An old sort of yard.

5 March, 2019. I’m sitting there, just stretched out in my arm chair staring out a window overlooking a snow covered backyard and wondering where, oh where Spring is hiding. Violet shadows stretch across an alabaster blanket and there are no middle tones to speak of. I really should be painting this scene: it’s pretty much perfect for watercolor.

But it’s also perfect for a quick pen sketch, scrawly and scribbly and just kind of raw. It’s an old sort of day, and my yard is an old sort of yard. The Cottonwood trees are tall. Even bereft of leaves, the long limbs still wrap themselves around the place. Atop my shed, an otherwise rusted roof is brilliantly white for the moment; it also hides ten thousand fallen branches and vines. Inside, half a cord of wood and a riding mower and two dozen fishing poles – only the wood will see daylight while the snow remains. Behind the shed, weeds twist and tangle, just as scribbly as my pen lines. Somewhere underneath it all my rhubarb sleeps, waiting, like me, for Spring.

Fude-tip fountain pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.

A day without color.

24 February, 2019. The day is black and white – no exaggeration at all. I look around me in search of any glimpse of color, but there’s none at all. The snow is over for now, replaced by rain and a little wind and a dense fog. Whatever hues are out there, they’ve all been subject to a gauze-like filter. Shapes are indistinct; objects simply disappear beyond a hundred yards or so. In between, everything else is a graphic halftone: this tree is closer to me and I can make out 60% of the monochromatic values, that tree is a bit further off and perhaps only a quarter of the tones are visible. Beyond that is a milky nothingness.

I know there are houses and more trees. A muffled bark, soft in the distance… from what direction? And close or far? It’s impossible to tell.

The top layer of snow is melting in the rain. Tomorrow brings sun, so maybe I’ll pull on my winter cycling gear, stuff a small sketchbook into my jacket, and wheel down the road for twenty or thirty miles.

Fude-tip fountain pen, Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series sketchbook; approximately 5 x 7 inch page size.

There’s a stillness here.

20 February, 2019. Cool colors puddle, then spread, traveling through a clear sheen of water, landing with the softness of cotton. Paper, rough to the touch, is white – but not a pure white, there’s an honesty to the “off-ness,” a nod to the organic nature of fibers from which it comes. Still, hues glow a bit, transparency allowing the surface below to redouble a sense of saturation. There’s a stillness here, and I like it.

Watercolor on Arches 180# Coldpress.

August Watercolor Reveries

23 January, 2019. The botanical garden wasn’t huge. Divided into many small sections and organized thematically, it was a pleasure to explore the many varieties of plant life on display.

It was last August, I think – or at least so my field notes and references indicate. I distinctly recall the day was very hot. Moving quickly out of the sun and under the different canopies of green provided some respite. Gradually – even somewhat quickly – a slight breeze became evident, and the perspiration running down my back evaporated, my damp shirt dried out. And ironically, was immediately wet again as the skies opened up and it began to rain.

It was far from a deluge – a gentle sprinkle only, and there was no longer a need for shelter – not from the sun, and not from the rain either. Meandering, I entered one enclosure of foliage, a Japanese-influenced water garden. There, among the lily pads and green stems and fronds was a school of gold fish. Idly, they hovered in place, inches below the surface. Everything was calm, everything seemed perfect. The moment was golden and I was charmed enough to make a few quick sketches while I stood there.


Today is cold and icy. Schools are out because the roads are too dangerous for students to travel, and I am daydreaming – not about snow, but about August days and t-shirts and walking shorts and cool shade over a pool of still water.

These daydreams call for a large sheet of watercolor paper and paint freshly squeezed from tubes. I take many liberties along the way, deviating from my summer references so that colors are the important things this morning. I don’t consider myself to be a watercolor technician, but I get out a bottle of liquid frisket, an idea in mind as to what I’d like to accomplish. Who knows? Perhaps the liquid just old and spent, or – more likely – I simply don’t know what I’m doing with it, but to my chagrin I discovered it wouldn’t release from the paper.

Lost in my August watercolor reveries, there are no worries though. I simply leave the frisket in place and incorporate it into my finished work.

I didn’t want to labor over details. The fish is a simple silhouette, wetted with clear water, then Cad Red Light dumped onto the wetted surface. I dragged a touch of Cad Yellow Medium into the center while still wet, and one of my blues – I forget which – along the wet edge of the wash. Then left it alone.

The sun has come out and glances across my drawing table. For a few minutes on this frigid day I feel warm.

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.

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.

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.

New Year’s Day Sunrise

1 January, 2016. This is a lightning fast sketch – man, the light was changing fast! Nevertheless, the dramatic shadows across the snow caught my attention as the sun crested the horizon this first morning of 2016. The sketch doesn’t do the location justice: it’s just a fleeting glimpse, but I was happy to be there to see it happen.

By the way, I go through stages where I simply do not have the patience to paint in watercolor on location. This morning was one of those times. Despite the chill, water dried too fast on the shadows leaving them with a sketchy appearance – which bugs the living hell out of me. Also, those blues are a little too blue – they should have the tiniest bit of violet in ’em and that also have me reacting in an OCD sort of way. I know it’s silly to get hung up on a fifteen minute sketch, but there you have it folks: I sometimes do.

For some reason, painting in oils – well, oils never affect me the same way. I know up front when I’m painting en plein air with oils that I’ll be on location for about an hour or so, start to finish. Perhaps because I’m already working on some sort of internal timer to begin with, I’m more self-forgiving.

OK, enough with the psychoanalysis already. Time to check the forecast to see if I can spend more than fifteen minutes outdoors painting today. (Watercolor in Moleskin watercolor journal, Clay County, Missouri.)

Yes, winter has arrived.

28 December, 2015. Outside, the wind blows microscopic particles of ice across and over the roof tops, clouds of the stuff surging and dancing and puffing like a live animal, wildly free. The mercury has dropped on the thermometer, snow covers the ground and decorates the topside of boughs, the crooks and crannies of tree limbs. The world is mostly white and black, with a bit of gray thrown in for good measure. Whatever few leaves had been left clinging, futile effort that it was, are now gone. Winter has arrived.

The dog whines and begs to be released into this world blanketed in white, while the cats snuggle next to the heating vent, cuddled into a furry ball for hours on end. Yes, winter has definitely arrived.

Christmas break is half way over – or is it that I still have half of my time left before returning to school? It sometimes depends on my mood whether or not the glass is half empty or half full. I opened a new Canson sketchbook today and soiled the first pages with ink. I’m toying around with a new tool, a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen – it’s about time, too: I’ve carried the pen around with me for a month now without having put it through its paces.

The pen is fun and forces me to further restrain my marks, limiting me to choose only the most important lines to place on the page. I rather enjoy the Zen-like requirement, even though it also forces me to modify my more natural free-flowing line quality. I could see this being a tool for drawings informed by Chinese brush paintings. (Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, Canson 180 degree Sketchbook; Liberty, Missouri)