Waiting for Spring

I feel like one of the guys in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.  Every day they show up to meet with Godot.  Every day he doesn’t come.  He never does.  I’m beginning to think spring in Quebec is like Godot as while it’s officially been spring for a month, we’ve yet to see anything resembling spring.

I thought I’d share a few sketches I’ve done while waiting for a decent sketching day.  First, here are the last two sketches I did of the Nigeria exhibit at the Musee de la Civilisation.  Both were done in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon (5.5×8.5) sketchbook.

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Lexington Gray in TWSBI mini. Watercolor pencils.

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Lexington Gray in Noodler’s Creaper. Waterbrush with a few drops of Noodler’s Polar Brown in it.

This next sketch was my attempt to defy the elements.  I went out one morning because it was all the way up to 4C and it wasn’t windy.  As I sketched it got windy.  Then it started raining lightly.  I was driven from the street by hail and thought I was going to freeze to death (grin).  Done in a Stillman & Birn Zeta (5.5×8.5) sketchbook with a TWSBI mini filled with Noodler’s Lexington Gray.

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Lastly, I took my new Wahl-Eversharp Symphony 913 pen for a test drive.  This is an old 14k gold flex nib pen and while it’s old technology, the nib is wonderful.  I was playing with ‘quick-sketching’ some buildings.  That term is relative and as I’m a slow sketcher, what I mean by this is that I only spent about 20 minutes doing this sketch on S&B Epsilon paper.  Watercolors applied in my typical, inept fashion.  I’ve got to devote some time to learning watercolors.

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Book Review: Freehand Sketching: An Introduction

“While perspective is a handy device to construct imagined spaces, it is not useful, and possibly detrimental, to sketching existing environments.” — Paul Laseau

A while ago, in a Facebook group, Liz Steel posted the quote above.  To be completely honest I can’t remember what the thread was that it was in reference to but she said that Paul Laseau’s book, Freehand Sketching: An Introduction, was one of her favorites.

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I listen closely when Liz speaks but in this case her words were overshadowed by the Paul Laseau quote.  Every book on drawing is filled with ‘explanations’ on how to do proper perspective, complete with mind-boggling graphics with lines going in all directions, vanishing points, etc.  I’ve often joked that I’m afraid to read a book on perspective for fear that I’ll get too confused to do my building sketches.

I’ve long felt the sentiment that Paul Laseau’s comment is true and, for myself, I never do all that perspective “stuff” beyond noticing where my “horizon line” (eye line) is when I do a sketch.  So, I just had to buy Freehand Sketching to see why Paul Laseau’s view was so different from the art world’s descriptions of structure drawing.

I did buy it and, if you’re a location sketcher, I highly recommend you put aside your traditional drawing books and read this one – a couple times.  You’ll be the better for it.  In a mere 112 pages, Laseau will first convince you that drawing ‘existing environments’ is different from making stuff up in a studio environment and he teaches, in simple terms, how to see and organize a scene than most modern approaches to drawing ever will.

Why?  What could he say that others do not?  Well, not much, really.  Mostly he leaves out a lot of stuff that you don’t need to worry about if you’ve got the thing you’re trying to draw right in front of you.

His introductory chapters include some traditional stuff about doing contour drawings, learning how to hatch, etc. and, for me, that part is mostly ho-hum.  But the heart of this book is contained in the middle sections titled Environment: Sketch Construction and Environment: Sketch Tone and Detail.   Here, Laseau shows you how to identify/organize/and lay out with a few lines, the basic shapes of a scene.  This stuff is gold for a street sketcher and demonstrates that no fancy geometry is required but rather it’s a simple matter of ‘seeing’ angles, locations, and edge dimensions.  Once he convinces you of the method, he provides several stepwise examples.

Once a scene is established, Laseau provides an approach to tone and detail and is also directed towards the location sketcher.  This perspective, to me, is important as most drawing books assume a studio atmosphere and an interest in spending hours developing drawings.  Laseau is an architect, who has spent 30 years teaching architect students to develop their sketching skills, who have different approaches and goals from the typical artist approach to such things and very useful, in my opinion, far more useful.  If you’d like to read more about this approach, Liz Steel has just provided some great insights into the mind of an architect.

On a personal note, Laseau’s book explained something else to me.  I’ve often wondered why the urban sketching world is so dominated by architects.  I’ve mostly dismissed it as simply a function of an architect’s interest in buildings but it’s much more than that.  It’s their training.  They’re taught to sketch.  They’re taught to maintain sketchbooks.  They’re taught to think in terms of sketches that can be ends in themselves…what urban sketchers do.

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When I bought Freehand Sketching I also bought Watercolor Sketching: An Introduction, Paul Laseau’s sequel.  This second book is more about watercolors than it is about constructing sketches, though there is some of that contained within its pages.  Very valuable information contained within but more a companion book to Freehand Sketching than a substitute for it.

Liz is right; Freehand Sketching is a good and potent book that any location sketcher can benefit from and well worth its small price.  It’s become one of my favorite books too.

The Future Of Sketching Is Good In Quebec City

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Every year, Le Soleil, the premier newspaper in Quebec, conducts a writing and drawing contest for young, creative citizens.  The Musee de la Civilisation just set up a display of the art entries and it is truly inspiring.  As I looked at all the great drawings I couldn’t help but think of a quote from Danny Gregory’s The Creative License:

When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked one day what I did at work.  I told her that I worked at the college – that my job was to teach people how to draw.  She stared at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?” – Howard Ikewoko

1Kids do know how to draw.  And we adults do seem to forget, both how to do it and how much fun it can be.  We in Quebec City are lucky that Le Soleil puts so much effort and resources behind fostering creative activity from our youth.  Thanks, Le Soleil.

Here’s a few photos to give you some idea of the variety and quality of these drawings.  These kids are good.0.75

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Have You Ever Gone Sketch Floating?

Saturday was 39th Worldwide Sketchcrawl day and we held ours here in Quebec City.  Unlike most parts of the world we’re still cold this time of year.  In fact, we just got six inches of snow.  But we were fortunate to have anticipated an unfriendly weather and scheduled our sketchcrawl so that we could be inside or out and still have fun.

This is a model of the ferry boat we were on all day.

This is a model of the ferry boat we were on all day.

We all met at the ferry boat dock and then spent the day going back and forth across the St. Lawrence River (takes about 10 minutes) between Quebec City and Levis, the town on the other side.  There are actually two ferries and they change places from their respective sides of the St. Lawrence every 30 minutes.

Claudette, talking with one of the passengers

Claudette, talking with one of the passengers

And the situation couldn’t have been better for sketching.  It was too cold to go out onto the decks, at least for me, but inside the first-class passenger area it was warm and accommodating.  The area is complete with toilette facilities, drink and snack vending machines, and comfy chairs.  We were surrounded by large windows, complete with slightly sloped ‘shelves’ for us to rest our sketchbooks as we sketched outdoor scenes.  Both sides of the St. Lawrence present great views of interesting architecture and there were things nautical all around us.

Susanne, showing proper use of the window "studios" we were provided.

Susanne, showing proper use of the window “studios” we were provided.

The line up: Pierre, Celine, and Katherine

The line up: Pierre, Celine, and Catherine

Yvan, taking a break while talking with Peter.

Yvan, taking a break while talking with Jean-Marc.

We had ten people show up for the sketchcrawl and a lot of sketching got done.  The one sad thing, for me, is that some didn’t seem to ‘get’ the notion that group sketching is a social event that should include a sharing of sketches as well as conversations about them. Some left without even saying goodbye.  So, unfortunately, I don’t have the typical group-sketch photos and I don’t have sketches from other people to share.

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Here’s a photo I took over Claudette’s shoulder.  The quality of her sketches is surpassed only by her bubbly personality.

2013-04-13TugBoatOf course, I do have my own sketches.  This first one is a small sketch I did as an experiment, which demonstrated that I didn’t know what I was doing (grin).  I tried to ‘draw’ the sketch using watercolors, adding some ink lines afterwards.  It was done in a Stillman & Birn Alpha (4×6) sketchbook.  I have much to learn about using watercolors.

2013-04-13FromFerryI did two other sketches, one from the front and the other from the back of the boat.  Both were done with my new TWSBI Mini and Noodler’s Lexington Gray ink.  I really enjoyed working in my new Stillman & Birn Zeta (5.5×8.5) sketchbook.  I hope these sketches reflect the cold, dreary day you see in the accompanying photo.DrearyDay2013-04-13FromFerry2

 

TWSBI Mini: The Ideal Urban Sketching Pen?

I’m a fountain pen geek.  Not in the sense that I spend hundreds of dollars to fill out my collection of exotic pens or anything like that.  But pretty much everything I write or draw on paper is done with fountain pens.  Besides the fact that we’re burying our planet in disposable pens, fountain pens are economical, practical, and fun

When I started sketching I began using a Lamy Safari.  They’re reliable and Lamy’s extra-fine nib is reasonably fine.  The Platinum Preppy is a surprisingly good sketching pen, though their caps are fragile so I stopped relying upon them for my street sketching.

I discovered Pilot pens, first the 78G, a cheap pen that isn’t imported into North America.  Then I bought a Pilot Prera and shortly thereafter I bought another one.  I love Pilot Preras.  Because it’s an Asian company, Pilot’s fine nib pens are much finer than are European extra-fine nib pens and the Prera is very well made.

It’s also the ‘right’ length and weight when posted.  Some pens, the Lamy is a good example, become quite tail-heavy when posted.  Of course, you don’t have to post a pen but when I’m on the street the problem of where to put the cap so it doesn’t get lost becomes a problem.  So I like to post the pen when it’s in use.  There’s one big downside of the Prera.  Pilot’s piston converters have a very small capacity.

TWSBIClosedComparison

Top: Lamy Safari, Middle: TWSBI Mini, Bottom: Pilot Prera

Enter my newest pen acquisition, the TWSBI Mini.  Wow…what a pen.  I’m not going to do a regular pen review.  For that I encourage you to watch Brian Goulet’s great video review and comparison to its big brother, the TWSBI 540.  Instead, I want to talk about why I think the TWSBI Mini will become my favorite street sketching tool.

TWSBIOpenComparison

Top: Lamy Safari, Middle: TWSBI Mini, Bottom: Pilot Prera

Let’s Talk Prices

As I know many people use Lamy pens, or have had them recommended to them, maybe by me, I think I should say something about price.  The Lamy is cheaper than either the Prera or TWSBI.  All I’ll say is that the differences aren’t that great when you look at a pen as something you’re going to use every time you go sketching.  If you look at street prices (I’ll use Goulet Pen’s pricing as my example) you’ll find these numbers:

Lamy Safari with converter: $34.55
Pilot Prera demonstrator: $56.00
TWSBI Mini demonstrator: $55.00
 
So, for the price of a very few lattes, you can buy some of the features I’m going to talk about here and I’ll say no more about price.

Pilot Prera vs TWSBI Mini

I’ll begin by telling you that it’s not because it’s so much better at making lines.  Both the Pilot Prera F and TWSBI Mini EF produce very fine, consistent lines.  The TWSBI isn’t quite as fine as the Prera and writes wetter, thus producing a bit darker line, at least with the Noodler’s Lexington Gray that I use.  The TWSBI is, likewise, a bit finer than a Lamy EF pen.  Both are smooth sketching pens, though my Prera is smoother.  This, however, may be because I’ve been using the Prera for along time and nibs do improve with time.

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I quickly did these two small comparison sketches – the Prera F (top) and TWSBI Mini EF (bottom).  These sketches are about two inches wide.  The dividing line between them was done with a Lamy Safari EF for comparison. Both were done on Stillman & Birn Epsilon paper.  I think they reflect the line differences/similarities of the two pens.

What makes a good street pen?

There are pen features beyond what line it draws that are important to me as a street sketcher.  They are:

1) The pen must be absolutely reliable.
2) It must have a post-able cap.
3) It must not be tail-heavy when posted.
4) It must have a decent ink capacity.
5) The cap must seal well so the ink doesn’t evaporate.
6) I’ve got to be able to see how much ink is in it.
7) I simply have to ‘like’ it, whatever that means.

Let’s look at each of these things, by comparing the TWSBI Mini to the Pilot Prera.

Reliability (1)

My sketching pen has to write the first time, every time.  I don’t want to have to dip it in water to get it started, or draw a gazillion little circles, shake it, or anything else to get it to work.  I want to take the cap off and write.  My paper/ink/pen triad is Stillman & Birn paper, Noodler’s Lexington Gray, and Pilot Prera.  This combination meets that criterion.

So do my Lamy pens and the TWSBI.  I have many more pens that don’t meet this criterion and it’s by far the most important to me.  I hear people talk about how they ‘start’ their pens.  When I have a pen that needs ‘starting’, I get a different pen.  Putting the pen to paper should be sufficient.  Life’s too short.

Postable and not-tail heavy (2 & 3)

This is a bigger deal than it sounds if you’re a street sketcher.  If you can’t post a pen and you’re in a studio, you put the cap on the work table.  When you’re sitting on a stool in the middle of a sidewalk, what do you do with it?  I need a pen that posts well.

Both the Prera and Mini are short pens.  They are designed to be posted and be in balance when posted.  What puts the TWSBI Mini head and shoulders above the Prera in this regard is that the TWSBI posts by screwing it onto the back of the pen.  There’s no chance of it falling off.  It may be a small thing.  Some may not even like it.  But I’m downright giddy as a schoolgirl over this TWSBI feature.

