Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Personal Leaf-Peeping Tour

10/16/17 Wedgwood neighborhood

Strong winds and rain are in the forecast for the rest of the week, so I figured yesterday may have been my last chance to sketch the spectacular color we are having. In a few days all the leaves may fall off or turn brown and soggy, so it was now or possibly never.

10/16/17 Green Lake
First I went to Green Lake to sketch my favorite stand of maples that I sketch every year, but I was surprised to find that they weren’t yet at peak. (I’m going to take my chances and give them a couple more weeks.) Instead, I was fully dazzled by all the many yellow-green trees around the lake that are trying to steal the show from the maples. I didn’t know what these trees are called, so I put out the question on Instagram, and one of my friends thought it might be a honey locust. I think that could be correct – when I Googled for images, the leaves looked right, and it’s common in the Pacific Northwest.

After that, I went back to the Metropolitan Market where I keep sketching the same flaming maples (top of page). This time I parked on the street instead of in the lot so I could get all three of the brightest, boldest, most showy trees. (The right-most tree in the sketch above is shown in the photo, below, that I took Sunday afternoon when I was there to shop and didn’t have time to sketch.) 

I hope my readers in the northern hemisphere are enjoying as much seasonal color as I am! 

10/16/17 honey locust leaf
On fire at Metro Market!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sun, Fun and Funko

10/15/17 Funko storefront
The intersection of California and Wetmore in Everett was a lively place Sunday morning, and I’m not talking about the line of people waiting outside the Funko store door. It was lively because sketchers were on every corner and even on the rooftop of the parking garage across the street, sketching the most colorful residents of downtown Everett.

I was there a month ago scoping out the location for Urban Sketchers Seattle, but I stayed on the street level that time. On Sunday I went up to the garage rooftop with several others, where we got a fantastic view of the storefront (and the bright sun at our backs kept us warm). I’m not familiar with this lavender-colored monkey, but I was told he’s a video game character. I never found out why a line of people began forming an hour before the store’s opening, but I was told by employees that it’s been like that every day since the store opened in August. They obviously know something I don’t.

Stickers and a pencil case!
By the time I finished my first sketch, the store opened, so I went inside to warm up. If you saw the photos on my post last month, you know I was tempted by a lot of cool but overpriced Star Wars trinkets. This time I couldn’t resist.

My haul purchased, I went back out to the sidewalk on Wetmore Avenue to catch Anne and Vivian sketching the storefront (plus Batgirl and the same monkey overhead). 

Although Everett is a little further north than we typically go for a Sunday outing, we got a great turnout on this chilly but sunny morning. What a fun place!

10/15/17 Wetmore Avenue

Suzanne on the rooftop
Michelle sketching the storefront

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Green Lake Resonance

10/12/17 Green Lake (in progress)

My latest graphite class assignment is shown above (still in progress; there’s a bush in the left foreground that’s especially challenging, so I’m going to ask my instructor for help before I tackle it). I must say I enjoy drawing trees much more than clouds or rocky shorelines. And I’m enjoying this week’s homework a lot more than the past weeks’ assignments for other reasons: I’m very familiar with the location (Green Lake), and I took the reference photo myself.

Even though making the drawing is no less challenging with a familiar landscape, it somehow makes a difference to know and understand which way the shoreline is curving, how far away those trees are from the shore where I stood when I took the photo, the time of day and year – things like that. 

I think it has to do with resonance – how meaningful the subject matter of a drawing is and how that affects its outcome. I talked about resonance a few years ago and how discovering urban sketching finally made drawing “stick” as a habit. Of course, sometimes a trash bin is just a trash bin, and the subject matter doesn’t have to resonate meaningfully to turn into a sketch. (If you read my blog regularly, then you know that my standards for what makes an object sketch-worthy are certainly low.) But a photo of a landscape is already once-removed from the actual location, and a photo of a place I’ve never seen with my own eyes is even further removed. No wonder there’s no resonance at all.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Farewell Scone

10/13/17 I delayed sketching until my scone was half gone.
Nothing keeps me from a warm pastry -- not even sketching.
The Stone House Bakery on the south end of Lake Washington has been a sketcher-friendly venue the past couple of years. The first time was almost exactly two years ago when, after warming up first with a scone and coffee, I was able to go outdoors long enough to sketch the Stone House itself. When we went in July last year, we all went outside to sketch the colorful décor, including the blue truck parked there permanently. The owner, Patrick Choy, is moving his popular bakery to a new location, so Urban Sketchers Seattle met at the old Stone House location yesterday for the last time.

