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Sketching People in Action at the Cortona Flag Tossing Festival : Repost with real scans!

October 8, 2015

During this summer of 2015 we were in Tuscany on a painting expedition that happened to coincide with the Cortona Flag Tossing Festival. This event is a festival of color, a patriotic display, and athletic competition rolled into one. We were there for a week of plein-air painting, but some of us took the opportunity to take in the action with a small sketchbook.

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I had blogged about the event on the day using cellphone photos – but we’ve finally found some spare moments to make real scans, so we’re able to bring it to you again with real color and sharper images.

Before the Flag-Tossing Teams marched in to the sound of trumpets and drummers, there was kind of a pre-game show. A troupe of medieval minstrels played bagpipes, and a team of falconers showed off their birds. The crowd started to gather – a mix of tourists in stands and the local citizenry coming out in costume to support their teams and be part of the show.

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The flag event was the culmination of a three day historic festival including a crossbow competition and a recreation of a renaissance wedding – which I think was an important alliance between Cortona and a neighboring town. The cast of the recreation are all locals, drawn from the approximately 800 residents. Amusingly, the groom was played by a tall handsome gentleman who owns one of the local art galleries, and the bride by his beautiful daughter.

Earlier in the week we’d met the Cortona crossbow team. They were out early in the morning taking practice shots at a wooden plank leaned against the doors of the towns basilica. That seemed a little odd to me, but they were having a good time and nobody was stopping them. You wouldn’t see that over here in the Americas!

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The flag tossing event itself was full of enthusiasm and intense competitive spirit. Each nearby town sent a delegation, their star performers marching in through a phalanx of crossed trumpets – like gladiators into the arena.

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The event itself was a mix of tossers juggling flags 30 feet in the air while synchronized sprinters wove silk rivers of color around them. Every so often dueling pairs matched their talents in a kind of Kung Fu dance off. A squadron of drummers provided a dramatic martial soundtrack while flagpoles clacked like quarterstaves, whipped over ducked heads and below leaping feet.

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In the final spectacle all the teams ran a tight double spiral, filling the small square with upraised 12 foot flags, then peeling back out a huge iron studded gate.

This night  was a terrific unexpected bonus to cap our week of sketching in Cortona!

Announcing: Travel Sketching Workshop in India! Feb19 – Mar 06, 2017

October 3, 2015

photo: Ryan

I’m excited to announce plans to travel and paint in India in the spring of 2017. We will be going to Delhi, Varanasi and Agra, painting and sketching as we go. I’m super excited about this trip. Even though it’s a long way off, I’m already getting inspired by the possibilities. India always been the first on my list of “where do you want to go to paint”.

There are spaces for 15 artists. You may bring companions at a reduced rate. We will have an experienced travel planner and English speaking guides. All the travel details in-country will be taken care of. It will be a tremendous opportunity to see new sights and be inspired to create art! We’ll all come home with a fabulous painted record of our experience.

To find our more about the trip, and how to register – click over to my upcoming workshops page.

photo: Ashley Coates

Singapore Symposium in Pictures

October 1, 2015

Here’s some great memories from this year’s USK symposium in Singapore.  Laurel’s posted loads more photos on her flickr, if you don’t see yourself here. I’ve heard next year will be hosted by USK Manchester. We’re looking forward to it. Will be my first visit to the UK.

Pregame Sketchcrawl in Kampong Glam

Sketching with Jane Blundel in the Chinese Garden

Sketchers Everywhere you Go!

USK Workshops

Field Testing a Steel Brush

October 1, 2015


The other day we finally made it to Quebec City. We’ve been living in Montreal for about five years now, but for whatever reason, it took us this long to visit.

For our first trip, I wanted to hit the obvious highlights – the old town around the Château Frontenac. A lot of people feel they should go out of their way to find unique, undiscovered views in any town. Me, I tend to go right for the postcard view. I feel that given a limited amount of time, I want to start with the most recognizable spot, and move outward from there. I don’t know I’m that committed to this as a strategy, but it’s how I’m doing it for now.

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We had arranged to meet up with a friend of ours – inveterate sketcher, Larry D. Marshall who knows the city from the pages of his own sketchbooks.  He walked us over to this perfect view of the cupola on the old post office. Larry’s a loyal reader of my blog, so I think he knows I’ll sketch any dome I can lay my eyes on :)

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This is actually a double-page spread – here’s the sketch combined with its other half making the panorama across the square.

These drawings are in a big 15×20” pad of Canson Montval. I made sure to bring large format paper, as I wanted to play with a 3/8” size Steel Brush. Which, as you can probably tell from the sketch, is a big huge nib. I mean – this drawing looks normal in proportion – but it’s 30” across.

NibShotThe steel brush is a rectangular sandwich of thin sheets of metal, each layer with a pattern of slots. When dipped, ink clings between the sheets of flexible metal, making a juicy reservoir of color.

I’ve had a few of these nibs in the back of a drawer for 20 years. I think I inherited them from an uncle. Unless I picked them up when I worked in an art supply store back in college. In any case – I’ve had them for a long, long time, and never had the nerve to draw with them. I had a 3/4” with me as well, but amusingly, it was too wide to fit down the neck of the 5ml ink bottles I carry.

So – these are only my first few drawings with this nib – I have to say – I really like it! The nib holds a lot of ink and can make broad and juicy strokes – as if you’re working with a watercolor flat – but somehow it’s a scratchy, springy, metallic flat. And, just like a watercolor flat, you can draw with the corners and the front edge, instead of the broad width. You get these weird wedgy cuneiform shapes, as well as some jagged slender-line work.

[If you order a Speedball Steel Brush on Amazon.usa I get a small kickback – thx!]
[Note: I see these are cheaper on Dick Blick]

Occasionally the leaves of the nib will catch on the paper and fling a spray of ink drops. I like this. I’m a huge fan of tools that put you on the edge of control. It’s more fun to draw with them. I get bored if my materials are too predictable. The drawing should be an interaction between you and the media.

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This last one from Place Royale – a scenic little square in the heart of the old town – has some fun effects. I wonder if anyone can guess how I got these effects?

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I know we’ll be back to Quebec city sometime. There’s plenty more to draw. And I’m sure i’ll be playing with this pen some more – I’ll have to keep you updated. It might be interesting to try it with watercolor for instance. I’ll see what kind of fun and games I can get up to next time I have a day off to play with it.

Three Pointed Questions for Reportage Artist Richard Johnson

September 28, 2015

I interviewed reportage artist Richard Johnson back in 2013, talking about his work sketching on location with various military elements in Afghanistan. He has since moved from Toronto’s National Post onto the Washington Post in Washington DC, where he continues to be a fascinating sketcher, taking on the hardest of topics.

Having spent the spring drawing an in-depth reportage of the trial of Tsarnaev Dzhokar (Boston marathon bomber), he has returned home with his sketchbook to address the issue of homelessness in DC.

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This is a social problem that’s clearly familiar to any urban dweller. But one we are conditioned to ignore. There are so many perfectly good reasons to pass by a homeless person with eyes averted. Everything from shared embarrassment to reasonable caution. We don’t know these people. We’re worried about their mental state. Few of us want to engage face to face. As an introvert myself, I hardly ever talk to any strangers – never mind people who are in quiet crisis.

As always, Johnson pushes himself past these reasonable concerns. He has a compulsion to get up close and personal. Giving us his keenly observed portraits, accompanied by the subject’s own words.

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As a location sketcher myself, but not someone who has faced these kinds of raw stories, I’m fascinated with his work. It’s the kind of drawing challenge that many artists think about taking on. So I took a chance to ask him three pointed questions that might help those of us who are thinking about this kind of work. His answers were of course on point, and revealing.

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MTH: Richard, thanks for sharing your reportage on the homeless in DC. I like the fact you talk about how difficult it was to engage with people. That they’re not necessarily willing to be drawn. It’s an interesting topic for a sketcher.You start the project by sketching people at a distance – would it be fair to say you were dodging the issue of getting permission at first, before eventually finding a way into the story?

R.J.: I think what we do as urban sketchers is by its very nature a kind of documentary voyeurism. We draw our own worlds because we want to show them to others, but do it long enough and eventually you end up in some gritty corner drawing graffiti scrawled on some decayed building. You are sketching it not because this is something that you would choose to show others, but because it is something that needs to be shown. That is how I got to the point where I was surreptitiously drawing the homeless.

MTH: Do you have any thoughts on the ethics of drawing without consent? Is it a dicey thing – or do you feel you’re on the moral high ground making these drawings? Do you feel it’s any different ethically for a reporter than for a hobby-sketcher?

R.J.: This is always a thorny question and one that many of us grapple with especially in this changing privacy conscious world. As a visual documentarian though, I consider it my responsibility to capture life in its purest and most natural state. That is why we urban sketchers draw what we see – not what we’d like to see, or what we have staged, or what we took a photo of. The capturing of life while immersed in the same moment as the subjects we draw raises the art we create beyond anything created from a photograph. So in my opinion, if your intentions are pure and your mind is set only on the need to draw what you see, then it makes no difference whether you are drawing buildings or people. You are capturing your world.

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MTH: Have you ever faced questions about using people’s difficult situations to promote yourself? (Bear in mind, I’m on your side!) – but I’m curious about the issues around a reportage artist drawing public attention to their sketches while working with people’s true-life stories.

R.J.: As much as I love our Urban Sketchers group, I believe that there is much more we could all be doing with our skills. We have an organization that stretches all around the planet and an artistic device that affects people deeply. I think that we should all be looking for opportunities to tell the hard stories. I think we are beginning to see this happen. Some of the artwork, of devastation inside Syria, and of refugees across Europe in the last year has been particularly telling in changing public attitudes.

But more to your question, personally, journalistically I never want to be even vaguely perceived as taking from someone in pain in order to promote myself. I am the lens only. There are of course situations where I would not be able to draw without requesting permission first. My work with wounded warriors over the last decade depended on a high degree of trust and acceptance. And sometimes written permission was even necessary in order that there is a clear understanding. But regardless of the paperwork or trust gaining, my own motivation remains the same. I want to tell stories and change minds using pictures and words.

This is a power that we all have IF we choose to use it.

To read Richard’s full story, and see the rest of the drawings, please head over to his Washington Post article Drawing the Invisible. You can also follow his blog at, or follow Richard on twitter.

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USK:MTL : Sketching Atwater Market

September 27, 2015

We had perfect lazy Sunday weather for today’s USK:MTL monthly sketching meetup. I was doing more talking than drawing today so we have a little bit of everything going on in the sketchbook. Thanks to everyone who showed up. It was fun meeting a lot of new people today.


A view of the canal – in an unusual (for me) vertical composition, thanks to a suggestion from my friend Shari. We were sitting side by side. She sketched the view 90 degrees to mine.

Here’s what we were really looking at. I was kind of happy with my redesign of what was there. Less is almost always more in a quick sketch.


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A quick sketcher portrait. I don’t know this person, so if you’re the lady in the red coat who left early, this is you concentrating on your sketch :)


And, after lunch the Phil So Good quartet set up (only three of them for whatever reason?) and we all hung out and sketched them while they played for us.

DVD Review: James Gurney’s Gouache in the Wild

September 23, 2015

GITW Cover.smJames Gurney, plein air painter, art educator, illustrator, and Rube-Goldberg-Easel-Maker has recently released another of his instructional DVDs on field sketching. Gouache in the Wild is a 72 minute art instructional video, available by digital download, or on DVD.

This video is a natural follow-up to his earlier release Watercolor in the Wild. The two make a good companion set. Considering his preferred method of using opaque water-based gouache over a loose and colorful under painting, one can see how everything learned from the previous watercolor program could be used in tandem with what we learn here today.

Gouache in the Wild presents multiple small paintings (six in total) which you watch in jump cuts taking you in compressed time from the initial drawings through key points in the process, onto the finished work. Each small sketch is painted entirely on location, taking us to a variety of subjects – landscape, urban settings, and some unique still-life situations.

We get to see plenty of footage of his careful brushwork in real time – seeing how he advances the image methodically. Like other great painters I have seen, Gurney ‘goes slow to go fast’. He is never rushed, every stroke well considered and placed with skill. Every color mixed once, and placed down without fussing. As he never seems to make a mistake, no time is wasted guessing a color or fixing a brush stroke. It’s really quite remarkable to see. This is a thinking person’s painting!


There is enough time spent showing close-ups of the palette to see his mixing. As well, we get lots of shots of his portable easel and various ‘tricks of the plein air trade’. Always helpful to see an artist’s setup. Plus we get frequent breaks to find out more about art materials. Intercut with the painting progress, Gurney lectures about the history and properties of gouache, the best brushes and paint brands, and the colors he chooses.


The take away here is Gurney’s passion for the potential of this under-utilized medium. He is here to demonstrate how gouache can offer you all the advantages of opaque painting in oils or acrylics, but in a fast drying, clean and portable, water-soluble media that is highly suited to working on location, sketch-booking and the small studies which many painters enjoy on location.

As a ‘mostly purist’ watercolorist I have often wished for the ability to return a lost highlight, or insert some skyholes into foliage. Even if you don’t intend to adopt gouache as a full time medium, there’s a lot of good examples here leading towards a mixed media approach.


Gouache in the Wild is independently produced by James and his wife Jeanette. Purchases go directly to supporting his art practice, his blogging, and future releases of more videos.



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