Sunday, March 26, 2017

Simple Shapes with Sue Heston

3/25/17 Faber-Castell Pitt Big Brush Pens
My second Urban Sketchers 10x10 workshop was Sue Heston’s “Simple Shapes Stronger Sketches.” Many sketchers, myself included, immediately become ensnarled by the mass of details in any view we might start to draw. Sue’s workshop directly addresses this issue by keeping students focused only on large shapes. On a chilly but dry Saturday morning, 14 sketchers gathered at the downtown ferry terminal to start seeing those shapes.

In most outdoor urban views, the largest shape is the sky. “Unlike many things – cars, trees, people – we don’t have preconceived ideas about the shape of the sky,” Sue says in her handout, which makes it an easier shape to see accurately and objectively.

With that in mind, our first exercise was to choose a composition and use a wide, light-colored marker to draw the sky as a single shape. (Fat markers were recommended because it’s impossible to get fussy with details when you have those in your hand!) The next step was to fill in the “not-sky” shape with a medium gray marker, forming another large shape. We did as many of these as possible to get away from trying to draw individual buildings, windows and rooftops and instead focused on the abstracted shapes. Sue warned us not to try to make nice sketches in these exercises; they were meant to be more like thumbnails that help us see values and compositions.

3/25/17 Pitt Big Brush Pens
The second exercise built on the first by bringing in a dark gray or black marker for the shadow shapes. Starting new compositions or simply adding to the sketches we made in the first exercise, we looked for the darkest areas to fill in.

For the final exercise, Sue encouraged us to use our medium of choice while still following the same principles we’d practiced all morning: Make the sky shape; make the not-sky shape; finish with shadow shapes and finally details.

Although I don’t usually favor fat markers, I was certain that if I picked up my usual pens or colored pencils I’d fall back into my old habits. I decided to keep going and make a few more sketches with markers to reinforce what I’d learned. After drawing the sky shape for one skyline, my intention was to color in the gray and black, but I liked the simple line so much that I left it unshaded. Of course, I couldn’t resist adding a couple of cranes.

3/25/17 Tombow markers
My favorite sketch of the day was of my beloved Smith Tower framed by the interesting sky shape formed by the terminal building’s overhang.


As humans who innately look for shapes we recognize, we don’t naturally “see” the shapes in between or around those recognizable things. We have to train our eyes to see those abstract shapes. Remember those “magic eyes” picture books of the ‘90s? If you crossed your eyes just right, a three-dimensional pictured popped out of the larger picture. I remember it took me a while to see the first one, but once I did, the rest snapped into place almost immediately. By the end of the workshop, I started feeling that way about the sky shapes surrounding the buildings, cranes, rooftops, stadiums and millions of other details in front of me. I think those larger shapes will snap into place easily for me now, helping me make better sketches with any medium.

3/25/17 Tombow markers, colored pencils

3/25/17 brush pen, colored pencils

Sue points out a sky shape.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Roastery Still Dazzles

3/24/16 water-soluble colored pencils, ink
The other day I mentioned places I tend to sketch repeatedly. One of them is apparently the Starbucks Roastery and Tasting Room – I think yesterday was my fifth time in two years, all but once with USk Seattle. You’d think by now that I’d be done with it, but it is filled with so many amazing and challenging things to sketch that I remain dazzled. I may do my share of eye-rolling at the marketing copy – “Zesty lime citrus notes and brown spice accents with a chocolaty mouthfeel” is the description of my cup of Costa Rica Bella Vista F.W. Tres Rios – and my rolling eyes may pop out of their sockets when I see how much I paid for that cup, but I can sit just about anywhere and find something interesting to draw.

3/24/17 water-soluble colored pencil, brush pen
For a Friday morning, the place was mobbed and noisy, and I think we lost one or two sketchers because of that. I generally don’t like loud music and crowds either, but once I decide on a view to sketch, I get lost in drawing and hardly notice the buzz around me. The enormous copper vat with the Reserve logo was a popular spot for selfies.

Finished with that sketch, I got up to look around for the next one when something rare and astonishing caught my eye – the sun! I grabbed my coat and dashed outside for the view I was hoping to catch – the domed top of the First Covenant Church just up Pike from the Roastery.


The sun stayed out long enough for us to take a group photo outside the Roastery, but by the time I caught my bus ride home, it was pouring again.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Sun Break

3/23/17 colored pencils, ink

I find myself sketching some scenes or locations many times. Often it’s just conveniently located along a regular route, or it might be a certain tree that I like to catch seasonally.


Sometimes, though, an ordinary place calls to me. It’s not particularly beautiful, but it’s where I go when the weather changes unexpectedly for the better. I’ve sketched this spot at Green Lake at least twice before – a little more than a year ago when we had an unseasonably warm streak, and three years ago when summer was unpredictable. It wasn’t exactly warm yesterday, but after so many weeks of record-breaking rain, people streamed by in quiet celebration of not having to wear soggy hats and hoods.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is the Purpose of a Sketch?

3/22/17 colored pencil (photo reference)
For our last session in the colored pencil class I’ve been taking at Gage, the focus was on sketching (Yay! Finally!). Well, it wasn’t exactly sketching as I know it because, as usual, we worked from photos. (You should have seen me twitch at the travesty: The temperature was mild, and the sun came out this morning as we sat in the classroom, sketching from photos! What is wrong with this picture!) I half-heartedly produced a few sketches like the one shown here (a scene I’d love to sketch very soon from life – a cherry tree in full bloom at the Seattle Arboretum).

