Three reasons to dig out your viewfinder.

Someone may have given you one as a gift or you picked one up out of curiosity – a viewfinder. Or you were shown the neat trick of using your hands as a viewfinder, reminiscent of movie directors in comedies about movie directors. (The hand thing really is a good tool which should be used more often, better composition would be the result.) Be honest now, how often is your viewfinder in your kit? Even more honest, could you find where it is hiding if you needed it?

So I am here to encourage you to dig it out and reconsider its value. Van Gogh had a special one made, it was quite heavy, yet he lugged it all over, and his art significantly improved when he started using it.


Van Gogh’s viewfinder

DaVinci was a fan as well, along with many others. Here are three uses that might make a pocket viewfinder a regular part of your kit.




Find the focus of your sketch

The first way to improve your sketches is to slow down, just leave the pen or brush on the table for a bit longer and gaze at the scene in front of you. What is it about the place that makes you want to sketch it? Why have you paused to even considering sketching it?

When the scene before us is a grand panorama, or a jumble of buildings, trees, people my experience is that trying to capture it all frequently ends in a bland, frustrating sketch. This happens because of our peripheral vision. When we stand on the edge of a valley and peer into the valley our mind says wow, it takes all of the inputs from our eyes and forms a non-specific perception. Moved by it all we grab a pencil and sketchpad and start sketching.

We need some focus. So ask, “what and why” while looking through a viewfinder. You block out the peripheral vision and start seeing details – maybe a barn stands out in the distance, a river that winds its way, a bridge, an interesting stand of trees. Why is this street scene different from others? is it a doorway, a tower, the people?

Ask, what is it about this scene that I want to capture, that will remind me most about this place when I look at my sketches in six months? What is it that tells a story about the time and place?

If you start your sketch with a clear focus in mind you will do better.

Better composition

One tip, that even casual photographers learn, is to look all the way around the edge of the viewfinder right before they snap the shutter, you catch things that will distract or weaken the photo. The same technique works well for us sketchers.  It also helps define the limits of what we are planning to include in the sketch, and what we want to leave out.

The simplest technique for good composition is the Rule of Thirds – dividing the scene in thirds from top to bottom and side to side. The four intersection points are where the focus object should be placed. Some viewfinders actually have gridlines on them, but even a viewfinder without the lines makes it easier to visualize the intersections. Or you could put marks on the edges of your viewfinder to help.

Version 2

The old boilers at Gasworks Park, in Seattle, WA are the focal point for the sketch

Visualizing the sketch through the viewfinder helps you see how the scene will translate onto the paper or sketchpad. The relationships of spaces and objects start to come together. When you begin to sketch it will come together easier.

Get the shapes and perspective right

We want the buildings to look like buildings, or the rows of vines look like rows of vines. True, we are sketching not doing praise architectural renderings, but if we get too far off in perspective it does not work well. Much has been written about perspective, far more scholarly than I want to delve into, not that I could. 

What I do know is that if you get the shapes you see close to correct, get the lines going in generally the right directions, the perspective will works itself out. Again the viewfinder comes alongside to help.

One reason we struggle with perspective is our overly helpful brains. We see lines, that in two-dimension look like they are totally off, but our brain translates for us. The problem comes when we try to draw what we think we see instead of what is actually there. 


By holding up the viewfinder, then using our pen to match the edge of the building, or row of the vineyard, on the viewfinder, then drawing it the same angle on our paper we get it right. There are many times my brain says, “NO!, that line is too steep,” yet if I overcome that and draw it as measured, it always works. 

Holding it as I am in the photo keeps the viewfinder in the same plane as the sketchpad, and acts as a support for the pen. Then I simply slide the pen down onto the paper maintaining the angle.

This is the secret that Van Gough used.  His perspective was not good in his earlier sketches and paintings, they tended to be flat. When he implemented his viewfinder, they immediately improved. If it is good enough for some of the most famous artists, its smart for me to use.

Give it a go, let me know how it works, or any other tricks you discover.

Posted in ink, sketch, Tips for the Travel Sketcher | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What is your sketching style?

If you follow sketching posts on the web you find that travel and urban sketchers are all over the place as far as technique, style, and content. Most artist in any medium will develop a style that is distinctly theirs over time; art curators can verify authenticity of paintings by studying the  technique, style, and content of a newly discovered piece of art. Not exactly a fingerprint but not far from it.

Look at the work of some of the popular sketchers out there (their links are attached) and you find quite a diversity. These folks have each been an inspiration to me, I have learned from all of them. In the process I have also failed at times because I tried to sketch like them. That is the point of the blog, learn from others, but be yourself. That is the message of my workshops, I can show you an idea, maybe a trick or two, but you in the end have to be you.

Suhita has a style that is quite loose, using many earth tones, people are prominent in most of her sketches, lots of darks to contrast with the lights. Suhita is known for people sketches, and I tried so hard to sketch them like she does, it was disaster. Then I stepped back and looked at what it was about how she sketched that I liked. I learned that my sketches of people in cafes did not have to be detailed portraits, that the rhythm and the shapes of the person and place is what mattered most, and that color was optional, sometimes just shades of gray worked.

Liz Steel uses much lighter washes, tends to sketch in pen first I believe, and does a lot with buildings. Liz Steel made me look at allowing more variations in the watercolor washes I use, it made the sketch more interesting.

Marc Holmes, who is doing more studio painting these days, sketches mostly with just watercolor, he is an advocate of direct watercolor, no sketching first, and many earth tones. His overall tone is lighter than Suhita, but darker than Liz Steel. Marc taught me a bit about layering, and limiting passes, but our styles are so far apart that it has been harder for me to try and match his style.

Maria Coryell-Martin of Expiditionary Art does amazing studio work, yet is known for her scientific expedition sketching. She tends to use light washes with ink for detail and highlights. Maria is an inspiration for me because I like to think our styles have a few similarities. There is not a desire on my part to emulate, however I do learn from her when I see how she captures a scene.

Erin Hill sketches with a loose pen and vivid colors, not attempting to mach the scene’s colors in front of her, but to express the colors that the scene evokes in her mind. Erin Hill’s sketches constantly remind me that a loose pen is ok, though my favorite style does have more precision than her’s. Except when I just grab my Confucius Fude and capture a quick moment that is quite loose. Yet when I tried to do coloring closer to her style it frustrated me, thousands of course love it, we are all right.

All of these folks, and many more I could list, have advocates and followers, so the question is which one should I try to emulate? Answer: none of them. And I am pretty sure they would agree. Learn from them, but don’t try to be someone else. 

To find a direction for your style the first piece of advice is not to look for one, let it develop over time as you consider technique, style, and content.


Technique includes medium. What is your favorite, most comfortable. What matches your lifestyle. Pen and watercolor is my go-to because as theTravelsketcher I am often packing light and fast. Plein air acrylic painting is something I love, yet it takes a lot more paraphernalia. I have a watercolor palette from Maria’s Expeditionary Art that fits in my shirt pocket.

Technique also include how you enjoy sketching. In general I prefer to do ink first, then wash with watercolors. Though I do other styles, it is my preferred, I tend to get the results I like best. It is good to try other techniques to test and push your skills, but most will settle on a core of techniques that works the best for them.


Style in this context refers to how loose vs. detailed you sketch. Some sketchers come at it with an architectural background thus they often work a lot more precise detail than I could ever be comfortable with. Graphic artists may look for composition and the overall visual impact. Me, I just want to capture the moment, my mood at the moment influences my style. There are times I want it free of detail, and others with a lot more detail; both are my style. Here are examples of each.


Travelsketchers and urban sketchers will, in the course of things, sketch a bit of everything just because they strive to capture the world around them. Having said that, we all gravitate toward a few favorites. 

Maria sketches landscapes and nature more than anything. Suhita does sketch buildings etc, but you see a lot of people, cafes, and public spaces. Marc does a lot of building dominant landscapes. Liz is known for her morning teacup and landscapes with buildings.

Me, I like to sketch in cafes and bars, thus I sketch food and drink. Landscapes with buildings are common, with a few people thrown in. And I love flowers and nature.

The key to finding your style is to sketch a lot, sketch what moves you, interests you, and is fun. That is what you will be best at and enjoy most. So keep on sketching.

Posted in ink, Tips for the Travel Sketcher

Travelsketching at the Lighthouse – Workshop

At the Nature sketching workshop at the Mukilteo Gardens a few sketchers asked for another workshop, we settled on the Mukilteo Lighthouse to work on urban sketching and Puget Sound, so here it is. Hope you can come. Check out the Workshops tab for details and to register.

The Lighthouse is a perfect place to hone your skills for sketching urban views, with a bit of the Puget Sound thrown in. We will focus on how to get buildings to look like buildings without getting too technical on perspective. Tips like how to use your pen as a protractor for angles, how to treat it as a puzzle not a math project. And even when it just makes sense to sketch first, pencil or pen.

I will be doing a more detailed demo sketch than at the last few workshops, with explanation and opportunity for questions. Then we will sketch together.

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Travel light, both luggage and sketching kits.

The 25+ years I spent traveling to become theTravelsketcher taught me to travel light. Five weeks in Europe with a carry-on size roller bag is the norm. I learned long ago that if you are considering packing something, “because I might need it,” you should leave it at home. Large luggage slows you down, makes getting on and off of trains and subways challenging, or climbing the stairs of that quaint hotel in Moustiers-sainte-Marie exhausting, and then the reality is that when you pack for everything, half of what you pack never gets used.

The same logic applies to my travelsketching kit. Like most artists I am attracted to every shiny new object. Yet when I travel, even just around the town I slim thing down. As a result I have two standard kits, the main kit and the never-leave-home-without-it set up.

A travelsketcher should be able to capture the moment in a sketch at anytime. These two options make it possible.

My main kit fits in a small Timbuk2 bag. A few pens, 1 or 2 waterbrushes, a regular brush, an art-toolkit paint pallet, collapsible water container, etc. There is a 3.5”x5.5” sketchpad inside, but it will even hold a larger pad, though I usually just carry the larger one in my hand. The configuration of the bag allows me to keep it on my shoulder and still access everything I need,

Then there are times when I need to travel even lighter. Thanks to Maria at Expiditionary Art, and her new mini-pallet this kit just got kicked up a notch. Everything fits in a 7x10cm Herschel Leather pouch.

My Mini Palette is loaded with 12 colors, plenty. And even though I stuff a small sketchpad in my pocket most times, I do carry a few trading card sized pieces of watercolor paper just in case I need to travel ultra-light. The water brush is actually about ¼ inch too long, so it does protrude a bit, but I can carry it separately, or leave it and use the travel brush.

Packing light does not mean going without, it means freedom. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” or nothing extra to lug around. Enjoy sketching, anyplace or anytime.

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Another successful workshop AND kicking off Mukilteo Sketchers

Seven sketchers joined me at the Mukilteo Gardens to learn a few tips for painting flowers; three were theTravelsketcher Alumni, a few had never sketched or painted. It is always such a thrill to help someone get started. One sketcher emailed me after the workshop to say, “Thank you for a new hobby, retirement is wonderful!”

As we were wrapping up there were multiple requests for another seminar, Mukilteo Lighthouse Park was the favorite. I am tentatively looking at August 24, 2019, but open to suggestions.

Check the end of this blog for info about Mukilteo Sketchers. Here are some pics from Saturday, thanks to all who came, looking forward to seeing more sketches #theTravelsketcher #mukilteosketchers

Mukilteo Sketchers July 23

Seattle has “Seattle Urban Sketchers,” so figured why not Mukilteo? Over 30 people have been to my workshops in the last few months so I know there are sketchers in Mukilteo, so lets get together now and then to sketch.

There will never be a perfect time and place for everyone, sadly, yet we must start someplace and work out the details.

I have formed a group on FB called Mukilteo Sketchers, this will be the primary meeting place for info and posting sketches, along with announcements and #mukilteosketchers hashtag on Instagram. So if you have not already asked to join the group on FB, that is the first step.

July 23, 2019 12.30 at The Red Cup

This will not be a workshop, but we will learn from each other and share tips and ideas. Let’s meet under the awning where we held a couple of workshops. Bring your sketchbooks and such. We can sketch for a couple of hours, then regroup for a beverage and compare sketches.

Just so I know the interest email me if you think you might make it

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Note cards on Etsy

Note cards from my original Acrylic paintings are now on Etsy – theTravelsketcher

They come in packets of 5, with envelopes. $10 and Free Shipping

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Sketching in action

In my workshops I teach sketchers to paint shapes first then do the ink, that is because many new sketchers struggle to overcome the insecurity of “getting the lines right.” In reality I most often start with ink and then go to paint. Here is a video of some flowers in a small vase I did from a photo.

Posted in Flowers, sketch | 3 Comments