“My work is loving the world.”
So begins the poem Messenger, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died this week at the age of 83. Oliver delivered intimate observations of nature and deepened our understanding of life’s essence in few, choice words.
“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums…”
And though there were no hummingbirds or sunflowers to be found here yesterday, I nevertheless felt compelled to walk down the starkly cold winter road in honor of Mary Oliver and to satisfy my own need to find what beauty might remain along the roadside.
“Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
Standing still in 21-degree weather means mostly frozen fingers. Still, there is no substitute for being present; for being astonished by the cold; by wingbeats of geese overhead; by curled leaves of grasses waving in the wind.
There are many reasons to appreciate stately, solid oaks. Raking their late-dropping leaves in December is not one of them. Persistent and tenacious, they hang on despite autumn gusts and rain storms that shake other trees bare by October’s end. And yet, as I rake pile after pile, I think: maybe we should be more like oak leaves, resolved to hang on as long as we can. Savoring each day of sun, knowing that the dark and silent winter will come all too soon.
Tips & Techniques– I’m testing a new box of Schmincke watercolors, so I decided to use “negative” painting techniques with this journal page as a way to figure out the range of colors I could get with a triad of Ultramarine Blue, English Venetian Red, and Yellow Ochre. I began with a very loose wet-in-wet wash of those three colors. Once it dried, I began to pick out the shapes of the leaves with smaller, but still very wet washes. You can lay lots of layers on top of one another with this technique to build values, depth and interest. The trick is to stop before overworking it or losing the spontaneity of the original wash.
Here’s how it looked along the way (sorry I didn’t take more photos toward the end; I got absorbed and forgot)…
Get to know your paints! I haven’t used English Venetian Red before, and though it looks similar to Burnt Sienna, it is less transparent and mixes very differently. Look how it becomes more purple when mixed with Ultramarine Blue. Burnt Sienna creates beautiful browns and grays with Ultramarine, a mix I use all the time. The purple toned darks worked nicely for the oak leaves, creating a lively triad with the Yellow Ochre.
I was recently invited by Liz and Nigel at the blog Exploring Colour to provide a guest post for their series Where and What is Beauty? The blog hails from New Zealand, which is, incidentally, 9,000 miles from my home in New York State. I traveled to that extraordinary country way back in 1986 searching for adventure, beauty and local color but, as my post reveals, I am now Finding Beauty Close to Home.
I could paint the colorful planter of flowers on my porch or the stately trees in my yard, or the golden field nearby, and sometimes I wonder why I don’t. Instead, I’m drawn this week to what most people would consider far less beautiful—a mass of polypore fungus emerging from a red maple growing (and dying) along a stream. But a sense of discovery and curiosity has long been integral to my art. I love finding things and finding out about things, and then keeping those discoveries between the pages of my sketchbook.
Tips & Techniques– These fungi were strikingly white, but translating white objects onto white paper is tricky. Whites come to life when placed next to darks. I had to look at this group of fungi over and over to begin to see the subtle values and to pick out the mid-tones and darkest darks. When painting whites, keep looking at what’s next to your lightest areas; squint; and keep evaluating whether you’ve got a good range of values from light to dark on your paper.
What to do when your TO DO list is longer than the hours in a day? When “unpack office/studio” makes the list of chores necessary for settling into a new house, but doesn’t yet rise in priority? When painting walls takes precedent over painting watercolors? My solution: make a simple sketch and go wash the bedroom floor. Still, I can’t complain. I’m settling into a beautiful place and managed to take time to explore the stream and woodland that runs alongside and beyond the house. And I trust that there will be days—and years—ahead for putting more of this lovely place on paper.