Book Review: Marc Taro Holmes’ Direct Watercolor

Marc Taro Holmes has released a new book, Direct Watercolor, and I have to confess that I’m a biased reviewer.  I love the pedagogic skills and dedication he brings to his art instruction.  Yes, his art is fantastic but his first book, The Urban Sketcher and his Craftsy courses are each a tour de force in their subject areas.  You can’t just read/watch Marc’s lessons; you’ve got to listen closely, multiple times, or you’ll miss many of the little gems he casually drops in front of you.

Maybe more important, Marc seems driven by the notion that he’s not providing enough bang for the buck because he crams more into a book or video than anyone so you do, indeed, get a lot of bang for your buck.  Direct Watercolor is a good illustration of that.

Direct Watercolor is a bit different from his previous offerings as it has multiple goals.  While there is considerable information about how to sketch directly with watercolor, it’s also a presentation of a bunch of his art, done in this way, which serves to enforce the instruction, but also serves as a travel journal of some of the more exotic places Marc has sketched.  These goals knit together go together like a good wine and cheese. 

The end result is not only an instruction book, it’s a book stuffed full of eye candy.  The back cover says there are over “80 plein air watercolor paintings.”  When I counted them I got more than 100, along with the half a dozen step-by-step demonstrations and pages showing the basic techniques.  Only Marc can get all this into a 100 page book.

Truth is, this book is so full of beautiful art that it’s worth owning whether you do any watercolor work or not.  I do question one thing, though, and that’s the title, Direct Watercolor.  Anyone who is a sketcher would mentally put “rather than ink and wash” after that title, but I wonder how it would be interpreted by a watercolorist who isn’t a sketcher.  Is there another kind of watercolor other than putting the pigment directly on the paper?  Maybe a subtitle would have been appropriate.  In any case, we sketchers know what he’s talking about and that’s all that matters (grin).


100 People – Day 5

#oneweek100people2018 – I gave it a valiant effort, but starting on day three and having a bit of bad luck resulted in my coming up short for this challenge.  Yesterday afternoon I got a chance to draw some floating heads, which brought my people count to 82.  Since I’d done that in two days, I felt it was be a cinch to get the remaining 18 on Friday.  Silly me.

Today I went to a different mall around lunch time.  Their food court is organized to make it an excellent place to sketch, but not today.  Today was the last day of spring break and the mall was having a bunch of activities for kids.  The place was packed.  There were no seats and even if there were it wouldn’t have mattered because the place was so stressful from all the kids running around that I couldn’t stand to be there.  Chalk that up to me being a grumpy old man.  Anyways, I managed to draw a couple people before I gave, got on the bus, and came home.  Hope I have better luck next year.  Hope Marc and Liz decide to do it again as I love seeing all the people sketches.

100 People – Day 4

#oneweek100people2018 – It occurs to me that my attempts to ‘catch up’ after missing the first two days of this five day challenge is becoming a “how can Larry embarrass himself further?” affair.  So be it.  I’m scrambling for numbers and it seems almost comical how I’m stumbling to the finish line of this challenge.

I woke this morning determined to get from 42 (done yesterday) to 70 or so to give myself a chance to complete the challenge on Friday.  I started today’s activities by ‘experimenting’ with the notion of doing a bunch of people direct with watercolor.  These were done on a 5×7 piece of watercolor paper.  What I learned is that I don’t know how but I’m going to count the eight little people I did during this experiment.  Once this challenge is over I’ll continue this experiment and maybe, after a few hundred of them, I’ll figure out how to paint people.

Since that wasn’t going to work for me I grabbed a sketchbook, a Pilot parallel pen, and a Pilot Metropolitan and I headed to the coffee shop.  There is a bus stop across the street so I figured I could sit in the coffee shop window and have lots of ‘targets.’  A couple things were wrong with that idea.

The first problem is that I was reminded that if a large truck gets between me and my subject, I have a hard time drawing that subject.  And, it seemed, every time the street light changed, a large truck had to stop – right in front of the people waiting at the bus stop.  This slowed progress considerably, but I was enjoying a nice coffee so my patience, while challenged, was sufficient.

I was sketching along with the parallel pen when it ran out of ink.  No big deal; I just switched to the Metropolitan.  I like the Metropolitan and don’t use it enough.  I was sketching along, though visibility was becoming reduced by a blizzard and the fact that people waiting for the bus started huddling inside the bus stop cubicle.  Then my Metropolitan ran out of ink.  This pen sits on my desk at home and I realized that it had been a long time since I’d checked its ink load.  My sketching session was over for the day.

