Monday, March 19, 2018

Woodless Pencil Test

I decide to try out a woodless water-soluble pencil. A woodless pencil means the whole pencil is made out of the lead, rather than surrounding the thin lead with a casing of wood.

Matthew Schreiber, Bulgarian Accordion. Listen to one of his tunes on YouTube
The pencil I'm using is called a Cretacolor Aqua Monolith. You can buy them individually for about $2.00-$3.00 each. I'm just using the ivory black one here, but it comes in a set of 12 colors, which retails for about $24.00-$30.00.

I'm using a water brush to blend the pencil, and I'm drawing in a Pentalic watercolor journal. The watercolor paper is robust enough to handle some scrubbing.

Some thoughts: 
1. A woodless pencil sharpens like a regular pencil, but you have to waste the pigment on the whole tool to get the sharp point. 
2. The Cretacolor Aqua Monolith is round in cross section, so it would tend to roll off a table. If it accidentally falls to the ground or slips out of your hand, it's likely to break.
3. The pencil is coated in a shiny lacquer varnish, so that it won't activate with water on the part of the pencil that you're holding. 
4. The lead is quite hard, and the pencil is heavy. It feels different from water-soluble crayons or pastels, such as the Caran d'Ache Neocolor, which feel lighter in weight, waxier, and softer.
5. The darkness of the black is somewhere between the graphite gray of a Derwent Graphitint pencil and the velvety black of a Derwent Inktense.
6. It delivers a responsive line and blends well with water, but I don't see much advantage to having the whole pencil made out of the lead unless you want to use it on its side to make large areas of tone. 

With any sketching tools, my recommendation is to buy just one sample of a given product line and try it out and see if you like it before buying a whole set. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Caspar David Friedrich's Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, 1818
Rückenfigur is a German art term for a figure seen from behind, and placed inside the scene as a proxy for the viewer.

Such a figure invites the viewer to identify with the attitude or perspective of the person, who is usually central in the composition. 

Eugen Dücker (1841 - 1916)
By showing only the back of the person, we don't focus as much on their individual identity, and they seem more of a type.

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916)
A Rückenfigur invites us to wonder what the figure is doing or thinking, and can lend an air of mystery to a scene.

Rückenfigur is different from a repoussoir figure, typically more of a compositional framing element at the outer edges of the scene.

(Link to video) Watch a BBC documentary about Hammershøi by former Monty Python member Michael Palin.
Books: Hammershoi and Europe
Vilhelm Hammershoi 1864-1916: Danish Painter of Solitude and Light (Guggenheim Museum Publications)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

ESPN Adventure on YouTube

Here's a 3:25 minute YouTube compilation of the short videos I've been releasing all week about my adventure painting an NBA game. (Link to YouTube)

The upcoming issue of International Artist Magazine has a feature article with step by steps and the behind-the-scenes story.
Check out the whole blog series:

Friday, March 16, 2018

Painting a Logo Using Old-School Tools

To wrap up my coverage of professional basketball, I'll paint the NBA/ESPN logo by hand using old-school tools. (Link to video)

At almost any antique store, you can find high quality drafting sets, by Dietzgen or DesignMaster. They're not too expensive because few people use them anymore. For example, I recently found a DesignMaster 1146C for about $20. 

Drafting sets contain a variety of compasses and ruling pens. Some of the compasses can be set up with either a graphite tip or a ruling pen tip. The ruling pen tip has a small set screw that precisely adjusts the width of the line. The bigger compasses have double break points so that your ruling pen meets the paper at a right angle.

You can fill the reservoir of the ruling pen tip with either ink, watercolor or thinned-down gouache. Instead of dipping the tip into the ink or liquid paint, you should put a drop into the gap using a brush or an eyedropper. 

With these tools you can paint a perfect circle in gouache. 

The logo for the NBA on ESPN is usually seen in its digital incarnation, which has a gradation to make the white ring look dimensional. To do that, I load two brushes, one with dark red and one with lighter red, and blend the colors wet into wet.

