Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca

Happy Halloween from Oaxaca! I’m here for a few days, sketching the Dia de Los Muertos festivities! Its my first time in Mexico, so you can imagine what it’s like for me to be sketching here during this holiday. Full-on sensory overload! I thought I’d post a few from today, photographed on location in the Zocalo where I sketched a fantastic brass band, all wearing bright red pants and shiny black shoes. After a break that included trying a cup of the famous chocolate con leche, I sketched the balloon vendors. This holiday lasts three days so more to come tomorrow.

Sketch with me in Spain in 2020

I haven’t yet finished scanning my sketches from September’s travel sketching workshop in Italy with French Escapade, but I’m already looking forward to teaching with them again in Spain in June of 2020. And this time, it’s in a region of Spain that I’ve already visited (and loved), which makes it even more exciting.

A few years back I spent some time touring the Costa Brava after teaching at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Barcelona. I sketched along the coast in Tossa de Mar and Cadaques, as well as in towns like Girona, Monells and Pals. (Some of my sketches from that week are reposted below.) It’s such a dramatic and beautiful coastline, and I’m super excited about giving a workshop where the focus will be on boats, water, reflections, beaches and rocks (as well as a seaside botanical garden, a Romanesque village and the town where Salvador Dalí was born!). Plus we’ll be staying at a hotel by the sea, so we won’t have far to go to find subjects to draw.

Dates for 2020 are June 8-15 (still open), or June 15-22 (two spots remaining). If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me, and for more info have a look here.

My favourite tree, version 6

I’ve captured the colours of my favourite maple tree a little later than usual this year, as it veers from yellow to orange. I paint this tree every autumn because of its perfect domed shape, although sometimes I don’t manage to get the whole thing on the page. You can see some other sketches of it here or here or here or here.

Out with the old

It’s always with some reluctance that I change palettes, but I have to say that this one was overdue for replacement. A hinge had broken and been repaired some time ago, and rust was starting to take up more space than paint. I filled this one in 2016 before I taught in Galway, and I can certainly say that it has had a good run.

This old FOME palette held 23 colours, because I had added seven more half pans to the middle row. Luckily I found the same palette again, but this new model, in its original version, only has room for 12 colours. That’s a bit of a problem for me. I love the size of the closed box because it’s no bigger than my cell phone, but it will take some jerry-rigging, once again, to get it up to speed. Below is a photo of what it looked like when I brought it home. I suppose the middle row would be good for a travel brush, but what is the purpose of the empty space at the top? Not really sure what the designer was thinking about when this new configuration was created.

I bought a bunch of empty half pans that come in little holders, thinking that may do the trick for the middle row.

After some slicing and dicing, I managed to get another seven pans in the middle space, and I stuck them down with white sticky tac.

And then came the big decisions. I had to go from 23 colours down to 19. There were definitely a few in the old palette that I used less frequently, like Sepia and Yellow Ochre. And some colours that were interchangeable like New Gamboge and Quinacridone Gold (New Gamboge got cut). I also switched from the very strong Phthalo Green to a gentler Viridian. Once the final cut was made, I took a reference photo before filling the palette.

When I filled the palette, I used a porcupine quill to stir the paint and remove air bubbles. The quill and the good advice are courtesy of Jane Blundell! The palette will have to set for a few days before I take it on the road to a workshop I am teaching in Woodstock, Vermont.

The final 19 colours are:
Left: Azo Yellow (M. Graham), Quinacridone Gold (Winsor & Newton), Tranparent Orange (Schminke), Cadmium Red (Winsor & Newton), Permanent Alizarin Crimson (Daniel Smith), Quinacridone Rose (Daniel Smith)
Middle: Raw Sienna (Winsor & Newton), Naples Yellow (Daniel Smith), Burnt Sienna (Winsor & Newton), Burnt Umber (Sennelier), Cobalt Violet Light (Shinhan), Lavender (Holbein), Viridian Green (Holbein).
Right: Turquoise Blue (Holbein), Cerulean Blue (Winsor & Newton), Cobalt Blue (Daniel Smith), Ultramarine Blue (Winsor & Newton), Prussian Blue, (Daniel Smith), Payne’s Grey (Holbein).
If you are interested in knowing the brands, they are listed above and the tubes are below, photographed in the same order as the placement in the palette.

