4-H Camp Overlook

It was a delight to get away last weekend to visit friends in the Adirondacks because I’ve been busy with a rather time-consuming project these days, and sadly, haven’t had much time to paint. Feels like summer is slipping away and school is starting next week, if you can believe that…

On Saturday morning I set up my easel at one of my favourite spots — on their dock which sits on a narrow channel between two lakes. The opposite shore is quite close and dotted with assorted boat houses, included the one from the 4-H camp.

This is one of the most peaceful places I know, especially very early in the morning when the water in the channel is mirror still. It’s usually quiet at that hour too, but I had to stop painting for a few minutes to watch some noisy drama between a family of ducks and a threatening bald eagle swooping down from the sky.

For this painting I was aiming for colour unity so I started with an overall wash of light yellowish green, leaving a few whites on the house and the canoes. As a warm contrast to that, I added patches of orangey brown. I used lots of negative painting for the trees but kept the darks in the same green or brown range. Painted on Saunders Waterford Rough, 15″ x 11″.


The source at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

There are some sketching experiences that are so special you know you will never forget them. This one happened to me back at the end of June in Provence where I taught a couple of week-long workshops. It was after a long day spent painting in the lavender fields and sketching around Roussillon. After returning to our home base in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, a few students joined me for an end-of-day sketching expedition up to the source of the Sorgue River. The town is famous for having this gouffre, a spring that is the largest in France and the fifth largest in the world, according to Wikipedia.

What is astounding about the town —and I may have mentioned this in a previous post — is that the water from this spring rushes all around it. In fact you can’t walk anywhere in the town without having some stream from the river gushing by you. It babbled by as we ate in various restaurants, it gurgled past as we picnicked in a park, and we even awoke to the sound of it every morning as a tributary ran right under our hotel (a former mill).

Our short expedition up to the source led us past much loud and quickly running water, which led me to believe that when we finally arrived at the much-anticipated gouffre, it would be some sort of torrent of water surging from a giant hole at the foot of a high cliff. But in fact it was nothing of the sort. The source at the end of the path is, surprisingly, a deep and very still pool, at least in summer. Nothing at all like what I was expecting.

This quiet pool can only be viewed from a distance — no doubt because of the many hazards of the deep water and the slippery rocks around it — but a low metal fence is no deterrent to most. We crossed it easily, as did most other tourists, and sat close by for a good sketching view.

For me there was something very eerie about that still water. I think all of us felt that way as we sketched, half expecting Gollum to emerge from its depths. We sketched in near silence for about an hour, stopping occasionally to compare techniques for capturing the green of the water or the opaqueness of the rocks. When our sketches were done and we got up to leave, I think we all felt we had shared something special.

If you are interested in going for a virtual dive to explore the depths of the source, here’s a link to a really cool site I just discovered. From there you’ll be able to see what I couldn’t while I was drawing. And if you don’t understand French, just click on “Lancer la visite” to start your tour.


Monochrome at the market

On a steamy and overcast Saturday morning, with about an hour to kill before meeting my family, I sketched a couple of quick ones at the Atwater Market. The place was just starting to get busy with weekend shoppers and produce is starting to look really good — big baskets of ripe peaches, the first corn on the cob — but all I had with me were a few drawing tools, including a sanguine Pitt Pen. I love drawing with this colour because it gives a warmth to the sketch that you don’t get with a black pen.


For my second sketch I moved my folding stool next to the canal and drew the rail bridge with a water-soluble blue pencil. It was an ideal tool for capturing the heavy sky and the still water on this colourless day.


Quick sketches with a Zebra

Here’s another combo that I put together from stuff in my Urban Sketchers goodie bag: a Zebra disposable brush pen and a little Pen & Ink sketchbook. I’m a fan of brush pens because I like a flexible nib or one that responds to pressure. The nib on this pen isn’t flexible but you can make thin or thick lines depending on how hard you press on it or how you tilt it as you draw.

The sketches are ones that I did in the few days after the symposium — on the train to Lisbon, looking out the window at the little towns as the train stopped, waiting in the train station for my son, standing in line at the Monasterio de Jeronimos in Belem, and finally in the plane on the way back to Montreal. Some are one or two minute drawings, some took as long as five minutes. I love having a book on hand for these quick sketches.



Here’s the book and the pen. The paper is too thin for much watercolour but perfect for a bit of marker or quick washes when you want to add a touch of colour to sketches.


Post Porto blues

If you’ve ever been to an Urban Sketchers Symposium, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that for a sketcher it is the most wonderful, the most chaotic, and often the most unforgettable event that you’ll ever experience. Imagine what it’s like to see more than 800 sketchers gathered in one city! Someone described it as an annual pilgrimage, and that seems like a pretty apt description to me.

This year’s event took place in Porto, Portugal. It was my sixth symposium, fifth as a workshop instructor, and it was by far the largest event to date. From morning ’til night, no matter where you walked in the city, there were sketchers. Sprawled out on the sidewalk drawing the most incredible sketches of the colourful houses that faced the main symposium venue, in the bars and restaurants at night, sketching their food, their drinks and each other, down alleyways, in churches, and of course in the famous tiled Sao Bento Railway Station.

Of course an event like this doesn’t just happen. It takes a small army of volunteers to organize it and make sure it runs smoothly, and the planning for that starts a full year ahead of time. From the USK board of directors, to the local organizers in Porto, to the education team who read and selected all the instructors, to the volunteers who accompanied each instructor to their teaching location, I am grateful to everyone who put time and effort into making this a truly memorable few days.

Partway through the symposium, someone suggested that the event should be in Porto every year because there’s so much to sketch. So true! It’s a small enough city that you get to know your way around rather quickly. And with the Douro river running through it and colourful buildings clinging to both sides of the riverfront, there’s no end of stuff to sketch. The steep hills and pedestrian bridges provide panoramic viewpoints, and as one of Portugal’s main tourist destinations, there’s no shortage of people to draw.

I always try to arrive a few days early to sketch in my workshop location, and this year it was especially important since my subject was sketching light, colour and shadow in Porto’s narrow spaces. I spent several days in the area around the Rua dos Armazens, even returning to my spot at different times of the day to find places where the light would be just right for both morning and afternoon sessions. The extra planning was worth it, but it also meant that I left Porto feeling like there was so much I hadn’t seen or sketched!

As always, the artistic ability of participants at a symposium is very high and it was a true honour to  have been selected as an instructor. For once I managed to take lots of photos during my three workshops. Please take note of my favourite: the one of the chef from a restaurant next to my workshop location who watched us every day and then emerged from his tiny kitchen at the end of our last session with a basket of hot Bolinhos de bacalhau (cod fritters) to offer to the whole (hungry) group. That pretty much summarizes the warmth of all the Portuguese people I met both in Porto and later in Lisbon.

If you are interested in seeing all the stunning work that was done at the event, both by workshop participants or by people who were in the city to sketch on their own or with friends, have a look on Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #uskporto2018. You’ll see what I mean.


Alice at home

During my time in Europe I was frequently asked about Alice the dog. Since I draw her so often, people were genuinely concerned about her well-being while I was away. I am happy to report that whenever I’m out of town she is very lovingly cared for by a family, in a private home, in the company of other dogs. And while she gets plenty of exercise and love, she certainly doesn’t get sketched. So today I sketched her after our walk, using a new pencil that came in the Urban Sketchers Symposium goodie bag.

I always save all those art supplies — generously donated by sponsors — for when I get home and can try them out at my leisure. This year’s bag was particularly wonderful because it included a clutch pencil set from Art Alternatives as well as a tiny bottle of port wine!


Page layout for sketchers

After five wonderful weeks in France and Portugal, it’s great to be back in Montreal, seated at my computer, typing on a full keyboard with my trusty scanner at my side. I have piles of scanning to do but thought it would be interesting to go back a few weeks to write about a subject that came up in one of my workshops in Provence at the beginning of July.

After many days of sketching in quiet villages and crowded markets, near the end of the week I gave my workshop participants a goal: to complete three small sketches (within a two hour timeframe) that would visually convey our location  — the monastery in St. Remy where Van Gogh spent a year of his life. I sketched along with them, as well as circulated in the gardens to see how they were doing. The group did some amazing work in that short time. Fresh, lively sketches of the sunflower garden, the lavender field, the cloister and the monastery exterior. There’s no shortage of subjects in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, and sometimes having a time limit generates the freshest results.

The following day, someone asked me for some insight into how I had subdivided my own sketchbook page into rectangles. The question caught me off guard. As a graphic designer and graphic design teacher, dividing a page into columns is something I do without really thinking. Grid systems for text and image placement on a page are hard-wired in my brain. But when I looked at my sketchbook page, I realized that without even thinking about it, I had created a three-column/row grid on both pages, just like I teach my students to do in my Publication Design class.


Here is the same spread with a grid overlay on top.


So how did I create this? I started with the sketch of the sunflowers, first drawing a frame in pencil and then sketching the sunflowers (left) in ink and wash. From there I sketched the monastery exterior (top right). Next I looked for a subject that would fill a vertical space, and found that in the cloister arches (second from left) and finally finished the spread with a horizontal sketch of the lavender field. I could have also filled that space with two or three smaller sketches to balance the larger one at the top.

If you are thinking of trying this on a page in your sketchbook, a good way to start might be to draw the frames in advance in pencil, and then decide what to fill them with. My sketchbook is square so the three-column grid works well, but your sketchbook may have another format, so feel free to experiment with different sized frames.

And if you are interested in seeing sketchbooks by other artists who create interesting page designs (and often incorporate writing too), have a look at Brenda Swenson’s journals, Liz Steel’s sketchbooks, and Jean Mackay’s nature journals.