The Sketching Path We Travel

I’ve been pondering where I want to go with my art and thus, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the path I’ve taken to get where I am.  It’s funny, and maybe a bit odd, that I’ve been trying to get better at sketching and I haven’t done much of this kind of reflection.  Instead, I’ve plodded along as a guy “who draws stuff” and most of that drawing has been as a pen and ink guy who uses color to tint sketches, as so many urban sketchers do.

When I look back, though, I recall the early stages, where I was trying to draw things.  I would choose those things based upon what I was capable of drawing.  This is the stage where new sketchers say things like:

“I can’t draw buildings because I don’t understand perspective.”

“How do you draw a car?”

“Gardens are hard because they are complicated.”

“How do you draw trees?”

Eventually, sketchers learn that what they’ve been told over and over is true.  Everything is just a shape.  This changes things forever once we adopt this view.  It takes some time (for me it was counted in years), but you shift from looking at things and start seeing and drawing shapes.

The draw shapes path causes a change in what you try to draw because now, anything is a good subject, not just things you know how to draw.  A nose is no different from a can of soup to a shape sketcher.  For me, this didn’t come easy (maybe I haven’t even completed this shift) but it’s so liberating.

When it does occur, however, you need a new criterion for choosing a subject.  We all like to believe that we choose subjects based upon some high-art goal but in my experience that’s rarely the case.  In fact, I’d say that most sketchers, once they work with shapes, more often choose a subject based upon how much time they have, can I see it from a shady spot, and with a dose of “what’s my style?” mixed into the analysis.

And this is where we come back to me.  I’ve always been a guy who loves fountain pens and who worries a lot about proportions and relative sizes.  Translate that to mean, I’m not good at “loose” or “simplification.”  Marc Holmes has chided me into trying to draw loose and quickly a number of times.  I’ve tried.  Maybe I’ll get there some day but my sense is that I  simply like the process of capturing proper proportions, angles, etc.  All of this in spite of the fact that I’d love to be able to draw in the loose, “painterly” (his word) style he uses.

And so when I choose my subject, largely according to how much time I have, I have to choose a smaller, more simple subject than Marc would for the same amount of time.  I’m just not good enough to do it any other way.  Not a bad thing and to quote Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Here’s an example where I didn’t choose well.  Heck, I didn’t choose at all.  We were out on a walk, wanted to sit in the shade and I found myself looking at the butt end of a large statue of Simon Bolivar on his horse.  At most I’d have five minutes to draw it as we rested.  In reality, given my sloth-like approach to sketching, it would have taken an hour to do a decent sketch.  BTW, this will be the last of my 5-min sketches that you’ll see.  This one was a good example of what I am talking about here but I won’t abuse your sense with any more of them (grin).

How do you make your subject choices?  Are you lucky enough to have moved beyond all this and so can draw anything in no time?

Getting Back To Normal?

Before COVID, and before all my leg problems, my life was simple and thus, returning to it should be equally simple.  I’m finding it hard, however.

My daughter did return to Montreal last week so we’re back to being empty nesters.  Chantal is still working from home, which I hope is a prelude to her retirement.  And I’m getting so that walking is actually fun again.  So it should be easy, right?

But my head isn’t in the “old” place right now.  I used to get up, eat breakfast and head out the door to sketch.  I’ve yet to do that simple behavior once.  Instead, Chantal and I are walking… a lot.  We’re getting in 6-8 kilometers a day and when we get back from that, exhaustion is near at hand.  So, we generally fix some lunch and I watch a recorded Blue Jays game or the Olympics.  Also, there are endless home maintenance tasks that were postponed because of all the limping I was doing.

So I haven’t been doing much sketching.  I have started carrying a small sketchbook when we walk and sometimes there’s time for a quick, 5-min sketch while we sit and take a break.  It’s good practice and it’s getting me back in the mood, but it’s like eating a single potato chip – not very satisfying.  Here’s a couple that I have done recently.

 

I’m Back In The Game…Sort Of

Slowly but surely I’m getting back into sketching.  It’s amazing how out of practice once can get at normal walking after spending nearly four years with a limp (grin).  Yesterday I went on my training walk by walking with my daughter to an appointment she had not far from our home.  While she was doing her thing, I did this quick sketch, using a fude pen.

