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.
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)
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Click to view larger
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?
What could be better on a cold Sunday in November than baking, eating, and painting muffins? And while there’s no recipe for painting muffins, I scanned this several times while in progress to share how I approached it.
I painted this on Fabriano soft press 140lb watercolor paper in a handmade journal, using a limited palette of alizarin crimson, quinacridone gold, and phthalo blue. That’s not a combination I typically use, but I wanted to try it. I also added a little burnt sienna toward the end. Eat, paint, enjoy!
Click to view larger