A Sign Of Spring In Quebec

The Internet has affected our views of the world and for the past month or so I’ve ‘experienced’ spring in many locations on our fair planet as people talk about flowers popping out of the ground, birds chirping, etc.  In Quebec spring is a bit different.  It’s a time when temperatures fluctuate a lot.  One day we’ll be in shirt-sleeves and the next we’re back in our heavy coats.  Spring is when the snow melts, though, and we’re left with a bunch of brown, matted grass and no green on the trees.  When the trees finally flush, it seems they do it overnight and summer begins.

So, while we “know” it’s spring, the birds haven’t shown up yet and there aren’t those flower indicators of it.  Instead, our indicators are big blue trucks.  All winter the city’s efforts to keep us moving involves regular gravel/dirt treatments of our roads and sidewalks.  Spring snow melt leaves a coating of the stuff everywhere and so the big blue trucks come along, with nice guys in orange coats who wash the sidewalks with power hoses.  later, other big blue trucks (actually streetsweepers) come along and suck up the gravel from the streets.

A couple days ago they came and while they weren’t in one place long enough to sketch, I took a couple photos and did this quick, for me, sketch of the activity.  We like it clean in Quebec City.

Stillman & Birn 5.5×8.5 Alpha; Lamy All Star w/Platinum Carbon Black ink; W&N artist watercolors

 

The Russians Are Coming…

When I came across this house in Quebec City, I had to sketch it.  I wonder if the Russian Czar who must be living there had a pool table under that dome or a ballistic missle.  It didn’t matter; it was just plain KEWL!

I set up across the street and went to work, sketching the bones in pencil and then doing the ink sketch.  I’m pretty slow as a sketcher and so this took me more than an hour but the time passed without notice.  When it came time for color, the waterbrush came out and… I realized that my watercolors were sitting on my desk at home.  So I shot this photo, packed up, and headed home.

Once at home I vowed to make up a second palette of watercolors so that I could keep it in my sketching satchel.  I had a W&N Cotman Sketcher palette that I picked up on sale and so I popped out the Cotman watercolors and filled the pans with Winsor & Newton artist-quality watercolors.  I’m still experimenting with color palettes and mostly working with little knowledge.  This is what I’m using right now, though.

 

I decided to go light on the color for this sketch; it just seemed to call for that approach, with all the emphasis on the building.  I hope you like it.

It was done in my Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha sketchbook, using a Hero 578 Calligraphy pen and Platinum Carbon Black ink.

Cool Spring Sketching Isn’t So Cool: It’s Cold!

I’m so excited that it’s finally spring in Quebec City.  I got interested in sketching last fall, just before it started getting cold here, and so I’ve been trying to get out sketching as often as I can.  I may be premature in that because Quebec spring is still pretty cool, and often windy.

A few days ago when I’d made the decision to go sketching.  The temps were just above freezing and it was quite breezy.  But I went anyway.  I headed downtown, looking for something to sketch, my face and ears screaming “Are you nuts?” to my stubborn sketcher brain, as the wind defoliated my skin.

I set up next to a wall that blocked most of the wind. It was across the street from a dental clinic that seemed worthy of sketching.

I start these sketches with pencil and  I have two goals.  I want to get the perspective right and I want to locate all the foreground thingies that determine where the background lines start and stop.  I don’t worry about drawing the details at this point, but I’m slow enough as a newbie sketcher that this takes me longer than it does for most sketchers.  I’d been sitting for about 45 minutes and I was beginning to empathize with popsicles and dream of fireplaces.  I called it a day, packed up, and went home.  This was the state of the sketch at that point.

Later, in the warmth of my home, I inked (Hero Calligraphy pen w/Platinum Carbon Black ink) the sketch, added some details, and used Winsor & Newton Artist watercolors to give it some color.  Hope you like it.

By the way, the more I use it, the more I’m enjoying my Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha.  I’ve been using Alpha’s for a while now and love them and spiral format is really convenient for outdoor sketching…even when it’s cold.

I went out this morning to sketch some more.  I headed to the marina, expecting that some of the winterized sailboats would be back in the water.  It was spring, afterall.  Turned out that, once again, I had been overly-optimistic as the marina is still covered by ice.  Spring is here, but not really.

 

 

Adventures Of An Urban Sketcher

Thursday morning I decided to walk south and visit an industrial area near a railroad yard in Quebec City.  I’m something of a train nut and I thought maybe I could sketch some trains.

I was walking to the freight yard when I happened upon this scene.  I liked the yellow wall, juxtapositioned next to the brown train car and the harsh shadow between them, so I decided to sketch it.

I set up to the left of where this photo was taken, on a sidewalk, with the street behind me.  My WalkStool was actually straddling the railroad track.  Those railroad tracks crossed the street and went somewhere.  I didn’t pay much attention.   I remember chuckling to myself that at least this subject wouldn’t drive away like a car I was sketching earlier in the week.

I was having a really nice time as the sun felt good, it was quiet, and the sketching was going well.  I’m a really slow sketcher so I’d been there more than an hour and I was intently adding color to my ink sketch.

I was so concentrated on the work that I didn’t even hear it… until a guy walked up to me and his shadow crossed my paper.  “Qu’est-ce que tu fait, Monsieur?” (What are you doing, Mister?)   I looked up to see a guy in overalls and a baseball cap staring down at me.  And then I saw IT.  It was an EMD SW-1500 switch engine, idling no more than ten feet from where I was sitting – on the railroad tracks.

I told him I was sketching and showed him my sketch.  I stood up as I did and he told I’d have to move.  As I was packing up he walked over to the derail (that yellow thing clamped to the track), disengaged it, and motioned to the engineer to move forward.

By then I was taking photos of the engine.  I did mention that I’m a railroad geek didn’t I?  Once they’d engaged the boxcar, the guy dropped off the engine, walked back to me, and asked if I could show the engineer my sketch.  I was both amazed, excited, and nervous all at once.  The sketch you see below bought me access to the cab of that engine, which for a railroad geek is a really big deal.  And then they hauled my boxcar away.  And that, my friends is what I call a great day of sketching.

Here’s the sketch.  I still have to add the white letters on the boxcar and I’ll probably do that with a colored pencil.  This sketch was done in my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (10×7), using a Lamy Safari XF and Platinum Carbon Black ink.  Color is W&N artist watercolors.  Has anything like this happened to you while you were sketching?

 

Sketching Quebec City, One Building At A Time

A couple things have happened recently that are causing me to rethink what I post on this blog.  The first was an email I got asking me why I wasn’t posting more of my sketches here.  The other thing is that Facebook is continuing to march out its horrible Timeline format, which makes posting sketches on Facebook very difficult unless you’re happy with postage-stamp size postings.

I started this blog to promote my mystery novels and I’ll continue to use it for that.  But, because I love fountain pens and because I’m learning to sketch, I’ve started doing posts about those topics as well.  As the email suggested, though, I have not posted most of my sketches here.  That’s going to change and while I’m not a prolific as a lot of sketchers, I hope I’ll be posting sketches regularly.  I’d like to hear any comments regarding my art, or what you’d like me to talk about as we head through spring and into summer sketching season.

To start that off, here are a couple of my latest building sketches.   Both were done in a Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook.  I’ve been using these sketchbooks for a while and I love them.  These sketches were done in my new 10×7 (landscape format) spiral-bound sketchbook, though I generally prefer hardbound journals and S&B make some of the best.  But for outdoor sketching I really like the spiral-bound approach as I can fold it back, plunk it on my lap and draw.

Chez Madame Charlotte’s Restaurant

This has got to be one of the cutest restaurants in Quebec City.  Everytime I walk by it I think of Gary Larson cartoons.  The stairway of this sketch was the real challenge and having done one, if I’m made king I will ban them from my kingdom.

Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha; Lamy Safari w/Platinum Carbon Black; W&N watercolors

Les Colocs Restaurant

This is another restaurant in Limoilu, one of the older parts of Quebec City.  You can’t help but notice its colorful facade and this is the second time I’ve sketched it.  I was trying out a new pen, a Hero Calligraphy pen.  Works great but I used Noodler’s Black ink which, in spite of its ‘bulletproof’ label, is not waterproof enough to apply watercolor washes on top of it.

Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha; Hero Calligraphy pen w/Noodler’s Black; W&N watercolors

I hope you enjoy these and those I’ll be posting in the future.  Are you as excited as I am that the snow is gone and we can get out sketching again?

 

Make Cathy Johnson’s Nested Water Container and Spray Bottle

Those of us who want to sketch outdoors using pen and watercolor have a basic problem.  How do you carry water without it becoming a burden.  On its face, the problem is pretty easy.  You can always use a waterbrush, but painting with these is not as nice as with actual watercolor brushes.  But lots of people carry water bottles with them, even while running, hiking, etc.  What’s the big deal?

Cathy Johnson's nested bottle set up

Cathy Johnson's nested bottle set up

And when you think about it, it’s not the water that’s the problem.  It’s that what we watercolor types want is a, in addition to water, we need a place to dip/rinse brushes and a way to spray the water we carry.

Cathy Johnson, author of Artist’s Journal Workshop came up with a great solution by nesting a small spray bottle in a slightly larger container such that the two nest for travel.

The only problem with this idea is that it’s hard to find bottles that will nest.  Even Cathy has said that she can’t find another set and many of us have been searching for just the right combination to replicate her system.

The three bottles on the left are the travel set; the right shows an art store spray bottle

The other day I was wandering through a dollar store, looking for things I could repurpose into art goodies., and I found a ‘travel’ set of bottles.  Contained within it was a small spray bottle.  The best news is that since then I’ve found other travel sets containing the same small bottle so I don’t think this was a once in a lifetime find.  And, to make a long story short, this smaller spray bottle is just enough smaller in diameter that it will nest in the bottom of the ‘standard’ size spray bottle that’s available in any art store.

Once obtained, it’s a simple matter of cutting the bottom off the larger bottle.  I then turned it upside down on some sandpaper and sanded the edge smooth.  I do wish I’d cut a bit higher on the bottle you see in the photo.  It would provide more water volume for rinsing a brush.

In the end, I have a great little travel reservoir and spray bottle and, if I like, a couple extra bottles to carry more water.  Hope this helps others who, like me, were trying to replicate Cathy’s system.

Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks: Excellence In Execution

I’m new to sketching, but  I’ve been doing it nearly six months and I am a paper and pen freak.  I just love them and in spite of hammering away on a computer all the time, I have at least a dozen pens inked up and various waterbrushes, brush pens, pencils, nib pens, and paint brushes in use regularly.  It’s nuts, I know, as my abilities with these tools are limited but, for me, playing with the tools is just as important as doing art.

My approach to paper has been different.  I’ve spent the last bunch of decades as a fountain pen user – almost exclusively.  Fountain pens require high-quality papers if you’re going to enjoy them to their fullest.  So while I’ve tried the ever-popular Moleskine journals, my requirement for a paper had been reduced to “Is it made by Clairefontaine/Rhodia?”  If it was, I was happy.

This didn’t work for sketching, principally because I needed a more absorbant, and thicker, paper so I could play in the watercolor pond.  So I started a quest for sketchbook/journals.  I just counted and I have NINE of them (remember, I’ve only been doing this for six months).  When the dust settled, I had fallen in love with the Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbooks.  The binding is bulletproof and the paper far exceeds expectations when it comes to handling lots of water while doing watercolor washes.  I reviewed the Alpha here, comparing it to my Fabiano Venezia sketchbook.  Here are a couple of the sketches I’ve done in it to give you some idea of how the paper responds.

And so I was like a kid at Christmas when the postman arrived with my order of new Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  I wanted to a spiral-bound book for field sketching and while my pack can’t handle 9x12s, I bought the 7×10 Alpha for that purpose.  I like the idea of sketching without having a double-page spread to contend with, mostly because I’ve watched other artists working with spiral-bound journals in videos.

I also picked up a twin of my current 5.5×8.5 Alpha hardcover journal, though it’s not an identical twin.  Instead, this one is from the Stillman & Birn Epsilon series and while paper thickness (100lb) is the same, it has a smoother ‘plate’ finish.  The Alphas are quite smooth but, being curious, I thought I’d give an Epsilon a try because a couple artists I admire are using them with good results.  Of course, they could create great art on the bottom of a cafeteria table.  They say that watercolor tends to puddle a bit (the effect on all smooth surfaced papers) but that they actually like the results.  I’m excited to try the Epsilon.  You can find more info about these journals on the Stillman & Birn website.  Oh…and no, I don’t work for them.  I just like their journals.