Again fortifying myself first with a scone (cream cheese pumpkin!) and coffee, I intended to eventually sketch outside if the morning warmed up. Almost all of us began the same way – sketching our scones. I decided I needed to stay warm a little longer, so I sketched the view out the window (including a bit of the lovely stonework around the window).

10/13/17 Looking out the stone window
With only a half-hour left, I zipped up my jacket, pulled on my hoods (yes, plural), and went out to the café’s haunted house. I gave the fellow below 15 hasty minutes before I scurried back inside, rubbing my hands together. I guess there’s no denying that fall is here. 

Many thanks to Patrick for being a gracious host to us the past couple of years. I’ll certainly get to his new location for more scones, if not sketching.

10/13/17 A slender patron

Check out Sue's sketch of me! I think it's the first time I've recognized myself in someone's sketchbook!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Graphite Grade Comparison: Four Pencil Brands

My current graphite picks.
A few weeks ago when I talked about what I’m learning in my graphite drawing class, I mentioned that I had discovered immediately how much pencil grades can vary from brand to brand. Later I mentioned that while I’ve always loved Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils in the softer grades, I was finding out that they are not as smooth as I want them to be in the harder grades. Since then, I’ve been using a mix of Hi-Uni, Tombow Mono, Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Faber-Castell 9000 rather haphazardly, trying to figure out which I like best.

Now that I’m five weeks into the class, I’m getting to know my materials better and how they perform. I upgraded my paper from student-grade Canson XL Bristol smooth to Strathmore 300 Bristol smooth, which is a slightly better quality. It’s noticeably smoother and without any visible grain. (To see what Canson’s Bristol surface looks like, see my demo showing the difference between using a single grade to achieve a certain value and building up to that value with a wide range of grades used sequentially.)

Instead of continuing to randomly use the various pencil grades among the four brands, I finally decided to make myself a comparison chart of the six grades I use most often. (You’ll notice that I’m missing my Hi-Uni in 2H. It bothers me no end that I can’t find it! . . . did I leave it in Suzanne’s studio? I’m also missing the Tombow Mono in F, but I think I never owned that grade.) The chart was made on Strathmore Bristol smooth.



In every grade, Mitsubishi is softer than the other brands, and Tombow Mono is harder than the others up through B (though it feels surprisingly smoother than the German brands in those harder grades). While my hands-down favorite of the four is Mitsubishi in the softer grades (B and softer), I prefer Tombow and Staedtler in the harder grades, which are noticeably smoother than the Hi-Unis. Faber-Castell is scratchier in every grade and therefore feels harder in application. I find myself avoiding them because of that roughness.

I’ve heard graphite artists say that it’s not necessary to have every grade because there’s so little variation from one step to the next. Once I made this chart, I could see that clearly. I’m hard-pressed to see much difference between 2H and H or between HB and B, although again, that seems to vary among the brands. There’s a larger jump in Hi-Uni between F and HB compared to the other brands. Ultimately, though, one could easily skip every other grade and probably not miss the ones in between.

Another observation to note is that going up through the softer grades (my chart only goes to 2B, but I have grades up through at least 5B in the four brands), there’s less and less difference among the brands in terms of darkness – but the larger difference is in the subjective characteristic that I’ll call “hand feel.” The Hi-Unis feel smoother and seem to glide across the paper compared to the others. (And the Faber-Castell feels rougher even at 5B.)

My last observation is that the specific pairing with paper is an important factor in evaluating how pencils perform. With the lower quality Canson paper, I often had difficulty achieving a uniform value over a large area, and I often switched around pencils in the same grade to see if that would make a difference. It did make some difference, but the larger difference came from upgrading my paper to Strathmore, which makes it much easier to get a uniform value from any pencil. (It’s also possible I’m getting better at applying graphite more uniformly.) 

As is usually the case when choosing among products of comparable quality, there’s no such thing as the “best” pencil. It’s really a matter of identifying the qualities that will do what I want (as well as the more subjective qualities like “hand feel”). My favorites at the moment are shown in the photo at the top.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hatch Job (#InkTober2017 First Trimester Review)

10/11/17 Maple Leaf neighborhood
I’m so fickle.

I just got through saying you wouldn’t see my toned book again until our autumn weather turned gray. Although we’ve had showers this week, we have also been getting sunshine – if you catch it quickly before it darts behind clouds again. I saw my chance this afternoon, so I was on my way out the door to look for an InkTober sketch. That’s when I had a “duh” moment: If all I’m doing is hatching with dark ink, why not used toned paper? I had been doing all my InkTober sketches in a yellow Field Notes, but I think I like toned paper better for this. And 11 days into it, I’m finally starting to get into the hatching groove.

Since today is the 11th, we’re one-third of the way through InkTober, so it’s a good day for a trimester review. My goal was to work on my hatching skills, and I chose ballpoint ink because it’s a medium I’ve been fascinated with when I’ve seen the work of others, and I wanted to give it a solid try. A few days into it, though, I was already in trouble. The Uni Jetstream 4 & 1 four-color ballpoint that I’d been using has very fine points, and they looked so pale on the page. In addition, I’ve gotten so used to fountain pens and brush pens – both of which require very little pressure – that I’d forgotten how much pressure ballpoint requires. By the end of week one, I was so annoyed that I didn’t think I’d make it through InkTober if I stayed with ballpoint.

I didn’t quit, though – I just switched to fountain pen, and I kept my goal of working on hatching, which I can do with any medium. It feels much better to have a familiar fude back in my hand. I realized that using a new medium while also trying a new sketching technique was probably biting off too much for one InkTober.

Shown below are days 2 – 10. I’m putting all my InkTober sketches in this Flickr album. 

How’s your InkTober going?

10/2/17

10/3/17

10/4/17

10/5/17

10/6/17

10/7/17

10/8/17

10/9/17

10/10/17

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Market Color

10/9/17 Metropolitan Market, Wedgwood neighborhood
When I arrived at Metropolitan Market, it was early enough that I could choose nearly any parking spot I wanted. Several maples are planted there, so I picked a couple of the most colorful ones, then found the ideal spot across from them. I had a clear view when I started sketching, but of course, two cars pulled in shortly thereafter. (It’s the Murphy’s Law of urban sketching!) Even so, Metro Market is one of my favorite retail spots for fall color. Coincidentally, I sketched a few different trees in the same lot exactly a year ago. 

Technical note:  My tried-and-true method of using water-soluble colored pencils to sketch trees is to apply pencil pigment dry, and then spray lightly with water. I like the texture that method imparts. Most of the turning maples I’ve sketched this season were done that way. For the one above, I tried something different – more of a traditional watercolor technique. First I sprayed the paper lightly. Then I used a waterbrush to “lick” pigment from the pencil tips and apply it directly to the wet paper. This technique with pencils is just as tricky and difficult to control as it is with wet-in-wet watercolor paints. But in the case of trees, I love the uncontrolled effect.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Weeks of Rocks

9/26 - 10/4/17 graphite (photo reference)

Here’s the homework I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks in my graphite drawing class. It’s meant to be a study of the rocks, and I’m not excited enough about the reference photo to finish the trees in the background or the water in the foreground, so this is probably as far as I will take it. Although it’s not the type of landscape I would generally be inspired by, I am learning plenty about trying to convey the varying contours and textures of rock as well as the relative distance of elements in a composition. 

What does excite me is how closely these graphite lessons and the Don Colley workshop last week and even my InkTober hatching exercises support and reinforce each other. Whether I’m laboring slowly at my comfy desk or sketching fast and dirty in the street with ink all over my hands, the principles are still the same.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Return of White

10/5/17 Greenwood neighborhood
If you saw my post yesterday, you must have figured out that I’ve had enough of toned paper. I feel like I should be able to convey whatever light, color or mood I want to with toned paper – artists like Pat Southern-Pearce seem to do it all the time. But days like the ones we’ve been having lately – a brilliant blue sky blazing with trees – demand white paper, and I’m good with that.

I’m sure you’ll see the return of my toned book again – but not before the sky turns as gray as the paper.

(Yes, you’ve seen these trees before – I sketched them just a few weeks ago. Whenever I’m driving through Greenwood, I just can’t resist them.)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Not-Quite-Peak Experience at Japanese Garden

10/6/17 A chilly morning at Japanese Garden

10/6/17 Koi
For several years now, we’ve been wanting to sketch at Japanese Garden when the maples are turning, but it’s tricky. Urban Sketchers Seattle usually plans outings several weeks in advance, but the weather is so iffy in October that it’s impossible to know that far out whether a given day will be dry (and there’s no shelter at the garden).

This year we tried something new: We tentatively planned for any of the Fridays in October when a regular outing wasn’t scheduled, and if the weather seemed promising a few days out, we would schedule the garden that day. We took a chance on yesterday, and our luck held out – although chilly in the morning, the sun appeared often enough to give us good shadows.

I actually got a jump on the group by visiting the garden the day before, too, which was more consistently sunny. On that day I went in the late afternoon, so the sun lit the trees on the opposite side of the koi pond, and I captured a little more color.

10/5/17 On the sunny side of the koi pond.
The maples aren’t at their peak yet, but who knows what the weather will be like in a couple of weeks? I’m just as happy that we took a chance on Friday. 

Australian painter and instructor Jane Blundell is in town this week and was able to join us at the garden! 

Jane Blundell joined us at the garden.
Jonathan and Jane


Friday, October 6, 2017

Sunny Campus

10/4/17 University of Washington Quad

When I arrived at the University of Washington campus, class must have just gotten out – students were streaming in every direction. It was one of those sunny autumn afternoons that I think of as quintessential as well as rare; this time of year, it is more likely to be gray and rainy. (Unfortunately, on this toned paper, it kind of looks that way.)  The Quad cherry trees showed no signs of turning, and from the looks of students lounging and studying in the grass, it could have been late spring.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Worried (Plus More Toned Paper Thoughts)

10/3/17 Maple Leaf neighborhood
If you’ve ever sketched at a work site of some kind, perhaps this has happened to you: You stand nearby, pull out your sketchbook, and start to sketch the excavator or other heavy equipment. One by one, the workers notice you. Eventually one comes over to find out what you’re doing. They may simply be curious, but often they seem concerned that you’re taking notes. A cranky neighbor poised to report the noise or dust? An inspector of some kind? When they see that all you’re doing is sketching, they are usually relieved.

Anyway, I missed most of the action. By the time I got there, they were packing up their tools and parking the excavator for the day. This is happening just a block from my house, so I’ll probably be back again later for more action. At least next time they won’t worry. 

Technical note: As much as I enjoy using toned paper for tonal drawings (like the value studies I did in Don Colley’s workshop), I don’t care for using color on it. My “heavy-equipment yellow” and “cone orange” colored pencils usually pop on white, but they seem dull and muddy here. I’m going to stick it out a while longer, but don’t be surprised if you see the return of white before I fill this book.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Don Colley Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Eraser

Don Colley demo'ing for his urban sketching students.
Mixed media artist Don Colley uses a wide variety of materials and tools (his favorites being the ones attached to the ends of his wrists!) to create extraordinary drawings, but one tool you will never see him use is an eraser. “Erasing is a step backwards,” he says, because you’ve just removed the mark that can show you where to put the right one. He believes firmly that the purpose of his sketchbook is to document his thought process, and by leaving all the marks in place – even the ones he later corrects – all the steps he takes to arrive at the final drawing are fully visible to learn from.

Sunday at Daniel Smith was my second opportunity to participate in the Chicago resident’s urban sketching workshop (the first was almost exactly two years ago). Representing Faber-Castell, he was in town to demonstrate products at Daniel Smith’s annual Vendor Day, and we were lucky enough to get a workshop out of him, too.

Don, a guitarist, began the workshop by explaining how developing a variety of drawing marks is similar to having a repertoire of strumming and picking techniques to play the guitar. The more types of marks you can make, the more you have to choose from, and the richer your drawings will be. He encouraged us to explore all types of tools and materials and the marks they can make and not limit ourselves to the way something is supposed to be used. As he is famous for doing at his popular demos, Don showed us how he uses all parts of his hands to smear, smudge, print and stamp marker ink onto paper.

