Going Grey

All this spring flower painting has made for pretty-spring-color overload for me. So when Uma turned up in my front yard to paint her current set of studies of the non-colors of dusk, I joined her with pen, ink and a pencil, drawing little stuff around me.

Here are some of those studies of flowers, rocks, trees and small views from my front porch.

The quickly fading light made it easier to leave color out of the equation. Every time something is left out of the equation, it’s a chance to explore other stuff more deeply. These little pieces are as much about the subjects they capture as they are about moving around the page, just enjoying making lines, shapes and textures.

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More Spring Flower Experiments

There are a lot of flowers that appear in my sketches in spring. I’ve been out sketching at Filoli Gardens, in mustard fields, and I just had to capture the local poppies. Here are some more.

Iris while waiting. Drawn in watersoluble pencil and ink, with color added using Nina’s portable trace monoprinting setup.

The start of a sketch with poppies that never got finished. Like many loose pieces that don’t go where I want them to, this one will be cut up to become postcards.

And a sketchbook spread with tulips from my local farmer’s market.

Not sure where I am going with this yet, but I am particularly enjoying creating strong contrasts and the sort of marks not associated with pretty flower sketches.

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In the baby books I read to my kids eons ago, this was called a digger. There are lots these in my neighborhood just now. They’re busy all day and only stop at night or for a lunch break.

So I stepped out to draw one at dusk last week. All I took with me was a sheet of paper folded up accordion-style, my Sailor Fude pen and a small backing board. There’s a lot you can get on paper with just one pen if you are willing to have messy hands from smudging and blotting the ink on your page for texture.

I walked around the digger, sketching it, moving along a little bit every so often. As the light faded, I had a strange machine on my page, but only in black and white. I’d have to come back at lunch the next day to finish it. (Wish I’d remembered to take a picture of the sketch in black and white, I didn’t)

Back the next day at lunchtime, I sat in the shade of a nearby tree and added in color. Here is the finished piece.

Here are all the bits of it in closeup.

I had so much fun with this. I’m going to have to think up some more places I could apply this idea of a “walk around”. It adds an extra challenge to the process of sketching and captures a constantly changing point of view.


I’m taking a few days off from being on my computer to spend some quality Spring Break time with the kids. I just added a new session of my popular People Sketching Workshop, and it starts on May 8th. Check out the details and sign up here.

Posted in california, Close to home, Construction, Everyday Sketches, experiments, san jose, Silicon Valley | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments


Wide views are fun to paint. I like painting them across my sketchbook spread so I don’t have to make everything in the picture super-tiny.

Here’s a recent piece, a view of Big Sur from window-swap. The closeup at the bottom is so you can see how much I am enjoying all the mark-making in this piece.

When I have a really wide view, though, like this 360 degree view, then I switch to an accordion-fold book.

I like working in accordion folds because I think and design my sketch differently. Sure, you can look at the whole piece together by stepping back. But more commonly, you’re panning across it, with a new bit coming into focus as you scan it. Which gives me the opportunity to walk you across the piece with little bits to catch your attention sprinkled throughout it, not worrying so much about them competing with each other.

This is sketched from Google Earth, but I’ve sat at this same spot and sketched, years ago. So when I drew this, I remembered how hot it was that day and how red the earth is everywhere in Goa, and how , as I sat in the sweltering sun, I wondered when the monsoons would come…

My focus today? The gorgeously colored houses of Fontainhas in Panjim, Goa.

I’m drawing from home, but drawing wide open views. I think there’s a connection there.

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Stepping out in Spring

Spring is still here, and I’m stepping out more often.

This little bridge across the Guadalupe River in North San Jose is on a trail I’ve never walked,(I almost said hiked. I’ve developed this very Californian habit of calling any little walk I go on a hike. ) though I spent years living right by it. Glad I had friends who wanted to paint there. When it’s too hot to paint most places this summer, I’ll be back to sit in this shady spot and paint the dappled shadows.

And these poppies by a pasture with horses (spot the horses?) is only 10 minutes from home. I’m returning there too, before the poppies fade away.

Are you, like me, starting to draw outside more than you did in the last year? Any challenges that come up from a practice that may have been dormant for a while?

EDIT: A few of you asked how I start these sketches. I think about what my story is before I start. This helps me determine my composition and also where my most saturated colors and detail will go. So while all of the first pass on the poppies sketch (below) is loose, you can see already where I’l be adding more detail.

Does that help?

Posted in california, Close to home, Everyday Sketches, flowers, Paintings, san jose, Silicon Valley | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Car Sketching as Urban Sketching

If you’ve spent too long a time indoors this past year and getting out to be an urban sketcher again seems intimidating, drawing from the car can be a good baby-step to getting there. Here are two recent car sketches.

