It’s full on winter today, although thankfully I don’t live in Western New York where a huge storm has blanketed the area. I thought I’d try a little experiment: a winter scene, painted from my car, just using the blues in my palette. Cerulean, Cobalt, Ultramarine, Phthalo and a bit of Alizarin. Even though it’s still November, doesn’t this look like the middle of January? Sure feels like it.
From my window spot at school I have a good panoramic view of the south flank of the mountain, Université de Montréal and the Oratory (not included here). The details of the buildings are hard to distinguish but there is definitely architecture, some of it lit in the bright November sun and some in shade. From that distance it’s also hard to detect colour temperature. I can see warmth in the brick buildings, in the sunlit facades and in the now bare trees, but it’s cool on the shadow sides of the buildings. The best way to deal with all of that is to put in a little bit of everything — building shapes, some warm, some cool, some light and some dark, as well as the big mountain shape which also goes from warm to cool — and hope that all the bits and pieces come together to give the impression of a city on a frigid yet sunny November morning.
Winter started with a bang. No flurries or occasional flakes. This is the real thing. Heavy and slushy snowball snow that bends tree branches and sends cars sliding into ditches.
I love painting in winter, discomfort and all. Perhaps because when I started my daily sketches in 2011 it was around this time of year, and I spent much of the winter painting snow scenes from the car. I love how snow softens and changes the scenery and brightens the light. And how it provides the instant light values that I am always searching for in the landscape. Everything goes from drab to glittering in an instant. By March I’ll be moaning and longing for some warmth but for now I’m quite content to see the return of the white stuff.
It takes patience to find a parking spot with a good view for sketching. By good view I mean something that will remain unobstructed for a period of time. I take great care to find these spots, sometimes circling a given block several times in hopes that one will become available. Ideally these spots are at the end of a block with nothing in front of them, or at the very least just behind a bus stop. Even if the bus arrives while I’m sketching I know it won’t be there for long. Today I found a wonderful spot in back of a driveway entrance on rue Villeray, with a view of the tall and short steeples of Église de Notre-Dame du Très-Saint-Rosaire set against a giant white cloud. About five minutes into the sketch, a pickup truck loaded with used appliances pulled up in front of me — in the spot that was supposed to remain free because it was a driveway entrance — and stayed there. And stayed there. And stayed there. And that’s why the lower right side of the sketch is blank.
In the end, it may be a good thing. I kind of like the composition the way it is. And here is the truck, in case you are interested.
I have long been admiring the indigo blue pencil sketches of Richard Johnson, firstly because he is a master draughtsman but mostly because there aren’t many contemporary drawings that cut straight to the heart like Rich’s war portraits. He’s a news illustrator at the Washington Post and he posts often on Flickr, but it was a special treat today to hear him talk about his work on a TedXCalgary talk. If you have a few minutes, it is well worth the time to see how he approaches the location drawing experience in Afghanistan.
It’s embarrassing to post my own drawing of a barista at Starbucks after looking at Rich’s touching portraits, but here you have it. Another day, another drawing.
With my palette freshly filled with bright yellows and oranges untouched by dirty brushes, the tractors seemed the perfect subject today. Backlit against the dramatic November sky, glimmering in the sun, they were a touch of colour in a landscape that is quickly becoming colourless as the last leaves fall and we wait for the first snowflakes to appear.
When venturing into unknown territory it’s best to be prepared, or so I told myself when I was invited to paint Utah’s National Parks this past August. I looked at many images of the parks before leaving and tried my best to bring along a palette of colours that would help me capture the reds, pinks and greens of the rock layers. I even made a colour chart and carried it in my bag. It seems like overkill when I look at the chart now because many of the colours are so similar, but as I said, better to be prepared. In hindsight, the colours were the least of my problems. The bigger challenges were the ones I hadn’t anticipated, like trying to cover 1,400 miles in one week, or painting a scene where I could see 150 miles into the distance, or looking down into a vast canyon that was shrouded in cloud, or painting in 100°F heat. And there is nothing that can prepare you for the incredible beauty of these five parks, no matter how many images you look at. Below is the palette I used and following that are the ten painting I did of the parks, some done on location and others painted in studio from my sketches and reference photos. All are half sheets (15″ x 22″) of Arches 140 lb. cold-pressed watercolour paper.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef was the first park I visited and perhaps my favourite because I spent the most time there and got to see more of the sights. “Grand Wash Trail” and “The Waterpocket Fold” were both painted on location, although a storm blew in while I was painting the latter and the final details were added from the car.
Arches National Park
There was a lot of pressure to get Delicate Arch right because, after all, it is Utah’s most recognizable landmark and is even pictured on the state’s license plate. I arrived at the park at midday, in extreme heat, humidity and rain. My attempts to paint on location were thwarted by storms, so I sketched, drank lots of water, took lots of photos and painted both “Delicate Arch” and “Park Avenue” in studio.
Canyonlands National Park
Nothing prepared me for the strange beauty of Canyonlands. This part of the park — which is the least accessible of the five parks — is called Island in the Sky. To get there you drive 30 miles in from Moab and see the park from a series of overlooks. That is, if there are no clouds. “Green River Overlook” was painted on location and “Island in the Sky” was painted in studio. Both of these were painted wet-in-wet.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is another park that is first admired from a series of overlooks, although there are trails that allow you to descend into the hoodoos. The pines around the perimeter of the canyon provide great shade for sketching, which is what I did, since my time in the park was very limited. Both “Thor’s Hammer” and “Inspiration Point” were painted in studio.
Zion National Park
Of all the parks, Zion seems to be the most crowded — and for good reason. The only way through the park is by shuttle bus, which made it impossible to carry all my painting gear. I sketched at various stops along the route and painted “The Virgin River” and “The Cottonwoods” in studio. One of my only regrets about my week in Utah is that I had no time to hike the trails, especially the spectacular ones at Zion. Truthfully, I would have had to spend a week in each park to see them properly as well as to paint many of the famous viewpoints. I hope I’ll get back there one day to see them again.