I was already tired of driving when we realized that we left our laptop in our first Airbnb, a two and a half hour trip in the opposite direction from our next destination. The detour meant nearly a full day in the car, including lunch (which, at least, had a view of the sea). Fortunately, we arrived in Cashel just in time to tag onto the last tour of the day at the Rock of Cashel. The growing darkness and slashing rain made the medieval castle with its enormous cathedral ruin feel imposing and empty, but it was the haunting call of jackdaws and rooks echoing off the walls that made the experience all the more extraordinary.
The following day, I managed to sketch Hore Abbey before we set off once again—this time to the small town of Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon, where my great grandmother was born. Through no trace remains of her house, nor the gravestones of her parents, it was moving to visit the gothic cathedral where her family attended Mass and to see the surrounding town and countryside that she and her siblings left behind forever in the late 1800s.
Tips and Techniques– Sometimes you won’t have time to sketch or paint all of the things you want to while traveling. Take a few photos, but I recommend that you not leave them for long, or you may never get back to painting them. Such was the case for me with the Hall of the Vicars Choral at the Rock of Cashel. I liked the carved angels overlooking the hall, but there was no way to capture them in the dark room and fast moving tour. I snapped a few photos, and began sketching and painting them on the airplane home. I had to give up when I spilled my water during some turbulence, but I was glad I had all the basics in place so I could finish easily at home.
The weather in Ireland is notoriously changeable– sunny skies turn overcast and give way to misty rain within an hour’s time, and may just as quickly change back to clear blue, only to fill with rain again by day’s end. Unless, of course, it’s steadily raining, in which case, it will likely rain all day. This makes sketching in Ireland a bit of a challenge, but it also adds drama to already dramatic landscapes.
The sketch of Dunmore Head on the Dingle Peninsula is one of my favorites. I had seen this view in travel guides (in sun, of course), and its sheer cliffs, crashing surf, grazing sheep along the trail, and circling gannets made hiking here a grand experience. A break in the soaking fog gave me just enough time to put pen to paper.
We also had a stunningly beautiful morning in which to explore tide pools at White Strand beach just west of Cahersiveen Town on the Ring of Kerry. We saw all of these creatures (and more) but I didn’t paint them until later that day, indoors, when it was raining.
Tips and Techniques– If you are planning to sketch while traveling, jump in when something strikes you. Don’t wait for a better view or clearer skies. Don’t second guess whether the subject is worth it. Everything you put in your journal, no matter how small or seemingly mundane, adds something to the whole. I had a few moments of hesitation and regret the lost opportunities. Conversely, I’m glad I included small wildflowers and cups of tea and coffee, as these details would soon be lost if not recorded.
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).
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.
Big skies, sweeping vistas, far horizons. So much to see, too much to record. As an artist accustomed to rendering the details of small things—birds, butterflies, plants and such—I struggle when it comes to simplifying and capturing large landscapes or streetscapes in watercolor. So, I’m experimenting. My idea is to try working small on the premise that it will not allow me the space to get lost in detail. My goal is to get good in advance of an upcoming trip to Ireland, where I’ll have fantastic scenery and limited painting time. Here are my initial attempts, a few from the salt marshes of Westport, Massachusetts and two from Harbor Island and Franklin Light, Maine. (Click to view larger.)
Granite Cliffs, Harbor Island: 4″ x 2.5″, Franklin Light: 5″ x 2″, Egret: 4″ x 2.5″; Salt Marsh and Osprey Nest: 2.5″ x 1.25
Tips & Techniques– You tell me! What works for you in translating complex landscapes to paper? How do you decide what’s important and what to leave out? How do you scale from small to large without getting too fussy?
Is April the new March? Or am I too impatiently, too desperately, seeking spring? I go in search of greenery each week—into woods and wetlands, along meadow paths—and I can say with confidence, and disappointment, that my palette remains largely ochre and brown and overcast blue. Still, there are a few buds, and the Eastern phoebe wagging its tail in the still-bare maple, a hint of green under last year’s grass, and daylight past seven. Hold on and wait, they remind me, just around the corner is renewal.
(click the image to view larger)
Tips and Techniques: I’ve done a few posts about using a grid and, here again, this format proved adaptable and well suited for a hike at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine. In advance of the hike, I divided this 2-page spread into 12 equal squares, using light pencil outlines for each box. Once in the field, I combined boxes based on the subjects at hand. It was just warm enough to draw and paint in the field, and I added the lettering and outlined each box when back inside. I like the way these small vignettes add up to covey my overall experience, much more so than had I done a single sketch.
It’s thrilling to see my artwork in print this week in an article I wrote and illustrated for Passagemaker Magazine (a magazine for boaters). Drawn to the Coast is an illustrated essay about being inspired by the Maine Coast. Going from concept sketches to full size watercolors to seeing how the magazine’s designer put it all together was one of the most exciting aspects of this assignment.
We made several revisions before finalizing the article. Then came waiting for the magazine to hit the stands, and getting a copy this week.
Let me take you behind the scenes to share some of that process. Click on the artwork to see the sequence full size.
After discussing ideas with the magazine’s editors, I made concept sketches for three page spreads and had them approved prior to working on full scale artwork.
I painted each piece separately, wrote the text, and sent it all to the magazine’s designer for layout.
We made several revisions before finalizing the article. Then came waiting for the magazine to hit the stands, and getting a copy this week!
An assignment like this stretches you as an artist and working through challenges definitely advances your skills. Some of you may remember my struggle a few months ago to paint clouds for the title spread, which was perhaps my greatest challenge. I drew upon years of journal sketches to do this piece, but painted everything in my studio over the course of about a month. Now, I can’t wait to get back to the real thing!
How do you capture a day? In hours? In moments? The premise of the Hour by Hour sketch challenge is to put pen to paper every hour of a single day on one journal page, with no sketch taking more than five minutes. I introduced this challenge during a week of teaching at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, where the days are busy and intense. The challenge forces you to work fast and loose, while helping you capture small things that together convey a sense of the day. It’s a good challenge to try when traveling or when you are too busy to take time for a longer sketch. But it’s also a worthwhile exercise if you want to practice being less fussy with your sketching.
I did these 1-5 minute sketches with a Micron 02 pen and added watercolor later to finish the page.
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.