The NBA / ESPN logo is a trademark belonging to their respective owners
The result, which appears here a little larger than the actual size of the original, isn't perfect, but it's just a sketchbook page. If I wanted to refine it, I would work larger and spend more time on it.
Check out the whole blog series:

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Knicks Game at Madison Square Garden

There are so many things in motion on and off the court in an NBA game that it kind of boggles the mind to translate it into paint.

(link to video on Facebook) As you can see in the video, I try to use the brush systematically to paint similar objects with a given paint mixture, so I'm not mixing and painting every spot.

Here again, I'm starting the sketch from life and finishing it later from a variety of references, including photos and videos. Even playing a sound recording of the game gets my head back into my memories.

Knicks game, Madison Square Garden, gouache
With a vignette like this I wanted to gradate the picture to the white of the page at the edges. I arbitrarily lightened it with cool colors on the right and warm colors on the left.
Check out the whole blog series:

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Kristaps Porziņģis, NBA Star

Kristaps Porziņģis was on an All-Star track and putting up good numbers for the New York Knicks when I painted him, but then he got sidelined with a season-ending torn ACL knee injury. Now he’s on the path to recovery.

Kristaps Porziņģis, gouache, 5 x 8 inches

I approached this painting as an alla-prima (painted all in one session), combining sketches, memory, and photo reference. I focused on KP's characteristic relaxed and confident expression, even in pressure situations. 

As you can see in the time lapse, a portrait is made up of a thousand corrections and adjustments. I find I have to maintain a spirit of constructive dissatisfaction, always thinking of what's wrong, why it's wrong, and how I can fix it. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

ESPN Commentator Stephen A. Smith

I’m on the basketball court at Madison Square Garden an hour ahead of game time. While the Knicks warm up, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith delivers a fiery pre-game commentary. 

My first step is to wet the paper and drop in a soft ultramarine blue wash with a half inch flat synthetic brush.

I cover the first layers with transparent watercolor and then build it with opaque gouache. I like to get the face resolved early and add surrounding areas later.

(Link to video on Facebook) We see just the top of the cameraman’s head above the camera and part of the logo on his sweatshirt. Most of these areas go down with a large round synthetic brush and generous washes of pigment.

I carry the scene across the gutter of the sketchbook to show the arm of the cameraman. I add just a hint of the basket at the top edge and some impressionistic spots in the background to show that the team is in warm-up mode.

Stephen A, gouache, 5 x 8” 
The essence of this picture is Mr. Smith projecting his fire-and-brimstone opinions to his virtual audience via the camera. The guiding principle for a storytelling portrait like this is to show only what’s essential—no more and no less.  

Monday, March 12, 2018

My Assignment: ESPN Sketch Reporter

After visiting the ESPN broadcast truck, I still have an hour left before the basketball game starts.

My media pass gives me full access to courtside and the Knicks' locker room area. I enter Madison Square Garden via the VIP entrance, which is really a steep-spiraling, 5-story ramp where circuses of old used to bring in the elephants. It still smells of elephant dung and diesel.

What should I try to capture in my sketchbook?

I am a little intimidated by the challenge. How can I ever capture the color and action of an NBA game in the pages of a sketchbook? What angle can I bring to the experience that will be different from the photos, video clips, and computer graphics?

I paint the ESPN logo on the cover of a sketchbook (link to video on Facebook).

A sketch reporter in the sports world is kind of a new thing, something we haven't seen much of since the days of Bernie Fuchs and Leroy Nieman in the 1960s.
I meet Tim Corrigan, who produces the live broadcasts. He tells me that the core of the ESPN approach is to bring out the stories of the franchise and of the individual players, and to dramatize those stories before, during, and after the game.
Check out the whole blog series:

Sunday, March 11, 2018

ESPN Report from the Court

Recently, ESPN invited me to be a sketch reporter at an NBA basketball game. 

I visit the broadcast truck an hour before the game starts. Here's a gouache portrait of the guy who controls the audio feed in the ESPN broadcast.

In this quick video (Link to Facebook), the painting emerges rapidly in a freeform way, alternating between darks, halftones and lights. I finish with the small details of the glasses and headset.

You can also watch the short videos this week on my Instagram channel.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Outer Space Men

Toy inventor Mel Birnkrant tells how he developed some of the first action figures in the late 1960s, called the "Outer Space Men." (Link to video)

Story of the Australian Stamps

Over on my Instagram feed, I've been featuring the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the Australian dinosaur stamps.

My webshop has a limited supply of these signed, first day covers, perfect for the dinophile or stamp collector in your life. Free shipping today, March 10, only.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Making the Animated Short 'KaBoom!'

Stop-motion animator PES shares how he created his short 'KaBoom!' (Link to video)

He explains how he associates one object with another, both visually and conceptually. Everyday objects and toys found around the house stand in for the elements of a sequence of aerial bombardment.

As with all PES productions, the final film relies on a rich soundtrack to extend the impact of the visual. (link to video)
PES's website includes his 'haul videos,' where he scours the Long Beach Flea Market for used stuff and makes a taco out of a baseball glove.

In the children's picture book world, these visual puns have been perfected by Walter Wick in his Can You See What I See? and I Spy Fantasy series.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sketchbook exhibition in Singapore

Check out this awesome video by Erwin (Cherngzhi) Lian and the people who created the "Perfect Sketchbook." (Direct link to video)

Today they opened a gallery show in Singapore with a bunch of artists (including me) who painted in the sketchbooks and offered them to collectors. I love the way they have used sketchbooks to bring artists together into community so that we can share in the fun of creating.

Teoh Yi Chie of Parka Blogs was there, too and made this video. (Link to YouTube video)

My own painting of the "Perfect Typewriter" was included in the show. Erwin Lian graciously was willing to do an interview about the journey that led him to this show.

For those who aren't familiar with The Perfect Sketchbook, could you please describe it and tell us why you created it?

The Perfect Sketchbook was first introduced on the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, in August 2014. Following the fulfillment of the first project, backers were impressed with the quality of the book and the project quickly expanded, garnering immense support from international backers.

The project was then funded on Indiegogo and The Perfect Sketchbook’s very own platform, raising a total of USD$150,000 to date.

I first began toying with the idea of making my own sketchbook when I couldn’t find one that met my all of my criteria: hardcover, compact, opened flat and filled with top-grade 100% cotton paper.

One day, out of sheer boredom, I looked up the local company that produces the sketchbooks I used most and contacted them about a visit. Impressed by their manufacturing capabilities, I proposed a high-quality sketchbook and convinced them to make a prototype for Kickstarter. Without an advertising budget, I produced all the marketing materials and took on the mammoth task of getting this entire project funded. Thanks to the generous artists who shared my project on social media, my friends, my Columbus College of Art family and the urban sketchers community, we eventually reached our goal of USD$50,000 and made the first Perfect Sketchbook.
(funding process for the first book took 45 days, it was not an easy climb)

Naming it The Perfect Sketchbook was a deliberate move to elicit attention since I lacked advertising and visibility. However, the cost of calling something ‘perfect’ meant that I also assumed the task of making something extraordinary. Did I exceed the expectations of most, with the quality of materials? I consciously made some silly decisions like over packing the book with more pages, that caused excessive stress to the book spine. I also underestimated the cost, time and risk it took to physically ship all of the books.

(The First Perfect Sketchbook)

When many people requested that I make a larger book, I was in trepidation from our first project. A larger book would incur higher shipping charges because it’s heavier and would cost much more to make. Since most of our backers are overseas, the collective support was too spread out for any sort of shipping discount. And a sketchbook has a low psychological price ceiling. International shipping charges are extremely high and we needed to price these into our product, in order to cushion this impact. 

(Properly bubble wrapped to cushion for the impact during shipping)

Would a much bigger sketchbook company, with the advantage of scale, follow me/us and create something similar? I took on a radical approach during our second crowdfunding project. Instead of being worried about pricing, I focused on making an over-the-top sketchbook. During The Perfect Sketchbook B5 production, I convinced my collaborator, Bynd Artisan, to fulfill all my crazy requests like hand tearing the cotton paper and personalization. At the same time, they offered me a huge discount on the production costs. I told them: “We can at least clinch the title of The Perfect Sketchbook for our madness.”

