Quantity Your Way To Success In Sketching

You don’t have to look far to find some experienced artist telling you that the way to become good at sketching is to carry a sketchbook with you at all times and sketch whenever you have a few minutes.  It’s a message that, sadly, seems to fall on deaf ears for most people.

I think I know why.  We’ve all grown up thinking that “art” is something you hang on a wall.  We’ve been taught that “do your best” is a good thing and when it comes to art this translates to “gotta do something significant” or some such sentiment.  Whatever it is, this view causes most sketchers to sketch only “when they have time”, which translates directly into “not very darn often.”

And here’s the secret behind all the advice that experienced artist give about sketching constantly.  That’s how they got good!!!  Like it or not, you learn to draw by drawing.  No class will make you good.  No instructor can make you good.  No fancy tools will make you good.  The most these things can do is provide you with is help you get the most from that associate piece of advice – practice, practice, practice.

I thought I’d share a couple incidental sketches I did, where I was, and what I was doing as a practical example of how to fit sketching into a busy schedule.  You see, I had an appointment to be interviewed as part of the Canadian citizenship process.  Yep, I’m becoming Canadian (yippee!).  Anyways, I arrived at the site of the interview about 15 minutes early.  With nothing to do, I went into a coffee shop and ordered a cup.  I could have just sat and drunk my coffee.  I could have paged through innane Facebook posts on my cell phone.  Or I could sketch.

Because I was traveling light, I had only the pen (Pilot Prera), a waterbrush with dilute brown ink, and small sketchbook I carry in my coat pocket.  I got it out and started a quick sketch of the barista area of the coffee shop.  I had less than 10 minutes before my interview which was on the 2nd floor of the building next door, and I had to drink my coffee too.  Nevertheless, I did this small sketch of the area.

2016-02-25interviewdayI had to stop sketching so I could get to the interview.  When I arrived I found 50 or so people there ahead of me.  Oh no…maybe an 8 AM appointment didn’t mean what I thought it meant.  I sat down at the back of the room, a bit glum and expecting a long wait.  Oh well, there were a bunch of sketching targets available so I got out my sketchbook.  I started sketching a woman in the row in front of me.  I was, maybe, a minute into this sketch…

2016-02-25interviewday2…when a guy came out of a room.  He read off a few names, including mine, and told everyone else to head into the “examination room.”  All my potential sketching subjects got up and filed into the room to take an examination to see if they knew who the first Prime Minister was, who the current Prime Minister was, and whether they knew what the heck a constitutional monarchy was.  You see, if you’re old, and filing for citizenship, they realize you’re not smart enough to be taking exams so I was exempted from that exercise.

I added a few lines to the sketch before a woman came out and called my name.  I was being called for my interview.   So, two sketches, done during time frames that most wouldn’t consider as a ‘sketching session.’  You’re right; these sketches are not great.  But they were both fun and good practice.  This is what all those experienced artists are talking about.  Fill your hurry up and wait time with little sketching sessions and when you do get more time to sketch, you’ll be better at it because you did those little sketches.

And what have you got to lose – that you’ll never be bored waiting for an interview?  Oh, and the interview went well. The only thing between me and citizenship is the swearing in ceremony.  I even got to tell them that I was a sketcher (grin).


Clowning Around With Thursday Sketchers

We were back at it on Thursday, as we met at the museum to sketch.  Winter may drive us indoors but it doesn’t slow us down much.

clown toy

Canson XL watercolor, Pilot Prera, DeAtramentis Document Brown

I found this little, three-inch high clown sitting in the bottom of a small display of early children’s toys.  His right foot was missing but I made one up.  He was lots of fun to draw.


Canson XL watercolor, Platinum 3776, Platinum Carbon Black

This lantern was nearly invisible and I have to wonder if it’s a forgotten exhibit.  It was hanging on a dark wall, in the dark and it was black.  Hard to see but it whispered ‘sketch me’ as I walked past.  And so I did, or tried.

When I finished Claudette and Lisette were chatting, making plans to have tea and while they were packing up I did this quick sketch of a top hat in the case where we were standing.  Then we headed for tea and had a great discussion about the value of sketching whenever we have a few idle minutes.

top hat

Canson XL multi-media, Platinum 3776, Platinum Carbon Black


Love Me Some Harpsichord

I’m as close to a musical know-nothing as you can get but I really enjoy most classical music.  Spare me the Schoenberg’s 12-tone scales and other modern attempts at cacophony but the rest is great.  Sadly, I’m so ignorant of music that I can’t identify composers by ear, and can’t wax eloquently about how Beethoven’s 9th is such a great piece because…  I just listen.

And so for me, it’s more about particular instruments.  I love cello music of all kinds.  I think classical guitar is sublime.  But give me Bach played on a harpsichord and I am enthralled.  So it was exciting for me to show up at the chapel for draw-the-carving session to find a guy practicing harpsichord.  What could be better than listening to harpsichord music while sketching?  Maybe sketching a harpsichordist while listening to harpsichord music and that’s just what I did.  Unfortunately, when I finished I had to run off to the Musee de la Civilisation where there would be dancers to sketch.  More on that tomorrow.

chapel harpsichord

Canson XL watercolor paper, Pilot Prera, DeAtramentis Brown (and black)


Urban Sketcher Goes Rogue

I’m an urban sketcher, or at least almost everything I draw is done ‘on location’ – drawing what I see.  I’ve not be too interested in ‘expressive’ or abstract drawing.  I’m not into adult coloring books.  I just draw stuff and wandering my city looking for things to draw is part of my equation.

But it’s winter here in Quebec and while it’s amazingly warm for us at the beginning of February our high temps are still in the -10 range so sketching on the street, my usual location, isn’t really practical.  I know that Nina Johansson uses vodka so her paints don’t freeze but I’m an old Arizona boy and I’d have to consume a lot of vodka to keep myself from freezing.

And so, this is the time of year when I start drawing people in coffee shops, restaurants and at the library.  This is a time when I draw in our museums.  This is the time of year when I’ll draw the occasional cast drawing in an attempt to improve my ability to see halftones and to render objects.

One thing I’ve never done in art was to make stuff up.  I’ve done it as a writer but I haven’t felt that I had sufficient handle on form, light and shade, and the rest to conjour drawings from my memory.  Yvan keeps telling me that I should develop that ability as it helps so much when drawing on location but, well, I haven’t done so.

Until yesterday.  I was playing with creating some watercolor backgrounds for doing ink sketches on to of them and when my brain looked at the bright Quin Gold blob I’d put in the middle, I saw a ‘tall mountain island fortress’ and so I started drawing.  It was a feeble effort, but an effort nonetheless, to draw something from my imagination.  I had fun and will probably do this some more.


News Flash: Sobab Coffee Takes On High-Price Coffee Vendors

Remember when buying coffee meant digging out a coin or two?  Ever since Starbucks convinced people that coffee was more about being empowered to make infinite choices than drinking something brown and warm, we’ve been forced to pay ridiculous amounts of money for a cup of coffee.

And it’s clear that there are high margins from this business model.  Not only is there a Starbucks on every corner, every third store up and down the block is a coffee house.  The choices are endless, at least if ‘choice’ means choosing who is going to charge you a lot for a cup of coffee.

2015-10-24sobabNot so any more, at least not in Quebec City.  I walk down 3rd Avenue regularly and drop into the Brulerie to do quick-sketches of the people and get a ‘cuppa’ as Liz Steel is fond of saying.  I can expect to leave $3-4 lighter every time.  But across the street is a new place, Sobab’s.   I was out walking and decided to give it a try.

I only had a few minutes as I ordered a café au lait.  I was asked whether I wanted a small or a large and I chose large.  If you’re going to splurge on high-priced stuff, you might as well go all the way.  Time to pay.  Should I break a twenty?  Probably have to.  “That’ll be $1.50,” she said.  Huh?  I handed her a 2-dollar coin and dumped the change in the tip jar.

I sat down and, still in pleasant price shock, I scribbled out this little sketch of part of the counter area.  The coffee was good.  It was cheap, and a steady stream of people seemed to know all about it.  As I enjoyed my coffee I did some quick sketches of people ordering their own inexpensive coffee.

All sketches done in a Field Notes notebook using a Pilot Prera and De Atramentis Document Brown ink

All sketches done in a Field Notes notebook using a Pilot Prera and De Atramentis Document Brown ink

Sketching For InkTober 2015

Every year the internet is treated to a stream of sketches in the name of Inktober and this is is no exception.  I don’t formally take part as I already draw constantly in ink and so I just continue to post my normal drawings.  But I was out the other day, having filled a Pilot Prera with DeAtramentis Document Brown ink and I thought about Inktober and did several sketches while on my walk.  Here are a couple of them.

rocks along the St. Charles RIver

Right now the St. Charles RIver is at very low levels. I thought these rocks warranted a sketch.

Bassin Louise power stations

Bassin Louise did a major service upgrade this year with the addition of these power stations that allow boats to plug in. Now that the boats are being removed from the water for winter, the stations are available for me to draw. So I did.

Maybe I’ll do a few more of these before October is over.  I enjoyed the ink/pen combination and the tiny nature of these sketches.

De Atramentis Document Ink: Creating A Grey

The new De Atramentis Document inks (not to be confused with other De Atramentis inks) are a dream come true for those of us who sketch with fountain pens and want waterproof inks.  Before they came along, color choices could be described pretty much like Henry Ford described color selection for the Model T Ford – “any color as long as it’s black.”

The current elephant in the room question is whether we’re going to have a ready supply of these inks over time.  De Atramentis is a one-man operation and Goulet Pens, to my knowledge, is the only source for them in North America. Their last shipment came in and went out before some people had a chance to even see them show up.  Brian has said their current order is very large.  I hope so.

I was one of the lucky ones.  I’ve had De Atramentis Document Black and Brown for a while now and was able to fill in the other colors during the few hours they were available at Goulet Pens.

The potential to create any color I want now exists, except for one thing.  De Atramentis sells a solvent for their inks and proper dilution should be done with that solvent.  These inks are pigmented inks and every ink have a particular chemistry to give them the flow and paper interaction properties of a particular brand of ink.   The proper solvent should be used to provide the proper lubricant, stabilizer, and maybe anti-fungal agent in their proper proportions.  The big deal here is the lubricant as this generates proper flow through the pen.  Too much lubrication and you can get feathering, nib creap, and slow-to-dry inks.  Too little and you can get a dry-writing ink, though it may actually dry more quickly.

So before I continue, there’s my caveat.  If you fear doing anything that might be referred to as an “experiment”, read no further.  This is an experiment.  I’ve mixed up a grey ink using the brown and blue ink in this line.  It creates a very dark grey, not unlike Noodler’s Lexington Gray  but a bit darker.  I wanted to lighten it up, but the solvent isn’t available to me, so I used water.  Worse still, throwing caution to the wind, I used plain old tap water to thin the ink.  Here’s what I mixed:

De Atramentis Document inks, not to be confused with other De Atramentis inks:

Brown:  3 parts
Black:    2 parts
water:    3 parts

That works out to 60% water, which is a lot but I found that when thinning other inks I had to add a considerable amount of water to lighten their color.  This proved true for the De Atramentis Document inks as well, maybe even to a greater degree.


grey2As you can see, I got a decent dark grey.   I may want to play a bit with the blue/brown mix or maybe try a green/red mix but this is just about what I want on a tonal scale.  Just enough to take the harsh black edge off my sketches.

The real point of the experiment, though, was to see how diluting with water would work.  I’m surprised to say that even with this extreme dilution, the ink holds up nicely.  There is no feathering, the line remains consistent and there are no flow problems with the Pilot Prera (fine nib) that I used to dispense it.  I wanted the sketch to reflect the tonal differences between the black and gray lines so I used De Atramentis Black to do all the shadow lines on the right side of the bottle.  After scanning I quickly slopped watercolor all over it and can report that the waterproof nature of the ink is retained.  All of this is being done on cheap sketchbook paper.  Just to ensure that it wasn’t the result of the paper, I did a bunch of scribbles on Stillman & Birn Alpha series paper and those were were waterproof as well.

By the way, there’s been some discussion of a Fog Gray color being added to the De Atramentis line.  Those few who have had access to it have found that it’s really more of a grey blue than a true grey.   Given that it’s easy to mix our own greys, though, it hardly matters.

