More thoughts on keeping a sketchbook

I want to make a pretty book

Initially I was thinking of collecting all my free-standing sketches into one book but I couldn’t find a way to organize them into a cohesive whole.

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: 1) unknown source, 2) unknown source, 3) figures from plate 111 of 100 Views of Edo by Hiroshige, 4) from Twin Pines, Level Distance by Zhao Mengfu, 5) automatic drawing, 6) automatic drawing 

I then thought of cutting a bunch of charcoal paper to fit a specific size, drawing on them and then eliminating the pages that I didn’t like before putting them all together. It was the consistency of the pages that did a lot of the work that made the sketchbook — as an art project — cohesive.

I then realized I was getting distracted by the idea of making a book.

Book making still interests me but the goals meant for that kind of work gave me a reason to neglect the goals for using a sketchbook.

But what are my goals? 

I think having rules can be helpful. Jonan Lehrer’s article, “Need to Create? Get a Constraint,” for Wired, breaks down a study by Janina Marguc, et al, that looks into the psychology of how obstacles can help free up one’s creativity.

There’s also an interesting article by Ruthe V for the Seattle Artist League blog that gives examples of artists who overcame obstacles (not of their choosing) and incorporated them into their artwork.

Not forgetting the question of “What do I like?” I let my mind wander and focused on the question, What are “good” combinations?

Charcoal on newspaper print. Or any intense color to stand out on a grey background — the grey having a way of setting a certain mood.

Clockwise from Left top: 1) automatic drawing, 2) automatic drawing, 3) from photograph of Chauvet cave paintings as published in Drawing, by Teel Sale, et al, page 6, 4) automatic drawing

Orange or red or burnt sienna on cream toned drawing paper. Like the drawings from the Italian Renaissance. (I don’t have pictures for this.)

Confidence and the blank page

I’m also addressing the fear of making “mistakes” by imposing the following rule – “No pencil.”

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: 1) Lily, 2) Lily, 3) Foxglove, 4) Foxglove, 5) Squirrel, 6) Squirrel

Not allowing myself to use pencil meant I couldn’t erase anything and might get me out of the habit of compulsively making everything “perfect.”

Moreover, the constraint or focus of having to “save” a drawing after making a “mistake” compelled me to be creative in how to compose — IE experimenting with what colors work well side by side, creating layers and adding depth — which was often not intended.


Copying Li Xue Ming (Part II)

Gaa Wai Copy of Li Xue Ming b 082419

This is Part II of Copying Li Xue Ming. In the video, I’ve chosen a portion of a painting by the artist to sketch. It’s the same painting as the one in Part I, but I focus on the cave, as opposed to the figure inside. I begin by commenting on the work as a whole and then talk through (often rambling, sorry) what I’m thinking while responding to the work with a brush.

It’s fairly long (30:06), and I start sketching (after a trial run) at 6:25 or so.



Copying Li Xue Ming (Part I)

Li Xue MingI recently moved, and out of the 437 that I own, this is one of the few books I could bring with me. I bought it at a brick and mortar store in China Town in San Francisco a few years ago.

I was having fun exploring the area, so discovering the artist, Li Xue Ming, may seem a little random.

I’ve been saving it for a rainy day, so to speak (IE, just one of those days when you want to discover something that sparks joy in your life), and hitting two birds (or if you want two bottles or two inanimate objects) with one stone, it also gave me a chance to think about how to develop my own style of line by looking at somebody else’s.

This video is of me preparing and using Chinese ink the old-fashioned way while sketching a figure inside one of his paintings.

I’m also preparing Part II, where I give a response to the work and sketch what surrounds the figure.

Gaa Wai Copy of Li Xue Ming 082419

Dessin puriste (1925)

This is another response to an individual work, a copy of which can be found in Krauss’ book, The Picasso Papers.

Before I get to this, though, let me offer some quick notes to the essay, “The Circulation of Signs.” Krauss brought up an interesting issue in the introductory essay, while discussing Picasso’s work in general: if the meaning expressed in a given work which is abstract is self-referential, the meaning can be without value. (Please see a previous post, All signs lead to Picasso.) Because this is in the introductory essay, I thought she would spend the length of the book addressing its main concern. She does somewhat, and I’ve included what I found useful in my post, Violin (1912); however, she spends most of her time discussing how several different works refer to ongoing political concerns during the time that the works were created. (So the works refer to issues that lie beyond the work, and issues very specific to a time and place, and thus, they are not self-referential.)

I am a little disappointed. To address the issue in her introductory essay, I can again only offer my own opinion, and that is that if a given work has good form, it has something of value. OTOH, art is inherently a social medium; IE, it is made with an audience in mind. It doesn’t have to be political, but the more it comments/engages with issues that lie beyond the work, the more it engages with its audience on a level that is beyond form itself.

Okay, moving onto the work I am responding to. I thought it was by Picasso but it’s  actually by Amedee Ozenfant. It can be found in the section entitled Picasso-Pistache.

Krauss goes on at length about how Picasso was criticized for creating pastiches of works/styles which were created/used by his contemporaries. I have not finished the essay, so I can only say that thus far she offers two responses: one which is critical and one which seems to justify what Picasso did by saying that he took the style of a given artist and then did more.

Today, we seem to allow this but call it “appropriating” the style of another artist but “making it one’s own.”

More on this later…


The above picture seems to be a pastiche of what Picasso was doing at the time. It is a flat representation of the objects, and the contour of one object may share the same lines of the contour of another object. Ozenfant seems to go further in a particular direction that does not make me think of Picasso, per se; and that is how the picture is scored horizontally and vertically by how the contours of certain objects run along what would be one of two grids, one which divides the picture into thirds and the other into quarters. This does not happen with all the lines, but it happens so often that it looks intentional. It creates some interesting visual rhythm which is not very obvious.

What it fails to do which Picasso does so well in his cubist work is create tension between the flatness of the work and the illusion of dimension. This is because there are no vanishing points. You can compare this to Landscape with Posters (1912), which has multiple vanishing points. It is only flat and thus less engaging.


I tried to do this by eye, but eventually I had to use a grid, because so much of what is effective of this drawing depends on how well certain lines match up with other lines.



When I was done with the pencil version, I simply added ink using a ball-point pen.


I only wanted to make sure I had smooth lines (so I compulsively went over the lines until they “flowed” well). However, looking at the finished version, I think the variation of thicknesses in the lines creates some illusion of depth and thus creates some tension between the illusion of depth and the flatness of the drawing.

In short, it doesn’t look as flat as the original, which I guess is neither better nor worse, as the goal of drawing the original was achieved probably, in part, in its flatness. However, it was interesting to see where the drawing could go with myself executing the drawing.

Landscape with Posters (1912) Part 2


This is continued from the previous post, Landscape with Posters (1912).

Seeing the finished work can be overwhelming, and I think that’s part of its appeal. You can get lost in it. So while making a copy, I was pleasantly surprised to see the picture open up to me. In order to find a starting point, my eyes followed the horizontal lines, and I noticed that they scored the picture regularly.

While drawing diagonal lines, I noticed two were set apart from each other but parallel, so they framed a part of the picture at an angle.


I then noticed other parts designated by lines that are parallel to each other, which intersect each other. These spaces are where you can focus your gaze; you can get lost in them.


The variety of angles or perspectives or vanishing points, or however you would like to describe the lines which create these spaces, create a kind of ebb and flow, while the visual rhythm of the horizontal lines unify the picture as a whole.

The process was very simple. I copied it by eye, first in pencil.


I then added ink.

I really liked the idea of applying ink to only one set of parallel lines; EG, all the horizontal lines. However, I wanted to see if I could do more. Interestingly, adding ink to all the lines seemed to be too much, so I considered using different colored inks, so that you could see the ebb and flow more easily. However, doing so took away from the unity of the original. I eventually settled on using a variety of thicknesses.

For the below, I simply went over the lines in pencil with a black ball point pen.


For the final version, the vertical lines were left only in ball point pen. The horizontal lines have black gel pen over the ball point pen. For the diagonal lines, I applied blue gel pen over the black ball point pen and then a black gel pen over the blue gel pen.


I then added shadows which mimicked the variety of tones in the black and white digital copy of the original offered in the book. This further added greater depth and contrast between the spaces.

Landscape with Posters (1912)

This is a post relating to the book, The Picasso Papers, by Rosalind E. Krauss. Please see my two previous posts: Violin (1912) and All signs lead to Picasso.


Here are some notes on Landscape with Posters (1912).


