After a long winter indoors, and then lots of time in my garden, there is really only one thing I long to sketch. People! People in motion, people in cafés, people at markets, sitting people, standing people, walking people — all would suit me just fine.
With that in mind I headed out this morning to a park where I was pretty certain I could find some life. And I was rewarded almost immediately with an outdoor kick-boxing/circuit training class in progress. I spent an hour or so drawing anyone I could see from my spot at a picnic table in the shade — the exercisers, a mother dancing with her kids to the fitness music, and then lots of people walking by. Each drawing took about 20 seconds or less. In each I tried to capture a gesture, a movement, an expression, a distinctive item of clothing, some great hair, an original hat — really just one thing — in as few lines as possible. It’s a great exercise. As each person walking by me I would pick that thing and begin the sketch with that. A good example is on the third page. There’s a man walking with a tray of coffee cups, and in that sketch I started with his arm and the cups. When the person walked out of sight I would move on to the next person. Near the end of the hour when I started to get warmed up, I added a bit of shading. By the time I put away my pencil, I started to feel like I too had had a bit of a workout.
My friend Susanne gave me this bouquet of peonies when I painted in her garden last week. I’m fortunate to have them because the ones that remained on the plants at her house were mostly destroyed in a storm later that day. And if you have peonies in your garden, you know what that means because sometimes the delicate petals on peonies don’t recover after heavy rain.
They’ve been in a vase on my counter all week and today is probably the last day of the blooms. When they start to go, all the papery petals drop at once, which is what started to happen to one flower just before I got them outside. Painted quickly before all the petals blew away in the wind, on a quarter sheet of Saunders Waterford 140lb CP paper.
On Monday, in the midst of a classic Montreal heatwave, I had a wonderful outing with my very first urban sketching friend Marc Taro Holmes and his lovely wife Laurel. Marc was the very first urban sketcher I met, and in 2012 we founded Urban Sketchers Montreal together. We’ve sketched and taught together often over the years, but of course this past year we’ve all been sticking close to home.
With things getting better in Montreal as more people get vaccinated, we decided to meet and start our summer outings with a visit to a place we have sketched often — the Botanical Gardens. It was just like old times. We sketched, we chatted, Laurel took photos, and it seemed wonderfully normal. Have a look at Marc’s blog to see us in action!
I’m so happy I spent another morning in Susanne’s garden painting the poppies, in gouache once again, on a block of Winsor & Newton paper. I didn’t do much drawing, instead choosing to grab a paintbrush and try to capture the red shapes that seemed to float like butterflies over the greenery. Reds can be so difficult in watercolour, at least for me. They seem to lose their saturation once they hit the paper and are never this bright. As for the real poppies, they don’t last long in the best of times, but yesterday we had a huge thunderstorm in Montreal and by evening these were flattened!
I planted poppies in my garden last year, and three opened today, almost within minutes of each other. I wish I had filmed the process with a time-lapse camera. One minute the hairy green pod was closed, a few minutes later there was a ball of red at the top of the stem, and suddenly the full bloom was open with the giant papery red petals fluttering in the wind. It was magical. And when I got closer to look, the two halves of the pod were on the ground at the base of the plant.
Earlier in the week I was invited to sketch at my friend Susanne’s garden, which is much more lush and wild than mine. The poppies, irises and peonies were all opening at once. I painted a watercolour on location but it wasn’t very successful so I tried it again in gouache. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get the brightness of the poppies in gouache, but with a fair bit of yellow in the petals it seems to work. Painted on a half sheet of 140 lb Fabriano CP paper.
A few years ago we spent a day in Havana. It wasn’t nearly long enough to see everything there is to see in that fascinating city. Instead of sticking with the group from our hotel, we chose instead to wander through the streets of the old colonial centre. That’s always the best way to see a city, isn’t it? I hadn’t gotten back into sketching at that time, but I did take a lot of photos, and I go back through them from time to time. This week, when I was looking for a reference image for a large format gouache experiment, I happened upon this one and it seemed just right. A tree-lined square, plenty of locals hanging around in the shade, some exotic yellow Cassia trees and of course good shadows. Painted in gouache on a half sheet of Fabriano CP paper, 15″ x 20″.
The alliums in my garden look best at the end of the day. When the low sun hits them they glow against the dark fence, floating like purple globes over the rest of the garden. I was hoping for that effect today but instead it started to rain while I was sketching. I have another few days before they turn into skeletons, so maybe I’ll be able to capture the scene tomorrow. You might also enjoy seeing how Jean Mackay captured the alliums in her neighbourhood.
I must have missed launch day at the boat club but it was thrilling to see all the movement on the docks this morning. People taking boats in and out, doing spring maintenance, and even starting sailing lessons. We’ve had a few windy (and cold) days which was good for the sailors. As for me, I had to sketch from inside the car because of the wind, but it was a happy start to sailing season. Yesterday was also the end of curfew and the reopening of outdoor dining, which includes having people in your own backyard, so the feeling in Montreal is more festive than it’s been in some time. I hope wherever you are, things are looking up too.
Local produce is making its way to market this week. I received my first CSA basket from Ferme Tournesol on Tuesday. I didn’t get around to sketching everything but I was especially appreciative of the first stalks of asparagus, so I painted them in gouache on toned paper while chatting on Zoom with friends.
This morning I made the first trip of the season to my very favourite Jean Talon market. I was REALLY hoping to sketch on site but there are no tables or chairs in cafes, and no benches within the market. That will all change tomorrow when dining on terraces will open again in Montreal but it was still exciting to see all the merchants gearing up for this. Most of the produce this week is still imported but I found some French radishes and brought them home to sketch and to eat.
Several years ago on a visit to New York, I saw a painting by Serge Hollerbach at the American Watercolor Society Annual Show. His work stuck out in my mind because it was so different from most of the watercolours in the show. I don’t remember exactly what the painting looked like but the subject was figures, the colours were muted, the shapes were flat and there was no attempt at realism. It was a refreshing sight. Recently I found a few of his books online and they just arrived on my doorstep. I am enjoying The “How To” of Sketching, a slim but very informative little handbook about sketching people. And I’ve also started reading a larger hardcover Composing in Acrylics. My favourite quote so far in the book is this one:
“All my experience as an artist, from student days to the present, tells me that the fear of doing the wrong thing… is the most repressive, inhibiting feeling an artist at any level can have. Yet we have all had it, or still have it from time to time. The fear of creating something ridiculous and ugly makes us timid. But if we want to create, we have to get rid of inhibitions.” Serge Hollerbach, from Composing in Acrylics.
As for the lilacs and crabapple blossoms, they were a gift from a friend who loves lilacs as much as I do.