Monday, March 26, 2018

My Day on WGN-TV Morning News

As part of the promotion team for the Urban Sketchers 8th International Symposium, hosted for the first time in Chicago, I was honored to represent the organization by appearing on the WGN-TV Morning News. The anchors on this day included Robin Baumgarten, Dan Ponce, Morgan Kolkar and a little help from Mike Toomey. 

The idea was to have Liz Steel, Australian watercolor illustrator/instructor and one of the original members of Urban Sketchers, and myself sit in on the broadcast and sketch away as they checked in on us from time to time. We were on during the 9:00 am hour which is a lighter content and the last hour of their morning broadcast. Liz arrived about 7:30 am and sat outside on the summery July 26 morning and sketched the exterior of the WGN Studios. I arrived about 8:00 am and somehow missed Liz painting outside. I went directly into the building, checked in and settled into the green room. Liz joined me about 8:15 and the ladies from PR Chicago joined us to debrief us. Our green room was directly across the hallway from a large pillar with Bozo The Clown painted on it and apparently the old studio where the popular children's program was filmed for many years. I felt nostalgic.

We were to sit in on the broadcast and sketch quietly. They would be checking in on us as they went to commercial breaks and we expected to have one segment where we talked about urban sketching and make sure that viewers knew about the public sketch crawl happening on Saturday the 29th. We were told they would expect us to only be sketching different views of the set.

Robin and Dan chatted with us during the commercial breaks and when they found out Liz had an infectious Aussie accent, Dan prodded Robin to do her accent. She declined knowing that it might be insulting to someone like Liz who actually spoke the language. We sat in the semi-circle stage about 20 feet away from the news desk with a jungle of cameras, teleprompters and cables between us. Our interview segment went exactly as we were told while Ray the cameraman and Mike Toomey came up to me with requests that I sketch them. The cameras were particularly interested in the clip board set up Liz had with messy watercolor trays and water cups with her painting. I covered all of the specific talking points we needed to cover while Liz and I dazzled them with our studio sketches. 

In an exciting turn of events, Robin and Dan had technical difficulties while trying to conduct an interview with the author of a new book and turned to Liz and I for a surprise check in. They had time to kill and we were happy to oblige with additional air time. By the time the hour was up, the crew had chatted with us three times and positioned their cameras over us for every commercial break. I'd say our time on WGN was a huge success.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why you should always carry a sketchbook

Why you should always carry a sketchbook:

1. To capture movement and gestures
2. To observe how people live, work and play
3. Adding people will give you a better story to tell with your sketch
4. People give scale to your environment

Let me give you a better idea with a story: 

I volunteered to chaperone my son's high school band to observe the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during one of their rehearsals. These rehearsals are a casual, daytime practice session for the orchestra before that evening's concert. While most of these musicians are professional and don't really need practice, it gives the conductor the opportunity to put his artistic interpretation on any given performance so that the collective musical selections properly conveys the story he wants to tell.

After the audience had settled into their seats 
(many school groups were represented), a pre-rehearsal announcement came over the speakers: “Attention. Please note that under no circumstances is the use of any electronic recording devices allowed during the performance. This includes cameras, cell phones, audio and video recorders.”

Artists generally bristle at rules and often listen closely to see how a system can be hacked: “COOL! They didn’t say sketchbooks.”

My Mission: to capture the essence of the rehearsal, including the very casual informal dress of the musicians and how members of a section would get up and have a conference while another section was playing.

My lesson from this experience: Always bring a sketchbook. Seize the opportunity because you never know when a sketch will be your only way to capture a moment.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Little Gems on the Metra Rail

Browsing through the Metra newsletter "Letters to the Editor" section, or the Metra Twitter feed, you would think that the only people who ride the train are forced to against their will as if they are held prisoners to the easiest commuter system in Chicago. Nothing but ill will towards their fellow commuters. There is a mantra on the train that goes "When you see something, say something." 

What I find peculiar is when a commuter feels compelled to protest the actions of their seat mate, instead of saying something directly to that person, they turn to the only outlet they feel can help them–the editors of the Metra On The Bi-Level newsletter. In today's environment, actual names are kept private and anonymity is what allows people to complain without threat.

By the time the editors receive the complaint and publish it in the printed newsletter, two months have passed and the situation that prompted the letter is long past. Many of the letters are funny which is why I believe many of them are printed for others to read.

In my personal experience, and that I am the eternal optimist, I have found quite the opposite and rather enjoy the company of mankind on the train. And every so often, I will spot a moment that I want to share so badly with those complainers. Here are two examples.

The image at the top are two young lovers who are enjoying their time together and that includes their time on the train. This kind of scene restores my faith in humanity.

Below are two of the four gentlemen who had turned their seats to face each other (during a crowded heavy commuter hour which is often frowned upon by the conductors) and were carrying on a lively card game. This may happen a lot but this was the first time I had witnessed it myself. They were having so much fun and I was enjoying sitting across from them to the point of almost joining them in conversation. But then I didn't want to disturb their momentum.

Monday, March 5, 2018

My Tribute To Chuck

So first, what is urban sketching? Allow me to illustrate with one of my stories.
A Tribute to Chuck

It was a late August Sunday afternoon in 2015. The Urban Sketchers Chicago group go together for one of their monthly sketchcrawls in Evanston, IL. 

We all met at the Blicks Art Store for a quick introduction and then everyone dispersed to all parts of the city in search of something interesting to sketch. I only walked a couple of blocks before I stumbled by this 1958 Triumph TR3 (white, mint condition, and convertible). It was parked across the street from Clark’s restaurant, a local favorite in Evanston. This vintage car captivated me and I just had to sketch it.

When I hit the 70% completion stage, two young ladies exited Clark’s and walked directly across the street towards the TR3. I had to hurry fast to get in any missing details before they started up the car. I needed to do something that would buy me some more time.

So I yelled out “Thank you for letting me sketch your car.” “Excuse me?” came the reply? “You sketched my car? Can I see it?”

I proudly held up my sketch book to prove I wasn’t just making stuff up.

The woman's name who apparently was the owner and driver of the car was Amanda Yeast and this very day was the maiden voyage of this TR3. She had recently brought the car home from laying her father to rest. His name was Chuck Yeast and this was his car. Amanda was the recipient of his little project car. Amanda mentioned that they had to transport the car in a rental truck since it was too small for a normal car transport.

The car did not immediately turn over, so the two women jumped into action: Amanda sat behind the wheel and directed her friend to open up the air filter and spray the starting ether into the carburetor when she gave the word. After a couple of tries, the Triumph fired to life. This was not the first time they had to conduct this maneuver.

Amanda asked if I would send her a copy of the sketch once I had completed it. She gave me her email address I sent her the sketch about a week later.

For me, urban sketching is a chance to get outside in the fresh air and meet interesting people with interesting stories. My sketches are my way of capturing those stories in a single visual that, whenever I see the sketch, launches into the stories as if they just happened yesterday.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Best Practices for Sketching People in Public

I am often asked how I am able to sketch people in public without getting people angry or upset. After years of sketching people at airports, on commuter trains and even while in waiting rooms, here is what has worked best for me. Perhaps one of these will work for you.

1.    Sketch first, ask later. In my experience, when you first ask for permission to sketch a person, it may be met with initial resistance, or it will effect the pose you were originally attracted to. Besides, if you already have a sketch started and the person asks what you are doing, having a concrete example can work better than explaining what you are planning to do.

2.    Creative Disguising. Normally accepted disguises, such as hats and sunglasses work well to cover your gaze. The idea is to blend in, not stand out and attract attention so sunglasses in a dark restaurant or tavern might cause suspicion.

3. Sketch in a smaller book is a great way to disguise that you are drawing.

4.    Don’t Be A Bobble-head. Pick a more crowded location. If you are the only other person in the room, anything you do will be noticeable. Cartoon of head movements.

5.    Leverage reflections at night. If someone looks back at you, move your head side to side as if trying to look past them. Cartoon of subject upset, on window is warning “Caution: objects in reflection are closer than they appear.”

6.    Sketch from inside your car. Lots of people eat or have phone calls inside their car. Sad cartoon of lowly artist sketching from behind steering wheel.

7.    Sketch from an upper level, or from the side, out of their line of sight. Sketching from below is still within their peripheral.

8.    Capture first in pencil to block out the basic posture and position. Add color or shading later if you have time. For moving subjects, go for your impressions of their movements such as dancers or skateboarders at the park. 

9.    Pick subjects who are fully engrossed in their activity. Examples might include commuters on their electronic devices, a chef at work behind a viewing window, or an athlete during a sporting event.

10. Invite a friend to lunch or coffee and chat while sketching over their shoulder. I used this technique when I got together with Liz Steel while we planned out our WGN-TV interview while sitting at a coffee shop. She, of course, did the same and we sketched in opposite directions.

In the event that you do get "caught" and the subject confronts you, simply show them your sketch and allow them to look at it. Most of the time, people will be relieved that you were not taking photos and sketches are more flattering than photographs. Feel free to start a conversation with the person if the opportunity presents itself.

