Adventures Of An Urban Sketcher

Thursday morning I decided to walk south and visit an industrial area near a railroad yard in Quebec City.  I’m something of a train nut and I thought maybe I could sketch some trains.

I was walking to the freight yard when I happened upon this scene.  I liked the yellow wall, juxtapositioned next to the brown train car and the harsh shadow between them, so I decided to sketch it.

I set up to the left of where this photo was taken, on a sidewalk, with the street behind me.  My WalkStool was actually straddling the railroad track.  Those railroad tracks crossed the street and went somewhere.  I didn’t pay much attention.   I remember chuckling to myself that at least this subject wouldn’t drive away like a car I was sketching earlier in the week.

I was having a really nice time as the sun felt good, it was quiet, and the sketching was going well.  I’m a really slow sketcher so I’d been there more than an hour and I was intently adding color to my ink sketch.

I was so concentrated on the work that I didn’t even hear it… until a guy walked up to me and his shadow crossed my paper.  “Qu’est-ce que tu fait, Monsieur?” (What are you doing, Mister?)   I looked up to see a guy in overalls and a baseball cap staring down at me.  And then I saw IT.  It was an EMD SW-1500 switch engine, idling no more than ten feet from where I was sitting – on the railroad tracks.

I told him I was sketching and showed him my sketch.  I stood up as I did and he told I’d have to move.  As I was packing up he walked over to the derail (that yellow thing clamped to the track), disengaged it, and motioned to the engineer to move forward.

By then I was taking photos of the engine.  I did mention that I’m a railroad geek didn’t I?  Once they’d engaged the boxcar, the guy dropped off the engine, walked back to me, and asked if I could show the engineer my sketch.  I was both amazed, excited, and nervous all at once.  The sketch you see below bought me access to the cab of that engine, which for a railroad geek is a really big deal.  And then they hauled my boxcar away.  And that, my friends is what I call a great day of sketching.

Here’s the sketch.  I still have to add the white letters on the boxcar and I’ll probably do that with a colored pencil.  This sketch was done in my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (10×7), using a Lamy Safari XF and Platinum Carbon Black ink.  Color is W&N artist watercolors.  Has anything like this happened to you while you were sketching?

 

Sketching Quebec City, One Building At A Time

A couple things have happened recently that are causing me to rethink what I post on this blog.  The first was an email I got asking me why I wasn’t posting more of my sketches here.  The other thing is that Facebook is continuing to march out its horrible Timeline format, which makes posting sketches on Facebook very difficult unless you’re happy with postage-stamp size postings.

I started this blog to promote my mystery novels and I’ll continue to use it for that.  But, because I love fountain pens and because I’m learning to sketch, I’ve started doing posts about those topics as well.  As the email suggested, though, I have not posted most of my sketches here.  That’s going to change and while I’m not a prolific as a lot of sketchers, I hope I’ll be posting sketches regularly.  I’d like to hear any comments regarding my art, or what you’d like me to talk about as we head through spring and into summer sketching season.

To start that off, here are a couple of my latest building sketches.   Both were done in a Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook.  I’ve been using these sketchbooks for a while and I love them.  These sketches were done in my new 10×7 (landscape format) spiral-bound sketchbook, though I generally prefer hardbound journals and S&B make some of the best.  But for outdoor sketching I really like the spiral-bound approach as I can fold it back, plunk it on my lap and draw.

Chez Madame Charlotte’s Restaurant

This has got to be one of the cutest restaurants in Quebec City.  Everytime I walk by it I think of Gary Larson cartoons.  The stairway of this sketch was the real challenge and having done one, if I’m made king I will ban them from my kingdom.

Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha; Lamy Safari w/Platinum Carbon Black; W&N watercolors

Les Colocs Restaurant

This is another restaurant in Limoilu, one of the older parts of Quebec City.  You can’t help but notice its colorful facade and this is the second time I’ve sketched it.  I was trying out a new pen, a Hero Calligraphy pen.  Works great but I used Noodler’s Black ink which, in spite of its ‘bulletproof’ label, is not waterproof enough to apply watercolor washes on top of it.

Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha; Hero Calligraphy pen w/Noodler’s Black; W&N watercolors

I hope you enjoy these and those I’ll be posting in the future.  Are you as excited as I am that the snow is gone and we can get out sketching again?

 

Make Cathy Johnson’s Nested Water Container and Spray Bottle

Those of us who want to sketch outdoors using pen and watercolor have a basic problem.  How do you carry water without it becoming a burden.  On its face, the problem is pretty easy.  You can always use a waterbrush, but painting with these is not as nice as with actual watercolor brushes.  But lots of people carry water bottles with them, even while running, hiking, etc.  What’s the big deal?

Cathy Johnson's nested bottle set up

Cathy Johnson's nested bottle set up

And when you think about it, it’s not the water that’s the problem.  It’s that what we watercolor types want is a, in addition to water, we need a place to dip/rinse brushes and a way to spray the water we carry.

Cathy Johnson, author of Artist’s Journal Workshop came up with a great solution by nesting a small spray bottle in a slightly larger container such that the two nest for travel.

The only problem with this idea is that it’s hard to find bottles that will nest.  Even Cathy has said that she can’t find another set and many of us have been searching for just the right combination to replicate her system.

The three bottles on the left are the travel set; the right shows an art store spray bottle

The other day I was wandering through a dollar store, looking for things I could repurpose into art goodies., and I found a ‘travel’ set of bottles.  Contained within it was a small spray bottle.  The best news is that since then I’ve found other travel sets containing the same small bottle so I don’t think this was a once in a lifetime find.  And, to make a long story short, this smaller spray bottle is just enough smaller in diameter that it will nest in the bottom of the ‘standard’ size spray bottle that’s available in any art store.

Once obtained, it’s a simple matter of cutting the bottom off the larger bottle.  I then turned it upside down on some sandpaper and sanded the edge smooth.  I do wish I’d cut a bit higher on the bottle you see in the photo.  It would provide more water volume for rinsing a brush.

In the end, I have a great little travel reservoir and spray bottle and, if I like, a couple extra bottles to carry more water.  Hope this helps others who, like me, were trying to replicate Cathy’s system.

Stillman & Birn Sketchbooks: Excellence In Execution

I’m new to sketching, but  I’ve been doing it nearly six months and I am a paper and pen freak.  I just love them and in spite of hammering away on a computer all the time, I have at least a dozen pens inked up and various waterbrushes, brush pens, pencils, nib pens, and paint brushes in use regularly.  It’s nuts, I know, as my abilities with these tools are limited but, for me, playing with the tools is just as important as doing art.

My approach to paper has been different.  I’ve spent the last bunch of decades as a fountain pen user – almost exclusively.  Fountain pens require high-quality papers if you’re going to enjoy them to their fullest.  So while I’ve tried the ever-popular Moleskine journals, my requirement for a paper had been reduced to “Is it made by Clairefontaine/Rhodia?”  If it was, I was happy.

This didn’t work for sketching, principally because I needed a more absorbant, and thicker, paper so I could play in the watercolor pond.  So I started a quest for sketchbook/journals.  I just counted and I have NINE of them (remember, I’ve only been doing this for six months).  When the dust settled, I had fallen in love with the Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbooks.  The binding is bulletproof and the paper far exceeds expectations when it comes to handling lots of water while doing watercolor washes.  I reviewed the Alpha here, comparing it to my Fabiano Venezia sketchbook.  Here are a couple of the sketches I’ve done in it to give you some idea of how the paper responds.

And so I was like a kid at Christmas when the postman arrived with my order of new Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  I wanted to a spiral-bound book for field sketching and while my pack can’t handle 9x12s, I bought the 7×10 Alpha for that purpose.  I like the idea of sketching without having a double-page spread to contend with, mostly because I’ve watched other artists working with spiral-bound journals in videos.

