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The Urban Sketcher in Česká Republika

February 2, 2016


I was pleased to find out that The Urban Sketcher has been translated into Czech :)

I don’t speak/read the language, so I’m interested to hear from anyone if they like the translation.  If anyone has a copy or sees it in the wild please let me know.

It’s exciting to think people could be trying out ‘Street Sketching’ in Prague. Send me some links to whatever you’re drawing over there in Česká Republika!




Workshop News: Galway IE sold out! Thinking about India?

January 29, 2016


July 2016: IRELAND: This just in: our Galway Ireland Urban Sketching Workshop is sold out! Thanks everyone – we’re looking forward to meeting you all and starting the wandering sketch-trek from Galway to Manchester with those that will carry on with us. We have a short waiting list building up, so you can still contact Laurel to put your name down with the hopefuls.

15Oct02_India_TajMahal02FEB 2017: INDIA: It might seem like a long time in the offing – but if anyone is interested in our FEB 2017 painting adventure trip to India (Delhi/Varanasi/Agra) – it is worth it to sign up soon. We’ve just sold out Ireland six months in advance. So, don’t hesitate if you’re thinking you want in on that painting trip of a lifetime. Head over to the workshops page to get more info on registration.

Taking Stock

Trip Planning For Portugal Begins in Earnest!

In other news: I’m starting the ramp up for travel to Portugal! Stocking up colors and paper. I think I need a minimum of 6 sheets a day to be sure I won’t be short paper. (I’m bringing 10×13″ for a standard format this time – fits in my lighter weight mid-sized bag and makes a 9×12″ original, which is a nice size for framing). And I’ve just been listening to advice from photojournalists who say ‘bring a full duplicate set of all important gear in case of loss/theft/etc’. So I’m doubling or tripling up on tubes and need to purchase a backup set of brushes to go into the suitcase. (That’s going to be a big investment).

Some news from online: Roseann Hanson of Arizona showed us this great idea (over in the Craftsy Travel Sketching class message board). She’s invented a DIY magnetic quick release for her drawing easel. Brilliant! Much quicker to set up than the threaded items you might have on a standard tripod. Read about her plein air setup and her very interesting life over on her blog The Constant Apprentice.

Leslie Fehling_LapDesk (1)

Here’s another brilliant invention/adaptation. Leslie Fehling of Prosperity PA is using the drop-in magnet trick for her water jar, but has another smart tip – use a drill bit gauge (Velcro’ed on here) for her brush holder. Pretty smart! Something to pick up at the local hardware store. Read the details of her compact lap-desk over on her blog: Everyday Artist.

Ok – that’s it for news from the studio – back to planning for Portugal! Hope I get some warmer weather soon to begin training in earnest.


Good Question of the Week: How do I avoid ‘cartoony’ sketches?

January 26, 2016

MHolmes_Parliment Buildings (5)

Post Preamble: This is another in my very irregular series: Good Question of the Week. (which is not weekly by any means).

I have discovered there is a limit to the length of an answer on the website.

Students ask questions in an email-like sidebar and I get notified when there’s something to discuss. Today, I found out the hard way there must be a character limit to the entry field. Because this (long winded) answer simply wouldn’t go through until I broke it into three replies.

Anway, enough inside baseball.

Here’s the question for anyone that might be interested:

Student Question: For sketching I think that line adds a freshness to the drawing but mine always turn out far too cartoony…which I don’t like. I Love the direct approach but I tend to leave that more for “real” paintings. How do I lose the cartoony effect?  (ed. note: by ‘direct approach’ I think they are referring to direct-to-brushwork with watercolor).

Overly long answer: Absolutely good question [Name Redacted]! Ready for a super long answer? (Sorry, but apparently I was waiting for this question :)

So – the reason this course (referring to my Travel Sketching course) has so much emphasis on drawing-at-speed and embracing-your-errors via single line sketching in ink – is exactly to do with this problem of ‘cartoony’ sketchbook drawings.

