Sometimes It’s More Than Sketching

The change of seasons, for me, means transition from street sketcher to museum sketcher.  It’s a sad time, but also an exciting time. There’s so much shape variation in museum exhibitions.

Our Musee de la civilisation has a new exhibit just opened that presents Australian/New Zealand aboriginal art and as I play didjeridu and love aboriginal art, I’m quite excited about it.  Most of the exhibit is paintings, rugs, and such but there are some statues and masks that I’ll be taking advantage of this winter.

I was there a few days ago, drawing a large wall-hanging mask.  So were a bunch of kids on school outings.  The kids were great as they’d come to see what I was doing and when I talked to them I got half a dozen more coming to see what was going on.  This begat more and more kids to the point where I was mostly just talking to them about the watercolor pencils, waterbrushes, and how much fun it is to draw.  Kids “get it.”  They haven’t learned the feelings and emotions about art that adults somehow acquire.

Eventually they wandered away, though, and I got back to drawing.  I was really enjoying the music and serenity of the room.  A mother and her two young daughters (I’d guess they were 4 and 6) came by and, again, the kids were interested and, as is often the case with parents, the mother told them to leave me alone.  I told her it was fine and I showed them what I was doing.

The older girl had some sort of writing/sketching book with her and started to draw with me.  The younger one, of course, wanted to draw too, which sent mom scrambling for paper and pencil.  She found some paper but had only a Seattle Seahawks pencil with her and it needed sharpening.  I sharpened it and we chatted as I did.  They were on vacation from where some of my favorite urban sketchers live – Seattle.

The kids drew a bit and I finished my sketch.  The older girl came over to show me her drawing and I asked her if she wanted to use my watercolor pencils to color her drawing.  Her look was priceless and I loaned her one pencil at a time.  The same thing happened with the younger girl.  We had a regular sketchcrawl going on.

I wish I had been smart enough to take some photos.  Sadly, all I can share is the sketch I did, but it was the most insignificant thing that happened on this day.

aboriginal mask

Stillman & BIrn Beta (9×12), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black, Albrecht-Durer watercolor pencils

Two Sketchbooks For The Price Of One

Since I’ve been in a ‘cheap sketchbook’ rut lately, I thought it only fitting if I were to let it run its course and describe another approach I’ve taken, for when being able to stuff the book in one’s pocket isn’t important.

Sometimes I want to do larger quick-sketches are possible in a 3 x 5 “scribbler.”  I could do them in one of my Stillman & Birn books but my quick-sketches are REALLY quick-sketches and typically they’re not very good, so I want REALLY cheap paper upon which to do them.  Also, as I’m not doing watercolor I don’t need the paper quality of Stillman & Birn.

You can buy inexpensive 5×8 and 6×9 sketchbooks that have 60lb paper and are fine for such things.  I’ve used Strathmore’s “Sketch” books for this purpose.  They’ve got paper covers and cost $6-7 here.  They’re fine.  They work.  Lots of people use them.  Canson has equivalent offerings.

But one day, while I was padding around the art store touching everything,  I saw 8.5 x 11, spiral-bound, hardcover sketchbooks (60lb paper) on sale for $8.

This is Fabriano's version of an 8.5x11 sketchbook.  I paid $9.99CDN for it.  Sometimes they're on sale.

This is Fabriano’s version of an 8.5×11 sketchbook. I paid $9.99CDN for it. Sometimes they’re on sale.

And I wondered.  I wondered enough to buy one.  I wondered enough to take it home and go into my dungeon, err, workshop.  I even wondered if I was nuts for doing it but a few seconds later I’d run that sketchbook through my bandsaw, creating two 5.5 x 9 sketchbooks.

If you don't own a bandsaw, I bet you know someone who does.

If you don’t own a bandsaw, I bet you know someone who does.

Cutting them does leave bare cardboard edges on one side of each book but that’s easily fixed with a fat Sharpie marker.  When bought on sale these cost me $4 each and provide 160 sheets of sketching fun.

