Sunday, February 28, 2016

Producing a pen & ink drawing - start to finish

Every pen and ink drawing I produce is actually three or four drawings.

Ideally, the first  step is a pencil sketch, worked out on site, or from a  photograph. I usually use B or darker lead pencils. I visit probably 99% of the sites I end up producing drawings of. I prefer to to do sketches in the field, but take a multitude of photos to document sites. If I don't have time to work up a sketch I may work from a photograph for the second step--no shame in working from photos.

Next, the drawing or photo is resized to the proper dimensions and taped to my light box. With tracing paper placed over the sketch, I produce a second drawing using  a .3 mm mechanical pencil with soft lead, usually B. I love drawing on tracing paper. It erases cleanly, and I can do overlays to figure out placement of vegetation and other details. Most of the details for the drawing are worked out on tracing paper. The soft lead produces a dark image, which helps with the next step.

The tracing paper drawing is then taped to the light table and the image is transferred to 140# drawing paper (third drawing). Details are finalized. A .3 mm mechanical pencil with hard lead is used, usually H. The resulting image is very light. (the image to the left has been darkened so it will show up better.) The pencil lines usually tell me where to draw. However, I also use pencil lines  to tell me where not to draw.

Finally comes putting ink to the paper. I use .05 mm fiber-tipped pens with black pigment ink. I try to avoid using lines to define shapes, allowing value (lightness or darkness) to delineate edges. First I work on the main design elements. I  start by putting lines down along the trailing edges of contrasting values--perhaps the edge of a window that is farthest away from the light. This is more of just a guide to start building up shapes. If there is a curved object such as a tree trunk I usually don't draw trailing edge lines unless the object behind it is very dark. With curved objects I usually go directly to hatching.

Next comes hatching (parallel lines drawn close together) to start building up volume. I don't work on just one part of the drawing at a time, but usually build up the values of the entire drawing gradually. With pen and ink drawings I have found this avoids value mistakes--where I may make an area too dark; or line mistakes where I just mess up.Such mistakes can be corrected, but those corrections are easier if the affected area is still relatively light in value.

After the basic hatching is done I go back and start cross-hatching (in numerous directions) to build up values and volumes. I will also start adding details such as cracks in logs or knot holes. I mentioned corrections in the previous step. Being able to correct mistakes is one reason I use thick paper. With a good ink eraser, an Exacto knife, sand paper, and a burnishing tool I can usually take a mistake out and bring the paper back to a state where I can re-ink it.

The next step is building up the values, filling in details such as windows, and working on shadows. When working on signs with light lettering on dark backgrounds, or perhaps  light leaves and branches against a dark building I sometimes use penciling as a type of masking, covering an area uniformly with pencil lines.With one of the pen techniques I use, after I have inked an area I can erase the ink and the pencil underneath it to reveal (relatively) unmarked paper.

After I have all the values and details for the primary objects in the drawing pretty much worked out I begin working on the secondary details such as the area around the building, shrubbery, and the foreground. At this point I add my signature. On several occasions I have finished a drawing, filling it up to the very edges, only to realize I forgot to sign it. That means I have to go back  in with my sandpaper and such to make a space big enough to insert a signature. Advance planning is everything with the drawings I produce.

The final step--filling in the background, finalizing the values, and finishing the details. Ideally this is the "dinking" phase, where I can leave the drawing for a while and come back to add details such as missing shadows. It is also perhaps the most dangerous phase of the process, where I can overwork the drawing and ruin it. Knowing when to stop is often the most critical decision an artist faces. 

By the way, the drawing is of an old cabin in the Gold Rush section of Pioneer Park here in Fairbanks. it was originally a prostitute's crib in the town's red light district. See the post here.

You can also look at my post on the drawing tools I use here.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Old Main School drawing on display at Fairbanks City Hall

A couple years ago I produced a pen and ink drawing of Old Main School, which is now Fairbanks City Hall. The City purchased the drawing and it is now on display outside the City Clerk's office. Ta-da! Here is a photo of me at City Hall with the drawing, and here is a link to the column I wrote about Old Main.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Wheelmen pedaled winter trails during Yukon and Alaska gold rushes

Drawing of gold rush-era wheelman baed on photo from Selid-Bassoc collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives

Many people view winter biking as a recent phenomenon. However, bicycles came north with gold-seekers over 100 years ago. The 1897/98 Klondike Gold Rush occurred near the peak of a world-wide bicycle craze in the 1890s, and it was only natural for some stampeders to bring their bicycles with them.

Terrence Cole’s book, Wheels on Ice, Bicycling in Alaska 1898-1908, presents first-hand accounts from several gold rush-era bicyclists. It tells of a Seattle newspaper which wrote in March 1900 that, “scarcely a steamer leaves for the North that does not carry bicycles.” and of the Skagway Daily Alaska newspaper, which reported that in the spring of 1901 about 250 bicycles were on the trail to Dawson City. Photos in the University of Alaska archives also show bicyclists queued up behind horse-drawn sleds and dogteams climbing over Thompson Pass along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.

Bicycles, or “wheels” as they were called, made some sense as winter transportation for economy-minded prospectors. Bikes of that era had simple but strong frames made of tubular steel. They had one fixed-gear, few complicated parts, and tires could be easily repaired. Priced at $35 to $100, they were less expensive to own and operate that a team of huskies. Bicyclists also never had to go outside at -40 degrees to feed their iron steeds.

The wheels glided within the 2” track left by a sled runner, and bicyclists (called “wheelmen”) could outpace most others on the trail. Utilizing roadhouses to provide food and a warm place to sleep, minimally equipped wheelmen could travel most of the region’s main trails, at least when the terrain and weather permitted.

While bicycles ran well on packed trails, pedaling through unpacked snow or during a snow storm was almost impossible. Bicycles also didn’t fare well in heavy winds.

John Clark, in a description of his 1906 bicycle ride from Valdez to Fairbanks, wrote of battling winds along the Delta River. Of another wheelman headed in the opposite direction against the wind Clark reported, “He struggled manfully for about ten minutes and made about 50 feet backwards. He then laid the wheel down on the ice, untied a small sack under the saddle and put the package in his pocket. He took up the wheel, carried it to a pile of rocks…, lifted it as high as he could above his head and then slammed it down on the rocks and started up stream on foot. 

Bicycles also had to be walked or carried up steep grades. They were prone to breakdowns (often far from the nearest habitation). Bearings froze, and pedals or handlebars sometimes snapped off in a fall. Injuries caused by accidents, snowblindness (from the eyestrain of following narrow sled tracks) and frostbite were also constant dangers. Their compatriots often viewed wheelmen as being slightly addled.

Perhaps the most travelled bicycle route was the 400-mile winter trail between Whitehorse and Dawson City. The drawing is based on a 1903 photograph of an unnamed wheelman who raced over the trail in a record-setting five days. The gent was evidently a dedicated racer. He even had toeclips on his pedals.

 From the chainwheel design and other details it appears his bicycle may be a Pierce Arrow.  A similar 1897 Ivers & Johnson bicycle can be seen at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum here in Fairbanks.

A few of the hardiest wheelmen pedaled the 1200 miles from Dawson City to the Seward Peninsula in early 1900 to join the Nome Stampede. Ed Jesson and Max Hirschberg were two of those adventurers.

Hirschberg wrote of breaking his bicycle’s chain just east of Nome.  With a stiff wind at his back, he scavenged a stick from beside the trail, stuffed it inside the back of his coat and sailed the rest of the way. 

Jesson had fewer problems along the way and completed his trip in 36 days. According to a 2004 Alaska Magazine article, winter bike trekkers Andy Sterns (from Fairbanks), and Frank Wolf and Kevin Vallely (from Vancouver B.C.) pedaled a similar route in 2003, taking 40 days to reach Nome. I guess newer isn’t always faster.


  • Hard Drive to the Klondike, Historic Resource Study for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Chapter 3. National Park Service. 1998
  • Photo of bicyclist on Valdez-Fairbanks Trail from Falcon Joslin papers, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives
  • Photo of Whitehorse to Dawson bicyclist from Selid-Bassoc collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives
  • Rollin’ on the River: adventurers pedal down the Yukon River on a route first bicycled 104 years ago. Andy Sterns. Alaska Magazine. Vol. 7. No. 3, April 2004
  • Wheels on Ice, Bicycling in Alaska 1898-1908. Edited by Terrence Cole. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1985

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The changing fortune of Old Chatanika, Alaska

Old Chatanika cabin in 1994

In 1902 Felix Pedro washed gold out of Cleary Creek about 25 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Relatively few miners worked the creeks near Fairbanks in 1902, and it wasn’t until the end of the next summer that any big strikes occurred. Cleary Creek became one of the richest gold-producing areas near Fairbanks, and by 1904 two camps had sprung up along the eight-mile-long stream.

Cleary City was established along the upper creek. Another camp, which, according to Nicholas Deely’s book, Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line, was called 15 Below-Cleary (the 15th claim below the creek’s discovery claim), and coalesced farther down the creek near the Chatanika River. The lower camp was eventually re-named Chatanika.

In 1907 Chatanika became the northern terminus for the Tanana ValleyRailroad (TVRR). Chatanika’s achievement was the result of fortuitous circumstances rather than deliberate planning, though. The TVRR reached Gilmore, just a few miles northeast of Fox, in 1905. Builders planned to extend the line over the Cleary Summit ridge to reach the rich diggings at Fairbanks Creek and in the Upper Cleary Creek drainage near Cleary City.

The development of mines to the northwest of Gilmore, in the Dome and Vault Creek areas (in the valleys on either side of the present Elliott Highway about 15 miles north of Fairbanks), prompted the TVRR to change routes, however.  Instead of continuing in a northeasterly direction over the ridge towards Cleary Creek, the route doubled back and climbed Fox Gulch before crossing into the Chatanika River drainage.

Tracks reached Chatanika in September 1907 but were never extended beyond to Cleary City. Chatanika became the trans-shipment point for people and supplies headed to Cleary City and other destinations. Chatanika’s position was further bolstered when, in November 1907, the business district of Cleary City burned down and about half that city’s residents moved to Chatanika.

Chatanika began as a tent camp, but soon progressed to log cabin town. Early photographs show a business district comprised of wood-frame buildings, many with false-fronts.  The rest of the community was primarily small wood-frame houses and log cabins, with log cabins predominating.

The town’s glory days were short-lived. At its zenith Chatanika probably boasted about 500 residents. Gold production from drift mining peaked in 1909 as easily mined deposits were exhausted, and the town’s population began dwindling. The Dictionary of Alaska Place Names records that by 1930 only 30 people called Chatanika home.

The introduction of gold dredges along Cleary Creek sealed Chatanika’s fate. The Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Co.) began buying up Cleary Creek claims in the 1920s, built a support camp (Chatanika Gold Camp) in 1923-25, and started dredging Lower Cleary Creek in 1928 and Upper Cleary in 1929.

Unfortunately, the town of Chatanika sat atop placer claims the FE Co. planned to develop. After the TVRR shut down in 1930 most of the town was torn up so that Dredge No. 3 (still sitting at Chatanika) could expand operations.

The southern edge of Chatanika, above the limits of dredging, was spared. When I hiked into the abandoned settlement in the mid 1990s only a few structures remained. The building pictured in the drawing is one survivor. (Recent aerial photos indicate that it is still there.)  It is a metal-roofed log cabin with a wood-frame porch tacked on to the front. The porch is sheathed with white-washed ship-lap siding, but vertical rough-sawn planking covers the log portion of the cabin. The book, Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, states that the log-cabin portion of the structure probably dates from around 1910.

In addition to extant cabins and several collapsed buildings, numerous implements such as a rusted wheel barrow, tin-lined storage box, and an old donkey engine used to lie scattered about. The remains of what is now called “Old Chatanika” are on private property. Please respect private property owner’s rights if you plan to explore the Chatanika area.


  • Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. Donald J. Orth. U.S. Geological Survey. 1971
  • History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Library, University of Alaska. 1979
  • Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough. 1981
  • Steamboats on the Chena. Basil Hendricks & Susan Savage. Epicenter Press. 1988
  • Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line. Nicholas Deely. Denali Designs. 1996