More color sketches (spring, 2005)

I am a big fan of Japanese masters Hokusai and Hiroshige who lived around 150 years ago, and am trying to emulate their sketch styles done with a brush by copying their works.

I have discovered to my joy that many of the places they sketched are actually in my neighborhood here in Tokyo such as Kameido Tenjin, Ryogokubashi, Shin-Ohashi, and Mannenbashi in Fukagawa. Some of the sites (Nakagawaguchi and Onagigawa) can be seen from my window. I can walk where they walked and draw the things they drew. Well, not exactly; the original structures have been replaced with modern versions, and there is not a ghost of a chance that I will be able to see Mount Fuji from ground level in Tokyo like they did. Too many buildings now.

The links in these paragraphs are to woodblock prints by Hokusai or Hiroshige of these places as they appeared a few centuries ago; don't think for a moment that I drew them!

Here is a quick brush and ink sketch with watercolor of a gate at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. This is not the famous "Kaminari Mon" in front but a small forgotten gate on one side of the grounds. It was the only structure on the grounds that survived a fire many years ago, which makes it the oldest structure there.

No, this sketch is not in the style of Hokusai or Hiroshige; the only similarity is that it was drawn with a brush (or brush pen, rather). I've been sketching almost exclusively with a brush pen for the past few months and have finally started to become comfortable with it. That doesn't mean I'm gotten very good with it, though. Still, I'm excited about the progress I've made.

On Easter Sunday afternoon after church, I quickly sketched this scene of a courtyard outside a store complex. I decided to try pencil for a change. I started with a loose contour drawing with a 6B 2mm drafting pencil, and followed up with watercolor and a waterbrush. This time I tried to make the watercolor play a more active role in defining the subject rather than just reacting to the subject by filling spaces. In other words, the color would not be bullied by the line work as it usually is in my sketches.

As I finished the pencil and watercolor sketch, a magician started his performance in the same courtyard, and soon a crowd of spectators gathered and completely changed the scene. So I took out my brush pen and began sketching them. The brush pen seems perfectly suited for these quick sketches.

Got a new sketch bag and stool

I discovered a great new sketch bag. It's actually a copy of an old military map case. I first heard of it on Mike Rohde's Weblog. It's 12" X 8.5 " X 4.5" which is perfect for F2 sketchbooks which are basically 8" X 10". The inside is divided in two sections. I keep an F2 sketchbook, portable sketching stool and watercolors in the back section, and my regular stuff in the front section. The back has a stiff board in it making it a perfect desk top surface for placing a sketchbook on my lap when sitting on the train (or Moleskine notebook when I'm taking notes in church).

In the front is another small pocket, perfect for a small sketchbook, and elastic holders for tools that I don't normally keep in my pocket, such as brushes and brush pens. I bought two of these bags, and one had five pen slots while the other had six. They were way too narrow for anything but pencils so I used a seam ripper to take out stitches so I would have only three slots. I bought one bag in olive drab for the field and one in black for the city.

Mike Rohde's web site provides links to several vendors who carry this bag, but they apparently don't take orders from outside the United States. I finally found one vendor who does take international orders, and got my bags from them. They are Milford Army Navy in New Hampshire, and they even take Paypal payments!

This folding stool is my latest project. The new bag gave gave me the incentive to make a portable stool to fit inside, after I realized I couldn't buy one that small.

It's made from about 1/4 inch plywood which I simply cut with a cutter knife. It's basically the same size as my F2 sketchbook. This is such a basic design I'm surprised I can't just buy one. I'm also surprised I didn't think of it a long time ago! It's far more slim and portable than any other folding stool I've seen, and high enough for me to sketch comfortably with a sketchbook in my lap. And It's strong enough to hold me.

Now I can carry my sketchbook and stool everywhere, and I do. This week, I've produced more sketches than usual as a result. If anyone out there decides to take this idea and produce nice professional stools for sale, please let me know; I want to buy a few.

This new bag forced me to make one adjustment to my routine, however. My sketch boxes made the bag too fat, and I wasn't able to snap it closed. So I had to settle for my smallest boxes, including my old Winsor and Newton Cotman Field Box. I might still take one of the big sketch boxes when I spend a sketch day down by the river, but I'm very happy with these small ones, too.

The Winsor Newton Cotman Field Box has a water cup and bottle, so I have the option of painting with traditional brushes. If I'm pressed for time or in a place where an open cup of water might not be a good idea, I can use the waterbrushes, and stuff a wad of tissue paper in the cup for quick wiping.

The small wooden box is perfect when I don't want to draw attention to myself, and only want to bring out a sketchbook and very little else. I use only waterbrushes with this one. I've used this box in coffee shops and even while riding the subway.

My wooden pocket sketch box is in the upper left corner. Below that is the Kuretake urushi brush pen. I use Platinum carbon ink cartridges in it which are the exact same size as Kuretake ink cartridges. Kuretake ink is great for drawing but it is not waterproof. To the right is my old Winsor and Newton Cotman Field Box, now filled with tube colors. On top of it is a Holbein Tourist Mini portable brush on the left, and to the right are two Pentel Aquash waterbrushes, full size and mini. At the lower left is another Holbein Tourist Mini with the brush inside the handle. I don't know if you can find these Holbein brushes outside of Japan, but they work great and are inexpensive.

Sketches and final paintings

I have several books by various artists that show both rough watercolor sketches and final studio watercolor paintings based on those sketches. Maybe it's just me, but I invariably find the rough sketches much more exciting than the finished paintings.

I would much rather look at someone's sketchbook of rough color sketches done on the spot than I would a finished painting. There is a thrill in the artist's spontaneous reaction to the subject even with all the scribbles, mistakes and inaccuracies. Maybe it's because of them.

That's one reason I see sketching as a worthy goal in itself, and not just a means to an end. The activity itself is fun, and the results can sometimes be more thrilling than anything you will see hanging in a gallery.

More thoughts on sketching and drawing styles can be found on page 28.

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