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.

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


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.

Watercolor and pencil on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

Tonight, I painted quickly.

6 February, 2019. No school tomorrow – again. For three weeks in a row, Mother Nature has elected to hurl ice and snow and sub-zero temperatures our way, only to briefly rebound, then turn around and hit once more. For three weeks in a row, I’ve only taught four days out of five; today, in fact, I only led one single art class – and that for only thirty-five minutes: barely time enough to get out, then put away supplies.

Perhaps I was feeling the urgency to produce fast today, an urgency that was a reflection, no doubt, of my students scurrying around an art room and making a valiant, if somewhat doomed attempt at progress on this, day two of a four day assignment. The urgency I felt, therefore, was artificial. In fact, I had all evening to myself, and all day tomorrow, and the evening that follows. There was little need to rush through anything. Why not savor the opportunity, languish in this moment of unexpected freedom?

But I did not. There was an urgency to place paper on the board, quickly wet it, and just as quickly drag washes of color across the moist surface, haphazardly – but carefully and intentionally, mind you! – placing slightly differing hues of blue in such a way as to allow color to bleed softly into color.

I remember once in college being so affected, so overwhelmed by the beauty of a sudden thunderstorm that I painted in a near frenzy. My roommate thought I’d gone mad – and in a sense I suppose I had. My ability to use paint expressively was nil at the time, and the frustration I felt at an inability to express what I felt in that moment was keen. It is a frustration that to this day I can recall vividly.

Tonight, I painted quickly. The sketch took only minutes to express, and it seemed important that it happen in that way: quickly. To labor over the sky would be tantamount to sapping the life from the sketch.

Tonight I chose to let the sketch live or die by its own energy.

Or lack thereof.

“Sky before the rain and ice,” watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II, approximately 6 x 6 inches.

Wet, wet, wet!

21 May, 2018. I should probably write about drawing – this is, after all, my sketching journal. But the fact of the matter is that I really don’t want to, the better part of the story isn’t about drawing.

Yesterday morning dawned cool and gray. Dark clouds loomed overhead and distant thunder grumbled; it sounded like Mother Nature’s tummy was rumbling, which is a weird thing to say. Nevertheless, it’s so. I look forward to this particular morning every year because it’s the date of a cycling event that I enjoy, the Tour de Bier.

My bike was stowed in the back of the car and I grew a little apprehensive as I drove south to the event meet up location: fat rain drops began to fall, and soon I needed the windshield wipers. As I pulled up and parked my car under a low hanging tree, thunder clapped and lightning flashed. The sky opened up and rain began to pour down. The large building to my left, Knuckleheads Garage, was at times barely visible. No way the ride was starting on time, if at all this morning.

I might have been glum, but the rain is somehow refreshing. I love thunderstorms. The air is charged and the world is fresh. A couple of sketchbooks lie on the passenger seat, along with a couple of pens. While the maelstrom crashed around me, I sat behind the wheel of the car and sketched out what I could see of Knuckleheads and the surrounding area. I could just make out a few cyclists braving the weather to run from their parked cars to the relative dryness of event awnings. I remained where I’d parked, making a few sketches until the hosts of the event Tweeted out the all clear.

In truth, the rain didn’t abate for hours. I eventually put my sketchbook down, and wheeled my bike toward the start line, through puddles and a steady downpour. I was drenched before ever getting the bike out of the car. Strange as it may sound, I was ok with the situation. Being out in the elements, hiking through snow or pedaling through a shower, perspiration somehow still welling up on my forehead and mingling with the rivulets of falling water cascading from under my helmet – well, it really makes me feel truly alive.

I think that’s part of what draws me toward sketching on location, especially outdoors. The world is an unpredictable place, very imperfect in fact. It’s wonderful to be experiencing it for real, rather than virtually on television, or via the internet. It’s real.

It’s real, and it makes me feel alive and in touch. Drawing the stories I encounter… well, that’s merely a byproduct.

The sketch above was made with a Uni-Ball Deluxe pen in a Canson 180 sketchbook. Being a captive of my car for forty minutes led me to making several versions of the sketch. Naturally, I liked the original one best of all.

Wet, Rainy Swamp

28 October, 2017. We’d been cyclo-touring through Northwest Arkansas and the weather turned to crap during the night – winds, rain, thunder. Arriving the next day at a very large art and craft festival in War Eagle, we discovered the grounds had turned to swamp. Meanwhile, the rain returned and everyone and everything was wet and cold.

Inside the mill there is a restaurant on one of the upper floors and a sort of mercantile operation on the lower level. A small kitchen to one side was baking a cake using the mill’s flour, and near the back a group of five or six men were plucking various stringed instruments. I gravitated toward them as they interested me the most on this miserable day. Jockeying for a good view, I was stymied by the fact that they were circled up – no matter how I positioned myself I found I would have been drawing a whole lot of backs if I tried to draw the group in its entirety. I considered this for a moment, the idea of using two backs as a framing device with the main subject smaller, due to foreshortening. It’s still an idea that appeals to me so I may eventually do just that. But it was more than music that pulled me over to the group in the first place: I’ve always been fascinated by banjo picking. The fellow on the chair was nonchalantly plucking away on his, with little extraneous movement. And thus, he became my subject of the moment.

Outside, the rain waned, diminishing briefly and then coming down again, seemingly unabated. The exhibitors west of the mill bridge were fortunate to have covered tents and a long wooden barn for protection from the elements. Those on the mill side of the bridge had only the exhibition tents they’d brought with them for the show, and in many cases that was barely adequate. In any event, most structures and canopies were surrounded by slimy mud and large pools of water. Outside the barn, one exhibitor stood  close to the doors, sheltered by the overhang of the roof, smoking a cigarette and bracing himself for a cold, wet day of hawking his product.

This type of event and this type of weather reminds me why my choice of kit works well for me. A moderately sized sketchbook fits comfortably into the waist of my trousers and my two pens into a shirt pocket, or even the front pocket of my jeans. I am reminded – not for the first time! – that I really need to check my brush pen for adequate ink before wandering outdoors. Once again, I only discovered that I was virtually empty after starting to do the black fill (above). Unable to continue much beyond a sort of scumbled gray to the mid-ground, I gave up and filled those areas with a brush and India ink after returning home a few days later. (Uni-Ball Deluxe, Pentel Pocket brush pen, Crayola brush, India ink in Canton 180 sketchbook; page size is approximately 5 x 7 inches.)


30 April, 2017. Only one word can describe my three day weekend: “AAAAAARGH!”

This was intended to be a long weekend of getting outside, touring through several small towns to explore turn-of-the-century/Fin de siècle architecture. Instead, I was rained in for nearly the entire three days, with only the briefest of respites.

Stuck in Arkansas because flash flooding closed – literally! – all of the roads leading back into Missouri, I managed to get out of my hotel in Eureka Springs with a sketchbook and pens between cloud bursts. Sheltering under a couple of awnings, SOME of what I’d planned to sketch got scribbled on paper. However, I had some pages that got ruined when sudden downpours came out of nowhere, and I was myself drenched to the bone.

The rain was incredible, by the way. At times the middle of the day was as dark as night. In Berryville, Arkansas, what had been a low lying area transformed into a raging river, at least 300 feet across. Roads were entirely submerged, and road block warning signs urging motorists not to proceed any further could be seen hundreds of feet away, barely visible and barely above water. Oh…and my credit card got compromised, so Shazam cut it off Saturday morning. No problem, I thought. I have actual money at the lake house back in Missouri…

Sketching – even as a waterlogged exercise – was my catharsis.

(Uni-Ball Deluxe, Pilot Varsity, Pentel Pocket Brush Pen; each page is approximately 5 x 7 inches; Eureka Springs, Arkansas.)

Whole Lotta Rain

28 June, 2016. The plan was a simple one: Spend what my weather app described as a cool, sunny morning out bike sketching. The only problem with this plan is that my app was a dirty, stinking liar. Dramatic clouds roiled in the sky and a few miles down the trail I came to the sudden realization that I was going to get very, very wet.

I wanted to paint in watercolor, but the impending weather left me feeling a sense of urgency so I roughed in a couple of sketches in pencil. I figured it would be prudent to save the inking for later, when  things didn’t look so threatening. But having set up my tiny, new palette I really did need to make at least one watercolor sketch.

I’d no sooner begun a second drawing at this location when it began to rain. I hurriedly sealed my sketchbook in a Ziplock bag, tossed the entire kit into my bike bag and rushed down the trail in a desperate, but ultimately failed attempt to outrun the storm. The wall of rain came down in a dense sheet; visibility at one point was probably less than fifty feet. And me? Well, I was drenched to the bone. (Clay County, Missouri; Pentel Pocket Brush Pen in Canson 180 sketchbook, approximately 10 x 7 inches. Watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper, approximately 5 x 5 inches.)

Rain, rain, go away…

28 May, 2016. I’ve been chomping at the bit to get outside and draw this week. We’ve had an incredible amount of rain, coupled with thunderstorms and a few tornado scares – none of which seems especially conducive to outdoor sketch booking! Mother Nature gave us a little break yesterday, and a bigger one today, leaving me with the opportunity to toss my kit into a bike bag and strike out for the backroads of Clay County. Today has been particularly nice and at one point I found myself enjoying a quiet, shady bench at Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary. I seldom stay in one locale for very long: Two quick sketches, and I was on my way.

There are quite a few hiking trails within the borders of Martha Lafite, some paved and others a more rudimentary dirt path. The rain has been so intense that most of the unpaved paths are currently cordoned off to avoid certain trail destruction due to foot traffic through well saturated mud. My bench was located at the junction of a place where the pavement ended and the (blocked off) pathways began. I’ve written before about the Kuretake No. 40 brush pen that I’m currently carrying with me these days. I’ll simply re-emphasize the fact that I really enjoy sketching with this pen and leave it at that.

Yesterday morning was cool and gloomy and still heavily overcast from the previous night’s storms. Riding though a little more suburban area, I crossed a highway overpass near a cathedral. Digging into my bag I discovered I had somehow left my drawing instruments at home (on my drawing table, as it turned out.) So a very quick watercolor sketch on a 4 x 5 inch card of Fabriano Studio CP watercolor paper was the order of the day. Quick, loose, and nearly cartoonish – still, I feel like it gets across the idea of the prevailing weather conditions. (Top sketches: Kuretake No. 40 brush pen, approximately 5 x 7 inch page size on two-page spread, near Liberty, Missouri. Bottom sketch: Holbein watercolor and Koi water brush on Fabriano Studio CP wc paper, Kansas City, Missouri.)

Unexpected rain and ice

11 January, 2015. Despite the past week of temperatures hovering around zero, the forecast looked marginally better today. I went out hiking with the intention of getting in a lot of sketching along the way. I’ll be darned if it didn’t begin to drop rain and ice on my head while I was at the park. I drew this on the way home from the comfort of my car. (Lamy Safari Medium Nib in Canson sketchbook)