Leaving Leiden was difficult. It’s an excellent hub for exploring nearby cities via train, and Leiden itself is a pretty wonderful, clean, and very walkable city. I had just gotten to the point where the pathways had become comfortably familiar.
But Amsterdam was the destination, and the Urban Sketchers Symposium the entire point of the journey. It was exciting to be a part of something like – like what? Frankly, I had no idea what to expect.
Along the way I’d run across a couple of other Urban Sketchers during my visits to the various cities and places of interest. Arriving in Amsterdam and settling into a hotel room, the next immediate step was to do a little recon. I followed my map to Zuiderkerk, the historic church that was to be the base of operations for the Symposium.
It was Monday afternoon; registration was still two days away but there were already sketchers milling about. Most were parked on benches, necks craned in order to draw or paint the impressive tower. Knowing I’d be sketching furiously over the coming days, I mostly took the day off from drawing and wandered on in continued exploration.
Tuesday morning dawned, a beautiful day. The courtyard outside of Zuiderkerk was starting to buzz. Groups of two, three, and four, all carrying backpacks or shoulder bags overflowing with art supplies were milling about. Many more sketchers had arrived a day early to chat and draw. I had little idea, however, how the following day would change the face of these quiet groups into a teeming throng.
______________ Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” in Stillman and Birn sketchbook. Color added digitally on an iPad using Procreate.
I’m faced with a dilemma. Before me is a bowl of my world famous cinnamon oatmeal and berries, drizzled with fresh whole cream.
The quandary? Do I eat it, or do I sketch it?
The answer: both. Dilemma solved.
_____________ Sketched directly in gouache in a Stillman and Birn Nova gray sketchbook. Y’know, I nearly always sketch directly when I work with a pen, but I often forget how liberating it is to work directly with paint, unburdened from the constraints of an underlying pencil sketch.
The challenge is to create thirty watercolor paintings over thirty days, working directly. Translation: no under drawing in pencil – just start painting, working wet-in-wet for the most part and avoid lots of “after action” touch ups such as multiple layers of glazing.
I decided to do thirty small (2 x 2 inch) paintings on one sheet in one day. I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly in the spirit of the challenge because the idea is to develop the work over consecutive days, but it’s a rainy day today and I was bored, and this kept me entertained for a while. And besides: I already work on consecutive days constantly.
These little paintings were the perfect interlude for a couple of longer term project I’ve been working on this month. And naturally, as I painted I was mulling over a new project idea: a series of small watercolor paintings in a grid like this, each focusing on a single subject. What I really like about doing this is the discovery I go through doing the “same” thing over and over, and trying to find new ways to say that thing differently each time. Meanwhile, the small size forces me to be restrained – which if you read this blog with any regularity you already know is an important characteristic to me.
_________________ Watercolor in a … what the heck? I have no idea what kind of sketchbook this is… it’s something unmarked that’s been on my shelf for years and I noticed there’s some empty pages in the back.
Make Music Day is a world-wide, free celebration of music that takes place on June 21. Our town has been so enthusiastic about participating that this year the decision was made to spread things out over two days, Friday evening and all day Saturday.
The concept is simple: musicians set up at various places around the community and play. In my mind, it’s a throwback to the days when neighborhoods were filled with kids running up and down the street, folks gathered on front porches, and in my family my dad would be comfortably seated on a metal yard chair playing his accordion.
Often, our imaginations wander and we reminisce about a day and age that maybe didn’t really exist anywhere else but in a film or a television show. The small town I live in is a lot like Mayberry. Take a stroll along the streets leading up to the historic town square and you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d somehow wandered onto the set of one of those shows. So encountering a pair of guitar players under a yard umbrella really isn’t much of a stretch.
People parked their cars all around the Square, pulled out folding lawn chairs from their trunks, and set themselves up in the shade of buildings to enjoy the music. While I was sketching, one fellow stood, rolled up his sleeves and wiped the sweat from his forehead, and meandered over to the players. He stood close to the group tapping his foot, then began to sing along. It was a remarkably convivial moment, one that I truly wish existed every single Friday evening.
______________ Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.
I began a new sketchbook a couple days ago. No, I hadn’t filled the Stillman and Birn book I’ve been working in yet. This is a sort of side project that occurred to me in the moment, a thought of “embracing imperfection.”
For this book, I’m placing severe restrictions on myself: It’s entirely in ink, black and white; it’s entirely drawn with my bent-nib fountain pen, which allows me to create a lot of line variety; no pencil lines are allowed! I think I referred to this in my Instagram post as “no pencil parachute.” I rather like that turn of phrase.
I must have needed this shift because my first couple days have been prolific. I’ve begun with people and things I encountered while wandering around downtown Kansas City and the Crossroads Arts District on Fathers Day. A sort of theme seems to be emerging, so I’m going to remain open to see if this is only a visual thesis, or if a narrative thread materializes as well.
But back to the idea of embracing imperfection, it’s not the first time I’m dedicated a sketchbook to a self-imposed restriction. I’ve made others in which I challenged myself to work directly with a pen. I hatehow making art often devolves into a search for perfection: perfect lines, perfect shapes, perfect proportions, etc. It’s a crippling attitude for anyone new to drawing, and frankly it’s just as crippling to seasoned sketchers. So rather than seeking perfection, I’m interested in just letting my pen be the response mechanism to chance encounters of the vernacular sort.
I noticed that this approach almost immediately took on a “comic book” look and feel. It’s not only very graphic, but some of the distortions feel at home in a graphic novel environment as well. My choice to weave words and commentary into a page reinforces that characteristic.
One of the idiosyncrasies of urban sketching is that drawings generally provide a sense of context, of surroundings. I particularly like that aspect of urban sketching. It’s interesting to me that a seriesof drawings from a place doesn’t always need to provide a visual background to be part of the series. Sometimes the lack of background speaks much louder, yet at the same time still seems to be one with the landscape presented in those images that appear sequentially before and after.
As each sketch emerges, the book takes on a life of its own. “Embracing imperfection” means allowing myself permission to just let mistakes happen. Not worrying about making “perfect” drawings pushes me to play with the pen: some things work, other things don’t. But interestingly, there’s a holistic impression becoming apparent to me that I find very appealing.
Some drawings start out as simple subjects. I’m not really sure where I’m going with them: they sort of emerge. And the simplest of subjects, in some cases, suddenly bloom into more complex compositions. I can’t explain or even predict how this is happening, but it’s exciting and a bit terrifying all at the same time. It’s a lot like playing a jazz solo – I know the tune and I know the instrument and I know the key, but I don’t always know where I’m going to go next. In fact, the path – defined as it is by instrument and tune and key – is still improvisational, an invention. And while my drawings are of a place and time, still there is inventiveness and decision in what to include and what to leave out. Listen to Miles Davis sometime. His genius is not so much about what he played, but in what he left out. I like that sort of inspiration.
I did ask Joe to pose for me. Everything else so far has been chance encounters; this was a purposeful sketch. But Joe, this burly, bearded cyclist, just felt like part of the tapestry that is emerging, so I rolled with it.
Embracing imperfection. Normally I would clean up the scans I post here by cropping off the edges of the book, maybe cleaning up the gutter line. After my first scan I realized that it wasn’t necessary to go through that exercise with these drawings. I’ve yet to decide if it’s a precious thought or not, but it occurs to me that leaving those margins is reminiscent of the way that Richard Avedon kept the film frame on his incredible black and white 4 x 5 portraits of the West. The crude frame became an important part of the composition. Perfectly imperfect, in fact.
__________________ Drawn directly with a bent-nib fountain pen in a Moleskin journal; some solid fills were made with a Pitt “Big Brush” pen.
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?
________________ Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.
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.
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.
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?
___________ Pencil and watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper.