Part 4: Summer 2011 to Present

Back to subway sketches on a Moleskine

As life got busier, my sketch walks decreased, and the only guaranteed sketching time was the daily commute on the train.

For several months I sketched my fellow commuters on tiny Artist Trading Cards, and managed to fill an album with them. But I missd the feeling of drawing in a book, especially when one woman asked me if she could keep one of my better sketches, and then proceeded to remove it from the sleeve of the album.

I decided to go back to the Moleskine.

If you have read my article on Sketching with a Moleskine you will know of my love/hate relationship with the Moleskine Watercolour Notebook which is so portable and convenient but so awkward with its horizontal landscape format. What were they thinking? And why don't they listen?

I had used up my previous Watercolour Notebook and reluctantly got myself another one.

The Moleskine is only awkward when you have to hold it in your hand while sketching, so this time I decided to get around this by only drawing in pencil when standing, and saving the final inking with a brush pen for when I'm sitiing at a desk. I also found that the horizontal format could be better utilized if I filled it with train passengers rather than use one page per model.

One unexpected benefit of filling a two page spread with several people is that I don't waste time finding poses worthy of adding to my sketchbook. I'm more willing to choose a less than ideal pose since it will not be the focus of the sketch.

On the first page I found that this could be a fun project, adding people to the page over time. Here is the page after the morning commute, followed by the page after I added people in the evening before I rendered them in ink.

I also decided that I did not want to make this a typical sketch journal which is the fashion these days. I figured my record of feelings and impressions of the moment were about as exciting as a Facebook photo of today's breakfast, and very few people really care about such things.

On the other hand, I have discovered that one's own sketchbooks become the best sketching textbooks because they address the issues, preference and style of the reader. So I decided to write notes about the sketching process itself so I could come back some day and learn from the sketch. In other words, the notes are for me.

I broke the monotony of train commuters by adding one of a student who was supposed to be studying for the midterm exams. He was an unsuspecting model, and it was his own fault. His fellow classmates loved it. When I filled the rest of the page with commuters, the sketch became a little bizarre.

At this point "panorama fatigue" set in and I was weary of sketching this way, so I took a break from the Moleskine to sketch a while in my new Stillman and Birn 4X6 sketchbook which has a more reasonable vertical format. Those sketches are on a different page. When I came back to this Moleskine a several weeks later I resumed where I left off and added more people to this page including a self-portrait.

Another school sketch to break up the monotony of both the commuter sketches and the long speeches in the school ceremony.

I finally ran out of things to write and just filled these with pictures and no text. Reminds me of the good old days before fashionable sketch journal artists started filling their sketchbooks with handwritten text that they believed other people would find interesting enough to read. I've tried it, and I can't be persuaded to read even my own "witty" notes! If a picture is worth a thousand words, then why can't we resist adding words?

People standing on the train usually hold onto the overhead straps so they don't fall during the bumps and lurches. In the sketch above only the girl in the center is holding a strap. Sometimes I like to draw people with their hands in the air without the straps. It keeps the subject self-contained, and I also find it amusing...

I took this next photo early in the process when there were only two lonely figures.

But after a few days the place got pretty crowded.

This time I was in no hurry to start a new page so I kept adding people -- more than usual -- and took it to a new level. As before, I omitted the hanging hand straps, so one man on the left ended up poking his finger in the head of a woman in front of him.

Fifteen people in one sketch! Now I can draw a crowd with my sketching (heh heh...). Seriously, I like how this spread turned out and I think I'm on to something...

This particular sketchbook continues on page 6, and the next two-page spread has twenty people in it.

I got some new pencils

As I mentioned above, I'm currently capturing poses with pencil on the train and rendering them in ink later at my desk. For the pencil under-drawings I tried various lead sizes and degrees of hardness and had settled on a mechanical pencil with a 0.5mm H lead. I used 2H for a while but it turned out to be too scratchy and the lines were hard to see.

0.5mm leads are perfectly adequate for the job but I often get sloppy and end up with a tornado of confusing pencil lines which obscure details. So I wondered if a thinner 0.3mm lead would work better -- I had seen them in the shops but never used one before. So I did some research and spent a lot of time in the local stationery shops looking for the best 0.3mm mechanical pencil.

I have to quickly whip out the pencil when I see a sketch subject and then put it back with one hand while standing on a crowded train. So I needed a pencil that wouldn't catch on the sides of my shirt pocket or poke holes if I forced it in. In other words, I needed one with a retractable point.

There are several wonderful pencils with retractable points in the 0.5mm range such as OHTO's AUTO Sharp which automatically advances the lead, Platinum's amazing OLEeNu which has a special mechanism to protect the lead from breaking (Ole-enu is Japanese for "won't break") and the Paper Mate PhD which has a triangle grip and nice big twist eraser (which all mechanical pencils ought to have).

Unfortunately there are not that many options among 0.3mm pencils, and practically every pencil I saw had a long needle-like tube at the end which was sure to catch on my pocket. I searched everywhere in vain for one with a retractable tip!

After much searching, I finally found two pencils that fit the bill.

The first was a Pentel Graph Gear 1000 Drafting Pencil for 0.3mm lead.


This has a retractable point, and I'm amazed at the fine detail I can get with a 0.3mm lead. I had previously thought that pencil leads this thin would simply give spider-web-like delicate lines with no life, but I realized that they are simply like using a freshly sharpened regular pencil which feels so good and makes such a nice line as dark as you need. At this size I have no problem drawing fine details even when I get sloppy. I went over to Amazon to read more about this pencil and judging from all the reviews and customer photos, it apparently has a cult following. This model also comes in a 0.5mm and 0.7mm version so you have to be make sure you are choosing the size you had in mind.

Then about a week later I found the second 0.3mm mechanical pencil with retractable tip. It's the Pilot FURE FURE SPRINTER. FURE FURE sounds something like foo-leh foo-leh and means "shake, shake." This one has a plastic body which is lighter than the Pentel Graph Gear.

It has a retractable tip and a unique mechanism for advancing the lead. You just give the pen a shake and a metal sliding spring inside the barrel bounces up and down, banging on something which makes the lead come out in increments.

You can also click the pencil like a regular mechanical pencil, but that's not as fun.

This one had been available in a 0.5 mm size size for a while, and it's wonderful, but now Pilot has made a 0.3mm version which I like even better, but this black model is apparently only available in Japan for now.

But a blue model with the 0.3mm point is now available at Amazon under a different name: the Fure Fure Corone. The design is exactly the same as my black Sprinter.

It goes without saying a 0.3mm lead can break more frequently, especially if you use a lot of pressure to get a dark line, as I do. So the shake mechanism will let you advance the lead without interrupting your work.

But I was happy to discover that the lead in this pencil almost never breaks, thanks to another cool feature: the metal tube which covers and protects the fragile lead is not stationary, but can slide.

When you write at an angle, the tube is pushed back just enough for the tip of the lead to protrude and stay in contact with the paper. You can expose enough lead to do the job without breaking.

The tube then slides back into the barrel as the lead gets shorter so you can use it for a longer period of time.

When the lead and its protecting tube get too short, you just give the pencil another shake or click and the tube and lead are once again extended full length.

It's an amazing pencil!

Both pencils have erasers on the end which are covered by a cap. I usually keep the eraser cap off my pencils so I can use the eraser without delay, but I keep it in place on the Pentel because the click spring mechanism is so strong, it sends the eraser and all the leads flying if there is no cap to stop them.

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