Book Review: Shari Blaukopf’s Working With Color

If you’re a sketcher you know something about the Urban Sketching Handbook series.  These books look like a 6×9 Moleskine sketchbook, complete with the elastic band holding its covers together.  There were five of them.  Now there are six, the latest written by Shari Blaukopf and titled “Working with Color.

If you’re a sketcher who uses watercolors, you probably also know that it would be great if you could spend time talking with Shari and asking her questions about watercolor.  Most don’t get that opportunity, so she’s written Working with Color and  owning a copy is the next best thing (grin).

I binge-read my copy, which means it took me three days to get through it.  No, I don’t read that slowly but Shari’s book is written, as are the other Urban Sketching Handbooks, as a bunch of small sections full of guidance and tips.  It seemed that each one had me doodling and pushing paint around, trying out the things she talks about.  Not only did I have a ball, I learned a lot.

Like most books on watercolor, the early pages cover materials.  This book emphasizes materials that facilitate sketching on location.  I confess that I rarely get anything from such sections but it was interesting to see Shari’s palette choices.

Very quickly, however, Shari moves on to color mixing and color and value in general.  Subjects covered include: mixing darks, mixing greens, shadow colors and a discussion of values.  Each of these subjects are supported by sketches that illustrate each subject.

There is a section on limiting your color(s), from selectively choosing a single color to discussions of the use of a limited palette.  This later subject was time-consuming for me as Shari suggests several triads and, of course, I had to try them all (grin).

There are a couple different sections on using color to express mood and atmosphere and I have to read them again as there is much to think about in these sections.

There’s also a large section on mixing and using neutrals.  This is an area that is important to the watercolorist, but an area where I understand very little.  Mixed into this section is the notion of using warm and cool grays in an urban setting and it all seems like its the core of what I should know.  Wish I did.  This book is helping quite a bit.  I need to do a bunch more doodles and neutrals mixing though.

I do think that if you just read all the tips and look at the pictures, very little will change in your art.  This is stuff that you have to do if you’re going to begin to incorporate the ideas and methods into your art.  But heck, that’s the fun part and I can’t recommend Working with Color enough to anyone wanting to better understand how watercolors work and how they can be used in a sketching environment.



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).


Book Review: Designing Creatures & Characters by Marc Taro Holmes

Designing Creatures & Characters by Marc Taro HolmesFrom the title of this post you might be wondering if I’ve gone mad.  You might be asking “What does Designing Creatures & Characters have to do with being a street sketcher in Quebec City?”  Truth is, I bought this book because of the words at the bottom of the cover, Marc Taro Holmes.  I’m a big fan.  I love his art and because he’s so giving of his time and expertise online, if he’d illustrate the Quebec phone book I’d buy one, and I never call anyone any more.

This book is about how to become a concept artist, working in an animation studio.  I know nothing of that world and I figured I’d get this book, flip through it, enjoy the pictures and put it on a shelf.  But I found myself reading it, cover-to-cover, gleaning little bits and bobs while learning how character development works in the minds of people with imagination.  Wish I had some (grin).

What I have to confess is that I’m not in a position to review this book.  It’s beautiful but beyond that, I’m out of my depth.  The book is divided into four sections: Ideation, Anatomy, Animation, and Illustration.  Each section presents information about its subject and then there are nine projects for the reader to accomplish.  It might be to develop a set of fishes inhabiting the sea in a video fishing game or development of a group of possibilities for a warlord character.  One project is the development of a crew of a pirate ship.

Each of the major sections builds on its predecessors and eventually you are at a point where you have fully-rendered characters, drawings showing detailed construction information, and drawings showing how the character moves and any special features of said character.  It’s all pretty cool.


To be honest, I got the most from the Ideation section.  This section is closest to what I do.  It’s sketching and in this case, it’s sketching in the form of brainstorming ideas, dumping as many as you can on the page so they can be visualized and evaluated.  This was where I surprised myself because I found myself scribbling copies of some of those sketches and I had a ball doing them.  I even started adding stuff to those sketches, or removing things.  To be sure, I would have been laughed out of any concept director’s office but it was fun nevertheless.

supplementalI’m not a fan of digital rendering as it all looks the same to me so when the book ventured further into a concept artist’s process, the book sort of lost me.  All I could do was look at the pictures because I have no idea how to digitally render a cube, let alone complex creatures.  I wish I could say more about this book but, quoting Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”   What I can say is that IT’S A MARC TARO HOLMES BOOK and I love it.

Book Review: 5-Minute Sketching – People By Pete Scully

coverOne of the first urban sketchers I started trying to mimic was Pete Scully.  When I was getting started in sketching he was creating small building portraits (often two to a page in Moleskine watercolor sketchbooks).  He also got me hooked on drawing fire hydrants and I continue to learn from his sketches.

Today, though, I want to talk about Pete’s new book, 5-Minute Sketching: People.  It’s part of what may become a series from Firefly books.  When I reviewed Liz Steel’s book in this series I made some comments about how structured, and to my mind limiting, the publisher-dictated format was and if you haven’t read that review I encourage you to do do so here.

While some of those limitations do affect discussion of sketching people, I think it’s less limiting than for sketching buildings for a couple reasons.  I think, far more real-time people sketching is done in less than 5-minutes than is building sketching and, for so many people, quick-sketching is so foreign that there are a lot of useful tips one can provide that are quite separate from the actual drawing itself.  Pete does a great job of talking about how to capture people quickly, how to put yourself in good positions to do so, and how to make those captures interesting.


Section one is titled How To See, and Pete starts out with some basic dimensional anatomy of the human form.  There are sections on arms and legs, faces, and all the things you’d expect to find in a ‘how to see humans’ section.  This expands into sections regarding quick composition and simple backgrounds, to bring your sketches to life.  He talks about playing with perspective and using negative space to position people in a scene as you draw and each of these sections is a series of hints and tips to related to each topic.

postureSection two is titled Quick On The Draw and here Pete emphasizes the need for speed.  His discussions run the gamet from drawing quick portraits to some great tips for drawing a crowd of people quickly.  There’s an interesting section on capturing conversation in sketch form and another on how to capture passers-by using compositing ideas and building up your visual memory capabilities.  This section, and the next, form the meat and potatoes of the book with a bundle of great ideas, some of which I’ve done, some not… yet.


Section three of the 5-Minute Sketching series is titled Time-Saving Techniques and here Pete emphasizes the use of different line techniques; how to do simple tonal sketching; how to sketch over color and other approaches that help to provide quicker, but more satisfying sketches.

quickinkSection four is titled Speedy Supplies and Pete provides series of tips to help when using pencil, pen and ink, markers, pastels, etc. as well as providing some advice on things like paper choice and even a bit on using digital media.  I confess that I didn’t get much from this section but I’m fairly myopic in my choice of medium so that’s probably the reason.

While this book won’t teach you how to draw, it should be very helpful for those wanting to get out and draw people on location.  If you’ve never done it, it’s a daunting task but Pete’s tips should put your mind at ease and provide a gentle nudge to get you out the door.

Book Review: 5-Minute Sketching – Architecture By Liz Steel

coverThis will be a very biased review.  I have followed Liz Steel’s blog and Facebook posts for several years.  She’s been one of the most giving artists within our sketching world.  She’s also one of the best.  I’ve taken all three of Liz’s online classes and have found them truly amazing because Liz “gets it” when it comes to teaching art.  She’s one of my sketching heros.

Firefly Books has just launched a new “5-Minute Sketching” series of books and Liz Steel and Pete Scully have had their books in that series launched simultaneously.  They’re both winners in my book and I’ll be reviewing Pete’s book at a later date.  I do want to say a couple things about the series.  The content of these books is tightly organized by the publisher.  Each has four chapters with identical titles, and many of the sub-section titles are identical as well, particularly in chapters three and four.  It’s interesting to see how Liz and Pete have packed a wealth of knowledge into this somewhat restrictive construct, adjusting it to fit their particularly topic.

I do a lot of quick-sketching but I have to say that I feel that the notion that you can write books about “5-minute sketching” without filling them with yet another discussion of gesture drawing smacks of naivete on the part of the publisher.  Even Liz, who is a very fast architectural sketcher, will spend far more than five minutes sketching any building more complex than a simple box.  Lucky for us, Liz acknowledges this in her introduction and then proceeds to provide her information as though we’re trying to work quickly, but not unreasonably so.

Lastly, I confess that I’m an academic.  It grates on me that brilliant artists are supposed to boil down teaching art into “tips” rather than complete discussions of the subject.  For those new to the subject it’s clearly the case that many tips will generate “How do I do that?” responses from those trying to learn to draw.  Of course, the flip-side of this is that these kinds of books are starting to fill the needs of people who have moved beyond basic drawing skills and who want books about how to approach subjects, how to use basic skills to solve problems, etc.

Liz’s book does exactly that.  She is not teaching you how to draw buildings.  She’s teaching how to sketch buildings quickly and well.  She has managed to pack so much information into this book that it takes considerable effort to read and think about what is written and how it might apply to your own sketching.  This is a book you’ll want to read more than once.  It’s a book you’ll want to study and apply to your art.


The first chapter emphasizes how to “see” the buildings you want to draw.  Liz places emphasis on seeing the volumes of the buildings, how to lay out basic structure so that the actual drawing can go much more quickly and freely.  She discusses using the advantages of actually having the building in front of you to simplify your approach to perspective in what she refers to as “pointless perspective.”  There’s also an interesting set of tips on using distortion to add some playfulness to your drawings.


Chapter two jumps into the actual drawing of buildings, providing insights into how to identify and simplify various aspects of buildings.  She covers everything from simple houses to large historic buildings.  She provides a bunch of great tips for drawing interiors, complete streetscapes, bridges and even construction sites.  As mentioned above, she’s not showing you how to draw these in five minutes but her ideas will help you improve both your sketches and the speed at which you can accomplish them.


Chapter three is a fun one for me.  It’s titled Time-Saving Techniques and Liz talks about approaches that allow you to capture volumes quickly, like using a minimum of lines, rapidly creating volumes with restated lines, working smaller and working with tonal values to capture volumes.  There’s a lot of material in this section and trying all the techniques would require considerable time and effort but I’m looking forward to doing exactly that.


Chapter four is all about how using different materials can change your approach.  The book is not materials-centric and Liz herself has worked in so many ways that it’s natural for her to talk about using pen and ink, watercolors, markers, pencils, watercolor pencils, colored pencils and in each section on each she provides information that causes me to want to try them too.  She does this both to show you how these materials change your approach but also to provide insight into how to use each.

This book provides lots of ideas you’ll want to pursue.  If you need more information than Liz could provide in the book, her Sketching Now web page is the entry point to three courses she provides, titled Foundations, Edges, and Buildings.  In my opinion, they should be taken in that order.  They are some of the best pedagogy available in online art training and I highly recommend them.

In conclusion, if you’re interested in drawing buildings on location, or just want to improve your location sketching in general, this is a book worthy of your time.