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.
What is the value of imperfection? I’ve been mulling over that question as it pertains to artwork for a few years and still, I don’t have a clear answer. I love the work of natural science illustrators, for whom accuracy, precision, and beauty are paramount. Yet each time my own artwork approaches that kind of perfection, it somehow seems to be missing something. Embracing imperfection, which, after all, is what so much of life is about, increasingly appeals to me. Letting go, accepting, and finding beauty are good lessons to learn on any journal page—and these lilies, way past their prime, were the perfect teacher.
Tips & Techniques– This piece takes advantage of secondary colors—orange, green, and a spot of purple—to create harmony. The strong black of the text, done with a Micron graphic pen, nearly overwhelms the lilies, but also makes a strong statement. I could go back with a thicker black outline on the flowers, but that would likely lead to overkill.
The last garden vegetables left to harvest include a few scarlet runner beans that I’ve had my eye on since their red flowers bloomed in August. I didn’t make time to paint them then, but didn’t want to miss them altogether.
I sketched directly in ink and then added watercolor to the foreground layer. I went back in and painted an additional layer of light watercolor vines and beans to add more depth. The shadows are really important to making this work because they create the illusion of light and depth. Done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, 8.5 x 11.
At the recent workshop I led in Anacortes, Washington, we started off with some back-to-basics drawing and painting techniques. Participants practiced blind contour and gesture drawings; did short, timed sketches; worked in ink to keep a drawing flow going without erasures; and put a number of concepts together while painting vegetables. Here’s my demo painting, which I went back to later to add tips from the lesson. Isn’t it great that we can learn so much from a carrot?
“…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?