Color in the Grays

10 March, 2019. It’s sunrise and the clock says one time, my body disagrees: there’s exactly one hour in dispute. It’s very still outside, and the waking temperature is just above freezing. It is, in fact, much warmer than the past several months of gloom.

Still, the ground is frozen as I crunch around the yard in house slippers, and the gloom is still clear in my mind. In the distance, the water tower is a mixture of Cerulean blue and Quinacidone red, the hues neutralizing each other into a luminous gray. In the ground below I see a favorite, Perylene green; I’ll have to mix in a red and blue to darken it further if I want to do more than paint it in my mind.

The sky changes fast and I notice that the cloud cover is a mixture of periwinkle and violets that contrasts lusciously with the rising sun, a brilliant, if somewhat diffused ball of orange.

Looking down at the sketching pamphlet I began yesterday, I suddenly realize I’ve been unconsciously digging colors out of my gray world.

Sometimes I rely on memory and impressions to sketch out an idea, but memory is a funny thing and subject to vagaries and everything with which one comes into contact between the actual experience and the time one attempts to manifest it in some way. This morning I felt the need to supplement my impression with a quick pencil sketch and notes. It seemed as though getting the placement and ideas of values was important, and little thought was given to the colors of this sunrise.

Realizing this was an error, I ran to the studio to grab my travel kit. Not finding it immediately, I instead picked up the butcher tray I use for studio work and returned to a room full of windows facing east. Two minutes later I had a satisfactory color study.

Not content, I decided to spend a few more minutes making a second color study. The graphic curve was added to create a sense of leading lines that complimented the diagonal bank of clouds.

Even still, the composition seemed unresolved so I played around with various croppings, eventually settling on this. And now, satisfied with the design, perhaps I’ll work on a more “finished” painting this evening.

Right now, the day is beckoning. Hiking boots and jacket won’t be in the closet for much longer, nor my sketchbook on the shelf.

Visceral Reactions

13 January, 2019. I’m finally getting around to scanning some of the past week’s sketches. This is from my kinda-sorta on-again-off-again sketch series of skies.

To be perfectly clear, these little sketches are not intended to be anything other than a quick impression. I’m making little attempt to be realistic and only barely representational. It’s just a fun way to play around with color – a little playfulness without getting too serious about doing so. Even with my more representational work I always look for the abstract in a scene and this is a fun way to do that.

My sketches are often a narrative response to a place or time or event. These sketches of skies are more visceral. The start and end of a day can be more of an aesthetic experience, and if I really explore my intentions here I’d probably find it’s aesthetics driving me. But frankly, I’m not thinking deeply or analyzing my motivations…I’m simply tossing paint on the page for the pure pleasure of doing so.

Watercolor on Arches rough, 7 x 7 inches.

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.

To study, perchance to dream.

11 November, 2018. Why do color studies? I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, although I know the intention of the practice is to prepare oneself for the execution of a larger, possibly more formal work. Speaking for myself, however, the making of a color study is play time.

Opportunity time. A time to dream a little about the interaction of colors and shapes.

I tend to reside with one foot in each of two different worlds – a world of sketching, and a somewhat contrasting place of painting. My sketches live through a search for energy and freshness, achieved when I’m on my game through the use of line. Color is often important to those sketches, but generally subservient to the pathways described by marks.

When I paint I enjoy the interplay of shapes and color, the orchestration of colors striving for a visual harmony. With paint, I tend to have a more introspective focus; I get lost in my work, whereas with sketched line the marks are free and come naturally. I would love to combine the two camps more often, and celebrate when they do – but for the most part I find myself working as muse and whimsey dictate, in one world or the other.

Line or color.

Two worlds. So closely related, and yet for me there is a chasm separating the two.

Be cool.

