Ink and Watercolor Plein Air Sketches

I haven’t painted outdoors much, but the few times that I have, I’ve sketched scenes quickly in ink (black Sharpie fine point pen) and watercolor pencil (Prismacolor).

The hardest things to draw when sketching outdoors are things that move.  Humans, birds, dogs, cats…these are all difficult to sketch quickly, so you have to approximate proportions and try to keep things in memory for as long as possible.

Many professional wildlife artists have a habit of sketching things quickly in the field.  Some go on hikes with a sketchbook and draw anything of interest that comes into view.  Even if their objects of interest scamper away before they’re drawn to satisfaction, these artists claim that sketching increases their understanding of the world around them.  After sketching stuff regularly for a few years, I agree:  sketching is a powerful observational tool.

Today was the Hermann Park Kite Festival, so I walked over, found a comfy spot with a good view, and sketched the following scene in ink and watercolor pencil:


I’ve created similar plein air sketches with ink and watercolor pencil in the past.  Here’s one from May, 2013.  It’s a sketch of Torrey Pines State Reserve as seen from North Beach, in La Jolla, CA:


Finally, this is a sketch of the Pacific Ocean as seen from Torrey Pines Gliderport:




My New Strategy for Managing Multiple Skill Sets and Habits

A long time ago, in an era of my life filled with hard work, stress, and lack of sleep, I was a big procrastinator.  In my late twenties,  a good friend introduced me to Leo Babauta‘s idea that habits are more important than willpower and that robust habits are formed by starting very small, working every day, and slowly building up.  (James Clear also posted about this very same topic today.)  This “habits over willpower” idea started me down the road to developing desired habits; eventually, I crowded out undesired habits.  By my early thirties, I had finally slain the demon of procrastination that had plagued me for so long.  Good riddance!

However, like most people, I still had trouble doing more than a few things outside of work each day, and, since I wanted to devote substantial time to any skill set or habit–and by “substantial” I mean at least thirty minutes–I still wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to do.  Each day, after leaving work, I would do the following in some order and would then run out of time for anything else: socialize, prepare dinner, draw/paint, and run or lift weights.

If you had asked me, say, a year ago, if it’s possible to achieve high levels of skill in multiple endeavors, while keeping each of them active in your life, I would easily have said no.  I would have pointed to the case of Rhodes Scholars, who, despite a high level of achievement in multiple endeavors, seem to achieve things linearly instead of in parallel.

That all changed very recently when I changed my time management strategy to make it more flexible and more capable of handling multiple skill sets/habits.  Although I’m still testing it, I’ve implemented it daily for a few weeks now and it’s been much more effective than any organizational strategy I’ve used before.  (For most of my life, if I neglected anything for several days, it was at high risk of being neglected for weeks and then months, which was terrible because I ended up spending a lot of time regaining lost skill/knowledge.)  It also requires much less overhead in terms of tracking activities and finding time for them.  For the first time in forever, I’m making consistent progress along each skill set/habit without neglecting anything.

I work full-time and work out every day, but I also want to make progress along the following skill sets: rheumatology, presentations, drawing/painting, writing, classical guitar, and computer programming.  Another requirement is the ability to stay flexible, so that I can, say, attend social events or explore new opportunities.

My new strategy is very simple:  devote at least five minutes to each skill set every single day.

It’s not possible to devote a significant amount of time to every skill set or habit every day, because this will push everything else out of your life and render your days rigid and brittle.  However, it is possible to rotate “significant” time amongst your various desired skill sets, and the best way to do this is to spend some time on each skill set every day, so that you don’t drop any of them.  This has an interesting and useful side effect:  by spending some time on each skill set every day, you have a feel for which skill sets have been neglected over the past few days and need to be pushed to the front (e.g., these will get thirty minutes or more of dedicated time), and also for which skill sets have been getting too much attention and need to be pushed to the back (e.g., these will get, say, five minutes of dedicated time).

If I’m very busy in a given week and don’t have much time to spend on activities outside of work, or if I’m working on a big presentation and have to dedicate most of my time to that, I might take very small steps along the other skill sets, such as adding a few lines to a blog entry, or just a few strokes to a digital painting, or spending a few minutes on a classical guitar exercise that’s giving me particular trouble.

My theory is that it’s better to spend a tiny amount of time on any desired skill set each day than to let it go completely unpracticed for an entire busy week.  These daily “microsteps”, punctuated regularly (such as every few days) by significant steps, seem to be ideal.

Additionally, there’s much less pressure to be very serious about any of these skill sets, because they can be compressed at any time to make room for novel opportunities or special events.  I’ve finally relinquished the stress that comes with deep commitment to a ton of stuff all the time.

With this new approach, everything in my life gets sufficient attention over time.  Of course, this strategy (and any strategy, quite frankly) will fail if one attempts to do too many things, but I think that this is the best approach I’ve used so far for managing many skill sets/habits without abandoning any of them.

Update 2/1/16: I’m still using this strategy!  What I realized is that one must exercise good judgment about which activities get the most attention.  The correct priority of activities is important.  This can be difficult to know at first.  For example, I realized I’d rather become a better writer than a better artist.  So, I now spend more time on writing than on drawing.  I also realized that programming is too low of a priority to keep stringing it along.  So, I ditched programming altogether.  While I was studying seriously for my rheumatology boards, studying and my significant other were my first priorities outside of work.  Etc.


