Sketches from the Museum of International Folk Art

There’s no shortage of great museums in Santa Fe, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to see them all. I did spend a couple of hours at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and there are others on my must-see list for the next visit, like the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

I love sketching in museums, especially if collections are colourful and 3-dimensional. It’s the best way to really spend time looking at and appreciating the art. But sketching in many museums is often not permitted, at least with anything more than a pencil. I often bring a small sketchbook to the MMFA, work in pencil in the galleries and then add colour to my sketches in the museum café because, understandably, using ink or watercolour near the artwork is prohibited.

But there are exceptions to this rule, and if you checkout each museum’s guidelines for visitors, you can prepare properly with the right materials before visiting. One of the most welcoming museums for sketchers is the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. I spent a day there with each of my workshop groups, and I think we all felt a day was not enough! First all all, sketchers are welcome to set up stools, draw in the galleries, and even use ink and watercolour in front of the display cases. Plus, the collections of folk art from around the world are so fascinating that you do actually need a few visits to absorb them all.

We only had a morning there, so most of us filled our pages with ink drawings, and then added colour later. I sketched objects from many countries, picking and choosing based on the shape of the object, working from large to small and filling in blank spaces with progressively smaller shapes. I added lettering later too. If you are in Santa Fe, don’t miss a visit to this place, hopefully with your sketchbook in hand.


There’s a lot to buy in Santa Fe. I’ve never seen so much art, jewelry and pottery anywhere in my travels. But the only souvenir I really wanted to bring home was a ristra, those long strings of dried chile peppers (or other vegetables) that hang all over the city, including from lampposts in the main square. Of course, getting one of these home intact would be near impossible in my already crowded suitcase. And I’m not even sure that if I did manage to pack it safely that I would be allowed to carry it through Canadian customs. The best I could manage was to sketch a few of the most beautiful ristras — one of chiles and another one of corn from the farmer’s market — in some empty places in my sketchbook.

The corn is sketched on top of an erased (and awful) drawing of a museum building from my first day in Santa Fe when I was still getting used to the altitude and the dryness.

Blue cranes

I missed launch day at the Pointe Claire Yacht Club, but it felt like a celebration this morning when I got down to the lake and saw the boats bobbing in the water. It is indeed the start of plein air painting season here in Montreal.

My sketching window was only about an hour, so I painted from the car instead of at my standing easel. That presented certain challenges. For example, it’s difficult to paint long straight lines (like the masts and the crane) when my work is on my lap, or balanced on the steering wheel. I just can’t get the arm motion right when I’m that cramped. Lesson learned, though. Tomorrow the easel is coming along with me. Painted on a pad of Arches CP, 140 lb, 10″ x 14″.

Come and gone

Summer made an appearance while I was in Santa Fe. It was spring before I left (only a few hyacinths blooming), and it’s spring again, but in the interim there was a heatwave in Montreal, with temperatures exceeding 30°C on some days. Tulips and daffodils bloomed without me, and now I am left with shrivelling stalks waiting to be pruned. Fortunately my favourite early perennials are still here for me to enjoy — lilies-of-the-valley, bleeding hearts and forget-me-nots. I have a whole sketchbook of Santa Fe scenes to post, but that can wait. If it gets warmer again, these flowers will be gone too. Sketched in a Handbook Watercolour Journal, 9″ x 12″.

A few hours at Ghost Ranch

On my weekend off between two workshops in Santa Fe, we rented a car and took a drive north up to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch. Those names might be familiar to you if you know the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, because she lived in New Mexico from 1934 until her death in 1986.

We tried, unsuccessfully, to get a ticket to visit her home and studio in Abiquiu. In fact, I had set an alert on my calendar months ago when the tickets went on sale, but I guess everyone had the same idea because they sold out immediately. We stopped anyway at the O’Keeffe Foundation where a guide told me that if we drove very slowly on the road going north as we exited the parking lot, we could catch a glimpse of a corner of the house on the hill. That would have to do for this trip.

From there we continued on the road to Ghost Ranch where O’Keefe lived for many years and which is now a retreat and tourist destination. Instead of taking the Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour on a minibus, or the Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Trail Ride on a horse, I decided to sketch a view of the redrock cliffs that she might have painted. The midday light wasn’t ideal, but I found an Adirondack chair in the shade and sketched for an hour or so. It’s obvious why O’Keeffe fell in love with these surroundings and made these views the subject of her paintings for decades. I feel lucky to have spent a bit of time there too.

