Big skies, vast landscapes, towering rocks carved by water, wind and time. The American West is a place like no other on the continent. Under the guise of driving our son from a summer internship in Boulder, Colorado, to his senior year of college in Pasadena, California, my family took to the open road last week for a Great Western Road Trip. Along the way, we hiked the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains and explored Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Utah. And then we drove out of those untamed spaces and into the sprawl of freeways in southern California before flying back east.
In the words of John James Audubon, “I wish I could draw it all.” Alas, with so much hiking and driving, it was hard to find the time; I still have several pages to finish. So here is part one. Stay tuned for the next installment with my top tips for travel sketching.
Two weeks ago, I flew to Ireland for the first time. I didn’t anticipate how profound it would feel to see the country my great grandmother left behind at age 16 for the promise of a better life in America. But as dawn broke from the airplane window and a patchwork of pastures spread out below, I saw connections stretching across miles and generations. The Irish lace that threaded through my childhood began here. It carried through my grandmother and great aunts; it spun stories, laid down values, forged friendships, and connected a large extended family.
Though I was traveling to Ireland for a conference and a week’s vacation, it felt like going home to a place I’d never been. My husband, son, and I spent our days exploring beaches and ruins, cities and towns, parks and cemeteries. It was an incredible journey. What follows is a first installment of sketches; I’ll post more in the coming days. Hope you enjoy the trip!
Tips and Techniques- The first rule of travel sketching is that there are no rules. Other than being committed to recording parts of your journey, you’re going to need to allow yourself maximum flexibility and a lot of room for sloppy, fast, imperfect sketches. I often drew on location and painted later. There was simply so much going on, so much to see, and so much time moving from place to place that there was rarely enough time for the kind of detailed and careful work that I prefer. I used both a graphic calligraphy pen and a size 03 Micron (both larger than I typically use) to try to restrict my tendency to fuss.
How to prepare for a trip to Ireland? Read guidebooks, re-read my family’s history, purchase a bird field guide and a travel adapter, prepare my conference presentation, pull out warmer clothes, and try to learn simple Celtic knots, fonts, and manuscript flourishes to add to my travel journal. That last bit has been the most fun, of course, but you really do need the patience of a monk to achieve the precision that makes Celtic art forms so beautiful. Here’s the beginning; I’ll fill in the white space during my travels. Watch for more in a few weeks.
Tips and Techniques– A book I really like for learning calligraphy is The Art of Calligraphy, a practical guide to the skills and techniques by David Harris. The title doesn’t quite do the book justice. So much more than a practical manual, it also includes great information on the development of Western script and includes beautiful examples from some of the finest historical texts. The script above is adapted from Insular display capitals and illumination in the Book of Kells, which dates to the 9th century (and which I hope to see in Dublin) and the Lindisfarne Gospels, which date to 698 (located in London).
Finding bird nests is something typically reserved for late autumn, when fallen leaves reveal summer’s hidden treasures. But I’ve been lucky this spring. Bluebirds and trees swallows took up residence in nest boxes we put up in April; a robin returned to a nest used last year on an upstairs window ledge; I spied a pair of cardinals making their nest in a hemlock bough; and, just last week, I caught sight of an American redstart as it landed and disappeared into a tangle of shrubbery at the edge of the woods– a tell that led me to discover its well concealed nest. I know there is a lot more nesting going on in the surrounding woods and field, but it may be autumn before I am able to add more to the map.
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Tips and Techniques– I love making maps and find that it is an excellent way to learn and record information. I made this one so I would have a reference for future years’ nesting activity on our property. I used Google Maps to sketch the aerial view– it’s a great tool for getting the basics of the landscape geography you want to record. Once I had the map laid out, I added the nest, using a photo of the actual nest so as not to disturb the birds. I had been hoping an egg or two would have already been laid, but because I was a bit too early, I decided to add the eggs for each bird as a separate element. I used the Princeton Field Guide Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul Baicich and Colin Harrison as a reference, as well as an atypically oblong robin’s egg found abandoned near our driveway.
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.
A window seat over the American mid-west provides an astonishing view: a landscape of squares spreading in all directions. Striped in shades of tan and green with occasional non-conforming blue snaking its way between the squares, the American heartland is the ultimate grid.
The pattern owes its existence to Thomas Jefferson and the Land Ordinance of 1785, which served as the basis of the Public Land Survey System used to divide property for sale and settling.
The Largest Landscape: The Grid of American Agriculture, from Architizer
I had been working with grids in my sketching workshop in Anacortes, and had already marked out a journal page for future use. When the view from the airplane on my way home presented itself, it was a perfect fit. I quickly sketched the patterns and later used Google Earth for additional reference.
Grids are frequently used for design because they provide a flexible framework that breaks the space of a page into related parts. I devised a 12 square 2-page grid in my 5” x 8” Stillman & Birn journal, with about ¼ in of space between the squares. The beauty of it is that the squares can be combined in numerous ways—long or tall rectangles, a larger box, and smaller squares. No matter the combination, the grid holds the design together.
I find grids to be especially useful when I’m hiking or traveling and want to capture a number of experiences or scenes on a single page. You can fill a square quickly with a sketch and paint later if needed, so it works well when with non-sketching companions.
I’ve just returned from a week in the Pacific Northwest—land of big trees, mountains, skies, water, and wilderness. I had the privilege of teaching a four day watercolor sketching workshop with an enthusiastic and talented group of artists from Anacortes, Washington. I’ll share a few lessons from the workshop here soon…but first, let’s start where so many of my travels begin: with a map. It has been 30 years since my last trip to the Northwest, so this painting helped me to get a good sense of the lay of the land.
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I had hoped to see some western bird species and was delighted that Anna’s hummingbirds were near daily visitors to the backyard where I stayed. I mainly saw the female, which is less colorful than the male, but no less interesting.
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Before the workshop began, I took two days to explore and hike. I painted this octopus from a video in anticipation (i.e. wishful thinking) of seeing one in a west coast tide pool. No luck; but I did see nearly a dozen egg yolk jellyfish, a fairly common west coast species, as well as other fascinating denizens of rocky tide pools in the Puget Sound.