Savory and Sweet

My sketches this week are an effort to appreciate the small pleasures of life and to look for joy in the everyday. Typically, I wander out into nature for inspiration, but I didn’t need to go beyond my own kitchen this week. For the savory: a bunch of ordinary parsnips that seem to dance on the page. And for the sweet: a delectable batch of cream puffs that I made from scratch for the first time ever. If I could offer you one or the other, there’s no question which it would be. Instead, I give you both and wish you sweet moments to savor during the week ahead.

Heads up: Registration opens March 3 for the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine with lots of covid-19 safety precautions in place for this season’s programs. I will be directing Arts & Birding, June 20-25, with an all star lineup, including artists Sherrie York, Barry VanDusen, and Sean Murtha.

A Few Good Books, and Cake

Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long winter. Between the darkness, cold and Covid-19, I figure we’re all going to need a few good books and an extra helping of cake to make it through. So here are my top five book picks for artists, plus a delicious apple-cranberry torte.

Just because you can’t have a party, doesn’t mean you can’t eat cake.

My choices include a mix of artistic styles, from the highly precise to the wildly loose, from urban sketchers to nature journalers, each with a distinct approach that has expanded my skills and pushed me in new directions. If you’re looking for holiday gifts or winter reading, consider these with my highest recommendation:

Artist’s Journal Workshop, Cathy Johnson (2011)
This thoughtful and comprehensive book unlocked the idea of keeping a journal to record my personal journey as an artist. It expanded my subject matter and approach, and ultimately led me to connect with other sketchbook artists and begin this blog. This book is one of Cathy Johnson’s finest—which is saying a lot, since all of her books are terrific. I love that it includes insights and artwork not only from Johnson, but from other artists as well, which provides excellent variety, inspiration, and examples.

Working With Color, Shari Blaukopf (2019)
I’ve been following Shari Blaukopf’s blog for years and this book puts her expertise and artwork close at hand. If you’re not familiar with the Urban Sketching Handbook series, I recommend you seek it out. The series provides practical techniques and lots of examples in a small, handy format. In Working With Color, Blaukopf shares techniques for using watercolor on the go, with special emphasis on color choices and limited palettes. This book is suitable for beginners as well as more advanced watercolor artists. I’m also eager to get a copy of Suhita Shirodkar’s Techniques for Beginners, a new release from the same series.

The Joy of Botanical Drawing, Wendy Hollender (2020)
Precision and beauty are key in botanical illustration and Wendy Hollender’s comprehensive book shows you how it’s done. She primarily uses colored pencils and watercolor pencils to create her masterpieces, but I find all of the underlying techniques she uses to be applicable to working in watercolor. This step-by-step guide to drawing and painting flowers, leaves, fruit, and more spells out how to work with basic shapes, develop values, and build up forms. Rather than leaving you overwhelmed, you’ll feel as though you finally understand the techniques and materials needed for botanical illustration. It takes patience and practice to work this way, but the investment will make you a better artist.

Urban Watercolor Sketching, Felix Scheinberger (2014)
On the other end of the spectrum from Wendy Hollender, Felix Scheinberger’s style is super loose, his color choices bold, his lines wonky and fun. But don’t let that fool you. This guy is also a master of his medium. He provides a concise history of how watercolors are made, explores glazing and wet-in-wet techniques, explains color theory, and encourages you to develop your own style. The book is fun and engaging; I love coming back to it again and again for inspiration.

Explorers’ Sketchbooks, Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (2016)
I am fascinated by men and women throughout history who journeyed far and wide in search of new places and species and recorded their discoveries in sketchbooks. This book is a collection of excerpts from 70 artist-explorers and includes exquisite sketches and paintings they made in jungles, deserts, forests, and mountaintops. The explorer’s theme of my own book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is inspired by them. If these men and women could work in the most challenging of conditions, we can certainly step outside, put pencil to paper, and begin a lifetime of discovery.

And a few brief mentions…
If you are looking for books specifically focused on keeping a traditional nature journal, try Roseann Hanson’s Nature Journaling for a Wild Life, Hannah Hinchman’s Little Things in a Big Country, John Muir Laws’ Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, or books by Claire Walker Leslie. All share techniques and tools to get you started and plenty of ideas and artwork to keep you going.

And finallyCake, Maira Kalman
New York City based artist and author Maira Kalman’s books are quirky and fun and Cake is no exception. She’s teamed up with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman for a delicious book with seventeen illustrated recipes. May I recommend the Flourless Chocolate Torte?


Your turn: What are your must-haves, game changers, or bed rock books?

Lessons from an Onion

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.

Artist Weekend

Green Mountains, red barns, bucolic fields, covered bridges. Local crafts, craft beverages, specialty cheeses, abundant orchards. Vermont is close to perfect for artists. In addition to painting, my friends and I did a lot of eating during a recent “art weekend,” and so that is what you see here.
(Click to view larger)

Ireland- Part 3

I was already tired of driving when we realized that we left our laptop in our first Airbnb, a two and a half hour trip in the opposite direction from our next destination. The detour meant nearly a full day in the car, including lunch (which, at least, had a view of the sea). Fortunately, we arrived in Cashel just in time to tag onto the last tour of the day at the Rock of Cashel. The growing darkness and slashing rain made the medieval castle with its enormous cathedral ruin feel imposing and empty, but it was the haunting call of jackdaws and rooks echoing off the walls that made the experience all the more extraordinary.  

The following day, I managed to sketch Hore Abbey before we set off once again—this time to the small town of Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon, where my great grandmother was born. Through no trace remains of her house, nor the gravestones of her parents, it was moving to visit the gothic cathedral where her family attended Mass and to see the surrounding town and countryside that she and her siblings left behind forever in the late 1800s.

Tips and Techniques– Sometimes you won’t have time to sketch or paint all of the things you want to while traveling. Take a few photos, but I recommend that you not leave them for long, or you may never get back to painting them. Such was the case for me with the Hall of the Vicars Choral at the Rock of Cashel. I liked the carved angels overlooking the hall, but there was no way to capture them in the dark room and fast moving tour. I snapped a few photos, and began sketching and painting them on the airplane home. I had to give up when I spilled my water during some turbulence, but I was glad I had all the basics in place so I could finish easily at home.

Peach Season

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).

Savor the Moment

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.

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.

Sketcher’s Tea 2017

I recently hosted a Sketcher’s Tea—an excuse, really, for sketchers to come out of isolation in March and share a cup of tea and an afternoon of painting together. Sketching tea cups seems straightforward enough. And yet, there are lessons to be learned each time I do it. Perspective, shadows, painting whites, lost edges, reflections, patterns…the art of mastering the simple and the complex is what makes sketching tea cups both challenging and fun.

Tips and Techniques– I often start by making a small value sketch so that I know where the lights and shadows fall. It can be hard to tell with all the patterns on the cups or if the lighting is coming from multiple sources. The paper sketch makes it easier to translate the values to the painting. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on this– couple of minutes might be fine.