Saturday, September 23, 2017

Six-Year Musings, Part 3: Learning


(If you haven’t already, please start with Part 1 of this three-part series of musings on my sixth anniversary since I started drawing.)

Yesterday I said that I am less frustrated and more likely to retain and use techniques I’ve learned when they fit into my already-established style. I hope that didn’t sound like I was saying we shouldn’t try to learn things that are a stretch or outside our comfort zone. Indeed, what’s the point of taking a class or reading a book if we are already doing what is being taught? In addition, when we’re inexperienced, we don’t really know what we might enjoy doing, so it can be beneficial to explore a wide variety of things. But if you try enough techniques or materials, eventually some will “stick” while others don’t.

Here’s something I’ve experienced often: I learn an interesting technique or idea in a book or a workshop. While I’m doing the exercises, and for a short time afterwards when I’m sketching on my own, I incorporate the new technique or idea. Eventually, though, I forget about it and go back to doing my own thing. Even if I haven’t forgotten, it just doesn’t seem to “stick.”

More rarely, I have a different experience: I learn an approach or an attitude that changes my perspective in some way. An example is Sue Heston’s “sky shapes,” which changed the way I approach skyline compositions, or Inma Serrano’s way of animating buildings, which made me lose my fear of drawing architecture. I find that the workshops that tend to stay with me long-term are those that are less material- or technique-based and more related to changing my viewpoint while remaining compatible with my style.

To learn a new medium and the specific techniques that go with it, a typical four-hour or one-day workshop is simply not enough time. I need the structure and continuity of several consecutive weeks to gain long-lasting benefit. The courses I’ve taken in pen and ink or colored pencils at Gage are good examples of that.
In the last few years when I’ve considered a short workshop, I’ve chosen instructors more carefully and with certain criteria in mind. I look for approaches and attitudes more than a new material or technique. I’ve found that if an instructor has a strongly distinctive style, I look for something that I can apply to my own way of sketching. If I see work shared online by the instructor’s students that are simply bad imitations of the instructor’s style, I avoid those instructors.

In the interest of experimenting, I sometimes try materials that don’t appeal to me for one reason or another, usually because they are too messy (charcoal and pastel pencils) or smelly (alcohol-based markers). While I often like the results, I can’t get past whatever it is about them that repels me, and they don’t last long in my bag.

Inspired by other urban sketchers, I also sometimes experiment with materials or tools that I enjoy using but that aren’t conducive to sketching on location (for example, dip pens and ink). I tell myself, “Well, if they can use those materials on location, so can I.” But with all the usual challenges of urban sketching – uncomfortable seating or lack thereof, weather, changing light, distractions, the weight and bulk of carrying all my stuff – I’ve learned that I need to minimize further challenges from my materials. I want to make it as easy as possible to sketch, because then I’m more likely to do it. (Even watercolors, commonly used by many urban sketchers, eventually proved to be too cumbersome, and I stopped using them altogether.)


All these experiences have led me to believe that it’s important to use media that I truly enjoy all around – both their use and the results – and that are conducive to sketching on location. I think I learn more quickly because it’s a pleasure to practice and experiment without being physically hindered. And while the materials I use don’t necessarily define my style, they are part of it, because they are among the many choices I’ve made that result in the sketch.

This is the end of my brief naval-gazing series on the occasion of my sixth drawing anniversary. I don’t have any insightful conclusions from it, but if you can glean some useful nuggets from my process, then I’m happy for the additional benefit. I’m always interested in hearing thoughts about your process if you care to share them in the comments. Thank you for reading!

(Once a year on my sketching anniversary, I write a retrospective post. You can read the previous years’ posts here: 20162015201420132012.)


Friday, September 22, 2017

Six-Year Musings, Part 2: Style


(If you haven’t already, please start with Part 1 of this three-part series of musings on my sixth anniversary since I started drawing.)

Every now and then I’ll have a conversation with someone who compliments me on my sketching style and asks how I came to choose or develop that particular style. I always say, “I didn’t choose my style; my style chose me.” I know that sounds facetious or like an attempt to be witty, but it’s something I believe. (I talked about it as far back as 2012 when I was only a year into sketching.)

