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Report from the Urban Sketchers Symposium, Chicago 2017

August 16, 2017

We’re recently back from the USK Chicago Symposium, followed by somewhat of a prolonged after party, which we’ll be talking about in due time.

As usual I’m looking over the sketches we brought home and thinking – what have we learned from the workshop?

I think we learned that Direct Watercolor (no drawing – all brushwork) is hard!

But really worth the exercise.

It’s not that I’m going to give up drawing. This is not a religious conversion. “Burn your pencils!” (not).

You’ll see that I go right back to drawing as soon as the symposium is over. BUT – the thing is, if you try it, for even a few days, your painting instincts can take a big jump forward.

You learn first hand how much you don’t have to draw. How much you can really do with a brush.

So when you do return to the safer world of drawing under a watercolor – maybe you’ll break away from slavish coloring-in. Maybe you’ll have gained some of that freshness we love in watercolor.

We began classes each morning with two examples of Broken Silhouettes. One positive, and one negative shape.

Fortunately, there were plenty of sculptural examples right near the workshop meeting place.

If we look back at my outline for class, I think these first two subjects were easy enough to follow.

Combining line and shape together, in a single pass, using just the pointed round brush to either draw a shape – or to draw around a shape – using the background tone and then going back for interior details.

But after that we took a leap of faith, and had people dive into a classic skyline view of Chicago.

Which I think, on reflection, might have been a big ask :)

Looking north we had the Magnificent Mile in the distance, looking south (my favorite) the park surrounding the Field Museum and some glass towers rising above the train yards.

It shouldn’t matter what you are sketching – even if it’s an intimidating view. Everything can be reduced into a set of silhouette shapes.

A row of skyscrapers is no different than the lone statue. Think of it as a row of bricks.

Especially if you decide you don’t care about architectural rendering, and you’re just going to make a lively sketch. You can still feel the presence of the city, even if you reduce those huge buildings with hundreds of windows into flat shapes.

Just keep thinking about the silhouette edge of the horizon, and make sure there are some tiny elements for scale in the foreground.

I asked people at various times to try either the positive shape approach (as above), or the negative shape approach (below) – where the sky is used to cut out white silhouettes of buildings – which we go back into with shadow shapes.

The very best thing about the symposium is the enthusiasm and excitement everyone brings.

Everyone rose to the challenge of this unreasonable assignment!

Students are here to push themselves. To try new concepts with different artist instructors each day.

For an instructor, the symposium experience is different than any other workshop. These are the most passionate sketchers from their various home towns. The ones crazy enough to fly across the country, or even across the ocean, just to spend a long weekend drawing with 400 other people from sunrise to sunset.

So, I honestly want to thank everyone who took my workshop. I always head home from a USK event with a newfound passion for sketching that I pick up from my students. Thanks to all of you, and I hope we’ll get a chance to sketch together again soon!



Portrait Night

August 14, 2017

There’s an ad-hoc portrait sketching night at Montreal’s George Vanier cultural center. (Unfortunately, the session is closed for this summer, but they should be back in the fall? – Just check GVCC’s site).

These guys have a clever system. Each artist takes a turn in the chair, posing for the others. Saves on hiring models, and you get more variety of people.

I think these were 15 min? I remember them feeling like a huge rush. Like I held my breath the entire time to get them done. But then sitting for mine seemed to take an eternity.

Right now I’m just back from the USK workshop in Chicago – probably we’ve been doing a lot of these while sitting around the dinner table!

These are small heads, probably 3.5″ high.. These have been sitting around for a while, so I can’t be sure, but I’d say my home color was Perlyne Maroon, modified with Grey of Grey, Naples Yellow plus various accidental touches.. Then Raw Umber Violet, Quin Gold, and Transparent Red Oxide for dark hair.

Bringing Montreal’s History to Life

August 8, 2017

This year is both Canada’s 150th and Montreal’s 375th anniversary, and as such, I recently had a small part to play in the Pointe-à-Callière Museum’s exhibit on the archaeological excavation of the first Fort Montreal, which was a very small stockade, right where the Pointe museum is today.

I myself have not seen how these drawings got used, but I hope you’ll see a few of them on the panels in the future exhibition.

This was the second set of illustrations I’ve done on Quebec history. A few years ago I contributed to a book covering pre-historic Quebec, up to first contact by Jacques Cartier.

This time, I was tasked to visualize some of the people involved in our first footfall on the island. I did paint some backgrounds for these, but I prefer the characters without.

Here we see our colonial leaders, the soldier Paul de Chomedey – who, for some reason is always called Maisonneuve. Also shown at the top of the post, doing his soliderly duty, shooting people in the face.

That image comes from a well documented story, in which the colonists came out from behind the protection of their walls (and therefore their cannons), but were swiftly driven back. Maisonneuve being the ‘last man standing’, while everyone fled.

Also shown, at Maisonneuve’s side, the colony administrator, (and nurse) Jeanne Mance. As well as their Algonquin allies – led by chief Tessouat the Second, shown here being baptized as a Christian, in return for a musket.

Interestingly, Tessouat the First is said to have had only one eye. The younger Tessouat, *also* had only one eye. Which is suspiciously convenient to me. It sounds like he sacrificed his eye in order appear to be the reincarnation of the chief.

Jean Mance is also an interesting character. She held the purse strings. And she held them very tight for years, gambling if her tiny colony could survive without the further expense of hiring professional soldiers. Eventually she did pay out, saving the remaining colonists, and their Algonquin neighbors.

This seems like a typical administrator’s move. There are never any funds, until suddenly, there are :)

I found it fascinating how well the colonists documented their expedition. We have the names and ages of all the residents of the first fort.

I had more fun imagining the ‘supporting cast’ – such as the 76 year old nobleman Pierre Puiseaux and the 47 year old Jesuit Barthelemy Vimont

Or Tessout’s bride, who’s name, I’m sorry, I can’t recall.

Last time, I was not able to sneak in a girl among the native hunters. But I still like to think the Iroquois would be equal opportunity raiders.

Way in the back – you’ll see this lady, about to take a pot-shot at Paul de C.

This project was a great deal of fun. I’ve always wanted to do a comic book – and even though these were only a few still images, I did enjoy packing them full of story telling!

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!