Saturday, December 25, 2021

A Year of SketchBox

A year ago, I decided to try SketchBox, a subscription service that sends you a small box of art supplies every month. I’d been taking a series of Zoom painting classes that had just ended, and I was worried that art would drift out of my life if I didn’t have some stimulation coming in regularly to challenge me. (I’m the kind of person who never goes to the gym unless a tennis partner or class instructor is waiting for me, foot tapping with impatience.)

There are lots of these subscription companies—ArtSnacks, ScrawlrBox, and Let’s Make Art, to name a few—but I decided on SketchBox because the ads had beautiful art, the materials seemed varied and high-quality, and it wasn’t aimed at kids; there were no hobbit houses or cartoon dogs in the ads. SketchBox has two tiers—a Basic Box at $25/month + $5 shipping, and a Premium Box at $35 + $5, which has everything from the Basic Box plus a few extras. I sprang for the Premium Box because I knew I’d always wonder what extras I was missing out on if I got the Basic Box. I steeled myself for that $40/month payment; I’m not made out of money, and this seemed like kind of a loony extravagance. But I didn't have any more painting classes lined up, I was curious about SketchBox, and I knew I could cancel it at any time if it wasn’t my thing.

And now it’s a whole year later, and I’ve received a full year of SketchBox boxes. What's the verdict?Read on. 

What I love about SketchBox

• You don’t know what will be in each month's box. No clue. I didn’t think I’d like that—you’re shelling out $40 a month, and you don't know what you're getting? But they smartly send you an email when it’s shipped, and that gives you 3–5 days for the excitement to build, and then it arrives, and—I’ve got to say, it’s exactly like getting a Christmas present. Every month, I tore into that box with glee. Not knowing what to expect makes it . . . better.

The February box was tinted graphite.
• It introduced me to media I didn’t know existed. This is partly a function of my age and situation; I have skills from being an art major in my 20s, but I’ve been out of the art game for more than 30 years, and I don’t really know what materials are out there now. Back in January, my very first SketchBox had acrylic inks—what were these little bottles? I tried them, and I was smitten. The next month was tinted graphite—smitten again. Later boxes had a Daniel Smith Watercolor Stick, a pan of Stoneground watercolor, Fude brush pens, Color Sparx Watercolor Powder. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And many of the supplies are fancy brands made in Europe or Japan.

• With every box you get a link to an online video tutorial showing you how to use everything in the box. This was great—full of tips and techniques. (Ask me all about swatching.) Some other box subscriptions offer instructions in magazine format, but I would much rather have a video. I only wish they were a little longer.

• SketchBox usually includes a pad of paper, again often from Europe or Japan. Some other subscription services don’t do this; I’m sure it reduces their costs and subscription fee, but I love trying out different papers. My one quibble is that the paper is always 4 inches wide to fit in the SketchBox shipping carton. I'd love to occasionally get a larger pad, 6x9 or 8x8.

• One of my favorite things has turned out to be the SketchBox online community—it's large and active, and those connections have led me to other opportunities. Through posting and tagging my artwork that I made with the SketchBox supplies, I've found other SketchBox artists on Instagram, who talk about online instructors they like, many of whom have free tutorials on Youtube. And because several of my new Instagram contacts are in Germany, their posts are in German, and so are the video tutorials they recommend—which gives me a chance to brush up on my German, something else I haven’t used in 30 years. 

Not so hot

Did I love every one of the 12 SketchBoxes I got this year? Honestly, no. There were a few supplies that didn’t grab me. I’ve tucked them away in hopes that I'll warm to them one day, and because SketchBox tends to mix supplies, no box was a complete fail; there was always something I liked in it. But for me, the duds were:

• Alcohol markers. These are very hot right now, and some artists do amazing things with them. I’m just not one of them, and don’t have much patience for these. They also require special paper that they won’t bleed through. And they smell weird, like slightly dangerous fruit juice. 

• Oil pastels. One summertime box was all about oil pastels, five colors in very nice European brands, along with three small canvases. But I just can’t with oil pastels. They’re messy and inexact. And they also smell funny, like old crayons.

• Metallic and pearlescent paints. These seem to be popular, but I’m not sure why. Sure, you can paint something cool with them—you can mix colors just like any watercolor—but then you turn it to the light and go, “What the f***—why so glittery?” I'm clearly the wrong audience for these.

Accept no substitutes.
• White markers and blender markers. Do these ever work? Well, the one that worked was the white Sakura Gelly Roll, which is a miracle—if you want to add white highlights to a panting*, just get that and skip the others.

Seemed silly; ended up cool

• Every once in a while, a SketchBox includes . . . a pencil. Usually a European-made one, kinda fancy. I laughed the first time I got one, rattling around loose in the box—like, who doesn’t have a jillion pencils? But I've come to really like these. Some have hard lead and are good for light sketching that won’t show under a watercolor. Others are dark and smooth and are good drawing pencils all by themselves. There’s something to be said for good pencils, and they now have a special place in my drawer. I feel a certain calm reverence when I use a pencil made in Switzerland.

Get one. Seriously.
• Pencil sharpener. I also laughed when this tumbled out of the July box—a Staedtler Mars Lumograph tub sharpener. But holy crap, people, that thing has ruined me for other sharpeners. So sharp, so precise, so German. It retails for only $4.69. Run out and get one right now. I also love the Staedtler acrylic fine liner that came in the January box. Use it all the time. I am Team Staedtler.

• All of the brushes. Come on, if you’ve painted for any time at all, you probably have about a thousand brushes. But SketchBoxes often include one lone brush, an unusual shape or size that I probably wouldn’t normally buy—a chisel blender, a dagger, or a filbert—because they’re sort of luxurious and unnecessary. The kind of thing you might get—wait—as a Christmas present! I love them all now. 

Dreaming on

To conclude, I loved this year with SketchBox. And I don’t feel like I’ve quite had my fill of it, so I’ll continue my subscription for a while. I figure they’ll probably start repeating themselves at some point, but I like to think about what surprise might be in the next box. And there are a few things I wish they’d include, done up SketchBox-style, a fancy European or Japanese version of:

• Kneaded eraser

• Sand eraser

• More mouth-watering watercolors from Stoneground

• Samples of European watercolors I’ve been wanting to try: Gallo, Roman Szmal, Nevskaya Palitra, Sennelier, Maimeri

• Fountain pen

• Nib pen

And sticking with SketchBox will keep me from trying those non-art subscription services that now keep popping up in my Facebook feed like weeds—international snacks, cosmetics, coffee, spices, whisky. (Wait—the whisky one. Hmm . . .)

Made with the November box—Gansai Tambi
watercolors and Color Sparx Watercolor Powder.

* Many watercolorists shun this—adding white with a marker or gouache. Personally, I’ll only do it if the painting isn’t working and I’ve screwed it up somehow; then I’ll have at it with whatever markers are at hand just to see what happens. I’ve actually ended up with some good paintings this way.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Inktober: Shut Up and Draw

Does an embarrassing clutter of markers
make you draw more? In a way, yes.
If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love me a writing marathon. Every year, I do NaPoWriMo and the August Poetry Postcard Fest, two 30-day writing marathons that I rely on to generate new poems. The rest of my writing year tends to be haphazard, and I work full time, and I’ve never been a write-every-day kind of person. But I’ve found that I can keep up a daily practice of just about anything for 30 days, after which I collapse in a boneless heap of laziness.

So I was thrilled to find that in the world of art—which I’ve recently rejoined after a long and bitter absence (future blog post)—there are also marathons. And this past month I decided to try one: Inktober*, a 30-day sprint where thousands of people from all over the world draw or paint a piece of ink artwork every day and post it on Instagram (#inktober2021). Back in my youth, drawing in ink was my thing, so I was eager to give this a try. I wondered: Could I keep up with a drawing a day? Would it energize me, or make me hate art all over again? And what, in today’s avalanche of art supplies, qualifies as “ink”?

I gathered everything in the house that had ink in it—fistfuls of pens, markers, India ink, even a Cross fountain pen that I bought in a closeout sale three years ago and hadn’t had the guts to take out of its package, it was so unapproachably pretty. I also snuck in some bottles of liquid watercolor, which felt like cheating but oh well. I chucked it all onto an end table in the living room and piled even more on it over the course of the month, my own Inktober hazmat site.

So, how’d it go? Pretty good. I drew almost every day. Okay, I skipped about 10 days, but I tried not to sweat that; not sweating things turned out to be one of the themes of my marathon. I ended up with about 20 new pieces of art, including a few that I’m proud of. 

During the month of drawing, I had a lot of thoughts—some ups and downs, many times when I almost bailed, and a lot of late-night pondering over the connections between visual art and poetry, different animals on the artistic family tree that still share some genes. So, observations:

“Inking” is actually drawing.

I had to laugh at this. Around day 5, I realized that I’d started the marathon with some lofty notion that “inking” would mean just grabbing a fancy pen or some brush markers and whipping up some instant art, a happy little miracle every evening. But I found out I’m too much of a mechanic for that; I preferred doing a pencil sketch first and then inking over it. The few spontaneous doodles that I did were my least favorite pieces of the month—they seemed inert, uninspired. But the drawing thing became an unexpected visit with an old love—I adored drawing in my teens and 20s; then, after some art trauma, I lost my confidence in drawing and didn’t do it for decades. But after this past month of drawing pears and apples and trees and cows and horses and houses and mountains, I now feel like I actually can draw again, like I want to. The muscle memory of it is still there, still in my hands; in fact, with my older brain, I seem to be better at it, better at seeing shape and value. I am, in particular, better at pushing the darkness (a metaphor on a platter). And luckily, the joy is still there too.

To keep drawing, I had to fight my own fragility.

This is one way that Inktober was different than a poetry-writing marathon—it turns out I have all sorts of confidence in my poetry, but almost none in my visual art. I’ve been doing poetry for a long, long time, and I’ve written so much and had so many poems published and rejected that I can write a crappy poem one night and completely forget it about by the next day; I know there will always be another poem. But the same wasn’t true of drawing; if I did a drawing one night that I didn’t like, I felt melodramatically wounded—absolute despair, like it was all over and I should just give up. This happened several times early in Inktober; I’d draw and post something that I wasn’t happy with, and it would haunt me into the next day: Well, there it is—I’m a crappy artist, and now the whole world knows. Luckily, by the next evening I’d usually get the bug to try something different—thank you, pile of art supplies on the end table—and that night’s drawing sometimes turned out OK. And the pendulum would swing the other way—Hey, this came out cool, so maybe I’m good at some things. Or even I like that color. By the end of the month I was very aware of those swings and was consciously trying to even them out. I realized that the fragility was a result of the Great Art Trauma in my 20s—a time when I decided I was a bad artist and feared showing that to the world—and the marathon became a way of working through some of that. And some of the drawings I didn’t initially like grew on me over time; they weren’t what I set out to do, but once I let go of that, they didn’t seem so bad.

The brain wants to get all up in art’s business.

I would start drawing, and my brain was clicking away. I could feel it, trying to control my hand. Careful. Don’t be derivative. That’s too Miro; people will notice. Don’t try that again—you’ve drawn so many bad horses! And then, without my noticing, that language center would shut off. Things got very quiet, and for a while I was all body—my hand scratching at the wet ink, flicking grass or branches onto the paper, my face contorted, my voice whispering to itself—rounder, darker, right here. I would sit back and see the balance of the scene, see what it still needed. It felt just like I was playing deep into a tennis match—all motion, intent, instinct, the body doing what it knows how to do. It was also just like being in the middle of writing a poem—the editor had fled and the subconscious was now driving; that’s always the interesting part. Oh, the brain came back later to criticize what I’d drawn, and sometimes it hurt me. This is a place where art and poetry differ: A poem can always be changed, but ink is pretty much forever and leaves an ugly stain when you try to fix it.

Drawing/painting takes longer than writing poems.

I got tired during Inktober. Really tired. Every night—even if I set out to draw/paint something simple, like a pear—I ended up spending at least an hour on the piece, and often longer. And afterward I’d be so wired that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. And it was a busy month at work, so I was already tired in the evenings. Toward the end of the month I felt sleepy every day by late afternoon. My system for writing every night during poetry marathons works better; somehow I can predict how much time it will take and compensate for it so I don't get exhausted. So that needs some thought. And, riffing off that …

I’m sort of lucky I survived.

By that I mean, all that staying up late and drawing when I was half awake probably wasn’t conducive to great art.** And by all rights, bad art should have finished off my fragile ass (see above). However, Inktober made me try out markers and pens and notebooks and pencils, and it forced me to go through my own reference photos (which I take all the time on drives around town) and raid them for things to draw. It was a month of experiments, and I found a few things that I unexpectedly seemed to be good at (and a few that I just liked doing). And in a way, doing that every night produced the same results you get—if you’re lucky—after receiving umpteen rejections of your poems for umpteen years. You stop caring so much about each rejection, because you know you’ll write again and will send stuff out again. Same thing with this art marathon; the next night, there was another pen, another fistful of markers, and another picture in my head. And I tried again. And that was maybe the best thing about Inktober—all those days to try.

* Another thing I found out this past month is that the art world, like the poetry world, has its scandals and infighting. Apparently the guy who owns the trademark to Inktober was accused of plagiarizing another artist's educational writing, and it caused a split in the art world; some artists now refuse to participate in Inktober and have spawned all sorts of rival marathons. So that gives me something else to check out next year.

** This is a debate that poets often have about NaPoWriMo: the argument that if you have to crank out a little ditty every day, how good are the ditties going to be? I understand that viewpoint—and I used to share it—but I found that NaPoWriMo serves a purpose for me, if only to shake up my usual writing practice and to force myself to write when I don’t feel like it, which results in interesting themes and forms. I always figure if I can get four or five decent poems out of the 30 that I write during NaPoWriMo, that’s a fine return on my investment. And I end up with stumps of weird stuff that sometimes serve as sparks for other poems later.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Poetry Postcard Fest 2021: Both Sides Now

All the postcards I received this year,
plus a bonus Buckley.
The poems are written, the cards are mailed: The 2021 Poetry Postcard Fest is a wrap.
        This year, the annual August writing marathon attracted more than 500 participants from 13 different countries. My group (go, Group 8!) had 33 people in it, and I ended up writing 33 poems—32 to the other people in the group, and an extra card to someone else.

Side 1: The poems
Those 33 poems meant that I wrote a little more than one poem per day, but this year I didn’t even try to write one every day; I almost always wrote them in clumps of three or four and then took a few days off between writing sessions. I’ve done this in the past, too; it makes the “poem-a-day” thing less of a chore for me. And as I’ve said in past PoPo recaps, writing several poems in one sitting sometimes makes them more interesting; often I'll riff on the subject of one poem and expand it into others. This time I had a series of poems about eavesdropping, since I seemed to be overhearing a lot of conversations and was fascinated by the relationship between the loud talker and the unwilling listener, and the incompleteness of the information you overhear—Is that person always like that? Did that person bring this problem on himself? How reliable is the narrator of this story? I also had a few poems about painting (more on that below), and lots of small scenes from around my town of Ashland, Oregon, which was plagued by hazardous wildfire smoke all through August.
        Looking back through the poems, I can see a few that seem like keepers, like something I might end up getting published if some editor likes them. A few fizzled. My favorite one is about my bathrobe, which had nothing to do with eavesdropping or smoke and just sort of flew in on its own, as the best poems sometimes do. 
        Thinking about which poems I might send out to journals made me go back just now through poems from past PoPo Fests (this was my 9th year), and I see that fewer of them have been published than I thought*. None at all from last year. And in fact I rarely send those postcard poems out to journals at all. I suspect that some part of my mercenary brain thinks that short poems—and especially short abstract poems—are less “publishable” out there in the mean world. In April, during NaPoWriMo, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write longer, more “serious” poems, whatever that means. April is sort of a poetry crucible, when I think hard about a lot of things and try to write deeply into them. In contrast, the August Postcard Fest is more of a lark; I have fun with these shorter poems, and I feel pretty much zero pressure. Hence I think I tend to take them less seriously. Or perhaps they really are “slight.” I need to think about that more.

Side 2: The postcards
This year, I took a totally new approach with the actual postcards: I hand-painted all of them. In past years I’ve used giveaway postcards from restaurants, touristy ones I picked up at the drugstore, and ones I got printed at Vistaprint with my own photos on them. But I’ve been doing a lot of watercolor painting this past year, and I was intrigued by the idea of painting each one individually. In retrospect, that sounds kind of nuts—paint 33 individual paintings?—but I was already thinking of it back in April or May, so I started painting them then. I tried out lots of different paper—postcards made for watercolor by Daniel Smith, Hahnemühle, Schmincke, and Strathmore, and also 4x6-ish pieces of heavy watercolor paper by all sorts of companies. Pretty much anything I ran across the past few months that seemed like it would hold up in the mail. I ended up putting a few in envelopes, especially if the paper was 100% cotton; it seemed too soft not to get torn in the canceling machines. 
        I painted them in batches of 4 or 5; I’d do a bunch of skies in slightly different colors and styles, and then some kind of land or trees or whatever. I tried really hard not to overthink them. I did a few others with markers. And it was an absolute blast—serious fun, and again, with no pressure at all. I was surprised at what a useful process it was to paint so many little 4x6 paintings; I kept a bunch of them because I want to do larger versions of them, and I was constantly experimenting and coming up with techniques and color combinations that I didn’t expect to find. Just totally screwing around with paint. It wasn’t hard, it was joyful, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I ended up painting about 50 postcards total because I kept painting ones that I liked enough that I didn’t want to send them away.

Bonus track: The community
Once again, the PoPo Fest’s Facebook group was really fun to keep up with all through August. People take such different approaches to the postcards; some do collages, one person used grocery cartons (she sent me one made from a Kleenex box). Some found vintage postcards; one woman in Alabama sent me an old postcard featuring a building in my town in Oregon, which amazed me. And many, many others didn’t really care about the postcards; for them, it was all about the poems. I’ve done it lots of ways over the years, and they’re all good; the PoPo Fest is flexible enough to accommodate pretty much any way you want to do it.

* Here are a couple of PoPo poems that did get published:

Speaking of smoke,
this one was in Crab Creek Review, 2019.

In Right Hand Pointing, 2021.

Past PoPo Fest Recaps: