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Dawson College Watercolor Class Demo : White on White

October 6, 2014

I’m at Dawson College right now, doing a watercolor demo for the illustration class. This was my dry run. I like to do a version of a demo the night before, to improve my chances in front of an audience.

This guest appearance is something I’ve been doing for the last few years (2013, 2012). I hope it goes well. I had to be here at the ungodly hour of 8:30am. The first thing I’ll tell them is, as a professional artist, you will never have to be up at 8:30 again. Except that’s a total lie, as I was doing it all week in Brazil. But I digress.

I like doing this lecture. It’s just a brief demo, but it’s been helpful for me – doing it once a year. Clarifying how I talk about the three steps in the Light > to > Dark,  Large > to > Small painting process I call ‘Tea, Milk, Honey”. (More info on that here and here).



Here’s an attempt at recording the three steps, Tea, Milk and Honey. Apologies for the image quality in these shots.

Marble Head

Here’s the reference image I grabbed off the googles. The assignment the students are doing is ‘White on White’. A classic art school project designed to test a beginner’s abilities. You have to have a light hand, building up tone carefully, or you quickly go too dark. I found it quite tricky myself – as I’m normally trying to push watercolors darker than is natural. For this high key image I had to modify my Tea Milk Honey process to be more like Tea, Tea, Strong Tea :)

As you can see, I’ve ended up with a lot more color than in the reference. I couldn’t help it! At the end of the day, what’s the point of making a painting, if you can’t splash a little paint around. This kind of sculptural study would probably be better as a pencil drawing assignment. I did studies of white eggs and crumpled sheets of white paper as a student. I seem to remember we did it in charcoal. In any case – it’s a nasty trick to pull on a beginner in watercolor! Watercolor is hard enough without trying to be tonally accurate. But – they are illustration students, not mere fine-art dandys and I know from my own illustration work, that precision is important at times. This is just the sort of training you need to build up the hand skills.


Urban Sketchers Montreal : Sketchcrawl at Atwater Market

October 3, 2014

USK:MTL just recently did our Every Fourth Sunday Sketchcrawl at the Atwater Market.  Was a gorgeous fall day. And I don’t use the word gorgeous very often. I’m starting to think it’s the being outside that I like, even more than the sketching. That and the great people :)

Peter Scully and his Sketching Maps

October 1, 2014


USK correspondent Peter Scully is doing this wonderful thing, where he puts up hand drawn maps to great sketching locations.


I think this is the best idea ever. I absolutely want to print out his sketched maps and follow the routes looking for hidden sketching treasure.



Follow his blog to see what other brilliant ideas spring forth from his ginger head.

Watercolor Sketching in Rio de Janeiro : The Three Big Shapes

September 27, 2014

14Sept17_Rio_01_Corcovado from Sugarloaf_Looking West

Rio de Janeiro.  This town seems impossibly picturesque. The combination of mountainous coast and teeming metropolis.  A landscape like nowhere I’ve been before.

A view like this has to be painted with a keen eye toward simplification. What are the Three Big Shapes? (This is one of my code phrases – mantras I use to keep myself on track). Here, they are Land, Sea and Sky – with the white city being the shape left behind.

14Sept17_Rio_02_Looking East_toward Jurujuba

This one is my all over favorite sketch from the whole trip. This is winter in Brazil! As a Canadian, this is rather incredible. As the day warmed up and the sun moved, we got Land Sea and Sky in a different set of colors.

14Sept17_Rio_03_Sugarloaf next to Omar

The best thing about travelling and painting with the group. Well there are many best things – the great company, the shared motivation to paint, paint, paint – but also, being able to look over at a friend’s paintings and see – wow, that’s what I need to do! Exactly there! This rapid sketch of Sugarloaf mountain was cribbed right out of Omar Jaramillo’s sketchbook.

14Sept17_Rio_11_Linda Heaston Dared

This last one, a fun experiment. We were walking back from a long day sketching, and Linda Permann dared us to sketch one more – on the beach, in a puddle of streetlight, looking at the dark water. Isn’t that awesome? Sketching buddies that won’t quit, even when the sun goes down. I honestly had no idea if this was possible, so I’m quite happy with the way it turned out.

Every one of these sketches from Rio is something I’ve never seen before. That is what I love the most about urban sketching. Experiencing something new wherever you go.

