With the solstice officially marking summer this week, the season of plenty is here to celebrate. Many birds have already fledged one brood and are now sitting on a second clutch. Depending on where you live, songbirds may even have a chance to raise three broods. I say, thank goodness for second chances. Let the wrens try again after their first nest was disturbed by a bear. Let the robins lay perfect blue eggs and hope the jays leave them alone. Let all this new life surround and fill us during the brightest and darkest of days.
There’s a bias in urban and nature sketching for working quickly. The idea is to get the subject down while on location and to capture the moment, place, or experience. It’s a worthy practice and many people do it well, completing sketchbook pages with lovely drawings and paintings in an hour or two. But there’s also a lot to be said for working slowly. Careful observation and allowing time for a subject to resonate gives you time to figure out how best to approach it on paper. Sometimes I build a painting over days, weeks, or even months. This was one of those slow paintings. Though relatively simple, it took me the better part of last week to complete it.
Before beginning, I mixed every combination of green from the yellow and blue paints in my palette, filling a large sheet to figure out which ones I liked best. Then it took me several sessions to create the depth I was l was looking for in the leaves. When I got stuck or lost a sense of direction, getting up and walking away helped me to return and see what I needed to do next. While working slow or fast is a matter of preference, consider setting your own pace and taking as long as you need to bring your vision to life.
The color of poppies is outrageous—so bright and red you can scarcely believe it. But there it is, once a year, a showstopper in the early June garden. When other flowers are just contemplating what kind of tune they might sing, the poppies belt out their solo. Confidently, they command center stage—knowing, perhaps, that a good rain will soon end their performance.
Tips and Techniques– Because I work during the day, I am often snatching time for sketching and painting in the evenings. I made several trips to the garden this week, fighting biting insects and fading sunlight each time, and that’s why this page looks as it does. I worked very quickly in the drawing stages, adding a few flowers, seed capsules, buds, and leaves over several evenings. I also added some of the values in ink and then I painted inside. This approach is quite different from setting up a single composition or completing an entire painting in one sitting. Doing a little at a time gives me a chance to watch how my subject changes, while building the composition. But it can be a bit of a race against the clock too, especially this week when I was one storm or windy day away from losing my subject altogether.
Registration is open for SAVORING SUMMER SKETCHBOOK SERIES, Tuesdays: June 21, July 19, August 2, August 23, 3-5pm Pacific/6-8pm Eastern at Winslow Art Center – Online. You can sign up for one or take all four of these watercolor workshops to capture the beauty and bounty of summer in your sketchbook. Class size is not be limited for this series. Hope to see you there!
Today, the allium. Tomorrow poppies. Coming and going, a garden is ever evolving, never static. A bee, a swallowtail, if I’m lucky, a hummingbird. Even now, one moment makes way for the next. Catching it while you can makes all the difference.
Tips and Techniques– Because I was away for much of May, I missed the flowering spring trees, many of the ephemeral wildflowers and bulbs, and the unfurling of ferns here in New York. When I got home the allium were in bloom but starting to fade; I knew I had to get painting before they too were gone. Sometimes it is hard to find time for sketching, but I’m always glad when I do. So, my tip today is to make time. Make time to look; make time to focus; make time to sketch while the subject is fresh. Resist the urge to snap a photo “for later.” When later comes, there will be a whole new world out there that you won’t want to miss.
New workshops coming up! SAVORING SUMMER SKETCHBOOK SERIES– Capture the beauty and bounty of summer in your sketchbook in this series of four online watercolor workshops. Choose one or sign up for all four. Tuesdays: June 21, July 19, August 2, August 23, 3-5pm Pacific/6-8pm Eastern. Details on the WORKSHOPS page.
While you may have heard of or traveled to Italy’s famed Cinque Terre— five colorful villages built into the steep hillsides on the Ligurian coast— you may have missed the lesser known sixth village of Porto Venere. Less crowded than the other villages, Porto Venere is charming and beautiful, with brightly painted villas, narrow streets, and steep stone staircases leading to sweeping views of churches, Roman walls, a castle, and the sea. I logged 13 miles climbing up and down over my two-day stay and bought a lemon to ward off a few apparent cold symptoms. Then I boarded a train for Florence and was ready to fly home.
That’s when a positive result on the required-to-fly Covid test at a local pharmacy threw a wrench in my plans. The following sketches and photos are from my brief stay in Porto Venere and the anxiety-ridden week that followed in an Airbnb in Florence. I allowed myself forays for food and visits to two gardens– as such, there are no grand sketches from that venerable city. After my Airbnb ran out, and not knowing when I would test negative, I booked four non-refundable nights at a boutique hotel outside the city. In the end, I tested negative and spent just one night there, thereby making my sketch of figs a rather expensive undertaking. I am thankful to be home.
Buon Giorno…It’s been a while. I didn’t mean to be away so long. But sometimes travel leads to the unexpected. After a lovely week of teaching in Umbria and several days hiking up and down the steep hillsides overlooking the sea in Porto Venere, my trip to Italy took a wrong turn when I tested positive for Covid in Florence and couldn’t come home. You may be thinking that spending an unexpected week in Florence is a dream…but not so much when you have to find a place to stay during the height of tourist season, spend a small fortune on hotels and rebooking flights, isolate, and wonder when you might test negative so that you can finally return home.
But let’s start with the best parts of the trip. My workshop for Winslow Art Center, Sketching the Nature of Italy in Watercolor, brought a wonderful group of painters to Castello di Petroia, a medieval castle in the hills of central Italy. Spring was blossoming on the steep slopes, with yellow rape covering the fields, wildflowers tucked alongside rugged paths, and the gray-green of olive trees a striking contrast against a backdrop of oaks and chestnut. We painted, ate impressive multi-course meals, drank good wine, took a day trip to the medieval hill town of Gubbio, and were treated to an amazing introduction to falconry. This set of sketches and photos reflects some of the workshop week. More to come on part 2 of my travels in the days ahead.
I don’t typically share photos, but it’s not every day that you get to visit a medieval castle and I thought you might enjoy these views.
So many lists. Still a lot to do. My trip to Italy is a week away and I am nearly ready…but not quite. There’s still paring down and packing and final workshop preparations, but what else can I manage to cram in? A bit of gardening? A few Italian language lessons? House cleaning? Another pre-trip journal page? Alas, this will be my last blog post for a few weeks as I like to unplug and immerse myself fully in a place while traveling and teaching. I’ll share my journey upon my return. A presto!
Tips and Techniques– I typically start a new journal when traveling, but I don’t want a big blank page staring at me when I arrive. Instead, I try to do some pre-trip pages to set the stage. This really helps me begin to think about letter styles, subject matter, color schemes, and materials. You can see that here on the opening page of place names. My initial idea for “Just the Essentials” was to sketch my shoes and my art supplies. But after struggling with the shoes, I decided to pull in the color grid element from the opening page and simply list the supplies. Who knows what will come next! Do you like to start ahead or do you wait until you are on location to begin your travel sketching?
Heads up: If you are near New York City and looking to celebrate spring, check out the New York Botanical Garden’s Colors of Spring and Plein-Air Invitational on May 14. I may be very jet-lagged, but I’ll be there.
Spring is just about to burst forth here in New York. It’s a time many of us eagerly await; the long winter months nearly behind us. Just a few things are blooming now, but the pace will accelerate in the coming days with a procession of spring ephemerals, migratory birds, flowering trees and shrubs, and colorful bulbs. I went looking for spring yesterday and was pleased to spend time with star magnolia and forsythia before the rain came and temperatures fell from 60-to 40-degrees. Here’s wishing you time to wonder and enjoy the coming of spring in the days ahead.
Tips and Techniques– When you start using a new sketchbook, it’s worth taking time to experiment with different materials and techniques to see what you like best and what works well on the paper. I am testing a Handbook Journal with 140 lb watercolor paper and finding that I really like it for watercolor. However, my go-to Micron 02 pen runs out quickly on it, so I experimented here with a Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen and black DeAtramentis Document Ink. The line is a bit thicker than I’m used to, giving this page a more graphic quality. I’m not unhappy with it, but I’ll continue to test it, and other drawing tools, in the coming weeks. If you happen to be using this sketchbook brand, I’d love to know what your go-to pen or pencil is for it.
I went to the New York Botanical Garden for the first time this weekend and it did not disappoint. A spectacular Orchid Show drew crowds to the historic conservatory, while thousands of visitors strolled the grounds on one of the first sunny days of spring. I could have spent hours painting orchids, but there simply wasn’t space. Instead, I wandered sunlight paths, soaking in the beauty of the place, and scoping out potential subjects for when I return in May to participate in this year’s Plein-Air Invitational.
In the Native Plant Garden, only a few bloodroot were in bloom, but I expect it will be putting on quite a show six weeks from now. At the margin of the garden’s large pool, I was drawn to a group of pitcher plants, still stunning despite being faded and dry. Later, a twisted and broken old willow tree at the edge of a wetland caught my eye. How ironic to find one of the few things on the grounds that had not been pampered or pruned, and yet, was uniquely beautiful all on its own.
Tips and Techniques– Pare down! When you are sketching on location, bringing less is often more. I brought a micron pen, a small set of watercolors, and a waterbrush, and I was glad to find a sepia pencil tucked in my bag. Not only is it easier to carry a smaller kit, but fewer choices may help you simplify when time if limited. If needed, you can always add details or finish later at home.
“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk cabbage buds already advanced toward a New Year.”
– Henry David Thoreau, 1857
I walk to the swampy margin of a nearby stream every March. It’s still cold. Still brown and gray. But I know that I will find there the first blooms of the year. Tucked inside a cloak of mottled maroon and green the tiny yellow-green flowers hide. The first waking insects will find them on warmer days than this; they, too, heartened by the promise of a new season.