Sometimes Sketching Doesn’t Take Time

My daughter came home for Easter and she wanted to go to our downtown area and wander around, so that’s what we did.  We’d been walking for a while and decided to sit down and take a short break.  As we sat, taking in spring sunshine and watching tiny icebergs floating down the St. Lawrence River, I asked if it would be ok for me to do a quick sketch, no more than 10 minutes.

The only sketchbook I had with me was a 3×5 Stillman & Birn Epsilon book (love these).  My pointy device was a Platinum Plaisir.  I chose a scene and started quickly sketching a piece of the Chateau Frontenac.  It took me less than 10 minutes and I added some color when I got home.  No plans were interrupted and no need for “I’m too busy to sketch.”  If you carry a pen and a small notebook, you always have time to sketch.  Besides, now I get to say that I’ve gotten to do TWO outdoor sketches this spring (grin).

Extreme Sketching: The Final Chapter

I did a blog post a while ago about what I called “extreme sketching.”  It was an idea that originated from Marc Taro Holmes.  We were going out, in mid-winter Quebec temperatures and doing five minute sketches in a small format.  Marc is quite good at it.  Me, not so much.

But it was a great exercise.  I struggle to hold a small sketchbook in one hand, while drawing with the other.  For some reason I just can’t slow the sketchbook down and the results are impacted a lot by both the sketchbook and the pen moving at the same time.  I was hoping to practice that enough to eliminate the problem.  I did not.

I also wanted more time quick-sketching.  I do a lot of quick people sketches but I don’t quick-sketch buildings or street scenes.  To get a good drawing I have to look at my subject for the better part of five minutes, thinking only about the proportions and relative locations of things before I start drawing.  All of those processes must be abandoned if I’m going to do the entire sketch in five minutes.  I do think I improved upon this because of this exercise, but I’m not sure how much.   I also haven’t figured out how to draw snow with a pen and so I ended up with lots of cottonballs in front of my buildings.

The other thing I wanted to do was to just get outside sketching.  This I accomplished.  I ran this experiment down to -20C (-5F).  When it got colder than that, I gave up.  I’m a sissy when it comes to cold.  But I did manage to do fifty of these sketches, nearly filling a small Stillman & Birn Epsilon softcover book.  I’ll probably do some more this summer, when it’s not so cold.  Here are a few of the sketches I did beyond the ones I posted previously.

Do you do crazy things like this?  I hope so.  I don’t want to be the only one.

 

Extreme Urban Sketching

Once upon a time I realized that it was crazy to try to sketch outdoors during Quebec winters.  I wasn’t happy about it, but I accepted it.  Then, along came Marc Taro Holmes, talking about wanting to lose weight by walking and using sketching to motivate himself.  He spoke of wandering Montreal, doing 5-6 minute sketches.  He enticed us with some of the sketches he’d done and threw down a gauntlet, daring someone to join him in this endeavour.  I accepted the challenge.

I knew it was crazy.  I knew I didn’t have the skills that Marc has.  But I was also desperate to sketch outside.  I’ve dedicated a small Stillman & Birn Epsilon softcover to this project.  I was motivated by the realization that doing this could help me develop several skills, presuming I didn’t lose my fingers to frostbite. These skills were:

1) Learn how to hold a sketchbook while sketching

I know… after five years of sketching you’d think I could hold a sketchbook out in front of me and sketch, but I can’t.  I typically sit when I sketch, resting the sketchbook on my lap or, using a larger sketchbook stuffed into my gut, I can sketch while standing.  Holding a small sketchbook (3×5) in one hand while drawing with the other – not on your life.

2) Improve my ability to draw something with fewer lines

I draw in either a cartoon or illustrative style.  To do this quickly is nearly impossible, at least for me because there are just too many lines and too much detail.  To draw quickly one must learn to identify which lines are important and draw only those.  I’m really bad at this and want to get better.

3) Improve my ability to simplify a scene so as to capture it quickly

I still get overwhelmed by the world around me, lacking the skill to see a scene on paper that reflects what I see but without extraneous details.

 

So with this as my motivation, and having agreed to be part of Marc’s project, I went out sketching.  The first day it was -14C, but it wasn’t very windy.  I set a timer and started drawing.  I think my timer is broken because the time passes far too quickly and my results were horrible.  But I know that early results are always horrible so I wasn’t put off by the results.  Here’s a couple of them.

The next day I was greeted by -20C and a bit of a breeze.  It was really cold.  I reminded myself that if Marc could do it, so could I.  I sketched.  I walked.  I sketched some more.

Then it turned cold(er).  When the temps were -22C and below reason kicked in and I stayed indoors.   We entered a series of days with snow, rain, and more cold, which led to ice, making walking impossible.  So I stayed inside some more.

Eventually the weather improved and I was back at it again.  I’d resolved to do 100 of these sketches.  My sketchbook was still moving around almost as much as my pen so there was a randomness in the line work.  Here are a couple more examples.

More days passed; more walking and sketching took place.  It was still frustrating but I noticed that my sketchbook was slowing down; it was becoming easier to keep up with it.

So far I’ve done 20 of these little scribbles.  When it’s not too cold, it’s even starting to be fun.  I’m beginning to think that by the time I get the 100th sketch done I may have made progress on all three of my goals.  In any case I’m getting to do some outdoor sketching and that’s a good thing.  Here are the last couple drawings I’ve done.  I think I’ve moved from doing horrible sketches to doing bad sketches.  I consider that a win.  I’ve quickly added quick bits of color to these to see how they’d look with color.  Extreme urban sketching is challenging but fun.

The Best New Product Of 2016 – Stillman & Birn Softcovers

I was reflecting on my sketching adventures of 2016 and it occurred to me that one 2016 product changed how I approach location sketching and how weird it was.  You see, since 2011 I’ve been using Stillman & Birn sketchbooks almost exclusively as my quality sketchbook of choice.  I’ve written about why.  I’ve talked about my preference for 10×7 spiral-bound Alpha books and how great they were.  But I don’t use them any more.  I still have an empty one sitting on a shelf and it’s been there for over a year, untouched.

I’ve moved on… a better product came along in the spring of 2016.  It’s the new softcover books from Stillman & Birn.  Same fantastic papers but they’re thinner, lighter, and they hold up to my abusive nature.  These books also added 3.5×5.5 portrait format to their line.  I’m convinced that all my whining about the lack of a small portrait book with good quality paper (the Moleskine sketchbook is horrible) is why they are now producing this book.  They wanted to shut me up (grin).  I love these little books.

S&B also added an 8×10 softcover format that I’ve fallen in love with.  It fits better in my bags than the more typical 8.5×11 or 9×12 formats but more important, with Beta paper, it weighs only 412gm while a hardcover version weights 870gm, though the hardcover does have a few more pages.  What this means to me is that I now carry 3.5×5.5 and 8×10 (portrait), and an 8.5×5.5 landscape books with me and all three weigh less than a single 8.5×11 hardcover.

These are the S&B softcovers I’ve used in 2016.  The numbers are simply volume numbers that I assign chronologically to my sketchbooks.  And because someone will ask, I use S&B exclusively for my non-casual sketching but I do use cheap sketchbooks when I doodle while watching TV and when quick-sketching people on the street.  Number 52 is actually a 9×12 wire-bound S&B Beta book, but the others (53, 54, 56, 58) are those cheaper books.  I cut 60lb spiral-bound 9×12 sketchbooks in half on my bandsaw, creating two 6×9 books.  These provide me with LOTS of cheap drawing surface.  These are full and on the shelf, products of 2016, but #61 is still ‘in progress’ and rests next to where I put my butt when I watch TV.

But it’s the Stillman & Birn softcovers that are the subject of this blog post and, as Tony the tiger used to say, They’rrrre GREAT!  They should get a product of the year award, or something.

Review: Stillman & Birn Softcover Sketchbooks

When I got into sketching, about four years ago, I found it pretty easy to find quality pens, pencils, brushes and watercolors.  What was harder was to find a sketchbook that could accommodate pen, ink and watercolor.  It seemed that I was buying a new sketchbook every week in an attempt to ‘try another’ in my quest for the perfect sketchbook.

My first post about Stillman & Birn sketchbooks was in December of 2011.  A few other artists had discovered them and were really excited by them.  I’d just gotten one and was very new to sketching so it was hard for me to evaluate it except to say that I liked it.

My first real discussion of S&B came in March of 2013, after I’d had some time to fall in love with their products.  At that point I’d done a lot of sketching on their Alpha series paper and had just bought one of the Epsilon series sketchbooks.  If you read that post you’ll get the impression that I worked as a sales rep for S&B but I do not.

In the future my daughter is going to be faced with the task of taking my sketchbooks to the landfill. When she does this, I suspect my pile of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks will be even larger. These are the ones I've filled in the past 3 years.

In the future my daughter is going to be faced with the task of taking my sketchbooks to the landfill. When she does, I suspect my pile of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks will be even larger. These are the ones I’ve filled in the past 3 years.  Several others are ‘in progress’.

Since then I’ve been filling S&B sketchbooks at an alarming rate.  I’ve tried not only Alpha and Epsilon papers but also their Beta, Zeta and Gamma sketchbooks.  You can find reviews of these sketchbooks if you search for those words here.  I have a lot of experience with Stillman & Birn products, and I can’t imagine using anything else.

But there’s been one sketchbook format that S&B hadn’t provided me, until now.  I’ve whined to them about it enough that you’d think they would have made some just to shut me up.  It’s a small (3×5) portrait format book that has paper good enough (interpretation = Alpha paper) to accept my scribbles and watercolor smears.  Because this has not been forthcoming from S&B, I’ve been making do with crappy books from the dollar store, Field Notes, small (?) Visual Journals, Moleskines, etc.  At this point I’ve filled 27 of the darned things.  You’d think I’d know how to draw by now with all that scribbling.  Maybe in another 20 years.

S&Bsoftcovers

Anyways, Stillman & Birn has just released the solution to my small sketchbook needs, and then some.  The photo above shows just a few of the many format/paper combinations available in this new series.  All of the S&B’s paper types are available and each has its cover color-coded for that paper type (Alpha = burnt sienna (red?), Beta = blue, Epsilon = gray, Delta = green, Gamma = brown, Zeta = black).  They’re available as 3.5×5.5 and 5.5×8.5 portrait or landscape format and in 8×10 portrait format.

I like the cover material.  It feels almost like leather, though it is obviously not.  It’s stiffer than the Strathmore softcover books, a plus for a street sketcher like me.  The papers are the same great papers you can find in their hardcover books so I’m not going to talk about them.  You can find my opinions by searching for the reviews on this blog but so far I haven’t found any that I don’t like.  I use Alpha and Beta almost exclusively though.

Stillman and Birn have obviously tried to provide lighter and thinner sketchbooks compared to their hardcover books and in that they have succeeded in a big way.  Here are a few comparison numbers:

Hardcover        Softcover

Alpha 5×8       419gm              232gm
Beta 5×8          354gm             267gm

The thickness of a 5×8 Alpha hardcover is 18mm while the Alpha softcover is a svelte 10mm.  In short, these new books are much lighter and thinner than their hardcover counterparts.

3x5portrait

Here is my favorite.  I’m showing it before I took the shrinkwrap off because now that I’ve opened it there is some drool on the front cover.  It’s a small, Alpha-series portrait-format book.   Many who use the Moleskine watercolor books have complained that Moleskine doesn’t produce it in a portrait format.  I used to be one of them, but no more.  I now have my small sketchbook need satiated, or at least it will be when I place an order for a bunch more of these little guys.

Do you need/want the softcover versions of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks?  It depends.  It depends upon whether weight matters to you.  If you carry a single sketchbook and not very far, then giving up those nice hardcover bindings might not make sense.  I carry several sketchbooks and regularly carry them during two-hour walks so cutting the weight nearly in half is a big deal for me.

Are you ever bothered by the thickness of your sketchbook, say when you’re trying to draw along the edge where you have no support for your hand?  Do you wish the book were thinner when trying to draw across the gutter during early or late sections of the book, where one page is bent downward to reach the table due to the thickness of the book?  If these things bother you, maybe having a book that’s half as thick would make you happy.  Beware, though, this comes at a cost.  While the covers reduce the thickness, the softcovers are also made thinner by a reduction of page count (in Alpha the hardcovers have 62 sheets while the softcovers have 48).  I find this a small price to pay to get what I want in the small-size book.

There is one downside to these softcover books.  They use the same double-stitched, glued bindings of their hardcover counterparts and the glue sometimes wicks between the signatures (the small groups of sheets that are folded and sewn together) and they tend to stick the base of the two pages between two signatures together.   I don’t find this to be a problem with Alpha, and probably not with the other 150gsm paper books.  Their pages fold open just fine.  But with the Beta (270gsm) and probably Delta and Zeta books, the paper tends to separate slightly at the gutter when you fold open a section where two signatures come together (6 places in a Beta series book).  This separation is very tight in the gutter of the two-page spread and if you’re working on either side of the gutter, it’s not a problem at all.  But if you want to do a two-page spread, it can create an ugly gutter seam.

I’m thrilled with these new softcovers.  I’ve only drawn a couple things in them thus far but I know the papers well and have documented their use in pretty much all the drawings presented on this blog.  The softcovers, like Stillman & Birn’s hardcover and spiral-bound books, are great options for the urban sketcher or nature journalist.  I feel lucky to live in a time when we sketchers have so many great choices, and all from one company – Stillman & Birn.

It’s Museum Season In Quebec City

Only the brave would venture outdoors to sketch in Quebec City these days,  and I’m not one of them.   So, it’s museum time for me.  And because our Civilisation Museum is featuring a large exhibition of some remarkable white, plaster statues and busts from the Greeks and Romans, I’ve decided to set aside my fountain pens and try to learn how to push a pencil.  Strange gizmos these are as they produce a substance that is magnetically attracted to the little finger of my drawing hand, allowing automagic smudging of everything I draw.

I did this guy’s head in a Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook and I think pencil would work better on their Epsilon paper.  I’m using Tombow Mono 100 pencils (2H and HB this time).  The pencils are beautiful and seem to work well, though my inexperience doesn’t permit actual evaluation.  Maybe a winter of museum sketching will change that.

2014-11-05Olympus

Stillman & Birn Zeta: A Pen Sketcher’s Dream

S&B_ZetaBack in November of 2011 I bought my first Stillman & Birn sketchbook.  It was a 5×8, hardcover Alpha-series book.  I wrote about the Alpha Series here.   In that blog post I said that I liked it very much and I gave several reasons why I felt it outperformed the other sketchbooks I’d tried. I also ran out and bought several more.  But as I’d only had it for a short time I added the caveat that “It’s probably premature to draw conclusions that will stick.”

Well, nearly two years and ten S&B sketchbooks in use or filled, I think I can be a bit more definitive…but with another caveat.  Stillman & Birn just keeps getting better and better so who knows what ‘best’ will look like in the future.

I find the colors are brighter on Zeta paper, probably because they aren't absorbed into the paper as much.  Makes lifting easier as well.

I find the colors are brighter on Zeta paper, probably because they aren’t absorbed into the paper as much. Makes lifting easier as well.

As I filled sketchbooks, I tried the other Stillman & Birn papers.  For the pen & ink work I do, the Epsilon sketchbooks are wonderful to draw on.  It took me a while to get used to how the smoother paper accepts watercolor as they stay wet longer and sit on the surface more, which is neither good or bad but different from the more absorbent Alpha.  The best equivalency I know is to the differences between cold-press and hot-press watercolor papers. Both of these papers are 100lb papers that, while they outperform any papers of this weight I’ve ever used, they still have a tendency to curl somewhat when lots of water are applied.  You can see a bit of shadowing if you use both sides of the paper.

And then I tried Beta, S&B’s 180lb paper.  This is surfaced very much like a cold-press paper and provides a fantastic surface for watercolors but not as nice as Epsilon for pen use.   By the end of the summer of 2012 I wrote a summary post on these different sketchbooks.  I was completely hooked on Stillman & Birn papers and their amazing double-stitched bindings which are second to none.  But at the time I thought “They need thick “Epsilon” paper.

Notice how flat S&B sketchbooks lay once they've been broken in.

Notice how flat S&B Zeta sketchbooks lay once they’ve been broken in.

And this is the thing about Stillman & Birn.  If you dream it, they magically know you were dreaming and they make it.  The Zeta sketchbooks were release a few months ago in response to my dream.  I’m betting others were dreaming the same thing.

I use several S&B sketchbooks (different sizes and papers) simultaneously and when the Zeta series was released, I immediately started using one.  It quickly became a favorite for my kind of sketching (pen/ink and wash).  It’s a merging of best of Beta and Epsilon into one paper as it’s 180lb Epsilon paper.  I’m working in my second Zeta sketchbook and it’s hard for me to see any reason to use any other, if the size I want is available with this paper.

There lies the rub as I still use Alpha in 4×6 and 10×7 formats.  I will likely buy a 7×10 spiral bound Zeta as a substitute for my 10×7 Alphas but, so far, S&B haven’t produced a truly small sketchbook (thin, 3×5) – my current dream.  I hope that when they do it will contain Zeta paper (grin).

Waiting for Spring

I feel like one of the guys in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.  Every day they show up to meet with Godot.  Every day he doesn’t come.  He never does.  I’m beginning to think spring in Quebec is like Godot as while it’s officially been spring for a month, we’ve yet to see anything resembling spring.

I thought I’d share a few sketches I’ve done while waiting for a decent sketching day.  First, here are the last two sketches I did of the Nigeria exhibit at the Musee de la Civilisation.  Both were done in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon (5.5×8.5) sketchbook.

2013-04-17Nigeria

Lexington Gray in TWSBI mini. Watercolor pencils.

2013-04-21Nigeria

Lexington Gray in Noodler’s Creaper. Waterbrush with a few drops of Noodler’s Polar Brown in it.

This next sketch was my attempt to defy the elements.  I went out one morning because it was all the way up to 4C and it wasn’t windy.  As I sketched it got windy.  Then it started raining lightly.  I was driven from the street by hail and thought I was going to freeze to death (grin).  Done in a Stillman & Birn Zeta (5.5×8.5) sketchbook with a TWSBI mini filled with Noodler’s Lexington Gray.

2013-04-20StJeanSt

Lastly, I took my new Wahl-Eversharp Symphony 913 pen for a test drive.  This is an old 14k gold flex nib pen and while it’s old technology, the nib is wonderful.  I was playing with ‘quick-sketching’ some buildings.  That term is relative and as I’m a slow sketcher, what I mean by this is that I only spent about 20 minutes doing this sketch on S&B Epsilon paper.  Watercolors applied in my typical, inept fashion.  I’ve got to devote some time to learning watercolors.

2013-04-25RearRueStPaul

White-Face, Nigeria Style

2013-04-05NigeriaSome of the Nigerian masks are coated with a kaolin clay, making them very white.  In places the clay has worn off and so some of the wood shows through, giving the masks an interesting texture/coloring.  I was only semi-successful in capturing that look in this mask.

Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook, Pilot Prera and Lamy Safari, both filled with Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Brown and black watercolor pencils provided some color but I really needed a cream pencil for this one.

Make Friends With Museum Staff

I got out of French school on Wednesday and rushed downtown to meet with Claudette at the museum.  We sketched for a couple hours and then went out to the lobby area where we sat in big comfy chairs and Claudette told me of plans for a trip she’s taking in May.

As we talked, one of the security guards came over, a well-suited man in tow.  It turned out, this guy was responsible for the organization and implementation of the Nigeria exhibit, bringing it here from France.  The security guard had told him of our sketching and she wanted us to show them to him.  Which we did.  It was pretty special.  I’m not sure the best part was meeting the guy or that the security guard thought enough of us to go out of her way to introduce us.  Have I mentioned how great our Musee de la Civilisation and its staff are and how well they treat who sketch there?

2013-04-03NigeriaHere’s the sketch I did that day.  It’s truly an amazing piece and I didn’t do it justice.  What’s truly amazing is its size.  You see the ‘head’ at the bottom?  It’s big enough that a guy puts his head inside it.  The front has been broken off but you can get an idea how large the piece is from comparison to a man’s head.  The figure must stick up on top of the wearer’s head by three feet.  I don’t know how they wear these huge things.  This piece is also unique within the exhibit for its reddish-brown color – much more red than anything else.

Done in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon (5.5×8.5) sketchbook with a Pilot Prera and Noodler’s Lexington Gray.  Color comes from a couple brown, a red and a black watercolor pencil.