I’m a little reluctant to talk about artistic style because, honestly, I don’t really know how to define it. We all say things like, “Oh, I like her sketching style,” “He has a distinctive style,” “I wish I could draw in that style,” etc., but what does that mean? Perhaps I’ll just say that style is the thing that characterizes someone’s work in such a way that viewers scanning their Flickr or Facebook thumbnails can identify who made the work without reading the name. You know what I mean, right? For the sake of this discussion, let’s just call that style.

When I first started out, I didn’t think I had my own style, so I looked at the works of many, many sketchers whose styles I admired, and I wished that I could sketch like they do. In some cases, I tried to emulate their styles, but more accurately I was just emulating the tools and materials or even color palettes they used. Sometimes the artist’s materials are so firmly tied to their style that they appear to be inseparable (an example would be KK and his twig), but as all of us who took KK’s workshop can attest, using the same tools does not give us the same style. If I were to draw with a twig every day for years (as KK has), I might eventually gain skill with it, but by that time I would have developed my own twig-drawing style that would look nothing like KK’s.

The reality is that instructors can only teach techniques, skills or how to use materials; they can’t teach us how to develop a style. We have to do that last part ourselves.

That seems so obvious, but believe it or not, it took me a while to understand this. My first two or three years of sketching, I read a lot of books, viewed videos and attended workshops taught by sketchers whose styles I admired. Somewhere in my mind I was hoping that if I learned skills and techniques from them, I would also adopt their styles.

As it turns out, regardless of my studies, my style has evolved on its own and is not of my conscious choosing. It has probably been influenced by others, but not in a way that I’m conscious of. Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, my style began with the very first sketch I made. (You’ll see from the sketches shown here that while my skills may have changed [I hope!], my basic style has not.) Certainly those books, videos and workshops were not a waste of time, since I’ve gleaned useful information from most of them. But whether I applied the information has been mostly a matter of how well the techniques and approaches enhanced and aligned with what I was already doing. I’m less frustrated if I learn methods and approaches that fit with my style instead of running counter to it.

Sometimes I hear people advise others to “loosen up” or “be bolder with color” or “draw bigger.” Perhaps that kind of advice is helpful. My hunch, though, is that someone who draws with tight, tiny details or prefers soft colors or a small scale will become frustrated trying to take on a style that is radically different from their own. Instead, it might be more satisfying to learn ways to enhance their own way of drawing. (Tomorrow I’ll talk more about how learning and style are related.)

(Once a year on my sketching anniversary, I write a retrospective post. You can read the previous years’ posts here: 20162015201420132012.)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Six-Year Musings, Part 1: Practice

9/25/11 This was my first urban sketch ever!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how, after years of struggling with watercolor, I had committed to focusing on colored pencils and was finally starting to make progress. That post and another that followed prompted some comments and discussion that have gotten me thinking more lately about practice and learning and how they are related to style (whatever that may be).

Since I seem to be in a process-oriented frame of mind, and because today is my sixth anniversary since I started drawing, I decided it would be a good opportunity to explore these thoughts in relation to my experiences the past six years and see where they took me (often I don’t know what I think until I write it). I had so much to say that it turned into a three-part series. Today I’ll talk about practice; the next two days will be about style and learning.

(Shown with this series are some of my earliest urban sketches from my first year.)

Regular practice – in my case, drawing every day without fail – is something that comes up whenever a well-meaning Facebook friend or stranger on the street compliments my sketch and then mentions, with a wistful tone, their desire to have “talent” like mine. My response is always that before Sept. 21, 2011, I had no more “talent” than they do, and the only difference between what I can do now compared to what I could do then is the result of regular practice.

I sometimes used to look at those daily practice sketches and question whether they are actually adding to my collective learning about drawing, or whether they are simply part of the accumulation. According to Windows File Explorer, I have more than 6,000 scanned sketches on my laptop. Not included are most of my sketches from the first half of the year before I started blogging (and therefore didn’t scan) and some others since then that I haven’t bothered to scan because I didn’t write blog posts about them. While I have many sketches among those 6,000+ that I believe are adding to my collective learning in some way, many others are nothing more than repetitive.

