See The World One Sketch At A Time: The Art of Urban Sketching

Once upon a time there was a boy who live in Spain.  His name was Gabi.   One day, while walking home from a bullfight, he noticed a newspaper headline that read, “The Greatest Coffee in the World” and being a curious lad he wondered what could make coffee the ‘greatest.’

It’s unclear to this day what caused it to happen but Gabi became obsessed with understanding who created the greatest coffee and how they did it.  He soon discovered the answer to the who question.  It was a company called Starbucks, a name that reminded him of Moby Dick, not great coffee.  He found that Starbuck’s headquarters were in Seattle, Washington and, determined to follow this quest, he boarded a plane for Washington.

Upon arrival, and ever hopeful, Gabi went immediately to the nearest Starbucks to taste some of that ‘greatest coffee.’  And there he learned the secret.  You take plain old coffee,  let the consumer make many choices so they feel good about themselves, and you charge them four bucks for the ‘greatest coffee in the world.’

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If I’m completely honest I don’t have a clue how Gabriel Campanario came to reside in Seattle, Washington but I’m a writer; I make stuff up.  What I do know is that Seattle is the better for it as Gabi writes a sketching column for the Seattle Times.

He’s touched the rest of us by creating urbansketchers.org around the concept of urban sketching – drawing on location in an urban setting.   The organization has chapters all around the world and explains itself by “See the world one sketch at a time.”

And Campanario’s new book,  The Art of Urban Sketching, brings this idea to print in an exciting and educational fashion.   You can find many of the sketches between its covers on the Internet if you surf around long enough.   The book, however, brings context to those sketches.  It does so in a variety of ways but principle among them are thoughts of the artists themselves.   Also, each of the sketches comes with a statement of what materials were used in their creation – vital statistics for those of us trying to achieve the high quality of the included sketches in our own.  It’s 320 pages are a bargain at its $17 street price.  Anyone who has even the slightest interest in sketching needs a copy of this book.

The book itself is divided into three sections.  The first section is an introduction to urban sketching, with discussions of what it is, what its challenges and rewards are, and what materials are most often used.  Some examples are provided but the points are not belabored.

The second section of the book is the majority content.  It takes you on vacation, or rather on lots of vacations.  Over 50 world cities are represented, each with artists and their sketches representing their special nature.

The eye-candy is amazing, of course, but much can be learned about art, artists, and cities from these chapters.  Best of all, you can curl up and let Gabi and his fellow artists take you places you’ve never been – maybe never heard of before.

The third and final section of the book talks about the various types of sketches done by urban sketchers.  We’re a strange lot as while we will sketch broad vistas and large spectacular buildings many of us are drawn to the more mundane.  We find it fun to turn lamp posts, streetlights, fire hydrants, or even a mailbox into art.

This is one book I can recommend unequivocally.  And it’s not that much more expensive than going to Starbucks (grin).

 

 

My New Favorite Sketching Pen: The Pilot Prera

I’ve been married for 23 years.  Aside from my winning personality and my wife’s infinite patience and tolerance, there is one reason why this is so.  I’m not nearly as fickle about women as I am about fountain pens.  Once I found a wife that would tolerate me, even my cooking, I held on for dear life.  Not so my choice of fountain pens.

I’m new to journal sketching but not to fountain pens.  I’ve been using the later since high school, long enough ago that events of the time are showing up in history books.  But I’ve only been sketching for three months.  When I started my favorite pen for sketching was the Lamy Safari.  Inexpensive, more reliable than any other, and you can get it in a variety of colors for color-coding the inks you’re using.

Since October, however, I’ve purchased a Kaweco All-Sport, a really fine, tiny (short word for great portable sketch kit pen) reliable line-producer.  Not quite as fine a line as the Lamy but still a great pen.

Then I chased the notion of a “flex pen.”  I had nothing but trouble with my standard Noodler’s flex and while I’ve also had a few glitches with my Noodler’s Ahab, it’s a pretty nice sketching pen as well.  I have a hard time getting as thin a line as I’d like, however.

And so my quest continued.  At each of these junctures I returned to my Lamy but I was determined to find a fountain pen that would draw as fine a line as a Pigma Micron 01.  I avoid disposable pens; there are simply too many billions of them floating in the Atlantic for me to want to add to the pile.

