When we returned from our road trip, I dutifully sketched coffee cups and other everyday things. Even though I often say that tying sketching to the acquisition of knowledge or to understanding makes any subject potentially interesting to sketch, I got tired of drawing the vegetables in my produce delivery, and my beloved fatsia, and even coffee cups.
But I know that regularly working in a sketchbook connects your hand and brain and eyes and trains them to work together, keeps your hand in making art on a regular basis, and keeps you ready for any sketching opportunities. And I know that slumps don't last, but I wanted out of this one quickly so I thought of some things to help.
Sketching from Photos
I talk a lot about the importance of sketching from life, but sketching from photos is also a useful tool, and can be fun and relaxing.
Try timing yourself in order to get more spontaneous marks, like this grid of one-minute sketches.
Drawing from a Book
This was inspired by the artist Emma Carlisle (look for her on Instagram), who has a book of birds she works from when she's stuck. I did these from a guide book of trees - it's a fun way to play with materials.
Copying from art books, from comics, from other people's sketches is a good way to keep your hand in it, and to learn from others. Lynda Barry is big on copying and uses it when she teaches. She says, "Copying is good for you because it takes time and requires a certain sort of sustained concentration that invites a different sort of thinking."
Trying a Different Approach
Try changing something up from the way you usually sketch. I spent a week doing almost nothing but continuous line drawings (where you don't pick up your pen/pencil), and it really helped me to want to sketch more. You can also try different materials, different paper or cardboard or the backs of envelopes, or go back to a material you haven't used in a while.
Start a New Sketchbook / New Intentions
Starting a new sketchbook can bring a refreshing change. I have a couple of Laloran sketchbooks - super nice sketchbooks made by my friend Ketta Linhares in Portugal. It feels "too fancy" to use right now while I'm not going anywhere or doing anything, but I decided that's why I need it. My days might all be very similar right now, but each is still special.
So now I am celebrating the everyday things, rather than dutifully recording them. If you can't literally get a change of scene, you can change other things to freshen up your outlook.
Our idea for this trip was to drive around and look at things, so here are some things we saw while driving around.
We stopped at Carhenge in Nebraska. Toby said we were going there and I kept thinking, "No that is in Texas," until we got there and I said out loud, "Oh, CarHENGE." (I was thinking of Cadillac Ranch in Texas.) Then I sketched it quickly with ink and a little bit of watercolor and colored pencil.
Later that same day we were... I don't know where, when we had to stop because there were cows in the road. So. Many. Cows! We just stayed put while hundreds of cows walked past us. I sketched them and Toby took about a thousand pictures. It was such a delightful surprise during our long drive!
We drove on WAY more gravel roads than I would have expected, so we had to stop and clean the car at some point. Well, Toby cleaned it while I sketched.
We spent our last couple of days winding down at a lake house in Hardy, AR. It was a bit of a return to domesticity and a forced rest before driving the few hours back home to our real life.
I knew I had one more big sketch in me, so I went out to sketch and spent a lot of time looking, then found a good spot to sit, then looked some more. And I took a different approach based on my discoveries earlier in the trip about timed sketches. I made timed thumbnail sketches! One smaller and one larger, both of the same spot. In the minute I gave myself to sketch the scene, I couldn't overthink it. In the second thumbnail, I used what I learned in the first one and both sort of told me what I found most important to the composition. Then I timed my initial sketch in colored pencil, to make sure it had that same energy.
Then I painted it. It was a fun experiment and helped keep it feeling fresh for a long (time-wise) sketch.
Then I made a couple more quick sketches and that was it! I was done sketching for the day and we were nearly done with the trip. We drove home the next day and I was so happy to be there.
We were very lucky to be able to take this trip. I used as much of it as I could to sketch and to learn from it.
