|On July 1, 1998 I began what I thought would be a one-year, daily life-drawing activity: drawing my dog Dottie, an Alaskan Malamute bitch. At the end of that year, on June 30, 1999 I had 8 filled volumes of sketches of Dottie. Because they were from life most were of her sleeping. I also had developed a daily habit of drawing her which I referred to as "the Daily Dots." I continued to draw Dottie daily until her death on January 26, 2003, from liver cancer.
In what is almost 5 years I can still count the missed days on my fingers. When a trip to visit family or friends or to teach has taken me away I always drew Dottie the day I left and the day I returned, thus minimizing missed days. Typically, while I was away, I would find other dogs or animals to draw.
For almost the entire first three years of this project I sketched in 10 x 10 inch square sailcloth covered sketchbooks from Michael Roger Press. They contain 50% rag drawing paper which has a lovely tooth. I was determined to try out as many drawing media as I could, and the initial volume contain pen and ink, colored inks, colored pencil, graphite, and Koh-i-nor Negro #1 pencil (now made by Creatacolor). Gradually the Negro #1 pencil became my favorite. It's rich black lead is softer than a colored pencil but more stable and resistant to smudging than pastels and charcoal. Some books are filled entirely with drawings made with this pencil. My choice is probably even more obvious when you consider that Dottie was a black and white Malamute. The Negro #1 pencil gives the texture of her fur a depth that even layers of graphite can't capture. This black pencil also photocopies and scans extremely well.
In 2000 I began searching for different papers to use in my handmade visual journals. This search also resulted in papers which were suitable for drawing with the Negro #1 pencil. (Lana Royale is a particularly nice paper to draw on. A smooth surface with an imperceptible texture to hold the pigment. It also folds and tears down nicely for book making.) With the discovery of new papers I began making all my own journals, including those used for the Daily Dots.
Towards the end of 2001, having worked exclusively with the Negro #1 pencil for months, I decided it was time for a drastic change. I didn't want to give up my daily practice, but I also sensed I was going stale, taking less time to draw, waiting until later and later at night when Dottie was ready to go for a final walk and go to bed, and I was too tired to really concentrate. I selected a journal with paper I used for light washes and set as my task an entire volume of watersoluble graphite. Some of these drawings are truly awful, but I see in each one growth in handling a new medium.
I enjoyed the watersoluble graphite experiment so much that when that volume was completed I took another journal with the same paper and began the Daily Dots using only watersoluble colored pencil.
I like the Faber Castell Albrecht Dürer Brand because of the rich pigment and the smooth way the pencil lead dissolves. I favor a Niji Water Brush for work with these pencils, just as I had with the watersoluble graphite. Using the waterbrush (a pen-like tool: the soft plastic body is the water reservoir, the tip is a nylon brush) allows me to hold pencils, brush, and journal in my hands while I work. It eliminates the need for a stand to place a water dish. And when you are wedging yourself in behind a door to get a good angle on a sleeping dog you don't want to disturb, these artistic tool decisions make a lot of sense. Throughout the volume of watersoluble colored pencil I set myself one other task: I only used 3 and at the most 4 (rarely) different colored pencils. In this way I was also learning about color blending in this medium.
My next exploration came out of the design of a nature journal for a year-long class I was preparing. I selected Rives BFK tan for the paper of that journal. It's a great paper, with a wonderful tooth for drawing on, and it can take light watercolor. But the rich tan color also has the added advantage of making colored pencils pop out from the background. It was my hope that many of the students would use colored pencils in class as a portable medium. In the process of designing that journal I ended up with extra sheets of paper. I decided to make Daily Dot journals and sketch using only a black and a white pencil. (I used Derwent Sketching pencils because their color is smoother and richer than regular colored pencils.) This experiment lasted through both a tan BFK book and a gray BFK book.
My next experiment was a journal made with Waterford 90 lb. Digital watercolor paper. I worked with traditional watercolors. I used a palette of 18 pans, fitted into an adapted Windsor Newton case. The paints are Schminke, Windsor Newton, and Daniel Smith. The Daniel Smith pigments are tube paints I've squeezed into pans and allowed to dry. Unlike other tube watercolors which can be inconsistent, I find the Daniel Smith pigments have great rewetting characteristics. And the product line includes interesting colors I can't live without.
I still sketched first, before painting. I used both the Staedtler Pigment Liner (which is my black ink pen of choice because it doesn't have an odor and you can immediately put a wash of paint over it) and Faber Castell's Pitt Sketching Pen: Sepia Brush. I'm most excited about the latter as it isn't something I regularly use and the rich sepia ink holds its own beneath the washes of Payne's gray and burnt oranges that I used to match Dottie's blue-gray fur. The fine brush tip also forces me to be looser than I am when drawing with a pen or pencil.
I had never painted on Waterford paper before. The 90 lb. digital watercolor paper, purchased from Daniel Smith, was an experiment in bookmaking and it sat unused for over a year. It's a lovely paper to work on. It has a cold press texture. It takes washes smoothly, and reworking hard edges into soft edges is a breeze. I've found that the pages don't buckle much. It seems a shame that this paper was developed to have inkjet ink splattered over it.
Other experiments followed. As my interest turned from watercolor to my childhood love gouache, I saught hard, heavily sized papers which could float the paint, and toned papers which made the colors pop. The final 7 volumes contain a variety of papers I wanted to work on for an extended time, the Daily Dots provided that opportunity. The daily drawing, which typically took 2 to 6 minutes, and rarely over 15 minutes, gave me many things. I learned to see more clearly, look more closely, savor my time with Dottie, and put my life in perspective.
As my time with Dottie drew to an end I made only one concession: I found myself working in a book of discontinued English paper perfect for gouache, but longed to feel the pencil touch the paper again. This paper resisted pencil. So I began to draw Dottie as many times as I could in a day, typically 3, but sometimes as many as 6 times. Soon I had filled the hard-sized paper book and I was back in a book with pages that loved colored pencil. These drawings catch Dottie as she grew weaker. There is a soft quality to them. Sometimes it was difficult to focus and draw because as I drew I was conscious of what I was loosing: a dear friend and companion. In the days since her death I still pick up a pencil to sketch and then remember my model is gone.
Habits bad and good are hard to break. I found that this good habit provided a way for my psyche to heal each day from whatever wear and tear it had or was about to face. I look at the shelf of Daily Dots and see 43 volumes of memories, of moments of watching Dottie, of just being present with her graceful being. I'm grateful I took this opportunity. The Daily Dots also taught me how important drawing is in my life, not as an activity, but as a tool I use to discover things about myself and my surroundings. I look forward to finding another daily drawing project. I encourage everyone to set up their own daily adventure in observation.
Illustration © 2000 Roz Stendahl; All Rights Reserved
Photo © Tom Nelson