In the Clouds

Sometimes being an artist isn’t fun or enlightening or satisfying. It’s just hard work. It’s hard to figure out how to capture a scene or idea on paper; hard to get paint to do what you want, what you see, what you want to convey. Sometimes being an artist is fraught with doubt and anguish. That’s the kind of week I’ve had. I have a big painting assignment that requires big skies and working at a much larger size than I typically do. Scaling up has been a challenge—one which will no doubt prove worthwhile in the end, but which feels overwhelming in the moment. My head is full of clouds…and I’m only beginning to see a glimmer of blue sky emerging.

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Spring Unfolding

When the world has been brown for months, the first emergence of green is a wonderful thing. Skunk cabbage has been unfurling for several weeks now and is a most welcome sight along woodland streams and wetlands. In late winter, it sends up a maroon-striped spadix, which encloses its unpleasant smelling flower, and then in early spring it unrolls bright green leaves. I recently spent a pleasant afternoon sketching on the edge of a wooded steam, enjoying dappled sun and birdsong, and feeling grateful for this one beautiful color.

Tips & Techniques– Deciding what to sketch is sometimes harder than actually sketching. Likewise, figuring out what you want your page to look once you’ve chosen a subject may seem daunting. Here are a couple of ways to get past the blank white page:

  • Option 1: Start with a couple of quick thumbnail sketches. These will help you figure out whether you like your subject enough to devote time to it and whether you think you can tackle it in the time you have. Thumbnails will also help you consider different approaches to page layout. They can help you map out where the lights, mid-tones, and darks are too, which will give you a road map for the full page version.
  • Option 2: Just begin! Rather than thinking you have to figure out everything before you start, consider that your sketching journey can begin with a single step. Make a mark. Make another. Keep looking, keep going until you feel satisfied with the page.
  • Option 3: Be thoughtful. Consider what drew you to sketch this particular subject. Think about it for a minute- was it the color? The light? The scene or object? The story? Your experience? When you have an answer, you’ll have a better idea of what to emphasize and how you want to approach the page.

Salamander Migration

You may notice robins in the yard or the first buds on the elms or daffodils ready to pop. But one of the best signs of the turning season for me is when the salamanders migrate. It happens on the first warm rainy night in spring. Sometimes it’s March, sometimes April. But when it rains all day and into the night, that’s the time when several species of salamanders come out from underground in the woods, where they spend most of their adult lives, and head to wetlands where they breed. If you happen to live someplace where roads intersect their habitat, you may see them in your headlight beams, or squished and stinking on an early morning jog. Or, if you’re like me, you pull on your rain gear and head out with a flashlight and help them cross the road.

I used to round up friends and kids to go out for the annual migration. One year I paid my sons a dime for every salamander and frog they found and I had to pony up two bucks each at the end of an hour. My kids are grown now, but when they see a rainy forecast they still text me to ask, Is this the night? Some new kids put up these fantastic signs — I hope they were out there during this week’s rains, soaking up one of the greatest rituals of spring.
Tips & Techniques- Don’t try to draw in the dark in the rain. Take a photo. I began this page with a pencil drawing compiled from two photos. I painted the yellow spots and used masking fluid to save them and some of the highlights. I then did a wet in wet wash of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre over the whole thing (the entire painting is just those three colors, with a touch of sap green and quin gold at the end). I used negative painting techniques for most of this, pulling out bits of leaves on the ground and the shapes of the salamanders.

A fine combination

“You mean, like, Sting, the musician?” the printing representative asked me when I told him that I needed my printing job to be just right because I was working on something for Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. “Yes, that Sting,” I said. It’s just a very, very small project, but it has been a fun one, just the same. I recently painted and designed tags to hang on bottles of premium olive oil produced at Il Palagio, the Italian estate of Sting and Trudie. The oil is about to be sold in the United States and the northeast distributor wanted to add a tag to make it stand out more. Here’s what it looks like:
Art and olive oil…a fine combination. If you’d like to try it, contact AJO Imports.

Fast and Loose

Short on time but long on patience, I often need to quickly put pen to paper in my journal, get a first wash of color down, and then come back to finish later. The result is a journal full of sketches that took five minutes to start but five days to finish. I don’t really mind—working fast and loose has its merits. For one, my sketchbook would be empty if I waited until I had a big block of time for art. It has improved my hand-eye coordination. And it has kept in check my prior tendency to be slow, controlled, and precise.

Tips & Techniques– Practice a few 30 second, 1 minute, and 3 minute contour and semi-blind contour drawings with a fairly simple subject. Fruits and vegetables are perfect. Work in pencil or pen, but don’t erase. See if you can get most of your subject down in just a few minutes. Next add a loose and light wash of watercolor. Let it dry. Then repeat; add two or three more layers of paint to deepen the colors and add depth.

One trick to this method is to suspend judgment in the early stages. My sketches often look downright sloppy at the start, but I know that the watercolor will transform them. You can always tighten up as you progress, but it’s hard to make controlled sketches seem loose after the fact.
I introduced this technique with participants at a recent workshop on illustrated watercolor journaling that I offered at the Vermont Watercolor Society. Look how great this 1-minute sketch by one of the participants turned out with a just a couple of washes of watercolor.