Eccentricities of character

18 February, 2019. Missouri is defined by its small towns as much as anything else, and our small towns are characterized by a distinctive period architecture. The state itself has not yet celebrated its two hundredth birthday, and while it is possible to identify sites older than two centuries it’s much more likely to encounter towns dating back to the late nineteenth century.

The structures that give our small towns their personality therefore tend to be Victorian era “Painted Ladies,” bungalows of the 1920’s, occasional flourishes of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and a variety of revivalist stylings.

Part of the charm for me is how distinctively “Midwestern” our neighborhoods tend to be. There’s a pleasant variety from one home to the next. After all – the thinking must have gone – why on earth would anyone want to build a house just like one’s neighbor?

Wander the streets and you’ll find a clear boundary evident between older neighborhoods and the new: Even in the most expensive tracts, houses have a cookie-cutter philosophy and homes associations encourage – in fact demand – a uniformity and homogeneity that I view with disquiet.

I love when a mixture of styles seems to have evolved in an organic fashion, each new structure fulfilling a particular need, and representing someone’s individuality. For some reason, I find the eccentricities of character comforting in a way that planned communities fail to ignite in me.

Advertisements

Sleep on it.

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

26 January, 2019. Last night I finally visited a jazz bar that opened about a year ago. It is, quite literally, down the hill from my house and I offer no excuses for having waited so long – especially considering that the atmosphere is convivial and the jazz trio, A La Mode, was excellent.

As usual, I had a sketchbook and pen with me. The only seats were two large, comfortable leather armchairs right in front…it’s like they had save the two best seats in hopes of a sketcher showing up, and we gladly claimed them as our own. The show was good, and so was the subject matter. The stars seemed to be in alignment – so why was I feeling so uncertain about my sketches?

Sitting comfortably, pen in hand, and with what I perceived to be dozens of fellow patrons immediately behind me, looking over my shoulder to check out the art dude, my scribbles just felt crude and uninspired. Proportions were wonky. Nothing jumped off the page. No magic was there.

I do this to myself sometimes. Often enough, a sketch comes together effortlessly. When that doesn’t happen, I question myself, my choice of tools, my subject matter – everything. Maybe I’ll wind up overworking things or maybe I’ll be filled with self doubt. Flop sweat.

Regardless, I kept at it – scribbling and enjoying the music. And after an hour or so, I closed my book, paid the tab, and drove home. Once there, I opened up my sketchbook to see what I had captured: Mostly gestural sketches. Frankly, I was disappointed with the sketches and with myself. Even more frankly, I went to bed feeling like they were nothing more than warmups, and that my warmups were a train wreck.

This morning I find I’m actually pleased with some of them. I like the bass player so much that I am debating doing a much larger second version on a full sheet of watercolor paper using a big sloppy brush and India ink… but how is this possible? Last night everything seemed to have no potential whatsoever. This morning, those same sketches somehow evolved.

I think we get too close to what we’re doing sometimes. We become judgmental about our work, our style, our choices. And when that happens we don’t always give ourselves – or our ideas – a chance to gestate. We don’t give ourselves a chance to see what it is that we actually drew.

So the idea I’m sharing today is quite simple to state, but incredibly difficult to actually do: Don’t judge.

At least not now.

Sleep on it before you reach any conclusions about your work. Put a little time and distance between yourself and your drawing. Too often and too easily, we allow self doubt to morph into self reflection, and nothing productive can come from that. Examine your sketches and your practices critically, but always with a fresh pair of eyes.

And yet…

21 January, 2019. Man, this paper is a pain in the keister! Ink bleeds like crazy. My super compliant Caran D’Ache pastels don’t want to stick, and dragging the nib of my pen across the paper is a lot like driving a Jeep across the surface of the moon. It seems to suck ink right out of my pen reservoir too. Oh, and forget about activating those water soluble pastels with a brush.

And yet…

Drawing on lousy paper is fraught with frustrations. Marks happen by chance. There’s just something about the unpredictability that makes sketching an appealing act of happenstance.

From time to time I’ll cut up a brown bag from the grocery store to draw upon. It’s a bit like butcher paper, but not as nice. The paper in this sketchbook is awful. It seems to have been formulated from some sort of oatmeal/palm frond/sandpaper/asteroid pulp recipe. The surface is irregular and looks hand made (although I doubt it actually is.)

The cover is laughably kitschy, but it does brighten up an otherwise cold and gloomy looking January world. It’s an embarrassingly “touristy” look, quite frankly, and the binding, while functional, is inset so far from the spine that a lot of real estate is lost: the effective useful drawing area is much smaller from side-to-side than it would appear at first glance. And that twig! It’s an entirely decorative accent (as is the cut out fish); it makes me chuckle just a little bit. This is a sketchbook you simply cannot take seriously.

