Drawing in the Outer Aisle

Paintings of eggplant
Asian eggplant sketches
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

A freelance illustrator often has to scramble to find source material for illustration gigs that fall from the sky. My last task—drawing three kinds of garlic growing at the end of their life cycles—had me calling a friend on Nantucket and pleading with her to take photos of a winter-retarded stand of late-blooming hardneck garlic in her gardens.

The photos were helpful, but there’s nothing like drawing from life for accuracy and understanding. As I struggled to make visual sense from the distortion of photography, I realized that I need to create a library of plants drawn from life that I can use as guides for future jobs. But how? I don’t have room (or water) for a garden of my own, plus our little yard is a crossroads for every animal that lives in these mountains. (I haven’t seen any bears yet. But you know if I did, I’d  be frantically drawing them while they chased me down the hill.)

I realized I’d have to find a garden or a farm at which to draw.

And fortunately, I discovered a small one-day-a-week farmstand of ultra-local vegetables called the Outer Aisle Farmstand. The produce is so local that most of it is grown less then 5 miles away from the store on a small 2-acre farm in the mountains.

A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged in the loamy soil of Taylor Mountain Gardens, sketching a light purple Asian eggplant. Owners Christine and Eric Taylor had just given me a tour of their lovely slice of organic paradise, and introduced me to at least 4 kinds of eggplant growing in lush, thick rows.  Eggplant heaven.

A farm of this kind—small, intimate, and worked by humans who love the land—is a sort of a sacred space. The earth is so lovingly cared for, the plants grown so well, and everything is managed with respect and foresight, that the farm seems almost radiant. It’s an honor to be allowed to make portraits of their plants. Stay tuned.

Christine and Eric, along with partner/chef Jimmy own Outer Aisle Farm to Table Restaurant in Murphys, California. Try their summer barbecue on Thursday nights, or enjoy fine dining Friday and Saturday. They source everything themselves and feature only what’s in season. If you live too far away, you can try their eggplant recipes at home.

Paintings of eggplant
Asian eggplant sketches
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

How to make sketches into compositions

Drawing of dad with baby
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Dad with baby
Sigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

As I’ve grown more comfortable with my sketching abilities, I’ve begun to think about creating compositions rather than making isolated sketches. This comes from looking at other urban sketchers work; I admire the completeness of their drawings, the way they are like little stories rather than disparate elements on a page. I want sketchbook pages that look like  whole pictures rather than a spotty collection of scrawls.

But it’s taken me a while to get to this place, to exert control over my drawings rather than my drawings controlling me. But once I began trying to design my sketches, it’s like a whole new artistic world opened up to me.

Here are a few things I’ve learned.

  • Establish the center of interest Of course, the focal point is almost always the figure that attracted my attention in the first place. I like to place that initial figure in an interesting position on the page, using the concept of the rule of thirds for an arbitrary placement of interest.
  • Start building a grouping around them People are always moving, so I have to be quick to capture multiple figures in a composition. But other things—tables, buildings, windows, chairs—don’t move much (if they did, I might be running for cover!). So I like to inanimate objects soon in the composition.
  • Let figures overlap Overlapping figures and objects help create depth. I make sure I’ve got the perspective of objects advancing or receding through space by measuring angles and size as carefully and as quickly as I can.
  • Don’t worry about detail I’ve had to give up my love of niggly little detail when sketching, so the people in the background don’t have developed eyes, noses, and mouths. It really doesn’t add anything to the sketch, and anyway, is hard to do on the fly. I’m looking for the big shapes.
  • Look for framing I find ways to frame my center of interest. Sometimes that’s easy. Maybe I can add a window, a wall, a square of some type behind them. Other times I look for ways that figures in the background can be manipulated to strengthen the center of interest.
  • Don’t give up too soon I keep working at my sketch, even if I think I’ve destroyed it. Even though I want my sketchbook pages to look like pictures, I realize that my sketchbook is also my place to play around, experiment, have some fun. I don’t have to show it to anyone if I don’t want to. My sketch book is my personal playground. I can run around in it however I want, pen screaming and my hand turning cartwheels, drawing like I’m swinging from the monkey bars and flying from the swings. It’s the fun that keeps me at it, and it’s the perseverance that builds skills.

Happy sketching!

