A Ten-Minute Experiment

I was out for a walk yesterday and sat down to rest. Looking back from whence I came I “saw” a vignette and simultaneously I asked myself, “could I sketch that in 10 minutes.” The answer was yes, it’s simple so I immediately asked, “in color?”

So, I set up to do this small watercolor, and it’s not complete because the answer to my question was a no, but I stopped at 10 minutes anyway. When I got home I reassembled the kit I was using for the drawing so you can see how my Portable Painter Micro Palette works for me.

Hmmm… I just noticed that in setting this up for the photo I forgot to attach the water container to the palette. Imagine one there, please (grin).

A Bit Of Summer Sketching

We’ve had a real “meh” spring. A bunch of light rain but mostly it’s been cold, even for us. It’s raining right now but a couple days ago Chantal and I went for the first walk of the year where we didn’t have to wear a jacket, and the day was gorgeous. We walked for at least two hours and along the way we stopped to relax and take in the sun.

At one of those stops we sat at a picnic bench that faced a large tree with an apron of suckers growing from it. I thought it pretty and decided to draw it using a simple Uniball pen. I spent about 10 minutes drawing and then another five adding some color when I got home. Maybe we’ll have a summer afterall.

Art Without My Pen: #30x30DirectWatercolor

This is #30x30DirectWatercolor month and while I don’t participate in “events”, when Marc was visiting I told him I’d do it this year. I didn’t really know what I was signing up for when I said that. Yes, I’ve read his Direct Watercolor book (at least twice) and so I understand the concept, but I didn’t have a clue how it would make me feel to actually do it.

And how did it make me feel? Well, there are several feelings. First is naked. Without my pen I’m lost. Putting it down and picking up a brush causes me to lose my ability to put proportion and perspective on the page. Don’t know if it’s a shift in my concentration or what but things go south when I pick up a brush.

The second feeling is ineptitude. My ability to handle a brush is sorely lacking and it shows in everything I’m trying to do during 30×30. Everything goes down wonky, to use a Liz Steel word. Also, water control is tough for me, also due to a lack of experience.

And the third feeling I have is that it’s just no fun. I’ve heard lots of artists talk about doing the sketch quickly so they can get to the fun part. Well, for me, ALL the fun comes in the drawing. Painting is an afterthought, necessary evil, or something along those lines.

It’s obvious that the ineptitude feeling is a result of me placing all my emphasis on drawing and not painting. If Marc reads this he’ll giggle because fixing that problem is what #30x30DirectWatercolor is all about. I need to spend more time with a brush, following the same “put in the work” that has moved me from painting wonky cubes to being able to draw most things I see. Sigh…is this how a kid feels when he’s told to practice his times tables?

Anyway, I’ve actually done seven of these little paintings, one for each day so far. Four of them are too much of a mess to show you. Marc said in a recent post that 2 out of 10 is pretty good. I suppose he’s right. Here are three of my seven. I hope I get better.

In case you can’t recognize them, Left: onions, Center: Iles aux Grues landscape, and Right: Heron

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.