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SKETCHBOOK: a creative tool and a way of life that celebrates design and drawing as vital ways to see and value culture, to discover ideas, and to envision a better world.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Drawing as Discovery: Capturing the Spirit of Place

For the upcoming Urban Sketching Summer Retreat, August 16-20, 2021 at the Madeline Island School of Art, I'll be teaching alongside my friends and world class sketching instructors Shari Blaukopf, Paul Heaston and Uma Kelkar. My session is called, "The Goods: Keys to Lively Travel Sketches." And yes, since I live on a small island off Florida's Gulf Coast, sketching beautiful Madeline Island in Lake Superior will qualify as both urban sketching and travel sketching. 

Travel and sketching have been inseparable for me for decades.  More than an avocation or hobby, travel and sketching are a perfect pairing, like great food and fine wine. Together, they can heighten our senses, expand our creative awareness and greatly enrich and intensify our experience. When you carry a sketchbook, you're no longer a tourist. You're a traveler. The world is your studio, and your sketchbook is your passport. 

When I travel, sketching on-location becomes a tool for exploration and discovery. And though my sketchbook collection spans five continents, there's a common theme: the search for places--historic districts, traditional towns and villages, scenic landscapes, pockets of wildness--that retain a sense of authenticity, with roots in their native landscape, history, cultures and traditions. As an artist, I'm less motivated by communicating my own emotions than by searching for and capturing this genuine spirit of place. 

On Madeline Island, we'll identify a great subject area on the island itself or in nearby Bayfield. We'll take note of the geology, the vegetation, waterfront character, architecture, building materials and details. We'll learn to spot and capture these quickly in our sketchbooks as "visual notes," and create small sketches of how they come together to convey a distinct character. Then we'll learn a flexible 5-step process to employ composition, line quality, dramatic darks and expressive color to build a lively eye-level perspective sketch. Finally, we'll enrich our drawing with some of the details, found objects and notes we've collected to convey our impression of what makes this corner of Madeline Island like nowhere else.

I'm very excited about this opportunity to experience and capture the character of this very special place. Come join us! Here's the link for more details and registration.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

How Does Eye Level Work on a Hill?

From my Skillshare class, "Drawing People and Crowds Made Simple" ;

This morning Shawnery Mathis, a participant in one of my Skillshare classes, asked "How do you deal with eye level--where heads go--when you are on a hill? I live in a really hilly area so a lot of my urban sketches would have some sort of hill to deal with." 

I get this question occasionally, since I usually teach the "eye level" concept assuming that the artist and most of people and crowd are standing, and that the ground is relatively flat--the kind of scene you'd see in an Italian piazza or this Parisian street corner:

You can see that, regardless of their distance from the viewer, (almost) all the heads are lined up on that white eye level line. In a sketch, it looks like this:

The most common question I get regards the the eye level of the artist when sitting and most of the people being sketched are standing. In that case, the artist's eye level is about at the waist level of the average person. In a sketch, it looks like this: 

So, observing a hill presents a different kind of situation. The people standing at the same level on the hill  as you (in the example, you're at the bottom of the hill) will all be at the same eye level as you. For people further up the hill, forget about eye level. Those figures simply get smaller, drawn with less detail and higher on the page as they get further away/up the hill from the artist. Here's a simplified illustration:

Pretty cool, right? This observation comes in handy when drawing something like a grand urban staircase, like the Spanish Steps in Rome. Assuming you're standing at the base of the steps, the people also at the base of the steps are at your eye level. Those moving up the stairs gradually diminish in size and detail:

When in doubt, LOOK CAREFULLY AND DRAW WHAT YOU SEE. These kinds of guidelines and techniques make you aware of the optics and simplify the issue, helping you to translate hopelessly complex scene into something that makes sense on the page.  One of my great teachers, Michael O'Keefe, told me, "Yes, you draw what you see. But you see what you know to look for." Understanding eye level helps you know what to look for.

There are TONS of tips like this in my book, Freehand Drawing and Discovery.  I hope this little lesson was helpful. I look forward to seeing you out on the street one day soon. Until then, keep dreaming, and keep drawing.  -J.

Friday, July 31, 2020


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Hi all! Yesterday I released my third and most ambitious online class on Skillshare. It's called "Bring City Scenes to Life: Sketching Cars, Trees and Furnishings." It's a series of short lessons (they average about 9 minutes) that walk you through my approach to sketching passenger cars, trucks and buses, urban trees, and a range of furnishings like street lamps, benches and signs. Then we put them all together in a lively 1-point perspective of a cool street scene with lots of character a real sense of depth.  

Learning an approach to sketching these "entourage" elements can add realism and a sense of authenticity to your city sketches. They can also help balance your composition, provide an interesting foreground, lend a rich level of detail, and tell us something about the character and culture of the city you're in. They're equally applicable whether you're working on location, in the studio, or just doodling for fun.

Skillshare is like the Netflix of online learning. If you're already a member, jump right in! If you're not, the link below can give you 2 free months of access to all of Skillshare's classes (which is more than enough time to wade through all 3 of my classes there). I plan to add a new class to the series every 2-3 months.

Thanks everyone--I hope to see you in class! 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Inspirations: Meet Bon Hui Uy

During last week's USkTalks interview with the larger-than-life Rob Sketcherman, I mentioned some designers and artists whose Hong Kong sketches and paintings had inspired me to travel and sketch, and to visit Hong Kong in particular.  No one inspired me more in that regard than architectural designer, artist and illustrator Bon Hui Uy.

I became aware of Bon Hui's work by luck in 1983 or so, finding his first published collection of drawings in an architectural bookstore in Dallas. That book, Architectural Drawings and Leisure Sketches, was like no other collection I'd seen. Along with the follow-up book, Drawings--Architecture and Leisure, they combined architectural design, illustration, on-the-spot sketching and pure art, all in Bon-Hui's startlingly fresh, engaging style. It was truly a breath of fresh air for me. In no small way, it gave me permission to push my line-driven style further, and to bring some of the loose character of my more casual on-location sketches to my professional design drawings.  

After purchasing his third book, Architectural Drawings and Leisure Works, I lost track of Bon Hui for a while, until last week, when the announcement of my new Skillshare class and my mention of him in the USkTalks interview prompted a string of correspondences. I'm delighted to catch up with this sketching hero of mine, and to introduce him to those of you who haven't had the pleasure.  Enjoy these images, and check out www.bonhui.com.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Inspiration for "Serial Vision" Challenge: Meet Gordon Cullen

This is a page from Gordon Cullen's The Concise Townscape, with eye-level sketches illustrating the "sequence of revelations" represented by arrows in the plan graphic at right.

It's been exciting to see how our global sketching community has responded to the "Serial Vision" challenge I tossed out at the end of our "USkTalks" interview one week ago.  Coming up with an idea for on-location drawing while we're quarantined inside is a bit of a challenge in itself. So I went back to my landscape architecture education for inspiration. The idea was to create a series of simple drawings, in storyboard fashion, to depict a sequence of views the sketcher would see in going about a daily routine or ritual while being isolated at home.

Like any idea, it didn't appear to me from nowhere. I was profoundly influenced in university by the work of British urban designer and author Gordon Cullen, whose seminal book "Townscape," first published in 1961, influenced a generation (or two) of architects, urban designers and illustrators with its deceptively simple ideas, wonderful writing and Cullen's signature drawing style.  Cullen coined the term "serial vision" to describe his wonderful sequences of spare drawings that depicted how one would experience an environment while moving through it at a steady pace (see example at top). Drawn quickly and simply, the panels could be used to describe the experience of walking through a town, driving a roadway, or any other experiential sequence of views, real or imaginary. Each drawing gives a hint of the next. I've used the technique to document experiences from imagining a walk through a yet-to-be-built college campus to capturing the experience in real time of floating down the Mekong River in Vietnam.

Cullen's book is still available as The Concise Townscape. My intent here is simply to introduce Cullen to those in our sketching community who haven't crossed his path, and to highlight this "serial vision" idea as one that has great potential to tell stories in the cities where we live and travel. And yes, my urban design firm was named "Townscape Inc." in tribute to Cullen, who serves as patron saint.

My drawings depicting a sequence of views moving through an imaginary college campus. It was prepared to introduce a "serial vision" assignment to my graduate students back in my professor days.

My panels capturing views along tributaries of the Mekong River as we boated to a village upstream.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Jim's New Skillshare Class!

Hi everyone!  I sincerely hope this finds you well, and finding creative ways to take advantage of the quarantine time we now find on our hands. To fill some of that void here at home, I’ve spent the last few weeks working on a new online sketching class for Skillshare.  I’m happy and excited to let you know that this brand new class, “Travel Sketching Essentials: A Great Sketch in 5 Steps,” went live last night.  
This class was a lot of fun to create, and is packed with information. It's designed to take a complex travel sketching subject and dramatically simplify the process of creating a fresh, lively sketch in ink and watercolor washes. For this class, I decided there would be no skipping steps, no fast forwards--you are free to do that as you wish, or to hang with me in the studio for every line and brushstroke of creating this painting. I had a blast, and I think you will too.

I'll cover my latest tools and materials, how I simplify a scene, how to use thumbnail sketches to find a great composition, and my 5-step process for building a sketch of any urban scene.
This is part of a series of classes I'm creating for all skill levels, veterans to beginners. It's intended to demystify sketching, making it less intimidating, more accessible and more fun.
You can see the class introduction video (about a minute and a half) with this link. If you are ready to jump in and you're not a Skillshare member, you can sign up for two free months right there.
You are all part of our extended family, and you're in our thoughts. Siesta Key remains heartbreakingly beautiful, if eerily quiet. Patti and I and family are healthy and coping well with staying around the house and studio. Be well, be safe, and we hope to see you soon.
Warmest regards, 

Monday, February 24, 2020

Jim's Drawing Resurfaces in National Geographic Film

This powerful film is only 8 minutes long.  Bamberger's narration using Jim's drawing is at 4:20.

This is one of the most inspiring short films you'll see, telling the story of rebirth of Texas Hill Country wasteland into verdant grasslands and springs. I worked with and was inspired by Texas rancher and renowned conservationist David Bamberger in the early 1990s, working as a landscape architect and land planning consultant for JJR/inc. The team included non-profit education innovator Julia Jarrell, my JJR partner Dale Sass, and architecture critic David Dillon. By that time many of Bamberger's ideas had already transformed his 5,500-acre Selah ranch into a model for land conservation. At 4:20 of this short film, David uses one of the many drawings I created during our extended conversations to illustrate his foundational idea for using environmental processes to bring the land back to life. When I was shown this film in 2020, I hadn't seen that drawing in 25 years. I'm beyond delighted that it continues to inform and inspire.

Here's the link:

Selah: Stone to Water. A National Geographic Film

Bamberger explains how his childhood experiences and values shaped the philosophies that led to the restoration of Selah.

Screen shot of Bamberger using Jim's drawing--now used as an interpretive exhibit at the ranch--to explain how his conservation strategies work with environmental processes to bring the land back to life.