One caveat about the cutting.  You can cut right through the spiral binding and it will generally work (depends on saw and blade I suppose but even my wood blades worked fine).  The potential exists, though, that the spiral will get bent at the point of the cut.  It’s really easy, though, to use some wire nippers to cut the spiral in the middle, removing a small section of it before cutting the book.  Otherwise, this is one of those no-brainer thingies that one can do to produce nice quick-sketchbooks in a more typical size than the ones I’ve been talking about recently.  Here’s some lines I made in such a book while watching Paul Heaston’s class on Craftsy.


Yvan and I use these all the time when we go to music recitals or quick-sketch in places where we’re carrying our art bags and don’t have to worry about being inconspicuous as we sketch.  Give it a try.

Walking Through The Park

Summer means a lot of walking for me.  I’ll regularly walk a couple hours a day and often those walks take me to the largest park in Quebec City, Battlefield Park, or what most still call the Plains of Abraham, after a farmer who tilled the area before British and French soldiers stomped around in the fields.

These days, the park is more tranquil, with rolling hills, lots of grass, lots of shade trees.  Oh…and lots of stuff to draw, including this building, which serves as something of a service center for the park.

While I was drawing I was approached by a tourist from Peru.  We tried our best to have a conversation but my Spanish is worse than my French and English and so we were limited, mostly,  to smiling at each other but somehow we managed to communicate.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  You meet the nicest people while sketching.

Stillman & BIrn Beta (6x9), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black

Stillman & BIrn Beta (6×9), Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black

Sketching St. Jean Baptiste Church

Le Collectif (CALVAQ) organized a sketchcrawl at the Eglise St. Jean-Baptiste on rue St. Jean and we all met at 11:30 after the mass was over.  It was a really nice day and I had a hard time with the thought of going inside to sketch but in I went.

I confess that I find few places less inspiring than the inside of a Catholic church.  I think it must be the gaudy gold everything that turns me off.  But they have one of their old bells on display so I drew it in my Stillman & Birn Beta (6×8) with my TWSBI Mini.


The other sketchers seemed more inspired than I was and everyone was deep in sketching mode when I finished.  All I could think of was the sunshine I was missing out on.  Maybe I was a plant in a previous life.  Anyways, I went outdoors.

Ahh…..”Good morning sunshine…the Earth says Hello…”  Who sang that song?  So long ago.  I wanted to stick with the church theme as that’s what the sketchcrawl was about, but as I walked around the church I couldn’t find a location that gave me a scene that inspired me.  So I walked further away and found a tiny park area that gave me a view of the really tall church steeple.  I sat down in the sun and started drawing, this time with my Pilot Falcon but in the same S&B Beta book.  We had a great day and I hope you like the sketches.


Mustache Notebooks For Sketching

If I were a fish, the ideal lure to catch me would be one that looked like a notebook or pen.  Maybe a Red Lamy with some Field Notes hung on the back.  Yeah, that would do it.

I cruise the stores, looking at every notebook and pen I can put my hands on.  In a way I’m lucky that the selection in Quebec City is so poor or I’d need a second house to hold my collection.  One of my favorite places is the dollar store.  It’s not because I’m cheap; my favorite sketchbooks are Stillman & Birn, after all.  I don’t scrimp on my ‘regular’ sketching surfaces.

I check the dollar stores regularly for cheap, small notebooks in which I do the quick-sketching I do as often as possible.  I’ve filled about 20 of them in the past three years, though their contents have only rarely made their way to this blog.  These are 3×5 or 4×6 books that generally cost me a couple bucks and contain 75-100 pages.  I scribble in them constantly.


MustacheLayersSo I was in a dollar store this afternoon and found a new item – mustache notebooks.  The neat thing about them is that they have both toned (light brown) paper and white paper.  There are 96 pages divided into 6 stitch-bound signatures, with the white signatures in the middle of the book.  The covers are simple brown cardboard with felt mustaches and glasses glued on them.

Kinda cute but it was the blank paper inside that caused me to snap up three of them for $2 each.  Suddenly it was a great day.  As I was walking home I couldn’t resist the urge to try out the paper so I stopped in a park and got out my Namiki Falcon with Platinum Carbon Black in it.

2015-05-21Parc Generally the paper in these cheap books isn’t the greatest, and my fountain pens tend to bleed through a bit and there’s always ghosting.  These are quick-sketch books, after all, so I overlook those failings.

The paper in these books is quite thick, however.  I’m guessing but I’m guessing 70-80lb paper.  And was I pleasantly surprised when I put ink to paper.  There is no feathering whatever, at least in this quick sketch but more important was what was on the back of this sketch – NOTHING.  There is no ghosting and no bleedthrough.  I’m going back tonight to buy some more.

Back of the sketch above

Back of the sketch above

Warm Up With Small, Quick Sketches

Sometimes, when I’m out walking/sketching I start with some small, quick sketches, done in an inexpensive 3×5 or 4×6 sketchbook.  This gets the juices flowing but also, this allows me to capture little scenes or things that I would otherwise pass by.

I’ve been doing a lot of them this week, mostly because I’m so thrilled by the sun that I just want to walk around in it rather than sit for extended periods sketching.  I’m getting a good tan (grin).  These quick-sketches also give me a chance to play with different approaches and I’m convinced that they have teach me more than any of my longer sketches.  Here are a couple examples:

3x5 sketchbook, Namiki Falcon, PCB and Kuretake #13 brush pen w/PCB

3×5 sketchbook, Namiki Falcon, PCB and Kuretake #13 brush pen w/PCB

3x5 sketchbook, Namiki Falcon w/PCB.

3×5 sketchbook, Namiki Falcon w/PCB.

Field Notes As A Sketching Medium

2015-03-21Sharpie_bookI’ve written several blog posts talking about my experiments with various small (3×5) notebooks as a medium for quick-sketching.  I’ve tried the Moleskine Cahier, the Baron Fig Apprentice and most recently Field Notes.  I even made a small binder for Field Notes to provide some support backing while sketching.  I think I’m about to bring that quest to an end and thought I report on what I’ve seen and what I’ve concluded from the experiments.  I wonder if Ponce-de-Leon and Coronado felt the way I do when they figured out that the fountain of youth and the city of gold were myths.

If I were quick-sketching with pencil, or ballpoint, this approach would work quite well.  But for fountain pens and certainly light watercolor washes, the paper is simply too cheap and too thin to handle the task.  Anything but the finest fountain pens will bleed through, causing the back side of the paper to be unusable.  I’m actually ok with that, though this reduces these notebooks to 24 pages making one (me) wonder why I’m not simply using better paper even if it costs a couple cents more.  Watercolor washes fail on two counts.  The paper buckles and the watercolor soaks in immediately and none of the techniques one (me) wants to use are possible.  Here are a few examples:


Bronze head — Pilot Falcon – some bleedthrough when I attempted to darken some areas


Pilot Falcon — this produces some ghosting but no bleedthrough except where I darkened shadow in lower section


I love Tootsie-Pops. This was interesting as I used the Pilot Falcon but a Pentel brush pen for shading. No bleedthrough at all.


Large bronze leaf/boat statue in front of the market area. Pilot Falcon and some light watercolor. All watercolor work buckled the papers considerably, though they sort of flattened once dried



So, in the end I’ve learned a few things.  Mostly I’ve learned that what I said a long time ago remains true.  To get good results you have to use good paper, at least I do.  Another thing remains true.  There isn’t any in a thin, small format.  The closest I’ve gotten to that was a small sketchbook I made by cutting up several sheets from one of my Stillman & Birn sketchbooks but I’m trying hard not to go down the road of making sketchbooks.



Monologue Is Coming To America

Monologue1Monologue is a sketchbook/journal company based in Singapore but they’ve just established a beachhead in North America in the form of a website.  They sent me examples of their sketchbooks for review and I’ve been using them for a couple weeks.  I thought it time to talk about them here.

They produce several sketchbooks and a many journals but for purposes of sketching, the choices come down to these three “sketchbooks.”  If you use lined journals, however, I encourage you to peruse their website.

All three sketchbooks contain 140gsm (~90lb) Italian paper.  The paper surface is similar to Stillman & Birn Alpha paper if you’re familiar with those sketchbooks.  I’ve found that it handles watercolors fairly well and that it handles my fountain pen inks just fine.  Ballpoints, gel pens and pencils work well also.  In general, I give the paper high marks, though it’s not for those wanting to work wet-in-wet with big sloppy washes.  You can’t scrub this paper, though, so expect limited ability to lift pigments as it generates pills quickly.

Hardcover and softcover sketchbooks

I’m going to talk about the hardcover and softcover A5 and A6 sketchbooks separate from the larger one as their design is so different.  These smaller books can be purchased with either a hardcover, similar to a Stillman & Birn or Canson sketchbook, or as a softcover, more like a Moleskine.

Both books in either A5 or A6 size come with 64 sheets (128 if you use both sides for the math-challenged among us).  The hardcover books have a small cover overhang while the softcovers have no overhang and the corners are rounded.  Both can be made to lay flat – a big plus.

Personally, in small sizes I very much prefer the softcover, no overhang format, as it makes the overall footprint smaller and easier to shove into my pocket or art bag.  I noticed that the website indicates that the hardcover sketchbooks are available in a variety of colors (big plus) while the softcover is only available in black.  Both covers are high quality and the A6 softcover that I’ve been using is holding up nicely to the abuse I’ve foisted upon it.

In my opinion, both sketchbooks suffer from a fatal flaw, at least for me.  The pages are perforated.  Monologue believes we sketchers want to remove pages from our sketchbooks and while that may be the case on occasion, a more general concern is that our pages don’t fall out.  The odd thing is that Monologue doesn’t feel this same ‘feature’ should exist in their lined journals.

To date I haven’t had any pages fall out but there are other issues associated with perforations.  The perforations make it very difficult to do two-page spreads as many like to do.  Also, I found that a decision must be made whether to use the whole page or to exclude the portion that would remain in the book if you did remove the page.  There are esthetic dilemmas in either case (click on photo to see a larger view):

Using the entire page, drawing over the perforations

Using the entire page, drawing over the perforations

Limiting the sketch to the non-perf portion of the page

Limiting the sketch to the non-perf portion of the page










The most annoying part of the perforations, however, comes when you want to turn the pages of the book.  The pages bend at the perforations rather than turn as an entire page, which means you’ve got to be very careful when doing the simple operation of flipping through your sketchbook.  In short, if you like perforations (is there anyone?) then you’ll like this ‘feature.’  For me it’s a deal-breaker.

In conclusion, these sketchbooks have a lot going for them if the perforations aren’t a problem for you.  The price is certainly right (A6 soft-cover sells for $6.99).

Large, gorgeous A4 sketchbook

Monologue 9x12, Pilot Falcon, Platinum Carbon Black

Monologue 9×12, Pilot Falcon, Platinum Carbon Black

This book is a a stunner.  It features a fabric cover that feels almost like velvet and there’s a nice design embossed on the front cover.  The inside features a blue lining. The cover can be folded back entirely to reveal a large pad of 9×12, 140gsm paper that’s glued into the cover.  I did this sketch in it and it performed well for me.  I would absolutely love this sketchbook if the paper were spiral bound so I could flip it back along with the cover.

But therein lies the rub.  Once again the Monologue people believe that sketchers want to tear the pages out of their sketchbook as they work and this book is designed with that in mind.  The website suggests that this book has perforated pages, though mine does not.  You can just separate the pages from the fabric binding they are glued to (not sewn).  The paper is bound with a cloth binding along the top and the idea seems to be that you’ll use it like you would a legal pad, tearing out the ‘used’ sheets, leaving the beautiful binder for the recycle bin I suppose.  I confess I’m not smart enough to understand this.

Monologue7Possibly, if you were to use this sketchbook in a studio, you could flop the binder open on a desk, draw on the pad side and keep the sketches you create in the book.  But if you’re on the street, you face the problem of pages either hanging in the breeze or bent back as in the photo.  In either case, the weight of these pages cause the drawing surface to bend and curve upward.  Yes, you can pull it down but this places considerable strain on the glued edges of the paper.  A rubber band might hold it flat enough but the problem will get worse and worse as you progress through the book as more and more of the weight of the book will reside in those bent-over pages – unless the used pages are either removed or fall out on their own.

Each of uses our sketchbooks in a different way but regular (mandatory?) page removal doesn’t seem to be one of them.  But if that’s the way you use your sketchbooks, by all means check out these new offerings from Monologue as in all other ways these sketchbooks are good value.



More Museum Sketching

I’m settling into a winter sketching regime which means I’m becoming a regular at Quebec’s Musee de la Civilisation  again.   I made over 50 museum visits last year and it’s likely I’ll do the same this year.  This day, I was with my new buddy, Fernande and we had a good time sketching in the Paris exhibition.  We followed up with a celebratory tea in Cafe 47, the museum cafeteria.

I nearly went cross-eyed trying to do a ‘proper’ drawing of this Delizy Brassart bicycle, which dates to 1889.  I was particularly interested in getting the frame organization ‘right’ as it’s very unique, with the crank being bolted on below the actual bicycle frame instead of being an integral part of it.  The solid rubber tires and carbide light are also very interesting.  Bicycling was a big deal at the turn of the century, with many innovations, the first Tour de France, and women wore bloomers so they could ride, showing off their ankles.  Ooo la la!

Stillman & Birn Zeta (6x9), TWSBI Mini with Platinum Carbon Black ink

Stillman & Birn Zeta (6×9) sketchbook, TWSBI Mini with Platinum Carbon Black ink

I thought I should draw something a bit easier after that so I chose this vase with stopper.  Pretty little thing and, I fear, I didn’t do it justice.  I used a Uniball UM-151 brown-black pen to do the brown markings on the vase, which worked better than I thought it would.

Stillman & Birn Zeta (6x9) sketchbook, TWSBI Mini w/Platinum Carbon Black ink

Stillman & Birn Zeta (6×9) sketchbook, TWSBI Mini w/Platinum Carbon Black ink

One thing about museum visits is that they challenge me to draw things I might not otherwise draw.  It really helps and there’s nothing better than a museum atmosphere to stimulate the creative neurons.


How Long Does It Take To Do A Sketch?

One thing that many of us who sketch on location talk about is how much easier it is to fit sketching into a busy schedule.  We contrast it to creating fine art and the need for large blocks of time.  We emphasize the point by quoting the many laments from fine artists about not having time to do their art.
There is truth to our claim but, on some level we exaggerate, as when many of us sketch a complex scene, or simply a sketch with lots of detail, we can burn away a couple hours without problem, and many a fine art piece is created in the same amount of time.

But, nevertheless, what we say is true.  I sketch almost every day, often more than once a day.  Unless you’re making your living as a fine artist, few could make that claim.  As I look at what I do and how I do it, I see that there is a ‘trick’ to fitting sketching into a busy schedule, whether it be by wandering the city as a street sketcher or sitting at home doing sketching at the kitchen table.  For lack of a term for this trick, I’ll call it time-result flexibility.

I learned this concept from Yvan Breton, the guy who has taught me more than anyone else about drawing.  What amazes me about Yvan is his ability to do 30-second sketches, 2-minute sketches, 20-minute sketches, 2-hour sketches, and pieces of fine art requiring multiple sessions and many hours.  I guess, to be more precise, it isn’t being able to draw something over differing periods of time as any drawing book will talk about doing gesture sketches, contour sketches, and various forms of more detailed art.

What is impressive about Yvan is that he does this seamlessly, magically fitting a true, realistic sketch into each of these time frames.  He has developed the ability to assess his available time and approach and develop his sketch such that, as the wizard Gandalf said in Lord of the Rings, “arrives exactly when he means to” and his sketches are complete.  Short time periods, of course, have less detail.  Maybe one could argue that they are less precise, but it’s really hard to tell and, to me, that is downright magical.

