Idaho car sketching

I did some sketching while driving through southern Idaho on the way to Utah. Yes, I was the passenger! The landscape in that part of the state is quite striking — the rolling fields are golden yellow and the rounded hills are a soft green. These were mostly done in the section between Swan Valley and Idaho Falls on a stretch of road that runs along the Snake River.

Sometimes people ask how to draw a constantly changing landscape. I try to take a picture of it in my head and then I put down two or three pen lines. For most of these, I started with the top lines of the yellow fields. Then I added the road. And finally the far hills. Then I add in the details like trees, posts, power lines. Colour is washed on quite quickly because I want to get it right in one go. These were sketched on a hardcover Stillman & Birn Beta book, 9 in x 12 in. The hardcover format makes it really nice for working in a moving vehicle.

A little bit of magic

The Urban Sketching Summer Retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts has just ended. At times during the past year, it seemed doubtful that this event — postponed from last year due to the pandemic — would ever happen, but the stars aligned and four instructors and fifty students convened in a spectacular location for a week that I can only describe as magical. I think you can see from the photo of me with Paul Heaston, Jim Richards, his wonderful wife Patti and Uma Kelkar that we were pretty happy to be reunited for the week.

I don’t think I’ve fully processed the week in my head yet, but I can probably say that the joy we felt in teaching in person again started from the moment we arrived on the island ferry until the time we said goodbye to the last students at the airport.

Most of the group stayed in cabins right on the campus, so it felt a bit like summer camp for sketchers. We ate meals together in the big red barn and after days spent sketching out at different locations, each instructor gave an evening talk. This was my first time teaching at MISA, but I can see why the school has a great reputation. They do such a fantastic job of making sure that everyone is well taken care of so that instructors can devote all their energy to teaching. If you combine an idyllic location (and five sunny days) with comfortable accommodations and great food, the result can only be wonderful.

Before students arrived we spent a bit of time filling goodie bags with products from our generous sponsors Stillman & Birn, Winsor Newton, Hahnemuehle, Daniel Smith, Caran D’Ache and Legion Paper.

Each group of students spent a day with each instructor. My group spent the morning sketching the iconic Tom’s Burned Down Café. It’s a Madeline Island landmark that needs to be in every sketcher’s journal.

And in the afternoon, we sketched the log cabins of the Madeline Island Museum…

And in the evening, after dinner, each of us gave a talk…

On the last day we sketched all together on the campus and then had a final gathering to look at all of the work.

I think you can probably see that it was a pretty great week for all of us. It still seems like a bit of a dream that we were able to make it happen.

And of course, since we had to get in one last sketch before going our separate ways, Uma, Paul and I drew together in Duluth, Minnesota on our way to the airport.

I think I must have been pretty tired from all that smiling because the only tool I had the energy to use on my iPad was my trusty 6B pencil.

Gaspesie sketches

Doing a tour of the Gaspé peninsula has been on my wish list for a long time, and this summer, with travel restrictions being eased in Quebec, there was a window of opportunity for a weeklong road trip, and we seized it. We covered 2200 km in 8 days, but the spectacular scenery was worth the time spent in the car. Of course my sketchbook came along for the ride.

My first sketch was in the early morning in Métis-sur-Mer. I was also hoping to sketch at the famous Jardins de Métis, but it was too crowded on the paths of the historic gardens. I will have to go back when it’s not a free Sunday!

Our second stop was in St. Maxime du Mont-Louis in the Haut Gaspésie, where the landscapes are quite dramatic. At the end of the day, I found a picnic table near the water and sketched the hills in both directions.

When I faced west (above) the hill was backlit but the clouds were luminous. Then I turned to face east (below) and the village was lit by the evening sun.

