Travel Sketching

22 July, 2017. Sketching while traveling is a unique experience in some ways. For one thing, one is encouraged to observe the world as though one has never seen it before because in all likelihood this may be the first time to encounter a place, people, custom, or event. I feel a degree of freedom to simply scribble notions of these encounters in the form of sketches which, often enough, tend to fluctuate between medium. Do I have time to sit and observe? Am I feeling rushed? Or wanting to move along soon to eat? Is the opportunity fleeting? Events of the moment predicate the tool I use to sketch.

Watercolors are like a puzzle. For me, they are spontaneous and less about planning than one might imagine. Instead, they are more likely to be an exercise in figuring out what to place where, and how much detail to labor over or ignore. I place a colored shape and then look at the page to figure out where to work next, repeating this approach over and over again, moving from left to right, top to bottom. It could hardly be described as a science because I work mostly from my gut. I do consider contrasts of cool to warm colors, as well as contrasts of value, but the approach is definitely a different mindset than when I use pens to sketch with.

Working on the thin, cheap paper of a sketchbook with watercolor can be challenging. You have to not work the paper too much or risk rubbing clear through the sheet! A light and restrained touch is better than overworking, and results in nice blooms of color that I especially appreciate seeing appear. During my recent travel to the islands of Hawaii, I found myself using this approach to capture scenes that were, for the most part, without motion or movement.

Pens are also a tool of spontaneity for me, but much more visceral than painting. Even when I add watercolor after the fact, the line tends to be the most important, most informing aspect of the drawing. Sometimes precious, but more often than not nearly schematic, my lines are the truest extension of my hand and the most comfortable means of expressing a visual that I know.

Pens work better for me to capture the gestures or caricatures of people doing whatever it is they are doing. I like incorporating “field notes” into my sketches as a reminder of the experience.

Pencils are the most basic of drawing instruments and the thing nearly every one of us learned before any other tool or drawing instrument. Although my curriculum determines that I teach the broad range of dynamic value one can generate with a pencil, my own pencil sketches tend to be quite loose and expressive. I have to make conscious decisions to do things a certain way so that if I wind up adding color later the sketch isn’t constrained too much by one media or the other. I don’t want the drawing to dictate the entirety of the painting.


Get Outside and Keep Things Simple.

16 April, 2017. At the start of this last week I found myself desperate to draw. I introduced the last assignment of the semester to my drawing and painting students, and began to sketch alongside them, toying around with a colored ground, an Omni-Ball Deluxe pen, and a white Cray-pas. It felt so academic…I needed to get outside!

Keeping things basic, I headed out on several occasions for an hour or two of bike sketching. This is simple enough: stow a pen and a couple scraps of paper into a bike bag or jersey and head out with no other purpose or destination in mind than to explore. I find that some of the most satisfying excursions happen when I open my eyes up to places I visit slowly on foot or by wheel. This was a little house I’ve bicycled past a thousand times before, but today it just needed to be sketched. Using a Pilot Varsity and hitting the line work very minimally with a water brush creates a very pleasing monochromatic wash effect.

A little further down the road I encountered this very cool community service project, something I never noticed until today. In fact, I’d ridden past it and was already a dozen yards down the road before it occurred to me what I’d seen from the corner of my eye. I turned around to investigate further. (Pilot Varsity and water brush)

I’d issued a “mini-challenge” to our USk group earlier this week to draw people doing yard work. It seemed appropriate for the weather, and to my chagrin I realized I hadn’t participated much at all in the challenge. Yard work was taking place in the yard behind my studio and I quickly scribbled out my impression. And then I hopped on my bike and headed back out into the world beyond my drawing table. (Pentel Pocket brush pen)

This sketch of the Clay County Archives Museum is such a “post card” moment. A part of me feels like making a tighter version of this sketch in a larger format. The larger part of me prefers to overlook such preciousness and simply enjoy the energy of the sketch. (Pencil and watercolor)

OK. No actually bike sketching took place here because it’s my backyard, but it’s included because I sketched it right after I got home and put the bike away. (Pentel Pocket brush pen)

And then yesterday rolled into view. A beautiful morning to ride and get in some bike sketching…although if I am to be perfectly honest, I got in a lot more biking than sketching!  (Pilot Varsity and water brush)

My takeaway for the week is twofold:

  1. Get outside! (Breathe and enjoy the freshness of spring.)
  2. Keep it simple. (This applies not only to the drawing, but to the tools and the method of encounter as well.)

Union Station: Inside and Out

1 April, 2017. Yes, it’s All Fool’s Day, but the second outing of USk/KC was no joke. We’ve had a remarkable response to the group, and an equally remarkable turnout to events. The enthusiasm is heartening and I am encouraged to think that we’ll be able to keep the motivation and participation high.

For this event, we met at Kansas City’s historic Union Station. It’s chilly outside and quite naturally we mostly gathered indoors for comfortable and abundant seating in the cavernous building. As always seems to happen, the act of drawing, sketching, and painting is a curiously voyeuristic action, not on the part of us, as artists, drawing from observation. But also on behalf of people around us. I stopped sketching numerous times to engage in friendly conversation with the curious.