The 25 people I had scribbled brought my total for the week to 75 so I do have a chance to make it to 100 if I can get out an about tomorrow.  Sorry for the sad lot of kinda-sorta-maybe people on display here.

100 People – Day Three

#oneweek100people2018 – When Liz Steel and Marc Taro Holmes announced they were doing the 100 people in five days thing they did last year, I was all in.  It was a lot of fun last year and just the thing to rev the engines a bit, though drawing people is not my favorite thing.  But when Monday, March 5th, rolled around my arthritic hands were locked up tighter than a …err…well, they weren’t functioning very well.  The same was true on Tuesday so I told Marc I would have to pass on the event.

Yesterday, my hands were better, though they seem to have a mind of their own right now, and I headed to the mall to draw people.  I figured that if I was to catch up I would have to go into overdrive, maybe even cheating a bit to get the job done.  So, with a cup of coffee, I sat down in front of a McDonalds in the food court and started quickly sketching people who were waiting for their orders.  Nothing very artistic about the process, I was almost literally scribbling, but one hour later I ended up with 42 kinda-sorta people blobs in my Stillman & Birn Nova (5.5×8.5) sketchbook.  I then headed off to an appointment.

Once I got home, I applied colors somewhat randomly.  If I’d been true to the actual colors most of the coats would have been black.  Quebecers are not known for their bright colors.  I know I’ll not likely make 100 people given I gave all of you a two day head start but I feel good that I’ve put a dent in the goal.  We’ll see what today brings.

Tiny Sketches Of February

Stillman & Birn Beta softcover, mostly done with a Platinum 3776 and DeAtramentis Document ink

A guy I follow on Instagram (@lefthandeddrawer) posted a graphic showing tiny, daily sketches he did for the month of January.  That looked fun to me so I started doing it for the month of February.  Being the lazy sort I did pick the shortest month of the year and it worked out nicely.  Each square is 4cm.  I’ll say no more except that you can see a larger view of this by clicking on the graphic.

Location Sketching Before It Was Cool


“The watercolour technique, on the borderline between drawing and painting, acquired prestige in the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain, where the “Watercolor Society” was founded in 1804.” – from Delacroix: Voyage au Maroc

Long before Gabi Campanario invented urban sketching, artists like Delacroix were doing what we now call travel journaling, nature journaling, and simply drawing stuff when they found a solid rock to sit on.  I thought some might like to see into that world a bit and, I guess, so does the Louvre.

They’ve produced an hour long seminar on early location sketching, presenting a lot of sketches from the 19th century, including a bunch showing sketchers in the sketches themselves.  There is a discussion of Delacroix, including looks at his sketchbooks and another section on Eugene Blery, an amazing nature journalist and artist.  The seminar is in French so it might be hard for some;  I understood about half of what is said, but the sketches are self-explanatory and a joy to see.

Baseball Is Back – A Sketcher’s View

I am Canadian, but unlike every other person living in the frozen north, I don’t like hockey.  I suppose that reveals my American roots but the bottom line is that the only sport I watch is baseball and since coming to Canada, I’ve been a Toronto Blue Jays fan.

It’s that time of the year when spring training starts and a few spring training games (in Dunedin, FL) are broadcast for those of us willing to watch, for the most part, Blue Jays wanna-bes play the game.

The first one was last Friday and I decided to celebrate the event by sketching some baseball faces.  Baseball is a slow sport; how hard could it be?  I learned that a sketcher’s view of baseball is different from a fan’s view.  Indeed, for a fan, the game is slow with lots of time spent watching seven guys stand on a field while two other guys play catch and a tenth guy, from the other team, tries to spoil their fun.  From the view of a sketcher however, this same scene is a frustrating series of camera switches between players, between views, and there’s rarely more than a few seconds on any one player.

I suppose it wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d wanted to draw full-body players.  The pitcher stands in one place and is on camera more than anyone else.  The catcher is equally stationary, at least in the sense of returning to the same position regularly.  But I was interested in drawing faces shaded by ball caps and 1) they are rarely shown and 2) they are rarely in repeatable positions.

Sketchers are tough, however, and I managed to get a few, stitching together brief looks at the player and faking it when necessary.  Here’s my meager tribute to Blue Jays spring training opener.

Stillman & Birn Alpha (8.5×5.5) hardcover, Platinum 3776

My New Toy: The Pilot Cavalier

First it was arthritis.  Then it was atrial fibrillation.  Then my leg blew up to the size of a telephone pole (slight exaggeration for effect).  That turned out to be osteoarthritis in my knee and a long set of physio treatments.  Then it became a steady stream of doctor’s appointments.  This torture just would not end, but it has, sort of.

As long as I fill my gut with pills twice a day, my heart is under control, my arthritis is only problem on really “bad” days, and I’m getting used to not walking as far as I’d like and doing so with a limp.  Things are looking up.

It got better when my doctor informed me that I have type 2 diabetes.  I guess that was the dessert after my months of dining on medical treatments.  But you know what?  That’s good news.  For the past half a year I’ve been very fatigued, having less and less energy.  Initially I attributed it to all those doctor visits but eventually concluded that it was just cuz this was what “old” felt like.  It wasn’t an encouraging prognosis.  But, eliminating the cookies (my favorite thing) and adding a couple more pills to my diet and I’ve gotten my energy back.  I call that a win.

So enough about health, let’s talk about my new toy, the Pilot Cavalier fountain pen.  When I got mine I couldn’t find one in North America so I bought through a third-party vendor via Amazon.  But Jet Pens now stocks them in several colours.

I bought this pen because I enjoy quick-sketching with my Kaweco Lilliput but find the screwing and unscrewing its cap to be sort of annoying when I’m wanting to quickly sketch someone in the food court.  One thing I like a lot about the Lilliput, however, is that it’s got a pencil-size diameter and it’s very light.

The Cavalier has both of those attributes associated with a standard length pen.  The cap snaps in place nicely and seals well.  It also posts well, something I have to have in a sketching pen or I’d lose the cap.  Because it’s a Pilot pen, the steel nib provides a smooth feel.

This pen accepts Pilot cartridges but one problem is that the barrel of the pen is just narrow enough that you can’t use Pilot’s CON-50 converter so I have use a syringe to get waterproof ink into empty Pilot cartridges.  It’s said that you can use the CON-20 converter (the rubber bulb-style converter in it but I like syringe filling so I haven’t tried that.  This pen has found a place in my pen quiver, mostly for quick-sketching food court people.  Here’s a sketch I did while test-driving it.  This was also the beginning of a new Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover (5.5×8.5).  I haven’t used this format in quite some time and thought it might be a good idea.

Cotton Paper Is Cellulose Too

It’s a fairly regular occurrence on the internet to hear well-meaning artists comparing “cellulose” watercolor paper to “cotton” watercolor paper.  They’re using “cellulose” to refer to paper made from trees.

The differences, however, between paper made from trees and that made from cotton have little to do with cellulose.  Why?  Because cotton is 99% cellulose.

Watercolor paper made from trees is also mostly cellulose.  To make it archival, they extract from wood pulp a protein call lignin that trees use to hold their cellulose fibers together.  It’s the lignin that causes cheap papers to yellow as it is acidic.  This extraction is almost complete, but to get the paper completely pH neutral, a base is added to neutralize the small amount of remaining lignin.  The result leaves watercolor paper made from trees mostly cellulose.

It is the case that cotton cellulose fibers are longer than wood cellulose.  Cellulose itself is nothing more than glucose molecules stuck together into a long string so its length can vary.  We’re talking here about the same cellulose you find in celery.  It’s a basic structural component of most plants and certainly not unique to trees.

So, the next time you want to compare papers made from trees vs papers made from cotton, a more accurate nomenclature would be to talk about wood-based vs cotton paper.  Better living through chemistry.

In The Tunnel But There’s Light Ahead…


… I just hope it’s not a train.


Hi guys, it’s me, Larry.  Really, I’m not dead.  I know it’s been forever since I’ve written a blog post but gosh a lot has happened since my last post.  I’ve been dealing with so many doctors I have a hard time remembering their names but the results have been really positive.

Except for all the snow and cold I’m, as they say in the military, good to go.  I can even walk up/down stairs again.  More importantly, except for really bad arthritis days, my drawing hand is cooperative, though it’s very out of practice which is frustrating.  I even think the steady drone of doctor visits is coming to an end (I had six of them in the last eight days).

I’m way behind in Liz Steel’s watercolour class but it’s fantastic.  I just have a LOT of homework to make up.

I wanted to post this update, though, to let you know that I’m still alive.  Here’s a quick sketch I did to see if I could “loosen up” as everyone seems to hold as the highest form of art.  I have a hard time looking at “loose” coming from my hand.

I’ll leave you with this sketch of an old window.  It shows my out of tune hand all too clearly but I’m getting back into the swing of things so maybe I can call myself a sketcher again.

Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook, Pilot Cavalier pen