Am I missing anything in this new palette? Of course I am. There will always be situations when I wish I had some Sennelier Sap Green or a bit of Carbozole Violet. But for now, for upcoming workshops in Florida and Mexico, this will be just fine. And in 2020 there may just be a new list…

Gouache from the car

I spent the past few days experimenting with on-location gouache painting, from my car studio, of course. I don’t have a good setup for the car like I do for watercolour, but somehow I managed to make it work by balancing a butcher tray on the passenger seat. A bit of a messy endeavour but it was a good temporary solution until I figure out a better setup.

My first sketch was done on Stillman & Birn beige paper, which gives a warm glow under the paint. I did my initial drawing using raw umber pigment and then painted on top of that. The result is quite pasty, maybe because I used too much white paint in my mixes. This stuff does take a bit of getting used to.

The next day I changed my working methods. First of all, I used a block of cold press watercolour paper, instead of toned paper. I also tried not to touch the white pigment until the very end, and instead of keeping the colours muted, I tried to see how saturated I could get them. Good thing the leaves are at their brightest this week! I am loving playing with gouache pigments, and will likely continue with more experimentation and research this week.

Marina de Bibbona

The beaches along the Etruscan Coast in Italy are lined with umbrella pines, and at the end of the day, when the light hits them, they appear as if on fire. Little spots of orange ignite the dark trunks. But when something is that surreal, it is sometimes hard to capture with paint. I am considering a larger painting of this but thought I’d start first with a quarter sheet to work out composition, colours and values.

Two days in New York: tips for quick travel sketches

Last week I was inspired by reading artist Jean Mackay’s “8 Tips for Travel Sketching“, especially by how economically she pares down her materials to fit into a Ziploc bag. This past weekend I was on a family trip to New York City, travelling with non-sketchers, and thought I’d see what kinds of quick sketches I could get done in two days in the city. Although our sketchbooks look very different, there’s lots of overlap with Jean’s wonderful tips. My tiny sketch kit consisted of one 8″ x 8” sketchbook, one pencil, one permanent brush pen, one water-soluble brush pen, a few travel brushes, a small 8 colour palette from Sennelier, and a small water bottle. All fit into a Cocotte mini messenger bag. Here are my tips for quick travel sketching when you don’t want to disrupt your travelling companions:

Get out of the room first, and be prepared to finish things later. I was travelling with my sister and my nieces. We didn’t realize that when we booked our room in New York that we chose a place that was too small for four adults to move around comfortably. Wide angle lenses create deceptive photos, don’t they? I tried to get out of the room early and sketch while I waited for the others. I drew the orchids in the lobby with a brush pen, but added colour at home. Drawing time: 5 minutes.

Sketch after ordering, and pick a good view if you can. Travelling in groups usually means lots of restaurant meals. By some luck, at breakfast we were seated at the first table next to the counter, which offered me a great spot for sketching. In between the time that we ordered our food, and before it landed on our table, I sketched the elegant gentleman slicing the smoked salmon. While my sketch was drying, I ate that same salmon on a bagel. The water-soluble brush pen was perfect for this type of quick drawing. Drawing time: 15 minutes.

Make choices if you really want to draw. We spent a bit of time at Hudson Yards on Saturday afternoon. If you haven’t seen The Vessel, have a look at this link. Some people find that the tourist attraction is an eyesore, but I saw it as a beautiful drawing challenge. I chose not to climb the 2,500 stairs so I could sketch it. We had already walked about 10k to get there so I was ready for a rest. If you look carefully, you can see my sister, my nieces and my cousin waving to me from Level 3. Drawing time: 45 minutes.

Be prepared to have unfinished work in your sketchbook. I started this street scene before breakfast (again, sneaking out of the crowded room) but never got around to finishing it. That used to bother me, but I have come to terms with the idea that things in my sketchbook CAN be unfinished. It’s a sketchbook, after all. The important thing for me with this one was that I captured a typical bit of a New York corner on a quiet Sunday morning. Drawing time: 20 minutes.

Fill a page with smaller drawings. We spent quite a bit of time on Sunday morning at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, walking through the exhibit titled Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Every museum has different rules about drawing, so I checked with the cashier when I picked up my audio guide. Since drawing was permitted in the exhibition spaces, I used a water-soluble brush pen and a water brush to draw with in the show. Due to the sombre subject matter, colour didn’t seem appropriate anyway. Drawing time: 5 minutes per sketch, spread out over 3 hours.

Stay close by, but do your own thing. While my family was shopping, I chose to sketch instead. I was lucky to find a bench close to the store, and sketched the iconic pretzel cart. Since I wasn’t sure how long I would be waiting (or if I had time for colour), I did this direct watercolour with Sennelier Payne’s Grey and my Rosemary Travel rigger brush. Drawing time: 20 minutes.

Be prepared for failure. Not every sketch will be successful. There will be some stinkers in your sketchbook. Resist the urge to glue a clean sheet of paper on top of the sketches you dislike. A sketchbook shows a process and journey, and should include all forms of exploration. I really wanted to sketch Calatrava’s The Oculus, but I guess I was just too tired, and a bit cold, at the end of the day. All I could manage to fit on the page was the entrance and a bit of the base of the building. The sketch does nothing to convey the white bones of the structure within the space, but hey, I did have a few good conversations with people sitting on the bench next to me. And I resisted the urge to get out that clean sheet of paper and some double-sided tape.

And the winner is…

I needed a large hat for this draw. There was such an overwhelming response and so many kind words from last week’s anniversary post. I have been reading all of them over the past several days, enjoying each and every one of them. Thanks to everyone who responded.

And now you are probably curious to know who won the wheelbarrow painting. Congratulations to Claire Russell, whose name was picked out of that big sombrero! As soon as I receive your address, I’ll send you the watercolour.

Of course picking a name out of a hat wasn’t my only activity today. I received a sample sketchbook from Etchr_Lab, so I had to get out there to try it. The A4 format book is made with 230g acid-free, artist grade 100% cold press cotton paper. I was anxious to try it since I’ve been looking for a better quality hardcover watercolour sketchbook. To date the only book that has worked perfectly is the handmade one I received as a gift this summer.

Fortunately it was a clear day and the boats are still in the water at the Pointe Claire Yacht Club. When I try new paper, I find it’s always better to sketch something I’m familiar with, and I’ve painted this grouping of boats plenty of times. The added bonus was that the owners of the red boat were working on it today, so I even got to add in some figures.

There are many qualities that I look for in a good sketchbook. After today’s sketch, I think this comes close to being a perfect book for me. The paper is beautiful to draw on, meaning that its creamy texture yields to soft pencil lines. It’s also really gorgeous to paint on. The washes stay wet for a long time, allowing you to charge in with more paint in large areas. That is, in fact, quite rare in sketchbook paper. Also, the colours remain bright after they dry, and can be layered and lifted. There’s enough texture on the cold press paper to take advantage of granulating pigments, yet the edges of brushstrokes remain sharp. All in all, great results for a first try.

Full disclosure: Even though this was a free sample that was sent to me to try, I was under no obligation to review it. Of course manufacturers hope artists will do this if they like the product, but I have received lots of stuff that I have tried and would never use in my daily sketching. I just don’t write about it. I took the time to write about this one today because, as you can see, I really liked it. Maybe you are in the same boat (no pun intended) and have been looking for a great watercolour sketchbook too. Maybe you’ve even been considering this one. If so, I hope this helps.

An anniversary thank you

Wow. Today is an anniversary. I wrote my first post on this blog exactly eight years ago today. How my life has changed! I have published a book, I have online classes, and I get to travel and give workshops in the most spectacular places. But most importantly, I have gotten to know so many amazing people from all over the world. Many in person, but also many simply by reading their comments on the blog.

A few stats: in the past eight years I have created 1,826 blog posts and read and responded to over 15,000 comments (the numbers are double that, but that counts my responses too, and I try to respond to everyone). If you are one of those people who has written to me, I just want to let you know how much this means to me. Your feedback and encouragement, kind words, funny responses and heartfelt appreciation has made writing and posting an absolute joy for me. In gratitude for you taking the time out of your busy day to send me a note sometime during the past eight years, I’m going to do a draw for one of my original watercolours of the famous rusty wheelbarrow. So drop me a line, once again, in the comments section of the blog. I’ll put the names in a hat and draw a winner next week sometime. And once again, merci, merci!

A corner of Montegemoli

At the start of my Italian trip I spent a few days near Volterra, in the tiny town of Montegemoli. Wikipedia says: At the time of the 2001 census its population was 39. I think now it is down to 29. Four of them work in the Osteria dell’ ultimo carbonaio, the only restaurant, in fact the only business, in the village. The rest of them (including a dog and a cat) were standing in back of me while I sketched. Hence the lack of people in this. At one point, four bikers drove up, parked next to the car I was sketching, took some selfies and roared off before I could get out my black paint to sketch them.