Quick Portraits at the ACR 2016 Review Course + A Visit to the National Gallery of Art

At ACR’s 2013 Review Course, as a first-year rheumatology fellow, I sketched quick portraits of the speakers in pen and pencil while they lectured.  I hadn’t drawn them since.  At this year’s review course in Washington, D.C., I sketched them again, broadening the range of media to watercolor pencil and ink brush pen:

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While there, my girlfriend and I were hosted by and visited with dear members of my extended family.  We also visited the National Gallery of Art, where Dutch/Flemish drawings for paintings were on display.

The exhibit emphasized the importance of drawings as the basis of paintings.  For example, drawings by one artist (Pieter van Laer) were possibly acquired by another (Philips Wouwerman) in stealth so he could base his paintings off of them.

William van de Velde the elder drew a meticulous portrait of the ship, “The Royal Prince,” that was on display alongside a later painting by his son, who used the drawing to help depict a battle at sea.

Other drawings were displayed next to the paintings that resulted from them.  It was interesting to see how often portraits (especially noses, which can be particularly difficult to draw) differed from drawing to painting.

In one case, an extremely detailed freehand drawing of the nave of Saint Bavo’s church had incorrect perspective–the arcade at the right of the nave was much lower than at the left and the far windows were too small–which the artist (Pieter Jansz Saenredam) later corrected with ruler and compass for the painting that resulted from the drawing.

What interested me most about the drawings on display was the use of sanguine, or red chalk, on prepared paper.  Sanguine, a red-brown iron oxide chalk, “allows for a degree of subtlety and control beyond what [modern chalk equivalents] offer.”  It was used for sketches and studies by the “Old Masters,” among them Leonardo and Michelangelo.

A rough modern approximation of chalk is colored pencil.  A closer equivalent is probably charcoal or pastel.

However, red chalk appears capable of more subtlety, warmth, and power than colored pencil for quick sketches.  It also appears easier to control than charcoal or pastel.  I’ve never used it.

Later, in the gift shop, I was not surprised to see that John James Audubon used mixed media in his paintings.  For example, his masterpiece of Carolina parakeets was created with watercolor, pastel, crayon, etc., not just transparent watercolor.  It’s difficult to convey a lot of detail in focused natural history paintings with transparent watercolor alone.  Modern wildlife artists who use watercolor, such as Roger Tory Peterson, use transparent watercolor and acrylic together or just gouache (opaque watercolor) for detailed, scientifically accurate paintings.


Plein Air Painting of the Sam Houston Monument in Watercolor Pencil

painting of sam houston monument in watercolor pencil

This was sketched on the spot during the Hermann Park Kite Festival last year with a Niji water brush and two Prismacolor watercolor pencils (different values of a single hue + grayscale).  Two years ago, I sketched the kite festival itself.  In the above painting, the statue is looking away while pointing toward me.

More Sketches in Graphite

I drew the following with a clutch pencil.  Some artists claim they don’t use anything other than clutch pencils to draw in graphite.  They value the stability of these instruments–unlike wooden pencils, they don’t change in length nor much in weight as you use them.

basket of pears

A basket of pears, above.


jianzi I picked up in Houston’s Chinatown.


My clutch pencil has a built-in sharpener.  The graphite shavings from this sharpener can be used to add tone and to vary value, as in the above drawings of my eye, thumb, and foot.  Without a clutch pencil, one would have to resort to a graphite block or regular pencil and rubbing with a tortillon, blending stump, or piece of chamois.  This risks damage to the paper, which some artists consider unacceptable.  (Other artists don’t care as much.)

Highlights can be lifted out with a rubber eraser (I prefer the Pink Pearl by Paper Mate) or with a kneaded eraser.

More Ink Sketches

orchid sketch

I love drawing on cardboard–I’m not sure if it’s the tone or the firmness of the paper that’s so appealing.  I was house-sitting for my parents on March 26, 2014, so I found a black ballpoint pen and some cardboard and quickly sketched one of my mother’s orchids before I fell asleep.  Here’s another drawing on cardboard, this one with an Ebony pencil.


My girlfriend gave me a lined Moleskine notebook.  I used a black Sharpie fine point pen to sketch the above face.  I don’t remember if I just drew an imaginary face or if I sketched the face of a statue somewhere.

foot drawing

I sketched my foot with Pentel Pocket ink brush pen while talking on the phone. Casual phone conversations are a great opportunity to practice drawing because it’s a nonverbal activity: you can draw and talk at the same time.

Rapid Sketches from Photos, Mostly of Birds, and Mostly During Call

During fellowship and shortly afterward, I spent some time moonlighting at a one-bed emergency department.  (Yes, a single bed.  It was great!)  One can only study so much while stuck in a call room waiting for patients to roll in, so I spent some of that time improving my freehand drawing skills by sketching birds from photos I found online and in magazines.  These graphite sketches–made with a clutch pencil–are shown below.

The cardinal and the golden jackal were drawn on a Boogie Board (an LCD tablet).



Feeding Wild Birds

Blue ceramic tube feeder

I’ve been a birder for many years but never really knew the joy of feeding wild birds until I moved recently (see last post). My balcony faces the woods, so I set up some feeders I received from my mother.  Since setting them up, I’ve had many avian visitors, including small flocks of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and the occasional Carolina wren.  During spring migration, several rose-breasted grosbeaks stopped over at my feeders for about five days before flying north.

My girlfriend and I visited the Canadian Rockies recently, one of the most beautiful parts of the world–if not the most beautiful–we’ve visited.  We hiked ~55 km, through subalpine and alpine ecosystems, through snowstorms and hail, saw glaciers and gorgeous glacier-fed lakes up close, and visited remote teahouses on foot.  An observation I made after the trip is that watching birds at my feeders makes me at least as happy as hiking along some of the most beautiful trails in the world.

Feeding wild birds is similar to blogging in a few important ways. Potential visitors notice what you’ve provided, but they stop over only if they’re interested.  If you stop putting stuff out there, they move on.

The above is a watercolor I painted today of one of the feeders, a blue ceramic tube feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds.  I was inspired to pull my paint set out again after I skimmed a book (by Peter Partington) this morning on painting birds in watercolor.  I also skimmed Jack Reid’s Watercolor Basics over the past two days.  There’s an appealing minimalism, primitivity–some of the earliest paintings were watercolors–and portability to watercolor, as well as a unique brilliance and seeming spontaneity possessed by good watercolor paintings that’s always appealed to me and that I really missed.  I hope to start watercoloring regularly again.

I hadn’t used my Winsor & Newton watercolors for three years, but the dried  dollops of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna in my palette (from the last time I painted) came back to life with just a few drops of water!  I stubbornly tried to do the entire painting with a medium round brush.  Near the end, I pulled out a rigger and a small flat brush to help out.

Digging around in my old art materials, I also found this unfinished pencil drawing of a friend’s eye from years ago:



Two Hawks Sketched Quickly From Life

It was difficult to draw these birds.  They moved their heads, flew from perch to perch, and glared at me with suspicion (or curiosity).  The drawing on your right is more accurate than the one on your left.  However, the point of field sketching is not to create an accurate or beautiful representation.  The point is to gain a deeper understanding of and connection with what is drawn.