Sometimes being an artist isn’t fun or enlightening or satisfying. It’s just hard work. It’s hard to figure out how to capture a scene or idea on paper; hard to get paint to do what you want, what you see, what you want to convey. Sometimes being an artist is fraught with doubt and anguish. That’s the kind of week I’ve had. I have a big painting assignment that requires big skies and working at a much larger size than I typically do. Scaling up has been a challenge—one which will no doubt prove worthwhile in the end, but which feels overwhelming in the moment. My head is full of clouds…and I’m only beginning to see a glimmer of blue sky emerging.
Inspired by fragments of glass and broken ceramics pieced together on a street corner in Philadelphia, I painted this page, along with the words written next to the original mosaic. All those colors, all those tiny broken fragments taken together create something bold and beautiful and compelling— what a great metaphor for life.
Ever wonder what it’s like to go power cruising in southeastern Alaska—snaking your way through miles of evergreen coastline dotted with remote fishing villages? To be honest, I never have. I don’t even own a boat. So when I got an email asking whether I would illustrate an article on cruising and salmon fishing for PassageMaker magazine, I took a deep breath and enthusiastically accepted. Mind you, I didn’t get to actually go to Alaska. I just got to bring someone else’s travels to life in journal style illustrations for the article. The April issue hit the stands this week, and while I can’t show it to you in detail, I can give you a sneak preview.
Creating the illustrations was a fun challenge that involved sifting through lots of images of salmon, boats, and Alaskan coastline, thinking about what I might have put in my sketchbook had I actually gone to Alaska, and then creating paintings that would give a flavor of the region and what the author describes in the article. The designers pulled the paintings into Photoshop and merged them to suit the text and layout. I painted the image above to run across the bottom of the title page. What you’re seeing below are layout proofs.
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.
90-degrees – 50% humidity. Needless to say, it’s hot.
It’s the kind of day you’d like to have air conditioning in your car for the four-hour drive from New Haven to Philadelphia. The kind of day that’s too hot for six rounds of unloading my son’s college gear up two flights of stairs into an apartment with no fan. The kind of day when an air conditioned coffee shop with a 12-foot-square living wall packed with ferns is the perfect respite before saying goodbye and taking a train back home.
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A week on an island in Maine means only one thing: I’ve gone coastal. I shut off e-mail and social media, tune out news, turn off work, and I cram as much hiking, cycling, exploring, and, of course, painting as I can into seven highly cherished days. I live by the tides, stay up too late painting, wake up early to see the first light on the water, poke in tide pools, scour mudflats and rocky ledges for shorebirds, seek out new trails and vistas, dodge mosquitoes, and manage to come away both rejuvenated and exhausted. Here’s a peek inside my sketchbook…I’ll share a few more pieces in the coming days.
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