And so it was when I sent off a paltry sum for a Pilot 78G.  In fact, I bought two of them because they were so cheap.  When they arrived I was impressed.  The 78G  produces a very fine line – just what I was after.  Using either Noodler’s Lexington Gray (my favorite waterproof sketching ink) or Platinum Carbon Black, the Pilot 78G writes very dry.  I wouldn’t say it skips on me as that wouldn’t be true, but it sure feels like it’s about to when I use it, particularly if I start cross-hatching.  The 78G is also an opaque body pen so I can’t see how much ink you’ve got which is a problem for me as I want to take itto do field sketching.  It doesn’t come with a converter so you have to add $6-7 to the price to get one (The Con-50 fits it).  I found the cap threads to be sloppy and some have reported the cap coming off.  Mine have certainly loosened on their own.

And so it was that I decided to bite the bullet and send my $50+ to Goulet Pens for a Pilot Prelude.  Of the pens I’ve mentioned, this is the most expensive.  And now that I’ve had it for a couple days I feel it’s worth the price.  Most say that the nib on the 78G and the Prera are the same.  I sure can’t see a visible difference except that the 78G is gold-plated.  But when I put them to paper, my Prera is much smoother than my 78Gs.  I leave it to pen experts to debate such things, though.

The Prera is much more solid in my hand than the 78G, which feels like the ultra-cheap pen that it is.  Some say the Prera is ‘too small’ but I’m a pretty big guy and find that with the cap posted, it feels very good in my hands.  I bought one of the “demonstrator” models to get a clear pen body, though Pilot is wise in coloring both ends of these pens so some ability to color-code multiple pens is still a possibility.  The Prera comes with a converter so there’s no extra purchase necessary.  At this point I’ve only put Noodler’s Lexington Gray through it and the Prera likes it just fine, whether I’m writing on Clairfontaine paper or drawing on watercolor paper.  It’s my new favorite pen.

So if you’re looking for a truly ‘fine’ line you could do worse than to look at Pilot pens.  A price comparison between the Prera and 78G favors the 78G  but the price you pay for cheap is significant in my opinion.

78G:  $14 + $7 for converter = $21 from Jet Pens

Prera:   $55 (clear models) from Goulet Pens and doing business with Rachel and Brian is priceless.

 

 

Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous

Me: “Hi, everyone.  This is my first meeting.  I’m am a fire hydrant addict.  I need help…”

Everyone: “Hi Larry.  Welcome to Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous.”

And so it went at my first meeting.  Nice bunch of folks, and an intimidating number of dogs.  All are very understanding of those who spend a lot of time looking for fire hydrants.

I reported on my sketching of fire hydrants here.  But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Once I ‘discovered’ fire hydrants I started noticing their differences.  And now that it’s winter people watch with suspicion as I brush snow off a hydrant and take photos of it.  I think what freaks them out the most is that I act so excited.  Fortunately, they don’t see the time I’ve spent on firehydrant.org, a great site for fire hydrant addicts.  They haven’t seen me on hydrant manufacturer sites, looking at exploded parts diagrams of the various models.  Yes…I have a hydrant problem and I hope that Fire Hydrant Addicts Anonymous can help me.

Until the addiction intervention is accomplished, though, I’m compelled to draw them.  Quebec City provides some fun variation in shape, color and vintage and, well, they’re just cool.   Do you have a sketching obsession?

Drawn in a Stillman & Brin Alpha (5.5×8.5) using a Lamy Safari and Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Winsor&Newton watercolors.

Cheers — Larry

When Was The Last Time You Looked At A Fire Hydrant…

… really looked?  Me neither…until I got interested in sketching.  Even then I didn’t give them a glance until I found the sketching work of Pete Scully.  Pete is a master urban sketcher, mostly doing sketches of buildings in the US Davis area and mostly of the buildings there in.  I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from his work.

One of the things Pete is known for are his fire hydrant sketches.  He’s found some of the most wonderful fire hydrants in his travels and he’s made a point of sketching them.  This caused me to look at the fire hydrants we have here in Quebec City and I was surprised to find that ours are pretty cool too.  They are mostly a pale red (sun bleached?) and yellow but their shapes vary as they represent vintages that probably date from the Victorian era to the present.  I had fun drawing this one and so I share it here.  One in a Stillman & Brin Alpha journal using a Noodler’s Ahab flex pen and Winsor & Newton watercolors.

