Official Store Launch – merch to support Bitter Grounds

Official Store Launch – merch to support Bitter Grounds

I finally followed through on a project I started last year – merch to support the site. I spent a few months working on several design ideas, fussing over them, and looking at various online stores. Then all hell broke loose, and it was put on the back burner. Well, it is time to put all that work … er … to work.

Take a look at my merch Redbubble 

After looking at a few stores, I settled on Redbubble for a number of reasons – the most important being I’d already seen their products and liked them. A percentage of each sale goes directly to me. Shipping is available worldwide, so no matter where you are, you will be able to support Bitter Grounds and get something cool to show for it.

I haven’t had the store up long and already sold 4 items. A friend purchased 2 masks and was pleased with both the quality and design, so I feel comfortable recommending you “buy my stuff”. No idea who purchased the other items, but let me tell you, I was tickled when I woke up and found a pillow and mask sold during the night.

I have a few designs that will be up for Christmas only, so you might want to pop in now and then to see if anything tweaks your interests. What’s available? Lots of different items, like shirts, graphic ts, bathmats (I have a thing for cool bathmats), sweatshirts, socks, journals, magnets, stickers and of course masks. To see everything, you need to click the Redbubble link above,

Sampling of what merch is in the store

Masks? Yes, we have masks

Old pioneer airplane on a mask

Vintage images on masks look surprisingly good

Face mask with a cat silhouetted against night sky

Cat contemplating taking over the world

Black mask with "Coffee goes here" printed on it

Friend bought this one!


From my merch store - Canadian Maple Leaf Flag masks for sale at

Canadian Maple Leaf Flag masks ->

Most of the designs worked on masks. I’ve begun to focus on a lot of vintage stamps and aviation, so if you have a collector in your family, check out the store in a week for more philately and aviation related items. In the new year, I’m going to go heavy on both topics.

Shirts and sweatshirts too!

Coffee stain face with a lightbulb over the face

I have a couple “Coffee Stain Carl” images on the back burner

Graphic tshirt with large ink stains & slogan Carry/Spill/Repeat

Came up with this one after I dropped a bottle of ink on the floor.

Canadian flag sweatshirts

Show your Canadian pride with a sweatshirt

Most of the above designs were created over the summer months, while I was hiding out from the world. They started as doodles and sketches that gradually morphed into full-fledged shirt designs. I especially like Coffee Stain Carl (the first image). The original, was a coffee-stained note that I doodled eyes and a lightbulb on, giving me a bad case of the giggles. After refining the stain, tidying it up and finding the perfect lightbulb, CSC was born. A couple new images are in the works for the new year.

How about throw pillows?

Vintage airmail labels on a pillow

Vintage etiquette labels

One of the pillows sold shortly after it went up on the site! Colour me impressed.

Or journals

White hard covered journal with a circle stain face and light bulb

I designed quite a few journals because I use them all the time.

I have hardcovered journals scattered around the apartment. Each one is assigned a different task, so you can never have too many. You can grab soft covered notebooks as well.

Stickers, magnets, and water bottles

Magnet with Airmail symbol

Lots of stickers and magnets too

Water bottle with a skyscrapper photo on it

Dizzying optical illusions

Not sure if my fridge can hold any more magnets. Or maybe the magnets are holding the fridge together?

Bags of all sorts

Tote bag with a full picture of a dragon fly on a moss green background

Dragon flies are popular

Show your Canadian pride with a Maple leaf backpack

Or a knapsack?


Linear art work on a duffle bag

Took hours to get this design right

Black duffle bag with paint stains

Duffle bags look best with lots of colours

It’s been fun thinking of how to adapt my designs to viable products. The best part is how I can add and remove items whenever I want to make a change, so nothing will become stale on the store page. Drop by Bitter Grounds’ Shop and support the magazine. If you purchase anything, send me a photo when you get it. I’d love to hear from you.

Oh, and I have a truly ugly shirt design just in time for Christmas. A gift no one will re-gift back to you.




Austrian stamp, 2020 & a sense of humour

Austrian stamp, 2020 & a sense of humour

The Austrian post office outdid themselves in October with a stamp that perfectly symbolizes 2020.

