Folly Cove


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When does graffiti cease being graffiti and start being a piece of history? Do you notice the “AR ER” painted on the rocks in the center of the photo below?


I consider it a piece of history—it’s over 100 years old, and it has a very special meaning for me and my family.

Here’s the story. Both my grandparents families on my father’s side immigrated from Finland around the turn of the century. The Seppala family (grandmother’s side) purchased a home on Folly Cove in Gloucester, MA, right on the Rockport line in the late 1800s. It became a dormitory of sorts for newly arrived Finnish immigrants. The Ronkas with their five boys—Ensio, Arne (my granddad), Laurie, George, and Toimi—lived right across the street on the Gloucester/Rockport town line. Summers were spent swimming in the Folly, fishing, and climbing rocks, and winters were spent sledding, ice skating, and hanging out in the Finnish sauna.

When Arne and Ensio were somewhere in their mid teens, they thought it would be a good idea to make their mark on Folly Cove by writing their initials on the rocks. They decided that the better swimmer would win the right to mark their initials larger than the other’s. So, they held a contest—they raced each other across the cove. Arne won. So, around 1915, they took a bucket of pitch and made their mark, with “AR” being larger than “ER.”

The initials fade every now and then, and someone (we don’t know who) always refreshes them. I’m sure the residents of Gloucester and Rockport blame some young vandals. And they’re right… except the vandals would be over 100 years old now.

A couple of years ago, on what was around the 100th year anniversary of the race (we don’t know exactly when it happened), my sister Alix and I visited Folly Cove, and yep, I took out my kit and sketched away.

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It was fun imagining Arne and Ensio pushing off for their race from the very rocks I was sitting on. I felt a certain connection to my heritage and their youthful spirits. I imagined how much life has been lived since then—both by them and by me. And how they had hopes and dreams about how their lives would turn out, just as I do. They had no concept back then of the 21st century, and even less of a 40-something grandchild returning to this same spot. Arne and Ensio now rest together in a family plot at the Seaside Cemetery on the other side of the trees overlooking the Folly, a stone’s throw away. Coincidentally, Arne’s name is printed in larger letters than Ensio’s on their grave markers.

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Some day my parents will be buried there. And then me, if I choose that as my final resting place. Shown below is the Ronka family plot, and just down the “block” is the Seppala plot (my grandmother’s side of the family).

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Of course, everyone living now will all pass away.  And 100 years from now—2117—perhaps another Ronka will be sitting on the rocks, contemplating the lives of those who came before, wondering who keeps refreshing the AR ER.

And that’s the circle of life—expansion, contraction, expansion, contraction. One of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr writes about this. He explains that as the form and structure (i.e. the body) contracts, the spirit continues to expand. He posits that most people, if they come to understand this natural cycle, usually don’t “get it” until they’re in their 40s or so—when enough life experience has built up to reveal their limitations and the inevitability of death. Some people—those who have experienced great suffering early in life—get it earlier. And some people never get it, desperately clinging to that which is passing away. The difference between those who grow old and become caricatures of their worst parts and those who grow old gracefully is the recognition that the spirit is what lives on forever and the decision to attend to and nurture it.

May we all be in that camp.





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Rockport is located on the tip of Cape Ann in Massachusetts. It’s a very special place for my family. Both sides of my dad’s family immigrated to the US from Finland in the early 1900s and ended up settling in what was then a Finnish community on Cape Ann.

When I was growing up in southern California, my parents drove us across country (more than once) in a station wagon to visit my grandparents. Think of the Griswold family in National Lampoon’s “Vacation,” but add two more kids.

National Lampoon Vacation

Being the youngest of the four, I always ended up in the back, tucked into a little nest carved out between the suitcases, bags, and food cooler, constantly trying to rid myself of pesky little bits of granola bar and Triscuit stuck to my body. And no seat belts for any of us (although I do believe my parents always wore theirs…).

At any rate, I have many early childhood memories of Rockport. Just about every time my sister, Alix visits me, we make a pilgrimage to Rockport to see the familiar sites and visit the graves of our grandparents. She visited this past August, and Sonia, Alix, and I made the short trek from Maine to Cape Ann.

We ended up at a restaurant on the tip of Bearskin Neck, an idyllic pier with shops and restaurants and views of lobster boats and light houses.

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As we waited for our meal, I surveyed the view and started a mental sketch…

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…nearby rocks, lobster buoys, far shore, and boats puttering around to serve as models (none of which made it into this photo). Perfect. I had brought my painting kit with me—I have a man-purse dedicated for that purpose. I took it out and transferred my mental sketch to paper:

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I’ve been practicing boats, and I was pleased with how this little lobster boat turned out. I’ll probably do a blog post on this later, but for now, let me say that I learned the best way to get the curves of a boat to look authentic is to first draw a figure 8 on its side. You erase a couple of lines, and voila, you have the hull of a boat. Hacking the boat sketch, so to speak.

Alix and Sonia enjoyed the sun and chatted as I worked.

As you can see, I used my nifty water brush (still very much in love with it!). What emerged is this:

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The painting looks a little more dark and stormy than it actually was, but then that sometimes happens, doesn’t it? I used a finishing technique on this painting that I learned in a workshop a while back, but hadn’t ever applied to my sketchbooking: The Splatter. Getting my brush wet with blue paint, I flipped the brush a few times to get little splatters of paint. It was a harder to do with my water brush, but it worked. I like how the splatters create texture and depth without being distracting. Somehow it seems to add a little more abstraction and expression to the painting.

I was also mindful of being loose throughout the painting. I didn’t get too hung up on the the lines or on blending the paint perfectly. This is my current intention–to paint with more expression and let go of realism.

And that, my friends, was painting Rockport. I’ll leave you with a collage of other photos from our day trip.

Camera Uploads

Cranmore Mountain


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I live on the ocean, and it’s beautiful. The ocean is full of sounds and smells and movement. It’s always changing. But the mountains — steady, silent, calm. Two very different settings, each so life-giving in its own way. Having grown up in both southern California and Colorado, the mountains and the ocean are both in my blood. But the mountains hold a very special place in my heart and soul.

So, you can imagine my delight upon learning that Sonia’s sister and brother-in-law purchased a new home in the mountains. We visited them recently and were dumbstruck by the beauty of their hideaway nestled in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Sonia and I ventured out into the nearby town of North Conway and decided to take the chair lift to the top of Cranmore Mountain, a ski resort within spitting distance of the quaint little town.

The gentle swinging of the lift as the mountain slowly slid beneath us and the periodic bumping as we passed over the squeaky cable wheels made me anticipate the coming winter and accompanying skiing! But for now, it was a beautifully sunny, slightly cool, late August day — the kind of day when you find yourself putting on and then taking off your jacket depending on whether the sun is showing itself.

After a short hike to explore the summit, we settled down on the patio of the lodge with grilled cheese and fries with mayo (European style, heheh). The view was breathtaking and begging to be captured in a sketch.

I did something a little different than my usual. I wanted to see how fast and loose I could be. I did a quick sketch with pencil, but didn’t go over it with pen. Blurring my eyes, I tried to stay in flow as I let my new watercolor brush deposit paint and push around the colors on the paper.

Here’s what emerged:


I paid special attention to value (dark/light), making sure I kept the distant mountains light and faded. As I painted the foreground, I used more color, with darker pigments. This gave the painting more dimension, and it’s something I’ve struggled with in the past (normally tending toward less variation in tone, which creates a very flat painting).

What I noticed is that it looks best when viewed from a distance. I think this is often the case with watercolor. Or maybe I should say, it’s often the case with expressionistic/impressionistic watercolor. Detailed and realistic watercolor can be viewed up close and personal, but that’s not really how I paint. Or rather, it’s not how I want to paint. I actually find myself tending toward more detail and control, but I aspire to be more impressionistic. I want the painting to express my feelings and emotions, and not just be a painted version of what you can capture in a photograph.

I know not everyone prefers this, but it’s my preference. And this is a big difference that I see between artists–those whose paintings evoke an emotion in me vs. those whose paintings cause a sense admiration for the artist’s technical skill. Both are obviously valid forms of painting, but I like art that makes me feel something in my heart.

I immensely enjoyed the process of painting this mountain scene. As always, it grounded me in the present moment–paying close attention to colors, tone, and shapes while hearing the birds and the rustling of wind in the trees and the sounds of children playing. What a view. What a day!

I love the mountains.

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It’s been a long while. And a lot has happened in that long while. But not a lot of painting. Until recently. While it’s been nearly two years since I last posted, and while my painting went through a significant hiatus, my creative bug has still been finding ways to emerge. Allow me a short personal/creative update.

I’ve been working on two books. The first book is a book on how to design and lead transformational learning experiences (e.g. workshops and retreats). I’m co-writing it with a small group of collaborators with whom I co-lead workshops on the same topic at a retreat center in western Massachusetts (Kripalu, which showed up in my blog post, The Berkshires in Stained Glass). Yes, we lead workshops on workshops. The second book is a passion project about how to productively deal with fear, which topic has been particularly relevant to me as I’ve moved into a new phase of my life.

That new phase has also been a source of creativity. For those who don’t know, I went through a divorce about three years ago. The three years since then have been rich with life lessons, both difficult and rewarding.  Sonia (my girlfriend) and I started dating about a year and a half ago, and at the beginning of this year we moved in together. We found a beautiful apartment in a colonial house overlooking the ocean in a small coastal town in southern Maine that we call our Cliffhouse. Landscaping and decorating have provided a rich (and time consuming!) creative outlet.

Now, back to painting. I’ve experienced a resurgence in my painting due in large part to a new watercolor brush. Alix, my sister, sent me a link to a video of a sketchbook artist painting scenes in Bonn, Germany (where I spent my high school years). It’s a great video, and if I could find it, I’d include it here. But alas, it seems to be lost in the land of obscure search terms.

At any rate, I noticed that the artist in the video was using a watercolor brush with a little tank containing the water. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve created a sketch in the field with the intent to add paint later, and then nothing. And the longer I wait, the more reluctant I am to add the paint, fearing that I’m going to ruin what started out as a good sketch. Here’s a sampling of my unpainted sketches:

Thinking this might be the key to unlocking my painting block, I impulsively ordered a set of brushes from Amazon Prime (“one-click” purchasing: very, very dangerous). To my delight, it worked! Since getting the brushes, I’ve experienced a resurgence in my painting. I’m able to easily add paint to my sketches while on site with no need to carry around a couple of containers for my water.

It’s simple: Fill that little bad boy up with water, put it in my painting kit, whip it out, and paint. Just about every one of those sketches would probably be painted if I’d had Little Bad Boy:

Watercolor Brush

I’ve been surprised how easy it is to use. You squeeze the tank to bring water into the brush, use the wet brush to get your color wet, and then it soaks up the paint into the bristles. To clean the brush between colors, you just squeeze a little more and wipe it a few times on a napkin. The only downside is that it’s hard to get dry brush effects. But that’s a small price to pay for being able to paint so easily in the field!

Stay tuned for a resurgence in blog posts. 🙂

And if you’re interested, here are the brushes I use . They’re Pentel Arts Aquash Water Brush Assorted Tips (I regularly use only one size, but it came in a set of three sizes):

Happy painting!

A Mountain Study – Part 3


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…continued from Part 2.

With three mountain paintings behind me, I was ready to try again. Yes, this might be considered an obsession at this point. This time I backed way up. On day three of the workshop, Ann taught us how to do a monochromatic value study, eliminating colors in order to really focus on just the values in the painting.

So, here’s my process for Mountain #4, the final painting in the series…

Original Photo (Cropped). I decided to crop the photo and focus in on just the mountains and trees, leaving out the reflection to simplify things a bit. To see values, I first tried blurring my eyes to notice the light and dark patterns. The lightest value (nearly white) is the sky on the right side of the picture. and the darkest value is the trees in the foreground.2015-08-14 12.13.49 - Copy-003

Red-Lens View of Photo. I also viewed the picture through both a red and a green plastic lens. When you do this, the values really pop out, because the green/red somehow neutralizes most of the colors. In this way, the brain can see value much more clearly, because it doesn’t have to simultaneously distinguish color. Here’s a rendition of the photo as seen through a red lens. If you squint your eyes, the value differences really stand out. Shapes also really stand out.2015-08-14 12.13.49 - Copy-002

Value Study Sketch. After studying the photo with squinted eyes and through the green and red lenses, I did a value sketch, just using pencil. I tried to focus on getting the relative value of each element/layer of the drawing right.2015-10-27 15.21.45

Monochromatic Value Studies. After the sketch, the next step was to do a monochromatic value study, using just one color of paint. I ended up doing two monochromatic paintings.

Monochromatic #1. My first attempt was a bit of a wash (hah, hah, pun intended). It didn’t end up being monochromatic, and because of that, I wasn’t really focusing on value. I’m not sure how it happened, except I just couldn’t bring myself to use one color only.2015-08-14 12.15.10 - Copy-001

Monochromatic #2. Having learned my lesson with monochromatic #1, I mixed a sepia color and tried again. I started from the back of the painting with the lightest layer (the sky), and I worked my way forward, adding more paint to the mix to darken the value for each new layer (ending with the trees in the foreground).2015-08-14 12.15.38

I actually really like how the value study turned out, which says a lot for the fast and easy I-don’t-care-how-this-turns-out method.

The Real-Deal Painting. Once the value study was done, it was time to face the blank paper again. Ann suggested that one should paint using ONLY the value study for reference (not the photograph). The problem with a photograph is that it contains way too much detail, and when you try to capture that in a painting, you tend to overdo it. So I exercised great restraint and only referred to the photograph for colors and nothing else.

And here it is, ladies and gentlemen — The Final Painting In My Mountain Study:
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With this painting (as compared to the other mountain paintings in prior posts), I started out with a bluer (that spelling just doesn’t look right) mountain. My initial version was too light (I was now paranoid of making the background too dark), so I added another wash of paint to darken it up. I also added some splatters and grass to the foreground for added texture and detail. For the clouds, I used the paint-around method. The blue mountain pushes the mountain to the background, where it belongs. And the detail and darker trees bring the foreground, well, forward.

Conclusions from The Great Mountain Study. I learned so much by painting four paintings of the same subject (see Mountain Study Part 1 and Part 2). One thing I would do differently next time, though, is to paint the paintings one after the other, rather than simultaneously (which is what I did for Mountains #1, #2, and #3). While painting them simultaneously was convenient (because I was able to let one painting dry while working on another), I wasn’t able to incorporate lessons-learned into each subsequent painting.

Overall, I gained a real appreciation for planning out a painting and taking the time to do the value study. Thank you, Ann Lindsay, for your expert instruction!

And I think I could paint the shadows on that darn mountain in my sleep now.

A Mountain Study – Part 2


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…continued from Part 1.

The next day of the workshop, Ann did a lesson on Value. (From my past posts, you might remember the three things I learned to keep in mind while painting: 1-Shape, 2-Color, and 3-Value.)

And the light bulbs went off. Everything looks flat because there’s very little variation in value. The background mountain is just as dark as the foreground trees.

Here’s one of the three unfinished mountains from my previous post.

Version 1:

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Yup. Background mountains and foreground trees are the same Value. And it all looks flat.

Ann taught me that two simple principles (at least) govern the perception of depth in a landscape painting:

  1. Foreground objects are darker in value than background objects.
  2. Background mountains tend to have a blue tint.

Blue? Yes, blue. Apparently in landscape painting (and in real life), the further away something is (in the distance), the more blue it is. Blue. Who knew?

I consulted with Ann, and we decided on a course of treatment for my painting. She suggested that I first mop up color from the mountain by painting on clean water and then using a course brush or a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. Yes, Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.


Then she suggested that I paint a glaze of ultramarine blue over the faded-out mountain.

So, I mopped and glazed (and discovered one more “cleaning possibility” that I doubt Mr. Clean anticipated).

Version 2:

2015-10-20 14.28.26In the process, the tops of the trees (where they extend up into the base of the mountain) got wiped out. So I had to repaint them (which is why they’re darker in the second version).

I’m quite pleased by the difference this made. The effect was to push the mountain into the background, where it belongs. And the larger trees, by painting them darker, are pulled into the foreground.

I haven’t yet painted the reflection, but now I’m much more positively inclined to do so.

Inspired by what I saw, I decided to do the same thing with the third mountain. Here’s Version 1 (I had the advantage of not yet having painted the trees on this one):


And Version 2 after mopping and glazing and painting the trees and reflection:

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I really like how the reflection turned out. To get the rippling water effect, I took a very fine, hard-bristled brush (for erasing paint), wet it, and lightly rubbed it horizontally to create the lighter horizontal “smeared” lines in the water.

And that, my friends, is what I learned about value.


(credit to Boomer Girl, Cathy Hamilton for the fist-bumping Mr. Clean)

But wait! That’s not all… Stay tuned for a final mountain study post.

A Mountain Study – Part 1


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The culminating activity at my recent Ann Lindsay watercolor workshop at Omega was to pick out a photograph (from a magazine or one of our own) and paint it. This one struck me:

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I really like the shadows in the mountain, the distinct trees (to put my trees practice to work!), and the reflection looks almost more vivid than the non-reflection.

The most daunting moment in painting for me is this moment. The blank paper.2015-08-13 14.38.16

I started with a rough sketch of the photograph. I decided to paint several versions at the same time, to try different variations and to allow myself to paint continuously, letting paint dry while I moved on to another version. I felt quite proud of my efficiency.

Unfinished Mountain #1:2015-08-14 12.14.36

Unfinished Mountain #2:
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Unfinished Mountain #3:2015-08-014

Hmmm… What emerged were two paintings that looked quite similar to each other and a third that was shaping up to look the same (except with a portrait orientation).

A note about my efficient use of time: by alternating between paintings, I ended up painting the same thing three times. If I’d completed each painting before moving on to the next, I would have had a chance to see what I liked and didn’t like and try something new on the next painting.

So, what did I like and not like about these paintings? I liked the skies and the trees and the overall composition. But something about them didn’t sit right with me.

I started out the day eager to bring together all that I’d learned. But the day ended in frustration. As I stepped back and looked at my handiwork, I experienced the familiar disappointment when a painting doesn’t turn out as you imagined it might. While I couldn’t quite pinpoint the specific problem, in general each of these paintings looked really flat, with no depth or dimension. I hadn’t yet painted in the reflections in the water, and given my less-than-enthusiastic feelings, I doubted that I would finish the paintings.

I’m very familiar with this mood swing in painting. It goes like this (from the perspective of my internal gremlin voice):

  1. I got my latte, my paints, and a free day! I can’t wait to dig in! Today I’m going to create a masterpiece! Wheeee!!!
  2. Look at this subject matter. Isn’t it beautiful? I can just imagine how this is going to turn out. Let’s dig in!
  3. Hmmm… This isn’t quite turning out as I imagined. But I’ve got my latte and paints!
  4. Right. The day is almost over, and this is shaping up to look like a mudblob.
  5. I feel like cutting off my ear.
  6. Painting sucks. My latte is gone and in its place is this big disappointment.

There’s a life lesson in there somewhere. I think it has something to do with attachment… At some point I’m going to blog on this: “As in watercolor, so in life.”

But all was not lost. The next day in class I was to discover a few secrets for creating depth and dimension. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my mountain study!


Happy Little Trees


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Bob Ross has been prominent lately in my blog posts (as a kid I spent hours in my grandparents’ TV room glued to the TV watching him do his magic). And it’s to his happy little trees that I turn in this post.

In my recent Ann Lindsay watercolor workshop at Omega, Ann taught us several techniques for adding trees to a landscape painting. This was a high pay-off lesson — each method was easy to learn, and what emerged actually looked like trees.

Two special tools were used (other than my standard 10 round brush): A rigger brush and a stick whittled to a point. Quick note about the origin of the rigger: it’s called a rigger, because it was used to paint the rigging of ships. Cool, eh? And a quick note about the origin of the stick: Ann whittled it.

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Standard (Monochromatic) Deciduous Tree. We started with your standard deciduous tree. I mixed a dark mix for the trunk and branches (ultramarine blue and burnt umber and a little sap green). Using the rigger, I painted from the ground up, moving the rigger in small jerky movements to keep the branches looking like branches and not boomerangs or strings of spaghetti. It’s very important to start from the ground (in the case of the trunk) and from the trunk (in the case of the branches). Doing so ensures that your stroke ends thin at the end of the branch.

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The tree on the left is a winter tree. The very light wash hints at twigs stripped of their leaves. The tree on the right is a summer or spring tree with leaves. When painting foliage, I learned that you need to leave “sky holes” where the sky shows through. The temptation is to overdo it and paint one big foliage blob. No one likes a foliage blob.

Pine Trees. For these pine trees I used a 10 round brush. I first painted a straight line down (from top to bottom) for the trunk. Then, starting at the top of each tree with the tip of the brush, I loosely painted back and forth to the bottom of the tree, making sure to vary my hand placement as I painted in order to get non-uniform shapes. I tried to do each tree in one pass, having to fight the urge to go back and fiddle with each tree.

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To get the white lines of the trunk, I used credit card (given to us by Ann) that had been cut to have some sharp edges (a hotel key card could work, too). I waited until the paint was damp, and then scraped in the white lines.

Scraggly Pine Tree. For the scraggly pine tree (scragglius pinus) I used the whittled stick (stickus whittlius) and a squirt bottle of water (agua squirticus). I first soaked the stick in water, and then I loaded it with paint. I started at the top and scratched back and forth (just like a good back scratch). While the paint was still wet, I squirted water onto the paint, which had the effect of, well… I’m not exactly sure what effect it had, but here it is:

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Fall Foliage. The fall foliage trees were created in the same way as the earlier-described deciduous trees (because these are, in fact, deciduous, too). I pre-mixed some fall colors and enjoyed watching them mix together as I painted each tree.
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Forest. The forest was created in two steps. Step one was to wet the paper, and when it was still damp, I painted in some pine trees using the method described above. Because the paper was wet, these pine trees blurred, creating the hazy background effect. After that had dried, I painted in the foreground pine trees. And voila: insta-forest! 2015-09-21 09.55.51

I can see why Bob Ross called his trees happy. It really did make me happy to paint all of these little tree studies. And by getting good at this technique, I was able to add trees to larger landscape paintings with much more confidence.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia


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As often happens when painting, one gets really good at painting the subject of an obsession. During a recent watercolor workshop with Ann Lindsay at Omega Institute, I learned that Ann went through an obsessive relationship with marshes. She’s better now. But in the process, she got darn good at painting marshland.

But first, in keeping with my shout-out to 70s TV: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia (also see Bob Ross in Happy Little Clouds)

Now that that’s out of the way, Marshes was the subject for one day of our 5-day workshop. Painting a marsh gets you practicing several things:

  1. Shape (the stream as it winds its way through a marsh)
  2. Color (sky, water, marshland)
  3. Value (darker in the foreground, lighter in the background)

It also helps you think intentionally about the horizon line, which one always needs to keep in mind when painting a landscape.

After demonstrating what a marsh looks like, Ann had us do up some marsh sketches.

Marsh Sketches

What’s important to note about painting the stream within a marsh is that it varies in its width at each turn. The flatter the perspective, the more pronounced will be this variation. The other extreme would be if you were looking down on the stream from the air — there would be very little variation in width. As I sketched (and subsequently painted) marshes, I had to keep this truth in mind to prevent myself from drawing a 3rd grade stream, which looks like this:

Child River

Ann showed us how to create a distant treeline on the horizon that looks hazy and, well, distant. First I painted a wash of the sky (bringing the wash all the way to the bottom of the paper means that your stream will end up looking like it reflects the sky).

I let that wash dry, and then I added water from the horizon line up (it’s very important to make sure the wash is bone dry or all hell will break loose with your sky wash). Then I dropped in tree color right at the horizon line, letting the water carry it up (no need to tilt the paper).

This picture shows the sky wash (bone dry) with clear water painted over it from the horizon up. The green tree line has just been added, and you can see the water doing its work of growing the trees up into the sky.

Marshes - Wet in Wet

Below is the finished painting. Lesson learned: if you want a smaller (more distant) tree line, use less paint. I was so memorized by the process that I couldn’t stop adding paint. This tree line ended up being bigger than I intended, which had the effect of moving the horizon forward.

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I continued to play with marshes, experimenting with different horizon lines, skies, marsh colors, and stream configurations.

Happy, sunny marsh. For the clouds, I used the paint around method, adding violet and a mix of Ultramarine and Burn Umber for the shadows. I didn’t carry the blue sky down to the bottom of the paper in the initial wash, so the streams don’t reflect the sky (that is, they’re white, not blue).

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Foreboding marsh. I tried a different sky here, dropping in the Ultramarine and Burnt Umber mix wet-on-wet to the blue wash. To complement the darker sky, I used some of the same colors in the marshland. The treeline on the horizon was done wet-on-dry, so it leaves a hard rather than a soft edge. Note the shape of the stream in this painting. At points (in the distance), the stream virtually disappears behind the land.

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Double-stream marsh. Ah yes, the ol’ double-stream marsh. In this painting, I carried the pink of the horizon sky down to the bottom of the paper, creating a pink sky reflection in the stream. The treeline is a mix of wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques, which leaves you with both soft and hard edges.

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I found these marsh studies to be very meditative. Once I learned the techniques, with each new study I let my right brain decide what it wanted to do. Keeping the studies small (each painting is about 5×7 or smaller) kept me moving forward and not getting hung up on one particular painting.

Which marsh appeals to you most?

Happy Little Clouds


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In my previous post, I wrote about a recent watercolor workshop I attended by Ann Lindsay at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Ann pointed out that in order to stay in the right brain (which is the creative brain), we need to stick to drawing/painting three things:

  1. Color
  2. Shape
  3. Value (light/dark)

If left brain gets involved, we end up painting what we think we see rather than what we actually see. And often, what we think we see looks more like something from 3rd grade art class. For example, the 3rd grade brain (where many adults are stuck when it comes to art) sees clouds like this:

Children Clouds

And every so often, clouds actually do cooperate with our 3rd grade brain.

(thank you, for collecting some awesome cloud pictures!)

But most of the time they don’t. Most of the time, clouds are an amazing array of random shapes and colors and values. Here are some stunning cloud pictures taken in NYC:

(thank you Laura Butler for keeping me supplied for my clouds study!)

These pictures illustrate how wonderfully diverse clouds are (even the absence of clouds), and how tantalizingly they call out to be painted!

But before I jump into what I learned about clouds, this post begs for a shout-out to the late Bob Ross and his happy little clouds.

Bob Ross Chuck Norris

(thank you

And if you want an even more inspiring walk down memory lane, check out this cool Bob Ross YouTube remix!

Early in the workshop Ann had us turn our attention to clouds. We first took out our sketchbooks and let our right brain go free, quickly sketching all kinds of clouds.

Cloud Sketches

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Various positions, numbers, shapes, etc. It sounds counterintuitive, but it actually takes a lot of practice to paint something that looks random. Without practice, our left brain takes over and we tend to paint in patterns, which often ends up looking unnatural and blah.

The next step was to learn some techniques for actually painting clouds. I’m sure there are many, many more, but here are three easy and effective techniques I learned:

Lifting paint with a tissue. First you put down a wash of your sky color (Cerulian Blue makes a good sky). While the paint is still wet, you loosely crumple a tissue and role it across the wash. The tissue soaks up paint where it touches the paper, leaving white shapes (that look like clouds). I found this worked best when I first took a deep breath to get out of my head and into my hands.

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There are two mistakes you can easily make with this method. It’s very tempting to use a blotting motion rather than a rolling motion. But blotting tends to leave predictable, cotton ball shapes rather than random cloud shapes. The second mistake is to go back and overwork your clouds after the initial pass.

A variation of this method is to roll the tissue tightly into a long, skinny band, and then to press the band into the wet wash. This produces a thin, wispy cirrus cloud.


Lifting paint with a brush. This method is similar to the first, but instead of using tissue paper, you use a very slightly damp brush (I used a #10 round). While the sky wash is still wet, you roll the brush across the paper, lifting the paint as you go. As with the first method, it’s important to stay away from blotting and overworking.

Painting around the cloud shape. To do this, you need an idea of where your clouds are going to go. You can do this by lightly drawing your cloud shapes with pencil. Then, as you lay down the sky wash, paint around your clouds. When I watched Ann do this, she held her brush every which way as she painted around the cloud shapes, sometimes using the side of the brush, sometimes rolling it, and sometimes using the tip. This creates a nice, random mix of hard and soft edges, and helps make sure your clouds aren’t too left-brain. It’s important to use lots of water with this method.

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Both methods have their merit. I found it easier to get natural-looking soft edges (clouds have both soft and hard edges) with the tissue method. But the painting method seems to make for a more dynamic sky, as the blue goes down at the same time that the cloud is being “painted,” so cloud and sky seem to be more organically connected.

Shadows. Clouds have shadows. Who knew? If you look closely at clouds (which I have taken to doing a lot of lately), you’ll see there are indeed all kinds of shades. Those are shadows. Ann suggested using a light purple for the shadows, which are located almost always along the flat bottom of a cumulus cloud, but are also found spread throughout the body of the cloud, depending on where the sun is at the moment.

Here’s your basic cumulus cloud with shadows:

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And some close-ups, because hey, who doesn’t like a good cloud close-up?

For the shadow color I used primarily Dioxazine Violet (which is a pre-mixed violet I have in my pallet). But I also dropped in a darker mix of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber to give more dimension to the shadows.

And then I went hog wild with my clouds…

This was my attempt at a storm on a prairie. I tried to create the illusion of rain by first painting clear water onto the dried blue sky and then dropping in the dark (Ultramarine and Burnt Umber mix) at the cloud line, holding the painting vertical to let the dark paint stream down like rain lines.

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Because I had such a fun time trying to create rain in the previous painting, I decided to go for broke and do full-storm. Unfortunately, I think this ended up looking more like a rain cloud on fire, with smoke erupting from the base of the cloud.

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Maybe I should call this Crying Cloud. Or Crying Fire. Or 3-Alarm Cloudburst.

I really like how the clouds turned out below. I used the paint-around-the-clouds method here, going in after the initial wash (while it was still wet) and softening some of the cloud’s edges. I also practiced getting depth in the mountains by varying the value (lighter mountains in the back and darker in the front). I would later learn that the background mountains should be more blue and the foreground more mountain-color (e.g. brown/green) if I want to enhance the illusion of depth.

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Some say that you can’t go back and fix or touch-up watercolor. Ann showed us all kinds of ways to touch up a painting. This picture shows her doing a little cloud touch-up to the painting above. I thought my clouds looked unnatural, so she showed me how to soften some of the edges by rubbing off paint with a wet tissue. It’s a fine line between touching up and overworking!

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As I learned in Ann’s workshop, one can devote hours, days, years to mastering The Cloud. It takes practice, practice, practice for clouds to end up looking like you created them effortlessly. Ann makes it look so easy. Just like Bob Ross did.

Bob Ross_Color Orange

Clouds are fun to paint, and often the more that goes “wrong,” the more right the painting looks in the end. And that, my friends, is another key lesson I learned from Ann’s class: there’s no such thing as a mistake in watercolor. I learned that from Bob Ross, too.

Happy Accidents_1

(Thank you redbubble for the Bob Ross graphic)