I’ve been teaching an adult beginning watercolor class on Thursday evenings for the past couple weeks. Much like my “day” students, watercolor is introduced in the first lesson by playing around, making marks, and experimenting. In the second lesson workshop participants followed along to create a landscape painting. Their progress was especially satisfying for the first time having used this medium, so in lesson three we’re going to give the old still life approach a whirl. I don’t want to overwhelm, so the composition will be simple. But I’ll throw in a few techniques along the way with a little wet-in-wet, blooms, and whatever else occurs to me at the time.
I’d every intention of painting another bale of hay, honestly I did. But this mysterious little gravel road, leading off through a field and then disappearing into the trees captured my imagination. Where did it go? What was its purpose? What are those two structures? I don’t know, and really, I don’t want to know. I just want to speculate. To imagine. To dream.
Sketching hay bales the other day, I thought it important to remind myself of the value of simplicity, which is how I found myself distilling a complex scene into a much more restrained drawing using mostly line.
Huge rolls of hay always catch my attention. Scattered across freshly mown fields I love how they contrast with the undulating backdrop of hills and patches of woods. They’re the only geometric element in an otherwise entirely organic design.
Many times I’ll encounter fields large enough to have supported the harvesting of lots of these things, and they form a sort of pattern. Other times, the place seems to have only eked out one or two – or as in this case, three bales. These were neatly aligned, like Rolo chocolates: not a mean trick either, let me tell you! Those bales must be quite heavy, and a farmer has little reason to carefully line them up like this.
But they were.
I’ve been interested in sketching or painting these gigantic cylinders of dry grass for years, but never did anything about it until yesterday evening. In fact, I think I could paint these things over and over again, and at the risk of being derivative of Monet’s hay bales, I understand the fascination of studying their part in a landscape, and how their appearance evolves depending upon the time of day or the season.
As dusk falls on a blustery and overcast Autumn day, if one looks closely it’s not too difficult to realize that the landscape has painted itself in a triad of secondary colors: violet shadows contrast in a visually interesting way with the oranges of grass, and the hay itself. Even the green foliage is tinged with browns and orange; in weeks they’ll all be gone.
Scribbling the same view in black and white, the design takes form as an almost abstract composition. Yes, I believe I could waste a lot of time appreciating the simple structure of these forms, exploring mornings of long pink cast shadows and afternoons of high key pattern.
This is the second year in a row that I’ve participated in the weekly Walktober plein air paint outs sponsored by the Jackson County Parks and Rec Department. The idea is to get people out on the trails, and it seems to work. As we paint, walkers stroll past and often stop to chat.
Starting this week I’m teaching a watercolor course for people just getting into the media. These paint outs are a good opportunity for me to sharpen the rough edges of my craft after having put away my kit for a while.
I doubt I’ll ever be a “true” plein air painter. Frankly, I don’t find it terribly interesting – I often feel like the approach is a search for the purely decorative. That philosophy rubs me the wrong way.
I prefer a more editorial approach. Tell a story with the drawings. Keep the lines rough and unfinished. Crude, I suppose. Focus on those areas that are maybe a little less “pretty”… but also maybe a little more interesting.
This is the second week in a row to participate, and there are two more Sundays to go. Last week I painted, then added lines over the paint. This week I painted, then made two pen sketches. I’m craving the lines, quite frankly, and I bet my kit this Sunday will be pens. Period.
“Quick sketching” is a fun way to jump start things. When I quick sketch, I give myself permission to just get paint or ink onto a piece of paper without concern for anything other than the simple pleasure of moving my sketching tools around. Especially after a sedentary day in front of a computer, that movement is precious.
I’ve been quick sketching in watercolor recently by starting with a loose, simple line drawing with a watercolor pencil. I like the way that some of the lines just dissolve as paint is added, yet some lines remain. That characteristic leaves a sketch with an unfinished quality that I think has more charm than a more highly finished painting.
I don’t hesitate to crop if I feel that it improves the composition. One thing that Instagram has done is make me more aware of the compositional potential of a square motif.
Last Thursday night was the last class of a travel sketching workshop I taught in September. I sketched the sketchers, outdoors, and a good LONG distance from each other, and thus we were all happily mask-free. I love how much progress my sketchers made over the stretch of four weeks time.
Not every aspect of the workshop allowed us to work in situ. Some of the key ideas I shared about travel sketching – architecture, people, monuments, story telling, slices of live, and food – had to rely on reference photographs. This sketch was the demo I made to illustrate how to take elements from my travel photos to make something that didn’t simply mimic what the camera had captured.
On the other hand, I did have freshly dug onions to sketch from, and that made me very happy!
Yesterday was the first Walktober Quick Paint event, which took place along the Rock Island Trail about thirty minutes from my house. I took my watercolor kit with me because my painting chops have atrophied over the past few months.
I arrived a couple hours early, supposedly to scout locations before the start of the event, but really it was so that I could ride the trail. If I’m completely honest, I scouted for about two minutes and simply enjoyed the riding for the remaining ninety or so. The air was a brisk 36 degrees, my nose was running, and my hands were chilled in spite of wearing gloves. But birds were singing as the sun burned through the morning mist and the trees were lush and not yet ready to turn color. In other words, the world seemed perfect.
I made two sketches for the event, both of which sold on the trail, and I didn’t even realize until I was on my way home that I hadn’t even documented either of them at all! The best I can share is this image of one sketch after the first wash of color.
“Is it live or is it Memorex?” That was the tagline of recording media back when I was in college, but it feels a lot more like the world I live in these past few months. A large chunk of what I’m teaching is not in person, or even live. It’s recorded.
The sketch above, for example, was created as an introduction to my “Watercolor sketching on location” workshop, which was anything but on location. It was, in fact, online.
I, on the other had, was on location… just me and my sketching kit, and my iPhone.
Ironically, although I’m comfortably a loner in general, I miss working with people. When I teach, I’m a performer. I’m on the stage. And I have a harder time performing for the camera.
I’ve been sketching almost entirely with pens the last several months, only occasionally digging out the watercolor kit. The weather is nice, the days are beautiful, and I need to build up my inventory of paintings which has dwindled.
…if I can remember how to paint after my extended break!