Learning Experiences: Graphite Density

Because of my lack of formal education in art, I owe much of my advancement in skill to instances where real artists have taken me aside and yelled at me for doing it wrong. This is a story of one of those instances…

Once upon a time, I was at a church retreat where I didn’t know anyone. Introvert that I am, my solution to the problem was to curl up on a couch and work on a sketch, trying to look cool and not interacting with anyone.

Probably it was this sketch.

“That’s a nice sketch. Are you studying art?” I heard a voice behind me. I turned around, and a guy (very good-looking guy, actually) was watching over my shoulder. I thanked him and replied that no, I wasn’t a student. This is just my hobby.

He introduced himself, explained that he’s a graphic designer, and said, “Well, it looks good. What kind of pencil are you using?”

I probably had a confused look on my face. “Um, a mechanical one?”

His brow furrowed a little. “No, I meant, what graphite density are you using?”

Now I was really lost. Graphite what? I wracked my brain to come up with an answer that made it sound like I sort of knew what he was talking about. If I played my cards right, I could come off like a legit amateur artist.

“Uhhh, it’s a number 2 pencil, I think?”

Now his expression was pained, like I had given him a slight headache. He said, “Have you ever heard of the HB scale?”

I think my blank stare was enough of an answer, because he grabbed my notebook and number 2 pencil, found a blank page, and diagrammed the graphite density scale.

Here it is.

Apparently, the density of the graphite affects how much bleeds into the page, and can result in thin or thick lines, how much it will smudge, and how dark it is. On the higher end of the H scale, you can have thin, fine lines, like for eyelashes. On the B scale, you have a thicker, darker line that will smudge all over the place, which is good for shading.

How could I have not known about this? I thanked the guy for showing me the scale, and promised to buy myself new pencils. His good deed accomplished, he walked away to meet up with his girlfriend (which is just so typical of my interaction with cute guys). Unlucky in love, but lucky in learning, I continued to sketch.

And that is the story of how I learned about graphite density. I went home and bought a few new pencils, and the contrast and shading of my sketches improved dramatically.

Nephews… the cute guys I have in my life.


Gus: The picture book that never was.

A few years back I was convinced that with enough creative effort, I could be the best long distance aunt ever. I was going to write and illustrate picture books based on my life in Virginia, so when the neefs visited me they could recognize me and my surroundings and feel like they had walked into a story.

The first book would introduce all the characters in my apartment and what they all did while I was away at work. Think Toy Story, but with a hamster, a squirrel, a laptop, and a Roomba. I have a tendency to name inanimate objects and random animals I see, so fleshing out the characters wasn’t too much of a stretch.

Sophia the Squirrel

However, before I could really get started on the first book, inspiration struck for the second. I drive a bright blue toy car named Gus, and because he goes with me to work every day, he couldn’t be part of the apartment book. Obviously he needed a story of his own. In a rare burst of creative energy, I sat down and wrote a story loosely based on the time I got pulled over for speeding in Maryland with no license plates. It was a cautionary tale.

Meet Gus

The story went something like this… Gus lived in the city, and all he did every day was drive to and from work. He had to go very slow because there were so many cars, and had to stop at every light because the traffic lights were sadists and turned red whenever he drove up to them. (This is a paraphrase. I wasn’t going to use the word “sadist” in a kids book.) All in all, Gus’ life was very boring.

Then, for the first time ever, he got to take a weekend trip out into the country. The weather was beautiful, the road was long and winding, and he could go as fast as he wanted. Everything went by in a green and blue blur; it was exhilarating.

I don’t remember the details of the cop car pulling him over and yelling at him, but I remember that Gus felt super guilty. He really hadn’t known about the speeding rules, but he promised never to speed again. (Not what actually happened in Maryland.)

So when Gus slowed down, he realized that all those things that were blurs of color had become beautiful fields and hills, farms and cows (all that picture book stuff that toddlers love). Gus discovered that his drive through the country was even better when he slowed down and enjoyed it.

Now I figured that toddlers didn’t really need to learn the lesson of breaking speeding laws quite yet. But I did like the lesson of following the rules and how when you do things the right way, it can be even more fun that speeding through Maryland with no license plates.

It was a good story, but it was never meant to be. This is the part where I failed as an aunt and an illustrator. There were just so many pages to draw, and all in color. I tried to use the computer, and I tried watercolor painting. In the end, I just lost momentum.

Maybe someday I’ll have the spare time and the motivation to finish the project. But for now, I will just have to settle for using this post to tell Gus’ story.

Stay strong, Gus. We’ll get back out to the country soon, this time with license plates.

Drawing Dogs

I’ve always loved animals, and I’ve been drawing since high school, but I’ve only combined those passions very recently when a friend asked me to sketch her dog last year. I’ve drawn several dogs and cats since then, and it’s been an amazing new avenue of art to explore especially because animals can be so much more expressive than people.

My first commission: Shorty.

Take my dog Chloe, for example. With just her eyes and tail, she perfectly expresses joy, worry, affection, fear, and disdain… all without using the volumes of words humans think necessary. I think I probably take my interpretations too far, though. I have long conversations with Chloe where I feel like we’re communicating on a deep, heart-to-heart level. But if I had to realistically guess, it’s probably more likely that her thoughts are more along the lines of, “Why are you still making mouth noises? Please give me my share of whatever you’re eating!”

I interpret this expression as: Get your own pillow thing. This one is MINE.

You’d think that I would have a handful of drawings of Chloe, but nope. I never would have ever drawn a single dog or cat if people hadn’t started paying me to do it. I have enough trouble having the patience to draw folds in clothing, but fur? WAY too painstaking.

Luckily, my enthusiasm for commissions helped me over this hurdle, and I really think it’s grown me as an artist. I get all the fun of drawing their faces and expressions, and I’ve had to develop new techniques for drawing differing lengths of fur and non-human musculature.

All in all, it’s a good arrangement. I acquire new skills and some cute puppies for my portfolio, my friends get sketches of their furry loved ones, and Chloe gets some doggie treats. Everybody wins.

Here are some more of my doggie sketches:




Do you see what I mean about the fur? Painstaking.

A Tragic Gap in Language

I have three wonderful nephews and almost two beautiful nieces (the second is due any day, and I’m going to just assume she’s beautiful like her cousin). So here’s my problem… “nephews and nieces” takes forever to say. It’s also a problem when one of my sisters is pregnant and the gender is still undetermined, because “nephew or niece” also takes forever to say.


You know what? Nephew takes too long too.

My solution: Neef. A generic term meaning “child of my sibling”. Why does this not already exist?!?

All that to say, I love drawing neefs. They are adorable freaks of nature… I say freaks because no one should be that cute. I have been drawing each one since they were born, and I’ll probably be forced to continue until they quit with all that cuteness.


Yeah, not sure that will happen any time soon. It must be part of their diabolical plot to force me to draw them constantly. Expect more posts of the tiny narcissists, because I probably won’t stop until they start having kids.


In case you can’t distinguish the tiny figure on my header, that’s my niece painting while wearing a huge t-shirt. So adorable. Now, I know it’s slightly hypocritical to say “not on a computer” then use my one doctored sketch as the logo. But if it helps, I added the flower and sun with MS Paint… it was very old school.


Here goes…

Check it out! My attempt to be a real artist! I’m trying to live up to my mental stereotype of what a starving artist should be, with some exceptions. I’m a girl, so I can’t grow a scrungy beard. I’m employed, so I won’t technically be “starving”. And I won’t be constantly covered in paint or look like I haven’t slept in a week because I spend all my time working feverishly in my studio. That’s something that comes later… when I have a studio.

What I will do is wear really pretentious looking scarves, hang out in coffee shops, and listen to really obscure music (do Monty Python songs on Pandora count?). I’m also working on my “far away look” so people know I’m thinking  deep and creative thoughts. Thoughts that in no way relate to the Avengers. They’re deep thoughts, I’m telling you! About… art… and philosophy… and the ephemeral beauty of nature. Right.

Anyway, the plan is to start posting some sketches soon, which will count as my “portfolio”. This would be way more organized if I built a legit website instead of using a free blog, but hey, at least now I get to use a format where I can include snarky comments whenever I want.

Oh, and I do want to make the point that it’s called “shoppe” because I am in fact selling my portraiture services. I was going to call my site “sketchy” but decided I didn’t want to force my family and friends to google that term, just in case some of the results aren’t what they were aiming for.

In summary, I now declare myself a professional artist person. If you like the sketches, feel free to pay me and I’d love to do one for you!