Lines, Elipses, Perspective, Cross Contours, Bugs and Animals, Oh My!

One of the most important goals in my 600-page Project Megasketch was to develop line quality, and move away from chicken-scratchy type sketches that destroy the flow of beautiful lines and graceful forms. It's difficult to place a line exactly where we want it as it curves around a form, or moves straight across the page.  We compensate by trying again, and again, and again. What we end up with is a hatchet-job of a sketch, created with lots of small lines in an attempt to correct what we didn't do right in the first place. Even if one of those many lines is correct, the sum of the parts is not pleasing.

I searched online to find a process that would lead to an improvement in the quality of my line work, and came upon Draw A Box.  I think it's one of the best free resources for drawing on the internet. Don't miss the opportunity to take advantage of it! If you've decided to take on Project Megasketch, I'd highly recommend that you make it part of your Megasketch journey.

You may get tired of drawing lines and ellipses after several days of it, but the eventual payoff is huge. Don't skip over it. I stopped counting the pages toward Project Megasketch that I spent on the lines and ellipses because there were so many of them. I found them invaluable as warm ups. A couple of months later, I pulled out some vases, pots, pitchers and bottles to sketch. I wanted to see if it helped as much as I hoped. I found that I could draw them directly with ink in just a couple of minutes, and even if they weren't perfect, the improvement in my ellipses when applied to drawings was dramatic.

The Draw A Box lessons lead you to understand first hand the role that ellipses and lines play in conveying roundness and form with cross contours.  Below is a group of amoeba-like shapes on a page. Variations in the cross contours give different three dimensional forms to those shapes. This can be applied to everything from animals and tree branches, to abstract objects in developing 3D drawing skills.

The cross contour lines are akin to blowing up a balloon, or sculpting a piece of clay. As a painter who mainly used value to build form, it wasn't often that I got to experience the role that line alone can play. It made me realize how much brushwork and stroke direction could help shape an object's form.

But Draw A Box lessons don't stop there. They also go extensively into one, two and three point perspective. Although I knew the rules of perspective, I hadn't spent weeks and months actually doing it every single day. Practice makes such a huge difference in developing skill. It's like the difference between knowing how to read music, and actually being able to play the piece. Practice, practice, practice. You'll do a lot of it in those online exercises.

The lessons have you do both measured perspective using a ruler, and eyeballing the perspective like you'd often have to do out in the field, then checking your work with a ruler and making corrections. For the page below, I did the exercises in two point perspective with a green pen, eyeballing the angles, then went back with a red pen and a ruler to self-check and correct where needed.

So, are we done yet? No! You'll also work on form intersections, and then draw several pages of plants and flowers. Here's one of mine:

Then you go to the lessons for insects and other animals.

These are just a fraction of the drawings I did in Project Megasketch that were from the Draw A Box lessons. (I used other resources too, which I'm happy to share.) I wanted to show a number of them to convey the breadth of what's covered in the lessons on that website. You'll have some frustrating days, but if you go through all the lessons and trust the process, you will be well rewarded for your efforts in terms of improved skills and concepts.

If you missed the post that gave an overview of Project Megasketch and what it involves, here is a link to that post.


Project Megasketch -- A Perfect Solution for Your Winter Blues

If you're an artist who doesn't like winter, maybe this post is for you! I used to hate winter. If you live in a cold climate and you're a plein air painter, you probably know what I'm talking about.  One solution for the Winter Blues is to give yourself a special winter art project to break free from your own mold.

Last winter, I embarked upon a drawing/painting/sketching challenge to see objects in a different way, and learn to capture them faster. My hope was that when I ventured out again in the spring to paint, the drawing/blocking in stage would be quicker and more accurate. I wanted to tackle subjects that I found difficult, or required a lot of maintenance and practice, such as perspective, drawing straight lines and round elipses, and being able to sketch a portrait likeness in just a few minutes. I wanted to improve on capturing the elegance and directions of tree branches, the graceful movements of animals, the bustling activity of people walking, and copy some works of the masters to explore their methods. I experimented with mixed media, and broke out all those fun art supplies that I rarely have time to use, or that have been sitting on the shelf untested.

I dubbed this venture Project Megasketch, and began it last November. I finished in April. Maybe it can help you get through the Winter Blues this year, while venturing into new art territory. For those who want to give it a try yourselves, or just follow my project along for ideas, stay tuned. Yours may have different subject matter and goals, but you can create a project that will benefit your art with the development of skills and exploration of techniques by following the process. I'll post regular prompts and examples from my project to help get you started and inspire you in the weeks and months to come. There aren't many rules to follow.

Project Megasketch Rules:

  1. Complete 600 pages, minimum size 9x12"-11x15", in any media. (Or set a different number of pages and size if that's too overwhelming. Make the challenge your own.)
  2. Fill each page. No cheating with half-empty pages!
  3. Work for sale or publication doesn't count. (More about this below.)
  4. Set dates to start and finish. It's okay to adjust that later if you have to. Life happens!
  5. Challenge yourself, but have some fun too.
  6. Trust the process.

Having read this far, if you're still interested, get a few sketchbooks the same size, or one enormous sketchbook, or cut paper to size if you like having the option of working on different types of paper and loose sheets. If you're feeling motivated, then start right now with what you've got. There's no time like the present! Leave a few blank pages in the beginning for some information and lists that we'll get to later.

I mostly used this sketchbook, which is 11x13", but also cut some other paper to size to have options. The huge sketchbook I used  is 600 pages and weighs about eight pounds. It's awkward to work in due to the thick spine, and impossible to travel with, but I liked the paper. After the first 120 pages, I ended up removing all the signatures of paper by taking the book apart, and worked on a drawing board on both sides of the loose, folded sheets from the signatures. This provided a lightweight opportunity for travel purposes too. I found it much better than working in a book, and just numbered the pages as I went.

This project is purely educational/inspirational. Nothing is to be sold nor published, and you don't have to show/post your work from the project. This is important to free you up to experiment and work on problem areas, without feeling like you need to produce something that somebody else will like, appreciate, buy, or even see. It also frees you up to use reference images that are under copyright, since you are doing so only for educational purposes. You're going to need a LOT of reference material at your fingertips to make it through this project.

Fill a few pages with sketches and time them to figure out how long this project will take you. Allow for ample time. It might take longer than you think. How many days per week can you sketch? (I calculated for five days a week, but ended up having to catch up on weekends because I miscalculated how long each page would take me!) You should be able to calculate your finish date for the 600 pages from that information. Include extra weeks for vacations, holidays, and days off. It doesn't matter how long it takes; stay on the train and you will reach your destination. Trust the process!

Still feeling inspired? Leave a few blank pages at the beginning of a sketchbook and get started! We'll get to those blank pages shortly; you'll want them for some lists. The first few pages are the hardest, so initially leaving those blank is a good idea anyway.

In posts to come, I'll address things I found most beneficial, what I struggled with the most, plus tips, tricks, examples and resources that can help get you to the finish line. If you've got any questions, or there is anything you're struggling with during your project, post it to the comments. If there's something you think might be helpful to others, post that too! This was by far the best art project I ever did, and I hope it will inspire others as the winter weeks tick by.


What happens when you take a year off social media and blog posting?

Well for one thing, you end up with a heck of a lot more time. I logged about a thousand pages of sketches and paintings during the year, experimented with a whole host of media and subjects that I can't wait to tell you all about, spent more time socializing and painting with friends, took on a bunch of artistic challenges, played more music, and the list goes on. But I also missed the online associations. I didn't get Facebook notifications when it was somebody's birthday, and missed hearing about important events in my friends' lives. Thanks to all of my real life artist friends who I see on a regular basis, I never felt like I was in an artistic vacuum, but I didn't get to see all the works that used to travel by on my news feed on social media. 

I also removed my work from the public eye for a year. I retrieved my paintings from all my galleries, did not enter any shows, and posted none of my 1,000 new sketches and paintings. Overall, I have to say that the experience was very freeing! Since nobody would see my work, I wasn't concerned with whether or not it was marketable, or if anybody would show up for show openings. I was free to explore subjects that challenged me, work on drawing, experiment with line work, study anatomy and perspective, copy paintings of the masters, practice constructive drawing techniques, play with abstraction and mixed media, and use whatever I wanted for reference without worrying about copyright restrictions. As a very self-motivated individual, I ended up painting and sketching more than ever, with the time I saved from my self-imposed removal from online interactions.

Now that the year is up, I'm ready to see where this online reincarnation takes me, and how/if it affects the way I've been working for the past year. The sketch above was done in an old, large format music book. It's a watercolor from Muscoot Farm, where my favorite vantage points always end up being smack in the middle of the farm road! The music writing on this page seems to work out well with the composition of the sketch. I got excited about doing the whole book this way, but some other sketches didn't fare as well. After fighting with those, I found it generally better to knock back the music notation a level or two with a thin application of gesso, although that posed some other problems! As the days go by, I'll take you along on my recent art journey. Perhaps you'll get some ideas for your own sketching process too.


