Here’s the second painting from my afternoon in Old Montreal. I chose this view of the Les Prêtres de Saint-Sulpice (which by the way is Montreal’s oldest building) because I loved the layering of the brick buildings behind it and the late afternoon shadows. Unlike my friend Marc, who can just set himself up and start a painting (something I greatly admire), I have to do a few faster sketches first and calm down a bit before I can launch into something more ambitious. This was painted on Fabriano soft press paper in under two hours because that was the time I had in my parking meter.
Ironically the first skyscraper to be built in Montreal was the New York Life Insurance Building (also known as the Quebec Bank Building). It still stands, in all its red sandstone beauty, facing Place d’Armes in Old Montreal and that’s where I sketched today with Marc Taro Holmes. We thought it might be a good idea to paint together in preparation for our upcoming Portland workshop. I did a little sketch in my Moleskine while he started a larger, more ambitious painting which hopefully he will post on his site. Place d’Armes is a really busy place with busloads of tourists visiting the Notre Dame cathedral across the square but it was good practice to be outside in a crowded area. At one point a huge gust of wind knocked over everything on Marc’s easel including his nearly completed painting but he managed to rescue all his gear and even fill up his empty water container with water from the fountain in the middle of the square.
In preparation for my upcoming workshops I have been working more on paper instead of in my sketchbook. I did this in my garden, which looked pretty fresh after last night’s thundershowers. The sun came out and lit the hostas that I had potted on the weekend. This took a little longer than my usual sketches, I confess.
It is difficult when you look at a complex scene to know what to sketch. This morning I sat on the steps near the Venture Sailing Club in Pointe Claire, drinking my coffee and contemplating what to paint. When I am in my car the scene that I paint is often obvious because it is framed for me by my front windshield but when I am out of the car there’s so much more to choose from — a big vista in front of me. Today I had the lake as a backdrop, boats in the water as well as on land and a red building on a hill to my right. I started several sketches but none of them had any focus. In the end I decided to simplify and chose three boats on the ground and three in the air. There was plenty going on the background too — a crisscross of masts and boats on the shoreline but I tried my best to just hint at that.
I’ve been parking and sketching near a deserted marina for months so it was great to see the boats out in Pointe Claire yesterday. I sat in the grass to sketch so the view I had of the lake was a bit like a vignette — just a little bit of the lake and the students coming in from their sailing lesson. It was also a great day for catching up with people I haven’t heard from in years including former students, work colleagues and friends who saw the article about the blog in the Montreal Gazette. I still haven’t finished returning emails and phone calls…
Sketching in my car has its advantages. I know where everything is, my steering wheel acts as my easel, the wind doesn’t knock over any of my gear and I get to pick the music. But there are also disadvantages. Like trying to find a parking spot with a good view. I really thought I had the perfect spot picked out to sketch this little scene of back balconies in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, until a big Budweiser truck pulled up and parked next to me, forcing me to move so he could do his dépanneur delivery and blocking half the view of what I had already drawn. So some of this is from observation and a little bit is from memory.
By the way, there’s a very nice profile of this blog in today’s Montreal Gazette and I want to thank Susan Semenak for her kind words. Here’s the link.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
William Carlos Williams
My training in watercolour has always been to plan the composition first before painting and that is what I will be working on with the students in the workshops that I will be teaching this summer in Montreal, Paris and Portland. That idea even carries over to my small sketches because what are these, really, but little paintings? One of the compositional ideas that is important is to choose a dominant direction in the painting and then to have some element that is a contrast or foil for it. That direction can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. In this sketch vertical is the dominant direction, firstly by the shape of the paper itself and secondly by those strong trees that echo the shape of the paper and that are darker than the rest of the shapes in the sketch. The contrast? The horizontal string of wash on the line.
After many days working with a pen I’m back to a brush. And what a brush it is. My first stop in New York City was Pearl Paint, the Canal St. mecca for artists. My old Winsor Newton Series 7 sable has really lost its sharp point and I knew what I wanted when I headed into the rabbit warren that is Pearl Paint. Up a few flights of stairs and then down another few steps straight to the brush department and an astute salesperson who obviously knows her sables. I described what I wanted — a fairly large round brush — and she pulled out a few for me to test. A Winsor Newton similar to the one I already had and then this Raphael 14. Made of the finest Kolinsky sable, capable of holding vast amounts of wash and also tapering down to the finest of points. A look of shock came over her face when she scanned the bar code on the brush. It was on sale. At an amazing price. “Go directly to the cash!” she said, looking me straight in the eye, “These don’t go on sale often.” Which of course I did. And when I saw her again later we exchanged knowing glances, and she nodded to me once again, content that I had heeded her sage advice.
It is quite astonishing that I had any time at all to do this sketch at the Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn. Astonishing because there are very few cab drivers in Brooklyn who know where the theatre is so I thought I might arrive late for the play or miss it entirely. But by some lucky accident landmarks were recognized and I made it to my seat with a few minutes to spare. And a few more at intermission to complete the drawing. The wash was added later back at the hotel because I don’t think the New York theatre-goers would have appreciated me painting during the show. At least if I read correctly their reaction to a poor fellow whose cell phone went off during the performance. The play, by the way, was Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker”, starring the wonderful Jonathan Pryce.