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I could get used to living in Key West

March 25, 2015

15Mar15_KeyWest (6)
[10×14″ original watercolor, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 375.00]

From my perspective, looking out my window at five foot snowbanks, the town of Key West is a marvel.

An impossibly distant fantasy land of tropical luxury. Probably that’s how the people that live there feel as well. Walking around, I couldn’t get over how the houses were overwhelmed by lush greenery. Even the smallest home had an amazing garden.

15Mar15_KeyWest (7)
[10×14″ original watercolor, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 375.00]

15Mar15_KeyWest (5)
[10×14″ original watercolor, Audubon House, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 375.00]

One of my favorite spots was the Audubon House. Like many regional museums named after famous people from history, it’s not actually *his* house, and it wasn’t even built when he visited Key West. But – it is much like a house where he *might* have stayed, and he did make diary entries about the unusual trees in the same block.

As you sit in the overgrown gardens, enjoying orchids and bromeliads hanging from swaying palms, you can imagine him passing through on his quest for the wildest, strangest Birds of America. This was probably the best day of the trip for me. Such a great place to spend the afternoon. Painting this amazing garden, and taking breaks to go look at the gallery of birds. Makes you think you could get used to the Key West Life.

Though, reading a bit about it, it sounds like Audubon himself did not have it easy. His life included: fleeing conscription under a false passport, surviving yellow fever, dodging privateers, managing the family mine (his father figured everyone needed lead for bullets), getting through the civil war intact, ending up in debtor’s prison, sketching death-bed portraits for quick cash, fighting the scientific establishment to see his work published, travelling the world hand-selling subscriptions to his prints – actually selling animal pelts he shot himself to raise funds for printing. Whew. that’s just the first half of his life.

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The house features a small gallery with some excellent reproductions of Audubon’s prints, and of course the usual drink coasters and puzzles made from his art. I had to be impressed thinking about his body of work from 1838 still steadily selling. Never mind his great achievement in naturalist art, that right there is impressive to a working artist such as myself.

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[9×12″ original watercolor, The Jolly Rover, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 375.00]


15Mar15_KeyWest (10)
[10×14″ original watercolor, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 375.00]

I have to wonder what the year round experiences are in this town. It does seem precariously perched on a very low lying island, very far out in the ocean. Maybe living on a boat would be the answer? So you could be ready to bug out in hurricane season. I’d prefer to live on a pirate ship like the Jolly Rover. But, there also seems to be a fascinating niche culture of house boating. I am imagining scenes of fleets of these boxy floating homes desperately puttering ahead of an oncoming hurricane. Probably an overactive imagination there. But we’ll see what climate change brings. Maybe these people are right!

I hope to get back to Key West again. We had a great time, and I’d love to make it an alternative to Montreal’s winter.

15Mar15_KeyWest (1)
[10×14″ original watercolor, Key West Lighthouse, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 375.00]


Early Bird Registration for USK Singapore Now Open!

March 23, 2015


Early Bird Registration for
USK Singapore July 22-25 is now open!
(10% off).

Programming and Instructors
to be announced March 31

Pre-registration closes April 10


Saint Patrick Preserve Us!

March 23, 2015


This past Sunday was Montreal’s St. Patrick’s day parade. Unfortunately for us, it was an inhospitable -8 C / 18 F. I heard someone say the wind chill rating was -17 /1. Not a great day for a parade.

But, somehow, St. Pat brings out the Fighting Irish in all of Montreal.

15Mar23_St_Patricks_Day_Parade_03[I liked the Hat Sellers working the crowds]

Thousands of parade watchers were somehow willing to gather, muffled to the eyes in many cases, to tough out the cold in the pre-parade street party. I was surprised how early the crowds gathered, and what a great time everyone seemed to be having.


The parade marchers were even more heroic – the girls in Irish dancing costumes had to face the weather in skirts and tights. The marching bands had to be in uniform, no scarves for them. I imagine the people in giant padded mascot suits were the only ones warm enough that day.


These sketches are a testimony to the power of Urban Sketchers as a drawing club – as in, the great value it has for your own motivation. If I had not set a time to meet the other sketchers on the street I’d probably have given up. But I had made plans to get these drawings, so freezing wind be damned, I was going to draw.

It’s also evidence of another theory of mine – that the hardships of drawing on location actually make the drawings better.  It was necessary to work at great speed. Not just because the marchers were moving at a clip, or that your portrait subjects were constantly vanishing in the crowd – but because as soon as you open your pen, a countdown begins.

[Red Hats invade the Green Hats!]