And yet…

It is a fun surface to mark upon. In a way, it reminds me of the crummy manilla paper I used for pen and ink drawings when I was a kid. I’d no idea at the time that “artist paper” was even a thing and so I used dip pens and India ink over terrible paper that was only barely workable. And doing so meant braving the frustrations of the inevitable ink spatter and blobs. As an adolescent, those frustrations led to more than one bottle of ink getting thrown across the room.

I’m also reminded of Renaissance era artist sketches. As I was floundering my way through the world of dip pens, the twelve year old me was gifted art books by my aunt. One book I particularly recall was illustrated with ink sketches by Rembrandt. The lines were spare and at the same time incredibly expressive. The sketches were made with what I imagine was a crude dip pen and represented a very handmade process. The paper never allowed a “perfect” line to be formed. I suspect now that Rembrandt’s paper had discolored over time, but everything about the paper in my sketchbook reminds me of his drawings: the color, the way lines are broken and skitter across the surface. Such paper encourages one very simplistic approach to drawing, a sort of imperfection that I find attractive.

Once upon a time, in a life before I was an art educator, I was a designer and illustrator. It was how I made my living. With the advent of Instagram and various other social medias, I’ve noticed a cascade of younger art makers are labelling themselves as illustrators. I sort of wonder how many of them realize that illustrators, for the most part, make art for someone else – that illustrators are hired to express the ideas of others. Illustrations are assignments generated by others and executed by illustrators. I wonder if that label of “illustrator” is self bestowed as a means of validating their art making. I hope not.

Illustration is a valid form of art making, but I no longer consider myself to be an illustrator, except in the very broadest sense of the word. I draw what I enjoy, when I enjoy, and where I enjoy. Any “assignments” are my own and no apologies are necessary for how crudely my marks are made.

Even when they are made on crummy paper.

Visceral Reactions

13 January, 2019. I’m finally getting around to scanning some of the past week’s sketches. This is from my kinda-sorta on-again-off-again sketch series of skies.

To be perfectly clear, these little sketches are not intended to be anything other than a quick impression. I’m making little attempt to be realistic and only barely representational. It’s just a fun way to play around with color – a little playfulness without getting too serious about doing so. Even with my more representational work I always look for the abstract in a scene and this is a fun way to do that.

My sketches are often a narrative response to a place or time or event. These sketches of skies are more visceral. The start and end of a day can be more of an aesthetic experience, and if I really explore my intentions here I’d probably find it’s aesthetics driving me. But frankly, I’m not thinking deeply or analyzing my motivations…I’m simply tossing paint on the page for the pure pleasure of doing so.

Watercolor on Arches rough, 7 x 7 inches.

A perfectly good building.

4 January, 2019. My friend Peggy asked me if I’d had a chance to sketch the building at 47th and Pennsylvania yet. I’m still on break between semesters so my brain is set to “Pause” at the moment – I admitted I had no idea which building she was talking about.

“It’s the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the Country Club Plaza, and you better get down there before they tear it down!”

Wednesday morning dawned, bright and cold, the first day of commerce in 2019. I stood in the shadow of McCormick & Schmick’s, studying the scene before me: The fencing and hardhats and construction equipment that surrounded what I think is an iconic Plaza structure was incongruous with the building and all of it’s architectural fellows. My understanding is limited – unless someone comes along to save it, the location is going to be used for a new building. It seems like a terrible waste to me, and – once again – a terrible loss of our own history. I haven’t seen drawings of the new building yet, but I’m fearful of a tall gray box with lots of mirrored glass.

Standing on the sidewalk, I sketch quickly. Although I’ve brought two pair of gloves, I immediately discover that one pair is too thin and my hands are in pain from the cold within minutes. The other pair is much warmer, but so thick that it’s virtually impossible to handle my pen with any dexterity at all. Those are abandoned and I finish the sketch with my fingers numb.

Later, when I archive my sketch onto Flickr, I caption it “yeah, just tear it down you fools.” Small solace, I know.

After freezing my hands to the point of numbness, I collected myself and my sketch kit and retired to the warmth of a favorite restaurant for lunch. To my surprise, I discovered there were some unused pages at the back of this small Crescent sketchbook. That discovery delighted me far more than it should have – like the twelve year old that I am at heart, I find undue glee in trifling happenstance.

Scrambling outside to sketch on one of those empty pages, the world had warmed a little. Gloves were comfortable, but no longer necessary. I quickly sketched the entrance to McCormick and Schmick’s.

And immediately behind the restaurant, construction workers in yellow vests continued to work, unabated.

__________________

Uniball Vision and Pitt “Big Brush.” The top sketch is approximately 8 x 10 inches in a Canson 180 sketchbook; the lower sketch is in a Crescent sketchbook, the page size is about 3 x 5 inches.

