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Out and Aboot with the Expeditionary Art Pocket Palette

December 5, 2016


The other day was Fourth Sunday, our regular get-together with USK:MTL. I went out for a second round with Maria Coryell-Martin’s Pocket Palette. (Which she graciously sent to me to try out). (Here’s the full review if you missed it).

pcoketpalette_open-800x672USK sketch-outs are a social affair. You can spend more time chatting than drawing. We had a lot of new visitors because of our article in la Press. In fact, I met the person who owns the house I sketched for the piece. That was kind of fun :)

The social aspect makes for better drawings sometimes. I was more slow-and-steady than my previous night-shoot. You get a more delicate sketch by taking your time. I wasn’t keeping track but lets say these were around 20-30 min each. They’re small, so that’s a fair while for a tiny drawing.

These are similar to the 5×7″ish miniature watercolors I did last month. But, unlike last time, they’re drawn directly with the brush (instead of over a pencil sketch). A lot of tiny point work with the #7 round sable.

This is my fall colors limited palette: Neutral Tint, Raw Umber Violet, Quinn Gold Deep, Buff Titanium and Grey of Grey. I’ve used the tiniest touch of MG Turquoise in the windows.

And – just a reminder about using Maria’s discount code EXPLORE2016 sometime before the end of December if you want to pick up and Expeditionary Art Palette of your own.


Expeditionary Art: Late Night Adventures in Montreal

December 1, 2016

pcoketpalette_open-800x672Winter is coming in Montreal. That (normally) means the end of painting outdoors for awhile. But – it so happens Maria Coryell-Martin at has sent me one of her Pocket Palettes to review.

Maria is known for using her ultra-light gear on expeditions to the south pole, where the size and weight of gear in your pack are a matter of life and death. (Just ask the Franklin Expedition).

So I figured, if the pocket palette works for her, it should work on an arctic expedition of my own. I’m heading to downtown Montreal on a November night. Forecast says -3 Celsius! I want to try this thing out in the worst conditions possible. Dark, cold and tired – sketching doesn’t get more fun than that :)

About the Palette:

It’s a cute little gadget. Essentially a repurposed business card holder and three sizes of ultra-slim tin pans that you can re-arrange on the sheet magnet inside the case.

My take on the various sized trays is this: teeny small rectangles for pigments, squares and big rectangles for mixing areas. I suppose you could use the squares for pigment if there’s one you know you’ll use frequently. My initial worry with these slim pans is they might not hold enough paint for me. But we will see what we see.


I already use a pretty small paint box. It’s not as if my W&N kit could be called chunky. Is this a mid life crisis where we abandon old partners for a younger slimmer version?


I’m always shy about messing with my paint box. It’s time consuming to take apart, messy, and if I don’t like the new pigment, then I have to wash out the half pan and refill the color I *already* wasted! Petty I know. So I suppose there’s an advantage to the small pans. Not a big deal to wash one out.


So I’m heading out on a first trial run.

I’m taking along the tiny atomizer Maria sent, as well as some 30ml/1 ounce water bottles and my trusty old DaVinci travel sables – which I haven’t used in a while – not since I started carrying brushes in a brush case. That little black wallet is not included in the Pocket Palette kit – she has a much nicer case that I haven’t picked up yet.

This is a test of a micro kit! Which means I’m also trying out a little 3.5 x 5.5 Stillman and Birn Beta, (which, by way of disclosure, was also sent to me gratis. More on the sketchbook later when I get part way through it).


I’ve got a six color setup of fall colors, which I think will work for this night shoot: Neutral Tint, Raw Umber Violet, Turquoise, Quin Gold Deep, Buff Titanium and Grey of Grey. (Yes, this is just a subset of my everyday carry. I’ll try some weirder color choices next time :)

Wish me luck :) That is awfully tiny. I’m not totally sure it’s going to work.


So the kit works great! And the mixing area on the lid works fine. No leaking at the hinge at all.

I’ve got the 30ml Nalgene bottle stuck to a binder clip, with the assistance of a magnet taped to the bottom of the bottle.

Setup feels good. It’s ultra light, easy enough to hold in one hand. And I’m not finding painting with bulky gloves a big deal. Probably because I’m not switching brushes. I can do this whole thing with the #6 Pointed Round, DaVinci Travel Sable. With everything clamped down, I haven’t had to adjust anything, or even go into my bag once.


Round Two! Painting the monuments in Place Du Canada. It’s about zero Celsius right now, so no worries with freezing paint water. But it’s cold enough that I’m keeping this to a 15 min sketch. Walking to a coffee shop to dry paint takes longer than the painting itself.