And while some sketchers fit sketching into their busy schedules by always sketching quickly, I encourage those interested in fine art to consider this alternative approach – adjusting the result of your sketch to the time available for it.  This does require adjusting your expectations to time frame but it goes deeper than that.  It means being able to identify and prioritize the various aspects of what you’re drawing and organizing your approach to capture the high priority things, in a quick sketch, adding a few more if you have a longer time and only capturing everything when you have an unlimited amount of time.

I know..I know…this is simply restating “just simplify” but that’s not what I’m talking about.  We can talk about ‘keep it loose’ til the cows come home but loose is a different debate entirely.  Yvan can do this time-result trick with portraits and each of them will look LIKE the person he’s drawing.

I wish I could better describe his thoughts and actions as if I could understand and do it well myself, I might better use words to explain it.  I cannot, but it is something that we can all think about and with practice implement in your own work.  The first step is to think about the time-result equation as you sketch.

The next step, I’m convinced, is to start drawing in radically different time frames.  I was resistant to this idea, mostly because I couldn’t do it.  The thought of drawing anything in 30 seconds was beyond my abilities.  Heck, the thought of drawing anything in 20 minutes was beyond my abilities until I’d drawn a few hundred things that took 1-2 hours.  But you’re all more experienced than I am, right?  So give it a try.

Pilot Prera and Lex Gray in a waterbrush

Pilot Prera and Lex Gray in a waterbrush

Here are my attempts at this sort of thing, all done within the last week or so.  The first is a very quick sketch of a friend.  I spent about 30-seconds capturing his shape, and little more, as he was talking to someone.

Is it great art?  Nope, but I can look at it and remember that day.  I also got some practice capturing a shape quickly.  I got to do art while I waited for him.  I had fun.  I’m just guessing but if I do another 120 of these I bet my ability to do it will improve.  What do you think?  And how long will that take to do 120 sketches like this?  In real sketching time, ONE HOUR, and it will be one hour spent drawing instead of just standing around.  Everyone has ‘dead time’ in their life.

Platinum Carbon pen, 3x5 notebook

Platinum Carbon pen, 3×5 notebook

I was out to lunch with a friend and afterwards he had to stop at a store, run in, and pick something up.  I sat in the car for 3-4 minutes.  As I sat I realized there was a building before me so I got out my small sketchbook and started drawing.  I spent 2-3 minutes on this sketch before my buddy returned and I quickly slapped on some color before scanning it.  I could have just sat and watched cars drive by but what fun would that be?  Doing 100 of these sketches would require seven hours of waiting for people, sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for lunch to be served.  Sadly, we all spend lots of time doing nothing.  And again, the result is fun and I get more experience “seeing” things and recording them.  If you did one of them a day, you’d have 365 sketches like this at the end of the year.


Pilot Prera, 3×5 notebook

I was in a mall, again… waiting.  I looked up and noticed the large light fixtures that light the mall corridors.  I’d been in the mall a gazillion times but never noticed them before.  Again, I got out my sketchbook and spent 10-12 minutes drawing one of those lights.  I found it something of a challenge as I always have trouble with angles when I have to look up a lot.  In the end, though, the waiting became fun and productive.

When I have more time, but not enough for a complex scene, I’ll do something like this:

Pilot Prera, Platinum Carbon Ink, Stillman & Birn Zeta (6x9)

Pilot Prera, Platinum Carbon Ink, Stillman & Birn Zeta (6×9)

Which one do you like best?  Yeah…me too, but those quicker, more spartan sketches allow me to build the ability to do the sketch above in about half an hour.

And when I have a lot of time, I’ll do something like this:

2013-08-27HouseI can’t tell you how long this sketch took me except to say that I need a significant block of time to do a sketch like this.  If I only did sketches like this I would have a lot less fun, a lot less often, and I’d have a lot less experience in laying line to paper than I currently have.  The time-result ‘trick’ is working for me.  My results are not up to what Yvan can produce in a few minutes but if I’m convinced that working in different time frames, fitting in as much drawing as I possibly can into my life, I will improve.  Maybe it can help you as well.