Wandering.

28 March, 2019. Yes, I’m thinking I’ve found what was once a pretty swanky neighborhood. The house is called Bishop Palace.

For over a century, this place has been a landmark in Galveston. One of the few buildings to emerge from the devastating early 20th century hurricane, the house was mostly intact – but not unscathed. In fact, the back of the house was ripped off entirely, forcing later renovations.

For only a few dollars, one is allowed to wander about the first and second floor, taking in 19th century ideas of opulence. Indeed the carvings and woodwork are amazing.

Not many blocks away, ships and boats and industry and commerce are evident.

Walking several blocks from Bishop Palace, once encounters more dilapidated, but intact and in use buildings. I wondered if there was a seedier side of town and eventually I found it. There’s history present here as well, and I love it as much as I do the elegant woodwork and corinthian columns.

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Uni-Ball Vision Pen and watercolor wash in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

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Beach houses.

26 March, 2019. I’ve made up my mind that this visit will not be punctuated by tours or anything at all resembling a need to meet anything at all resembling a schedule. Indeed, I will simply wander, my only purpose: explore at a slow pace, and stop where I may.

I enjoy looking at the beach houses. They look like the kind of place one can cozy up next to a fire or laze about on a porch overlooking the water. I enjoy the variety of silhouettes each outline creates, and the oddness of a complete house resting upon stilts. I enjoy the many windows and imagine the light bathing each interior.

Diagonals contrast with horizontals: the horizontal nature of an island, of the ocean; the diagonals of roof lines and the wonky shadows created by the early morning sun.

Grays permeate the landscape, but are themselves polluted with a bath of pink, a wash of cerulean blue, violets, periwinkles, Terre verte.

In the afternoon, as the day warms, I head out on two wheels to enjoy a few hours of bike sketching: rolling along until something strikes my fancy, then stopping to sketch for a bit before once again rolling down the road.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and watercolor wash on Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

A beach kind of morning.

24 March, 2019. We’d arrived in Galveston the night before. Our first morning dawned cool and breezy. Stepping out of the hotel and down a wood plank walkway, I was immediately surrounded by sand and dunes and ocean. Just past sunrise, the beach was mine entirely and I was able to walk and sketch for miles in either direction.

The houses along my stretch of sand are charming, some appearing to be under repair, while towels dangling from railings reveal the presence of habitants in other structures. In spite of brightly colored facades, the overwhelming sense is of grays and neutral colors on this day. The cloud cover is thick; the water and even the sand a reflection of those overcast hues.

There are warning signs to stay off the dunes. I assume this is to keep the fragile ecosystems from being trampled by picnickers and drunks, and then I’m startled to read that the warning pertains to the presence of rattlesnakes! I make note to stay far away from those places.

As morning wanes, I continue to wander and sketch as the moment takes me. People begin to emerge and populate the beach – not hordes, but a few here and there. Some, like me, are wearing a hoodie or a jacket. But others are enticed into shorts by the lure of the sea, and thus also the brisk ocean waters.

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Uni-Ball Vision and watercolor wash in Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

“Do I know you?”

23 March, 2019. “Do I know you? You look very familiar…“

I put my pen down, momentarily confused. The lady at the next table was staring at me intently. At first I thought it was because I was surreptitiously trying to sketch her and her companions without obviously doing so. It was our second or third day on Galveston Island and I was making every effort to sketch my surroundings wherever I happened to be.

“I know I know you.” She waited for me to reply.

“Only from television and the movies.“ My response was glib, and I smiled. In fact we all smiled, and everyone chuckled.

But as lunch progressed, her continued gaze made it more and more apparent that she wasn’t going to let her curiosity go further unremarked upon. Where, oh where did she know me from? My admirer made no secret about studying me closely, reversing the voyeuristic role that artists more normally assume.

Suddenly her body language changed entirely. She straightened, sat upright and brightened, exclaiming, “Oh! I know! You’re James Patterson!”

Clearly, I am not. And just as clearly, I don’t look anything like James Patterson. (More like Bill Bryson if I had to pick an author as my doppelgänger. And even that is an awfully long stretch.)

Nevertheless, I replied, “You got me. Be sure to buy my next book.“

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Uni-Ball Vision and watercolor washes in a Stillman and Birn sketchbook.

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.

Neutral colors.

3 March, 2019. My mom was having car problems and since I was overdue for a visit anyway, I drove south this weekend to see her and fix her old Ford Taurus. The problem was an easy one: the battery needed to be replaced, so after pulling it and purchasing a replacement I wandered around her neighborhood while I waited for the new one to get fully charged. She lives in a suburb of Kansas City, a small town that has exploded on the outskirts but which remains a small town at the core. The downtown is charming, as are the surrounding neighborhoods of homes built in the 20’s and 30’s.

I hadn’t planned to have the opportunity to sketch, assuming I’d be elbow deep under the hood of her car. But having come from our monthly sketch crawl my backpack was filled with sketching tools and a couple of sketchbooks. To keep things simple I chose a pencil and began to make quick thumbnails of the buildings that caught my eye. The happy thing about small pencil studies is that things don’t get overworked if I focus on the contrast of lights and darks. My tastes sometimes run toward the nostalgic, and those roomy houses with large front porches struck me as the sort of comfy place I’d love to find myself on a summer evening. 

With no plan in mind I simply sketched. It’s easier for me to maintain believable proportions if I focus on the overall shapes and how they relate to the negative spaces. In fact, I love those unoccupied spaces! By studying the empty areas my sketches aren’t bogged down with unnecessary detail: simplicity is much more pleasing to my eye.  

The day is overcast and I make note of the lack of vibrant color. I want to remember the sense of drabness later when I dab some of these studies with a variety of grays and neutral hues.

I never thought of that.

2 March, 2019. I have a sort of Jekyll and Hyde relationship with color. Some days I feel I can do no wrong. It seems like I have a real grasp of the intricacies of color relationships. I playfully toss a blob of paint into a wash and voilà! Magic!

And at other times I am at complete loss.

Color intrigues me, but perhaps not as much as the relationship of line, shape, and space does. I love to draw, and I love to design. It may be that I’m wary of devoting more thought to color, fearing such attention comes at the expense of those elements that pull me into a composition.

I might also be lazy.

Be that as it may, I’ll wager nearly everyone who enjoys drawing and painting feels like there is something elusive, something just outside their grasp. And for me it’s color. One way I offset my perceived deficiencies is to seek out and study artists and art I admire.

Yesterday’s mail brought me an advance copy of Shari Blaukopf’s new book, Working with Colorpublished by Quarto Creates. Now full disclosure: some of my own words and sketches are used in Blaukopf’s book to illustrate the color concepts she shares with readers. But much more importantly, this book is filled with Blaukopf’s own wonderful watercolors, along with a liberal sprinkling of contributions from Marc Taro Holmes, Richard Johnson, Renato Palumuti, Marion Rivolier, Inma Serrano, Pat Southern-Pearce, and a host of other incredible Urban Sketchers, all of whose work I greatly admire.

This book is the latest in a series of “Urban Sketching Handbooks,” and what I most appreciate about these titles is the way they pointedly avoid going into technical aspects. Let’s face it: There are plenty of “how to” books on the market, and a thoughtful Google search will bring up dozens, if not hundreds of excellent pages and videos demonstrating any technique in any media you can imagine. No, what the Urban Sketching Handbooks do really well is teach and inspire by example. I love to look at the illustrations and catch myself thinking “Hmmm… I never thought of doing it thatway before…”

Sunday morning light.

25 February, 2019. Sunday mornings are almost always magical. I get up early, as I do on most days. But there’s never much on my “to do” list, nor is there any real rush to get anywhere as there tends to be on work days. On sunny days, the light comes through the eastern facing windows of my kitchen, low and soft. No matter what is on the counter top, the long shadows and diffused, glowing light turns the viewing of those things into an aesthetic experience. This morning “those things” were lemons – but it could have just as easily been salt and pepper shakers, yesterday’s mail, or last night’s empty bottle of Bordeaux.

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Watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II paper

These lemons were on my kitchen counter early this morning. I love the way the light struck them, and the long, cast shadows that drifted across the surface. The reflections of color on the counter top is also something that I enjoyed seeing.

I have tried to begin with highly detailed pencil sketches, only to discover that is simply too much information. If I’m painting, I have greater success beginning with as few light lines as possible to work out the composition and relative scale of things. From there, I’ll let the process kind of determine what happens. (If I’m working with pens, I’ll usually forgo any pencil lines at all and just begin drawing.)

Once upon a time I would laboriously dry brush my work. No longer! I’m more comfortable letting the water and pigment kind of “dance” around the page. It either works or it doesn’t.

Value contrast is what brings things to life in a watercolor painting. I feel particularly aware of those contrasts, as well as what is taking place in the contrast between positive and negative shapes. Although I originally thought the asymmetrical composition worked with the three lemons, I realized that the energy was on the right hand side of the sheet. I eventually ignored the third lemon and the left side of the composition, opting to crop the image to focus on the reflective glow rather than the depth of background.

A tale of two cities.

22 February, 2019. A couple of days ago I shared some super quick pencil sketches I made while traipsing around downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

I’d already decided I liked one enough to use it as the basis for a color study, emphasizing a combination of washes, shapes, and the interplay of positive and negative spaces. What I didn’t expect was how dramatically different the watercolor would be from the pencil. Sure, it’s clear that they are compositionally of the same family: The subject and point of view don’t differ at all. But emotionally, expressively, the two sketches diverge. I feel like the pencil sketch has an energy emerging from the urgency of the marks. It doesn’t reveal much in the way of detail, yet I love how it has captured a sense of place. I love how the vague generalities, and maybe it’s me, but I even feel the winter season is credibly present. By contrast, the crisper edges of the watercolor have a sharpness to them, the color seems to demand a more immediate response, whereas there’s a tendency toward thoughtfulness in the pencil. To be clear, I don’t know that I favor one sketch over the other, I just find it interesting to make the comparison.

What do you think?

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.

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Watercolor on Arches 180# Coldpress.