Thursday, November 23, 2017

29 Minutes

11/22/17 Roosevelt neighborhood

In Mike Daikubara’s book on urban sketching, he talks quite a bit about how to manage one’s time and expectations to get great sketches, no matter the circumstances. He uses a quadrant graph to explain how he manages his own sketching based on his energy level and the time available. For example, if he’s tired and low on energy, he would need more time to sketch, and conversely, if has plenty of energy, he might attempt a sketch in a very short time. If he’s low on both, he might not attempt it at all. He also has ideas for scaling back on color or details if he’s running out of time but wants to leave a sketch at a place of completion rather than simply stopping and leaving it unfinished. He has developed a solid set of strategies that he has honed over the many years that he has been sketching.

As I was reading, I realized that although I have slightly different tactics, I, too, have come to develop my own strategies for managing my time and expectations for sketching. Like Mike, I’ve been honing these strategies for a while. Unlike Mike, however, I don’t know how to teach them (or whether they can be learned) – I think they come from experience.

When I first started out, I used to think I needed a relatively large chunk of time to “do urban sketching,” and I did. That large chunk of time began even before I left the house, choosing and prepping my materials: Should I bring watercolors today? Then I’d better bring the watercolor paper sketchbook. But it’s so heavy – maybe not. Oops, I’d better not forget brushes and a water cup. Oh, maybe I’ll skip it and just bring markers. If so, which colors? If I go to the park, I’d better have lots of greens. If I go downtown, I won’t need many greens. Hmm, I do want to try this larger sketchbook today – I need a different bag now. Should I bring a stool? On and on.

Once I finally arrived at my destination, I’d spend quite a bit of time looking for subject matter that appealed to me or looking for the “right” angle (without really understanding what the right angle might be). I would draw a woman sitting on a park bench by starting with her face, her hair, her jewelry, the pattern on her jacket, and suddenly, she would leave. Then I’d have to start over with a new sketch. Three hours later, I’d go home with one or two complete sketches, and indeed, “doing urban sketching” took a substantial chunk of time.

After about a year, I got tired of the whole kit-prep process of deciding which materials to bring each time I sketched. I made a significant shift – both practically and mentally – by carrying all my materials with me all the time, every day, whether I planned to use them or not. To do that, I had to pare down my options and think about what I really needed (obviously still an ongoing process!). But more important, my choice to do so changed urban sketching from a hobby (defined by me as something I do during a substantial chunk of planned spare time) to a lifestyle (something that doesn’t require much thought or prep because it’s integrated into my ordinary day).

That shift changed not only my sketch kit; it also changed my attitude and ultimately the amount of time I “needed” to make a sketch. I still have many occasions when I consciously set aside a chunk of time to sketch subject matter that particularly appeals to me or that I want to observe closely, and every time I go out with Urban Sketchers is such an occasion. But day to day, sketches fit into whatever slot of time is available. And that means I sketch regularly, which is important to me in maintaining a practice and a habit.

Yesterday after running an errand, I returned to my car and realized that I still had 29 minutes left on my meter. I had paid for that time; I intended to use it – and I spent exactly 29 minutes on the sketch at the top of the page. How did I know it would take me exactly 29 minutes? I used one page of my standard 6-by-9-inch DIY sketchbook, and almost amazingly invariably, it takes me about a half-hour to make a sketch of that size (with color, a little longer – maybe 35 or 40 minutes). As you can see, I also didn’t spend any time looking for appealing subject matter or the right angle – I just drew what I saw through the wet windshield.

11/17/17 Furry commuter
A few days ago on the bus, I spotted a puppy in the aisle nervously twitching and circling his standing human’s feet. That small sketch took a few seconds because I knew that’s all he would give me. (Actually, it probably took a minute longer than that if you count the time I waited for him to face me.)

