Tranquility.

16 June, 2019.

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?

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor in Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook.

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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.

Just killing time before a meeting.

31 March, 2019. I was at the state capital for a couple of days earlier this week to meet with other fine arts directors and curriculum coordinators. Meetings involve sitting – usually lots and lots of sitting. And sitting is something I’m ill suited for, quite frankly. I tend to be in motion most of the time.

So to offset the hours of inactivity I arrived in Jefferson City early enough to wander the streets and take in some of the buildings. One thing I’d never noticed before was the number of pointed roof tops. Although East High Street is clearly a typical Midwestern street, if you look around some of the architectural features take on a decidedly central-European flair.

This surprising discovery in the midst of that which is otherwise quite familiar made me ridiculously happy for some reason. Maybe it’s because I may not have noticed these little details had I not been killing a little time, enjoying the quiet of an early morning street.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and Caran D’Ache crayon wash in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Wandering.

28 March, 2019. Yes, I’m thinking I’ve found what was once a pretty swanky neighborhood. The house is called Bishop Palace.

For over a century, this place has been a landmark in Galveston. One of the few buildings to emerge from the devastating early 20th century hurricane, the house was mostly intact – but not unscathed. In fact, the back of the house was ripped off entirely, forcing later renovations.

For only a few dollars, one is allowed to wander about the first and second floor, taking in 19th century ideas of opulence. Indeed the carvings and woodwork are amazing.

Not many blocks away, ships and boats and industry and commerce are evident.

Walking several blocks from Bishop Palace, once encounters more dilapidated, but intact and in use buildings. I wondered if there was a seedier side of town and eventually I found it. There’s history present here as well, and I love it as much as I do the elegant woodwork and corinthian columns.

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Uni-Ball Vision Pen and watercolor wash in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

Beach houses.

26 March, 2019. I’ve made up my mind that this visit will not be punctuated by tours or anything at all resembling a need to meet anything at all resembling a schedule. Indeed, I will simply wander, my only purpose: explore at a slow pace, and stop where I may.

I enjoy looking at the beach houses. They look like the kind of place one can cozy up next to a fire or laze about on a porch overlooking the water. I enjoy the variety of silhouettes each outline creates, and the oddness of a complete house resting upon stilts. I enjoy the many windows and imagine the light bathing each interior.

Diagonals contrast with horizontals: the horizontal nature of an island, of the ocean; the diagonals of roof lines and the wonky shadows created by the early morning sun.

Grays permeate the landscape, but are themselves polluted with a bath of pink, a wash of cerulean blue, violets, periwinkles, Terre verte.

In the afternoon, as the day warms, I head out on two wheels to enjoy a few hours of bike sketching: rolling along until something strikes my fancy, then stopping to sketch for a bit before once again rolling down the road.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor wash on Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

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…”

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.

What do you think?

22 January, 2019. Scrolling through Instagram late this afternoon, I saw a couple of very painterly looking images and suddenly felt like playing around with my Caran d’Ache water-soluble crayons. Illustrated here is the same sketch, before and after activating the pigments with a water brush. As it happens, I rather like both versions for different reasons.

In this, the initial rough in of colors and values, I enjoy how unfinished it looks. The scribbled lines leave a lot for one’s imagination to fill in the blanks. It feels fresh.

After simply adding water and one or two additional touches of color, it’s always amazing to me how much more “solid” these Neocolor II sketches become. The colors are rich – which I also enjoy. And it’s not at all necessary to get lost in the details: Simplicity doesn’t mean one can’t create a convincing image.

So there you have it: one drawing, two finishes. I could have stopped at the rough and been perfectly happy. What do you think? Which version do you prefer?