This has been a week of little painting and much preparation for an upcoming art exhibit and workshop at the Art School of Columbia County, located near the New York/ Massachusetts border. I’m thrilled to report that I’ve recently been invited to join the faculty of the Art School, which will give me a “home base” for offering workshops throughout the year. Though the school is small, it casts a wide net, and is situated in a place that is steeped with art, artists, and plenty of rural beauty and inspiration. If you live nearby, drop in or sign up!
When I’m pressed for art time, I like to come up with a subject that I can work on in short takes over several days. Such has been the case lately, so I decided to revisit a sketchbook page that I did several years ago. In 2014, I painted a number of chickadees on a single journal page using pencil and watercolor. I’ve always liked that page, so I decided repeat it— this time on toned paper using only a pen and a bit of white colored pencil for highlights. This exercise is a good one for trying to capture different poses and for getting the basics of the bird down without too much fuss.
Tips and Techniques– Chickadees are common songsters, but they don’t sit still for long. Practice drawing them quickly from photos and you’ll be better prepared for sketching them from life. Give yourself a time limit; see what you can do in 3 to 5 minutes per bird. Add a few more minutes for shading or finer details if needed. I used toned paper, but you could use drawing paper or watercolor paper with a touch of color for shading and dimension.
I could have titled this: How one thing leads to another and I end up with this painting. Or: How my failure to plant bulbs leads to a small success in learning to paint light. Either way, I had intended to plant 80 daffodils this fall, but only 60 went into the ground before an early freeze thwarted me. The thought of those 20 unplanted bulbs sitting in my basement has been nagging at me, so I bought an amaryllis in hopes that it would lessen the disappointment. Unfortunately, the amaryllis had already started to grow in the box—sending up a ghostly, stunted stalk. I rather liked the dried roots and the shape of the thing, so I painted it here, followed by the daffodil bulbs. And though there’s nothing spectacular about this page, I am pleased to have put my angst on paper, and I especially like the light-filled quality of the final bulb in the upper right.
The treachery, at last, too late, is plain;
Bare are the places where the sweet flowers dwelt.
From November, by Helen Hunt Jackson
An early snow took me by surprise. Not that I hadn’t heard the forecast, just that I wasn’t ready to give up fall. The fields still held a bit of green, there were leaves yet to rake, and 20 daffodils to go in the ground. Alas, that was before. Now, the ground is white but for a scattering of russet oak leaves, and the season of browns and blues has begun.
Tips and Techniques: I have been doing a lot of illustration work lately, and although I could have done a detailed drawing of grasses and seed heads, I wanted to change gears and get at the patterns and layers of the field. I started by taping the edges with low tack artist tape, then drew the outlines of several seed pods and goldenrod galls I collected. I painted the entire page with a loose wash of burnt umber and ultramarine blue and let it dry. Then I painted successive layers of blue and brown, darkening the space between the shapes and adding new plant stalks to add depth.
Initially, I painted around the shapes, but later I used liquid masking fluid to reserve the lighter layers. Along the way, I added burnt sienna and quin gold to warm up the page. Once I was satisfied with the depth of color, I removed all the mask and added just a few details on some of the lightest seed heads. This technique requires patience as you wait for the washes to dry completely between layers; it helps to have a second project going at the same time!
As my days in Ireland transitioned from vacation to work, my time for sketching and painting moved to finishing pages and writing notes and impressions. I added color to unfinished sketches; listed birds we saw; recorded our highlights. Yet what struck me most throughout my travels was how open and unpretentious the people I met were. From cab drivers to businesspeople to the President of Ireland himself (yes, I did get to meet him*), people were kind, friendly, and open to making a personal connection. There’s no way to capture that in a sketchbook. Still, that intangible part of traveling stays with you long after towns and countryside and grand vistas fade.
Thanks for coming along for my Ireland adventures. I’m now back to the home front, where the ordinary and extraordinary happenings of my own backyard will once again fill the pages of my sketchbook.
Tips & Techniques- Carving Stone with Watercolor
I loved the artistry of medieval stone cutters and wanted to capture some of it in my sketchbook. I found that using watercolor to carve stone is a fantastic exercise in seeing values. I highly recommend trying it if getting a good range of lights to darks is tricky for you. I used just two colors—ultramarine blue and burnt sienna for the limestone. Picking a simple palette means you won’t get lost in color and will focus only on value to create your sculpture. Here’s what to do: Choose a stone sculpture and render it in pencil. Then put a loose watercolor wash over the entire thing, letting the colors blend on the paper. Let it dry. Next paint medium values using small graded washes. Right away, your painting will start to come to life. Last, add dark areas and shadows. You might need to adjust as you go, making areas darker or putting in a bit of detail, but part of the beauty of this exercise is keeping the relative simplicity of the stone cutter’s original work. (Click to view larger.)
*My travels in Ireland preceded my attending the World Canals Conference in Athlone. President Michael D. Higgins gave the closing address and I was invited to a special reception, representing the Erie Canal and New York State.
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.
It always sneaks up too fast. Dark creeps in earlier each evening; the woods go silent; swallows gather on the power lines, then vanish. I was happy to fit in a final weekend at the ocean, where it was still plenty warm for one last swim. A row of kites fluttered overhead. Yellow primroses bloomed at the edge of the dunes. But flocks of sandpipers chasing the waves amidst late-season beach-goers were a sure tell of the season’s turning, as were the multitude of bright orange-red rose hips ripening in the sun. Summer’s end is here.
Tips and Techniques: When heading out to sketch, it’s helpful to think about what you can accomplish in the time you have. If you have 10 minutes, pick a 10-minute subject. This helps keep frustration in check, and you’ll avoid starting something you can’t finish or can’t capture sufficiently in the time you have. I’m fairly quick with drawing, but quite slow as a painter. I often choose subjects I can begin in the field and finish at later home, as was the case with the rose hips. Subjects like birds and trees take me longer to render well, so I don’t tackle them unless I have at least an hour. The more you work in the field the better you’ll become at picking subjects you can tackle well within the time you have.