Uncategorized, urban sketching

Memorial Day Weekend sketch or two

Venturing into Washington, D.C. on this Memorial Day weekend revealed a city full of  memorial observation underway in numerous ways, from bikers to skaters, and, then, more and more bikers.  Stationed in the middle of the intersection at 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue, facing towards the Lincoln Memorial, was a police officer keeping an eye out for pedestrians who regularly would step–past the bride and groom standing on the median strip!–into the path of the endless river of motorcycles.   The heat, noise, exhaust fumes, and crowds were overwhelming after only 20 minutes, so it was impossible not to feel sorry for this officer who stood there amidst it all without a speck of shade.

Rolling Thunder sketch

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

For those of us not on duty, however,  it was still possible to enjoy some cool breezes dining al fresco at a nearby restaurant  opposite this entrance to the George Washington University Park.

GWU university

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen-and-ink sketch, “George Washington University,” by Black Elephant Blog author

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Risk, Uncategorized

Sketching-on-the-go

Sketching is about solving problems, sometimes very quickly and–interestingly, in most successful art, according to professional artists–over-riding what your analytic brain is telling you.  It involves careful observation, composition, shading, meaning, and even purpose (including story-telling and “narratives”) usually within some constraints related to time or weather or materials or ability. This week just having a pencil in my bag has made a brief ride on the subway more interesting.

Illustration:    Pencil sketch using Staedtler 0.7mm mechanical pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil sketch on notepaper using Staedtler 0.7mm mechanical pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

But sketching people “live” is fraught with complications.  At a minimum, when people know they are being sketched, they typically no longer act naturally.  Some people are intrigued, or even flattered, while others–especially women, it seems to me–are mildly alarmed or annoyed.

Illustration:  Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

Experienced teacher-sketchers advise inviting the subject to see (or even accept as a gift) the sketch if you, the sketcher, are detected sketching; that will sometimes ease tensions.

FullSizeRender

Illustration: Pencil sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

In some countries, the idea of sketching people without their approval seems to cross a line of propriety.

In any case, a sketch is generally not a finished painting-like piece, but a way to practice and even expose your weaknesses in drawing. The sketch below, done in a brief spurt this week while waiting in a cafe for someone to arrive, shows my botched effort to depict a drawing of a planter painted on the wall to the rear.

Cafe Sketch 3

Illustration: Sepia graphite (Artgraf Tailor made in Portugal) water-soluble wash in  Stillman &Birn Beta series sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

In the end, it really doesn’t matter because it’s sketching, which falls into the category of rehearsals, practice, and education. Even focusing on an umbrella, or a toe, can be a useful sketching practice.  I was using ArtGraf sepia graphite in water-soluble form for the first time, and that was really fun.

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Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Gridlock Sketch

Georgetown 2

Illustration:  Watercolor, gouache,  and Platinum Carbon pen and ink sketch, with some wax-resist and salt applied, in a Stillman & Birn “Epsilon” sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

A light snowfall caused havoc in the Washington, D.C. area last night as, unexpectedly, treacherous sheets of ice quickly formed and clung to roads everywhere.  Major interstates were clogged or even shut down.  No one was prepared for this. Despite the ordeal the wintry scenes made the ordinary appear quite extraordinary–such as this bank on a corner in Georgetown.  The sketch was done from a reference photo which was taken while in the probably historic traffic jam of 20 January.  By 3 a.m. the next day, the journey which started at 9:30 p.m. was safely over, thank goodness.

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Uncategorized

Learning from the Urban Sketching Masters: Anton Pieck

While at a dinner party over the holidays, the gentleman next to me, who was originally from the Netherlands, told me that the illustrations of Anton Pieck, a Dutch artist (1895-1987), had made a big impression on him as a boy growing up in Holland.