I also picked up a twin of my current 5.5×8.5 Alpha hardcover journal, though it’s not an identical twin.  Instead, this one is from the Stillman & Birn Epsilon series and while paper thickness (100lb) is the same, it has a smoother ‘plate’ finish.  The Alphas are quite smooth but, being curious, I thought I’d give an Epsilon a try because a couple artists I admire are using them with good results.  Of course, they could create great art on the bottom of a cafeteria table.  They say that watercolor tends to puddle a bit (the effect on all smooth surfaced papers) but that they actually like the results.  I’m excited to try the Epsilon.  You can find more info about these journals on the Stillman & Birn website.  Oh…and no, I don’t work for them.  I just like their journals.

It’s said that the scariest thing for writers and artists is the blank page.  In my experience, there’s some truth to that.  Somehow, though, I’m really excited about having a couple hundred blank pages to fill.  What are your favorite journal/sketchbooks?

Pilot Acroball: A Good Sketching Pen?

If you wander around the internet, spending time in places where people talk about ballpoint, gel, and rollerball pens, you’ll find discussion of “hybrid inks.”  These inks are stuffed into new versions of ballpoint pens in an attempt to cause ballpoints to write as smoothly as gel pens.  One of the pens that is often discussed is the Pilot Acroball, which comes with either medium or fine points.

I should confess that I have a fountain pen fetish and because of that, I’m mostly ignorant of things ballpoint.  I’ve been impressed by Uniball rollerball pens for years but I don’t really use them.  I use fountain pens for all my writing and sketching needs.  But many sketchers are reluctant to use fountain pens, seeing them as fussy, foreign devices.  They use needlepoint pens like the Sakura Micron, which are fine, archival-quality pens but their problem is that if you do a lot of sketching, you buy a LOT of them as they run out of ink or dry up all too quickly.

So, when I came across the Pilot Acroball in the mall the other day I bought one.  I bought the fine point, in black, as this would be the best form for sketching – at least my kind of sketching.  Frankly, I bought it with the notion of finding what was wrong with it as I’d never seen any sketcher talk about using one.

So what is it?  At first blush, the Pilot Acroball is like any of the gazillion plastic throw away pens that are filling our landfills and creating floating plastic islands in the Atlantic.  We really need to start thinking about the effects created by seven billion people, each doing some little, inconsequential thing like buying disposable pens.  But this post is about the Acroball, not how we’re going to live if we continue to ignore the realities of our world.  In fact, when you look closely you find that this isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, a disposable pen in spite of its $2-3 street price as you can buy refills for it.

The pen is a ‘click pen’ – the tip being retractable.  It’s comfortable in my hand and the esthetics are appealing.  I’m not going to dwell on this stuff, though, as these are personal preference things.  I’m writing this post to talk about hybrid ink and how the pen draws lines for sketching.

Pilot’s hybrid ink causes this pen to lay down a very fine line VERY smoothly.  For its size, it’s less scratchy than most of the needlepoint pens; it acts more like a fountain pen filled with a lubricating ink.  I’ve tested it on Clairefontaine paper, Strathmore 400 series drawing paper, and in my Stillman & Birn Alpha sketching journal.  It performed better than I thought it would in all cases.  So what’s wrong with it?

According to Pilot, this ink is both archival (pH neutral) and lightfast.  I’d love to test their claim of lightfastness but this time of year we don’t have enough sunshine to do that effectively so I’ll take their word for it.  But I can report that it is waterproof, which for those of us who like to add watercolor to our ink sketches, this is important.   It’s at least as waterproof as my favorite sketching ink, Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  It just didn’t budge, no matter how hard I scrubbed with a waterbrush.  The ink is actually a dark gray, very similar to Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  The Pilot Prera fountain pen used for the comparison graphic was filled with Lex Gray.

The one thing I noticed is that the Pilot Acroball has the same demand of its users than all other pens reliant on a rolling ball to deposit ink; you have to press down harder than I’m used to as a fountain pen user.  Flexible fountain pen nibs disappeared from the scene when ballpoints came along because people, used to pressing hard with their ballpoints, were bending fountain pen nibs left and right.  This difference shouldn’t bother those who aren’t used to fountain pens but I found it a a slight problem for me.  As I haven’t done anything but doodles with the pen I dashed off this quick sketch of the closest thing at hand.  So, what’s wrong with it?  It’s not a fountain pen (grin).  But I’m going to start carrying it as a back up pen for sketching.