A Forever Keepsake

When Julie asked if I’d come along to her daughter’s high school graduation and capture it in sketches, I jumped at the opportunity.

There’s so many aspects of the project I knew I would love. Reportage sketching is my favorite kind of drawing. In the thick of activity or on the fringe of it, you’re always observing, capturing big moments and places but also little asides and details, all as one experience: It’s pretty special. And, there’s a sense of urgency in capturing stuff that only happens once.

Best of all, when someone trusts you with as open a brief as “come along and do what you do” and leaves the rest open to you, you know it’s going to go well!

I decided that an accordion book was best suited to capturing the evening’s story. ( A little risky, yes, no room for errors, no pages you can tear out :), but still I liked what the format did for the experience) The square Hahnemühle ZigZag book is what I used. The paper is lovely for watercolor and my pen handles well on it too.

I planned to fill up the front and back of the accordion fold over the evening. Here is a view of both sides.graduation_IMG-8189.jpg

And here are a few closeups of key moments from the graduation and celebration with the family soon after. Time-stamping my sketches gave a sense of pacing to the moments captured in the book. I kept my writing to a minimum besides this: This was a personal piece, and no explanations and notes were required. (Also, less room for spelling errors!)

And at the end of the evening, the graduate received an 8×8 book full of sketches to mark the day. Congratulations Tatum, and best wishes.

Posted in california, people, reportage, Silicon Valley | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

30x30DirectWatercolor2019: A roundup

A roundup of my #30x30DirectWatercolor2019 pieces.






21 pieces in total.

My big take-aways and learning?

Working outside my comfort zone
Never a comfortable thing to do, often frustrating. (So many times I wanted to reach for a pen because I know how to finish a piece and keep it fresh when I mix in pen & ink.) Getting to what I can call “done” in watercolor alone often results in overworked pieces.

But, it did get easier to work in big shapes over the course of the challenge. I think there are shape-thinkers and line/edge-thinkers. We all can do both but we are often stronger at working one way over the other. And I’d like to get to where I see/work better both ways, and use them to complement each other. Towards that goal, working just in shape helped.

The no-drawing bit
I never draw a detailed pencil drawing if I’m working in pen & ink and watercolor. But I’ll often make a loose drawing or markings in pencil to make sure my focal points fall where I want them to or to keep things in proportion or just to help compose better. And I really missed what those sort of marks on paper bring to my work. Drawing like this actually helps me paint more freely, knowing I have design and composition figured out.

If I do the challenge again, I’d draw a loose underdrawing. In the spirit of direct watercolor and in a way that won’t confine me.

Not finishing
For once I let a challenge stay unfinished because I needed to move on. It is strange to consider that a win, but I can end up feeling like I have to finish challenges no matter what. Work projects, the fact that I leave on a family vacation in a couple of days, and then to go teach at the Urban Sketchers Symposium a few days after that… all of this meant there were a lot of loose ends outside the challenge that needed tying up. And for once I switched gears and am working on all of that now, instead of the challenge.

And amazingly, it was still a great challenge, one I learn a lot from, and looking back at the set above, produced 21 pieces. 21 more than I would have if I didn’t do the challenge at all.

Many, many thanks to Marc Holmes and Uma Kelkar for hosting this challenge. Both of your work, comments and participation in the online community really helped inspire us all.

How do you feel about challenges in general? Do they help or hinder you? How?
And if you did this challenge, how did your challenge go? What did you learn from it? And will you do it again next year?

Posted in challenge, watercolor | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

San Jose’s Pig Lights Up!

It was a big week for neon sign lovers in the Bay Area last week.

The Stephen’s Meat Products sign, one of San Jose’s most beloved signs, was fixed and lit up in a really fun relighting ceremony. I’ve never seen the pig dance, so I was excited. And of course, I sketched while I was there. And so did Sharkie.

And through it all, Preservation Action Council of San Jose sold shirts, because there’s always money to raise to save that next San Jose treasure. That’s tireless volunteer Pat Curia in the foreground and in the hat, far in the back, a huge advocate for San Jose’s signs, Heather David.

Next up for saving and restoring? The Orchard Supply Sign. The store might be gone, but the sign is in storage with History San Jose, waiting to be restored and relit. And when that happens, it will stand right by that lovely Osh boxcar. osh_at_history_park_small.jpg


Posted in california, Close to home, san jose, Vintage Signs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Everyday Summer Sketches

Everyday sketches from the summer.
Boba Tea is a family favorite. I think I discovered a new one I like: Panda Boba, milk tea with a mix of black and white boba. Are you more likely to tip if Yoda holds the tip jar?summer_boba

Tuesday evening violin class, Kavya and her teacher Lisa. Sketched from the stairway, looking down at them.

