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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“Do I know you?”

23 March, 2019. “Do I know you? You look very familiar…“

I put my pen down, momentarily confused. The lady at the next table was staring at me intently. At first I thought it was because I was surreptitiously trying to sketch her and her companions without obviously doing so. It was our second or third day on Galveston Island and I was making every effort to sketch my surroundings wherever I happened to be.

“I know I know you.” She waited for me to reply.

“Only from television and the movies.“ My response was glib, and I smiled. In fact we all smiled, and everyone chuckled.

But as lunch progressed, her continued gaze made it more and more apparent that she wasn’t going to let her curiosity go further unremarked upon. Where, oh where did she know me from? My admirer made no secret about studying me closely, reversing the voyeuristic role that artists more normally assume.

Suddenly her body language changed entirely. She straightened, sat upright and brightened, exclaiming, “Oh! I know! You’re James Patterson!”

Clearly, I am not. And just as clearly, I don’t look anything like James Patterson. (More like Bill Bryson if I had to pick an author as my doppelgänger. And even that is an awfully long stretch.)

Nevertheless, I replied, “You got me. Be sure to buy my next book.“

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Uni-Ball Vision and watercolor washes in a Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

A day without color.

24 February, 2019. The day is black and white – no exaggeration at all. I look around me in search of any glimpse of color, but there’s none at all. The snow is over for now, replaced by rain and a little wind and a dense fog. Whatever hues are out there, they’ve all been subject to a gauze-like filter. Shapes are indistinct; objects simply disappear beyond a hundred yards or so. In between, everything else is a graphic halftone: this tree is closer to me and I can make out 60% of the monochromatic values, that tree is a bit further off and perhaps only a quarter of the tones are visible. Beyond that is a milky nothingness.

I know there are houses and more trees. A muffled bark, soft in the distance… from what direction? And close or far? It’s impossible to tell.

The top layer of snow is melting in the rain. Tomorrow brings sun, so maybe I’ll pull on my winter cycling gear, stuff a small sketchbook into my jacket, and wheel down the road for twenty or thirty miles.

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Fude-tip fountain pen, Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series sketchbook; approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.

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.

Tweedy People

4 November, 2018. I really look forward to our annual Tweed Ride. A “tweed ride,” for those unfamiliar with the phrase, is a glorified excuse to get dandied up in garb reminiscent of a bygone and genteel era in England. Families and friends would dress up, pull together a picnic luncheon, and head for the countryside on bicycles. Tweed ride participants come in all shapes and configurations – old and young, urban and suburban, professional and blue collar.

For me it’s doubly fun. I have restored vintage racing bicycles for many years and this gives me an opportunity to ride my old bikes with others of similar bent. It’s also a terrific gathering for sketching. Once I finish the leisurely ride, I lean up against a column and pull out my sketchbook.

Not everyone brings a vintage bicycle, and that’s fine. The emphasis really is on the fancy dress up. Some attempt is made to emulate the look of a bygone era, but the fashions are all over the place, from something sort of resembling a flapper (no idea how a flapper would have ridden a bicycle back in the day, but what the heck!) to Victorian-ish/steam punk-ish attire. It’s all good. And it’s all fun to draw.

People mill around before the ride, so the secret is to sketch after we return, when folks are preparing to eat their lunch on the lawn and are, thus, a bit more stationary. Even still, one must sketch quickly – blink, and the little social butterflies tend to be gone.

Because that is true, I keep my sketches quick and very loose. Color gets added later. For yesterday’s ride I kept the application of color true to the nature of the scribbled line drawings by using water-soluble pastels diluted with sloppy washes.

The world is a color wheel.

3 November, 2018. Almost overnight the colors depicted in this sketch have changed. The color of foliage has rapidly emerged from the olive green of summer into a cacophony of autumn hues: oranges, reds, violets, and yellows. The ground is littered with fallen leaves. This morning dawns, chilly and wet and I realize the choice of color on my palette will have to evolve today as well. In some ways, the actual color of the world is reflective of the rather arbitrary colors I’ve been using to experiment with Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble pastels these past couple weeks: As the chlorophyll saps to near nothingness, what remains is a compliment of color.

Imagine that – the world is a color wheel!

I sketched the top image specifically to document a process. The second image in this post summarizes the developmental stages. Here’s what’s going on between this medium and I:

  • After making a very general 5 x 5 inch sketch on scrap mat board, I thought about the colors and tones I’d like to generate. This is a very purposeful approach for me that hearkens back to my days as an illustrator in the 80’s and 90’s. These days, a much more freewheeling style is comfortable to my hand, so I had to pause and think about what I was doing. My thinking was to begin the color with an underpainting of opposites: I want to see what happens when I begin with the compliment as a base over which I’d work additional layers of color.

I rather like using scrap mat board with this media. It takes it well and I have so many scraps stored away unused.

  • After going over the base layer with a brush and clean water to create a painterly foundation, I began to add the compliment. In the second image you can see where some of the second layer has been added. I knew I wanted to create a lavender sky, hence the base layer of lime green.
  • As the layers of complimentary color got added, I also began to vary the values to represent depth and modeling. These crayons don’t do well with great detail; it’s a better approach to generalize as I sketch/paint with them. The resulting style differs from my more linear and graphic way of drawing, and looks a lot like something one might encounter in a children’s book. As I noted earlier, it’s a little reminiscent of what I did earlier in my career as an illustrator.
  • Finally, I added more scribbled lines to round out the tones. I never wanted to eliminate every vestige of the foundation color and intentionally allowed some of it to peak through. My thinking was this might create a little extra visual energy. To exemplify the effect, compare to my followup experiment illustrated below.

I worked hard to really cake the color on in this abstraction of a building. I sort of like the effect in an academic way, but it feels lacking in charm and emotion. Weird for me to say, I know, because I am profoundly influenced by the geometry of design in my work, but I feel this is probably only an interesting experiment –  a dead end street, artistically – one that doesn’t allow me to tell a story. It “tries” too hard to be something it’s not.

Conclusion: don’t overwork this medium. Keep things looser and less opaque.

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?

Changes

19 May, 2018. I worked at a design firm located at 9th and Baltimore in Downtown Kansas City for several years – long enough that I really feel like I know the place. But time passes, and it turns out that I left that job and the downtown area over twenty-eight years ago. The place I know doesn’t really exist any more, and that became very clear to me this afternoon as I set myself up to sketch the corner I once knew intimately.

Once upon a time, our block was populated with designers and illustrators and architects. The Savoy Grill was half a block away, and a barbecue shack (barely) stood across the street in one of the many parking lots. The world’s shittiest bar was across the street from the studio; bare wires and a bulb hung from the ceiling over a pool table with cigarette scars all over the wood, and you simply didn’t ask why the bathroom sink was the color it was.

Fast forward to this afternoon, and I find myself seeing a place that is familiar but quite unknown. For one thing, there are people walking all over the place. In 1990, you could shoot a canon down 9th Street after five on weekdays and all weekend long without fear of hurting a single living soul.

The shitty bar is gone. Was it the Baltimore Inn? Honestly, I know longer remember with any certainty. In it’s stead are the signs of gentrification: a delicatessen and to my surprise, a neat little eatery that serves authentic Aussie sausage rolls. I buy two, and a mushroom hand pie, stand outside the place and stare across the street at the New England Building, once populated with the revolving door of designers and illustrators and writers and advertising executives who were my steady stream of colleagues. Now the building is residential. I glance over to the unique architectural detail that was my office three decades earlier and wonder if it’s part of someone’s bedroom these days.

A block in the other direction is a structure we referred to as the “Eagle Building.” An imposing statue of an eagle stands guard over all who enter. I think the AIA used to have offices there. Maybe. Today I notice it’s The Catholic Center, and there’s no shortage of priests and nuns exiting through the double doors in groups of three and four. Maybe they are in search of authentic Australian sausage rolls. I hope so – they’re quite good.

I’m trying out a new tool today. A few months ago, one of my fellow sketchers showed me a nifty little gizmo that is part art satchel and part drawing support. The bag is slung over one’s shoulder like a courier bag until it’s time to sketch. One then rotates the bag to the front, opens the case and snaps the lid out of the way with a strap made for that purpose. With the case open, the shoulder strap still in place, and the surface of the case propped against one’s waist, one now has a very stable surface on which to draw or paint while standing. I only saw the bag in use for a short time, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

I’m not sure what brand or model she was using. I know there are at least one or two similar artist bags on the market, but the one I researched and wound up ordering is made by a company named Etchr. They’ve developed a couple of different products; the one I ordered and was putting to use this afternoon is the Slate Mini Satchel. It worked very well for the sketches I made today, but ninety minutes of drawing isn’t adequate time for a thorough review – I’ll write in detail about this product after a few weeks of use.