When looking at any scene, all the lines are at a variety of angles, but Picasso allows himself to draw some lines parallel which should not be parallel. This creates multiple vanishing points and more visual rhythm than what the original may have had.

Visual rhythm is always nice, but when each element being expressed rhythmically has meaning (IE, it signifies something), the meaning itself becomes manifold and the experience of viewing the work becomes more substantive. For example, the lines denoting a variety of ground levels is the idea of the ground expressed in avariety of contexts. It isn’t only the rhythm of lines but the rhythm of the earth or any other idea associated with the ground.

You also have the rhythm of doorways (notice there are two) and the rhythm of walls. And then you have the occasional “poster,”which breaks up what Picasso might’ve thought was monotonous and which gives a viewer a few places to focus one’s attention.

There are also some really nice moves: EG, the bottom of a wall receding beyond the opening of a door, which is made more interesting with the rectangle surrounding the door which depicts a building. It’s not stated in the picture, but seeing a door to a building and not just what would be an archway is associated with experiences of when you may have wondered about what’s inside a place. You don’t see what’s inside, and this invites you to wonder what could be.


Violin (1912)

Krauss, The Picasso PapersThe Picasso Papers, by Rosalind E. Krauss. Continued from All Signs Lead to Picasso.

In her first essay, “Circulation of Signs,”Krauss offers responses to individual works. So, likewise, I’ve decided to offer my own thoughts on Picasso’s Violin (1912), along with a couple of Krauss’ ideas which I found technically useful. 

Violin (1912) as a whole is an amalgam of surfaces, and yet you get a sense of the  “thingness” of the object, but in a way which makes us conscious of the elements which express themselves otherwise naturally and are often received somewhat subconsciously.

The three dimensional quality is expressed in only what is essential to express a three dimensional object, which is much less than what a photo of a violin expresses. There is no shared “horizon,” into which everything “vanishes.” There are only shadows and all parts of the violin, seen from different angles, can be seen all at once.

A violin is a complex object. The way it plays with the light is beautiful, and Picasso conveys this with the stark contrast of light and dark areas. Using newspaper print, he also conveys what Krauss calls “atmosphere.” She discusses how he makes use of positive and negative space, as an example of how the meaning of the signs used are internal and relative to each other. IE, the contour of one element is the contour of another and either can be signifier (of a violin or part of a violin) and background.


Only when finishing the drawing did I realize how important the use of collage is to this work. When I only used pencil, it fell flat.


I think there is so much going on in the newspaper that it stands out as a different surface. The image of individual letters lined across the columns, which create visual rhythm, are enough to make its audience see it (even as part of a digital image, which is then printed into a book and then photographed for this blog) as a different surface, and thus lends itself to the illusion of depth.


Maybe if I simply make the gray areas more busy. Here is the original side by side with either version.

I think the unevenness of the second version creates the illusion of more depth than the first version. It appears more airy and recedes further back into the picture than the spaces filled in with charcoal. The spaces filled in with pencil in the first version seem to share and compete with the spaces of charcoal, because they are too similar. When the surfaces are more varied, there is more complexity of depth overall.


Here’s a horse

I’ll be on hiatus until the end of May. In the meantime, here’s a picture of a horse.

082509 Horse
(2009) 11″ x 14″ Pencil on drawing paper 

I used a grid.


There’s not much I can say about this, because I drew this in 2009. I think it took a few hours each day, over the course of a week, to complete. Thought bubble: guy on YouTube telling viewers not to copy from photographs. Don’t remember who it was, but I do remember I cringed a little, because, at the time, that was my plan to develop my artistic skills.

And I know why some people would say this. It’s like practicing how to draw using carbon copies. (I’ve done a few of these.) Both are like training wheels. You may be getting results, but you don’t really know if you can do it on your own until you stop relying on them. Moreover, you are not relying on certain skills you do need, like using one’s sense of proportions in order to draw guidelines by eye.

I see using grids as halfway between using carbon copies and going by eye, and I see drawing something from a photograph as a first step before moving on to maybe a cast of a figure and then a live model and then finally drawing something or somebody in motion.

Everyone goes at their own pace and I think it’s okay to use training wheels if you want to, as long as it is helping you and not something you get in the habit of relying on indefinitely.


Picasso, Gauguin and Seth

As I savor my time with Picasso, I find myself digressing a little to think about how he allows for thick lines to carry the expressiveness of some of his earlier work. Ex, Harlequin and His Companion or The Two Saltimbanques.

He refines this later on, as he becomes more abstract, but even in his Blue Period I can see he’s already experimenting with it, as he waffles between realism and abstraction.

It reminded me of how Gauguin liked to use thick lines in his own paintings. He is associated with Post-Impressionism, which, according to Nigel Ritchie’s Art, moves away from the realism of how things appear and toward symbolism as a way to express the internal.  (360, 372) Interestingly, it had a lasting influence in the graphic and decorative arts. Ex, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. (361)

In Picasso: The Early Years, it says that Picasso signed one of his drawings, Paul Picasso, to express his admiration for Gauguin. (39) It’s easy to see how the use of line in Post-Impressionism had an influence on Picasso’s work.


I was moved by a small drawing of Casegemas (a close friend of Picasso’s who had committed suicide) that went along with his obituary. It’s a simple drawing and yet it carries such pathos. It’s not just the expression on his face but also the heaviness of the medium used and the heaviness of its execution. (33)

Below is my own attempt at drawing Casegemas.

Adding more shadow to the eyes and shading in more of his shoulder would add to the heaviness of my own drawing. Nonetheless, it was good practice in drawing something by eye. I think I’ve spoiled myself with relying on carbon copies and have let my sense for proportions waver.


Moving forward into modern times, I found myself flipping through all the books I have by Seth, a cartoonist who also uses thick lines to great effect. When I read his graphic novella, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, for the first time, I would simply have described it as “atmospheric” or used the phrase “old-time ambience,” while the second time around, I can see that this “ambience” comes from something specific at play within the drawing.¹

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABelow is from his Vernacular Drawings, and drawn in the same style as in his novella. The nostalgia is from a sense of pride emanating from the figure and the ease with which he smokes his cigarette despite his not-so-glamorous circumstances. (58)

In many of his drawings, Seth seems to be looking for dignity in old places or the kind of strength you might see in people who are comfortable in one’s own shoes, regardless of what one’s circumstances may be.

Let me compare this for a moment to the pieces I considered in my post, First Impressions of Picasso. Both artists create tension between subject and context, but while there’s a bit of irony in both, that of Seth’s work isn’t as explicit; it’s softer and instead of being altogether sad, the work holds its figures up as honorable and proud.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a drawing from his work for Aimee Mann’s album, Lost in Space. There is dignity in her posture and simple but elegant dress, which is in contrast to her quiet acts of rebellion (sitting on the railing and looking in rather than joining those inside). Is there also a quiet earnestness? It’s difficult to tell, as we cannot see the expression on her face.

There’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple drawing.

It took me three sittings (3-4 hours each). In day one I drew the central figure, with a disproportionate amount of time spent on the feet. My sense of proportion and perspective are kind of wonky, and I had to be careful to make them just as delicate as in the original. I also added a charcoal outline to the figure and tried to rush through what surrounds the figure, so that day two was redoing all those lines and realizing I got the window wrong but had no choice to keep it as it was because I didn’t think there was any way of undoing the charcoal.

I was wrong. You can erase charcoal. Also, while you can’t completely erase it if it has been pressed into the surface, you can hide it, as it is a lot lighter than charcoal which you do not try to erase. It’s almost as malleable as pencil, even though the pigment is much more rich and intense.

In day three, I finished applying a charcoal outline to the rest of the picture, with the window as it was, and then spent a bit of time smudging or erasing and reapplying charcoal. Areas which serve only as a background were left blurred, while the central figure and the areas of the house which are supposed to be bathed in moonlight were given fresh hard lines, so that the “lighted” areas could be in greater contrast with its surroundings).

If it was up to me, I would not have made any hard lines, but doing so, in following with the original, I realized that the difference between hard lines and blurred areas gave the drawing another dimension. It was fun deciding how this aspect of the picture would play out. It made me think of the choices you must make when using charcoal, as well as the choices made by Expressionist artists.


1 I wanted to draw something from his novella, but all of its drawings rely heavily on its color scheme (subtle variations of blue, black, grey and white) to carry the mood, and I didn’t have the right kinds of blue. I was tempted to color in my drawing of the one from Lost in Space, but realized that without the right kinds of blue, it would look sloppy, and distract from the overall effect.

It’s too bad, because It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is quite beautiful.