Ellen and I took an ill-fated vacation to Cancun in February 2011. “Mexican sun in February,” we thought. “What could be better than that??” Perhaps had it only been Mexican sun that we were in for, that would have been an appropriate expectation. But there was one other major factor –- Cancun in FEBRUARY. It’s been so long since either of us had a spring break that we didn’t really register that February was peak season for spring breakers, and Cancun is a major destination for college revelers (as of course EVERYONE knows).

I started off the trip, as Stecher suggests, by quickly getting my first sketch on paper. The sketch above was done on the plane on the way to Cancun.

We spent the first day snoozing on the overcrowded beach (had to go out at 7am and claim our chairs with a towel). I didn’t want to wait too long for a sketch, so I straddled my lounge chair and painted the beach scene:

Ellen likes my little people. It’s funny, when I sketch a little person it’s all quite loose. I have a rough idea of the stance I want the little person to be in, but then it kind of emerges as I let my hand go. I try to get my brain out of it, and that tension between brain and looseness makes sketching little people slightly anxiety provoking. I wonder if the anxiety will go away as I sketch more?

We were offered an “oh-my-gosh-it’s-so-fun-you’ll-have-a-blast” free boat tour that boasted a full day consisting of  snorkeling, a visit to ruins, and hanging out on a small island for a few hours (where they rent out golf carts to tour the island). Ellen protested vehemently, but I insisted that this would be a great way to kill three birds with one stone (actually, they had me at “golf carts”). I don’t know how many times we’ve told ourselves that we wouldn’t do any more organized tourist excursions, but I won the argument and we went. I wish Ellen had won that particular battle — it was terrible. The group was dominated by a particularly vocal Russian woman chaperoning a small herd of college seniors on their last spring break. I swear they looked (and acted) like they were in middle school. They climbed all over the ruins and were constantly yelling to each other. Here they are looking relatively peaceful, except for the herd-leader in the foreground (green bathing suit), arms flailing wildly as she vies for the attention of the girls and everyone else on the boat.

I used watercolor pencils for this sketch. I was able to add a lot of random (but contained) color to the background, and I like how it ended up giving the impression of a distant town. I don’t think watercolor pencils work too well with the sky (or maybe there’s a technique I haven’t figured out, yet).

On the 2-hour boat ride back from the island, the boat crew all dressed as super heroes (yes, I said super heroes) and put on a frat-like party on the lower level with pounding dance music while the “losers” (their words) hung out on the top deck. Wow.

Our journey (and associated tribulations) is documented in this sketch. From top to bottom (on the right side) the captions are:

  • Sightseeing for 2 hours on Isla Mujeres (in the golf cart!)
  • Ellen wrapped in towel (very cold)
  • Utter chaos (snorkeling in large group–no fun!)
  • Crazy Woman “Look at me! Look at me!” (climbing all over the ancient El Meco ruins)
  • David pulling beating heart out of crazy woman on Meco sacrificial altar (my fantasy)

Back at the resort Ellen and I spent the rest of the week in the quietest corner we could find, which conveniently was near the sushi-shack (but unfortunately wasn’t all that quiet). Did I mention that it was an all-inclusive resort? There’s something quite magical about an all-inclusive where your biggest choices are between swimming, napping, reading, or eating.

This became quite a common view — people watching while trying new versions of sushi. (BTW, that’s not meant to be Ellen and me in the sketch — it’s the “people” in  people-watching).

I tried to find a few other scenes to paint within the resort:

What was great about the building was the dark shadows on the salmon stucco (because certainly the architecture at our resort was uninspiring, and believe me, this was the best I could find). Unfortunately I didn’t get around to adding the shadows. I ran out of time (or daylight, perhaps?) and never got around to finishing it.

In addition to my sketchbook paintings, I tried my hand at a few other paintings. I had printed out some photos that I took while in the Netherlands, and I wanted to paint one of them. I found a quiet corner in the lobby one of the mornings and worked on this one.

Below is the photo. I like the perspective in my sketch (for the most part), but I had a difficult time matching the colors. Let’s call it artistic interpretation.

Deciding to paint in the lobby rather than hang out by the pool or beach was a tough choice. I have this idea when I’m in a sunny, beachy place that I’m wasting my time by not taking full advantage of the sun and water. But I’m not really a full-sun kind of guy, and lounging in the sun all day makes me restless and red. I’ve slowly gotten better at tuning in to what I want to do rather than automatically doing what I think I should be doing.

I also spent a few hours trying to capture different kinds of Caribbean sky (as a storm was rolling in) as well as waves. Waves are hard. To get the surf part you have to leave white on the paper, which means you have to view the surf as a negative image. I find this one of the more challenging skills required in watercolor — to get something to emerge by painting around what you’re trying to paint, and I’m amazed when I see a watercolor painting that makes good use of negative space (like a snow scene).

There are those little people again.

Our Cancun vacation left us with many colorful and memorable moments. I don’t think we’ll return any time soon (read: ever), but I’m glad to have experienced it. And let’s keep things in perspective — the alternative was New Hampshire in dark, slushy February.