Ever wonder what it’s like to go power cruising in southeastern Alaska—snaking your way through miles of evergreen coastline dotted with remote fishing villages? To be honest, I never have. I don’t even own a boat. So when I got an email asking whether I would illustrate an article on cruising and salmon fishing for PassageMaker magazine, I took a deep breath and enthusiastically accepted. Mind you, I didn’t get to actually go to Alaska. I just got to bring someone else’s travels to life in journal style illustrations for the article. The April issue hit the stands this week, and while I can’t show it to you in detail, I can give you a sneak preview.
Creating the illustrations was a fun challenge that involved sifting through lots of images of salmon, boats, and Alaskan coastline, thinking about what I might have put in my sketchbook had I actually gone to Alaska, and then creating paintings that would give a flavor of the region and what the author describes in the article. The designers pulled the paintings into Photoshop and merged them to suit the text and layout. I painted the image above to run across the bottom of the title page. What you’re seeing below are layout proofs.
I recently hosted a Sketcher’s Tea—an excuse, really, for sketchers to come out of isolation in March and share a cup of tea and an afternoon of painting together. Sketching tea cups seems straightforward enough. And yet, there are lessons to be learned each time I do it. Perspective, shadows, painting whites, lost edges, reflections, patterns…the art of mastering the simple and the complex is what makes sketching tea cups both challenging and fun.
Tips and Techniques– I often start by making a small value sketch so that I know where the lights and shadows fall. It can be hard to tell with all the patterns on the cups or if the lighting is coming from multiple sources. The paper sketch makes it easier to translate the values to the painting. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on this– couple of minutes might be fine.
Obsessive, distracting, challenging, fun. Sketching 100 people in a week has been a crazy ride. Instead of eyeing the artistic properties of carrots and beets in the supermarket, I found myself wishing I could draw the man with the waist-length gray beard or the woman in the colorful scarf. I became a spy in the coffee shop and at the library: casing the joints for subjects, finding seats where I could be unobtrusive, stealing glances, occasionally getting caught.
I’ve learned a lot in a week.
- The more you do, the better you get—with a major caveat. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you’re just doing the same thing over and over. Taking time to learn (e.g., anatomy, technique, accuracy, etc.) or trying different materials can jump you to the next level. The combination of learning and practice is how you improve.
- Sometimes working from photos is a good thing. By stopping the action and giving yourself time, you can really study your subject. You can mess around, make mistakes, and clean them up. Your sketches might be less lively, but when you go back to working from life, you just might be more prepared.
- There’s no substitute for working from life.
- Studying the work of other artists—whether Masters in a museum or fellow sketchers online—opens up new doors of possibility.
- You are in the driver seat. Sketch what you love, but push the boundaries and take risks every now and then to see what you are capable of.
Click on any sketch to view larger and see notes. (See 1-50 here)
This challenge gave me plenty of opportunity to try different materials for the same subject. Here, I swapped my usual Micron 02 for the Platinum Carbon fountain pen. I like the line quality, but had to take care not to smudge the ink while it was drying.
Here’s where the numbers started to drive me and I lost sight of being thoughtful about what I wanted to do with this challenge. Bad move. With an hour to close and few people at the museum, I became reckless.
While I like the sketches of the security guards in this set, there little else I’m pleased with on these pages. I needed to remind myself to take charge again and focus on what I wanted to practice and learn. Good move.
I switched gears in a major way—working from a photo, I wanted to see if I could manage a more detailed portrait in watercolor. The subtleties of skin tones were well worth doing. (I think this should count as more than one.)
For my remaining sketches, I wanted to achieve a more accurate likeness of my subjects (which I did not achieve on 86-88, but did better on 89). These four were done with an inexpensive Pilot Varsity fountain pen with water soluble ink that bleeds beautifully for dramatic effects. I loved this pen for quick sketches with the simplest of washes.
An hour to closing time and 10 people to go, I was back to stalking subjects at the library. Working directly in pen, I managed to capture a decent likeness and suggest form with just two rounds of watercolor wash on most of these. I’ve come a long way from sketch #1.
Sometimes it takes a big push to try something new. That’s what I’m getting this week by participating in the worldwide drawing event One Week 100 People 2017*, started by Urban Sketchers Marc Taro Holmes and Liz Steel. I barely see 100 people in a week, let alone draw them, so sketching 100 people is taking me to new places, spurring me to experiment with new materials and techniques, and forcing me to study faces and figures after many, many years of not drawing a soul.