Iced In.


20 February, 2018. We had a totally unexpected snow day today (or more accurately, ice day), soooo – no school! I started off a day of drawing by adding white ink and lettering to a line drawing I began downtown a couple of days ago. I like the challenge of working with black and white pens on a toned paper, but it does force me to work differently, less fluidly and much more deliberately. The technique does work with human subjects, but it’s tougher for me to be as gestural as I’d like. Architectural subjects feel more natural with this pairing of tools and paper.


I posted this urban sketch a couple of days ago. I like the sort of psychological tension present in the sketch and promised myself that I’d have a go at a slightly larger version in color. For some reason I felt like it needed to be done in gouache, and that feeling persisted, nagging at me, insistent that watercolor would not be the right move. It was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched and I couldn’t at first figure out why.

I awoke this morning and suddenly knew what it was buzzing around in my head. The sketch and the hues I had in mind reminded me of a painting by one of my favorite artists, Ben Shahn.

In his 1939 painting Handball, Shahn’s figures are dwarfed by a huge white wall that dominates the entire composition. The chalkiness and graphically flat colors could only be achieved using gouache. Subconsciously I must have had in mind the similarities: an urban setting, a large white wall, the viewer being presented with the figure’s back. And, of course, gouache.


I had no desire to copy Shahn’s artwork, nor be unduly influenced by the painting itself so I purposely avoided looking it up online until I was finished with the color sketch. Having now done so I decided that leaving the stark white areas unpainted as I might with watercolor was probably a mistake. It feels less than complete and I think it will be a good idea to go back in and paint the whites, leaving some subtle undulations of hue as I did with the blue-gray of the sky. Shahn’s painting demonstrates how that painted “white” results in an overall more holistic feeling. Using a limited palette works well in his painting and I feel in good company having relied on that strategy myself.

I decided to track the progress of development so that I’d have a record to share with my drawing/painting students when I introduce gouache in a few weeks. It also helps me to revisit the decisions I made during the process of painting.

The colors seem a bit raw to me and I wonder if painting the whites will change that for the better – or make no difference at all. I feel like this one is still just a study for a more finished piece, perhaps larger still.

Approximately 8.5 x 11 inches (21.6 x 28 cm), gouache on 140# watercolor paper. Ben Shahn’s painting Handball is part of the MoMA’s permanent collection.

Close to Home


22 July, 2017. I’ve been on the road so much this month that there’s been little opportunity to update this blog. There has, however, been ample opportunity for sketching, both close to home and while traveling. Thus, after neglecting the blog for the past few weeks I will be adding two posts in a single day.

Let’s begin with sketching in and around the small town I call home. Liberty is a community of something like 25,000 residents with a quaint town square and older neighborhoods and lots of green space. It’s really livable, and I bicycle the streets nearly every single day. People say hello to one another on the street and the square tends to attract interesting shops and eateries, one of which is Morning Day Cafe. If prompted, I would describe the place as a quasi-hippy/new age/Earth Mother/whole grain eatery and mixology center, and perhaps my sketch (above) hints at that just a little bit. It is a fun, friendly place to eat and chat, and the food is great.

The neighborhood streets in the older part of town are lined with large shade trees and houses dating from the fifties to antebellum, with the assorted range of architectural styles one might imagine that diversity to encompass.

I feel as though half the town is undergoing some sort of renovation at the moment.

The road, sidewalk, and street parking, along with some adornment on the square have been part of a massive restoration and improvement. The side streets are getting repaved and re-striped, and one is certain to see construction equipment throughout the town.

I enjoy the variety of architectural styles in evidence. I take particular joy in closely examining structures and discovering some neat little detail or ornamentation. It’s fun to keep my bike sketches a little bit loose and scribbly looking, to capture more of an impression rather than to draw as a true documentarian.

As many times as I’ve wandered down the street in search of an afternoon’s subject matter, I know if I look closely enough I’ll find plenty to draw close to home.