Sloppy brushstrokes

11 May, 2019.

I don’t paint in gouache a lot. In fact, I tend to go “in batches,” it seems… I’ll indulge myself for a couple of days, make several sketches, then put my kit away until I get the itch again.

I’ve learned one thing about myself in the process: I’m not terribly interested in painting hyper-realistic images, nor do I find it appealing to spend a lot of time “crafting” the brush strokes. In fact, I much prefer to strive for a bit of sloppiness so that the energy of an image isn’t lost in the technique.

This little painting came out of a quick and very loose sketch I made a week ago at the Guadalupe Center. A lot of liberties were taken here, mainly because the sketch was very loose and my memory of clothes and colors are limited to a few margin notes in the sketchbook.

I do enjoy contrasting warm and cool colors, and this was no exception.

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Gouache on Bristol board.

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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.

The junction of urbanization…and not.

17 April, 2019. This is the edge of town, the place where “rural” begins and the city ends. Beyond this point are farms and two lane blacktop roads, cows, corn, lakes and ponds, rolling hills of trees, and lots and lots of gravel lanes. But here, this is where they meet fast food and gas stations, shopping carts and car washes. Here is where there was a field not long ago, unbulldozed. There was a hill, in fact. And there was not an intersection, so complex and so filled with traffic signals that an instruction manual wouldn’t be out of line. This tree is the only reminder – and a faint one at that! – of what once was. It’s gnarly, and not especially beautiful – even had it a full coat of leaves – and one is left to ponder why, even, did those bulldozers leave this forlorn remnant alone?

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Pencil and watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.

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.

An unexpected companion.

13 March, 2019. Hiking along wet trails with a notion to sketch as I walked, I encountered an unexpected companion emerging from the woods, a curious and talkative soul. And while I made far fewer drawings than originally planned, I learned a lot about the 1834 stop Joseph Smith made over the adjoining hill and the cholera graves near the adjacent gully; about Jolly Wymore, the first victim of Jesse James in the first daylight bank robbery; and the train that had once run across the rail bed on which I now trod. Arrowheads and glaciated boulders, wounded veterans, and a hidden well spring, the depths of which are now cemented over. I saw many interesting trees as we strolled along a muddy path, but none – save this one – found their way into my sketchbook.

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Brush pen loaded with Noodler’s Bulletproof Ink and Uni-ball Deluxe in a Canson 180 sketchbook.

Color in the Grays

10 March, 2019. It’s sunrise and the clock says one time, my body disagrees: there’s exactly one hour in dispute. It’s very still outside, and the waking temperature is just above freezing. It is, in fact, much warmer than the past several months of gloom.

Still, the ground is frozen as I crunch around the yard in house slippers, and the gloom is still clear in my mind. In the distance, the water tower is a mixture of Cerulean blue and Quinacidone red, the hues neutralizing each other into a luminous gray. In the ground below I see a favorite, Perylene green; I’ll have to mix in a red and blue to darken it further if I want to do more than paint it in my mind.

The sky changes fast and I notice that the cloud cover is a mixture of periwinkle and violets that contrasts lusciously with the rising sun, a brilliant, if somewhat diffused ball of orange.

Looking down at the sketching pamphlet I began yesterday, I suddenly realize I’ve been unconsciously digging colors out of my gray world.

Sometimes I rely on memory and impressions to sketch out an idea, but memory is a funny thing and subject to vagaries and everything with which one comes into contact between the actual experience and the time one attempts to manifest it in some way. This morning I felt the need to supplement my impression with a quick pencil sketch and notes. It seemed as though getting the placement and ideas of values was important, and little thought was given to the colors of this sunrise.

Realizing this was an error, I ran to the studio to grab my travel kit. Not finding it immediately, I instead picked up the butcher tray I use for studio work and returned to a room full of windows facing east. Two minutes later I had a satisfactory color study.

Not content, I decided to spend a few more minutes making a second color study. The graphic curve was added to create a sense of leading lines that complimented the diagonal bank of clouds.

Even still, the composition seemed unresolved so I played around with various croppings, eventually settling on this. And now, satisfied with the design, perhaps I’ll work on a more “finished” painting this evening.

Right now, the day is beckoning. Hiking boots and jacket won’t be in the closet for much longer, nor my sketchbook on the shelf.

An old sort of yard.

5 March, 2019. I’m sitting there, just stretched out in my arm chair staring out a window overlooking a snow covered backyard and wondering where, oh where Spring is hiding. Violet shadows stretch across an alabaster blanket and there are no middle tones to speak of. I really should be painting this scene: it’s pretty much perfect for watercolor.

But it’s also perfect for a quick pen sketch, scrawly and scribbly and just kind of raw. It’s an old sort of day, and my yard is an old sort of yard. The Cottonwood trees are tall. Even bereft of leaves, the long limbs still wrap themselves around the place. Atop my shed, an otherwise rusted roof is brilliantly white for the moment; it also hides ten thousand fallen branches and vines. Inside, half a cord of wood and a riding mower and two dozen fishing poles – only the wood will see daylight while the snow remains. Behind the shed, weeds twist and tangle, just as scribbly as my pen lines. Somewhere underneath it all my rhubarb sleeps, waiting, like me, for Spring.

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Fude-tip fountain pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.

Neutral colors.

3 March, 2019. My mom was having car problems and since I was overdue for a visit anyway, I drove south this weekend to see her and fix her old Ford Taurus. The problem was an easy one: the battery needed to be replaced, so after pulling it and purchasing a replacement I wandered around her neighborhood while I waited for the new one to get fully charged. She lives in a suburb of Kansas City, a small town that has exploded on the outskirts but which remains a small town at the core. The downtown is charming, as are the surrounding neighborhoods of homes built in the 20’s and 30’s.

I hadn’t planned to have the opportunity to sketch, assuming I’d be elbow deep under the hood of her car. But having come from our monthly sketch crawl my backpack was filled with sketching tools and a couple of sketchbooks. To keep things simple I chose a pencil and began to make quick thumbnails of the buildings that caught my eye. The happy thing about small pencil studies is that things don’t get overworked if I focus on the contrast of lights and darks. My tastes sometimes run toward the nostalgic, and those roomy houses with large front porches struck me as the sort of comfy place I’d love to find myself on a summer evening. 

With no plan in mind I simply sketched. It’s easier for me to maintain believable proportions if I focus on the overall shapes and how they relate to the negative spaces. In fact, I love those unoccupied spaces! By studying the empty areas my sketches aren’t bogged down with unnecessary detail: simplicity is much more pleasing to my eye.  

The day is overcast and I make note of the lack of vibrant color. I want to remember the sense of drabness later when I dab some of these studies with a variety of grays and neutral hues.

I never thought of that.

2 March, 2019. I have a sort of Jekyll and Hyde relationship with color. Some days I feel I can do no wrong. It seems like I have a real grasp of the intricacies of color relationships. I playfully toss a blob of paint into a wash and voilà! Magic!

And at other times I am at complete loss.

Color intrigues me, but perhaps not as much as the relationship of line, shape, and space does. I love to draw, and I love to design. It may be that I’m wary of devoting more thought to color, fearing such attention comes at the expense of those elements that pull me into a composition.

I might also be lazy.

Be that as it may, I’ll wager nearly everyone who enjoys drawing and painting feels like there is something elusive, something just outside their grasp. And for me it’s color. One way I offset my perceived deficiencies is to seek out and study artists and art I admire.

Yesterday’s mail brought me an advance copy of Shari Blaukopf’s new book, Working with Colorpublished by Quarto Creates. Now full disclosure: some of my own words and sketches are used in Blaukopf’s book to illustrate the color concepts she shares with readers. But much more importantly, this book is filled with Blaukopf’s own wonderful watercolors, along with a liberal sprinkling of contributions from Marc Taro Holmes, Richard Johnson, Renato Palumuti, Marion Rivolier, Inma Serrano, Pat Southern-Pearce, and a host of other incredible Urban Sketchers, all of whose work I greatly admire.

This book is the latest in a series of “Urban Sketching Handbooks,” and what I most appreciate about these titles is the way they pointedly avoid going into technical aspects. Let’s face it: There are plenty of “how to” books on the market, and a thoughtful Google search will bring up dozens, if not hundreds of excellent pages and videos demonstrating any technique in any media you can imagine. No, what the Urban Sketching Handbooks do really well is teach and inspire by example. I love to look at the illustrations and catch myself thinking “Hmmm… I never thought of doing it thatway before…”

Sunday morning light.

25 February, 2019. Sunday mornings are almost always magical. I get up early, as I do on most days. But there’s never much on my “to do” list, nor is there any real rush to get anywhere as there tends to be on work days. On sunny days, the light comes through the eastern facing windows of my kitchen, low and soft. No matter what is on the counter top, the long shadows and diffused, glowing light turns the viewing of those things into an aesthetic experience. This morning “those things” were lemons – but it could have just as easily been salt and pepper shakers, yesterday’s mail, or last night’s empty bottle of Bordeaux.

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Watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II paper

These lemons were on my kitchen counter early this morning. I love the way the light struck them, and the long, cast shadows that drifted across the surface. The reflections of color on the counter top is also something that I enjoyed seeing.

I have tried to begin with highly detailed pencil sketches, only to discover that is simply too much information. If I’m painting, I have greater success beginning with as few light lines as possible to work out the composition and relative scale of things. From there, I’ll let the process kind of determine what happens. (If I’m working with pens, I’ll usually forgo any pencil lines at all and just begin drawing.)

Once upon a time I would laboriously dry brush my work. No longer! I’m more comfortable letting the water and pigment kind of “dance” around the page. It either works or it doesn’t.

Value contrast is what brings things to life in a watercolor painting. I feel particularly aware of those contrasts, as well as what is taking place in the contrast between positive and negative shapes. Although I originally thought the asymmetrical composition worked with the three lemons, I realized that the energy was on the right hand side of the sheet. I eventually ignored the third lemon and the left side of the composition, opting to crop the image to focus on the reflective glow rather than the depth of background.