Sometimes simple things teach us a lot. In this case, the lowly onion had much to say. I used it as a subject for my online class, The Artist’s Sketchbook, which I started teaching last week.
Lessons from an Onion
1. Pay attention to basic ingredients: lines, shapes, and values.
2. Don’t overlook commonplace subjects. The most beautiful is not always the most interesting.
3. Add layers. Layering transparent color adds depth.
Here’s the progression from start to finish. You can see how adding layers of watercolor and values from light to dark makes all the difference in bringing the loose lines and shapes of the initial drawing to life.
Note: The Artist Sketchbook, which runs through August 3, is currently full. Watch for future course announcements here or contact the Winslow Art Center.
It’s hard to resist Seckel pears in the fall. I don’t mean eating them, so much as drawing and painting them. There’s something lovely about the squat shape and subtle variety of green and gold and red. My instinct was to fill an entire page with pears, but after beginning the first few, I quickly realized that I didn’t have the patience to do ten or twelve. So, four pears on a Saturday morning is all there is.
Tips and Techniques– I did these using a combination of colored pencil and watercolor. I set out to do them entirely in colored pencil, but quickly remembered why I am not a colored pencil artist—it just takes so darn long to shade forms. Although I like the control of colored pencil, I love the speed and luminosity of watercolor, and I’ve come to appreciate what watercolor can do all on its own when you learn to let it go. Still, it’s interesting to combine these two mediums and I recommend trying it just to play with the possibilities.
It’s hard to exaggerate the extravagance of ripe peaches. Soft, striking, sweet, juicy…what fruits can rival them? Tomatoes, apples, eggplant, peppers? No match. Pears and cherries? Closer, but still second. Painting them is a pleasure, too. As is eating them, when the painting is done.
Tips and Techniques: First, I made it clear to my family, “Don’t eat the peaches until I paint them.” The previous three farmstand purchases disappeared before I had a chance at them. I started this as a simple ink sketch, and then painted multiple layers of Hansa yellow medium with quin rose, mixed with ultramarine blue for the darker skin. It’s important to let each layer dry thoroughly before adding the next. Building up layers allows the lighter tones to shine through, creating a more luminous effect than if you tried to get the color “right” in one go. I finished the page with a few details, spatter, and text (click the image to view larger).
This is just to say…buy some plums (or tomatoes, corn, or apples). Paint them. Eat them. And savor the moment.
Tips & Techniques- I realize that several of these plums look more like purple potatoes than plums, and you may have artwork that doesn’t quite turn out as you would like, too. One way to “save it” is with text that captures something of your experience. Another is to try again (this is my second attempt—my first had better plums but a less interesting layout). Another is to turn the page and be glad that you took the time to practice.
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.
It’s always nice when good sketches sneak up on you. They’re often the ones where you’re not trying too hard or thinking too much. Where your lines are loose and flow from object to paper quickly and without criticism. I wasn’t trying to create anything detailed or complicated here; I just wanted to capture form and light…which, I suppose is what we’re always striving for on paper.
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Tips & Techniques- If you need to loosen up with your artwork, I recommend grabbing a pencil or pen and leaving the eraser behind. Look at whatever you’re working on for a minute or two, and then jump in. Keep your lines moving and your eyes on your subject. If you don’t like a line, go over it with another one (and another one, and another one). Give yourself just a few minutes to capture the essence. Then turn the page and start again. Do a couple of these quick sketches in succession. When you’re finished, take a read on how it felt to work this way. Freeing, eh?
“…Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…” – Mary Oliver, Messenger
I spent a recent rainy morning with two artist friends at Walker Farm in Brattleboro, Vermont. The sunflowers and peaches, carrots and tomatoes, and a riot of bright-colored petunias in the greenhouse were a painter’s dream. But somehow I found myself drawn to an old shed, where several bushels of onions caught the dim light. If you haven’t read Mary Oliver’s poem, Messenger, I recommend it in its entirety. This part about “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished” struck me as especially fitting for this particular moment — where something as ordinary as an onion becomes strikingly beautiful when we really look at it. What better work is there for an artist?
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It is the season of abundance. Farm stands and farmer’s markets overflow with luscious color and variety. Gardens are ripening toward their fullest beauty. I am utterly drawn in.
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Forgive me if you are a lover of cabbage. Aside from when it is disguised in coleslaw or egg rolls, I find cabbage hard to enjoy…except when painting it. Then the lovely blending of purples and greens and blues, of leaf shapes and of the spaces between them reveal the cabbage’s true beauty.
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I got down on the ground for this perspective of pumpkin vines. So much happening at that level!
I painted these in my Stillman & Birn “Zeta” sketchbook and I really put it put the paper to the test. Zeta has 270 gsm smooth, white paper that is great for ink but sometimes tricky for very wet watercolor. The paint doesn’t merge in the paper, as it does with most cold press papers, but rather on the paper. I find that there is very little reworking that you can do while the paper is wet, but the paper holds up to lot’s of layers of washes. These were worked very wet to increasingly dry, light to dark.
I probably shouldn’t have mentioned to the farmer that I was selecting carrots for “artistic purposes” when considering the most colorful and interesting bunch at the farmers market. But I thought it might be a compliment. Instead, I got a thinly veiled, perturbed look that suggested she hadn’t toiled all season long for me to paint her carrots. I dug myself in deeper trouble when I asked for advice on prolonging the freshness of the greens. I saw the eyes roll and quickly agreed to paint soon or refrigerate. Alas, I think this bunch was well worth the effort to grow and paint.
A note about colorful carrots: Carrots trace their roots to Afghanistan, where cultivation is believed to have begun sometime before the 900s. A diversity of colors was the norm as carrot cultivation spread to Europe and Asia. It wasn’t until the 1500s when the Dutch selectively bred and then popularized the orange carrot. Visit the virtual World Carrot Museum for tons of information, including a gallery of carrots in fine art.
If donuts don’t immediately strike you as artistic subjects, you’re not alone. I got a few passing glances from the staff of the farm café and bakery when I sat down with my hot cider and bag of donuts and proceeded to paint them. Fortunately, it was an hour from closing time and the café was pretty deserted, so I sat contentedly savoring the quiet moment.
This page illustrates what I like best about keeping an artist journal. Freed from the pressure of making a “finished” piece of artwork, my journal is a place to play and to practice. It’s a place where I learn about all sorts of things, or simply record day-to-day experiences and places. A page of donuts can follow a page of trees or birds or barns…and it’s all good.