Really happy hour

Another workshop tour starts for me in Athens in a couple of days, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying being a tourist in the city. I had read that our hotel has a rooftop view of the Acropolis, but I didn’t realize that it had an AMAZING, PANORAMIC view of the Acropolis, at a restaurant/bar where you can plunk yourself down at happy hour and draw the whole city including the Acropolis.

In all the years I have been sketching, this will probably go down in memory as my all time favourite sketching experience. When you see that view of the ancient temple on that hill with the clouds behind it and modern Athens below, it’s a scene of such drama and beauty that it takes your breath away. You can do nothing but gasp.

I worked on a double page spread, so my sketch is quite large, probably around 22 in. X 8 in. During the time I drew, which was probably a little over an hour, the light changed dramatically. It was overcast when I started and about half way through the sun came out which made modern Athens a lot more dramatic.

I probably could have spent more time making the sketch more detailed, but for me the pleasure was all in the experience and not so much in the outcome. And when I get home and look at my sketchbook from Spain and Greece, this one will bring back memories of a very happy Happy Hour.

The oldest tree in town, maybe

There’s a splendidly-gnarled olive tree in the main square of Vouliagmeni. If you walk around it, you’ll see a sign that has a big 1,200 on it. Under the 1,200, there’s a word in Greek, but I don’t read Greek, so let’s just assume that the word can be translated into “years” and that the tree is 1,200 years old. If nothing else, it makes for a good tidbit to go along with my drawing. As for the proportion of ink to wash, I figured that if a tree managed to survive twelve centuries, including at least 50 years in close proximity to a major coastal road in Greece, it deserved all the colour in the sketch.

Sketches of Spain

I’m always optimistic that I’ll be able to post along the way during a travel workshop but that rarely works out. Between teaching all day and group dinners, there’s barely time to clean and refill my palette. But now that I have a bit of a rest week before my next workshop in Greece begins, it’s a good time to share my sketches of Spain, and clean that dirty palette.

If you don’t know where the Costa Brava is, it’s the rocky coastline starting north of Barcelona and going all the way to France. The region is rich both in coastal villages and medieval towns, so there’s no lack of subjects to sketch. In fact, with just one week there, I felt like we barely scratched the surface. There were panoramas we didn’t get to, plunging views from hilltops that we missed, narrow sunlit alleys, and beaches full of bathing beauties. But I had a really talented and extremely hard-working group of sketchers with me, so we still managed to cover some territory. And as always, Jackie and Valerie from French Escapade take such great care of us and make it really easy for me to focus on teaching.

I brought along my new A4 size Hahnemuhle 100% cotton book for this workshop, and it was the right choice. It’s smooth enough for ink and great for pure watercolour, and I’m especially happy that the colours I chose for these Mediterranean vistas retained their vibrancy. It’s definitely my new favourite book.

Two from Barcelona

The last time I visited Barcelona was in 2013. It was my first time in the city, and also my first time teaching at an Urban Sketchers symposium. I remember loving the city, and seeing a fair bit of it too, but what I remember most is how nervous I was about teaching for the first time at such a big event. I sketched in a few iconic spots — in front of the Sagrada Familia, and also on the Plaça Catalunya — but there were lots of things I didn’t get to sketch. I also didn’t get to visit any museums.

This week I’m doing a bit of catch up. I have two days here (not counting the first sleep-deprived day when we landed) before I meet my workshop group and we head north towards the Costa Brava. After a visit to the Museu Picasso, we spent a bit of time sitting on the plaza in front of the Barcelona Cathedral. I remember hoping to but never finding the time to draw this ornate 14th century Gothic treasure on my first visit here. This time, it was sad to round the corner into the Pla de la Seu square and see that the whole top of the building is covered in scaffolding and shrouded in a massive ad for a Samsung Galaxy tablet, but hey, I sketched that too.

After a visit to the Maritime Museum, we sat in the shade of a palm and I sketched a guy sitting in the shade of a palm. I was going to add in the building in the distance but I think the composition is more interesting without it.

Sunday on the dock

Before a sketchbook gets to come along with me to a workshop, it needs to go through my rigorous testing process. Sketchbooks are heavy and I don’t want to bring one that won’t get used. The big questions are: does it work well with ink AND does it take the paint well. For the past few months, I’ve been testing out the new Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbooks in both landscape and portrait A4 size. I’ve drawn Alice in ink, I’ve painted several florals including this one in grey ink and wash, and yesterday I took it out to sketch at the boat club.