Henry’s Hi-Life is on a little street near the freeway. I pull up for a sketch before driving back home. The woodblock-style lettering painted all over the wooden structure made for an interesting sketching challenge. I like getting the characteristics of the font but don’t feel I have to capture every line, color and drop shadow.
And of course i was thrilled these guys were unloading boxes of potatoes at the back door when I stopped by. Tat made for an interesting sketch.

This next sketch is a more typical example of car sketching for me. Sometimes I need to wait. For an appointment. For a take-out order. For something. Pre-covid, I’d step in and draw people while I waited. Now I wait in my car and draw the view. It might not be a view I chose, but drawing it makes it interesting, always.

Here is what I wrote under the sketch:

If you’ve been wanting to sketch outside but haven’t tried it yet, or if you’ve gotten rusty with doing it in the last year, Car Sketching might help jumpstart your practice.

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Spring Experiments at Filoli Gardens

A location as pretty as Filoli Gardens in the spring calls (I can’t explain it, do you feel this way?) not so much for straight up sketches that capture the scenes as they are, but for lots of experiments. There is no better sketcher to go on a jaunt with that in mind than Nina Khashchina. To watch her fearlessly try new things (using printmaking techniques on location is what she was experimenting with this time) always inspires me to push my work a little more, and to not worry too much about results.

Here are some sketches from the day. Loud and unmodulated? Yes. More than a little out of control? Yup. But if I never push it too far, I fear I’ll never find that sweet spot I want to stop at and my work will land in too safe a space.

My first impression at Filoli was that spring had taken over the place and things were literally bursting into bloom before my eyes. And I let that feeling lead my sketches for the day.

Walnut ink and watersoluble crayon

Did I know where I was going with this next one? No. But a generous quantity of the brightest liquid watercolor, applied directly on the page with a dropper started the piece. It never came together but it was a fun wild ride to have paint dripping everywhere as I sat among the tulips.

Liquid watercolor and ink drawing with stick on paper

Iris, daffodils and a flowering peach tree. Slowly, my pieces start to calm down, just a tad. And I’m reaching across, and stealing Nina’s supplies and trying things she’s playing with today.

Paint, pencil, and trace monoprinting on paper

We have time for only one more quick sketch before we leave so we choose the already wilting pink blossoms of a magnolia tree and I attempt to capture the “pink everywhere” feel of a tree that is shedding petals everywhere.

Pencil, colored pencil , pen and watercolor

Here are some pictures of Nina and me from that day. Spring is a short season where I am in California, so I really need to get out some more and draw more before it is over.

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Little Signposts of Urban Life

From my recent sketches, a few little signposts of urban lives and spaces.

There are many fire hydrants in my neighborhood, even one just across the street from me. But my favorite one is a few blocks away. Crusty, peeling and almost overrun by the succulents that grow around it. I love the collection of textures.

Ink and smudged marks on smooth paper

Private Property. No Trespassing. The sign and orange plastic fencing separate me from a beautiful field of mustard in bloom. And pretty as the mustard is, that’s not what catches my eye.

Crayon and ink

New signs for new times. Special parking spots at the grocery store for when you order online and pickup. I drive up to this spot, call the number on the sign, open the trunk of my car and sketch while I wait for my groceries to be brought outside and loaded in my trunk.

Watercolor and ink

Beautiful stuff is everywhere around you if you look beyond accepted standards. The things that catch my eye, I stop and sketch. And just the act of connection and observation for that period of time means I see a beauty in them that I would never see without the pause.

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Windows in Ho Chi Minh, Westbury and Switzerland

Window-Swapping once a week with friends means I’m building a collection of window views from all over the world. I’m trying different tools and techniques, being inspired by what we’re chatting about and by the sort of subjects others pick and how they tackle them.

Snow is a subject I don’t come across very often in life. It was fun to tackle this scene and work in a muted color palette.

Here are two very different settings, a pastoral scene and an urban one.

All three pieces share a kind of dense, mark-filled look I am enjoying using a lot just now. Here are closeups from the three pieces where you can see those marks more closely.

If you haven’t used tried this yet, go to window-swap.com and find a window to look through today.

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What I Learnt From Drawing With My Family On Zoom

It’s been a little over a year since the start of the pandemic. For a good part of that time my family from different parts of the world has been gathering together once a week on Zoom to draw. It has been a lovely way to reconnect and it has also been amazing to see people who never drew before be surprised by what they can make.

A bit of background on this family drawing circle: some of us draw regularly, most don’t, some have never drawn past the must-draw-during-art-class part of elementary school. Most are adults, a few are not. I “run” these sessions, but that’s a pretty loose term. They are in no way instructor-led like an art class would be.

