The Internet Art Community Is Special Because…

… it’s full of friendly and talented people.  But more important, it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.  And once in a while a piece of art shows up that causes one to feel…deeply.

And so it was when I first saw Dominique Eichi’s pen & ink drawing of her grand niece.  She so captured the wide-eyed and curious nature of young kids that I couldn’t help but stop and stare.  It’s sad that most of us have lost those feelings of wonder.  We go through our adult lives, in adult fashion, or as we believe adults are supposed to act, and we no longer “stop and smell the roses”, “take time to ponder”, or chase bubbles “just cuz it’s fun.”

Aldous Huxley once said, “Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.”  Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we all acted a bit more like children?

Dominique Eichi has a great blog called Dancing strokes.  I encourage you to go there, if only to look at this great drawing in its full glory.

Why I’m A Loyal Goulet Pens Customer

Are you loyal to ANY store?  I don’t mean that it’s the first place you go to buy something because they have a large selection.  I mean, are you loyal enough to a store that you go out of your way to buy from them because you want them to grow and be successful?

I’ve watched as the retail industry has become more and more nonchalant about customer service.  I’m regularly frustrated by stores with clerks who know nothing of the products they sell, online sellers who charge outrageous amounts for shipping and won’t answer emails.  I had a local bookstore owner tell me he had to let one of his favorite (among customers) clerks go because ‘she spent too much time talking with customers.’

And that’s why I’m so loyal to Brian and Rachel Goulet of Goulet Pens.  They’re SO different in this regard.  I thought I’d tell you about an email dialog I just had with Brian as just one example of how different they are from the rest.

I wanted a bottle of Platinum Carbon Black ink.  Goulet Pens indicates on their website that they are out of stock and so I wrote to Brian (who doesn’t know me at all) and asked, “Will you be getting any PCB in stock anytime soon?”

He wrote back, knowing it would not make him a sale because he had to say, “Our order has been back ordered for a loooonng time….”  He went on to say “You should buy it wherever you can find it as PCB is in short supply right now.”  I thanked him for his quick response, which had come within an hour or two of my email.

He wrote back later telling me that they had one “sample” left in stock.  One of the great things GP does is make samples of all their inks available.   Now you could interpret this as him taking an opportunity to sell me something.  This sample sells for the vast sum of $1.75 and I’m sure most of that goes into the labor of creating the sample.  No, he was just trying to be helpful.

But, that’s not all.  Even later he wrote back to me and said, “I just got notice that our order has been back-ordered yet again.  I thought you should know.”  Again, no potential for a sale of any kind but he took the time to write and tell me that.  Do you know any other business who would do this sort of thing?  I sure don’t.

So, what did I do.   I ordered that sample, and two pens.  Thanks Brian and Rachel.  You’re the best.  Oh…before I go I should mention that all this occurred one day before Rachel gave birth to the cutest little girl you’d ever want to meet.  Her name is Ellie.  Visit her here.

 

It’s All A Matter Of Point of View

People new to sketching very quickly run into the concept of point of view, and associated with it come discussions of perspective.  Point of view is simply where your eyes are relative to the subject you’re drawing.  If you’re looking up at your subject the horizon is below your subject.  Looking down on the subject puts the horizon above the subject.  And we’re told this is important because perspective lines converge to the horizon.

It’s about this time that we vow never to draw a building – the subjects used to teach us this stuff.  We generally acknowledge that a band on a stage is above us, a truck in a quarry is below us, and when we draw them we draw them with different points of view without really thinking about it.  The notion of horizon, though, is not part of the internal debate, at least in my case.

It should be, though.  I’ve just learned that the old “eye-level line”, or horizon can still be mighty important and I thought I’d share with you my error and discovery.  The results of being new at a skill is often not pretty, but it can be funny and even insightful.