See the line drawn on his left bicep? That was Don's demo
of a cross-contour line.
Don is one of the most process-oriented artists I know. We all watched with amazement (and some horror) as he would randomly choose a beautiful portrait in his sketchbook and proceed to mark all over it to demonstrate the answer to someone’s question or show the angles of the facial structure. The finished drawing (if “finished” ever exists for him) isn’t the point; the way he gets to it is.

Although some of his favorite art materials, such as Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens, are modern products, he teaches classical drawing principles and techniques. Things like using cross-contour lines to model a form and a strong emphasis on values reinforced concepts I’ve been learning and trying to practice in all my Gage classes (which always focus on classical drawing concepts).

The big difference with Don (compared to Gage’s studio lessons) is that whether his model is nude in the life drawing studio or unaware of him drawing them in a coffee shop, he uses the same techniques. Instead of laboring for hours at a desk to create a certain effect, he practices what he calls “efficiency” – he finds ways to make a variety of marks quickly, easily and at hand (literally!). For example, instead of tediously drawing individual blades of grass or strands of hair, he makes a broad line of Pitt marker ink and immediately gives it a swipe with a finger before the ink dries. (See my post from two years ago for more of his finger-based techniques.)

When sketching on location, he develops a strategy for his approach by answering three questions: 1. How much time do I have? 2. Which elements of the composition are static (furniture, buildings, trees) and which are dynamic (people, cars, light)? 3. What am I doing (which part of the composition do I want the viewer to focus on)?

Other tips he gave us were the kind one would never learn in a studio class: To keep from being caught by his “models” in a public setting, he avoids moving his head up and down as he looks from sketchbook to model back to sketchbook again. Instead of on his lap, he holds the book at a more upright angle and closer to his head so he can move only his eyes up and down.

10/1/17 south Seattle street (workshop exercise)
After a thoroughly engaging and entertaining morning in the classroom hearing about Don’s drawing philosophy, watching his demos, and viewing his remarkable sketchbooks, we hit the streets in Seattle’s industrial southend near Daniel Smith. Although we could use any materials we wanted to, I decided to use Pitt Artist Pens in a range of gray tones and a toned sketchbook (my Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook) as he had recommended. Using gray-toned pens on toned paper is an effective way to practice seeing and understanding values. The paper tone is value 2; 3 and 4 are successively darker grays. White is value 1 for highlights, and black is value 5 for the darkest spots.

For my first workshop exercise, I picked a view full of my favorite street scene elements: utility poles and wires and their shadows. Following Don’s advice, I started with a light gray Pitt pen (value 3) to block out the composition’s main elements. Suddenly the sun came out (a dynamic element that forced my strategy!) and shadows appeared, so I quickly put them in with a black Pitt pen. (Good thing I did – the sun immediately retreated behind clouds again.) If I hadn’t been under those light and time constraints, it would have been better to use value 4 next before going in with 5, as he had advised, because once you put in the darkest value, you can’t make it lighter. If you begin lighter, you can always darken it later. For the white clouds, I first tried the white Pitt marker we had been given in class, but while I like its thick opacity, the ink doesn’t smear or spread the way the other markers do, so the clouds came off looking too plastic. For clouds, I prefer the softer look of the white grease pencil Don lent me (or my usual white colored pencil).

Another thing Don had demo’d was how the sizing on different paper surfaces greatly affects how marker inks and other materials respond or can be manipulated. I found that my Stillman & Birn paper is sufficiently sized for using a waterbrush with watercolor pencils, but it doesn’t have as much sizing as some of Don’s preferred sketchbooks. When I tried smudging Pitt marker ink, it moved a little, but I wasn’t able to get some of the interesting smeared effects Don creates so effectively. I probably also wasn’t fast enough; Pitt ink dries quickly on most papers, so you can’t dawdle. 
10/1/17 Sue and a car. My drawing is in warm brown; Don's marks are in cool gray.

For my second sketch, I spotted Sue sitting next to a parked car, and I liked how small she looked in contrast to the car. It started raining, so I left the sketch unfinished, but I find it to be more instructive unfinished anyway: After I’d made my first blocking-in lines with a warm, light gray Pitt, Don came along to give me feedback. Using a cool gray marker, he made a few corrections to the lines in my car that improved it immediately. And the coolest part? Here’s a close-up of the marks he made on the pant legs to emulate the fabric’s texture as well as the contours. He did that by drawing a line the length of the leg onto his finger and lightly using the texture on his skin to make the curved marks – cross-contour lines made in a couple of seconds!
Detail of the texture Don put on Sue's pant legs.

