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.

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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.

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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.

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Book Review: Freehand Sketching: An Introduction

“While perspective is a handy device to construct imagined spaces, it is not useful, and possibly detrimental, to sketching existing environments.” — Paul Laseau

A while ago, in a Facebook group, Liz Steel posted the quote above.  To be completely honest I can’t remember what the thread was that it was in reference to but she said that Paul Laseau’s book, Freehand Sketching: An Introduction, was one of her favorites.

2013-04-24LaseauFreehandSketching

I listen closely when Liz speaks but in this case her words were overshadowed by the Paul Laseau quote.  Every book on drawing is filled with ‘explanations’ on how to do proper perspective, complete with mind-boggling graphics with lines going in all directions, vanishing points, etc.  I’ve often joked that I’m afraid to read a book on perspective for fear that I’ll get too confused to do my building sketches.

I’ve long felt the sentiment that Paul Laseau’s comment is true and, for myself, I never do all that perspective “stuff” beyond noticing where my “horizon line” (eye line) is when I do a sketch.  So, I just had to buy Freehand Sketching to see why Paul Laseau’s view was so different from the art world’s descriptions of structure drawing.

I did buy it and, if you’re a location sketcher, I highly recommend you put aside your traditional drawing books and read this one – a couple times.  You’ll be the better for it.  In a mere 112 pages, Laseau will first convince you that drawing ‘existing environments’ is different from making stuff up in a studio environment and he teaches, in simple terms, how to see and organize a scene than most modern approaches to drawing ever will.

Why?  What could he say that others do not?  Well, not much, really.  Mostly he leaves out a lot of stuff that you don’t need to worry about if you’ve got the thing you’re trying to draw right in front of you.

His introductory chapters include some traditional stuff about doing contour drawings, learning how to hatch, etc. and, for me, that part is mostly ho-hum.  But the heart of this book is contained in the middle sections titled Environment: Sketch Construction and Environment: Sketch Tone and Detail.   Here, Laseau shows you how to identify/organize/and lay out with a few lines, the basic shapes of a scene.  This stuff is gold for a street sketcher and demonstrates that no fancy geometry is required but rather it’s a simple matter of ‘seeing’ angles, locations, and edge dimensions.  Once he convinces you of the method, he provides several stepwise examples.

Once a scene is established, Laseau provides an approach to tone and detail and is also directed towards the location sketcher.  This perspective, to me, is important as most drawing books assume a studio atmosphere and an interest in spending hours developing drawings.  Laseau is an architect, who has spent 30 years teaching architect students to develop their sketching skills, who have different approaches and goals from the typical artist approach to such things and very useful, in my opinion, far more useful.  If you’d like to read more about this approach, Liz Steel has just provided some great insights into the mind of an architect.

On a personal note, Laseau’s book explained something else to me.  I’ve often wondered why the urban sketching world is so dominated by architects.  I’ve mostly dismissed it as simply a function of an architect’s interest in buildings but it’s much more than that.  It’s their training.  They’re taught to sketch.  They’re taught to maintain sketchbooks.  They’re taught to think in terms of sketches that can be ends in themselves…what urban sketchers do.

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When I bought Freehand Sketching I also bought Watercolor Sketching: An Introduction, Paul Laseau’s sequel.  This second book is more about watercolors than it is about constructing sketches, though there is some of that contained within its pages.  Very valuable information contained within but more a companion book to Freehand Sketching than a substitute for it.

Liz is right; Freehand Sketching is a good and potent book that any location sketcher can benefit from and well worth its small price.  It’s become one of my favorite books too.

Spring Sketching Has Begun…Almost

On Good Friday I met with Claudette and Yvan at the Musee de la Civilisation to sketch but we were facing a day that seemed enticingly warm.  When I type that I have to chuckle.  I’m an Arizona guy so for me to say that a high temperature around 40F is warm is, well, an exaggeration that comes from a brain that’s spent the last few months without sketching outdoors.

2013-03-29Nigeria1We sketched indoors and packed up around noon.  I did this sketch  during that session.  I sort of screwed up the eyes somewhat but it was fun doing this sketch anyway.  With a rock wall for a beard and hat, what’s not to like?  It was done in an S&B Epsilon (5.5×8.5), with a Pilot Prera and Lexington Gray ink.

Then, Yvan and I headed downtown where one of his friends was sitting in a window, sketching people on the street who were willing to pose for ten minutes.  That was fun to watch, for a while, but I got cold just standing around and I decided it was time to head home.  And so I did.

