Surprise Sketches are the Best

Sometimes the unplanned stuff is the best. Early at school to pickup my kids today (that almost NEVER happens) and what do I see? Our local middle school Chamber Orchestra playing under the redwood trees.

I dug out a piece of taupe-colored, accordion-folded paper and sketched on it. Since I didn’t know how long they’d play (they ended up being around a good 15 minutes) I added things as I went along: Black ink in a brushpen went in first. Then some white gel pen. They hung around and played some more, out came a few colored pencils and a white wax crayon. Stuff I haven’t used in a long time. So much fun. Here are a couple of closeups from the image.


Wish I’d asked the teacher his name (he’s the conductor in the sketch). he was fantastic and animated and the kids obviously loved him.

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Thoughts on Figure Drawing

I don’t post a lot of my life drawings from a weekly figure drawing session.  But today I thought I’d post a few and try to explain why life drawing is so important to me.

15891161684_468e0ea3c7_o10 minutes. Charcoal and watercolor on charcoal paper.

I’m often asked, as an Urban Sketcher who draws a lot of people, if figure study is necessary to drawing people into your sketches. The short answer? No. Just like technical architectural drawing is not essential to drawing buildings.

figurez-sketch_5_minutes5 minute pose. Charcoal on Newsprint.

But does it help? Immensely. Of all the things I draw, people are the hardest for me.  So I draw a lot of them. Because practicing drawing what is most outside my comfort zone means I have the confidence to draw anything.

Figure Study in a group session almost always means working alongside some pretty amazing artists, being inspired by them, and learning from them. Just seeing how a room full of people handles the same subject in so many different ways is an education. And artists are really generous sharers of all they know.

figrure_sketch15 minute pose. Soft charcoal and white charcoal on paper.

Another question I often hear: “Why draw the nude figure when most of your urban sketches will never contain a nude figure?”
I enjoy drawing nude and clothed models. To draw the nude figure is to understand structure and muscle, and the flow and mass of the human body in ways that are often complicated by clothes. Going back to my architectural analogy, it is like studying perspective, structure, plans and layouts. While they might not be WHAT you draw when you draw a building, understanding them informs and enhances your drawing.

figure_deadWatercolor, charcoal and blue colored pencil on paper. 40 minutes. 

When I draw in cafes and on the street, I most often draw people sitting, or standing, walking or bending over, and every once in a while, jogging or running. Models at figure drawing sessions offer really dynamic poses, especially for the short pose sessions. I find contrappostol poses especially amazing to learn to draw weight, balance and the ‘line of action’ of the human body.

15226196314_ea9ea63990_o15 minute pose. Ink on watercolor paper.

I draw loads and loads in 2 hours of figure study. Most of it will never make it to this blog. A lot of it makes to to my recycling bin. But it is all really valuable practice and learning towards my 10,000 hours. And that counts for a lot.

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Sketching wildflowers

Drawing outside my comfort zone today. I like to draw fast and loose. To capture an impression, often without much detail. So it was quite a challenge to walk around Guadalupe Oak Grove Park and draw some really tiny wildflowers that I wanted to identify. I managed to come home and I.D. everything but #4: little pink-lilac flowers, feathery foliage and some strange grass-like structures attached. The flowers were a half centimenter across. I’m based in San Jose, California. If you think you know what I might have drawn, let me know.
Update: They’ve been identified! The amazing Nature Journal Club members got it right within minutes of my posting this. It is a non-native called Erodium cicutarium or pinweed,

wildflowers_ID-Sketched in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon Series book, which has a much smoother paper than my usual book.

When I came across this big clump of poppies, though, out came my large Beta sketchbook. Blue pencil and watercolor with a wee bit of white gouache.


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The morning the tree trimmers came

The tree trimmers arrived at 8am. They turned off the electricity and cut down a couple of large branches from the tree outside my home. That big white vehicle is a branch-muncher, it can grind up huge tree limbs in seconds.pge_1The blue Pacific Gas and Electric truck joined the branch-munching van.pge_2
More trucks arrived, lots of discussion, lots of setting out orange cones on the street…
Finally this guy got down on the ground, opened up a manhole and peered into it. Things were just hotting up.pge_4

And I was clean out of sketching time and had to leave for work.

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Farm Animals

These are my sketches from a ‘farm tour’ at Hidden Villa Farms in the Los Altos Hills today. I sketched these as I tagged along with a moving group. I started by using just a brushpen (I love my Kuretake Sable Hair brushpen, refilled with carbon platinum ink) but pulled out my watercolor kit and juggled it all as I walked along after my first page of sketches. Using a combo of color and line was a quicker way for me capture what I wanted than just working in pen. The brushpen captured shape and gesture, and a quick wash of color added volume, pattern and texture.


At the end of the tour, I went back to draw my favorites, the sheep and new lambs. It’s surprisingly hard to draw a convincing sheep. And it was interesting to see how many sheep I drew before I could simplify them into basic forms.

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Leaning? Not leaning? You decide.

Sketched at  my lifedrawing session this morning. The model was definitely leaning one way: her head rested in her hand and she leaned in that direction. Which is what I thought I was capturing. But when I was done, she just didn’t seem to lean enough.


Part of the problem is that other arm, straight down the middle of the composition: It tricks you into ‘untilting’ whatever subtle tilt I drew in… But maybe there’s more?

Someone suggested I look at my sketch in a mirror to see if I could find what was bothering me. I did, and while it didn’t fix my leaning problem, a whole bunch of new things came up. I’ve flipped the image in photoshop( below) to approximate what I saw. On the left: my original. On the right: the flipped image. I could swear the one on right has more depth in the dark areas, and more vibrant orange-reds in the skintone. Even a slightly different angle to the head.

Do the two images above look exactly the same to you? If you see differences, what ARE they? And if you understand why this happens, I’d love to know!

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Miller Red Barn

I saw an intriguing sign in Gilroy the other day. It said “Save Miller Red Barn” and listed this facebook page. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a design project on the history of the City of Gilroy, so I know quite a bit about this barn ( but I had no idea it still stood).

The barn probably belonged to Henry Miller, also known as the Cattle King, a man thought to have been the largest land owner and cattleman in the American West, perhaps the largest landowner in the entire nation in the 1850s. People in this town say a cowboy could ride from Mexico all the way to Canada without leaving the Cattle King’s lands.

The barn is large, impressive, a beautiful red and dangerously dilapidated. I got quite carried away with capturing all the texture.
barn1_2stepRecording in steps really helps me look at my process. More often than not, I look back and find I should have stopped just a wee bit earlier than I did. With both these sketches, I really had fun with capturing all the texture, but it might have been a good idea to let a little more of the juicy watercolor wash show? The barn is, after all, a beautiful color, even in its dilapidated state. Here is a closeup of all that over-the-top texture:red_barn1c_closeup

And here is sketch#2, from the other side of the barn.
barn2_4stepAnd a closer look at the finished piece.red_barn2c

I hope they raise the funds they need to save that barn, it’s an important part of Gilroy’s history.

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