Three Day Sketching Retreat

Last week, I had an opportunity to spend a few days at a sketching retreat at the Holy Cross Monastery along the Hudson River. I'd long admired the monastery when painting across the river at the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde park. When my friend Melissa Fischer organized a sketching retreat there, I jumped at the chance to go and explore the grounds, and immerse myself in my sketchbook. I had just hung a big solo show, which had taken me away from sketching for awhile. It felt great to get out there in the chilly fall air, amidst some beautiful colors and scenes. 

I made this sketchbook specifically for the retreat. It's made out of a single full sheet of watercolor paper, cut into thirds and then folded. I figured it would give me just the right number of pages to fill in a few days. I had just one page left in it when I returned, so it worked out perfectly! This is Fabriano Artistico Cold Press 140 lb paper. Most of the sketches are watercolor. There is one monochrome gouache sketch across a three-page spread, and a pencil sketch of an old oak tree that became a sort of Rite of Passage for all the sketchers there! 


Gouache, across a two page spread in a gray-toned sketchbook.

My friend Mary came over one day to sketch. We sat on the little dock in my back yard and I did this gouache painting of the brook. I added the quote later. I've put quotes into all the sketches in this book, but sometimes it takes awhile to find the right quote for a particular scene! Below is an image of my scene with the sketch and my setup.


Last of the Rose of Sharon

You know the summer season is winding down when your very last Rose of Sharon bush has nearly finished blooming. I'm trying to make the most of the few blossoms that are left. This is across a two page spread in a Stillman & Birn Alpha Softcover sketchbook.


Wow, it's been nearly four years since I've posted my sketches! I've been doing a lot of them in the past couple of years, so perhaps it's time for me to resume my sketches blog and ruminating about art materials.

For those in the Hudson Valley area, I have a solo show opening coming up, and will bring a few of my sketchbooks to the opening reception for people who want to be able to look through them in person. The opening is Sunday, September 30 from 3-5pm, at the Hendrick Hudson Library, 185 Kings Ferry Road, Montrose NY. If you cannot make it to the opening, you can see the show until October 28 during regular library hours. It's a wonderful space with over 80 linear feet of hanging space! You can click here for library hours and directions.

I'm currently working mostly in two sketchbooks. One is a gray-toned Stillman & Birn Nova. It's become a book of sketches with quotes. I started it with just gray scale gouache sketches, and added quotes as I found them that represented my thoughts and feelings about the scene and my state of mind. These are all gouache.


Sketching from the Window

Today I did a monochrome tree sketch in acrylic, using the 14x22" spread provided by my Stillman & Birn 11x14" Alpha sketchbook. While I feel I could have worked on this much longer, I met my goals with it and also ran out of time. Sometimes I need to remind myself that I don't have to treat a sketch as if it's a finished painting! I have so many "sketches" in my books that I later wished I'd done on canvas or a piece of paper not bound into a book.

I use the Golden Heavy Body Neutral Gray acrylics when I do these. I keep them in a plastic container that has a waterproof seal. They last for years this way. I just add more paint as I run low. Having the values premixed means I don't need a palette, and I also don't need to spend time mixing.  I can just dip in and paint. The heavy bodied paints dry so fast that I can close the sketchbook pretty soon after I finish. The book is clipped to an 18x24" board, so it stays open easily. I rest the top on the window sill and the bottom on my lap as I paint. It's a very comfortable way to work if you have a really deep window ledge!

I don't do any pencil drawing when I work this way. I sketch in a few lines with light, diluted paint --- just enough to know where my basic forms will lie. Then I start blocking in the large shapes, initially working back to front, and then back and forth pushing layers and adding details as needed. I'll likely do some journaling on the left side of the page that I left blank. The S&B Alpha paper is so strong that there is no problem with painting acrylics on both sides of a page.


Let's Change the Subject

Watercolor in a Stillman & Birn Zeta hardbound book

It's that time of year when change happens. The days are getting much shorter. They are about to get shorter still when we go off Daylight Savings Time this coming weekend. The weather is getting colder. The leaves are falling off the trees. Most of them are down now, and I expect the rain that comes in a couple of days will remove most of what's left. Winter won't be far behind.

As a painter, this combination of events has many repercussions. I'm touching up plein air pieces that have been done over the past three seasons and not yet quite finished, picking out the bugs and blades of grass and bits of sand and dirt, and getting them ready for holiday sales. I'm varnishing and framing a lot of paintings (just varnished 21 pieces a few days ago), and getting them to the galleries for the holiday shows. I'm preparing for The Big Move into the studio for the winter.

