Another Trip To Ile D’Orleans – Pt 1

I finally got out sketching and it was a fantastic day. Unseasonably warm and not much wind so I headed back to Ile d’Orleans where I sketched and froze the last time I was on the island. This steeple is attached to a church that’s on the eastern end of the island, in the town of St. Jean.  Its bright orange roof must serve as a visible beacon for the cargo ships that come from the Atlantic and are making their way towards Quebec City.

The church is across the street from a place that sells great brioche and coffee.  Last time I was there they’d lost electricity because of high winds so there was no coffee but it’s a regular stop for me when I get out to the island.

Moleskine watercolor (3x5), Pilot G-TEC-C3 pen

Moleskine watercolor (3×5), Pilot G-TEC-C3 pen

Once I sketched the steeple, I walked across the street to get my coffee and danish and this time it was closed because, it seems, it is closed on Mondays. Disappointment didn’t last too long, though.  They have a lot of chairs in a very pleasant garden area so I took one and set it up so that I could sketch one of the unique lamp posts in St. Jean.

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Moleskine watercolor (3×5), Pilot G-TEC-C3 pen

Have you noticed that some sketches are more ‘relaxed’ than others as you do them? That’s certainly the case for me. In this case, I’d just finished staring hard at all the detail in the steeple and mostly just wanted to sit.  Because of the situation, I was sitting on a gorgeous ‘throne’ in the form of a sculpted, cast-iron chair, with grass beneath my feet. The temperature was perfect, the sun was shining, and I was sitting in the shade.  If I’d gotten any more relaxed I would have fallen asleep.  The worst day sketching is a good day but some are better than others.

Location Sketching On Ile d’Orleans

“In 1814 we took a little trip,
along with Colonel Jackson
down the mighty Mississip.
 
We took a little bacon,
and we took a little beans,
and we fought the bloody British
in a town called New Orleans.”

These lyrics, sung long ago by Johnny Horton, tell of the final battle of the War of 1812 where Americans defeated a British invasion force.  The song was a big hit when I was a kid and every time I head to Quebec’s Ile d’Orleans that song rattles around in my brain.  Truth is, the French had their own battle against a British invasion and Wolfe, the leader of that invasion force, nearly died when his ship ran aground just off the coast of the island, and within cannon distance of the French forces.

But war is not the topic of today’s post.  Rather, it is about a trip I took recently to Ile d’Orleans to sketch.  I use ‘trip’ loosely as it takes all of fifteen minutes to get there as you can see Ile d’Orleans from Quebec City and vice versa.  Going to the mall takes longer.

Ile d’Orleans is a big island in the St. Lawrence River, just as it widens from its narrowest point, at Quebec City, on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.  There are six municipalities on the island, though I have a hard time determining where one begins and another ends.  What I know is that the island is gorgeous and I love my time there.  A lot of vegetable and fruit growing goes on, and it’s a very popular tourist location.

I’ve sketched on the island but I’ve never gone there alone, with the singular goal of sketching.  This day, I was on a mission.  The sun was out, I had sketchbooks a plenty, and I’d arranged to have our car for the day.  I arrived on the island about 8:45 and drove to the backside of the island to a pier that juts out into the St. Lawrence.  I discovered it when I was with my buddy Nicolas and we were like a couple kids, chasing the Queen Elizabeth II as she passed along the southern coast of the island on her approach to Quebec City.

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Moleskine watercolor (3×5), Pilot Prera, Platinum Carbon Black

I walked out onto the pier, set up my stool and began sketching.  You know what?  Sun doesn’t help much when there’s a 20-30km/h wind blowing across a large body of water and its hyper-cooled air is cutting you in half.  I was COLD!!!  At one point I went back and sat in the car for a while to warm up but, finally I finished the sketch.  I was a bit too much in a hurry, do you blame me, and ended up with some paint blooms in the foliage because my previous wash wasn’t yet dry, but them’s the breaks.

I was really cold when I finished and so headed for a place I knew that serves wonderful brioche and good, hot coffee.  Unfortunately, the winds had blown out their electricity – no coffee.  So, I bought a brioche and sat in the car, with the heater running, to warm up.

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Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8), Pilot Prera, Platinum Carbon Black

Across the street from the café is a church and a cemetery.  I keep telling myself that I should draw more in cemeteries as I love the shapes of the grave stones and their helter-skelter orientations, probably caused by the annual freezing and thawing of the ground.  I found a view I liked, went back to the car to get my stuff and I was soon sitting in the cemetery sketching.  This was a little better as there was a stone wall around the area that broke some of the wind.  I was only semi-frozen when I finished this one.

I was getting ready to leave.  Actually I was turning around in the church parking lot when my eye caught a “Privé” sign and a lamp post.  I love to have such things in my sketches and so I decided to sketch this scene.  Once again, however, I would be fully-exposed to that darn wind coming off the St. Lawrence.  I am old but even I can learn new tricks.  I positioned the car so I could sketch while sitting inside.  About halfway through I was wishing I had a hacksaw to eliminate the steering wheel but it worked out ok once I got the hang of it.

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Stillman & Birn Zeta (5×8), Pilot Prera, Platinum Carbon Black

There’s so much to sketch on the island that I could go there every day and not get bored.   In another couple weeks the trees should be putting on their annual ‘fall colors’ light show and I’m going back ‘real soon.’

It’s My Birthday!!!