Summer evenings by the pool. There’s something about lifeguards: Lots of activity and commotion in the pool below; in contrast, the lifeguard sits all alone, high up in a chair.

Summer is a great time for people sketches: more kids-at-home, more outdoor activities and great weather means I can sketch people everywhere.

Posted in california, Close to home, Everyday Sketches, people, san jose, Silicon Valley, Sketch Journal, Summer | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Day 18 and 19: Direct Watercolor Challenge

I find it easiest to direct watercolor subjects that are either
1) forgiving as drawings ( like landscapes and flowers)
2) that I know and understand well

And though faces aren’t the easiest to draw, I draw my kids a lot. So painting my daughter in direct watercolor makes sense since I’ve drawn her so much, I understand what I want to capture about her and what I can afford to not capture exactly and still get a likeness down.

Day 18 #30x30DirectWatercolor2019
Kavya in Brights

But I don’t think it made sense for me to try and capture this doggie in direct watercolor. Because
a) I don’t understand dog anatomy well ( Thank you Heather Martin for letting me draw this cutie!)
b) Adding in reverse painting made this even harder.
While I enjoyed the color play, I could’ve made this so much easier on myself and more importantly, painted so much more freely if I had an underdrawing.

Like every technique, direct watercolor is fantastic for some things, but not for everything 🙂

I really enjoyed doing a little over a half month of the challenge, but life has gotten too hectic for me to prioritize it for the rest of the month. Time to switch gears and focus on my two workshops in Amsterdam in just a few weeks (and a family vacation coming up next week).

I might squeeze another few pieces and do a wrapup post towards the end of the month, but I’ll be back to journalling and pen & ink sketching for now. Its been a fantastic challenge, even though I just did half of it, and a great learning experience.


Posted in Close to home, Everyday Sketches, India, Paintings, watercolor | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Day 14-17: Direct Watercolor Challenge

I’m a little surprised I’m still at this, I felt last week like I needed to take a break. So I took a couple of days off and then felt like doing a whole bunch of small pieces in a couple of days. So I’m back 🙂

Day 14 #30x30DirectWatercolor2019
Jacaranda in Warm Light.

Day 15 #30x30DirectWatercolor2019
Bay Area Traffic.

Day 16 #30x30DirectWatercolor2019
San Francisco Chinatown.

Day 17 #30x30DirectWatercolor2019
This coffee cup is direct watercolor, but it sits on a spread that uses different techniques: I started the piece with the women on the left in direct watercolor, but then added some brushpen over it. And the figure on the top right of the page was started in brushpen and the color came later. Interestingly, they all look pretty similar in style.



Posted in Close to home, Everyday Sketches, India, Paintings, watercolor | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Playing, Experimenting, Discovering

One of the most fun workshops I organize is for  Stillman & Birn. S&B has a huge line of sketchbooks in an assortment of papers and for those wondering what paper works best for them, this workshop is a time to test and experiment all while exploring some fun techniques.

Last weekend we built little accordion folds out of a sample pack of paper and then tried different techniques across them. My demo focussed on a technique I’m using more and more in my sketchbooks.

There’s a lot I love about gouache and I like using that thick, creamy paint in my sketches sometimes. But carrying two separate kits for watercolor and gouache is more than I want in my bag. For quick gouache effects, I carry one tube of permanent white gouache and a waterbrush I use to dip directly into the tube. And voila! with just this one color I can get pretty interesting opaque effects with my regular kit. My watercolor kit stays untouched by gouache , because I mix colors directly on paper. That’s really important since white gouache can very quickly make all your transparent colors go opaque if it gets muddled in with them.
In the piece above, one cactus is true gouache and the other two are regular watercolor with white gouache. And these pieces below are watercolor and white gouache.

The participants had so much fun experimenting and came up with some really fun pieces, only a few of which are documented here.


You can see more demos and how to build an accordion fold here:


If you want to make your own accordion book and try out the paper, write to info@stillmanandbirn.com and find out how you can get a sample packet.

Answers to FAQs
– The demos I do with these papers are free to the public, and are paid for by Stillman & Birn. 
– I am not a spokesperson for the brand and am not paid to use or promote the sketchbooks.
– I love the books and use them a lot, but they’re not the only sketchbooks I use.

Posted in books, Close to home, Everyday Sketches, supplies, Workshop | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments