One small thing, or maybe three

Through my online courses on Craftsy, I often get questions about how to start a sketch. I think we all have the same problem when staring at a blank page in a sketchbook. Where do I start? What do I want to capture? What if there’s nothing interesting around me to draw?

I think one of the possibilities when you’re staring at that white page is to have one small goal that you would like to work towards. It doesn’t have to be anything overly ambitious, like a complex street scene on a sunny day or a panoramic landscape at sunset. Make it something small, especially if your time is limited or the light is changing quickly. Every sketch is a practice — in fact every painting is a practice — and if you can learn something each time you put pen or brush to paper, then you are making progress even if you haven’t created anything you’d like to hang on the wall.

Yesterday I had this unforgettable lake view in front of me but the light was fading fast. There was no central focus in the scene and I knew I wouldn’t have time for a full size watercolour. My goal for this quick 8″ x 8″ sketch was simple: separate the distant trees from the close ones using colour temperature (warmer for distant and cooler for the close trees in shadow); paint some interesting tree shapes, different distances apart and each with a slightly different profile (I used my Rosemary dagger brush for that); and finally, get some cool shadows on the snow-covered trees to show them in shadow against the frozen lake.

Ok, so that’s not one small goal, it’s actually three. But the point is, the goal wasn’t to make a great painting. It was just a series of exercises within the sketch. And considering the time I had before I lost the light, I’m happy to have had the chance to practice each of them.




River fence

One of the advantages of living on an island like Montreal is that I often have views of the fleuve Saint Laurent in my paintings. Most often I’m parked on the southern part of the island where the river is quite wide and the opposite shore is distant (and not that interesting.) On the other hand, if I paint along the northern shore, there are lots of vantage points where I can see land across the river. I painted this from a church parking lot in Ste. Geneviève, with Ile Bizard in the distance. Light, wet snow was falling — misting and muting the colours on the river — so I chose a limited palette of Cerulean Blue, Yellow Ochre and Organic Vermilion. Since this scene was more about values than colour, I added in some Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna to ramp up the darks when it came time to paint the fence.


Norway maple

I’m trying out something new this week. It’s a pad of Arches 140 lb, cold press paper. Not a block that’s glued down on four sides, but a pad that’s only glued on the short side. I was curious to see whether the paper would warp, because I usually tape my sheets to a backing board or use the glued block. This paper surprised me. I painted on it with very wet washes and it remained relatively flat. That’s good news, because I find this format very convenient. I love the ease of throwing the pad in my bag and it’s quite a bit more economical than the blocks (although not as cheap as cutting up your own paper!). Perfect for sketch outings because it comes in both 9″ x 12″ and 10″ x 14″ sizes.


Black and white canopy

The last time I painted on rue Henri Julien was in the fall when the trees formed a yellow canopy over the street. This morning we had a sprinkling of fresh snow and I was hoping that I could paint there again but the weather was not on my side. By the time I parked the thermometer had moved up, and the snow turned to rain so I drew instead. I’m not sorry I drew this in pen though, because I think the dismal day and the soggy snow may come across better in black and white than in colour. Sketched in a Handbook Watercolor Journal, 9″ x 12″.


Monday bouquet

I’m constantly shifting things around in my palette. A few months ago I took out Sap Green, but for flower painting I find it’s really a necessity. I squeezed out a small blob of it on a corner of my tray, as well as some Deep Sap Green. With the addition of a little yellow there wasn’t much else I had to do to get the right colour for this foliage. Painted on a pad of Arches 140 lb cold press paper, 12″ x 12″.


Vintage Daniel Smith palette, not for sale

There is an abundance of travel sketch kits, but I bet there aren’t too many of these around anymore. I received this Daniel Smith brass paint kit as a gift years ago but haven’t used it recently for a number of reasons, in particular because I use too much water in my mixes, and my brushes are too big. I took it out this week though, knowing I might need it for restricted-space sketching activities. On the outside it’s a perfectly beautiful object — rectangular, hinged, and with a thick brass closure on one side.


Open it up to reveal everything you need for sketching, minus the brush: twelve spots for paint (six more if you add a few half pans in there), a water bottle, a divided reservoir for rinsing your brushes, five enamel mixing surfaces (if you count the water bottle surface) and a hole for your thumb. What more does a sketcher need?

I filled it this week with some colours I don’t use often, among them Green Gold, Cendre Blue and Cadmium Orange, just so I could have an alternative to my standard colours.OpenAnd then I used it this morning when Urban Sketchers Montreal met for our monthly outing, this month at a Dim Sum restaurant. It fits perfectly in my left hand while I sketch, and in places where the table linens are white (and you don’t necessarily want to put your paints on the table) it can rest on your lap. It also works really well when I paint in the car because it balances on the console between the driver’s and the passenger’s seat. It won’t replace the larger palette I use most of the time, but it’s a great alternative for those times when a little furtive sketching is on the menu.


Location, location

I knew where I wanted to paint today couldn’t really find a good spot to park. In one direction I was facing into the sun, and the other side of the street had no parking spots. Since I was out there with my sketch stuff and didn’t want to waste a perfectly good outing, I drew what was out my side window. Kind of an odd view with a bit of building and a lot of white but who can resist a fire hydrant in the snow?


In from the cold

Almost every day Alice (the dog) and I walk through these woods near my house. On a sunny day in the winter the light in there is both warm and cool at the same time, but the views can only be accessed on foot. After the dog had her exercise, I returned to the woods with a pad and some water-soluble pencils. At -9°C I knew I wouldn’t be able to paint, but I did stand and draw for a little while. I tried using a Koi water brush but it turned to ice once it hit the paper, so I drew and only added a bit of water when I got home. Despite the cold, it is still more exciting to me to paint the changing light in the woods than to take a photo and paint a static view of the same scene.


Experiment in blue

This isn’t my usual way of painting, but I was in the mood to try something a little different today. I painted wet-in-wet on 300 lb Arches paper, which I don’t use very often, (and certainly not for experimentation), but I have some old stock that I wasn’t even sure was good anymore. I wanted to try some soft snow shadows, so I wet the paper completely (only one side is necessary with this thick paper), and then painted the sky and snow shadows with a big flat brush (2″) loaded with Verditer Blue. It’s an interesting blue that I think is a good substitute for Cobalt in winter scenes and I’ll definitely be trying it again.


Disappearing panorama

It’s been a while since I sketched the view of Montreal from the 5th floor of the school where I work. I usually do this when I have a long break between classes, and that hasn’t happened in some time. But this semester I find myself with an excessively long break, and on brutally cold days like today when even painting in the car is not an option, this location is ideal. There’s a heater at my feet, a wide window sill for my paints and sketchpad, and often a group of students looking over my shoulder, chatting with me as I paint. It could be worse. On most days, the view is clearer, but there were snow squalls all day today so a soft apparition of the mountain appeared and disappeared as I painted. Magic.