The hooded man on a different bus took five minutes. I know this because at the point that I started sketching him, it takes five minutes to reach the transit station. (There was a small risk that he would get off at an earlier stop, but I could tell by the way he was sitting that he probably wouldn’t.) I finished most of the sketch in probably four minutes, then used the remaining time to add a little more detail, like the stitching around his hood and a few more hairs on his beard.

11/17/17 Hooded commuter
On rare occasions I have what would be considered optimal circumstances by most sketchers’ standards. One was in Varenna, Italy, last May. Greg was fully occupied with photography, so I didn’t have to worry about him. It was a beautiful morning – warm but not hot, a partly cloudy sky, not windy. Lake Como and the mountains around it were exactly the hues of the secondary triad palette I had just learned about in my colored pencil class and was eager to try on location.

In class, working from a photo, I would have probably taken many hours to complete a drawing, and I knew I didn’t want to spend that long, but I wasn’t sure how much time it might take. The landscape-format panorama spread I used is just a little smaller than two 9-by-6-inch pages in my regular DIY sketchbook, and remarkably, my Lake Como sketch took just about an hour. Even under optimal conditions, I still seem to sketch at about the same rate. Maybe that’s just the limit of my sketching patience. (I really didn’t set out to develop such a reliable time frame, but it’s convenient.) In any case, I had to focus my attention on the aspect (color) that was important to me about this composition so that I would have time for it. (And drafting took very little time, because I decided these mountains didn’t require much accuracy.)

5/17/17 Lake Como

I wish I had a formula for developing a strategy like this, but as I mentioned earlier, I think it just requires some experience. When beginning sketchers tell me they need “more time” to sketch, I jokingly respond with, “Just lower your standards.” It sounds snarky, but I’m being realistic to my own experience. If you spend less time looking for “inspiring” subject matter, you learn to find something interesting about whatever is in front of you. If you’d like to sketch the whole puppy, lower your standards and sketch only his face, which is all he’ll sit still for. If color is important to you, don’t worry about getting the shape of the mountains right. If you have limited time (which is almost always), spend some of it deciding what’s important to you about what you see, and focus on that – not on everything. 

It’s not important to find out whether a 6-by-9-inch sketch takes you a half-hour; your process might or might not lead to a reliable time frame. What is important, though, is sketching regularly, because that’s what gives you the experience that helps you gauge how much of a sketch you can do before your meter runs out (or whether you care). 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Rusty at Zoka

11/21/17 Warming up
I’ve been spending so much time this fall focused on my graphite drawing class (now completed) that I haven’t done much people sketching at all – usually my primary subject as soon as the rainy season begins. Last winter and spring it was the same thing as I worked many hours with colored pencils instead of having fun at coffee shops or at life-drawing sessions. As much as I’ve enjoyed and learned from the intensive classroom study, I’ve missed drawing people – and I’m feeling very rusty.

According to my blog, I hadn’t been to Zoka Coffee, my favorite coffee shop for sketching, since March when I was feverishly trying to get through #oneweek100people. Since then, the signage and some d├ęcor had changed and, remarkably, their already delicious blueberry scones had somehow gotten even better! Or maybe I had just missed them, too.

Feeling very creaky, I warmed up first with a brush pen (above), just like I do at life-drawing sessions.

The guy below was drawing too, but not urban sketching. He kept his eyes pinned to his sketchbook and never glanced up long enough to notice that I was drawing him. He kept twisting himself into interesting, challenging-to-draw pretzel positions. His hands were always moving, but I tried a couple of details anyway.

11/21/17 Sketchy

Dripping wet when he arrived, Mr. Hoodie never removed his jacket as he stared at his laptop all morning.

11/21/17 Drippy

Mr. Fidget kept me busy trying to keep up with his three arms.

11/21/17 Fidgety

Monday, November 20, 2017

Minimal Sketch Kit: A Personal Challenge

My current daily-carry sketch kit.

After reading my review of Mike Daikubara’s book in which he talks quite a bit about maintaining a minimal sketch kit, a blog reader asked me what my minimal sketch kit would be. Believe it or not, I have tried to answer this question for myself many times, at least in theory. However, I can’t say I’ve ever answered it in practice – at least for more than a day or so.

The photo above shows my current daily-carry sketch kit. Although I’ve carried much more at times, my current kit could hardly be called minimal. (If you do a search on my blog for “bag dump,” you’ll see variations of the contents through the years.) I don’t ever need all of these supplies every day, but since I never know what subject matter I’ll encounter or what I’ll feel like sketching on any given day (and this is doubly true when I travel), I always feel a need to carry everything – just in case. And more to the point, I don’t want to stop and choose which materials to bring each time I go out, because that just adds to the general maintenance and overhead of sketching. I want to grab and go each time I step out the door, and this kit serves me well that way.

Nonetheless, I do think often about lightening my load and streamlining my supplies, especially when I’m due to travel, but also here at home. So, my reader’s question prompted me to review the various ways I’ve tried to answer it for myself.

The one time I really don’t want to be encumbered with a bag is when I go out fitness walking around Green Lake, which I’ve been doing regularly for nearly 30 years. Until I started sketching, I carried nothing but my phone, ID and keys on these walks. You can read about the event that eventually prompted me to carry a minimal sketch kit while fitness walking; here’s what it looks like:

My fitness-walking kit

 The contents change from time to time, but in general, the kit consists of a small notebook and two or three pens.

When I began using Field Notes notebooks for quick, casual sketches, I started thinking about the concept of a minimal sketch kit further, and I realized that my choice of media was determined by my choice of small notebook. Depending on which one I used – one with red paper, one with bright orange paper, or one with white paper – I could choose one or two pens appropriate for the paper. That’s fairly minimal as well as compact, just like my fitness-walking kit, but I also find the page size limiting. (I do carry and use a Field Notes daily, but only in addition to the rest of my kit – not instead of.) Here are a few variations:

Field Notes Sweet Tooth, white Gelly Roll, Franklin-Christoph fude fountain pen

EEEK Field Notes, white Derwent colored pencil, white Gelly Roll, Copic brush pen

Dime Novel Field Notes and Zebra brush pen
Dime Novel Field Notes

Of course, I know it’s possible to streamline even further, and a couple of months ago I set out to prove it to myself by taking nothing but a slim, A5-size notebook and a pencil to the park. If my goal is to simply capture daily scenes from my mundane life, a pencil and paper could easily serve that need. Who needs all that color anyway? (I can hear you laughing all the way from here.) Well, that lasted only for the one trip to the park, but it was a good theory. Again, I do regularly use that particular notebook (a Baron Fig Vanguard) with a single pencil, but I carry them in addition to everything else – not in place of.

Baron Fig Vanguard and Blackwing pencil

When I started using a new Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook with toned paper a couple of months ago, I realized it could be the centerpiece for a nicely streamlined sketch kit. A brush pen or gray toned markers, a white pencil or gel pen for highlights, and a couple of colored pencils for spot color were all I needed.

Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook, brush pen, fountain pen, colored pencils

Of course, then the trees started turning, and I got frustrated that the brightest, boldest urban palette I can use all year seemed dull on gray paper, so I quickly put away the Nova and went back to my standard white paper – and all 25 colored pencils as usual.

Every sketch kit begins with paper: The sketchbook you choose sets the stage and determines all the other choices you make. For example, if you choose a small notebook with thin paper that can’t stand up to any media other than pencil, that would make an ideally minimal kit. If the book has red paper, then you don’t need color – a black and a white pen will do – another minimal kit.

My problem is that for most of the years I’ve been sketching, I’ve been making my own sketchbooks with paper I chose specifically to hold up to as many wet and dry media as possible. Although not of the highest quality, Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper can take everything I’ve ever tried with it – watercolor paints, watercolor pencils, traditional colored pencils, inks (applied with a pen or a waterbrush), graphite, brush pens, India ink, and water applied with a brush or sprayer. Since the paper accommodates everything well, I have a challenging time eliminating media options. And that’s how I end up with a relatively hefty, non-streamlined kit. 
Not exactly minimal.

