Sunday, July 23, 2017

Organic and Metallic

7/22/17 water-soluble colored pencils, inks, Tombow marker
As much as I think of myself as an “urban” sketcher, I admit that I’m not often inspired by the modern glass and steel skyscrapers that fill so much of Seattle and many other cities. But on Tuesday I’ll be on my way to Chicago for the 8th International Urban Sketchers Symposium, so I decided I’d better get some practice. When USk Seattle gathered yesterday around the downtown central library, it was a good opportunity to see if I had any dormant modern architecture mojo.

Across the street from the library in front of Safeco Plaza stands (reclines?) an organic bronze sculpture by Henry Moore. Called Vertebrae, it’s composed of three pieces, and the Seattle version (there are others) sits in a shallow pool of water. Crouching near the ground to find a way to get both the sculpture and a not-too-tall building in the same composition, I found an interesting contrast between Vertebrae’s organic curves and the W Hotel topped by a glass pyramid. I even managed to squeeze in a bit of the central library’s multi-faceted side.

7/22/17 ink, colored pencils
With only a half-hour left before the throwdown, I had to choose a simpler composition next. I walked back across the street and sketched Vertebrae again, this time showing all three parts (plus Mel sketching on the edge of it).

For a sunny Saturday, our USk turnout was relatively small, but we had some competition: It’s apparently one of the biggest weekends of the summer for neighborhood parades, Seafair events, Bite of Seattle, music festivals and other attractions, not to mention the usual sports. No wonder downtown Seattle streets seemed so empty – everyone was somewhere else.
Urban Sketchers Seattle inside the Central Library

Process note: The first sketch was enough outside my comfort zone that I decided it was a good time to heed Melanie Reim’s (and many other instructors’) advice to make a thumbnail first (see below left, done in a Field Notes notebook). That gave me confidence to proceed in my usual sketchbook. Despite using the thumbnail as my guide, I must have marked off my measurement points wrong, because the W Hotel behind the sculpture got way out of proportion (below right). Fortunately, I realized it after wasting only about 10 minutes, so I abandoned it and started over. This time my finished sketch followed the thumbnail closely (and captured the building’s proportions relatively accurately).

First attempt -- abandoned early, thank goodness.

Whew. Even with the best of intentions and planning, things can go awry so easily. But going awry is not a problem – as long as I notice soon enough and have the good sense to start over. I’m not sure my modern architecture mojo is awake yet, but at least I gave it a nudge.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Busy Intersection

7/18/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils

This couch at the corner of North 85th and Wallingford took me twice as long as usual to sketch. It’s a very busy intersection, and every time the light turned red, two lanes of traffic would completely block my view across the street. I had to keep waiting for the light to change, and when it did, I could see the couch only during the brief spaces between cars going by. Then the light would turn again. 

It was missing two cushions as well as a price tag; perhaps it was even cheaper than free.

Friday, July 21, 2017


7/18/17 ink, water-soluble colored pencils, Tombow marker

“Look: There’s a Batmobile parked outside.”

Getting ready for bed, Greg was closing the blinds when he saw it. Parked in front of our neighbors’ house was, indeed, a Batmobile. (They don’t own a car.) It had appeared mysteriously in the night. I suspected that it would be gone by morning.

Luckily for me, it was still there in the daylight: a ‘60s vintage Lincoln Continental. Its once dark-green finish was so old that it was now matte instead of shiny, and the hood had a center panel that might have been a different color at one point but was now mostly rust. The rear-view mirror was a creative DIY repair job.

The plates were current, and peeking into the windows, I saw no signs of long-term residence. I’m guessing it will disappear into the night sometime soon as mysteriously as it had appeared. 

(Once again I channeled my inner Flaf for this sketch.)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Obon Drink & Draw

7/15/17 dried out brush pen, colored pencils

Seattle’s Obon festival is one of our favorite summertime events (I sketched there last year and a few years before that, too). This year it coincided with the weekend of the Urban Sketchers Dancing Lines workshop, so I invited San Francisco Bay Area sketcher and workshop participant Cathy McAuliffe to join us Saturday evening.

7/15/17 ink, colored pencil
We headed straight for the beer garden for our own drink & draw! Local reggae band Two Story Zori entertained us while one of the band members stepped out to dance with a silver-haired woman in the audience. The pair showed us some great moves. 

After beers and dinner, we moved out to the street where taiko drummers could be heard and dancers could be seen. Color, music, rhythm and food – ahhh, summer!