An Austrian stamp - showing a cartoon baby elefant printed on toilet paper for Covid

Remember – stay one baby elephant away

That is a piece of toilet paper and it’s a legitimate Austrian stamp.  The design perfectly describes what all of us think about the year so far. In case you are struggling with the stamp, the point is to emphasis distances. It’s a little reminder to stay 1 meter or 1 baby elephant away from others to help prevent the spread of Covid.

It isn’t marked as sold out on the Austrian Post website, so if you are interested, you can still buy it here.  If you are looking for out-of-the-box designs this is a find. It’s a semi-postal block, screen printed on toilet paper. It’s currently selling for €5.50 and is one of those stamps that makes me wonder if it will become a hot collectable in the future.  It certainly is fascinating, from both a design and historical perspective.

Marion Füllerer, designer Oct. 2020 Austrian stamp

The designer, Marion Füllerer  describes the stamp on her website:

Im Auftrag der Österreichischen Post AG entstand dieser Briefmarkenblock auf Klopapier um die besondere Corona-Zeit fest zu halten. Klopapier wurde in Österreich zu Beginn der Pandemie zur Mangelware. Der Babyelefant ist das österreichische Symbol für den Sicherheitsabstand


On behalf of the Austrian Post AG, this stamp block was created on toilet paper to capture the special Corona period. At the beginning of the pandemic, toilet paper became a scarce commodity in Austria. The baby elephant is the Austrian symbol for the safety distance.
Marion Füllerer Wir Gestalten

Stamps have been printed on a variety of materials over the years, but this is the first on toilet paper. It is symbolic, as many countries experienced an irrational run on items like toilet paper at the start of the pandemic. The stamp takes a lighthearted poke at the initial panic when Covid-19 hit yet still maintains a serious “be safe” tone.

The designer was quite brave in using toilet paper for this Austrian stamp. I’ve read a few criticisms about it, calling it in bad taste, but it isn’t. It’s the stamp for Covid-19. It’s been a tough year all around and an injection of humour certainly helps. As well, this simple, clean design is soothing. Lots of white space, clear symbols, easy to understand and amusing. I love it.

I’m going to keep an eye open for future stamps by Marion Füllerer and have added her to my spreadsheet of stamp designers to watch. The spreadsheet is coming along slowly and when I get it a bit more organized, I’ll share it with you.

I’ve included this post in both the Design and Stamp categories. The more I explore who designs the stamps, the greater my appreciation has been of the incredible tiny works of art produced by unsung heroes of philately. So many of us collect stamps but rarely give pause to the people who put their heart and souls into creating them. Hence the slight shift in some of my articles in putting a light on the creators, not just the topic.

Don’t forget, like this page on Facebook or Twitter (links below) if you want to see the latest articles as they are published. I will be publishing a list of all post offices in the world along with links to their stores and in some cases, their online catalogues made available to the public. I’m about 1/3 of the way through the list. It takes a lot of time to find working links because not all post offices make it easy to find newsletters and lists of available stamps. I’m aiming to have it up, in spreadsheet format, by the end of this week.

In the meantime, later everyone. Let me know if you managed to buy this Austrian stamp.

Irritating Swiffer vacuum user-design flaw

Irritating Swiffer vacuum user-design flaw

Each time I use a Swiffer vacuum, I get annoyed. It has a user-design flaw that is obvious, I’m surprised it wasn’t spotted on the drafting board. It’s funny, people rarely think about the process of taking an idea from concept to market as design. Making something work isn’t enough. Asking the big question “can be used without a hassle” is equally important.  The human usability factor is a crucial step in any product design. We don’t think about it until we’re faced with a product that becomes irritating to do the simplest things, like turning it on and off.

The Swiffer Vacuum

The Swiffer Vacuum has one flaw that drives me up a wall every single time I use it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good lightweight vacuum. We bought it a few years back for my Mom when the arthritis in her hands made using a heavy vacuum difficult. It’s easy to maneuver, and efficient at picking up fluff and grit. What more do we need in a vacuum, right?

Basic design flaw in the Swiffer vac

What is the flaw? The button placement is wrong.

Photo of a Swiffer vacuum handle

On/off switch for a Swiffer vacuum

Swiffer calls the handle “Easy Grip – It’s easy, trust us.” Not so fast sparky!  Yes, it’s easy to grab, but the button placement is wrong. The on/off switch is placed where the average user rests their thumb. If you look at it in isolation, it looks fine. But, using it highlights an elementary problem. The designers didn’t take into consideration how people grab the handle.