We spent a day hiking in Forillon National Park at the northeast tip of the peninsula. Of course we had to make our way to Cap Gaspé so we could stand on the overlook at Land’s End where the International Appalachian Trail ends. I did a vertical sketch (below) of the dramatic cliffs and beach from the lookout platform. It was really gusty up there, and crowded too, so I finished some of the pen lines in the shelter of the hotel room, later in the day.

In Forillon Park, we also spent some time on the rocky beach of Cap Bon-Ami, watching the diving seabirds. Not visible in my sketch and off to the left is some sort of unidentifiable decaying sea creature. That probably explains why most people were on the right side of the beach.

I’ve already posted a sketch of the iconic Roche Percé. In tourist brochures it’s always shown on its own, but another striking view is to see it in relation to the surrounding landscape. I chose to sketch it a second time, facing Villa Frederick-James, the old white mansion with the red roof perched atop Cap-Canon.

At the risk of sounding like a tourist brochure for the region, one thing you must do if you go there is to visit Bonaventure Island. It’s only a short boat ride to get to this amazing bird sanctuary, but the captain takes the long way around so you can see the fat grey seals sunning themselves on the rocks, and the thousands of birds on the far side of the island. The site is famous for being the summer breeding grounds of over 110,000 Northern Gannets who live on the high cliffs. You can get a good view from the boat, but an even better view if you hike there from the quai, because you can see them up close. I really wanted to sketch a wide vista these birds, but once you get there you realize that’s quite challenging to do for all the reasons you can imagine. I just managed to do a quick sketch of a few of the adult birds and one fledgling.

Waiting for the boat to get back to the town of Percé from the island, I had a chance to do one more quick sketch of, you guessed it, Percé Rock in the distance.

I also had to draw the giant plaster lobster in front of our hotel, and a quick sketch of a guy on the pier having a long conversation with his friend in a truck.

Carleton-sur-Mer on the Baie des Chaleurs was where we ended our tour before heading home. The resort town is known for its beaches but for me the boats were the highlight. We were lucky to have great weather during our whole week, but that last day was especially nice and I spent a long time at the far end of town where the marina is.

I even found my favourite kind of boat — an old rusty one — and sketched it while the sun set.

My little farewell sketch was done at dawn from the back stairs of our motel, facing a little white farmhouse in back of us.

The week was a great introduction to a place that I will certainly visit again. If you’re wondering what sketchbook I used, it was my Etchr Perfect Sketchbook, A5 size. Smaller than the A4 I usually carry, but just the right size to fit in my knapsack for hiking.

If you’re interested in boat sketching, I just posted a new demo on YouTube of the sketch I did at the Musée Maritime de Charlevoix.

Waiting for the boat

I’ve seen the massive limestone iconic Percé Rock in photos all my life, as have all Canadians, but it’s so much more spectacular in person. If you are approaching from the north, you come up over the top of a hill and suddenly there it is in all its glory, backlit in the morning sun. When I sketched it later in the day, I decided to include the people on the pier who were waiting for the boat that goes to Bonaventure Island. It might not seem like the monolith it is without something to give it scale.

The funny thing about painting a landscape feature as iconic as Percé Rock is that you have to get the shape right. Mine may not be as wide as it should be, but close enough. If it was any wider it would have gone off the page at the left. My favourite part of the scene is the tiny bit of sky and tiny slice of water that you can see through the hole in the rock.

I painted this on location, on a brand new pad of Hahnemuehle The Collection Watercolour paper. It’s the first time I try this paper and my first impression is very positive. It takes the colour really well, it’s fantastic for dry brush effects like I used in the water, and apparently it lifts very well although I haven’t tried that yet.


The great thing about the Gaz-O-Bar in Saint-Maxime-du-Mont-Louis is that it seems to be a gathering spot for the whole village. People come to fill up their cars for sure, but I also loved the three guys who sat on a red bench and chatted for the whole time I painted. And they seemed to know everyone else who dropped in too. Not sure where this village is? Look for the Gaspé Peninsula on a map of Quebec. Follow route 132 right around to the northernmost part of the peninsula. You’ll find it just after Mont-Saint-Pierre and just before L’Anse Pleureuse.

