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.

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Weston Paint Out

14 July, 2019.

I arrived nearly two hours early for the Weston Paint Out, knowing in advance which locations I thought had the most potential. The point in arriving early was to allow me time to walk around and get my sketches made, then to sit on a bench to ponder which worked best and which one to begin with. The air was densely humid and my paper felt clammy and almost wet within the first five minutes. That made it tougher than usual to draw, and I had to take it easy not to dent the paper with my pencil point. So much for being a planner!

After scouting locations a couple of days earlier, the spot I was most excited about was an old mill at the end of the business district. No longer in operation, the place has been repurposed with a B&B, a popular bar, and an architectural salvage. The truck in the foreground was my favorite part and I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t have been moved by Saturday morning. Later on I met the owner and learned the truck was a very recent purchase.

I neglected to make good photographs of the sketches; hopefully I’ll get a chance to do so before they sell. Unfortunately, I documented these with frame glass over the paintings.

The strategy of working out the sketches first thing in the morning, then revisiting each location to paint was, if nothing else, incredibly efficient. I was able to complete each of these paintings in about forty-five minutes.

The second one completed was this view of the city park. What caught my eye was this small cluster of buildings peaking out from the foliage. I love white washed walls! The unusual roof on the left injected a touch of warm color.

After finishing the second painting, I took a break to go in search of a pastry: it was hot, I was really sweating, and breakfast had been five hours earlier – I knew I’d be getting shaky if I didn’t get something inside me quickly. Along the way I stopped to chat with Denny and Tammy, and to snoop at their work.

Sated, I strolled further up the hill to work on my third painting of the morning. The strong diagonals appealed to me, as did the repetition of the roofs.

As I was cleaning up I noticed some smoke drifting up from behind one of the buildings. The foremost structure is the Avalon Cafe and I wondered if they were firing up a grill for the lunch crowd. The paint in that area of foliage was plenty dry, but I hadn’t used a staining pigment: “Lifting” it with a damp paper towel leaves the area hazy and smoke-like.

Meandering back down the hill near the spot where I’d begun my morning, I stopped at this cool, restored Phillips 66. I don’t know if it’s because I was getting tired or if the angle was just wonky, but this one whipped me. By this time I was getting quite a few passers-by stopping to chat, and the pauses were more than welcome. Instead of finishing it, I tossed it in the back seat of my car.

After eight hours of standing mostly in direct sunlight, I was ready to crash and nap. It’s times like this that I am thankful for the gods of air conditioning. 🙂

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Watercolor and pencil on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Tranquility.

16 June, 2019.

We got a little wet at first, but the morning dried out nicely by ten. Urban Sketchers Kansas City held a pop up sketchout at the invitation of Liberty Hospital Foundation to sketch the surroundings of The TreeHouse, a place offering amenities to guests, including sleeping quarters and quiet rooms, and the tranquility of trees, walking path, and swaths of wild flowers.

The path is certainly peaceful and calm. At one point a baby bunny hopped right up to my foot as I sketched and seemed not at all taken aback when I exclaimed in surprise, “Well, hello there!”

I struggled to get started this morning, abandoning my first page. Each time I had myself positioned to begin, the rain returned and drops of water dotted my paper making it difficult to use my pen. After two aborted tries, I waited out the rain, turned the page, and began again.

I like the weight of the Stillman and Birn Beta paper, but I’m unsure about the spiral binding. On the one hand, each page lays perfectly flat, and I really like that aspect. On the other, it’s not really possible to draw across the spread as I might do with a perfect bound or stitched book. I’m not sure which outweighs the other. What do you think?

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

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.

Snow Day.

26 November, 2018. Today is a “snow day” in Kansas City. If you live in in the south, you have no idea what that is; despite all the unpredictable types of weather you experience, snowfall isn’t one of them. And if you live in the mountains, or up north – or especially if you reside as I once did in Alaska, snow is such an integral part of cold weather that it seldom has a travel impact on your world in the way that the brutal combination of windchill, temperature, and snow fall does to those of us in the Midwestern and Plains states. Snow paralyzes traffic. Roads turn into dangerously slick channels down which automobiles slide through yards, ditches, and into trees and other cars. Black ice is a real thing, and scary as hell.

And school is called off, mostly because it’s unsafe for kids to huddle at bus stops when the windchill can cause physical harm. That’s a “snow day.” 

Everyone else has to go to work, but teachers and students are off. I hate snow days because we have to make them up – for every day off, we have another added to the end of the Spring school term, thus shortening my summer break. 

But the first heavy snowfall of the year is also a remarkable thing. Yesterday we experienced blizzard conditions with formidable winds, hours of snowfall twisting into bizarre and fantastic drifts, visibility limited to a few hundred feet. Watching it accumulate all afternoon from the comfort of my studio window is something of a treat. And today the sun has emerged – it’s still quite cold, mind you, and no chance of things melting off. It is, after all, a “snow day” and so I’m at home instead of in the classroom. The morning light casts a warm highlight across the snow-covered ground behind my house; the shadows are an exercise in color theory, perceptibly blue. In the distance, trees that weeks ago were aflame in red and orange are now dissembling hues of grey.

If I were a true plein air painter I’d be outside capturing this scene. But it’s warm inside, my portable easel is conveniently positioned at a window, and, well … after all, it is a snow day.

Gouache in Stillman and Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, approximately 4 x 4 inches.

Old roads, new to me.

