Going Into the Mud… and Out Again

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I recently attended a 5-day watercolor workshop at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. This was my second watercolor workshop at Omega led by artist Ann Lindsay, an incredible artist and teacher.

Class Shot

My fellow artists, some of whom had never painted before (and you should have seen the incredible progress they made!)

The class was specifically on painting landscapes. Ann calls herself a “representational landscape artist,” which means that what she paints is intended to represent the scene, not exactly replicate it like a photograph or loosely suggest it like an impressionistic painting.

I love Ann’s teaching style. She very much emphasizes the process rather than the product. And as an artist who struggles with getting caught up in my attachment to the end-product, I can never get enough training staying in the present. As Ann says (and she may have been referencing another artist when she said this), painting is both a noun and a verb. When we see “painting” as a noun, our left brain takes over and tries to create “A Painting.” But when we see “painting” as a verb, our right brain is freed to take over the creative journey and paint what is. This distinction really resonates with me.

Ann pointed out that there are three things artists must concern themselves with if they’re to stay in the right brain:

  1. Color
  2. Value (how dark or light the colors are)
  3. Shape

That’s it. If you set out and say to yourself, “I’m going to paint a house,” left brain takes over and paints a house (which will likely end up looking like something out of my kindergarten class with Mrs. Ritterrath):

Mr. House 2

(credit goes to my left hand for the drawing of Mr. House)

But a house ends up being simply a combination of colors, values, and shapes. And if you’re in your right brain, that’s how you see it and that’s how you’ll paint it. Left brain labels and then takes over (and you end up with Mr. House). Right brain observes and sees what is (i.e. colors, values, shapes).

We began the workshop by playing with the first of these three elements: color. As most people know, there are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Every other color in the spectrum is made up by mixing these three colors. Mix blue and yellow and you get green. Yellow and red and you get orange. Red and blue and you get purple.

Blue-Yellow Yellow-Red Red-Blue

Mix all three primary colors and you get… MUD. Yes, mud. I am very familiar with this phenomenon. And this is how I feel when my colors mix into mud.

Mud Face

(thank you www.dcsfreedom.com for the photo)

To become comfortable with mixing colors, Ann had us do an exercise she called “going into the mud and back out again.” To do this, we started with two primary colors. In the case of the picture below, it was yellow and red (I tried out two different reds – Permanent Rose and Cadmium red). I first mixed them together to get orange. Then I added very small amounts of blue to the orange (Windsor Blue in this case). As you can see, orange quickly goes to mud when blue is added. And then as I added more blue, I slowly came out of the mud. I branched off a couple of times to the left and the right to see what it looked like to come out of the mud into the other colors.

Seems simple enough. But Wow, what an enlightening exercise to see how you can very easily make mud (which can sometimes be useful) and then go from mud back to a color.

But that’s not all, folks. Unfortunately (for those of us who want life to be simple), it gets more complicated. As it turns out, each primary color has two different shades. Yellow can have a blue shade or a red shade. Red can have a yellow shade or a blue shade. And blue can have a yellow shade or a red shade. These two shade types are sometimes called cool and warm. A warm blue has a yellow shade (Thalo Blue, for example). And a cool blue has a red shade (Ultramarine Blue, for example). The table below illustrates warm and cool shades of the three primary colors.

Color Shades 2Who cares, right? Well, if you’re trying to get a very specific kind of green (a spring green, for example), you very much have to care, because if you mix a cool blue with a warm yellow, you’ll get a muddy green (because there’s a red shade in both the cool blue and the warm yellow). Mixing a warm blue with a cool yellow will give a purer green (because there’s no red shade in either).

