Circulation Desk Portrait and Do-overs

I did something I didn’t want to do. Usually that ends badly. It went surprisingly well. A strange evening involving near life-sized plush cheetahs and friendly pharmacy staff. Sometimes we get a do-over.

I wasn’t up for going to a monthly sketching event at my local library. The past week had seen my energy and mood tick steadily down. So I made excuses for myself. Excuses like I had to go to the pharmacy that’s open twenty-four hours and located three blocks from our apartment.

We Talk Ourselves Out of Anything

I don’t know why I went. As the time was ticking closer, the excuses got stronger. What if there’s too many people? Too few people? The still life isn’t interesting? At some point in that treatise on the procrastinator’s prayer of what-ifs a slow burn in my chest started to flare up. It was this feeling of disapointment, guilt and being fed up with myself. I didn’t want to think of how I would explain not going to the one person who knew and expected me to go. It was a terrible physical feeling.

Shutting myself out of my own mind I grabbed a sketchbook, pen roll and jacket. I was in the car not remembering having taken my keys or putting on my shoes. There were good spaces available in the library’s lot. I was on the second floor gallery, seated, and with an empty page ready to go in what seemed like a minute.

Those Times We’re Wrong About How Bad Things Can Be

There was a nice turnout. A Goldilocks approved number of people. Everyone was relaxed with good attitudes and ready to draw. Our first subject? A giant stuffed toy Cheetah sitting next to a bowl of fruit. The library’s curator has a good sense of humor and knows how to break the ice.

Soon after the endless series of spots we had a surprise model. A special occassion. It’s usually hard to get anyone to volunteer to sit for the group during the school year with tutoring sessions and other informal events throughout the library. It was winter break for the schools and the circulation desk had little traffic.

Checking out drawing and art books every other week over the past six months I’ve come to know most everyone working the circulation desk. Our volunteer to sit for a portrait was a fellow art school alum. We’ve chatted about our interests here and there (she’s the resident watercolor expert). It was nice to draw a friendly, familiar face.

After my anxious, paranoid and panic-stricken experience from the portrait party, I wondered if this was the do-over I needed. We had fifteen minutes for our portrait. Fifteen minutes that seemed like an indulgence compared to the rapid succession of ten-minute sketches at the portrait event one day short of two and a half weeks ago (rough estimate of course). The idea of an extra five minutes transformed my senses.

Let’s try this again

I used the same brush pens. I didn’t try to be clever. I started with an English red erasable colored pencil. I didn’t try to be exacting with each stroke. The underdrawing complete I moved marks across the page with relaxed confidence. I finished a fun, enjoyable portrait of my friend at the circulation desk.

She loved it. The group organizer and other attendees enjoyed it as we exchanged sketchbooks to see everyone’s different approaches. I left relieved, satisfied and happy to have finally permitted myself a do-over.

Placing Thoughts in Other Heads

I did get to the pharmacy. I carried my improved state to the pickup counter. Another opportunity for self-conscious anxiety. I always await the reactions of the assistants. I read their minds full of wariness and judgements as my medications come up on-screen. Paranoia fills the space from queue back to my car.

This isn’t true of course. There was one time I interpreted an expression from a new employee months ago. I planted the reaction on everyone else ever after. I planted every terrible thought. Another masochistic fantasy to place on the shelf.

Called up. I gave my name, birthdate, and waited for the reaction as the keyboard clicks came to a close. Where’s the reaction? The pause? Where’s the head slowly jerking back wishing the next register had called me? I waited and none of those things happened.

I got a relaxed smile. She gave a helpful update on my refill schedule. We said goodbye. I’m just not that big of a deal. Sometimes strangers can teach us how to accept ourselves. They give us a do-over. Grant permission to accept.

Milling Machines and Perspective Mishaps

I started this blog as my own sketchbook, notebook. Lots of scribbles, some successes, and spectacular failures. I never intended this to be any kind of Insta-ham feed. This would be seperate from any notion of “finished” art pieces.

In the spirit of getting back on track, I submit this latest sketchbook page. I enjoyed making this sketch. It scratched two itches. First, I’ve been wanting to do more drawings that included some kind of machinery. I also look for good examples of hands in action. This small moment of a machinist tightening a drill bit was perfect, accomplishing both. That already made the effort a success from the start.

I like a few things in this sketch. I used watercolor pencils for the underdrawing. I used complimentary colors which helped separate hands from the machine. Breaking down the sketchbook page into two smaller drawings helped me work efficiently and confidently. Now I could focus on one section at a time.

I was surprised at how happy I ended up being with the hands. I can always improve when it comes to fingernails (what is it that makes them so challenging?!?!). The wash may have taken away from the forms instead of defining. Overall though I’m happy with the progress I’ve been making rendering hands. It makes the “long way to go” not seem so long.

The milling machine. What I believed would turn out best, didn’t quite get there. My strengths fell to the side (particularly the left side and components in particular). My only explanation is that I didn’t match the required effort and focus with expectations. I think that’s how most preventable mistakes happen.

That’s where I feel this ended up a failure. I made preventable mistakes. I was sloppy. Those are really the worst mistakes. Mistakes made while learning, exposing areas that require more knowledge, practice are informative. Mistakes made while exploring something new are valuable. Mistakes made over subjects we are familiar and have had practice with are empty experiences.

If there is anything good about an empty failure, it’s the lesson that you will never be too good to not focus on what’s in front of you.

Secret Hideouts and Sketching Outer Space Oyster Mushrooms

I have a secret hideout. I’m going public with it. Feeling disconnected, distant I seek out strange, odd, and spatially vibrant vegetables. I go to the produce section.

Busy farmers markets, especially those serving diverse communities, are where I run to for the best art models. That’s where I like to spend an evening late in the week. The greatest variety of lines and forms all there among humans pinching, prodding and weighing them like alien abductors.

I started with the full bundle of oyster mushrooms, then cropping and finally inventing.

Some vegetables do seem otherworldly. Oyster mushrooms, a science fiction example of what extra terrestrials keep as apartment starter plants. Oyster mushrooms are another wonderful subject. When you look at them. Stare. Observe them closely. You see layers of lovely complex lines and shapes.

The greatest gift fruits and vegetables provide is their ability to inspire imaginative lines. They can be a starting point for something original from ourselves. Like the big dried up piece of horseradish in front of me. Waiting for every crooked groove to be closely observed. Coaxing to get lost in my next sketchbook page.

Portrait Party Pre-game: Speed Sketching

I’m nervous. A week of practice and, still nervous. Ten minutes to draw a stranger sitting three feet in front of me. Eleven strangers. One hundred and ten minutes.

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a big, live portrait event. A few hundred fellow artists will be creating 11 portraits, with 10 minutes allotted per sketch. The directive is to go big and bold. Unfortunately, that leaves my fountain pens capped.

Putting fountain pens away for the day, relying on fat markers and brush pens

Maybe it’s a good restriction. Restrictions can bring out our best creative thinking. I can’t fuss around. Can’t over think. At least that’s what I am trying to tell myself.

Back to practicing. I’ll be sure to post the results.

Micro Torch

Fountain pen, ink wash and gouache on mixed media paper

As much as I enjoy the toothe of this mixed-media paper, I may have to finally crack open a watercolor sketchbook. While a spot of gouache is handled well, every attempt at a wash has buckled the pages. It’s mostly tolerable but adds one more thing I have to be aware of and really shouldn’t. I should be thinking about the sketch itself. What I’m seeing and trying to get on paper.

Reconciliation

Much of why I started drawing again has been about reconciliation. It’s a recursive reconciliation. It builds and deconstructs along the same loop. Since moving back to post-industrial North Jersey, I have been reconciling my ties here. Growing up here. What is the effect of that legacy on us children of factory workers? That last generation of shift workers benefiting from a final, full prosperous breath of big industry employment.

It’s not nostalgia I feel. Something in me needs to recognize growing up around the tools, machines, shops, plants and talk of shifts. I thought a sketch involving fire was a good way to begin. A torch lit and ready to begin.

