Monday, April 24, 2017

Middle Fork – Backwards and Forwards

4/23/17 water-soluble colored pencils, ink

John Grade’s Middle Fork is a remarkable piece of art inspired by a 140-year-old tree in the Cascade Mountains. Along with a huge team of volunteers in Seattle, Grade built the 105-foot-long work from thousands and thousands of tiny pieces of reclaimed cedar glued together. Hanging above the Seattle Art Museum’s lobby, Middle Fork made my jaw drop, and I couldn’t keep my mouth closed even as I sketched. I’m guessing others felt the same way, as it was a popular sketch subject yesterday morning with Urban Sketchers Seattle.

First I went all the way to the back of the museum lobby and sat under it to take in as much of its full length as would fit in my sketchbook spread. Then I went upstairs to the museum’s third floor to look down on the opening of its wide end. In either case, I don’t think I quite captured its enormity, but I tried.

4/23/17 water-soluble colored pencils, ink
Nearly five years ago, USk Seattle met in SAM’s lobby, where I sketched a small part of Inopportune: Stage One, a sculpture by Cai Guo-Qiang, consisting of actual cars and flashing neon lights suspended from the same ceiling where Middle Fork now hangs. While Inopportune was controversial during its long exhibition there (many loved it, many hated it – it’s difficult to feel indifferent about a bunch of cars hanging overhead at various angles), Middle Fork seems to be unanimously praised. I have no doubt I will gaze at it with awe each time I enter SAM for as long as it’s there.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

David Chamness Frees Us from Worry and Details

4/22/17 ink, watercolor
As all construction sites are, the building going up at Ninth and Howell in downtown Seattle is a formidable and intimidating sketch subject. But David Chamness promised us “freedom from worry and the details” as we tackled the site in his USk 10x10 workshop. He encouraged us to stay loose and fast with the sketch while having fun and engaging with passers-by.

On a cloudy but fortunately mostly dry morning yesterday, a dozen of us began by making small thumbnails to divide the intimidating scene into manageable compositions. David suggested taking smartphone photos to help us view various compositions. Giving a brief drawing demo, he explained how to identify the horizon line and vanishing point and how to take relative measurements of elements and angles with our pens.

Next we drew a complete scene using one of our thumbnails as a reminder of the composition. (“Look at the thumbnail briefly, then put it away and look at the actual scene while you draw,” he said, “don’t draw from the thumbnail.”) David urged us to draw with bold, confident ink lines, not dashed, sketchy pencil lines. (“You don’t want to draw it twice or spend time erasing.”) As we drew, he gave us more pointers like using the whole arm – not just wrist – to draw long, straight lines, and using the “rule of thirds” to make interesting compositions.

David giving a watercolor demo.
During a brief watercolor demo, David showed us his signature painting style: bold, sometimes “unrealistic” colors put down quickly with a large brush. Moving from lightest to darkest colors, he showed us how values support the forms and shapes in the drawing. He also moves from the top down on the page to avoid dragging his hand through wet paint. After the demo we made our final sketch of the workshop – on large paper, at least 9-by-12 inches, and finished with watercolor. (He recommends taping a sheet of watercolor paper to a board for support.)

Shown at the top of the post is my final sketch. Whenever I take workshops, I usually end up feeling like the resulting sketches are not my spontaneous responses to the subject because they are assigned by the instructor, who has a specific objective in mind for the exercise. I maintain the attitude, however, that I’m there to learn more than to make spontaneous sketches, so the results don’t bother me. I have to say, though, that this sketch is one of few workshop sketches I actually like because it did feel like a genuine, fresh response. Influenced by David’s approach and feedback, it is looser and bolder than most scenes I’ve sketched under the duress of being intimidated by huge and complex subject matter. Free of worries, indeed!
A few thumbnails

Incidentally, this was the first time I used watercolors on location since I committed to using colored pencils exclusively last fall. Although I haven’t missed watercolors, it was fun to splash around with a wide brush (I even used a real ¾-inch brush recommended by David instead of my usual waterbrush) to make bold streaks of color. While I’m generally more attracted to the finer lines and details I can get with colored pencils, there’s a place for loose, splashy marks, too. I’d like to find a way to get both from one medium, but that’s a tall order.

One thing that was definitely confirmed, though, was that I don’t like the extra baggage that painting requires – somewhere to sit; supporting a painting board with my lap; bending over to dip into paints, a mixing tray and water; cleaning up afterwards. Each sketching medium has its pros and cons. I think I’ve made my choice with colored pencils, but every choice means giving up the benefits of the alternatives not taken. 

Our intimidating sketch subject!

Workshop students hard at work.

A bus shelter makes a handy studio.

David helps Svetlana take a measurement.
Final throwdown and critique.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cloud Experiments

4/20/17 water-soluble colored pencils, ink
A couple of days ago we got a brief reprieve from the relentless rain and wind, so I ran out the door before it started again. It was still chilly and breezy, so I drove up the street and stayed in the car to sketch this. Although there was enough sunshine to cast shadows (what a treat!), huge, gray, billowing clouds hung low – a typical Seattle sky much of the year.

In just about every way, I am enjoying using colored pencils more than watercolors when sketching on location, but one element I haven’t been able to do successfully with colored pencils is the sky. Sure, I can take several hours to do it with dry colored pencils or a little less time with water-soluble colored pencils, but that doesn’t work on location. So I’ve been looking for shortcuts.

For a few years I’ve been using a waterbrush filled with ink to make a quick splash of blue sky, but that handy trick doesn’t work as well with clouds. I tried a waterbrush filled with gray ink for quite a while, but I haven’t been happy with the results.

With the sketch above I tried an idea I’ve been playing with at home – it’s similar to the waterbrush trick but using water-soluble colored pencils. I first spray the paper with a light mist, then use a clean brush to spread it evenly. I hit the wet paper with the blue ink. Then I put down a swatch of gray colored pencil on a piece of scrap paper. I use a second waterbrush (filled with water) to pick up the gray pigment, then dab it onto the wet paper. The effect is better when the paper has dried just a touch – but not too much.

Below are some practice clouds I’ve been doing at my desk. I’m not completely happy with the effect, but I’m happy with the speed and efficiency, and especially the mechanical ease of doing all of this while standing and without juggling paints. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Secondary Triad

4/20/17 water-soluble colored pencils (photo reference)
This week’s lessons in my colored-pencil class are depicting distance and using the secondary triad. I’m not too pleased with my result in terms of showing distance, and I wasn’t at all inspired by my photo reference of a marshy field – something I would probably never choose as subject matter on my own. On the other hand, I love the secondary triad palette I used and the process for mixing those hues!

During most of the previous lessons, we’ve used a primary triad palette (red, yellow, blue) with a warm and a cool of each hue – a classic paint-mixing structure. When I used watercolors, my tiny paint box allowed only eight half pans, so I generally carried some variation of a primary triad with a couple of secondary or other “convenience” colors. I’ve also experimented with colored pencil primary triads on my own, so I’ve gotten used to mixing primaries.

This week when Suzanne introduced the concept of using a secondary triad, I was very excited! Orange, green and violet is my favorite color combination for almost everything (someday I might show you my dishware, towels and downstairs bathroom), and I’m always attracted to it when I see it in the work of others. (One of my favorite urban sketchers who uses the secondary palette beautifully is Richard Sheppard.) But I’ve never consciously used it as a painting palette myself. It was high time for me to use it with pencils!
The secondary triad palette I used for the exercise above.
While picking out warms and cools of the primaries is easy, it took a little more thinking to choose the secondaries, mainly because I don’t do it often. Finding the right purples and greens was relatively straightforward, but the oranges were more challenging – it’s strange to think of any orange as being cool. With Suzanne’s help, and keeping in mind the marshy subject matter of the photo reference, I chose a dark reddish orange for the cool and a yellower one for the warm.

Mixing the cool green and cool violet for the darkest shadows was fun and surprisingly rich (instead of garish, which I feared).

My uninspiring photo reference.
I’m going to be using this palette again . . . in fact, I think it will be ideal for Italy next month! 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Follow-Up Review: Baron Fig Paper

Baron Fig Vanguard: standard edition at left (the plain gray covered
with my own stickers) and the limited-edition Infinity.
Ever since I supported its Kickstarter campaign several years ago, New York stationery maker Baron Fig has captured my attention on and off. The hardbound Confidant I initially reviewed held more promise than usefulness, but I was happy that I held onto it. Nearly two years later when I became interested in sketching with graphite, that notebook’s paper turned out to be one of my favorites.

Spotting my review about graphite sketching, Andi at Baron Fig got in touch asking permission to tweet it. I mentioned that I was considering trying a more portable softcover Vanguard, and she kindly offered to send me one in the same A5-ish Flagship size. (She also sent an Archer pencil, which had been recently released.) All winter as I sketched the graphite-gray landscape, the Vanguard became my everyday-carry pencil sketchbook.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when Ana at the Well-Appointed Desk noted that the paper in the limited Black Box edition had changed – it was now toothier and more creamy than white. I was actually fond of the old Vanguard’s slightly-but-not-overly-toothy surface, so I wasn’t sure if I’d find the change to be an improvement or not. A short time later, the next Vanguard limited-edition Infinity came out, and I was curious enough about the new paper to order one.

Initially I was a little disappointed by the additional tooth, but I got over that quickly because I discovered other differences that were definite improvements. I ran through my usual battery of media tests – graphite, water-soluble colored pencil, fountain pen, brush pen, Pitt marker. Although the weight (unspecified by BF) feels the same, the new paper has more sizing, so the water-soluble materials washed nicely when brushed lightly with water instead of sinking into the paper immediately. On the old paper, the reverse side shows a little bleed-through where I gave the scribbles a wash. The new paper shows almost nothing. The paper is still not intended for wet media, of course, so the page buckled where I got it wet, but not too badly.

Old paper
New paper

Old paper (reverse)
New paper (reverse)

Perhaps a more significant consequence of this paper change is greater durability where the binding is stitched. When sketching on location with a softcover sketchbook, my habit is to fold the side that I’m not using backward, making the book easier to hold with one hand. When I did that with the old Vanguard, I noticed that the pages would tear away a bit from the stitching, especially near the bottom. I’m not seeing that at all with the new Vanguard. Perhaps the binding is exactly the same, but the paper might be slightly stronger, so it’s not tearing from the stress of bending the page away from the stitching.

Old binding
New binding

Incidentally, one thing I really appreciate about all of Baron Fig’s notebooks (hardcover and softcover) is that the bindings open completely flat, which makes them easier to use as well as scan.

Tombow marker on new Vanguard paper
Since the paper is not appropriate for heavy washes, I wouldn’t make the Vanguard my standard, everyday sketchbook. But now that I know the paper can stand up to various media besides graphite, I’m using it more. Last month when I took Sue Heston’s urban sketching workshop, she had suggested tonal markers, so I grabbed pigment-ink-based Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens and water-based Tombow Dual Brush markers to use in the new Vanguard. The paper held up to both types of markers beautifully with no bleed-through at all, even where I applied the markers solidly. (I don’t have any alcohol-based markers to test, but I’m guessing they would still bleed through.) It’s great for fountain pen line drawings washed lightly for shading, too.

While the gray cover, standard edition Vanguard is available in a choice of rulings, including blank, the limited-edition Infinity is available only with dot-grid ruling. (Strangely, the pale gray dots apparently resist water-based marker ink, because the dots show up white. The Pitt markers obscured the dots completely.)

The standard edition pocket-size Vanguard is also available with blank paper. Hmmm . . . that might be worth trying now.

Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens
Fountain pen ink and colored pencil

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Game Changer

4/14/17 water-soluble colored pencils, 140 lb. paper (detail)
Learning to use multiple dry/wet/dry/wet layers of water-soluble colored pencils has become something of a game changer for me. These pencils that I love so much (though previously for mostly irrational reasons) have suddenly become much friendlier and more forgiving. I have more time to think or change my mind.

The first sketch I made from life with watercolor pencils after learning that basic technique was the lightship moored outside MOHAI last Friday with Urban Sketchers (detail at right). Although I had tested the red pencil I used on the ship before applying it, I didn’t like the garish pinkish tone it took on when I wet it. So after that dried, I went over it again with a brick red pencil and applied water again, and I liked the result better. In the past, I would’ve assumed I was simply stuck with that initial garish color. I’m not sure why it had never occurred to me to try adding more layers, but sometimes incorrect beliefs get planted firmly and have to be weeded out severely!

4/15/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta
The next day I tried sketching the over-ripe red Bartlett with multiple layers of dry/wet/dry/wet (at left). Once I got the hues the way I wanted, I applied additional dry pencil to some areas and then dabbed the waterbrush to get the mottled skin. Except the stem, the result looks more like pure watercolor, and in this case, I like the painterly look. I left the pear’s shadow dry to contrast with the fruit. I’m not sure whether I like it, but its texture definitely contrasts with the fruit.

On Monday I attempted a red bell pepper (much more challenging than an apple or pear!). In my first attempt at applying water to the pepper’s shadow (below, top) made of a blend of red and green, I didn’t move the brush fast enough, so I got an annoying line where the water started to dry. This is the kind of thing that happens to me a lot with watercolor paints, and as far as I know, there’s no way to fix it (and attempts to do so usually end up looking worse than before).

With the pepper’s shadow, however, I thought I’d see what would happen if I tried again: After it was completely dry, I reapplied light layers of the same red and green pencils. Then, remembering to move the waterbrush more quickly and consistently, I washed over the shadow, and I managed to obscure most of the previous attempt’s telltale drying line (below, bottom). Much more forgiving than pure watercolor paints – and also more forgiving than I ever knew water-soluble colored pencils could be!

4/17/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta
(First attempt at shadow)
4/17/17 (Second attempt at shadow)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Getting Toned

3/21/17 ink, colored pencil, gel pen, graphite
Using toned paper is an ideal way to focus on values in a sketch. Every now and then I get in the mood for it and bind a sheet or two into my everyday sketchbook. Unfortunately, the 80-pound Strathmore toned paper I have is intended for dry media, so my fountain pens and some markers can bleed through.

The past year I’ve been getting my toned paper fix by using a red Field Notes Sweet Tooth notebook, which is not only bright red – the paper is heavy enough to withstand anything I’ve thrown at it, including markers and a light waterbrush wash. Both black shadows and white highlights pop beautifully on that red. But sometimes I wish the page were a little larger. I’ve also wanted to experiment with colored pencils on toned paper. . . 

Guess what? I heard from a very reliable source that my favorite sketchbook maker is coming out with a toned paper edition! I’m betting that the papers will be of similar heft and quality as the rest of its stellar sketchbook line. I can’t wait! (You heard it here first!)
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