hybrid vigour

Brewster & Cappuchicken

Last week in Sketchbook Skool, Brian Butler took us along to rock concerts to watch him sketch on the dance floor, and then we went for a walk around the neighbourhood to generate site-specific ideas for a mural in downtown Los Angeles.

His system for generating ideas by writing a list of adjectives in one column, a list of nouns in the other column—and then randomly combining a word from each column—called to mind my own exercises in imagination by drawing two or three slips of paper from a cup, and then creating a hybrid image from the words.

CHICKEN FEET + POTS was my first attempt to do the homework Brian gave us. PERFUME + FOOD was the second.
Eau de Habañero


sketchbook pages

20 OCtober 2014As departure draws nigh, I am making more of an effort to do something in my various sketchbooks, every free day of the week. These ink bottles, done this morning, taught me two important things:
1) That it’s a good idea to do some warm-up drawingsI The bottle of Burmese Amber ink was the first attempt. Meh. I used the actual ink to colour it in, and it bled into the cheap graph paper, went all dull, mixed with the black drawing ink and turned dirty. It’s a lovely ink to write with, though…the writing above it is an example of this J. Herbin ink.
20 OCtober 2014 detailThen I did the bottle of J. Herbin’s 1670 Rouge Hematite ink. Better. I used masking fluid to block out the highlights, and used watercolours instead of the ink, itself. Glad I did, because although Rouge Hematite is a beautiful ink, it has one very serious flaw…it never really ‘fixes’ into the paper. I made the mistake of using the ink to write its name under the drawing. Long after it had dried, as I was pencilling-in the bottle of W&N ink, I realised that my hand was smudging and spreading the red ink over the drawing. Eek! 1670 Rouge Hematite, I love you, but I can’t live with you.20 OCtober 2014 detailFinally, I painted the bottle of Winsor & Newton waterproof black ink. Used the masking fluid more boldly, here…and I’ve learned that, when painting glossy surfaces like glass, there has to be a really bold contrast between the highlights and the darkest areas, and that they are adjacent to each other.

2) It pays to draw from life, and without gimmicks. Before I start drawing/painting anything, I’m overcome with laziness. The task always seems too hard, the subject too complicated for my skill level, and I am tempted to pass on drawing, altogether. Or I am tempted to resort to dirty tricks, like taking a photograph of the subject, printing it out, and then tracing/transferring the basic lines to the paper as a light pencil sketch.

This means putting off the drawing for some other day, because I don’t have a printer at home. It means losing the motivation and the feeling of the moment. It also means that I would never have learned to draw things.

It’s a real blessing that I can’t print things out on the boat! Every drawing I push myself to do is a small step forward, I feel. Even three little bottle drawings, spaced an hour apart, show massive improvement. I’m no Dürer or Da Vinci (probably because I don’t draw enough…those guys drew several dozens of little sketches, every single day, for decades!) but I have come a long way from the stick figures I used to draw in my twenties (and before then, no drawing at all)!

When improvement is so apparent in each small attempt, doesn’t it stand to reason that a small drawing or two each day will, at the end of a year—at the end of five years of traveling and sketching—take my skills to a whole new level? If it’s that easy, what on earth have I been waiting for all this time? A fairy godmother? Deus ex machina? Good grief, Nat.

19 October 2014
Last night’s drawing, in poor light, using graphite pencils, a bit of charcoal pencil, and something called Progresso by Koh-i-Noor, an aquarelle graphite pencil which is really lovely, makes a silvery-grey wash that is still quite erasable when dry.

7 October 2014I suck at monochromatic drawings because I almost never do them…but I would like to get better at using graphite and charcoal, because when done well, these drawings are so beautiful, achieve so much with so little! So even though I don’t like the grey drawings I’ve done recently, I will keep going with pencils and charcoal. A better understanding of greyscale values will help with my coloured work, too.

Out with the old…

planting broken and bent needles in a bed of soft tofu

“All the things have their own soul.”

From a combination of aspects of Buddhism and Japan’s traditional Shinto religion comes the belief that both living and inanimate objects have a spirit and soul.

The idea is that objects that have had a hard life can, having reached their 100th birthday, awaken to life and acquire souls. These monsters or “artefact spirits” are called tsukumogami, and are largely considered harmless, though many of them can band together and turn into a dangerous mob when they reflect upon how badly they have been treated after so much hard work and loyal service. They then set out to punish people who are wasteful, ungrateful, or who throw their tools away thoughtlessly. Wikipedia has a list of “known tsukumogami” that includes a “possessed tea kettle”, an angry-looking “animated umbrella”, and “A furry creature formed from the stirrup of a mounted military commander that works for Yama Orochi.”


