Two flutists (and a tabla player)

Friday night we attended a lovely little concert at the Saratoga Foothill Club in a gorgeous hall designed by Julia Morgan.

Ray Furuta and Prasad Bhandarkar played the Western flute and the Indian flute. Vikas accompanied Prasad on tabla.

This first piece was a quick pre-concert one to capture some feel for the lovely wooden panelling in the hall. Ray came on stage towards the end of my sketch.

Ray started off the concert and towards the end of his set, Prasad joined him on stage and they improved and played together for a short while.

And then Prasad played the last set with Akash on tabla.

I sketched from a few rows back, but the lovely thing about sketching is you can “zoom in” and draw what you want to in your book eliminating things (like backs-of-heads), stitching together stories  as you go.


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Line first or color first?

One of the questions I get asked all the time is: Do you do line first or color first?

I go either way, depending on the scene I’m capturing. Or how I feel like working that day. And, I think of it as line and shape, color is incidental. Whichever way I start, I go back and forth quite a bit. Sadly, I rarely remember to take photos of my process when I’m in the middle of a sketch. This one was an exception.

Paint goes on first here, after a little bit of pencil line to lay in the composition. clock_arrow_sign_1

Then I define a few bits with my Sailor Bent Nib Pen.clock_arrow_sign_2

Back to paint to add some darks and dirty washes to capture the decaying look of this sign. And a whole new wash over the sky to make the sign stand out. Last of all, some Titanium White gouache for the neon tubing. clock_arrow_sign_3

I hope that helps. I keep getting asked to shoot video of the process, but once I’m sketching I can’t imagine monitoring another process. So I guess it’s only going to happen if someone wants to come along while I sketch and shoot the process 🙂

Posted in california, Everyday Sketches, san jose, Silicon Valley, Vintage Signs, watercolor | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Why Save a Sign?

Why save a sign? Preservationists and historians will tell you how it ties back to the city’s history, sign lovers will tell you how it speaks to a style or an era.

And Morgan Newby will tell you it’s because it looks like his grandpa. Morgan runs Service Rent-A-Car that now occupies that lot. On the left is the Dealin’ Dollar Dan sign I sketched recently, and on the right, Morgan’s grandpa.

Morgan told me this:
“My grandpa came over from Tennessee in grade school. His first job was running a gas station, which included pumping people’s gas, cleaning their windows, and topping off any fluids their car needed. Talk about your customer service. And he did all this for about 25 cents/hour! From his savings, he started a used car business called Newby’s Auto Sales around the late 60’s or early 70’s. Starting out with nothing he built up his fleet of cars and in 1974 he started renting cars as well. So he changed the name of the company to Service Rent A Car. He built up a 400 car fleet by the 90s. That allowed him to fund his true passion, cattle ranching. He started Nor Cal Land and Cattle and now has just under 1000 head of cattle.

Since this company pre-dates my time I constantly have customers coming in telling me stories about my grandpa and how great a guy he is. On our car lot we have an old sign of a cowboy aka Dealin’ Dollar Dan and every customers who knows my grandpa tells me the sign reminds them of him. It’s a great feeling hearing how my grandpa is still remembered by so many people. Today grandpa is in his 80s and is still riding horses and riding on the hay truck doing what he loves most, being a cowboy.”

I’ve drawn Dan a few times over the years, and I love that character. Sadly, he’s falling apart very quickly.

Morgan is hoping the City of San Jose will help him fix the sign. I’m not sure that can happen fast enough. So we’re talking about a Go Fund Me campaign (or something similar) to raise the funds to fix and repaint the sign. If you have any experience to share on how to set one up or a good platform to use, I’d love to know.

That’s how it is with urban sketching, isn’t it? You see something, it piques your interest, you draw it, you find more like it, and you’re deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole… But it’s a good rabbit hole: I love to draw and paint, and if those pieces can help spread the word, get people interested and save signs, then I’m all for it.

Lots more sign sketches and my book of sketches of them here. Also, many of these original sketches, framed and unframed are for sale. Just ask.

And Dealin’ Dollar Dan? I suspect I’ll be sketching him more sometime soon and you will be hearing more about him.

Posted in Activism, california, Everyday Sketches, san jose, Silicon Valley, Vintage Signs, watercolor | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

In a Cemetery with South Bay Sketchers

On a recent Sunday I went sketching with my local sketch group, South Bay Sketchers, to the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery. It was a gorgeous no-clouds, blue-sky kinda day with brilliant sunshine and great shadows on the tombstones and sculptures. We sketched in the old part of the cemetery , with tombstones dating back to the 1800s.

Sometimes I’ll take just one brush along and decide to use only that. Why? As a way to not just revert to the usual, and to get to know what my less-used tools can do. This time I took along a 3/4 inch flat brush. Used in a 9×12″ ringbound Stillman & Birn Beta Sketchbook. I like this version because I can fold it over, or better still, let a still-wet page hang loose while I move on to my next piece.

I’ve never labelled my books so far, but now there are literally hundreds of them sitting on my shelf and it’s not fun to go find a sketch I want to scan sometimes( I don’t scan sketches on a regular basis: I find scanning boring and I sketch too much to do it, I only scan commissioned work or work I sell prints of. ) So I’ve started putting notes on the cover. Hardly a legit book classification system, but it’s a start.


If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are looking for a group to go sketch with, consider joining the South Bay Sketchers. We’re a friendly bunch of Urban Sketchers who meet once a month at an organized location, sometimes once like this cemetery that require special permission and we’re open to just about anyone: no teaching, no skill level requirements, nothing. Just a time to sketch and meet other sketchers.

Posted in california, Close to home, san jose, Silicon Valley, supplies, Supplies and Materials, watercolor | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Mustard Fields

When the mustard blooms, spring can’t be far away. And last week in Saratoga, California, right by the public library, Nina and I hit a fantastic day with clear blue skies, warm weather  and mustard in bloom.

Those strange drips going upwards? I guess that means I turned my book upside down before my paint dried. When you throw as much water at a page as I do and then quickly walk away to your next sketch, it happens…

There’s this legend about the mustard in California.
The padres traveling north exploring California brought wild mustard seeds with them. They scattered the seeds along the path knowing that in spring the blooming mustard would mark a golden pathway for explorers who might follow and also mark their way back home when they returned southward.
Sounds poetic, isn’t true. Still I think of it every time I see the mustard all over California.


This is a view of Saratoga Public Library from across the street, mustard in the foreground, purple mountains in the background. Such a perfect California scene.

One last quick sketch inside the library before heading home.

Posted in california, Close to home, Paintings, san jose, Silicon Valley, watercolor | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Four Seasons Concert

On Saturday I spent about 6 hours, mostly backstage, at Castillero Middle School‘s concert. I was hoping not only to capture and share a glimpse of what goes into those last few hours before a concert but also to get a bit closer to wrapping my head around that giant effort that it takes to make something like this come together.

Here are my sketches from that afternoon and evening. I’m going to try a different format from the usual because this is a pretty long reportage piece: The regular type is reportage. The italicized bits might be interesting to you if you are a sketcher; otherwise you can skip them.

3:10pm The afternoon started at San Jose State University’s Music Building. This is just one room full of kids from two orchestras (Chamber and Avant) practicing their pieces before their last rehearsal on stage. Some play in tight little groups, others practice solo; some check their instruments, others their phones.

My first sketch of the day. It takes a while to get used to the noise, and the activity and to decide how to deal with the bits you’re going to be working with all day: instruments in various sizes, lots of kids dressed in all-black, and indoor lighting. Eventually I’ll need to simplify and focus better to tell good stories, but the first piece is usually the ‘kitchen sink’ version.four_seasons_1


3:45pm Still in the practice room, behind the kids are empty music cases lying strewn all over the floor like black pelts.

Those empty music bags catch my eye but I need the musicians and their instruments in the sketch to make sense of these random shapeless objects. 



4:15pm A rare view of the orchestra. I’m standing backstage, with the orchestra facing away from me. This is the Avant Orchestra on stage for their final rehearsal.

This is my third sketch of the afternoon and I’m still trying to figure how to convey a scene with so many instruments and people without getting lost in it.


On the left:
:30pm Back in the wings. Bass players again. These kids play with the Chamber Orchestra, the highest level orchestra at our middle school.
On the right:
:55pm On-stage for practice. I sit in an empty row of chairs behind the last row of musicians. The look of intense focus on the musicians faces is amazing. It’s easy to forget they’re kids.

No name on my sketches, and no detailed portraits, you might notice: If you draw people, and want to note their names or draw very specific portraits, it’s always best to check with them, and if they’re not adults you’d have to have permission from an adult. Or, keep it general. I try to focus on gesture, stance and little details that give them personality to keep the people drawings interesting.


5:10pm This is where about 200 musicians cram onto the stage and perform together. I sketch just a tiny corner of the stage, chock-a-block with musicians. Just figuring how everyone gets on and off that stage is a Herculean task.

When everyone is dressed in all-black and bodies and instruments are crammed together, it is hard to figure how to make sense of it all. I want to communicate the crowd and chaos but I want you to be able to read the scene too…four_seasons_6.jpg


5:25pm Practicing the piece the evening ends with: Uptown Funk. This is Mr. Krinjen hamming it up for this last piece, captured in quick sketches in a few seconds each. This piece is all fun, all high-energy.

I switch to quick gesture drawing, which is so much fun, and so forgiving: as long as there is one decisive line to speak to the action, and you don’t fuss around too much, it works. four_seasons_7


6:04pm Not done with practice yet. Sitting behind the violinists playing Mozart’s Dissonance.

This might be the first sketch (it took that long!?) where the idea of a stage full of musicians comes across without drawing too many of them.


6:40pm The students catch a quick dinner before the 7:00 pm concert. But not the 5 professional musicians who will be playing a couple of pieces that same evening. This 20 minute slot is the only one they have for their practice.

Whitespace on this double spread in my sketchbook helps communicate how the band of just 5 looks tiny in the middle of all the music stands on stage and the big, empty stage now that the kids are gone…four_seasons_9.jpg


7:20pm The show has begun and the most junior group is on stage. Backstage with these 8th graders, who hang around with the nonchalance of seasoned performers, waiting for the younger kids to be done.

Gestures speak so much.  And working in odd numbers helps in composition: the three figures here play off each other for a casual, unstructured feel.


7:30pm I finally move to a more familiar view, and sit in the audience to listen to the rest of the concert.

Having sketched this orchestra and space from the audience point of view before helps pull together this piece pretty quickly.


8:00pm When the more advanced groups play, the younger musicians bring their instruments and come sit in the aisles to watch. It’s a full house, and there are no seats available for them, but it’s still neat that they can all be there to watch what they will grow to be, musically, in the coming years.

Switching to brushpen on these. Bold marks to capture the kids and their instruments. White acrylic marker for highlights and definition. After a few hours with a subject, even strange angles and poses translate to simple shapes pretty easily.


8:45pm One last sketch of the kids in the aisles. It is late in the night, they’ve had a long day, but they still have one last bit of performing left. But right now, they wait. Some patiently. Some not.

As I sketch  this piece, I can see from the sketch that I’m tired. So how do all the performers, teachers and volunteers do it? They’re still doing what they’re doing and giving it 100%!


9:15pm is when the concert ended. No sketches from that last half hour, but a lot of foot-stomping for the final pieces and many, many well-deserved rounds of applause. I started the afternoon hoping I’d understand a little bit about how big an effort it takes to put on a concert on this scale. Here are some figures from just that evening:
205 Middle-school musicians, 10 adult chaperones, 10 high school helpers, 2 teachers on standby. 6 pros – including our teacher, Mr Krijnen and the Matt on percussion. Snacks and dinner provided for all.  Lucy Yamakawa Cox at SJSU hosted all of this.

Here’s what I think after my backstage experience. This is my third Four Seasons concert. I always thought it was awesome, but it is bigger and more amazing than I had imagined and that it’s pretty incredible what people working together can do.

13 sketches not including a few (below) that had to be abandoned when things changed too quickly. Have I mentioned how much I love reportage sketching?


If you live in the San Jose there’s a Cambrian Symphony Concert coming up at this same venue on  February 9th. They’re pretty awesome, go give them a listen. Admission is free.
And if you’re a sketcher, grab a sketchbook and a brushpen perhaps and head down that way.

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Keepers of Memories, Stories and Lesson Plans

Looking back at some sketch journal pages from the recent past, and realizing they hold a lot.
Simple memories and notes. A spread from my journal from when I met with Frances Marin. I love her work, the places she paints have a magical, ethereal quality to them. Elva’s Coffee in Willow Glen. Looks old school but serves Bulletproof Coffee.drawing_with_frances

Looking back at the spread reminds me that I really liked a couple of the  Case for Making watercolors I tried from her palette and that I should stop by the store when I’m in San Francisco. And that I want to add “Your Art Will save Your Life” to my reading list.

Food memories. Yes, that’s a special category. Every so often, an In-n-Out lunch is required. A double-double with grilled onions and fries please. I never draw my food at In-n-Out, I eat it too quickly. Much easier to draw the crowds.innout

Bits of history. Here’s an old-meets-new scene in San Jose. In the foreground, those electric scooters that are all the rage in downtown. In the background, the American Can Company building, from 1912. History is everywhere, we just need to look. Walking a neighborhood, stopping and reading an old faded sign searching up something you see when you wander. They open new doors to stories your city holds.uma_studio

Study Notes. This one is a spread from my sketch journal for this week’s Sketch Journaling class. We’re at week 3 of 8 weeks, and we’re drawing a pile of our favorite books. That class is full, but to get on a mailing list for new workshops email me.books3

Posted in california, Close to home, Everyday Sketches, Food, people, san jose, Silicon Valley, teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments