As Sunday afternoon came to a close, thoughts turned to dinner. One local favorite is fried catfish at the Fish Market, a very low key place located just outside of town on Old Highway 210. It’s an unassuming cinder block building adjacent to a storage facility and across the road from a salvage yard. Outside the building is a huge statue of a shark. (Where on earth do you find a statue of a shark in Missouri? And what must it have cost to ship it here?)
Walk through the door and there are a handful of booths, a really small bar with stools for – maybe! – four or five people. A football game is playing on a tiny flat screen television in a corner of the bar. Patrons, despite the temperature outside, have frosty glasses of beer ready at hand, and baskets of fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried alligator. The table next to us boasts a basket of conch fritters and what looks like jalapeño corn bread.
I love places like this. There’s a real authenticity. The booths are vinyl, the tables formica. The servers appear to be sisters. And they have fried frog legs.
__________ Fude-tip fountain pen in Moleskin journal.
I rolled out of bed bright and early Sunday morning, not really feeling like getting deep into a painting or a sketch, but wanting to sketch all the same. It’s a strange, lazy dichotomy. I’m awake, as usual, before the sun rises. The dog is following me around the house, and then the cat. And eventually I find myself gathering up whatever things are lying about in the kitchen, things that catch my eye: the last of the back patio tomatoes, a cupcake, garlic, a couple of berries. These are the things I scribble out onto watercolor paper.
The tomatoes and garlic occupy no more than ten minutes of my day. The watercolor goes down in high key washes. I’d thought I was laying down more saturated color, denser tones – but I’ve been working in gouache a lot lately and I suppose I’ve just gotten used to lights getting darker and darks getting lighter. Whatever the case, watercolor hues dry differently than gouache and regardless, I like the high key look just fine.
Still life subjects are pretty infrequent things for me to tackle. I began with a pencil study of this cupcake and a couple of berries.
I had a rough idea in mind and sketched out a simplified version, blocking in the darkest shapes with Perylene Violet gouache.
The white of the paper is used to visualize where the lightest lights are placed, so I begin to block in color for the cast shadows and the background. I hadn’t planned to do so, but my palette is really limited.
Throughout this very, very quick process, I’m not seriously thinking about anything realistic, nor am I considering detailed shapes. I’m only thinking about the play of colors against one another, so the foreground is a warm pink-ish hue and the background a combination of cool and warm neutrals.
During the final block ins I realize the raspberries look too big in proportion to everything else. In fact, this is close to accurate: the berries are quite large, but I should have selected smaller berries so that the scale didn’t seem confusing.
The painter’s tape gets peeled off to check values and contrasts. It’s seems ok, but with gouache you have to wait until it’s totally dry to make an assessment. I’ve painted for about twenty-five minutes, so I wander off with the dog in tow to give it a little time.
A couple of dabs of paint to lighten the highlights on the icing, and there it is. I eat the berries.
________________ Top sketch: Watercolor and pencil; bottom sketch: gouache. Both are on Arches watercolor paper, 5 x 7 inches.
I got home Sunday, dissatisfied with the gouache painting I made for the plein air event, and sat myself down at the drawing table determined to do something fun with color. There are still a couple of value corrections I want to make on the jowels, but overall I’m pleased with the colors and the looseness. The play of cool vs. warm makes me happy, as does the scribbly looking areas.
Honestly, I’m not sure why I do this to myself. Painting in gouache is a pain in the ass. Painting in gouache en plein air, is infinitely more of a pain. At yesterday’s paint out, the palette paper from my Sta-Wet palette took flight in the wind at least three different times. The paint dried too fast to work it more than a few strokes. The values change significantly between application and dry. I don’t know why I don’t just get out the oils that I seem to so desperately want to use for this type of sketching.
Or what the hell, just use what I really love – pens and watercolors.
Sigh. So anyway, this is the Old Red Bridge in Minor Park. (“Old?” It wasn’t that long ago I used to drive across this thing. Now Red Bridge Road has been replaced with four high speed lanes and added a long, disastrously ugly highway-style bridge.) The old bridge is part of a trail system these days, and the subject many of us painted during yesterday’s quick paint event.
I do these events to challenge myself. Frankly, I generally feel my plein air work is rather stiff and lacks the energy of my urban sketches.
I think I’ve wrapped up the plein air events I’ve committed to attending for the next couple of months. Time to get back to visual storytelling with my pens.
I’ve been drawing my entire life, and yet it’s still a bit amazing how the exact same sketch can be so very different in black and white than it is in color. Even small patches of color begin to make a drawing somehow more “solid.” More representational, I guess – whereas, with black and white a drawing feels symbolic. I can get lost looking at and enjoying the way sketched lines are sprinkled around the page. I am often entranced by the broken qualities of line, the expressiveness of crudely sketched lines. Lost and found edges intrigue me, and I love to imply a form by simply scribbling a couple of incomplete lines. Lack of detail, when things are going well, can imply far more information than complexity.
Throw a little color over that exact same drawing and I almost stop seeing the line qualities altogether. Shapes, defined by the boundaries of a color wash, begin to dominate. My attention is drawn to the whole, rather than to the expression.
I remember my art history professor lecturing on the great “Line vs. Color” debate when I was an undergrad. At the time my artistic efforts were focused on making highly realistic art and I didn’t really appreciate the point of that debate. I just wanted to paint things that looked round.
I work in color. I work in line. One isn’t superior to the other, so far as I can tell. Line comes more naturally to me.
But so does storytelling, and to tell the story of this place seems to require the addition of color. Color, to me, communicates a sense of “interior,” a sense of, maybe, “night.” It ties the very disjointed group of people together into a “whole” – these people who are otherwise just strangers gathered in one place for a beer and a truly excellent burger.
_____________ Uni-Ball and Pitt Big Brush pens, watercolor wash added later, in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.
Wow, there are a lot of used car lots along 24 Highway. Driving from Independence into Kansas City, there’s one right after another. Driving along, every lot has one guy walking among the beaters, hands clutched behind his back, examining each vehicle with what he believes to be a knowing and knowledgable gaze. I imagine him lifting the windshield wiper, twisting the knob on the radio, actually kicking the tires. And I imagine a second guy, standing in the doorway of the small office, sizing up the first guy, and knowing with absolute certainty that he holds all the aces.
24 Highway runs through Independence and into Kansas City. The neighborhoods are pretty run down and rough, and I was really hoping to sketch an old greasy spoon diner I was absolutely certain existed on the road. I don’t know if I had it wrong or if the building finally got torn down, but I couldn’t find it.
Authentic New Orleans cuisine? Not bad – but I’d feel a whole lot more confident if they knew what Filé is. (How on earth are they making gumbo?) The musician was quiet, not at all like Bourbon Street, but not terrible either.
I had Saturday all to myself, a long day of experimentation and playing around with various sketching ideas I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while now.
Pens come most naturally to me. Not long ago I saw an artwork made by one of my favorite painters, Richard Diebenkorn. He’d used a ballpoint pen and painted in oil over the scribbled lines of a landscape. It reminded me that I’d been thinking of doing something similar with gouache. Rather than making preliminary sketches, why not just draw it and then paint over it? Maybe that would maintain some of the energy of the original sketch?
I had this idea that of painting the shadows in violets, starting with an underpainting somewhat naturalistic color and value. I confess that I hesitated to paint over these greens. (They felt like a good starting point with the shapes and debated just tightening up the sketch to make it into a “normal” painting. But hey, this was supposed to be an experiment, so time to mix up the violets!) Gouache, by the way, is opaque enough to cover the black lines of my pen.
And here’s where I wound up: loosely painted, yet I truly wish I could get much looser still. Nearly all greens replaced with blues and violets and grays. I’ll give it a few days to percolate, and then consider where to take this experiment next.