It’s said that the scariest thing for writers and artists is the blank page.  In my experience, there’s some truth to that.  Somehow, though, I’m really excited about having a couple hundred blank pages to fill.  What are your favorite journal/sketchbooks?

Pilot Acroball: A Good Sketching Pen?

If you wander around the internet, spending time in places where people talk about ballpoint, gel, and rollerball pens, you’ll find discussion of “hybrid inks.”  These inks are stuffed into new versions of ballpoint pens in an attempt to cause ballpoints to write as smoothly as gel pens.  One of the pens that is often discussed is the Pilot Acroball, which comes with either medium or fine points.

I should confess that I have a fountain pen fetish and because of that, I’m mostly ignorant of things ballpoint.  I’ve been impressed by Uniball rollerball pens for years but I don’t really use them.  I use fountain pens for all my writing and sketching needs.  But many sketchers are reluctant to use fountain pens, seeing them as fussy, foreign devices.  They use needlepoint pens like the Sakura Micron, which are fine, archival-quality pens but their problem is that if you do a lot of sketching, you buy a LOT of them as they run out of ink or dry up all too quickly.

So, when I came across the Pilot Acroball in the mall the other day I bought one.  I bought the fine point, in black, as this would be the best form for sketching – at least my kind of sketching.  Frankly, I bought it with the notion of finding what was wrong with it as I’d never seen any sketcher talk about using one.

So what is it?  At first blush, the Pilot Acroball is like any of the gazillion plastic throw away pens that are filling our landfills and creating floating plastic islands in the Atlantic.  We really need to start thinking about the effects created by seven billion people, each doing some little, inconsequential thing like buying disposable pens.  But this post is about the Acroball, not how we’re going to live if we continue to ignore the realities of our world.  In fact, when you look closely you find that this isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, a disposable pen in spite of its $2-3 street price as you can buy refills for it.

The pen is a ‘click pen’ – the tip being retractable.  It’s comfortable in my hand and the esthetics are appealing.  I’m not going to dwell on this stuff, though, as these are personal preference things.  I’m writing this post to talk about hybrid ink and how the pen draws lines for sketching.

Pilot’s hybrid ink causes this pen to lay down a very fine line VERY smoothly.  For its size, it’s less scratchy than most of the needlepoint pens; it acts more like a fountain pen filled with a lubricating ink.  I’ve tested it on Clairefontaine paper, Strathmore 400 series drawing paper, and in my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketching journal.  It performed better than I thought it would in all cases.  So what’s wrong with it?

According to Pilot, this ink is both archival (pH neutral) and lightfast.  I’d love to test their claim of lightfastness but this time of year we don’t have enough sunshine to do that effectively so I’ll take their word for it.  But I can report that it is waterproof, which for those of us who like to add watercolor to our ink sketches, this is important.   It’s at least as waterproof as my favorite sketching ink, Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  It just didn’t budge, no matter how hard I scrubbed with a waterbrush.  The ink is actually a dark gray, very similar to Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  The Pilot Prera fountain pen used for the comparison graphic was filled with Lex Gray.

The one thing I noticed is that the Pilot Acroball has the same demand of its users than all other pens reliant on a rolling ball to deposit ink; you have to press down harder than I’m used to as a fountain pen user.  Flexible fountain pen nibs disappeared from the scene when ballpoints came along because people, used to pressing hard with their ballpoints, were bending fountain pen nibs left and right.  This difference shouldn’t bother those who aren’t used to fountain pens but I found it a a slight problem for me.  As I haven’t done anything but doodles with the pen I dashed off this quick sketch of the closest thing at hand.  So, what’s wrong with it?  It’s not a fountain pen (grin).  But I’m going to start carrying it as a back up pen for sketching.

Buskers Have It Tough During Carnaval Du Quebec

Some of my fellow urban sketchers have chided me for being a sissy because I won’t go out sketching this time of year.  “Cold…I remember the time when the water froze on my palette and we were still….”  Well, you get the picture.  After I heard that enough times I actually put my palette out on my porch with a wash mixed up on it.  It took all of two minutes for ice crystals to start forming and within ten minutes it was frozen nearly solid.  I brought it back in for fear the cold would damage the paints.  I was right; they were wrong.  It’s just too darn cold to paint in Quebec in February.