I wrote this essay a few months into rheumatology fellowship:

Our hands are so integral to our lives that we often take them for granted.  They push us off the floor and keep us upright as we learn to walk.  In grade school and college, they write, type, and text for us with perfect obedience.  They mash down on video game controllers to help us defeat virtual enemies.  They grip, throw, or catch something in nearly every sport other than soccer.  They steer automobiles, bring coffee mugs to our lips, and apply makeup to our faces with dexterity developed over years of unself-conscious use.  They hold others’ hands and bodies as we fall in love.  They transcribe our poems and stories and actualize our drawings and paintings.  They pluck guitar strings and strike piano keys.  If we are lucky enough (or unlucky, depending on our perspective) to become old, they will grasp canes, walkers, other people, and sturdy objects to steady our frail bodies in ambulation.

As we soar along the arc of life, we remain largely unaware of our hands until their use is abrupted.

We are nothing without our hands.  As a first-year rheumatology fellow, I see all sorts of hands.  I see the hands of the “worried well”, the normal-appearing but paresthetic, hypesthetic, and tender hands of those with repetitive strain injuries, the knobbly hands of the many with osteoarthritis, and the profoundly disfigured and dislocated hands of people ravaged by decades of uncontrolled rheumatoid arthritis.  One older woman, the sole caregiver for her husband, had rapid-onset digital necrosis in both hands and was found to have vasculitis on kidney biopsy.  The distal halves of most of her fingers have shriveled like flattened toads on a highway.  They will eventually fall off on their own.  I have seen the doughy, mammilated hands of a 30-something woman with multicentric reticulohistiocytosis, an extremely rare disease.  The bones of her fingers have slowly resorbed and fractured over time, telescoping her fingers into a “Marshmallow Man”-like appearance.  She is homebound, unable to write, type, draw, paint, drive, or even use a touch-sensitive tablet without pain.  Like anyone else with significant hand pathology, she is profoundly disabled.

Over the past couple of months of seeing such cases on a daily basis, I have moved from obsession and horror to cool acceptance.  I have become mindful of hand health.  I have also become more productive.  The health of my hands, eyes, and the rest of my body will not wait for some ideal future time that is perfect for creativity.  As time passes, it becomes more and more likely that something will go wrong, so now is the time to write, draw, paint, learn a musical instrument, and to be otherwise creatively engaged.

Sketching Xuefei Yang

Some months ago, I set the goal of learning “Spanish Romance”, an anonymous classical guitar piece  with numerous variations thought to have been originally written in the 19th century.  I did eventually learn one version of it, but am now thinking of learning the version by Christopher Parkening or Frederick Noad.

(I took up the guitar in July 2013, at age 33, with no prior musical background.  More on my experiences with the Spanish guitar later!)

A close friend found an excellent rendition by Xuefei Yang, possibly the best rendition of this piece on YouTube:

Yang is one of the finest classical guitarists in the world.  She played at a church in a suburb of Houston late last year (apparently, the pastor is her childhood friend),  and my girlfriend at the time did a lot of legwork to get tickets for us.

The performance was excellent.  I sketched her while she played and later gave her the sketch when we met her backstage.




Zen Mind

A series of sketches I created with Paper by 53 for iPad, a regular blunt stylus, and an Adonit Jot Pro stylus to highlight the importance of equanimity in the face of adversity, or “zen mind”.

The “watercolor” tool in Paper by 53 is not much like regular watercolor painting at all.  I see, now, when looking at these sketches from a distance, that a single “wash” comes out with a regular pattern of darker and lighter areas, depending on the speed of movement of the stylus, that wouldn’t occur with actual watercolor.









How to Draw Anything You See, Part 3: Value

In our first two lessons, we created line drawings of what we saw.   We focused on contours and negative spaces.  In this lesson, we will learn about value, a color’s lightness or darkness.

Value is one of the three components of any color.  The other two components are hue and chroma and will be discussed in future lessons on color theory.  Value is also known as tone.

An appropriately varied value distribution is the most important element of any successful representational drawing or painting.  It is so important that many artists will create a value study (a grayscale drawing or painting) before starting any serious painting.

The Old Masters of painting used only a few hues in many of their paintings.  Most of these hues were at low intensity, which means that they were dull.  (Intensity is another word for chroma.)  Bright, high-intensity hues were used sparingly.  The painters of old relied heavily on changes in value to achieve timeless, powerful effects:

Rembrandt’s 1657 St. Bartholomew
Rembrandt’s 1659 Self-Portrait
John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Thomas Gage

Let’s take color out of the equation and focus on black-and-white (grayscale) drawings for now.  (We will tackle color in future posts.)  The crux of drawing in grayscale is to create a controlled tone somewhere between black and white.  It often doesn’t matter how that controlled tone is achieved.

This is a public domain line drawing of a rose:

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Real objects don’t have actual lines denoting their boundaries from other objects.  Contrast the above line drawing with this charcoal value study of a rose, on watercolor paper, that I created a couple years ago for my mother:


The rose in the charcoal study looks more realistic because it relies on gradations in value rather than on boundary lines.

The artist can depict changes in value both directly and indirectly.  Direct methods involve laying down an actual desired value, which is more straightforward in painting than in drawing, where the materials (appropriate paper, appropriate hardness and darkness of media, etc.) are important.  Indirect methods hint at the desired value and, from a distance, replicate it.  Indirect methods are ideal for pen drawings.  They include hatching, cross-hatching, and stippling, among others:

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This is an excellent ballpoint pen sketch by Xiaonan Sun, done almost entirely by hatching and cross-hatching:

Hatching and cross-hatching take some practice getting used to.  You may want to use these indirect techniques to practice shading circles to make them look spherical and rectangles to make them look cylindrical.

Although, as mentioned above, it usually doesn’t matter how your controlled tone is achieved, it can be advantageous to create marks parallel to the contours being shaded, because such marks suggest the contours and their associated values.  Finally, you can suggest certain textures better with some mark patterns than with others.

There’s much more to the study of value, of course, but this will do for a primer!