Over three days we went to three Kansas state parks plus one bonus site! Driving through Kansas was more interesting than I expected. After a while of driving, everything started to look like an abstract painting. There would be a patch of yellow-orange up against a patch of rust red, or a bright yellow stripe, or a cluster of dark green adjacent to a yellow ochre. And there's all that going on below the sky that is a wash of blue and gray and white, or a big purple shape, or sometimes brown, which is scary when driving through Kansas.
The first stop on this leg was Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, a precious little place you really have to want to get to to go there, as there are various gravel roads involved in the directions. It's made up of Niobrara chalk formations that were just so interesting and unexpected. It is also a working ranch, so cows were just milling around and we had to walk through them to get back to the car.
The next day we drove to Monument Rocks, which is pretty close to Little Jerusalem, but while Little Jerusalem felt sort of sunken, like the landscape suddenly dropped off into these chalk formations, the Monument Rocks rocks rose up from the ground. It is another type of chalk formation, I think - I didn't take any notes there. I do know that it's private land that the land owners leave open for the general public to visit.
About a half an hour away was Lake Scott State Park, also "sunken" landscape like Little Jerusalem. But otherwise the landscape was so different than that one and Monument Rocks - it was lush and full of trees.
We found a great spot on the lake with a picnic table and I sketched while Toby smoked a cigar. I got to focus on my new favorite tree, the cottonwood. We watched a storm roll in so we left, but the storm followed us the whole drive without ever becoming a storm - that's the big purple shape I mentioned earlier.
The next day we went to Fall River State Park.
I'm not sure what was going on there, but it seemed much more like a lake? Anyway, we found a good picnic table spot where the land jutted into the lake/river, and it was VERY WINDY. I made this sketch to try to warm up my hands and make sure I could use them! My cold, shaky hands made some good marks, though.
While I was doing these sketches, Toby was bird watching and telling me the names of all of the birds he was seeing.
We said goodbye to Yellowstone and drove somewhat diagonally through Wyoming to Curt Gowdy State Park. When we got there we drove around looking for an ideal spot to camp and all of a sudden a snow storm blew in! It lasted about 10 minutes, and then the sky was totally clear again. But it was very windy so we knew we had to work quickly. We picked a spot sheltered by aspens and other trees and set up, then ate a dinner of cheese and summer sausage and crackers and chips in the tent (normally we don't eat in the tent). We got cozy and listened to the wind rustle leaves and howl down the hill. All night it was the sound of the wind in the trees and the wind beating against the tent. When we got up to pee, the night sky was so clear we could see the Milky Way.
The next morning it was still cold and windy but very sunny. We barely got coffee made because of the wind, but we did and we enjoyed it in our magic little circle.
This is one of my favorite sketches from the trip, sketched in the cold and wind as I drank my coffee and thought about how amazing it was to sleep surrounded by aspens with the wind howling like waves.
We also heard cows during the night! When I finished my coffee I walked over to where the cows were - farther away than I would have thought, but sound does weird things in the cold air. I sketched the cows and one of the really cool rock formations that were throughout the park. But it was SO COLD and SO WINDY that my hands sort of stopped working and my sketchbook almost flew out of my hands a few times. So we packed everything up for the short drive to our next stop, and we finished listening to Moby Dick on the way.
Before we even left the cabin I saw this girl right outside the door and grabbed my sketchbook as she posed. This is why I always carry a sketchbook.
We drove and drove and drove through Yellowstone to the Grand Teton National Park and by the time we stopped at this view I was just itching to sketch. This was a pretty quick sketch using my favorite quick-sketch materials - a fat black pen and a limited range of grays.
We drove a little farther away for a better view and parked. I had lots of time for this one and just had fun with it. I sat on my little sketching stool right in those wildflowers and just tried to sketch everything!
By this time in the trip I had gotten to know the colors in my little watercolor palette really well - this is the Ultimate Sketching Palette from Expeditionary Art with colors selected by Jane Blundell (the watercolor color expert!), so I knew I couldn't go wrong with it, but it did take some use to get comfortable mixing the colors.
This was a super quick sketch and looks it! I thought it would be the best one considering I had the least amount of time for it, and that's when I learned that not all quick sketches will be my favorite sketches! But I do love what I did with the sky, and I love the simplicity of the line of grass and line of trees.
While we were on our trip, I sketched normal everyday things as well as wildlife and national monuments. We stayed in a cabin outside of the eastern entrance of Yellowstone for several days so we got comfortable and cooked eggs and lingered over coffee in the morning.
Since Devils Tower I'd been thinking about time and sketching, because I thought if I had more time there, I would have done a more involved sketch that took more time. I had time to sketch at the cabin and what I sketched - this nearby cabin - felt heavy and a little forced. I wondered if I was being too literal with paint, and if I should focus on being literal with a pen but looser with paint. It was bugging me because I had way more time than usual to sketch but I wasn't happy with what I was doing.
Then we drove all through Yellowstone and encountered big scenes with small amounts of time and everything worked out okay. It was like the overthinking part of my brain went quiet for a while. So my real issue wasn't about being literal with paint, it was about time and expectations.
The expectation associated with time is, "Oh, this is going to be a good sketch." The expectation when sketching within constraints - time, weather, light, a moving subject - is, "Yay, I get to sketch this thing/place/person."
When I had time at the cabin I tested that theory by doing timed sketches. The timed sketches felt more spontaneous, and I liked the marks I got out of them. Because I was sketching the same thing over and over, I learned from each one and put what I learned into the next one. So then of course I was like - "oh I figured out the secret! all of my sketches now will be both timed and good!" But I quickly saw that wasn't going to be the case, either.
But this idea isn't really about "good" sketches and "bad" sketches - it's more about finding ways to be satisfied with your work, and to learn from it. It's like what Helen Stephens (illustrator and #walktosee founder - @helenstephenslion on Instagram) encourages us to do - draw in the rain and draw in the dark to let go of our expectations and embrace whatever happens on the paper.
I've been pretty busy with work the last few weeks in a way that made me not very interested in revisit this super fun, relaxing trip, but now I can finally get back to telling you about the sketching I did while we were on our super socially distanced road trip.
First of all, Yellowstone was amazing! It is so easy to drive through it and stop anywhere and see something gorgeous. This was our first stop, at Yellowstone Lake, and the shape that the lake made at that spot really spoke to me so I made this quick sketch with watercolor and ink.
These are two separate scenes. First we stopped at one of the many places where you find stinky, gurgling mud. But the stinky, gurgling mud is so cool! I didn't even know how I would sketch all of the steam - a white gel pen came in handy there.
Next we stopped to see a buffalo near the water where we also saw ducks and geese and maybe swans - we saw swans somewhere but might not have been this stop. I love using a black pen and a brush pen to quickly sketch a scene.
I sketched this scene in watercolor at Artist Point (it really is singular - I just looked it up), but it was pretty crowded there so we didn't stay long.
This one was so much fun to sketch! It was such a challenge because again, how do you sketch gurgling mud and steam?! There weren't as many people at this spot so I was able to take a little more time to figure it out, but it was still a pretty quick sketch.
We stopped to eat our picnic lunch next to this pond full of fairy flowers. I don't know what they were, but they were magical - some of them moved up and down like they were magical. And I was totally stumped as to how to capture the scene in a sketch!
I was a little sad as we were heading back towards the park exit because I didn't feel like I was done yet. Then we happened by a beautiful view of the lake, so I got one more sketch in. It was cold and windy and I was sitting on a concrete curb - and it was perfect! I knew I had one more sketch in me, so this was very satisfying.
I made all of these sketches in a Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook (8.5" x 5.5) with a black pen, a brush pen, and watercolors. I spent this day doing the things I love most - driving around with my husband and stopping to look at things and sketch them. My sketching thrives within the constraints of time, weather, and (dis)comfort. The sketches turn out better when there's no time to think!