I’m motivated to simplify my kit, but I know I wouldn’t last long using only a pencil, or even only a red Field Notes and brush pen. I’m thinking I’d do better with a kit somewhere in between. What about that toned Stillman & Birn? I’ve been intending to give it another try anyway once the dead gray of winter settles in, and I’m mostly sketching indoors. So here’s my plan: Come January when the red Santas and green wreaths are a fond memory in the white pages of my usual DIY sketchbook, I’ll switch to the tan S&B Nova. At the same time, I’ll streamline my tools to a half-dozen (or so) colored pencils, a pen, a couple of gray markers and a white pencil. And I’ll commit to that kit until the book is full (or until the cherry blossoms bloom, if that comes first! Every promise has a cherry blossom clause). It’ll be my version of a New Year’s resolution (which I otherwise never make).

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Foreseeable Future

11/18/17 Wedgwood neighborhood
Yesterday was the only rainless day for the foreseeable future (10 days, according to my weather app). Not only was it rainless, it was sunny enough for this piece of heavy equipment in the Wedgwood neighborhood to cast a shadow. I’m guessing it will be noisy on this block come Monday.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Wyeth Retrospective at SAM

11/17/17 The Hammering Man's boot at SAM
The Seattle Art Museum’s current show is Andrew Wyeth in Retrospect, which covers the span of this American painter’s remarkable 75-year career. In the two hours that I was there today, I saw only about half of it, so I’m going to go back sometime soon to see the rest. My friend Anne and I agreed that it’s an intense exhibit; you can’t breeze through because each work requires – demands – your full attention and scrutiny. And whenever you observe a detail – each hair and its shadow; a complex skintone created with egg tempera; the sharp light slanting on a building at night that must be coming from the moon – you are rewarded for your attention.

The 110 works in the show are mostly tempera and “dry brush” watercolor paintings, but several pencil drawings are also included. As always when I see an exhibit that includes studies, I was as intrigued by these preliminary works as I was by the finished paintings – perhaps more so. I love seeing the fresh, incomplete marks and wondering what the artist was thinking about as he restated a line. Of course, they hardly looked like sketches or studies to me; most were as exquisitely rendered as the finished works. Maybe it’s just that I, as a sketcher, can somewhat identify with making the drawings in a way that I can’t identify with making the paintings (which would require about 500 years of practice for me!).

And speaking of practice, here’s a thought by Wyeth about his studies that served as a reminder of why sketching and practice are important:

“I never consider these studies as drawings. All I’m doing is thinking with my pencil and brush. . . There would have been a time when I would have made hundreds of close, methodical, even oddly dull drawings of an object when I was learning to catch a subject off balance. And slowly, one learns to know anatomy, to know structure, proportion, perspective, when to modify, when not to, when to exaggerate, when to thin down. These are all things an artist should train himself to do so that at the right moment, the decisive moment, one is there to catch it, whether it’s imaginary or graphically right there in front of you.”

Having just completed 10 weeks of a graphite drawing class, I found that this quotation spoke to me of the potential expressiveness of this medium that I have only barely touched (and I imagine what I might do with 75 more years of practice): 

“To me, pencil drawing is a very emotional, very quick, very abrupt medium. . . . I will perhaps put in a terrific black and press down on the pencil so strongly that perhaps the lead will break, in order to emphasize my emotional impact with the object. . . . Sometimes my hand, almost my fingertips, begin to shiver and this affects the quality of the lead pencil on the paper. It becomes dark and light, dark and light. The thing begins to move. The drawing begins to pull itself out of the blank piece of paper. You can’t concoct that.”

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Graphite Weather

11/1/17 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Every year around this time, I start sketching more with graphite. The subtle tones of gray that are so easy to impart with a pencil seem to fit well with the flat light, overcast skies threatening rain, and the mostly colorless trees.

