Saturday, August 1, 2015

Early Morning at Green Lake

8/1/15 ink, watercolor

Here in Seattle, we’ve been breaking all kinds of weather records this summer. Highest average temps, most number of days in the year with temps of 90 or higher, hottest July ever recorded, driest summer. Whew – even blogging about it makes me sweat!

One sure bet about heat in these parts, though, is that no matter how hot it gets during the day, it cools down overnight, so by early morning, it’s actually chilly enough to wear a sweater in the shade. Such was the case at 6:30 a.m. when I headed for Green Lake today. Last night’s Blue Moon was setting, and Mt. Rainier was clearly visible.

I rarely visit the Green Lake Starbucks because it’s almost always mobbed, especially on Saturday, but I arrived early enough that I found exactly the table I wanted. Although they aren’t oaks, this line of trees leading from the street to the lake always reminds me of Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. Instead of an antebellum Big House, it’s the Green Lake community center at the other end. And unlike Louisiana this time of year, the air was still cool and crisp. The sunlight dappling the tree trunks changed by the second.

Even in spite of our broken heat records, I’d rather be here in the summer than just about anywhere else on earth.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Shilshole in the Sunshine

7/31/15 inks, watercolor, colored pencils

Last summer when Urban Sketchers Seattle met at Shilshole Marina, the morning started out chilly and foggy, though that burned off quickly. Not so today for the Friday sketchers – we had full-on sun, clear, blue skies and excellent opportunities for shadows. Although I sketched Leif Erikson’s statue last time, the shadow opportunities prompted me to take a wider view this morning to capture the whole memorial to Nordic immigrants. On one side of each of the stone markers is a plaque engraved with individual immigrants’ names and the year they arrived.

I stood in full sun to make this sketch, and it took me longer than planned because the one you see above was the second try. The first (mis)try is shown below. Shortly after beginning, I saw that my proportions for Leif were all wrong – so I abandoned the sketch immediately.

Abandoned quickly.
Now that I’m going on my fourth year as a sketcher, I still think of myself as a beginner, though I’ve also gained much experience from daily sketching. It occurs to me that nearly four years of experience does not prevent me from making mistakes like the abandoned sketch. What four years of sketching has given me is the wisdom to realize (most of the time) that when proportions are wrong, no amount of futzing is going to make the sketch look right, so the best solution is to start over quickly. During my first couple of years, I would have kept going, not really understanding why the sketch didn’t look right. Even if I understood that, I would have continued anyway, trying to fix it. After wasting an hour or more, I’d come to the same conclusion: The sketch still didn’t look right.

If abandoning a bad sketch immediately is all I’ve learned in four years, I’m good with that!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Maple Leaf Summer Social

7/29/15 brush pen, colored pencil
Last night was our neighborhood’s 20th annual Maple Leaf Summer Social at Maple Leaf Park. It’s a fun, low-key family festival highlighted by free ice cream bars donated by Maple Leaf Ace Hardware/Reckless Video owners Mike Kelly and Kathy Stephenson. Last year they gave out 1,750 ice cream bars during the two-hour event! Not to be outdone, Flying Squirrel Pizza gave out free pizza slices, too. Kids got their faces painted and balloon animals made, and everyone enjoyed live music and the cool breeze on a hot evening.

Scarfing down our Dove bars before they melted, I looked around for a sketch while Greg searched for photo opps. New to the festival this year was a Seattle Police Department mounted police officer and his horse, Chance, a 10-year-old quarter horse. I even got a sticker!

7/29/15 inks, colored pencils
Eventually I wandered over to listen to the band and stood behind the musicians so I could get more of the park in the composition.

Free ice cream, live music, sketching – that’s my idea of a perfect summer night.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rabbit Library

7/29/15 inks, watercolor, colored pencils
This is a Little Free Library that I spotted several months ago in my own Maple Leaf neighborhood. It’s directly across the street from another one that I sketched last month. Although the design and construction of the two libraries are so similar that I’m sure they were built by the same person, this one is decorated very differently: It has a rabbit theme. In addition to the rabbit painted on the side (along with a Hemingway quotation – “There is no friend as loyal as a book”), the door knob is also a tiny bunny.

Technical note: See where I wrote the quotation? My new Pilot with a posting nib is the only fountain pen I own that can write that fine! It’s not for loose, expressive drawings, but I sure like it for certain tasks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Susan J. Henry Memorial Little Library

7/28/15 ink, watercolor, colored pencils
On my way home from Shoreline this morning, I took a slight detour west through the Bitter Lake neighborhood in search of another Little Free Library. (This time I even remembered to bring along a book from my over-stuffed shelves to contribute!) Carefully constructed but unadorned, the library looked rather basic. The fence behind the library, however, had another part of the story to tell: metal letters facing toward the house spelling out “Susan J. Henry Memorial Library.”

Assuming that Susan J. Henry was a family member or some other loved one of the home owner, I was curious nonetheless, so I Googled the name. It turns out that the former Capitol Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library was actually called the Susan J. Henry (1854-1921) branch. She was the wife of Seattle capitalist Horace C. Henry. In 2003 the library was replaced by a new building and renamed the Capitol Hill Branch. I’m guessing that the sign was salvaged from the previous building. You learn something every day!

Another thing I learned today is that the Bitter Lake neighborhood I drove through is full of trees with bad haircuts. I now have a whole new area to cover this winter when I sketch from my car.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Green Lake Public Library, Fourth Edition

7/27/15 ink, watercolor

Although it wasn’t my plan when I started, sketching my neighborhood branch of the Seattle Public Library has become an annual tradition. I always pick a day like today – sunny enough for shadows, not too hot or too cold – and I stand at the same bus shelter across the street so that I have the same angle each time.

Now that I’ve done it four times, it’s interesting to look at them together (see below). I don’t necessarily think each later year’s sketch is better than the previous one, because I like certain things about each, even that first one which seems so pale and tentative. I remember how scary it was then to tackle such a formal, classic style of architecture (I’d only been sketching for a year). It’s not scary anymore, but I have to say, it’s no less challenging. I still struggle with perspective and getting the windows lined up evenly.

It’s rather humorous that the building hasn’t changed at all, yet some details in my sketches seem to morph over time. Some years, I spent a lot of time on tiny details that I skipped altogether in others. I suppose one thing is inescapable: My “style,” whatever it is, follows me around from year to year and somehow remains consistent, even as my skills or materials change.

How about you – do you ever sketch the same subject regularly just to see how your sketching style changes over time – or doesn’t?

Here are the blog posts for the sketches below:

May 6, 2014
Sept. 2, 2013
Sept. 12, 2012

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Product Review: Brush Pen Comparison

6/21/15 ink, watercolor (see chart below for numbered key)
I’ve had a long-standing love of brush pens. A quick look through my Current Favorite Art Materials page will show that one of my very first product review posts, written within my first month of blogging back in 2012, was about Tombow and Akashiya brush pens. Those pens launched me headlong into the dazzling world of water-soluble colored brush pens. Fairly early on I had decided that brush tips made of compressed nylon or felt (such as the Tombows) were not as flexible and responsive as actual brush tips made of synthetic hair, so I focused my interest and experiments on markers such as Pentel Color Brush pens and, eventually, Kuretake Zig Clean Color Real Brush Markers, still my current favorite. (JetPens has a good blog post comparing all the colored brush pens the company carries.)

Somewhere along the way I discovered brush pens containing refillable or non-refillable black ink – pens designed to mimic Asian calligraphy brushes. Again, these are of two general types: some kind of compressed fibrous material and actual hair brush tips. As with colored brush markers, I favor the ones with hair brushes, which do a reasonably good job of producing the flexibility of traditional sumi brushes (but with a finer tip for the purpose of calligraphy rather than painting). In the same way that I’m hooked on variable-width fountain pens, I adore the loose, expressive strokes that brush pens can make.

A while back JetPens produced a comprehensive article and video comparing its vast collection of brush pens, which made me think about (with some embarrassment) how many brush pens I have. I decided that one way to rationalize my vast personal collection was to write a comparison review of my own! (Amassing art materials and tools can always be rationalized one way or another.)

7/22/15 Kuretake sable brush pen
Although I own a number of the compressed fiber/nylon tip brush pens that are fun to write with (I often use them to write greetings cards with), I rarely use them for sketching, so I’m going to focus here on the type I favor for sketching – the ones with hair brushes. Recent discoveries are brush pens with natural sable (or weasel) hair brushes similar to fine paint brushes. Overkill for a brush pen used for sketching? Probably. But I wouldn’t know without trying them!
6/20/15 Kuretake sable brush pen

I tend to use black brush pens for a few specific purposes. One is when I want to do gesture sketches of people, and I don’t want to be tempted to get into facial features and other details. Another is when I want to sketch an intricate building that I need to do quickly – again, to avoid detail (I guess these would be gesture sketches also, if a building can have a gesture). A third favorite use of brush pens is to sketch trees; the organic, free-flowing nature of brush pens seems to be made for expressing gnarly or gracefully reaching branches.

In short, a brush pen will not allow you to get too fine and fiddly, so if you have a tendency to get mired in detail while losing the overall picture, it’s a good antidote. When I was a poetry-writing student long ago, one of my favorite professors, Nelson Bentley, used to say to poets who had a tendency to get long-winded, “Try haiku: It’s a sure cure for verbosity.” I think of brush pens the same way.