More than the sketching experience itself, I found Suzanne’s lecture today interesting because she talked about the purpose of sketching – from a fine artist’s perspective. Gage Academy is in the business of training people to become fine artists. Most atelier students go on to become professional studio artists, and even many casual students are there because they have an interest in eventually offering their work for sale. So when Suzanne discussed sketching, it was clear that the sole purpose of producing a sketch is as a preliminary step toward eventually creating a finished work. Unlike the type of sketches I make, the fine artist’s “field sketch” (Suzanne’s term) has no purpose if it doesn’t lead to something bigger and (presumably) better. At the end of the sketch, an artist may decide that a scene doesn’t interest her enough to merit a finished painting, or she doesn’t have enough information about the scene to make a painting, so the sketch goes no further. But in any case, the job of the sketch is to help the artist make that decision. It has no life of its own.

To me, that’s very different from the content of the dozens of sketchbooks I’ve filled during the past five years. My sketches did their job just by being made by me. They do have lives of their own in my sketchbooks – by evoking for me, every time I look at them, whatever captured my attention long enough to make me want to sketch.

Despite this major difference in purpose, the steps she takes to make a field sketch are very similar to the basic steps I take for most of my sketches:

 Look for a point of interest: What attracts or excites me about what I see? What do I want the viewer to see?
 Zoom in and out like a camera to find the composition.
 Once I’ve identified the picture I want to make, think about the best ways to express it – with line, shape, color, form, texture?
 Where is the sun? Think about light and shadow and how I can use them to help describe the scene.
 Deliberately emphasize the light and shadow in the sketch to help define the forms.

After Suzanne (and other fine artists) makes a field sketch, she still has to take it, along with photos, back to her studio and hope that it contains enough information to help her make a painting.

Fortunately for me, after I’ve taken those steps, my work is done. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Seein’ Pink!

3/21/17 ink, colored pencils
Could it be? Yes!


Driving through the Green Lake neighborhood, I spotted the first signs of pink in a cluster of trees. Most of the dark pink buds were still tightly closed, reluctant to admit that Monday was the first day of spring. I’m guessing they’re plums, as the pale pink cherries are still a way’s off. But I’ll take any pink I can get.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What Colored Pencils Are Teaching Me

3/18/17 graphite
In the still life I did the other day, I felt like I didn’t do justice to the garlic’s complex, multiple curves (not to mention struggling with capturing its whiteness with colored pencils in four hues). I decided to focus on the garlic alone, this time with graphite. The highlights were much more challenging than a mostly spherical apple.

Working with colored pencils lately has given me ideas about applying what I’ve learned to graphite pencils. In particular, I was thinking about the blending tools I’ve been experimenting with, and I remembered the tortillon I bought a long time ago when a class supply list included it. Just like charcoal, soft graphite can be blended easily with tortillons and stumps (but thankfully, graphite is not nearly as messy as charcoal!). I also used an eraser judiciously when I got heavy-handed with shading in some areas and to clean up smudgy edges after I got done using the tortillon.  

I always think it’s sort of funny that while most beginning sketchers start out drawing with a graphite pencil because they are most comfortable and familiar with it, I went almost immediately to ink. My growing familiarity with colored pencils is, paradoxically, what finally got me interested in trying graphite. Although they are quite different in terms of media, they have similarities in how they can be used, so my learning curve might not be as steep with graphite as it would be if I weren’t immersed in colored pencils right now.


I’d love to take a graphite drawing class someday. When I think of masters like Michelangelo and Da Vinci, there’s nothing quite so exquisite as a well-executed graphite drawing.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sun and Brews in Ballard

3/19/17 inks, colored pencils

Based on what I saw driving past Green Lake on my way home from Ballard this afternoon, I’d say 90 percent of the Seattle population was outdoors today (and the other 10 percent was wishing it was). Never mind that the temps got up to only around the high 40s – this rain-soggy region had been craving sunshine!

3/19/17 brush pen, colored pencils
When I arrived at Hale’s Brewery for the Urban Sketchers Seattle meet-up before 11 a.m., the temperature wasn’t yet 40, but that sun was irresistible. I zipped up my down parka and sketched the scene outside Hale’s, where there were so many utility lines criss-crossing the street that I could hardly keep track of them all. As I sketched, I kept thinking that I probably wouldn’t have attempted a composition spanning this much distance before taking Gabi’s Pocket Urban Sketching workshop last month. Although the concepts he taught about scaling weren’t new to me, I think it was the first time the proverbial light bulb had turned on over my head.

3/19/17 brush pen, colored pencils, ink
Thirty minutes later, my hands were cold, despite that delightful sun at my back, so I ducked inside the brewery to sketch the British telephone booth next to some barrels.

By then I was hungry, so I joined other sketchers for lunch inside the pub. Michele and Sue each had a tasting flight of five brews that I had started to sketch. I didn’t get far on color or details, though, because then my Nightroll Stout (named for the Fremont Troll) and burger arrived (and you know me – I’ve never been one to let my food get cold for a sketch).


Ahhh – a day like this could sustain me for the rest of winter! 

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