To prevent any of this from happening, Jinja ceremonies, such as the hari-kuyou, are performed in Shinto shrines of Japan. Kuyou are usually held for the spirits of dead people, but have also been held for things such as toys, weapons, and tools that were used for a long time and have been broken or rendered useless.

The hari-kuyou is a memorial service specifically for old sewing needles (hari) and pins. Prayers are offered to console the bent and broken needles. Each year, on February 8th, broken or damaged sewing needles are stuck into slabs of soft tofu or jelly—sort of as a reward after years of being pushed through tougher material—and these are offered to a Shinto shrine (or taken home and buried, with salt, in the garden). No needlework is done on this day, to give one’s needles a holiday of sorts. This ceremony still brings needleworkers and women together, today; in addition to the original purpose of consoling and thanking their tools, women are urged to take some time to console themselves, as well, and bury secrets too personal to reveal.

An old journal is a somewhat different matter…

Unlike broken needles and tattered umbrellas that have become useless, I think a journal becomes more valued and important with time. It is, after all, time and the act of writing in it regularly that transforms an empty book into a treasured record of life, and an heirloom for future generations. Not so much a useless corpse, your journal is more like your amazing hundred-year-old great-grandmother. She’s been a force of nature for over a century, and what she could really use right now is a cozy, everything-taken-care-of, bells-and-whistles retirement.

A home.

With this in mind, I think that a nice way to retire your used-up journal is by making it a special container of its own to live in…buy a decorative box that fits the book well, or try your hand at making a clamshell (or any of the other boxes bookbinders use to house precious volumes). If you can use archival, acid-free materials, so much the better…preserve your journal for your descendants, if you’re at all into that sort of thing.

A book box too bulky for you? If you’re one of those people that goes through 6 journals a year, perhaps a wooden chest or trunk to store them all in would be better. Or how about wrapping it in a knotted silk scarf, or stitching a simple calico bag with drawstring closure? Just something to keep the bugs from eating the paint off the pages, to confer some dignity on it, and keep it clean.

Any last words?

There’s not much point doing lots more writing in this journal—you probably don’t have any space left to write in, or (like me) your heart is already set on starting the next journal—but if writing a good closure makes you feel better, here are a few things you can use those last pages for:

  • An index…this doesn’t have to be a tedious page-by-page account of what’s in the journal, but you could write down major events and other things you’re likely to need someday (Ex. “Trip to Penang, p. 56-97”, “Peter’s death, pp.48”, or “Sabi’s roti paratha recipe, p.11”) My own journals only feature a practical list of schematic diagrams or design plans for book binding, so I can find them quickly without having to read through all the pages of blah-blah-blah. Which is why I still can’t remember the exact date of Peter’s death…

“Don’t talk about the things you care deeply, or feel intensely, about to every friendly stranger or fair-weather acquaintance. 1) Their insensitive questions or frivolous reactions may hurt, 2) your attempt to put the intangible into mere words will cheapen it, and 3) exchanging confidences in order to “win friends and influence people” is despicable.”

  • Finally, it might be nice to write a short paragraph at the very end, thanking the journal for the time it has served you and the ways it has helped you.

Art Journal Tricks : : s’graffito with acrylics

art journal page: squid music

sgraffito |sgraˈfiːtəʊ|
noun ( pl. -ti |-ti|)
literally ‘scratched away’; a form of decoration made by scratching through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting color, typically done in plaster or stucco on walls, or in slip on ceramics before firing.

This technique is pretty much like scraperboard work…or those oil pastel drawings you made in primary school art class that you covered with a thick black poster paint, and then scraped back to reveal the colors…with the advantage of being fully smudge and waterproof once dry, because you only use acrylic paints, which makes it a great technique for the art journal.


Start by painting your page with the background colors. You can paint it solidly in one color of acrylics, as I hurriedly did today for this post, or you can execute an actual design—shapes, letters, whatever—in blocks of solid color.

N.B. Remember that when you cover the background with another color to start the sgraffito, the background color will only be seen in the lines you have scratched out. So if you want a pink lily, for example, with fine black lines, you would paint a black lily, first, and then cover it all up with a very opaque pink, and then scratch lines to reveal the black underneath.



When the acrylic is dry, give the page a single coat of gloss or semi-gloss acrylic medium. This seals one color from the next, keeping the layers of different colors from sticking to each other, and so keeps the colors and lines distinct.

Let the coat dry.


Take the color of your next layer, and mix it with retarder medium. Don’t use any water, just the medium, and try to use a paint to medium ratio of 2:1…too much retarder medium and your paint will take forever to dry. Also, it will sit in a wet puddle that is no good for scratching because every time you draw a line through it the wet paint will simply flow in to fill the line again. You want the paint smooth but not runny.