Photo of a Swiffer Vacuum handle showing how thumb always rests on it

Silly spot for an off switch

Theoretically, I could grip it from the upper portion only but that isn’t efficient. Without placing a thumb on the arc of the handle where the switch rests, the Swiffer Vacuum is harder to maneuver. The thumb stabilizes the vacuum and makes it easier to guide under tables. This flaw pops up every time the vacuum is turned on an angle. The placing means the vacuum is constantly shut off when in use.

Thoughts on why the button is badly placed

Perhaps if my hands were larger this may not be an issue. I tend to lean more towards the notion that enough thought wasn’t given to how people grip the handle. Holding it along the grip only is inefficient, hence the reason the thumb drifts down the handle to the button. Regardless, the on/off should have been moved approx. 1/2″ lower. It’s simply too high.

The Swiffer Vacuum isn’t a bad machine. On the contrary, it’s handy and efficient, especially for people who have difficulties because of limited hand motion. Also, the super lightweight means it’s easy to move around and get under spaces.  This single issue is frustrating every time I chase dust bunnies and I find myself swearing at the vacuum quite a bit.

A pencil sketch of a captivating little songbird

A pencil sketch of a captivating little songbird

Still whiling away the Covid hours, this time with a little songbird pencil sketch. I’ve pottered around with the camera a bit, but nothing seems to pop out saying “post me”. Plus, it’s something to do with the relentless gloom.

I started on another street scene, but I’m struggling with the basics. The perspective is almost there, but something is off kilter. It’s difficult to pin down. To fight the frustration, I switched gears back to my old feathered friends.  After flipping through a couple books, I settled on a lovely little winter sparrow. It’s also called an American Sparrow.

Start of a songbird pencil sketch

Pencil sketch of a winter sparrow - first draft

Start of a little songbird sketch

I thought about the lessons I learned over the last few years and applied them. First thing I did was layout the entire scene. In the past, I focused too much on one small area and work out from there. I sketched the outline of the bird. Then I traced in the branches and then the leaves. Working on the entire image, rather one small spot, made it easier to flesh the scene out. It was also a lot more fun. Working back and forth, laying in the basics then the shading was more challenging and interesting.

One of the other skills I worked on through the years is filling in the small details that create a full scene. Like the veins in the leaves and the shape of the fruit on the branches. I practiced drawing things like spheres and shading them, over and over. I have pages filled with them. The practice paid off. I finally got the shape and the shadows down. This in turn has created a better pencil sketch. Instead of an isolated little bird, I’ve begun to craft a scene.

The finished winter sparrow

Completed songbird sketch showing a little winter sparrow on a branch

A finished winter sparrow

The leg is a little too big and some of the feathers along the back of the sparrow are angled the wrong way. But the branches and fruit make the picture. I need to work on the leaves more. They are too static. I can feel a leaf binge coming on. I also need to work on a stronger sense of movement in the bird itself. Not sure how yet. That baffles me still. The pencil sketch is good but lacks a sense of realism. The bird isn’t lively enough. That too will come with time.


A simple urban pencil sketch – snippets of life in Toronto

A simple urban pencil sketch – snippets of life in Toronto

For years, I’ve wanted to try my hand at an urban pencil sketch. Drawing random snippets of life in a single frame has an emotional appeal to me. I’m attracted to any pencil sketches that show life in a city setting. But I’ve never been able to pull off a decent urban sketch. My sense of perspective is a bit off. It’s difficult for me to draw a street scene without everything looking slightly Daliesque. Domes slide off the tops of buildings, windows unaligned and a comical sense of proportions that throw the drawing into complete disarray.

What I see when I want to create an urban pencil sketch

I’ve bought so many “How to” books and read many websites that run through getting perspective correct, but after decades of trying I had stopped. My most heartfelt dream was to wander the city with a journal and sketch urban scenes on the go. I think, that’s why I eventually gravitated to a camera. Many of my shots are setup the way I see an urban pencil sketch unfolding. It’s difficult to explain, but this photo will help:

Photo taken from the outside a greenhouse, Showing 5 window panes that tell a micro story.

Each windowpane tells a different story – see Looking through the windows at Allen Gardens for more photos

The photo above was taken about 2 or 3 years ago. I was standing outside Allen Gardens watching people wander through the building. I kept seeing each frame telling a story. Blink and the scene changed. This is the type of image I always wanted to sketch out. But the skills weren’t there. In hindsight, it was less skills than the fear of failing that held me back. I was so busy reading How To books, I forgot to say, “screw it” and just draw.

Butterfly pencil sketch completed

I spent yesterday working on a new pencil drawing titled Waiting for the Subway. I’ve been less than thrilled by photos I’ve taken lately so it was time to shift gears and focus on sketching for a while. Earlier I worked my way through a slightly lopsided butterfly. The sketch came out better than I hoped, but it also gave me clues as to where I go wrong. I realised, although I use little guides to get the proportions correct, I tend to ignore them, once I start drawing in detail. I focus too much on one side of an image (usually the left side, go figure) and don’t see the entire picture.  This in turn leads me to get one portion spot on, and the rest looking like it’s tagged on at the end.

Here’s the completed butterfly to show you what I mean

Pencil sketch of a butterfly

It’s completed, but a bit lopsided

I realised I need to work on both sides of the image to keep the proportions correct.  Critiquing the butterfly encouraged me to try urban sketching again. I started with a basic multistory building to practice. I carefully laid out the grid, laid out the edges of the building, and started layering in the bricks and windows. The drawing was lopsided, but not as bad as previous attempts. It was good practice.

Urban pencil sketch – the outline

Next attempt in my sketching forays was a photo I took while waiting for the subway. I used it as the basis of some digital art, but never tried to free hand the scene.  I measured the lines on the original and laid them out on the paper, carefully measuring the distance between the vanishing lines. Then, instead of starting on one section and working out, I created a complete outline, not just guides.

Scan showing the outline for the Urban pencil sketch attempt

The basic outline of the subway at Union station

So far so good. I debated what pencil to use and settled on a mechanical pencil and gradually built up the framework. That’s my second fatal flaw, I start out too heavy handed when I draw and end up with a dark, heavy picture.

Layering some shading

Scan of the second step, filling in details

A bit of shading to flesh out details

I moved slowly, working back and forth, adding shadows, and building up the human figures. I also experimented with different shading techniques. Cross hatching works well for this sketch.

Third scan of the urban pencil sketch of the subway at Union station

Slowly the platform took shape

Working on the entire picture, rather than focusing on one small part, allowed me to make numerous micro adjustments as I went. It prevented the sketch from taking on that familiar unbalanced look.

Fleshing out the people on the platform

Forth scan shows even more shading layered into the sketch

Slowly building up the shadows

I stopped at this point and evaluated the shading. Where did I want to go with this? I knew my history of over doing things, so I had to think carefully.

Time for my faithful 2B pencil

Fifth scan shows the effect of a softer pencil lead on the sign above the platform

The sign starts to pop out

A darker lead was needed, so time for my beloved 2B pencil. I focused on the sign to give it emphasis.  I also used the 2B pencil on various parts of the clothing to bring out the creases and highlights.

My first urban pencil sketch completed – Waiting for the Subway

Final scan - Urban pencil sketching the TTC

Completed urban pencil sketch – my very first

To complete the sketch, I used a 9B lead on the sign above the platform to make it really pop. It guides the eye along the platform and seems to pull everything together.

I didn’t finish the people on the left of the platform. I liked the way they started to come out of the wall. I also wimped out on the lady with all the bags. No feet. I struggled with them and decided no feet was the only choice. Overall, I’m thrilled to have pulled it off. My first genuine urban pencil sketch.

What will be my next urban pencil sketch? No idea, but I feel cocky now.

A struggle to get a realistic pencil sketch

A struggle to get a realistic pencil sketch

My pencil sketch of a butterfly isn’t going well. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but it just isn’t working out. It’s ok. But none of my attempts are realistic so far. To improve, I am keeping a journal of the steps taken to draw a realistic butterfly.

First attempt at a butterfly pencil sketch

I couldn’t seem to get the pencil strokes right.  The pencil sketch has more of a draft feel to it, but the delicate wings are baffling me. I can get the body and the shadows, but how do I capture a realistic feel to the wings?


Scan of first attempt at a butterfly pencil sketch nearly completed

I became frustrated with this and abandoned it.