Ink Capacity (4)

This is the Prera’s achilles heel and a fantastic feature of the TWSBI pens.  Pilot’s piston converter holds somewhere around half a milliliter of ink.  The TWSBI holds more than twice that much.  I find myself filling my Preras all the time and have even taken to carrying extra ink with me.  I’m going to enjoy not having to fuss over the TWSBI as often because of its larger ink capacity.

Cap Seals Well (5)

This is a big deal for me.  If the cap doesn’t seal well, you get evaporation.  If you get evaporation you not only lose ink volume, you increase ink concentration, affecting consistency of the pen.  I have no hard data to prove it but I think there is some evaporation from my Preras.  It’s also the case that a cap that doesn’t seal opens up the possibility of ink drying in the feed/nib and having the ‘start’ the pen as discussed above.

TWSBICapSeals

The TWSBI pens are truly amazing pieces of engineering.  While the Prera cap seal depends upon a friction fit between plastic and metal pieces coming together, and is better than most fountain pens, TWSBI truly addresses the problem with a first-class solution.  They provide two rubber seals and as you screw the cap on (a better seal by itself), these seals produce a two independent seal barriers between the nib/feed and the outside world.  This feature alone is enough to give high marks to the TWSBI in my view.

 Seeing Ink Supply

When it comes to buying pens I’m like a fish watching lures go by.  I’m attracted to the bright colors.  Just like the fish, I’ve learned that’s a mistake.  The best pens for sketching are clear.  You can see how much ink you’ve got.  This is particularly true of a piston-fill pen.  Though it’s a bit of a nuisance, I can unscrew my Lamy and look at the reservoir (that dumb little window is a completely failed experiment in my view).  While you can take the TWSBI apart completely (a great feature by the way), you don’t do that when it’s half-full of ink and you don’t do it while you’re sitting in a park somewhere.  I’ve come to love clear-body, or ‘demonstrator’ fountain pens.  I do find the bright red button on the end of the TWSBI cap to be attractive, though (grin).

Gotta Like It

What’s the point of sketching if you can’t like the tools you’re using.  If you  like your tools, you’ll use them more often and probably get a better result.  Both the Pilot Prera and TWSBI Mini are superb-writing pens that feel good in the hand.  I also like the looks of them.

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A small building sketched on Stillman & Birn Zeta paper (5×8), using the TWSBI Mini and Noodler’s Lexington Gray.

In the end, we all have to chose our own tools.  There is no one-size fits all.  I hope that by highlighting the TWSBI Mini, and why I feel it is a superb street sketching tool for me that you’ll gain some insight into your own choices while being introduced to this great sketching pen.

 

White-Face, Nigeria Style

2013-04-05NigeriaSome of the Nigerian masks are coated with a kaolin clay, making them very white.  In places the clay has worn off and so some of the wood shows through, giving the masks an interesting texture/coloring.  I was only semi-successful in capturing that look in this mask.

Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook, Pilot Prera and Lamy Safari, both filled with Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Brown and black watercolor pencils provided some color but I really needed a cream pencil for this one.

Make Friends With Museum Staff

I got out of French school on Wednesday and rushed downtown to meet with Claudette at the museum.  We sketched for a couple hours and then went out to the lobby area where we sat in big comfy chairs and Claudette told me of plans for a trip she’s taking in May.

As we talked, one of the security guards came over, a well-suited man in tow.  It turned out, this guy was responsible for the organization and implementation of the Nigeria exhibit, bringing it here from France.  The security guard had told him of our sketching and she wanted us to show them to him.  Which we did.  It was pretty special.  I’m not sure the best part was meeting the guy or that the security guard thought enough of us to go out of her way to introduce us.  Have I mentioned how great our Musee de la Civilisation and its staff are and how well they treat who sketch there?

2013-04-03NigeriaHere’s the sketch I did that day.  It’s truly an amazing piece and I didn’t do it justice.  What’s truly amazing is its size.  You see the ‘head’ at the bottom?  It’s big enough that a guy puts his head inside it.  The front has been broken off but you can get an idea how large the piece is from comparison to a man’s head.  The figure must stick up on top of the wearer’s head by three feet.  I don’t know how they wear these huge things.  This piece is also unique within the exhibit for its reddish-brown color – much more red than anything else.

Done in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon (5.5×8.5) sketchbook with a Pilot Prera and Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Color comes from a couple brown, a red and a black watercolor pencil.