Urban Sketchers Symposium Correspondent

1 January, 2019. I’m very excited to finally be able to share the news that I’ll be traveling to Amsterdam this year as a sketcher-correspondent for the 2019 International Urban Sketchers Symposium!

The International Urban Sketchers Symposium is dedicated to fostering and celebrating the practice of on-location sketching in the host city. The event offers valuable field-sketching instruction and opportunities for participants to network and socialize. Following our spirit of “sharing the world, one drawing at a time,” we aim to bring the Symposium to new cities and countries every year. PortlandLisbonSanto DomingoBarcelonaParatySingapore Manchester and Chicago have hosted previous editions of the Symposium.

At the end of a highly competitive, rigorous selection process, three outstanding candidates were chosen to cover the Amsterdam symposium as correspondents: Mark Anderson(Liberty, Missouri, USA), Mariia Ermilova (Tokyo) and Gwen Glotin (Amsterdam). The USk Editorial Team and Executive Board are pleased to have selected a strong, committed team for the important volunteer role of reporting on the 10th annual USk Symposium. (Read more…)

____________________________________
Click here to learn more about Urban Sketchers

Recipe Gone Awry.

30 December, 2018. It’s a Sunday morning, cold, and I’m too slothful to wander outside to sketch today. One of the dogs is curled up on a throw rug at my feet, enjoying the warmth of the studio while I thumb through sketches in search of something to draw.

I pause for a moment to look at this pencil sketch from my recent trip to New Orleans. This is “Gumbo Marie,” a chef at the New Orleans School of Cooking who taught a group of us how to prepare gumbo her way – the “correct” way. I’d scribbled down something she said, a quote that I really love and thought summed up her personality way better than my sketch did.

Did this pencil study excite me enough to go any further with it? I really wasn’t feeling it, so I kept thumbing through pages. Eventually, finding little to get me pumped up I found my way back to these sketchbook pages.

So here I am, nearly a month returned from my visit. My memory is fading quickly. With only a vague plan in mind for where I’m going to take things, I jump in with a pen, leaving my penciled field notes in place. As usual, I begin to look for ways to contrast large black areas against the inked focal point. I’m a little unhappy to have lost the energy of the pencil lines. They created an impression of the person and the inked lines are “too” precise. To me, they look like something from a coloring book.

After a little deliberation, I decide to take it easy with the white pen I’ve begun to use. Instead, I add some touches of color with gouache. I sure like how the painterly characteristics wipe out the “coloring book” appearance of the “too deliberate” line drawings.

I re-read Marie’s quote now and chuckle to myself. It kind of applies to the backward approach I’ve used to develop this sketch. But like a surprising twist to a recipe gone awry, I wind up liking how the dish turned out after all.

Proportion and Continuity

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

“Proportion” is a word that gets used a lot in art, but seems to me to be largely misunderstood. So let’s begin with a bit of common ground by establishing what I am referring to when I talk about proportion in sketching, which is the relative size and scale of the various objects appearing in your drawing.

In the observed world (see my reference photo above), a sketcher might consider various proportions. For instance, when I draw something is the width of an object proportionally accurate when compared to the height of that object? Is the size and shape of that entire object proportionally accurate when compared to other objects within the motif? What about the space between objects? Or the scale of objects appearing closer vs. further away? If one’s objective is to make a photographically accurate rendering, proportionality becomes a very important factor.

So does that mean proportionality is no longer important if one is making a sketch that is purposefully not photographically accurate? A drawing in which exaggeration is intentional? I would argue that proportionality is, in fact, of even greater value to the artist if one is hoping for a degree of authenticity or believability.

My sketches are nearly always exaggerated in some manner. I choose to use line and shape as a means of expressiveness. Compare the shape of my buildings above to the photograph – there are significant differences in the forms themselves, not to mention the placement and spacing. But while the drawing couldn’t be placed over the photograph on a light box with any degree of accuracy, I feel like it is true to the place. Artists make decisions about what to include and what to leave out all the time. So too do we make decisions about proportionality.

In fact, I find that continuity is much more useful in a drawing than photographic accuracy. Whether your shapes are drawn in a quirky or cartoonish way, or very accurately, the goal is to shoot for consistency throughout the drawing.

To make my point, I’ve shared four images of the same subject this morning: two are variations using line, one is a loose watercolor sketch, and the other is a photographic reference of the location I sketched. The line art and the watercolor are stylistically different; neither are “accurate” to the photograph. But I feel like both are “truthful” representations of the place and time. You’d probably recognize the place from the sketches. Proportionality has been used to “stretch” the otherwise squat vertical objects in a very horizontal motif. Perhaps this exaggeration of proportion helps to communicate the personality of the structures and place and time better than photographic accuracy might.

To pull this off, sketchers must be consistent in the way that proportions are exaggerated. To do otherwise risks creating a sketch that, while perhaps quite skillful, is somehow less believable, less convincing to a viewer.

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.