Two days in New York: tips for quick travel sketches

Last week I was inspired by reading artist Jean Mackay’s “8 Tips for Travel Sketching“, especially by how economically she pares down her materials to fit into a Ziploc bag. This past weekend I was on a family trip to New York City, travelling with non-sketchers, and thought I’d see what kinds of quick sketches I could get done in two days in the city. Although our sketchbooks look very different, there’s lots of overlap with Jean’s wonderful tips. My tiny sketch kit consisted of one 8″ x 8” sketchbook, one pencil, one permanent brush pen, one water-soluble brush pen, a few travel brushes, a small 8 colour palette from Sennelier, and a small water bottle. All fit into a Cocotte mini messenger bag. Here are my tips for quick travel sketching when you don’t want to disrupt your travelling companions:

Get out of the room first, and be prepared to finish things later. I was travelling with my sister and my nieces. We didn’t realize that when we booked our room in New York that we chose a place that was too small for four adults to move around comfortably. Wide angle lenses create deceptive photos, don’t they? I tried to get out of the room early and sketch while I waited for the others. I drew the orchids in the lobby with a brush pen, but added colour at home. Drawing time: 5 minutes.

Sketch after ordering, and pick a good view if you can. Travelling in groups usually means lots of restaurant meals. By some luck, at breakfast we were seated at the first table next to the counter, which offered me a great spot for sketching. In between the time that we ordered our food, and before it landed on our table, I sketched the elegant gentleman slicing the smoked salmon. While my sketch was drying, I ate that same salmon on a bagel. The water-soluble brush pen was perfect for this type of quick drawing. Drawing time: 15 minutes.

Make choices if you really want to draw. We spent a bit of time at Hudson Yards on Saturday afternoon. If you haven’t seen The Vessel, have a look at this link. Some people find that the tourist attraction is an eyesore, but I saw it as a beautiful drawing challenge. I chose not to climb the 2,500 stairs so I could sketch it. We had already walked about 10k to get there so I was ready for a rest. If you look carefully, you can see my sister, my nieces and my cousin waving to me from Level 3. Drawing time: 45 minutes.

Be prepared to have unfinished work in your sketchbook. I started this street scene before breakfast (again, sneaking out of the crowded room) but never got around to finishing it. That used to bother me, but I have come to terms with the idea that things in my sketchbook CAN be unfinished. It’s a sketchbook, after all. The important thing for me with this one was that I captured a typical bit of a New York corner on a quiet Sunday morning. Drawing time: 20 minutes.

Fill a page with smaller drawings. We spent quite a bit of time on Sunday morning at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, walking through the exhibit titled Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Every museum has different rules about drawing, so I checked with the cashier when I picked up my audio guide. Since drawing was permitted in the exhibition spaces, I used a water-soluble brush pen and a water brush to draw with in the show. Due to the sombre subject matter, colour didn’t seem appropriate anyway. Drawing time: 5 minutes per sketch, spread out over 3 hours.

Stay close by, but do your own thing. While my family was shopping, I chose to sketch instead. I was lucky to find a bench close to the store, and sketched the iconic pretzel cart. Since I wasn’t sure how long I would be waiting (or if I had time for colour), I did this direct watercolour with Sennelier Payne’s Grey and my Rosemary Travel rigger brush. Drawing time: 20 minutes.

Be prepared for failure. Not every sketch will be successful. There will be some stinkers in your sketchbook. Resist the urge to glue a clean sheet of paper on top of the sketches you dislike. A sketchbook shows a process and journey, and should include all forms of exploration. I really wanted to sketch Calatrava’s The Oculus, but I guess I was just too tired, and a bit cold, at the end of the day. All I could manage to fit on the page was the entrance and a bit of the base of the building. The sketch does nothing to convey the white bones of the structure within the space, but hey, I did have a few good conversations with people sitting on the bench next to me. And I resisted the urge to get out that clean sheet of paper and some double-sided tape.


And the winner is…

I needed a large hat for this draw. There was such an overwhelming response and so many kind words from last week’s anniversary post. I have been reading all of them over the past several days, enjoying each and every one of them. Thanks to everyone who responded.

And now you are probably curious to know who won the wheelbarrow painting. Congratulations to Claire Russell, whose name was picked out of that big sombrero! As soon as I receive your address, I’ll send you the watercolour.

Of course picking a name out of a hat wasn’t my only activity today. I received a sample sketchbook from Etchr_Lab, so I had to get out there to try it. The A4 format book is made with 230g acid-free, artist grade 100% cold press cotton paper. I was anxious to try it since I’ve been looking for a better quality hardcover watercolour sketchbook. To date the only book that has worked perfectly is the handmade one I received as a gift this summer.

Fortunately it was a clear day and the boats are still in the water at the Pointe Claire Yacht Club. When I try new paper, I find it’s always better to sketch something I’m familiar with, and I’ve painted this grouping of boats plenty of times. The added bonus was that the owners of the red boat were working on it today, so I even got to add in some figures.

There are many qualities that I look for in a good sketchbook. After today’s sketch, I think this comes close to being a perfect book for me. The paper is beautiful to draw on, meaning that its creamy texture yields to soft pencil lines. It’s also really gorgeous to paint on. The washes stay wet for a long time, allowing you to charge in with more paint in large areas. That is, in fact, quite rare in sketchbook paper. Also, the colours remain bright after they dry, and can be layered and lifted. There’s enough texture on the cold press paper to take advantage of granulating pigments, yet the edges of brushstrokes remain sharp. All in all, great results for a first try.

Full disclosure: Even though this was a free sample that was sent to me to try, I was under no obligation to review it. Of course manufacturers hope artists will do this if they like the product, but I have received lots of stuff that I have tried and would never use in my daily sketching. I just don’t write about it. I took the time to write about this one today because, as you can see, I really liked it. Maybe you are in the same boat (no pun intended) and have been looking for a great watercolour sketchbook too. Maybe you’ve even been considering this one. If so, I hope this helps.


An anniversary thank you

Wow. Today is an anniversary. I wrote my first post on this blog exactly eight years ago today. How my life has changed! I have published a book, I have online classes, and I get to travel and give workshops in the most spectacular places. But most importantly, I have gotten to know so many amazing people from all over the world. Many in person, but also many simply by reading their comments on the blog.

A few stats: in the past eight years I have created 1,826 blog posts and read and responded to over 15,000 comments (the numbers are double that, but that counts my responses too, and I try to respond to everyone). If you are one of those people who has written to me, I just want to let you know how much this means to me. Your feedback and encouragement, kind words, funny responses and heartfelt appreciation has made writing and posting an absolute joy for me. In gratitude for you taking the time out of your busy day to send me a note sometime during the past eight years, I’m going to do a draw for one of my original watercolours of the famous rusty wheelbarrow. So drop me a line, once again, in the comments section of the blog. I’ll put the names in a hat and draw a winner next week sometime. And once again, merci, merci!


A corner of Montegemoli

At the start of my Italian trip I spent a few days near Volterra, in the tiny town of Montegemoli. Wikipedia says: At the time of the 2001 census its population was 39. I think now it is down to 29. Four of them work in the Osteria dell’ ultimo carbonaio, the only restaurant, in fact the only business, in the village. The rest of them (including a dog and a cat) were standing in back of me while I sketched. Hence the lack of people in this. At one point, four bikers drove up, parked next to the car I was sketching, took some selfies and roared off before I could get out my black paint to sketch them.


Kitchen sketching

After lots of travel this summer I’m happy to be back in my kitchen. Not only because I miss home cooking, but also because I like to paint stuff on my kitchen counter.

I’m getting around to trying some of the stuff that I received in the generous goodie bag at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Amsterdam. My pears were sketched in a watercolour sketchbook made by SM•LT Art. I tried the book first in Amsterdam but I was so exhausted from the heat wave that I really didn’t give it a fair chance. It’s a fairly smooth paper, much like a Stillman & Birn Beta sheet, and it takes the colour really well. Perfect for quick sketches and light washes, although I’m not sure how well it would hold up with lots of layers. I’ll get back to you on that.

I’m also giving a new Italian brush a try. I love brushes that are a bit unpredictable. This one is a Tintoretto brush I picked up at an art store in Siena. I love its elongated shape and the calligraphic strokes I can make with it. Isn’t it a great shape? I can’t wait to try it out for tree branches and power lines.


Light in Winter: a profile in Watercolor Artist Magazine

A few months back I was interviewed by Austin K. Williams for Watercolor Artist magazine. It was a real honour for me to have my winter paintings featured in the publication, but the big surprise came when I saw my painting “Shovelling” on the cover. I remember so well the day I painted this. I was just finishing up my drawing (in my cold car) when the caretaker from the church shovelled his way into the scene and I added him in. That’s the wonderful thing about sketching on location, isn’t it? Our memories of the process stay with us for such a long time.

And I’m in great company in this issue of the magazine! Have a look at the profile of Stephanie Bower’s new book, which is part of the same Urban Sketching Handbook series as my book. The magazine is available in stores and online now.


Faced with the Duomo di Siena

The Duomo di Siena is one of Italy’s most famous — and most ornate — architectural icons. One might wonder why, instead of choosing to draw its many alternating layers of black and white marble, or its carved sculptures, rose window or carved bronze door, I would choose instead to draw the souvenir kiosk in front of it. There are two answers to this.

The first answer is the practical one. This was a workshop demo in a busy place on a rainy day. I could see black clouds approaching, so drawing the church in pen or pencil, or even a small detail on it, would have eaten up all the demo time, leaving no time for adding colour. I needed a subject that would lend itself to a quick teaching moment about simplification and values.

The second answer is the more honest one. After spending years drawing urban scenes with no people in them, I find myself attracted more and more to life on the streets. I spent the first few years of my sketching life pretending that cities had no people in them. Static scenes are a lot easier to draw, plus I had no confidence in my people drawing skills. But with time, and practice (and many good workshops about people sketching from artists I admire), I realize that I would rather try to add figures, even if they are badly drawn, than have no people at all. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll even get up the courage to offer a workshop of my own in people sketching. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?