Category Archives: Sketchbook

Studying watercolor

Painting in watercolor is SO different from oil.  It’s a real challenge, but I’m enjoying it.  I decided to take a short break from oil painting to learn a new medium.  I’m sure I’ll return to oil soon, but enjoying the immediacy and delicacy required to paint watercolor.  Enjoy!

[shashin type=”albumphotos” id=”2″ size=”large” crop=”n” columns=”max” caption=”n” order=”source” position=”center”]

Random sketches

Thanks for your recent comments about my sketches.  Here’s a few more.  I’m also testing out various ways to include photo slide shows into my blog.  This is using Cinopa.  Hope it works!

Cincopa WordPress plugin

Palm Springs watercolor

I had a nice long weekend with friends in Palm Springs and took a watercolor kit to a wonderful spot, Indian Canyons. It’s just so much easier to travel with, than oils. I need a lot more experience with this medium to paint something I’ll be happy with. I think I’ll take a watercolor workshop. If you know if free resources on YouTube, blogs, or elsewhere-or can recommend an instructor–let me know.  Some things I’m struggling with: layers, and how the paint interacts and changes color as you layer; Values, i seem to have much less control of value than oil.  It makes sense that the medium (since it’s transparent) has less of a value range, but it’s still something I’m struggling with.

Hope you enjoy this so-so result!

Palm Springs Indian Canyons (Watercolor)
Palm Springs Indian Canyons (Watercolor)

Mother’s Day in Golden Gate Park

The Golden Gate Park Bank has started their concerts again (running through October) every Sunday.  As I’m starting to paint the figure again a bit more, I road my bike down to the park to complete some plein air sketch studies.  I’m studying with Peggi Kroll-Roberts in September at l’Atelier aux Couleurs in Petaluma this September (and John Ebersberger in July), and I hear that she directs students to do quickly plein air sketches of people as an exercise.  I’m used to sketching people with pen/ink outdoors, but it’s pretty challenging in oil.  I had a good time doing it.

This was actually a big group, about a dozen people, but I started with one person and kept working outward to the surrounding people until I left.


Mother’s Day Concert Goers (GG Park), Oil on Linen, 8×10

Sketches from NYC

While I was in NYC last week on business, I brought a simple pen and ink set.  I draw using a fountain pen with Roting-Brown ink, and a watercolor brush with water to create the wash.  I like to sketch people (for some reason, landscape less so). Parks are a good spot.  People tend to sit a while, or even sleep, as one of my sketches show.  There was also a parade that Monday (Columbus Day), so I was able to capture the crowd.

This woman was reading outside a restaurant, waiting for a table:

This guy fell asleep on a bench in Central Park:

Columbus Day Parade crowd:

Central Park trees:

Lastly, on the plane home, I drew small compositional studies based on reference photos on my iPhone:

There’s no excuse…not to sketch

When I travel without my paint, I get figidity. What to do?

I just got back from 4 days in Lincoln, Nebraska for my nephew’s high school graduation. It was a great trip. In between events, I’d go for walks (wherever I was), sit down and sketch a bit. They say you should always carry a sketchbook, but I usually forget. Remembering that the purpose of ad-hoc sketching is to better your skills, does it matter what you sketch on, or what you sketch? Hey I may not be the “Master of Blight” (William Wray), but I can learn from sketching anything, including a trash can.

BTW, Katherine Tyrrell’s blog, “Travels with a Sketchbook” provides some great examples and discusses technique.
Here are a couple of quick sketches of downtown Lincoln.

Trash Can, Lincoln Nebraska NE

UNL, Lincoln, NE

And here’s Mike and I with our nephew Nick Cruickshank. Congrats, Nick!

Ed Terpening, Nicolas Ryan Cruickshank and Michael Estrada - Graduation, Lincoln NE

Observation 5: Color Separation

“Think in black and white, but paint in color.” – George Post
“I want all my senses engaged. Let me absorb the world’s variety and uniqueness.” Maya Angelou

In every workshop, there are usually just a couple of things I come away with remembering forever, that really stick in my sieve of a brain. From Camile Przwodeck, I learned the concept of “color separation“. I don’t think she ever called it that exactly, but the idea is somewhat analogous to value separation: The uneven distribution of and planning of values (from 3-5, generally for me) is used to design something pleasing to the eye. In my “Observation 2: Design in Abstractions” post, I wrote about my use of Notan Sketches to abstract a scene into a limited number of values, and to keep one value dominant, the others supporting (see the Notan Sketch on the right).Just as you need to have a clear separation of values to make a design work, so too color. Just as the eye responds to abstract value shapes, it apparently does the same with color. In my recent post about the physiology of the eye, Margaret Livingstone describes our visual system in which different colors are handled by different cell types. The reason complementary colors create a sort of visual “vibration”, is because the two visual systems/cells in the eyes are actually competing with one another to see the scene. That “fight” causes the vibration. The book describes many other types of effects like this that I can see myself experimenting with for years.In practice, here’s what color separation means:

  • If you think you see two greens that look about the same, exaggerate the difference between the two, to separate them easily for the eye. For example, in this plein air sketch of ice plant in Pacific Grove on the right, to create the greens in light and greens in shadow, I used completely different base colors. For the green in light in the bushes on the left, I used Hansa Yellow and Cerulean Blue, and Ultramarine Blue and Hansa Yellow Orange (and a little Alizarin Crimson) for the shaded side.
  • Don’t use the same color to represent two different objects in a scene. For example, if I’m painting a red barn, with a pot of red flowers, I will use two different color combinations to create the two reds, with no colors in common . So I may paint the barn with an Alizarin Crimson base color and lighten with a Cadmium Orange, then paint the flowers with Fire Red and lighten with another color, such as Cadmium Yellow Medium.
  • Avoid lightening colors with white, especially if you want them to be vibrant. White KILLS color, but is very effective in a gray-day painting! Use the next lighter value and warmer color on your palette. See my previous post on gray-day vs. full-sun painting.
  • Just as I would design a value plan with a Notan Sketch, I design a color scheme with a dominant color, and then limit the number of supporting colors. For example, the painting above is basically a green dominant painting with reds a close second, followed by light pink/yellows.
  • After a basic drawing, I will often start with small color spot tests to represent each object, and see how they work together (harmonize) before painting the entire area. This is something I learned from Barry John Raybould (see Virtual Art Academy) when painting landscapes, and Jim Smyth taught this technique when painting the figure as well, in which we’d paint tiny (2″ square) color spots to represent the figure in light and shadow.
  • With a full palette of paint, and trying this technique, it’s really easy to go overboard and create a painting with no color harmony or with no color shapes that hold together to create a coherent painting. I see this a lot in florals. Although I have 13 colors on my palette (plus white and black), I won’t use them all in the same painting! If you’re a beginner and just learning how to get basic values accurately, I would not use this technique. Save it.

In summary, while you’re in the design stage before you’ve laid down a stroke, analyze your subject and think ahead about a color plan. Use color separation to create paintings with a vibrancy that will challenge the human eye.

This is the 5th in what will be 10 total “top observations” of mine as a plein air painter. Click here for an a list of the others.

Observation 2: Work in abstractions

“A good composition can be seen at a glance”John Carlson
“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

Great paintings have a great underlying abstract design, typically based on 3-7 large abstract shapes of value. If you’re a representational artist, don’t fool yourself: perfectly painted detail only matters if it sits within a broader design of interesting abstract shapes. Those few big abstract shapes will make or break a painting. No amount of detail can save a poorly designed painting.

As painters, we’re at a big disadvantage in our rapidly evolving culture of shorter attention spans and immediate gratification. How much time do you give a novel before you decide to finish it? Hours, probably days. The average viewer of a painting evaluates it in seconds, and then may linger for minutes if they like it (watch people in a museum 🙂

The eye first registers the big abstract shapes, delineated typically by value differences or sometimes hues of the same value. In any case, that first impression is of shapes, not subject matter. Abstraction is hugely important to get the viewer’s eye, but you’ll keep the viewer based on the painting-within-a-painting. Think of the abstract design as the first layer and the detail, color, subject–everything else-as the ‘icing on the cake” that the viewer will enjoy once you’ve got their attention.

When I paint, I start with a notan sketch that identifies the 3-7 big shapes of value and keep each shape together by staying within the value family of the shape. I then have fun within each shape with color, texture and warm/cool, saturated/gray color. Here are sample notans where I’ve taken the same scene I tried different designs:

Here are some tips for designing a painting in effective abstractions.

  • Design a value scheme with at least one dominant value, and others subordinate in unequal proportions.
  • Divide your picture into at least 3 and no more than 7 shapes. Here’s a quick and easy exercise you can do anywhere: with a sketchpad, look at a scene, and decide where those 3-7 big shapes are, and draw them as interlocking shapes. You’ll almost certainly have to make compromises to abstract the scene, such as merging values together, but this is a necessary part of design (see notans above).
  • Limit your values. Some of the strongest designs are just 3 values. it’s really difficult to keep to a solid, limited value structure, but well worth it.
  • Here’s a tip to simplify your values: If–like me–you’re near-sighted and wear corrective lenses: slide your glasses down to look at the scene (blurring it) and view your work surface with your glasses as you look down. If you don’t wear glasses, blur your view by squinting (note this is less effective as squinting also darkens your view). I almost always paint most of my painting without my glasses on as I love focusing on accurate color and value first. It works!

Marathon Wait

Just back from Chicago tonight, had a great time. Weather was perfect. The days before we arrived were unbearable, high heat, high humidity. We suffered some rain, but other than that, great weather. We lucked out!
I was inspired by Katherine Tryrell’s recent travel sketches to do some of my own. I rarely use watercolor, but that’s the best travel medium, so I took a small kit with me to sketch with. Of the several I did, these are the ones I’m most comfortable sharing. I’m really an oil painter, so whenever I paint in watercolor it’s like a new world.

Mike (my partner of 17+ years now) finished the Gay Games marathon in 4 hours, 21 minutes and 23 seconds. Plenty of time to sketch! I did these quick sketches on a small pad while others waited. I’m really proud of him. Imagine running 26.2 miles, without stopping over 4+ hours? And to think I occassionally participate in a day long “drawing marathon”. No comparison.

Mike Estrada Running the 2006 Chicago Gay Games Marathon

Marathon Wait, Eyes Wandering

Marathon Wait #1 – Watercolor

Another Marathon Wait

Marathon Wait #2 – Watercolor


Here’s another page from my sketchbook.  This was done in the small village of Aurel, France.  I took in the scene, and looked for a combination of shapes and values that lead my eye.  The arrow drawing on the right is the desired eye path, and the end point, which I assumed to be in the window of the lower-right.  A center of interest that is centered on thirds (top-third, lower-third, both vertical and horozontal).

In the bottom drawing I drew the composition and kept notes on the scene. It was really striking.  This is something I can take back to the studio and paint.

Aurel, FR