We had a weekend of outrageously good weather. Might have been the best I’ve ever had in the Rockies. Sketching times ranging from 45 minutes sitting in the sun, to 5 minutes leaning on the car while photographers jumped out for roadside shots.
[Welsh Pond] Note: This was 7am so the photogs could get this mirror glass water. I can tell you, watercolor won’t dry on a chilly damp morning. Had to walk back out of the trees and find patch of sun to dry the painting between doing the first wet-in-wet pass and the dark tree line.
One of my old art school chums has become a serious rock climber in the years we’ve been away. On a recent trip back home, she invited us to join her climbing buddies for a day at Grassi Lakes, above Canmore AB.
The ladies were doing rapid scrambles up 35 feet of vertical rock faces, taking only five or six minutes top to bottom, testing themselves against different routes and difficulties. Sometimes ‘hang dogging’ or ‘taking a whipper’ – but mostly making it look easy.
My friend led her first 5.10d pitch on that day, which was cool to be there to see. Much appropriate high-fiving and who-hooing all around.
I think this group of climbing vets wouldn’t normally choose this kind of spot. I get the feeling it’s a lot closer to civilization than they prefer. They’d quite generously picked a place I could hike into without raising my heart rate.
We started early, initially having the spot to ourselves, but by mid-day the walls were crawling with climbers.
There are lanes of bolts set in to the walls, every 20 feet or so around the upper lake, making what I can’t help calling a vertical bowling alley out of the box canyon.
Every pitch was in use. There were old pro’s showing new guys the ropes – (hah! Literally!), hard core mountaineers with ratty dreadlocks and well used gear, next to city people in super hero lycra and matching harnesses. At the foot of the wall patient crag dogs waited, people prepped lunch, (we had smoked sausages, that I bet smell *great* to bears), and significant others swam in the lake while their buff-er partners clung to the rocks. Or mostly, swapped stories and waited their turn.
You have to wonder how long the rock faces will stand up to such popular use. But I guess, this is the way of things. I can see the climbers love the mountains, and people try to be responsible. But at the same time, it seems there’s no stopping the growth of sport climbing in the Rockies. Every year it’s just going to get bigger. I suppose it will push the good climbing further out into the parks – and then there will be heli-climbing. You can’t stop people getting at the thing they love. Which I have respect for in its own way, given what I do.
I’m always excited (and a bit nervous) to sketch something like this. Something I haven’t seen before. Doubly so, when it’s something that won’t hold still for you. You never lose the concern you’ll flounder, be unable to capture what’s happening.
But I think the very new-ness of the thing, the fact you’ve never drawn it before, makes you hyper focused. Plus the pressure to live up to the occasion. The drawings might not be as polished as with more familiar, or more standing-still subjects, but they’re always a living record of a new experience.
They climbed and I drew, might have been four hours, maybe more. I think they were surprised I kept at it the whole time – I was impressed with their physical ability, and clear desire to get just one more run in.
Doing something like this, (drawing or climbing) that locks you into the zone – time just flies, and you don’t get tired. That is, Until you’re done for the day and the long walk back to the car happens in a kind of played-out but self-satisfied quiet-time.
It’s last minute packing time before the Urban Sketchers symposium in Brazil.
I’ve been waffling back and forth over what to bring. There was a time I was willing to carry the kitchen sink, but these days my 40 year old neck is telling me to pack light.
[The old me, in Santo Domingo with a huge tripod easel]
Experience from last year in Barcelona suggests being attentive to ‘bag security’ while in Brazil. There were a number incidents of theft from distracted sketchers. Mostly phones and tablets. This is easy enough to avoid. Just don’t bring those items. But, in any crowded city, my general policy is: never put your bag down, never spread your stuff out, be able to walk away at any time. This is not just paranoia, it’s handy for staying out of the way of traffic, avoiding panhandlers, dodging police, etc.
So, here’s what I’ve settled on. The plan requires two bags actually.
Go Bag Watercolor! 14 Liter 34x26x14cm Cocotte FRED. Loaded weight 11lbs.
