Over and over again.

28 November, 2018. I think I could just keep on working with this subject over and over again, and continue to find new ways to look at the same view I’ve been sketching for the past couple of days.
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Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble pastels on Stillman and Birn Nova Series paper, approximately 5 x 7 inches.

Failed by color.

27 November, 2018. The color of sunlight raking across the snow glowed in amazing golds, pinks, and oranges early this morning. Long shadows of blue and violet created a scene that absolutely charmed me.

But color failed me – or I, it. Clumsy, wonky, terribly wrong color was what I placed on the page, and I fell back to my safety net, the tried and true: line drawing. Black ink loosely scribbled very quickly over gray paper, white ink  even more loosely scribbled, a shallow representation of the warm highlights that I found so mesmerizing. And even the fallback wasn’t without drama; the white ink seemed to prefer freezing on the tip of the pen rather than releasing smoothly over paper.

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Fude tip fountain pen with Noodler’s Bulletproof ink and white Uni-ball Signo in a Stillman and Birn gray-toned sketchbook, approximately 5 x 7 inches.

Snow Day.

26 November, 2018. Today is a “snow day” in Kansas City. If you live in in the south, you have no idea what that is; despite all the unpredictable types of weather you experience, snowfall isn’t one of them. And if you live in the mountains, or up north – or especially if you reside as I once did in Alaska, snow is such an integral part of cold weather that it seldom has a travel impact on your world in the way that the brutal combination of windchill, temperature, and snow fall does to those of us in the Midwestern and Plains states. Snow paralyzes traffic. Roads turn into dangerously slick channels down which automobiles slide through yards, ditches, and into trees and other cars. Black ice is a real thing, and scary as hell.

And school is called off, mostly because it’s unsafe for kids to huddle at bus stops when the windchill can cause physical harm. That’s a “snow day.” 

Everyone else has to go to work, but teachers and students are off. I hate snow days because we have to make them up – for every day off, we have another added to the end of the Spring school term, thus shortening my summer break. 

But the first heavy snowfall of the year is also a remarkable thing. Yesterday we experienced blizzard conditions with formidable winds, hours of snowfall twisting into bizarre and fantastic drifts, visibility limited to a few hundred feet. Watching it accumulate all afternoon from the comfort of my studio window is something of a treat. And today the sun has emerged – it’s still quite cold, mind you, and no chance of things melting off. It is, after all, a “snow day” and so I’m at home instead of in the classroom. The morning light casts a warm highlight across the snow-covered ground behind my house; the shadows are an exercise in color theory, perceptibly blue. In the distance, trees that weeks ago were aflame in red and orange are now dissembling hues of grey.

If I were a true plein air painter I’d be outside capturing this scene. But it’s warm inside, my portable easel is conveniently positioned at a window, and, well … after all, it is a snow day.

Gouache in Stillman and Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, approximately 4 x 4 inches.

The Town Clock

26 November, 2018. Town clocks, like other examples of architectural details, are interesting artifacts of a place. They often define a time period, much as this one on the Bentonville, Arkansas town square does. The surrounding buildings are a hodge lodge of differing styles, a charming characteristic that is typical of many midwestern town centers. Certain features are iconic to those locations too; to me, neither the Confederate statue at the center of the square, nor the birthplace of Wal-Mart, or even the imposing courthouse structure are as representative of the history of the place as is this clock.

I usually don’t work this tightly, but on a snowy day it felt good to stretch my chops a little. Watercolor and pencil on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper, approximately 8 x 10 inches.

Old roads, new to me.

25 November, 2018. There’s a new road on the south end of town, cutting across pastures, rolling hills, wooded bluffs and creeks, and eventually connecting the incorporated side of town with a highway to the east. This is a welcome extension for many: the alternative is a wide boomerang route, but happily – for me, anyway – few have discovered the new route. For the moment, it’s largely untraveled. 

There is also a bicycle path that parallels the extension. I’m always curious to find out where roads go for some reason. I tend to suspect that just around the next corner there’s something really worth seeing, something worthy of the extra trek. 

Pedaling along the path I found that this new extension opened up a more ready access to some roads that I kind of knew were there, but was unsure of how to get to. I filed away a plan to explore them on the very next nice day.

Despite the fact that as I type these words I’m sitting here waiting on a forecasted blizzard, yesterday was perfect. It was a day for raking leaves, for enjoying the sun, for being outside as much as possible – all of which I took full advantage. The day was, in fact, “the very next nice day.”

I ride a randonneur bike, which is a road bike set up to travel over distance and various terrain in unsupported fashion. One characteristic of many randonneuring bicycles is a large front bag with which one carries the necessities for a long, unsupported ride. It’s also a nearly perfect setup for an urban sketcher or plein air painter of my ilk. My kit fits neatly into the bag, and makes chance encounters along my route as simple as pulling over and leaning my bike on the grass while I sketch.

The roads I explored yesterday are typical of most backroads one travels in this part of the country. Farmland is a mixture of grazing cattle and large swaths of field crops: corn, soybeans, milo. Some patches of ground are hay fields, the rectangular bales I hauled for a few cents each in high school having long since transformed into large, round stacks. They are so large and heavy that it takes a tractor with a special fork attachment to carry and transport them.

Old roads, new to me: I see ponds and creeks I had no idea existed. Surprisingly, there are few farmhouses. I presume that until the recent thoroughfare went in, access was difficult. I am saddened at the thought that this will likely change now: I foresee these glad fields evolving into housing developments before too many more turns of the calendar page.

Gouache in Stillman and Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, approximately  4 x 4 inches.

The Time Machine

23 November, 2018. Sometimes you are fortunate enough to walk around a corner and step back in time.

Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s my last weekend trip to this community for, probably, a good long while. The place is an interesting dichotomy: lots and lots of “new, new, new”; high end and boutique retail, restaurants, nice homes, fashion – the works. A really surprising mix of new with restorations of the best of the “old.”