I was very excited about getting to see Devils Tower. Seeing it from a distance while driving was amazing - it's so tall! We camped right beside it, just to the east of it, so we had an amazing view. It was hard to look away from it but when I did I felt like I could sense its presence, sort of like how I can feel where the Mississippi River is at all times when I'm anywhere in Memphis.
We got there in the late afternoon and camped one night, and all I could think about while we were there was sketching it. I even woke up in the tent in the middle of the night thinking about sketching it the next day.
I drew the one on the left in the dark, and drew the other one the next morning in the light of day.
If you follow me on Instagram (@elizabethalley), you might know that at home in Memphis I often sketch and paint a building called the Clark Tower, and because I sketch and paint it so much, a friend declared it "my Devils Tower," as in the thing I'm obsessed with like the character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind who sculpted Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes. Anyway, all of that was an extra bit of excitement for being able to see it in person, but also caused me a moment of hesitation due to the expectations of sketching The Actual Devils Tower. But, I was happy to find that I didn't sketch it nine times out of a sense of obligation, but because I wanted to explore it. I could have sketched how the shadows changed on it all. day. long.
After we left, I kept thinking about how if I'd had more time I would have done a more involved sketch. But I later figured out that by doing nine quick-ish sketches I probably learned more and enjoyed myself more than I would have with fewer sketches that took more time. I'll tell you more about that lesson later.
My husband and I have been keeping to quarantine since mid-March and were going a little stir crazy, so we planned a trip in October that would result in maximum change of scenery with minimum interaction with others. We camped, stayed in cabins, and carried around our own food. We also went to grocery stores and stopped at gas stations and stayed in a few chain hotels. But we did everything we could to minimize interaction with others and ensure that we weren't spreading the virus around the country. We've been back for several weeks with no signs or symptoms of illness and we had a break that we were both extremely grateful for.
Here are sketches from the first leg our the trip:
First stop: camping in Knob Noster State Park in Missouri. The park was surprisingly close to a major road. At night we could hear the wind in the trees, the rustling of animals, and the swoosh of big trucks nearby. But it was a lovely spot full of pin oaks and other giant trees starting to turn colors. We went on a hike and saw deer, we listened to the wind through the trees, and we saw the milky way at night.
I have so many new sketches to share, but I'm sharing this again with the following words to make sure that any of you reading my blog or my social media know who it is you are following. You may ask what politics has to do with sketching, and as a response I will share this quote by Frederick Franck, "Art is neither a profession or a hobby. Art is a way of being." I make art because it is my way of being, and I cannot separate it from any other part of myself.
Now, none of my people won/didn't win my state, but I stand by these choices because I made them for the kind of world that I want to see and that I want for others. I believe strongly in and will defend and align myself with supporters of: Black lives (Black Lives Matter), trans lives and rights, gay marriage and all LGBTQIA rights, women's rights, reproductive rights, the rights of undocumented Americans (no human is illegal), science, climate justice and environmental protections... and there's more that I am forgetting – so much healthcare debt or limited/no access to decent healthcare, student loan debt, generational poverty, family separation, extrajudicial killing and police violence, sentencing based on racism and patriarchy, voter suppression, rolling back of climate change initiatives, oh yeah and uncontrolled spread of a deadly virus that has killed almost 240,000 Americans.
We show the world who we are through our words, actions, and choices. I have and will continue to say and do thoughtless things and make not-smart choices because I'm human. But I think a lot about the words I use and the actions and choices that I make, and I strive for empathy and compassion (neither of these comes easily to me), and I incorporate lessons I've learned from the people in my life.
Anyway, that's who I am and who I will continue to be. Thanks for reading.
Sketchwork is sketches and work about sketching - teaching, making art, art supplies, books, sketchers, artists, Urban Sketchers, Memphis Urban Sketchers, and traveling.