West Coast inspiration

These days painting inspiration can be hard to find. The pandemic has confined so many of my sketcher friends to home, and let’s face it, after a while, drawing your immediate surroundings can get tedious, even for the most motivated sketchers.

Yesterday my painting inspiration came in the form of a text message. My son — who is on a kayaking trip on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia — sent me a photo of a bay he had just paddled into after a long day on the water. The low viewpoint of the image (taken from the kayak), combined with the deep green West Coast trees and inky dark water spoke to me immediately. After dinner I headed down to my studio to paint it. It’s just a little painting (9″ x 12″) on a pad of Arches CP paper, but it was good practice for moving paint around on paper. And it satisfied a little bit of the urge I had to paint that part of the country since I was, in fact, supposed to be teaching in BC this month.

I’ve given up

I’ve given up on growing tomatoes. I can’t compete with the squirrels and chipmunks. I was destroyed this morning when I found this almost-ripe very fat heirloom tomato knocked to the ground and partially eaten. I’ve watched this beauty grow and ripen all summer. I had big plans for it. And while the squirrel watched from his perch on a fence, and to torture myself even more, I weighed it after I found it this morning. One pound, two ounces. Probably would have been one pound three if you count what the squirrel ate.

So that’s it for me and growing tomatoes. That’s why this sketch is my form of a note to self: Leave it to the farmers next year and stick to sketching.

Dark beauties

When I first receive my bouquet from Ferme Tournesol, it’s wrapped in brown paper and the flowers are hidden under foliage. As I unwrap it on my counter and separate the blossoms from the greenery, its beauty is revealed. This week it’s a dark beauty, with lots of deep magentas, oranges and reds. To play up the dark flowers, I keep the rest of it light in value, including some of the foliage. Painted on a block of Winsor & Newton Rough, 12″ x 16″, using lots of Permanent Magenta and Sap Green.

My most minimal kit

Yesterday I posted a drawing that I had done while waiting for someone at the hospital. A few people wanted to know what was in the smallest kit that I carry in my purse for sketching while waiting. Instead of describing it, I took a few photos for a show and tell.

I have lots of small sketchbooks that are “in progress”. That means that they are not the A4 size ones that I use for full colour sketches, but rather ones for doing value sketches, jotting down ideas or throwing in my bag for days when I know I will be waiting somewhere for a few minutes and may have time for a quick drawing. These books are full of warm-up drawing, bad drawings and scribbles. The stuff sketchbooks are made for.

The books I like best for this are the softcover series by Stillman & Birn. They are very light and the paper is excellent for drawing and light washes. The one I used yesterday was an 8″ x 8″ Beta. The paper in that one is fairly thick and it takes wash well without warping.

I also take along a pencil bag that I bought years ago from Muji. It’s transparent, which allows me to find stuff quickly, and it’s pretty durable too. Of course, there are bags like this everywhere, including at my local dollar store.

In the photo above are the necessities that I carry in the bag when I know I have no time to paint, just to draw. Of course there are duplicates, so the bag looks a little fuller, plus there’s a pencil sharpener in there which takes up lots of space.

So, from left:

  • A Derwent Line Maker permanent pen
  • A white Gelly Roll pen for white lines
  • A Platinum Carbon desk pen with Platinum carbon ink in the cartridge
  • A brush pen with black water-soluble ink
  • A brush pen with black permanent ink
  • A Pitt Artist Pen, Black (assorted sizes in bag)
  • A mechanical pencil with a 2B lead
  • A tiny spray bottle
  • A tiny travel brush
  • A 6″ metal ruler for making vignettes

A good addition to this would be a water-soluble graphite pencil or a Art Graf block to get grey tones quickly with a little water. A water-brush with a reservoir would also be useful.

Today I was out painting with friends at the Fort de Chambly — a beautiful spot just south of Montreal with an old French fort. It’s right on the water and surrounded by trees and parkland. We painted in the shade, on the water side, and my sketch was done in watercolour and gouache. I add a blob of white gouache to my regular palette and I’ve included a photo of what the palette looks like at the end. Quite a mess, with lots of white paint on top of the watercolour, but with a quick rinse in the sink, it’s back to its pristine self.

Have brush, will travel

The remnants of Tropical Storm Isaias came through Montreal yesterday. This morning the sky was still turbulent, although there were patches of brightness in the distance. I had some time to draw the overcast view from the 4th floor of the MUHC (that’s our newish superhospital) while waiting to drive someone home from an appointment.