Sketching Paraty, Brazil : Silhouette and Subdivide

September 23, 2014


The second stop on our tour of Brazil was the little town of Paraty, where the USK symposium was held. Paraty is a port dating back to colonial times.  I hear it was the launching point for ships full of gold heading to Spain. Today there is continual boat traffic taking visitors up and down the coast on sightseeing cruises.

The part of the town used by tourists can’t be much than ten square blocks. The whole thing has been restored with cute white plaster houses, clay tile roofs and cobblestone streets. There are three big churches for this tiny village, but otherwise it’s all gift shops, small galleries, restaurants and hotels. Beyond a series of chained off streets keeping out everyday traffic there is a normal Brazilian town with the businesses you’d expect in a tourist destination. Bike rentals, the boat tour operators, t-shirt shops and hostels.

Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (1)

On the tourist side, everything is a kind of artificial quaintness. On the real world side, it’s a little more gritty. Normally I wouldn’t pick this town for a sketching location. You’re not going to see any ‘real life’ going on here. But for our purposes, it was an ideal setting. We were able to wander around at all hours, getting from spot to spot in minutes, essentially taking over the entire town for our private sketching party. Quite a different experience from last year’s symposium set against the hustle of Barcelona.

This made it the most productive USK event I’ve been to – in terms of getting my own sketching done outside of  my ‘work day’ teaching.

Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (2)
Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (3)

Each morning of the workshop some of the keener painters would be up early. We had about a hour between breakfast and first classes to get a sketch in.  Some of the extraordinarily keen would get up before breakfast and paint, then stop back for those Brazilan cheesey puff ball things that the hotel puts out every morning.

Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (9)
Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (10)

The first day many of the international instructors ended up sketching right outside the hotel, just sitting in the street and catching new people as they got up and out. Eventually we had half of the symposium sitting in the street, getting right down to why we were there – obsessive sketching!

Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (4)
Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (5)

One of the fun stories from Paraty. Local people passing by on the way to work would naturally ask what was going on. This day we could say we had sketchers on the bridge from India, Scotland, Iran, Sweden, Australia, the USA, the UK, and Canada – painting together, learning from each other and having fun.

Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (6)
Paraty_Sketching_Snaps (8)

Sketching out in the world, you are always seeing something unexpected. The streets flooding with sea water at high tide was fairly unexpected. But so was this horse strolling through the flood. What happened next was less unexpected. What would be the worst thing a horse could do while splashing by you in a muddy street? Yes, that happened.


This is my first sketch done in Paraty, in the courtyard of our hotel.  I think regular readers of my blog will see what I mean by the phrase Silhouette and Subdivide. It’s all encapsulated in this image here.

(For the history of this thought process, go back to my Direct to Watercolor series of posts).

The common strategy behind all of these rapid sketches is to look for the largest silhouette shapes in front of you – such as the broad leaf palms or the egg shapes of the clay pots. Place them down in a single brush stroke. Once you have the composition (it only takes moments to make a few big shapes), you can then look at each shape and see how it can be subdivided with the darker tones of shadows.

This is the logical followup to the ‘colored sketching’ exercise Tea, Milk and Honey that I teach beginners. After you TMH over a few dozen (well, maybe more) sketches, you’ll find you don’t really need the drawing any longer (if you don’t want). My how-to book on Urban Sketching goes back further, to the very beginning of this learning curve, starting with how to see silhouettes and shadows when drawing.

Working with a Limited Color Palette at the 2014 Urban Sketchers Brazil Workshop

September 19, 2014

We are just back from the 2014 Urban Sketchers symposium in Paraty Brazil. I can’t begin to explain how great it was without waxing philosophical.

When you’re traveling, every view is fresh. The excitement of exploration gets into your sketches. Your work is tuned up by the heightened perception and the opportunity to sketch without interruption, working one day into the next, without life to get in the way.

Add to this, a group of like-minded artists, who are equally driven to be up early and out late, always on the move, sketching constantly. There’s nothing more motivating, more fun, or more useful for an artist.


At the same time, the big challenge with travel sketching, is that it can’t last. You’re only there for a short time.  Every decision to stop and draw something is of course preventing you from seeing another view. You can only be in one place at a time. Eventually you’ve made all the choices time allowed, and in doing that given up infinite other possibilities.

This can drive you crazy if you let it. Can lead to a mentality of rushing around with your hair on fire, sketching madly. Trust me, this is only made worse if your wife is a great photographer. You see so many amazing things you wished you’d noticed at the time.

I did this running-around-like-mad thing last year in Barcelona, and came home with 200 pages of pencil drawings, but not a single painting to show for it. I had plans for what I’d do with all those drawings once I got home – but life being the way it is, I haven’t really gone back to revisit them.

My strategy this year was to pack light and work smaller than usual, so I’d be as flexible as possible – but to paint in color the whole time, even for the quickest of sketches.


The first few days in Sao Paulo were a high speed tour with my friend Liz Steel of Australia and her friend Claudia, who is a Paulista currently living in Sydney. We took advantage of Claudia, having her drive us all over the city, from sketching spot to spot.

I’ve toured with Liz before, and I’m well aware that she’s much faster than I am. When you’re working with someone else, I find you naturally gravitate to a similar pace. Nobody wants to be holding up the others, or wandering around subtly pressuring them to wrap it up. So your either led by the fastest or the slowest person, depending on who’s more accommodating that day :)


I’d planned ahead, bringing a new watercolor travel set with a limited palette selected for Sao Paulo.

My colors consisted of a set of warm grayed darks (all from Daniel Smith) chosen for the urban tropical setting (bloodstone genuine, piemonite genuine and hematite burnt scarlet).

These were tied into a powerful yellow orange pigment (quinacridone deep gold) that represented the sandstone color of the local architecture, and a minty blue-green (fuchsite genuine) the exact color of copper roofs.

Besides this, a cool-yet-strong sky blue (mayan blue) which I hardly used at all due to overcast winter skies, and my new favorite cold-green dark (perylene green) for the palms and tropical trees.


This very minimal set of 7 pigments, were all brand new to me (excepting the perylene green). I pulled them off the rack in a last minute impulse buy a few days before leaving. Colors turned out to be bang-on (to my eye). It was a bit of a gamble, might have ended up on the street with entirely the wrong shades, but my instincts turned out fine.


There’s one case where this palette let me down, this mission style church was in fact a coral pink.Well, to be less flattering I’d have to say pepto-bismol is what came to mind. Having only the limited palette actually improved things in this case.


The result of my experiment is this small sketchbook of Sao Paulo, with a consistent matching mood from page to page. It’s another example of less is more. Having fewer pigments to mix made for faster sketching, and the overall color scheme sets a shared tone for the sketchbook that I quite enjoy looking back on.

Third Annual Edgar Allen PoeTrait

September 9, 2014


I’m just back from the USK workshop in Paraty Brazil. But before I post any of that – I came home to the latest issue of  The Artist’s Magazine waiting on my doorstep, which means I can finally show this sketch.

I have this background project – each year around October I’ll do a portrait of Edgar Allen Poe. This year I did it early, on request from the magazine, so it might come out in the October issue.

This is the second Mr. Poe watercolor. I’d done a few before in pencil. Perhaps next year I’ll be ready to do one in oil. I hope this will be a way of checking in with myself. To measure how my approach to painting is evolving.


Here’s 2013’s PoeTrait.

Attentive readers will know, around this time last year I was working more deliberately. Starting with a pencil drawing below the watercolor. Using the line as a guide, mapping out what was light, and what was shadow. I often found myself telling people “it’s like drawing yourself a coloring-book”. But I was never very comfortable with that analogy. It certainly works – and I still recommend it for beginners. But can you imagine trying to explain that to Mr. Sargent when you show up in artist heaven? The whole “coloring book” thing was always something I’ve been embarrassed about. Even while I was using it to make some of my personal favorite pieces.

The point is – these days I’m just going straight in. Simply drawing shapes with the brush on a blank white page without any planning beyond *looking*.

I’m really not sure if this is a great idea. It’s certainly the high risk approach. Perhaps I’m just an adrenaline junky.


You can see that in the first few minutes the portrait is already there. Bing Bang Boom, a few planes of the head, a few dark eyebrows, and it’s Mr. Poe. If the likeness had not worked out in the first few strokes, I’d have had to tear it up and start again.


I feel like I got lucky with this one. I got away with a reckless charge that might have left me muttering about wasting good paper. But these days, it’s the ones like this that get me excited.


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