25 November, 2018. There’s a new road on the south end of town, cutting across pastures, rolling hills, wooded bluffs and creeks, and eventually connecting the incorporated side of town with a highway to the east. This is a welcome extension for many: the alternative is a wide boomerang route, but happily – for me, anyway – few have discovered the new route. For the moment, it’s largely untraveled. 

There is also a bicycle path that parallels the extension. I’m always curious to find out where roads go for some reason. I tend to suspect that just around the next corner there’s something really worth seeing, something worthy of the extra trek. 

Pedaling along the path I found that this new extension opened up a more ready access to some roads that I kind of knew were there, but was unsure of how to get to. I filed away a plan to explore them on the very next nice day.

Despite the fact that as I type these words I’m sitting here waiting on a forecasted blizzard, yesterday was perfect. It was a day for raking leaves, for enjoying the sun, for being outside as much as possible – all of which I took full advantage. The day was, in fact, “the very next nice day.”

I ride a randonneur bike, which is a road bike set up to travel over distance and various terrain in unsupported fashion. One characteristic of many randonneuring bicycles is a large front bag with which one carries the necessities for a long, unsupported ride. It’s also a nearly perfect setup for an urban sketcher or plein air painter of my ilk. My kit fits neatly into the bag, and makes chance encounters along my route as simple as pulling over and leaning my bike on the grass while I sketch.

The roads I explored yesterday are typical of most backroads one travels in this part of the country. Farmland is a mixture of grazing cattle and large swaths of field crops: corn, soybeans, milo. Some patches of ground are hay fields, the rectangular bales I hauled for a few cents each in high school having long since transformed into large, round stacks. They are so large and heavy that it takes a tractor with a special fork attachment to carry and transport them.

Old roads, new to me: I see ponds and creeks I had no idea existed. Surprisingly, there are few farmhouses. I presume that until the recent thoroughfare went in, access was difficult. I am saddened at the thought that this will likely change now: I foresee these glad fields evolving into housing developments before too many more turns of the calendar page.

Gouache in Stillman and Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, approximately  4 x 4 inches.

To study, perchance to dream.

11 November, 2018. Why do color studies? I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, although I know the intention of the practice is to prepare oneself for the execution of a larger, possibly more formal work. Speaking for myself, however, the making of a color study is play time.

Opportunity time. A time to dream a little about the interaction of colors and shapes.

I tend to reside with one foot in each of two different worlds – a world of sketching, and a somewhat contrasting place of painting. My sketches live through a search for energy and freshness, achieved when I’m on my game through the use of line. Color is often important to those sketches, but generally subservient to the pathways described by marks.

When I paint I enjoy the interplay of shapes and color, the orchestration of colors striving for a visual harmony. With paint, I tend to have a more introspective focus; I get lost in my work, whereas with sketched line the marks are free and come naturally. I would love to combine the two camps more often, and celebrate when they do – but for the most part I find myself working as muse and whimsey dictate, in one world or the other.

Line or color.

Two worlds. So closely related, and yet for me there is a chasm separating the two.

Handmade marks

9 November, 2018. I’ve recently been experimenting with the water-soluble wax pastels made by Caran d’Ache. Fun and interesting as they are, I feel like they’re worth keeping around. I’ve been pushing them a bit further each time I get them out and in fact feel like I’m starting to overwork the washes (below). To my eye, the scribbled lines in the example above has greater energy and feels less static. It’s also visually richer because the layering is more visible.

Plus, I simply like it better when you can see the marks. When I say “overworked,” what I mean is that the marks have been smoothed out, and what pleases my eye more is evidence of the artist’s hand, the handmade mark.

 

Demonstration

5 November, 2018. In much the same way as when I introduced gouache to some of my students and fellow sketchers, I’ve had numerous questions about the Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble pastels I’ve been toying around with recently. This short video demonstrates a couple of things I’ve realized about working with this media. It is by no means a comprehensive approach, however. These pastels are entirely new to me and as I’m beginning to realize, they are a much richer drawing/painting/sketching tool than I initially gave credit for.

Tweedy People

4 November, 2018. I really look forward to our annual Tweed Ride. A “tweed ride,” for those unfamiliar with the phrase, is a glorified excuse to get dandied up in garb reminiscent of a bygone and genteel era in England. Families and friends would dress up, pull together a picnic luncheon, and head for the countryside on bicycles. Tweed ride participants come in all shapes and configurations – old and young, urban and suburban, professional and blue collar.

For me it’s doubly fun. I have restored vintage racing bicycles for many years and this gives me an opportunity to ride my old bikes with others of similar bent. It’s also a terrific gathering for sketching. Once I finish the leisurely ride, I lean up against a column and pull out my sketchbook.

Not everyone brings a vintage bicycle, and that’s fine. The emphasis really is on the fancy dress up. Some attempt is made to emulate the look of a bygone era, but the fashions are all over the place, from something sort of resembling a flapper (no idea how a flapper would have ridden a bicycle back in the day, but what the heck!) to Victorian-ish/steam punk-ish attire. It’s all good. And it’s all fun to draw.

People mill around before the ride, so the secret is to sketch after we return, when folks are preparing to eat their lunch on the lawn and are, thus, a bit more stationary. Even still, one must sketch quickly – blink, and the little social butterflies tend to be gone.

Because that is true, I keep my sketches quick and very loose. Color gets added later. For yesterday’s ride I kept the application of color true to the nature of the scribbled line drawings by using water-soluble pastels diluted with sloppy washes.