Friday, October 26, 2012

A Word or Two from Pablo

One week into the pen giveaway (and with one week still to go) I'm blown away by all the wonderful comments. (In fact, I think we're going to have to do another giveaway very soon. ;-D)

I've also been busy in the studio, working on the new series of inspirational quotes for an up-coming book, and -- with my daughters help -- trying my hand at producing a step-by-step video (of the creation of this drawing).


I hope that you enjoy the video and that you'll pop by on Monday for the regular weekly posting; I'm planning something rather different. (Hint: It has to do with this weekend's Japanese Festival at the local botanical gardens.)


Monday, October 22, 2012

Stylographic Pens and the Cherry Blossom Connection

cherry blossom trees were presented as a friendship gift to the American 
people from the people of Japan in 1912

The stylographic pen was the first successful self-feeding pen in history and is still with us today (think tech pens). The cherry blossom is an iconic symbol of Japanese culture: representing purity and simplicity, and celebrated in art, song, and annual festivities. (It has even spread to North America, where the United States celebrated the centennial of the Washington, DC, Cherry Blossom Festival this year.) What is the connection between the two? Read on.... ;-)

Ever since mankind first began writing with feather quills and ink there have been technically-minded folk who have worked diligently to develop new technologies that made pens more reliable, more versatile, and more resilient.

a range of vintage and new stylographic technical pens - very 
little has changed over the past 40 years

In 1803 cutting edge technology allowed British manufacturers to introduce steel nibs that easily outlasted the older, more labor-intensive feather quill. And, for the next century, Great Britain was the source of arguably the best nibs in the world. But there were still major shortcomings of the pen; it ran out of ink quickly and had to be re-dipped, and if you were traveling there was always the threat of a messy ink spill. The search for a pen with a built-in ink reservoir was on.

Microns are equally adept at line work and stippling

Enter in 1875 Duncan MacKinnon, a Canadian pharmacist and the inventor of the world's first successful stylographic pen, a pen type that offered two very remarkable technical developments: a built-in ink reservoir; and a tubular "nib" that produces an amazingly thin, uniform line -- perfect for technical drawing and fine writing. The stylographic pen not only predated the fountain pen by some 10 years, it also offered (and continues to offer) one major advantage over the latter; it could use waterproof ink! But there was room for technical improvement.

Pigma ink is fast-drying and completely waterproof -- perfect 
for working with bright watercolor washes

In 1877 the American A. T. Cross (founder of the Cross pen company) received a patent on an improved, spring-loaded feed. And in 1910 the Sanford & Bennett company patented the rugged "gravity feed" system that has been the unchallenged standard design for "tech pens" ever since -- or at least it was until the 1980s.

without a need for set-up or clean-up more time can be focused on the subject

Technical/stylographic pens have one flaw; their amazingly fine tubular tip or "nib" is subject to blockage if the ink congeals or dries out and then requires a complete disassembly and cleaning. (To this date all Rapidograph tech pens are sold with a wheel-shaped wrench for disassembling the nib section.)

rapid drying time means that Pigma works well with a wide range of 
paper types while feathering and bleed-through are minimized

Then, in 1982 a small Japanese firm called Sakura Color Technologies (Sakura means "Cherry Blossoms" in Japanese) came up with a brilliant idea: combine the fine steel tubular nib of the stylographic pen with a rigid, highly refined version of the fiber tip pen, and introduce a nano-particle pigment ink that is pH neutral, waterproof, lightfast, and archival. The result was the Sakura Pigma Micron pen, which revolutionized not only in-studio technical drawing but also field work, nature sketching, and travel journaling. (I have found them so reliable personally that they were the only pens I chose to carry during my 8-week sketch crawl of Europe, and I had the extreme good fortune to enjoy their sponsorship during my 10-week wilderness adventure in the North Cascades mountains.)

the Micron is equally well suited to image making or note taking

the Micron's larger ink reservoir means no need for refills, 
even during the most detailed project

Of course, the steel- or gold-nibbed fountain pen is far from dead. (I, for one, absolutely love it's creative potential.) But for ease of use, unmatched reliability, and the way it works in combination with watercolors, the Sakura Micron is an artist's dream.

Technical Notes: I had a fascinating telephone conversation with Peter Ouyang (Sakura of America's Vice President for Marketing and Product Development) and learned some very interesting technical details about Microns. For instance, while the pen comes with a pocket clip this is intended as a temporary means of "carry." Mr. Ouyang informed me that the pigment particles in the ink are subject to the effects of gravity and, therefore, the ink will actually drain from the tip if stored vertically. It is best to keep the pens capped and horizontal when not in use. Mr. Ouyang also told me of a little "trick" if one's pen seems to run dry; first recap the pen immediately (this created a micro-climate that promotes a moist environment) and then set the pen cap-down in an empty cup overnight. If there is still ink in the reservoir gravity will feed it back into the tip and the pen will write good as new in the morning. Interestingly, Mr. Ouyang informed me that Sakura actually adjusts the fineness of the pigment particle grind for each nib size -- the finer the tip, the finer the grind -- and, because of the specific nature of each pigment, there is sometimes a limit to how fine a nib certain pigments will flow through properly.

Historical Notes: The Micron isn't Sakura's only claim to technical fame. In 1925 the company created the world's first oil pastels -- a new medium that Pablo Picasso soon fell in love with and, as they say, the rest is history. And Sakura has not been satisfied to rest on their much deserved laurels. In 1984 Sakura produced the world's first gel inks and continues to be an art materials innovator right into the 21st century.


Second Grand Prize Giveaway: Since this is my second giveaway I figured it only right to have two prizes, and the folks at Sakura of America have generously provided some wonderful gifts. The first prize will be a new set of 6 Pigma Micron black ink pens in sizes .20mm to .50mm AND one Gelly Roll opaque white pen AND a red Sakura pen carry!

first prize

The second prize will be a set of 6 Pigma Micron basic color pens AND one Gelly Roll opaque white pen AND a red Sakura pen carry!

second prize

The Entry Rules: I'll keep these simple: 1) Click on the blue "Join this site" button under "Followers" in the right side bar (if you've joined previously, you've already completed step one); 2) leave a comment (do NOT include your contact information) for this posting any time between now and Friday, November 2; 3) two winners will be drawn at random and contacted via PM on Saturday, November 3. Winners will also be announced here on Monday, November 5.

Good luck!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Words To Live By

I begin each new journal not with a drawing but with a quotation. They are inspiration; they are the prime that gets my creative water pump flowing. Throughout my life there have been people whose words have inspired me, comforted me during the rough times, nurtured me during the growing times, and kept me on track when all was going well.

The quotes may be about the wonders of nature, or the greatness of the spirit. Sometimes they've helped me to be a better artist. And sometimes they've helped me to be a better human being. Usually, the quotes are just the words. But this week, while working on a couple of calligraphy pieces, I got the urge to put a face to the words. Things kind of snowballed. And, before I knew it, I'd set aside my originally planned subject for this week's article in favor of something rather spontaneous.

I hope you enjoy the results.

This quote by Robert Frost was the first that I took personally -- the first that I chose, of my own accord, to remember. And it has stayed with me through the years.

Miyazaki-san is a Living Treasure... and  a pixy 

When I was younger Rachel Carson taught me the meaning of courage in the face of adversity. And when I grew older she taught me how to be a better parent.

even if we speak no French, we might do well to take these lines to heart

I first came to Saint Ex through his aviation writing. It was only later that I discovered The Little Prince, but it has been that book more than any other that I have gifted to friends and loved ones. And it has been this passage that I have wanted to share most.


Mistakes happen. (If you're not making mistakes, you're not trying new things.) But every mistake is a new opportunity to learn and grow. (And, in the long run, mistakes don't matter; after all, who can remember how many times they fell down in the process of learning how to walk?) Let the mistakes commence!

the uncrowned Poet Laureate of the 70s

Preview Note: Along with the regular article next week look for a new prize give-away: this time pens! (Yep, that's plural. In fact, I'll be giving away two sets of pens!) Hope to see you then. (And remember, if you don't want to miss future articles -- and give-aways -- there are now three ways to subscribe.)


Monday, October 8, 2012

Tricks of the Trade #2 - Fireflies, Dry Flies, & Bug Boxes

cicada (Tibicen linnei)

Some eight years ago my friend and fellow nature enthusiast, Mark Baldwin (who also happens to be Director of Education for the Roger Tory Peterson Institute) introduced me to a little tool that opened up all sorts of new insights and discoveries into the realm of insects and flowers -- the hand-held magnifying lens.