11/7/17 Montlake neighborhood

11/14/17 Montlake neighborhood
Yet just when I become wistful that most of the color in my neighborhood has blown away, I turn a corner, and I see a sudden spark of fire again.

11/15/17 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review: Mike Daikubara’s Sketch Now, Think Later

Mike Daikubara's new book (and the little workshop
handbook that inspired it)
Boston urban sketcher Mike Daikubara has done it again – published another fantastic book. Self-published, his other books are collections of his work by topic or travel location, such as the one I reviewed a few years ago about his journey along Boston’s Freedom Trail. This time, his book has been commercially published by Quarry in the same format as the popular Urban Sketching Handbook series. (In that series, I’ve reviewed Architecture & Cityscapes and People & Motion by Gabi Campanario, and Understanding Perspective by Stephanie Bower.)

Sketch NOW Think Later is Mike’s first instruction book. Subtitled Jumping Right into Sketching with Limited Time, Tools, and Techniques, the book is based on principles of urban sketching that he introduced to his workshop participants at the Manchester Urban Sketchers symposium last year. I got a brief sneak peek at that workshop, which I covered as one of my duties as a symposium correspondent, but I wished I could have stayed for the whole thing to learn more. His new book is a much-expanded version of the pocket-sized booklet he gave out to his workshop participants (I was lucky enough to snag one).

It’s no wonder I’m a huge fan of his new book: Mike’s approach toward sketching on location aligns exactly with mine. A travel lover like I am, he would sketch all the time if he could, but he’s realistic enough to know that the weather, the needs of travel companions, or other constraints can keep him from taking as much time as he’d like on a sketch. Mike believes firmly that a sketch can be done – no matter how little time you have – as long as you keep your tools and methods simple and adjust your expectations to the conditions.

To help explain his principles, he has developed a unique quadrant graph to help sketchers evaluate their own energy level (and therefore ability to concentrate) balanced with how much time is available. Ideally, we’d all like to have plenty of time and energy to make all of our sketches, but if either is short, a good sketch can still be made – if you follow Mike’s approach.

Fully illustrated step-by-step instructions
Sketch NOW Think Later begins with an overview of his compact, portable sketch materials, tools and bag that all help him work as quickly and simply as possible. Unique to the book is his emphasis on his favorite fountain pen, and – surprise! It’s a Sailor with a fude nib – my favorite fountain pen, too! (Full disclosure: Mike’s the one who got me started on my epic search for my grail fountain pen that led back to the same kind of pen he loves.) One reason he favors the Sailor fude is that its ability to impart a wide range of line widths enables him to carry only one pen instead of several (which keeps his kit slim).

Also like me, Mike prefers to stand while he sketches because it gives him greater flexibility in finding a good angle. And since standing is not as comfy as sitting, he’s more likely to sketch faster and get the sketch done – something that motivates me, too. He does, however, occasionally take a seat – on the world’s tiniest stool! In his Manchester workshop, he demo’d how the stool fits in his back pocket. (If you thought my little Daiso stool is ridiculously tiny, you’d love the photo of him on his even tinier stool!)

Other chapters focus on line, color, composition, and other sketching elements, all with an emphasis on working efficiently to capture the moment with spontaneity and energy. For example, if time is short, don’t color the entire drawing, Mike suggests. Instead, choose the parts that caught your attention first, and color what you want your viewer to focus on. Or a symmetrical subject, like a building or a car, could be colored only on one side, since the opposite side is the same. Mike’s step-by-step instructions are fully illustrated with his precise yet whimsical diagrams.

Throughout, the text is beautifully illustrated with many full-color examples from this prolific artist’s sketchbooks.

Targeted toward beginning and busy sketchers who want to learn how to make the best use of their limited time, Sketch NOW Think Later also has practical ideas for more experienced sketchers. We can all use tips on how to streamline our sketch kits and optimize time so we can do more of what we love most – sketch NOW!

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