Extreme Sketching: The Final Chapter

I did a blog post a while ago about what I called “extreme sketching.”  It was an idea that originated from Marc Taro Holmes.  We were going out, in mid-winter Quebec temperatures and doing five minute sketches in a small format.  Marc is quite good at it.  Me, not so much.

But it was a great exercise.  I struggle to hold a small sketchbook in one hand, while drawing with the other.  For some reason I just can’t slow the sketchbook down and the results are impacted a lot by both the sketchbook and the pen moving at the same time.  I was hoping to practice that enough to eliminate the problem.  I did not.

I also wanted more time quick-sketching.  I do a lot of quick people sketches but I don’t quick-sketch buildings or street scenes.  To get a good drawing I have to look at my subject for the better part of five minutes, thinking only about the proportions and relative locations of things before I start drawing.  All of those processes must be abandoned if I’m going to do the entire sketch in five minutes.  I do think I improved upon this because of this exercise, but I’m not sure how much.   I also haven’t figured out how to draw snow with a pen and so I ended up with lots of cottonballs in front of my buildings.

The other thing I wanted to do was to just get outside sketching.  This I accomplished.  I ran this experiment down to -20C (-5F).  When it got colder than that, I gave up.  I’m a sissy when it comes to cold.  But I did manage to do fifty of these sketches, nearly filling a small Stillman & Birn Epsilon softcover book.  I’ll probably do some more this summer, when it’s not so cold.  Here are a few of the sketches I did beyond the ones I posted previously.

Do you do crazy things like this?  I hope so.  I don’t want to be the only one.


Cheap, Small Sketchbooks – Another Solution

I go through a lot of small sketchbooks because I’m constantly scribbling in them.  I have one where I watch TV, one in my office, one in my coat pocket and at least one in each of my sketching bags.

I’ve tried using Field Notes notebooks.  I use the ‘mustache’ notebooks I wrote about at one point.  These are wonderful because of their toned 4×6 paper that take fountain pen ink well.  But for my sketching bags I like to have something that’s just a wee bit bigger, with a spiral binding so I can fold everything back and have just the sheet I’m working on in front of me.  It still has to be cheap, fountain pen friendly, and of a practical size.  For that I’ve been cutting 9×12 spiral-bound, 60# sketchbooks that I cut in half, creating 80-page 6×9 books that cost me less than $4.  All of these solutions suffer when I try to add even light washes of watercolor.

What is a problem is that while I like the cheap Fabriano paper in those 6×9 books, they’re just large for the purpose, being too large and too heavy because I’m also carrying my regular S&B sketchbooks.


So, when I saw Canson’s XL Multi-Media book in a 7×10 size, I knew I’ve found my answer.  Cut in half (I just run it through my bandsaw), it provides two 60-sheet 5×7 sketchbooks and the best part was that the paper is 98lb paper that takes watercolor washes quite well.  No, I’m wrong.  The best part is that these books only cost $3.50.   I put one of my sketches on the front just to spiff it up a bit.


Single-Line Sketching

We’ve all heard of and been told to do single-line contour drawing but generally this is done using a single object as subject and the goal is to gain “hand-eye coordination”, whatever that is (I do want to talk about this  some day).

Marc Taro Holmes, however, advocates doing “single line sketching in ink”, meaning doing location sketching using a single pen line to capture an entire scene.  If you haven’t gotten Marc’s great tutorial, Making Expressive Pen and Ink Drawings on Location, get it.

It presents three approaches to street sketching.  The first is to do a pencil framework, followed by “expressive ink”, ending with the addition of shading using a brush pen.  While not exactly my approach, this is close to my drawing approach and thus I feel it’s a really good idea (grin).

Marc’s second method is a quick-sketch approach, working small (4×6) and doing sketches in 4-minutes or so. The goal of this exercise, says Marc, is to “help you develop fluidity and confidence with spontaneous pen-and-ink sketching.”  He does establish the caveat that “This probably won’t be easy at first – but that’s ok.”  For a guy who squeezes his pens within an inch of collapse when I draw (overstated here for effect), this was quite a challenge, and one I have taken up recently.

This post is a quick report of my early baby steps in single-line sketching.  All of these drawings were done on 5.5×8.5 paper so each is about half that in size.  I used my Namiki Falcon for the single line and a Kuretake #13 brush pen for the darks.

2015-07-27OneLine1This first one is a bit of a cheat.  Marc provides two thumbnail photos and examples of his single-line sketch of each.  I used those photos as a source and tried to do single-line sketches in five minutes or less.  I think I accomplished the task but they’re not nearly as neat and clean as the ones Marc did.

I found the process frantic, frustrating, impossible, and hard.  Much of the frustration came from trying to plot out my ‘next’ move to get from one place to another in the drawing.

The impossible came from elsewhere.  In the few years since I started sketching, I’ve barely managed to wrestle things like proportion, perspective, and volumes to the ground using a scaffolding, outside-in approach, that Marc certainly advocates.  All of that fell apart for me when I tried to do this exercise because I was starting in one place and moving across the scene, trying to cobble it together as I went.  Didn’t much like that at all.  On to the next.

2015-07-27OneLine2This is a house, nestled in a forested area near my river.  I was out walking after a rain and decided to do the single-line thing.  There was no place to sit so I had to deal with my other big weakness – I have a hard time drawing on a sketchbook that I’m holding.  Just can’t get the left and right hands to organize themselves.

Here you can clearly see what I meant by losing all the proportion/perspective stuff.  My gables are almost randomly placed on the roof and the third one in the row looks like the runt of the litter as it’s not nearly the right size.  But it was fun and I do get a sense that this exercise is feeding me in some way so I shall push on.

2015-07-27OneLine3The sketch on the left is an impossible (tough?) subject because it was done from the ferry and looks up at a scary steep angle at the bit of the military fort that looks out over the St. Lawrence and a long terrace railing that runs across this scene.  While it took only a few minutes I learned several things.

1) I’m not very good.
2) I’m easily confused.
3) It’s hard to deal with multiple layers of foliage with a single line width and worse with a single line.
4) Without shade and texture, it’s often hard to separate nature from man-made objects.  For instance, there’s a wall below the long railing running through the drawing, with trees sticking up in places.  The “bridge” you see in the upper right is really another railing that runs along the edge of a park.  Below it is actually an open, grassy area.  How to indicate this in a single-line drawing ??????

The second sketch was a mass of the frustration stuff, where all my brain power was shoved towards figuring out how to get from one form to another and the result was a ton of spurious twists and turns that simply cluttered things up a lot.  Another thing that caused a problem here had nothing to do with me or Marc’s exercise.  I’d spent a couple minutes on this sketch when this appeared in front of me.

quebec city garbage truckNeedless to say, this disrupted the flow a bit and I admit that I raised my pen off the paper.  I had to stand up and move to the right to finish the sketch, faking things a bit because of a POV change.  Tis the nature of street sketching.

lne-line sketching in Quebec CityI made some changes to my approach.  First, I “planned” these little sketches.  I did this by dropping some dots in places to indicate edge/corner locations.  Maybe it’s not “fair” but geez…  I’m just an outside in kinda guy at this point and it’s nuts to me to try to draw right to left (I’m a lefty) like some sort of tidal wave sweeping across the page.

In the case of the foreground squiggles (picnic table) and the background building siding (scooter sketch) I did add those after I’d completed the single-line part of the exercise.  Truthfully, those background siding lines were done so quickly and poorly that they detract, rather than add to the sketch.

I also decided to add a bit of color mostly to see what happens.  I liked the result, in spite of the wonky nature of the sketches.  Mostly I LOVE the idea of being able to do such things in a very few minutes.

I’ve done several more of these but I won’t bore you with them.  Besides, it’s probably not good to show too many of my training exercises 🙂  You know the old adage, “Never let them see you sweat.”  Well, I was sweating while trying to do these single-line sketches.

For someone who can already draw stuff, at least in my limited way, I found this exercise to be very hard, almost jarring, as it flies in the face of my more cartoon style.  And this is probably it’s biggest virtue for me.  I’m a believer in training one’s self to be able to do a drawing in 30-seconds, 2-minutes, 20-minutes, or over several hours.  By doing so one is best adapted to capturing what one sees on the street and it makes it far easier to fit sketching into your daily routine.  You can’t do much sketching if you always need a couple hours to do it.

From a ‘technique’ point of view, I think this exercise is helping me “loosen up” as they say, but I don’t see that as a big deal.  Loose or tight, the goal is to capture the subject such that people can recognize it in the sketch.

No, for me I see the value of this is to train my eye in a different way.  In an attempt to eliminate a lot of the scribble nature of these sketches I’m moving to simplify shapes, to be able to more quickly recognize the importance of objects relative to others.

A big thing this method can teach, though I’ve yet to learn it, is that drawing quickly doesn’t have to mean, nor should it mean, drawing fast.  My early attempts here had my pen moving a lightning speed, far faster than my brain could manage.  The result was a lot of scribble that 1) wasn’t needed and 2) made for a lesser result.  Learning to slow down while doing a 2-4 minute sketch may be as important as anything else in the sketcher’s arsenal.

For me it’s now on to Marc’s next step, drawing larger and using 5-7 lines for the same sort of sketches.

Frustrated January Sketcher And Other Stuff

I apologize for not posting much since Christmas.  I’m full of excuses if that will help.  You see, while most folks get to return to normal after January 1st, my holiday season is in full swing.  My daughter was home for the holidays.  Both Chantal and Jodie have birthdays in the first half of January and we just returned from Ottawa.  Oh…and it’s VERY cold, so for a street sketcher it’s a tough time of year.

I looked at my total sketching experiences from my Ottawa trip and two things happened.  First, I sighed and did a mental ‘woe is me.’  Then it occurred to me that it might be worth mentioning a couple things about the result, so here it is.

2015-11-OttawaClearly this isn’t a post about my great art.  Rather, I want to talk about some philosophical and pragmatic things that these two pages represent.  You see, this is a brand-spanking new Moleskine sketchbook.  Now I’m not a fan of these sketchbooks for ‘real’ drawing but I had the opportunity to get one cheap and so it’s going to serve as my daily ‘quick-sketchbook.’  I carry one of these with me at all times and not stuffed away in my man-bag (which holds my regular art stuff) but rather in my pocket, with some sort of quick-sketching pointy device tucked away with it.  It can be brought out in seconds and is often returned a couple minutes later with a new sketch between its covers.  I started doing this about two years ago when my buddy Yvan Breton convinced me of the power of such an approach.

Two things occurred when I started carrying such a sketchbook.  The first, and most important was that I started doing a LOT more sketching.  In the past couple years I’ve filled about 20 of these little 3×5 or 4×6 sketchbooks in addition to my regular sketchbooks.  Most of the pages are filled with quick sketches, though sometimes I’ll do something more complete.  No matter how you slice it, that means a lot more sketching fun and sketching practice and I can do it when no other kind of sketching is possible.  The other thing that has happened is that my ability to see shapes quickly has improved immensely and it allows me to be more loose with my line work than is my typical style.

The sketch on the right is typical.  I was sitting in a restaurant with my family and we were waiting for our food to arrive.  This woman was standing at a bus stop across the street.  I took out my sketchbook and pen, a Uniball Vision, and quickly sketched her.  I doubt that it took two minutes, which included having to wait for a large truck that blocked my view as it waited for a light.  Then the book went back in my pocket and I was ‘back’ with my family.

The left page is also interesting as it shows my lack of respect for the space so many treat as hallowed ground – the pages of a sketchbook.  When you worry about whether every page is worthy of posting on Facebook, you will lose many opportunities.  My small sketchbook is a place where ‘who cares’ rules.

In this case I’d started a sketch while leaning against the wall of my daughter’s apartment.  I was looking out the back window and had started drawing a nearby building.  I was using a Zebra 301A ballpoint.  It was announced by my boss…err..wife, that it was time to go so the book went into my pocket.  We were headed for Ikea.

We hadn’t been in an Ikea in a decade and acted like farmers in a big city for the first time.  We ate meatballs and wanted to buy everything in sight.  Realizing that we had to write numbers of stuff we might want to buy, I pulled out my Moleskine Sketchbook and started writing.  Would you do that with your sketchbook?  It’s to your advantage to be willing to do so as otherwise you won’t start a lot of sketches because you won’t feel you have time to ‘finish’ or ‘do the sketch justice.’  We did buy that kitchen island, by the way, and hauled it back to Quebec.

Now, do you need a Moleskine sketchbook for this?  Heck no, and in fact I’d advise against it.  The paper is ok for pen or pencil but it stinks for watercolor isn’t necessary for pen, and they’re ridiculously expensive.   Most of my small sketchbooks are 3×5 or 4×6 sketchbooks that I’ve bought at our dollar store, though they typically cost me $2.


Shading Quick-Sketches Quickly

Many sketchers enjoy doing quick-sketches as they can be done while waiting in line, sitting in a doctor’s reception room, or in any food court.  You can do them while driving down the highway, though it’s best to have someone else driving.  I fill several sketchbooks a year with these kinds of sketches, each taking 1-3 minutes.

But one thing these simple line drawings lack is any sense of tonal variation – unless you add it.  As a couple people have asked about how I do it I thought I’d talk about my process, though I’m a rank amateur at quick-sketching.  The same technique can be used to color more complete drawings as well.

The most common form of shading quick sketches is to use an ink that isn’t waterproof.  Most fountain pen inks are not so you have a wide range of colors, brands, and pens to choose from.  I believe Goulet Pens say they stock 600 inks, and most of them are water-soluble.


Done in Strathmore “toned gray” sketchbook, using J.Herbin 1670 ink. Click to enlarge.

If you carry a waterbrush (with clear water), shading with water-soluble ink  is easy.  You simply run the pen along one side of the line, pulling color from the line and into a shape to indicate shading.

While this is, by far, the easiest approach there are a couple of potential drawbacks.  First, drawing ink away from the lines diminishs the lines and possibly makes them fuzzy.  This can be good or bad, of course.  The other limitation is that your shading is the same color as the lines.  Again, sometimes good, sometimes bad.

 Shading brushes

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Noodler's Lex Gray and brown & black waterbrushes

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Noodler’s Lex Gray and brown & black waterbrushes. Click to enlarge.

For nearly a year, now, in addition to a clear-water waterbrush I’ve carried a waterbrush where I’ve added a few drops of Noodler’s Lexington Gray and another with a few drops of Noodler’s Polar Brown.  This gives me the flexibility to use both a brown and a gray to shade my drawings and I can do it in seconds.  I keep the shade from the waterbrush very light so that I can apply multiple coats and obtain a range of colors.  I think the very dilute solution helps keep the brushes flowing properly.  I use a waterproof ink (Noodler’s Lexington Gray) for the linework so that it’s unaffected by the shading.

Stillman & Birn Alpha 4x6. Pilot Prera & gray waterbrush. Click to enlarge

Stillman & Birn Alpha 4×6. Pilot Prera & gray waterbrush. Click to enlarge

If you enjoy quick-sketching, give this approach a try.  Easy to carry, easy to apply when there’s no time for a full watercolor treatment.

Some quickies at the coffee shop.  Click to enlarge.

Some quickies at the coffee shop. Click to enlarge.

Using both color sometimes enhances the scene.  Click to enlarge.

Using both color sometimes enhances the scene. Click to enlarge.