Truly Top Drawer

February 13, 2012

Brian Stelfreeze taught me that all art supplies are not created equal, and that everything alters how they perform, from heat and cold, to humidity. Paper that has a slick surface will feel like sandpaper the next day, sometimes within hours. Anyway, I’m always on the look out for new papers, pencils, pens, etc… to find the next perfect thing. A few years ago when I was taking care of my mom after a fall, I ended up buying a cheap sketch pad just to do some drawing, but it seemed to hate every pencil I owned. At first, I thought it would be great, with its glass like surface ( I love smooth surfaced papers), but it hated the technical leads I had so I put it aside.

Recently, I’ve been reading a series of books by Disney animator, Walt Stanchfield (I’ll do a post just about those next) and one of the things he really pushes is sketching with a pen. This isn’t a new concept, but I always shied away from it, because I hate the way pens only seem to have one drawing edge, the tip. Not to mention, it feels like I’m drawing on concrete when using a pen. After deciding to give it a try, I pulled out that old pad I got at my mom’s, and it was a joy. It just proves you have to use the right tools for the job.

I starting taking my sketch pad to the local drawing session, the one where most of the people there are either students (who think they’re going to change the face of the art world), those my age who took art in college (but couldn’t find a way to make a living at it), older artists (who just want to remind themselves why they enjoyed drawing), or creepy, ex-hippies (who always hit on the model). It’s fun to see the look on people’s faces when they’re breaking out their hand made papers, imported Italian vine charcoal, French pastels, mini watercolor sets, and then they see me pull out my art pad; I love the smirks and giggles. I’ve always wondered why the people who seem to do the weakest work are always the ones who grump at the model over the pose, or show up every week just to spend most of their time standing outside smoking. I’ve become aware that these are always the same people who also crank out the “art sigh” midway through a pose. You know, that loud exhale, which fills the room as if they’ve been talking to a mother who keeps criticizing their choice of instant coffee.

The problem is that now I’ve worn down the pad, and I haven’t been able to find a replacement one. It’s odd that my old home town doesn’t have that many art stores, nowhere near the range of ethnic foods, mostly chain restaurants with old junk stapled to the wall, and all the food on the shelves is boxed and processed; but somehow it managed to have one obscure variety of paper pad. I hit my local art stores, trying to explain what I was looking for to the art snob teen behind the counter. You know the type, the one who always gives you the big grump when you start explaining things to them, and then replies “I only work in spray paint”. I described the surface of the paper as being similar to newsprint, so immediately they give me a pad of their generic pulp to which I say “No this is rough, the stuff I have is like glass, but cheap like newsprint.”, this was followed by another grump. On a side note, I’ve noticed that all newsprint pads in art stores seem to be marked as “rough”, but has anyone ever seen a pad marked “smooth”? I’m sure they exist, but then so do baby pigeons. It’s at this point, usually, when the art punks try to get “logical” with you.

“Like, if you had it with you, like, I might be able to…” and then I pull out the pad. (Insert eye role, giggle, and elevated levels of patronizing tones to the voice) “Like, what do you use this for?”

I’m using it at my drawing sessions.

“Like, this stuff is crap.”

Oh you’ve tried it before?

“Like, no, but look at the cover”

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

“Dude, like, it’s not a book, it don’t have any words in it”

(face palm) — So I kept looking.

Remember, I bought it at a grocery, but in DC the only super markets are Safeway, Whole Foods, and a Trader Joes. Two of which don’t carry school/art supplies at all, and with a Safeway fail, the only other options were CVS and Rite Aid— both of which are only slightly larger than a gas station market. As the pad dwindled, I expanded my search to the internet, and I found it on Amazon. As with most things that aren’t movies, books, or a TV, on Amazon, the shipping exceeds the cost of the product. We’re talking about a pad that cost me a couple of bucks, and they wanted almost $10 to ship it. That goes against all logic.

So now I go with the last resort, I ask my mom to get some for me. This is pathetic, it’s right up there with asking your mom to cut the crust off your sandwich, to do your laundry, or when exactly she plans to send those socks she said she got you from the Old Navy she works at. Regardless, I thought — she goes to the grocery anyway, so she can just throw it in the box when she sends it.  To make it a little easier, I sent her a pic I found online of what I wanted, so she’d know what she was looking for.

You can’t tell my mom you like something, because then you get 10 of the same item in every color available. My mom, especially, will hunt it down like a US Marshall if it’s not readily available; and that’s exactly what she did. It wasn’t enough to go in, look on the shelf and say “Nope, they don’t have it”, and leave it at that. No, she pulls the manager aside and says “I’m looking for this.”, then proceeds to pull out a print out of the picture I sent,  making him run around the store looking for it. They found a single pad, but it didn’t have the same cover as what I asked for. Despite this, she forced the poor manager to go back into the store room to look for more. My mom, God love her, sent the pads to me, and even with the re-branding, they were exactly what I was looking for. So now I can enjoy my model sessions, practicing gesture drawings, and my exacting pen exercises, with no worries of running out of paper.

So if you’re looking for nothing but the best when it comes to art supplies, make sure you go out and get a “Scribble Pad” from the Carolina Paper Company at your local Publix. Yep, only the finest products will do for my grand artistic vision. So says the bear, or as it is now, a duck. What a quack.

Only the best for a masterpiece!

One of the most important exercises an artist can do is life drawing. I’ve been trying my best to get to a local studio session once a week to practice drawing from a model. It’s so easy to slip into bad habits, to become repetitive with your poses, or to use shortcuts when working, simply to save time and to meet deadlines. Doing any of those things is also the easiest way to stagnate yourself artistically. Constant challenge, be it self imposed, or by the pose before you, keeps you fresh and alert. For me, the challenges are more self imposed, as I’m trying to get a better understanding of how shadows form. Not so much to build high contrast images in the manner of Mike Mignola (Hellboy) or Frank Miller (Sin City). Rather to understand their nature, how they’re slaves of light and form, and how the smallest shift of the body can drastically alter their shape. (whoah, deeeeeep) Within all that there’s also the daily challenge of capturing the likeness, the correct proportions, and general look of the subject. Below are some recent efforts.

Sometimes it seems to work…

When it does, you get a little more adventurous with your blacks…

But, sometimes you run out of time…




Often you fail…

Worst yet, there are those nights when you’ve had too much of the free boxed wine someone brought…

C’est la vie.

Figure that?

March 5, 2011

Ok- so all I’ve been doing, for what seems like forever, is GI Joe or other cartooning images. Recently, I found out that a local drawing group had switched nights which works better with my schedule, so for the first time in a while I got to do a little life drawing. Nothing fancy, but here are my latest efforts. The first is a 10 minute pose.

Ok- that needs a little work, but the next one was a 40 minute pose, with a 5 min. break at the 20 min. mark – that’s really for the model rather than the artists. What’s so hard about sitting? Try not moving at all that long, and see if your legs don’t lock up, fall asleep, and cramp up… as she said they did. Poor girl- but she was a good model.


Of Wet and Peace

May 24, 2010

I have been an avid visitor to the National Gallery since June of 2000, when I moved to Washington, DC. Over the years, I have tried to take full advantage of the benefits it offers to professional artists like myself, by studying the collection and master works contained there, whenever the opportunity availed itself. One of the oldest, most common, and widely used methods of learning for artists is the practice of sketching from classic works in the attempt to learn how the masters before us resolved problems in the conveying of an image to paper. I have always attempted to abide by the rules of gallery, which are clearly stated on the website as “Visitors may sketch with pencils or other dry media in the galleries without a permit.” That’s it. There is nothing more, not the slightest mention of any restriction beyond that. I have never attempted to skirt this rule, not even to use markers (like the Faber-Castell Pitt Brush Pens that are being sold in the Gallery’s gift shop!) when sketching from the works, out of respect for the Gallery.

Imagine my confusion this morning, Monday, May 24, when I was all but assaulted by a guard in gallery 26, while viewing the German Master Drawings exhibition. Despite following the above rules of conduct, nor being in violation of special exhibit rules (as stated under the Museum Policies page on the website) Photography for personal use is permitted except in special exhibitions and where specifically prohibited.” Please note, there is no mention of “sketching” under the special exhibit policy. Upon arriving I pulled out my sketch book, my black graphite and my white chalk, then began my attempt to learn the proper use of light and dark from all the masters I could find. This is the same method I have been using at the National Gallery for the past 10 years, without a single comment every being made to me, but today was different. A guard approached me and made the inquiry “What are you drawing with? You can’t use color.”

I found this as odd since I’ve never heard (nor read in the policies included above) that “color” was not allowed. I asked him to repeat himself, thinking perhaps I misunderstood, but again he said “color”.  I replied “I think you mean paint, but this isn’t wet. I know the policy I’ve done this for years.” So I went back to my drawing, and he walked away. I assumed he was satisfied, but apparently not. He approached me several minutes later and again said “You can’t use color.”

