It’s All About The Miles – Line Miles That Is

Everyone instinctively knows that if you’re going to get good at anything you need to practice.  It seems harder for people to believe that artists aren’t born, they’re made, through lots of practice.  And in spite of knowing that “practice makes perfect”, we chafe against the notion that if we’re ever going to get better, we have to draw, and draw, and draw.

This is no more evident than in the endless attacks on Malcolm Gladwell’s so-called “10,000 hour rule.”  The number came from a single study he cites and how many practice hours accomplished violinists had done.  Since he wrote about this, he’s been taken to task for not making the point that it wasn’t simply “practice” and that the type of practice also plays a role.  Others have gone further and built a straw man, saying “Just because you practice 10,000 doesn’t mean you’re going to be an expert.”  They knock this straw man down in various ways (we can’t all be Picasso, so there) and feel they’ve made some sort of point.

Lots of overly-smug articles have been written to “put down” Gladwell’s commentary, but Gladwell wasn’t selling a number and he wasn’t claiming that everyone could become an expert at whatever they wanted.  He was saying was two things.  The first is that experts are made, not born.  The notion that people are born with special talents for music, art, or astrophysics just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  Even the Mozart, the stereotypic wunderkind  didn’t write much worth listening to until he’d been writing for a decade.  We all know that it takes practice to improve so we sort of know this but just won’t let go of the notion that some people don’t come out of the womb with watercolor dripping onto their onesy in just the right places.  That this idea is silly was the point he was making.

The second thing Gladwell was talking about in this section of his Outliers book was that we, as a society, want to judge too soon.  If it takes a long time for someone to become expert in anything, shouldn’t we be more patient in evaluating the skills being perfected?  I was told around the age of 10-12 that I had no talent for art.  I believed them.  They were the teacher afterall.  On the streets people say to me all the time, “I wish I had your talent,” and when I can engage them in conversation I often hear that they’d tried to draw but “just didn’t have the talent for it.”   These people are evaluating way too soon.  As my buddy Yvan is fond of saying “the first 2000 sketches are the hardest.”

These opening remarks are becoming quite long so I’ll wind them up with this.  I’ve been drawing for five years.  I talk with other artists who are surprised that I’ve improved so much in such a short time.  I think my progress is painfully slow and sometimes frustrating.

But once in a while I see why our views are different when they proudly tell me that they draw at least once or twice a week.  I don’t draw every day but I’m sure I must draw at least 350 days a year.  Twice a week would be about 100 days a year.   Maybe years isn’t the right number from which to judge an artist’s experience.

The encouraging thing that comes from this is that anyone can speed up how quickly they improve simply by drawing more.  I think the way to do this is to stop thinking that everything you draw need be of something significant.  Baseball players spend time in the weight room not to hit home runs, but SO they can hit home runs.  Improving your art by drawing a crumpled piece of paper is the same thing as the weight room, only funner.

This year, I’ve posted 354 sketches in blog posts.  Nothing I do rivals DaVinci, but these are mostly what I consider “good” by my standards.  Below, well below, these in quality are several times that many small, generally quick sketches done in the name of training my visual cortex to interpret what I see and translate it to movements of my pen.  Here are some of those sketches that I’ve done the week leading up to Christmas.

Shopping Center:  This time of year malls should be avoided at all costs.  But it’s hard and when I found myself there and took out my small sketchbook, a Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover, and quickly drew the mass of people in front of me.  Great practice in capturing moving masses, staying loose and flexible in how you interpret what’s going on.

Coffee shop:  I went in to grab a coffee when I was early for a meeting and I drew this guy, or at least his head, as I sipped my Americano.

Instagram, Facebook, & Blogs:  I constantly find myself drawing stuff I see on social media.  Liz Steel was talking about doing thumbnails, I think, and there was a photo of this scene in her post.  I wondered what I could do if I drew it small (5×7) and very quickly.  It was an interesting experiment and once again let me know I wasn’t Liz Steel (grin).

Train Station:  We all have ‘stuff to do’ that puts us in places where we have to wait.  Chantal and I went to the train station to pick up our daughter who was coming home for the holidays.  We arrived five minutes before her train.  Sketchbook out again.

Health Services:  Waiting rooms used to be boring.  No more.  Jodie wanted to see her doctor while she was home so I sat in the waiting room and sketched.  Lots of people sketching, but I even sketched a coat that had been dumped on one of the seats.  Great practice and goodness knows, I need it.

TV scribbles:  Now we’re going to dip down to the bottom of the barrel.  When I watch movies or TV I draw.  I might set something on a table, draw something in the room, or maybe draw something I saw during a commercial.  It doesn’t matter as I’m just exploring, trying to learn how to put marks together.  I do this in cheap sketchbooks with no rhyme or reason for what’s on a page.  I’m a bit embarrassed to show these to you but here goes.

As you can see, there’s a reason I don’t put this stuff on my blog, but the process is both fun and very important to my learning process.  I’m putting in line miles.  Whether I need 10,000 hours or 100,000 to get “good” I do not know, or care.  What I do know is that I’m several miles closer to that goal.

If you’re hunting for a New Years resolution, you could pick a worse one than to decide to draw a little bit every day and to stop worrying about the results.  By the way, here’s a photo of the inside pocket of my winter coat.  It literally takes me a few seconds to be drawing.  Contents: Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbook, Platinum 3776, Pentel gray brush pen, mechanical pencil, Duke 209.  Pens do vary from time to time.

I hope someone is motivated to draw more by this post.  I hope I’ve provided a few laughs with these scribble sketches.  AND I hope you all have a happy and prosperous 2017.














Urban Sketcher Going Into Hibernation

I’ve talked about how hard it is for me to transition from street sketcher to indoor sketcher every winter and that saga continues.  I’m starting to think, though, that my situation this year is a bit different.  I say this because the depth of my ‘doldrums,’ as I’ve called them are far deeper than normal and I believe the reason is that I’m also at a point where I want to shift gears a bit, take it up a notch, move outside my comfort zone, or whatever euphemism fits.

As the summer has worn on I’ve also started thinking about watercolors beyond using them like crayons and I want to learn how how those brush things work.  I’ve been so concentrated on learning to draw that I’ve completely ignored color, viewing it as an after-the-fact thing.  I also want to extend/expand my visual brain, improving my visual memory, textures vocabulary, ability to see half-tones, etc.  This stuff is hard and requires at a shift in my activity.  Couple this with the outdoor->indoor shift that’s taking place at this time of year and my poor, very old brain, is just a bit confused, maybe even intimidated. Getting it to act seems hard right now.

I talked a bit with my buddy Yvan and he suggested that I get up in the morning and do “something simple.”  He’s also been telling me forever that I should draw from imagination, not by drawing dragons but by drawing things I’ve seen, or at least representative of things I’ve seen.  He suggests this will change the way I see the things I draw even when I’m on location.  Since he’s rarely been wrong when it comes to things “art,” I think he’s right about this as well.

Note the wrinkles as the photocopy paper rebelled against the quick swipes of watercolor

Note the wrinkles as the photocopy paper rebelled against the quick swipes of watercolor

And so, this morning, I got up, grabbed a piece of photocopy paper (does this mean I haven’t completely bought into the idea?) and I did a quick drawing of a lamppost coming out of a pile of sunflowers that I saw on Ile d’Orleans this summer.  I’m sure it’s not completely accurate but I think it’s close to the real thing.  Most of all, I felt a process I’ve never felt before, a questioning of how big/small things were, how one thing related to another and I think this is the stuff Yvan was talking about.


I sipped some coffee and thought some about what I’d just done, which in turned caused me to grab another sheet of photocopy paper and I started doing really quick sketches of the lamp using a bunch of different pens.  No attempt was made to be accurate as mostly I was thinking about how each pen felt and what kind of line did it make.  I include it here just to document this journey, not that it is anything worthy of looking at.

Winter may not be such a bad thing for me at this point.  I’m going to try to set up a “studio,” which for me amounts to having some sort of uncluttered surface and I’m going to experiment, draw from memory, and maybe even train my visual memory.  I’m starting to get excited by the prospects.

Oh…while I’m writing, here’s a quick sketch I did from Marc Taro Holmes new book on being a concept artist.  Marc’s version is much better (grin).  I hope to talk about this book soon.


The Trials Of Creating An Urban Sketch

Many artists never do their art on location.  They’re happy sitting in a studio, laying out drawings, tracing the layout onto their watercolor paper, and then painting from a photo, or some such approach.  For me, sketching is all about the chase.  I have to go somewhere.  It might be just down the street or even into my backyard but I’ve got to actually ‘discover’ my subject.

There are compromises in this approach.  Anyone who does it knows them.  Time, weather, interruptions and sitting on a tripod stool balancing your sketchbook are among them.   Some times are better than others, however, and I’d like to share a couple “oops” sketches with you.

The first is a train engine.  I’ve wanted to sketch this small switch engine for a long time.  It’s tied to our large grainery and is responsible for moving the grain cars around.  I saw an opportunity to draw it and sat down to draw.  It was going pretty well until…well…it drove away.  I could follow its tracks (pun intended) and did, which allowed me to complete, sort of, the engine but the mood was broken.  I became disinterested in completing the sketch by including some entourage behind and in front of it.  So here it is, as is.

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776, Platinum Carbon Black

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776, Platinum Carbon Black

Last week we were supposed to meet on the Plains of Abraham for a group session.  Only three of us showed up because it was raining.  We ended up huddled under the overhang of a building with only a single subject, the realty business across the street. So we drew it.  It was cold and I had a hard time keeping my mind on drawing and I worked fast – too fast.  Sometimes urban sketching isn’t what it’s cracked up to be 🙂

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776

With urban sketching you sometimes win and sometimes lose when it comes to the end product.  When it comes to the fun, however, it’s always more fun than sitting in a studio.

Editor’s note:  I’m getting behind in my posting.  I apologize for that and hope to get a bunch of sketches posted in the upcoming week. 

A Sketcher’s Resolutions

Happy New Year, Everyone

Every year, on January 1st, we’re supposed to make resolutions so that we can break them before the end of the month.  I’ve generally taken issue with this nonsense and last year announced that I wouldn’t be making resolutions.  I’m taking a different approach this year.  Here are my resolutions for 2016.

  • I will sketch almost every day, just like I have for the past four years.
  • I will do as much sketching on location as I possibly can, just like I have for the past four years (at least 90% of my sketching is on location).
  • I will sketch with friends as often as I can coerce them to sketch with me, just as I have for the past four years.
  • I will stubbornly cling to my fountain pens as my principal sketching tools, just as I have for the past four years.
  • I will work hard towards the goal of staying alive for the entire year, just as I have for the last four years.
  • I will look forward to saying that I’ve been sketching for five years, just as I have for the last four years.

Ok…that should be enough.  I am now properly resolved for 2016.  How about you?

Are You Sure You Don’t Have Time?

If you hang out in sketching circles, it’s very common to hear “I just haven’t had the time to draw.”  I can never understand that, and dedicated sketchers will know what I mean when I say, “do you really think I buy that excuse?  I don’t.”  Now if you really don’t want to sketch, then don’t do it.  But don’t kid yourself into thinking you don’t have time.  There is nothing easier to fit into a hectic schedule than sketching.

How can I be so sure?  Well, everyone has 24 hours in a day.  We all need to eat, sleep and to varying degrees, work.  I know that some work a lot.  Ok, that means you have less time than I do but ‘no time’?  There’s not one ‘couple minutes’ in your day when you could sketch?

Let me give you a couple examples of finding sketching time even when no time is set aside for sketching.  I’ll start with my baseball passion.  From April until October I burn up a couple hours a night watching the Blue Jays beat opposing teams.  It’s a sickness, but I’ve got to do it.  Others might watch hockey, football, cooking shows, or the latest dramatic series.  People watch movies too.  Here are the last couple pages from the sketchbook that I use when I do watch TV.


Some faces on TV


Some play with a ballpoint pen


quick details from memory


just some scribbles while watching baseball






Our lives are always  what military guys refer to as ‘hurry up and wait.’  We rush to appointments and then sit around waiting for them to begin.  I was in that situation just yesterday.  I had to sign papers at my bank but I arrived at the bank 15 minutes before they opened.  So, I walked down the street and popped into a small place and ordered a cup of coffee.  While drinking coffee I drew these and got back to the bank by opening time.  Are you sure you don’t have time to draw?

Quick sketches while waiting for bank to open

Quick sketches while waiting for bank to open


Quicker Sketching Search – Part Two

My last post presented an example of one of the experiments I did in my quest for a quicker sketching style.  Sometimes I think I’m just not seasoned enough as a sketcher to be searching for different styles but I also wonder whether such a search is the best way to become a seasoned sketcher.

Because it’s been raining, I’ve used the time to think about and try out some different styles and I thought I’d share a few of those experiments, which will surely amuse you.   Pratfalls are always popular.  Maybe you’ll get some ideas, even if they’re “I’d never do that” ideas.

This one was closest to my current style.  The differences are that I did it quicker, with no organization.  I think it suffers from too many restated, ill-defined lines.  S&B (9x6), Pilot Falcon

This one was closest to my current style. The differences are that I did it quicker, with no organization. I think it suffers from too many restated, ill-defined lines. S&B (9×6), Pilot Falcon

2015-04-22steepleSometimes I think about using a washable ink with watercolor on top.  Two things limit me with this approach.  First, I don’t have much understanding of watercolors.  More important, however, is that I don’t like the unpredictability of washable inks.  Call me crazy but I’m not one to enjoy the so-called “happy accidents”.  But here’s an attempt using Lamy black ink and some perylene green watercolor.  It was done quickly on a scrap of watercolor paper.

The results are reasonable but as I mentioned, I’m not a happy accident kind of guy so its fuzzy nature just doesn’t do it for me.

Pilot Metropolitan with Lamy black and a bit of Kuretake brush pen.

Pilot Metropolitan with Lamy black and a bit of Kuretake brush pen.

Marc Taro Holmes has blessed us with a recent series of blog posts on how to loosen up your approach and drawing hand.  This is one of a bunch of loose, almost scribbly sketches I’ve done as a result of those posts.  I was working on a large sheet of paper and doing a bunch of these smallish sketches and this one shows two of them, one drawn on top of the other.

I confess that this sort of thing is a struggle for me as when I start getting loose like this my brain tends to go to sleep and silly little things like angles and proportions start to go haywire.  If I can re-engage my brain while making marks like this, I think I could come to like it – a lot.

I went sketching one rainy day and ended up quick-sketching some people.  Here are a couple experiments.  Both were done in a 4×6 sketchbook.  The one on the left was done with a Platinum Carbon pen and PCB ink.  The ones on the right were done with a Kuretake brush pen.  I still struggle with control with this pen but it’s fun trying to sketch people with very few lines.










2015-04-26acroballOne evening I decided to do a sketch with a Pilot Acroball ballpoint pen.  I sometimes like ballpoint because I can get nice half-tones with them.  But for a hard-line, illustration sketch, I didn’t like it at all.  I couldn’t get good line consistency (lack of tooth in paper contributed) and so I think the result suffered.  Interesting experience but I doubt that I’ll repeat it.

2015-04-20streetlightI was waiting for a lunch date and decided to do a quick, loose interpretation of this light pole while I waited.  This was a lot of fun.  It felt similar to the loose line drawings I’d been doing but I did think about proportions before I started, marking where the various components were along the axis.  The result is far from perfect but a proper depiction of this piece of city paraphenalia and it didn’t rely upon any happy accidents.

I’ll continue doing my slower, detailed illustrations, but my quest for a style that would suit shorter time frames has only just begun.  It’s fun to try different approaches but thank goodness I’m not too wrapped up in the results.  What style(s) do you prefer in your own sketching and why?



The Willingness To Learn


“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” ― Albert Einstein

It’s said that we old folks don’t learn as quickly as young kids.  Our brains are pretty firmly wired, it’s said, while kid brains are just gathering steam when it comes to wiring.  Whether that’s true or not is above my pay grade.

What I do know is that a kid’s willingness to learn, and to be thrilled by the activity, is boundless.  Watch any kid learning to walk.  How many adults in the same situation, after having fallen a gazillion times without moving three feet, would say “It’s too hard” and sat down on the floor, asking for the TV remote.

I’m writing this because I just witnessed the cutest example of a child’s joy from learning.  A tiny tot, probably no more than a couple years old, was walking along the sidewalk.  She proudly made her way along, expending a great deal of energy to maintain her position ahead of mom.  You could tell she was working hard.  Heck, her poor legs were soooo short.

She got to a place where the sidewalk had been cracked and lifted by a large tree root.  Her side of the sidewalk was three to four inches below where she needed to go.  Undaunted, she carefully put her left foot on the higher level and stepped up to the higher level.  Then she stopped.  I guess she was thinking because the next thing she did was jump.

That’s right.  Standing in place she just jumped up, coming down in exactly the same place.  She took a step and jumped again.  Another second of pause and this time, apparently realizing she needed to do something more than just jump upward, she took a step and leaped up and forward.  When she came down she immediately looked up at her mother with a big smile on her face.  Next time she’d be ready for the cracks in the road.  She needed no class, no teacher.  All she needed was desire and a bit of persistence.

I think this is how we learn art, or should.  We’ve got to jump, then jump again.  Are you jumping?

What Is Art, Anyway?

I’ve been fond of saying that “I’m not an artist; I just draw stuff.”  Almost as regularly someone tells me that I am an artist and they can’t understand why I say that.

The basis for my comment is more a defense mechanism than anything else.  I’ve tired of having so-called ‘art’ people, who can’t draw and don’t feel that artists need be able to do so, try to ‘advise’ me about my sketching.  It’s not that I don’t want to learn – I do.  I’m constantly reading, listening, learning.  By my calculation, in another 20-30 years, I may begin to figure it all out.  Until then I’ll just keep trying.

But I’m not interested in people telling me that I need to “loosen up” and “just let go.”  I often wonder if Rembrandt, Durer, Homer, etc. were told they needed to “loosen up.”

What I see going on in the art world is, in a word, nonsense.  It’s become a world of ‘how weird can you get’ rather than ‘can you create something beautiful.’  The art industry has been great at marketing the idea that if I don’t understand piles of garbage being labelled as art, there’s something wrong with me.  And then this video came along and I just HAD to share it.

The Variety That Comes From Sketching

If I did a statistical analysis of the my sketching subjects, it would be clear that I’m a building portrait kind of guy.  I just love ’em and enjoy going out, finding them, and sketching them.  In fact, being out in the city, sitting on a stool as people walk by, is a major part of what I enjoy about it.  I’ve never been much for sketching from photos and this is probably why.

This little guy was hanging out over a path I was walking on in the park.  He was actually moving quite quickly, for him, but I had time to do this quick sketch.

This little guy was hanging out over a path I was walking on in the park. He was actually moving quite quickly, for him, but I had time to do this quick sketch.

I guess it’s true for most people, regardless of how or what kind of art they do; we all have a preferred subject type, whether it is flowers, landscapes, boats, or still lifes.  But sketching provides something that other forms do not – the ability to sketch something quickly.  This translates into sketchers drawing a much wider variety of things than an artist who must set up an easel and has a mindset of hanging the result on a wall.


I was out for a long walk and sat down in a park. Something suggested that I sketch this basketball hoop that was sitting idle. Definitely a ‘no big deal’ sketch. Took less than ten minutes but it was ten minutes of fun.

We sketchers are happy with these quick sketches, often of subjects that no other group would ever do.  We proudly show off our sketch of a garbage can, a fire hydrant or maybe even a dead fish.  Why our brains work that way I do not know but I do know that our ability to do this without devoting a lot of time to it is the reason we do it so regularly.

They're repaving a street near my house and I thought this small roller was unique.

They’re repaving a street near my house and I thought this small roller was unique.

This occurred to me as I was looking at the last few sketches I did in my little Moleskine watercolor book (3×5).  Excepting the roller, which took me twenty minutes or so, these sketches were done very quickly, with no particular goal in mind other than to be sketching.  All were fun.

I went birding on a 'too windy' day and ended up huddled behind a tree.  Did this sketch of a fungus.

I went birding on a ‘too windy’ day and ended up huddled behind a tree. Did this sketch of a fungus.

I Wish There Were Good Subjects To Sketch Where I Live

2012_07-FireHydrant5_800Raise your hand if you haven’t heard this, or something similar said/written by someone in a sketching/art forum.  In the writing world the questions that authors joke about is “Where do you get your ideas?” and the answers run from horribly snarky to absolutely hilarious – often it’s hard to tell which is which.  But in the end, what authors explain is “Ideas are easy; it’s execution that is the hard part.”

And similarly, this “Where do you find good stuff to draw?” question should get a similar treatment in my view.  I don’t mean the snarky part but the truth is, the best way to find good stuff to draw is to stop looking for good stuff to draw.

2012_04-RailroadSiding800.Just like a writer’s ideas, finding good stuff is the easy part; it’s the execution that is important.  I think people spend so much time looking for the perfect scene because they believe that a ‘perfect scene’ does great art make.  I say that’s not true, though I confess, I’m not much of an artist so maybe I’m wrong.


But I do know one thing for sure.  Trying to do a drawing of the Taj Mahal or the Grand Canyon that doesn’t look like yet another picture of the Taj Mahal or Grand Canyon is MUCH harder than creating a meaningful drawing of something that the viewer hasn’t seen in a gazillion photos before they see your sketch.  Don’tcha want to show people what they’re missing, not what they’ve already seen?


50Think about the famous painters and what they found worthy of their time.  Monet painted in Paris but instead of a steady stream of Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe paintings, he painted gardens, smoky railroad stations, fishing boats, and water lilies.   Van Gogh painted peasants sitting around a table eating potatoes.  He also painted sunflowers.  Lots of sunflowers.  What made Monet and Van Gogh memorable wasn’t their subject matter; it is what they did with it.

And so it goes with sketching.  Everywhere, anywhere, and at any time, there are things to sketch available to anyone with a set of functioning eyes and a pencil.  Personally, I’m drawn to the mundane, mostly because I never noticed any of this stuff before I became a sketcher.  Once I became one I was amazed at how much personality fire hydrants, telephone poles, and lamp posts have and how, if one looks one can see ‘art’ in everything.

49I’ve scattered several sketches of mundane, readily available subjects from my town.  I never would have seen or sketched any of them if I’d been looking for the proverbial ‘great scene.’  So again I suggest, stop looking and instead sketch what is before you.  If nothing else you’ll be sketching and it’s that process that is the key to the smiles you see on sketcher’s faces.