Passing Thoughts

27 January, 2019. Ah yes, another pleasant hour toying with my watercolor kit while the wind howls, fierce with cold. All the while, I dream of warmer times, perspiration on my back and the comfort of a cool breeze. The chill I feel isn’t from the evaporation of that trickle of sweat, but from the hard, cold wood floor of my studio space; the windows rattle and leaves fly past traveling on the gusts of wind. I return my attention to the half sheet of watercolor paper, the first wash almost dry enough now for the glaze that follows. I ponder the technicalities of painting something so much larger than the page of even my largest sketchbook. My discomfort translates into an exploration of an approach I’ve seldom embraced these last several years, that of working large. And though this is far and away much smaller than those enormous canvases I once smeared with thick layers of oil – still! This is bigger than the hand held sketches I churn out as I wander through life. To do something new and uncomfortable is the artist’s way.

This is the second painting I’ve made of this subject. Does two constitute the start of a series, or is it simply the continuation of a passing thought?

Watercolor on 300# Arches Cold Press, approximately 20 x 13.5 inches.


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.

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.

A Tale of Two Water Medias

8 July, 2018. As I’ve demonstrated on these pages the past several months, gouache media has captured my attention and a fair percentage of my sketching focus. I find myself torn in some ways: torn between using gouache as a limited tool (as above) vs. using the opaque paints to create a work in its entirety (as below). I’m also torn between gouache and watercolor. It’s easy to say well don’t be torn, use them both. But they handle so differently and have such different personalities.

I appreciate the way that gouache can be handled rather thickly – almost an impasto technique. This little color study demonstrates that brush marks can be incorporated into a media that I used to think was only suited for perfect, flat colors. There’s an energy  to this approach that can feel electric, fresh, and lively.

And so it’s been mostly gouache for me the past week or so, and definitely the past five or six months. I needed a bit less heavy handed touch so I went back to my pencil sketches and hit some of them with light washes of watercolor. Aside from water, the two paint medias are seriously different. The application of paint differs: On the one hand delicate little touches of watercolor, or bold washes of gradient color; on the other, much thicker individual strokes, opaque. The tools I use differ: with gouache it’s a stiffer bristle brush, probably made for oil or acrylic; with watercolor I prefer a nice quality round in a 12 or 14 size.

One media is energized, while the other tends to be sedate. These little sketches have a ton of “Dib-dabs” throughout.

When I got back home and made a few watercolor sketches, it felt good to simply “do.” Watercolor doesn’t require a lot of technical thought for me, whereas gouache is still new enough, still unknown enough, that I’m working towards a better understanding of it every single time I paint. Weirdly, I find myself referring to the use of watercolor as “sketching” while the process of applying gouache is painting. I wonder why I make that unconscious distinction?

I was one of the artists featured during a city-wide “Water Garden Society Tour” and felt less inclined to use gouache than watercolor. I do wonder though. I wonder if the dense shadows of foliage, painted thickly, is some of my recent practices in gouache painting emerging in my watercolor sketches. Could be there’s room for both in my life.