I was wandering the Quebec City downtown area when I came across a guy leaning against a lamp post and playing saxophone.  I’m still not much of a sketch artist but I decided to draw him.  I dropped a buck in his sax case and started to draw.  I drew the guy, the sax, and the lamp post.  It takes me a long time to do such things, mostly because my eraser gets more work than my pencil and pen, and so at this point I packed up and walked home.  That evening I realized my guy wasn’t standing on anything so I drew a couple lines to indicate the curbs along the sidewalk he was standing on.  I put the sketch away.

A couple days later I was looking at the sketch and realized that something was wrong.  Apparently, I’d managed to draw this guy while I was standing on a forty-foot ladder in the middle of the street.  That wouldn’t have been a bad thing if I’d planned it, but I hadn’t.  How did that happen and why didn’t it look that way as I was drawing it?

It turned out that the answer was contained in those two short lines I’d added on a whim.  I scanned the sketch and erased them.  Then I added some others.  I kept playing with this until I got the point of view shuffled around to the way it was when I was drawing.  Here’s the result.

I’m betting the sketch would become even more convincing if I’d add some color/shading on the wall on the opposite side of the street.  Maybe I will.  We artists have a lot of power.

 

Writing Is A Group Activity

As long as I’ve been a writer I’ve heard that writers are loners, that what we do requires solitude.  And, for me, that’s true.  I need to be alone to write effectively.  I’m not even one who writes to music that so many seem to enjoy.

But I also remember the days when I was involved in the production of magazines.  I remember wanting some quiet from the hustle and bustle of my editor demands so I could write.  Mixed with it, though, were the “let’s get some coffee” parts of that business.  Those of us in the throws of creating the monthly 128 pages that would hit newstands “real soon” interacted often, and the comraderie was as fulfilling as it was electric.

Those days, though, are behind me and I’m back to being alone as a writer, at least until NaNoWriMo came along.  Last year I did it mostly in isolation.  This year I was in the throes of doing the same thing when my NaNo regional ML suggested that I come to one of their evening coffee meetings.

I did.  Then I went again.  And again.  Last week NaNoWriMo 2011 came to an end and we had a celebration dinner together.  I had a bunch of new friends, all of them excited about writing.  It was great… it was over.  I was sad about that fact but then they said, “I hope we see you at our Thursday meetings.”

Huh?  “Yeah, we meet most Thursday nights at the place where you first met us.  You should come by.”  It looks like I’ll have some people to talk to about writing afterall.  Here’s a sketch I did of one of OUR meeting places.

How Do You Choose A New Sketchbook?

You can always tell a newbie sketcher.  We’re the ones playing 20 questions.  What pencil do you use?  What is the best brush for small watercolors?  What’s a good starting palette  for watercolors?  Lucky for us, artists are a friendly bunch.  They tolerate all these questions and patiently provide answers like “it depends,” which, of course, it does.

But no subject gets more discussion than do sketchbooks.  Will it open flat?  Will it handle washes?  Is the paper smooth or rough?  Will the binding hold up to being strapped to my boot?  Ok…I made that last one up but it’s only a slight exaggeration.

As a newbie I’m overwhelmed by the sketchbook question.  Initially I didn’t want one at all.  I figured that drawing on single sheets of paper would be better because I could throw all my screw ups in the garbage.  I still do that too much but several artists have said, “Hang on to your mistakes.  You’ll enjoy looking back to see your improvement.”  I’m still waiting for the improvement gene to kick in but their advice is sound.

So, I ran out and bought a small Moleskine sketchbook.  I carry it everywhere.  But it isn’t too friendly towards me slopping a watery sky wash on its pages so I bought a small Moleskine watercolor book.  It’s great and has heavy, cold-press watercolor paper.  You can do anything with it and while it’s pricey, I don’t see much point in skimping on artist materials.

Thus far, all my sketches have been very small.  3″ x 5″ is the largest I’ve done and most have been ATC size (2 1/2″ x 3.5″).  But I decided that I wanted to draw a bit larger so the hunt was on again.  The obvious choice would be the larger Moleskine watercolor book but the crazy landscape format really shows its downside when you flip open the big version and are faced with a 17″ wide book, with the part you’re working on representing half or less of the total weight of the book.  And so my search continued.