In the short time remaining after we walked back to the Daniel Smith classroom, Don critiqued our sketches and gave us more feedback. I wish he could have stayed in town for a few more workshop sessions; I learn more and more from the man every time he shows up here.

Many thanks to Faber-Castell for the fantastic swag bag!



Sunday, October 1, 2017

#InkTober2017 Begins

10/1/17 south Seattle
It’s the first day of InkTober 2017! Who’s in? I am!

For the third consecutive year, I’m participating in Jake Parker’s annual initiative to encourage people to draw daily in ink for the month of October. During my first year, I gave it a try without any theme or goal beyond making the daily sketches (you can see them all in this Flickr album). Last year I started out with the theme of making my own coloring book – simple line drawings with a black brush pen. But I had also hoped that the challenge would encourage me to try some sketches from imagination – something I rarely do. At some point during the month, my cartoon character Weather Bunny evolved spontaneously from some imaginative doodles I had been trying – and she continues to report on the weather occasionally to this day. (See my sketches from InkTober 2016.) I’m pleased that InkTober helped push me in a new direction.

A couple of weeks ago I started thinking about what I wanted to do for InkTober this year. My first impulse was to reach for my two great drawing loves – fountain pen and brush pen – especially since my focus this year on colored and graphite pencils has caused me to use ink less lately, and I’ve missed it. But then I remembered that the impetus for Parker’s initiative in the first place was to encourage people to challenge themselves – and falling back on comfortable, beloved tools might allow me to be too lazy.

Just lately I’ve been watching the work of Richard Johnson reporting on Hurricane Maria’s aftermath in Puerto Rico. Former Washington Post news illustrator Johnson has long been one of my urban sketching heroes, and he is famous for using nothing but a lowly ballpoint pen for most of his drawings from the trenches (literally). So for InkTober this year, I decided I’m going to challenge myself to work in ballpoint. I’ve used it now and then, but ballpoint hasn’t grabbed me as a sketching medium of choice. One of the interesting things about ballpoint ink, however, is that values can be built up gradually in much the same way as graphite. So I’ll be practicing skills similar to those I’m using in my graphite drawing class, even though it’s a very different medium. Ballpoint is also an ideal medium for practicing my very rusty hatching skills, which I haven’t worked on much since my pen and ink class. 

Tell me what you’re doing for #InkTober2017!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

One Grade or Many?

After reading my post about things I’m learning in my graphite class, a friend had some questions. Specifically, she was interested in the part where I talked about a wide range of graphite grades used sequentially to build value rather than using just one or two. She asked how different the results are with the two methods. A couple of other readers commented along the same lines.

I realized my post wasn’t complete in explaining why my instructor recommends using a range of sequential grades. She stresses this method not only as a more effective way to build value but also – perhaps more importantly – to achieve a smoother, more even tone. I thought the best way to explain this would be to simply show some comparisons:


On the right is a tonal sample I achieved with an HB pencil applied in multiple layers. On the left, I started with 2H and moved up one grade at a time to HB. It’s easy enough to reach similar values whether you use one soft grade or move up gradually from hard to soft. But the one in which I used HB is splotchier and shows more of the paper’s texture, and it’s difficult to apply the graphite evenly.

This principle is similar to one we learned in my colored pencil class, too. It seems counter-intuitive, but using a harder colored pencil applied with very light pressure in multiple layers makes it easier to cover the paper’s surface. (I went on to prove this to myself more thoroughly by reviewing a wide variety of colored pencil brands, both hard and soft.)

After I scanned the image above, I kept going with the same HB pencil on the right. On the left, I used progressively softer grades all the way up to 4B (see below). With more graphite applied, I covered more of the tooth, but I can still see some of the horizontal lines that are apparent in the paper’s grain. (The paper I used here is the Canson XL Bristol “smooth” that I’ve been using for class exercises, which is not the highest quality or the smoothest paper available.) To answer my friend’s question, I’d have to the say the difference is not extreme – unless it’s important to you to achieve as smooth a tone as possible for whatever you are drawing.


Another difference, though slight (and one that unfortunately doesn’t show in my scan), is that the HB-only sample is starting to show more of the “shine” associated with heavy applications of graphite. The other sample has slightly less shine. When an area of graphite gets that shiny appearance, it becomes harder and harder to apply more graphite over it.

