What a difference a couple of months makes.

14 June, 2019.

It was late in the day, and between thunderstorms – although I didn’t realize it at the time: I thought the first downpour was the entirety of the weather and I’d headed off for a long ride in the country. The sky was still pregnant with potential though, and I stopped atop one rise to quickly record the dense wash of sky and the long shadows. A little later, I realized the rain was a sandwich and I was the filling. For the better part of forty minutes I pedaled through showers, enjoying the breeze and the feel of rain on my face, and hoping the kit on my back remained dry.

I’ve been working almost exclusively in my Stillman and Birn sketchbooks recently. I like the paper in these books for sketching with pens quite a lot, and they are better than acceptable for adding watercolor. Strathmore Aquarius II also does an excellent job with this particular combination, and excels with pencil and watercolor. It’s why I make “sketching pamphlets” from that paper – accordion-fold booklets that are light and easy to carry with me for watercolor sketching. On this day I selected a pamphlet that was nearly full: One small spot remained untouched, and today I would finish it with my impression of the post-rain/pre-rain farmland I encountered.

Those sketches of houses were made in March, and wow! What a difference the world has undergone in that short time! And wow! What a difference my color selections have undergone as a result!

Greens fight me when I toy around with gouache, and I feel like they are overworked. The same colors are more readily accessible to me in watercolor, which I think it is likely due to their transparency of pigment.

I’m drawn to dramatic skies, and that looming rain holds more visual appeal for me than the clearest and bluest of atmospheres. I’ve a vivid recollection of swiftly laying down the grays of the sky in that house sketch to the left of yesterday’s scribble. It was so satisfying to capture some essence of that day! Each stroke was deliberate and intentionally restrained, intentionally leaving some parts of the white paper untouched. And suddenly, in a matter of seconds, it emerged. Sometimes, watercolor is infuriating, and sometimes it’s just magic. I live for those latter moments.

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Watercolor and pencil on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

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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.

Color in the Grays

10 March, 2019. It’s sunrise and the clock says one time, my body disagrees: there’s exactly one hour in dispute. It’s very still outside, and the waking temperature is just above freezing. It is, in fact, much warmer than the past several months of gloom.

Still, the ground is frozen as I crunch around the yard in house slippers, and the gloom is still clear in my mind. In the distance, the water tower is a mixture of Cerulean blue and Quinacidone red, the hues neutralizing each other into a luminous gray. In the ground below I see a favorite, Perylene green; I’ll have to mix in a red and blue to darken it further if I want to do more than paint it in my mind.

The sky changes fast and I notice that the cloud cover is a mixture of periwinkle and violets that contrasts lusciously with the rising sun, a brilliant, if somewhat diffused ball of orange.

Looking down at the sketching pamphlet I began yesterday, I suddenly realize I’ve been unconsciously digging colors out of my gray world.

Sometimes I rely on memory and impressions to sketch out an idea, but memory is a funny thing and subject to vagaries and everything with which one comes into contact between the actual experience and the time one attempts to manifest it in some way. This morning I felt the need to supplement my impression with a quick pencil sketch and notes. It seemed as though getting the placement and ideas of values was important, and little thought was given to the colors of this sunrise.

Realizing this was an error, I ran to the studio to grab my travel kit. Not finding it immediately, I instead picked up the butcher tray I use for studio work and returned to a room full of windows facing east. Two minutes later I had a satisfactory color study.

Not content, I decided to spend a few more minutes making a second color study. The graphic curve was added to create a sense of leading lines that complimented the diagonal bank of clouds.

Even still, the composition seemed unresolved so I played around with various croppings, eventually settling on this. And now, satisfied with the design, perhaps I’ll work on a more “finished” painting this evening.

Right now, the day is beckoning. Hiking boots and jacket won’t be in the closet for much longer, nor my sketchbook on the shelf.

A day without color.

24 February, 2019. The day is black and white – no exaggeration at all. I look around me in search of any glimpse of color, but there’s none at all. The snow is over for now, replaced by rain and a little wind and a dense fog. Whatever hues are out there, they’ve all been subject to a gauze-like filter. Shapes are indistinct; objects simply disappear beyond a hundred yards or so. In between, everything else is a graphic halftone: this tree is closer to me and I can make out 60% of the monochromatic values, that tree is a bit further off and perhaps only a quarter of the tones are visible. Beyond that is a milky nothingness.

I know there are houses and more trees. A muffled bark, soft in the distance… from what direction? And close or far? It’s impossible to tell.

The top layer of snow is melting in the rain. Tomorrow brings sun, so maybe I’ll pull on my winter cycling gear, stuff a small sketchbook into my jacket, and wheel down the road for twenty or thirty miles.

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Fude-tip fountain pen, Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series sketchbook; approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.

Suggestiveness

13 February, 2019. It’s no secret that I enjoy telling stories through the drawings I make. My scribbles are usually a response to a particular place and time and experience. Even though I feel no sense of obligation to record the sort of detail a photographer might value – in fact, I’ll often indulge in creative license to add visual interest – I seldom make up a scene entirely from whole cloth as I’ve done with these examples.

I do like to experiment and doodle, and sometimes my scribbles suggest ideas to me, concept emerges from the abstract qualities of a sketch. The pencil thumbnail below, for instance, began as playful experimentation with values. Very quickly, I began to see a rift – a river, perhaps? – and a structure. In front of the structure is the ending section of a wall. Surrounding these elements is a whole lot of nothingness.

Perhaps it’s simply an awareness of the current political discourse that makes the blob of graphite suggestive of a barrier to me. Maybe it’s simply a reaction to the chance placement of penciled marks… honestly, I’m not terribly concerned about the genesis. However, I’m always intrigued by the formal qualities of a work – especially when those qualities imply something greater than color or bold strokes or contrast – or whatever. At heart, I am a formalist I suppose… a formalist intrigued by narrative and expression.

I had an idea…

10 February, 2019. I had an idea, somewhat imperfectly formed in my mind, an image that I could almost – but not quite grasp. In a moment of nearly pure clarity I could picture each and every necessary and vital step of the process.

The colors and washes went down exactly as I’d imagined, but then the washes began to dry. I questioned myself and left alone that which should have been manipulated further, and worked further into that which should have been left untouched. The marvelous image I pictured disappeared right in front of my eyes and in what remained I could only see, glaringly, folly.

In disgust, both with myself and my sketch, I documented the work and walked away.

And time passes. It’s another day. I still see a ghost of what might have been. I still cringe a little looking at the parts that made me shudder yesterday. I can place my thumb over some places in the sketch and see where I strayed. Mistakes are there, painful tools of learning – but I also see things I like, marks I overlooked yesterday masked by my chagrin at having missed the original target.

I’ll probably always cringe just a little at the amateurish strokes that mar an otherwise acceptable sketch. Such blows soften over time, this I know well.

Cold fog at dawn

9 February, 2019. If nothing else, this week of miserable weather has served as something of a muse.

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Watercolor on 300# Arches Cold Press, 7 x 7 inches.

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.

Over and over again.

28 November, 2018. I think I could just keep on working with this subject over and over again, and continue to find new ways to look at the same view I’ve been sketching for the past couple of days.
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Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble pastels on Stillman and Birn Nova Series paper, approximately 5 x 7 inches.

Failed by color.

27 November, 2018. The color of sunlight raking across the snow glowed in amazing golds, pinks, and oranges early this morning. Long shadows of blue and violet created a scene that absolutely charmed me.

But color failed me – or I, it. Clumsy, wonky, terribly wrong color was what I placed on the page, and I fell back to my safety net, the tried and true: line drawing. Black ink loosely scribbled very quickly over gray paper, white ink  even more loosely scribbled, a shallow representation of the warm highlights that I found so mesmerizing. And even the fallback wasn’t without drama; the white ink seemed to prefer freezing on the tip of the pen rather than releasing smoothly over paper.

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Fude tip fountain pen with Noodler’s Bulletproof ink and white Uni-ball Signo in a Stillman and Birn gray-toned sketchbook, approximately 5 x 7 inches.