Small Figures Make Great Sketching Subjects

Lots of us are dealing with COVID isolation by sketching our backyards and stuff in our kitchens.  We’re no longer locked down and it’s pretty safe to move around because people are reasonable and we’re all wearing masks.  Still, I’m reluctant to spend much time sketching on the streets.

I took advantage of the fact that I have a collection of Schleich animal figures.  If you’re unfamiliar with them, they are very detailed and well-painted figures and each if beautifully proportioned, unlike so many of the animal figures made for kids.  I’ve bought many of mine from art stores but the satisfying ones I got for pennies at local flea markets.  Here’s a batch that Chantal gave me for Christmas.

I was about to watch a baseball game and so I grabbed my panda bear and drew him while the Blue Jays played baseball.  A great combination.  This is in my Hahnemuehle Capuccino notebook and rather than using watercolor I grabbed a black and white colored pencil to add some “color.”  Pandas are very accommodating when it comes to color.

What’s A Pencil?

When I came to sketching I’d been using fountain pens for all of my writing for decades.  It never occurred to me to use anything different to draw stuff.  So I’ve spent years using fountain pens for sketching and rarely have I tried anything else, though I’ve spent a bunch of time with watercolor pencils in museums when watercolors weren’t allowed.  But with the COVID scurge going on I’m doing more experiments.  I’m not sure why, but I think it has to do with me doing more art in isolation rather than going out with friends to sketch some location.

I was at an Artistes dans les parcs event last week.  Even here I’m mostly by myself because the language barrier prevents a lot of interaction between myself and the rest of the participants.  Anyways, I was out on the shore of the St. Lawrence River sizing up some rocks to draw.  For whatever reason I got the idea to draw them with a pencil.  I dug around in my bag and came up with a short hunk of Blackwing 602.  Here’s the result.  Another result of this experiment is the realization that I’ve never learned how to draw with a simple, graphite pencil.

Strathmore 184lb Toned Tan paper, pencil

Blackwing Sharpener Review

I just got back from a sketching trip to Montreal.  I’ll talk about that once I get a chance to scan my sketches but today I want to show you what I found while wandering around Mile End.  I went into a tiny store called Boucle & Papier.  l didn’t have high expectations as the place is full of greeting cards but they had Blackwing pencils, which was a pleasant surprise.

The BIG surprise, though, was that they had the hot topic in the pencil world right now – the Blackwing sharpener.  I was hot to get one of these but shipping costs really limit my ability to do so.  But I have one now.

Before I talk about it I need to provide a bit of sharpener history for those who are saying “it’s only a sharpener.”  In the pencil world, particularly the people that carry pencils wherever they go, have never been satisfied by the cheap sharpeners you can buy anywhere.  There are reasons for this but the big one is that these sharpeners produce a very short, high-angle tip and if you want to write/draw with a fine line, you’re constantly sharpening.  The long tip you get from a wall sharpener is what we want in our portable sharpeners.

There have been several solutions but the reigning favorite is the Kum Masterpiece sharpener, a 2-step sharpener that requires you to remove wood in the first step and then carefully sharpen the point in the second.  It works great, though the 2-step approach isn’t convenient.  More important, however, is that the shavings aren’t captured by the sharpener.

The Blackwing sharpener has come to the rescue.  If you haven’t been convinced by the cost of the thing, the packaging should give you the idea that you’re holding something special.  It impresses when you hold it in your hand as well.  Very solid and the black anodizing is beautiful.

The sharpener disassembles into three pieces.  You unscrew the top and then you can pull the actual sharpener out of the housing to empty the shavings.  The sharpener hole is offset to allow shavings to easily flake away from the blade.  Sharpening is done by simply holding it and twisting the pencil as you would with any simple sharpener.

Here’s a comparison of the results from the Blackwing and Masterpiece sharpeners.  Note that the exposed graphite length is very similar but the Masterpiece removes more wood.  The reason is that the Blackwing sharpener cuts the pencil into a curved shape similar to the Pollux sharpener that is popular with some, though the Pollux  has a reputation of being picky about what pencils it will sharpen.  I haven’t exhaustively tested different pencils but I’ve tried Ticonderoga, Blackwing, Tombow, Mitsubishi, Mars Lumigraph and even Col-Erase pencils and the Blackwing sharpener handles all of them well.

This is just a close up of the results.

In the end, this sharpener is now part of my sketching bag and I just love it.  A happy surprise from Montreal.

Edit:  Tina Koyama asked for a comparision to the Blackwing 2-step sharpener.  Here it is.  Top pencil is a Mars Lumograph sharpened with the new Blackwing and the bottom pencil is a Tombow Mono 100 sharpened with the Blackwing 2-step sharpener.

Doppelgangers, Look-Alikes and Soses

There’s a new exhibit at our Museum of Civilization that plays right into my new endeavor to learn how to use a pencil while drawing portraits.  It’s called Mon Sosis a 2000 Ans  which means, I think, My 2000-Year Old Double.  While there’s some variation in how it’s presented, most of the displays look like this one (left).  On the right is a head (or bust) from long ago and far away (many are Egyptian or Greek).   On the left is the result of scanning a person’s head and using the results to 3D print a mask of the person’s face.  The pictures above show you what the person looks like with a comparative photo of the ancient sculpture.

This presents to the sketcher an array of faces/sculptures to sketch.  The downside of the 3D masks is that the person’s eyes are closed and the top of their head is gone so there is no hairline.  Still, they don’t move which is a plus.

Here are a couple of drawings from my first batch of sketches.  I’m not very good at this but I’m determined to improve.

Struggling With Pencil And Other Laments

Pat Roberson wrote to me asking if she was somehow missing my posts.  I was glad she was missing my posts, but had to confess that they were being missed because I wasn’t writing them.  If I could write about CT scans, doctor visits, constant blood and urine testing, and a bit of depression, I’d have lots to write about.  As it is, however, writing about urban sketching would leave me empty-handed right now.

So, I’m going to talk about the little bit of sketching I’ve been trying to do, even though it’s sketching I’m unfamiliar with and even more problematic it’s being done with a tool I don’t understand at all … a pencil.

As the weather turned cold and my leg didn’t get any better I realized that this winter I was not going to be able to be an urban sketcher.  I decided to view this as an opportunity (I brainwash myself regularly).  I told myself that this would be a great time to set my pens aside and pick up a pencil in an attempt to master the tool.  Everyone else starts with pencil but I was a pen-driver when I came to sketching and so all of my art baby steps were done with pen.

Further I decided that I would learn my pencil skills by drawing portraits, either from photos or from plaster casts.  This was (is?) probably foolhardy because my least favorite sketching subject is people, but I need practice in this area too, so while the wind, rain and snow keeps me indoors, I might as well “get out of my comfort zone” and learn something new.

I started by drawing a bust of Mozart, a cast I picked up at a flea market in a small town east of Quebec City.  Only an artist drives along a road to a sketching location and has to turn around to visit the flea market because they saw a white head sticking up from one of the tables.

Anyway, it seems I got off to a bad start.  I made a rank beginner mistake.  “I was just learning so I don’t need good materials” was my thought and so I grabbed a pad of cheap watercolor paper that I’d rejected for use long ago and started drawing.  It was too grainy for a pencil drawing but it didn’t matter; I was “just learning” after all.  I struggled to get an even tone, partly because of my lack of skill but also because of that paper.  And then I realized that I’d drawn Mozart’s eye too large so I tried to erase it.  The paper immediately pilled and I had a REALLY rough spot where the eye used to be.  I tried to fix it but was a fool’s errand.

This frustrated me to the point of giving up, realizing that I was fighting the paper more than the pencil.  So, here is my partially drawn Mozart, shown here with a black eye caused when he told Haydn that major-minor theme variations were silly.  I’ll have to draw him again.