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.

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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.

The world is a color wheel.

3 November, 2018. Almost overnight the colors depicted in this sketch have changed. The color of foliage has rapidly emerged from the olive green of summer into a cacophony of autumn hues: oranges, reds, violets, and yellows. The ground is littered with fallen leaves. This morning dawns, chilly and wet and I realize the choice of color on my palette will have to evolve today as well. In some ways, the actual color of the world is reflective of the rather arbitrary colors I’ve been using to experiment with Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble pastels these past couple weeks: As the chlorophyll saps to near nothingness, what remains is a compliment of color.

Imagine that – the world is a color wheel!

I sketched the top image specifically to document a process. The second image in this post summarizes the developmental stages. Here’s what’s going on between this medium and I:

  • After making a very general 5 x 5 inch sketch on scrap mat board, I thought about the colors and tones I’d like to generate. This is a very purposeful approach for me that hearkens back to my days as an illustrator in the 80’s and 90’s. These days, a much more freewheeling style is comfortable to my hand, so I had to pause and think about what I was doing. My thinking was to begin the color with an underpainting of opposites: I want to see what happens when I begin with the compliment as a base over which I’d work additional layers of color.

I rather like using scrap mat board with this media. It takes it well and I have so many scraps stored away unused.

  • After going over the base layer with a brush and clean water to create a painterly foundation, I began to add the compliment. In the second image you can see where some of the second layer has been added. I knew I wanted to create a lavender sky, hence the base layer of lime green.
  • As the layers of complimentary color got added, I also began to vary the values to represent depth and modeling. These crayons don’t do well with great detail; it’s a better approach to generalize as I sketch/paint with them. The resulting style differs from my more linear and graphic way of drawing, and looks a lot like something one might encounter in a children’s book. As I noted earlier, it’s a little reminiscent of what I did earlier in my career as an illustrator.
  • Finally, I added more scribbled lines to round out the tones. I never wanted to eliminate every vestige of the foundation color and intentionally allowed some of it to peak through. My thinking was this might create a little extra visual energy. To exemplify the effect, compare to my followup experiment illustrated below.

I worked hard to really cake the color on in this abstraction of a building. I sort of like the effect in an academic way, but it feels lacking in charm and emotion. Weird for me to say, I know, because I am profoundly influenced by the geometry of design in my work, but I feel this is probably only an interesting experiment –  a dead end street, artistically – one that doesn’t allow me to tell a story. It “tries” too hard to be something it’s not.

Conclusion: don’t overwork this medium. Keep things looser and less opaque.

Possibilities

25 October, 2018. I’ve recently been experimenting with the possibilities of the water soluble pastels made by Caran d’Ache. The creamy consistency of the crayons are impressive, as is the water solubility: marks simply melt into intense washes of color with a drop or two of brushed water.

So what I’ve been doing is toying around with color compliments. First, I figure out how my colors are going to be distributed. I begin with a scribbled underpainting of the contrasting colors. Those colors are hit with a sloppy wash and brushed around to create generalized blobs of soft edged hues. You can see the contrasting colors peeking through from underneath.

I haven’t had much success attempting to add marks onto a still wet surface. The crayons don’t seem to want to transfer, which surprised me a little. So you have to allow the surface to completely dry. Once it has, the colors are a beautiful matte that take additional layers of marks very nicely.

In fact, working loosely over the dried surface results in some pigments seeming to lay down with even greater vibrance and intensity than on pure white paper.

A combination of brushed washes of color along with marks results in an interesting effect that is somewhat painterly and sketch-like. It seems like these tools are best suited for working with shapes and masses rather than fine detail. I’m good with that, of course, but it’s important to understand not only the limitations of a material but also the things it does well.

I’ve yet to try mixing medias but I’m confident that an underpainting of watercolor or  gouache would be an effective foundation of color.