Does regular practice really help? In some ways, I can see that it does – I look back over my six years’ worth of sketches, and it’s very clear that ongoing practice leads to progress. And regular practice is important in cultivating a habit so that drawing doesn’t depend on inspiration, sufficient time, the right mood, or other nebulous requirements that could prevent me from simply doing it.

But is it enough? That’s what my recent musings about my focus on colored pencils were trying to get at. When learning a specific medium or technique, I don’t think practice is enough, because without instruction of some kind – a book, a video or, ideally, a good instructor or mentor who provides constructive feedback – I’m likely to form a habit of simply repeating the same mistakes. The hard part is keeping up that practice even after you realize you aren’t making progress. I think that’s when many people give up. They have the discipline to practice, but if they aren’t rewarded by progress at least some of the time, it’s too discouraging to continue. That’s the point, I think, when it would be helpful to seek feedback so that you can push past the repeated errors and move forward.

Here’s one more thought about practice that hadn’t occurred to me until recently, and I think it’s important. A discussion in a Facebook group was started by an artist who had posted a drawing in a style that can be called “photo-realistic.” A commenter lamented about her own lack of “talent,” that she would never be able to draw as well as that, and others pitched in with their views. One commenter was especially insightful (I regret that I didn’t copy and save her comment at that moment, as now it’s impossible to find on Facebook, so this is a paraphrase):

An art teacher for many years, she said that while photo realism is one style of art, it is not the ultimate goal or even desire of many artists, and the ability to draw photo-realistically should not be a measure of one’s “talent.” What should be the goal is finding one’s own artistic expression, whatever it is, and one way to find it is by drawing every day. She said she always assigns her students to sketch daily in a sketchbook because even simple doodles done regularly eventually lead to figuring out what kinds of drawings they enjoy making. And if they enjoy it, they’re more likely to continue doing it.

I heard much wisdom in that teacher’s comment. While eventual improvement is good motivation to draw every day, a more important reason to do it is that it teaches you what you like to do. And over time, what you like to do becomes your style.

(Once a year on my sketching anniversary, I write a retrospective post. You can read the previous years’ posts here: 20162015201420132012.)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Hold the Water

9/18/17 Wedgwood neighborhood

Today’s sketch was an experiment (well, I guess they all are, but this one was more consciously experimental than usual):

For most sketches done on location, I’ve habitually used water-soluble colored pencils (mostly my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles plus a few others). I don’t even carry traditional colored pencils with me. Compared to using dry colored pencils, it’s so much faster and easier to intensify colors simply by adding water, so it’s only natural that I’d favor watercolor pencils in the field. But the mess I made yesterday when I squirted water on my sketch – I was aiming for the colored pencils, but I forgot that the marker I’d used underneath was water-soluble, too – made me wonder if I rely too much on water to intensify pigments. Under the same time and condition constraints, would traditional colored pencils be that much more difficult or time-consuming to use? I put them to the test.

I could have used my usual set of water-soluble pencils and simply left them dry, but to be honest, I didn’t trust myself to stay away from the water – it’s such an automatic habit now! So I brought along a half-dozen Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils in fall foliage hues, and I went out hunting for color. I chose Luminance specifically because they are among the softest pencils I own, and I knew I could build rich color with them very quickly.

Indeed, this sketch took no longer than any of comparable size and subject that I’ve done with water-soluble colored pencils plus water. (In fact, it may have taken less time because I didn’t have to wait for water to dry before putting in details.) When I use traditional colored pencils at my desk, I build up many layers slowly and gradually, using a light touch and the pencil point held at a 45-degree angle to the paper, as I was taught. But out on the street, I went against everything I’ve learned in class and bore down hard on the broad side of the core to apply as much pigment as quickly as possible. The pigments look just as intense without water, don’t they? What I lacked in finesse I made up for in speed and efficiency. 