I actually look forward to this annual change. It gives me a chance to dive into other subject matter that I love, but don't have time for during the seasons of better weather. I have an opportunity to listen to great music while I work in the studio, tackle some larger pieces, and do my commission work. I can get back to open studio figure drawing and painting, portraiture, and mix it up with a bit of still life. I experiment with materials, new color combinations, and explore style.

I anticipate it won't be long before our plein air group starts our regular winter portrait sketch-a-thons. We gather in somebody's house and take turns doing 20 minute portrait sittings for one another. It's great fun, and we don't have to pay a model! I like to do some sketches from photos as a warmup for the seasonal change. This week I've been focusing on eyes. I'd like to improve my ability to capture expression this year, and a lot of that happens in the eyes. I'm not doing any underdrawing, and just going in directly with a brush and watercolors.

After doing the first few, I got frustrated with my palette, added some colors and swapped out others. I'm finding I need a slightly different selection of pigments for portrait work. Mainly I really missed my cadmium red and cadmium orange. I'm also liking ultramarine violet, and sometimes cobalt violet. I took out the phthalo blue, kept cerulean and ultramarine, and added cobalt.

I'm trying to do a quick portrait sketch after dinner at night, again without any preliminary drawing and just jumping in --- sink or swim. They're a bit fast and rough, but I'm rusty. They'll get better as the season moves along. I'm looking for photos that have good eye images, since that's my focus for now. I went straight in with color on a pre-toned surface again. (The streaky blue and red below are part of that toning process.)

Getting back to my winter fare feels good. I'm looking forward to diving in more as the weather gets colder. I feel inspired by the change. My pet birds, Mango and Coconut, will be happy to have me back in the studio. The dogs' beds are already under my work table. Bring it on!


Palette Perceptions

I'm continuing with some palette ideas I started last winter and spring. You can see a couple more of them in this post from May. I'm interested in exploring how our perception of a scene changes with a warm or a cool palette, and the way a limited color range serves to harmonize a painting. This study was done 11x17" across a two page spread in a 8.5x11" Stillman and Birn Epsilon Hardbound sketchbook. I know it's not designed for wet media, but it works great. Their books will open completely flat if you break them in before you start using them, which makes it ideal for working across the spread. I used the new Golden High Flow acrylics, and just a bit of water instead of medium. I'm trying to arrange a setup that's easy to work with in the field at the same time, and hope to test drive that out on location tomorrow. I used six colors for this one. I'm very close to being happy with the selections, but I'm going to make a couple of palette changes today and try again.


Importance of Composition and Color Studies en Plein Air

I don't always do compositional sketches before embarking on a painting. When working out on location, the time to paint is always too short as it is. However, sometimes there are many elements we plan to move around or change. The sketches above are about 4.5x6", done in my Stillman & Birn hardbound sketchbook. The top one is acrylic over a pencil sketch, and the bottom one is watercolor over pencil.

In the top sketch, there was actually no pathway at all going into the field. I felt the scene needed a way to draw the viewer into the composition. I did the sketch in pencil to test drive my ideas. After setting up to paint applying some color over my pencil sketch gave me a chance to try out some color mixes too. When I stepped in to do the actual painting (in acrylic), which was 15x20, I'd resolved many potential problems before I even lifted my brush. This is the finished painting, which will be going up on my Hudson Valley Painter blog soon.

Based on the sketch I'd done, I made further changes when doing the painting. The sketch gave me a chance to consider more options.

The sketch of Croton Gorge Dam was done because the scene was so complex. I wasn't planning to make changes as much as I was trying to wrap my head around what would go where in the confusing mass of shapes, textures and perspective. It took three sketches before I had something I felt I could work with. The first two failures made me extremely grateful that I hadn't just jumped in on my 16x20" painting. Once I did this third sketch of the gorge, waterfall, dam, and bridge, I took out my watercolors and splashed some color on just to get a better idea of what it would look like. I felt I finally had a good working design, and broke out the larger panel for my painting and my acrylics.

This one still needs a few studio tweaks, but I don't think I could have captured this scene effectively if I hadn't taken the time to do the sketches. In this case, the sketches were more complicated and took a lot more time than usual. That proved to me how much I needed to do them, and how far off the mark my painting would have been if I'd neglected that step. It would have ended up as poorly designed as my first sketch of the day (which was so bad that I actually erased it even though it was in my sketchbook!)

The moral of my story to myself is that sometimes it is well worth the time and effort to Sketch Before You Paint. It's the artist's equivalent to Think Before You Speak, and Look Before You Leap!

