SketchingNow Foundations Course Week 1

Pencil Tests

Pencil Tests

I’m taking a 12 week course in sketching from Liz Steel. This week we are getting to know our materials. I recently got some new water soluble pencils which I’ve been meaning to try. The General’s Sketch & Wash pencil arrived just before I was heading out the door to take Kris to the eye doctor’s. So, I stuck it in my bag and sketched a stool in the office while I waited. They kept turning the lights off on me which made it a challenge, but I persevered. This is a nice soft pencil capable of making a variety of marks. I really like how it melts into a beautiful granulated gray when you add water. I used my Kuretake Petit waterbrush to pull the grays from the lines on the page. This pencil works very well. I’ll be adding it to my kit.

I also recently tested a set of 6 Derwent Inktense water soluble colored pencils. They deliver as advertised a very intense ink like pigment when moistened. They also mix well. You can draw with them on dry paper and then wet them or you can draw onto wet paper and get very saturated color that spread into the paper. You can also use a brush to draw color from the tips of the pencils. That’s what I did in the row just above the mixes in my test. I’ll be carrying these in my kit too to add bright spot colors to my sketches.

Sketching Kit

Sketching Kit

Another assignment this week was to draw our sketching kit. This is the bag I usually carry with me when I go out. It has room for all my art supplies plus a water bottle and a snack. I drew this with the General’s Sketch & Wash pencil and added the grays with water from my Kuretake Petit waterbrush. I then used a variety of pens to add black and some detail.

Stillman & Birn Zeta series 5.5 x 8 inch wire bound notebook, General’s Sketch & Wash #588 water soluble graphite pencil, Sailor CDE calligraphy pen with Noodler’s Lexington Gray ink, Kuretake Petit waterbrush, Platinum Carbon Desk pen with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black ink, and Uni-Ball Vision Fine pen black.

Jim

The Wrong Nemo

Book Cover Illustration

Book Cover Illustration

This week’s Sketchbook Skool Storytelling assignment was to pick or make up a book and illustrate its cover. As a boy I loved reading my father’s books such as Treasure Island, Mysterious Island, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Some of them were illustrated by the great N.C. Wyeth. For a while I contemplated doing a small oil painting in Wyeth’s style. This seemed a bit ambitious. So I decided to do a watercolor.

Book Cover Thumbnails

Book Cover Thumbnails

I thought about it for a couple of days and did these thumbnails and an initial pencil drawing. The first four thumbnails were for “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and the last thumbnail was for “The Mysterious Island”. I picked “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and did a larger pencil sketch of the idea.

I didn’t want to hand letter the cover because coloring in around letters with watercolor would look messy.

Book Cover Comp

Book Cover Comp

I did this mock up in GIMP (the free open source image editing program). As usual it turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated. I wanted the title to be red with a black outline around the letters and the authors name to be black with a red outline around the letters. I tried a number of methods all of which didn’t work. Eventually I figured it out. You have to select the text with the text tool, convert the text to a path, and stroke the path and make sure you select the right foreground color before you do it. LOL. Well I learned something extra in Sketchbook Skool. I liked this idea. However, I thought I’d sleep on it.

The assignment called for doing research on the details. I Googled “weird deep-sea fish” and “giant octopus movies” and “1880 sailor uniforms”. While researching underwater scenes, I looked at Finding Nemo backgrounds (which are beautiful) and got the idea to include Nemo the clownfish in the scene. I then remembered the storyline of Finding Nemo. The movie is really about Nemo’s father, Marlin, as he searches for his son, Nemo. Then I got the idea to have Marlin find the wrong Nemo, Captain Nemo, on the Nautilus. Brilliant! Better ideas really do come with persistence.

I drew the illustration again on a larger piece of paper with pencil. I drew and erased at least six versions of Captian Nemo. It didn’t look right. I couldn’t find any reference photos showing him from the back. Finally I had to photograph myself in the right position to draw him as I couldn’t quite get the the head and legs right.

Jim Posing as Nemo

Jim Posing as Nemo

I inked the pencil drawing while lounging on the futon with my feet up and a heat pack on my back. I had thrown out my lower back while working in the yard. Sitting at the table bending over a drawing was not a good idea.

Book Cover Pen and Ink

Book Cover Pen and Ink

After dinner I painted the scene with watercolor. Strathmore 300 Bristle vellum paper holds up well to multiple erasures, but it does not handle watercolor well. It buckles and tiny pieces of paper ball up if you scrub it while wet. I photographed the painting and transferred the file to my iMac. I used GIMP to drop the image into the book cover design and changed the text to read “The Wrong Nemo by James Blodget”. I uploaded the image to SBS at midnight. Done is better than perfect.

Book Cover

Book Cover

I learned a lot from this assignment. I really enjoyed doing the research and discovered that it takes more time than doing the finished drawing. I was also reminded how important it is not to settle for your first idea. Allow yourself time and trust that the process will reveal a better idea.

Doing an illustration is about creating your own world. You decide what to put in and what to leave out. It’s all in the details. There are things in this drawing that I know no one else will notice like the gauge in the shadows in the upper left hand corner or the bit of yellow glow around the angler fish’s antenna or the blue reflection in the window sill or the blood shot eye of the octopus or the fact that his legs have two rows of suckers instead of one or that the first mate is barefoot. It’s all there because I thought about it and put it there. I now really appreciate the work that goes into a good illustration.

Jim

John

John

John

This is my friend John. The time was 1969. The place Berkeley, California. People were protesting in the streets and the Oakland police (we called them the Blue Meanies) were brutal. John showed up in this medic’s uniform of his own design sporting a WWII helmet, bag, and lab coat, and marched with the protesters in support and to offer aid when necessary. He put his own safety on the line to help others. All the people in my circle were like that – idealistic, courageous, and kind.

I drew this from a 35mm slide I took at the time outside my apartment building on Piedmont Avenue. 1969 was the year my draft status changed from student deferred to 1-A and it was the first year of the draft lottery. The Vietnam War was in full swing. My fate and those of my generation were determined not by the decisions of reasonable men, but by chance. I was lucky, but others I knew were not.

Stillman & Birn Zeta series 5.5. X 8 spiral bound notebook, Uni Pin 02 pen, Platinum brush pen, Inktense red watercolor pencil, Kuretake Petit waterbrush, and Lucas lamp black watercolor.

Jim

People Practice #5

People Practice #5

People Practice #5

I’ve been practicing sketching people now for a week. After doing 20 second and one minute sketches on and off all week I decided to slow down. I did these six figures in 18 minutes. I switched from using my usual Sailor Calligraphy pen to my Pentel 07 rollerball pen because it has water soluble ink and I could quickly add some grey tones by pulling color from the lines with a Kuretake Mini waterbrush.

It does help to practice. I’m getting better at seeing and drawing the shapes.

Jim

Front Room

Front Room

Front Room

I’m excited. This is my second try at using my new method of drawing and it really works! (Read my previous post for a complete description of the method and the theory behind it). The only change I made to the process was to take as much time as I needed to complete each stage. I didn’t limit myself to 20 seconds each.

I did this drawing without any preplanning or layout and with no preliminary pencil drawing. I started at the top and drew directly with pen all the horizontal lines I saw working my way down the page and out to the sides paying attention to the relative lengths of the lines and the distance between them. This first stage is very important because it determines the placement of the scene on the page and the proportions of the major shapes. It sounds difficult, but it feels very natural and easy to do without the need to do any measurement or make any corrections.

I next drew all the vertical lines working from left to right. I had to lengthen some of the horizontal lines to meet the verticals, but most of them lined up. Next I drew the diagonal lines and then the curves. I then added emphasis by going over and darkening the frames of the pictures and underneath the shelves. I then added the details of the books and other objects and the pictures. Finally I used my Kuretake Mini waterbrush to pull some grey tone from the existing lines. The ink of the Pentel 07 rollerball pen is water soluble.

Next I want to try different subjects. I’ll probably have to modify the order of the stages to accommodate subjects that have mainly diagonal lines or curves.