I don’t see these interruptions as a negative, by the way. In fact, the more artists and sketchers connect with these curious observers, the more it becomes apparent that we’re not some special, “precious,” and select group. There is, in fact, little that separates people other than interests. How wonderful that we have this opportunity to chat, to advocate for our particular interests, and to share what it is we are doing. Maybe – just maybe – this passing chat will encourage another to pick up a pen or pencil next weekend.

I made several sketches this morning, beginning with the one at the top of this thread. That particular sketch went through quite a lot of evolution, emerging from the initial pencil marks first as a contour drawing in thinly inked lines, and then getting blocked in with heavier marks using a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Later on, when we gathered together around the food tables across the street at Crown Center, I felt like the sketch looked unfinished so I pulled out the gouache kit and began to add color. I wanted to contrast the cool gray of the overcast sky and the murkiness of the architectural detail around the arched window with a warmth on the highlighted interior of the arch. These color temperatures were intentionally enhanced for dramatic effect, and in fact I went back in even later to add another layer of color to make the sketch feel a little more “complete.”

I was having difficulty loosening up. Maybe I shouldn’t have started with rigid geometry this morning. I find that I get more energy when I focus on more organic shapes as the primary subject matter. That led me to working on very fast gestures of people. After this exercise I began to feel like I could “move” my hands without getting too tight.

By this time, I’d been moving around inside the building for most of the morning and decided to change my perspective entirely by heading outdoors – sort of. An elevated glass walkway connects Union Station with Crown Center, and by positioning myself over the street I wound up with a nice, elevated view of the exterior. I was standing while I sketched, and as sometimes happens wound up getting into the idea of loose lines that define contours and shapes without getting lost in details. The perspective was convincing, and later on after adding some really quick splashes of watercolor, I netted a sketch that feels fresh and not terribly overworked.

I’m still not sure if I like gouache or not. Watercolor, which used to be such a difficult medium for me to manipulate, has become so effortless that I find myself treating it in a rather unfairly cavalier way these days. We also found ourselves discussing how to correctly pronounce “gouache” over lunch today. (I’m notoriously bad about simply making up pronunciations, and I wound up Googling it. Turns out there are at least three “correct” pronunciations and my version seems to be the “most” correct.)

Heading back to my car after our group had shared sketchbooks and enjoyed a light lunch, I realized I had missed an opportunity to sketch the trains on display outside the station. Whatever was I thinking? Guess I’ll have to head back out there again sometime soon!


Zoned out.

27 January, 2017. I had to laugh. During my painting class yesterday, I noticed one of my kids had zoned out. Wasn’t watching videos. Wasn’t causing any trouble – as a rule, he’s a pretty great kid. But he was just stationary, unmoving, solid as a rock.

I’d been at an adjacent table giving one-on-one assistance, so my drawing tools were already sitting out and at hand. I opened the sketchbook to a fresh spread and quickly sketched him using a Kuretake No. 40 brush pen (the color was added later in the day.)

Finishing the sketch, I drifted his way and tapped him on the shoulder to see if anything was wrong. With a startled look he snapped right out of it. He said he was just day dreaming and asked how long I’d been watching. I told him he’d held still long enough that I had been able to make a sketch of him. Big grin and an honest laugh!

It was a real teachable moment… no recriminations whatsoever. He was very interested in the drawing and wanted to take a cell phone photo of the sketch to send to his mom. I showed him how the brush pen worked and let him try it too. He’s very interested in becoming a better artist and really is quite diligent. No idea why he zoned out on this particular morning, but it turned out to be a solid opportunity for making a solid connection with him.

And this is why I teach art.

(Kuretake No. 40 brush pen and gouache in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Objects of Desire

20 January, 2017. This past week I began to introduce gouache to my painting students. It’s a media that seems to be remarkably unfamiliar to students, and surprisingly even to many art teachers of my acquaintance. Essentially, gouache is an opaque watercolor. Practically speaking I see it handling somewhere between traditional watercolor and tempera. I know a lot of classroom tempera paint is really crude stuff, so I don’t mean to sound disparaging. Good quality gouache is far and away superior to the gloppy tempera paint that comes in gallon jugs.

Normally I would be teaching acrylic right now, but I’ve grown weary of replacing brushes and scrubbing out palettes crusted over with dried paint – not to mention the annual ritual of having a plumber come out to fix the pipes under the sink, clogged with glops of acrylic. Gouache is a good alternative for teaching opaque painting that is far more gentle on brushes, palettes, and pipes. A plus is that while acrylic tends to intimidate my students for some reason, they are taking to gouache quite naturally.

I plan for my art students to complete two paintings before we transition to watercolor. The first prompt is “Objects of Desire,” in which learners are asked to create a painting of a luscious, tempting, scrumptious dessert of their choosing. We’re working in a relatively small size – the example I made in yesterday’s class (above) is the same size and support specified for students (10 x 10 inches, on illustration board.)

