I look at this REM challenge not only as a way to document a significant construction project in Montreal, but also as a way to strengthen my urban sketching skills. Yesterday I went to the site at 3:30 pm, which is just before the late November sun sets in this part of the world. I had to draw quickly at that hour, and paint fast too. The light was bright and clear, the shadows were sharp, but I knew it wouldn’t last.
In my cold car, drying time is slow, and I didn’t want to wait precious minutes turning on the car heater, so a lot of this was done wet-in-wet, especially when I painted Anne (the yellow gantry) as well as the long elevated rail line. I debated about leaving out the Canadian Tire sign, but having it there helped me place the shapes around it. Note to self: even when time is of the essence, spend a little more time drawing the signage and making sure it’s centred on the panel.
After I posted this morning’s sketch of the ongoing REM construction on Facebook and Instagram, my friend Suhita said “You’re having a blast with this.” She’s right. I am enjoying returning to the REM site every day, to sketch the construction of the light rail line.
Of course, it is important for me to document the process. But as someone who has been sketching in my neighbourhood for the past eight years, it’s exciting to have something new to draw. Plus it’s really easy to get to the site, and it changes daily. In fact, it changes hourly. When I started my sketch this morning, the v-shaped prefabricated segment was on the ground. By the time I finished my sketch, it was in place above the column and there were two more segments in place next to it. That’s how fast it’s moving.
On a damp, grey November morning, it also provides me with a lot of colour possibilities than I might otherwise not find in the late autumn landscape. And a lot of compositional challenges too. So yes, Suhita, for all those reasons, I am having a blast with this.
I am having so much fun drawing the construction of the REM line. Today I sat in my car in the Canadian Tire parking lot to get a really close up view. Things move like lightning at the site. Every time I glance up from my drawing, several things have shifted and I either have to wait for them to move back to where they were, or change my drawing. Making changes is a little harder when I’m painting, but it’s also what makes this so exciting as a subject. It’s always in flux.
It did occur to me that if I waited until lunch time, there would be a break in the action. But that would also mean that all the construction workers would disappear and then the scene wouldn’t be half as lively. And I would really miss adding all the details, including the orange vests and hardhats.
It was a mistake to try to con Alice into modelling for me just before dinner. I could tell from her half-opened eyes that she was not interested in a nap. Keep in mind that she considers “just before dinner” to be anytime between 4 pm and 6 pm when she finally gets food in front of her. She kept her position long enough for me to do a quick drawing in gouache, but as soon as there was the slightest sound from the kitchen, she trotted off. Luckily I had snapped a quick photo, so I was able to add colour from that.
I’ve just finished scanning the rest of my Oaxaca sketches, and I saved my favourites for last. These are the ones I made the most effort on because they involve sketching people. I’ve said this many times as I write my blog, but this has always been the biggest challenge for me.
It’s not just because drawing people in motion is difficult, but it’s also because you have to be a little bit fearless when you are drawing someone who sees what you are doing. This can be complicated further when you can’t really start a conversation because you don’t share a common language. Take this sketch of the lady cooking tacos in the market as an example. She and the other cooks behind the counter could see me drawing, but every time I tried to draw their faces they would turn their backs. They were so shy, and yet I sensed they were flattered too. They wanted to see my drawing, but they weren’t sure they wanted to be in it. In this case, smiling and showing them the completed drawing was the best icebreaker.
The lady selling candy on the street was easier. First of all, she snoozed the whole time I was drawing. Plus she was a bit further away, so I doubt she saw what I was doing.
The hat seller was easy too. He was hiding in the shade behind his hats. At some point he got up to get coffee, and I drew the hats. When he came back I put him in.
The couple across the square were deep in a lunchtime conversation when I drew them. It was interesting to watch their body language and I loved trying to imagine what the conversation was about. He had his arm around her, and she was hanging on to that yellow bag the whole time.
I’ve already posted these last few, I know, but thought I’d add them in at the end because they remind me so much of the excitement I felt when I caught my first glimpse of Oaxaca. All the colour and movement of Day of the Dead, as well as the warmth of the Mexican people.
At the top of my list of fun experiences was sketching the brass band on our first day. Juggling my drawing tools was not easy in the middle of a crowd — I used a brush pen and water-soluble coloured pencils for this one — but it was such a thrill to capture them all with their spiky hair, skinny red jeans and shiny black shoes. When the show was over, someone who’d been looking over my shoulder motioned to them to have a look at what I’d been doing, and there were several rounds of selfies with me and my sketch. No need for a common language here. Music + art = happiness.
I’ve been waiting to sketch Anne for a long time. She’s heavier and more rigid than most of the models I sketch, but her bright yellow colour more than makes up for it.
Anne is the name of the launching gantry for the light rail commuter system that’s being constructed in Montreal. She’s used to hold the precast segments that will form the rail line, and she’s been coming my way for a long time. Because the rail line runs parallel to Highway 40, I couldn’t find a good place to sketch Anne (not many parking spots along the highway!), until a friend had a brilliant idea. He suggested I sketch from a nearby grocery store that has a second floor with picture windows facing the section of the line where Anne is now. And a nice seating area. Bingo!
You might want to know why she has that name. She’s named after the station where this part of the line will end: Ste. Anne de Bellevue.
It’s been fascinating to watch Anne move along the highway, as the elevated rain line getting longer and longer. The REM website explains the construction better than I can: More than 4,000 segments (prefabricated parts manufactured in Québec) are transported by truck and then assembled using the launching beams. The beam is placed between two pillars and lifts the segments in the air to assemble them one after the other, thus forming part of the deck on which the REM will travel. When a segment is completed, the beam is moved between the next two pillars to continue its work, and so on.
My favourite part of watching the construction was to see the workers moving along the line, all attached to Anne by safety cables. It’s a surprisingly fast process, as each segment gets put into place. I think construction of the line will stop soon and resume in spring, which means I may even get to sketch Anne in the snow.
As a resident of a suburban neighbourhood where all canines are leashed, I was fascinated with the behaviour of the stray dogs in Oaxaca City, and probably could have spent my full five days drawing them. The first one that caught my eye was the one who was napping in the middle of a pedestrian street near a noisy market. Seemingly in a sound sleep as cars, delivery trucks and crowds of people circulated around him, he simultaneously jumped up and went into a full snarl as soon as another stray entered his territory. Needless to say, the other dog skulked away.
Another morning on our way for breakfast, we watched a very muscular sleeping dog on a street corner suddenly leap up and begin stalking his prey. The prey in question? A pigeon that was walking along the sidewalk. The dog slealthily followed the bird for quite some time, hoping to catch it for breakfast, no doubt. When the bird flew away, he was undeterred. He made a quick u-turn and tried to chase down a passing Toyota, narrowly escaping having his legs run over.
The dog that I finally ended up drawing was one of a group of dogs who dig themselves into the cool sand to take a siesta on the main square. They all seem very well fed and as much a part of the scenery as the balloon sellers and the tamale vendors.
A note about the materials for this sketch: I used my Etchr sketchbook for the whole Oaxaca trip. While I haven’t been working much in ink and wash these days, I find that the thick Etchr watercolour paper takes an ink line really well. Even though you can’t correct your lines (like the one across the dog’s face), I enjoyed reconnecting with my Pitt pens on this trip.