It’s starting to get a little cool in Montreal, and I was out there late in the day, so my sketching session was a bit frantic. There’s no attempt at good composition here. Just a basic workout to see how saturated the colours are, how many washes I can layer and how the texture of the paper feels (this is smoother paper than in an Etchr sketchbook), etc. I am liking this book more and more. As with every new paper or sketchbook I try, it takes some getting used to. For example, a more textured paper will require a wetter brush, and a thicker pen. But I like the smoother feel of this paper, and it can sure take a beating. I think it will take graphite really well too, if I decide to do some pencil drawings. This book, in both formats, will definitely be in my bag the next time I teach.

Livingston lane

I’ve always loved views down lanes and alleys in different cities. Montreal’s lanes are wonderful in summer when you can get a peek into people’s gardens, but even better in winter after a snowfall when the shadows come down the fences and across the ground. In Livingston, Montana, I discovered some great lanes and back alleys too, but the views are a little different than in my city. There’s often a backdrop of mountains and occasionally some unexpected structures like this wooden grain elevator right in the middle of town. I painted this in Payne’s Grey and Lemon Yellow, which makes a beautiful green, and hopefully from this I will do a larger, full-colour watercolour.

Livingston, Montana

The town of Livingston, Montana is my kinda town. Besides the very warm welcome we received from the Livingston Business District Association, we also discovered that it has a great main street, interesting and detailed buildings to sketch, top-notch coffee, and most importantly, a ton of vintage signs that are obviously lovingly-maintained and cherished by the town. We spent a morning sketching them. I didn’t finish the page in my sketchbook, but that’s fine because it means I have to go back there.

We also spent the afternoon on Main Street sketching people, cars and storefronts — including Tru North Coffee. It was a quiet day in town but I managed to sketch one guy while he waited for his family to join him outside.

As I mentioned, it was pretty quiet in town, so our group made the front page of The Livingston Enterprise. In the photo, you can see why I like the place: benches AND wide sidewalks that are shaded most of the day. Ideal conditions for urban sketchers!

Near and far in Paradise

The views along the Yellowstone River in Montana are almost too beautiful to paint. Looking at this scene early one morning, I wondered how I could capture all of this with my paintbrush — the fast-moving river, the distant mountains, the yellow hills, trees both near and far — but the answer is always by thinking about values. In fact, the late-summer scenes I saw in Montana were often a study in values and I could have spent the week just painting in Payne’s grey. In this valley, no matter which way you look, everything is about the near and the far because there is always a backdrop of hills in the distance. Colour is secondary, in this place, at this time of year.

The first step in a scene like this is to break down the puzzle pieces (and there were many of them) into a value pattern. My pattern is quite simple: a few pencil lines to break down the rectangle into big shapes, followed by a single colour sketch (in this case Neutral Tint) of the five values that I might use to paint the scene. No details in this, just big shapes. Once that is done, I have a roadmap I can work with for the colour version. And if I’m lucky, a little flexibility with detail to add in a few fishermen too.

Montana reflections

When an opportunity to teach a workshop in Montana’s Paradise Valley was presented to me several years ago, I couldn’t say no. I’ve always wanted to visit that scenic state. Of course the original week was in 2020, but when things opened up recently the offer was made again and I said yes for the second time. I’m sure glad I did. Picture a wide valley, over fifty miles long, with the Yellowstone River winding through the middle of it. The Absaroka Range is on the east side and the Gallatin Range on the west. If the setting of the movie A River Runs Through It comes to mind, you’ve got it. We spotted mule deer and osprey every day, and enjoyed sunrise and sunset looking up at Emigrant Peak. We even made the drive to Gardiner to see the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and despite the fact that the road was closed due to the recent floods, I still felt a sense of awe gazing out over the grassy plains and the Roosevelt Arch. The valley was as beautiful as I had imagined it.

We spent the first day of the workshop on the property (a private residence) and sketched the views around the pond. It was a windless day so I had to invent a little movement in the water, but the lesson was mostly about reflections and using one of my favourite limited palettes (Hansa Yellow, Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine Blue). My only regret is that I didn’t get to add in the deer that appeared in the distance to watch us, but my sketch was done by that time. I’ll post more of my Montana sketches in the next few days. This one was done in my Etchr A4 Sketchbook.

Heron Pond

This week I stopped by Heron Pond at the Technoparc Oiseaux to see how the wetlands were faring. Last year I documented the pond in a drier state after a sinkhole had drained the water. This year, I was happy to see that there’s lots more water and dozens of ducks and geese feeding there.

It’s not easy to get to this viewing spot. The path through tall grasses and bullrushes is quite narrow, but once you get there, it’s worth the trouble of carrying all my gear and setting up my easel. It’s a secret spot in the middle of the city. I prefer the view in the autumn when there’s more variety in the colours of the vegetation but at least there was some purple loosestrife blooming in the distance, and that helped to break up all the green.