Wednesday wheelbarrow and winter sketching tips

It’s too cold to paint outside this week — even in a pre-heated car — but the trusty wheelbarrow is always there for me. It looked especially fetching in the sun today, under a blanket of fresh snow.

I guess over the years I’ve become a lover of winter sketching, despite the discomfort I sometimes have to endure to get the sketches finished. If you’re curious about my do’s and don’ts for winter sketching (some of which you may have already read in my numerous winter blog posts!) have a look at There’s a great interview by Brenda Murray, including my colour recipe for shadows on snow. And while you’re there, check out the store too. You may decide you need this or that.

Red bouquet

I often buy myself flowers, as much for the pleasure of painting them as for just having some colour to look at during our long grey winters. I select the bouquets carefully, trying to find the least expensive one with the most blooms. Preferably in the sale bin, and hopefully not yet dropping petals. This time, though, I splurged. This bouquet cost a bit more than I usually will pay, but I chose it for no other reason than the red flowers were so intense that even in the store I was imagining colours I would use to paint them.

This bouquet required pinks and reds that are not in my day-to-day palette — Permanent Magenta, Cadmium Red Scarlet Hue, and Pyrrol Crimson — special colours that live in my paint drawer until I can find the right use for them. Probably purchased on a whim and then forgotten (like many pairs of shoes in my closet).

Someone asked me the other day for some tricks about painting a glass vase. I can’t remember where I read or heard this advice, Charles Reid, perhaps: paint what’s in the vase, not the vase itself. I try to focus on the stems and give only the most minimal indications of the vase itself.

San Pietro colours

There are a few colours I have on my two palettes that I love using when I am painting urban scenes, especially city scenes with lots of signage. The reason I have Naples Yellow, Lavender, Cobalt Green and Cobalt Teal on the palettes is because they’re semi-opaque pigments, so I can use them quite thickly and effectively on top of dark areas like windows and doors.

Cobalt Green is a new addition to the group. I found good use for it the other day when I was painting Épicerie San Pietro.

You might have already tried this out with your pigments, but if you’re not sure if your colours are transparent, opaque or semi-opaque, test them out by painting with them on top of a dark (and dry) swatch of watercolour (like I did below), or across a black line drawn from a thick Sharpie pen. The transparent pigments will disappear and the opaque pigments will sit on top of the dark surface, like these four did below.

A workshop announcement: Amersfoort, The Netherlands

I’ve added a new workshop to my summer schedule: three days of sketching instruction in Amersfoort, The Netherlands.

This workshop is really about travel sketching — capturing people, places and things that evoke memories of a time and a place — and of course returning home with a fat book filled with fresh and vibrant sketches. If you followed my posts a few weeks back, this was exactly what I was doing on Sanibel Island.

As part of a small group, you’ll observe plenty of demos and receive individual attention as we work on value studies, colour, composition, vignettes, lettering, simplifying a scene, and keeping our watercolours fresh. The focus will be on having fun as we sketch, capturing the cafés, canals and traditional Dutch architecture. Each day will end with a review and a group dinner (which is optional, of course, but always fun).  

Our location in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, was chosen because of the many historic buildings and canals, making it a perfect sketcher’s destination that can be explored on foot. It’s a city of medieval origins, with a rich history. No wonder it’s the most photographed small city in the Netherlands!

I’m excited to run this one through the Urban Sketchers Workshop Program, and you can find all the details here.

Snow storm

I’ve been doing lots of experimenting with the Procreate app on my iPad. I love the drawing tools, but it has taken me a long time to find something that approximates paint. There are indeed many brushes, but I just can’t get them to do what I want. Admittedly I am self-taught, so far, but that will change eventually. I probably could learn a lot by watching some YouTube videos, but I enjoy the process of discovery and experimentation even if the results are poor.

Last night while waiting for dinner to cook, I discovered the water pen. It’s hidden under the Calligraphy menu. That might lead you to think it was a tool with strokes that vary from thick to thin, which it is, but instead of having solid edges like an ink pen, the edges are textured and soft. That makes drawing with it kind of like painting with soft oil or acrylic brushes. And as you overlap the strokes you don’t get a darker overlap area like some of the traditional Procreate brushes. The best word I can find to describe the brush is “malleable”. It actually feels like I am moving wet paint around when I use it.

Here’s a quick time-lapse video of the sketch I did while looking out the window at today’s snow storm. Maybe you’ll see what I mean about malleable. Do you have a Procreate brush that you love? Please let me know, and send me some links to samples you’ve created. I’d love to see.

Villeray lane, step-by-step

My new iPad Pro has a great camera which makes taking process shots of my studio paintings much easier than it used to be. I just prop the painting up on an easel and take a few shots along the way.

I’ve been painting away during this holiday break in preparation for a show I’m having in March at Galerie Carlos, which is part of The Old Brewery Mission. I hope to have lots of new Montreal scenes, including this one of a lane in Villeray.

After completing the pencil drawing (from a photo I took last week) I use a big brush to put in a light wash of the initial warm and cool tones, painting around the whites. This is a half sheet of Arches Rough 140 lb watercolour paper, so the brush I use is a big mop that holds tons of water.

The second step is to use a wide flat brush to start to define the movement and texture in the scene. I initially left the snow in the foreground quite light but then decided to go in with a big, wet wash of grey to tie both sides of the lane together. For the overcast day, I used mostly blues and Burnt Sienna, which allowed me to vary the greys from warm to cool in different areas of the painting.