I don’t know how many different ways there are to approach painting in gouache. As always, I stress that there will generally be more life and vitality to a painting if it’s done from life rather than a photographic reference. (It’s fun to look around the art room and see that some kids have done as I did in the example above, and brought in something yummy to draw and paint.) In any event, I always begin with sketches on scrap paper or in a sketchbook to work out my general composition, then very lightly transfer a drawing onto the support. I find I’m more successful keeping the construction lines less detailed rather than more to allow for a more fluid application of line or color.

Gouache is a good way to introduce a valuable concept to students interested in moving into painting with oils: painting gradually thicker layers over thin. The reality of oil requiring this approach to ensure proper binding of layers isn’t relevant to gouache, but I find that subsequent thicker, more opaque layers of gouache lay down more easily when brushed over a light underpainting. The underpainting also helps me to visualize how local colors harmonize and to consider ideas about value placement. It’s quite a bit different than how I approach watercolor.

The end result has an interesting matte quality, with what I would describe as a sort of “pastiness” where the opaque white mixtures are built up. I enjoy the ability to work with flat colors that are more design-like than some other medias might naturally turn out.

This is my story.

1 January, 2017. I had fun working on an illustration this afternoon. This sketch is my donation to the HALO art auction. The auction is emphasizing the power of story this year, which I think is a nice fit for my approach to sketching. As I said, this was fun. I enjoyed using the fountain pen to scribble, and then allowed the watercolor to pool and bloom and “melt” the line work. The more I experiment with limited color, loosely drawn and painted elements, and simply leaving some areas completely unpainted, the more I enjoy the direction my sketching has traveled. (Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen and watercolor wash on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper; typography was added in Photoshop.)


I get a lot of requests to purchase reproductions of my sketches, as well as original artworks. Most of the sketches that appear on the pages of Just Sketching are available in a high quality printed format. Most reproductions are approximately 8.5 x 11 inches and printed on heavy art paper. Set up with a generous white border, I like to use a wider mat in a 16 x 20 frame.

Unmatted reproductions are reasonably priced at $25, plus $5 for shipping (CONUS only.) If you wish to make a purchase, please use the contact form below. Be sure to indicate the image(s) that interest you. I accept payment through PayPal.

Original drawings and paintings are often generated on commission. However, I seldom sell my original sketchbook work.

Fall has arrived.

30 October, 2016. Fall is official. The leaves are falling. The air is cool (at least for today, anyway…the rest of this week promises to be unseasonably warm.) The oak mites are in full force.

I’ve been enjoying a three day weekend, and with a busy week of teaching headed my way it was important for me to squeeze in a few minutes of sketchbook time.

Heading out by bike to soak up the sweater weather, I tossed a sketchbook and Pentel Pocket Brush Pen into my bag. I intentionally kept things simple to avoid any temptation to overwork the drawings. Sketch it, ink it, next.

There’s a somewhat Zen-like moment in the sketchbook, when I establish an inner peace and calm. The world tends to otherwise disappear. Nothing else matters except the stroke of the brush.

Pentel Pocket Brush Pen in Canson 180 sketchbook, rural Clay County, Missouri.

Carnival Time

24 September, 2016. It’s that time of year: the weather takes a turn toward the cool, summer is at an end, and the smell of cotton candy and funnel cakes waft in on the breeze as the carnival comes to town. Working in my Canson 180 sketchbook, I quickly drafted this sketch of the funnel cake place. I love the kitchiness of these things – the gaudy color, the sell, sell, sell-ness, the flags and banners and diversity of typefaces…it’s all so typical of carnival fare. And how easily we adults slip back into the days of our youth!

I’d thought to make a full color version of this drawing – something a bit tighter than a sketch. But after cutting out the paper and starting on the sketch, something stopped me. Laziness? Could be. But there’s something a bit earthier, grittier about this black and white that catches my attention. It sort of reminds me of the type of illustration one would find in one of the horror comics published by Warren back in the day. Underneath it all, there’s something a bit unseemly about the carnival. Creepy, even. It feeds into those memories of childhood terrors, the fear of the dark. (Kuretake No. 40 brush pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Interesting news came my way a couple of weeks ago when I was contacted by Strathmore Fine Art Papers. I’m happy to announce that I’ve been named a Strathmore Fine Art Papers Featured Artist. Good timing for that honor too, as it happens to coincide with an exhibition of my sketches currently hanging at the Gladstone Community Center Gallery in Gladstone, Missouri.

This is all part of my grand experiment to get out of the studio, forget about the preciousness of art and concentrate upon the energy of gesture, the wonder of mark making, the vitality of being in and of the moment. I’ve neglected the studio easel for quite a while now, but haven’t really missed it much.

BikeMo 2016

3 September, 2016. What a beautiful day for a ride through Rocheport, Boonville, and the surrounding hills, farms, and countryside, This year’s BikeMo Ride was followed by live music, wine, and a very welcome ice cold beer, all at the winery finish line atop the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. Yeah, baby!

I didn’t make nearly as many ride sketches this year as I did last August, and I didn’t even get around to inking my pencil sketches until today, an entire week later. (Rocheport, Missouri; Lamy Safari medium nib fountain pen and watercolor wash.)