That graphite shininess is very similar to the point in colored pencil use that occurs if you apply too much pressure to the pencil initially. The pressure flattens the paper’s tooth, the wax builds up quickly, and more pigment cannot be applied. Even without applying too much pressure, eventually the paper can’t support more pigment, and maybe that’s the same thing that happens with graphite when it gets shiny. 

For work outside my class, it may never be my goal to achieve the degree of tonal purity and smoothness that I’m learning to achieve; I usually prefer to show some texture, especially in natural subjects. You won’t see me applying eight grades of graphite while I’m standing on the sidewalk sketching a tree. But I appreciate learning this nuance of technique because it helps me to better understand the nature of the graphite medium in general. And the more I understand graphite, the more I love it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Product Review: Stillman & Birn Nova

9/25/17 graphite, colored pencil
Over the years I’ve dabbled now and then with toned paper. Usually when I get in the mood for it, I bind a couple of sheets into one of my usual sketchbook signatures. The past year and a half, though, I’ve more often gotten my toned paper fix from my red Field Notes Sweet Tooth notebooks. Although it’s not the traditional gray or tan, red still works the same way as a medium tone shaded and highlighted with black and white.

While I’m not inclined to use toned paper with watercolors – I think their luminous transparency requires the sparkle of pure white paper – the opacity of colored pencils is a good match with tones. I was getting a hankering for traditional toned paper again.

When I had heard that Stillman & Birn was coming out with a series of toned sketchbooks, I was thrilled! I received small sample sheets of the Nova series in my Chicago symposium swag bag, which confirmed that the paper was the same texture and quality that I’ve grown to love in S&B’s Alpha series. After months of less-than-patient waiting, they finally appeared at my local Daniel Smith store (also available online at Blick). I grabbed one of each in beige, gray and black in my favorite 5 ½-by-8 ½-inch softcover size, as well as a pocket size in beige.

Stillman & Birn's Nova series of toned books
I’ve reviewed the softcover format before, and the toned Nova series is identical. Like the white Alpha series, the paper is 100-pound weight with a light tooth that I enjoy using with colored pencil and graphite. (The weight is significantly better than 80-pound Strathmore 400 series toned papers, which I had been using before.) It’s not ideal for a heavy wash or spraying with water (which I couldn’t resist doing last week at Chateau Ste. Michelle, despite knowing the paper isn’t intended for such abuse, and the paper buckled). I’d say it’s best with dry media or light touches with a waterbrush.

I’ve been using the beige book to make still lives, and the warm hues of tomatoes and apples really shine on the paper. I get a little thrill knowing I can put in highlights easily with a white pencil without remembering to save out the paper’s white.
9/13/17 colored pencil

I’m finding the black paper to be much more challenging to use. Lighter hues really pop on it (the banana, see below, worked better than the tomato), but they require many layers to achieve the degree of opacity needed to cover the paper. But in the same way that I like seeing the bit of sparkle from a white paper’s tooth showing through, the bits of visible black add an interesting texture. I’m still perplexed, though, about which hues to use for shadows, and I’m challenged to try unusual complements. Black is going to take much more experimentation.

The gray toned book has been my daily-carry for urban sketching the past couple of weeks. I may have chosen the wrong time of year to give this book a try. With all the trees just beginning to turn, and our skies still amazingly clear (at least yesterday), it just doesn’t seem right to use gray. But on an overcast morning a few days ago when I happened to drive by a white-steepled church in the Wedgwood neighborhood (top of page), I was very happy I had the gray book with me then. 
 
9/12/17 colored pencil
Looking at my sketches so far, I’m not unhappy with using bright colored pencils on gray, but it takes more work to pile on enough layers to make the colors pop. I think I like toned paper best with gray shades and white, as in the steeple sketch, or gray and white plus one strong hue, like the bright yellow I used at the Ballard Locks a couple of weeks ago. 

In any case, I’m having fun experimenting with toned papers, and I’m pleased to have a reliable series of S&B sketchbooks to have the fun in.

9/18/17 colored pencil

9/25/17 colored pencil

9/21/17 water-soluble colored pencil

9/28/17 water-soluble colored pencil, ink
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