When I arrived home my wife and daughter were out shopping so I decided I’d wander the neighborhood and see if I could sketch something outdoors.  After all, it WAS 42F!!

2013-03-29_1stAvenueI’ve walked by this building many times and have said “I’ve got to sketch that” an equal number of times.  It was built in 1927 but today was the day it was going to be sketched.  Besides, I wanted to try out my new Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook.  I used my Pilot Prera/Lex Gray combo  and, because I had my museum stuff with me, I used watercolor pencils to do the color.  I was uncomfortably cold towards the end but clearly spring sketching is about to begin and I’m getting excited.  Sorry that much of the light blue in the sky and in the snow got lost in the scanning process.

What’s The Best Mechanical Pencil For Sketching?

Obviously I can’t answer the question that is the title of this post.  There are too many personal choices involved in the answer, including how the pen feels in your hand, whether the eraser fits your use of it, price, availability, and the most important attribute of all – color.

MechanicalPencils

But I think we ignore our mechanical pencils, using them day after day without thinking about whether there is a better/different one that would provide different results.  At the same time, we burn endless amounts of time, energy and ink talking about sketchbooks, pens, and even the containers we use to carry our stuff.  Why not our pencils?  I thought it time to talk just a bit about the mechanical pencil when used by a sketcher.

First, a couple of caveats.  I’m a sketcher who shuns the great modern wisdom that anyone who uses pencils in advance of their ink drawing is a sissy.  I work directly with pen for a lot of things but for anything detailed I’m going to use a pencil to rough in the drawing before turning to ink.  I must say that I’m glad so many of the classic ‘greats’ of the artist world didn’t get the memo about avoiding pencil.

On the flipside, I’m not a pencil artist.  I ONLY use them for laying out a drawing.  If you’re someone who does complete, shaded drawings with pencil, I sometimes envy your mastery of pencil shading.  You’re probably using 2mm or larger leads if you use a mechanical pencil at all.  I apologize but I can’t speak to this form of pencil use at all.  Here I’m talking about pencil use for either quick sketching or for roughing out more complex sketches.  A man’s gotta know his limitations.

Which lead?

This is definitely a “different strokes” thing but I open with it because something must be said.  “Standard” mechanical pencil lead is generally HB.  Whether that suits you or not is probably as much dependent upon the paper you use than anything else.  Those using smooth papers may lean towards softer leads (2B?) while rough papers call for harder leads (2H?).  For myself, I use 2H or 3H leads on my smooth papers as I want very light lines while organizing what will be an ink drawing.  If I were using the pencil to quick sketch (I use ink) I’d probably switch to 2B.

The other issue is diameter of the lead.  Most mechanical pencils range from 0.5 to 2mm leads, with the vast majority of them being 0.5 or 0.7mm.  In that range, it really becomes a personal preference.  I use 0.7mm mostly because they break less.  I’m a klutz; what can I say?

Choosing A Pencil

As I’ve indicated, there are a lot of personal things that go into this choice.  I won’t address any of them.  You know if you need an exposed eraser or one that’s capped.  You know if you like the feel of knurled metal grips or not.  What I want to talk about are three unique mechanical pencils that address issues that may not be quite so obvious to the casual pencil buyer.

Before doing so, however, I’ll make a couple basic comments.  There are differences in pencil quality and one could spend an endless amount of time comparing and contrasting the various makes and models. I’ll boil it down to a single sentence – buy cheap, buy twice, or three, or four times.  There are roughly a gazillion mechanical pencils that are priced between $2 and $6.  They’re made of plastic and corners are cut in many parts of the mechanism that either shorten their lives or make them sloppy at holding the lead.  I’d avoid them, though I’ve bought my share of them.  If nothing else, wiggle the tip with the lead exposed and see it if moves.  If it does, buy something else.

Most pencils I’ve tried in the $7-15 seem well-made and it really does come down to those personal preferences when making a choice.  Anything over this price range falls more into the “ain’t that cool” category and you won’t gain much functionality, but you may become the cool kid with the fancy pencil in your group, which is never a bad thing.  I’ll show you one exception to that below in the form of the Caran D’Arche pencil.

Zebra ‘el cheap’ pencil

ZebraPencil

This is the bottom rung of mechanical pencils and, oddly enough, unique and useful for sketchers.  You can pick these up in many stores for the princely sum of 50 cents.  They’re meant to be a disposable pencil that sort of looks like a pencil.  But you can refill them.  I doubt you could find replacement erasers for them.  As far as I know, they are all 0.5mm.

What’s really nice about them is that they are shorter than your typical pencil and they are VERY light.   If you’re traveling, hiking, or wandering around town doing urban sketching, these are great pencils to carry with you.  I carry one as my back up pencil.

Uniball Kuro Toga

Kuru_Toga

This is a unique mechanical pencil.  Some even talk of it being revolutionary.  Its mechanism is an attempt to solve an age-old problem for pencil sketchers, and that is the ever-changing shape of the end of their lead.  As the pencil is used the lead becomes rounded and you get a thicker and thicker line.  This is as true for mechanical pencils as it is for wooden pencils.

The Kuro Toga solves this problem as it actually rotates the lead 1/4 turn every time you advance the lead so you always have a ‘new’ edge on your lead.  How cool is that?  It does take a bit of getting used to as if you’ve been using mechanical pencils for a long time it’s likely that you automatically rotate your pencil, always chasing a sharp edge.  You have to retrain yourself not to do that as the pencil is doing it for you, and doing it better.

These pencils come in two forms – metal and plastic.  The street price for the metal pencil is $16-17, while the plastic one show above is around $7.50.  They’re available in 0.3mm  and 0.5mm and both versions can be had in a variety of colors.

Caran D’Arche Pencil

CaranD'ArchePencil

At first glance this French-made pencil looks like many others.  It is extremely well made, with a lacquered metal body a clip that, while removable, also snaps in place if you do use it.  It has all the features of a superbly made mechanical pencil.  Thank can be said for other pencils as well, though, and that’s not why I’ve included it here or why it’s become my ‘go to’ pencil.  Rather, this choice is all about balance.

That’s right…balance.  Have you ever thought about it with respect to a mechanical pencil?  If you actually check the balance of mechanical pencils you generally find that they balance either at the mid-point or a bit in front of it.  How far this is from the point, of course, is then dependent upon how long the pencil is, which varies somewhat.

Is that optimal?  Maybe, maybe not.  For those of us who use fountain pens, or even posted Pitt or Sakura pens, we’re used to pointy things with a balance point behind the mid-point.  We’re used to the weight being born mostly by the fleshy lump between our thumb and forefinger.  So, to match that, we’d need a mechanical pencil with its balance point behind the mid-point, just like our pens.

Well, shazaam…that’s exactly what you get with the Caran D’Arche mechanical pencil.  Those French think of everything.  I just love this pencil for that reason – it feels like a fountain pen.  It’s also very nice if you want to lightly shade something as the tip can be floated over the paper much easier.  If there’s a downside to this pencil it’s that Caran D’Arche has spared no expense in producing a very precise, metal-bodied pen with a super finish, and you get to pay for the privilege of owning one.  I paid $28 for mine and consider it money well-spent.

What’s important to you when it comes to mechanical pencils?  Which is your favorite?

39th Worldwide Sketchcrawl In Quebec City

*** Les détails sont disponibles ici, en français.

I’m excited about our upcoming participation in the 39th Worldwide Sketchcrawl.  Quebec City sketchers are going to ride rather than walk during this sketchcrawl.  Maybe we should call it a sketch cruise.

traversieralphonse-desjardins-ext-ete4_STQOur organizers, Celine Poulin and Yvan Breton, have planned an event you won’t want to miss as we’re going for a boat ride.  Starting at 13:00h, Saturday April 13th, we’re going to board the ferry that traverses the St. Lawrence Seaway, between Quebec City and Levis.  Once on the boat we’ll sail the ocean’s blue, going back and forth between the two cities, sketching to our heart’s content.  We’ll can sketch from the indoor passenger rooms and their large viewing windows or from the decks themselves.  There are bathrooms, vending machines, and seats available.

Total cost will be $3.10 for a ticket and if you’ve got a monthly bus pass, it’s free.  What could be better than to have two coastlines and numerous ships and boats to sketch, as well as a steady stream of passengers.

traversieralphonse-desjardins-extmonde8_STQYou need to check the weather and dress accordingly.  You’ll need your sketching gear and a lunch.  Oh, no ability or talent is required – just some paper and a pointy device that can make marks… and a smile.  We thrive on smiles.  I hope you’ll join us.

Event Details

Date: 13 April (Saturday)
Location: Quebec City ferry dock
Time: 1300h
Cost: $3.10 (unlimited number of ferry crossings) – free if you have a monthly bus pass.

Les détails sont disponibles ici, en français.

If you’d like or need more information, you can contact me (French or English) at larry@larrydmarshall.com.  While it’s not required that you R.S.V.P. it would be nice if you let us know that you’re coming so we can look for you.