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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

Cold fog at dawn

9 February, 2019. If nothing else, this week of miserable weather has served as something of a muse.

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Watercolor on 300# Arches Cold Press, 7 x 7 inches.

Tonight, I painted quickly.

6 February, 2019. No school tomorrow – again. For three weeks in a row, Mother Nature has elected to hurl ice and snow and sub-zero temperatures our way, only to briefly rebound, then turn around and hit once more. For three weeks in a row, I’ve only taught four days out of five; today, in fact, I only led one single art class – and that for only thirty-five minutes: barely time enough to get out, then put away supplies.

Perhaps I was feeling the urgency to produce fast today, an urgency that was a reflection, no doubt, of my students scurrying around an art room and making a valiant, if somewhat doomed attempt at progress on this, day two of a four day assignment. The urgency I felt, therefore, was artificial. In fact, I had all evening to myself, and all day tomorrow, and the evening that follows. There was little need to rush through anything. Why not savor the opportunity, languish in this moment of unexpected freedom?

But I did not. There was an urgency to place paper on the board, quickly wet it, and just as quickly drag washes of color across the moist surface, haphazardly – but carefully and intentionally, mind you! – placing slightly differing hues of blue in such a way as to allow color to bleed softly into color.

I remember once in college being so affected, so overwhelmed by the beauty of a sudden thunderstorm that I painted in a near frenzy. My roommate thought I’d gone mad – and in a sense I suppose I had. My ability to use paint expressively was nil at the time, and the frustration I felt at an inability to express what I felt in that moment was keen. It is a frustration that to this day I can recall vividly.

Tonight, I painted quickly. The sketch took only minutes to express, and it seemed important that it happen in that way: quickly. To labor over the sky would be tantamount to sapping the life from the sketch.

Tonight I chose to let the sketch live or die by its own energy.

Or lack thereof.

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“Sky before the rain and ice,” watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II, approximately 6 x 6 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.

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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.

Winter Gloom

18 January, 2019. Boy, am I ever done with this weather! As I write this, the world outside my window is layer upon layer of opaque white, actually quite lovely looking in a very graphic sort of way. But I’m stuck indoors so much that I’m going just a little batty. Snow, cold, frozen fog, drizzle – none of it is particularly conducive to getting outside.

I’ve been staying pretty close to my neighborhood, especially last weekend when a big snow storm hit us. Finally, deciding I really couldn’t wander from one end of the house to the other yet again, I got into the four wheel drive and headed out to explore. The world was, as my sketch above indicates, entirely black and white.

Down the hill from here is a Chinese restaurant that I visit every now and then. With the Subaru already warmed up, the cold was braved and spring rolls helped to assuage the gloom of winter.

Uni-Ball Vision pen in Crescent sketchbook, page size is approximately 3.5 x 5 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.