And then you walk around a corner and there it is: A 1950’s era cabin court. Time hasn’t been especially kind to the semi-circle of single room housing structures, but neither has it slowed things down much either. In point of fact, life was probably always pretty slow; residents probably had their own community as it appears they may now have today. The cars are two decades old and the odometers have probably turned over at least twice, the center court is littered with old bicycles and barbecue grills and lots of leaves. It is a time machine.

A tale of two medias.

22 November, 2018. Have you ever purchased a kit of paints? For the life of me I cannot imagine what the marketing department must have been thinking when they selected the combination of colors to bundle together that they did. And honestly, I’m thinking of just about every kit I’ve ever seen being the most useless collection of colors anyone could imagine. It must be terribly frustrating for a novice to get started and I imagine their struggles with color – which they no doubt attribute to their own lack of mixing experience – well, I have no qualms tracing the actual blame back to the ridiculous color kit chosen for them.

So, it’s safe to say that I’m no fan of “color kits.”

Which is why I find it remarkable to eat my own words. The neat little kit of 40 colors that Caran d’Ache selected for their Neocolor II set is something of a unicorn in the art supply world. Every time I use my kit for sketches or color studies, I marvel not only at the range but at the combination of hues.

Colors harmonize, neutralize, invigorate, and blend well with one another. There’s little frustration that one color is completely atonal when used with another in this kit. True, there are some pigments I use more than others; some may never have been used by me at all. But that will be true even in kits of colors I’ve customized and selected myself.

I am particularly fond of the olives and secondary colors in the kit.

In my earlier experiments with this media I appreciated a tendency for the pigment to act a little bit like watercolor. As I continue to uncover different ways to handle the material I am discovering the possibilities of creating more painterly effects. It’s interesting to me to see how those effects combine with mark making.

My own impatience can stymie the process of discovery at times. It really is important to allow the surface to dry naturally until it is cool to the touch with a satin sheen before adding additional layers. But that impatience also aids in unexpected discoveries as well: the white flecks (above) happened when I accidentally touched the crayon to some moisture. When I applied the dampened point to the paper, the pigment easily transferred and was much more opaque than if I applied it dry.

My watercolor studies tend toward a more hard edged and graphic appearance, even when working wet-in-wet as I’ve done recently. They are also more easily transported into the field. I’ve yet to figure out how best to carry the pastels along as an urban sketching kit, whereas I’ve turned the task of compact transportable water media into a personal science.

Due to the transparency of pigment, watercolors have more of a glow to them than the wax pastels, which are themselves quite opaque. Which is not to say that brilliant color cannot be achieved with either media; the look of that color is what is different.

Scribble, then scurry home.

21 November, 2018. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to wrangle a small sketchbook, a pencil, and two wiggling Black Labs while trying to make a quick sketch? 

The weather made an abrupt change about ten days ago. Autumn, which was wonderful this year, disappeared and the days are truncated, the sky overcast. The end of each day is the only real color, and that is not especially abundant. What caught my eye on this short walk was a dark bank of cloud cover forming a sort of shelf that allowed a glimmer of sunset to peek through, between a gloomy sandwich of sky and land mass.

I scurried home, there to add the color before the memory faded.

Oh, deer.

19 November, 2018. On a very chilly evening last week, I took a shortcut through the parking lot of a local lumberyard. Pedaling across the pavement, the first thing I noticed was a black 1962 or ’63 Impala illuminated under the tall light pole, the lid of the trunk partially raised.

It’s important to understand how truly enormous the storage space is in this vintage American automobile… it’s large enough that some of the tiny British and Italian sports cars I’ve owned over the years might come close to fitting inside. Certainly there would be ample room for my racing bike, and perhaps even several other bikes as well.

There was, in fact, ample room for the dead buck, which was the second thing I noticed. 

In Missouri, this is the time of year when one walks through forest and field wearing bright orange clothing. To do otherwise would be foolhardy. Outside of town, the world is populated with grizzled, gun toting individuals dressed in camouflage. Ducks, geese, deer, turkey, squirrel, quail, pheasant – and soon rabbits – are all in hiding from pickup trucks and John Deere hats… and apparently even vintage cars.

Dining out, pen in hand.

18 November, 2018. It’s been a good long while since I’ve gone out “sketch dining.” My normal practice is to bring along a pen and small sketchbook, and make quick studies of the people around me. Places with high tops and open spaces are often terrific for this kind of artistic exercise, and since I was on the road I went in search of, and found, such a spot.

Oysters on the half shell and a good dark beer sounded like a winning combination to me. I’d stopped here before and the food had been excellent. This time was no exception either – in fact, the oysters were some of the best I could remember being served. My server, technically, smiled a lot. But there wasn’t much behind the smile. And while she heard me, she didn’t really listen, and I wound up ordering a basic Guinness rather than make further attempt to find out what the place actually offered.

Pens are sometimes a tool for working through frustrations and I am not especially kind at such times. Like a baseball umpire, I tend to “call ’em as I see ’em.”

Having worked through my sense of slight, I ignored my server in much the same way that I seemed to have been ignored and turned my attention to my fellow diners. Tables and booths were filling with families and couples. This being a bar and a Saturday in November, high definition screens throughout the place were blasting college football games. Servers scampered in all directions and a couple of guys across a long counter of ice and empty shells were shucking oysters.

Southern accents filled the air with “y’all” and “you’unze” and quaint local colloquialisms. Outside, the air was beginning to chill, but indoors it was warm, the beer was cold, and the oysters plump. 

And between slurps of oyster and sips of beer, I did the thing I do, which is illustrate the everyday world around me.