Short on time but long on patience, I often need to quickly put pen to paper in my journal, get a first wash of color down, and then come back to finish later. The result is a journal full of sketches that took five minutes to start but five days to finish. I don’t really mind—working fast and loose has its merits. For one, my sketchbook would be empty if I waited until I had a big block of time for art. It has improved my hand-eye coordination. And it has kept in check my prior tendency to be slow, controlled, and precise.
Tips & Techniques– Practice a few 30 second, 1 minute, and 3 minute contour and semi-blind contour drawings with a fairly simple subject. Fruits and vegetables are perfect. Work in pencil or pen, but don’t erase. See if you can get most of your subject down in just a few minutes. Next add a loose and light wash of watercolor. Let it dry. Then repeat; add two or three more layers of paint to deepen the colors and add depth.
One trick to this method is to suspend judgment in the early stages. My sketches often look downright sloppy at the start, but I know that the watercolor will transform them. You can always tighten up as you progress, but it’s hard to make controlled sketches seem loose after the fact.
I introduced this technique with participants at a recent workshop on illustrated watercolor journaling that I offered at the Vermont Watercolor Society. Look how great this 1-minute sketch by one of the participants turned out with a just a couple of washes of watercolor.
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.
It’s always nice when good sketches sneak up on you. They’re often the ones where you’re not trying too hard or thinking too much. Where your lines are loose and flow from object to paper quickly and without criticism. I wasn’t trying to create anything detailed or complicated here; I just wanted to capture form and light…which, I suppose is what we’re always striving for on paper.
Tips & Techniques- If you need to loosen up with your artwork, I recommend grabbing a pencil or pen and leaving the eraser behind. Look at whatever you’re working on for a minute or two, and then jump in. Keep your lines moving and your eyes on your subject. If you don’t like a line, go over it with another one (and another one, and another one). Give yourself just a few minutes to capture the essence. Then turn the page and start again. Do a couple of these quick sketches in succession. When you’re finished, take a read on how it felt to work this way. Freeing, eh?
The last garden vegetables left to harvest include a few scarlet runner beans that I’ve had my eye on since their red flowers bloomed in August. I didn’t make time to paint them then, but didn’t want to miss them altogether.
I sketched directly in ink and then added watercolor to the foreground layer. I went back in and painted an additional layer of light watercolor vines and beans to add more depth. The shadows are really important to making this work because they create the illusion of light and depth. Done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, 8.5 x 11.
In autumn, I like to watch for birds that are migrating south, but I also enjoy the rear-round regulars that visit our yard. With mating out of the way and young fledged, songbirds focus on the singular task of eating to prepare for the long, lean winter. A harvest of flowers gone to seed and fruit on wild vines, supplemented by bird feeders set a welcome table.
Drawing birds takes some practice and a bit of study to familiarize yourself with anatomy, feather groups, and the correct placement of legs and eyes. I spend time drawing birds from mounted museum specimens, study skins, and photographs, as well as from life. For a piece like this, all of those things combine to inform the finished artwork.
I typically start with a light pencil sketch so that I can refine the lines, and then add ink. I like a Micron 005 so that the lines are very fine and I can suggest feathers here and there. Then I paint a loose wash to map out major areas, followed by increasingly detailed layers of color and value. I go from a size 5 or 6 brush at the start and finish with a size 1.
At the recent workshop I led in Anacortes, Washington, we started off with some back-to-basics drawing and painting techniques. Participants practiced blind contour and gesture drawings; did short, timed sketches; worked in ink to keep a drawing flow going without erasures; and put a number of concepts together while painting vegetables. Here’s my demo painting, which I went back to later to add tips from the lesson. Isn’t it great that we can learn so much from a carrot?