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.

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Intersecting with life

2 February, 2019. One of the interesting things about Urban Sketching is the way that the act of drawing can sometimes very unexpectedly intersect with unsuspecting members of the general public. Let me give you an interesting example from this morning.

Today is the first Saturday of the month, the day our chapter congregates and descends upon a prearranged location. Our group of sketchers arrived at an unusual eatery called The Parlour with the intention of drawing what we eat, as well as those eating around us. The Parlour is a very casual, leisurely place comprised of several food vendors and bars, each with their own specialty product. Spread out over two floors in a sort of food court fashion are tables and arm chairs – exactly what the name implies, a place for patrons to “lounge” and visit. It’s definitely a “no pressure” vibe.

Our group was large today, with maybe forty of us dragging around bags full of sketching and painting supplies. We arrived early and claimed one end of the second floor, staking out numerous tables and arm chairs. Then we ordered food and proceeded to sketch our fare.

A couple in search of seating wandered through, not realizing we were all together. Sitting across from me they suddenly noticed everyone had sketchbooks and they made a move to leave. Before they could rise, one friendly member of our group greeted them and asked them to stay with us. They learned much about our chapter and Urban Sketchers. And within minutes they both had pens out and were making Artist Trading Cards with others in our band.

And while they sketched, I drew them drawing and munching on empanadas.

Cheap oysters

8 December, 2018. The oysters are only 75 cents each, and I am totally happy. The wine is crap, but it’s also cheap so all seems good in the world.

Like so many other places in New Orleans, we chat with people at the bar about sports, movies, art, horses – pretty much anything and everything, and I find myself almost with anything more to say.

Until I find out about a place that serves 25 cent oysters. We head there the next afternoon and two of us consume four dozen. 

Neighborhoods

6 December, 2018. I haven’t been in New Orleans for nearly thirty years, but the one consistent memory I have of the place is the architecture. Unlike most American cities, New Orleans is old and a lot of structures from the early days remain intact and in use. My hotel, Maison St. Charles, is in fact a composite of two or three plantation houses.

Three stories down, a brick courtyard, a fountain, tables and umbrellas. It’s a pleasant area to sit and enjoy the breeze, night or day. Over four days, I find myself frequently sitting for an hour or so to add details to my sketches.

In the Garden District, unlike the entertainment-oriented nature of the Quarter, tightly spaced commercial buildings are dedicated to shops: galleries and antiques and other odds and ends. The road meanders for about six miles or so, and having tread the entire length there and back, wandering in and out of small shops along the way, my feet hurt. A block off the main road, neighborhoods of stately homes, the very definition of Southern gentility, stood behind gates and fences of elaborately designed wrought iron.

Algiers is almost entirely residential. Reachable by a short ferry ride, walking the neighborhood streets felt very much like I’d somehow crossed the river to 1945. One bar, a couple of restaurants, a market that was open from 9 until 1 on Sundays – none of them attached to a “Main Street,” but located haphazardly and seemingly at random places among the blocks of neat houses.

Don’t go to Bourbon Street.

5 December, 2018. “Don’t got to Bourbon Street… please.”

The plea was heartfelt, and with a rambling explanation fueled by intoxication, a very drunk patron in a bar not all that far from Bourbon Street ordered another beer. We’d arrived in New Orleans on a Thursday evening, just a few hours earlier. In search of food, we found ourselves here, nursing a local beer and watching the Saints get beat by the Cowboys on the television above the mirrored bar. 

It’s a dingy place, and remarkably empty for the kind of destination on which New Orleans prides itself. But the patrons perched on stools at the bar like to talk, and it’s not long before we’re involved in multi-lateral conversations: where to go, what to do, what to eat. And definitely, we are told, avoid Bourbon Street at all costs. It’s where the tourists go, and not the “real” New Orleans.

But I’m here to people watch and enjoy the architecture, so on the morrow I’ll be walking all over the French Quarter, including Bourbon Street.

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.

Dining out, pen in hand.

18 November, 2018. It’s been a good long while since I’ve gone out “sketch dining.” My normal practice is to bring along a pen and small sketchbook, and make quick studies of the people around me. Places with high tops and open spaces are often terrific for this kind of artistic exercise, and since I was on the road I went in search of, and found, such a spot.

Oysters on the half shell and a good dark beer sounded like a winning combination to me. I’d stopped here before and the food had been excellent. This time was no exception either – in fact, the oysters were some of the best I could remember being served. My server, technically, smiled a lot. But there wasn’t much behind the smile. And while she heard me, she didn’t really listen, and I wound up ordering a basic Guinness rather than make further attempt to find out what the place actually offered.

