While we are at home day in and day out, I travel the same roads over and over. I add variations now and then, but mostly it’s the same loop past fields of soybeans and corn, past woodlots and overgrown meadows, past neatly trimmed front yards.
But as poet and farmer Wendell Berry writes, “Even in a country you know by heart, it’s hard to go the same way twice. The life of the going changes. The chances change and make a new way. Any tree or stone or bird can be the bud of a new direction.”
An old friend recently reminded me that traveling at home presents opportunities to turn the small and modest into the infinite and boundless. If only we are open to the journey.
Here are two takes on my recent travels at home.
Tips and Techniques– If you like making maps when you travel, why not create one to commemorate the places you travel every day? Add other elements from your daily experience to round out the page: a landscape view and a closeup or two are good ways to complement a map. You could also add a compass rose, title, or legend.
The Day in the Life page is a specific assignment I do about once a year. The idea is to do a sketch every hour of the day, but no sketch should take more than five minutes. Not only is this good practice for working quickly but it is also a nice way to record the ordinary things and moments that fill your days.
When art takes a backseat to the rest of my life, I find it helpful to use a grid. Setting up a framework of small squares in my journal allows me the flexibility to fill them as time allows over a period of days or weeks. I started this grid in March, knowing that a hectic schedule lay ahead. This grid started with a set of six squares per page but, as you can see, the squares can be combined vertically or horizontally to fit the subject at hand. I especially like how a grid page can capture so much of a day, week, or month in just a few small spaces.
Tips and Techniques: Set up a grid in pencil with evenly spaced squares and an even amount of white space between them. You don’t have to plan what will go in them. When you have a subject you want to sketch, choose a box and add it. If your subject is quite vertical or horizontal, combine boxes to suit the shape. You can combine as many boxes as you want, or none at all. I tend to skip around the page, based on the shapes, and outline each box at the end.
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.
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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.
How great it is to be sketching and painting outside again! Birds nesting, feeding, soaring, chattering, resting, flying up and landing again. Flowers blooming, waves breaking, wind blowing. It’s all good. With a wealth of possibilities before me on two recent hikes, I decided a grid would be the best way to quickly capture a variety of subjects and convey the flavor of the day.
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Tips and Techniques: Divide your page into equally-sized boxes with light pencil lines or dots in the corners of each box, but don’t limit yourself to the smallest size. Combine boxes to fit your subjects and go outside the lines if you like. I divided the pages above with eight small boxes each and decided on the right shape for each element as I went along. This technique will help your page come together no matter what combination you choose.
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.
It can be hard to find the time for art when life gets busy. A whole painting or even an entire journal page can seem impossible to undertake. So I made a grid on these pages in the hope that I would be able to fill smaller spaces over the course of several days. As it turned out, I drew the entire two-page spread during an hour-long hike, pausing every so often to do a quick sketch when something caught my eye. Done directly in pen, each sketch took no more than a few minutes. I added color and text back at home.
Click to view larger
Some artistic tips:
- Making a grid is a worthwhile exercise, though it did leave me feeling a little boxed in. Make the rules, but feel free to break them, as I did, by going beyond the boxes as you see fit.
- Use the grid to your advantage. I found it especially useful in forcing me to put pen to paper without fussing, but I have seen other artists fill grid squares carefully, to excellent effect.
- Consider having a unified theme that ties the elements together. Your theme may be a particular place, experience, or even experiments with a single sketching medium.
- The risk of a grid is that if one of the elements doesn’t turn out to your liking, the entire page may suffer. That’s fine if you are experimenting and not a perfectionist in your art journal. I like some of the sketches on this page more than others, and I can live with that because my aim was to simply record quick impressions of a particular moment in time.
Page done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, with Micron black pen and watercolor at Indian Ladder Farms, New Scotland, NY