“What do you mean? I’m not using color- these are pencils.”

“That- THAT is color!” He said pointing at the white chalk.

“That’s not color, that’s white chalk.” (I won’t get into the age old art debate of white being the presence of all color and black being the absence of it, etc…)

“You have to stop!” He stated.

“No I don’t. I know the policy- no wet paint- these are pencils!”

“You have to leave if you don’t stop.”

“I don’t think so- you’re wrong.” At this point I knew he was just going to keep saying “color” at me. My mom always said when you can’t reason with someone, move up the ladder.

“You need to get your supervisor.” This seemed to stop him for a moment. I said it again, “You need to get a supervisor in here to clear this up.” Knowing that I was not in violation of any of the museum’s stated policy, I was being firm, and I was going to demand that I be proven wrong rather than bullied. At this point, you might think a guard would welcome the assistance, and even better, a supervisor (as requested by the visitor) to prove his point, if in fact he was correct. The reply wasn’t anything of the sort, rather he responded with “Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?!”

“No, you just need to get a supervisor in here to explain the policy to you.” He just stood there. “Go on. I’m not leaving until you get a supervisor in here.” He stuttered a moment and then finally got on his walkie-talkie and asked for a supervisor. Then he turned to me and said “Sit down.”, pointing at a near-by bench.

“No. I’ll stand here and wait for the supervisor.”

“You have to sit down.”

“No I don’t. You’re not a cop.” I replied. With that he walked to a side area of the gallery. So then we began standing for a few minutes, and I waited. After a bit he started to walk toward the area I was in, and I started watching him, half expecting him to explain something, the other half not trusting him to try something more forceful. At this point he said something entirely unexpected.

“Are you staring at me?”


“You- stop staring at me. You can’t stare at me.”

“I’m not staring at you, I’m waiting for your damn supervisor to show up. You can’t tell me where I’m allowed to look!” Moments later another guard came into the room, a heavy black man. I thought, “Finally, the supervisor!” I started to approach him to make sure my case was heard with equality. Turns out this was another guard, and I heard him ask the man “You’ve got an emergency?” “No.” he replied, then muttered something to the new guard in a whisper. I won’t try to guess. A few additional minutes went by, and the guard requested on his walkie-talkie that a supervisor needed to appear, once again. Then what looked more like an armed security guard from the entrances, rather than someone of management, entered the room. He asked what the situation was, before the guard could speak, and I told him. “I was sketching, he told me to stop, he saying I was using color, I said I wasn’t, and that this isn’t paint. He said I couldn’t, but there’s no such policy, you’re only prevented from using wet medium!”

“Well you’re not allowed to use color.”

“That’s not right. You’re not allowed to use paint or anything wet. These are pencils. It’s all dry! I know the policy I’ve been doing this for 10 years the same way!” Then the “supervisor” said the same, insane thing the original guard did…

“That’s color.”

“NO, it’s NOT, it’s white chalk! This is a tonal rendering, it’s not paint!”

“OK, calm down. He’s just doing his job.”

“He’s doing it wrong! I know the policy, he’s the one who doesn’t!” After a few moments the supervisor turned to me and said.

“Fine, well, that’s cleared up, have a good day.”

That’s it?! I’m verbally assaulted, my safety is threatened, I’m surrounded by three guards, one of whom attempts to physically intimidate me, another who has a gun, I’m falsely accused of violating museum policy when I haven’t, I’m embarrassed in front of countless people, so flustered that my hands are shaking, and all of this because people don’t understand how to do their jobs! Yet somehow I’m supposed to just turn away and go back to sketching? This whole situation is mind numbing on so many levels. There is no possible way, after something like this that, a person can simply go back to doing an activity as delicate as drawing. The most infuriating thing… not one apology was offered by any of the guards, despite the fact that they know they were in the wrong, and the published policy of the Gallery clearly states they were wrong. This is another example of how the Gallery has failed to educate their staff in the policies the Gallery itself initiated. If the museum has decided that the posted rules are in fact that- the rules- then they need to make sure the entire staff understands them, and can enforce them properly.

If I decide to return to the gallery in the near future, which I’m not sure I can right now, I will be sure to take a printed copy of the Gallery policies from the website with me, and I will suggest to every artist I know that they do the same. It’s sad when visitors to our Nation’s art collection have to carry documentation of their rights to protect themselves from the people who are supposed to be the experts on the rules to begin with.

