Sketching Over The Holidays

I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that the holiday season is more a disruption than something to celebrate.  I’m an old guy, set in my ways and those ways are for me to go sketching.  But with all the hoopla my routine has gone bonkers and my sketching has become scattered.  I thought I would just post a smattering of the many small, generally incomplete sketches I’ve done over the past week or so leading into New Years.

2015-12-29EgyptHere’s a sketch I did one day at our museum.  Another Egyptian guy, standing stiff against a wall, or so it seems.  I don’t really know who he is but he was fun to draw and that’s good enough for me.

He was done in a Stillman & Birn Gamma book with my Namiki Falcon and DeAtramentis Document ink.  Color was mostly burnt sienna with a bit of ultramarine to produce the grays.  I played with the notion of making him look like stone, which he was.  I’m not sure how successful I was in this.

2015-12-31ornamentsOtherwise sketching has been a bunch of doodles here and there, mostly on photocopy paper.  On New Years Eve, however, I was watching TV with Chantal and I drew these three ornaments that were laying on a table.  Color was done with watercolor pencils but the sketch was done on cheap paper and so I couldn’t use a lot of water or move the color very much.

2015-12-31ornaments2I was still bored by the TV so I picked up my Sailor fude pen and decided to give it a whirl.  I’ve never adapted to the fude pens because I typically want thin lines and there are better tools for that.  But I’m determined to improve my ability to draw heavy-line, quick sketches for some reason.  I started out by drawing the same three ornaments.

As I scanned this for the post I couldn’t help but think of a conversation I’ve been having with Tina Koyama about what or whether the degree of expressiveness in a sketch says about what the artist was feeling, either about the sketch or the subject.  The two sketches above were done within minutes of one another and yet one was done with an “expressive” stroke while the other was done in a more controlled fashion.  I’m pretty sure I was wishing the holidays would be over during both sketches (grin).

I turned my fude pen to my imagination and one thing I drew was a bunch of imaginary carriage lanterns.  I’d talked to Yvan about meeting to draw some at the museum where there’s a carriage exhibition going on so they were probably on my mind.  Anyways, prior to drawing these I looked at a couple sketches I’d done of some a few months ago but these were all done in a very few minutes. While I think they reflect bits and pieces of ‘the real thing’, they’re purely imaginary.

2015-12-31imaginarylanternsNow that the holidays are over, I should return to a more normal schedule.  I’m still a couple sketches/days behind on the blog but I’ll get caught up “real soon.”

January Croquistes De Quebec Sketchcrawl

Built over 200 hears ago as the city's first prison, the Morrin Centre now also houses one of the world's most beautiful libraries, Vieux Quebec, Quebec City, QC, Canada

Built over 200 years ago as the city’s first prison, the Morrin Centre now also houses one of the world’s most beautiful libraries, Vieux Quebec, Quebec City, QC, Canada

I’m a bit late in announcing this and for that I apologize.  Holidays have messed with my internal clock.  The next Croquistes de Quebec sketchcrawl will be held at the Morrin Center library.  Yvan went above and beyond to allow us to sketch there.

If you’re not familiar with the Morrin Center it’s the home of the Literary and Historical Society of Québec, an anglophone organization.  The crowning jewel of this organization is its library, which, with large, leather-covered rectory tables, bookshelf-lined balconies and tight winding stairways, is Quebec’s version of the Hogwarts library, without the book that scream at you.

Unlike most of our sketchcrawls, this one will be in the afternoon only, from 1PM to 4PM.  You can get details of the event from the Croquistes’ website.  I’ve never gotten to sketch there so I’m looking forward to it.  See you there.

A Day At The Chapel

When I talk about “our museum” I’m generally referring to the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City.  But we do have other, much smaller museums, one of them being the Musée de l’Amérique francophone. This small museum exhibits are mostly disappointing as while they have considerable display space, it is very poorly utilized and the exhibits are…well boring. 

2015-12-27steepleBut, with winter upon us, Yvan and I decided we should visit and see if we could find something to sketch.  We did, though not in the museum.  Between the museum entrance and the exhibits is a chapel that you walk through to get to the elevator that takes you to the exhibits.  There, you can sit in the warmth of the place, look out the window and sketch.  That’s what I did to sketch this quick drawing of the tower over one of the old seminary buildings (not the Université Laval Dept of Architecture).

What really drew our interest, however, were all the small decorative carvings that ring the main chapel area.  These are handcarved floral designs, with lots of symmetry, curves, and details.  To Yvan, this means fun challenge.  To me it means scary, but a good kind of scary.

We decided that we would draw a bunch of these as it would form good practice.  I admit that I struggled with this first one but I also enjoyed the mental challenge of depicting a piece that is largely symmetrical but that also has a sprinkling of asymmetry due to the vagaries of its handcarved nature.  Can’t wait to go back to do more.  I’m hoping I”ll improve my use of watercolor shading on subsequent sketches.