Illustration:  Graphic of "Christmas market" by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Illustration: Graphic of “Christmas market” by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Pieck’s illustrations were in his childhood books, he said, and everyone knew about his work then.  Pieck was an urban sketcher before people used the term, said the dinner guest. When I later looked up the work of Anton Pieck, what I found was something fantastic, inspiring, and somewhat familiar–surely I have seen some of these illustrations before. But what a “Master” to inspire the urban sketchers of today!

There is enormous detail in the work of Anton Pieck, sensitivity, and cheerfulness. In his illustrations, he recreates the feeling of the towns and cities of Holland in the 19th century and still keeps a fairytale atmosphere throughout his work. Pouring through his drawings, you will find whimsical details on both the architecture and in the market baskets people carry with them shopping. No subject escapes his notice, it seems. In the 1950s, after spending much of his professional life so far teaching and illustrating, Pieck was asked to help design a new theme park in the Netherlands called “Efteling.” This became his focus for the next 22 years.  Throughout this time, he was responsible for almost all the fairytale aspects of the park, which is still popular today but I’ve not heard of it before now.

Anton Pieck

Illustration: Tekenaar Anton Pieck 85 jaar; Anton Pieck in zijn werkkamer *18 april 1980 – Source: Wikipedia

There is much to learn from in the work of Anton Pieck, of course, and to immerse oneself in some fairytale worlds is tempting, (especially given the deeply disturbing nature what passes for news in the news these days).

So, while immobilized by some sort of bug going around, I opened my sketchbook to do these practice pieces of excerpts of Pieck’s work.

AP practice sketch 1

Illustration: Practice sketch (in watercolor, bistre and platinum carbon pen and ink, and Micron pen in a Stillman  & Birn “Epsilon” series sketchbook) by Black Elephant Blog author of excerpt of watercolor by Anton Pieck called “Christmas market”

It surely would be like a fairytale to be able to adopt some of his style to sketch the modern  street scenes of today–perhaps a “stretch goal” to work towards in 2016!

AP practice sketch 2

Illustration: Practice sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (using bistre ink and wash, and a limited palette of watercolors) after an excerpt of a painting by Anton Pieck

 

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Uncategorized

Museum Sketching and the Art of Serendipity

As the weather gets colder, sketchers tend to move inside.  Groups of them sometimes get together inside museums where, after an initial meet-and-greet, they disperse to go sketch before reconvening to share and discuss their results.

Sketching in museums presents many challenges not least of which is whether to stand or sit.

Often I will choose to sketch where I can sit because I can take my time noticing things about what I am sketching. This means more randomness in the selection of what I am sketching, as the choice relates more to the seat than the view.

Such an artificial constraint can be good as it forces me to focus on things I might ignore otherwise. And so it happened recently that the empty couch I spotted was facing this painting by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Upon taking a seat, I realized that I knew nothing about him or this painting.

Gallery Photo

Photo of Painting by Antoine Watteau

The painting itself is quite challenging, and not one I normally would consider sketching.  Adding to the complexity of the scene is a sculpture on either side of this painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  One wonders why these three pieces are positioned together here.

Sketching, I’ve learned, helps you notice details you might otherwise miss. In a sense, sketching is a way of paying attention.  Some people describe it as a form of meditation.   And this sort of paying attention, as well as seeking out contradictions and analogies, are crucial to innovation, as was reported on just this past weekend in the New York Times on “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.”    But, as this article discusses, we don’t know how to make processes fundamental to innovation happen reliably.

We do know many innovative breakthroughs involve uncovering possibly overlooked combinations.  Having a “wide horizon” is essential, according to Jaime Holmes, author of a book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, discussed earlier on this blog. Holmes memorably noted that “recognition means closure, and it marks the end of thinking, looking, and listening.  When we recognize an object, we make unconscious assumptions about it.”   He emphasizes others’  research concluding the importance of having a process of “pulling insights from other fields,” also called an “analogy finder technique.” Ambiguity tolerance can be measured, moreover, he writes.   People’s “heightened need for closure” can be manipulated and people are more likely to jump to conclusions or “entrench their existing views” in conditions of uncertainty when instead “dwelling calming” within uncertainty “will help you make a more rational decision.”

