About johnahancock

I am an artist, a maker of image-objects. My work, mostly drawings or aqueous media as well as paintings on panels, paper, and/or mylar, ... combine varying levels of abstraction and realism. For many years I was an artist-educator; working as a professor as well as with adults in classes and workshops. Personally, I am excited, intrigued even, by so very many things: archeology, history, biology, ecology, natural history, and aesthetics. These interests and passions show up in my work. I am now mostly interested in balance ... the balancing required in the very process of creating/making in the studio; also the balancing needed to be making art, teaching, taking/making time to really be with family, volunteering/serving in my community ... and being fully myself in all of these activities.

Hot Summer Sketches; Toned Paper

Roadside Summer Landscape copy

detail of “Roadside Summer Landscape”

It is SO hot, so humid, and just too sunny.  It is the time of year I love to sketch outside before 10 am and after 5pm.

The light and shadows are so beautiful in the summer but I will do most anything to stay out of the relentless UV saturated midday sun. To sketch between 10 am and 5 pm, at least in pre-Covid 19 days, I might have ducked inside a cool bistro with big windows or a restaurant with a shaded patio to sketch. I have also looked for old country stores that have a kitchen and sketched from the inside next to a window while sipping a very cold iced tea.

Even with those strategies in place, I still take the precautions of wide brimmed hats, long cooling sleeves, and SPF 90+ sunscreen. Hey, I have so many appointments with my primary dermatologist and dermatological surgeon that their phone numbers of  are nearly etched into my memory!

Despite that reticence though, twice this past week and a half, I have sketched in the middle of the day. To do that today, I popped back into and drew from inside my car. It is strategy I use far more often to avoid foul winter weather but today ‘s heat, humidity, and blazingly intense UV index were just too much for me to sit outside.

Roadside Summer, v1, web

first stage, with preliminary pencil work and small washes of yellow watercolor and white gouache.

Above you can see an early stage in this sketch. I was working on a warm, slightly speckled, paper made by Stonehenge. Here, I have made a fairly light and loosely drawn pencil sketch of the major land and sky elements and included the largest human made artifacts in the scene as well.

Rather than wait until I had all my possible proportion decisions made or my pencil drawing completed, I quickly decided to begin adding white gouache to the surface. In fact, as I was laying in the white, I was actually continuing to work on finding the proportion, scale, and the basic shapes that I had been searching for with the pencil. In other words, painting was actually a continuation of the basic observation and design process!

Roadside Summer, v2, web

second stage

As I added more white gouache and eventually the first layers of watercolor, I was soon brushing in watercolor around the contours of shapes (I love the power of negative space!). I also broke color through some of the lines that separated one shape from another in an attempt to integrate shapes into their surroundings.

Roadside Summer, v3, web

third stage, nearly complete

Now, if you have seen my sketches, watercolors, or drawings before … or have been one of many, many students, you may have noticed that I might have broken one of those major design “rules” so often touted by those of us who teach about making art. Can you guess what I am talking about?

Yes, I allowed a major element (that pole) to be at nearly dead center of the picture. True. But I was content to see if I could get away with that without the dark linear shape dividing the image; I was striving to let it became a shape that the rest of the composition elements pivoted around. I may be deluding myself but think I was pretty successful with that.

As I worked towards completion, I found myself switching back and forth between watercolor and pencil, adding and modifying contours, shapes, colors, and value. I realized that it was almost a dance as my brush and pencil alternately worked across the surface bringing some areas into clarity and leaving others much more tentative and a bit more mysterious.

Roadside Summer Landscape web

Roadside Summer Landscape, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on warm toned paper, 5 x 11

As I said above, this wasn’t the first of my toned paper sketches these past two weeks. Two weekends ago, I walked down to a railroad bridge that crosses the South River near the city’s core. Taking refuge from the sun beneath a covered section of the pedestrian walkway, I set up my sketching gear, pulled out a medium grey toned paper, and worked for almost an hour on the sketch below.  If you would like to see a video of my work on this RR Bridge sketch you can click HERE. (There is no audio on this version of the video.)

IMG_7965 web

South River RR Bridge, watercolor with opaque and transparent inks on grey toned paper, 5×11

I don’t always work on toned paper. When I do, it is often just with pencil and/or ink, and often with white/near white. I almost never sketch with toned paper and transparent watercolor.

It IS summer and I seldom sketch on toned paper during this time of year.

But, every now and then, I like to push my own boundaries and maybe even break a rule or two along the way.

Keep sketching!

Staying Simple …

Sometimes I love complexity. I can revel in the challenge of making visually rich images with multiple techniques, materials, and stylistically diverse elements work together.  I will even revel in bringing more than one design strategy into play in a single work. I do that pretty regularly in both my large drawing and my panel painting series.

Grape Hyacinths, Spr. 2020 #2

Grape Hyacinths, ink and watercolor, 7×5, April 2020

Right now though, I am craving simplicity!

Perhaps it is the stress and upheaval that SARS CoV-2 virus and the havoc playing out around the world. Or maybe the sudden separation from all my artist colleagues and students after a year of wonderfully intense sketching activity I’ve had locally and across the country.

Whatever it is, it seems that I am deferring more often to the practice of very direct, improvisational sketching. Notice too that I seem to be deferring to slightly wilder ink lines. My mark making with both pen and brush is nearly the freest, most playful and loosest that I tend touse.

My subject choices seem to differs a bit from my norms as well. In part that is because of the “stay at home” directives but I think think I may just want to keep everything on a basic level. So both of these two are sketches of view right around our house; pots on the front steps and flowers just a few steps down the walkway from the screened-in porch.

Pots on Front Steps, Spr. 2020, #2

Potted Plants and Sprouting Rose Bush, Ink & Watercolor, 5×11, April 2020

it might also be a reaction, a subconscious desire to concentrate the most local and very accessible objects and spend time being more engaged with the natural world. Is there some form of desire to retreat from the world’s complexity at work here? Is it a use of sketching as a salve for all the irritations of our current news cycles?

Truthfully, I don’t know. 

Tomatos on the Table, web

Tomatoes on the Table at Lunchtime, Watercolor & Ink over pencil, 5×11, May 2020

I’m not sure that it matter right now if I can figure it out. I am just enjoying working with ink, color and my brushes; looking mostly for the sake of looking. I could talk about the joy of mixing color or the use of silhouettes and negative spaces in sketching. Normally that IS what I would do. But not today.

Staying simple.


PS:  To see a video of the Tomatoes being created, click on the link below. Fair warning, it is my first ever video so … it is VERY low tech, has poor timing/editing, and it is silent. What? me, silent?  Remember, I am trying to stay a bit simple for now!

Be safe; stay well everybody.

New Year, New Season; New Ventures

WOW, we are a full month into 2020 and I finally feel like I am getting up and running!

2019 was a monster of a year! It was jam packed with all kinds of energy; so many personal and professional challenges too. I can’t complain though. Most of the year went so very right. I sketched all around the country; on the East and West coasts, in the South, Midwest, and South-West and even in the Mountain West. Exploring watercolor, dry sketching media, and combinations of the two, I was pretty happily engaged almost every week. This year I was also invited to teach urban sketching classes and workshops locally, regionally, and in Chicago and San Francisco.

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Some images my from 2019 Urban Sketching workshops in San Francisco, Chicago, Richmond VA, Staunton VA, and Fredericksburg, VA

It was an honor as well to be in several exhibitions featuring sketching and/or urban sketching. The most recent was the exhibition One Sketch at A Time: An Exhibition of Urban Sketchers. It included sketchers mostly from around the Washington DC and the Northern Virginia region. The show was held at the Manassas Center for the Arts (you can see images below) just outside of DC.

New Ventures?

Ok, I am exploring some new places to show my sketches. And to be sure I am working on finding some new and scheduling old places to teach workshops and classes too. I am also really exited to be getting a two week artist residency in eastern North Carolina this coming fall. As for sketching trips, I am looking at venues in addition to already planned trips to central North Carolina, Florida, Salt Lake, Chicago, DC and a few others. I’m going to have a lot more info on all those very soon.

Right now?

Well, let’s see … Oh yeah, more types of sketching!

In fact, I’m currently working on two strands of sketching. (I guess I like to make things complicated; it keeps me on my toes and experimenting!) Most of you know my normal sketching with watercolor and/or ink. I’ll of course be continuing those, I have to feed my soul. This year, I will also be foregrounding my sketching on toned paper. Working on toned surfaces is something I have been doing for a long, long time but have only rarely shared with anyone. Below are two very recent toned paper sketches!

Drawing on toned paper has a long history and can be taken down many new and old paths. A very traditional method, the “trois crayon” technique was quite popular in the Renaissance and Rococo periods. I have usually confined that three color technique and most other toned-paper methods to large (22×30+) preparatory studies for my Mylar based drawings. For now though, I am also going to sharing my experimentations with these wet and dry variations of toned paper techniques in my sketches!

View of BSSS

A Winter Evening View of the Beverly Street Studio School Building, inks w/ touches of dry pigment on toned paper

My plan is to work with and show you pieces on both warm and cool papers. I’ll start by posting works with fairly tradition media, either wet and/or dry. I’ll also use watercolor and maybe even a bit of gouache as well. Then, I might just get a bit more jiggy with it.

Now, if you have a favorite technique for sketching on toned paper/surfaces or you have an artist you know of that works on toned papers, I would love to hear from you. I am happy to share your faves (artists or techniques) with everyone here!



There are lots of fellow artists I admire for the intensity they bring to their work. There are certainly more who I pay attention to because of the engaging visual structures and designs they employ or their spirited use of technique. Then, there are those who I follow because their visual and written posts seem to be honest and direct, honed in such a way as avoid being overly complicated (as I often am) by distracting and unnecessary material. That is part of why this recent post by Mark Alan Anderson (aka: azorch) caught my eye.

He works in the American Mid-West. That is an area I used to live in as well; the region of the country where I first began to be very serious about making art. So I recognize the look and the feel in many of his images. And Mr. Anderson’s work is often very, very direct; distilled down to an essence that is truly gratifying.


Just Sketching

27 December, 2019.

I exhale, visible breath swirls around me, trailing off and around my back as I crunch across frozen grass, then trod the broken sidewalk toward the Plaza. A few other souls stroll the streets – a homeless man nods at me as I wait for a walk signal, his cardboard sign all but ignored by the cars pulling up to the stop light. I’ve not a cent on me or I’d toss something in his can as I pass; I hope he understands: money is no longer paper or coin, it’s a plastic card and invisible. I make a mental note to carry a buck or two in my pocket from now on, for just such times as this.

Crossing into the realm of the Country Club Plaza, the architecture makes an abrupt shift from the canyon of ten-story 1920’s era apartments that have walled my path…

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More Sketches from my Autumn Color Workshop.

I love the light during Autumn. During my career as a full-time art professor, I would sometimes lament that I didn’t get enough time to draw and paint outside in the Fall. Classes, tons of grading, mentoring/advising, meetings, and the earlier and earlier setting of the sun as we moved into late September and through October just made it hard to be outside in the glorious light and the amazingly rich colors.

Yes, I am still teaching a lot … but I now I am somewhat more in control of my schedule and can get more time to explore this beautiful season.  And, I can now teach students classes or workshops centered on our mutual visual excitement … Autumn’s beautiful colors. In my last post, we looked at some images as I began my latest workshop, Sketching Fall Foliage w/Watercolor.  Here, I am posting my final two demos from that workshop

I pointed out to my students that when we are sketching, many of us tend to jump in and begin making an image right away. That spontaneity can be so very refreshing, even exhilarating. But for our last morning, I suggested that student stop and think, even if for only 2-3 minutes about their composition; about staying true to what it is that excites them about the subject matter. I even suggested that, especially when they are not sure how to begin, that they might do one or more thumbnail sketches. I demonstrated and we talked about a line/shape studies, value studies (above left), and color studies (above right). We even discussed some of the virtues of doing a Notan study.


After I made the thumbnail studies I jumped into actually creating the first new image of the day.

Scan 1 WEB

unfinished: East, Towards The Blue Ridge On Rte. 254,  watercolor over pencil, 7.5 x 10.5

As I began my demo, I talked about combining the two approaches we had explored the day before, wet into wet and wet on dry. As you can see in the unfinished sketch above, the left side is mostly done in wet-on-dry and the shaded trees on right is executed with wet-into-wet painting. Below, is the more finished version of the sketch.

Scan X WEB

East, Towards The Blue Ridge On Rte. 254,  watercolor over pencil, 7.5 x 10.5

For our last sketch of the day, we work in a field surrounded by lots of different trees. None were majestic, eye popping examples of Fall’s stunning displays of color. Instead, as the clouds grew thicker and greyed the sky, I tried to focus students on “finding” excitement within the normal. I also discussed a use of color that many of you may remember if you ever took a look at Making Color Sing by Jeanne Dobie. For this sketch, I asked students to incorporate at least a limited use of some soft, subtle (chromatically contrasting or complementary) hues to accentuate and enrich the boldness of the colors that we did see.

Scan 3b WEB, A

Trees Behind the Bleachers, 12th & Oak Streets, watercolor over pencil, 5×8

All in all, I think we had a good workshop!

And … my students and I got to be outside making images surrounded by Autumn’s color. For me, that is real treat for the eye and heart!



One Place; Two (very different) Sketches

How often do you return to sketch a location? Do you ever try a very different way of sketching the same place?

Mary's Rock Tunnel, (wet on dry) #1 WEB

Tunnel at Mary’s Rock, 6×9 (this is a demonstration a layered wet on dry watercolor technique and of limiting the image’s area of interest/focus.)

Well, on the Skyline drive about an hour away, there is a really neat locale known as Mary’s Rock; a peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The road cuts 600+ feet through the granite outcrop via a tunnel. This is the site that I chose as the subject of these two rather different sketches.

Today I was conducting my Painting and Sketching Fall’s Foliage workshop and I was demonstrating two alternative ways to approach a watercolor. For my first image (below), I worked atop a wet sheet of paper, loading color into wet color passages and employing a good deal of color lifting too.

Mary's Rock Tunnel, (wet into wet) #1

Tunnel Beneath Mary’s Rock, watercolor 7×11 (This is a demonstration of a wet-into-wet technique with scraping and lifting of color.)

While I love the richness and spontaneity of this approach, I don’t usually work this way across an entire painting’s surface. I tend to like to contrast the fluidity against a bit more concreteness; anchoring the loose and free flow of color to few more solidly placed passages of color or line.

My workshop students seemed to enjoy the excitement of pushing very wet color around and adding extra water, color  splattering, soaking up excess liquid, and other tasks to manipulate their images of the tunnel under Mary’s Rock.

For my second demo of the day, I returned to my more normal painting process, a mostly wet on dry approach. I also suggested and attempted to lead them to limiting the area of greatest color and value detail to the section they most wanted to have us focus on. For mine, since I was intrigued by the trees growing to the left of the rock face and the opening of tunnel, that is where I concentrated most of my color and value manipulation … only hinting at the red trees to the far right. I could have painted even less detail and may still erase some the pencil lines delineating the upper edge of the tree line to the right but I will admit that I mostly pleased with this one..

Mary's Rock Tunnel, (wet on dry) #1 WEB

Tunnel at Mary’s Rock, watercolor, 6×9


I’ll post a more the workshop sketches in a day or so; you can find them by clicking here.







A Long Wait; Just A Little Spare Time

Sometimes life throws us a curve.

This past weekend I was going to be in one of those “wait, wait, and wait some more” situations. Since I’d have to cool my heels a bit, I took a much needed work project along and did make some good progress. But as I grew tired of working on a weekend, I popped out for a quick lunch. And as I came back to the waiting area I spent some time just observing other folks who were also playing the waiting game.

Eventually, I pulled out the sketch kit and made a fairly simple ink pen, brush pen, and water-brush sketch. It is ok. Maybe a bit stiff. Maybe a bit too reliant on hatching; but ok.

Waiting Area, GCC WEB

Phileas and Varsity Fountain pens, Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, and a little bit of water from a water-brush pen. 6″x4″

After that sketch, I turned to a very different subject, I turned to look out the windows. The waiting area was graced with multiple banks of large window panels. The light flowed into the space and the sky filled my field of vision.

And a bit unexpectedly, I could see that the clouds were thickening. some even looking like we might get a rain shower. None was forecast but it is summer and above 90F so showers or thunderstorms are always possible.

Anyway, the clouds were moving slowly, barely faster than the folks in the room around me. This time I committed to starting my sketch in pencil and ink.

Unexpected Clouds WEB

Pencil, water-soluble ink, Caran d’Ache Watercolor leads, Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, Platinum Preppy pen, and a little bit of water from a water-brush pen. 5″x7″

I started with light pencil work and quickly added scruffy ink lines within the cloud shapes. The ink was from a marker that I laid almost flat to get some nice “dry brush” like line quality. I proceeded to use the water brush to dilute the ink from these lines, spreading it up, out, and down from the cloud shapes. I was careful to take some of the ink wash out in linear ways that filled in or echoed the clouds contours. I also used a little to indicate the sky behind the tops of the clouds.

After that it was a matter of putting in a few more lines. I alternated between my pencil, an ultramarine watercolor lead, and a fine nabbed Platinum Preppy pen. Lastly … and totally unplanned … using some more of the Caran d’Ache watercolor leads and the Brushpen, I added the hint of the top of a tree line.

An unexpected sketch with an unexpected finish.

I guess I waited just long enough.

Home again, home again …

Well, I’m mostly home again.

After some whirlwind adventures in San FranciscoChicago and Salt Lake, I am back to my home in Virginia. But within the week I was again teaching an urban sketching workshop.

This one was a weekend long Urban Sketching workshop sponsored by the Beverly Street Studio School (BSSS) in the small city of Staunton. The town, which has lots of Victorian and Edwardian era architecture in its downtown and older neighborhoods, is located near the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley.

My group was a lovely and lively bunch of folks; they weren’t afraid to push beyond some of their comfort zones. That makes teaching a real joy.

Mill Creek Bridge, Staunton Va WEB

My incomplete morning demo piece; I was using direct and blended pencil on paper.

On the bright and clear Saturday morning, we gathered next to an old commercial mill building and adjacent grain silos near the railroad. Our first round of sketches were all made using dry media. Below are two examples of student pieces completed in the Saturday morning session. I think the use of intervening organic and manmade shapes as well as strong value contrasts help make these two really quite good!

After a lunch break we reconvened in an older residential neighborhood, the historic Gospel Hill area, just a bit east of the downtown. Our goal was to use or to include soluble and/or permanent ink in this sketch. In the shade of century old trees, we worked on finding snippets of the architecture or landscape architecture to concentrate on.

Gospel Hill Steps, Staunton Va WEB

Gospel Hill Garden Wall and Steps, Staunton Va                                                                                            This is my very quick second workshop demo piece; I used permanent and water-soluble ink, ink wash, and brush pen, 5×7


After working all afternoon, we had a productive critique there on the sidewalk as residents walked or drove by … probably wondering what we were up too. It was a good day over all.

The next day we worked with various combinations of materials and added color to our  sketching toolkit. We did have to compensate for some high winds and we worried a bit about nearby heavy storms. So we gathered at two locations that offered potential protection. Luckily the afternoon thunderstorms skittered by to our northwest and southeast.

IMG_5355 copy

Gathering for our final critique under the protective covering of the train station’s platform.

The participants made some fine sketches, I had a lot of fun meeting these new folks, and … jiggidy-jig … it was nice to sleep at home both nights too!



Many thanks to the wonderful folks of the BSSS ( http://bssschool.org ) who invited me to teach this workshop.

I also want to thank the students who signed up, and especially those who were members of the local sketching group known as Sketch Staunton. You can find the group online via Facebook.  ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/392125291370828/ )

All of them made the weekend really special.

In Salt Lake; What Will I Sketch?

Salt Lake city is, for the most part, a flat city. But a very high mountain, the Wasatch Front, is so very, very close.

I am here to work evaluating art portfolios for ETS again this year. With that project, I’m staying and working near the center of the city, between the government, LDS Temple. financial, industrial/warehouse, and older residential areas. The week that I am here, my days are pretty full between 8am and 5pm … but it is summer and the light lasts until just shy of 9pm. Perfect for me.


View south at Broadway and Main, Salt Lake City 5 x 11, ink and watercolor over pencil

The other evening, just before a cold front blew into town, a friend of mine and I went downtown to sketch in the center of the commercial and financial district. It was a good location with lots of foot, car, and trolley traffic! Before I was even close to finishing though, the colder air roared in with 50 mph+ gusts. I called it quits despite not having laid in all the colors or textures I had hoped to; the breaks of creating sketches outside.


The A Street Steps, Salt Lake City 5 x 11, ink, ink washes, and watercolor over pencil

Earlier in the week, other friends and I went out after dinner to an older residential neighborhood, known as The Avenues, that overlooks the downtown. The low hills of the area have some steep sides and interrupt a road known as A Street. My subject was the “A Street Steps” that connect the lower section of A Street to the upper portion.

Tonight is my last full day in the city before returning home. I’ll try for at least one more sketch. I am hoping for a full watercolor actually. Maybe I’ll actually get a view of that mountain in this one!

If it works out, I will post that one once I get home.



Back in Chicago … and Sketching too!

There are places that I love.

They may be locations where I have lived and which hold deep memories of family, of being, or of becoming. There are other locales that are beautifully quiet and allow the spirit to open outward. Some, marvelously raucous and exciting, enrich our souls through the senses.

Chicago is a city that can I truly revel in; just being in, seeing it from ground level, experiencing the soaring buildings on the lakeshore and riverside. When I was a teen living in the midwest, it was a city that I thought I might go to college in or near; might even make my home and work in someday. Now, it is a city that my son lived in briefly and is home to friends and professional colleagues.

So coming to the city to sketch and to teach two sessions of a workshop for the 2019 Chicago Urban Sketchers Seminar is treat. I have met lots of interesting people from all over the country and region. Most of my students though are from the Chicago area and they are wonderful.


My workshop sessions, both titled “Richness & Simplicity, with Ink Pens and Brush Pens” concentrates on quick sketches using water-soluble and permanent inks. I am working with my students in the Wabash and Congress area of the city with its very visible L. It is a wonderful mix of old and new, ugly and beautiful, high rise and street level shops. Fun to draw!

Early phase of my Saturday demo sketch

Early phase of my Saturday demo sketch. Ink of pencil, 7×5

We were working to use visual richness balanced with simplicity in creating an image. For this first demo, I concentrated mostly on a metalwork surrounding a single pylon of the Chicago L.

Chicago L Pylon

A Chicago L Pylon at                   Wabash & Congress                       Inks w/ touches of watercolor, 7×5

Above is the completed sketch with inks and a few touches of watercolor. Richness I think I got; simplicity … somewhat.

Anyway, now it’s time to head for Salt Lake City and spend a week evaluating AP student’s art portfolios for ETS. It will quite busy but I should get a bit of sketching time in too.