Can’t remember what paper I used. It’s something I have laying around for doodling on. I thought maybe, I need rougher paper, something that would grab the pencil lead a bit more. Butterfly 1 was set aside.

Butterfly pencil sketch two – another meh

Scan of the second attempt at drawing a butterfly

Hmm, ok, but not realistic

I stopped at the body. The entire sketch wasn’t working. Still very two dimensional. I switched up the style and tried a stippling pattern on some of the wing portions, trying for a less mechanical feel to the bug parts. I spent about an hour working on different strokes and styles, moving between a mechanical pencil and regular pencils of various lead types. I tend to rely on 2b pencils more than I should, but I love the way it feels running across paper. And that’s where I went wrong, again, with this drawing. It’s too uniform in the blacks, and I didn’t leave myself room for lacy sections of the wing.

Looking at the second drawing makes me think just a mechanical pencil should be used. Start with a basic HB and then gradually shift to a softer led?

In search of sketching help

I watch several YouTube artists channels that have helped enormously. In this instance, I need something a bit more butterfly oriented. This one is useful for the basics How to Draw a Butterfly Step-by-Step.  It’s helpful in understanding the outline and patterns but doesn’t get down to sketching a realistic butterfly with pencils. This next site has a bit more shadowing details Easy Drawings and Sketches. I like how they shade parts of the wings to give them depth. Both helped in understanding butterfly bodies.

Third kick at the pencil can

A scan of a partially completed pencil sketch of a butterfly

Third try and it’s still not there

This one is better, but still missing depth. I’ll go back at it tonight and see how the second wing fleshes out. This time I used a gentler hand on the shading and switched up between the mechanical pencil leads and a very sharp 6b for the darkest spots. Keeping the point on a 6b is a trial.

The body has potential but needs more work. The soft feathery bits around the body need more depth and an airy feel to them, but that’s easy to correct as I go along. At this point, I’m not sure what I’m going to do for the head. I’ve spent so much time fussing with the wings. I haven’t even thought about it.

Although the wings are better defined in this sketch, I still went too heavy handed on it. That’s my drawing kryptonite. I never know when to stop with the shading and strong strokes. But the patterns are much better this outing.

There’s still an element to the butterfly’s structure I’m missing. Something about them I’m not understanding. More research is required.

Butterfly biology and summing up

This has been a maddening and satisfying exercise. I’m attempting to push myself creatively and try drawing things that … are scary to draw. No, butterflies aren’t frightening (at least to me). The fear of failing is. It’s easy to start a sketch and give up when it doesn’t work. I’m applying the ideas I’ve acquired from my amateur photography sessions to my drawing – just keep at it. Examine everything, look for tips and hints from people who are better and keep a progress journal.

One thing I did when I started drawing birds was look at ornithology texts. I went through many books and websites that dealt with detailed anatomy of bird eyes, feet, beaks, and differences in feathers. It wasn’t until I understood more about bird anatomy did my drawings improve. At that point, my pencil sketches took on a realistic feel.

Scan of pencil sketches of bird heads and beaks

First step is understanding the diversity

Scan of drawings of eyes from various species of birds

Second step is examining the finer details

I also took several trips to the Royal Ontario Museum and used their ornithology resources. The ROM has “birds on a stick” you can access to see the details up close. Their material is first rate and accessible for novices like me. I spent hours doing nothing but drawing bird feet, beaks, and eyes. Unfortunately, that’s not a luxury I can tap into at this time. I’ll have to make do with internet resources.

My recent searches took me to Cornel University’s little pdf The Biology of Butterflies compiled by Emily Kearny, Cornell University, 2010. It illustrated what I’ve been doing wrong.

An image from Biology of Butterflies showing details of a butterfly's structure

Veins and wing order

Do you see what I’ve been missing? Two vital misunderstandings of butterfly anatomy. First is the wing order. There is a forewing and a hindwing. That clarifies how the shadows on the wing should fall. It’s a subtle aspect, but important.

The bigger triumph of knowledge is in the second image. Those lines I’ve been glossing over are wing veins. They aren’t the pattern, they are veins. Funny how this bit of information has made me want to try a new butterfly pencil sketch. Knowing where all the veins are, are like following a road map to the butterfly’s design. This is exciting.

So, there you go. You get to share my successes and failures. Although, I hesitate to use the word failure in hindsight. Less a failure than a building block to achieving stronger skills.