It’s All A Matter Of Point of View

People new to sketching very quickly run into the concept of point of view, and associated with it come discussions of perspective.  Point of view is simply where your eyes are relative to the subject you’re drawing.  If you’re looking up at your subject the horizon is below your subject.  Looking down on the subject puts the horizon above the subject.  And we’re told this is important because perspective lines converge to the horizon.

It’s about this time that we vow never to draw a building – the subjects used to teach us this stuff.  We generally acknowledge that a band on a stage is above us, a truck in a quarry is below us, and when we draw them we draw them with different points of view without really thinking about it.  The notion of horizon, though, is not part of the internal debate, at least in my case.

It should be, though.  I’ve just learned that the old “eye-level line”, or horizon can still be mighty important and I thought I’d share with you my error and discovery.  The results of being new at a skill is often not pretty, but it can be funny and even insightful.

I was wandering the Quebec City downtown area when I came across a guy leaning against a lamp post and playing saxophone.  I’m still not much of a sketch artist but I decided to draw him.  I dropped a buck in his sax case and started to draw.  I drew the guy, the sax, and the lamp post.  It takes me a long time to do such things, mostly because my eraser gets more work than my pencil and pen, and so at this point I packed up and walked home.  That evening I realized my guy wasn’t standing on anything so I drew a couple lines to indicate the curbs along the sidewalk he was standing on.  I put the sketch away.

A couple days later I was looking at the sketch and realized that something was wrong.  Apparently, I’d managed to draw this guy while I was standing on a forty-foot ladder in the middle of the street.  That wouldn’t have been a bad thing if I’d planned it, but I hadn’t.  How did that happen and why didn’t it look that way as I was drawing it?

It turned out that the answer was contained in those two short lines I’d added on a whim.  I scanned the sketch and erased them.  Then I added some others.  I kept playing with this until I got the point of view shuffled around to the way it was when I was drawing.  Here’s the result.

I’m betting the sketch would become even more convincing if I’d add some color/shading on the wall on the opposite side of the street.  Maybe I will.  We artists have a lot of power.

 

How Do You Choose A New Sketchbook?

You can always tell a newbie sketcher.  We’re the ones playing 20 questions.  What pencil do you use?  What is the best brush for small watercolors?  What’s a good starting palette  for watercolors?  Lucky for us, artists are a friendly bunch.  They tolerate all these questions and patiently provide answers like “it depends,” which, of course, it does.

But no subject gets more discussion than do sketchbooks.  Will it open flat?  Will it handle washes?  Is the paper smooth or rough?  Will the binding hold up to being strapped to my boot?  Ok…I made that last one up but it’s only a slight exaggeration.

As a newbie I’m overwhelmed by the sketchbook question.  Initially I didn’t want one at all.  I figured that drawing on single sheets of paper would be better because I could throw all my screw ups in the garbage.  I still do that too much but several artists have said, “Hang on to your mistakes.  You’ll enjoy looking back to see your improvement.”  I’m still waiting for the improvement gene to kick in but their advice is sound.

So, I ran out and bought a small Moleskine sketchbook.  I carry it everywhere.  But it isn’t too friendly towards me slopping a watery sky wash on its pages so I bought a small Moleskine watercolor book.  It’s great and has heavy, cold-press watercolor paper.  You can do anything with it and while it’s pricey, I don’t see much point in skimping on artist materials.

Thus far, all my sketches have been very small.  3″ x 5″ is the largest I’ve done and most have been ATC size (2 1/2″ x 3.5″).  But I decided that I wanted to draw a bit larger so the hunt was on again.  The obvious choice would be the larger Moleskine watercolor book but the crazy landscape format really shows its downside when you flip open the big version and are faced with a 17″ wide book, with the part you’re working on representing half or less of the total weight of the book.  And so my search continued.

To quote U-2, I think I’ve found what I’ve been looking for.  I bought a Fabriano Venezia sketchbook and a Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook.  I thought I’d provide a few impressions of these two sketchbooks, sort of a newbie view.  The summary first:  both are fine sketchbooks for someone like me who likes to do ink/watercolor sketches.

Name Size Pages Paper Wt Color
Stillman & Birn Alpha 5.5″x8.5″ 62 100lb – 150gsm white
Fabriano Venezia 6″x9″ 48 90lb – 200gsm cream

Size

Not much to say here.  They’re basically the same size, the S&B slightly smaller as the dimensions in the table suggest.  The pictures tell the tale.  Surprisingly, this small difference ‘felt’ like it mattered to me as the S&B sketchbook just feels better in my hand.  I thought this might be due to a weight difference so I weighed them.  The S&B is lighter at 436 grams, compared to the FV at 455 grams but with only 19 grams difference (less than an ounce for you Imperialists) that seems unlikely.  I guess it’s true; there’s no accounting for taste.

Page Count

There are significantly more pages in the Fabriano sketchbook.   Personal preference here but I prefer the thinner profile of the Stillman & Brin sketchbook so I’m willing to give up a few pages to get it.

Paper Wt.

Here’s where I grumble.  I grumble about the US unwillingness to accept international standards.  I grumble about paper graders and how these numbers become so muddled.  I’ll stick to this second thing.  How can art paper be heavier when using “lb” scaling and lighter when using “gsm” scaling?  It either is or it isn’t heavier.  Anyways, the Stillman & Birn Alpha paper is either heavier or lighter than the Fabriano sketchbook paper.  If one puts a micrometer on the paper, the Fabriano paper is slightly thicker.

Paper Color

The Stillman & Birn Alpha paper is bright white, while the Fabriano Venezia paper is cream-colored.  S&B do produce this same sketchbook with cream-colored paper.  It’s call their Gamma series.

General Impression

I don’t like the cover of the Fabriano Venezia.  It’s high-quality and I like the cloth end plate.  But the red blotchs… ugly.  The cover of the S&B books are much nicer, though one could say less flashy.

Neither of these sketchbooks open as flat as a Moleskine but the S&B does pretty well.  I think it would be difficult to draw across the gutter in the Fabriano book whereas it would much easier in the Stillman & Birn book

The Fabriano Venezia book comes with a bookmark ribbon, while the Stillman & Birn does not.  I can’t be without one of these in my writing notebooks.  I’m less certain about their necessity in a sketchbook.

Price

It’s always hard to know what to say about pricing.  It’s fine to cite retail price but the reality is that ‘street price’ is often quite different from retail price.  What I can tell you is that I paid several dollars less for my Stillman & Birn Alpha than I did for my Fabriano Venezia.  I don’t see price, however, to be a deciding parameter when buying a sketchbook except that I’ve learned that people with fountain pen fetishes like me shouldn’t buy cheap paper.  In my opinion, nobody should.

Usage

I haven’t done a lot of sketching in either of these sketchbooks, though I have done one sketch in my Stillman & Birn book.  What I did do was break the first page curse with some tests.  It’s actually the second page, I guess but I wanted to save the first page for a table of contents once I fill the book.

I tried to keep my pencil stroke and pressure consistent across both notebooks but I’m not sure I was able to do so.  It may be that the Fabriano book has a bit more tooth to it than the Stillman and Birn Alpha book.  Both take pencil well and both are smooth enough not to bother any pointed instruments.

I chose a couple popular fountain pens (Lamy & Noodler’s Flex) and Noodler’s waterproof inks as those inks are what I use.  In hindsight I should have included a washable ink but I didn’t think of it at the time.

I’ve been playing with Tombow pens. These are juicy water-soluble pens and I thought if anything would bleed through, these would.  Both sketchbooks take the colors well and there was no bleed-through in either sketchbook.  The same was true for the watercolor blotches, which I applied fairly wet as a heavy wash.

There is some shading with both sketchbook which might be a problem if you scan your drawings for posting in forums.  I need to experiment with real sketches to see whether this is a real problem or not.

Conclusion

It’s probably premature to draw conclusions that will stick.  Both of these sketchbooks perform well.  They do what they were designed to do.   But I did decide to use the Stillman & Brin Alpha while the Fabriano Venezia is sitting in a drawer.  I just like the Stillman & Brin better.  Here’s the first sketch I did in my new Sketchbook.