(Number five in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

3 September, 2018. It’s Labor Day weekend, I’ve been incredibly tied up with the business of teaching all week and, frustratingly, there’s been no opportunity to sketch. Traveling down to Northwest Arkansas to bicycle, hike, and explore, three days were blocked out on my calendar to remedy the dearth of drawing activity.

A very pleasant afternoon diversion came about through a visit to the small, but very diverse Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks. There we strolled under canopies of local and exotic foliage, through beds of strangely wonderful plants, flowers and fruits coming in an assortment of sizes, shapes, and configurations. And the color!

All weekend long I’d been sketching with pens. I love playing with positive and negative shapes, and the drama of the figure ground relationship can be a very playful visual tool. And color can benefit from that visual trickery and mind play as well.

I love to separate space, not just through the juxtaposition of positive and negative shapes but also by contrasting cools against warm colors, and brights against muted, neutral tones, compliments of color temperature, compliments of hue. Chromatics are important to me – contrary to what I do with a pen, my paints never include black. Shadows are cool, as are far away objects, which also tend to be grayed and muted. Highlights are warm; objects closer to the viewer are not only warm, but also very crisp. It’s a very simple recipe for color that serves me well when I sketch.

As with my drawings, placement of elements are given additional thought. I don’t hesitate to move objects around in my studies, neither do I worry about making a photographic documentation of the colors. If it suits my purposes to “bounce” the eye around a little, I’ll make a note to myself to create focal distractions that break up the flow. You’ll notice in my color study (above) that I’ve indicated which lily pads I thought should be yellow by marking them with a penciled “Y.”

All of which is sort of academic, really, because the viewer is ultimately drawn to the brilliant warm orange of the goldfish, which contrasts beautifully against the deep cooler complimentary violet shadow of the water. That violet blends into a muted blue-green at the termination of the shadow, contrasting values of shadow against the reflection of sky.

Incidentally, this particular study was done on Strathmore Aquarius II watercolor paper using my kit of Nicholson’s Peerless Transparent Watercolors. These are unique dry pigments, bound to pieces of paper – I’m doing a terrible job of describing them, I realize, so just go check them out online – but which are amazingly transportable. I almost never carry them with me because I’m so handcuffed to my travel kit. This weekend I wanted to travel as light as possible and carried the Peerless stuff with me… well, just because.

Breaking down the process

29 June, 2018. On a lark, I began to take some of the black and white sketches I’d made in situ and add after-the-fact touches of gouache. The play of flat against rendered tonality, the artifice of contrasts, and the general sense of “what the heck sort of layer is going on here?” intrigued me, and appealed to my perverse delight in perplexing others. Interest in these sketchbook pages just sort of exploded on Instagram, and I’ve fielded quite a few questions over the past two or three days. With that in mind I’m summarizing a general breakdown of the process today.

First off, it’s important to note that all of these come from life observations during my recent travel to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Martha’s Vineyard. In this example, I began by roughing in some fishermen who were finishing up their day, pulled up to the pier in Menemsha Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard. Something I very seldom do is use a pencil to make a light construction drawing – usually, I just work directly with a pen and trust my instincts. But as you’ll note, I did use a pencil not only on this sketch but on all of the others in this post as well. The advantage, I suppose, is that it provides one with the flexibility to do the graphite drawing in situ, and embellish with ink, paint, or whatever later on. In fact, I began the inked lines in the field and finished them later on – frankly, I wasn’t convinced that I had a decent composition to work with. I nearly abandoned things at this point.

Later on, the contour lines inked, I blocked in the water entirely in black using a Pitt marker which is loaded with India ink. This is a compositional device, and it helps me to make a graphic statement, as well as establish points of emphasis. The contrast is a favorite tool of mine, but in this case I still wasn’t convinced the sketch had anywhere to go. I began to reconsider what elements I’d initially chosen to emphasize.

