Underbridge

I was lamenting two frustrations and ultimately solved them with one short drive.

Feeling a little trapped in the neighbourhood, both my efforts to run more frequently and sketch things beyond my backyard, finding motivation to push myself outside my comfort zones has been a roadblock. Then it occurred to me that sketching in place, the foundational pillar of so-called urban sketching, was not necessitated by either walking somewhere or being — strictly speaking — outside. I could, say, drive somewhere and if it were, say, raining and thus risking my delicate notebook with getting drenched I could just sit in my truck and draw.

Couple this alongside the repetitive monotony of running from my front door day after day after day … literally … after day, and a solution presented itself in the form of a ten minute drive.

I dressed for a run and grabbed my sketching supplies and drove down to the ski hill.

Yeah. This city has a ski hill nestled in a creekside valley, seventy-five meters of decent if a foot, and transformed into a quiet recreational area with running trails in the summer. The nearby freeway dips into the valley and spans the gap with a short, utilitarian bridge through a ribbon of urban greenspace.

Pencils do not do it justice.

I sketched from the drivers seat, watched a dozen or so people wander by in the drizzly rain, dropped my eraser under the seat once, and after about 20 minutes of freehand sketching the contrast of grey concrete with dense foliage suited up and went for a run through the drizzle — and eventually pouring — rain.

Urban sketching for the week: complete. I thought.

What was bugging me was that contrast between the green and the greys which I was not equipped to capture with my limited artistic experience. I assume that will come with time and practice, but for the moment it was a rough, abstract impression that I could not quite hit the mark upon.

Then, as these things do, another epiphany occurred to me while I was running through the lush, wet natural trails.

I snapped one photo when I returned to my truck after my run, hopped in the vehicle and drove home.

That photo was a bit of a colour reference. I snapped a picture of the sketch from my book and imported it into the art software on my iPad.

Using a photograph as a reference for a sketch, tracing the initial shapes is — admittedly — a bit like cheating. I like to think of it as a style, just like animators might lean on rotoscoping to capture lifelike movement, artists can put some of the heavy lifting on capturing lifelike shapes from photos before adding details and abstractions through their own colours and textures.

But using your own freehand sketch as a starting point? Not cheating at all. I started by tracing the lines and shapes from my freehand sketch, then as the image took shape digitally, ditched the sketch and filled in the colours and textures looking at the photo I took to jog my memory and some creative interpretation through the hundreds of varieties of brushes and infinite colours available on the software reproduction.

And sure, maybe under a grey bridge is an odd place to sit and draw, but having run under it, past it, over it, and on it countless times, used it as a landmark for distances, and driven it sometimes daily, it’s a bit of my local life that is more than some grey concrete spans. Which is kinda the whole point of art isn’t it?

Drawing on Dublin

There are a moment one Saturday afternoon last August while I was wandering, literally aimlessly, through the streets of Dublin when I was inspired to draw something.

The question readers may want answered before I explain the drawing is “why were you wandering aimlessly through the streets of Dublin?” To which the simplest answer is simply that I was there alone and early to do one thing I needed to do on Saturday, and with no reason to do anything but explore a place I’d never been I wandered. Aimlessly.

In fact, I had walked for two hours from Chapelizod to Trinity College, which on the map seemed a lot shorter than it actually was, and having scored a bus pass only after I’d reached the downtown core I was free to catch a fast ride back to the hotel but was not inclined to do so knowing that all which awaited me was some television and pondering the race I was scheduled to run the next morning.

Instead, wandering aimlessly through the streets of an old Irish city filled with life and culture, streets lined with countless variety and ages of architecture, and nothing but free time for myself, I bought a sketchbook and some inking pens from a bookshop and found a nearby place to sit.

I remember a few things about the hour while I sat in a small square on a concrete bench sketching what I saw:

  • there were pigeons bustling about the place, doing what pigeons do, which is to look extremely busy while accomplishing very little
  • virtually no one had spoke with me since arriving in the country, but a man with a sketchbook in a park might seem more approachable so I had a brief conversation with two people, first about a pair of shoes that had been abandoned in the middle of the square, and second with a young lady who seemed to think I’d let her tether her phone to mine so she could borrow my mobile data
  • there was a cafe built into an old rail car of some kind, and we returned there later in the week and had coffee — well, I had coffee

Not having sketched in public in over a decade, my rendition of the square was weak, and lacked a lot of details, and wouldn’t be much to brag about, but it was the first in a series of a dozen I composed while we spent the following week in the city and spurred me to become a prolific, regular urban sketch artist upon our return to Canada.

Only that never happened.

I got home, went back to work. Heck, I even bought a nice new sketchbook (not wanting to “spoil” the travel edition that I’d started) and went to the middle of our city square and drew exactly one picture.

To be fair, life got really crazy and busy for a while after we returned from three weeks in Europe, and sketching in the street was not a priority, but something else was going on.

Inspiration.

