The Sketchbook

The packages were squeezed together, their paper bag exteriors crinkled and flopping out the top of my mailbox. The books were here. One for class, one for pleasure. Together they were less than $10.

The class book was okay. It was full of poems and short stories about schools and teachers and students. Interesting. But for class. The other book? Woah. “An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators, and Designers.” What a mouthful. What a book. The book I’d really wanted. The book that sat on my wish list for a long time. The first paragraph of the introduction explained my feelings perfectly:

“I have been looking for this book since I was a boy drawing at the kitchen table. I’ve looked for it in dusty secondhand bookshops, in the art sections of libraries, in online bookstores and in auction houses. Because I never found it, I had to put it together myself – a book full of sketchbooks and illustrated journals from all sorts of people who love nothing better than to hunch over a little book and fill its pages with lines and colors.”

That was it. I read that and I had to agree with author Danny Gregory. I wasn’t really a sketchbook keeper myself, but that was what I was drawn to. All the blogs I followed, all the Facebook pages I liked, all the forums I browsed were focused on the sketchbook art of other artists. But I’d seen a few compilations of sketchbooks. Sometimes I’d stumble upon a compilation of graffiti artists, but that wasn’t what I wanted. This book is what I wanted.

I read the first several sketchbook bios the night I got the book. Then the next day I started adding sketches to my own journal.

Journal Scan 2

I’ve been too precious with my drawings. I don’t need to make something perfect every time. I realized that from looking at the sketchbooks in “An Illustrated Life.” You get better at drawing by just drawing.

This self-portrait was done in my girlfriend’s bedroom on a cracked vanity mirror. I made mistakes, but it’s a sketch. I got it to a stopping point and then I ended it. Having lined paper helped me. The imperfection of the lines prevented the drawing from becoming perfect and professional. I won’t be selling this and I knew that right from the beginning.

Journal Scan 1

A couple days later I was walking from class to the library, booking it across the lawn, and there was Thompson Hall in a great composition. I’d thought of drawing it before, but I’d never found the perfect angle. But there it was. So I plopped down in the grass and I sketched. And I felt bad. My girlfriend had an architecture assignment to draw a campus building and she’d been excited to draw Thompson Hall. I was basically stealing her idea. Ah. But I couldn’t ignore the serendipitous composition. I texted her an apology and sketched away (she later drew her own excellent rendition, so I felt better after that).

Hopefully, there’ll be more sketches to come.


The Thinking Man

There are no chickens in this post. I would like to clarify that now. In my last post I mentioned that I would be working on a painting that involved those feathery barnyard animals. However, things happened. I found myself putting aside my chicken plans and starting a gift project instead.

My girlfriend’s brother graduated from the University of New Hampshire in my class and is having his graduation party this coming weekend. He’s a good fellow who dabbles in the arts himself and I decided I would throw together a small painting as a graduation gift. I picked up an 8″ x 10″ canvas and started working on the conceptual phase.

The brother graduated with a degree in environmental engineering and I wanted to play towards his intellectual side. As my girlfriend puts it, “He’s a nerdo.” So I scrambled around my house looking for symbols of intelligence to arrange in a still life.

Glasses Step 1

I wound up selecting my glasses and a trio of chess pieces. As I was setting the objects up, I came to realize that I was not getting the dynamic feel I wanted. I had the glasses flat on the table, and no matter how I arranged them, they did not seem to flow with the set up. I needed a change. I needed some angles. With that in mind,  I ran around my house looking for a wooden block to prop the glasses up on. But I couldn’t find one and I had to give up the search. When I got back to my still life I realized the solution had been with me all along. The eyeglass case. So I propped the glasses up on the case and I wound up with the arrangement seen in the sketch above.

Glasses Step 2

With the objects arranged, I began my sketch. It was a quick process where I attempted to block in the shapes and worry mainly about relationships between objects. After the sketch, I traced the lines in black Sharpie. I also made sure to indicate shadows and certain plane changes with a dashed line.

Glasses Step 3

For the underpainting I used a combination of burnt umber and venetian red. I enjoy working in earth tones and I made sure to select objects that complemented my tendencies. I did some light wipeouts on the underpainting and went straight into adding color.

Glasses Step 4

Worrying about line is not something I do at all. During college, I was taught to take a Morandi approach to painting the transitions between objects. My initial paint through was to establish color, block in shapes, and to cover lines.

Glasses Step 5

My second session of painting was focused on defining objects as well as correcting positioning. I wound up having to increase the size of the white chess piece in order to bring it closer in the foreground.

Glasses Step 7

My third session was focused almost exclusively on the glasses. I wanted to get their oblong and tall shapes down, but all the while making sure I kept my brush strokes loose. Whenever I found myself working close to the background boxes, I made it a point to focus on the color differences between background and midground.


The last session of painting was a long one. I had to develop the chess pieces and work out the transition from foreground to background on the right side of the canvas. From happenstance, I found myself working with a combination of yellow ochre, white, and raw umber. This cooled my painting down a little bit and helped bring balance to all the warm tones.

In total, I worked around 18 hours on the painting. It flew by. The small size of the canvas helped me keep a steady clip where I felt I was actually making progress on the painting. Often when I paint on larger canvases I feel a pressure to get something down that looks good. But there’s a lot of white space to fill with a big canvas, so I’m usually left frustrated in the early stages. It was not that way with this painting. I always felt like I had something good going on, which boosted my confidence, and which in turn helped produce (what I deem) my most successful painting yet.

Next week I will be staying for a couple days at Plum Island in Massachusetts. I am in a mood to work small and so hopefully I will be able to complete a couple of plein air paintings during my stay.