To quote U-2, I think I’ve found what I’ve been looking for.  I bought a Fabriano Venezia sketchbook and a Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook.  I thought I’d provide a few impressions of these two sketchbooks, sort of a newbie view.  The summary first:  both are fine sketchbooks for someone like me who likes to do ink/watercolor sketches.

Name Size Pages Paper Wt Color
Stillman & Birn Alpha 5.5″x8.5″ 62 100lb – 150gsm white
Fabriano Venezia 6″x9″ 48 90lb – 200gsm cream

Size

Not much to say here.  They’re basically the same size, the S&B slightly smaller as the dimensions in the table suggest.  The pictures tell the tale.  Surprisingly, this small difference ‘felt’ like it mattered to me as the S&B sketchbook just feels better in my hand.  I thought this might be due to a weight difference so I weighed them.  The S&B is lighter at 436 grams, compared to the FV at 455 grams but with only 19 grams difference (less than an ounce for you Imperialists) that seems unlikely.  I guess it’s true; there’s no accounting for taste.

Page Count

There are significantly more pages in the Fabriano sketchbook.   Personal preference here but I prefer the thinner profile of the Stillman & Brin sketchbook so I’m willing to give up a few pages to get it.

Paper Wt.

Here’s where I grumble.  I grumble about the US unwillingness to accept international standards.  I grumble about paper graders and how these numbers become so muddled.  I’ll stick to this second thing.  How can art paper be heavier when using “lb” scaling and lighter when using “gsm” scaling?  It either is or it isn’t heavier.  Anyways, the Stillman & Birn Alpha paper is either heavier or lighter than the Fabriano sketchbook paper.  If one puts a micrometer on the paper, the Fabriano paper is slightly thicker.

Paper Color

The Stillman & Birn Alpha paper is bright white, while the Fabriano Venezia paper is cream-colored.  S&B do produce this same sketchbook with cream-colored paper.  It’s call their Gamma series.

General Impression

I don’t like the cover of the Fabriano Venezia.  It’s high-quality and I like the cloth end plate.  But the red blotchs… ugly.  The cover of the S&B books are much nicer, though one could say less flashy.

Neither of these sketchbooks open as flat as a Moleskine but the S&B does pretty well.  I think it would be difficult to draw across the gutter in the Fabriano book whereas it would much easier in the Stillman & Birn book

The Fabriano Venezia book comes with a bookmark ribbon, while the Stillman & Birn does not.  I can’t be without one of these in my writing notebooks.  I’m less certain about their necessity in a sketchbook.

Price

It’s always hard to know what to say about pricing.  It’s fine to cite retail price but the reality is that ‘street price’ is often quite different from retail price.  What I can tell you is that I paid several dollars less for my Stillman & Birn Alpha than I did for my Fabriano Venezia.  I don’t see price, however, to be a deciding parameter when buying a sketchbook except that I’ve learned that people with fountain pen fetishes like me shouldn’t buy cheap paper.  In my opinion, nobody should.

Usage

I haven’t done a lot of sketching in either of these sketchbooks, though I have done one sketch in my Stillman & Birn book.  What I did do was break the first page curse with some tests.  It’s actually the second page, I guess but I wanted to save the first page for a table of contents once I fill the book.

I tried to keep my pencil stroke and pressure consistent across both notebooks but I’m not sure I was able to do so.  It may be that the Fabriano book has a bit more tooth to it than the Stillman and Birn Alpha book.  Both take pencil well and both are smooth enough not to bother any pointed instruments.

I chose a couple popular fountain pens (Lamy & Noodler’s Flex) and Noodler’s waterproof inks as those inks are what I use.  In hindsight I should have included a washable ink but I didn’t think of it at the time.

I’ve been playing with Tombow pens. These are juicy water-soluble pens and I thought if anything would bleed through, these would.  Both sketchbooks take the colors well and there was no bleed-through in either sketchbook.  The same was true for the watercolor blotches, which I applied fairly wet as a heavy wash.