My bag always has some sort of sketchbook in it, especially when I know I have to wait somewhere. This time it was a Stillman & Birn Beta, square softcover version. I started my skyline drawing using a Platinum Carbon desk pen, but with all this hatching, I soon ran out of ink. I managed to find a Pitt Artist Pen with a fine point in my bag, but had no paints with me to add a grey wash. Fortunately I found a brush pen filled with water-soluble black ink in my bag, so on the left hand page in my book, I blackened in a dark square of ink. I sprayed that with a little water (I also always carry a little spray bottle) which created a puddle of grey wash. And with the little travel brush, that I also carry in the bag, I was able to pick up some diluted ink and finish my drawing.

Low tide

I had one little 7″ x 10″ sample of paper left from Papeterie Saint-Gilles so I tried it out yesterday using a reference photo I took in La Malbaie at low tide. This sheet has rough-textured surface, and is 100% cotton rag, handmade in Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive. If I had to choose between the two sheets I tried, I would say I prefer the smoother surface one that I used to paint cherry tomatoes. It really took the colour well. In fact, before coming home, I did go back to the store to buy a few larger sheets that I hope to use in some studio watercolours. I have a feeling I will have lots of time for that this winter!

A hole in the mountain

Rue du Quai in Pointe-au-Pic is a popular spot for many reasons. There’s a row of colourful buildings at the base of a cliff, a spectacular view of the bay, a steep staircase that leads you up to the historic Le Manoir Richelieu hotel, a railway stop for the Train de Charlevoix and an iconic snack bar. On the overcast morning that I painted it, the masked crowds had just departed on the train, heading towards Baie St. Paul.

I chose to paint this view because having the dark cliff and the distant mountains in the sketch is so typical of many of the views in Charlevoix. That’s the reason I like painting there. There’s always a wall of trees or rocks behind everything. In fact, if you look up the topography of the region, you’ll find out the rolling hills were created by the impact of a meteorite about four million years ago.

Compositionally, this was a difficult sketch because of the road that curves up the left and the tracks and path a bit lower down that curve to the right. Plus I sketched standing up, with my palette precariously balanced on a fire hydrant, just to make things even more challenging.

When I got home I realized that the sketch didn’t really work well because the light rocks of the cliff and the dark trees around the rocks were too different in value. I pulled out my palette and darkened the rocks with a light wash of grey. In hindsight, with some advance planning on my part, I could have avoided the problem.

After I did the sketch in colour, I wanted to evaluate where I went wrong, so I created two value sketches to analyze the problem. My first colour version was something like the “before” sketch below. The rocks on the cliff were about the same value as the sky, so compositionally, there was a hole in the cliff.

After I darkened the rocks, it became more like the “after” sketch. The trees and rocks combined to form a more unified shape. This is something I will try to remember when I turn some of my Charlevoix sketches into larger watercolours.

Painting local

Another rainy day in Charlevoix, but this time I’m prepared. Yesterday I made a couple of stops at some interesting local producers.

Papeterie Saint-Gilles is well known in this area for its beautiful handmade cotton papers. It’s a popular attraction in this area, located in Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, right across from the Musée Maritime where I sketched yesterday, and very close to the water. I bought a few samples of the paper to try. These tomatoes are sketched on the smoother version (closest to a cold press paper) and if the rain lets up I’ll go out later to try the rough sheet. I clipped the paper into my sketchbook for now, but I’ll probably use photo corners to give the sheet a permanent home in the book. It’s very nice 100% cotton paper that holds the colour really well. If you manage to get to this area, you can watch them producing it when you visit.

The tomatoes come from La Ferme des Quatre-Temps in Port-au-Persil. This is another well-known stop as you make your way through Charlevoix. During the week the farm stand has local produce that you can buy using the honour system, but if you want more choice, the kiosk is open on Friday afternoons. I bought two sizes of tomatoes but the big heirloom ones were so huge they didn’t fit on the page. I’ll paint those too, if we don’t end up eating them first.


Years ago I sat on the rocks at Port-au-Persil and painted the chapel in the distance. I had hoped to do the same today, but as soon as we parked, the first drops fell and from there it was rain for the rest of the day. But I’m an old pro at car sketching, and that works here too, if you can find a good viewpoint, which I did.

White birch

As predicted, it was a rainy day in Charlevoix, but that gave me time to drive around and scope out painting locations for when the weather improves. We made it all the way to where the Saguenay and the St. Lawrence Rivers meet, and when the fog lifted, we were rewarded with sightings of belugas in the distance. When we returned, it was dry enough to sit on the porch and sketch the white birch.