This experiment bodes well in another way: Today’s sketch was done on the last page in my current signature of my usual Canson XL 140-pound paper. It’s my favorite when using water-soluble pencils because it holds up well to heavy washes and sprayed water. At least for a while, I’m going to give a serious try to my new Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook with toned paper. Nova paper is the same weight as S&B’s Alpha paper, which is about 100 pounds and a bit too light for spraying with water. While I’m using a Nova book, I’ll resist water (except in small, controlled doses applied with a waterbrush) and see how I do. Bonus challenge: It takes even more intense color to show up well against a gray or tan background. Am I (and dry colored pencils) up to the challenge? Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Change in Weather at Ballard Locks

9/17/17 Salmon Bay Bridge at the Ballard Locks
The first real rain in weeks was predicted for today – just in time for USk Seattle’s outing at the Ballard Locks. If and when the rain did come, I was planning to duck inside the fish ladder area. By 10:30 a.m., though, the sun was still darting in and out of clouds, so I went to the parking lot on the south side of the Ship Canal. Although I’ve sketched the Salmon Bay Bridge several times, I’d never been able to catch it in the open position. My luck stayed with me – the sun came out just long enough to put in those shadows on the bridge. (Too bad I forgot that the marker I used for that is water-soluble, so when I sprayed the foliage underneath, the bridge got a little blurry.)

9/17/17 Ballard Locks
Crossing the canal again, I stopped at the Locks at a busy spot – not just busy with pedestrians, but also visually busy. I have no idea what this yellow thing is in the foreground, but it apparently has a nautical purpose. In any case, it was just the right time to initiate my new Stillman & Birn Nova gray-toned sketchbook. Along with my graphite drawing class, I figure this book will give me a good tonal workout during the coming gray months. 

We got an excellent USk turnout on this iffy-weather morning! And fortunately for us, the rain waited until my drive home to finally start falling. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Funko Fun

9/16/17 Funko store at the corner of California Street and Wetmore Avenue
Last month the new Funko store opened in downtown Everett to much local fanfare. Pop culture toys are generally off my radar, so I didn’t even know about the store until I saw Gabi Campanario’s Seattle Sketcher column about the grand opening. But as soon as I saw his sketches, I knew I had to get up there sometime soon!

A half-hour north of Seattle, Everett is a hard-working town without much of what would be called “color,” so Funko has added a big bright spot to the town’s center. Pop culture icons like Chewbacca, Mickey Mouse, Batman and Harry Potter decorate the store’s awnings on two sides of the building. I had a lot to choose from, but today I focused on Freddy Funko, the store’s own mascot, high above the store’s entrance. Spider-man and Batman look down from the covered walkway between the store and the parking garage. 

Inside the store, it’s like a mini-Disneyland of giant Funko pop characters. So dazzled by the colorful d├ęcor, I almost forgot it was a store. I spent the most time in the Star Wars area, since those characters are the only pop culture icons I have any affinity for. The least expensive things I saw in the whole store were keychains for $5 and pens for $3. A cool Star Wars backpack I wanted was $70! I passed on that. 

Funko storefront

Me and Han (or is it Luke?)

Me and Chewie

Princess Leia Wobblers

Star Wars pens
I want this backpack! (But not for $70.)

This Stormtrooper clutch would make a great pencil case/sketch kit!

Friday, September 15, 2017

PARK(ing) Day in Maple Leaf

9/15/17 Pop-up park in the Maple Leaf neighborhood

Who knew that international PARK(ing) Day has been going on for a decade? It’s an annual event to “raise awareness about the importance of walkable, livable and healthy communities.” I first heard about it last year when Urban Sketchers Tacoma took part in it. Then earlier this week I was reading our neighborhood blog, Maple Leaf Life, and learned that a “pop-up park” would be installed today just a few blocks north of our house.

Greg and I walked up to Northeast 85th Street this afternoon and found that a few parking spaces on Fifth Avenue Northeast had been cordoned off, and chairs and benches had been hospitably provided. A coffee urn, a cooler of beverages and snacks were offered to neighbors walking and biking by to see what was going on. The idea is to use a space normally reserved for cars as a place for people to gather. Aimee (in the green T-shirt), a leader of the Maple Leaf Greenways organization, spearheaded the pop-up park at that busy intersection. 

It was fun to meet a few people, exchange thoughts on neighborhood issues and discuss possible solutions. Heck, it was just fun to stand in the warm sunshine sketching the event on a beautiful Friday afternoon.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Dayton Maples

9/14/17 Greenwood neighborhood (water-soluble colored pencil)
The traffic circle at 83rd and Dayton in the Greenwood neighborhood is one of my favorite harbingers of fall. Three slender maples were planted by an arborist who must have chosen three varieties that would turn on staggered schedules. The one on the north side always begins to color first, and the one on the south side is the last to finish. I sketch these maples in the fall more often than any other trees, and they are the most fun to track over the course of a season.

I looked through my scanned images and found the one below from 2014 with the closest date – Sept. 17. Sketched from the opposite side of the traffic circle, the one on the left is the north tree. It had quite a bit more color that year than it does today. Stay tuned – I’ll sketch them again in another month or so. 

(Since I’m occupied with graphite for the next 10 weeks, I have a feeling I’m going to rely even more heavily than usual on maples to give me my much-needed color fixes this fall.)

9/17/14 watercolor and colored pencil

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Whole New Ballgame: Graphite

9/12/17 cloud study from photo reference (in progress)

I miss color already.

Yesterday I began a new 10-week drawing course, this time with graphite. From my informal studies of the masters and reading books on drawing, I have known for a long time that using a monochrome medium is one of the best ways to learn value and accurately modeling three-dimensional forms. To take a class focused on this type of drawing has been my goal. But while charcoal (yuck) drawing classes are offered regularly at Gage (and I’ve taken a pen and ink class), graphite pencil drawing is much harder to come by. So when Suzanne Brooker, my colored pencil class instructor last winter and spring, offered a private class to her former students, you can bet I was first to sign up!

Since all of us were in Suzanne’s colored pencil classes, we’re all starting with graphite from the same knowledge base, which makes it somewhat easier – we already understand the principles and some of the same techniques. However, I’m finding graphite to be a very different ballgame from colored pencils. For one thing, although we are drawing in monochrome, we are still using color photo references, and I’m finding it very challenging and sometimes confusing to convert colors to black and white values. I predict that this practice alone is going to be extremely valuable in training my eye to see values more accurately when sketching in the field.

Another game changer is something we learned right away: the eraser! I’ve used an eraser to replace highlights that I’ve inadvertently lost in a colored pencil or graphite sketch, but yesterday we used the eraser as one of our basic drawing tools – not just for errors. For the cloud drawing (above, still in progress), we first covered the entire composition area with a very pale layer of graphite. Then we went in afterwards with a kneaded eraser to put in the whitest white.

Mostly Mitsubishi Hi Unis with a Tombow and a Staedtler thrown in.
Learning about graphite pencil grades is also an eye opener. Suzanne recommended grades in the 3H to 6B range for the class (and of course I was thrilled that I could finally use my beautiful set of Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils). She had suggested a 2H for the pale first layer in the cloud drawing, but pencil manufacturers don’t use consistent grading, so I had to go all the way down to 4H in the Hi-Unis to get the same grade as her Staedtler 2H. 

I’m very much looking forward to learning all I can from this course (and, as before, I don’t enjoy drawing from photos, but I know that everything I learn can eventually be applied to on-location sketching, so that’s what motivates me). But I have to say, I sure miss color.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Bonus Washer

9/11/17 Wedgwood neighborhood

About a block or so from the post office, I spotted not one but two couches apparently discarded from the same home – and a bonus washer (no dryer)! The couch in the background was a cushy turquoise leather similar to the dark blue one I sketched a couple of months ago (which was also a two-fer day). Like the other one, this one seemed to be in good condition. The Southwest-patterned one in the foreground, however, was a bit threadbare, and the cushion tossed out on the sidewalk had stuffing spilling out. 

Then on my drive home, I spotted an office chair and, a few blocks later, a bookcase. (With a little patience, one could furnish an entire home in the Late Urban American style.) Open season on urban furniture sketching is almost over, so I was tempted to pull over. But I had to remind myself to stick to the theme. I have to admit, it’s been a great urban couch season – nine since June! Its going to be a tough record to beat next year.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Aspen on 84th

9/10/17 Maple Leaf neighborhood
This morning Facebook reminded me that exactly two years ago, I posted the sketch of this aspen in the neighborhood (below). I was curious about what it looked like today, so I walked up the street a few blocks. Although it’s starting to turn, it has a lot less yellow today (at left) than it did in 2015 (and it seems to have grown a bit more shaggy, too). Last year I didn’t sketch it until the first of October, when it was almost entirely yellow. 

I enjoy sketching the same trees every fall to track their changes and how they differ from year to year. I had been thinking the trees were starting to turn a bit early this year, but they are obviously later than in 2015.


Saturday, September 9, 2017


9/8/17 Banana tree
We are still entertaining visitors, and Heronswood Garden was a must-do. Tucked away in Kingston, it’s a short ferry ride away, yet it feels like a deep forest. I went there for the first time about a year ago, and it was just as lush and lovely as I remember it. Surprisingly, it must have rained overnight, as the leaves were sprinkled with much-needed droplets. 

Despite being with visitors, I didn’t have to rush through my sketches, as they were taking their time admiring all the gorgeous flowers and other plantings, too.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Speed and Distraction

9/6/17 Geese at Gas Works Park
Whenever we have visitors in town, it’s fun to play tourist and see the sights we usually ignore because they’re always too full of tourists. Of course, I always like to sneak in a few sketches along the way, which can be tricky when touring with non-sketching friends. I’ve written before about all the strategies I use (see part 1 and part 2 of my recent family reunion in Oregon and last year’s trip to the Minnesota State Fair), so I won’t go into them again here. Suffice it to say that the No. 1 trick is speed (each of these sketches took five to 10 minutes). The No. 2 trick is distraction: “Oh, look! Those fish mongers are throwing salmon to each other! Go stand over there for a better view!”

9/7/17 View from Highland Drive

9/7/17 First and Pine
9/7/17 Pike Place Market

9/7/17 P.K. Dwyer performing at Queen Anne Farmers Market

9/7/17 A cat busking at Pike Place Market (I made him
look a bit piggy)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Orange Sun

9/5/17 Seattle's sun at 8:21 a.m. 
A couple of weeks ago I sketched the darkened sun as the moon passed in front of it. This morning I sketched the sun again, but this time it was no eclipse – it was smoke and ash from wildfires still burning in central Washington that blocked the sun, turning it an eerie orange-pink. Sketched at 8:21 a.m., it looked more like sunset. And like the solar eclipse at totality, I could stare directly at the sun with my naked eyes. Ash flakes fell on my sketchbook as I sketched.

Our typical overcast sky is white or gray, but today it has a strong yellowish cast. A dusting of ash covers the cars and other outdoor surfaces. Despite today’s heat, expected to be in the 90s by this afternoon, our windows are sealed up tight.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day Crane

9/4/17 Non-laboring crane at the Roosevelt light rail station construction site.

Hearing that the temperature was going to be back up in the 80s again this afternoon, I went out early on this Labor Day morning. The streets were amazingly quiet, and the only activity was people loading coolers into their cars for a holiday outing.

My destination was an urban couch I had spotted yesterday afternoon in the high heat when I didn’t feel like standing in the sun. Unfortunately, someone had already taken the couch (but oddly left the cushions on the sidewalk!). On my drive back home through the Roosevelt neighborhood, though, I got an idea.

I had been wanting to go back to the Roosevelt light rail station construction site for a while now – it’s been close to two years since I last sketched the bright red crane there. Four years ago when construction began, my original plan was to sketch activity on the site itself regularly to show progress. Shortly after it began, however, a tall fence went up around the site, and all I could see were the tops of the various machinery moving around. Parking on the periphery has been gone for a long time, so it got harder and harder to sketch in the area. It’s been frustrating.

Three years ago I sketched a yellow crane (which was replaced by the taller red one) from the nearby Roosevelt Square. Early on Labor Day, none of the square’s shops were open, so I had the parking lot nearly to myself. A bonus was that no laboring was going on at the site, so I knew the crane wouldn’t suddenly swivel around, which has happened during some of my sketches.

You’ll note that the sky is blue. A couple of hours after I made this sketch, smoke from Washington’s many wildfires drifted back in our direction, casting a yellow haze across the sky. 

(To see the rest of the sketches in the series, enter “Roosevelt light rail station” in the blog’s search bar at right or use this link.)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...