The daffodil trap

This past winter I struggled to paint a little bunch of daffodils in a clear glass vase. They were on a table in my studio, set against a white wall. I probably painted six sketches of that subject — turning the vase this way and that to get a better composition — but each one was duller than the next. The whole pile ended up in the garbage. Later that day, when I had somewhat recovered from my frustration, I pulled a few of them out of the trash to have another look. The problem was that there was no contrast in any of the sketches — pale yellow shapes, pale background, spindly green stems. I suppose I could have imagined them set against a dark wall, and that would have helped somewhat, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.

I was reminded of that frustration when I set out to paint these brilliant yellow mums at the market, but today I had two things that helped me avoid the daffodil trap. First of all, the mums were in dark pots — big solid shapes of deep green that surrounded the yellow blossoms. Secondly, the whole grouping of flowers was conveniently set against a big neutral background (boxes, wooden palettes, grey wall) which also helped to make the bright colours stand out. I hope I remember this next winter during daffodil time.


The other keeper’s dwelling

Eastern Point Lighthouse in Gloucester, Mass. has two keeper’s dwellings. Most often people paint the white one with the red roof that was built in 1890 and is attached to the lighthouse itself. In fact, I did that myself last year and you can have a look here and here. This year, I chose instead to paint the newer one, built in 1908. If you park in the lot at the end of the road, this newer grey dwelling is situated on top of a little hill, and I find that makes for an interesting composition. Half subject and half foreground can sometimes be problematic because you are dividing the sheet in two equal parts, but if there is enough going on then sometimes it can work. I thought that the sharp diagonal of tree shadows on grass might help to break up the large rectangular shape of the foreground. Size: 15″ x 11″.


Split screen

Need a little portrait practice? TV debates are a good choice because the faces are in the same position for a long time. NB: If you want to listen to someone who has drawn Trump more than once, check this out on It’s Anna Maria Tremonti’s interview with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau who has just launched “Yuge!”, a compilation of many years worth of his Trump-related cartoons.


The car studio

How do I paint from my car? What does my setup look like? I’ve been promising this post for a long time and I finally found a photographer willing to take some quick photos of me sketching (well, fake sketching in my driveway). Several things to note before you read the post in its entirety: the car is not always this clean and my palette is not always this dirty. But this is a good week because the car was just washed. As for the palette, a cleaning is a bit overdue, as you will see.


I am sometimes asked if I sit in the driver’s or the passenger’s seat. Well, as you can see, it’s the former, for two reasons. One is that I use the steering wheel as a support for my sketchbook. Secondly, I am right handed and that gives me easy access to the palette and water container.


So where does the palette go? I have a good setup for that. I take my brushes out of their sturdy holder, and that flat container goes under the palette on the passenger seat. This keeps the palette flat so the water doesn’t flow into the pigment wells, and prevents it from sliding down the sloped seat too.


As for the water and brushes, they sit conveniently side by side in the car’s cup holders where I can reach them easily. Some might ask if this makes for a messy car. Well, despite the dirty palette, I am actually quite a neat painter, so there’s not too much watercolour in the car.  There are sometimes water splashes but those are easy to wipe up. (What you will find though, is remnants of my lunch since I often paint on my way to and from school.)


So what’s different in the winter? 1: The clothing. This car painting setup seems pretty easy to do in late September when the weather is warm but imagine doing this in the middle in the winter with a puffy jacket on? It becomes a little more difficult but not impossible, though I often end up with paint on my jacket sleeves. 2. The temperature of the car. I warm it up before I get in, and by the time I reach my sketching location it’s pretty toasty so I can paint for some time without getting cold. Of course I turn off the engine while I sketch, but turn it on periodically to warm up my feet and use the car heater/fan to dry the washes.

There are some days that I can’t paint in the car, but those are infrequent. When the thermometer goes too low (-20C), the washes crystallize on the palette even in a preheated car, and then I have to paint indoors. And on days when it’s raining so hard I can’t see out the front window, I find a nice café and sketch from there. (Let’s agree not to talk about the time when I painted from the car with the wipers on and drained the battery.)

