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Broken Silhouettes in the Park

July 19, 2017

I was out the other day, practicing for our watercolor-and-brush drawing exercise in Chicago: the Broken Silhouette.

This little cafe-kiosk is a good example of using a leafy background to draw the roof line, with negative space.

The sketch isn’t entirely a positive or a negative shape – it’s both at the same time – multiple edges, interlocked.

I think of these shapes as silhouettes – even if they’re not actually completely enclosed shapes. (Thus the ‘broken’ part).

They’re more a massing up of small strokes, intended to fuse visually into a single shape.

I think you can see how I’m working to (partially) fill the silhouette of the object, but leaving openings for white paper to represent the fall of light.

All this needs is a background tone to catch that open edge, and it would be more finished.

I worked top down with the light colors, then top down again with the darks. Going fast enough that the strokes will fuse as I go, but slow enough so that my second touches go down on dry-ish paper.

If I did a straightforward flat silhouette – literally filling the object – rather than making the ‘broken shape’ –  I wouldn’t get those bright highlights. Like on the upper surface of the triangular pediment.  But, on the other hand, the object would look more solid. So it’s a trade off. That is what I ended up doing in Manchester – all the rain and dark bricks, needed a deep tone first.

In the rooftops here, I washed the flat shape first with gold to give it a sun-downing look. then came back with the darks. So there’s no reserved white in the dome, but that works because it’s edging towards being back-lit about now.

This one was from a more overcast day – so here the silhouette is a bit more solidly filled.

If it’s overcast, color or humid out, you might have to give more time to dry. So, you’ll need to decide before you begin, is it sunny and dry enough for brushwork to dry as we go? Or are you’re going to build it all in one go with reserved lights and edges? Or if you’re going to need 15-20 minutes to do the drawing in two distinct passes.

And once again, here’s the link to the longer handout.

We’re heading off very soon, so I think this might be the last practice run for this demo. Looking forward to seeing some of you there!


What’s in my bag, Chicago 2017 Edition

July 17, 2017

Many urban sketchers out there are packing their gear for Chicago as we speak.

It seems like a tradition to post a “what’s in my bag” article.

Lately I’ve been carrying around a beach bag style shoulder bag. Which has been nice, as it’s super simple to find things.

But somehow, my lifestyle lately has been going downhill. I’m getting old, fat and tired! Things have been a little crazy, and fitness went off the list for a while. Big plans for a re-boot very soon. Upshot is, I’ve been getting a sore shoulder from a one-armed bag. (Probably more from my digital art tablet at home, not my limited time out sketching). But I figured I’d switch to a backpack for a while.

In the real world, people are carrying around larger laptops and tablets these days – so the bag makers have started coming out with these square backpacks.

I saw this one and I thought: perfect for drawing boards!

This is my ‘fully loaded’ MEC Outpost Daypack.

I don’t know the final weight here, but it’s mostly air inside – (coroplast groves, etc) – so under 2lb’s for sure.

It’s the exact size for 12×16″ drawing boards, which is the minimum for 11×15″ quarter sheets of watercolor, given some room to tape them down.

I’ve got 10 panels in here, and all my various other gear, including the most comfortable folding chair I’ve ever tried.

This is the Helinox Chair One.

I was sketching with Jane Blundell and it got the thumbs up from her. I agree it’s a great option. It’s a little slow to unfold and setup, but it’s ‘hella comfortable. Like a la-z-boy for sketchers.

I’ve started carrying it around like a weird umbrella once I’ve bothered to sling it together. A bit odd looking yes – but it’s essentially weightless. So that’s an option for someone who re-locates many times in a sketching session.

The other reason I went for this bag is the little zipper compartment on top. This is probably for your phone or passport or whatever (as it’s theoretically a back-facing security zipper), but it’s perfect for my paint box – as it keeps it horizontal, in it’s own compartment, resting securely on top of the sandwich of drawing boards. This way, no matter how fresh and juicy the paints, they won’t leak between the pans.

Usually I have the paint box on the very bottom, being held horizontal by all my gear – but that means you can’t get it out without dumping the stack, which is less than ideal.

The remainder of the main compartment holds a minimal painting kit. Small waters, Atomizer, Binder clips, Tissues, Three sizes of travel rounds (2 large Escoda, and 1 medium Rosemary pointed rounds, then a Rosemary quill, for foliage and drybrushing). Pencil and Eraser, which I hope not to need for my workshops in Chi Town. And even a water bottle for me, plus probably a small bag of snacks on the day. (Dried Mango!)

So, I’ll report back after I get a few more days of testing this setup – but one way or another, this is what I’m taking on the road this summer.

Feel free to post if you’ve got your own ‘Everyday Carry’ photos up online.


Oh and, here’s some previous years when I carried a tripod easel, brought an ultra-small pen and ink kit, and a bag that’s good for larger panels.


Get ready for USK: Chicago with #OneWeek100PeopleSymposium!

July 14, 2017

We’re getting close to the USK Symposium in Chicago. That means many of us will be sketching more sketchers than we’ve ever sketched before!

Past USK President Elizabeth Alley suggested we re-boot this spring’s one week 100 people speed sketching  project as a warm-up for all the drawing we’ll be doing together in Chicago.

A symposium is the perfect place for this. We have all these people, who honestly don’t mind if we draw them :) Every workshop, lunch break, and every after-party will become a continuous marathon. If you want to get in some practice – all you have to do is sketch 100 people in one week, the week before :)

Have a look back at some of last year’s posts for inspiration, and you’ll see it’s absolutely a great goal for any sketcher, at any skill level.

We’re going to run a round of sketches from July 17 to 21, and this time use the hashtag #OneWeek100PeopleSymposium.

I think if you’re still posting your 100 people during the symposium that’s cool – but we don’t want to take away from USK’s own tag:  so don’t forget to use both.

Also, here’s the graphics in blue, (Square / Strip)  if you want save them locally and use them to make a progress bar:)

Have fun! ~m





Guest Artists in Montreal: Come Sketch with Liz Steel and Anne-Laure Jacquart: Saturday August 5, Place Jacques Cartier

July 13, 2017

On the way back from the Urban Sketchers conference in Chicago, sketchers Liz Steel of Australia (author of 5 Minute Sketching: Architecture) and Anne-Laure Jacquart of France (author of 52 Défis Créatifs pour le Photographe and others), will be visiting Montreal.

We’re hosting an informal public drawing day on Saturday August 5th at 10:30am, meeting at Place Jacques Cartier.

We’ll draw in the square til 12:30pm, then meet again after lunch at 2:00pm somewhere on the rue Quai de l’Horlage.

We’re easy to find – just look for the people with sketchbooks and drawing boards!

There won’t be any formal instruction, just drawing together.

But you’re welcome to come draw with us, ask questions, and show your own sketchbooks.

Hope to see you on the 5th!


A Rose by any other Name

July 12, 2017

I’ve always wanted to be able to paint those lush flower paintings that you see in the museum. Big fluffy roses and peonies. Those ones that are a kind of Vanitas – capturing the fleeting perfection of a bloom.

After the NYBG outing, I felt I hadn’t really gotten to the meat of painting a flower (as it were). So I’ve been trying it out some more in the studio.

I feel like I need to make the paint handling instinctual, so I can work towards a more serious effort at a real vanitas sometime in the future.

This is a small sketch, on a leftover scrap of paper, about 11×12″. My home color is Quinacridone Rose, tinted with a variety of things.

Just like last time (my roses from life), I started with the bright clean color of the blossom, then came back around with dark foliage.

I’m looking to make all the soft edges inside the bloom in a big rush of broken brush marks – so they fuse wet-shape to wet-shape into the ‘ball’ of the rose.

My mantra: “Draw with the Edges, Paint with the Insides”.

I can come back after they dry with the fewest possible dark strokes on top – to imply separation between petals.

Not perfect – but I’m enjoying the feeling. As I’m doing them, I’m remembering any success I had out in the field came from working quickly, without much concern for how it turns out.

Let the petals fall where they may.

That seemed to go fairly well – so I scaled it up to a full sheet (22×30″, 200lb fabriano artistico). This time my home colors are Pyrrol Orange and Naples Yellow, tinted with a variety of things.

Here’s a progress shot showing the first pass of wet-on-dry blooms (on the left), and the second pass of the dark background marching across the page.

Remember. I start with the paper bone dry. But this time, I pulled my first touches further, dragging color out with clear water, making the proto-blooms softer and  brighter. Trying to leave myself more options for re-building petal shapes on top, and for cutting into the flower with the background.

I’m not making an attempt at a botanical study here. Much as I admire that kind of faithful accuracy in other people’s work – today I just want exuberant color, and a lot of ‘random’ watery effects (Not random of course; by now I know what I’m going to get).

