Friday, May 12, 2017

Time flies

It has been just over a year since the last post to my blog. A lot of water under the bridge and a fair amount of watercolour, come to think of it. All of my good intentions about regular postings fell apart, for many reasons, all trivial.

This little sketch, of a bridge on the Canal du Midi, in the south of France, sold this weekend during our annual Studio Tour. Annie and I transited the canal several years ago in a sailboat (with the mast on the deck, of course) and have fond memories of the trip. This was the first bridge we came to and it made us realize that adjustments were needed to the mast support, as the mast tip cleared this opening by just a couple of inches, and we knew from the guide that the next one would be even tighter. These bridges were designed for barge traffic - no-one ever considered that large sailboats would attempt the transit.

From this point, I do intend to post here frequently and seriously attend to other social media feeds, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Watch this space.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

60 years: from ocean to canyon, a sailor’s tale.

[A personal anniversary]

On April 27, 1956,  a few hundred “boat people”, many of them excited emigrants, departed Liverpool with the evening tide on board the Canadian Pacific liner, Empress of France under the command of Captain N.W. Duck, DSC, bound for Montreal.

Empress of France

I was one of these, traveling alone with a few pounds in my pocket (slightly over the legal limit), headed for Toronto and eventually, I hoped, to California. That I failed to make the latter destination is fodder for another story.

The grand dining room was packed for the first formal meal of the voyage, but this was the last time that most of the passengers would put in an appearance. As soon as the ship felt the mighty swells of the ocean beyond the Irish Sea, mal-de-mer overtook the landlubbers, most of whom took to their bunks and did not surface until we reached the smooth waters of the St. Lawrence. Too bad, since dinners consisted of 5 or 6-course meals and were quite an occasion reflecting the 1920s era. I had never seen such menus, not even in my Royal Artillery sergeants' mess.

Fifty years later, Annie and I were on the train that climbs the length of the Copper Canyon in Mexico, going from the desert plain to an icy mountain village. A passenger noticed the traces of my Manchester accent and opened a conversation about my time in Canada. The subject of my initial ocean journey lead him to reveal that he had been a summer medical intern on that ship at which time it was named the Duchess of Marlborough, more familiarly known as the “Drunken Duchess” due to its radical gait through the waves. Sea sickness was almost universal on board. Renaming the ship and refitting as a  Canadian Pacific passenger liner hadn’t changed her character.
Rough sea off Cape Race
The North Atlantic in April can be a very stormy place and my voyage had its share of rough seas. I knew I was a good sailor and yet I hated the accommodation in “steerage”, almost below the water line, which was all I could afford. I discovered that the bar located on the top deck was the place to be and so I spent most of the next seven days in it or near it.

A fellow barfly was an elderly gent, returning from a visit to his World War 1 battlefields and graveyards. An Englishman, he had emigrated to Canada following service and spent his time in the Yukon. I was entranced by his stories of life there in the first half of the century and came very close to following him West. That I didn’t, meant I lost the opportunity to make my fortune in gold.

However, no regrets for that lost Yukon adventure. Well, perhaps one or two.

Monday, March 14, 2016

More penmanship

A chance mention in a Facebook posting led me to the website and blog written by artist Suhita Shirodkar (link). Suhita is another artist who has developed a short course on Craftsy this one named "Figure Sketching made Simple". Figuring (pardon) that another course in figure drawing couldn't hurt, I signed up.

Basic "Action Line" sketches

Suhita introduced me to another concept in action figure drawing: (the Line of Action). In order to capture the essential motion of a figure, she sketches the main motion of the figure immediately without regard for detail. Once the motion or action line is established, she can then bring in the rest of the figure. It all seems a little contrived at first glance, but the concept is seeming to work for me. The above are a few of the few tentative drawings.

Suhita is a frequent blogger and I can recommend you read her postings.

From a photo of a French port (after John Lovett)

My grasshopper mind leads me from style to style in my sketching adventure. I admire the work of John Lovett, yet another fine Australian watercolorist. He avoids perspective by painting streetscapes straight-on, which rather appealed to me. He also uses intense colour which is something I have always strived for. In John's case, he adds the pen work after the paint is dried, having used a charcoal pencil for the original construction. I find this is a method which works well for plein air sketching, although the pencil marks need to be protected as the charcoal smudges easily and also tends to bleed when wet paint is applied, but if applied lightly can be made to disappear in the final work. The added ink lines can then be used to strengthen the sketch.

John's website contains a series of free workshop videos as well as numerous articles.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Tools of the trade

There are times when I think I must be more concerned with the tools I use than with the actual painting.

This has been the case lately as I delve more and more into urban sketching - or just sketching, period. I follow a series of blogs on sketching (listed on a recent post) and have been fascinated by discussions about pens.

Now, I thought painters were a fussy lot when it comes to brush preferences, but sketchers appear to treat their pens with near adulation. Some prefer traditional "dip" pens - not exactly a good choice for plein air sketching, but inexpensive for studio work; others plump for any one of a myriad of fine-line pens; yet others swear by special fountain pens.

I have tried each of these devices and I really thought that I would stick to the fine-liner. Until I tried the LAMY fountain pen. Oh my, what an experience.

The Lamy Safari pen
We are fortunate in Toronto to have the Wonderpen company. I visited their store on Carlaw Avenue this week and was able to test a number of models of pens, settling eventually on a bright yellow Lamy Safari.

These pens come with the usual cartridge, but one needs waterproof ink for sketching if watercolour is going to be used. For this, a converter cartridge is used, which incorporates a nifty plunger system used to draw ink from the bottle. A fairly wide colour range of waterproof inks is available, although there are relatively few manufacturers. I chose a black ink from Noodlers Inc., a U.S. company.

If you are interested in researching pens any further, an excellent place to start is Goulet Pens whose owner has developed a lengthy series of videos that will tell you a lot more than you thought you needed to know on the subject.

Happy sketching.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Palette update

I know you've been on the edge of your seats wondering how my modification of the John Pike Big Well palette has stood up to the ravages of time. (Original post)

The palette in use in my tiny watercolour studio

It's been close on three years and, bar one slight hitch, the tray modification has stood up to constant use. One of the dividers - the one at the top of the above picture, did come adrift at one point. Perhaps the blues are more aggressive than their yellow/red counterparts. A generous application of matte medium and some pressure secured the divider again and I have had no further problems.

I am satisfied with the modification in practice. The mixing areas are large enough for my use and, in fact, are a lot larger than any of the palettes that I have used prior to this one. This includes the Zoltan Szabo palette which got me started, and the popular thumb hole plastic palette. As well, I get far less pigment corruption in the storage wells. I tend not to clean the palette between sessions. Since I often paint in series, using the same range of pigments, I feel it's a real waste to wash off perfectly good paint each time. Also, some very interesting greys develop from time to time.

I do wonder about sloping wells, though. The Szabo has this feature and I have discovered that one of my favourite painters, the Australian John Lovett recommends their use. See his article on this topic. He expands on this in other articles on his very informative site.

There is one significant change that I have made to my process. I had been advised to store a damp sponge in the palette when closed (the lid is quite tight). I discovered that some pigments would develop mould - and the smell was not so enticing. Now, I simply spritz the storage wells a few minutes before a studio session. As I paint almost daily using this palette, the paints don't really have time to dry out.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

People ... people who need(s) people?

Winter Walk, watercolour, 11 x 15 inches

Excuse the liberties taken with Ms. Streisand's lyrics. Just my sneaky introduction to a discovery I made some time ago, in a workshop with ArtCunanan, I think, that inserting people into a landscape painting adds both scale and interest to the subject. I also discovered that I had great difficulty actually drawing them.

When it came to inserting a figure or two into a painting, it was hit and miss. The figures often looked clumsy and distorted and did nothing to enhance the work. And so I was hesitant, fearing I would ruin the piece. "Winter Walk" is the exception, thank goodness. (It's long since found a new home).

Kensington Pedestrian Day October 2015
Typically awkward figures

In the meantime, I have begun sketching en plein air. In this, I am following in the footsteps – or sketchbooks – of thousands and thousands of artists worldwide who enjoy the phenomenon known as urban sketching. Of course, once I got outside with my pens, brushes, and pocket watercolour kit, I came face to face with … people. What to do?

Practice, practice
No faces in this one!

Turning to Google for help in finding sites and videos, I came across Felix Scheinberger. Eureka!  His book: Urban Watercolor Sketching opened my eyes. Where I had been trying to draw people realistically (and failing due to lack of expertise), Felix showed me how to loosen up and draw what amounts to caricatures. Perfect. I started filling sketchbooks with imitations of his work and variations on the theme

A page from my studio sketchbook
There are many more

 However, I felt I could only go so far with these odd characters. I needed something between the caricature and an impression; similar to the way I have developed my watercolour painting.

The "Eye Line" and figure proportions
per James Richards
Enter James Richards and his course Sketching the Energy of Places on the Craftsy web site. In this short six-lesson video, I picked up more information on sketching in the urban environment than I could possibly find in a dozen books. 

There are many artists providing sketching information on the web; those that I recommend include Cathy Johnson, Liz Steel and the gang at Sketchbook Skool – and, of course, James Richards - links below. Be sure to subscribe to their various blogs and/or newsletters. (Liz Steel seems to produce a blog entry per day)

Putting the Eye Line into practice

There’s still a lot of plein air to go around, albeit somewhat chilly at the moment. However, one may still recall the feel of summer from the warmth of the studio.


Friday, November 27, 2015

In the port of Amsterdam

The earworm of that iconic song from " Jacques Brel is Alive and Well ..." stays with me as we descend into Schipol Airport for our visit to Amsterdam. We are incredibly fortunate to have one of our daughters living and working there. She is considerate enough to live in a two bedroom, two storey apartment in the busy downtown Jourdan area. This is our second visit in two years and this time, I am determined to get in some sketching.
Traveling light, I chose my tiny Winsor & Newton palette featuring 12 cakes and a tiny travel brush - red sable, no less. These accompanied by a couple of fine line pens and a charcoal pencil.
The view from my daughter's rear window overlooks a courtyard formed by three other houses, each built in the traditional Amsterdam style - most tracing their history back to the 17th century. Gillian's house is four storeys tall with many narrow stairs.

Bong headquarters

The front windows overlook the busy Haarlemmerstract with its constant tourists, apparently reckless cyclists, scooters and cars. The narrow street makes for interesting walking with one eye on the uneven cobbles and the other for a flying cyclist. This street, and others, are home to the "brown" cafes where coffee is the least of the customers' interest - the pungent odour of cannabis announces their presence.

With frequent rain showers, sketching has to be completed quickly and I left the paintwork until I returned to the apartment, or found a convenient pub. This quick sketch shows the Koepel Kirk, built in 1668, now a conference centre. It is a magnificent, round Lutheran temple and is built on the supposed spot where Jan Hus was martyred. At his execution he said: "There, where I die, a great bird will rise up".. The cupola is topped by a large swan.



Did I mention bicycles?

The Jourdan is divided into many sections by the beautiful canals, which dominate the life of the area and sweep in a great curve from one end of the district to the other. Each canal is crossed by several hump-backed bridges which pose the only gradients that cyclists face. None-the-less, they attack them with verve and swerve. The railings along each bridge, indeed railings everywhere, are festooned with bikes carefully locked.

A bridge over the Keisergracht

A week's stay was insufficient to capture many of the sights. A return visit, as long as our daughter remains working from this beautiful city, is in the cards.