It’s a method to push yourself out of stiff or awkward drawings, by not giving your mind enough time to over-think.

I find I have to be in a zone of seeing and drawing reflexively to avoid a ‘cartoony’ result – that I feel comes from overworking, and timidity.

(ed. note: Of course – I believe that there is nothing lesser about cartooning as an art. I love every language of drawing, and great cartooning is a very demanding mode – so I don’t mean anything snobbish about my current desire to be more painterly. I do admire cartoonists and one day might become one – if I live long enough).

Let me dive in to the reasons!

The things that I feel make a drawing ‘cartoony’ are A: rigidity and simplification, B: monoweight and closed lines, C: flat color, lack of depth.

A: Rigidity and simplification:
Cartoons tend to simplify complex shapes into something more geometric.

If you are not sensitive to tapering perspective, or a slight slope of the earth, or the lean of an old structure, or the divot of a broken brick, you might end up putting inflexible straight lines where a more organic shape might bring life.

Speed and reflexive recording of what you see allow you to exaggerate and record in a fresh way which you won’t achieve by taking pains to make a ‘good drawing’.

Here’s a drawing that I think you’ll agree is the opposite of rigid :)

15Sep06_Quebec_City_Post OFfice

This one too, to some extent:


These were accomplished by drawing while having a lively conversation with a friend at the same time! Also by being very cold and working standing up, and wanting to get moving soon :)

B: Monoweight and closed lines:
There is nothing more flattening than a graphic outline; a solid closed line that goes all the way around a form. This is a classic cartoon effect, meant to make a shape visually separate from a background.

One easy thing you can do is soften the ink line – I’ll point back to yesterday’s post on diluting ink, or of course there’s water soluble ink. Blending the line with water makes it much less prominent.

But if we’re talking about black ink line, that’s different.

In drawing, unlike painting, we have less natural opportunity for lost edges (places where object and ground can blend together).

What we have to do is force lost edges to happen by breaking lines. Let them taper off into open shapes. Vanish into the highlights. This looks to the eye like a painter’s lost edge.

Just look at the faces in this life drawing:


Here’s a sketchbook example of breaking line (and tone) to let in light:


C: Flat Color, lack of depth/texture:
Cartoons (and comics) are most closely associated with flat color. It’s practically the definition of cartoony.

The first part of the answer is texture. With watercolor, we push back against any monotonously smooth passages with a combination of paper texture and brushwork.

You can use broken brushwork as seen in the Impressionists. Or charging-in to promote wet-in-wet mixes. Also a slanted board will encourage backwash/blooms and drips. These are all ways of getting natural texture, instead of clinical perfection.

MHolmes_Watercolor_Sketching_Demo (10)_Final Painting

15Nov23_Redpath_Water Silhouettes_03

The second part is depth. I should say ‘dimensionality’ – because by this I mean observing shadow shapes.

Not talking about depth as in distance toward the horizon (that’s atmospheric perspective) but what I mean is being very conscious of ‘self-shadowing’. When objects cast shadows on themselves.

Marking what is light, and what is the shadow side is the fastest way to teach the eye that a thing is three dimensional. That’s why so many of my sketches are just white paper with only color in the shadow shapes.


And of course, you can do this in the drawing – without even any color or brush pen blacks. See how the shadows are in the drawing, even before the color.


All this combined is what makes a sketch painterly and not cartoony at all.


So anyway, just wanted to post that here, as it might make better reading on the blog, than in the questions window on craftsy :)

Sketchbook Drawing Tip: Soften your Linework with Diluted Ink

January 25, 2016

16Jan10_Dilute Ink (3)

I was out sketching the other day, (at the Montreal Biodome) and wanted to try a slight tweak to my sketchbook drawing method. Nothing too revolutionary – just the simple idea of sketching with diluted ink.

Sometimes I’m in the mood for an aggressive high-contrast drawing. It can be a lot of fun – especially if you’re working quickly (like these 5 min gesture drawings).

But other times I feel like having a black line under a watercolor sketch is a bit overpowering.  Of course you can also sketch directly with watercolor (with no drawing at all).  But that can be a bit nerve wracking. I find it takes a lot of focus. Or a willingness to draw three drawings and keep only the best one :)

So – this is a bit of a middle ground. A more relaxing way to draw.

16Jan10_Dilute Ink (1)

I took a small 5ml vial of water and added two drops of Higgins Sepia. This extremely diluted mix gives you a very pale pink ink color

This simple trick has a number of advantages. The line is so pale, I don’t mind using a ‘searching line’. That is, over drawing – sketching very freely, feeling out the form with multiple contours. Sometimes ‘drawing through’. That is – drawing the back side of a form, or how a limb goes behind the body.

16Jan10_Dilute Ink (5)

Because of the pale-ness of the ink I don’t care so much if the drawing is incomplete, messy, or otherwise experimental.

I know the color to follow will overpower the drawing, rather than ‘color in’ as it might feel with a black ink drawing.

16Jan10_Dilute Ink (4)

A small note; this is a water soluble ink – so it would normally melt into the watercolor and bias the color. But since it’s diluted already, it doesn’t actually move on the paper any longer. It becomes no longer water-soluble. So that’s just an interesting and unexpected property.

So, there you go! A simple variation on pen-and-ink drawing you might want to try out.


16Jan10_Dilute Ink (2)

Negative and Positive Shapes in Watercolor

January 11, 2016


Hey everyone! I’m still living under a rock these days. A pile of rocks made of freelance illustration work that I’m gradually chipping away at. But I wanted to post something as I’m getting the itch for painting this spring in Portugal.

So, I went back into my files to bring you this demo about using  negative shapes. I used this sketch as part of my online course Travel Sketching in Mixed Media. In the video I do a quick little reproduction of this painting for the cameras so you can see how I handle the paint. But I think you can see what’s important about the strategy from these phone shots snapped on location.


Whenever I’m looking at a scene I’m thinking about the silhouette shapes I see, and planning how the dark shapes will sit on top of the lighter ones below. My goal is to use the fewest shapes possible – to make the strongest composition. Too many shapes can get fiddly and confusing. I like to weld shapes – fuse some things together to make cleaner edges – as well as eliminate as many unnecessary objects as possible.

Also, I want to treat each shape as its own wet-on-dry passage. So there will be plenty of watercolor mixing and blooming inside the silhouette – but a nice sharp edge outside.

I like to say, “draw with the outside, paint with the inside”. If you get nice clear silhouette edges, the drawing falls into place. But inside those silhouettes is the texture and abstraction – and playfulness – that makes watercolor what it is.

Ok – so that’s the goal. Look at a scene, see the basic shapes, and plan what order they will go down.

15Sept15_Shape_Stacking_Demo_Step (1)

So this is the first shape. A simple box that gradates from gold to green. This is the lightest local color that I will use to draw the wall behind AND the statue in front.

I make this wash in one continuous wet-on-dry shape, so that the greens will blossom upward. And I make sure to make an interesting hard edge where I’m fading out the sketch at the bottom. So it doesn’t end randomly or with uneven scratchy shapes.

I know I can let the green pigment float in a random way, because I plan to cover most of it up later. I’m already thinking a few moves ahead, to when I’ll make these blooms into small plants and shrubs.

At this point I let this first layer dry – so the next shapes can have crisp edges over top of those watery effects. On a warm enough day you don’t really have to wait long. Just until the paper flattens back and no longer feels cool to the touch.

15Sept15_Shape_Stacking_Demo_Step (2)

This is the second pass complete. The most important thing I’ve done here is placed down the trees and shrubbery. You can see how each tree silhouette is grown out of wet paints – with plenty of color variation as I go. It may look like there is shading going on in the trees – but all the blending is done by the watercolor itself – not by manually smoothing with the brush. Simply place contrasting color and light and dark pigments next to each other, and allow them to blend naturally.