But yesterday, it “warmed up”, a term I put in quotes because only someone who live here would think of the word “warm” and yesterday’s temperatures together.  And it was Carnaval du Quebec; the time of year where god awful horn sounds are blown to the tribute of the many people selling these sinister souvenirs (remember the soccer horn sounds that made news?).  It’s a time of snow sculpture competitions and spreading maple syrup on snow, rolling it onto a stick.  It’s a time for crazy guys to race in large canoes across a partially frozen St. Lawrence Seaway and for people to brave the cold by drinking Screech (a horrible concoction similar to backwoods corn whiskey) to keep warm.  And, of course, it’s a time when parents wear themselves out hauling their kids up the hill for another ride down …just once more dad.

And even I got up from my hibernation and went outdoors.  I was “warm”, all the way up to 6F for goodness sake.   And it wasn’t too windy.  I bundled up with the required 20 lbs of clothing and pointed my walking shoes towards the old city.  I spent the next couple hours walking fast enough that I didn’t get cold.  It was a good day to be me.  Did I mention how warm it was?

Anyways, I came across this busker, who demonstrates the resilence of Quebecers when it comes to cold.  It far exceeds my own.  I’m an Arizona boy, after all.  Bundled up and wearing big heavy boots, this busker stood outside the information center in the old city (a walled city officially founded in 1608 and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site).  As anyone attempting to play a saxophone in these temperatures would freeze their fingers in minutes and possibly permanently attach them to their metal saxophone, he had an interesting solution… don’tcha think?

And no, I didn’t sketch him.  It was too cold.

 

See The World One Sketch At A Time: The Art of Urban Sketching

Once upon a time there was a boy who live in Spain.  His name was Gabi.   One day, while walking home from a bullfight, he noticed a newspaper headline that read, “The Greatest Coffee in the World” and being a curious lad he wondered what could make coffee the ‘greatest.’

It’s unclear to this day what caused it to happen but Gabi became obsessed with understanding who created the greatest coffee and how they did it.  He soon discovered the answer to the who question.  It was a company called Starbucks, a name that reminded him of Moby Dick, not great coffee.  He found that Starbuck’s headquarters were in Seattle, Washington and, determined to follow this quest, he boarded a plane for Washington.

Upon arrival, and ever hopeful, Gabi went immediately to the nearest Starbucks to taste some of that ‘greatest coffee.’  And there he learned the secret.  You take plain old coffee,  let the consumer make many choices so they feel good about themselves, and you charge them four bucks for the ‘greatest coffee in the world.’

***************


If I’m completely honest I don’t have a clue how Gabriel Campanario came to reside in Seattle, Washington but I’m a writer; I make stuff up.  What I do know is that Seattle is the better for it as Gabi writes a sketching column for the Seattle Times.

He’s touched the rest of us by creating urbansketchers.org around the concept of urban sketching – drawing on location in an urban setting.   The organization has chapters all around the world and explains itself by “See the world one sketch at a time.”

And Campanario’s new book,  The Art of Urban Sketching, brings this idea to print in an exciting and educational fashion.   You can find many of the sketches between its covers on the Internet if you surf around long enough.   The book, however, brings context to those sketches.  It does so in a variety of ways but principle among them are thoughts of the artists themselves.   Also, each of the sketches comes with a statement of what materials were used in their creation – vital statistics for those of us trying to achieve the high quality of the included sketches in our own.  It’s 320 pages are a bargain at its $17 street price.  Anyone who has even the slightest interest in sketching needs a copy of this book.

The book itself is divided into three sections.  The first section is an introduction to urban sketching, with discussions of what it is, what its challenges and rewards are, and what materials are most often used.  Some examples are provided but the points are not belabored.

The second section of the book is the majority content.  It takes you on vacation, or rather on lots of vacations.  Over 50 world cities are represented, each with artists and their sketches representing their special nature.

The eye-candy is amazing, of course, but much can be learned about art, artists, and cities from these chapters.  Best of all, you can curl up and let Gabi and his fellow artists take you places you’ve never been – maybe never heard of before.

The third and final section of the book talks about the various types of sketches done by urban sketchers.  We’re a strange lot as while we will sketch broad vistas and large spectacular buildings many of us are drawn to the more mundane.  We find it fun to turn lamp posts, streetlights, fire hydrants, or even a mailbox into art.

This is one book I can recommend unequivocally.  And it’s not that much more expensive than going to Starbucks (grin).