Teacup Sketching: On Failures

The wonderful Liz Steel is starting a new teacup sketching course, and I decided to enrol to it. I don’t have many teacups, but I do love the ones that I have, and I think that they are interesting objects to sketch. As Liz points out, many teacups and coffee mugs have vivid memories tied to them, and they oftentimes have interesting shapes, colours and patterns. I was also looking for a way to kickstart my sketching again, and as this is a short course (just 4 weeks) I thought that this was a good place to start.

As is customary in Liz’s courses, I created a “pre course” sketch: a teacup sketch to demonstrate where I’m starting from. I started with a pencil sketch and then worked over it with a Staedtler pigment liner only to have the whole thing ruined when I used a new eraser that was too aggressive for the paper. You don’t often get to see failures on display, so I’m attaching the photo of my failed first attempt so that we can all learn from my mistake.

I then decided to risk going directly to watercolour. The teacup I sketched was both complex in terms of shape and pattern, so going this route was not something I would have chosen if not for my initial failure. The result came out better than I expected. It’s far from perfect but it’s not terrible. A start that I can improve upon, at the very least.

Direct to watercolour cup

Here is my failure sketch. You can see the mess of the paper. But if you don’t experiment and try new things, you don’t know what works and what doesn’t. That eraser is relegated to non-watercolour paper from now on, and it was a lesson worth learning on a sketch of this kind and not on something more precious.

Failed sketch.

Don’t be afraid to try stuff out. It’s worth it even if the result isn’t what you’d term a success.

London Haul: Carrying Cases and Standard Pens

I’m working on my backlog of posts after about a month of hiatus (work and health related) so here’s a look into more of my haul from my latest London trip.

Muji happened to have a sale on its standard pen sets, so I bought a pouch of these 0.38 gel pens (I think that Zebra makes their refills but I’m not sure) to have around. There are 10 pens in the set, and my plan is to bring them into the office to have them around as occasional highlighters, pens to doodle with or pens to loan with no expectations of seeing them again.

The red Olfa Touch Knife was an impulse buy and is the thing I use most from this bunch. I used it while gift wrapping books, I used it to open packages, and I’m using it now to open Lego bags for my current build (the large Disney Castle). This is a nifty and handy little tool and I’ll probably buy another one at some point as a backup.
The bronze paper clip is just a nicer version of the clip that I use to keep my pocket Stillman and Birn Alphas shut, as they don’t come with any kind of elastic closure.

The gold bics are from Present and Correct and they made me laugh. I plan on giving one away to a designed friend, in the hopes that it will make her laugh too. I used to use them so much when I was a teenager (before gel ink pens became widely available) and I hated them so much that having a gold one is just beyond perfect.

The black and yellow pen is the Bauhaus edition of the Leuchtturm1917 Drehgriffel Nr. 1 ballpoint. It’s a twist mechanism aluminium and brass hexagonal ballpoint pen that comes with a blue refill. I reviewed the gel ink version (identical apart from the refill) here. I purchased this pen in London Graphic Centre near Seven Dials/Covent Garden, and it was completely an impulse buy. Should you buy one yourself? If you’re in need of a pocketable ballpoint that doesn’t use a click mechanism, then maybe. Ergonomically it’s not the best for long writing sessions, and the twist mechanism doesn’t make it great for quick deployment, so there are better options in the market. The design is very fetching, and if you like it you might be willing to overlook the pen’s shortcomings. The Bauhaus edition was created as a companion to Leuchtturm’s Bauhaus notebooks.

Drehgriffel Nr. 1 Bauhaus ballpoint.

I bought the Drehgriffel ballpoint to accompany the Drehgriffel mechanical pencil that I bought at the same time. The pencil is fire engine red and grey with silver trim, and the pen is black and yellow with brass trim, and the pencil is slightly heavier than the pen, though they’re both the same size.

Pen on top, pencil on the bottom.

I also got two carrying cases, one a blue Cordura pen case from Midori. The case is called the two way pouch, and it appears very well made.

Midori two way pouch.

The pouch is divided into two identical compartments (hence the name) each with a small divider/pocket inside. It also has a prominent and robustly built handle. I am considering using this pen case for my Caran d’Ache neocolors, but we’ll see.

The second case is a heavily discounted net pouch from Muji. This is going into my travel backpack as a way to keep easily lost bits and bobs together and easily found.

The net side of the Muji case

The net is just on one side of the case, which is perfect, as it allows you to see what’s inside the pouch and also have this little bag have some sort of body and structure to it due to the solid side.

The solid side of the Muji case next to the Drehgriffel pencil and pen.

I also bought a solid plastic box for the my neocolors at Muji, but I decided not to use if for them in the end. It was too small for them and they rattled around in it and made a racket every time I walked, and I didn’t like that.

All in all this was probably my most “impulse buy” bit of the trip, and I’m OK with that. Compared to previous years I’ve really toned down my “must try all the pens in the world to find just the perfect one!” tendencies. If you’re reading this I assume that you can relate.
Now to just use it all…

Building Back My Paint Box

I’ve recently misplaced my beloved watercolour paint box and after searching for it for more than two weeks, I gave up and decided to build a new paint box, with the hopes that the old one will show up one day. Good quality watercolour paint boxes and artist grade watercolours aren’t cheap, which is why I put this off for a while, but they do last for a very long time if you invest a little bit in them.

This post won’t be so much about my palette choices but rather more about the physical properties of the box that I use and the paints within it. If you have had a taste of watercolours and decided that you enjoy the medium and would like to create a long lasting field paint set, this post is for you.

For years I used the excellent Windsor Newton Cotman Watercolour Field Box. The box comes with a set of Cotman student grade watercolours that I gifted away (they aren’t worth your time. If there’s something worth investing in when it comes to watercolours it’s the paints. The order is paints -> paper -> brushes), a handy little built in water bottle and water cup, a sponge, and a foldable brush that is mediocre but usuable in a pinch (you’ll probably lose it shortly after buying the box, but that’s ok). The box officially holds 12 half pans, but in reality you can squeeze 14 half pans in with no effort. If you are getting into Urban Sketching this is an excellent set to have, a nifty little workhorse that will last you easily for a few years. For a very compact size you get a surprisingly large set of mixing areas, and while I’d only use the included water bottle as a backup because it holds very little water, it’s good to have around.

The pros of this kit are many: it’s small, light, well designed, cheap, easy to use, and holds a lot for such a small, pocketable package. The cons are why after three Field Boxes I finally switched over to my current setup: the boxes deteriorate and fall apart after 2-3 years of use at most, they are difficult to clean, and it’s difficult to switch out paints if you’re experimenting with your palette.

The build quality in particular has taken a hit in recent years, to the point where I cannibalise old Field Boxes for parts for the new ones. However, even the old boxes didn’t last for more than 3-4 years, because the plastic would deteriorate and the attached mixing flats would drop off, leaving you with very few mixing space in the end.

Enter my current setup, one that I’ve been using for a few years now: the Schmincke 12 half pan metal paint box, filled with 24 half pans.

The box after being freshly filled.

There are many pocket sized enamelled paint boxes, but after trying several generic ones, I found that Schmincke’s box is worth the extra money. Generic boxes didn’t have such a good mixing area configuration, and they tended to rust off on me. The Schmincke box can take a hell of a beating without the enamel flaking off, and when working with watercolours, as soon as there’s a chip in the enamel, rust will take hold of your box.

The box comes with an insert meant to allow for two rows of six half pans and a compact, foldable brush in the middle. I take that insert out and toss it. That leaves me the whole box for a whopping 24 half pans, or a mix of half pans and full pans. Here I my usual setup, which is about 60% Schmincke and 40% Daniel Smith watercolours. Some of them are paint filled half pans that I purchased, and most of them are half pans that I filled with paint myself. Buying tubes and filling your own pans is cheaper in the long run, particularly for paints that you use often.

Filling your own half pans with paint is very easy, and also exposes interesting properties of the paints that you use. For instance, Van Dyke Brown takes ages to cure, while all my yellow paints cure super fast. I’ll also note that Daniel Smith watercolours loose A LOT of volume after drying up, shrinking at times to almost 50% of their original volume. It always takes 2-3 passes to fill a Daniel Smith half-pan, and with Schmincke one pass is enough. So you can see the ugly crack in my Hansa Yellow Medium, where the paint shrunk to half its size and I filled the other half of the pan again.

On the other hand, Schmincke’s half pan packaging is infuriating. The pans come wrapped in wax paper which often sticks to the paint as you unwrap it (imagine peeling off a sticker and having bits of sticker left behind). You can see this on the Lemon Yellow on the bottom left and on the Cobalt Blue Deep on the second to last row, on the right. After much of a struggle I got the residue off the Cobalt Blue, but I left it to scrape off later from the Lemon Yellow. It is a hassle to remove these bits of leftover paper, and they ruin the paint.

Closeup on the paints in the set.

As there’s a bit of a gap left that allows the pans to travel freely in the box, I cut a bit of foam and put it in the box, creating a friction fit for all the pans. Removing a pan and switching it over is a breeze this way – you can always lift out the foam and then easily remove the paint pan.

Foam at work

The box has two large mixing areas, one divided into three large wells which I use to mix often use colours or paint for large areas. The second area is divided into six small wells (you can see this all in the first photo of the set) which are good for small mixes. As it’s enamelled metal it’s very easy to clean, and the set is much more robust than the W&N Field Box.

If you like to experiment with your palette (I always have 2-3 paints that I switch out every 3-4 months), and you are looking for an ultra durable compact field set, I highly recommend investing in the Schmincke 12 half-pan box and filling it with whichever paints you choose. Pre-made watercolour sets are always terrible (they include at least 1-2 colours that you will never ever use), and building a set that fits your needs is a crucial step in making your watercolour painting more streamlined and enjoyable.

What watercolour box do you use? Let me know in the comments, as I love hearing from other sketchers about their tool choices.