Gallery Sketch

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author  (watercolor added afterwards)

So back in the museum, at the end of an hour, by allowing a random thing like the placement of a couch affect the choice of subject to sketch, I ended up more curious about these art pieces in front of me. I learned, for instance, that Watteau was an innovator for his time, pushing the boundaries of the art world.

Watteau portrait

Photo:  Portrait of Antoine Watteau (Source: Wikipedia)

When our group of sketchers reconvened, it was possible to see others’ selections of sketching subjects and media. One could not fail to be impressed with the process of discovery evident in each one.  We gained some familiarity with new subjects even if we could not name them!

 

 

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Surprise, Uncategorized

Urban Sketching on the Maya Riviera

Playa del Carmen

Illustration: Photo of the view in the direction of the island of Cozumel from the central plaza of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, New Year’s Day 2016

On New Year’s Day 2016, temperatures here in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (about an hour’s drive south of Cancun) were in the low 90’s but the heat and humidity didn’t seem to be slowing people down.  With Mexicans enjoying the day off, people were  out in large numbers by late afternoon to enjoy the beach and calm sea.

Earlier in the week, the weather was somewhat cooler with breezes, making it possible to sit at the Central Plaza in the town and enjoy a performance of the Voladores de Papantil, or the “Flyers of Papantil.”

 

Voladores 1

 

 

The Voladores do this performance several times a day.  Each time, an international crowd joins local residents in admiring the colorful costumes and traditional performance and music of the flying artists.

 

Voladores 3

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author of the Voladores of Papantil getting ready for their flying performance from a 75 foot high pole in the central plaza of Playa del Carmen, late December 2015

 

Not far away are the only “free admission”  (in quotes because the ruins are located on the grounds of a gated community) ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization–at Xaman Ha.  This amazing sight comprises several complexes of small temples, structures and walls, gently shaded under the  canopies of royal palms throughout the elegant “Phase 1” and “Phase 2” of the vast Playacar condominium community adjacent to Playa del Carmen.

Xaman Ha 2

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author of “Xaman Ha” site of Mayan structures on the grounds of Playacar, south of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, late December 2015

Back in town, the Quinta Avenida (“Fifth Avenue”)–lined with scores of restaurants and shops–bustled with tourists and locals all week, with evenings so busy that a literal sea of people moved up and down the street in both directions.  One can hear Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and English–as well as reggae and hits of the 80’s– all around you in the space of a single block here.

Fifth avenue Playa del Carmen

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake brush pen) by Black Elephant Blog author, “Waiting for Customers on Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen” in late December 2015

Despite the bustle, it’s been a calm scene–with tranquil aqua blue seas nearby welcoming all to take a dip to escape the heat, and the bartenders more than ready to cut open a cold coconut for you, served with lime, –or a cold cerveza, if that’s what you prefer–for a refreshing drink when you need one (which is often in this heat)!

It’s been a great start to a new year, that’s for sure; and I hope it’s been the same for you.

Guacamaya 1

A beautiful Guacamaya at the Aviary at Xcaret in the Yucatan  (Photo:  Black Elephant Blog author)

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, ucertainty

Makerspace Sketches

A visit to a makerspace this weekend provided powerful reminders of what human ingenuity, collaboration, appropriate workspaces, and tools–as well as simply just playing around–can produce in the way of innovation and goodness for the world. In this space, people were playing games, making leather boots (!), working on a global challenge competition to design a drone that can deliver relief supplies to remote areas cut off by natural disasters, and painting (and sketching) :-).

Makerspaces are places where people’s ideas can come alive, and where the tools and other equipment are readily available–and similarly inventive people (and sometimes organizations) provide ready support.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

They are part of the natural movement of the “democratization” of know-how which–of course, as the sad events in the global space this weekend tragically reminded us–can be harnessed for good or ill.  Hopefully makerspaces such as this can produce more inventors of better futures than the one that threatened the world in Paris, and devastated so many lives, this past weekend.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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