I'd love to hear which one works best for you and your stories of how it turned out in the comments below. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

How I create WordPortraits™

How I create WordPortraits™
If you want to create a really special, personalized gift for someone very important to you, here is an idea that I started to do a few years ago and have perfected over time. I call them WordPortraits™ and they are portraits of people using mostly words that describe the person to make up the color tones within the sketch. Here is my step-by-step process so you can create one of your own.

Step 1: Get a good, clear photo of your subject
I like to gather a few good, candid photos that are large enough so that you can make out the details of their head. You should only be concerned with the head and shoulders so a full-length photo will not be very helpful. By having several photos from which to choose, you will be able to get a sense of their style of clothing, hair and most recognizable expression (since most people are pretty critical of their face when looking at photos of themselves).

Step 2: Generate a list of words
Generating a list of words that describe the person will probably take the longest and may require the help of someone close to this person (family members, spouse, parents, etc.) I always like to include anything that will be memorable and insightful of this person’s life. Things like favorite dates, memories, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements, nicknames, places they have visited, and names of family members to name a few. The idea is that when this person reads every inch of the portrait, they smile at the familiar and are blown away that you remembered a seemingly insignificant moment that you shared.

Step 3: Trace out the photo
Now that you have selected the best photo which looks the most like your subject, make sure it is large enough for you to trace important details such as the shape or their lips, the color of their eyes, and the flow of their hair. You do not need to trace out every strand of hair but the shape of hair sections will be useful when you go to add in type later. In the example shown, (Fig. 3) you will notice that I have sketch lines which indicate the direction that the hair is combed and that the lines are far enough apart that I can fill in words as needed.

Step 4: Create a rough sketch with words
Whenever I attempt a portrait sketch for the first time, I like to create a rough sketch to practice how some of the more challenging words will fit into certain sections. I usually create this rough with one black pen. No need to pencil in first because this whole first step is just a rough and you will be able to find out very quickly which words work well for certain challenging spaces.

People often ask me how I know which words to put where and my only response is to look at the space that needs to be filled and scan the list to find a word(s) that will fit the best. For tight spaces, I like short words like “bold,” “calm,” and “loved” which show up in lots of portraits. Since I am hand writing these words, I can condense, stretch, enlarge, fatten and even shrink words as I see fit in order for them to fit where I need them to fit. This really is a giant puzzle of words that all need to fit together like a mosaic. If the list is particularly long, I might take a colored pen and check of each word that I have used in the sketch so that I don’t miss anything. As long as you use each word once, there is nothing wrong with repeating words again elsewhere in the sketch.

Once you are satisfied with how your puzzle of words are fitting together, you can stop at any point you feel you have the hang of it, even if your rough is not completely filled in. When I do repeat words, I like to make sure they are far enough away from each other so that no one picks up on the repeat right away. Most people will not detect the repeat on the first viewing and you are lucky if they read every single word at all. They usually get to the point where they say, “This is amazing,” and they just smile.

Step 5: Make your final sketch
Now that you are ready to make your final sketch, pull out a clean sheet of heavy drawing paper. My preference has been to center your sketch on an 18” x 24” Canson 140-pound, cold press watercolor paper. Transfer your original line sketch to this paper with a light blue Saral® brand transfer paper or with the carbon transfer method*. I like to make my sketches at least 11” x 14” centered on this larger paper to offer flexibility in matting and framing a bit later.

The simplest portrait can be done as a black & white pen and ink sketch. I used to do my first portraits as only black & white until I discovered that the soft tones and shadows around the face were too heavy-handed in just black ink, so I started to incorporate grey tones with the grey Sharpie Extra Fine Point. As time went on, I had decided that I kept wanting to add more color (such as eyes and hair color) until I eventually made these portraits in full color. By having a full set of Sharpie Extra Fine Point and the broader Sharpie Fine Point color markers, I could perform most any color combination and contrasts that I needed. Again, the final sketch is very similar to the rough sketch of puzzling in words to fit the desired spaces only this time the color element has been added in. For highlights in the hair, select which two or three markers you will use so that you can switch back and forth to simulate the highlight effect.

*If you are not familiar with the carbon transfer method, you simply take your line drawing and turn it over, scribble all over the backside with a #2 soft lead pencil, then turn the line drawing over face up and completely retrace the lines with a ballpoint pen. When you are finished, gently lift one corner to ensure that a light grey pencil line drawing has been copied to your final drawing paper.