I sketched very quickly (some my say sloppily) and so I had time to throw a bit of color on it before she returned.  I suppose this is a landmark sketch for me as it’s the first in a very long time.  Hopefully I can get back to a daily routine.  If there’s one thins COVID and my bad knee has taught me it’s the power of routine to keep your skills up.  Mine are way down right now.  Feels real good, though, to click on Location Sketching as a tag for this sketch.

In Art, Paper Is Everything

Sarcastic sports nut standing behind a sketcher: “How far can you throw your book?”

Sketcher responds: “That depends on how bad the paper is.”

I’m here to report that I could throw my Clairefontaine sketchbook pretty darn far right now.  Given that I’m old and likely to pull a muscle if I tried, I just slammed it shut and put it on a shelf.

When I started sketching I seemed to be buying a new sketchbook every week, searching for the right format, the right binding, and the right paper.  It’s a problem for beginners because we don’t have the skills to modify our approach to suit the paper and don’t know how to evaluate whether it’s “us” or “the book.”  Most of all, though, back then we didn’t have good choices.

Then Stillman & Birn released the Alpha series sketchbooks and my life changed.  I filled one, then another, and another.  I started buying them 3-4 at a time.  Later they released the Beta series, which quickly became my favorite.  Things got confusing for me only when they started releasing a bunch of different sizes.  Nevertheless, I didn’t worry about paper quality.

But recently I had only one Beta series 8×10 softcover book available and these are my “go to” street sketching book.  But with COVID lockdowns and such, I can’t do much street sketching these days, so while at the student-run coop associated with the art school here, I bought a Clairefontane sketchbook.  It seemed nice enough, but that was deceptive.  Contained within its covers was a pile of paper where one side was “ok” when exposed to water, the other side was less so.  Neither were very good, at least when water was involved.

I struggled with it and had done about a dozen sketches in it, all on the “front” side of the paper.  But yesterday I tried painting on the back side of one of the sheets (two of them had already fallen out of the book) and what a mess.  For what it’s worth, others have reported problems with this sketchbook too.  Here’s the results of my sketch.

These are part of our tomato crop this year and no, the tomatoes are not that red.  My sketch got that way as the paper started pilling when I simply applied a bit of water to get my initial wash to flow.  And every time I put paint to paper, there was more pilling.  I chased it by letting it dry and adding more paint.  Each time I had to go a bit darker to cover spots that formed as a result.  It’s just impossible to work with crappy paper.  The surface of this sketch feels like 80-grit sandpaper from all the pilling.

Artists constantly plead with students to use good paper.  Students constantly say they don’t want to use good paper because they’re “just getting started.”  I say throw the crappy stuff away and buy good paper.  Use cheap paint, cheap brushes, cheap paper towels if you must, but don’t use crappy paper.  BTW, this sketchbook cost me $20 so money isn’t always the object here.  For the same money, though, I could have bought a good, Stillman & Birn sketchbook, but the coop doesn’t stock them.

Today, though, I wanted to redeem myself and grabbed my one blank S&B Beta sketchbook off the shelf and set up three tomatoes to draw.  This was soooooo much more fun.  Just for kicks I grabbed a cheap box of Munyo watercolors, a $4 Princeton synthetic brush and a napkin left over from a Subway sandwich from the day before.  That’s what I used… with good paper.  I was stuck with the same limited skill set I had the day before but the enjoyment and, I think, the results were much better.  I’ll let you decide.

 

Halloween In Sketches – Day Four

This is day four of my warmed-over Halloween/Thanksgiving sketches.  It’s also Halloween and I hope you all have a Happy Halloween even if you aren’t out trick-or-treating and/or scaring other people or yourself.  Here’s another couple sketches I did last year at this time.  Hopefully by October 2021 things will be a bit better for all of us.

I got lucky with this sketch.  Anyone who has tried knows that sketching moving people is hard.  In this case there was a very long row of kiosks and this mother was enjoying (??) some time with her son.  He wanted to touch everything, of course, and so it was fun to watch the interaction as they looked at pumpkins.  I was lucky because I started grabbing the people shapes as they stood in front of one kiosk and they took up a position that was almost identical, in front of another kiosk and stood there for a while.  I drew them and then the the first kiosk full of pumpkins.  One thing about pumpkins, they don’t move.

This is my best Halloween sketch ever, though the credit must go to the people who mounted a huge spider on their house.  I was riding the bus home from a doctor’s appointment when I first saw it.  The next day I went back, sat across from the house on a very busy street and drew it.  Isn’t it amazing?