A Day at the Farm

11x17" (across the spread) in a Stillman & Birn Zeta Sketchbook
Background monoprinted in several layers with a Gelli Printing Plate

My plein air group went to Green Chimneys today, which is a residential facility for children. Their philosophy is that children benefit greatly from caring for and interacting with animals. They have a wonderful farm on the campus. Many of the animals here have been rescued and are in the rehabilitation process, not so unlike the children that reside here.

It was over 90 degrees today, and you'd never know we were into September. Due to the heat and my love of the animals, I decided to spend the few hours there sketching instead of working on a single painting. Of course the animals were in constant motion, so the sketches were gestures, done as they moved about. The sketch above (which you can click on to enlarge it), was actually the last one of the day. It was done across a two page spread of an 8.5x11" Stillman and Birn Zeta hardbound book, which gave me a full 11x17" work area. This is extremely heavyweight paper (180lb) and is fabulous for multi-media work. I've been using a large Gelli Printing Plate to print textured layers of color across the pages. I've done it in both Zeta and Epsilon books. I love having a toned, textured ground to sketch against, especially when working in monochrome. I sketched with a Faber Castell Pitt Calligraphy Pen. I wished I'd brought a bunch of Pitt Brush Pens with me, but alas, I did not.

Above is a two page spread in a smaller Zeta book, without a toned ground. The book is 5.5x8.5", which gives me a letter-size space when working across the spread. When we first arrived at the location, we gathered near a small pond filled with several different types of ducks, geese, and some beautiful swans. They were all highly entertaining! I started out with the little watercolor thumbnail sketch of the pond scene, then did some gesture sketches of the geese and swans, using the same Walnut Brown Calligraphy Pen, and a little watercolor.

I got tired of the brown and wanted to work with a brush, so for the sketch above, I pulled out a Pentel Aquash Grey (or maybe Light Black?) brush pen, plus my Kuretake brush pen, which was filled with Platinum Carbon Black ink. I added orange gouache for the beaks and cerulean blue watercolor for the shadows. I liked these two gestures. The goose on the left kept ducking his head down into the water to drink, then would raise it way up. Every time he stretched his neck and head up, I put in a few more lines!

11x17" across the spread, Stillman & Birn Zeta Hardbound book
Golden Fluid Acrylics background, printed with a Gelli Plate
Sketch done with Golden High Flow Acrylics

My friend Bea called me over to the other side of the pond to witness some swan antics. One kept swimming back and forth in front of me. I found this page that I'd printed using paper doilies on the printing plate to keep some clear areas, and decided to put the swans there. I worked on several views at once, changing from one to the other as he changed direction, swimming around in a circle. I mixed a violet out of some of the new Golden High Flow Acrylics, using Ultramarine Blue and Quinacridone Red, and did the sketches directly with a watercolor brush. The orange is Pyrrole Orange, a color I am becoming quite addicted to!


Just Splashing Around

Every once in awhile, we need to just throw paint. That's what I was in the mood for when I did these two acrylic sketches! They were done from life, from potted plants in my studio. I let the paint spatter and drip, painted into it, made some drips, and just kept doing that until I had enough! This two page spread is about 14x10" in my homemade blue Pescia journal. It was painted with the same Golden Airbrush paints described in my previous post, as well as some Golden Fluid Acrylics for a bit more body to the paint.

I still have two blank pages to fill in this journal. I think my "Kinda Blue" theme played itself out. I was ready to be cheerful by the time I got to the paint-slinging phase here! I will definitely finish it up though as soon as the desire to sketch on something blue surfaces.

Thank you for following along through this journal. This week I'll be posting my review of the new Golden High Flow acrylics.


Birthday Flowers on Blue Pescia Paper

10x8", Noodlers Luxury Blue ink in  my Pescia light blue journal

A good friend sent me flowers for my birthday during the time I was working my way through this journal. In sticking with my "Kinda Blue" theme, I did a blue-on-blue sketch of some of the flowers, using Noodlers Luxury Blue ink in a Lamy Safari fountain pen. When I was finished, I took a fairly stiff brush to the flowers to brush out some shading color from the lines. This ink is fairly waterproof, but you can get a little color to move on it, which I find useful, especially when working in monochrome. I was continually impressed by how well this printmaking paper handled assorted media. In spite of little sizing, the ink did not bleed nor feather, and painted pages dried flat. Now that I've gotten into monoprinting, I've been doing some prints on it too. Great stuff! I didn't think I'd like blue paper as much as a warmer color, but it surprised me.