For me, the experiment was a great success.  To be honest I’m still a bit surprised because in my experience, dilution of pigment-based products (wood stains I’ve used) with water are very limited and things tend to fall apart once you get past 10-15%.  Here I’ve more than doubled the volume of ink with water..and it still works.  Go figure.  I still wish I could get access to De Atramentis solvent but until that time…I’m going to go draw a few shades of grey.

De Atramentis Document Inks & Doodling

De Atramentis, the Austrian ink company, has been releasing a growing line of fountain-pen friendly, waterproof inks for a while now.  Buying them in North America, however, has been nearly impossible.  Goulet Pens finally got them back in stock, I ordered, and within a couple hours people were reporting that they were out of them.  Hopefully distribution will get worked out over time.

DeAtramentis Document inks

These inks are a wonderful addition to my arsenal and become the ones I use most often, I think.  Not only are basic blue, black and brown available but they sell an equivalent of the CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black) set that is used to generate color in offset printing.  And they’re mixable.  Jane Blundell has done a series of blog posts on mixing them.


The black ink makes my Pilot Falcon very happy. Like Platinum Carbon Black, it causes the pens to write a bit finer than they normally would.



Same thing for the Pilot Prera.


I’ve just started doodling with them.  I’ve mixed up a gray but otherwise I’ve been working with the colors straight out of the bottle.  They are very similar to Platinum Carbon Black in use, though for some reason they feel smoother to me, maybe a bit wetter.  So far I have them in Pilot Prera and Falcon pens and a Noodler’s Creaper.  As is typical of the Creaper, there is a bit of start up problem but otherwise all these pens seem to like it.  Time will tell.


I did some hatching practice with a Pilot Prera filled with De Atramentis Document Brown. The color is a rich brown, leaning towards a burnt sienna. I really like it, though I can always adjust the color by mixing. That’s the great thing about these inks.


Artemis: Greek Goddess Of The Hunt

Long before Katniss Everdeen shot squirrels in the forest surrounding District 12, Artemis was the protectress of nature and the hunt for the Greeks.  With her spiffy garb and bow & arrow, she most certainly could have wowed them in any Greek version of the Hunger Games.

As a sketching subject she caught my attention, though the statue I drew from only had the stub of her bow gripped in her hand.  I used my artistic license to add her bow.  It just wasn’t right that she’d lost it.

Artemis: Goddess of Nature

Stillman & Birn Alpha (10×7), Pilot Prera, De Atramentis Document Brown

How Did Apollo Carry His Water?

The “Olympus” exhibition at Quebec’s Museé de la civilisation includes a series of art-laden pots and pitchers that make ideal drawing subjects, as long as you’re not easily frustrated by a bunch of design details.  This particular jug is about a foot in diameter and a bit taller.  My view of it, from sitting on my stool, only exposes the bottoms of some of the characters and trees that wrap around the top of it but the placard explains that these folks are Apollo and his buddies and that the jug was used to carry water.  I mostly take a ‘who cares’ attitude towards such things as the important thing to me is that it’s a stunning piece and something fun to draw.

I started with a pencil to organize basic shapes and to lay out the detailed banding – banding that drove me nuts as I tried to draw it.  I used Strathmore Series 300 (vellum) bristol for this drawing.  Once I was happy with the proportions I switched to a Pilot Prera (F) filled with De Atramentis Brown ink, one of the new permanent fountain pen inks made available by the company.

I can’t recommend these inks enough.  They’re a dream come true.  If you haven’t seen them, go to Jane Blundell’s blog where she’s mixed up a series of colors using them.  Then you’ll want to head to Goulet Pens to buy some (grin).  To me these are the ink equvalent of Stillman & Birn’s great sketchbooks entered my life.  Both provide ideal solutions to my sketching material needs.

Apollo water jug

Apollo water jug

I’m a ‘line’ kind of guy.  I’m not a watercolor guy who happens to do his drawing with a pen.  And so when the drawing is done, I feel that I’m done.  If I add color it’s mostly done as an afterthought.  In this case, however, I decided to try adding some color.  Rather than using the original, I scanned it and printed to Canson Montval Watercolor paper.  This is my first time using this paper and it may be my last.  I much prefer the paper in my Stillman & Birn sketchbooks when it comes to using watercolors.  Anyways, this is what it looked like when I was done abusing the paper, or it me.