The Sketching Path We Travel

I’ve been pondering where I want to go with my art and thus, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the path I’ve taken to get where I am.  It’s funny, and maybe a bit odd, that I’ve been trying to get better at sketching and I haven’t done much of this kind of reflection.  Instead, I’ve plodded along as a guy “who draws stuff” and most of that drawing has been as a pen and ink guy who uses color to tint sketches, as so many urban sketchers do.

When I look back, though, I recall the early stages, where I was trying to draw things.  I would choose those things based upon what I was capable of drawing.  This is the stage where new sketchers say things like:

“I can’t draw buildings because I don’t understand perspective.”

“How do you draw a car?”

“Gardens are hard because they are complicated.”

“How do you draw trees?”

Eventually, sketchers learn that what they’ve been told over and over is true.  Everything is just a shape.  This changes things forever once we adopt this view.  It takes some time (for me it was counted in years), but you shift from looking at things and start seeing and drawing shapes.

The draw shapes path causes a change in what you try to draw because now, anything is a good subject, not just things you know how to draw.  A nose is no different from a can of soup to a shape sketcher.  For me, this didn’t come easy (maybe I haven’t even completed this shift) but it’s so liberating.

When it does occur, however, you need a new criterion for choosing a subject.  We all like to believe that we choose subjects based upon some high-art goal but in my experience that’s rarely the case.  In fact, I’d say that most sketchers, once they work with shapes, more often choose a subject based upon how much time they have, can I see it from a shady spot, and with a dose of “what’s my style?” mixed into the analysis.

And this is where we come back to me.  I’ve always been a guy who loves fountain pens and who worries a lot about proportions and relative sizes.  Translate that to mean, I’m not good at “loose” or “simplification.”  Marc Holmes has chided me into trying to draw loose and quickly a number of times.  I’ve tried.  Maybe I’ll get there some day but my sense is that I  simply like the process of capturing proper proportions, angles, etc.  All of this in spite of the fact that I’d love to be able to draw in the loose, “painterly” (his word) style he uses.

And so when I choose my subject, largely according to how much time I have, I have to choose a smaller, more simple subject than Marc would for the same amount of time.  I’m just not good enough to do it any other way.  Not a bad thing and to quote Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Here’s an example where I didn’t choose well.  Heck, I didn’t choose at all.  We were out on a walk, wanted to sit in the shade and I found myself looking at the butt end of a large statue of Simon Bolivar on his horse.  At most I’d have five minutes to draw it as we rested.  In reality, given my sloth-like approach to sketching, it would have taken an hour to do a decent sketch.  BTW, this will be the last of my 5-min sketches that you’ll see.  This one was a good example of what I am talking about here but I won’t abuse your sense with any more of them (grin).

How do you make your subject choices?  Are you lucky enough to have moved beyond all this and so can draw anything in no time?

I’m Back In The Game…Sort Of

Slowly but surely I’m getting back into sketching.  It’s amazing how out of practice once can get at normal walking after spending nearly four years with a limp (grin).  Yesterday I went on my training walk by walking with my daughter to an appointment she had not far from our home.  While she was doing her thing, I did this quick sketch, using a fude pen.

I sketched very quickly (some my say sloppily) and so I had time to throw a bit of color on it before she returned.  I suppose this is a landmark sketch for me as it’s the first in a very long time.  Hopefully I can get back to a daily routine.  If there’s one thins COVID and my bad knee has taught me it’s the power of routine to keep your skills up.  Mine are way down right now.  Feels real good, though, to click on Location Sketching as a tag for this sketch.

Sketching In A Baron Fig Apprentice Notebook

One of the highlights of this otherwise miserable winter was taking Marc Taro Holme’s People in Motion class.  During the class Marc suggests that you get a small, cheap notebook and sketch in it constantly.  He recommends the Moleskine Cahier (same paper as the Moleskine notebooks but without the hard cover).

I think the idea of a small, cheap notebook that facilitates sketching everywhere and all the time is a great one.  On recommendation from my mentor and buddy, Yvan Breton, I’ve been doing this for a couple years and it’s done more for my ability to draw than anything else I do.

What I hadn’t tried was the Moleskine Cahier so I bought some.  They come in a 3-pack for about $12 around here.  I was very disappointed because of bleed-through and lots of ghosting when I used my fountain pens.  I complained about this here, and included a bunch of sketches to illustrate the problems.

But what I really did like about these little books was how small they were.  My typical small book has a hard cover and 96 cheap-paper pages.  These books are 5.5 x 3.5 x 0.5″ while the Cahiers are only 48 pages with a thick paper cover and are thus about 1/8″ thick.  Very portable, very light in the hand.  If only….

There are alternatives and I’ve been trying them.  Tina Koyama motivated me to try Baron Fig‘s notebooks, and I think I might be falling in love with their little Apprentice notebooks.

While the typical small notebook is 3.5″ x 5.5″, the Baron Fig is 3.5″ x 5″.  When I received them this threw me off a bit as I was more used to the other size but now that I’ve used it a bit I find that I actually prefer it.  It fits my hand better and certainly fits in a pocket more easily.  Size does matter.

Baron Fig

The books are 48-pages of white (an improvement over Moleskine) paper and cardstock cover.  They are stitch-bound rather than stapled like most of their competition.  It’s a nice touch and the stitching is perfect.

While they can be had with lines, grid or blank paper, I bought a pack of their standard gray notebooks (3 per pack) and a pack of their “limited edition” Time Travel series.  They cost only $10 per pack so, $3.33 per notebook.  Not bad even if you do use a lot of them.

All this is great but the proof is in how they handle ink.  For me that means fountain pen ink.  Typically I use fine nib pens in my small notebooks because of the small format and a side benefit is that it places lower demands on the paper when it comes to bleed-through and ghosting.

But what happens if you do use a lot of ink on Baron Fig paper?  The results are better than I thought.  I decided to try Tina Koyama’s favorite pen, the Sailor Fude pen.  This pen can lay down a lot of ink or a little ink depending on the nib angle.  Here’s the result of this experiment.

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Baron Fig Apprentice, Sailor Fude pen, De Atramentis Document Black

Of course the “proof in the puddin” is to look at the back of this sketch.  Here it is (on the left):

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As you can see, there is some ghosting but not much in the way of bleed-through.  We’re not talking about doing drawings that you’re going to frame so, to me, this is acceptable.  The sketch on the right was done with a Namiki Falcon SEF.  This is my typical nib size for these and the ghosting on the back of this sketch is negligible.

But what if you wanted to use the Sailor pen and also wanted to draw on that ghosted page?  Could you do it?  Sure, the ghosting wouldn’t distract from your sketching.  It might, however, not look as nice as you’d like when you scanned it to send it to your favorite social media group.  But, with the magic of Photoshop (or some other graphics program), you can easily remove this ghosting so that it looks like this:

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These results are the same as I’ve gotten from the paper in my cheap hardcover books so I’m thrilled and the paper in the Baron Fig as it looks better and feels better.

My cheap book sketches rarely see any color, simply because I’m generating lots of sketches as I wander through my day and so there’s no time for color.  But, for this post I decided to add a bit of color to see how that worked.  I kept the washes light and didn’t expect to move them around much.  I was surprised at how well it worked.

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Baron Fig Apprentice, Namiki Falcon, De Atramentis Document Black

This is definitely not watercolor paper but I was happy with the results.  This does increase the ghosting a little bit but surprisingly little, as long as you wait for the paper to dry.  This definitely opens the door for me to use my gray and brown waterbrushes to shade drawings on the fly.  If you’re looking for a small, very portable, sketchbook solution, the Baron Fig Apprentice might be what you need.