What’s a Covid-Era drawing session without a Zoom Portrait Party?

How the hour-long session runs: We usually work from the same set of photo references, but every once in a while we work from life. I start each session with about 5 minutes of talking about what we are drawing and break it down so everyone can see it as simpler shapes and forms. After that we all draw. There’s a lot of chatting and catching up, not art-related, through the hour. I have a second camera pointed at my desk so I can try to demo something if theres’s a request.

I think anyone that draws can run these sessions. It helps to choose subjects that work and put some time into breaking them down to help people get started. I’m sharing some of what I learnt this year in case you’d like to try this with family or friends. None of the artwork here is mine and I hope the mix of styles and interpretations inspires you to give this a shot, wherever in your art journey you might be.

Start Simple

It helps to start with relatively simple subjects. I find all subjects equally easy (or hard) to draw, but some are more forgiving about some things: a tree whose branches don’t fall in quite the right place, or a flower that’s missing a petal is more easily overlooked by the creator of the piece than a portrait where the features don’t quite line up.

These birds all started by observing how, underneath the complexity of feathers, are simple shapes that make a head, beak and body.

We’ve drawn our share of birds and flowers, but we’ve drawn the occasional portrait too. Just not in the first few weeks that we drew together.

Keep the Learning Bite-Sized

To be drawing every week for an hour is in itself a win. Anyone that does this week after week is going to learn a lot and is going to get better over time. Keep the learning bite-sized. Don’t cram sessions full of instruction. You have another week to circle back to a concept if you’d like to. Let your group follow through with them, or not. Sometimes, they may just want to play with line or color. That’s fine too. I rarely do more than a few minutes of general instruction, then we’re chatting, and I’ll answer questions only if someone asks me to.

In this session, all we were focussing on is translating a simple set of objects we each collected into a two-dimensional drawing
Here, we focus on seeing a city street as a series of blocks.

Cover Topics That Instantly Make Drawings Look Better

We focus on drawing in our group for two reasons:
1) I believe that being able to draw what you want to is powerful. It does take some learning to see, and doesn’t look instantly pretty but it’s a great skill to have.
2) Everyone has paper, pencil and an eraser. No special tools required. Many of us use color but that’s not the focus of what I talk about.
Some things I think are super useful to a beginning drawer who is just learning to see well are:
– Seeing complex things as simple shapes
– Seeing negative shapes
– Understanding how to translate a 3-D world to 2-D space.
– Seeing as light and dark shapes

Concept: Seeing negative shapes for more accurate drawings.
Concept: Building drawings through dark and light shapes

Mix in some “Draw like a Famous Artist” sessions

Once in a while it’s fun to look at an artist’s work and create a piece in their style. Or, to just copy a piece by them. Again, keep it simple, and pick one aspect of their work to focus on. A “Famous Artist” can be just about anyone whose work you love.

Woodcut prints by illustrator Christopher Wormell inspired this series of drawings of a fox.
Drawing Van Gogh’s clogs. Or shoes inspired by his drawing.

Once in a while, try something more complex, but make them subjects you’re interested in

After you’ve been doing simpler sessions for a while, try some subjects that combine different skills.

With a little bit of understanding of the structure of the face, and good observation, anyone can draw a portrait.

In another interesting session, we looked at a scene of a shop interior and each tried to come up with ways to interpret it, whether that means simplifying it, or celebrating the intricacy of the scene.

Enjoy the variety of interpretations a group produces

One of my favorite bits of this is seeing everyone’s work. We have a group on WhatsApp and everyone posts their pieces there when they are done.

Bombay Taxis
Landscapes inspired by David Hockney

I love the variety of pieces we end up with. And the fact that we turn up week after week to draw together.

Some last thoughts about things I’ve learnt.

• Think long term. There’s no need to rush anything and you can revisit concepts over and over again.
• There will be an ebb and flow in how the group sessions go over time. Sometimes we’re all super enthusiastic for weeks in a row. Then life takes over and some of us disappear. Some weeks, it’s just me and one kid at home at a session. Sometimes, we’re a full house. Take breaks if you need to, come back when you can, and account for not everyone wanting to do this week after week.
• Not everyone might come primarily to draw. Maybe they come for the people, for the catching-up, for a chat session…but if stay and draw, that works!
• Some sessions work. Some don’t. Most that didn’t work were either overly ambitious sessions I designed or complex ones I introduced too early.
• You’re learning as you go along. What your group is like, when to dial it back, when to mix it up…

Happy Drawing! If you try (or have tried) something like this, drop me a line and share what you learnt!

Posted in Education, How to, teaching | Tagged | 10 Comments