Oglethorpe Square

Savannah, Georgia: a sketcher’s paradise. 21 historic squares, each one surrounded by restored town houses, shaded with Spanish moss and flanked by wooden benches. I couldn’t decide which one to sketch, but with some rain clouds threatening, I chose Oglethorpe Square. It seemed fitting since General James Oglethorpe was the founder of the colony of Georgia and one of the original planners for the settlement of Savannah. In true Southern style there was a dapper gentleman in a straw fedora and peach-coloured pants spending his Sunday afternoon reading a book. Some Flannery O’Connor stories, no doubt. 


Girl 99

I don’t usually write notes in my sketchbook but this one was just too good. I was riding a crowded subway on my way into town today, minding my own business, doing some people sketching in a very small book. I could tell people were glancing at me drawing, but when I picked up my head there was a burly man glaring down at me. I smiled to break the ice, but the smile was not returned. Instead I got this: Est-ce que c’est légal, ce qui vous faites? (Is it legal, what you are doing?) Bien sur, I said. Je crois que non (I don’t think so) was the reply. Mais oui, I said as I smiled again and shrugged my shoulders. And with that the metro came to a stop and the menacing stranger threw me a final  Je crois que non and left the train. I could tell the other people around me were just as shocked as I was, and perhaps relieved too, that the subway had stopped at just the right time.

I know other sketchers who have had issues occasionally, often while drawing on trains, when the person they are drawing turns to confront them in anger. But I wasn’t drawing the burly man, I was clearly drawing a girl on the other side of the train so I’m not quite sure what the offence might have been. Bad drawing, maybe, but drawing in public, I don’t think so.



Way, way up

Yikes, I’ve run out of my favourite square blocks of Fluid paper. I’ve grown to love the square format for sketches. I bought a block of a different format (9″ x 12″) but I just don’t like it as much. What is it about the square format that makes it so pleasing to work with? Is it the symmetry of the format? Is it because the square makes it easy to divide the space up on the page? Or is it because it’s the perfect frame for a composition? An artist whose work I love, and who uses square formats so successfully is Susanne Strater. Have a look at her wonderful pastels and the way she so effectively composes her pictures.

If you have a bit more time, check out a guest post I did on Doodlewash. Thanks so much Charlie O’Shields for featuring me on your wonderful blog!


That mysterious blue

A few weeks ago I painted a snow scene and many people emailed me inquiring about the blue pigment I used. I was testing some paints for an art store and until they became available, I couldn’t really say what they were. Well, they are stocked now in Montreal, so I can reveal that the paints I was testing were Holbein’s Irodori Antique Watercolours.

The first tests I did were with the greens, pinks and purples. Have a look at my little test sheet. You’ll see that the paint is very granular, the colours are intense and the paint is quite opaque, almost like gouache. If you read the product literature,  you’ll see that the watercolours have been created from ancient Japanese and Chinese pigments.



The first test that I did was to paint some tulips. You can see that the paint is not quite like traditional transparent watercolour. The greens, pinks and purples are rich and so saturated, but they don’t move around quite as much as I am used to. This is pure pigment mixed with gum arabic, but there’s no ox gall in the mix to make the paint flow. Quite a joy for flower painting, but how would this work for plein air work?


Since I didn’t quite have the right colours for urban sketching, I went back to the store to get some more samples of blues, yellows and reds. Here is the sample chart for the next tests.


That’s when I painted the snow scene using the Antique Pale Blue for my shadows. It’s quite a unique colour which is probably why so many people asked me what it was.


I think these pigments are at their best when used unmixed, in other words, the pure version of the paint. I couldn’t really test them for a plein air car sketch because I didn’t have enough paint to fill my palette, but I did paint a few wheelbarrow scenes from my window and I can’t say I liked the experience of mixing them. The colours became flat and dull (more like gouache), like in this backyard sketch.


Would I use these paints now that they are available in store? I certainly wouldn’t replace everything in my palette but I think that a few tubes would be a nice addition to what I already have. Each tube is the same price (unlike most watercolours which vary by series) and I did buy a tube of Antique Seedling because it will be wonderful for those light spring greens (when spring finally arrives!). And of course I bought the Antique Pale Blue for painting snow. If you enjoy painting florals, it would certainly be worth giving these a try, both for the colour intensity and the way they move around on the paper.


Winter eyes

There’s been so much grey in my sketches lately that when I saw this yellow house, in the sun, with a parking spot in front of it, I had to stop. In a week’s time I’ll be off to South Carolina to give a workshop. I know from experience that when I go from a cold, grey place (Montreal in the winter) to a warm, sunny one like Palmetto Bluff, it takes some time to get used to the colour in my surroundings. I experienced that in Costa Rica last winter. It’s as if the intense colours are just too much for my winter weary eyes to adjust to. For a while I paint everything a little too pale, and then slowly the colours in my sketchbook become properly saturated. So consider this the first practice for a temperate climate.


March panorama

I haven’t done an official count of sunny vs. cloudy days in February, but it certainly feels like the cloudy ones have outnumbered the sunny ones. When a few moments of sun coincided with a break I had between classes, I seized the moment to run upstairs at school and paint from my favourite picture window. Instead of my full palette, I had a travel box of Van Gogh watercolours with me. These are student grade paints and I’m not that keen on them, but I do love the Cerulean Blue in this set. A little research into why I like this blue has uncovered that it’s actually a Phthalo Blue mixed with a little white (for pigment nerds it’s PB15/PW6), so it has the deep staining quality of a much more intense colour than the pastel Cerulean we usually think of (PB35 or 36).

If you are interested in learning more about the colours in your paint box there are two excellent sources I always refer to, and I often mention them on these pages. Australian artist Jane Blundell has an incredible passion for everything about colour in watercolour, so when I want to look at a painted sample of a colour I might want to purchase, I check out her info first. (Jane is also giving a workshop at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Manchester this summer.) The other wealth of information comes from handprint.com. Bruce MacEvoy’s website approaches watercolour from a super scientific perspective. Click on the colour wheel and you’ll find out anything you want to know about paper, brushes, paints and colour theory. And be prepared to spend some serious time on both of these sites.