 

New Stillman & Birn Blog and Sketchbook Giveaway

Recently I did a quick review the new Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbooks and I’ve repeatedly extolled the virtues of their entire product line, to which I am very much addicted.

So, I’m more than a little bit excited that they’ve decided to open their own blog, On Paper.   They’ve had a Facebook page for a long time but Facebook has major problems with graphics and they seem unwilling to do anything to fix it so it’s nice to see S&B moving to blog technology to present great sketches done on great paper and to talk about their products.

S&BZetaThat’s not all the Stillman & Birn news, however.  They’re giving away ten of their new Zeta sketchbooks.  All you’ve got to do is send them your name to enter.  You can see details here, as well as the email address.

Easter Weekend Sketching – Great Fun!

I started French classes last week and it sucked the life, or at least the time out of my sketching week.  So I hit the four-day weekend called Easter with wild abandon, sketchbook in hand.

2013-03-30NigeriaI’ve already reported on my Friday adventure with Yvan and Claudette but on Saturday I met Yvan at the museum and we sketched and talked about sketching.  Yvan has incredible patience and I have an endless stream of questions.

Then we headed downtown to see Terry Bouton, sitting in her window again.  This time she was doing quick oil paintings, on mylar, while people posed for her.

2013-03-30LibrarySketchingFrom there we went to the library and did some quick-sketching of people sitting outside, while we sat in comfy chairs looking out at them.  Life is sweet.

2013-03-31Nigeria1Sunday was a repeat performance.  Yvan and I had a great time sketching at the museum but as it was supposed to be warm in the afternoon, I had my eye on the door.

By the time we left, though, I was hungry…very hungry and I don’t think about much besides food when I’m hungry 🙂

2013-03-31Nigeria2We wandered around the old port area, assessing the situation there.  The ice is gone from the St. Lawrence but the personal boat harbor is still iced over.  We successfully added to our list of ‘gotta sketch…’ subjects.  By the time we got to the Farmer’s Market we decided we had to sketch something and, jointly, chose to sketch of one of the hotels (it has great tower in the middle of it) and the convent that’s behind it.

It was only as we were setting up that I realized that I didn’t have a large sketchbook besides my museum book.  I could have sketched in that but it’s only got a couple more pages left in it and I’d decided it would end up woth 100% museum sketches.  So, with my S&B Alpha (4×6), I decided to do a ‘baby sketch’ of the tower alone.

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Then we headed down to see Terry again as Sunday was sculpture day.  People were posing while she sculpted clay masks of their likeness.  Pretty cool.

With Starbucks next door, I decided that I needed a scone and cup of coffee.  Yvan obliged and followed me in.  He sat at a window counter and started sketching people who were walking by and standing at the intersection.  Two hours later and whole lot of ‘how do you …’ and ‘that’s amazing…’ from me, and explanations from him and it was time to head home.  Can it get better than this?

I think I’ll save my Monday exploits for the next post as this one has gotten rather long.  [Sigh]… tomorrow it’s back to French class.

 

Spring Sketching Has Begun…Almost

On Good Friday I met with Claudette and Yvan at the Musee de la Civilisation to sketch but we were facing a day that seemed enticingly warm.  When I type that I have to chuckle.  I’m an Arizona guy so for me to say that a high temperature around 40F is warm is, well, an exaggeration that comes from a brain that’s spent the last few months without sketching outdoors.

2013-03-29Nigeria1We sketched indoors and packed up around noon.  I did this sketch  during that session.  I sort of screwed up the eyes somewhat but it was fun doing this sketch anyway.  With a rock wall for a beard and hat, what’s not to like?  It was done in an S&B Epsilon (5.5×8.5), with a Pilot Prera and Lexington Gray ink.

Then, Yvan and I headed downtown where one of his friends was sitting in a window, sketching people on the street who were willing to pose for ten minutes.  That was fun to watch, for a while, but I got cold just standing around and I decided it was time to head home.  And so I did.

When I arrived home my wife and daughter were out shopping so I decided I’d wander the neighborhood and see if I could sketch something outdoors.  After all, it WAS 42F!!

2013-03-29_1stAvenueI’ve walked by this building many times and have said “I’ve got to sketch that” an equal number of times.  It was built in 1927 but today was the day it was going to be sketched.  Besides, I wanted to try out my new Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook.  I used my Pilot Prera/Lex Gray combo  and, because I had my museum stuff with me, I used watercolor pencils to do the color.  I was uncomfortably cold towards the end but clearly spring sketching is about to begin and I’m getting excited.  Sorry that much of the light blue in the sky and in the snow got lost in the scanning process.