5 Artists, 5 Quotes on Drawing

Practice. Rehearse. Just over a week away. I registered for a speed round-robin portrait event. Artists are allowed exactly ten minutes to complete each drawing. “Times up!” We hurry and switch to the next fresh new face. It’s both performance, test of skills and courage. Nervous, I’ve looked for anything to squelch the butterflies. Maybe build confidence.

I keep lists upon lists. Several include favorite artists. I have a few lists of quotes. Looking, I found a perfect handful. Meditating on each one I thought they made a good list to share.

Sense of purpose. Clarity of voice. Insidious feelings of inadequacy. Each artist offers a guiding, bold honesty. Keep these quotes close for moments of creative confusion.


Believe it or not, I can actually draw.

~ Jean-Michel Basquiat

My dream is to show the fire which comes out of the horses’ nostrils; the dust which rises from their hooves. I want this to be an infernal waltz.

~ Rosa Bonheur

Even if a comic artist spent his whole life drawing yogurt cups. You would still see his most secret and deranging sensibility emerge.

~ Jean “Moebius” Giraud

I wish I was better at art. I love some of the great artists of the 19th century and, compared to them, I just feel I lack this technique.

~ Hayao Miyazaki

Errors and exaggerations do not matter. What matters is boldness in thinking with a strong-pitched voice, in speaking out about things as one feels them in the moment of speaking; in having the temerity to proclaim what one believes to be true of the consequences. If one were to await the possession of the absolute truth, one must be either a fool or idle. If the creative impulse were stunted, the world would then be stayed on its march.

~ José Clement Orozco

Quotes are translations from the original language

Iguanas, Battling Fear and Adventures with Blue Ink

Dipping dead of winter temperatures. A creative freeze. Going into a new year I had all this great momentum, ideas and projects ready to go. Then it snuck up on me. Second-guessing, doubts, and perfectionism blocking all my progress and plans.

All the planned studies and finished drawings of birds came to a stop. Not even a feather found in any of my sketchbooks. Perfectionism and self-doubt always dance together, ripping oxygen from the room.

I spent most of the week focusing on small, confidence-building draughtsmanship exercises. I attended a weekly figure drawing group I enjoy. In the evenings I looked through my favorite work of dead artists. While enriching and practical, these efforts hadn’t vanquished the creative malaise.

Going through old sketchbooks and journal entries reminded me of an idea I had for these hard moments. To get through a slump we could sketch the opposite of whatever we find ourselves stuck on. Tough block sketching subjects we love? Draw what we show indifference towards. Sketch what shakes us with irrational fear.

In my case, reptiles, crocodiles and the like. They chill the marrow in my bones. Even after living for a stretch of years in Florida, I never did get comfortable around reptiles.

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Breaking a creative block drawing birds by turning to reptiles

Why draw something we fear? To remind us that in our sketchbook, we are in charge. That empowerment turns something we fear into an opportunity to develop courage and discover something new, unexpected. Second-guessing and perfectionism have little chance to survive these revelations.

How did this lead to my blue ink iguana? I spent a short while looking through videos and images. Began thinking about my experiences with the reptiles. Easily, I remembered the biggest iguana I may ever see in my life.

I had just dropped off my parents at the airport. Driving back, I spotted it. Making its way out of the Intracoastal waters to intimidate the cars passing by, was an iguana the size of a couch. My Jetta doesn’t exactly elicit fear. Thankfully the big ole’ curmudgeon agreed. The massive iguana lifted its head high, triumphant. Satisfied, it turned back and moved slowly to the water. The impression forever cemented.

Lounging iguanas under bridges and docks solidified in my head. Pictures maybe even clearer than of my favorite birds. Is it easier to remember and draw the things we fear than those we love?

Invested, my visual search continued. Little effort lead to upsetting stories. Over the past year, the University of Florida had a grant to exterminate iguanas in an awful, violent way. Invested became determined inspiration. I went right into the sketch.

I’ve been handwriting journal entries in fountain pen. The ritual inspires focused intentional expression. The jump from writing to sketching in fountain pen can be difficult. I find the benefits to both acts similar. This challenge to break through my slump was about finding inspiration and facing fears. Fountain pen and ink reinforce this idea.

I have two fountain pens I use. One filled with black ink the other with blue. I thought the blue would make a nice statement for the head of an iguana. The flow of this blue ink feels rich and velvety on paper. Unlike the black ink from the same line, it does take longer to dry and is not exactly waterproof. Both attributes welcome to a wet brush for a lovely wash. For such a permanent medium, ink actually provides a surprising amount of options.

Fancy pen in hand. Barrel full of ink. I meditated over this small study. I thought about all these different fears and doubts I had. It focused me on why I draw. Why did I start drawing after years away from a sketchbook? Reconciliation.

I should draw reptiles more often.

First Page of a New Sketchbook: Abert’s Towhee

First page in my new everyday-carry sketchbook. I’ve switched to 6 x 9 inches (~15cm x 23cm) from the previous three 4 x 6-inch sketchbooks I had been taking with me everywhere. At home, I develop ideas, doodle and sketch my studies in a 9″ x 12″ sketchbook. It made sense to have something that was portable but closer to that larger size. The size difference is much more comfortable and it’s not exactly cumbersome to hold in my hand while walking.

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Pencil, marker, brush, and fountain pen

I’m trying out the National Audobon Society’s app as a sort of drawing prompt for times when I find myself in a coffee shop or other in-between, stand-by moments. This is an Abert’s Towhee, a native of the Southwest United States and classified under New World Finches.

Building on Small Successes in Watercolor: Great Blue Heron

How could I build small successes in watercolor? The few times I’ve worked with it in the past I was left frustrated and with an overall bad impression of the medium. I had convinced myself it just wasn’t for me. But over the past few months, I’ve been progressing through Kimon Nicolaides’ “The Natural Way to Draw”. It’s a book I’ve worked directly from when I was a student but always skipped the painting parts.

About a month ago I arrived at one of the first schedules focusing on modelling the human figure through watercolor. I purchased the two tubes of paint as directed but hesitated on the “best brush I could afford” and went with a Cotman from Winsor & Newton (their student/beginner line).

I let go of all my past experiences and prejudices regarding watercolor. I worked exactly as directed in the schedule. Now, granted Nicolaides doesn’t direct students on all the finer techniques of watercolor. There is no mention of manipulating blooms or choosing the right watercolor paper. The exercises are done on sheets of manilla paper, a dry brush and the paint applied without a drop of water.

While the resulting sketches from the exercise will not be placed on anyone’s refrigerator, the exercise was a great success in several areas. I further expanded my sense of forms in a way that complemented previous attempts with crayon and ballpoint pen. However, I was surpised at how much I grew to appreciate the capabilities offered by watercolor. As the week went on I added a little more water but always following the instruction to keep a dry brush before picking up the paint.

In the weeks since I followed some other advice on learning to use watercolor which was to try gouache paints. Again working straight from the tube and gradually adding a bit of water. I had never considered working with gouache, particularly in my sketchbook. I’ve been missing out because it is a terrific paint to use in a mixed media sketchbook (my preference).

And so, last week I took a deep breath and decided to combine spots of gouache and watercolor to a pencil sketch of this Great Blue Heron. I taped down the page. First I applied a light ink wash for a simple background. No buckling or puddles, good start. Then I mixed some gouache for the beak. Finally, deep breath, I applied a slightly diluted blue for the head plumes (wishing I had purchased a better brush that can hold a sharp point) and then a heavily diluted blue for the mantle and wings. This quick little painting in my sketchbook was done.

Gouache, watercolor, ink wash and fountain pen

I removed the tape, the paper hadn’t buckled and I had my first watercolor piece done without incident. A small success and now I can add this medium to my sketchbook studies.

Have you had similar experiences with watercolor? What finally made you decide to press on or abandon the medium? Watercolor has a way of humbling many artists but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.