Pens are sometimes a tool for working through frustrations and I am not especially kind at such times. Like a baseball umpire, I tend to “call ’em as I see ’em.”

Having worked through my sense of slight, I ignored my server in much the same way that I seemed to have been ignored and turned my attention to my fellow diners. Tables and booths were filling with families and couples. This being a bar and a Saturday in November, high definition screens throughout the place were blasting college football games. Servers scampered in all directions and a couple of guys across a long counter of ice and empty shells were shucking oysters.

Southern accents filled the air with “y’all” and “you’unze” and quaint local colloquialisms. Outside, the air was beginning to chill, but indoors it was warm, the beer was cold, and the oysters plump. 

And between slurps of oyster and sips of beer, I did the thing I do, which is illustrate the everyday world around me.

Brush Creek Art Walk

16 September, 2018. I was invited to judge the 7th Annual Brush Creek Art Walk, a plein air event that has grown in stature and size in only a few short years. As the name implies, the event takes place along Brush Creek, which is located adjacent to Kansas City’s swanky Country Club Plaza and extends eastward into some less traveled pathways. Dappled with trees, foliage, a nature center, bodies of water, easy footpaths, and surrounding architecture, Brush Creek has evolved over the last two decades into a soft, green urban destination for families, walkers, and joggers. It meanders past the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, with a spectacular corridor view of the long landscaped lawn and our iconic shuttlecock sculpture.

The three-day event kicked things off on Friday, with a nocturnal quick paint. We gathered at one of Kansas City’s iconic fountains, near the corner of Broadway and Nichols on the Plaza and waited for the timed start. As the judge, my sketches were an act of camaraderie and participation so the pressure was off to produce a “finished” artwork. I began by making several compositional studies, realizing within minutes that I could easily stand in one place and develop a dozen worthwhile ideas. Simply turning in my spot thirty degrees offered up a completely different perspective from the previous study.

As night fell, the sky turned a deep, rich shade of blue. The architecture became silhouettes at first, and then sections began to glow with golden patches of highlight as the building illumination kicked in. From my perspective, the view was just a little bit magical! And could I capture that color?

Well, not really. But it was fun trying to mimic it.

Artist participation was terrific. I knew many of the painters and sketchers, and enjoyed getting to know others whose names I knew but had never previously met. Many other artists were new to me and the opportunity to meet and get to know them was one of the best things about this event. There’s little in the way of social community for artists, so it’s good to relish gatherings like these.

The paintings were impressive. Situated as we were, artist and public intermingled, chatted, got to know one another, and artworks sold on the spot. Who knew it would be so much fun and so easy to advocate for art?

As the first day concluded, I strolled the lineup of paintings with the purchase award patron, narrowed the competition to a field of five, and selected one purchase recipient.

Saturday morning dawned with a hot, mostly sunny day. Artists were out and eager to get started.

I gave a demonstration and talk along the path, chatting with participants about my own personal ideas relating to compositional design, defining areas of contrast through value and/or color, and how I “edit” a scene to distill down the visual to what is essential. This is the sort of situation where I tend to flourish – I enjoy interacting with people of a similar bent and interest. Questions and thoughtful replies are welcomed. Folks enjoyed their coffee, their feet shuffling in the damp grass, while I got the chance to warm up as I spoke.

I made this demonstration sketch, chatting about random ideas as they occurred to me: the rule of thirds, respecting the motif, creating a pattern of shadow to create visual flow, and not taking myself too seriously. I like to play with my marks, and I’m not interested in photographic accuracy either. The most enjoyable part of a sketch is simply allowing the pen to “dance” around the page.

Every now and then I had to turn my back to the group to place marks on the paper. Jennifer Rivas got a nice close up documentary photo of me scribbling early in the drawing.

As the morning quick paint got started, I finished my demonstration sketch. I work fairly quickly and with a three hour time limit, I had plenty of time to walk around and look over the shoulders of artists as they worked as well as to make another value study.

Wandering past one especially pleasant location, I happened upon several other sketchers, a vacant park bench, and these logs basking under a bright sun. Bleached by the weather, they were practically glowing; the shadows were a dense black, with few middle tones present. Those that were visible showed the texture of the wood. Working on gray Stillman and Birn Nova series paper with a bent nib pen, a Uni-Ball, and a white Uni-Ball Signo, I worked the shadow shapes back and forth. I was trying to capture believable shapes quickly because they were changing just as quickly as the sun drifted across the morning sky into an overhead position.

The day was hot, and the artists were too! But my seat under the canopy of walnut trees was excellent and all I had to do was be mindful of walnuts dropping like messy little bombs from above.

The Brush Creek Art Walk wraps up today with a sunset quick paint.

Being there.

(Number four in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

26 August, 2018. I had an early morning meeting in the city on Thursday, and misjudged the timing of my arrival so that I pulled up to the art museum way too early. Taking up pen and sketchbook, both of which were on my backseat, I walked from the car and found myself under a stand of trees, settled in on a park bench and I began to sketch my surroundings.

Ugh! My fountain pen almost immediately ran dry… what the heck? Had I forgotten to refill? (Yes.) I finished the sketch with a different pen, one I happened to have in my pocket.


I’ve been thinking a lot about these ten ideas I have about sketching lately. Some of my students think I should turn them into a book, but honestly it’s much more likely I’d hand print something and bind it together into a nifty little handmade thing. That would satisfy me more than a “how to” publication, I think.

So these ideas: they really aren’t a “how-to” book. In a sense, they are an act of immersion. A purposeful liberation. A rebellion from the perception that drawings must look “real,” and a realization that the most satisfying sketches instead look “convincing.” Believability trumps photographic accuracy every time. These ideas are about drawing with expression, and reacting to what is there in front of you. Being of the moment. Being there.

These are not hard and fast “rules,” but suggested ideas. Like most “rules,” I tend to ignore one or all of them from time to time. But invariably, when I find a sketch is somehow lacking, somehow dissatisfying, a quick analysis generally reveals that I’ve ignored one of these principle ideas. So there you have it.

“Be” there. Sketch what you see, not what you think you know. Observe. People and things move, and so do you. Give yourself permission to let that happen in your sketches. Stuff overlaps in the real world. Things are in front of other things, and they are seldom all magically lined up like glasses on a shelf. Allow yourself to draw what you see, and react to changes in your sketches… your sketches may very well be a record of what happens during the time you’re drawing and NOT a snapshot of one second in time. Think about that.

Now, go draw.

(Duke 551 Confucius Fude Nib Fountain Pen, Uni-Ball in Canson 180 sketchbook.)

Story.

(Number three in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

20 August, 2018. So, you’ve got yourself a pen. Maybe it’s a fountain pen. It fits your hand perfectly, and it makes the most wondrously wonderful lines possible. Your pen (or brush or pencil or crayon or sharpened stick – really, it doesn’t make any difference what it actually is) pairs so remarkably well with the paper in your equally wonderful sketchbook that you cannot wait to make marks upon that most pristine of surfaces, the empty page. You know exactly what you want to draw (or paint or scribble, et. al.) Pen and sketchbook in hand, you are poised. I have but one incredibly poignant question to ask of you.

Why are you drawing this thing?

Seriously. These marks you wish to leave upon the page? What is driving you to make them? What interests you so much about this subject that you want to spend time making the marks?

In other words, what is the story?

Now hear me out. I realize not every scribble tells a story. (Even as I typed those words, I questioned the veracity of my statement. Maybe I should more accurately say that not every scribble is intendedto tell a story.) But the potential for narrative is one potentially important aspect of sketching. So why are you sketching thissubject in the first place? What will be different about your subject tomorrow? Later today? In five minutes?

Who is being depicted? Where are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? How did you get there? How much of the story are you willing to reveal, and how much are you wanting to hint at? How much remains obscure, so that only you know the story?

I’ve always considered myself a simple storyteller. In the classroom I usually rely on things that have happened or experiences I’ve encountered to make a point, to facilitate the “teachable moment” with my students. My sketches – and your experience may differ – well, anyway,mysketches are usually a response to that which is in front of me at a given time and place. It’s why I often choose to notate my sketches with date and location. And it’s why I often choose to elaborate upon those scribbles with text.

I often find myself unconsciously doodling on any scrap of paper that happens to be at hand, reacting to my immediate environment. The energy of those initial strokes of the pen are what most intrigues me – I interpret these loosely sketched marks as a sort of fresh shorthand for bigger, broader narratives… a conversation, if you will, only part of which the rest of the world is privy to. I feel a gestural mark communicates more through simplicity than can be told through great detail.

in a sense, we’re all making marks, most of which are scrawled upon the world and the people around us – farmers use a plow, builders a hammer, and sketchers a pen. Personally, I treasure those marks, those small moments and interactions with the everyday ordinary, and the overlooked. I choose to pause for a moment to observe these encounters in search of the story fragment that is there if we but watch for it.

So again: why areyou drawing this particular subject? What is the story you have to tell?