The first lens he introduced me was a folding jeweler's loupe with clear plastic lens and opaque case that doubled as a handle when opened. This was a very useful tool at the time and, thanks to the innovative addition of more powerful lenses and a LED light source, is even more useful today.

the basic 10x magnifier costs $4.95

this folding jeweler's loupe offers 20x & 40x magnification and an LED light source for just $6.21 

The second hand-held magnifier Mark introduced me to was a more economical, non-folding two-lens model. By adding a simple lanyard cord it can be worn about the neck -- freeing up your hands when you don't need it and avoiding the possibility of accidentally misplacing it.

the non-floding two lens magnifier costs just $1.50

The third magnifying device I became familiar with is ideal for field sketching the really small details of insects, flora, or mineral samples -- an illuminated, hand-held microscope not much larger than a US 25 cent coin but sporting a remarkable 45x magnification!

the amazing 45x hand-held microscope cost just $3.77

For the nature journalist these tools all make magnificent (better still, essential) additions to any field kit. With them you can see the detailed workings of joints, antennae, eyes, mouth parts, petals, stamen, gills, fins, feathers, et al. Without them we are left to guess at the true nature of the the flora and fauna around us.

Unfortunately, there is one dilemma to the hand-held magnifier that nagged me for the better part of eight years. If I held a specimen in one hand and magnifier in the other I was one hand short for sketching my observations! The solution (observe the bugs or plant, fish or fowl while storing as many details in my short-term memory as possible, put down the magnifier, pick up my pencil and draw what I remembered, put down my pencil, pick up the magnifier, begin the process again) was labor-intensive,  time consuming, and sometime quite frustrating. So, the search was on for a hands-free magnification system.


The first hands-free solution I found worked wonderfully for insects and other small objects: a small acrylic "bug box" with a magnifying lens integrated into the lid. I could study a subject at length, even take it back to the studio if necessary, and both hands were free to deal with sketchbook, pencils, pens, and brushes.

magnifier bug boxes are available in two sizes at $2 for small & $3 for large

But the bug boxes could offer when sketching something too large to fit inside was the use of the lid as a hand-held magnifier. The search was still on for a magnification system that could be used sans hands and could deal with larger specimens -- and I found it while fly fishing (my other labor-intensive, time consuming, and sometime quite frustrating pastime).

a pair of size 22 flies (dry, top & nymph, bottom) - dwarfed by a penny!

If you happen to be a fly fisherman, and have ever found yourself trying to tie a size 22 dry fly to a 7X tippet in low light (especially if your eyes aren't quite as young as the use to be), you know the real challenge of seeing fine details. Fortunately, Cabela's sporting goods stores have the solution for optically challenged anglers and (by extension) two-handed nature journalers too: the Firefly Magnifier.  Just clip the Firefly onto the brim of your baseball cap, flip the lens up, and forget it! When you have a sketching subject in hand, place your journal in your lap and flip the lens down. Then it's an easy procedure to go from taking in details to simply lowering your eyes to your sketchbook, and back again. There are even two models to choose from: one with magnifier alone, and one with a tiny but quite powerful LED light source (powerful enough to help you find your way back to your car if you stay too long on the river at dusk). And an added plus, the Firefly has two parallel lenses, thus offering journalers binocular vision for greater depth perception and less eye fatigue.

the Cabela Firefly (LED model) in action

At $24.99 for the no-light Firefly clip-on and $39.99 for the LED Firefly (battery included), I was concerned that this might be a bit pricey for most budgets. Fortunately, over time the price for clip-on magnifiers has come down as the magnification options have gone up.

this pair of magnifiers clip onto a baseball cap & cost $6

this 2x pair clips onto prescription or sun glasses & will cost $10.95

And, finally, any time you head out for a little field don't forget to pack your field guide. It fits perfectly into most kits and is a wealth of information (and neat illustrations).

this Peterson guide is my favorite, both for its overall coverage & more artistic illustrations

Looking for one of these items but can't find it at your local art supply shop? You can always find it at Art Supplies & Provisions Online!