In moments, the ink begins to stiffen up, and your fingers begin to hurt. Soon the pains are sharp enough you can’t ignore. You have to tough it out to the end of the drawing, and then get your hands back into your coat. Great motivation to make the fastest drawing possible! (I was not wearing adequate gloves. I had read online to try latex gloves as liners for knitted mitts. Don’t try this. It does not work in the slightest).

But either way, difficult conditions really help you make decisive drawings! You’ll find yourself making the swiftest observations. It’s amazing how it changes your work – towards the more aggressive, more spontaneous line.


Just look at this sketch of the fellow wrapped in the Irish flag –  I think it’s one of my best drawings ever. You can’t make this kind of drawing at leisure. At home, in the studio, you just aren’t stressed enough to kick into ‘survival sketching mode’.

For people taking my Sketching People in Motion online class – these are done directly with the pen. No time for the pencil scribbles underneath that I demo in class. Not to say what I teach in the video is invalid, just that the Pencil > Pen > Brush method is a good way to learn, and when you’re ready, you can go ‘all in’. The color, by the way, was done afterwards in the cafe. You can’t watercolor in a sketchbook in the cold. The paint simply won’t dry, and you can’t turn the page to carry on.


You might notice a bit of extra excitement in the line work – even beyond what came from the harsh drawing situation. This was my first test run with a Noodler’s Creaper. Their so-called ‘Flex Nib’.

I have to say it’s not as flexible as a dip nib – but it’s closer than I’ve had in a conventional Lamy or Platinum pen.

I have one minor complaint about The Creaper – the built-in ink filling system. It’s an old fashioned design where you stick the whole pen nose down into the ink bottle and twist the back end to vacuum up ink.

It’s mechanically sound – fills just fine – but there is a flaw.

If you stick the cap on the back of the pen while drawing – trying to fidget it off later causes you to turn the filling mechanism and squirt ink out of the pen. I was lucky to avoid ruining a drawing.  The other downside is, you can’t fill this pen if the ink level is your bottle is lower than the full length of the nib and feed. Whereas a cartridge-style ink filling gadget can get suction on the ink, even with only a few mils left in the bottle. Minor complaints – but there you go.

So far, the drawing feel of this pen is quite good, so I’m going to keep it for a while and report more as I go.

Sketching the Florida Intracoastal: Part Two – the Paintings

March 20, 2015

15Mar15_Florida_Intracostal (4)
11×15″ original watercolor, Loggerhead Marina,  140lb cotton rag paper: SOLD

Carrying on from Part One: the Moleskine – here’s the paintings from our cruise down the Florida Intracoastal.

15Mar15_Florida_Intracostal (2)
11×15″ original watercolor, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 550.00

It was the last sketchbook drawing coming out of Miami that got me super excited. I wasn’t so inspired by all the pastel condominium towers as we passed through the city, but as we were pulling out, a great storm started forming. As the city receded into a dark band on the horizon, we passed through a flotilla of sailboats. I loved the look of their sails standing out against the sky. I was more than a little surprised to see them jauntily sailing around with that weather coming in. They’re clearly more confident that I was.

The colors of the sky and water, were more than a little surreal. Cobalt Teal Blue and DS Moonglow would definitely be useful for any watercolorists in Florida.

15Mar15_Florida_Intracostal (1)
10×14″ original watercolor,  140lb cotton rag paper: $US 550.00

The uniquely low-lying keys continued to offer this kind of composition. But, oddly, it started to look familiar. I used to see these paintings in galleries all the time back home.  Just replace water with wheat, and mangroves with a wind break of trees.

15Mar15_Florida_Intracostal (5)
10×14″ original watercolor, Pumpkin Key Sunset, 140lb cotton rag paper: $US 550.00

Halfway down from Palm Springs, just before we left the tip of the panhandle, we dropped anchor at Pumpkin Key. The best sunset of the trip. Well, it’s hard to say *best*, there were so many – but the best I could sit and paint with a perfect view. The Captain tossed a crab trap overboard, baited with leftover BBQ ribs and next day we had fresh blue crab for dinner.

Next time – landfall at Key West!

Oh yes: on a housekeeping note, loyal blog readers might notice something new. Prices below the pictures.

I feel, after a few years of sketch booking, experimenting with materials, and learning about painting, that I’m finally ready to sell work.  So, going forward, whenever I get something that rises to the challenge of painting on location, I’ll put it on offer here.

Just email me at marc(dot)taro(at)gmail(dot)com if you’re interested.

It would be a great thing to start selling some work via the blog. Besides keeping body and soul together, anything I might gain this way will go directly towards reaching interesting locations and trying new painting experiments. I am always seeking to improve the experience I can provide readers.



Evening in Hudson

March 19, 2015

We’re just back from an evening with the Hudson Artists, thanks to Marie-Eve Lauzier who invited us out to give a demo for the group.

They have an active community of around 75 artists doing workshops, paintouts and group shows year round.

It was a fun night, getting to know our neighbors out west. Hudson seems like a very paintable town. You’ll find scenic views of the water, parks and old houses. They’re also conveniently situated across from Oka National Park, a short jaunt by ferry.

15Mar19_Hudson Demo_Painting

My demo was done from a snapshot taken on our recent trip to Florida. But honestly, as we’re just back from painting dozens of these views, it was from memory more than anything. My main goals in about an hour of talking and painting were to show the simultaneous Larger-to-Smaller, Light-to-Dark and Wet-to-Dry progress of a watercolor.

This kind of painting is something I’m calling Big Brush : Small Brush. That is, the whole sheet worked over with a #14 round, and left to dry. Then the details touched in on top with a #2 rigger. I did touch a few things in the treeline with a #6 round. But really, you could do it all with the #14, it just calls for slowing down a bit and a light touch on the point.

I start with what I call The Three Big Shapes. Sky and Ground (in this case Water), and ‘Everything Else’. The treeline, and all the boats and docks are simply left as a single negative shape at first, then in the second half of the painting, I come back into that long horizontal landscape, and create the shadows, masts, piers and other details that turn it into a marina.

Here’s an older post on the same theory of painting, that I started playing with back in Rio de Janeiro.

15Mar19_Hudson Demo_MHolmes_02

15Mar19_Hudson Demo_MHolmes_01

Did you know sells Ink Samples?

March 17, 2015

This is probably old news to many of you – but I just discovered you can order ink samples from They’ll send you 2ml samples of any ink they carry, for only $1.25 a vial.

Goulet Samples

I think it’s great marketing! Lets you do one or two test drawings, and I know I’ll be back to order a few bottles of the right colors.

I also bought a Noodler’s Creaper Flex and Konrad Brush Pen to try out. More on this when I get a chance to go doodling.


Sketching the Florida Intracoastal: Part One – the Moleskine Sketchbook

March 16, 2015


We’re just back from Florida, travelling by boat down the Intracoastal Waterway. Which is one of many things in this world I had no idea existed.

The Intracoastal is a continuous water course combining natural rivers and man made canals to make a 4800 km protected passage along the Eastern Seaboard. We traveled from West Palm Beach to Key West, taking about three days each way.


This massive landscaping project was probably constructed for cargo and military traffic, but today it’s a watery highway for sporting craft, party barges and the yachts of the rich and famous. Great sections of the canals are lined with beautiful houses and private docks. Not to mention hotels, marinas, and all the infrastructure to support vacation cruises (did I mention bars?).

Sketching from the stern as we cruised at 10 knots past palm trees, palatial mansions and mangrove islands – for me, it’s the ideal way to discover this unique coastal lifestyle – so different from my own western Canadian experience.


The first day found us passing under a series of drawbridges. The boat captains are in constant radio communication with the bridge crews, trying to time our approach to cross below when they’ve stopped traffic. It must be a daily annoyance to the  locals. Having to wait at raised bridges while gleaming pleasure craft glide by.


Being a son of the prairies, this was by far the longest I’ve spent on and around water and boats. I still haven’t recovered days later – I can still feel the boat moving, despite begin on dry land. But the sheltered inland waterway gives you flat water, protected from the ocean’s wave action, so it wasn’t so bad sketching while underway. These were all painted rapidly in a 5 x 8.5″ Moleskine Watercolor Notebook. The panoramic spread is perfect for the low profile of South Florida’s mangrove swampland.


The Florida cloudscape is also something new to me. Skies over water are amazing. Towering clouds form and reform in minutes, making an ever changing subject. A real change from the flat grey of Montreal’s winter.

I had planned ahead, and brought a couple of new colors, which you can see prominently in this sketch. DS Cobalt Teal Blue and DS Moonglow. The teal is an ideal color for tropical water. I was glad to have it throughout this trip.  Moonglow is kind of  a gimmick. It’s a convenience mix of Viridian, Ultramarine Blue, and Anthraquinoid Red – (for which you could substitute Perlyne Maroon) – so I actually have all the required colors in the 24 pan kit I was using. I *could* mix this shadowy purple as I go. But on the other hand, Daniel Smith is bottling it for you, so when you’re painting a storm coming in this fast, you don’t have to faff about.

More about skies and water next time when I’ll show the larger paintings from this cruise.





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