After a walk with the dog, I came back to a fully dry sheet and was then able to add details to the watercolour. At that point I decided to put in the little boys playing in the lane. I tried to paint them without too much fuss — just a few quick swipes of bright colour with the brush. I didn’t want them to be overworked or more detailed than the rest of the painting.

The last step was to add lots of calligraphy and texture on the sheds, the trees, the utility poles and power lines. I did this mostly with a series of rigger brushes, and dryer, thicker paint. When the watercolour was fully dry I scanned it in sections and stitched it together in Photoshop, so the colour on the final version is the most accurate.

Lunar Blue

I’ve been waiting for a coating of snow on the wheelbarrow to try out a tube of Daniel Smith Lunar Blue watercolour that I received last year at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Porto.

Here is the Daniel Smith description of the colour: The fabric of the night sky glides off the brush in this heavenly shade. Granulating lunar black floats above a phthalo undertone, perfect for capturing a moonlit sky. Inky as midnight, or diffused as the moon on water, semi-transparent Lunar Blue lifts beautifully, leaving behind a mere shadow of itself. This moody watercolor is sure to delight.

I painted a few swatches first and it did delight, so I moved on to a sketch. Of course if you have Lunar Black and Phthalo Blue, you can mix this yourself.

When you first squeeze out the paint on your palette, you’ll think that it’s a very dark paint, but in fact it’s quite light when you start to work with it. It took many layers of wash to get the values right. When you add water to it, it looks very grey. The blue is much more obvious when you paint with it.

Look closely at the swatches too. You’ll see that the staining Phthalo blue and the granular Lunar Black separate as they dry. That creates quite a beautiful effect — one that expresses perfectly the quiet of a snowy day. The only drawback that I found: because it’s a pigment with a lot of subtlety, I had some problems scanning the sketch. As soon as I brightened the whites, all the pale blues disappeared. But maybe you are better in Photoshop than I am!

Dimanche matin

Carré St. Louis is Montreal’s grandest square. If you’ve walked through it, you know what I mean. It’s surrounded by stately Victorian houses which I’ve sketched in the past, but I’ve never painted it in winter. Since the day was quite overcast I used a limited palette for the soft winter colours — mostly Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine Blue. Of course for the garland of plastic blooms that adorns the gazebo, I dipped my brush into pure yellow and red. Painted wet-in-wet on a half sheet of Arches 140 lb rough paper, 15″ x 22″.

Painting palette, updated

After an intense period of painting and sketching (and since it’s too cold in Montreal to even paint in my car today) I thought I’d spend some time cleaning my palettes and updating the Art Materials page on the blog. I think I was also motivated by the Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo, because after watching one episode of her show on Netflix, I spent a full evening frantically organizing my office and filing cabinets. I guess it’s tidying week.

I’ve been promising to post an update of my larger studio palette. I recently invested in a Holbein Enamelled Steel Folding Palette with 24 slots for colour and a handy thumb hole. The palette is really well designed and when I’m standing to paint, the palette rests comfortably on my arm. This was admittedly a splurge for me and I try to keep it in good shape by obsessively putting it back in its cardboard box after painting on location so the black enamel doesn’t get chipped. A little ridiculous, I know, but it really is a beautiful object.

The colours I filled it with are somewhat different from my small sketching palette. New additions from my trip to Provence are Lavender, Naples Yellow and Cobalt Green, all opaque colours that are fun to play with. 

Top row: Azo Yellow, New Gamboge, Naples Yellow, Quinacridone Gold, Transparent Orange, Cadmium Red Deep, Quinacridone Rose, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber.
Bottom Row: Manganese Blue, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, Indanthrene Blue, Sap Green, Phthalo Green, Cobalt Green, Lavender, Cobalt Violet Light, Carbazole Violet.
If you are interested in knowing the brands, the tubes are below, photographed in the same order as the placement in the palette.

On the updated Art Materials page, you’ll also find my travel sketching palette and colours, my travel brushes, my studio brushes and my favourite drawing supplies, including links to suppliers when available.

Walk the dog

It seemed like a perfect painting day. A quiet morning in Pointe Claire Village. Some freshly fallen snow. A view I’ve sketched many times, AND a lucky parking spot just behind a bus stop, which pretty much guarantees that no one can park in front of me. WRONG. It turns out that the no parking zone in front of me is the busiest parking spot in the village. The first offender was a Purolator truck making multiple drop offs. Then it was a sidewalk-clearing plow that ironically got stuck in the snow. After that it was an 18-wheeler reversing into a grocery store parking lot. And then a man dropping off a gift bag to someone in a café. The list is long.

Each of these things might seem like a minor distraction on a warm day, but when you’re painting in the car in winter, time is of the essence. Five or ten minutes longer than expected can mean frozen feet and fingertips. You see, my process when painting in the car is to warm it up sufficiently before I set out to paint, in the hopes that when I turn off the engine to paint, the residual heat will keep me warm for some time, maybe even long enough to get me through a full painting. That’s the plan, anyway.

The end of this story is that I did manage to finish my painting on site. After all the comings and goings that blocked my view, the space finally cleared and I was able to add in all the details that are so important at the end of the painting process.