And here we are: Trying to maintain a visual flow with points of emphasis that are roughly triangular in shape, I’ve woven in spots of color. I’m using gouache because it is opaque enough to cover the gray-toned ground of the paper. It’s also matte, like the surface of the paper, so they mesh well, visually. Areas such as the top of the posts and the type get hit with a white gel pen – I rather like how that tends to pop off the gray tone of the Stillman & Birn sketchbook paper. The posts, by the way, bothered me left in the gray of the paper, so I changed them to a pattern of inked lines and decided I really hated that look. I’m much happier having used the black India ink to silhouette them. Notice that the water, which had been similarly silhouetted earlier in the process, has had a layer of gouache added, impacting the previous compositional decisions so that the visual structure is more interesting.

In Hanover, New Hampshire, on the Dartmouth campus, rain began to fall and I sheltered under one of the huge trees lining the streets there. At the corner, one pedestrian was so engrossed in something on his iPhone that he missed not one, but three crossing lights! It’s not often that I get a street subject to stand still for any length of time; realizing what was happening I quickly penciled in the basics of his figure. (I had to sort of guess at the umbrella after he’d wandered across the road.) Leaning against a tree trunk I penciled in the truck and some indications of environment, then inked the contour lines while I waited out the shower.

The same process applies here. I’m especially happy with the leading lines that make this compositional design work. The lettering, once again, was filled in with the white gel pen, as were a couple of the flourishes: the boat in the background and the highlighted edges of the plastic containers. As with all of these examples, the gouache was not added in the field, but much later on.

For this sketch, made during lunch in Edgartown, I used my Kuretake No. 40 brush pen rather than a Uni-Ball. I’m not certain, but I think this may have been the only time I used that particular drawing tool on this trip… when things are working for me, I tend to stick with them. The ladies sitting at the bar were easy subjects for the duration of my meal (which, by the by, included the first $20 hamburger I’ve ever eaten.) This was actually the first gouache experiment I made in my sketchbook. The drawing was nice but felt empty somehow. What, I asked myself, would be the worst that could happen if I added touches of gouache over the linework? Would it get too “cartoon-y?”

That experiment led to the series I’m currently working on. Meanwhile, I’m also developing some straight plein-air work with gouache. It’s just a gouache sort of time for me, I suppose.

Final note here: I want to point out that despite the emphasis on technique in this blog posting, what’s most important to me than anything else, and what works for me in all of these is a sense of story. I’m interested in making sketches that communicate some narrative component and I’m happy that one can look at these sketches and ask, “What’s going on here?” When that happens I feel that my efforts have been successful.

Memorial Day

28 May, 2018. I encountered a group of American Legionnaires preparing for a Memorial Day recognition this morning. White haired and white bearded, and wearing starched white uniforms, the sight of these guys brought back memories – especially seeing the bugler. My last two years of high school I was the American Legion/VFW bugler. My job was to play taps at military funerals as well as any event where taps was required. It got me out of school on a regular basis, and I got to travel around the state with a raucous and grizzled group of men, burping and pissing and drinking beer – but always deadly serious about why they were in attendance.

It’s ridiculously hot today, especially for May. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I made a line drawing of one Legionnaire from the comfort of my air conditioned car, then added color a while later from the comfort of my air conditioned home. As much as I like to sketch in situ, on this day I was a big sissy. And there’s a real irony to this, considering my subject matter: white haired old men who toughed out unimaginable conditions and circumstances, guys who were shrugging off the heat to recognize their comrades who never made it home. Yeah, I’m a big sissy, and I’m pretty confident that anyone who never served, anyone who never experienced what these guys have – well, I’m pretty sure the rest of us are sissies too. Be sure to thank a veteran today. And tomorrow too, while you’re at it.

So I’ve been playing around with the combination of two medias in the tiny little grey-toned Stillman & Birn sketchbook. First, I’ve made a loose contour drawing using a Uni-Ball Deluxe pen.