Dublin was simply that: inspiring. But more than being a beautiful old city, full of life, people, buildings, colour, shapes, texture, culture, everything, it was also a new place for me. It was the same sort of reason that I don’t take many snapshot while I’m on my lunchbreak from work even though I might be sitting in a similarly simple city square, engaging with similar random people, and watching Canadian pigeons behave virtually identically to their Irish cousins. Novelty, opportunity, and purpose might just be a thing one finds on vacation. Or not?

I’ve got it in my head to do more sketching during the pandemic, cracking open the art tools I own to draw the world in which I now find myself temporarily trapped: sheltering, holding ground, and staying healthy. I penned some nature art on the sketching app on my iPad during May and as June hits its stride I’m going to try and post at least one proper “urban sketch“ per week — analog, pencil and paper, a moment in space drawn in place.

I’ll be in my own neighbourhood, like as not, but I’ll be thinking of and drawing on Dublin.

Finding a Focus

When I kicked off “This is Pi Day” I had a solid idea.

That comic strip which I drew for the better part of two years was grounded in this notion of “kids say funny stuff” — mostly because they are kids, but because they lack the nuanced social filters that most of us acquire over our lives. I could mine the rich vein of parenting gold by doing something as simple as going for a walk or driving home from school. There was always a little seed of an idea that could be rolled between the fingers and honed into a crystal of a comic story.

Then the filter appeared, as if overnight.

Kids become teens and cute becomes awkward.

Awkward is not as funny as cute.

So drawing that strip became this tiptoeing balance of finding a respectful route through less of a gold mine and more of a mine field.

Things change, in other words.

Without stories, comics are just wordless sketches, pictures with little more than a fleeting impression of emotion. Glimpses into a universe that is neither fleshed out nor with purpose.

I’ve been trying to find another simple idea to build on, mostly without success, something in which to ground a new set of art and writing. Mostly I get stuck in a bit of a feedback loop, trying to pull a story from the meta introspection of my own life: the “creative nerds are funny” angle, which results in me sketching characters that are neither flattering nor insulting, but which often have a little too much of myself embedded in them.

There is no easy answer to this problem.

While a little sliver of me thought that penning a post about the problem would reveal the answer, the realistic part of me knows that writers block — artists block — whatever, is the quadrant on the graph of inspiration where openness to ideas and exposure to the universe are both negative values.

Being locked away in one’s own home for most of the day, barely able to leave the neighbourhood except for supplies, and dealing with the emotional weight that creates certainly seems likes it might tick a few boxes on whatever survey is tallying my personal writer’s block analysis.

In other words, I don’t yet have a solid idea. Just the motivation to find one. And that is not coming as easily as I’d hoped.

In the meantime, I’ll keep sketching whatever pops into my mind and hoping that the effort will overcome the static friction of this stationary life.

Just the Necessities

Readers who stumble across this website without context for any my history may be surprised to learn that for two years I drew and published a weekly online web comic. In all, I published about 150 strips, nearly all of them slice-of-life gags referencing my life as a dad to a single-digit-aged daughter.

I’ve tried to reboot that strip a couple times since I stopped drawing — a little over a year ago now — but my dabbling attempts have been thwarted by a lack of time, focus, and cohesive new narrative thread. Kids grow up and it turns out teenagers don’t think wry observation of their awkward quirks are very funny, DAD!

Those attempted reboots have left little in the way of published assets behind. On the other hand, my cartooning toolbox, mental, digital, and emotional has been much more fleshed out by the experience. In fact, I often find that I’m in a much better position to just absently sketch something while hanging out bored, while in front of the television, or for no reason other than to draw.

Art then becomes a bit more expressive and bit less prescriptive, more of me trying to get an idea out on the page in whatever form that takes and less me trying to hit a (self-imposed) publication deadline for a Saturday morning comic post.

Some of this is reference art, of course. I often draw hoping that what shows up at the end is something that inspires me to draw it again. Then again. Then a hundred more times so that I can spin the whole thing into another modestly successful comic strip.

If nothing else, I land with something and maybe even something worth sharing.

Last night, for example, we were watching some television as a family and I pulled out my iPad and absently started a self-portrait. I had two things on my mind. First, it has been floating through my peripheral awareness that my hair has never been as long in my life as it is right now. Barbershops opened for the first time in two months as of this week, and I was overdue when they locked down due to the pandemic. Second, having taken an extra day off for the long weekend, it also happens to be my turn to brave the grocery stores and restock our basics.

Doodle. Erase. Sketch. Tweak. Refine. Colour. Tweak. Expand. Shade. Tweak. Et cetera…

And around an hour later I posted this little sketch onto Instagram.

Back when I was doing a regular strip I turned to Instagram as one of the primary channels for sharing my art. And in the over a year since posting that strip regularly, I’ve tossed a few doodles like this (and in a variety of other styles) onto that account as a kind-of “I’m still here” flag. I realized as I posted yet-another-not-my-strip cartoon there last night that it might be and opportune time to consider a rebrand: to rename the account as something more generic to the art, and more specific to me. So… that’s the plan. Or at least the seed of one.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here absently sketching.