The rain hitting my window in the early morning was so loud that it woke me before the alarm went off. It continued to pour all through my first class, but by the time I found my way to my favourite panoramic window at school the clouds were starting to break. Parts of the city were silhouetted against a rather dramatic sky and clouds just starting to open up. Last week when I painted this same view on a sheet of good paper I was able to wet the sky and go in with pigment but trying to cover a big surface in a sketchbook is more of a challenge. The sky just doesn’t stay wet long enough to go back into the initial wash with more colour. The resulting sky is a bit more hard-edged than I had hoped, but I was still happy to find a few minutes in a busy teaching semester to push around some paint.
Spending time drawing in a museum is a great way to really see a collection. Today at Sunday sketching with the Montreal Urban Sketchers group we started in the Inuit room at the Museum of Fine Arts. Hoping to avoid the crowds, I think the early morning visitors to the museum went directly to the blockbuster show (Van Gogh to Kandinsky), leaving our group mostly to ourselves with the carvings. Almost everyone seemed to find something to draw in the room and I’m looking forward to seeing what drawings other people post since I had to leave early. I started filling the page with one of the big sculptures — the great textured Shaman Head carved out of whale vertebra — and then drew the tiny polar bears made out of serpentinite. From there it was kind of fun to look for objects that would fill in the empty spaces on the page like the Alaska mask that tucked in nicely under the shaman or the little head next to the bear.
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.