To become facile with color mixing, apparently you have to mix, mix, mix, mix, and mix some more. And then when you’re tired of mixing, try it a bit more. To see what would happen when I mixed all cool and all warm colors, I created two more into-and-out-of-the-mud color studies. For the cool study, I used Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Lemon Yellow:

Cool Mud

For the warm study, I used Cadmium red, Winsor Blue (similar to Thalo Blue), and Golden Yellow:

Warm Mud

It’s very interesting to look at the various combinations and notice which feel “muddier.” The central column of colors in each study shows the mud that’s created by each primary color combination. I think I’m more drawn to the warm mud, myself.

I really got into mixing colors, and as a final study, I decided to see the full spectrum that comes from mixing the warm primaries in my pallet: Cadmium Red, Winsor Blue, and Golden Yellow.Color Wheel

In making each box between the circles, I started with the lightest color (e.g. yellow), creating a good-sized puddle of it in my mixing tray. Then I added the darker color bit by bit. The circle in the center shows the particular mud that emerges when these three primary colors are mixed.

for the large mixes in the center of the wheel, I tried three different methods:

  • For the yellow-blue, I first painted a graduated yellow wash, and then while it was still wet, I dropped in blue on the right and turned the paper to let gravity do the mixing.
  • For the yellow-red, I first painted a graduated yellow wash, let it dry, then I painted a graduated wash of red over it.
  • For the red-blue, I first painted a graduated red wash, then I painted a graduated blue wash over it, wet in wet. I dropped in a pure blue circle on the red side and a pure red circle on the blue side while the wash was still wet.

I noticed that all of these color mixing studies gave both my right and my left brain something to do. My right brain was able to observe what emerged when different colors interacted. And my left brain was able to dig into the precision and structure of each study. I found it very relaxing, especially the process of morphing from one color to another by starting with a pure shade of the first color and adding very small amounts of the second color with each new stroke of the brush.

There are few things better than sitting in a painting workshop with fellow artists, a latte, paints, brushes, and paper. And to do that 5 days in a row in a retreat setting is simply delicious. Ahhh….

Colors Context

The Berkshires in Stained Glass

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Last fall I spent a week at Kripalu Center in the Massachusetts Berkshires, attending a retreat on facilitating transformational workshops, which is an interest of mine (check out my website, www.learningexperiential.com if you want to learn more). It was a great workshop — one of the best I’ve attended (which, if not the case, would have been both ironic and worrisome).

ANYWAY, the last time I was there (a couple of years ago), I painted the view from the coffeeshop and blogged about it (The Tale of Two Paintings). This time I sat at the same coffee shop table, looking out the window at the same beautiful fall colors.

Landscape 1 Landscape 2

As I took in the colors, I decided to try something I’ve never done before: a stained glass stylized painting.

I got the idea from a watercolor I recently saw of this stained glass window at the church I attend.

2015-02-22 10.11.14

It was a beautiful painting, and I thought it would be fun to try my hand at it. I’ve been trying to do more abstract stuff, and this seemed like a good mix between abstract and realism. My other inspiration was the stained glass window above the altar at the same church. I look at it every Sunday and wonder at the design. I’m always struck by the artist’s use of color in conjunction with the lines. For example s/he doesn’t necessarily stick to the same color for a particular object (e.g. the purple line of glass running through the dove in the lower right corner). That takes guts!

Holy Trinity

So there I sat, with coffee in hand, painting kit nearby, the quiet of the early morning to accompany me, and the vista spread before me for inspiration. I did the drawing over the course of two days (about 20 minutes each day).

Drawing

The second day I started to add some of the paint. When I returned home, I looked up pictures of stained glass windows to get some more ideas and inspiration. I needed inspiration, because I was nervous to add more paint, fearing I’d ruin it. This happens to me a lot. Am I the only one? I have numerous sketches that I’ve never painted out of fear. And of course, that’s the best way to shut down the creative spirit. Reckless abandon is what the paper and brush want.

Overall, I’m pleased with how it turned out:

Kripalu Glass

I painted the hills primarily with hues of orange, yellow, and red, with some green and browns mixed in. I tried to make the distant hills slightly faded. For the water, I tried to show a little complexity by bringing in some green, echoing the green in the hills. The white clouds in the sky materialized as I was painting the blue. It just seemed “right” to leave those spaces white.

I’m wondering if there are too many different shades of color. It looks vibrant, but it also looks busy. I’m wondering what a more monochromatic approach would have looked like. And that’s the great thing about painting — you don’t have to wonder, you can just go do it! Of course, that’s easier said than done… that specter of fear rears its ugly head. This is where painting becomes a spiritual practice. We artists look that fear in the eye, give it a wink, and plunge forward. On a good day. :)

Doors, Doors, and More Doors (Part 2)

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Now that we’re all completely desensitized to doors (see Part 1), it’s time to move on to the painting bit…

One day I was sitting in my living room wondering what I should paint. I do this sometimes. Not often enough. And since I was having a doors obsession episode, I decided to try my hand at painting… wait for it… doors!

I printed out photos of three of my favorite doors and got to work. I tried to stay very loose and quick, not getting bogged down in details. Which didn’t really work. I ended up having to get rather precise to capture shadows and angles and details.

My first round was one of my favorite red doors:

I really like how the miniature metal flower box hanging on the door turned out. It feels loose and whimsical and it actually looks like the real flower box. I also like how the lamp and the sidewalk bricks turned out. For the small windows, I used a very loose application of a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber to achieve the look of a reflection on glass. I experimented with adding some yellow to the red siding wash… I imagined that it would brighten up the red and make it look more sun-drenched. Unfortunately, I think it more resembles a lemon drop bleeding out on the house.

Next I tried a blue door (which happened to be the door across the street from where I lived at the time):

I like how the shadows turned out, especially the shadow of the lamp. However, if you weren’t comparing it to the photo of the door, you might wonder what that black blob on the door is. In this painting I was much looser with the siding lines than I was with the red door, using paint rather than pen, and leaving some gaps in the lines. I think I like this approach better.

And lastly I painted a yellow door, completing my study of doors in primary colors:

I think this is my favorite door of the three. I really like how the door decoration turned out – I think it looks very realistic. I also like how the weathered door effect looks. To achieve the white vertical “distress” lines, I used a small, hard-bristled brush, dipped it in water, and then rubbed the paint carefully, blotting it with a tissue to remove the green paint. I tried adding yellow at the top of the door to show reflected light, but again, I think I only succeeded in achieving the lemon-drop-bleeding-out look. The way to have shown reflected light would have been to have rubbed out some of the yellow paint to make it lighter. Also, in retrospect I think I should have taken artistic license and left out the horizontal shadow running from the left of the picture through the lamp. That’s a shadow of a power line, and it just doesn’t need to be there.

I guess I’d call these studies. I was playing around with how to capture the lighting, the shadows, and the color tones. I like capturing a door when the sun is casting interesting shadows. And each of these photos and paintings show the sun at an angle that creates shadowy intrigue.

The paintings may not be exhibit-worthy, but the process of immersing myself in these three photos and trying to replicate them in paint with a glass of wine and a fire in the fireplace more than doubled my doors pleasure and sated my obsession… for the time. I hope you enjoy looking at and reading about them as much as I enjoyed photographing and painting them. And that’s all I have to say about doors. I promise.

Red and Yellow Doors

Doors, Doors, and More Doors (Part 1)

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[Warning: If you don’t have a healthy appetite for doors, or at least enough time and patience to digest a long blog post about doors (lots of them), you best not continue. Reader be warned…]

I spent a good part of 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 obsessed with doors. There are a lot of subjects one can obsess about, and I think doors are particularly obsession-worthy. Why? Because doors awaken our imagination. They invite us to envision what might lie beyond their hinged glory. Now let’s be clear, not all doors can be referred to as “hinged glory.” I’m not talking about those doors.

(Thank you, Popular Mechanics for your 13 ugliest doors in America post.)

I’m talking about doors that have withstood the test of time. I’m talking about doors that have swung open year after year, decade after decade, as generations of families crossed their thresholds into the warm glow of home: kids bundled up and returning from a snowy day of sledding as hot chocolate simmers on the stove top, carriage-loads of relatives converging on the homestead for a Thanksgiving feast, mom and dad bringing new baby sister home from the hospital. I’m talking about doors that have been lovingly cared for, painted, seasonally decorated, and set off with a pot of tulips in the spring and jack-o-lanterns in the fall. I’m talking about doors that reflect the character of their owners, proudly displaying their patina as a badge of ageless honor.

So I started taking photographs of doors. While walking my dog. And while riding my bike. And while driving (which was particularly dangerous at times…). And thus was an obsession born. And then I thought that I should do something with my photographs other than endlessly organize them into folders on my hard drive with Picasa.

What does one do with pictures of doors? One creates a brand, that’s what one does. As it turns out, “Doors of Portsmouth” had been tried out at least twice in the past decade by fellow photographers. There were at least two prints floating around Portsmouth showing various doors, but neither of them were actively being sold. So I saw my opportunity.

I started with a 2012 Doors of the South End calendar, created using Vista Print, an online print shop. The South End is the neighborhood in Portsmouth in which I lived at the time.

2012 Wall Calendar

The 2012 calendar set the tone for future calendars, with each door being seasonally appropriate (January door in upper left corner and December door in lower right corner, with the other months in order in between). I made sure the early months had their fair share of snow, that spring sprung early with tulips or daffodils, that July always had an American flag, that late summer showed full bloom, that fall had mums or pumpkins or hints of harvest, and that the December door was appropriately festive. (A big shout-out to Ellen, who provided hours of feedback on door selection and placement and patient counsel on which flowers bloom in which season.)

In 2013, I decided to up the ante and create my own template in PowerPoint. This gave me more flexibility with layout and the holidays I wanted to include. I also wanted to go local, so I found a Portsmouth printer.

Here’s the July, 2014 page (the dog in the lower right corner was pure luck):

2014July

I really like it when calendars show the prior and previous month, and by creating my own template, I had the flexibility to do that (upper right corner).

Here are the covers for 2013 and 2014:

2013 Wall Calendar2014CalendarCover

This is the unedited crop of doors that would have been painstakingly sifted through had I decided to do a 2015 calendar (clicking on the first door will take you to a slide show):

To expand the appeal of the calendar beyond Portsmouth, for 2014 I created a New England Doors desk calendar with doors from New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts. I marketed it to real estate agents in the area, thinking it would make a good holiday gift for their clients. My biggest sale was 45 calendars to one agent. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. My dream of funding my retirement on calendar sales was coming to pass, so instead of reveling in having sold half my calendar stock in one shot, I naively printed another run. And was stuck with unsold calendars at the end of the year. Sigh.

The 2014 New England Doors desk calendar:

2014 Desk CalendarPhoto_22014 Desk Calendar All Months

Apparently the calendars weren’t enough to sate my obsession. A 12×16 print soon followed. Countless hours went into playing around with various doors, paying attention to the distribution of colors and shapes, trying out different doors from the calendars collection.

Full Poster Image

Then came a box set of note cards, again with countless hours going into the selection and placement.

Doors Notecards

And then came holiday doors, with eight different doors to a box:

Holiday Notecards Photo HolidayCards_StickerImage7

I marketed the calendar (and later the print and note cards) to local Portsmouth shops.

At the first shop I went to, I met with the owner who sat across the counter from me thumbing through the calendar. He said he liked what he saw, but didn’t think people would pay $20 for it (which was my recommended retail price). As if on cue, a couple walked up to the counter and asked the owner if he carried a wall calendar. He looked at me, looked at them, looked at the calendar in his hands, and handed it to them. They asked him how much it cost. He looked at me, looked at them, and said, “20 dollars.” They handed him two $10 bills and walked out with calendar in hand. He looked at the bills, looked at me, handed me the bills, and said, “I guess I was wrong.” He ended up carrying both my calendars and my note cards.

I set up an Etsy shop and sold the products there, too. I also outfitted myself with supplies for a booth and attended several craft fairs. I had visions of people scrambling to buy my calendars like hot cakes. While I always got a lot of compliments, my sales rate hardly matched my hot cakes vision. Each fair ended up being an incredibly uncomfortable experience. I’d sit in my booth pretending like I couldn’t care less whether people stopped by or not, while inside I was dying a thousand deaths each time someone walked by. If they did stop, I faced a new dilemma – engage them in conversation or sit in feigned indifference while they examined and analyzed my wares. It was actually a great opportunity to practice mindfulness, with the ego shouting into my head: “Who do you think you are?? Calendars?? Really?? Why don’t you go learn how to knit – you’ll make more money selling Santa sweaters and reindeer ear muffs, like that women in the booth over there being overrun with customers!!”

At my third fair (the Kittery Craft Fair) I decided to make myself useful. I pulled out my painting kit and painted the scene spread out in front of me as I sat at my booth. Yes, I definitely preferred “Sophisticated and Indifferent Watercolor Artist” to “Craft Fair Pimp.”

Fair Painting

I spent the next couple of years managing my local accounts, maintaining my Etsy shop, designing new calendars, boxing up note cards, etc. I donated a portion of the proceeds from the calendar to the Portsmouth Historical Society as a goodwill gesture to an organization that was doing its best to preserve the physical and cultural heritage of Portsmouth.

And then I got tired of it all. I loved the creative work, but managing the accounts and boxing and shipping product drained me of my creative energy. In order to lower the price of production for the calendar, I would have to do a pretty large print run. And then I’d spend half the year trying to get rid of them. Calendars have a shelf life, and what doesn’t sell by February goes to the recycling bin. Too much pressure.

This past year I let things lapse. Several people have asked me where the 2015 Doors calendar is. I was sorry to disappoint fellow doors lovers, but it’s nice to be free from the calendar retail ball and chain. If you feel that reading this post has given you indigestion from consuming a few too many doors, welcome to my world. But I still love ’em.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, which will make sense of why I’m writing about photographs of doors on a blog about learning how to paint.

Sketching Portsmouth

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I’ve been experiencing a significant slump in my at-home painting routine. Most of my paintings are done while I’m on vacation. A few Fridays ago it was a beautiful and sunny fall day. I fought the urge to work on my to-do list, and instead packed up my sketch kit and walked into downtown.

To an observer, spending an afternoon sketching may seem like a free-spirited thing to do. But for those of us who experience creative blockage, it actually takes some significant mental gymnastics to get oneself to be creative and expressive. Creativity sometimes bubbles up, but more often than not, it is the result of making the time, which requires discipline and intentionality (which seems at odds with the creative spirit…).

So, with discipline and intentionality, I plunked myself down on the curb in front of Michelle’s on Market Square (a fine-dining French restaurant) to sketch my first of three sketches that day. I tried to stay very loose and quick, keeping myself in the process rather than sketching for a product.

Michelles

I like how the perspective on this turned out, especially with the restaurant’s signage. I tried to stay loose with the figures, and I like the one on the far left. She’s holding hands with someone who looks eerily like Lee Majors with big hair (is that redundant?).

I picked up my kit and walked over to Commercial Alley, a lovely pedestrian walkway with restaurants and boutiques. Again, I tried to stay very loose with this sketch, focusing on composition, perspective, and figures that captured the essence of their movement or stance.

CommercialAlley

From there I made my way to Ceres Street to sketch the tugboats and two of the three bridges that connect Portsmouth to Maine. I like how the bridges in the background turned out (although it’s hard to tell that there are actually two bridges), and I also really like how loose and natural the figures are. The tugboats, however, look a little like they’re missing their back ends and they’re angled a little too much up (as if there’s a wave passing under their bows). Boats are HARD to get right.