Good news week

There was a nice surprise in the mail today — the Fall issue of Watercolor Artist magazine with an article I wrote called “Windows of Opportunity”. It’s about using windows or window views as inspiration for sketching, which I know many of us have been doing during the pandemic. Many thanks to Anne Hevener at the Artists Network for giving me this opportunity. It’s a great issue of the magazine, especially because I’m in good company with sketcher friends Uma Kelkar, Stephanie Bower, James Richards and Brenda Swenson, who have their sketches featured there too.

It’s also an honour to have my paintings in a couple of online exhibits. “Winter Boatyard” was selected to be in the 53rd Open International Juried Exhibition of the Society of Canadian Artists. Check out the show and make sure you have a look at my friend Marc Holmes’s incredible painting “The World has Appetites of its Own”. It won the grand prize. I’m so happy for him!!

My painting “One Day in Havana” was also selected to be in the Beyond the Edge, the online juried elected members exhibition of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour. The show is on until August 21, 2021. Be sure to check it out!

Edited by necessity

When I posted this sketch on Instagram earlier today, someone commented about the way I edit a scene to simplify it. But that was not the case for this. I was sitting in full sun, which I really dislike, so I had to abbreviate my paint strokes. I edited out the details in the far shore because I couldn’t wait to move to the shade, although I started off in the sun because the view from that spot was so perfect. One boat, one reflection. A great little vignette. I’ve painted this boat before but the result was overworked and lacked the spontaneity of this one. Maybe sitting in an umcomfortable spot isn’t so bad after all, if it forces you to simplify.

I used a limited palette on this, again, not intentionally. Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna had overflowed on my mixing tray after I filled my palette this morning and I had to use them up. Sketched in an Etchr Perfect Sketchbook, A4 size.

Backyard sketches

These warm July days are pretty nice for sketching in the backyard, and observing animal life. The birdbath is a popular spot for thirsty visitors. A big black bird stops in for a bath but doesn’t stay long enough for me to add him in. I really need to observe birds to be able to draw them, but unfortunately it’s a quick bath, not a long soak, and I can’t get the shapes that quickly.

Alice doesn’t move much when it’s warm outside, until I put down the first few marks of my pencil. She flops over and I have to start again. That’s no excuse, though, for making her front paws too long.

Pink amongst the greens

The one pink lily in the pond at Baie d’Urfé was blooming for me today, just as it did last year. The rest of the scene was mainly greens and blues. When I set out this morning, I had a feeling I would be painting this, so I packed for the occasion. I grabbed a handful of green and blue watercolour tubes and stuck them in my painting bag. They came in useful. My recipe for the greens of the pond: Green Gold + Hookers Green + Lemon Yellow + Cobalt Blue plus some Prussian Blue and Burnt Sienna for the very darks. Painted on a sheet of Two Rivers handmade paper, 16″ x 20″. This paper can really take a beating, and the colour saturation when you paint on it is excellent.

Is it just me

I am curious to know if anyone has had the same frustration as me with some Winsor & Newton paper. I painted this bouquet on a block of Winsor & Newton 140 lb CP paper. I’ve had success on this paper before. In fact for my most recent course “Victorian Vignettes” I did all my demos on this. But for some reason, the larger block (12″ x16″) does not seem to absorb the paint the same way it did on smaller size blocks. Is it just me or have you had difficulty with this paper too?

You can see from the detail below that the paint doesn’t get absorbed into the paper unless you add multiple layers of washes. I assume that this might be an issue with the sizing. This was a difficult bouquet to paint from the start because of all the tiny flowers, but I found myself going over areas again and again because every wash seemed to disappear into the paper. Plus there are all these little white speckles that appeared even after going over the surface with a fully saturated brush. Have you used this paper and noticed this same issue? I’d love to know.