How the Trick Works: To use the hand-held magnifier, hold it approximately 3-4 inches from your dominant eye with your drawing hand. Hold your specimen in your free hand and gradually move the specimen toward the lens till it is in focus. Use the smaller/higher magnification lens for observing the finest details on stationary subjects. And use the larger/lower magnification lens for insects and other moving subjects.

cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus)

Sneak Peek: I currently have several product tests and evaluations well underway and will publishing reviews in coming weeks -- and, thanks to the generous support of some of our manufacturers and distributers, I have some nifty product giveaways planned for the very near future. (Hint: it involves pens and accessories.) So, please stay tuned -- or better still, choose one of the 3 subscription methods in the sidebar and the latest articles will come to you.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Travels with Danny

Normally I post new articles on Mondays (and there will, indeed, be a new article next Monday). But I thought I'd share an exciting bit of news with everyone; Danny Gregory's much anticipated sequel to An Illustrated Life is now available for pre-order!

The new book, entitled (as the illustration above shows) An Illustrated Journey, will be out in bookstores in February 2013 and features the works of 40 contributors -- including yours truly!

To see images from some of the contributors you can visit Danny's Pinterest Page. And you can preorder the book through my Art Supplies & Provisions Online.

Have a great day and (I hope) I'll see you on Monday!  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Art de jour #2

In part one of this article I wrote about one-a-day painting as a means for simplifying the art-making process, and sharpening both technical and observational skills. In this part I'll focus on how painting-a-day can also help painters to engage their audience. If, like Van Gogh, you can take a simple or even mundane object (like a chess piece) and -- through a few carefully placed dabs of paint -- capture the attention of a viewer.

One of the goals I set for myself was to forego the use of sable brushes (which I have a great fondness for) and develop an allusion to detail solely through a few flicks of a bristle flat, while at the same time imparting a very appealing impasto texture to the painting's surface.

Hard, smoothly polished metal surfaces and slick pieces of varnished wood always catch my eye -- so I painted them.

Using a very traditional technique, underpainting is done using earth tones and darker pigments -- which tend to absorb less linseed oil and therefor dry more rapidly.  

We had a transformer that failed, regular as clockwork, every 6 months (often plunging our little cul-de-sac into the pre-grid era for up to three days at a time) -- so I painted it. 

Underpainting was thinned with solvent (which is more volatile than oil and evaporates quickly). For health and safety reasons I choose odorless mineral spirits over turpentine.

Ever since I was a youngster I've been both fascinated with the design of the pecan's shell, and stymied by a desire to come up with something productive to do with it after extracting the nut within -- so I turned it into the subject of a painting.

Having laid down the darkest darks I gradually move toward the lightest, most oil-rich, and slowest drying colors.

While cooking a pasta primavera one day I was struct by how challenging it might be to paint my little olive oil jar against the equally white counter -- so I did a white-on-white study.

At the intermediate stage I focus on finding and conveying areas of reflected color. (The color of the ground plane -- table, counter top, etc. -- can often be seen reflected in the subject's shadows.) 

During a family outing to Shenandoah National Park I was smitten by my young son's gentle smile -- so I endeavored to capture it. 

Once the underpainting has "set up" and begins to feel slightly tacky to the touch I switch to oil medium to achieve a buttery consistency in the next layer of paint being applied. (My favorite medium is Gamblin's Galkyd, which dries rapidly and produces a flexible, non-yellowing paint film.)

The constant flux and complexity of birds and water haunt me -- so I did a color contrast study of one of our winter neighbors.

Once the underpainting has "set up" and begins to feel slightly tacky to the touch I switch to oil medium to achieve a buttery consistency in the next layer of paint being applied. (My favorite medium is Gamblin's Galkyd, which dries rapidly and produces a flexible, non-yellowing paint film.)

My wife is the most fascinating and intriguing person I've ever met -- so I've drawn her, and sketched her, and painted several one-a-days of her.

Finally, I identify the purest, brightest points of highlight and I lay them in as tiny areas of impasto "icing on the cake" -- and sign my initials. Done!

Note: to view step-by-step still image demos of the last three images in this week's series, please klick on the underlined hyperlinks. Or, alternately, you might enjoy the easy listening soundtrack while watching the video below.

Happy painting!