5/18/15 Notre Dame at right sketched with Platinum sable brush pen
Yet another way I use brush pens is a more recent discovery. Last year after seeing Ch’ng Kiah Kiean (better known as KK) give a demo in Paraty of his twig-sketching technique, I tried channeling KK for several months. I’m still fascinated by that ultimate variable-line-width sketching instrument, and I still pick it up occasionally. What frustrates me the most, though, is that a twig doesn’t hold much ink, so I am constantly dipping back into the ink bottle after each stroke. What I discovered is that a brush pen that’s running out of ink yields something like a scratchy, dry-twig effect – but without requiring continual dipping (it’s like a fountain pen, so it requires no dipping at all). Even a fully inked brush pen can make the same, slightly unpredictable, slightly uncontrollable stroke that twigs are famous for – but with slightly more control!

One note before I describe the pens: You’ll see that several have names that contain the word “fude” (which means brush in Japanese). This is not to be confused with the fude fountain pen nibs you already know I love. The fountain pen nibs have “fude” in their names because they, too, are mimicking brush strokes.

6. Platinum CF-5000 brush pen (natural weasel)
7. Sailor Profit brush pen (synthetic)

4/18/15 Platinum sable brush pen
Not shown in the sketch at the top of the page and the brush stroke comparison chart is the J. Herbin CreaPen Pinceau refillable bristle brush pen, which I had misplaced for a while and then later found. I don’t mean to discriminate against this pen – made in France, it’s the only non-Japanese example – by not sketching it. But after finding the pen, I was too lazy to re-do the sketch. J It’s a perfectly adequate brush pen without much to distinguish it from the others. One thing to note is that it comes with three cartridges when purchased from JetPens, but the package product info does not say whether the cartridge ink is waterproof. I noticed, however, that the cartridges look exactly like Platinum cartridges, so I popped a Carbon Black cartridge on instead of one of the included cartridges, and indeed it fits perfectly. Since then, I’ve learned from Ana at the Well-Appointed Desk that the cartridges included with the pen are also waterproof.

7/18/15 Pentel brush pen
As for all the Japanese brush pens I tried, I’m sorry to say that not much distinguishes any one from the rest. I really wanted the natural sable hair Kuretake or weasel hair Platinum to be hands-down better than the others, if only to justify the prices I paid for them. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The synthetic brushes have just as much bounce-back and retain their tips as well as the natural-hair brushes. What’s more, the Platinum weasel seemed harder to control than any of the synthetics. They are all perfectly adequate brush pens, and none stands out in any extraordinary way.

I do have a few comments on some:

  • Nos. 1 and 2 (in my sketch and the chart above), the two Sailor Fude Nagomi pens, are the only non-refillable models among the ones I’ve tried. In addition, the ink they come with is not waterproof, which limits their usefulness in sketching, since I’d like the option of using watercolor with brush pens. Their bodies are significantly longer than the others, as they seem to be emulating traditional sumi brushes. The extra length takes some getting used to.
  • No. 7, the Sailor Profit model, has a form factor identical to the Sailor Profit fountain pen. I find that to be both good and bad. The good is that it’s comfortable in my hand and feels familiar. The bad is that it looks just like my Sailor Profit fude pen (except that it’s black instead of navy), so it’s easy to get them mixed up in my bag. One nice thing about this pen is that the brush tip can be replaced when it wears out.
  • No. 4 in my sketch, the Kuretake sable, also has replaceable tips. In fact, the replacement tips on all the Kuretake brush pens seem to be interchangeable.
After all that, do I have a favorite? I’d say it’s No. 5 in my sketch, the Kuretake No. 13 with synthetic hair. But I admit it’s not because of any special features or characteristics. It’s just the one I’ve had the longest, so it’s familiar, and it responds well to what I do with it.

11/14/13 Akashiya brush pen (model)
Sorry this comparison review doesn’t have any exciting discoveries. The only revelation seems to be of my bad habit of acquiring way more brush pens than I need (but you probably already knew that)! You wouldn’t go wrong with any of these brush pens, though it might be useful to keep these points in mind when making your choice:
  • As far as ink goes, the most economical, “green” choice would be to buy a refillable model, and instead of buying cartridges, simply refill an emptied cartridge using a syringe with the ink of your choice. The Sailor Profit and Platinum models are also compatible with their respective proprietary fountain pen converters.
  • The brush tips on the Sailor Profit and Kuretake pens can be replaced, further stretching the life of the pen bodies and keeping them out of the landfill.
  • The Pentel seems to be the most easily accessible and ubiquitous, available at many retailers online and in local stores. Conversely, I found the Platinum weasel brush only at

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