Sound Advice

A pop of red amidst a tangle of greens, scarlet runner beans wind their way to the top of the garden trellis, sending flowers to the sun and beans drooping toward the ground. Just a few months ago, they were a mere handful of purple and black streaked seeds. Now, they dare you to imagine that they were ever anything other than extraordinary. And so, I think that writer Robert Brault is onto something: If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden.
(Click to view larger.)
Scarlet Runner Beans

Tips and Techniques: Sometimes, the composition of a piece is sitting right in front of you, and sometimes you have do a bit of rearranging to make it work. I saw the central elements of this piece—the three main dangling beans and the diagonal vine with red flowers on the left side of the page—right on the trellis. But I needed to add flowers, leaves, beans and tendrils from several different runner beans to complete the composition. As an artist, don’t feel that you need to draw exactly (or only) what is in front of you. Give yourself creative latitude to move things around or eliminate something to create a stronger composition.

Glory Days

These are the days we long for in the dead of winter: light-filled, warm, colorful, vibrant. Glorious.

This painting began last fall when I had the idea to build an Art Garden in our yard. I didn’t want a garden that I would spent a lot of time working in, as much as a place I would enjoy being in. My chief criteria for what goes in the ground is that it must be something I want to paint. This has turned out to be an eclectic mix of vegetables and flowers—beets, radishes, and tomatoes are at home with sweet peas, poppies, scarlet runner beans, and sunflowers. Something new unfolds each week. And as you can see, it’s a pretty colorful place right now.

Tips and Techniques– I started by drawing zinnias and a few sweet peas but, after adding color, I quickly decided that the page was much too sparse. After all, August is all about abundance. So I went back and added more and more until the page was crowded with flowers. The lesson here is not to be afraid to pause when sketching to consider what drew you in and whether you have captured it. It may be a something particular about your subject or it could be a mood or feeling. Once you’ve got that in mind, finishing the drawing, or adding color or text often flows with ease.

When Peonies Bloom

When peonies bloom, rain nearly always follows. And so it was that I lost my subject. Still, I am pleased to have June’s most elegant flower in the pages of my sketchbook, a few cut flowers on my table, and pink and white petals littering the garden.

Tips and Techniques-
What you don’t see on this page are all the test sheets of greens that I’ve been working on this week: blue and yellow combinations, “convenience” green combinations (sap green, phthalo green, green gold), greens with browns, and greens with reds. I’m looking for highly transparent mixes that offer a good range of light to dark values. The trick is that when I’m working on a negative painting like this, I want to let some of the colors mix right on the page—and some greens are just too garish for that. What I (mostly) ended up with here is phthalo blue, nickel azo yellow, and a touch of quin magenta. If you struggle with greens, I highly recommend doing color tests of your own. You’ll quickly discover lots of combinations that don’t work and many that do. And you’ll gain confidence in your colors that will serve you well in your future paintings.

If you have go-to green combinations that you especially like, leave a comment so we can learn from each other!

The Trials of Painting Outdoors

Leave behind the comfort of your home art space—whether kitchen table, corner desk, or complete studio— and you’ll soon find an immediacy and sense of discovery that come from working directly from nature. Granted, you’ll be trading comfortable seating, fixed light, and a full suite of art supplies for less certain conditions. But you’ll be able to observe details, see colors, and experience your subjects firsthand in ways that will make your artwork more vibrant and alive.

At least, that’s the ideal. This week, however, painting outdoors brought significant trials: bright sun dried my paint too fast in the garden and the most annoying and insidious bugs attacked me one evening while painting irises. Was it worth it? Of course. But I’ll forever look at these irises and see myself swatting bugs in vain with a paint brush.

Tips and Techniques- Try different approaches to painting. Here, I’ve used my go-to ink sketch followed by watercolor for In the Garden and then painted directly with watercolor with no initial sketch for the irises. The bugs forced me to work quickly and let the paint run freely, which led to some nice mixing on the paper. You can see that my session with the irises was cut short. This could use a bit more definition, but I wanted leave it alone and perhaps start over, without the bugs.

Wishful Thinking, March

I could have titled this post: Ready for Color, or Envious of Those Experiencing the Desert Wildflower Bloom, or simply Tired of Brown. Rather than painting what’s outside this week, I decided to create my own poppy field. This piece is bigger and bolder than I typically paint. I’m still not sure what I think of it, but it has been nice to experiment with some brighter colors and assuage my wishful thinking.

Tips and Techniques– I created this piece using negative painting techniques, starting with a wet-in-wet wash of QoR Nickel Yellow Azo, Quinacridone Magenta, and Transparent Pyrrole Orange. I let the colors merge on the wet paper and, when dry, began adding graded washes of sap green (sometimes with Ultramarine Blue), painting around the flowers and picking out stems, buds, and seed pods. There are a number of layers here, each one adding depth. I could have kept going, adding more darks, but at some point, it was best to quit, rather than risk the piece getting too fussy and overworked. (The paper is Fabriano Artistico, extra white, cold press, 300lb/640 GSM, 11×14”)

 

Tulip Herbarium

A spark of red. Bold color after months of winter. Unfortunately, my poor bouquet of tulips drooped within hours of when I purchased it, and well before I had time to paint it. Alas, the grand wilt gave me the perfect opportunity to create this herbarium page inspired by Wendy Hollender’s wonderful book, Botanical Drawing in Color: A Basic Guide to Mastering Realistic Form and Naturalistic Color (2010). It turns out that Emily Dickinson, too, kept an herbarium. Her poem, numbered 978, conveys the essence of may be missed when you think you have another chance, another day, but don’t.

It bloomed and dropt, a Single Noon—
The Flower—distinct and Red—
I, passing, thought another Noon
Another in its stead…

Tips and Techniques– Precision, accuracy and beauty are the hallmarks of natural science illustration. Botanical illustrators like Wendy Hollender, who works in colored pencil and watercolor, provide great insight into techniques used to make highly accurate renderings. While a journal hardly needs to be so detailed, I find it instructive to paint this way on occasion. I began the tulip with a pencil drawing, followed by a very loose wash of watercolor. From there, I used an increasingly dry brush (sizes 2 and 0) to apply more layers of watercolor. Getting a full range of values from light to dark is essential to making the petals take shape.

The world along the roadside

Were it not for relentless deer flies and record-breaking heat, it might not have taken me four days to complete this page. But it is hard to sketch on the roadside under such circumstances, no matter how determined, and so, one flower at a time, the page grew. Still, sometimes it’s good not to rush a painting. It lets things evolve; insights emerge. What started as a simple painting of flowers grew into a recognition of how much of the world is at our very doorstep.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921): “The most precious things in life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it.”

Note: I will be taking a break from posting for the next week or two as I head to Maine to facilitate and teach the Arts & Birding workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. It’s a fully immersive experience for me, and life on an island is better without phones, computers or social media.