Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cloud Experiments

4/20/17 water-soluble colored pencils, ink
A couple of days ago we got a brief reprieve from the relentless rain and wind, so I ran out the door before it started again. It was still chilly and breezy, so I drove up the street and stayed in the car to sketch this. Although there was enough sunshine to cast shadows (what a treat!), huge, gray, billowing clouds hung low – a typical Seattle sky much of the year.

In just about every way, I am enjoying using colored pencils more than watercolors when sketching on location, but one element I haven’t been able to do successfully with colored pencils is the sky. Sure, I can take several hours to do it with dry colored pencils or a little less time with water-soluble colored pencils, but that doesn’t work on location. So I’ve been looking for shortcuts.

For a few years I’ve been using a waterbrush filled with ink to make a quick splash of blue sky, but that handy trick doesn’t work as well with clouds. I tried a waterbrush filled with gray ink for quite a while, but I haven’t been happy with the results.

With the sketch above I tried an idea I’ve been playing with at home – it’s similar to the waterbrush trick but using water-soluble colored pencils. I first spray the paper with a light mist, then use a clean brush to spread it evenly. I hit the wet paper with the blue ink. Then I put down a swatch of gray colored pencil on a piece of scrap paper. I use a second waterbrush (filled with water) to pick up the gray pigment, then dab it onto the wet paper. The effect is better when the paper has dried just a touch – but not too much.

Below are some practice clouds I’ve been doing at my desk. I’m not completely happy with the effect, but I’m happy with the speed and efficiency, and especially the mechanical ease of doing all of this while standing and without juggling paints. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Secondary Triad

4/20/17 water-soluble colored pencils (photo reference)
This week’s lessons in my colored-pencil class are depicting distance and using the secondary triad. I’m not too pleased with my result in terms of showing distance, and I wasn’t at all inspired by my photo reference of a marshy field – something I would probably never choose as subject matter on my own. On the other hand, I love the secondary triad palette I used and the process for mixing those hues!

During most of the previous lessons, we’ve used a primary triad palette (red, yellow, blue) with a warm and a cool of each hue – a classic paint-mixing structure. When I used watercolors, my tiny paint box allowed only eight half pans, so I generally carried some variation of a primary triad with a couple of secondary or other “convenience” colors. I’ve also experimented with colored pencil primary triads on my own, so I’ve gotten used to mixing primaries.

This week when Suzanne introduced the concept of using a secondary triad, I was very excited! Orange, green and violet is my favorite color combination for almost everything (someday I might show you my dishware, towels and downstairs bathroom), and I’m always attracted to it when I see it in the work of others. (One of my favorite urban sketchers who uses the secondary palette beautifully is Richard Sheppard.) But I’ve never consciously used it as a painting palette myself. It was high time for me to use it with pencils!
The secondary triad palette I used for the exercise above.
While picking out warms and cools of the primaries is easy, it took a little more thinking to choose the secondaries, mainly because I don’t do it often. Finding the right purples and greens was relatively straightforward, but the oranges were more challenging – it’s strange to think of any orange as being cool. With Suzanne’s help, and keeping in mind the marshy subject matter of the photo reference, I chose a dark reddish orange for the cool and a yellower one for the warm.

Mixing the cool green and cool violet for the darkest shadows was fun and surprisingly rich (instead of garish, which I feared).

My uninspiring photo reference.
I’m going to be using this palette again . . . in fact, I think it will be ideal for Italy next month! 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Follow-Up Review: Baron Fig Paper

Baron Fig Vanguard: standard edition at left (the plain gray covered
with my own stickers) and the limited-edition Infinity.
Ever since I supported its Kickstarter campaign several years ago, New York stationery maker Baron Fig has captured my attention on and off. The hardbound Confidant I initially reviewed held more promise than usefulness, but I was happy that I held onto it. Nearly two years later when I became interested in sketching with graphite, that notebook’s paper turned out to be one of my favorites.

Spotting my review about graphite sketching, Andi at Baron Fig got in touch asking permission to tweet it. I mentioned that I was considering trying a more portable softcover Vanguard, and she kindly offered to send me one in the same A5-ish Flagship size. (She also sent an Archer pencil, which had been recently released.) All winter as I sketched the graphite-gray landscape, the Vanguard became my everyday-carry pencil sketchbook.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when Ana at the Well-Appointed Desk noted that the paper in the limited Black Box edition had changed – it was now toothier and more creamy than white. I was actually fond of the old Vanguard’s slightly-but-not-overly-toothy surface, so I wasn’t sure if I’d find the change to be an improvement or not. A short time later, the next Vanguard limited-edition Infinity came out, and I was curious enough about the new paper to order one.