I’ve got a few photographs on hand, but I’m really just looking at them for color suggestions. The shapes of my blooms are complete inventions. And I’m not making any attempt at painting actual leaves or branches into the background.

I’m quite pleased with the final effect. Considering it’s my, what, fourth or fifth try with a floral subject?

I find this one to be graphic and painterly at the same time. It’s one step toward abstraction.

I think a floral painting allows me to do this – I don’t feel compelled to describe something ‘correctly’ – like I might do with an urban sketch of a specific place. Much like painting rocks and water, or trees, or any natural subject – there’s less need to get it specifically right, and more opportunity to learn the language of the brushwork.

I think the next step is more work from life. To get more of a feeling of the full, fluffy roundness of a bloom.

Looking forward to more experiments – but it’ll have to be later in the year, as I’m about to do a serious dive back into street-sketching, in preparation for the Urban Sketchers symposium in Chicago.



USK Chicago Workshop: PDF and Video: The Broken Silhouette

July 6, 2017

I’ve just gotten together a little demo for my workshop at the 2017 USK Symposium in Chicago.

The goal for this workshop is Direct Sketching – that is, drawing with brush and watercolor, directly to the page, without any under drawing.

I get asked all the time how I get such fresh, spontaneous sketches. And I have to say, avoiding perfectionism is a constant challenge.

I think it’s natural to worry how things turn out.

Are they going to be any good? But of course, we decided for ourselves what good is.

To me, a drawing needs to be full of energy, and show the handwriting of the artist. Without that feeling, what’s the point? If we eradicate all the mistakes, we might as well take a photo. Besides I don’t feel there are any mistakes – only the subconscious editing the scene. A ‘talented’ artist is just good at ignoring what they find boring :)

And besides – the more I try to make a great painting, the worse they turn out. But when I’m just painting for fun – I get things that frankly seem impossible, looking back at them. How did I ever paint that? And in the rain no less?

At the end of the day, the best teacher is personal experience. Of course, we can get you off on the right foot – (like, get you the right tools). But ultimately, you need to experience it for yourself.

So, to that end, I have have a three simple exercises planned for Chicago. I hope we can paint very quickly, and make a LOT of small sketches. To maximize our chances to learn from each other.


First up, is this project – simply sketching small drawings of isolated objects – working with the brush, right onto dry white paper. I hope we can do five of these in quick succession, in 30 minutes. (The repeat and do a crit).

After that, we’ll flip our way of interpreting, and sketch negative space versions of objects – by painting the background around the subject, then filling in the shadow shapes.

This can be a very satisfying way to paint. The subjects just pop off the page! It feels great when one of these turns out. Though I admit, Direct Painting is a high-risk activity. I’m happy if I get one in three. So we’ll try to do three rapid drawings in a half hour.

I want people to feel for themselves what it’s like to draw with wet paint. If you go too slowly you won’t experience the natural blending of wet-into-wet – combined with the sharp-edged drawing of wet-on-dry.

And, if you never push yourself for speed – you’ll never be able to make larger paintings on location. Time is you’re biggest challenge when working in the field.

We’ll take this further and make some simplified street views – by making silhouettes of a city block, or down-the-street view. And then hopefully at the end we’ll have time for a big masterpiece. Maybe we’ll try out painting a section of the Chicago skyline in watercolor silhouettes.

Of course it’s much easier to SHOW than TELL –  so here’s a video demonstration.

Also, a downloadable PDF of notes about the workshop.

If you can’t make it to Chicago, feel free to print copies and share the exercise with your sketching group at home. Or anybody with art classes, or local workshops, – this is OK to freely distribute, just don’t charge for it, and send some credit back my way :)

Have fun! and/or See you in Chicago!





Reminder: Montreal Monument Call for Entries from July 17 to 28th!

July 3, 2017

The great folks at Urban Sketchers Montreal have been working hard, preparing for an exhibition of YOUR drawings!

In celebration of Montreal’s 375th, and in partnership with Heritage Montreal, 50 selected works of art, and various original sketchbooks will be on display in the Hall of Honor at Montreal city hall, in the months of August and September.

There’s no fee for entry, and you may submit either individual sketches mounted on foamcore, or, bring in your entire sketchbook, to be displayed open to your favorite page.

You don’t even have to be a resident of Montreal, just that you were actually here, and did the drawing on location.

Click on over to the USK:MTL website to find out how to submit your sketches of Montreal: