The Advantages Of Single Sheet Sketching

My last post generated some really great feedback. Those comments covered many of the reasons to use a sketchbook and some of why some like single sheets. I started to respond to each of those comments but concluded that everything I would say should be in the post I promised to make and so consider this to include answers to those comments.

Just to be clear…again, I’m not advocating people to give up sketchbooks. I still use them. Here I’m simply presenting my own reasons for moving more and more to single sheet sketching and maybe, just maybe present that approach in a way that doesn’t cause a sketcher to lose the reasons they use sketchbooks. Heck, this IS the struggle, isn’t it? I’ve always used sketchbooks to keep my sketches chronologically organized. While I talk about throwing them on shelves and never look at them, sketchbooks are still neater than having a bunch of sheets in a pile. Ok…here we go.

I see three major advantages to using single sheets and the importance of each has a lot to do with how/why and with what you sketch. Therefore, I will expose my biases as I proceed.

Freedom of paper choice: I sketch with pencil (shaded drawings), pen only, pen and wash, and with paint (gouache, watercolor). Each of these is best done with a different type of paper. Doing a shaded pencil drawing requires very different paper from when I do a watercolor and so. It seems that with sketchbooks I’m always compromising in this regard. Second, I’m fickle when choosing a particular paper size and color. A landscape A5 just won’t do when I want to do a portrait. Sometimes I like tan paper, or gray paper. For each of these choices I need a different sketchbook. The result is that I always have several sketchbooks “in progress” and still I’m compromising what paper I use for a particular sketch.

Organization: Consider the above. I’ve got several sketchbooks, of different sizes and shapes on the go simultaneously. In that context, the notion that my sketchbooks are maintaining a chronology of events just falls apart. And, of course, there’s always the times when you work on a single sheet to do a special project. There’s no way to truly organize chronologically. Of course, if I could just choose a sketchbook/paper/approach, this would be easy and many do.

Presentation: Because I create sketches and not sketchbooks, I don’t worry about “working across the spread” or designing pages to include notes, quotes and other stuff. If I write notes they are just about the sketch and I put them on the back of each sketch (would make a mess for those creating sketchbooks. But presentation IS important. To me, the most value I get from my sketchbooks is when I’m carrying them and someone asks about my art and I can hand them a sketchbook to look through. This is a problem to solve for a single-sheet sketcher, but it can work with a bit of thought.

Ease of use: I’ve added this fourth advantage cuz I find it true. Some sketchbooks are simply hard to hold and draw while standing. A portrait A5 isn’t so bad but an A5 landscape, particularly if you’re at the beginning or end of it, presents a struggle. Some people never stand while they sketch. I do. People who do carry a support for their sketchbook and this works dandy, but sketchbooks clipped to a board are always less user friendly than are single sheets clipped to that same support.

Methods to solve some of these problems are many and varied. Here are mine.

Paper flexibility and Ease of Use: When using single sheets you have complete flexibility with respect to paper. I carry several sizes, colors and types of paper when I go out on a sketching section. The only limit is that the paper has to fit within the boundaries of my support. The weight of the support is far less than any sketchbook. I first saw the use of Coroplast as a support when sketching with Marc Taro Holmes (I admit that I don’t get out much). He’ll tape sheets of watercolor paper to 4-5 pieces of Coroplast and this means there’s no set up on site, a convenient way to carry his sketches, and he can even work on multiple paintings at once as he can lean one painting against a tree while working on another one. This also makes it very easy for him to display multiple results during the USK throw-downs that occur at the end of events.

This shows a couple methods for attaching paper. Mostly I use clips but it’s sometimes nice to have the border frame resulting from taping off the paper. For me, the size of the Coroplast is important. The width is the widest thing I can put in my bag and the length needs to be long enough that I can push the bottom of it into my belly while holding it from the top with one hand.

This is the board I use most often. It’s a very thin piece (1/8″) of plywood with a sheet of very thin metal glued to it. I use spray contact cement for this and the metal came from a small magnet board I bought from the dollar store. They come with a plastic frame that’s easy to remove. I like this because, by gluing tiny magnets to my paint palette, I can magically fix it to the board.

Carrying paper only requires a couple sheets of cardboard or Coroplast with a rubber band to sandwich your paper selection between them. I use a fabric tape hinge to create a “book” that holds my paper.

Organization and Presentation: Again, there are many solutions but I really love using 9×12 portfolios you can find at any art store. And the best part is that this is far superior to sketchbook organization for the simple reason that you can stick sketches in these in chronological order regardless of what paper they were done on. Thus, all the sketches I’ve done while having several sketchbooks on the go suddenly appear in complete chronological order in a portfolio. And the ability to display sketches is, in my opinion, far superior. I’ve taken these portfolios to show-n-tell events and people loved looking at them because it was so easy to turn the pages. I love the fact that each sketch is covered in plastic so all those pesky hands aren’t touching them.

For me, carrying around an entire portfolio so I can show them to someone on the street sort of defeats the idea of keeping things light. So, what I do is simply place recently done sketches in my paper pouch. Then, when someone is curious, I pull it out just as I would a sketchbook. This works well and eventually sketches get moved to a portfolio.

Oh…one last thing. Kate B. talked about leaving sketches/sketchbooks for people to find. A great idea in my opinion. Recently, somewhere, I left a couple sketchbooks for someone to find and an entire sketch kit in case they became inspired (grin).

Are Sketchbooks Important?

I Made some comments while discussing the loss of my sketch bag and replacement of it. While these were casual comments that weren’t integral to the blog posts, they stirred some responses. I think it’s fair to say that my comments can be put into two piles and summarized thusly:

1) I don’t value my sketchbooks and, in fact, find them something of a nuisance as they accumulate.
2) More and more I’m abandoning sketchbooks in favor of single sheets.

I received several emails about these comments. Some defended the use of sketchbooks and one (there’s always one) wanted to convince me that I shouldn’t “put myself down” by saying my sketchbooks don’t matter. And then Susan King wrote this in the public comments:

“I thought I was the only one who didn’t look at my old sketchbooks. I recently filled two banker’s boxes and put them in the basement because I ran out of shelf space. (I did keep out the ones that have course material in them as I sometimes do go back and look at those.) I was tempted to throw away rather than store the old ones. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whole subject sometime!”

It was like looking in a mirror. These comments made me think that maybe there was something to say here.

Those of us who joined the urban sketching movement have been taught that one does urban sketching in a sketchbook, and we hear it over and over and over and over again. If you look around, however, you see any number of people at USK events working on single sheets. I’ll talk about that later but today I want to respond to Susan’s curiosity.

When I started sketching I couldn’t draw anything and my attempts were all done on photocopy paper. I remember drawing, or trying to draw, cubes…lots of cubes. Eventually though, after proper indoctrination into USK, I bought a sketchbook, a little A6 book that was small enough to hide as I would go out to draw. And I started filling sketchbooks…lots of sketchbooks. Above is a photo of the only pile still in my office. Like Susan, I’ve got a couple boxes of the darn things in the basement, filled when I needed shelf space. The portfolios in the lower left of that photo are the only things that have moved on those shelves in a decade. They are how I store my single sheet sketches.

Sketchbooks are great if you want to create sketchbooks, those “let me show you the fine art I’ve produced” books that many enjoy. Those wanting to discuss and implement “page layouts” like sketchbooks. Some use sketchbooks as a way of keeping score (look at my shelf of sketchbooks) and all of these reasons are good reasons for sketching in sketchbooks.

But I’ve never been either of those kind of sketchbookers. For me a sketchbook has always been a tool, a place to sketch. I’ve never been shy about saying “I don’t know if I’m an artist. I just draw stuff.” And when I’m done drawing something, I turn the page and don’t look back. I don’t create sketchbooks, I create sketches.

It’s not everyone’s style but even USK tells us that this is “all about the process, not the product.” It certainly is for me. Am I proud that I can now draw something? You bet. A guy who hits a home run is proud too, but he doesn’t spend his nights watching a video of it. He’s too busy trying to hit another one.

So, no big deal here, but Susan and I, and probably some other folks look at a decade’s worth of sketchbooks as something in the way, not something precious. But I’ll finish this by pointing out that both Susan and I haven’t thrown our sketchbooks away. I wish I could say why that is since I never look at them but there you have it. I must see some value in keeping sketches. Sketchbooks aren’t the only way, however.

Just so nobody gets the wrong idea (someone surely will), I’m not dumping on the use of sketchbooks by anyone or for any reason. For me, however, they are getting less and less use. I’ll talk about that next time.

I’m Now Prepared For The Spring Sketching Offensive

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. It seems like the media have gotten attached to “spring offensive” when talking about Ukraine and I tire of the media’s innane use and reuse of catch phrases. And don’t get me started on the militarization of North America rhetoric. Seems we can’t even speak of sports without it. But I have “rearmed” and I’m ready to “battle” the plein air with my new “arsenal,” none of which were supplied by NATO 🙂 Some were purchased locally while other pieces had to be sourced abroad.

A few blog posts ago I talked about losing my sketching bag and I showed you the replacement. In preparing this post I realized that I didn’t talk much about this photo.

What I should have mentioned was that THIS was the real pain of losing that bag. The bag itself was over a decade old and while it was an old friend, it wasn’t much of a loss. The value of the sketchbooks, to me, was not great as they just end up on a shelf with the other umty-tendy-teen sketchbooks and I never look at. But the photo above was of the paint kit lost with that bag. By far, it was the hardest, and most expensive thing to replace.