Initially I was a little disappointed by the additional tooth, but I got over that quickly because I discovered other differences that were definite improvements. I ran through my usual battery of media tests – graphite, water-soluble colored pencil, fountain pen, brush pen, Pitt marker. Although the weight (unspecified by BF) feels the same, the new paper has more sizing, so the water-soluble materials washed nicely when brushed lightly with water instead of sinking into the paper immediately. On the old paper, the reverse side shows a little bleed-through where I gave the scribbles a wash. The new paper shows almost nothing. The paper is still not intended for wet media, of course, so the page buckled where I got it wet, but not too badly.

Old paper
New paper

Old paper (reverse)
New paper (reverse)

Perhaps a more significant consequence of this paper change is greater durability where the binding is stitched. When sketching on location with a softcover sketchbook, my habit is to fold the side that I’m not using backward, making the book easier to hold with one hand. When I did that with the old Vanguard, I noticed that the pages would tear away a bit from the stitching, especially near the bottom. I’m not seeing that at all with the new Vanguard. Perhaps the binding is exactly the same, but the paper might be slightly stronger, so it’s not tearing from the stress of bending the page away from the stitching.

Old binding
New binding

Incidentally, one thing I really appreciate about all of Baron Fig’s notebooks (hardcover and softcover) is that the bindings open completely flat, which makes them easier to use as well as scan.

Tombow marker on new Vanguard paper
Since the paper is not appropriate for heavy washes, I wouldn’t make the Vanguard my standard, everyday sketchbook. But now that I know the paper can stand up to various media besides graphite, I’m using it more. Last month when I took Sue Heston’s urban sketching workshop, she had suggested tonal markers, so I grabbed pigment-ink-based Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens and water-based Tombow Dual Brush markers to use in the new Vanguard. The paper held up to both types of markers beautifully with no bleed-through at all, even where I applied the markers solidly. (I don’t have any alcohol-based markers to test, but I’m guessing they would still bleed through.) It’s great for fountain pen line drawings washed lightly for shading, too.

While the gray cover, standard edition Vanguard is available in a choice of rulings, including blank, the limited-edition Infinity is available only with dot-grid ruling. (Strangely, the pale gray dots apparently resist water-based marker ink, because the dots show up white. The Pitt markers obscured the dots completely.)

The standard edition pocket-size Vanguard is also available with blank paper. Hmmm . . . that might be worth trying now.

Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens
Fountain pen ink and colored pencil

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Game Changer

4/14/17 water-soluble colored pencils, 140 lb. paper (detail)
Learning to use multiple dry/wet/dry/wet layers of water-soluble colored pencils has become something of a game changer for me. These pencils that I love so much (though previously for mostly irrational reasons) have suddenly become much friendlier and more forgiving. I have more time to think or change my mind.

The first sketch I made from life with watercolor pencils after learning that basic technique was the lightship moored outside MOHAI last Friday with Urban Sketchers (detail at right). Although I had tested the red pencil I used on the ship before applying it, I didn’t like the garish pinkish tone it took on when I wet it. So after that dried, I went over it again with a brick red pencil and applied water again, and I liked the result better. In the past, I would’ve assumed I was simply stuck with that initial garish color. I’m not sure why it had never occurred to me to try adding more layers, but sometimes incorrect beliefs get planted firmly and have to be weeded out severely!

4/15/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta
The next day I tried sketching the over-ripe red Bartlett with multiple layers of dry/wet/dry/wet (at left). Once I got the hues the way I wanted, I applied additional dry pencil to some areas and then dabbed the waterbrush to get the mottled skin. Except the stem, the result looks more like pure watercolor, and in this case, I like the painterly look. I left the pear’s shadow dry to contrast with the fruit. I’m not sure whether I like it, but its texture definitely contrasts with the fruit.

On Monday I attempted a red bell pepper (much more challenging than an apple or pear!). In my first attempt at applying water to the pepper’s shadow (below, top) made of a blend of red and green, I didn’t move the brush fast enough, so I got an annoying line where the water started to dry. This is the kind of thing that happens to me a lot with watercolor paints, and as far as I know, there’s no way to fix it (and attempts to do so usually end up looking worse than before).

With the pepper’s shadow, however, I thought I’d see what would happen if I tried again: After it was completely dry, I reapplied light layers of the same red and green pencils. Then, remembering to move the waterbrush more quickly and consistently, I washed over the shadow, and I managed to obscure most of the previous attempt’s telltale drying line (below, bottom). Much more forgiving than pure watercolor paints – and also more forgiving than I ever knew water-soluble colored pencils could be!

4/17/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta
(First attempt at shadow)
4/17/17 (Second attempt at shadow)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Getting Toned

3/21/17 ink, colored pencil, gel pen, graphite
Using toned paper is an ideal way to focus on values in a sketch. Every now and then I get in the mood for it and bind a sheet or two into my everyday sketchbook. Unfortunately, the 80-pound Strathmore toned paper I have is intended for dry media, so my fountain pens and some markers can bleed through.

The past year I’ve been getting my toned paper fix by using a red Field Notes Sweet Tooth notebook, which is not only bright red – the paper is heavy enough to withstand anything I’ve thrown at it, including markers and a light waterbrush wash. Both black shadows and white highlights pop beautifully on that red. But sometimes I wish the page were a little larger. I’ve also wanted to experiment with colored pencils on toned paper. . . 

Guess what? I heard from a very reliable source that my favorite sketchbook maker is coming out with a toned paper edition! I’m betting that the papers will be of similar heft and quality as the rest of its stellar sketchbook line. I can’t wait! (You heard it here first!)

Monday, April 17, 2017

An Easter Treat

4/16/17 colored pencils, ink

Although it stayed hazy all day, Easter was the warmest spring day yet – all the way up to 64 degrees in my ‘hood! After the wettest winter in decades, it was a treat to visit Maple Leaf Park without our raincoats, hats and gloves. We walked a lap around the park, and then I plunked myself down at a picnic table to make this sketch.

The forecast is not looking promising for the rest of the week, but as long as I get an occasional spring treat like that, I can manage until summer.

And here was my other Easter treat. I hope the Easter Bunny was good to you, too!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tran Portfolio Pencil Case: An Elegant Solution

The Tran Portfolio Pencil Case, sans "portfolio."

Ever since my trip to Japan a year and a half ago, I’ve been happily using my Kutsuwa Dr. Ion organizer to keep my everyday-carry Rickshaw Zero Messenger Bag tidy and functional. (I’m sorry that I don’t have a shopping link for the Dr. Ion – sadly, it has been discontinued.) I’ve been so happy with it, in fact, that it landed on my 2016 Top 10 list.

Kutsuwa Dr. Ion bag organizer
My colored pencils stand upright in the organizer’s largest compartment, which is a requirement for any implement in my bag – I must be able to reach it easily without unzipping, unsnapping and especially un-Velcroing flaps or tabs. The only thing that has bothered me about this arrangement is that as my pencils get shorter, they fall to the bottom of the compartment or just disappear from view. I’ve been searching for a solution – some kind of vertical-standing pencil holder with elastic loops – but everything I’ve found has been contained within a bulky case or too large for my bag.

Then last week when I was cruising my Instagram feed, my eyes popped open: Intrepid sketcher and long-time blog reader Wendi showed her sketch kit, which included a strip of loops holding her colored pencils – but no bulk around it. I immediately messaged her for details. The Tran Portfolio Pencil Case comes with a transparent zip pouch to protect the pencils, but Wendi pulled out the working part and placed it directly into her bag – which is exactly what caught my eye. It seemed like a streamlined, elegant solution to my issue!

The 25-pencil case fits perfectly across the width of the Rickshaw and secures
with Velcro.
Much to my joy, it is exactly that! It fits perfectly across the width of my Rickshaw bag. What’s more, the U.S.-made Tran case has some Velcro “hook” strips on its reverse side, and guess what? All Rickshaw bags come with “loop” strips on the inside for attaching optional accessory pouches. The Tran case securely attaches – as if it were custom-made for my Rickshaw! Although the Velcro wouldn’t be necessary to keep the case in place in the bag, the pencil loops are very tight, so I think the case would tend to pull up whenever I remove a pencil if not for the Velcro.

Now each fully accessible and visible colored pencil has its own elastic loop holding it upright, no matter how short it gets. And since all the pencils stand flat against the side of the bag instead of bunched together, they are less bulky. (The Tran can also be folded into a triangular-shaped self-standing holder for use on a desk; see the Amazon page for an image or Wendi’s Instagram for an even better image.) It holds 25 pencils, which is a few more than I typically carry, so there’s room for the location-specific colors I like to take when I travel. On the other hand, 25 is a strict limit, so I won’t be tempted to carry more than I need.

Here's my view when I'm carrying the bag -- everything fully accessible.
I took the new Tran out for its first spin to the Friday sketch outing, and it works perfectly! If there’s one thing I love almost as much as sketching, it’s finding just the right solution to a sketch kit issue. Many thanks for the inspiration, Wendi!

An elegant solution!
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