I’m just past halfway to the finish line and here you can see the good, the bad, and the way off the mark. But it’s all good and fun, really, and I’m learning a lot. I’ll share the second half and some lessons learned when I reach 100. (Click on any sketch to view larger and see notes.)
1-5 My first sketch took only about 20 seconds, but it marked my commitment to this challenge: I’m in.
6-10 A sense of panic reigned as I began in earnest—the lines are loose, fast and rough; but this is one of my favorite pages from the challenge.
11-20 A lesson in simplification reveals just how much a few strokes of paint can say.
21-24 Learning from the masters is a worthwhile exercise: it’s all about capturing light.
25-28 How different are the strokes of the Japanese masters of the same time period (and what a comparison of 18th and 19th century women)! The Japanese artists had already simplified the features, so their artistry is far more graphic and gave me a sense of lovely flowing lines.
29-33 Here I reverted to fast and rough, just trying to get my numbers up instead of being thoughtful.
34-40 More of the same (see 29-33).
41-43 Slowing down with a water soluble pencil. You can start to see in the faces what I’ve learned from the facial studies.
44-47 I consider the Blue Girls to be my breakthrough sketches. Instead of seeing arms and faces, I began to look at shapes and forms to capture the figures. I also realized that I could slow myself down and be less reckless, even when working quickly. Starting in pencil helped too.
48-54 Back at the library I continued to focus on shape and form, while being more careful with the facial structure. I’m pleased with the results.
55-57 Again, panic. The library was closing in 10 minutes and I want to get my numbers up!
What is the value of imperfection? I’ve been mulling over that question as it pertains to artwork for a few years and still, I don’t have a clear answer. I love the work of natural science illustrators, for whom accuracy, precision, and beauty are paramount. Yet each time my own artwork approaches that kind of perfection, it somehow seems to be missing something. Embracing imperfection, which, after all, is what so much of life is about, increasingly appeals to me. Letting go, accepting, and finding beauty are good lessons to learn on any journal page—and these lilies, way past their prime, were the perfect teacher.
Tips & Techniques– This piece takes advantage of secondary colors—orange, green, and a spot of purple—to create harmony. The strong black of the text, done with a Micron graphic pen, nearly overwhelms the lilies, but also makes a strong statement. I could go back with a thicker black outline on the flowers, but that would likely lead to overkill.
What is it that makes fossilized crinoids so compelling? Is it the artful way these delicate creatures came to rest at the bottom of the sea? Or the amazing transformation from living animal to rock, forever preserved, then heaved and eroded from the depths of time? Or is it the sheer success of this class of echinoderms as a survivor—living, reproducing, and dying over millions and millions of years to this very day in the depths of the oceans?
Click to view larger. Watercolor in Stillman & Birn Beta journal
I discovered the fossilized Uintacrinus socialis, a floating crinoid species whose arms could reach three feet long, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut. I found the other beautiful specimens (depicted below) at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts (Platycrinus and Dichocrinus sp.) and the Peabody Museum (Sea Lily).
Tips & Techniques
– Studying the anatomy of creatures you’re interested in painting can make a world of difference. Not only will it help you get the drawing right, it will deepen your understanding and appreciation for the nature of the world. Drawing the anatomy of a crinoid helped me figure out what features to look for in the fossil specimens and to see the similarities between crinoids and their echinoderm relatives– sea stars and urchins.
The pages of Birds Worth Knowing, written by Neltje Blanchan and published in 1917 are yellowed and worn. With a classic old book feel and scent, they remind me of cheap paper tablets used by elementary students learning to write. As a scientific historian and nature writer, Blanchan’s work is descriptive and thorough. Still, it sits on my shelf, year after year, untouched. Giving renewed purpose to a page or two seemed fitting.
colored pencil; click to view larger
Tips & Techniques– I like to keep much of my day-to-day work in my artist journal. So when experimenting with different kinds of papers, I typically cut and paste them in. I sliced the pages cleanly out of the bird book with an Exacto knife and trimmed them slightly to fit my Stillman & Birn journal. I used permanent adhesive roller tape to bind the pages—it’s easy to use, clean, and flexible. Archival PVA adhesive also works well and might be best if you’re going to use gouache or acrylic paint on the page. Book pages are not well suited to watercolor.
The hardest thing about drawing on book pages is seeing your initial lines, which get lost in the type and toned paper. I needed to go over a few pencil lines in ink to better define and see them. Subjects that have strong values from white to black work especially well and the possibilities for marrying book text and images are endless. I intentionally left the jay and nest unfinished, as I wanted the page to have a sketchbook quality.