Urban Sketcher’s Kit Bag

This is a quick post in response to questions asked in the Artist Journal Workshop forum on Facebook that resulted from a photo I posted of my field gear.  They wanted to know about my field bag so here it is.

I bought it from Mountain Equipment CO-OP for $21CDN.  Before we get started, I should say that this bag is with me everywhere I go and thus it’s used as a general service bag as well as my art bag.  I’ve always got sketching materials with me but when I go out for a ‘serious’ sketching session I add the paints, water, brushes and larger sketchbooks.

The bag has five main areas as well as a small pen compartment.  All but the back compartment can be zippered shut but I rarely do this as the cover flap closes things up enough for me.

I use compartment A to hold several pens.  Which ones I carry changes at my whim but generally I’ve got half a dozen or so and I think I could clip at least 10 of them into this pocket.  If you look closely behind this compartment you’ll see a small, open pocket.  This is handy for carrying shopping lists and notes.  For instance, I’ve got lists of all the Tombow brush pen, colored pencils, etc. I own so when I’m in an art store, I have those lists with me.

Compartment B is large enough to hold a pencil box, a small writing notebook, watercolors (W&N artist watercolors in a Cotman sketcher box),and other stuff if need be.

Compartment C is the largest and the workhorse of the bag.  You can put a 9×12 sketchbook in it but you can’t zipper it as the sketchbook sticks out just a bit.  My Stillman & Birn 10x7s fit nicely, though.  Sometimes it also holds a 5.5×8 book.  This is where I put my camera, paper towels and a collapsible umbrella if I need it.  If I carry only one sketchbook and the camera, I can stick binoculars in here.

Compartment D is in the cover.  I’ve carried a small Moleskine there in the past but I haven’t used it much simply because I haven’t needed the space.  While there’s lots of room here, it’s best for light things as otherwise it makes the cover hard to flip up when you need access to the other compartments.

Looking at the bag from the back, there is a large, thin compartment with no zipper.  I have a couple thin, 5×8 homemade sketchbooks, made from toned paper, that live here.  I also have a fomecore backing board for these sketchbooks in this compartment.  Because this compartment is up against my side as I walk, I don’t put anything in here that’s lumpy but the sketchbooks seem happy there.

Here’s a photo of the typical contents of my bag when I’m out on a sketching session.  I stuff all the ‘wet’ things (marked D) in a large ziplock bag before dropping them into compartment C.

When I head out, the back looks like this, with my Walk Stool clipped under the cover.  It makes a compact rig and I’ve been very happy with it.

 

Stillman & Birn “Beta” Sketchbook

When I got interested in sketching I found it pretty easy to find good watercolors, brushes, pencils, and pens.  What was harder was finding sketchbooks that served my purposes as a pen/ink/watercolor sketcher.  I spent a lot of money and now own a bunch of sketchbooks with 2-3 sketches done in each before I rejected them.

Then a couple artists started talking about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  I bought one.  Then another.  Then another.  And I’ve never looked back.  They are simply the best I’ve found.  Mostly I’ve been using sketchbooks, both bound and spiral, from their Alpha series, which have nice, smooth, 100lb paper.  I’ve also tried the Epsilon series and while a bit smoother, I don’t really see much difference between the two but I’m a rookie so what do I know.

And over my few months of using them, lots of other sketchers have started using them too.  We’ve all reported to Stillman & Birn that their Alpha (white) and Gamma (ivory) sketchbooks can handle a lot more water/washes than their advertising suggests.  Many of us are as surprised as S&B are about this, as 100lb paper is about the minimum for doing washes in my experience.  But there’s something about the sizing of the paper that causes it to act ‘heavier’ than it is when accepting watercolor.

It’s not that you can’t buy heavier paper from Stillman & Birn.  They have a Beta (white) and Delta (ivory) series that contain 180lb paper.  But Stillman & Birn advertise these series as being “rough” paper and that’s the last thing one wants if you’re going to be pushing an ink pen over the surface.  So I’ve avoided them…until now.

I’m a curious kind of guy so I’ve now got 6×8 spiral sketchbooks from the Beta and Delta series and…shazaam…the paper isn’t rough at all.  In fact, it’s smoother than some cold-press watercolor papers I’ve tried.  These papers do have a bit more tooth than my Alphas but I got quite excited when I received them because the paper is very heavy, smooth, and inviting.

A quick test demonstrated that my fountain pens like these papers.  I tried a Kaweco Al-Sport, Lamy Safari, Noodler’s Ahab, Pilot Prera, and Hero calligraphy pens.  I tried Platinum Carbon Black, Noodler’s Lexington Gray, and Noodler’s Bernanke Black ink.  All the lines were clean and crisp.  It might be my imagination but I feel that watercolor washes are easier to do with these papers too but I can present no data other than ‘seems like’ to support that view.

And so this morning I got up, looked outside and saw the sun.  I headed out with my new Beta sketchbook in search of something to sketch.  This lasted about 15 minutes.  It was sunny, but ugh; it was cold… cold… cold.  Temps were only a couple degrees below freezing but the winds were howling and so being the sissy that I am, I hustled myself back home.

Not to be defeated by Mother Nature, I went through my photo library and came up with a photo of a sign I’ve been wanting to sketch.  It hangs high over an intersection in our downtown area and I love the flourescent pink lighting around its periphery.  I started sketching, not fully realizing that I had no clue how to draw flourescent lighting.

I’m going to really like this Beta sketchbook.  At 6×8 it’s a good size for portable sketching, though I’ve become quite attached to my 10×7 Alpha sketchbooks.  Here’s the end result.  I did this sketch with a Pilot Prera and Lexington Gray ink.

Making Sketchbooks With Colored Papers

There are dozens of videos and blog posts demonstrating how to make sketchbooks.  This isn’t really one of them.  Then again, it sorta, kinda, is.  I’m writing it because I mentioned that I’d made a couple small sketchbooks using brown paper in the Facebook group, Artist’s Journal Workshop.  One of the regulars in that group asked if I could show how I made them.  This post is what you might label a “Cliff Notes” (does that date me too much?) version of how to make a simple sketchbook.  I encourage you to surf through the YouTube videos for better explanations.

What are we talking about here?

These are the two sketchbooks I’ve made.  Both are identical in construction.  Both are 5.5×8 in size.  The one on the left contains brown pages, cut from plain, cheap postage wrapping paper.  I find this paper works well for pen drawings and you can even add light washes but it’s not very happy with too much water, however.  The cover of this sketchbook is made by cutting a file folder to size.  The benefit of this approach is that it’s already folded and the material is designed to act as a cover.  In short, it’s ideal and easy.  The binding tape (optional) is gaffer’s tape, a black, a fabric tape used to hold everything and anything together.  Think of it as a heavy-duty masking tape, which could substitute for this purpose.

The second sketchbook is composed of several colors of Canson mi-teintes paper.  I believe this is listed as a pastel paper but people use it for pen and watercolor sketches as well.  It’s not quite as smooth as the brown paper but it’s much thicker.  The cover comes from a 12×12 sheet of heavy, patterned paper I got in the scrapbook section of the art store.

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Besides the paper materials, what tools are required?

  • straight-edge
  • knife (Xacto, roller, or paper cutter)
  • measuring device
  • something to poke holes in the signatures (the folded paper) – I used a compass point
  • large needle
  • thread (see below)
  • scissors

Cut and prep the paper

To make a 5.5×8 sketchbook, you need a bunch (I used 6) of paper squares cut 11×8.  I’ll leave you to your devices to achieve this.  Then you need to fold each sheet so that you have a two-page signature leaf that’s 5.5×8 inches.  Use something hard and with an edge to crease the fold as tightly as you can.  I found it desirable to actually iron (low heat) the brown paper pages as the paper came off a roll and tended to retain that curve.

Once you have these pages, simply stick them, one inside the other, creating a single, 12-page (or 24 if you count both sides) signature.  The inner pages will stick out slightly beyond the outer pages.  Trim them if this concerns you.

Cutting and prep the cover

If you’re using a file folder for your cover, just cut it to fit around the paper.  Otherwise, fold your cover stock in half and cut it to fit around your paper.  That’s all there is to making a cover.

Sew it together

There are lots of fancy ways to sew up sketchbooks.  This ain’t one of those ways.  My goal wasn’t to replace my beautiful double-stitched Stillman & Birn sketchbooks.  It was to tie a few pages of colored paper together so I could sketch on them.  So…easy-peasy…we don’t do hard.

Before we get started, notice that there are three holes in the spine of this sketchbook.  These are punched before we sew.  Make the holes a bit larger than your threading needle to make the sewing easy but not so large that things get sloppy.  Punching those holes could be considered the ‘hard part’ but remember, this is easy-peasy sketchbook making.

