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A Simple Trick for Planning a Sketch : Connect the Dots

June 22, 2014

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Just back from sketching with Urban Sketchers Montreal. Here’s my morning drawing from the Chinese pavilion at Montreal’s Jardin Botanique.

This one turned out to be a useful example of what I call “Marking Extents”. How to design the page with small dots measuring the height and width of key objects, and their internal landmarks (doors, windows, floors, etc).

After the break – A few process shots that might explain:

Read more…

Good Question of the Week: A Trick for Using Liquid Ink in the Wild

June 19, 2014

I thought I would start a series of posts I’ll be calling: Good Question of the Week. Maybe I won’t be doing it every week :) But I’m still calling it that. Gradually they’ll build up into a nice tips and tricks list.

So, this first one was not even a question. Someone was saying in passing – “oh I wouldn’t take liquid ink into the field – that’s a disaster waiting to happen”.  I thought – “Such a shame – why pass up the expressive line you get with brush or dipping pen!”.

So – yes, yes it’s true. The potential exists for a dramatic spill. And of course the main problem is how to actually draw without splattering all over nice new pants. Not every urban sketcher wants to look homeless while street drawing. It’s bad enough we sit on the sidewalk.

I’ve tried a number of clip-on things, magnets, even the sticky rubber stuff used to hang posters. (Here’s the post on magnets). Ultimately, it’s all much simpler than that.  Introducing the “Book and Bottle Grip”. Patent Pending.


What I do is just hold the bottle, and the sketchbook in one hand. This way I always have control over the ink, and it’s the shortest distance from dip-to-draw. This works with a brush or dipping pens (as shown). I do this now for watercolor as well – holding the book and my clear water in the same hand. (My new mini-half pan set can be clipped right to the book itself). Sometimes I”ll put a little piece of coroplast behind the book – if it’s one with a floppy spine.

The bottle is a 30 ml Nalgene container – purchased from a camping good store – probably meant for sunscreen or bug repellant. These plastic jars will never break and have a leak-proof seal. You can carry liquid ink in the bottom of your bag without fear.

I don’t have huge hands – so I *think* this should work for anyone. Let me know if you try it out.





Montreal’s Tam Tams: Dip into the Counter Culture

June 17, 2014

Montreal has this thing they call the Tam Tams. It’s a free drumming circle, anyone can join, either as a drummer, or a dancer, or one of hundreds of fans just there to enjoy the music and the sun, and the people on display.

It’s a weekly event in the summer, every Sunday starting around noon, going till sundown. Just look for the George-Étienne Cartier Monument in Mount Royal Park (the big-angel-on-a-stick statue).  You can’t miss the sound of the drums.


Seems like any instrument is cool, just join the cacophony. People bring all kinds of drums and percussion instruments. Everything from 4 foot tall carved wooden monsters to slick little hand drums made of fiberglass and mylar. Some guys have high tech body harnesses, some just sling their drum off a hemp rope. I also saw brass trombones, pan pipes, and a few things I didn’t recognize. There’s vendors nearby, you can buy finger cymbals or a tambourine if you want to join in. There are even belly dancing veils and jingling belts available, if that’s more your mode of expression.

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The main attraction for a sketcher like myself is the mosh pit of dancers. Everything takes place in a little corner, off to the side of the statue, backed on two sides by a 4 foot wall. This makes a little amphitheater that fills up with a mass of gyrating, bumping, and grinding bodies. The drumming never stops – one person gets tired, another steps in. It’s hypnotizing. You could dance – or draw – for hours without coming up for air.

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I hear this thing is a meetup for dope fiends, but to be honest, I didn’t see any of that while I was there. I suppose they have secret codes to find each other in the crowd. I think that’s a thing if you want it to be, but most people are there for the sun, the music and the weird opportunity to merge into the tribe of drummers and dancers. If you ever thought a place had ‘good vibes’ – this would be it.

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Drawing with the Next Generation of Urban Sketchers at Atelier Communidée

June 12, 2014

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The other day I was talking to Julie Prescesky of Design, and she revealed something very cool. She’s a mom and a home-schooler, and, as the resident artist in her co-op Atelier Communidée (French word-play on Community and Idea), she is making sure the kids have a great art program that includes Urban Sketching.

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I dropped by the school to meet the kids and do a couple of hours sketching down by Montreal’s Lachine Canal. They seemed old-hands at field sketching. Some of them immediately found the best vantage point on top of a stone lion.

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I was impressed how well they did, even the younger ones were into drawing from observation. Trying to make a record of what they saw. I don’t mean that’s the limit of their imagination – at least one fellow was drawing a big turkey leg on a dinner plate. And it wasn’t even that close to lunch time.

As a kid, I certainly didn’t have the concept of location drawing introduced this early. It was all storybook drawings and comics at first. This has the potential to radically change up a kid’s approach to learning to draw. Clearly I’m not a parent, or I’d have clued into this earlier. I wonder if anyone else out there is doing Urban Sketching with kids? Let us know about your program – it’s always possible you have a USk correspondent in your area!

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Here’s a short Q&A with Julie, and some pics from the day.

MTH: How would you describe your art program – just a few lines I can use to introduce you:

JP: Centre Communidée is a community run centre in St-Henri catering to homelearners in the Greater Montreal area, and beyond. We are a group of parents who collectively offer our children learning opportunities in areas we have skill (and/or interest) in.

Atelier Communidée is a workshop space we’ve recently added to our Centre that facilitates woodworking, pottery, sewing and more for us AND the greater public. More info on how to join [here] .

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MTH: Was it in fact USK (Montreal) that got you interested in taking the kids out and drawing on location – or were you doing it already?

JP: I seem to recall admiring the USK:MTL blog and Facebook posts long before I ever actually joined you guys for a Sunday Sketchcrawl. I started getting out and sketching urban environments on my own and really fell in love with it. I had been teaching a basic drawing class to the kids at the Centre at the time, and, with the weather changing for the better, I thought the kids might enjoy getting out there too.

That was when I met with USK:MTL for the Little Burgundy Sketchcrawl and that pretty much sealed the deal for me. I was in love. And I was excited to share it with the kids. So, yes, USK:MTL planted that seed, absolutely. (Ed. Note: *fist pump – yes!*)

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MTH: Do you notice any of the kids engaging with the world through drawing on their own, outside of ‘official’ drawing time?

JP: Indeed! One parent told me that after only one session with us, her daughter was out and about in their neighborhood sketching all of the time. My own daughter will sometimes draw herself to sleep. Sure not outdoors, but she’ll use drawing as a way to calm her mind and prepare for bed. My boys draw crazy contraptions all of the time, but they haven’t yet crossed the threshold of wanting to wander outside and draw on their own.

I think having the opportunity to go out and draw on a regular basis with their friends will help inspire them to do it also during their own time. I try to keep drawing time really low pressure. Nothing squashes interest like expectations. The goal is to have fun. I want to foster a positive connection to drawing for these kids.

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MTH: What do you think are the benefits to starting observational drawing so young?

JP: We have a wide array of ages in our little group, from toddler thru teenager, to mature adult, and we all mix and mingle together. I’ve seen that the younger ones, though still sometimes self-conscious, tend to have an easier time letting go of what something is “supposed” to look like. It seems like a much scarier thing for the adults to do.

Sketching and “learning to see” is a great tool for recognizing that things that once seemed unattainable, are absolutely within their grasp, and all it takes is an appropriate attitude (i.e., a willingness to try despite self-doubt, or a willingness to let go of the notion that they CAN’T do it).

We have also noticed that observational drawing helps you to connect with your environment in a very quiet, yet spectacular way. Things you’ve passed by hundreds of times suddenly become fresh and beautiful. You start to form a different kind of relationship with that place.

Just like music holds memory, and scent holds memory, I think these sketches will hold memory for our little urban sketchers. And, it could very possibly yield a sense of greater pride in our community.

You can see some of our urban sketching adventures in and around St-Henri on my blog.

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MTH: Thanks to Julie for inviting us to her kids sketching group, and I hope they keep at it, and one day we’ll see them sketching at a USk event!

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Water Soluble Ink: The Ultimate Sketching Kit?

June 9, 2014

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Earlier this spring, a bit before drawing on the street was seasonable here in Montreal, I spent an afternoon sketching in the greenhouse at the MTL Botanical Garden.

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Looking back in time, my location drawing has been a fairly steady transition from black and white line drawing, through line and wash, and towards painting on location.  Mostly I see this as a natural progression. An ‘improvement’ from drawing towards painting. I think most people would feel that paintings are somehow more challenging. A ‘higher art’ than drawing?

There’s some biological reason behind it I’m sure. A painting, being tonal, can tap into the eye-to-brain function and convince us we’re looking at reality. But, oddly, that’s why I love line work. Because it’s not such a straightforward illusion of reality. There’s something about an ‘unfinished’ sketch that really appeals to me. It’s partially the speed of execution (they are more fun for the artist – no labor, just free-flowing seeing), and partially the way line is both specific about detail yet an abstraction at the same time. A line drawing conveys so much, so compactly. I can’t get over the joy of that magic trick.  How does it work? That a drawing can make us see an object in our mind?

That’s why I’m currently hooked on washable ink.

It really is the best of both worlds. I’m convinced that this approach is the ultimate sketching tool. The Lamy fountain pen, (or washable dipping inks – Lamy in a bottle, or Private Reserve) I’m using these days, combined with watercolor. It’s so much fun. Melting your drawings, into paintings. (Yes, yes, I’ve said it all before - but I love this so much, it’s a mini-obsession right now). I’ve recently discovered that the paper matters a great deal. I’m getting nice results with coated stock, such as this 8×8″ watercolor book by Hand Book.

Here’s another before and after showing the drawing, the melting with color, and the results.




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All this being said – I am still on that path, walking from drawings toward painting. In a future post I’ll show you more of that transition. I’ve been getting some nice stuff recently. Things are piled up on the scanner waiting for you.

Interview up on Wanderarti

June 2, 2014

Lizzie Davey over at has just posted a short interview with a few great questions about travel sketching.  Hop on over for a look at a new blog, focused on the intersection of art and travel.


Meeting doodles: the pen is always moving

May 30, 2014

I was in a lecture the other day that involved a variety of strangers discussing a serious topic in French. While I was in Lost Anglo mode, I found myself watching the body language. How the audience was listening so raptly, and the presenter was delivering so intensely.


The pen is  always moving. Logging more mileage. Doing the ‘hard yards’ as the Aussie say. I can feel my fidelity with faces and expression, inching upward. Faster than my French.


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