7/15/17 taiko drummers

A little drinkin' and drawin'!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dancing Lines, Part 2: Melanie Reim

7/14/17 Melanie giving a presentation on her reportage work.
(Part 1 of my report on USk Seattle’s Dancing Lines workshop covered Ch’ng Kiah Kiean’s sessions.)

Melanie Reim’s portion of the Dancing Lines workshop focused on sketching people in the urban landscape – individually and in large crowds. With many years of teaching experience at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Melanie shared not only her personal experience with urban and reportage sketching but also her vast knowledge of drawing the human figure. All her storytelling through drawing is based strongly on composition (what she calls design) – enabling the story to be told through the emphasis you place on one element or another in the design of the picture. For example, the same scene can be sketched with an emphasis on the background or on a group of people or one person, depending on the composition, and each sketch will tell a different story.

During my group’s afternoon session on the first workshop day, Melanie walked us through the handouts she had sent in advance on creating thumbnails, the basics of human torso anatomy, tips on drawing a crowd of people, and looking at calligraphic strokes from different written languages as inspiration for describing figure gestures. She also talked briefly about some of her favorite drawing tools.

Melanie demonstrating how design helps
tell the story of a sketch.
In the warm sunshine next to the Seattle Center’s fountain, we first practiced making at least 10 thumbnails in 10 minutes while thinking in terms of storytelling and “design.”
7/15/17 thumbnails
Then we picked one thumbnail to turn into a sketch. I used my favorite brush pen to sketch the rigid, triangular shapes formed by the roof and supports of the KeyArena building and the more organic shapes of clusters of trees on either side of it. (By the way, the “story” that Melanie refers to doesn’t have to be a big drama; in this case, the interesting contrast of shapes in my sketch is all there is to my “story.”)

7/15/17 brush pen
Melanie giving feedback on our sketches.

Next we turned our attention to figure drawing, which is Melanie’s primary interest. Focusing on individuals first and eventually groups, we were to look at “body language” so that our drawings became unique individuals and not generic. She especially emphasized avoiding drawing around the contour and instead looking at each major muscle area of the body – torso, upper leg, lower leg, etc. – as a three-dimensional box to better describe the body’s form. She always starts with the curve of the spine to define the pose and identify where the weight is, and as she demonstrated this concept, I was very much reminded of Suhita Shirodkar’s “line of action.”
7/15/17 ink (figure studies)

In my series of small studies, see the arrow in the bottom row (above)? That’s where Melanie made a small correction to my figure. She said the guy’s shoulder angle and the way his hips were turned indicated that his right leg should be slightly closer to me, and therefore the right foot should appear slightly lower than the left. I was astounded that such a small correction made a big difference in making the gesture look “right.” I’ve learned these very principles in life drawing classes, and I try to practice them whenever I go to life drawing sessions, yet I was still astounded to see how small differences matter greatly.

7/15/17 ink and dry brush pen (figures with background) 

The last exercise of the day was to combine figures with a background (above). Most participants chose the fountain as a central focal point. I inadvertently developed a way to shade the figures that looks very similar to the scumbling we had done with a stencil brush in KK’s session. I had been using my favorite Sailor brush pen filled with Platinum Carbon Black so much in the earlier exercises that it started to run dry. I like the charcoal-like look so much that I’m going to start carrying a brush pen that’s running dry just for this kind of shading.

Melanie showing us her favorite sketch tools
 in the relative quiet of the Market's Atrium.
Melanie started out with my group the next morning at the Pike Place Market. At a quiet table in the Atrium, we had an opportunity to hear her talk more about her favorite materials – brush pens, fountain pens, dip pens with long, flexible nibs – as she showed us how she uses them to make expressive, variable lines, which are her trademark.

That quiet didn’t last long, however. It was a sunny summer Sunday at the Market, and we headed straight out into the thick of what was probably the single densest concentration of people in Seattle at that hour. A NYC native, Melanie thrives on sketching crowds!

Our assignments were to draw some individuals and crowds, again focusing on body language, and to look at one individual making repetitive movements (such as all the market vendors serving customers) and draw a series of sketches indicating those movements. For crowds, she suggested seeing them as a single large shape rather than a collection of individuals. These were all very challenging, of course, since the crowds are moving constantly, and I was also in the middle of such crowds.
7/16/17 People photographing the fish mongers tossing fish.
7/16/17 Waiting in line for donuts.

My favorite from these exercises was my sketch of various audience members watching a piano busker perform. (You can imagine how difficult it was for me to resist sketching the busker himself!) As Melanie suggested, I tried to capture a sense of depth and draw individuals and their body language, not generic people.

7/16/17 The piano player's audience.

7/16/17 Sequence of movements made by the donut vendor.
The most difficult exercise for me was drawing a series of movements (at right). I chose a donut vendor who was doing three distinct movements repeatedly: Snapping open a paper bag with one hand, reaching for donuts with a pair of tongs with the other hand, and placing the donuts into the bag. I almost immediately gave up on trying to do the whole figure and thought I’d focus on just his arm and hand. But I still never completed the whole series! (I think I did better on a very similar exercise four years ago in Marc Taro Holmes’ workshop at the Barcelona symposium.)

Melanie’s extremely informative portion of the workshop covered much ground in only six hours. I’ve tried to summarize as many of her main points here as I could remember, but I know that to really reinforce and retain the information, I need to use what I learned immediately and keep practicing whenever I can. 

Again, many thanks to USk Seattle for bringing KK and Melanie here. It was an inspiring weekend, and now I’m all warmed up for the Chicago symposium next week!

Final throwdown at the MarketFront.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dancing Lines, Part 1: Ch'ng Kiah Kiean

7/14/17 KK giving a presentation on his tools and methods.
Seattle-area sketchers – and, as it turned out, many people who came from out of town, including as far as Costa Rica – had a fantastic opportunity this past weekend in the Dancing Lines workshop. Sponsored by Urban Sketchers Seattle, the workshop brought in Penang, Malaysia, artist Ch'ng Kiah Kiean (better known as KK) and New York City artist Melanie Reim. I’m very grateful to USk Seattle for making this opportunity possible. It was like having a mini symposium in our own backyard!

The two-day workshop kicked off Friday night with a meet-and-greet and presentations by the instructors at Daniel Smith’s Seattle store. To give all 30 workshop participants time with each instructor in each of two locations, the students were divided in half, and both groups met with both instructors each day. For better continuity in helping me document what I learned, my blog posts will cover each instructor’s curriculum instead of the chronology of the workshop days. Today’s post will focus on KK; the next will cover Melanie.

On Saturday morning at the Seattle Center, my group met with KK, who started off with an introduction to his simple tools. Well-known in the USk community for creating amazing paintings with nothing more than a twig and Chinese ink, KK generously provided each of us with a stick. These were no ordinary twigs from a jasmine tree; they were hand-prepped by his own father, who has helped prep hundreds of such twigs for KK’s workshops. He also gave us a small sponge in a plastic box for “dry ink” toning and a small jar with gauze to hold ink for his primary drawing method.

Carving jasmine twigs into drawing instruments.
Demonstrating various lines he is able to get with a single twig.

Here's the way KK carves his twig "nibs."
KK coached us in carving the ends of our sticks into a nib shape. Surprisingly, he usually re-carves his own twigs before beginning each sketch to customize the size of the “nibs” for the subject matter and to freshen the points. He also demonstrated how he uses inexpensive commercial stencil brushes to scumble tone on drawings. Seated at shady picnic tables behind the Museum of Popular Culture building, we practiced using our humble tools. He advised us not to hold the twig like a pencil but more like a piece of charcoal or upright like a brush.

After that bit of practice, we walked around to the front of MoPOP in the shadow of the Space Needle. KK gave us a full demo by sketching those two Seattle icons, and then it was our turn. 

Demo at the Seattle Center.
KK's finished sketch of the Space Needle and MoPOP.

Although I wasn’t new to KK’s twiggy methods (I saw his demo at the Paraty symposium three years ago but haven’t practiced twig sketching in quite a while), scumbling with a stencil brush was new to me. I like the soft, charcoal-like tones I can get from it, and if the stencil brush is small enough, it can also be used to help form the shapes (as in the rounding of the crazy, organic MoPOP building fa├žade).

7/15/17 My humble attempt at the same
subject matter with Chinese ink, twig, stencil brush

The second day my group spent the afternoon with KK at the Pike Place Market. In a similar format to the first day, he began with a full demo of his drawing and painting methods. Sheltered in a quiet, windowed spot inside the new MarketFront (our temps in the high 60s were a bit chilly for this Malaysian!), he made a magnificent panorama of the waterfront view. This time he added subtle color with watercolors. I tried to learn as much as I could from observing his process, but honestly, I simply enjoyed watching him the way I enjoy a magician’s performance: Even if I don’t know what’s going on, it’s sheer pleasure seeing how he wields his simple materials.

Sketching the waterfront through the window at the Pike Place Market's MarketFront.
KK adds touches of watercolor to his finished drawing.

His completed masterpiece.

Our exercise for the rest of the afternoon was to again practice using our tools and techniques learned the previous day and add color if desired. I picked a scene similar to the one I sketched a couple weeks ago when I visited the MarketFront with USk, but this time I focused on the skyscrapers to the east instead of the viaduct and waterfront. Although I felt cramped by the 5 ½-by-8 ½-inch sketchbook I had brought to the workshop with a twig “nib” much fatter than my usual fountain pens and even markers, I was happy with the tones I achieved using nothing more than the twig, stencil brush and Chinese ink. (I used my usual water-soluble colored pencils to add spots of color.)

7/16/17 Chinese ink, twig, stencil brush

As a segue to my report of the sessions with Melanie Reim in the next blog post, I want to show you a couple of photos from the end of our first workshop day: A sketch made by KK and Melanie simultaneously! Right-handed Melanie and lefty KK sat side by side on the ground in front of the huge glass flowers marking Chihuly’s Garden and Glass museum. I applaud their courage for taking on this challenge that was as much performance art as urban sketching! The fabulous collaborative sketch will be auctioned at the Chicago symposium next week, so if you like it, place your bid!

KK and Melanie: dueling pens and sticks!

This uniquely executed sketch will be auctioned at the Chicago symposium!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dinner and Show

7/13/17 ink, colored pencils
One of my favorite things to do on a warm summer evening is have dinner at a farmers market, and the best one for that is in the Queen Anne neighborhood. It has plenty of space for community seating, and a tent is set up for musicians and other buskers to entertain diners.

Last Thursday Greg and I picked up fresh produce and then circled around to all the food vendors for our dinner. We both ended up at Mystery Bay Seafood, which makes the most delicious grilled salmon sandwich ever. I knew this because I had the same sandwich a year ago when I sketched the vendor making it. Then we settled in to dine, enjoying the folk music of the duo I sketched (and with the sign there to remind me, I certainly remembered to tip them afterwards). 

When I looked back at last year’s blog post, I was reminded that summer was just barely getting started in mid-July. This year we’ve already enjoyed a month of consecutive sunny, rainless days with temps mostly in the 70s. After last winter’s record rainfall, I feel I’ve earned the right to gloat! We haven’t had a summer like this in many years.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Plymouth Pillars

7/13/17 water-soluble colored pencils
After the big 1965 quake damaged the Plymouth Congregational Church, it had to be taken down, but the four entrance columns were saved and reinstalled at the corner of Pike and Boren. After meeting a friend for coffee at the Starbucks Roastery up the street from the park, I took the opportunity to sketch them. (If they look familiar, it’s because you saw them in the background of the photos I took when I was at this pocket park earlier this week with the Northwest School students.)

With this sketch, I tried something a little different from my typical “coloring book” approach (drawing an outline and then coloring it in). It’s a bit more painterly (or at least that was my hope) and similar to how I’ve been doing still lives – using only colored pencils to both draw and color, and not relying on gray ink or markers for shading. In this case, it wasn’t more time consuming, yet it was somehow more challenging. I was trying to think in the same way that painters do when they hit the paper directly with paint without a drawing first. I know it’s easier with colored pencils, since they are essentially drawing tools, compared to using a brush with liquid, but old habits die hard. 

Overall, I like this approach, but my shading feels wimpy compared to using ink or markers. I’m going to work on intensifying values more.

Friday, July 14, 2017


7/12/17 ink, colored pencils
The other day when I visited the Northwest School to introduce a class to urban sketching, I arrived a few minutes early. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has an old lamp post topped by dragon-like gargoyles near the entryway. As I approached, I saw that building restoration was taking place, and an excavator next to the post caught my eye. Then I saw that workers were stabilizing and protecting the gargoyles so that the lamp could be removed. Within minutes, they had taken the post out of the ground, and by the time the kids arrived for class, the post and gargoyles were lying next to the building. 

When I gave my presentation to the class, it was fun to show them the sketch that I’d made just minutes earlier because they had all seen the lamp post lying on the ground. I thought it was a good example of an urban sketch capturing a moment of action.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Urban Sketching with the Northwest School

7/12/17 ink, colored pencils, Tombow marker

Sometimes I think about how much more sketching I might have done before age 52 (when I finally did start sketching) if someone had just handed me a sketchbook and a pencil when I was, say, 14, and put the idea in my head. Instead of being wrapped up inside my own angst-filled adolescence, maybe I would have looked around and observed more of the world.

7/12/17 brush pen, colored pencils
I would like to hope that something like that may have happened yesterday morning for at least some of the 13 students at the Northwest School who are learning about architecture and design. For the second year, the school and the Seattle Architecture Foundation invited Urban Sketchers Seattle to lead a class session in urban sketching. Michele Cooper and I talked about our personal approaches to urban sketching, and then we showed some sketches and our sketch kits. Then I handed out a stack of pocket-size notebooks and pencils, and the kids were ready for their field trip! 

Their teacher Matt Fujimoto and program coordinator Kathryn Higgins led us to nearby Plymouth Pillars Park. As was the case last year when David Chamness and I participated in the same program, the kids, ages 11 to 14, hardly needed our encouragement – they all leaped in with gusto. It was inspiring and heartening to see their energy and courage.

Teacher Matt Fujimoto helps the students get started.

Program coordinator Kathryn Higgins joins the students for
a little sketching.

Michele is back there in the shade!

Of course we ended with a sketchbook throwdown!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Product Review: Gekkoso 8B Pencil

7/8/17 Gekkoso 8B graphite pencil, colored pencil, Baron Fig notebook

Gekkoso is a 100-year-old art supply store in Tokyo that makes its own products. It breaks my heart that I didn’t know about it when I was shopping in the Ginza district two years ago – I was so close! Of course, I wasn’t sketching much with graphite back then, so even if I had been there, perhaps I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the Gekkoso 8B pencil (though being who I am, I can’t believe I would have walked out without one, even if I had no immediate plans for it).

Gekkoso 8B graphite pencil
By the time CW Pencil Enterprise’s Pencil Box subscription service included a Gekkoso 8B in last quarter’s box, it certainly did catch my attention. I’m not a subscriber, but fortunately, a couple of kind folks in the Erasable Facebook group were willing to trade me theirs.

A unique pencil, it’s also beautiful. With an understated Japanese esthetic, it has a clear, lightly varnished cedar finish with its name and – delightfully, if inexplicably – a French horn stamped in black. Although I normally use graphite more during the gray of winter, I have to say that this pencil is making me want to use it even during these colorful summer days.

My favorite graphite drawing pencils up to this point have been the ultra-soft grades of the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni line. When I compare the Gekkoso to a Hi-Uni 8B, the darkness is about the same. The Gekkoso’s core, however, is significantly thicker, as is its entire barrel, and that thicker core somehow makes it seem softer because I can lay down such a broad swath with its side. While the Hi-Uni is still slightly smoother, the Gekkoso applies effortlessly on both smooth and toothy papers, gliding on like pressure-sensitive liquid. When urban sketching with graphite, I typically use two grades – a mid-grade like a Blackwing or Hi-Uni 4B, and something super-soft like a Hi-Uni 10B. With the Gekkoso, though, I find I don’t need a mid-grade pencil because it’s so much fun to barely touch the paper for light lines. With firmer pressure, the dark is dark – and just as effortless. I think of it as charcoal – but smoother, cleaner and much more pleasant to use.

Despite being dark, it erases relatively well. In my sketch of the trees behind the utility pole, I drew the trees first, drew the outline of the pole over the trees, and then simply erased out the pole to bring it forward.

As you’d expect from such a soft core, it doesn’t hold a point for long, but if I keep turning it as I use it, it stays sharp long enough for several sketches. And that’s a good thing, because I haven’t found any portable sharpeners that will fit the large barrel. I use either a knife or the largest hole in my Bostitch electric.

Core and barrel size comparison, from left: Blackwing,
Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 8B, Gekkoso 8B
And speaking of that thicker barrel, it is truly comfortable compared to a conventional size pencil. None of my sketches so far has taken more than 20 minutes, but if I were making a drawing that required hours of work (as most of my colored pencil class studies did), I think I would be able to work longer with the Gekkoso before my hand got tired.

As all soft graphite does, it smears and transfers to the opposite sketchbook page. I’ve decided those are acceptable tradeoffs, though, for such a great drawing pencil. I take advantage of the softness by smudging with my finger for shading, and I leave the opposite sketchbook page blank. 

At six bucks a pop, it’s not a cheap pencil, nor is it easy to find (CW Pencil is the most obvious US source). But once I use up my traded stash, I have a feeling I’ll be getting more of these.

7/6/17 Gekkoso 8B, 140 lb. watercolor paper

7/3/17 Gekkoso 8B, colored pencil, Baron Fig notebook
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