Fill in the shape, or letters, or whatever that you’ve drawn. Don’t do the whole page at once…remember that even with retarder, the thin film of paint will start to dry, and if the shape is so big that it takes you a long time to scratch your designs into it, parts of it may be dry before you get to them. Scratching only really works if the paint is still wet. I work on patches the size of a playing card, scrape my lines into it, then paint the next patch, scrape into that, and so on.

I didn’t have a design planned,so I just kind of doodled this rather underwhelming shape: yet another tentacled creature…every time I try to paint something spontaneously I end up with tentacles. Damn limited imagination. Anyway.



Experiment with scratching tools. From top to bottom are a thin brass rod, a sculpting tool with a soft rubber cone on the tip (I think polymer clay artists use these things?), and the wrong end of a thin paintbrush. Personally I find the rubber-tipped tool too yielding…the very end of the cone tends to wiggle, but you may like that. I prefer the metal rod and the paintbrush…firm sticks that draw consistent lines, each of a definite weight. Find what you like.



Keep a wad of tissue in your other hand, and start scratching your design into the wet paint. Every inch or so, wipe the tip of your tool off on the tissue paper, as a glob of wet paint will collect there. The term “scratching” here isn’t quite accurate…it implies more force than necessary. There’s no need to bear down or tear the paint and paper beneath. If the paint hasn’t dried yet, it’s like drawing in butter. If the paint has dried, you can still revive it with a tiny dab of retarder from a small brush. Spread that dab of retarder around the dry area, wait a few seconds, and try again.


The rounded tip of a paintbrush makes good dots…hold the brush vertically and rotate the handle between your fingers, rather than try and ‘gouge’ the dot out from one direction. It makes nice round dimples (albeit small ones)

art journal page: squid music

If you have made your paint too wet and runny—with either water or retarder—you will know it right away, because the paint will form wet patches, and scratching into it will not leave behind a clean path, but the liquid paint will creep back into the lines you scratched, which is what happened in this toxic green speech bubble I painted next. Wait a bit for the paint to dry a little bit or, if you used too much retarder and it looks like the paint won’t dry for hours, blot it up with paper towel, maybe a slightly moistened one (the acrylic gloss medium will protect the background layer) and paint the shape in again with the right consistency of paint.


And that’s it. Nothing special, really, but it produces a nice effect of its own, distinct from painting fine lines onto a background with a brush or mapping pen. It was often used by the old masters in their oil paintings to hint at, without actually detailing, the intricate lines of lacework or leafy shrubbery. It allows your drawn line to variegate from color to color, too…just paint the background with rainbows or whatever, before covering up and scratching through.

I wish I’d given more thought to what I was going to draw for this post…this tentacled thing has turned out pretty fugly. Hopefully you see the potential of the technique without being put off by Squid Ugly, here. 😉

For all posts on art journaling techniques, click here.

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DIY craft foam stamps

DIY craft foam stamps

I drew the design onto a thin sheet of craft foam, using a pink Sharpie marker. Then, using a combination of scalpel (X-acto knife) and small, sharp scissors, I cut the design out. Patience and very sharp new blades made this part easier. Floating bits, like the flowers inside the paisley shapes, weren’t a problem, because all the loose elements got glued to a rigid base, later on.

homemade foam stamps

I cut a piece of MDF to size, sprayed it with a permanent adhesive (90 High Strength Adhesive, by 3M, in this case) and stuck the foam shapes down. I let the adhesive dry for a couple of hours, and by then I was dying to use my new stamp…

For printing with foam, I like to brush acrylic paints (plus a few drops of retarder, but hardly any water…a damp brush is pretty much all the water that gets into the paint) onto a second piece of foam (I’ve got thicker foam for this…I use those smooth foam camping or yoga mats) and press my stamp onto the paint. I check to make sure that the entire surface of the stamp has paint on it.

Then, because I am too impatient to prepare some nice surfaces for printing (typical!) I grab anything that looks printable—an unpainted hand-bound journal, a sheet of creamy writing paper, my messy personal journal—and stamp my new design around a few times, for some instant gratification and just to work it out of my system. I might play with the impressions afterwards: painting in different colors, outlining with pens, shading with colored pencils, whatever…

Now that I’ve had my ‘play time’ with the stamp, I can start thinking about better ways* to put it to use than just stamping everything in sight, like some demented ‘Cowboy X”. 🙂
MDF cannot be washed in the sink (it goes to hell), so when I want to clean my stamp, I moisten a rag and blot the stamp against this rag a few times, then use the rag to wipe around the sides of the stamp, until the foam looks clean.
* Foam stamps work very well on cotton fabrics, too (wash and iron fabric, first, okay?!) You can use regular acrylic paints if you don’t intend to wash the printed fabric. Otherwise, use fabric paints and heat-set according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

If you’ve got any questions about this post, fire away in the comments section, and I’ll try answer them as best I can. Have fun!