So that’s my setup. Nothing complicated, really. If you any questions about this, I’d love to hear.

In with the wind

This has been a balmy summer in Montreal but, as if on cue, the first day of autumn blew in on a cold wind. And with that began my season of painting from my car studio. I used to think painting in my car was something I did out of necessity, but I have come to love the comfort of the car studio. I can let in as much or as little of the cold wind as I want and I have a support for paints and water. And a fan for drying the washes. I haven’t drawn boats very much this summer but figured I should get some in before they come out of the water. And, as usual for a sketch done on my way to school, I ran out of time before I finished the painting. Sketched at the Pointe Claire Yacht Club, in a Handbook Watercolour Journal.


On the grass

I love the brush pen for drawing quick figures, like these I drew out on the campus during my lunch break at school. The pen gives me an expressive line that I can start and stop, and it’s wonderful for marks that go from thick to thin. It’s also perfect for creating a dark area really quickly. Tiny details are more difficult though. For example, the little turns of the brush that you have to do when drawing eyes and other facial features are more difficult. I’ll be sorry when the weather gets colder and all the students move inside to the cafeteria. It won’t be half as much fun to draw them hunched over their phones in a dimly lit space.


A couple of Manchester pubs

I’m finally getting around to scanning some of my Manchester sketches from this past July. Better late than never, I guess. I know I’ve posted this one of Peveril of the the Peak Pub already, but that was from an iPhone photo on location. The colour is never that accurate on those posts, so here’s a proper scan. I sketched this early one morning, before the start of the Urban Sketchers Symposium, and so glad I did because later in the week this was probably the most sketched building in Manchester and I might have had to jostle other sketchers to get a good vantage point. Have a look at this post to see some other takes on this iconic meeting spot.



Every evening after the long days of sketching workshops and activities, sketchers gathered at Peveril of the Peak to have a pint and… sketch some more. While waiting for a friend, I sketched one of the hanging baskets on the corner of the building, along with a bit of the shiny green and yellow tiled facade.


During another break before a workshop, I had time to draw The Salutation, a pub across from the Manchester School of Art. I never managed to find the time to add colour to the drawing so I added it on the airplane, with no photo reference. (Can you tell I was on a budget airline with no in-flight entertainment?) It has an oddly artificial look to it, I think because I used some artistic license with the colours. There was certainly not that much blue in the windows but hey, at 30,000 feet, I guess that’s permissible.


Hakima at the market

Hakima sells squash at the Jean Talon Market. Not only that. For no extra charge she’ll throw in a recipe or two. She grows the squash in all shapes and colours, including a few I’ve never seen. I’ve missed most of the summer in Montreal so I’m trying to catch up on sketching at the outdoor markets before the season ends. This is the week for tomatoes, if you are planning on making sauce, but I’d rather spend my time sketching. I wish I’d drawn Hakima’s expressive face but I caught her from the back while she was talking to a customer. Sketched in a Stillman & Birn Beta softcover.


Product testing: Stillman & Birn softcover

This week I’m trying out the softcover versions of the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. I seem to remember that there was a problem with the binding of these books when they first appeared last year, but the issue has been resolved and the books I have are the new ones, both the Beta and the Zeta series. These work best for me because they are the thickest papers and since I throw a lot of water around, thinner paper like in the Alpha Series book doesn’t cut it for me. I like this format for everyday sketching — the horizontal 5.5 x 8.5 book fits in my small sketch bag and I have to admit that the softcover is much easier to hold than the heavier hardcover books. Today I used the Beta series for my sunflower sketch, and even with all the water I used, the paper is still flat. I like the pebbly texture of the Beta series, the way it maintains the vibrancy of colour and the way it lays flat on the scanner. More tests to come tomorrow when I take it on the road to my favourite market.



Last weeks of summer

There’s definitely a change in the colour of the foliage of trees and plants this week. I noticed it in the maple trees first — not any obvious reds or yellows yet — just a bit of a shift from the brights of summer to more muted greens. I also noticed a yellowing of the tomato plants as I walked by a community garden this week. And in my own backyard, the Echinacea are starting to droop, fade and shrivel at the edges. A sure sign of the last weeks of summer.