The woods in oil

A few years back I bought a sheet of Arches paper that’s made especially for oil painting. It looks like a full sheet of watercolour paper but it has a semi-absorbent surface and requires no preparation before painting. The sheet sat on my shelf for several years, protected in its plastic bag, but I finally cut it in half and decided to give it a try.

I guess I jumped right in with this, without reading much about how to proceed. I set up my tray with a limited palette of red, yellow, and blue and a blob of white paint. And then instead of painting it like I would an oil (and I’ve only ever done a few of those), I worked it like I would a watercolour. In other words, instead of toning the paper like I have toned canvas in the past, I left the paper white. And then I painted from light/mid tone to dark, in an order that was something like this: sky, foreground trees, background trees, snow shadows and then details. The white you see (for the most part) is the white of the paper, just like in watercolour. The consistency of the paint was very thin for some of this because I mixed lots of mineral spirits into the paint.

This process was much easier for me than painting with thick paint. I mixed the colours more intuitively, like I do with watercolour or gouache. I’m not sure if there’s a right or a wrong way to do this but this felt right for the way I paint. And I will certainly try it again, because I still have the other half of the sheet in its original bag.

Comex facade

A few weeks ago I did this demo in my San Miguel de Allende workshop. It was an overcast day so there were no shadows to rely on, but the storefronts near the Plaza Civica were interesting enough on their own. And for my lesson on composition, there were certainly enough shapes to make it a fun subject to paint. I took a few liberties with the pots on the balcony — the plants were mostly dead and the containers were monochrome — but as for the rest, it was a perfect example of the deep reds and yellows that make up most of the wall colours in San Miguel. In fact, I used so much red and yellow on that trip that I had to refill the warm side of my palette several times, while the blues and greens on the other side were practically untouched.

The following week, we were at the same location, but this time the sun was out (as were the pigeons) so we tackled shadows and texture. Again, I took a few liberties with the flower pots, but what fun is painting if you can’t pull out your artistic license now and again?


Hyacinths are a sign of spring for me. And although it’s nowhere near spring in Montreal today, the ones on my kitchen counter make me happy. It’s not just the sweet fragrance that lingers in the air. It’s something that I realized only as I was painting them. It’s that each petal on each flower on each stalk curves into a little smile. That’s good enough for me. Painted in my Etchr sketchbook using lots of Cobalt Violet paint.

Lyon Mountain

A few years ago we met friends in the Adirondacks, and hiked up Lyon Mountain. The view from the top is quite something, and it was a clear day so we were likely seeing peaks in the distance as far away as Vermont to the east and Lake Placid to the south. I took plenty of photos from the summit, but the one that I kept coming back to as reference for a painting was one that I took on the way down the mountain.

It was taken from a footbridge that crossed over a stream, and the early autumn colours reflected in the pooled water were quite stunning. I love the abstract quality of the photo and I decided to try this one in gouache on toned tan paper, and hopefully maintain some of abstractness of the image in my sketch. I’m still having fun with gouache, and I’ll keep experimenting to see where it takes me. In a scene like this where it’s mostly darks, I appreciate being able to add lighter tones as highlights.

Awfully beautiful

Montreal is a bit of a mess right now. Since Friday we’ve had 55 cm of snow (that includes Monday night’s surprise of 15 cm), which makes for mountainous snow banks, very slushy roads, and traffic jams caused by snow removal trucks and plows. But if you are looking for scenes to paint, it’s awfully beautiful out there.

I was hoping for some sun so I could paint snow shadows, but I woke up to an overcast day. It was tempting to stay inside and paint from the studio, but instead I gave myself kick out the door and was rewarded with mist in the air and a wonderfully foggy day. Perfect for practicing with my gouache.

On a day with little colour, a limited palette seems best. This one is mostly Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Deep and Raw Sienna watercolour along with white gouache. Oh, and a few dabs of red and green for signage and stuff. Size: 14″ x 10″.

Window view

I’m not complaining about the first week of February. So far we’ve had one big winter storm and in addition to that, another overnight snowfall even before we had a chance to properly dig out from the first. But that’s ok with me. I’ll take snow over rain in winter any day. I was hoping to get outside to sketch from my car today but the snow was coming down too quickly, so I set up a chair in front of a window at home and settled for a window view.

Chemistry and balance

I don’t know Mexico well enough to organize a workshop there, but I’m glad I met somebody who does. I got to know Meagan Burns of Art Leap Adventures when she interviewed me for an article in Drawing Attention, the monthly online publication of Urban Sketchers. Meagan is an American expat living in Mexico, and she’s a sketcher, which makes her the perfect person to organize a sketching workshop in a country that I had only visited for the first time a few months ago.

Mojigangas from a visit with Hermes Arroyo.

I’m just back from teaching two back -to-back workshops in San Miguel de Allende, with Meagan as my guide and expert organizer. And I’ve had a bit of time to think about what made my teaching experience memorable. I think it’s basically what makes any travel experience memorable, except that there’s lots of sketching mixed in. You have to have the right balance of local culture and history, great food, good weather and interesting sights. And you have to have great chemistry with the people you are with.

The view from the Mask Museum.

Have a look at the photos here and here on the Art Leap Adventures website. You’ll see that we sketched all the iconic sights, learned how to cook local food, toured a fascinating mask museum, visited the famed Mojiganga studio of Hermes Arroyo, AND ate tacos and Mexican street corn (something I probably wouldn’t have done on my own).

Parroquia at night.

San Miguel de Allende is a beautiful place to visit, but when you’re with someone who has lived there, and who understands the culture and speaks the language, the experience is richer and more complex. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to teach not one but two interesting and talented groups of sketchers, and to have had someone to guide us to all the right places, including into the bar where the Mariachi bands practice before going out into the streets at night!