The box structure on the left of the painting is a trash enclosure that has a vertical garden on it. Not sure if that kind of thing should be left in or taken out of a sketch (it looks just a little odd). I think this is another one of those times when artistic license comes in. Vertical gardens, apparently, are cutting edge innovations (at least in Portsmouth), and you have to look twice even in real life to figure out what it is. It probably would be better to just leave it out.

Tugboats

Regardless of how the sketches turned out, I sat down and did the work. This series of sketches got my momentum going and kicked off another series of sketches (saved for later blogs), which seems to have re-ignited my at-home painting. Mission accomplished!

Which sketch are you most drawn to? Which of them best puts you in the moment?

Beaches…

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Ellen and I took not one, but two beach vacations this past summer. We wanted to try to extend the somewhat short summers in New Hampshire, so we took one vacation in June (to Sanibel Island, FL) and the other in September (to Hilton Head Island, SC). My sketchbook during this stretch of time gets somewhat repetitive.

Beach 1: Sanibel Island is the self-proclaimed shell capital of the world. This scene captures “our” beachfront. We loved the constantly changing shade of the ocean (from deep blue to aquamarine, depending on the sky), the tall grasses that made us feel enclosed, and the stunning variety of seashells wherever we stepped. I’ve tried to capture all of these in this painting (including Ellen floating with her sun hat out in the ocean).

SanibelBeach1

I quickly pulled out my sketchbook when a gull or tern of some sort (Ellen thinks it was a white ibis or snowy egret) perched itself on the fisherman’s bucket looking for an easy dinner.

SanibelBeach3

Later that day I turned to my left and captured the scene up the beach. There was a storm coming in and I quickly sketched this before the wind and rain cleared the beach. There is a large patch of tall grass in the foreground on a little hill, rendering all of the figures in the distance much smaller. I never got around to painting this sketch.

SanibelBeach2

Beach 2: Hilton Head is mostly known for its golf, but it has lovely beaches, as well. The beginning of our vacation was over Labor Day weekend. I had to work for most of the weekend (grrr….), but on our first day I was able to handle a few phone calls from the beach. Near the end of the day I pulled out my sketchbook to capture these three women:

HiltonHeadBeach

As often happens, as soon as I started to sketch them they packed up and left, leaving me with only a couple of snapshots in my mind’s eye of what they looked like. I did the rest of the sketch from memory. I tried to capture the darker, shadow underside of the umbrella, as well as its cast shadow on the women. The water at Hilton Head wasn’t nearly as aquamarine as the water at Sanibel Island, and I think that difference shows up well in the color of the water when you compare the two beaches. I finished the painting while hanging out at the quiet (and shaded) pool at our hotel.

I think I’m pretty much done with painting beach scenes for a while. :)

Fire!

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I was enjoying a coffee and spreadsheeting (yes, I love spreadsheets) at Popovers, a café in downtown Portsmouth, when out of the corner of my eye I saw smoke curling up against a bright blue sky. At the same time, I saw the telltale signs of something going down—the domino effect of one person, then two, then large groups stopping, turning, and pointing. I swallowed the inner voice that said, “You’re too cool to be a gawker” and quickly packed up my bags to follow the smoke (and shamelessly snapped a picture along the way).

FireFromPopovers

I was able to worm my way into the alcove of a shop entrance and pull out my sketch book. I think this is the first sketch I’ve done standing up. It wasn’t easy, but it was made a little easier by my bike, which I was able to somewhat lean against. I took a few reference photos:

Blog - Fire

There were a lot of emergency vehicles and plenty of action scenes to capture. I settled on the ladder trucks—I liked the challenge of perspective. I sketched the scene on site and then left the crowds and finished the painting back at home that same day.

Fire

I played a lot with shadows on the ladder trucks, trying to show the reflections of light in the windows of the trucks, as well as capture the darker shadow side of the trucks (and their shadows on the street).

To create the smoke coming out of the roof, I first painted the sky and then dropped in a dark ultramarine/burnt umber mix wet on wet to form a background haze of smoke. After that had dried, I added some more of the mix to get the hard lines that create the billowing effect.

As always, after finishing I noticed a few details that I would have liked to have done differently. The firefighter on the roof is walking away from the fire and out of the painting. While that’s likely what he was doing when I sketched him, it would have made for a better composition to have him walking into the painting and toward the fire. Another similar detail is the firefighter descending the ladder (Ellen thought he was ascending with some very strange arm and leg angles). Again, he was actually descending as I sketched, but a much more interesting painting would have had him moving toward the fire. As it is, two of my three firefighters near the fire are moving away from it—not how you want to portray firefighters!

This happened about 4 months ago, and the residents and businesses in this building are still displaced while the building is being cleaned up and renovated. I’m not sure how I feel about portraying a serious event like this (thankfully no one was hurt!) in my slightly whimsical style. The juxtaposition of my style with the seriousness of a fire leaves me feeling curious about this issue. I’d love to hear what others think about it.

Painting Newcastle

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I’ve been doing a lot of consulting work lately—more than I’d like. My official arrangement is to consult about 20 hours per week, but lately it’s turned into 40, 60, and even 80 hour weeks. The downside of this, of course, is the lack of time to do other things (like painting… and blogging about painting!). The upside is that when I don’t actually have to work on Saturday, it feels like a vacation day. Whee!

So, on a recent Saturday “off,” instead of digging into housework, I hopped on my bike and rode 10 minutes out to Newcastle. Newcastle is a beautiful little island with one main road running around it. There’s a cozy beach, plenty of colonial-era houses, a coast guard station complete with a lighthouse, and a small downtown stretch. Downtown consists of an old New England meetinghouse, a post office, and a little coffee shop/deli called Henrys’ Market (don’t ask about the odd placement of the apostrophe – I still haven’t figured it out). And that’s where I plunked myself down with a latte.

Henrys Market

Across the street is the Newcastle Meeting House, the subject of my painting.

Meeting House

I set up my kit in the shade and got down to the serious business of observing and sketching. What a fun subject this was! At first I was daunted by the porch structure—lots of perspective that could go seriously wrong. But I took my time and tried not to be too exacting as I sketched. As always, I first sketched with pencil and then pen (thin-point Sharpie). Someday I’d like to try using pen right from the beginning. I’ve heard it helps you loosen up, but I fear it would do the opposite for me.

I really like how the painting turned out (Ellen says it conveys way more of the “quaint-factor” than the photo, which is cool since that’s the true feel of the space):

Newcastle Meeting House

I especially like the play of light throughout the painting—the shadows on the building, the light on the pavement, and how the shadows and light set off the woman and her dog and give the impression of a bright sunny morning. I also like how the flower pots and window boxes turned out. The yellow house in the background and the blue sky poking through the tree make me smile. The hose does, too.

I’ve read that less is better in painting and sketching—that the eye likes to fill in gaps more than it likes everything spelled out for it. I tried this out with the siding lines on the house, and I think it worked out well.

I like my paintings that have people in them much better than those that don’t. So while I was painting, I kept my camera at the ready to capture good potential subjects.

Newcastle Collage

I was nearly finished with the sketch when I remembered that I had wanted to include a person or two. I chose the older woman and her dog. In the picture she’s walking away from me, but I remembered some advice from a fellow artist blogger (Ruth Bailey) that I should be mindful of whether people are walking into or out of the painting (which has an impact on where the eye goes as it takes in the painting). So I turned her around and painted her entering the scene from the left. The spot where I placed her is the only spot where she fit (since the rest of the sketch was complete), but I think it turned out being quite a lovely spot for her.

The only part of the painting that gives me pause is the large tree. I like the trunk and the branches, and I also like the variation between lighted and shadowed leaves. But I think the foliage overall is a little too sparse and not “big” enough for the size of the tree trunk. (Ellen says she sees what I mean when I point it out, but that didn’t occur to her eye at all.)

I’ve decided to create a series of note cards using my paintings of local sights. As I type, this painting is being scanned and color-corrected by a local printer that works with artists. I have a quote from Sir Speedy (whom the local printer says is well-calibrated with his color settings) to do up a batch of note cards using three paintings of Portsmouth (and now Newcastle) that I’ve done so far. My plan is to market the note cards to a few shops in downtown Portsmouth. I’ll blog later on how that process goes…

I’ve gone back to this page of my sketchbook numerous times since I did the painting. One thing I notice about painting is that each piece of work has within it the power to bring you back to that moment. It’s as if the energy of the place is somehow captured on the paper. Not just that, though… simply looking at it brings me back to that particular place in time. I find that in losing myself in the moment, I actually end up finding a more real sense of myself and my surroundings that persists long after the moment is gone.

My Kit

“The City”

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Not being from The City myself, I’ve always found this moniker for New York City a little annoying. But I do have to say, if there’s a city in the U.S. that deserves to trump all other cities, NYC has more justification than most. I visited NYC recently for a short business trip. I was delighted to find that my hotel room had an unobstructed view of the Empire State building. I had hoped to see something like this:

kingkong-old

Alas, my view was void of giant gorilla and swarming biplanes. But nonetheless, I was tickled pink to have such an iconic image welcoming me to my day each morning. So, the last morning I was there, before packing up to catch my flight, I sat down at the window and sketched.

But FIRST, I reviewed my painting checklist. I made sure to draw a border first, and I paid close attention to the composition, perspective, and lighting. My planning put the Empire State building at the left “third” line and the rest of the skyline at the bottom “third” line. I did all of the sketching on site, and then added paint in my studio back in Portsmouth.

The City Painting

Overall I was pleased by how the painting turned out. There’s much about it that “works.” I like how the shadow sides of buildings turned out, the Empire State Building is recognizable as such, I like the dark grey building in the foreground, and I like the effect of the background skyline—somewhat obscured by haziness. I also think the perspective lines turned out good, for the most part, but the upper reaches of the Empire State Building feel a little off to me—they’re offset a bit to the right.

My first attempt at the sky turned out to be quite upsetting. I seem to be stuck on ultramarine blue for sky color—any suggestions for how to change that up a bit?—so it looked more like a giant smurf lurking in the background than a sky (queue imagination: Giant Smurf perched on top of Empire State Building swatting at biplanes). After it dried, I re-wetted it and moved some of the paint around, blotting periodically. I think the end result is surprisingly one of my better skies. That’s proof positive that you can fix watercolor mistakes.

I tried to be looser in painting the buildings, beginning with yellow ochre to lay a base of sunlit stone. I used a combination of ultramarine blue and burnt umber for the shadow sides. After everything had dried, I painted two washes of ultramarine/burnt umber over the whole painting to give it a dingier look and feel. I’m pretty happy with how believable the colors are.

“What is that strange structure on top of the brick building at the bottom of the painting?” you  ask. It’s a billboard… facing away from me. That’s what I saw, so that’s what I painted. This is one of those perfect moments of 20/20 hindsight. Of course I should have turned the billboard around and painted some colorful splash of advertisement (a Coke bottle?). Darn. It would have added color and interest to the painting. And this is where practice, practice, practice comes in. I just didn’t think about it. In the moment, as I’m painting, I need to remember that I can take artistic license—I don’t have to paint exactly what I see.

Regrets about the billboard aside, once again taking the time to stop and paint grounded me in that unique moment and place. As I left my hotel I was more present, taking in the sights and smells. My hotel was in Chelsea’s flower district, and I reveled in summer flowers before the daffodils had even broken through back home. So much to take in when you visit The City…

ChelseaFlowers

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