15Sept15_Shape_Stacking_Demo_Step (2)_Detail

At the same time, I am allowing the background tone to show through in interesting ways. It’s important to leave small gaps and light flecks that show the first wash. It becomes instinctive – when to leave a little gap, and when to let it fill in.

And of course – there is the Negative Drawing of the statue. The outside silhouette of the statue is created by what is left out of the tree. Drawing the larger shape draws the smaller automatically.

I did use a little sketch, done with the point of the brush, so I could see where to cut out the silhouette – but really, I shouldn’t have bothered with that – eventually I’ll be confident enough to do without the guideline. I knew it would fuse with the dark green tree shape, so I risked it looking a bit labored.

15Sept15_Shape_Stacking_Video Capture

Here are a few screenshots of cutting around the negative shape of the statue. These are extracted from the video demonstration.


From here on, all the big shapes are in place, so it is just a matter of putting on small shadows. The most important being the shadows on the statue. These little shapes make the form appear. If you have the outside shape visualized correctly, then the shadows will simply fall into place and the object will look three dimensional.

15Sept15_Shape_Stacking_Roof Tiles

This area that will become the clay roof tiles is a good miniature example of this 1/2/3 process of stacking. Everything happening at a larger scale is visible in this small area.


So – there you have it. Something I am thinking about a lot these days – the order of the shapes I plan to stack and how I’ll let colors from below show through the marks made on top.

Internal Travelogue: Imaginary People

December 19, 2015


I’m still under house arrest. Drawing every day for my character design book. I had to pass up a drawing trip with friends today! It’s kind of weird, taking a long break from drawing on the street. But I probably would be taking time off for winter anyway. It’s always a struggle finding enough interesting indoor locations to make it through the winter.

No matter! I have big plans for drawing expeditions next year. I’m just keeping that reward in my head through these long winter nights in front of the computer :)


So it seems appropriate to post a few more pages from the imagination sketchbook. Last time I showed some imaginary places. This time, some of the imaginary people.

Drawing people from imagination takes a bit of practice. For me, it’s not really imagination at all – more like drawing from memory. I’ve done a lot of drawing from live models, so the data bank is there.

Inventing (vs. looking at) faces and figures is both more formulaic and more freeing at the same time. Your imaginary people might tend to look a little doll-like. A bit caricatured, a bit abstracted. Stylized to fit some kind of memory-model you’ve installed over time. But what you set aside in realism, you gain back in creativity. When will you ever get to meet people like this for real?


I don’t know if this stuff is as interesting to you guys :)  That’s the other thing about sketching from imagination. It makes you self conscious! Drawing a real event, you have a valid story to tell. It’s not about your own head, it’s reportage: I was here, this is what I saw, this really happened. Once you’re inventing, things get a bit shaky. Sometimes you second guess the value of doing it.


But like any kind of art – it has to be something you do for yourself. Partially – I’m simply having fun in this sketchbook. Trying to draw without a filter. Letting the subconscious choose subjects. I have this feeling that I have to put recurring motifs down on paper or I’ll forget them.


When I don’t have a sketchbook handy, I just write lists of paintings I want to do someday.

Does anyone else do that I wonder? That does sound a little crazy. But it’s not like I’m sticking these lists all over the bathroom mirror. I keep them on my phone mostly.

It’s probably not necessary. There will always be ideas for paintings, and I don’t think you forget your own major motifs. But it is interesting to see what keeps on coming back year after year. Of all the things you draw, which ones have staying power in your imagination.

That’s the real value of keeping a journal. Looking back at them years later.



Liz Steel’s Primer on Fountain Pens

December 12, 2015

[Image: Liz Steel]

I wanted to point people over to a useful project: Liz Steel’s mini-series on selecting and using fountain pens for sketching. At the time of writing she’s posting articles to her blog twice a week, expecting to be complete before the end of Dec.

There is some very solid info for beginners – so I know many online students will love this primer. Plus, some of her notes should come in handy if you’re looking for new pens this holiday gift season.

Click over for Liz Steel’s series on Fountain Pens for Sketching.



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