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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Hum-dinger.

3 April, 2019. I love period architecture. Really nice examples of Art Deco and Art Nouveau style designs and decoration are simply wonderful. I love the moodiness of Gothic structures, and Gothic Revival is always what I picture when I think of a haunted house. But there’s one thing I will nearly always pull over to see: an old school diner or burger joint. The more of a dive, the better I like it.

Gaudy stripes, overkill on signage, lots of custom neon, cheesy graphics? Love, love, LOVE it!

And if it’s got a great big sign and a uniquely crazy name, all the better. This place is in a run down neighborhood near downtown Kansas City, Missouri. I thought I’d explored most of that area, so I was really taken aback as I drove along 9th Street and saw this place through my windshield. I had to stop to check it out.

“Hum-Dinger.” Now that’s a great name for a total dive. It’s a small place inside, and one you have to stand in line to get in. I read that there are 14 different kinds of burgers, not to mention tacos and barbecue and Italian steak sandwiches, malts and fries and onion rings. If you want vegetables, you’re out of luck unless you are good with them being deep fried.

I love how weathered the exterior has become over the past half-century of operation. The red paint has flecks of white showing through, and the neon on the sign is out in places. And that sign! Faded patches of paint surround the neon graphic of a mid-century carhop that adorns the top of the sign.

Thus far, I’ve only made a sketch of this most perfect of places. Next step: a burger and onion rings.

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

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.

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.

Christmas Eve.

24 December, 2018. It’s Christmas Eve and I have one gift left to pick up. The store has called to let me know it has finally arrived – yes, with only one day left to go. I have qualms about heading out to a shopping area on the day before Christmas. Will I have to slog my way through crowded streets, weave through throngs of shoppers in search of last minute purchases?

Thus, I leave early, arriving before the stores open, and – hopefully! – before others arrive. This way I can sketch a little, walk a little, pick up my gift item as the store opens, and then swoop out toward home as the masses are arriving.

The plan is successful… whew!

Kansas City Architecture

8 November, 2018. The neighborhood surrounding the 1910 Beaux-arts style Kansas City Museum is a place I bicycle through fairly regularly. Overlooking Cliff Drive, this must have been quite a location back in the day, and frankly it still is, though a little more worn than it was a century ago.

The museum itself is currently undergoing significant renovations, but the grounds and buildings are easily seen from the street.

 

Sometimes it feels good just to scribble.

13 October, 2018. Sometimes it feels good just to scribble. I had all sorts of plans this afternoon for some architectural sketches, something with detail. Something contemplative.

Once I got out there, I wasn’t feeling it, though.

I’ve learned not to fight it.

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.

Purposeful Placement: Thinking in “Threes”

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

7 October, 2018. It’s no secret that I believe a strongly designed composition is the very heart of what makes a sketch visually interesting. Ask me if I’m especially interested in creating a photographically “accurate” version of a scene, however, and I’ll always respond, “Not really.”

I’m perfectly happy to move elements around in a drawing if it makes the visual story more compelling. I’ll change the scale of objects, move them to create a different overlap or to emphasize a particular thing: to me, artists have a license to do such things, to organize a drawing with purpose.

I’ll often look for some element – the truck in this sketch, for instance – some element that I can bring to the fore. I tend to “think in threes.” So, three planes: foreground, middle ground, background. Or three main elements. Three points: purposefully arranging the masters of the subject to create a visual triangle.

I love to use the intentional placement of elements in such a way that overlap and scale create a sense of visual hierarchy. It’s interesting to me to have elements intentionally violate the edge of the page. Often in my own drawings it’s the main subject that does this, but it can just as effectively be a typographic element or something from the background. Does it advance the story? Create a heightened sense of space? If so, I’m interested.

These were all drawn on an incredibly wet four-day weekend using a Uni-Ball Vision pen and a Pitt marker for fills. The color was added digitally.