Jim

A New Method of Drawing

Line Sequence Sketch 1

Line Sequence Sketch 1

Okay, I might be going down a blind alley or I may have made a great discovery. I’m not sure which yet. This is my first try at a new way of drawing. The idea hit me as I woke up the other day and it’s basically this. Instead of looking at a scene and drawing all the shapes, you instead progressively put down different kinds of line in a specified order. The order is taken from research about the developmental stages of drawing which found that children progress through making horizontal marks, then vertical, then diagonal, and then curvilinear marks. They then see and draw shapes, values and colors, and finally space. So, my idea was to first draw all the horizontal lines in the scene, then the vertical lines, then the diagonal lines, then the curves, and then to add some emphasis and finally some detail.

The other part of my idea was to use a method called Centering to turn off my inner critic and direct my nervous energy. I recently came across this idea in an article about how musicians are trained to overcome stage fright and use their nervous energy to enhance performance. Athletes also use the same method. So, I thought hey, why not artists. Here’s the link to the article in case you want to read the details. http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/how-to-make-performance-anxiety-an-asset-instead-of-a-liability/ .

My goal in combining these two methods was to do a very quick (2 minute) on-the-spot sketch. I would first center myself and then draw spending 20 seconds on each stage of the drawing. I knew I needed some kind of timer. So, I recorded my voice giving directions and timing cues while using a stopwatch. I would play this back while drawing. Here’s a link to my audio recording in case you want to try it for yourself.

I sat at the kitchen table and looked across the room at the stove and cabinets. I sat up straight and centered myself, picked up my pen, hit the play button on my iPad, and drew.

It was a very different experience. I wasn’t drawing things or shapes of things. I was concentrating on finding specific kinds of edges and drawing their relative positions and lengths, angles, and curves. In the last two steps I emphasized a few darks and for detail I added some hinges and handles. While drawing my inner critic was completely turned off. It’s as if he said “Oh, you’re just drawing horizontal lines? You don’t need me for that” and walked away.

20 seconds is a VERY short time to draw each stage. I admit that I was surprised to find that my drawing actually resembled my kitchen and I immediately wondered how it would compare to my usual way of quick sketching. So, I flipped my page over, set the stopwatch on my iPod Touch to 2 minutes, started it and drew until the timer beeped. I used my standard approach which is to start somewhere, draw a shape, and move outward drawing the surrounding shapes.

Standard Method Sketch

Standard Method Sketch

It’s interesting to compare the two images. The standard method produced a “wonkier” drawing. The horizontal and vertical lines weren’t straight and the proportions were off. The new method produced a drawing with a completely different character. It feels calmer, less frantic, more stable and assured.

Usually it takes me a while to warm up and get into the flow of drawing. My best sketches use three stages – a quick analytical sketch to figure out the subject, a pencil under drawing, and a final ink drawing. I’m hoping this new method will help me bypass all that to quickly achieve a better sketch in one pass. This first try is encouraging.

Next I want to try it with different subjects and without the time constraints.

Jim

Great Expectations

Great Expectations

Great Expectations

In 1954 a group of enthusiastic, imaginative children gathered together eager to learn. By 8:05 they realized that their teacher was part of a conspiracy to turn them into worker bees for the military industrial complex. Her name was Mrs. Weamers and she went by the book. Children in her class would do as they were told or else she would “Jump down your throat and dance on your liver” as she was fond of saying. We survived. We did more than that. After all, we were the generation who would grow up to defy the establishment in the 60’s and change everything. We had Great Expectations.

This week’s assignment for Sketchbook Skool was to draw from imagination your first day of school. It ended up taking a LOT longer than I anticipated. It took me two days to refine the idea. At first I thought I’d give each child a thought bubble with a dream occupation and compare that with the teacher’s wish to turn them all into corporate drones. That was WAY too complicated. So, I combined all their dreams into one group bubble and then realized that I didn’t need to show the teacher’s thoughts. Instead it could be implied by the space with the flag in the front corner, clock on the wall, desks in a row.

I drew the scene first in pencil. I started with the blackboard and back walls. I then drew circles for the placement of the kids’ heads and then refined their faces and bodies. Next I added the teacher and her desk and the flag. I then drew in the space for the thought bubble and sketched the cowboy. His horse turned into a beast because I couldn’t draw a bucking horse from memory. Other than a ballerina I had no idea what the girls wanted to be. So, I stuck to what I knew – a pirate, a deep sea diver, a pilot, a dare devil, a movie maker. These are the dreams of little kids.

The next stage was to ink in the drawing. I used a Platinum Desk Carbon pen with Platinum Carbon Black ink. It has a very fine nib and the ink is waterproof. I spent almost as much time erasing the pencil marks. Finally I added watercolor using a Di Vinci #6 travel brush and a combination of Daniel Smith and Lucas tube watercolors.

I learned once again that a project takes on a life of its own and you have to follow it. Don’t settle for your first idea. Usually the first thing you think of is a cliché. You need to take it further and have faith that good ideas will come along the way.

I was also reminded that drawing is fun, but it is also hard work. It takes a long time to do it “right”. It requires patience and stamina. “Rest with renewed attack” is a wise working strategy.

Jim

Lupin Sculpture

Lupin Sculpture

Lupin Sculpture

I went for a walk in the Oregon Garden in Silverton today. The Fall colors were really starting to pop. I sat near these iconic sculptures near one of the fountains to do this sketch. I drew in pencil first. I then used my Sailor calligraphy pen with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black ink. Finally I added watercolor using my Kuretake Mini waterbrush and my new homemade palette filled with a combination of Lucas and Daniel Smith tube watercolors.

I’m really starting to feel comfortable doing these sketches on location. I have more confidence with my materials and techniques and I’m working faster. I like the way this one turned out.

Jim

People Practice

People Practice

People Practice

I’m aware of two kinds of practice from other disciplines – sports and music. The first develops basic skills like shooting free throws or playing scales. Practicing drawing straight lines, basic shapes, and hatching comes under this first category of practice. The other type develops dexterity which is the ability to perform well under varying conditions. Typically this kind of practice involves repetition without repetition like shooting baskets from different points of the court or playing the same passage of music at different speeds or dynamics. These people sketches are my first attempt to develop dexterity in drawing. I used the slideshow feature in the FlickStackr app on my iPad to display Creative Commons pictures of people for 20 seconds each. I drew with my Sailor calligraphy pen on a Strathmore 9×12 inch Bristol Vellum pad of paper set up next to my iPad. When the next pictured displayed, I stopped wherever I was and moved over on the pad to begin the next drawing. Each drawing was a modified contour drawing. I looked mostly at the iPad, but occasionally I peaked at the drawing to reposition my pen. After five minutes I stopped and assessed my work. I then turned the piece of paper over and did five one minute sketches. I was surprised to find that spending three times the time did not produce three times better drawings. I figure I can do this ten minute exercise every day. We’ll see what happens in a week.

Jim

Coast Sketches

Coast Sketches

Coast Sketches

My wife and I spent a few days at the coast. I managed to squeeze in several small sketches. These were done on business card size watercolor paper. I was experimenting with carrying all my materials around in my shirt and pants pockets. Each sketch holds a story for me. The first one is the view across the street from our rental house. We were in a tsunami hazard zone. The road up the hill was the escape route. The second one is our house as seen from sitting on the hood of our car. I had to carry all our luggage up those stairs. The third is the view from the dining room window. The days were gray but that didn’t keep us from (picture four) walking to the beach. A large surf was coming in on Saturday. So, all the surfers were out in their wet suits. I prefer to work larger, but it’s fun to see that even a small sketch can trigger a memory.

I bought this paper on jetpens.com for under $5.

Jim

Kayak on Wirth Lake

Kayak on Wirth Lake

Kayak on Wirth Lake

It has been a long time since I painted with oils on canvas. I did this small study (6×6 inches, 15×15 cm) to remind myself of the process. I’m using Holbein water soluble oils. I first did an underpainting in blue and pink.

Kayak Painting Set-up

Kayak Painting Set-up

I let that dry for three days. I painted the rest in one go (alla prima wet-on-wet). I used a small palette knife, a #2 flat bristle brush, a #8 round brush, and a #4 round brush. Sometimes I thinned the paint with water, but mostly I used it straight from the tube.

I took the photo reference with my cellphone. I didn’t want to risk taking my good camera out on the kayak.

Kayak Photo

Kayak Photo

Notice I cut and pasted a better photo of my wife’s kayak into the reference.

Now that I’ve got my kit and process down, it’s time to take it on location.

Jim

Backyard Acrylic Painting

Backyard Acrylic Painting

Backyard Acrylic Painting

This is my first paint sketch done on my new paint box. I spent the last week designing and building a small paint box using a $15 aluminum box (11.5 x 7.5 x 4.5 inch) from Harbor Freight. I added a tripod mount to the bottom and a wet canvas panel holder to the inside of the lid. I also designed a folding easel and shelf system and made it out of 1/8 inch plywood which I sealed with polyurethane.

The box holds the folding easel and shelf, two 6 x 8 inch canvas panels, 10 small bottles of acrylic paint, 5 brushes, 2 palette knives, two small water containers/brush cleaners, three paper towels, and several bulldog clips. I can use the box on my lap or on a tripod. It takes less than 5 minutes to set up or put away. Here’s what it looked like in use on my lap.

Paint Box Setup

Paint Box Setup

I set up in our backyard for this first painting just to test out the system. I put Glad Press and Seal plastic wrap on the shelf and used it as a palette. Everything worked according to plan. Next time I’ll try it on the tripod.

Jim

Oregon Garden Stream

Oregon Garden Stream Watercolor

Oregon Garden Stream Watercolor

Today was another beautiful summer day. I went for a walk in the Oregon Garden and sat on a bench next to a tranquil bubbling stream to do this sketch. I first sketched the scene in my Stillman & Birn Zeta series 6×8 inch spiral bound notebook with a light blue watercolor pencil. I then added ink with two pens. I first drew with a Platinum Carbon Desk pen which has a very fine nib, and then I added wider marks with a Kuretake No. 8 brush pen. Both pens are filled with Platinum Carbon Black ink. It dries quickly and is waterproof.

Oregon Garden Stream Ink

Oregon Garden Stream Ink

I added the watercolor later at home. This is the first time I’ve tried sketching across two pages in a spiral bound notebook. It’s tough to paint around the binding, but I like the way it turned out. By the way, the dog is a metal sculpture. I had no trouble drawing him, because he didn’t move.

Jim

Cuppa Tea

Cuppa Tea

Cuppa Tea

Liz Steel also showed us how she sketches tea cups. So, I also sketched my morning cuppa tea. My wife made it for me so it is special. I really connect with Liz’s method of sketching. For many years I was a filmmaker and video producer. Her workflow parallels mine in another medium which was (is) 1. Observation, 2. Analysis and planning (defining and understanding the problem), 3. Construction (this is where you lay it out and build the foundations), 4. Production (this is where you actually do the work), 5. Post Production (after a rest period, you revisit the work and see if it needs any refinement or editing, 6. Presentation (show the work and get feedback), and 7. Analysis and documentation (write notes about your process and what you learned).

I like that Liz takes a whole brain approach which includes both analysis and passion.

Sketching Architecture

Bush House Watercolor

Bush House

During the sixth and final week of Sketchbook Skool Liz Steel showed us her technique for sketching architecture. I did two sketches of houses in Bush Pasture Park in Salem, Oregon. The first (above) was Bush House and the other was Deepwood Mansion (see below).

Bush House is tough to draw from the front because it sits on a hill and you are looking up at it. I tried Liz’s method of working. I first spent some time looking at the structure. Then I did a thumbnail to learn about the basic shapes and proportions. Next I sketched with a Burnt Umber watercolor pencil and then I added ink using a Sailor Calligraphy pen with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black ink. Finally I added watercolor. I lost track of time, but I think the whole process took about an hour and a half. Drawn in Moleskine 5.5 x 8.5 inch watercolor notebook.

Here are my initial notes done on location before drawing.

Bush House Notes

Bush House Notes

With this workflow I end up doing three drawings of the house – the thumbnail, the watercolor pencil, and the ink. This allows me to warm up and practice and learn about the structure before drawing with ink. It works, but it takes a long time.

I used the same technique for sketching Deepwood Mansion – look first, then do a preliminary sketch to figure out the basic structure, next lay out the sketch with watercolor pencil, and finally draw with ink.

Deepwood Mansion Notes

Deepwood Mansion Notes

Deepwood Mansion Ink

Deepwood Mansion Ink

Deepwood Mansion Watercolor

Deepwood Mansion Watercolor

I added the watercolor later at home. This is a good way to work. It breaks it up into manageable chunks.

Looking at this again a couple of days later I see a problem. I forgot a very important point in my workflow. You are supposed to work from the whole to the parts and then back out to the whole again. I worked on each part individually and forgot to step back out and check how the parts affected the whole. As a result some of the parts look disjointed – not connected properly to the surrounding parts. The top of the chimney is not lined up with the bottom of the chimney. The middle window isn’t aligned with the top and bottom windows. The peak of the roof is squashed (actually that’s because I ran out of paper and tried to fit it in). In general I worked my way down from the top and out to the sides drawing the overall shape of the next piece and then filling in the details of the section. It was careful piecemeal observation, but each section was tacked on as I went. I got so focused on each part that I forgot to step back occasionally and consider how the parts related to each other and to the overall structure of the whole house. This is a lot to do in one go on location particularly with a complicated subject. I can see why Liz prefers to do a fast sketch which captures the structure and personality of a building instead of attempting a detailed drawing.

When I go back out to the whole I step back and look at the entire picture. I no longer shift my gaze from piece to piece. I take in the entire thing as a unit. Instead of looking at the detail I consider the overall design – such things as overall structure (this picture for instance is based on a large triangle that goes from the bottom left corner to the peak of the roof to the bottom right corner), contrast (also known as values) where I look to see how much of the picture is lights, darks, and grays (usually you want a lot of this and a little of that – in this case I have a lot of gray and little black and white), color scheme (of which there are many variations too many to list here – this one mostly has greens, browns, grays, with some blue and a touch of red), and finally I look to see how each part fits in with its surrounding parts (things like alignment, proportion, and scale). So it’s a very different mental activity than when I’m working on each part’s detail, shading, and color. This sounds much more complicated than it is. In practice it may take only two or three seconds. Then I’ll discover something that needs work and I’ll shift back to working the part.

I should note that I really like this drawing of Deepwood. It has character and a good gestalt. I often do a post production project analysis which is a fancy way of saying that after resting a bit I look at the thing with fresh eyes and try to figure out what’s what and why things happened the way they did. I’m not thinking in terms of faults and strengths as such, more of seeking a deeper understanding of how these projects evolve and why things happen with a goal of doing things differently in future projects in order to reach a desired outcome. I know now that if I draw things piece by piece, it will look this way and if I do a bit more pre-planning with periodic checks for alignment and proportion, it will look that way.

Sketching or painting on location require dynamic solutions. Things like lighting and moving subjects change over time. Also as you explore the scene you discover different pieces as you go. One of the hallmarks of dynamic solutions is the notion of “checks and balances”. Working from the whole to the parts and back out to the whole and then back to the parts and then back to the whole is a key “checks and balances” technique when working on a complicated project with many different parts. In this case I realized I didn’t do that and because of that the drawing had certain inaccuracies. Surprise, surprise – process affects outcomes or to say it in a longer way: the steps or stages that you take and the order in which you do them affect the finished product. The way you change the outcome is to change the process. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget and hard to put into practice particularly if you’ve already formed a habitual way of working.

Wisdom comes from knowing how ignorant your are and seeking understanding. I prefer to try different things and different ways of working. I don’t like doing the same thing in the same way over and over again. I say “If something isn’t working, try something else”. It might work. It might not. If not, try something else. If you’re lucky, you might discover something completely, wonderfully, unexpectedly different.

Jim