“Little Italy”

9 September, 2019.

I’ve often cycled through or near the Columbus Park neighborhood on group rides, but the nature of those really doesn’t accommodate stopping for a few minutes to make a sketch. We zoom through the place on the way to the River Market.

But we’re there long enough for me to take in the old Catholic Church, the 19th century and early 20th century architecture, and the various places that comprise what was once referred to as “Little Italy.” I’ve wanted to explore the neighborhood in much more leisurely fashion for a while, and Saturday’s sketch out allowed me the opportunity to do so.

Looking west, down Missouri Avenue, I see how the buildings along the street are being reclaimed and restored, seemingly in harmony with those who’ve lived their entire lives in this neighborhood. I’ve no idea what it’s like to reside in “the family home,” a house where multiple generations of a family have lived, loved, and passed along – but it sounds wonderful, in an achingly, nostalgically romantic sort of way.

Chatting with a woman on the street, I’m told that she’s been to three funerals at the church down the street this year: three residents who were born here and never left, not in ninety-plus years. All three were “spinsters.” All three loved their homes.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” marker in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

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Columbus Park

8 September, 2019.

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means that Urban Sketchers Kansas City gathers together at a prearranged location to record the place in line and color. This month we documented the venerable old Columbus Park neighborhood, near downtown Kansas City’s River Market area.

This event was triply perfect from my perspective. First off, the weather was fantastic – cool, with a light breeze. Secondly, given those conditions I could hardly refuse to do a nice long bicycle ride to get there. And thirdly, I’ve generally taken a break from sketching for the past two weeks and this was a prime opportunity to jump back into the sketchbook. Combine those three things into one, and as I said: perfection.

This particular view was sketched from the corner of Missouri Avenue and Troost, a location that yielded two decent compositions for me.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” in Stillman and Birn spiral bound sketchbook.

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.

Just around the corner.

15 June, 2019.

It’s a rainy Friday morning and my thoughts have drifted to Europe. Coincidentally – actually, is there such a thing as coincidence? – photos from my visit to Obernai, France popped up on my Facebook “memories” yesterday. I recall one morning in particular, similarly overcast. The cobblestones were wet and a little slick. I’d often go out for a stroll early, before anyone else was about to enjoy the beauty of this picturesque town. The streets are curved in many places, and it seemed like the turning of every corner brought another delightful view.

There were window boxes overflowing with flowers everywhere, potted plants introduced the green of foliage in lieu of lawns. There’s a sense of history on every door step.

Taking a step out of my reverie, I fast forward to today. Glancing at one of the photos I take pen in hand and quickly start to scribble. Soon I’ll be heading out, despite the drizzle, to sketch the home of Thomas Hart Benton. But this photo is hard to ignore and so I sketch quickly, guiltily – I don’t often sketch from photo reference and the experience is a little strange. I find myself trying to “look around” the corner to see what else is there… but of course I can’t: the photo is only two dimensional.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

A moment before the game.

30 April, 2019.

I saw a group playing cricket at Stocksdale Park over the weekend. Cricket is a sport I’ve seen only in the briefest moments as I flipped through backwater television channels, there on the screen only long enough for me to identify it as a thing not understood, then gone, replaced by an infomercial or a rerun of Bonanza. Across the road two women are trying to set up decorations for what appears to be a child’s birthday celebration, the wind rendering their attempt to impress with a fusillade of balloons rather futile. I hear the happy bark of dogs as they run around in the illusion of freedom at the pet enclosure, and as I pass a medium sized metal barn there issues forth an occasional metallic ping; this is the meeting place for a horse shoe throwing club. Stretching out before me are fields and woods. A single track path leads from the parking area, past the horse shoe clubhouse, and into a meadow. There, it divides over and over again, a network of mountain bike trails. And co-existing with those trails is a disc golf course, a sport nearly as inscrutable to me as cricket. At the first tee, a couple of men are comfortably seated, leisurely preparing their gear, and in seemingly no particular hurry to begin play.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen in Stillman and Birn sketchbook. Spot color added later digitally.

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

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

Even Creepier.

16 April, 2019. I shared the black, gray, and white version of this a couple of days ago. That iteration had a distinctly “comic book” sort of vibe to it, but I missed the vintage colors and beat up paint… those were part of what drew me in to this object in the first place. And to be honest, I’d planned to add spots of color all along. The highlights where what interested me most of all, and that’s where I’d left the drawing originally. However, now that the color has been incorporated it all feels much more complete.

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Fude tip fountain pen, Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, and gouache in Stillman and Birn gray sketchbook.

One Week 100 People 2019

8 April, 2019. OK, so I jumped ahead a day – but my week is going to be busy and I get to define my own sketching time as I see fit. 🙂

Not to mention, that rather than one week, I actually did these sketches in one day.

The simple goal is: Draw 100 people in one week… but the real goal is PRACTICE. Not perfection. Every artist needs to sketch as much as possible, but we want to have fun and just stretch a little. Each of mine have somewhere between 20 and 90 seconds invested in sketching time. Thus, there’s perhaps ninety minutes of sketching investment here – and hey! No excuses: any of you can fit 90 minutes into your week. So go for it!

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#oneweek100people2019 #oneweek100people #oneDAY100people

So impatient.

4 April, 2019. Everyone was impatient and wanted to eat the stuff. I understood: I hadn’t made it to be the subject of a sketch. Nevertheless, the fresh colors of green and salmon and rose and violet were captivating, and as always, I had a pen and sketchbook close at hand.

Yet still, everyone was impatient to eat. And thus, I only had a very limited time to sketch. I suppose enough extra should be prepared and then set aside to allow for both nibbling and sketching…

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

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.