Fallen Birch

I often get asked how I decide when to use ink and wash instead of pencil and wash. My standard answer is that I use an ink line when the subject seems to be line-based (like in Fox Trot) and watercolour on top of pencil when the subject is shape-based (like Draw). City scenes often have lots of ink drawing in them because there are power lines, bricks, utility poles and cracks in the pavement. Water scenes are usually just pencil with wash on top because I want to use the fluidity of the paint to create reflections and waves. Occasionally a scene requires both treatments, like the edge of the lake I painted a few weeks ago. The birch, the rocks and the underbrush were defined with pen, but I built up the water with layers of paint. In this case I don’t think ink would have worked at all.

Along similar lines (no pun intended) I noticed that my friend Liz Steel is offering a new online course called “Edges“. It promises to be as excellent as her first course “Foundations” and it’s all about the interaction between shape and line.


River Kwai morning

I’m still finishing up some paintings I did in Thailand. This one was early morning, looking out on the River Kwai towards Myanmar. In the distance the mountains have forms that are so unlike anything I’ve ever seen — sharp and undulating and so densely green. Every once in a while a fisherman goes by and disturbs the still water, but in minutes it is dead calm again. A sight I’ll not likely forget any time soon. Arches paper, 15″ x 11″.



Daily drawing from observation is important to me. If I don’t draw almost every day I get rusty. I don’t think it’s the same for everyone though. I know artists who can take a month long break from drawing and their lines are just as fluid when they start up again as the day they stopped. Not me. I need to stay limber and that means finding something to draw every day, even if it means sketching what’s sitting on my kitchen counter. After travelling (especially to exotic destinations) there’s always an adjustment period when I have to get used to drawing the mundane again and I find that I have a hard time coming up with ideas of what to draw. After all, how can some salted eggplants on my cutting board compare to the temples of Cambodia or the markets of Bangkok? But while I was drawing today I had the radio on for company and I listened to an interview with two of Montreal’s best political cartoonists — Serge Chapleau and Terry Mosher (better known as Aislin). At one point the CBC interviewer asked them how they find their daily ideas and Chapleau had an answer that made me laugh. He said, “If you don’t have any ideas… draw.”


In celebration

I didn’t have much time today but I had to do a quick sketch in celebration of a big event — after eight years of teaching I have tenure, and I think that is something to celebrate. In college terms that’s not a long time to wait. In fact some teachers still don’t have it after 10 or more years of teaching, so I’m not complaining. I am fortunate. I love my job, and I especially love working with college students, but I also appreciate that my work also allows me the time to paint, which makes me doubly lucky, don’t you think?


My neglected garden

It’s back-to-school week, which means my daily sketching time is shorter. I can’t complain since my summer was full of marvellous travel and lots of sketching too. Today: only a quick one of some flowers in my neglected garden (another consequence of all that travel!).


Fox trot

I was out sketching in Lachine this morning when I noticed a fox trotting by on the other side of the street. It went one way and then came back, and finally settled across from me, partially hidden on someone’s driveway, for a very long time. I couldn’t figure out why it was hanging around and then I realized that it had likely been displaced from its usual habitat in the park nearby. There was a running race going on in the area — in fact the finish line was just down the street — and the neighbourhood was filled with runners, cheering spectators, police, and assorted others on bikes or with dogs and strollers. No wonder the fox was out of sorts.


Five o’clock shadow

I love to draw Montreal’s alleys — especially when there’s good light and shadow at the end of the day — but I’ve never really thought much about them since I’ve grew up in this city and they’re so familiar to me. I started wondering about their history today while scanning my sketch. Are they a unique feature of the city, like our outdoor staircases? Probably not, but I haven’t travelled enough in neighbourhoods of other cities to know. Some of these lanes are actually really narrow streets and even have names, but I think the best ones are the nameless ones because they are almost too narrow for a car to go through and that makes them perfect for pedestrians. The best time to meander through is in the summer when you can catch glimpses of the backs of the houses and gardens in Mile End or the Plateau, and especially in late summer when the tomatoes are ripe and grape vines are spilling over the fences.


How fluid is Fluid?

It’s paper testing day for me. I’m looking for a paper (not a sketchbook) that will take ink lines well and also stand up to lots of colour and very juicy washes. For my online Craftsy course I used Canson Moulin du Roy, but that seemed to suck up all the colour and the results were often less vibrant than I intended. Today I tried Fluid 100 cold pressed 140 lb. You might be familiar with the pads of Fluid paper (which are not 100% cotton) but these new sheets are archival cotton. Does the paper perform as well as a sheet of Arches or Fabriano? Probably not. But it’s perfect for my needs when sketching out in the field and more likely cheaper than the other brands. The colour in this little scene of a school in the midday sun (11″ x 7″, sketched in about 40 minutes) worked out well. It’s about as saturated as I had hoped which makes me think I’ll probably try this stock again soon.


The Temple of Angkor Wat

Before I went to Cambodia I had looked at many Google images of Angkor Wat — the largest of the temples in the Angkor complex, and according to trusty Wikipedia, possibly the largest religious monument in the world. But there are no images that prepare you for the beauty of the place. My gasp was audible. They say you have to witness it at sunrise but the weather was rainy and overcast every morning so I missed that experience. In many ways, though, I think the heavy sky added to the atmosphere of the place. I tried to paint on my first visit but the rain was unrelenting, even in a sheltered spot, so I made my way back there on my last day in Siem Reap, hoping to get in one last sketch from across the moat. It turned out to be a great spot to draw from (I found a few of my sketcher friends there as well) but our outing was cut short by the advances of a particularly agressive monkey nearby (possibly the same one who earlier in the day had grabbed and chugged a full bottle of India Ink from another sketcher in our group). We had to pack up our supplies really quickly to keep the monkey from getting them, but my sketch was done by that time.


Jim Thompson House

The Jim Thompson House is an oasis in the middle of Bangkok. It’s a spectacular mansion (and surrounding property too), constructed from several traditional Thai houses dismantled from their original locations and reassembled to form the residence of the American entrepreneur and art collector Jim Thompson. He’s an intriguing character who established a silk company and later disappeared mysteriously in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The house and museum are a popular tourist destination in the city, but to see the house you must take the guided tour. While waiting for my tour to begin, I had a bit of time to draw in the shaded courtyard. Of course I am thinking about all my Thai friends today after hearing about the horrific blast at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok. The Jim Thompson House is located quite close to the site of the explosion, just a stop or two away on the elevated train line.