Monday, September 24, 2012

Journaling on the Open Road

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” -- Martin Buber 
"I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train." -- Oscar Wilde

Travel journaling and travel journals can be wonderfully diverse. A journal may be as simple as a written diary of one's voyage, or it may be all sketches of the day-to-day experience. It may include photos, or not, as the traveler chooses. But, most of all, it is a work that is free to change and evolve as the scenery and experiences change and evolve before the very eyes of the adventurer.

Prior to our move from Texas to Maryland I began giving thought to what form of journal I wanted to create to commemorate the move. I checked out the structures available in the local art supply shops and eventually settled on a large (11" x 15"), hardbound book containing handmade Indian watercolor paper with delightfully irregular deckles and a rather pronounced Rough surface texture (a bit of a departure for me as I generally tend to gravitate to Hot Press or, at the very least, Cold Press watercolor papers).

The richly textured cover is a warm burnt sienna with glowing copper highlights.

As we finished packing the last of our household goods and paying final visits to our friends and favorite venues in San Antonio, I also busied myself with deciding on the format and image approach I wanted to use in this particular carnet de voyage, and again I departed from my norm -- deciding to write it as Celtic manuscript... dip pens and all.

Lightly coating the Japanese lace with acrylic sealant & allowing to dry will increase the stencil's durability. 

I "tempered" each page by overlaying it with a sheet of handmade Japanese Awagami lace paper (which had a wonderful open weave and small maple leaf pattern), and stenciling with a natural sponge and green watercolor.

Maps were created of each day's drive. The enlarged capitals that marked the beginning of a paragraph or a point of interest on the maps were drawn with waterproof inks while the rest of the text was produced with watercolors. 

Our son accompanied me in the truck, while my daughter rode with my wife in the car. My son was so ecstatic about the road trip that he asked if we could leave the radio off. So we talked all the way from Texas to Maryland -- about Life, the Road, and all the wonderous things we saw and did along the way. (And I learned in so many new ways what a marvelous little man this little fellow is.) 

Along the way we used cell phones to communicate and to make spontaneous decisions (where to stop for a picnic lunch, which unique and obscure roadside attractions to visit, etc.), and we strictly adhered to our rule: always stop well before evening so the kids could go swimming before dinner (a little history lesson, a little adventure, and a lot of fun). 

We were particularly drawn to the more eclectic attractions (like the Casey Jones Museum) and our daughter had enough room to convert the back seat of our car into a rolling studio and busied herself with creating collages of the things she saw along the way.

As we progressed, we experienced a change in altitude. And with the change in altitude we went from pine forests to hardwood, and were observant of the extravagant changes in color.

We had no timetable to keep, no daily mileage requirements to meet. So we stopped at every rest area that offered a historical marker or a picturesque slice of nature. 

Most pages in my journal were done as "one offs" -- focused on a single day's events, and intended to more or less stand alone. But this two-page spread was designed to feature the official flowers of each of the states we passed through along the way. And, since both my wife and I were engaged with driving the vehicles, my son took on the role of official photographic chronicler for the trip -- even using the occasional Dutch Oblique composition as we journeyed up the Shenandoah Valley.

Even a quick stop for lunch at a nondescript eatery became a fun photo op for "the Crew".

Every new trip, every new journal, is a fresh opportunity for creative fun. You can explore a technique, a creative path, that you've seen before. Or you can get out your creative tools and cut a new path through virgin jungle -- going where no one has ventured before. The choice is yours. So, start making your plans and pack your kit. Hit the road and have some fun. And, if you experience the unexpected along the way (no, WHEN you experience the unexpected along the way), let Serendipity be your guide.

Product note: If you're interested in exploring the creative potential of the Indian handmade watercolor sketchbooks and/or the Japanese handmade lace paper, they are available at Art Supplies and Provisions Online.

Happy trails!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tools of the Trade #4 - What Do You Call a Baby Pelican?

If you're like me, you enjoy journaling. Nature journaling, or travel journaling -- you enjoy taking a sketchbook and a few simple, reliable tools (and taking a bit of time out of the modern rat race) to experience completely and fully the Here and Now. 

One of those "simple tools" more and more of us are using is the fountain pen -- a tool replete with science, history (sometimes even romance) and creative potential. But, if we are to depend on it when we're off in the woods, or on the voyage of a lifetime, we need a fountain pen that is rugged, reliable, and (at least for some of us) modestly priced. (After all, who among us can afford to risk a gem-encrusted heirloom to the elements? or our own forgetfulness?)

So, this week I'm test-driving a candidate for the rugged, reliable workhorse that you can toss in your sketch kit and count on to provide outstanding service day-in and day-out for years to come -- all at a price that won't bust even the most modest budget. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Pelikano Junior.

Now you might ask, "Isn't that a kid's pen?" To which (if we go by the description on the company's website) l'd probably have to say, "Well, yes... sorta." The PJ certainly isn't part of the revered German company's famous Souveraen line. It doesn't have a gold nib or a piston filler system. But it does have a  smooth-as-butter stainless steel nib (in either right- or left-hand models) that starts up without the least fuss and never skips, is built like a tank, and is readily available new online for as little as $9.01! 

The Pelikano Junior is not a "mini" model. In fact, it is only slightly smaller than the Noodler's Ahab. Most of that bulk is due to the very robust construction of the translucent barrel. It's thick -- designed to easily withstand the harsh mishandling (and occasional missteps) of little people new to penmanship. 

The folks at Pelikan also know that it's all about the nib -- and the PJ's nib writes smooth as silk.

Held in the conventional upright position, the nib (marked "A" for right-handed users, and "L" for left-handed writers) writes a typical European Fine to Medium line without a hint of scratchiness.

But if, like me, you prefer a leaner line then all you need do is invert the nib to achieve a very consistent EF to EEF line. (Feed will be slightly drier so you may find it necessary to slow your pace slightly. And, as with many EF nibs, you will experience more "feel" of the paper -- but it'll be far from "scratchy.") 

You also need not worry about loosing this pen in the camo foliage during your ventures afield. With four bright colors to choose from (There's also a blue model not pictured here.) you're sure to find one that will stand out against just about any background. (NOTE: Depicted are the older models. Current PJs have a cap made of the same translucent plastic as the barrel and the soft rubber grip of the mid-section is now a brilliant yellow.)

Pelikan describes the nib as "flex." But to anyone who works a lot with brushes and prefers to use a gentle touch with their pen the term "springy" might be more apropos. (I, for example, consider the Ahab "springy" not "flex.")

Pelikan also offers PJ users plenty of fueling and ink options: international cartridges (either  conventional length or the huge "giant" size) in 6 different Pelikan ink colors (black, red, blue, green, purple, and turquoise -- although not all retailers carry all colors), or a converter for use with bottled ink. (NOTE: If you opt to use a converter be certain to tighten the barrel completely after filling. The PJ has guides in the base of the barrel that press along the converter and hold it firmly in place.) 

Unfortunately, because of two small vent holes in the base of the Pelikano Junior's barrel the PJ cannot be converted to an eyedropper pen. However, it's so easy to drop a box of extra ink cartridges into your kit that this isn't much of an issue.

any manufacturer's standard international size ink cartridge will fit the PJ, offering PJ owners a huge selection of top brand inks to choose from 

from top to bottom, the "giant" size international cartridge, converter, and standard size international cartridge

Earlier in the article I used the phrase "outstanding service day-in and day-out for years to come". To close I'll be more specific: I purchased four PJs just over 10 years ago to introduce my children to fountain pens and penmanship. One has a short hairline crack in the cap where my son stepped on it. But all four are still in perfect operating condition and are still counted on to write first time every time when we go journaling. So, if you're looking for a rugged, entry-level fountain pen (with a pinch of what the Japanese call kawaii, or "cuteness") to add to your field kit, this might be just what you're looking for. Give it a try.

Can't find the Pelikano Junior at your local art supply dealer? Not a problem! Check out the pens and inks at Art Supplies & Provisions Online



Parting thoughts:


 noun combining form \ˈgra-fē-ə\  : writing characteristic of a (specified) usually psychological abnormality <dysgraphia><dermographia>

When my son was first learning to write he had a great deal of difficulty using a pencil and it was suggested that he might have some form of graph. With little to loose I encouraged him to try a fountain pen -- and his writing took off! (He has since outgrown his issues with pencils and is an avid mark-maker.) Asked later why the pencil was such a problem for him, he told us that he was constantly distracted by the feeling of graphite "scraping" against the paper. (In hindsight, it made perfect sense to me. To this day I can't stand the "fingernails on the chalkboard" feel of charcoal on paper.) So, if your child or grandchild seems to have graphia-related writing issues, let them try a fountain pen with a smooth-writing nib. They may thank you in years to come. (We thank our son's little red PJ.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Sense of Place

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it."

                                                                                                             -- Norman Maclean

If we're lucky, some of us have an opportunity to travel to faraway places where -- because of the exotic geography, unfamiliar language and customs, alien weather, and culinary surprises -- we experience an acute, unique awareness of Place. In such unfamiliar surroundings it becomes quite easy to become aware of the details and specific nature of Place. But, with a little effort, it isn't necessary to travel far afield to become intimately away of Here and Now. Everyplace has its history, its geography, its climate, and its culture. And, with a little practice, we can all discover wonderful stories -- right in our own backyards -- worth recording, and worth sharing with others.

Some time back I was looking for a theme for a sketchbook project I planned to enter in a popular national exhibition, and I was looking for a way to introduce my youngsters to the marvels of the natural world. I found the solution to both in my own back yard; a stretch of river (more stream really) all but hidden by the old hardwood trees that lined its banks, the Clear Fork of the Trinity River.

Our little stretch of the river is one of the few sections that wasn't "channelized" by the Corps of Engineers and the water authority during the 60s and 70s. And one of the first things we learned about our little ecosystem was that where you find vegetation and water you find insects -- cicadas, spiders (in all shapes and sizes), walking sticks, damsel flies, and dragon flies.

And where there are water, flora, and insects we found birds -- aquatic plant-eating ducks, seed eaters, and raptors.

In the spring we were treated to wildflowers that carpeted the flood plane that connected the river to the ponds of our wildlife refuge -- Indian Paintbrushes, Evening Primroses, Bluebonnets, and a dozen other species that arrived one after the other. We drew them, mapped their location, and sometimes pressed them in our journals. 

During our explorations we would occasionally discover old, rusted artifacts -- a fallen barbed wire fence, a line of weathered fence posts hidden in a patch of trees, and old, long-forgotten padlocks. So we researched the ares history and learned that what is now suburban neighborhoods was, not to long ago, a huge working ranch that stretched along the Trinity River from what is now downtown Fort Worth to the town of Benbrook. 

We also discovered that where there is a diversity and abundance of plants and insects, and clear-running water, there a variety and abundance of fish -- and that if you "catch and release" it will stay that way.

We looked at the trees, tried to identify them, and researched their history. We learned that some were a prolific source of high-nutrician, free food, others provided excellent, renewable building materials, and still others had long-ago developed formidable defense systems to protect themselves against ravenous herbivores that went extinct long, long ago. 

Most of "our" Clear Fork is shallow enough that we can explore its length and breadth in calf-high rubber boots -- discovering giant tadpoles (that tickle your hands), crayfish, fresh water clams, and several species of turtles.

We found a weir (which the kids called their "waterfall") that was built in 1914 and a limestone outcrop that once been part of an ancient seabed, replete with a diverse cache of 50 million year old fossils.

And we spent long hours (that seemed anything but) marveling over insect hatches and the "creepy-crawlies" that live under rocks of the stream bed.

So, the next time you're preparing for a globe-trotting adventure and you want to fine-tune your skills before you go, think about trying what we did. Begin in your own back yard!


"The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters."
                                                                                                                __ Norman Maclean


NOTE: For brevity's sake I've only included nine of the double pages from the original Clear Fork journal. If you'd like to see all 38 pages of the complete journal, cover-to-cover, I invite you to click here

PRODUCT MINI REVIEW & A TRICK OF THE TRADE: The sponsors of the aforementioned sketchbook exhibition required all participants to use the sketchbook they provided for the project -- a plain 5.2" x 8.4" Moleskine Cahier. The Cahier sketchbook is produced in a handy pocket size and sold in an economical three-volume set. The paper is well suited for dry medium (graphite, carbon, and color) and will handle some fast-drying inks (ballpoint, roller ball, and gel). But it is not intended for particularly wet medium (a limitation that the exhibition sponsors should have taken into consideration.  While using pen & ink, marker, or watercolor will almost certainly result in bleed-through and some paper buckling, there are creative solutions for those who wish to work with this handy little notebook. In my case the solution was to draw/write on two facing pages, skip the next two facing pages (because of bleed-through), write/draw on the next two, and so on. After the sketchbook had been filled and all of the pages were completely dry I pressed the book to reduce page buckling and then -- using Tombo Mono archival two-sided permanent adhesive tape -- pasted the facing pages that had not been drawn on together. This eliminated the bleed-through problem and effectively doubled the ply, or weight, of each page. 



Monday, September 3, 2012

Art du jour, Part 1

When I was in art school one of my instructors told me, "Art is like a game of golf, the fewer strokes the better." What he was trying to tell me was that art is about clear and succinct visual communication.

Later he told us that, if we really wanted to get better at rendering the world about us, we should free ourselves of our technical "crutches" -- that is, force ourselves to see more carefully and make marks more accurately.

Scalloped Sea Shell, oils on 4"x4" canvas

The first "crutch" to go was our erasers. And, sure enough, after acknowledging the unhappy results of a few (well, probably more than "a few") bad observations and erroneous renderings we did actually begin drawing faster and more accurately.

Hard Candies & Paper Bag, oils on 4"x5" canvas

 The second "crutch" we shed was our pencils -- going straight from our observation to indelible ink. And, again, there was an initial period of disappointment and frustration as we came to grips with the inaccuracy of our efforts. But we quickly learned to slow down; use all our senses; observe specific details, patterns and relationships; and, only when the true nature of our subject had become clear to us, to convey its essence. Art had become rather zen-like, we had become the novice monks -- and we were thrilled at how clear the nature of the world around us had become. Even when we weren't drawing or painting we were looking -- at the way the morning light fell upon an object, at the reflections and refractions to be discovered within a dew drop, at the colors within a shadow.

 Glass Miniature, oils on 4"x4" canvas

 And then came alla prima painting -- painting each canvas or panel in a single sitting, and painting a new work every day. For this exercise a singular subject will suffice, and a small canvas or panel will do. (The object is to develop a clear eye and accurate hand, not necessarily to cover large surface areas in brief periods of time.) 

Glass Jar, oils on 4"x4" canvas

When doing one of these little projects I generally choose a subject that has a hard reflective and/or transparent surface (for me, personally, bright colors are a nice plus). I create a simple environment (a large sheet of middle-toned paper, bent so as to provide both the "base plain" and backdrop will do nicely -- although I also have a fondness for shiny mahogany surfaces too). And a strong light source to one side for nice contrasty highlights and shadows (natural light when I can get it, but often artificial during the winter months) rounds out the "setup".

Sleeping Scholar Chop, oils on 4"x5" canvas

 One of my favorite supports for these exercises are 4"x4" and 4"x5" canvas panels (which I purchase in bulk from Dick Blick) as I can easily hold one in one hand while applying paint with the other.

Glass Marble, oils on 4"x4" canvas

 My personal work process involves a preliminary compositional underdrawing in pencil, followed by wet-in-wet application of oil paints -- generally working from the darks (which, in oils are usually the faster drying pigments) to the lights (which, because of their higher oil retention, are normally slower drying). As a general rule, I only use as much paint medium as is required to obtain a buttery paint consistency. And I tend to prefer using bristle brushes to sable since the former tend to impart (again, for me) a very pleasing impasto brushstroke.

Onion and Jar, w/c on 4"x6" HP paper

 I routinely alternate oils on canvas with watercolor on scraps of precut Hot Press watercolor paper (a medium/support combination that I never leave home without and which I find great fun to work with).

Larry Boy, oils on 4"x5" canvas

I'm constantly on the lookout for new subjects for my little exercises (and am not averse to "raiding" my kids' toy collection). Larry Boy was something they found abandoned on a park playground and rescued from toy oblivion and the ravages of nature. (Our family have been big fans of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki for years.) 

Hopefully, the video below will also give you some insight into my workflow -- although I usually work without a soundtrack. (If you would prefer to see the individual stages as stills, you can click here to visit a special page at my website.)


Post Script, Please keep in mind that this article describes techniques that have proven useful for me. If it also proves useful for you, great! If you choose to modify my example in any way to make it more useful to you, even better still! Remember, you have an Artistic License. Feel free to exercise it in whatever way works best for you. And, if you need any art supplies to exercise that license, be sure to drop by Art Supplies & Provisions Online. (Visitors are always welcome.)