There is some shading with both sketchbook which might be a problem if you scan your drawings for posting in forums.  I need to experiment with real sketches to see whether this is a real problem or not.

Conclusion

It’s probably premature to draw conclusions that will stick.  Both of these sketchbooks perform well.  They do what they were designed to do.   But I did decide to use the Stillman & Brin Alpha while the Fabriano Venezia is sitting in a drawer.  I just like the Stillman & Brin better.  Here’s the first sketch I did in my new Sketchbook.

 

 

It always feels good to “win” NaNoWrimo

 

With six days to go in NaNoWriMo, I hit the 50,000 word plateau that brands me a winner and turns my NaNo progress bar purple.  The word count and purple bar shouldn’t mean much.  It doesn’t mean much.  What matters is getting the draft of a novel on paper.  It looks like I’ll need another 20k words for that but we’ll see.  Clearly, though, the end is in site and I’ve got the bones of what I think will be a great story, after a considerable amount of rubbing and polishing on my part.

I hope that your NaNo writing is going well and that you too, will be a winner.

The Fine Art of Seeing and How to Improve It

As we go through life our brain filters what we “see”.  It’s a necessary part of coping with eyes that would otherwise provide information overload.  But as a writer I need to “see” things that others may not.  Why?  Because I’ve got to describe them in my books.  It might be how a a woman’s blouse creases below the bust line, or the shape a man’s worn-out shoe.  I might need to describe how a car tire succumbs to weight as it sits on pavement, or the way asphalt grays as it ages.

It’s said, though, that it is the artists that really “see” and I envy envied them.  Now that I’ve spent a couple months being an artist, though, I feel that artists don’t see differently.  Rather they simply stop to see what we can all see if we take the time.  Instead of looking at a glass bottle, seeing the symbol of a glass bottle our brain has cataloged away, artists actually look at the bottle, seeing not only its outline but also the reflections within it; the way the light bounces off some surfaces and not others, how the surface curves and how the colors of the glass vary according to its thickness.

I know, I know…you don’t have the talent to be an artist.  I’ve spent six decades saying that same thing of myself.  Most of us are taught this ‘fact’ early in our lives.  But, did you know, there are actually people who don’t believe that?  Danny Gregory is one such person.  He’s written several books on the subject but the one that takes this subject head on is The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission To Be The Artist You Truly Are. Danny believes that anyone can and should enjoy and create art.   His contention is that being creative improves the quality of our lives. Here’s one example of how Danny makes his case:

“They say that when someone is sick and dying, with a heightened awareness that their days are numbered and few, they develop a new appreciation of little things.  Things intensify and become special and precious.  That view out the window, that snowflake, that conversation, that kiss – each one could be your last.

The trick is to incorporate this perspective into your healthy – though challenging – life.  Drawing does that; you pay attention in a way you normally wouldn’t.”

What Danny Gregory points out is that our problem isn’t a lack of talent.   Talent doesn’t matter.  What matters is our definition of art.  He suggests, and my two months of being an artist supports the view, that art isn’t defined by the finished product.  It’s about the process.  When you draw something, success isn’t defined by how well it resembles the object being drawn but rather, “Did you express yourself? Did you have fun?  Did you learn something?  Did you see?”  One doesn’t have to be Monet to achieve these goals but the process allows us to enjoy being creative.

I’ve only been drawing for a couple months, now and I’m not very good at it.  But everything has become interesting and fun to me.  I sat in a doctor’s office a couple weeks ago, a situation that normally would bore me to tears.  But I was looking at the people, their clothes, and noticing how pants wrinkle around the knees when a person is seated, how the colors changed between light and shadow.  I watched as a guy’s arm articulated while he was hanging up his coat.

And when I was raking leaves I noticed the many shades of yellow and red, and how many leaves had the equivalent of rust spots on them.  And have you ever looked at a potato peeler?  I mean really looked?  Confucius was right, “Everything has its beauty” and I’m beginning to see it.