Sketching at the Farmer's market Nap time Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Nap time
Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Sketching at the Farmer’s market

It’s not quite urban sketching, but our local farmer’s market is in a town, and the market is big enough that there are plenty of peaches, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers for everyone. And plenty of people for me to sketch as I slouch over my sketchbook, hiding next to the fiddler as he plays Shove the Pig’s Foot a little Further into the Fire (the naming of American old time tunes is a mystery to me).

drawing of little boy
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Little boy with hat
Pigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Kids are the best to sketch, as they stick around a long time to listen to the music, maybe dance a little, schmooze with the musicians, snack on strawberries. And the parents are only too happy to hang out in the shade of the big oak tree, chatting with other moms and dads, drinking a smoothie, and admiring their offspring.

Drawing of kids' faces
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Kids’ faces
Pigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Which they should, as all children are absolutely beautiful and so new they’re translucent. Young things are a marvel.

Drawing the shifting tides of humanity isn’t easy. They just won’t stand still!  But it’s one of my very favorite things to do. I watch closely; people will often adopt a standard position—a tilt of the head, the cocking of a hip, a graceful touch of a hand to the face—that is part of their likeness. They may deviate from that position, but they eventually return to it, as it’s where they’re most comfortable.

My job as a sketcher is to watch for these attitudes, as well as see (and here I mean see closely) the shape and angle of head and facial features, body posture and type, and then remember it all, so I can translate what I see into drawings in my sketchbook. Drawing is, after all, a memory game, and the more we develop our memory, the better our drawing becomes.

Class alert: August 13th I’m teaching a class on drawing the portrait from a live model at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, starting at 9:30 sharp. If you live nearby, I hope you can make it.

For your listening pleasure:

Note to self: My sketchbook is not an invisibility cloak.

BoyatContra
Sketch of young boy, graphite with watercolor. Stillman & Birn Beta Series

I was sketching at a contra dance Saturday night. I was on stage, playing whistle and sketching during tunes I didn’t know. Normally at these things, I sketch the other musicians, as the dancers are moving too fast for all but the most brief gesture drawing, but a boy was sitting on the sidelines of the dance watching the figures. Being still. In good light.

Since I was flanked by fiddlers and behind a guitar player, I felt like I was not really noticeable. And the kid seemed to be engrossed with watching the dancers. So I began drawing.

Suddenly he whipped his head around and glared right at me, watching me watch him. It’s funny how sometimes we can feel people looking at us from across even a crowded large room, and we seem to be especially sensitive to the direct stare of the surreptitious portrait artist.

I nearly always have a sketchbook with me, and most of my friends, and the people at musical gatherings have grown used to my scratchings. But not this subject; he glared for a while longer, then got up and moved out of my line of sight, and so I was not able to get any kind of likeness, merely a sweet drawing. Oh well, sometimes that’s enough.

BoyatContra_Detail
Detail of sketch

Lost a sketchbook, bought a coloring book

ColoringBookSketch1As I wrote yesterday, I lost my sketchbook while hiking and sketching in Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area in Nevada. I think I put it down either in the bathroom or the visitors center.

Yes, I did ask at the lost and found. In fact, I filed a lost report with the administrative offices. Keep your eyes open; I really would like to have that sketchbook again.

I admit, I was quite upset about losing this little book that was half-filled with good and bad sketches. A sketchbook is intensely personal, although I don’t write a lot of personal stuff in it. Still, it’s a record of my life—sketches I’d made at my granddaughter’s first birthday party; a painting of my mother; people I meet and places I go—as well as a place where I can work out ideas for projects.

Besides,  I was not there in the stinkin’ hot desert sweating like an old mule to hike (as was my friend, who is oh-just-slightly crazy), but to sketch. I was there to draw the beautiful rocks and mountains in that canyon, dammit.

I looked at the visitor center for some kind of sketch book, or even just a notebook with lined paper, but all they had were tee shirts, desert kitsch, and expensive books about flowers you might see in Nevada were it not 104 degrees in the shade and in the middle of a drought. But I found this little book:

yhst-137970348157658_2374_637844980It’s a nice coloring book, with good information about cactus. There were some blank spaces. It didn’t have clay coated paper, so it would work (sort of) with watercolor. And it was inexpensive.

While my friend courted heat exhaustion on the park trails, I collapsed in the shade of a gigantic rock and disgorged my painting kit. Painting in a coloring book was not the same satisfying experience as painting in my Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook, but it was interesting to attempt to incorporate the artwork in the book into my paintings. I recorded some of the landscape. And it satisfied that awful craving to paint.

Finally my friend crawled off the desert, having decided that it was too hot for even her lizard-lady blood, and we drove around in the air conditioned truck as the sun sank and the hills glowed in the heat.

ColoringBookSketch2

Lost sketchbook in Las Vegas

Last week I was hiking and sketching in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (an amazingly beautiful area) near Las Vegas, and lost my half-filled sketchbook. I’m placing my trust in the power of the internet and hoping that by announcing it enough times in enough places, I can bring it home to me.

The images below were scans from the sketchbook; it also had drawings of my grandaughter’s first birthday party, a painting of my mom, and ideas for future work, all images I didn’t record. I sure would like to have it returned. If you’ve got it, please contact me!

Life drawing at the Sonora Farmers Market

Market Baker Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Market Baker
Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

I love the Sonora Farmers Market. It’s what you expect from a farmers market: great produce, homemade goodies, local musicians, and the occasional friend who greets you as you’re sorting through summer peaches.

There’s also a small seating area where you can eat any delicious purchases you’ve made, and sip a smoothie in the shade (criminey, it’s blazing hot in these foothill towns!). As I snarfed down a gluten-free scone (from Schnoog’s Cafe) and the fiddler delicately devoured a chocolate croissant (from I know not where), I took the opportunity to sketch one of the vendors. The inset is an idea for a painting that I noodled out while I was waiting for my turn at the loo (Yes, Virginia, you can and should sketch anywhere).

I credit my years learning  life drawing for my ability to sketch a moving target. Life drawing hones the artistic memory, so I was able to work even though my subject was moving about as she helped customers.  Fortunately, she often resumed the same pose so I was able to check my marks.

Then, at home, I added color. I wish I’d made better color notes while I was sketching in pencil, but it was getting ever hotter, even in the shade, so we retreated to the coolness of our air conditioned automobile.

Market Baker Watercolor and color pencil in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook
Market Baker
Watercolor and color pencil in Stillman & Birn Zeta Series Sketchbook

Class alert

I will be teaching a figure drawing class this Thursday, June 18 at 9:30 – 12:30, at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis in the Central Sierra. We’ll be learning more about proportions, and embarking on a long pose that will last the whole class. My goal is to help all the students complete a blocked in drawing, and start building form with value. All you need is paper and charcoal, and some tracing paper,  and you can buy those items at Town Hall Arts.

Drawing on the farmers market

FarmersMarketThe fiddler fiddled at the Sonora Farmers Market last Saturday. He likes me to be present for moral support and to bring him pastries. I go and spend dollars while he plays for dimes. (Folks, please support your farmers market musicians; throw quarters in the fiddle case, at least!)

After my dollars are spent, it’s lovely to sit on a curb and while my butt falls asleep, sketch the crowd. A little chair would be more comfortable, but there’s a neat thing that happens at curb level. I’m closer to the kids, and instead of looking down on the tops of their heads, I can sketch at their eye level.

I’m not sure why, but farmers markets seem to bring out the goofy in kids, and they are often beautifully dressed as pirates or fairy princesses, or pirate fairy princesses. Leprechauns. Furry animals. It’s like there’s this alternate world that’s swirling around adult kneecaps, and curb sketching gives me a window into it.

FarmersMarket2

Public sketching with gold rush costumes

The Prenologist's Wife, Calliope Dodge Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
The Prenologist’s Wife, Calliope Dodge
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Yesterday the fiddler played at Columbia State Park for an event known as The Diggins. Why not? He has a costume reminiscent of that era (despite the back pocket), and he plays tunes that would have made gold miners stamp and strut.

I went along for the sketching.

Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Making portraits on the fly, in real time…yeah, that’s kind of scary. But it’s enormously fun too, especially at costume events.

I’ve only recently gotten brave enough to ask someone to sit for a portrait (only if it’s not busy and they seem friendly. And bored.). And I absolutely love it!

When I ask,  I assure my subjects that while I may not catch a good likeness, I will make them look like a human (which is a big improvement over the days when my off-the-cuff portraits looked like pigs in bags).

I also let them talk. I encourage it, although it is harder to capture their likeness when they’re moving. But I hear such interesting stories, and I feel like it helps me draw better likenesses after all.

Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

This question runs around in my mind: If portraits are about unmasking the subject, what then, to make of a subject who’s assumed an identity  that may well be the real person under the everyday mask they put on for their pedestrian life?

Links for this post

Go to the Diggins. Costumed docents, banjo players, and bean soups that give you a flavor of what the California gold rush must have been like. This weekend (May 29-31)
http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/diggins.html

Or visit Columbia State Park when ever you can. http://www.visitcolumbiacalifornia.com

Carol Bassoni makes lace at www.misslaceydesigns.com/

You can find Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge at www.oslhp.net/m-charframe.htm