Decorative carving

Channeling Pete Scully While Doodling

I watch TV.  I grudgingly admit it, but I have a hard time just watching TV.  Typically I’m banging away on my laptop, checking Instagram on my cell phone, or sketching in a cheap sketchbook I keep in the living room.

This behavior becomes extreme during the holiday season because my wife and daughter get into Christmas movie mode and my eyes cross trying to watch them for the umpty-tendy-teenth time.  Most were bad enough the first time around.

So, while Grinch was ruining Christmas, I started doodling, using some Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils.  I’m not a pencil guy but I like to try to improve my pencil shading skills every once in a while as I’m 1) really bad at it and 2) I find it very meditative.

ScullyMugI was just shading irregular shapes when I noticed my Pete Scully cup.  Pete had a Society6 cup made with some of his fire hydrant sketches printed on it and, of course, I had to have one.  It holds some drawing tools for desperate times, like when activities unfold in Whoville.

Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils

Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils

I didn’t match Pete’s hydrants line for line but the resemblance is there.  It was fun.  As for the Grinch movie; the book was better.


Drawing Without A Subject

Being cloistered by winter isn’t great for a street sketcher but if you live in Quebec City, it’s a given for several months of the year.  There are museums and coffee shops but even so, there’s a lot of sketching time going down the drain if I don’t do some drawing at home.

This year I’m looking around for things to do that will improve my street sketching.  My mentor has been after me to spend time drawing from my imagination for a long time and for just as long a time, I’ve ignored the idea because I like drawing on location.

But, he says, drawing from imagination improves your visual memory in a number of ways.  It improves your visual memory.  It also requires that you engage your brain as you go through life to capture visual information that can be used when you’re constructing a drawing from memory.  It also allows you to draw more, because you don’t need a subject.

Visual memory

Even street sketchers need visual memory.  It’s a misnomer to talk of hand-eye coordination except for the ability to look at a piece of paper and have the ability to guide the pointy device to describe a circle or straight line.  When we actually draw objects however, the process looks more like

See –> Memory –> draw

and it’s the brain, and short-term visual memory that is involved in the filtering and translation of what the eye is recording and what you end up putting on paper.  The better your visual memory, the better that translation will be and the more time you can spend drawing vs looking at your subject.

Training the brain to record

Most people go through life not seeing most of what they are seeing.  The eye records everything in front of it.  The brain only keeps what it thinks you need.  A robin needs to identify worms, or parts of worms sticking out of the ground and it does so far better than you can.  We biologists call this ‘search image’ but in reality, it’s what the brain has been trained to see.  I never even noticed fire hydrants until Pete Scully drew them.  Now I always notice them.

Brains are flexible and can be trained.  From the view of a biologist, most of art training is brain training.  If your brain is going to build a visual vocabulary for you, it must be given a reason to actively record, for use later, stuff you see as you walk and sketch your way through life.  Most of us don’t do that.  We draw what we see and move on.  Drawing from imagination gives your brain the required motivation to turn on its recorder when you look at stuff.

Lest you doubt its applicability to location sketching, think about the architect.  When an architect goes to draw a building, they have a huge pile of visual stuff stored up in their brain from studying building shapes and their construction and design.  Clearly that helps them do building sketches more quickly and accurately.  Ask Liz Steel or Frank Ching if that’s true.

So, if you spend time drawing from memory, you will be frustrated by the fact that you don’t know what this or that looks like but you’ll also start getting your brain to build a visual vocabulary that you can use.  Because you’re a sketcher, these memory images/symbols will be more sophisticated than a ball on a stick for a tree, but they will have the same use that a child has for their symbols when you sit down with a blank piece of paper and nothing to look at.  And with a fully stocked visual vocabulary, your ability to work on location will improve as well.

Anyways, given that I’m stuck inside for the next few months, I’m going to work on my visual memory and I’m starting to build my visual vocabulary while I’m wearing half a dozen layers and out for a walk.

I’m really new at it but I’m finding it fun.  I’m doing a bunch of really quick, vague scenes that don’t amount to much but I just start drawing and adding stuff that pops out of my brain.  I’m also drawing more “little things” that exist in my world that, by themselves, aren’t really a drawing but the quick-sketch helps me capture the shape as I tell my brain “I want to use this in a sketch some day.”  None of this is great drawing as I’m suffering that ‘frustration’ thing I mentioned, not really knowing how to draw most of the things I want to add but can’t.  But here’s  a 2×4 sketch that started with a tree and I just started adding stuff to it.

2015-12-16memoryYesterday I was playing with some watercolor paper and decided to draw a scene that I saw in a newspaper a few days ago.  I doubt that it is close to the photo but I remembered a woman looking across a river at a house.  This one is 5×7.  Maybe winter won’t be so bad after all.