance, two sketches on facing pages grow toward each other, overlap, and then become one. As I realize this is taking place I will begin to find lines or shapes that have common ending points to allow a collage of imagery to take place.

The following morning I had to pull over on my way to work. The full moon seemed huge in the darkness before sunrise, the pumpkin color was incredibly striking. The sketch itself took a minute or less on a loose piece of copy paper that was conveniently sticking out of my brief case. Like all of the sketches in this post, it was quickly scrawled using a Fude tip fountain pen – the two above were made with a Duke, those below were lined with a Sailer. Although the Duke seems to have a smoother ink flow, there is otherwise little difference between the line quality of these pens.

There was a time when I would not have so readily embraced the graphic line quality of a sketch such as this one, nor the mechanically flat spot color. I’ve come to appreciate the nature of such mark-making though. In some ways the strokes are rudimentary, yet at the same time I find they can also feel quite meaningful.

Lots of thick lines with a few thin marks add a little visual interest, and the tiniest bit of visual texture. I enjoy the fluidity that the heavier lines have, which is made possible with a comfortable hand position when using the Fude-tipped pens.

Our server that evening was intrigued that I would dine and sketch at the same time. After sharing that this is common for me, she exclaimed, “Draw me!” But after I pointed out that she’d need to stay near for a few minutes it was decided that her manager probably wouldn’t appreciate that sort of table attention. As a consolation, she pointed at the next table over and said “OK, draw him instead.” So I did.

Everyday Life

1 December, 2017. Sometimes teaching art is a busy, move-around-the-room-and-get-pulled-in-eighteen-directions-at-once, constantly in motion thing. And sometimes it’s a sit back and watch, try not to hover too much affair like it was Friday. My Design Team is comprised of four high school kids who were competing with kids from other schools at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in the culminating activities of a Design Challenge. A Design Challenge is an interesting competition that blends the art of the design world with timed, creative problem solving of a real world design assignment. Students often have only a few hours to analyze a design problem, ideate, prototype – and then be judged. My role was to encourage and cheer on the process of ideation, but to keep my fingers out of the pie. The design problem had to be entirely owned by the kids. Rather than immersing myself in ennui I used my pen and sketchbook to stay connected to my surroundings. The everyday life of museum staff, rounded up to act as judges for the event, created the opportunity for me to observe and try to capture body language.

The act of capturing body language holds a particular interest for me. I like drawing people and I like to establish just enough additional detail to suggest a location, without getting lost in the weeds of unnecessarily sketched out minutiae. Frankly, it can be tough to get a good sketch unless I situate myself someplace where I have a good line of observation of people who are moving around a lot. The Rock & Run Brewery and Pub, located on our town square and perhaps only a twenty minute walk from the house, is such a place and I’ve taken advantage of the welcoming sketch environment on several occasions. The challenge for me is to not get distracted by all of the movement, the hustle and bustle, and to focus in on what’s really catching my attention at that moment. Essentially, I feel most successful when I “crop out” the rest of the world and treat my subject as a close up.

In my last post I wrote about the pen I’ve been trying out, a Sailor Fude De Mannen fountain pen. Both of the sketches here were done entirely with that pen, and drawn directly – in other words, no pencil. The solid area of black was filled in with Faber-Castell “Big Brush” marker, which is loaded with India ink. I picked up the Faber-Castell marker a few weekends back when my Pentel Pocket Brush Pen ran dry and I realized I had no extra cartridges with me. I was out of town and to my dismay, the local Michael’s stocked no Pentel products at all, let alone the cartridges I needed. Searching the shelves I came across the Pitt pens and noticed the “Big Brush” model. Figuring what the hell, I paid for the pen and gave it a whirl. And boy, was I happy to have done so! First off, it’s a great fill pen: the nib is large, but comes to a point and makes blocking in against detail very easy. The ink has a ready and generous flow without pooling up. And wonder of wonders – the ink doesn’t bleed through the page like a permanent marker does. It sits on top of the page (It’s India ink, remember?), where it dries without saturating the fibers of the paper.

I continue to enjoy the Sailor pen as well. What I’m coming to realize as I continue to experiment with different drawing tools is that finding “the one” drawing instrument is something of a fool’s errand. But some tools pair together better for my sketching approach than other couplings. For instance, the pairing of a Uni-Ball and a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen has worked very well for my needs. A Varsity Pilot and a loaded water brush are equally great partners, and create a very different look to a sketch made on watercolor paper. Despite the differing stylistic results, I find both pairings of tools to have the right characteristics for me to sketch freely and loosely.

Add to that mix the pairing of the Sailor and Faber-Castell pens I’ve used this week. The Fude tip of the Sailor fountain pen is proving to have a lot of appeal to me, sharing characteristics of both a pen nib and a bouncy brush. And because in order for one to take full advantage of the nib’s properties of line variation, one must be aware of the angle at which the nib is placed on the page, I find myself being a more active participant in the decisions about line weight. With a pen point that has one line weight, it’s too easy to grow complacent and simply rely upon the fluid motions of one’s hand and arm. And while those are important considerations, I know myself well enough to understand that complacency can quickly evolve into a sort of drawing laziness. Actively having to keep my hand angle moving back and forth seems to have a positive effect on line dynamic.

I’ve said it many times before, but it bears constant repeating: Perfection is not the goal of the artist. Evidence of the artist’s hand, along with all of the imperfections that come with it, are of far greater visual interest than a perfectly consistent inked line.

Selfie with a Pen

25 November, 2017. I’m testing out a new pen this morning – a Sailor fountain pen with a Fude nib. At first I found using it to be a little bit odd, but after a few minutes the back and forth tilt of the hand that’s necessary to get varying line widths becomes (mostly) intuitive. I like how the line quality reminds me of stuff I admire by Ben Shahn and David Stone Martin – in other words, embracing the imperfections of line.

This is the pen and converter I purchased earlier this week on Amazon, a Sailor Fude De Mannen. At $14.99 for the pair ($9.99 for the pen only) I could hardly take a pass on trying it out. The nib is oddly shaped, with a funky upturned point. I’d come across it when shopping for my last Lamy Safari and decided it was not going to yield the kind of results I wanted… it looks too much like a calligraphy nib – and I suppose that’s exactly what it is. So I clicked on past and forgot about it until I saw it mentioned again in Mike Daikubara’s nifty little book, Sketch Now Think Later. Daikubara says the Sailor pen is his current favorite, noting that the bent nib “allows the pen to create brushlike lines, but with more control than a regular brush.” That statement intrigued me enough to revisit Amazon and reconsider the pen.

So, it’s clearly an economy pen. Mine doesn’t seem to scribble as smoothly as my Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pens, nor does it have the tip flexibility of a dip pen with a Blue Pumpkin nib. Heck, for the price of the entire Sailor pen – shipped! – I’d be out of pocket essentially the amount of scratch it takes to get three Blue Pumpkin points. But I rationalize that I wouldn’t freak out too much if the pen gets misplaced or lost as I would if my more expensive Kuretake No. 40 were to disappear.

I continue to find myself searching for tools that aid me in my quest to make “the artist’s hand” more present, more important in my sketches and drawings. The Sailor pen meets that criteria, feeling a lot like a dip pen that you don’t have to keep dipping into a bottle of ink. Because it’s a fountain pen, that fact alone allows a lot more freedom and flexibility of hand movement than a dip pen. Rather than varying the pressure of the nib to change line weight, you have to change the angle at which you are laying down strokes. As I alluded to earlier, the act of doing so is somewhat disconcerting at first. But I found myself easing into the change of angle after just a few minutes of pen movement.

The sketch (above) was my first attempt at using the Fude-style nib, other than a handful of lines scrawled on scratch paper to see if the ink was flowing. I quickly realized how handy it is to have a single pen that can lay down both thin and thick lines. I sketched directly with the pen, with no graphite lines to guide my ink. Thus, my initial experiment was to not only see what sort of line quality I could generate, but also to see how comfortable it would be to use it in a rather improvisational sort of way. I like it so far, and will carry it around for a while to see how it responds in different situations and on different papers.

(Sailor Fude De Mannen fountain pen loaded with Noodler’s ink in a Canson 180 sketchbook; page size is approximately 5 x 7 inches.)



One Week, One Hundred People

6 March 2017. Just a quick post to add my first couple of sketches for the “One Week, One Hundred People” drawing challenge. (Lamy Safari Medium Nib fountain pen, Pentel Pocket Brushpen that was almost dry, some kind of crappy copy paper.)


7 March 2017. Another series of quick sketches, this time using watercolor and a water brush on a quarter-sheet of Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.


9 March 2017. Change of pace: sketching the surrounding restaurant patrons with a Uni-Ball Micro pen while waiting for dinner at Bonefish Grill. Fourteen more added to the week’s total.

10 March, 2017. Freshly refilled Lamy fountain pen, freshly folded sketching pamphlet, and a bit of crowd sketching this afternoon for my fourth round of the challenge. I’m short of the mark, though.

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.)

Let it Bleed!

12 July, 2016. Today I dedicated my afternoon to experimentation. I need to do this now and again just to stay fresh. Rather than perfect black lines, I wanted to draw with more of a sienna-toned ink that would bleed when re-wetted. I like how this sort of thing tends to compliment a more organic approach to drawing.

After visiting the Pen Place at Crown Center  to research colored inks, I found that Noodler’s met my objective. When inked onto Aquarius II paper, a damp brush and washes of watercolor reactivate the line work. It’s also easy to get a little “heavy handed” with the washes, which happened in my second sketch (below). To avoid that “coloring book look” I’ll remember to leave some key areas of white – “unfinished” looks has more energy than filling the sheet with color.

I’m preparing a couple of commissioned sketches at the moment, which rely on black inked lines and more carefully applied washes of color (above). My drawing pens are loaded with black Noodler’s at the moment and I am not going to buy another pen just to “test the waters” with today’s ink bleed experiment. So while I’m using my Lamy for the commission work, a dip pen is being employed for the playful sketching exercises. I don’t use dip pens very often and I was concerned that the fountain pen ink might be too thin for the purpose. But I needn’t have worried: it flowed perfectly. It was also fun to use the dip pen and will likely try to do more with it.

By the way, none of today’s sketches technically count as “urban sketching.” (And I’m perfectly fine with that.) I pulled some of my reference photos from last year’s trip to Alsace and used them as a starting point for today’s experimental sketches. (Meaning, of course, that I sketched at my drawing table in the comfort of an air conditioned room rather than the 99% humidity/95 degree temperatures outside today.) Today’s tools included a 513EF Hunt Globe bowl point steel pen, Noodler’s “Beaver” color, Koi brush pen, and watercolor.