Saturday, September 24, 2016

Durham Fair Sketches 2016

Sketches from the Durham Fair 2016 from Jan Blencowe on Vimeo.

This video is in high def, you can enlarge it to full screen , and pause on any sketch you'd like to see close up for details etc. 

One of the sketching highlights of my year is sketching at Connecticut's largest agricultural fair. The Durham Fair turned 100 this year. There have actually been 97 fairs, a few being skipped due to war or hurricanes (not much gets in the way of New Englanders and their country fairs!) 

Fair day is always so exciting for me. It's a test of skill, focus, creativity, powers of observation.  For me, challenges are fun. 

Every year I prepare, select a sketchbook, and decide on materials and a few goals for the day.

Here's what I decided on for this year.


I went with a Handbook Journal Hot Press Fluid 100 7x10 inch spiral bound field watercolor journal. These are very hard to come by in the smooth hot press paper surface. Once again I have forgotten where I ordered it from and I searched the internet and still can't find one. The cold press ones are readily available though. In case you're searching for this, it's the one with the green cover. Blue cover is cold press paper. (and also very nice)

I like this size because it's a horizontal format, longer that it is high, which is great because most animals at the fair also fit those proportions. Cows, goats, sheep etc. will all fit nicely on a page.

I also love the very smooth Fluid 100 paper. It's not an outstanding watercolor paper but a very serviceable and reasonably priced one that I enjoy using.


I decided that the fair was a good time to really give my brand new Sailor Fude de Mannen fountain pen a workout. It's always a risk taking a brand new tool you're unfamiliar with to the fair but I decided to take it anyway. I did pack several other pens just in case it was a disaster. 

My Sailor Fude came with two cartridges of  black ink that are not waterproof. I ordered the converter so I can fill it with waterproof ink but it hadn't arrived yet. However, that didn't really matter at all since I love working with water soluble inks.

I know that almost every water soluble ink is dye based and likely to fade over time. Yup, bummer. But, the ease of creating tonal ink washes one the spot with just a water brush, and the ability to soften misplaced lines and "mistakes" really takes the pressure off me when I'm working very quickly in a crowded venue where a lot of people are likely to ask to look at my sketches. It's just a little bit of protection against having sketches that go horribly wrong and feeling crappy about people looking at my work. 

I also took my Lamy Joy filled with De Atramentis Black document ink (waterproof) for writing.

Paints and Brushes

I took my 14 color set of QoR watercolors and a few brand new Pental Aquash water brushes in various sizes. 


Two cheap PaperMate mechanical pencils and a stick eraser


Mini spray bottle, paper towels, and a bunch of extra pens that I never touched. (They were there "just in case")

Field Bag

I have recently switched from my over the shoulder Eddie Bauer bag to an around the waist bag. I've  had it for a couple of weeks but my trip to the fair was the big test. I found it incredibly helpful to have the bag around my waist. My shoulder didn't get painful and I had an easier time finding my supplies because I can look down into the bad. It also has an attachment for a bottle of water, which is wonderful, except that I was so engrossed sketching that I forgot to drink until I stopped for lunch. 

This is the bag I bought. It might be a bit small for some of you but I am always trying to eliminate and bring only what I truly need. I can fit my wallet and cell phone in the bag also. This is a keeper. 


Sketching at large, crowded venues with live subjects (or complicated subjects like at the natural history museum) is challenging and I have finally worked out a process that works well for me. I start with a very brief pencil sketch. This helps me identify the absolutely essential characteristics of my subject. It often includes things like the angle of ears, the shape of the nose and mouth, the slope of the shoulders and angle of the hips. This is typically a very loose, contour line sketch, with special attention paid to the things I just mentioned. This is also an opportunity to make changes if the animal moves, turns it's head etc. It also lets me quickly choose another animal (same kind of course) if the first suddenly becomes active but another in the pen is resting quietly. Generally, I leave the pencil lines as part of the sketch and don't erase unless there's a build up of graphite that's likely to smear. 

Next, I switch to fountain pen.I am not simply tracing over my previous pencils lines, but I am looking with fresh eyes, making new observations and correcting and adjusting, which is unavoidable with moving subjects.  I may also indicate lines for shading or markings. I include the ground that's usually covered in straw, hay or wood shavings, to place them in a bit of a setting.

I bring out the water brush and watercolors next. First, I work with the ink to create some tonal washes which helps create the form and pattern of light and shadow. Then I go right in with the watercolors. Sometimes I let the watercolors touch the ink and mix, other times I allow a bit of white space to remain so the watercolors stay clean.

One of the advantages to working with water soluble ink is that it does mix with your watercolors and creates a harmonious look to a series of related sketches. 

Once the color is dropped in I use a pen with waterproof ink to make a note of the breed of animal, or the farm that's exhibiting. 


My goals for the fair this year were to give the new Sailor Fude a really good workout and to focus on quantity, creating as many sketch as I possibly could. That goal really helped me to focus, push forward and keep my sketching fast, lively and loose.

How Long Do They Take?

I got asked that question at least a dozen times at the fair. Here's how the day's sketching panned out. I was at the fair for 5 hours and 45 minutes. I took a very quick lunch break and spent a little time talking with a few of the exhibitors (rabbits and Shropshire sheep) and picking out a dozen bars of my favorite goats milk soap, I think that basically takes care of the 45 minutes. That leaves five hours of sketching. During that time I did 26 sketches, that works out to approximately 8 minutes per sketch, which seems about right to me. I think the break down would be something like 3 minutes for the pencil sketch, 2 minutes with the fountain pen, and 3 minutes for the watercolor. 


All of the pencil, ink and watercolor work was done on the spot. Later that evening I added borders, backgrounds, a little more writing and cleaned up a couple of sketches. The mini lop rabbit needed the addition of white to help get him looking really fluffy and the Brown Red Modern Game Hen's head got too dark from the ink and I used an acrylic marker to bring the color back. The backgrounds were made with Faber-Castell brush tip markers, and a Higgins India ink marker.

Hope you enjoyed hearing about my day at the fair. I encourage you to sketch at YOUR local fair this year ! 

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  1. These are wonderful!! I especially love the llamas & the Holstein cow! Thanks for all the supply info - I love it when you describe your new supplies (as well as the tried & true faves).

  2. Wonderful! Lovely sketches and I am so glad that you described your process and the steps you took.
    I am about to leave on a fantastic trip with three non-sketchers and have been pondering how to go about making meaningful sketches without holding up my husband and friends. Eight minutes/sketch is doable and I can see how you managed to do it. Adding the peripherals afterwards and zeroing in on your focus seems to be about the only way to go.
    If you have any other advice for me while traveling I would be truly grateful.

    1. Hi Diane, Figure out what size you can work most quickly. For some people working too small makes them get tight and fussy so working big and scrawly is best. For others working small helps them simplify and get right down to essentials. Also a water soluble pen or marker in a single color (TomBow for instance) and a water brush, or watercolor pencil in just one or two colors allows you to create tonal washes very, very quickly instead of messing with a whole set of watercolors and needing time to mix colors etc. Also, let the others go get something to eat or shop, or use the restroom and you can sketch a bit and you can get in some sketches. Have a wonderful time!

    2. Thanks for some ideas and your good wishes. I have never thought to check and actually see what is easier for me, working large or working small. Just naturally figured small would be faster. And I do like to use water soluble ink occasionally. Have to make sure to have that along. I have learned to grab some time when sightseeing but someday I would love to go traveling with someone who also sketches so I could take more time. My husband is very accommodating but I do hate holding friends up.

  3. These sketches are incredible and amazing! Your work is beautiful. I can't wait to see you at the East Hampton Art Association meeting next week :-)

  4. Hi Mary, I'm looking forward to next week and will be bringing all kinds of great stuff with me to share with the group!

  5. I found the green journals you're looking for! I love them too and ordered ten. The key was searching for them online by their item number: 785710. Found them at Art Supply Warehouse, online, in California.

  6. I found the green journals you're looking for! I love them too and ordered ten. The key was searching for them online by their item number: 785710. Found them at Art Supply Warehouse, online, in California.


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