Get out your phone book and flop it open on a table.  Open your sketchbook to its middle and stick the spine into the centerfold of phonebook phone book.  Take your sharp thingie (you chose your tool), and stab through the entire sketchbook halfway down from the top and through the fold of the sketchbook.  The phone book will hold everything in alignment and provide a place for your sharp gizmo to exit.  Easy peasy.  Now repeat that process an inch from the top and an inch from the bottom.  Voila, the “hard part” is done.

Let the sewing begin.  Use whatever thread you like but it should be fairly thick.  There are special bookbinding threads available but I just used several strands of cheap embroidery thread and a large embroidery needle.  There isn’t much to this…really.  It’s harder to explain it than to do it.  I’ve made a crude drawing of the thread path as an attempt to eliminate the proverbial 1000 words a picture replaces.  The green arrows are when the thread is outside the book; the red arrows indicate the thread inside the book.

There is one thing to note.  The thread going into the center of the book, and the thread coming out of the center of the book, should be on opposite sides of the long run of thread that goes from top to bottom on the outside of the book.

Once you do this threading, just grab the two ends of the thread and pull everything tight.  Then, tie a double knot in the two ends.  Notice that this will cinch down on that long thread running along the spine.  That’s why the ends need to be on opposite sides.  I hope that is more clear than it sounds (grin).

Cut off at least one of the loose ends.  Whether you cut the other end depends upon whether you want a long end to wrap around your sketchbook to keep it closed.  I did this for my mi-teinte paper book because this thicker paper doesn’t want to close completely flat.  I cut both ends on the brown paper sketchbook and then covered the entire spine with tape.  I think this actually provides a better, cleaner solution but to each his/her own.

So there you have it – how I made a couple of quicky sketchbooks.  Hope this helps someone.

 

 

The Russians Are Coming…

When I came across this house in Quebec City, I had to sketch it.  I wonder if the Russian Czar who must be living there had a pool table under that dome or a ballistic missle.  It didn’t matter; it was just plain KEWL!

I set up across the street and went to work, sketching the bones in pencil and then doing the ink sketch.  I’m pretty slow as a sketcher and so this took me more than an hour but the time passed without notice.  When it came time for color, the waterbrush came out and… I realized that my watercolors were sitting on my desk at home.  So I shot this photo, packed up, and headed home.

Once at home I vowed to make up a second palette of watercolors so that I could keep it in my sketching satchel.  I had a W&N Cotman Sketcher palette that I picked up on sale and so I popped out the Cotman watercolors and filled the pans with Winsor & Newton artist-quality watercolors.  I’m still experimenting with color palettes and mostly working with little knowledge.  This is what I’m using right now, though.

 

I decided to go light on the color for this sketch; it just seemed to call for that approach, with all the emphasis on the building.  I hope you like it.

It was done in my Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha sketchbook, using a Hero 578 Calligraphy pen and Platinum Carbon Black ink.

Cool Spring Sketching Isn’t So Cool: It’s Cold!

I’m so excited that it’s finally spring in Quebec City.  I got interested in sketching last fall, just before it started getting cold here, and so I’ve been trying to get out sketching as often as I can.  I may be premature in that because Quebec spring is still pretty cool, and often windy.

A few days ago when I’d made the decision to go sketching.  The temps were just above freezing and it was quite breezy.  But I went anyway.  I headed downtown, looking for something to sketch, my face and ears screaming “Are you nuts?” to my stubborn sketcher brain, as the wind defoliated my skin.

I set up next to a wall that blocked most of the wind. It was across the street from a dental clinic that seemed worthy of sketching.

I start these sketches with pencil and  I have two goals.  I want to get the perspective right and I want to locate all the foreground thingies that determine where the background lines start and stop.  I don’t worry about drawing the details at this point, but I’m slow enough as a newbie sketcher that this takes me longer than it does for most sketchers.  I’d been sitting for about 45 minutes and I was beginning to empathize with popsicles and dream of fireplaces.  I called it a day, packed up, and went home.  This was the state of the sketch at that point.

Later, in the warmth of my home, I inked (Hero Calligraphy pen w/Platinum Carbon Black ink) the sketch, added some details, and used Winsor & Newton Artist watercolors to give it some color.  Hope you like it.

By the way, the more I use it, the more I’m enjoying my Stillman & Birn 10×7 Alpha.  I’ve been using Alpha’s for a while now and love them and spiral format is really convenient for outdoor sketching…even when it’s cold.

I went out this morning to sketch some more.  I headed to the marina, expecting that some of the winterized sailboats would be back in the water.  It was spring, afterall.  Turned out that, once again, I had been overly-optimistic as the marina is still covered by ice.  Spring is here, but not really.

 

 

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?

 

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.

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