I’m getting some weird looks from people – street painting is strange enough, never mind late at night. I overhear someone saying “…only in Montreal”. If only they knew! This is happening all over the world even as we speak :)


So, next time people say, “I wish I could paint loose like you” – here’s the answer. Go out at midnight in the winter and you’ll find it quite easy actually :)


Those were three very small sketches, and even though I was painting wet and juicy, you can see I’ve used between ‘almost none’ to 1/2 of a tray.

I would say – if you’re painting at a size this kit is intended for (under 9×12″?) – these paint trays are plenty large enough. I was worried for no reason.


Ultimately, mixing on the lid worked better than expected, so I removed two of the square trays, giving me four more colors. If it were spring, I could see cutting one more mixing tray to put some greens back on the menu – which would basically make it my full palette again.

Here (swatches above) is what I have in it right now. I’ll see how that goes at Urban Sketchers Montreal this fourth Sunday. And then – really – I do want to try some weirder color combinations. (Though, I keep saying that, then sticking to what I’m used to. I hope this gadget will unlock more experimentation).

In the mean time – the Expeditionary Art Pocket Palette gets five stars from me! Right now, for the holiday season, Maria is offering Citizen Sketcher readers a discount code. Head over to her store and use EXPLORE2016 sometime before the end of December.


Being Judge and Jury: Selecting Artwork for the South Carolina Watermedia Society’s 39th Annual Exhibition

November 28, 2016

I was just recently down in South Carolina visiting the SCWS to teach a workshop, but also, to jury their 2016 members show.

This was the first time I’ve done this – being the sole juror responsible for selecting awards winners. I was flattered to be asked – but talk about pressure!


Judging another artist’s work is a delicate topic. I wouldn’t want to be casual about any decisions. That’s not respectful of the artists’ time and commitment.

But, I do think it’s possible to be objective about it. For me, that starts with recognizing there isn’t one single recipe for a successful piece. It’s important not to be choosing what appeals to you personally. (Within reason. Impossible entirely). But which pieces are best at fulfilling their own reason for being.

You have to judge abstraction against abstraction for instance. If you place non-objective work beside realism – inevitably each of us will have a personal bias in one direction or the other.

So I try to find the best within each category. Compare Academic Realism, Landscape, Floral – each against their brothers and sisters.

[Caroline Swanson – Bud Vase with Roses]

I don’t believe there’s a linear progression from beginner to professional, or from sketch to realism. Or even from smaller works to large scale. It’s easy to say, bigger is better. Or that hard earned technical virtuosity should be rewarded.

And, at the same time, a work of art should have a story to tell, and real emotion compressed within the brush strokes. That’s the magic of great art. It makes you feel something. Even something as simple as a smile.

[Donna Lynn Gore – The Light Fantastic]

Isn’t the whole thing incredible? You’re looking at some stains on a piece of paper, and somehow this inanimate object is playing with you? Well – it’s really the artist that’s pulling the strings by remote control.

[Ashley Arakas – Disregarded Love]

Some work stands out simply for technical achievement alone. But when comparing works displaying a high degree of hand-skills – they start to look all the same. Perfectionism tends to mean uniformity. The real world after all, simply looks like it looks. (Though yes, it is always amazing when someone can capture it with authority).

[Hartmut Fege – Sandy Island Fisherman]

At the same time, the strongest spontaneous field sketches have a directness and simplicity – it’s pure truth – that stands side by side with the most polished studio work.

Somehow the artist is transporting you to that time and place. You’re seeing it through their eyes. It’s the original kind of virtual reality.

[Lizabeth Thompson – Beidler’s Four Hole Swamp]

It’s when you get down to the final choices – who will be the top five? Who is the best of show? That’s when you feel the pressure.

At this point you can’t rely on things like complexity of color, or handling of brushstrokes. At this point, all the work is great work. Now you really have to give a personal opinion.

Do you choose something that is a unique statement? Something that tells a story in a way no other artist can tell it?

Sometimes I think artwork has to have an element of strangeness to stick with you. Something unpredictable that cuts thorough the every day flood of images we all experience.

[Lynda English – Hands of a Fisherman]

But this time, after much deliberation, I cast my deciding vote for Hands of a Fisherman by Lynda English.

I felt this one, among everything on hand that day, best encapsulated the story of the Carolinas.

Formally, I enjoy the abstract composition of radiating diagonals. But as a narrative, I admire the choice of telling the story while leaving out the obvious portrait.

This makes the piece timeless, and universal. Not so much about any one person, but about all the people and history of the region, and a coastal way of life that’s so different from other parts of the world.


You can see all thirty of the pieces from the show, over here on the SCWS website.

Congratulations to everyone who made it into the show, and thanks to the team in Myrtle Beach for making this a great experience. As a watercolorist, I came away inspired by wide range of approaches I saw that day. The SCWS 2016 show absolutely demonstrates the unlimited potential of water media!



USK Instructor Interviews up on YouTube

November 24, 2016

This just in: my Urban Sketchers ‘Meet the Instructor” video just went up :)

It’s kind of fun to browse all these miniature interviews with your favorite Urban Sketchers!


Spend a little time getting to know us, and see what we might be teaching next year at the 2017 International Symposium in Chicago. (You know, assuming we get in! Everyone is encouraged to send in their own proposal, here’s the call for entry).

I hope some of you come and teach. If I make it in, 2017 will be my seventh year. It would be fantastic to see some new faces on this page.

Suddenly, Compositions are Easy. Weird.

November 22, 2016


Recent life drawing session at Syn Studio. Sketching on half-sheet (15×22″) with a pointed round and limited color.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned, in the past, I used to make collages by taking a stack of individual drawings and designing the page in photoshop.  (Here’s a little how-to on that process). Weirdly, in an example of the way the brain works, I’ve suddenly become able to simply sketch a collage right onto the page – and basically be satisfied with the ‘un-planned’ page design. Kind of neat how some skills just unlock by accident.

Those above were the long poses (10/20’s) here, below, are the fast ones. And one last one that didn’t fit on either page:



Book Review: The Capillas of San Miguel de Allende

November 17, 2016

the-capillas-of-san-miguel-de-allende_l-topinka-l-whynman-1Every so often an inspiring project is brought to my attention. The Capillas of San Miguel de Allende: A Legacy of Faith by Lorie Topinka and Linda Whynman is exactly the kind of sketching narrative that I love to hear about.

Their book is an excellent resource for anyone inspired to try an off-the-beaten-path sketching adventure near San Miguel, Mexico.

I was pleased to get a copy from Lorie, and am excited to give everyone a peek inside.

Some time ago, these two painters began a personal project to visit and paint as many of the local Capillas as possible. They have taken their ‘treasure hunt’ for these historic brick and plaster chapels and expanded it into an informative guide for other travelling sketchers.

I have to admire their unflagging motivation to explore the area around San Miguel. It’s a kind of self-appointed artistic obsession that I always enjoy on my own. It’s great to see what other artists latch onto. This kind of painting series is such a great way to learn first hand about a region and its rich cultural heritage.

I feel like the current growth of field sketching as a past-time in North America and beyond is creating a growing interest in this sort of project. Half art book, and half guide book. I hope to see more of these ‘passion projects’ over the next few years.


The authors showcase their own favorite sketches, collected over months of travelling back roads. At the same time, they give us some historical background and little bit of local color for each of the individual monuments, and most importantly – there are maps! So that other sketchers, history buffs, and visitors to San Miguel can follow in their footsteps and experience these fascinating locations.

Many of the sites look to be half way between restored, and on their way to ruin. Some of these will be brought back into use by the community, but I’m sure over time, others of them will vanish. Making this guide is an interesting document of a time and place that may one day be lost.


The book is 95 pages, with dozens of illustrations and photographs. Chapters are divided, like most tour guides, into a one day highlights tour, and shorter trips to specific destinations. As well, it has a most intriguing bonus chapter on Hidden Capillas. Places that are not marked on any map, or visible from roads.

The authors offer a few clues to finding these spots, but I think, for these hidden gems, would-be artist/adventurers would need a comfort level with being lost, a good knowledge of Spanish, and willingness to talk to the locals about gaining access. Perhaps there is a future in the San Miguel sketchers offering tours? Who knows!


You can order the book from Amazon via their Create Space publishing program. (Please note: these are my affiliate links, part of Amazon’s referral rewards program. Any orders you make help support my blogging :)

As well, you can find our more about the authors, and the region, at their website:

Also, if you were serious about a trip to the area, you might follow Urban Sketchers San Miguel de Allende on Facebook.




Urban Sketchers Montreal in La Presse

November 12, 2016


If you download today’s issue of La Presse (Sat Nov. 12) available for free on the Apple App Store, you’ll find a terrific feature in the Voyage section all about Urban Sketchers Montreal!

I believe issues of the paper stay in the app for a week, so you’ll have to check it out soon to read the article. (French language).



The app allows for some neat interactivity, including a pop-up drawing showing before and after versions of one of my sketches and the ‘real world’  – as well as a fun section on supplies, where you can click on various tools and see explanations.



The article expands on the world-wide urban sketching phenomena, featuring a gallery of some of the top sketching cities in the world. (Seattle, Singapore, New York, Berlin, Hong Kong and Paris). Have a look if you know anyone in those towns – they might have a sketch in our paper!