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?

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.

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.

 

 

The Fine Art of Seeing and How to Improve It

As we go through life our brain filters what we “see”.  It’s a necessary part of coping with eyes that would otherwise provide information overload.  But as a writer I need to “see” things that others may not.  Why?  Because I’ve got to describe them in my books.  It might be how a a woman’s blouse creases below the bust line, or the shape a man’s worn-out shoe.  I might need to describe how a car tire succumbs to weight as it sits on pavement, or the way asphalt grays as it ages.

It’s said, though, that it is the artists that really “see” and I envy envied them.  Now that I’ve spent a couple months being an artist, though, I feel that artists don’t see differently.  Rather they simply stop to see what we can all see if we take the time.  Instead of looking at a glass bottle, seeing the symbol of a glass bottle our brain has cataloged away, artists actually look at the bottle, seeing not only its outline but also the reflections within it; the way the light bounces off some surfaces and not others, how the surface curves and how the colors of the glass vary according to its thickness.

I know, I know…you don’t have the talent to be an artist.  I’ve spent six decades saying that same thing of myself.  Most of us are taught this ‘fact’ early in our lives.  But, did you know, there are actually people who don’t believe that?  Danny Gregory is one such person.  He’s written several books on the subject but the one that takes this subject head on is The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission To Be The Artist You Truly Are. Danny believes that anyone can and should enjoy and create art.   His contention is that being creative improves the quality of our lives. Here’s one example of how Danny makes his case:

“They say that when someone is sick and dying, with a heightened awareness that their days are numbered and few, they develop a new appreciation of little things.  Things intensify and become special and precious.  That view out the window, that snowflake, that conversation, that kiss – each one could be your last.

The trick is to incorporate this perspective into your healthy – though challenging – life.  Drawing does that; you pay attention in a way you normally wouldn’t.”

What Danny Gregory points out is that our problem isn’t a lack of talent.   Talent doesn’t matter.  What matters is our definition of art.  He suggests, and my two months of being an artist supports the view, that art isn’t defined by the finished product.  It’s about the process.  When you draw something, success isn’t defined by how well it resembles the object being drawn but rather, “Did you express yourself? Did you have fun?  Did you learn something?  Did you see?”  One doesn’t have to be Monet to achieve these goals but the process allows us to enjoy being creative.

I’ve only been drawing for a couple months, now and I’m not very good at it.  But everything has become interesting and fun to me.  I sat in a doctor’s office a couple weeks ago, a situation that normally would bore me to tears.  But I was looking at the people, their clothes, and noticing how pants wrinkle around the knees when a person is seated, how the colors changed between light and shadow.  I watched as a guy’s arm articulated while he was hanging up his coat.

And when I was raking leaves I noticed the many shades of yellow and red, and how many leaves had the equivalent of rust spots on them.  And have you ever looked at a potato peeler?  I mean really looked?  Confucius was right, “Everything has its beauty” and I’m beginning to see it.

A building here in Quebec City (pen/watercolor, 3"x5")

 

Cheers — Larry