The air up here

It’s taken a bit of time to get used to the altitude and the dryness in Santa Fe. I wasn’t prepared for how quickly things dry here, most importantly the water on my paintbrush. It’s a big learning curve when you’re outside painting in the wind and the sun.

I spent a few days scouting locations for my MISA workshops. The biggest challenge so far, besides the climate, is figuring out what colours to use to paint the adobe walls. Some are brownish, some are pink, and some are putty-coloured. I’ve been experimenting with different pigment combinations but haven’t settled on the perfect mix yet.

The best place to hang out and draw is the Historic Plaza, and on the weekend it’s filled with musicians, vendors, tourists and dog walkers. It’s a great place for people sketching — lots of shade and plenty of benches.

It’s always been a dream of mine to paint in this beautiful city and the surrounding area, and as we happily enjoy the culture, the great food and all that pink adobe, it’s easy to forget that we are in close proximity to some raging forest fires. As we drove here on a shuttle from Albuquerque, we could see the smoke drifting across the mountains from the Cerro Pelado fire. There’s another one further to the north near Las Vegas, NM. So far, it hasn’t affected us here, but there have been several amber alerts on my phone for evacuations in the affected areas. Scary stuff indeed.


The boats at the Pointe Claire Yacht Club are going in the water on the weekend, Capricorn included. In many ways, painting the boats in the boatyard is much more exciting than painting them in the water. Especially this week, since there’s so much work going on to get them ready for sailing season.

Usually the gate is locked, but in pre-season it seems to be open since everyone is going in and out with supplies. I had thought of painting from outside the gate but since I didn’t have my easel with me, I walked in and asked permission to paint from inside. I think they recognize me after all these years, and since there was no objection I sat down on a pile of planks and started to sketch.

The wind was blowing at a good clip, and it was pretty cold from where I sat, but it was so much more exciting to be where the action was. From inside, I could hear conversations, observe the activity, see a guy pierce his hand with a drill — stuff I would have missed from a distance. The result: a bit of a messy, (and poorly composed) painting since I was so cold, but still a thrill to be in the middle of it all, capturing it with paint.

Mailbox tulips

When I arrived home yesterday, there was a bouquet of pink tulips in my mailbox — a gift from a thoughtful friend. Yesterday they were closed but today they’re starting to open and turning from soft pink to deeper reds. After a day of spring cleaning, both indoors and out, I wanted to draw them but had no energy left to gather my sketching supplies. My iPad was on the counter next to the tulips, so I did a drawing in Procreate. I’ve forgotten how much fun it is to use, and the best thing about it is that there’s no cleanup at the end.

One book for this

Last year I sketched all of the spring blooms in my garden in one long accordion book. It was a great way to experiment with materials, as well as to count how many of the 200 bulbs I purchased from Costco actually flowered. I think the total was about 189, but I lost count near the end when a lot of tulips bloomed at once. This year I’m going to try to sketch everything again, but instead of using the accordion book, I’ll try to keep everything on consecutive pages in one sketchbook, which in this case is a portrait format 9″ x 12″ Travelogue Watercolour Journal by Speedball. Thematic books are nice, right? And this is one that I don’t use often when urban sketching because I prefer a horizontal format when I sketching landscapes or city scenes. If you have hyacinths in your garden and you’re wondering what colour to use to paint them, today I tried a combination of Daniel Smith Lavender and Cobalt Blue areas in sun, and for the parts in shade I added a bit of Ultramarine and Carbazole Violet.

Coupe de cheveux

I was out early today and found some time for a few sketchbook scribbles before and after a haircut. The first scribble was in Old Montreal, where I found a good parking spot facing the Allan Building and the John Young monument. It’s been a long, cold winter in Montreal with not much time for sketching from my car, but it felt good today to get downtown early and set myself a limit of 30 minutes to sketch whatever I could find. Luckily it was a view of a beautiful old building lit by morning sun.

On my way home, feeling lighter after the haircut, I stopped at another favourite spot: rue Notre-Dame in old Lachine. I love that narrow section of street for the criss-crossing of wires and the rhythm of the utility poles. By the time I got home it wasn’t even 11 am but I had done a day’s worth of scribbles.