Have you noticed that as you get older the time between your birthdays gets shorter?  Have you also noticed that you’re not as thrilled by them as you once were?  Maybe it’s just me.  I still act like a kid but I’m old and getting older doesn’t impress me much.

2-year-oldBut I just had a birthday that I liked a lot.  I’m now a two-year-old sketcher.  That’s right, near the end of August 2011, I discovered Danny Gregory’s books and his notion that doing art wasn’t about talent and that it wasn’t about creating great art.

He had the audacity to suggest that anyone could enjoy doing art because the process of doing art, not the end product, is what’s important.   As one who has always tried to be creative, but also one who was told he had no ‘talent’ for art, this came as a revelation to me.  It was a life-changing event.

And so I started drawing cubes.  I’m an analytical type, an ex-scientist, so I felt that if I was going to draw, I needed to start with boxes.  In hindsight, I’m glad I did.  I drew a gazillion of them.  I’d draw one and then try to draw another rotated a bit in one direction of the other from the original.  It seemed I was buying a new watercolor book every other day, determined that I’d learn to paint.

But I learned something very quickly.  Most watercolor books go like this:

1) Start with a sketch…
2) add a wash…..
3) do something else…
4) finish up with details.

And, to me, this is akin to saying “Want to decorate your own house?  Ok, first do all the carpentry and plumbing” but it is the standard way that watercolor books are presented.  If you can’t draw, they’re all pretty useless in my opinion.

So I decided that I would spend the first year “learning to draw”, whatever that meant to me at the time.  I’m still trying to learn to draw and now figure I’m not going to master it anytime soon.  But I do believe that by emphasizing drawing over painting I did myself a great service.  For the past couple years I’ve used watercolors but mostly like crayons, filling in areas in my pen and ink sketches as a 5-year old does in their coloring books.

I wish I could share with you some of my early attempts at drawing, but I cannot.  All my early sketching was done on photocopy paper and ended up in the trash can.  I saw no need to keep any of it, at least until I mentioned this to more seasoned sketchers in an Internet forum.  There seemed to be a collective gasp, followed by “Don’t do that.  You’ll want to look back some day and evaluate your progress.”  They were right and that day was today.  I guess that advice came in October 2011 as from then on, everything is in sketchbooks, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
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Here was my first attempt at a ‘real’ sketch.  I did it from a photo as in October of 2011 I ‘knew’ I’d be eaten alive by passers-by if I dared sketch on location.  At the time I was pretty happy with it.  I guess I still am given that only a month prior I was struggling to draw cubes (grin).

MySketchbooksBut, since then I’ve filled a sketchbook or three.  I’ve become quite passionate about urban sketching.   I carry sketchbooks with me wherever I go and I sketch constantly, or so it seems.  I can’t seem to get enough.   While I’ve got a lot to learn about art in general, and watercolors in particular, I’m sure having a lot of fun and that’s what art is supposed to be all about.  Just ask Danny Gregory.

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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).

Do You Experiment With Sketching Styles?

In the two years that I’ve been sketching I’ve actually developed a ‘style’, which surprises me somewhat as it seemed not long ago I was wondering if I would ever be able to draw anything, let alone have a ‘style.’

I like my style, which is more ‘illustrative’ than artistic.  Some might even claim it to be cartoonish.  I sometimes call it that.  In any case, when I sit down to draw something, the resultant sketch reflects that style.

My style has two drawbacks.  The first is that those who don’t speak sketcher try to fit it into ‘fine art’ and, well, it just doesn’t.  Some day ‘finished’ sketching will be acknowledged by the art community at large but so far, it’s tough slogging.   The other drawback to my style is that it’s not ‘fast’.  My sketches take longer than those done by people using looser, less detailed approaches.  This is not bad or good but sometimes it limits my ability to quickly capture a scene.

So, I sometimes experiment with quicker, looser ways of sketching.  Of course I do a fair amount of quick-sketching of people but here I’m talking about sketching things.  Here are a few examples of those attempts.

2013-07-30QuickBuildingsI did this little sketch of a piece of the Quebec City skyline, experimenting not only with very quick (only a couple minutes) sketch but also with a washable red ink.  I kinda-sorta liked the result.  It’s no more than two inches square.

Using the same pen/ink combo I decided to see if I could grab enough detail from a very complex hotel facade in 3-4 minutes to make me happy.  Can’t say this pleased me much but maybe…with lots of practice… naw…not working for me 🙂

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Here’s another experiment.  It’s only about 2×2 and my thoughts were to do a quick, small sketch that could be part of a journal page.  I really would like to start adding annotations to some of my sketches and to that end I sketched this tiny house in about five minutes, including the watercolor.

I was sitting in a park in ‘lower town’ of Quebec City and there’s a row of buildings that look down on the park, trees filling the area in between.  I decided to quick-sketch it.  Probably took me 10-15 minutes, which for some is not ‘quick’ but if I were to do this with my ‘style’ it would take at least four times that long.

I sort of like the results.  The trees aren’t sufficiently developed for my taste and I hate restated lines on buildings (buildings aren’t supposed to look like they’re vibrating).  This one was done on two pages of a 3×5 notebook so it’s a bit larger than the others.

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I’ll continue experimenting with different styles and approaches as I think I learn something every time I do it.  Who knows what my ‘style’ will be in another year.  Do you experiment with styles?