A building here in Quebec City (pen/watercolor, 3"x5")

 

Cheers — Larry

 

 

 

 

 

Increase your NaNoWriMo Word Count: Leave Words Out

This is NaNoWriMo month and we’ve reached the half-way point of our attempt to write 50,000 words in one month.  This is the time when many start worrying about whether they will “succeed” in that process.  NaNo forums buzz with “How can I increase my word counts? questions and “I’m way behind and I need help” calls.  I thought some might benefit from a technique I (and others) use to maintain the momentum when I’m drafting any document.

Those who get it

But first, I want to save some of you the trouble of reading this.  NaNoWriMo participants fall into two groups – those who get it and those who do not.  Those who get it understand that NaNoWriMo provides motivation to keep your butt in the chair long enough every day to write a complete novel.  They understand that while there is a 50k word goal, it’s about writing a story, not simply writing 50,000 words.

You can write 50,000 words by typing the dictionary into a document file.  It’s not about the words, it’s about the story.  You can tell the difference between those who get it and the rest by the fact that those who get it are talking about how their story is/isn’t flowing.  They talk about scenes and about what their characters are doing. The rest discuss how to increase their word count by having characters sing songs, recite poetry, or how much it helps to give each character three names.  What follows will only be useful to those who get it.  Those who do not shouldn’t waste any more time here.  Move on…nothing to see.

Maintaining the Momentum

When drafting a novel we all bump into the need for descriptions of this or that.  We need character and place names, maybe a snappy quote, or possibly the name of a famous clothing designer.  The list here is endless adn it can stop us in our tracks as we draft our novels.   These things form the color of our stories.  They are important, very important to whether the story will be enjoyable to readers.

BUT, most of them fall into two categories from the author’s perspective:

  • Necessary and author knows details
  • Necessary but author doesn’t know details
  • Unnecessary but adds color and authors wants them in story

What you do when these needs arise affect how well you will achieve the goal of having a complete story draft sitting on your desk.  If you head off to the Internet or walk away “to think”, it’s possible that you will derail the process completely, or at the very least you will disrupt the ‘butt in the chair’ ideal.

Combating Momentum Stoppers

I want to write drafts quickly.  If feel the immediacy of moving from scene to scene without interruption is important to my story-telling.  Further, once I have a completed draft I feel I’m on firm footing to turn that story into a complete, full-fledged novel without having to second guess the beginning, middle or end.  To facilitate this approach, I simply to leave stuff out of my draft, knowing that I will added it during revisions.  By doing so, writing 50k words in a month becomes easy.  Here’s how I make my decisions:

1) Necessary for story but the author knows the details

Generally, if you know all the details, you might was well write them.  But suppose your protagonist is rushing to meet someone and you’re really on a roll with the plot.  He/she gets to the location and you need to write a description of the location.  Doing so will slow your momentum as you can’t just jump into the meeting which is the point of the scene.  Instead, just add “[description of XYZ Pub here]” and move on.  You know the necessary details (eg – bar down the left side, protag sits with back to the wall, etc.) and so those details can be used even though they will be described later when you write the description.

More often than not, descriptions cause a loss of momentum because the author knows most of the details except for some aspect they want to include, but a name or some other detail is lacking.  For instance, “The bad guy slid the AR-15 from its case and brought it to his shoulder.  He put the protag in the crosshairs of its [type of scope] scope and pulled the trigger.”  In spite of this horrific prose, you can see how stopping to look up the brand name for the scope would slow you down and disrupt your train of thought.

2) Necessary but author doesn’t know details

Maybe you’re writing a Steampunk novel and your protagonist is in downtown London in the 1890s.  The protagonist is looking for a landmark that is well-known to all and you want to accurately depict its location to ground the scene.  But, you don’t know the names of the streets or you don’t know what they called those carriages that Brits used as taxis.  You could stop, fire up Google Earth, find a map of 19th Century London, or any number of things.  You’ll have to do that eventually.  but right now you’re drafting a novel.  And so you write “Madam Protagonist motioned to a [name of taxi carriages] and headed towards [street in front of the Savoy].”  Nothing is lost in this substitution and much is gained.

