Spring Unfolding

When the world has been brown for months, the first emergence of green is a wonderful thing. Skunk cabbage has been unfurling for several weeks now and is a most welcome sight along woodland streams and wetlands. In late winter, it sends up a maroon-striped spadix, which encloses its unpleasant smelling flower, and then in early spring it unrolls bright green leaves. I recently spent a pleasant afternoon sketching on the edge of a wooded steam, enjoying dappled sun and birdsong, and feeling grateful for this one beautiful color.

Tips & Techniques– Deciding what to sketch is sometimes harder than actually sketching. Likewise, figuring out what you want your page to look once you’ve chosen a subject may seem daunting. Here are a couple of ways to get past the blank white page:

  • Option 1: Start with a couple of quick thumbnail sketches. These will help you figure out whether you like your subject enough to devote time to it and whether you think you can tackle it in the time you have. Thumbnails will also help you consider different approaches to page layout. They can help you map out where the lights, mid-tones, and darks are too, which will give you a road map for the full page version.
  • Option 2: Just begin! Rather than thinking you have to figure out everything before you start, consider that your sketching journey can begin with a single step. Make a mark. Make another. Keep looking, keep going until you feel satisfied with the page.
  • Option 3: Be thoughtful. Consider what drew you to sketch this particular subject. Think about it for a minute- was it the color? The light? The scene or object? The story? Your experience? When you have an answer, you’ll have a better idea of what to emphasize and how you want to approach the page.

Fast and Loose

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.

Birds and Books

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

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.

Loose Lines

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.

Click to view larger

Click to view larger

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 Simple Things

We caught a glimpse of the full moon last night before it disappeared behind clouds of snow.  A simple circle, so much depth. I’ve always loved the constancy of the moon, the way it connects eons and continents and people in its perfect radiance.

Handmade journal; click to view larger

Handmade journal; click to view larger

I kept this page simple to echo the subject and to emphasize the beauty and mystery of the night. The haiku is written with a Micron 02 pen and the larger text is painted in watercolor with a size 1 brush, combining yellow ochre and indathrone blue. I kept the paint fairly dry, because these colors make a greenish gray when mixed. In cases where I do want the colors to merge in the letter I use wetter paint. Try it with your favorite color combinations to see how it works.

In Cold Rain

A cold rain is falling on the winter beach. A solitary loon, a few surf scoters, and a flock of bufflehead bob in the steely-gray water, disappearing now and again beneath the waves. This is no day for sketching seabirds. I retreat to the car and drive to a windswept spit of land that divides ocean from tidal marsh. A flock of gulls are right where I had hoped they’d be at the edge of the parking area, facing into the wind, occasionally preening or picking at clams or flying up and settling back down. I crack open my sketchbook in the front seat and draw. Gulls are perfect subjects, striking a variety of poses until the page is filled and I go home for tea.

click to view larger; watercolor in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook

click to view larger; watercolor in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook