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.

How lucky we were

If I asked both groups of students from my recent workshops in Santa Barbara to pick a favourite day, I’m sure the answer would be unanimous: the day we sketched the architecture of Jeff Shelton. If you’ve never heard of Jeff, have a look at his work. I’ll let you do the research and come to your own conclusions about why his buildings are so much fun to draw.

The plan the first group was to draw Cota Street Studios for the morning, and then move to another location for the afternoon, but everyone loved the building so much that we decided to stay for the full day. And as an added bonus, some residents of the studios saw us drawing outside and invited us into the private courtyard to draw from there too. Such kindness and generosity!

Thanks to our brilliant organizer Jackie from French Escapade, on the last day of the workshop Jeff Shelton and his daughter Mattie dropped by to see our sketches and autograph his book The Fig District for us. He’s the man in the centre of the photo of the baseball cap and yardstick. As you can imagine, it was a huge treat for us to meet him and hear the stories of some of the buildings that we had seen during the week.

The following week, the second group of students had an equally amazing day. After spending the morning drawing vignettes at Cota Street Studios, we were invited to sketch around the corner, inside El Zapato — another very unique residence, with an incredible courtyard and a stunning rooftop view.

This group of students also had a wonderful surprise to end the week: an invitation to visit Jeff’s studio. Who doesn’t love a studio visit?

I have to say how touched I was by the kindness and generosity of Jeff, Mattie, Thomas & Kevin (who invited us into their private courtyard) and Carla who hosted us at El Zapato. I’ll add them to my LONG list of amazing people I have met while sketching on location.

In the midst of all of that excitement I did manage to get a few sketches done. One full page of vignettes at Cota Street Studios…

… one partial page at El Zapato…

… and one thank you card for Carla that we all signed.

Twenty two for Santa Fe

It’s definitely time for a new travel palette. The old one was first filled in 2019, and that one replaced one I bought before I taught in Manchester. Even though I have taken very good care of it, the enamel is starting to chip, leaving chunks embedded in my paint. That’s not a good thing. It’s kind of interesting to note that a new palette is averaging three years of use, or abuse, before it starts to deteriorate.

I bought the same FOME palette as I had before (these are hard to find but there are similars on Amazon made by Meeden or Whisky Painters) but it needed to be customized again so that I can fit in more than the 12 pans it comes with. Here are my steps:

1: I attach seven new pans in the middle section, using that sticky tack stuff you use to stick posters to your wall.

2: I pry out three small pans from the top of the old palette. I don’t remember where I got the old tiny pans, but nothing else fits so these will be re-purposed. Regular plastic half pans do not fit into that tight top section of the palette, and if I jam them in there, I won’t be able to close the box anymore.

3: I cut a tiny slice of Foamcore to fill the space so the middle row of pans can’t move.

4: I get out my toothpicks so I can swirl the paint around in each pan and help get air bubbles out. Colours in that row are Lemon Yellow, Hansa Yellow Deep, Transparent Orange, Winsor Red, Quinacridone Rose and Crimson Lake.

5: The far row is blues and greens: Turquoise Blue, Cerulean, Cobalt, Ultramarine, Prussian, and Hooker’s Green. Yes, it got a spot in my new palette!

I love the toothpicks after I swirl the paint!

6: Middle row is more yellows, earth tones and a few purples plus my new favorite, Quin Coral! In order: Naples Yellow, Quinacridone Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Quin Coral, Lavender and Carbazole Violet.

7: The top row of old paint is Permanent Magenta, Cobalt Green and Black.

8: The final filled palette has two tiny spots but I need to find containers so I don’t pour paint right into the bottom of the palette. I’m looking for suggestions of what would fit in there. I need a spot for Green Gold! The only colour I didn’t put in is Cobalt Violet. I just don’t use it that much and it’s expensive, but if I can find a little tiny pan that fits, I might add some Yellow Ochre. This new palette will be coming with me to Santa Fe when I teach there next month.

Some of you might be wondering what will become of that old palette. I won’t be discarding it because it’s still full of perfectly good paint. Likely, it will remain at home and I’ll use it for studio or garden sketches until all the wells are empty.

From the wharf

Santa Barbara has no shortage of gorgeous subjects to sketch, but one standout for me was Stearns Wharf. Research tells me that it’s the oldest working wooden wharf in California. If you walk out to the end, you have both a beautiful view looking back at the city, or a view of the other pier that houses a restaurant. In the morning when we sketched there, the light on the buildings across the way was quite special. In my demo, we start by looking at the shapes of those buildings both in values, and after that in colour (below). If I can find the time in the next little while, I think this is one of those scenes that may be worth scaling up to a larger painting.


I love experimenting with pigments, and I guess I never get tired of finding new combinations for foliage colours. Today I used Hooker’s Green. It’s a fairly artificial-looking warm green on its own, but in combination with a bit of Ultramarine or a little Hansa Yellow or Quin Gold, it works quite well for the Alstroemeria leaves from my grocery store bouquet. Also, by using a single green as my base, all the greens in the sketch — light or dark — have a unity of colour. Hooker’s Green does not have a permanent spot on my palette, but I’m thinking it should. As for the flowers, Quin Coral and Hansa Yellow work well together to get that rosy colour of the petals.