Relaxing In St. Simeon

Late in August most of the lockdown stuff was over.  We’re still wearing masks because we’re not idiots, but back then we were like bears poking our head out of the cave, unsure if we wanted to come out.  Being a bit apprehensive about traveling anywhere, but also feeling like most and wanting a change from being sequestered at home, we decided to take a trip.

We didn’t need or want a big “see the sites” trip and most tourist things were shut down anyway, so we decided to go somewhere and sit, without our computers, without TV, and without an agenda.  I even made the decision to limit my sketching during the trip.

We chose St. Simeon, Quebec because there isn’t ANYTHING in St. Simeon except a coastline along the beginnings of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  When I say there isn’t anything I really mean it.  No good restaurants, no coffee shops, no nothing.  But we did have a hotel that looked out on the water and it was quiet enough.  We drove up a valley that holds the Black River and did a bit of sitting by the river.  I spent half an hour making a sketch of the tree-lined roadway.  I had a lot of fun doing it but I can’t show it to you.  I’d forgotten what a spiral-bound sketchbook can do to a pencil drawing and the sketch has become a cloud of smeared graphite.

On another day, however, we went to “Port au Persil,” which is a small town with a gorgeous cove area and a pier where you can sit and watch whales.  I got to see my first beluga whale which was exciting.  Actually, we saw lots of them during our trip.  By whale standards they’re quite small but they’re snow white and gorgeous.  My sketchbook came out around the cove though.  The cove is full of rounded sandstone rocks and I couldn’t resist.  This reflects those formations.

Mostly, though, we sat on the balcony of our hotel, or walked along the beach.  This involved a lot of whale watching, some beer drinking and a lot of salsa and chips.  It was delightful.  I decided that I should try to paint the coastline and I’m afraid I let the paint get away from me a bit but I’ll share it anyway.

The trip was a big success.  It seems that doing nothing appeals to both of us and we felt great as we headed for home.  I need to spend more time doing nothing.

I Visited The Montreal Botanical Gardens

A couple weeks ago our daughter came to spend the weekend and rather than have her take the bus back to Montreal I drove her there, giving me an excuse to visit the Avenue des Arts, a wonderful art store.  I spent way too much money there but gosh, what’s a guy to do when a store has DeAtramentis Document inks, Stillman & Birn sketchbooks, and a bunch of other great stuff that isn’t available in Quebec City?

The next morning I headed off to the Montreal Botanical Gardens where I spent half a day sketching stuff, including this place that’s part of the Chinese pavilion there.  l had a great time but was quite tired when I headed back to Quebec City.

Can Shari Teach Me To Paint?

While the COVID pandemic generated a bunch of negatives, there have also been positives.  For instance, because Shari Blaukopf couldn’t travel or do her in-person workshops, she decided to produce a series of video watercolor workshops and made them available on her website.

I bought several of them and will probably buy more because the pricing makes them irresistable.  There’s only one problem.  Buying them didn’t make me a better painter.  And while watching the videos taught me a bunch of stuff, this didn’t improve my painting abilities much either.  Surprise, surprise.

Seems I’ve actually got to move a fuzzy stick around… a lot, if I’m going to improve and I’m not good with fuzzy sticks.  My approach to “painting” has been to do a complete pen and ink drawing and then to quickly add local color, being sure to stay “inside the lines.”  Most of the time, my paint detracts rather than enhances the original drawing. Painting Shari style isn’t like that at all (grin).

Shari starts each of her workshop studies with a pencil, drawing outlines of the major components.  I’m not much of a pencil-driver either, but a pointy stick is a pointy stick and so I have no trouble with this step.  Here’s my first attempt at painting a Victorian window:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not horrible, but it’s not even close to Shari quality.  My brushwork is sloppy.  I expected that (see above about my fuzzy stick management), but it’s the other stuff that suggests I wasn’t paying attention.

  1. Shari explains how to mix paint to the right consistency.  I was anything but consistent.
  2. Shari showed me how to create the dark red shadow color.  Mine isn’t dark enough cuz I got caught by the watercolor “drying up.”
  3. And oh my goodness.  Shari talks about painting linework with a rigger brush.  I couldn’t get a paint mix that was dark enough and yet wet enough to do it at all so I resorted to a fude pen instead.

I love how she presents these workshops, though, and with more time with my fuzzy sticks, I just might figure out how to do it.  Hope so.  Thanks to Shari for making these workshops available.  With my help I bet Shari CAN teach me to paint.

The Sketching Path We Travel

I’ve been pondering where I want to go with my art and thus, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the path I’ve taken to get where I am.  It’s funny, and maybe a bit odd, that I’ve been trying to get better at sketching and I haven’t done much of this kind of reflection.  Instead, I’ve plodded along as a guy “who draws stuff” and most of that drawing has been as a pen and ink guy who uses color to tint sketches, as so many urban sketchers do.

When I look back, though, I recall the early stages, where I was trying to draw things.  I would choose those things based upon what I was capable of drawing.  This is the stage where new sketchers say things like:

“I can’t draw buildings because I don’t understand perspective.”

“How do you draw a car?”

“Gardens are hard because they are complicated.”

“How do you draw trees?”

Eventually, sketchers learn that what they’ve been told over and over is true.  Everything is just a shape.  This changes things forever once we adopt this view.  It takes some time (for me it was counted in years), but you shift from looking at things and start seeing and drawing shapes.

The draw shapes path causes a change in what you try to draw because now, anything is a good subject, not just things you know how to draw.  A nose is no different from a can of soup to a shape sketcher.  For me, this didn’t come easy (maybe I haven’t even completed this shift) but it’s so liberating.

When it does occur, however, you need a new criterion for choosing a subject.  We all like to believe that we choose subjects based upon some high-art goal but in my experience that’s rarely the case.  In fact, I’d say that most sketchers, once they work with shapes, more often choose a subject based upon how much time they have, can I see it from a shady spot, and with a dose of “what’s my style?” mixed into the analysis.

And this is where we come back to me.  I’ve always been a guy who loves fountain pens and who worries a lot about proportions and relative sizes.  Translate that to mean, I’m not good at “loose” or “simplification.”  Marc Holmes has chided me into trying to draw loose and quickly a number of times.  I’ve tried.  Maybe I’ll get there some day but my sense is that I  simply like the process of capturing proper proportions, angles, etc.  All of this in spite of the fact that I’d love to be able to draw in the loose, “painterly” (his word) style he uses.

And so when I choose my subject, largely according to how much time I have, I have to choose a smaller, more simple subject than Marc would for the same amount of time.  I’m just not good enough to do it any other way.  Not a bad thing and to quote Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Here’s an example where I didn’t choose well.  Heck, I didn’t choose at all.  We were out on a walk, wanted to sit in the shade and I found myself looking at the butt end of a large statue of Simon Bolivar on his horse.  At most I’d have five minutes to draw it as we rested.  In reality, given my sloth-like approach to sketching, it would have taken an hour to do a decent sketch.  BTW, this will be the last of my 5-min sketches that you’ll see.  This one was a good example of what I am talking about here but I won’t abuse your sense with any more of them (grin).

How do you make your subject choices?  Are you lucky enough to have moved beyond all this and so can draw anything in no time?

In Art, Paper Is Everything

Sarcastic sports nut standing behind a sketcher: “How far can you throw your book?”

Sketcher responds: “That depends on how bad the paper is.”

I’m here to report that I could throw my Clairefontaine sketchbook pretty darn far right now.  Given that I’m old and likely to pull a muscle if I tried, I just slammed it shut and put it on a shelf.

When I started sketching I seemed to be buying a new sketchbook every week, searching for the right format, the right binding, and the right paper.  It’s a problem for beginners because we don’t have the skills to modify our approach to suit the paper and don’t know how to evaluate whether it’s “us” or “the book.”  Most of all, though, back then we didn’t have good choices.

Then Stillman & Birn released the Alpha series sketchbooks and my life changed.  I filled one, then another, and another.  I started buying them 3-4 at a time.  Later they released the Beta series, which quickly became my favorite.  Things got confusing for me only when they started releasing a bunch of different sizes.  Nevertheless, I didn’t worry about paper quality.

But recently I had only one Beta series 8×10 softcover book available and these are my “go to” street sketching book.  But with COVID lockdowns and such, I can’t do much street sketching these days, so while at the student-run coop associated with the art school here, I bought a Clairefontane sketchbook.  It seemed nice enough, but that was deceptive.  Contained within its covers was a pile of paper where one side was “ok” when exposed to water, the other side was less so.  Neither were very good, at least when water was involved.

I struggled with it and had done about a dozen sketches in it, all on the “front” side of the paper.  But yesterday I tried painting on the back side of one of the sheets (two of them had already fallen out of the book) and what a mess.  For what it’s worth, others have reported problems with this sketchbook too.  Here’s the results of my sketch.

These are part of our tomato crop this year and no, the tomatoes are not that red.  My sketch got that way as the paper started pilling when I simply applied a bit of water to get my initial wash to flow.  And every time I put paint to paper, there was more pilling.  I chased it by letting it dry and adding more paint.  Each time I had to go a bit darker to cover spots that formed as a result.  It’s just impossible to work with crappy paper.  The surface of this sketch feels like 80-grit sandpaper from all the pilling.

Artists constantly plead with students to use good paper.  Students constantly say they don’t want to use good paper because they’re “just getting started.”  I say throw the crappy stuff away and buy good paper.  Use cheap paint, cheap brushes, cheap paper towels if you must, but don’t use crappy paper.  BTW, this sketchbook cost me $20 so money isn’t always the object here.  For the same money, though, I could have bought a good, Stillman & Birn sketchbook, but the coop doesn’t stock them.

Today, though, I wanted to redeem myself and grabbed my one blank S&B Beta sketchbook off the shelf and set up three tomatoes to draw.  This was soooooo much more fun.  Just for kicks I grabbed a cheap box of Munyo watercolors, a $4 Princeton synthetic brush and a napkin left over from a Subway sandwich from the day before.  That’s what I used… with good paper.  I was stuck with the same limited skill set I had the day before but the enjoyment and, I think, the results were much better.  I’ll let you decide.