(image of our production. Notice the deckle edges on the side of the book)

The Perfect Sketchbook B5 was launched on Indiegogo two years ago and it was so successful that I was persuaded by many of our backers to make the third sketchbook last year. We do not intend on any more editions and I am just glad to have made and fulfilled these super fine quality watercolor sketchbooks.

(We chose to deliver via DHL -Costly but much more reliable)

2. What are some of the ways that artists have used the sketchbook that have surprised you?
One interesting feedback I had gotten from some backers was that the sketchbooks felt and looked so high quality that they are afraid to open or start it. Another thing I noticed was the dramatic improvements to the watercolor paintings of our backers, who were first introduced to high-quality watercolor paper through The Perfect Sketchbook. Many told me that they can no longer revert to low-quality sketchbooks for watercolor. The biggest surprise was how fast artists filled the sketchbooks after opening them.

(instagram images of paintings by backers)

3. Some of my readers aren't very familiar with the Urban Sketchers movement. Can you describe the unique vibe of your sketch outings?
Urban Sketchers was founded by Gabriel Campanario from Seattle and I believe they initially started as a group on image sharing site Flickr in 2007. It was a group started to support and promote sketching on-location. Over the years they grew into an international movement and now have chapters all around the world, where sketching events and symposium are held on quite a regular basis. All are run by volunteers. Here in Singapore, the USK Singapore group gathers once every month at a different location to sketch on-site. Unlike other art groups, there aren’t any skills prerequisites and you get to interact and network with many sketching enthusiasts outside of the art industry.

The Urban Sketchers Singapore February 2018 Sketchwalk @ Pang Sua Pond, Bukit Panjang. 

4. You recently led a sketching trip to Bhutan. What was it like to sketch in public in that culture?

Sketch by one of our participant, Yina Goh

Actually, I led a sketching tour there last year and will be leading another one this June. The tranquility and pristine quality of Bhutan's landscape make it the perfect location for sketching and traveling. It’s no mystery why the Kingdom of Bhutan is often called the “Last Shangi-La”.

(sketch Bhutan- image of us sketching in Punakha, Bhutan)

I wrote a very detailed article about Sketch Bhutan on Parka’s blog:

5. How did the idea for the group sketchbook show "Interlace" come about?
A sketchbook is known to hold an artist’s most intimate ideas and processes. Naturally, with a higher quality sketchbook, I thought it will be a great idea to showcase the works of our best and most influential backers from The Perfect Sketchbook campaign. I also truly believe that only great art can make a sketchbook perfect.

6. What have been some of the challenges in making this show a reality? 
Knowing early on that I couldn’t turn The Perfect Sketchbook project into a sustainable business, I reserved some books after every release and would approach galleries and museums to pitch the idea of a group show. Even with book sponsorships, these galleries, mostly in America, would turn me down. A few informed me that it will not be profitable and I shelved this idea until Winnie, the owner of Bynd Artisan suggested that I hold the show in their retail store. We would be limited by space but the location is great and there would be considerable foot traffic. To mitigate the cost of shipping these books to our Artists, we would sell the last reserved copies (about 50) of The Perfect Sketchbook B5 during the launch of our group show, Interlace. 

(image of Bynd Artisan's retail store during their opening)

Since the art show would feature 20 sketchbooks, we needed to create custom frames that would hold these sketchbooks and at the same time allow for easy page changes. E.g. If the sketchbook has 5 painted spreads; someone must be able to easily remove the sketchbook from the frame, flip to the next page, and reinstall it. 

My sketchbook pages

It’s really challenging to not lose money for such an art-show. Apart from logistics and collation, I needed to account for artists who are unable to submit, after agreeing to be in the show. Then, there is the all-important question of where and how to solicit customers? Who would purchase our artworks in Singapore? Though I have invited many successful, well-known artists to this show, they are relatively unknown to the Singapore art patrons.

Sketchbook work by Isabella Kung 

Thankfully, the owners of Bynd Artisan are active in the local arts community and I believe we can successfully introduce our talented artists to new audiences. I am also positive that the collective strength of all the artists involved can raise the visibility so that everyone will receive their well-deserved recognition.

7. What are your hopes for the show?
I hope that ‘Interlace’ and The Perfect Sketchbook can inspire more artists to take charge and reinvent the business models involved with art-making. Too often art students are ill-equipped to deal with the many realities of the commercial world. As long as we have to pay for our art supplies and food with money, we need to be financially literate. I also hope that my projects inspire and encourage artists to support one another. Truly, none of our projects could have taken off without the support of many artists.

(works by Namchai Saensupha, Isabella Kung, Tracy Lewis, Nathan Fowkes, Jackson Dryden and Audrey) 

The artists include: 
Anthony Francisco 
Catherine Hamilton
Don Low
Erwin Lian
Fawn Veerasunthorn
Hiroshi Hayakawa
Isabella Kung
Iuri Lioi
Jackson Dryden
James Gurney
Jerome Moo
Justin Pastores
Marvin Chew
Namchai Saensupha
Nathan Fowkes
Nathaniel Underwood
Ryan Green
Steve Mitchell
Tracy Lewis

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Drawing Show in Massachusetts

The Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts is presenting an exhibition of master drawings that spans Western art from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, 1725-1805) The Game of Morra, 1756
Drawings have been a playground for both observation and invention. Greuze uses pen with brown and gray ink to map out the structure of a multifigure scene.

All the classic drawing techniques are represented, including pencil, charcoal, pastel, pen-and-ink. Some drawings are enhanced with watercolor and gouache.

Hubert Robert, Roman View with Horseman Passing through the Artch of Titus, 1761
Hubert Robert, a specialist in picturesque ruins, uses red chalk to draw this arch in ancient Rome, before the Forum was excavated.

There are a few sketchbooks displayed in glass cases, including this one by Edgar Degas. The book was a gift of a friend for the artist to use during the conversations after dinner. The sketches on this page include quick portraits of the dinner guests, and it looks like a kid drew a house on the page first.

If you've never been to the Clark, it's well worth it for their permanent collection alone, which includes cream-of-the-crop Sargent, Gérôme, Bouguereau, and Alma Tadema.
"Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings" contains 150 drawings from the Thaw Collection, Morgan Library & Museum, New York. It will be on view through April 22, 2018 at the The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Actor Vasily Kachalov wore this startling makeup prosthetics as the lead character of the play "Anathema" in 1909.

The play was written by Leonid Andreyev, who we met in a recent post about early Russian color photographs compared to portraits by Repin.
More info and photos about Kachalov at Flickr

Sunday, March 4, 2018

What did artists wear when painting outdoors?

After the the last post on Sorolla painting outdoors, a couple of readers questioned whether artists in the 19th or early 20th century really wore a jacket and tie when painting outdoors.

Bror Ljunggren (Swedish, 1884-1939)
One person said: "These photos have to be taken with a grain of salt, because having a picture taken was a big event back then and people were basically posing for a picture. So, it's possible that they were posing and setting up certain elements that maybe they weren't exactly always doing when working, like wearing a suit for example."

I used to think that artists who appeared formally dressed in photos were suiting up for the camera. But the more I've read and learned, the less I think that is true, especially in these plein-air photos. Ladies wore beautiful dresses and hats when they painted. 

Sometimes they had smocks or aprons, but there were nice clothes underneath. 

William Merritt Chase and his students
By the twentieth century, compact, portable Kodak cameras were very common, and there are plenty of candid photos of people in groups painting outdoors. If it looks candid, it is candid.  

John Singer Sargent painting outdoors
If they were among friends, family or other men, gentlemen might remove their jackets, but they kept their hat, a tie, and vest outdoors. Written accounts say that men would apologize to a lady when they were in their shirt sleeves. So Sargent is very informal here. He was also known to mutter "Damn, damn, damn" when a painting wasn't going well, but he would check first to see if ladies were present.  

By the middle of the 20th century, all the rules changed.
Related reading: "Why did men stop wearing hats?" (Esquire)