But I have reconstituded that kit, with some differences. Heck, I was even able to find a Rosemary Co. sticker for the palette box, though this one is square and not round like the old one. I replaced my squirrel mop (I really don’t like squirrel hair brushes) with a Princeton synthetic cat-tongue brush but the important thing(s) here are the two sable travel brushes (#6 & #10) which are my primary brushes. I’m still mostly an idiot when it comes to using brushes and watercolor but those are my favorites.

I’m a fan of metal paint boxes cuz magnets can attach them to stuff, so the first order of business was to find a replacement. I finally did but when it arrived I realized that it was just a wee bit smaller than the old one I had and that wee bit was just enough to prevent the 4×6 (24) half pan palette of my old one. No big deal as I didn’t use half the colors anyway but it did require that I rethink a bit. I’m pretty happy with the result and I can add a couple more colors. I think I’m going to leave those slots empty, though, so I’ve got place for trial colors. I’ll show it to you just cuz it will never be this clean again (grin).

Oh, I know that many of you are way past “spring” and probably wonder why I’d talk of spring being a future event, but we had a frost advisory last night. It is getting warmer, though. Slowly.

My Daily Carry Bag

Thanks to everyone who commented on the new backpack I bought to replace the bag that I lost. I mentioned that this is for when I go on actual sketching adventures rather than a trip to the grocery store, doctor, or to have coffee with a friend.

Some were surprised by the size of it and I confess that my “serious” bag needs to be ample because it might be carrying a tripod, stool and have to handle gouache or oils in addition to my typical sketching needs.

It was suggested that I do a post on my daily carry bag. Because my loss included the contents of the bag, I’m struggling to fill both bags adequately/properly. Add this to my generally fickle nature regarding what I carry and the best I can do is throw out on the table its current contents at this point, but I can assure you that it will be different within a week. For instance, I don’t have a kneaded eraser (a must) in my daily carry bag because l lost my favorite little metal container where I carry carried it. This is why I didn’t talk in detail about my new bag contents as they are changing by the minute (grin). Anyways, here goes…

The main bag: This bag is really the baby version of my old main bag. They came in several sizes and I bought two of them.

Bag with flap open: With the flap open this is the view. As you can see, all my pointy devices are accessible. You can also see that these aren’t the same pointy devices as you see in the contents photo. Photos taken at different times and some of the stuff was on my desk when this photo was taken.

Top View: I’ve tried to open all the compartments so you can peak inside. There’s a pocket on the back of the bag that you can see but I stuff things like a plastic bag and paper towels in it.

Bag Contents: Treating this as two rows (LtoR), Uniball Vision – micro, Pentel Kerry 05 mech. pencil, Ticonderoga #2 pencil, Lamy Safari (F), Kaweco Lilliput (F), waterbrush, #10 pointed round travel brush, spritz bottle. 2nd row – Nalgen bottle for water, Portable Painter Micro, Kleenex.

A couple things to note that underscores the serendipity nature of these contents. That Lamy Safari isn’t something I carry. I wanted to do something with Lex Gray and so I filled it and it found its way into the bag. The sketchbooks I show in the second graphic aren’t permanent fixtures. I’ll always have a 3×5 scribbler and I keep meaning to fill the tiny sketchbook, but the other one will probably be jettisoned soon. I’m using sketchbooks less and less these days (see below).

My Paper Case and Drawing Board: I’ve played mental ping-pong over the sketchbooks vs single sheet approach to drawing, art or whatever you want to call it and single sheets are winning the day for me. The reason is pretty simple. Sometimes I like pen and ink. Sometimes I’ll draw with pencil. At other times I want to do watercolor, qouache, etc. Being able to choose a paper on a per sketch basis is wonderful. Being able to choose the color and format of paper on a per sketch basis is, well…let’s just say it’s a bonus.

And so, in both of my bags I carry a “paper case” which is nothing more than a couple pieces of pieces of Coroplast taped together to form a book. Inside I can put any quality, size, or color paper. I can select one and clip it to the exterior and the book becomes a backing board for drawing. The biggest that will fit in my small bag is 8″ tall. A bonus of this approach is that it’s a LOT lighter than carrying a couple sketchbooks all the time.

** Note that the bulldog clip shown here is really horrible. I lost a bunch of clips with my lost bag and need to get some replacements.

So, there you have it – my daily carry bag. I try to keep it light and not carrying sketchbooks really helps with that. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Sketching The Past

I enjoy drawing the past, a past I never experienced. Because of this I’ve done sketches of Quebec trolley cars rolling through the streets, old construction sites, etc. But the other day I was flipping through old photos and came across a photo I took in 2014. I remember thinking that I should make a large painting of it as my daughter is in the foreground, looking from a bridge down on the Ottawa canal lock descent into the Ottawa river. Above her in the view are the Canadian Government complex. It would be a very time-consuming painting I fear, which is why I never did it.

But I was inspired by my daughter’s red coat and so I made this sketch.