CONTENTS: A: Sirui tripod, B: Eric Michaels tripod accessory tray, C: 6 – 11×14” Coroplast drawing boards (thus, 12 sheets of paper – more than enough for a day – typical over-packing!), D: brush case full of too many brushes (I will probably only use the #10 round), E: Holbein 12 slot tin palette, F: 250 ml Nalgene water jar (optionally x2 – will see if I need more), G: bag of bulldog clips for dogging down boards, H:
Moleskine mini-sketchbook (removed) I: pouch with paper towels, eyeglass cleaner, J: pouch with black and sepia washable ink (removed), 60ml water bottle for ‘kung fu grip’ and misting bottle. K: sun screen, sun sleeves and scarf (yes, I’m over doing the sun safety – but now that I’m outdoors ‘full time’, better safe than sorry). There’s even space remaining for a water bottle.
You’ll note the absence of any drawing supplies. This my minimum kit for watercolor. If I bring pens, I’m going to end up drawing :) I just like drawing too much. But mainly I want to be able to grab the bag and go, knowing I’m set up for watercolor. This is the way my creativity works: I set up a project for the day, and do ONLY that. Otherwise I’d be bouncing around and never finish anything.
Go Bag Sketching! 6 Liter 27x19x12cm Cocotte FRIDA. Loaded weight 4.6lbs.
CONTENTS: A: Hand Book 8×8” watercolor sketchbook and coroplast backing boards. B: pouch with tin boxes of (way too many!) pen cartridges and pencil leads (what is wrong with me? it’s not like I’m going to run out this many times! Security blanket behavior!), black and white gouache, kneaded eraser, C: mini-kit of W&N half-pan watercolors and #10 DaVinci sable travel brush (don’t know what I’ll do if this wears out/gets lost – I bought it back when I had a job!), D: pencil box with Lamy Safari fountain pen, 0.7mm pencil, Kuretake #13 brush pen, E: Tachikawa nib holder and various nibs, F: Pouch with 30ml bottles of black and sepia (washable) ink, 60ml water bottles, sun screen, sun sleeves and scarf. G: That’s not really there. Combined with H.
If I can manage it, (convenience/willpower) I might do all my drawing with the dip nibs, allowing me to ditch all those pen cartridges. That would be nice. I could lose all the tin boxes and probably save an entire pound.
I’ve done up a little ‘cheat sheet’ for my class at the USk Symposium in Paraty. It’s a single page (folded) booklet crammed with notes about my watercolor field sketching process.
Naturally it’s meant as a companion to the workshop, but even if you can’t make it to Brazil, it can still be a handy guide.
I find, once I dive in to a sketch, it goes by in a blur. So it’s good to have a plan in the back of your mind. Maybe tuck the booklet into your sketchbook, and just glance over it before you begin – kind of a refresher about strategy.
You can download THIS PDF FILE, (also found on my Downloads page. Send this link to friend). Then print it and fold it: in half lengthwise, and in half again shortwise – to make the booklet. It’s set up for Letter size (8.5×11″) and uses the entire page so un-check ‘fit to printable area’ (under the page scaling pull-down) to use every square inch on American sheets or, if you’re using A4 leave that feature checked and you’ll get a bit of extra white on around edges.
Feel free to use this handout in your own workshops or classrooms, even if they’re not a USK event!
Illustrator James Gurney, best known as the author of “Dinotopia“, and the instant art instructional classic “Color and Light” has recently released an art instructional DVD all about field sketching in watercolor.
James graciously sent me a copy of the DVD to review. On the disk you get an introductory chapter covering his well-chosen field kit – a set of art supplies that packs down into a tiny bag – followed by six ‘over the shoulder’ narrations, each taking a watercolor sketch from start to finish. You’ll see a few architectural subjects, some of his hallmark ‘travelling-naturalist’ studies of animals, and a ‘portrait interview’ of a civil war re-enactor.
I talked to James last year, around the time of his Dinotopia Exhibiton at the Arkell Museum. Back then we discussed his philosophy to do with sketching on location, and a little bit of the “making of” process behind this DVD. Go back to that old interview if you want to see shots of the gear he’s used to make these sketches.
What you are getting with these video tutorials, above all else, is the benefit of Gurney’s tremendous experience.
The subjects of the sketches are not actually that important. I liked some of his locations quite a bit, others were a matter of taste. But what is of great value is seeing how he finishes these pieces. Watching step by step through his planning and blocking-in stages – crucial phases that make his remarkable finish happen ‘like magic’. If you hadn’t seen the loose, open brushwork at the beginning, you’d swear his final work was the result of painful nitpicking – rather than his free, confident sketching hand.
He truly is making it look easy. But that’s worth seeing – so you know for real how to get there yourself.
Gurney has streamlined his portable art kit to exactly what he needs and nothing more. It’s a minimum of equipment, but he wrings every ounce of performance from it.
Using three kinds of material – pan watercolors, watercolor pencils, and washable (Higgins) ink, you’ll see him create a full range of values from subtle glazes to darkest darks, just as you would expect from an accomplished oil painter working in watercolor. Much like we observed at the Sargent watercolor show in Brooklyn, Gurney paints solid, massed in figures, followed up by well observed surface textures. These are on-the-money pictorial studies, quickly executed, under sometimes difficult conditions. Live animal subjects, rapidly setting sun – things one might reasonably avoid – (he says he enjoys the challenge!).
I highly recommend the affordably priced download for anyone who wants to learn more about achieving realistic paintings on location. There are actually some bonus items with the download that you don’t get on the DVD. More content for less – you can’t argue with that.
That’s how I learned to draw after art school. Nobody did drawings on location at my college, and strangely not much still-life either. It was either drawing the figure, or drawing from imagination. So for years after art school I just kept at it. Sometimes going three nights a week during my peak years.
Right after my recent direct-to-watercolor marathon I signed up for a week long figure drawing workshop at UQAM. If you live anywhere near Montreal, they do this class twice a year. A solid week, 9-5 in the studio, with a wide variety of models. I don’t know of a better workshop deal anywhere. This is my second time doing it. I hope to find the time again next year.
This year something weird happened. Suddenly I found myself with extra time. Usually I’m working right to the last micro second of a pose. But this year, with all the recent plein air painting practice I found enough time in between long poses to do these sneaky portraits in the margins.
I figured it was time to try direct watercolor painting on some complex urban subjects. My previous paintings had been somewhat easier to manage, being in more simplified settings. (Huge tree shapes, isolated, simple structures).
So I headed down to Montreal’s ‘painted ladies’ – the Victorians at Square Saint Louis. This first try was a bit of a shock – harder than I expected to capture these intricate rooftops. All the gingerbread and fish-scale tiles. You can be the judge if this one is a success. I’ll call it a learning experience.
Moving on to this view of Saint George Anglican church, in downtown Montreal, across the street from the monolithic sandstone block of our central train station, I find a more suitable view.
Still quite a challenge. In real life it’s a busy intersection, lots of traffic, and much of the important information in the church is covered by foliage.
Here’s a series of steps showing how I broke the view into ‘The Three Big Shapes’. I have a section in my upcoming book, in which I suggest a theory. An iconic, or ‘symbolic’ landscape painting could be made of only three shapes – Sky, Ground and Subject. So I say three big shapes, even though in reality it might be five, or seven or how ever many shapes you need.
Any scene, no matter how complex, can be simplified into these ‘puzzle pieces’. What I’ve been calling logical chunks’. The goal of the exercise is to see how FEW of these shapes you need to use. This is the essence of simplification. What can be merged into a shared silhouette? What internal details can be abstracted away?
I try to make each of the shapes I’ve identified with one continuous bead. Carrying a wash down the bell tower, stopping at a logical spot along the ground line. Or working across the roof line of the train station, infusing the whole shape with the grey-green tone of copper cladding. This gives the puzzle pieces an internal unity of color, and sharp edges between plane changes. Where you stop an edge is just as important as where you start.
The last step is the small dark details that turn the puzzle pieces into architecture. All the window ledges, lamp posts and traffic lights. What architects sometimes call ‘street furniture’.
So, thanks for reading all of this! That’s the end of my project on direct-to-watercolor urban sketching. I hope that was interesting, and as always, feel free to send any questions you might have.