3) Unnecessary but adds color to the story

Here is where most of the momentum stoppers lie and if you’re goal is to complete a story, this is the stuff you can easily leave out without denting the plot or characters even a little bit.  Snappy quotes, names of books, references to art, famous people, places, or even food add a lot to stories.  They ground character and place like nothing else.  But often they do not affect plot.  Consider the sleuth quoting something when confronting the bad guy, or the lover quoting a line of poetry.  Maybe you have the engineer of a space ship talking about wormhole generation and you want him to quote Steven Hawking.  It doesn’t matter.  These things make or break many novels, but they are often not necessary to move the plot forward.  “Captain, our [wormhole generation device] must recharge.  As Hawking used to say, [Hawking quote].  We can’t jump until we hit 72% or more.”

By avoiding the stoppages caused by searches for this information you gain considerably in my opinion.  First, you retain the momentum of your story.  Your characters are moving through scenes more quickly, in a more realistic fashion.  As an author this impacts how you view those characters and scenes and, in my opinion, they become more real because of it.  Also, it keeps you writing and, by leaving these words out of your draft, you actually increase the number of words you write.  Most important of all is that leaving these things out, rather than spending time searching the Internet, you’ll end up with a complete story that you can then revise into the great novel you want it to be.  Notice that I use brackets and red font to make these omissions easy to find.  They are the first things I tackle when I start doing revisions.  Good luck in the NaNo challenge.  See you at the finish line.

Cheers — Larry

What’s an Eye-dropper Pen?

Several people have asked, in response to my post titled My Ideal Idea Book: What’s Yours post, what an eye-dropper pen was and how to make one.  I dropped the reference into that post without realizing that I was talking to people who don’t hang out in the fountain pen world and I apologize for not providing a more complete explanation.

The typical, modern fountain pen uses an ink cartridge.  These are convenient, but they do have a few drawbacks.  They contain very little ink, typically half a milliliter or less.  You are also limited by the colors and kinds of ink available in cartridge form.  Cartridges are also the most expensive way to feed a fountain pen.

So, many people replace the cartridge with a converter that allows you to suck up ink from a bottle and so your choices improve and your costs drop considerably.

What is not solved by this approach is the amount of ink stored in the pen.  But, what if you could fill up the entire barrel of the pen with ink?  A $3-4 Preppy pen barrel will hold 4-4.5 milliliters, or about nine times as much ink as is contained in a cartridge.

And so the “eyedropper pen” is born, taking its name from the way you fill the barrel of the pen – with an eyedropper.  Here is my editing pen.  Everyone knows that editors use a lot of red ink so it’s a natural for eyedropper pen conversion.

To do the conversion you need several things:

1) A pen that has no holes in its barrel.

The popular Lamy Safari is an example of a pen that won’t work without modification as there are large holes so you can see how much ink is left in your cartridge.

2) small rubber washers

You can buy these at Home Depot but what they have available are thicker than is generally desireable.  While they will work, they create an unsightly lump along the body of the pen.  I bought a bunch of proper-size washers from Goulet Pens for a buck.  These are very thin and don’t protrude once you close up the pen.

3) silicone grease

Some say you don’t need this.  When it comes to ink I want everything I can get  between it and my fingers.  This grease comes from Goulet Pens as well.  Might cost $1.50 for a lifetime supply of the stuff.

4) a few seconds of your time

I mention this only to emphasize how easy it is.  Here’s what you do:

1) open up the pen, discarding the cartridge

2) slide a washer onto the threaded portion of the pen, seating it where the barrel and pen head come together.

3) coat the threads with a small amount of silicone grease.  Less is more in this case.

4) fill the barrel with your favorite ink.

5) Put the pen down so you don’t poke yourself when you pat yourself on the back.

It’s quite likely that you’ll have to wait a bit for the ink to find its way up the feed and to the nib.  If you need to write immediately you can just dip the nib into the ink bottle to get things started.