Then, I’ve added color using gouache. It sounds similar to the somewhat standard technique of adding watercolor over line, but the results are different. For one thing, the opaque paint hides any lines one wishes to disappear, allowing a bit of brush carving and correction to shapes that aren’t as flattering as they might otherwise be.

I continue to explore the possibilities of very limited color palettes, this time combining Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Geranium, and white. I wasn’t sure if they’d work well, particularly because there’s little in the way of deep color for shadows. But I was surprised at the high key look that is achievable, not to mention the vivid warm color that comes from the yellow and magenta. The range of greens is limited, but harmonious.

Feelin’ the Zorn

24 April, 2018. A couple days ago I mentioned that I planned to try out the Zorn Palette on a couple of these 4 x 3 inch gouache studies I’ve been plowing through for the 100 day creativity challenge. As of this writing, I’ve made a couple of attempts, the first of which is illustrated above.

The Zorn Palette is a limited paint group: Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, a mixing white, and Cadmium Red Medium. Well, just like when I cook it took me all of about two minutes before I changed the recipe. Instead of Cad Red (which I don’t happen to own a tube of in gouache), Scarlet Lake was substituted. It makes a difference when mixing with blue hues, but as you may notice there’s no blue in this color grouping. Ivory Black has cool characteristics and substitutes in a very restrained, but harmonious, way for the blue corner of the color triad. Mixed with Yellow Ochre, some nice greenish toned mixes are possible.

I like limited palettes and have experimented extensively with various versions of the triad. In watercolor, my kit usually has a cool and a warm blue, red, and yellow, with a green for mixing earth tones. Many of my friends have commented on how few colors I carry – so imagine a kit of only four opaque paints! I confess that it felt very discomforting trying to rethink the color organization of what I was observing, and translating those into the limited color range of the Zorn Palette.

But stepping back, allowing a little time to pass and a little distance from the painted image… I rather like the subtle color range.

Art making in a rural community

7 April, 2018. I was recently asked to contribute a small sketch to an exhibition. I get a lot of requests of this nature, so the invitation in and of itself wasn’t remarkable. What was unusual was that the request came from a student in a small, rural high school, a young lady interested in the role art plays in communities such as hers. Having graduated from a small town high school myself, it got me thinking.

The small sketch I sent to her was painted on a 4 x 6 inch piece of illustration board that she provided to each exhibitor. I explained that mine was a quick sketch using gouache to represent a rural landscape I’d recently encountered. I’m an avid cyclist; it’s not unusual for me to take off with no set destination in mind, only to discover hours later that I’m on a paved country road sixty miles from home. I carry sketching supplies with me when I ride, and my little sketch began life as a quickly scribbled pen drawing of a recently burnt field. I’m sure this practice is common in other places as well – in the Midwest, one will often come upon a soot-blackened field in the early Spring months: one good rain later, and the field turns into a blanket of fresh greens. My colors were added later on: I built up a couple of layers of loosely blocked in hues and explained to her that I was using gouache, which is an opaque watercolor media. My work is usually very loose with a lively approach to line work, but I like to play and experiment. This sketch is an example of that sort of artistic play and reinterpretation of a scene.

Rural communities. I think the internet and social media make it much easier today for artists in rural communities to be part of the “outside world.” About a year ago I began to interview artists from around the world for Drawing Attention, the official magazine of Urban Sketchers. Despite what the name may imply with the word “urban” in the title, many of the artists I write about live and work in very remote areas. Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Etsy – among many other platforms – provide a means for artists to “shrink” the world down to a manageable size. I’ve often wondered if nineteenth century artists might not have been very envious of our twenty-first century connectivity!

Artist recognition in rural areas. Many art makers seek out validation. It’s tough to create art; we often question ourselves and our abilities, and young artists in particular need encouragement – confirmation that what we do is worth the act of doing it. I was asked about artist recognition as it relates to rural art makers. The question seemed to imply that the environment might be a more limited one in terms of artist recognition, and I suppose there may be truth in that presumption. I responded that artists living in rural areas might consider engaging in public art projects in order to generate visibility. In my home of Liberty, Missouri the community recently hired a mural artist from someplace in Iowa to create a very large artwork on the town square. It occurred to me that community organizations might be a key: community theatre provides a valid means of artistic expression for those who wish to perform, as does community orchestras and choirs – why not create a sketching group? Making art doesn’t have to be limited to the “professionals” (whatever that actually means these days.) Community engagement could mean that everyone is invited to participate, regardless of one’s ability.

I come from a rural community of about 2,000 residents, Slater, Missouri. In a place this small, if you can draw you are automatically identified as “the artist.” My pathway in the 1970’s was to leave town, go to university, and begin a career as a designer and illustrator. Finding an audience was easy for me: I learned to talk intelligently, to listen to my client, and to logically solve the visual problems that confronted them in their advertising or publishing needs. When you can meet those conditions, your audience tends to find you. That also eventually led to me understanding that others could benefit from what I learned. Thus, I moved from practitioner to teacher nearly twenty years ago, but my personal accomplishments came about after “leaving for the big city.” It seems to me that some feel this is the only legitimate pathway toward artist recognition.

I’m not totally on board with the idea that “recognition” should be the end goal for an artist. I feel that an artist has a need to communicate and share. If one’s message resonates, recognition might follow. But I am aware of many people who have achieved recognition, yet accomplished very little. Those priorities seem to be switched to me: accomplish first. Is making art your vocation or your avocation? Do you make art to make a living? Or to make life more enjoyable? In the end, I often feel like my response to questions raises even more questions than I answer.

And maybe that’s what it means to be an art maker, regardless of where it is you happen to call home.

Do you dream in color?

26 March, 2018. So, consider the question “Do you dream in color?” After many years of truly not knowing for certain, I can answer definitively “yes.” Here’s how I know for certain: Two nights ago I dreamed of sketching the upper portion of a building (not this one.) I could vividly see the loosely painted colors of Cadmium Red Light contrasted against Perylene Green. I recall thinking in my dream that the two colors were almost (but not quite) complimentary.

Upon waking Sunday, I told myself I needed to add those two colors to a similar sketch I’d made on Saturday morning in Eureka Springs to better recall the sensation of seeing color in my dream. Having done so, I realized almost immediately that the Perylene Green in my dream was slightly more of an Olive hue. So why is this important? I’ve no idea, really. But I felt there was some imperative and rather than question it I acted upon the imperative. I can still “see” those two hues in my head, so clearly that I am planning to mix a batch of the Perylene up and pollute it with some yellow or ochre just to get that specific color.

Architecturally, Eureka Springs is such an unusual town, with structures built right into the side of steep hills. It’s an interesting hodge podge of styles and it’s impossible – I mean, quite literally impossible – to find a point-of-view where one is looking directly at a building from anything resembling a “normal” perspective. You’re either looking up or down, usually at the same time. I like how I can find myself positioned in this town to see incredibly odd architectural angles.

As a kid we would visit Eureka Springs and I remember listening to my parents bitch about “all the hippies” in the town: long haired cats playing guitars and wearing beads and bell bottoms and blousy shirts, rather unkempt and generally followed by an equally unkempt and long haired little kid (or two). Regardless of how mom and dad felt about the place, to me it was a pretty cool scene.

Now, the town seems overrun with bikers, farmers, red necks, and bible belters – pretty much as different a population as you can imagine from the flower children I recall from my youth. (Although trust me: there are plenty of locals of my age who are remnants of those days.) All the same, it was a genuinely delicious moment to spot a couple of real live hipsters on the street, strolling about. Culture layered upon culture layered upon culture. I love this cool little town!

I intentionally kept my sketches loose and quick. In fact, it took longer to fill in the mass of black above  than it did to scribble out all three of the actual sketches, I think. These are each a combination of Uni-Ball and a Fude fountain pen.