Town of Rockport

Painting the busy Rockport harbour is hard enough on a still day but today I was fighting the wind. My right hand held the brush and my left was on the painting, but that’s what makes plein air painting so thrilling. You never know when the whole easel will topple or the painting will fly into the water. There’s lots more painting to come this week but wanted to post the first one along with a link to the terrific website The Other Cape. I am honoured to have been interviewed by Patrick Mitchell about why I love to paint in Cape Ann. Very timely article Patrick! Thanks so much. 

Susanne’s garden

Painting reds is difficult for me. Last week I painted some poppies, but I started too dark (too much pure red on the brush) and then had nowhere too go. Literally painted myself into a corner. Today I had a chance to try again in Susanne’s garden where the poppies are still in bloom. This time I started with lighter washes and built up to the darkest reds, using a combination of Transparent Pyrrol Orange, Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson. The centres of the flowers work best when you paint them while the red is still wet, so I mixed some fresh Ultramarine Blue into the red and added it on quite thickly so it wouldn’t spread too much. Painted on Saunders Waterford CP, 22″ x 15″.



New York (State and City) sketches

This past weekend I travelled down to New York City with my friends Laurel and Marc Holmes. Marc and I painted on Sunday at the plein air event at the New York Botanical Gardens, but we figured that since we were going all that way we should do a little sightseeing first.


Our first sketching stop was on Friday’s drive down. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about  Storm King except what I had seen on Season 2 of Aziz Ansar’s Master of None, but those few shots made me want to go there to sketch. If you’ve never been, it’s worth the short detour off Interstate 87 to spend some time wandering the grounds among the huge sculptures. It was hard to convey a sense of the place in my sketchbook — rolling grassy hills and wooded areas interspersed with this and this and this. Definitely a place I will go back to many times, hopefully in different seasons.


On Saturday we did a walking tour of New York City, stopping at some of my favourite sketching spots, including Bryant Park. Turns out James Gurney was also there, but later in the day. Have a look at what he did.


Our second stop was in a small square next to Madison Square Park, facing the Flatiron Building. It’s a structure I have always wanted to sketch, and have always dreaded sketching at the same time. Such a difficult shape and so isolated in the skyline. Yikes. I did my best to convey the overall shape and the light and shadow pattern without too many details.


The last sketch of the day (after lots of wandering through the galleries in Chelsea) was a stop on Bowery Street for some refreshments at a cafe table that we strategically chose because of the good views across the street. The rapidly changing Lower East Side is another place I’ve always wanted to sketch, and judging by how quickly the neighbourhood is being gentrified, it was probably a good thing do it now. It may look completely different next time we visit.

A (very old) crabapple in Le Vieux Séminaire

I feel very fortunate to have spent a few hours sketching in the tranquil garden of Le Vieux Séminaire in Old Montreal. The last time this historical building was open to visitors was in 1967, but because of Montreal’s 375th anniversary this summer, the Sulpician priests have decided to open it to the public again. You can book a guided tour which includes a historical exhibit and a visit to the garden out back where I found this crabapple that seemed almost as ancient as the building itself. At the end of the tour I settled myself on a shady bench to practice some tree drawing in preparation for my workshop Trees in the City at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in July.


Thank you Mr. Reid

When you can’t paint outside, bring the outside in. It’s been raining pretty steadily in Montreal so I grabbed these white azaleas (a generous gift from friends this past weekend), plunked them on the counter and painted indoors today. One thing I often do before painting flowers is to glance through my dog-eared and tattered copy of Charles Reid’s “Flower Painting in Watercolor“. Published in 1979, it shouldn’t be confused with the later “Painting Flowers in Watercolor” which came out in 2001 (I don’t own that one and can’t confirm if there’s any overlap in the content).

Almost every watercolour painter I know has heard of Mr. Reid and some have even been fortunate enough to attend workshops with him. I guess we all love his work for different reasons. For me it is the looseness of his brushstrokes, the watery quality of his washes and the way he loses edges between objects. Looking at how abstractly he starts a painting helps me loosen up in my work. His paintings are about capturing the essence of flowers with the fewest strokes. If you haven’t seen his books on flower painting yet, I encourage you to have a look, even if it means finding them at your local library. It’s well worth spending a rainy afternoon going through them. Painted on Arches 140 lb cold press paper, 15″ x 18″.


Turbulent sky

This is the perfect week for sketching clouds. It’s an activity that’s a good distraction from being depressed about why the warm weather hasn’t arrived in Montreal yet. The best place to see this turbulent sky is near Lac St. Louis, if you can find a spot where the high water line has gone down a little. When I paint these big skies I always add a little warmth near the horizon line, usually with a diluted wash of Raw Sienna, and my starter mix for the clouds is Cerulean Blue with the tiniest dab of Alizarin Crimson. Sketched from my car, in the rain, in a Handbook Travelogue Watercolour journal, 16″ x 8″.


Macdonald Farm half-sheets

I’ve been waiting for a good day to get out and paint some large size landscapes, and since the forecast was favourable this morning I drove out to McGill’s Macdonald Farm, car loaded with jugs of water, my French easel and some half sheets of watercolour paper. I managed to get two done in about four hours, and that felt pretty good.

The intention with these was to capture the feeling of the day — nothing too polished — more like really big, loose sketches on large paper. It was quite freeing to splash around on the paper. I didn’t even tape the sheets, just clipped them with bulldog clips at the corners and let them be. I wanted the paper to feel as free as I did, if that makes any sense.

The first painting was done at the end of a farm road where I paint often. I was really looking for a scene with some distance and depth, and these fields are more interesting in the spring before the corn comes up and there are still some unplanted areas. The sky was quite dramatic because of the unsettled weather that we’re having in Montreal this week. I tried to capture a bit of the turbulence in the clouds but wish I hadn’t gone back in with a second pass of wash on the sky. Skies in watercolour are always better when you can paint them all in one fresh wash.


I am happier with the way the sky came out on the second sheet I did. I didn’t make the same mistake of going back into the sky and this one retained its freshness. The cows were in the field so I added them in, although I’ve never painted cows before. The ones grazing move around more than I expected, and by the time I was ready to paint them they were all having a rest in the shade.

I haven’t painted on half sheets of watercolour in a long time. I find the format is often too wide for my compositions, but for open landscapes this size is ideal. Painted on Arches Cold Press 140 lb, 22″ x 15″.