The trees of Stanley Park

When I arrive on the West Coast from Montreal it’s the trees that always make the biggest impression on me because they are so much grander than what we see back east. This time around I spent a bit of time in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t venture too far into the park itself (you don’t have to go far to see sketchable stuff), just spent a day painting around the Fish House at one entrance, and another in Coal Harbour where hundreds of cyclists pass on their rental bikes on their way to ride around the seawall, but it was enough time to make sure I got a few Western Red Cedars in my sketchbook. I realize that I have posted the Coal Harbour sketch (the third one) already but this time the colour is more accurate since it’s a scanned version of the sketch.





Davis Bay

Of all the paintings I did on Lopez Island, I think this one looks the most like a Tom Hoffmann but I guess that’s what happens when you watch someone paint for several days. Your brush dips into the same colours on the palette, your hand moves the same way across the paper. Eventually you go back to your old painting patterns, good and bad, but hopefully that gets combined with all the knowledge that a great teacher has imparted.

On the airplane home from Vancouver I made some notes about what I hope to remember from this workshop. Here’s my little summary:
• Stay abstract as long as possible
• Keep those pure colours flowing
• Know when to put the brush down

I never really finished this study of the headlands in Davis Bay because I had to catch the ferry off the island. I suppose I could go back to it and add the details that I normally would — lots of little brushstrokes to define the rocks in the foreground — but I think I’ll just leave it as is and that will be the end to those four perfect days on Lopez Island.




Pure colour

As always with workshops the last day is always the best. That’s when all you’ve learned starts to come together.

On our final day with Tom Hoffmann on Lopez Island the goal was to challenge ourselves, to move out of our comfort zones. Pure colour is not in my comfort zone at all. I’m constantly mixing and blending to get the right hue. In fact, when I started painting in watercolour I had no tubes of green paint — greens were always mixed with yellow and blue pigments. So imagine the giant leap for me when I painted this field, and the test below it, with washes of pure colour. Azo green, sap green, carbazole violet, pyrrol orange, straight from the tube. Yikes! Wonderfully liberating and incredibly fun to try. And not uncomfortable at all.


For the test below, we mixed up a giant pool of the base colour (in this case azo green) and while that was still wet we added in the other colours. The trick with adding colours to the big wash is that you can’t dip your brush back in the water or you will get blooms or back runs. Each layer of paint should have a little less water and a little drier pigment on the brush. It took a few tries to get this right.


Cousins Farm pond

One of the most beautiful places that we painted on Lopez Island was at a farm on Cousins Road. Surrounded by apple trees, a garden in full bloom, some barns and two curious horses, it was an idyllic setting. In the afternoon we walked up to the pond (followed by those horses) that overlooks the property and instead of leaping straight into the painting we had to spend a bit of time looking and analyzing the areas in the scene that might be problematic. It really helps to spend a few minutes painting a little section of the scene instead of finding out in the middle of a painting that you don’t know how to deal with an area.



What seemed most difficult to me was the glint of sun on the dark pond on top of the tree reflections in the water, so I tried it out first on a test sheet. You need a really dry brush to create that glint. Of course you need to be able to replicate the test too, because as you can see, that glint of sun was more successful than in the larger study.


Below is the test


Fallen cedar

About a month ago I bought some loose sheets of watercolour paper from an art supply shop (not in Montreal) where the sales person clearly had no idea about the products in stock. I was sold some Canson Antique White paper that I thought was watercolour paper but it turns out it’s probably for printmaking.I guess I could have dealt with this problem in several ways. 1. I could have returned the paper to the store but I had already torn it up and I was already back in Montreal, so too far to return it. 2. I could try to paint on it and use the unexpected qualities of the paper to try something new.

Since I was in the Tom Hoffman workshop to learn and to try new things, I used it for my second forest painting and I can’t say I’m unhappy with the results. I love the way the paper stayed wet for a long time, the way the paint granulated on it, and the soft, slidy washes and unexpected drips that kept happening. One of the things Tom encourages in his workshops is to let paint do its own thing, so what happens on this paper fits right in with that. I may even try to buy some of it in Montreal.



Over the next few days I will try to scan and post all the studies I did in last week’s Tom Hoffmann workshop on Lopez Island. And the word “studies” is very appropriate because that was what we were doing. It was a learning experience and Tom encouraged us to try new things, to get out of our comfort zones, to let go of old habits.

One thing that surprised me with the subjects that we painted over the four days was how little drawing we did. We painted skies, fields, trees, water and rocks but hardly anything man-made. That made things easy and difficult at the same time. Think about it. When you look at a farmer’s field as it moves into the distance there is not much to paint. And when you look into the forest there is too much to paint. Every day and every subject was a complex problem to render in paint and that’s what made it thrilling. It involved a lot of looking, thinking and analyzing about how it should be attacked, and even testing out potential problem areas. Day in and day out I paint things (buildings, boats, flowers, household objects) but I was rendered quite speechless in front of a large yellow field of barley. Or this forest clearing. But we looked. And analyzed. And then painted. And the advice from Tom’s wise and patient teaching was to think about where the lights and darks were, and to keep it abstract as long as possible. More to come tomorrow…


Beach logs kill

Of all the places on my Pacific Northwest itinerary I think Kalaloch was the one I was the most curious about. On the far western side of the Olympic Peninsula, it seemed so remote and wild, so unlike anything I had ever seen. A few nights before arriving there a friend sent me a link to the webcam from the Kalaloch Lodge (cloudy and rainy all the time!) with a view that is something like my sketch below. Keep in mind that if you have a look at the webcam when it’s nighttime in Washington State, the view will be dark.

From 40 feet above, the distant beach and the weather-beaten driftwood logs created an interesting and somewhat benign view to sketch but it was only later when I took a walk near the shoreline that I truly understood the meaning of the slogan “Beach Logs Kill” that is boldly printed on all the souvenirs in the gift shop. I’ve never been to a wilder place where you truly feel the power of open ocean, wind, waves and… the logs that come tumbling out of those waves. They’re piled up on the sand like toothpicks, except they’re two feet across and 20 or 30 feet long. My stay there wasn’t long, in fact only one night, but it was enough to know that will go back there one day to paint that wild scene again.


English Bay

On my last day in the Pacific Northwest I found some time to sketch the tankers and freighters on English Bay in Vancouver. They seem so solidly anchored out in the bay but I drew them on two different days and each time realized that every time I looked up they had each shifted slightly.


McArdle Bay

It’s a joy to be a student this week. I’ve been spending the past few days in Tom Hoffmann’s workshop on Lopez Island, painting like a madwoman and enjoying watching and listening to Tom’s thoughtful teaching and fascinating demos. I will have lots to write about when I return to Montreal, after all of this trickles down and settles in my head, but until then this will be the only painting I post. These days are tiring because besides painting for seven or eight hours, we are hiking through woods to our locations, sometimes clambering down cliffs, all the while carrying our gear. I think I’ll wait to post these Lopez watercolours after they’ve been scanned and I have a chance to describe the exercises we are working on (as you can see, this afternoon was skies!)


Where eagles dive

Lopez Island is known as the most bucolic of the San Juan islands because of the rolling hills and calm bays. I’ll be painting here for the next few days but thought I’d warm up with a sketch in my panoramic sketchbook. I don’t use this book for much else besides panoramas or very vertical sketches like the one I did a few months ago of a sculpture at the museum in Ottawa. It’s too wide for street scenes but perfect for a wide-angle view of Mackaye Harbor.