So in an attempt to unwind from my “relaxing” day of drawing at the National Gallery, I went to have lunch with the wife. She decided to record my mood with a picture. I hope everyone else had a better day.


Sketch, rinse, repeat.

May 23, 2010

Almost every time I see someone getting a portfolio review it ends with the same comment, “Sketch from life”. Invariably you can tell which artists listen to this and which ones don’t based on one simple fact, what their work looks like the next time you see it. I know artists, and even some friends, who never heed this advice. Over the course of years, I never see any improvement in their work, yet they always talk about how they’re on the verge of getting a big break at Marvel or DC. It never happens.

When I moved to Washington, not knowing a soul, I spent a lot of time at the local coffee house sketching, and sketching, and sketching. Within six months I felt I had improved more than I had in the previous five years. Why? Sketching. It’s not something I have a ton of time for anymore, but I try to get out there and do it whenever possible.

Why do it though? What does it actually help with, other than filling time and justifying the adage of “practice makes perfect”? What’s so damn helpful about it that drawing super heroes from imagination all day doesn’t do?

Sketching from life isn’t some snooty requirement of art schools- it serves a purpose. It trains the eye and brain in all the basics of drafting at once. Every sketch done from real life is a crash course in drawing. It trains one to see proportions, perspective, anatomy, shading, textures, dynamics, composition, etc, all at the same time. There’s not a wasted moment with sketching from life, not that I’ve found. Drawing from imagination, before you’ve learned how to draw to begin with, only reinforces your mistakes and poor decision making.

Despite slight variations in design, we all know the approximate height that a seat of a chair should be in relationship to the human body, how high a counter top in a kitchen is, the width that a chair/couch needs to be to accommodate an adult human, or how wide/tall a door needs to be to allow a person through it. The practice of drawing those proportions makes us more aware of the relationships between objects, so when we are drawing from imagination, we can gauge these fabricated spacial relationships more accurately. Artists who fail to understand these proportions will convey it in their images, often that is what feels off about a drawing. One common mistake I see is in overhead (bird eye angle) shots of people standing next to a car that they could never fit in. Sometimes, it’s a dining table way too short for people to fit their knees under should they have a meal at it. These are obvious mistakes to spot, mainly because we see these spacial relationships between humans and objects every day.

Clothing is the same, many artists can not draw a suit jacket to save their lives. It’s one of the most common costumes seen in comic books, yet so many artists can’t do it. Clark Kent = suit, office workers on street when heroes are fighting = suits, mobsters = suits, secret service agents = suits, hell, any government agency guys = suits. Folds in fabric are like snowflakes, never the same twice, but subject to certain consistencies by their nature. Cloth has certain tendencies, but no hard fast rules, yet again, it’s obvious to the eye when it’s drawn incorrectly. Drawing from life is the best education an artist can get for rendering fabric. Yes, understanding the basics of drapery is beneficial, such as how folds tend to radiate out from a pinch point, and how they stretch from whatever structure they snag upon; from an elbow to a knee. But sketching from life trains the mind to understand how clothing moves on the form, so when you draw cloth from imagination, you have a sense of how it should look. Pant cuffs around the ankle are some of the most difficult as they change shape drastically from standing position to sitting down. An artist has to be aware of these tendencies for in those subtle, but highly important, details one can make or break a drawing.

Drawing from life will help an artist more than all the books, lectures, suggestions, or insights anyone can give. My wife read an article that said it takes 10,000 hours of practice (on average) for a person to master any skill. I know I’m not even half way there yet, and we all need the practice. This doesn’t mean an artist should labor all of those 10,000 hours on one drawing trying to get it perfect. Jason Pearson told me about an artist who used to show him artwork at conventions, Jason would critique it, and months later that same artist would show Jason the same pages with the corrections. Jason said the artist did this several times, always showing him the same pages for critique, as if he got those pages perfect, then he would get work. Jason told the guy, “You need to do new pages every time, not just continually correct these. You’ll never learn how to handle new challenges if you only address these over and over. Plus, when working on a book your schedule only allows about a day to each page. What publisher is going to give you six months to get one page right?” The basic idea is to sketch, rinse, repeat. As an artist you learn more from the challenges in a blank sheet of paper, than you ever will in perfecting one image. By the end of a month, what would you rather have? 100 sketches showing a clear, forward progression of skill? Or one drawing you think is perfect now, but will find fault in within the week? I’ve never known a great artist who thought they had done a perfect drawing. I have known plenty of artists who think they’re ready to go pro, and all the guys working just don’t know it yet.

Now, shuddap and go sketch something.