22 March 2015

Teen Summer Reading Club

Every year, my colleague Anarda and I struggle with the theme and artwork for our teen summer reading program at the library. The kids' programs are easy--hire a magician, a clown, a puppeteer, put their pictures on the flyer, and 200 kids (and their parents) show up. It's different when it comes to teens. You have to find something that's cool without being niche, or you have to take something that's not cool and make it cool somehow. And doing this as two women in our 50s? Yeah, it's a challenge. Some years, the themes provided by the state library or the American Library Association are good. But usually we think they're lame, and go our own way. Last year we did science fiction (Set Forth! New Worlds Await You…), which was a flexible and inclusive theme, and got pretty good results. But we shot ourselves in the foot (feet?) because this year's provided theme is superheroes, and we already included them as part of our sci fi extravaganza last year, so we were stuck--we had to come up with something on our own. So, we did what young adult librarians are supposed to do--we asked the teens.

We did a focus group and ran some ideas by teens of various ages. They seemed to like our ideas (in a rather tepid manner), but then I said the magic words: "It would be kind of like a meetup." Apparently, in teen world, meetups are cool, meetups are sophisticated, meetups are now where it's at. It's all about the lingo. So we promptly adopted this thinking and made our theme "Teen Meetup in the Burb." (We work for the Burbank Public Library.)

Wanting to stick with a casual, spontaneous feel, like actual meetups, I decided that I would draw the illustrations to go on the flyers. We are going to have a weekly "Book Cafe," at which the kids bring the books they're reading, book-talk them, have coffeehouse-type refreshments, and hang out; we're doing a makerspace meetup, meetups for movies, two writing workshops, a meetup in the park with a band, a sketch crawl meetup…and as our finale, Open Mic Night and Karaoke.

So of course the minute I decided to illustrate all of these activities, I froze and couldn't think of any ideas, and when I did, I couldn't execute them the way I wanted them. I was pretty happy with my movie marquee, but Anarda says my cafe chairs are too girly (and I noticed that the perspective on the left-hand chair is pretty wonky), and the sketch I did today (the mug with the books) was overworked into a completely different style, with little spontaneous pen detail showing.

Sigh. I think I might have to take a day off work and just power through a bunch more of these until I get it right. Or maybe two days…?

01 March 2015


I started this painting of a scene from France at Keiko Tanabe's workshop with a plan to paint it in the style we were attempting to learn there. Five hours of work later, I realize that I did not succeed in that goal, and that in fact I could not succeed because I still don't have an understanding of how to paint like that. I understand the theory; but in practice? I'm still painting like me.

In this one, that nearly defeated me, because the amount of itsy, confusing detail in this reference photo is overwhelming. Keiko would have determined the salient details, simplified vastly, and produced a masterful work that completely resembled this scene without literally being this scene. I didn't do that. I drew everything. I got halfway through this painting and put it aside for a few days, and I almost decided not to finish it because I couldn't face all that. (I don't know how people like John Salminen plan out and work on a painting for 40 hours straight, reveling in the placement of beautiful minutiae--that's definitely not me either!)

Parthenay: 12x16, watercolor

I'm not saying it's a bad thing that I paint like me, or that this is a bad painting. It does have its problems: I forgot about saving all the whites I wanted to keep. I didn't decide soon enough where my light source was coming from (the photo was taken on a cloudy day that produced few shadows or clues), so there are some awkward results here and there when I remembered or forgot to think about that. I definitely need practice painting foliage that looks realistic! And I am apparently an absolute literalist when it comes to color. For the life of me, I can't look at a picture, as Keiko does, and see tone and value. What appeals to me about a reference photo or a scene is its colors!

Given all that, what is the purpose, then, of taking a workshop such as Keiko's, if you don't really learn to do what she does? Or if you discover you have no affinity for it, or, worse, that you have the affinity but not the ability? As I found out while making this painting, it can be discouraging, or it can be revelatory. (Or, in this case, both.) What this painting revealed to me is that yes, I can make this kind of painting adequately, or even fairly well, but also that I have a long way to go.

I'm not saying that I want to learn to slavishly copy the style of someone else because I admire their work; but my admiration of their work has made me understand that my own body of work is so small that I haven't had the time to work out the kinks. I don't yet know all that I can do, because I haven't done it. When I said to Keiko at the workshop, after my notable failure to produce a believable drawing of a car out of my head, that I would have to take my sketchbook to work with me so I could sit in the parking lot on my lunch hour and draw cars until you could tell a Prius from a Jeep, she absently remarked, "Yes, at one point I realized I did not like painting water and it was because I didn't know how to do it, so I painted only water for six months." That would be six months of daily paintings.

It would be easy for me to say, Yes, but I work a full-time job, so I can't do that. The truth is, though, that you do what matters. Last night, for instance, I had the choice between watching TV or finishing my painting, and I chose to finish the painting. I could make that choice every night, and have, perhaps not a daily painting, but certainly a lot more than I am accomplishing now on the weekends, when I am done running errands or reading a novel. I make the excuse (about reading, and television, and putzing around in shops) that I need to recuperate from the week that's past and gear up for the week to come, but you have to ask the question: What is better for one's psyche than doing something creative? The more you do, the better you get; the better you get, the more fun you have. So there is a mountain range I need to climb, and the first few slopes are called reluctance, lethargy, and fear, but the peaks are wonder, delight, expression, fulfillment. Time to do a little more hiking.

23 February 2015

Last day with Keiko, part 2

Keiko Tanabe is all about the value sketch. She says of herself that she is primarily tonal, not a colorist. Since she wants us to focus on our "plan" for painting a picture, she advocates taking away the color and doing a small value sketch, with either a dry medium (pencil, charcoal) or with one color paint (she uses neutral tint) so we can see clearly where our lightest lights to darkest darks will go. You can use most any color to do a value sketch, but using a darker one (gray, purple, blue) is smartest, of course.

So--I brought in my 12x16-inch drawing of this scene from Parthenay (which I made at 6 a.m. before class!), all ready to paint, and after approving the drawing she fatefully said, "But you're going to do a value sketch first, right?" What could I say? (No? gulp...) So I spent most of the morning on my sketch (which is about 6x9) and then on refining my full-size drawing further. Here is the sketch, and I'm not sure I learned that much from it, but I'll keep doing one before I paint for a while and see if it really does improve my paintings. I do know that planning ahead instead of jumping right in can help; but I'm so impatient with the drawing and so in love with color…

Next I put in a first wash of everything that was blue or gray, and everything that could have blue or gray as a first wash under it because it would be darker than that.

That's all I got done at the last day of the workshop. I will continue to work on this scene at home (already put in two more hours today!) and will post it when it's finished, good or bad.

I have a feeling that this painting will turn out looking more like one of mine than one of Keiko's--it's so intricate and full of details that it will be hard for me to do something quick and loose like she does--but that's okay. I'll try another one in her style soon.

She commented to me when she saw the reference photo that she had painted this scene en plein air while in Chiche (France, at Bandouille, where I went in 2013)--I'd really like to see her rendition (but perhaps not until after I have finished my painstaking and exceedingly slow version, so as not to get too discouraged!).

Last day with Keiko, part 1

On our last day, we had a special request from one student for Keiko to show us how she does a "wet" scene--i.e., a street scene shiny with rain, that shows all the reflections. She used a portion of the same photo from which we worked the day before, but greatly simplified it and moved the vanishing point way up the page, so that there was a huge street area. It looked a little odd when sketched out, because of that vast empty space, but all became clear once she painted it--you need all that empty space to accommodate some nice dramatic reflections!

Here is her planning thumbnail:

Here is Keiko, working on the demo. In this first picture, you can see her palette, and how small it is! Although she knows when and where to put in a pop of color, it is calculated. Mostly, she mixes her own colors from a palette of about six: Burnt umber, burnt sienna, ultramarine, cobalt turquoise, cadmium orange, and a yellow (don't know what) were the only colors she used this weekend, plus neutral tint, and her go-to mixes seem to be variations on purple and blue, those colors that can easily go pale or dark. She says that she is a painter of light and shadow, not of color.

This is how we see what she is doing--with a mirror positioned above her. I found it a little disconcerting, since everything she did was backwards in the mirror, and then when I went to do my own, I had the image reversed in my head and had to really focus to get it back to where it belonged!

And here is the finished painting, which took about 40 minutes (not including the drawing, which she had already prepared).

After lunch, Keiko did one last demo for us, including a favorite scene of hers, which is some variation of a cafe scene with umbrellas. She gave us all photographs of this one so we could paint our own later if we liked, and then proceeded to show us how greatly she simplifies the scene and re-crafts it to fit her purposes. She liked the building and the street, but wanted the cafe in place of all the fussy-looking detail in front of the shops on the right, so she just put one there! This entire painting was done, from drawing through final shadows, in 50 minutes.

I can certainly see the advantage of learning and developing the speed and the discriminating eye of Keiko Tanabe! If you do a great job, you have a fantastic painting in an hour; if you mess it up, you've only spent an hour on it and still have time for another! I'm not there (and may never be), but it's something to think about. I love her results. This was a great workshop.

22 February 2015

Proposed for today

Here are my two choices for today--we'll see how it goes! Both taken by me, from my trip to France, one from a village and one from the tour bus in Paris (that's what I like about it--the angle).

21 February 2015

Day Two: Keiko Tanabe

This morning, Keiko started with a demo of a watercolor value sketch, of what I considered to be a fairly mundane street scene. She painted it all in Neutral Tint to show us how to simplify our picture into three, or at most five levels of value, from lightest light (white of the page) to darkest dark. I thought I understood value, but this was an eye-opening demo, especially as regards color and also watercolor as a medium. She put in a light wash, and then jumped in with something so dark I thought Oh, that's a mistake! But then it dried, and she went darker still and the one I thought was too dark became a light-medium element in the picture! It was a good lesson in getting rid of the color so you can really see what you're doing. Here is the photo:

I thought I had a photo of the value sketch, but I missed that one--I'll add it later if I can get a photo tomorrow.

Then she put up an easel so we could all see her, and we did this under-drawing together step by step, so she could walk us through it. Again, I think of myself as fairly adept at drawing, but doing a street scene like this is an exercise in perspective, and mine is woefully inadequate! So the walk-through was really useful--we found the horizon line, then we found the vanishing point, and then everything was directed towards that. She showed us how to anchor our cars to the ground by starting with the tires and placing them properly on the road, then drawing a box for the approximate size of the car and refining from there. Cars are surprisingly difficult! I think my exercise for the next few weeks is to go sit in the parking lot of the library on my lunch hour and draw them from every angle until you can distinguish in my drawings a Prius from an SUV from a Fiat. Size and scale is particularly difficult to calculate, but Keiko also showed us how to know how big to make things--if they are on the same plane, they are the same size, but if they are forward or backward in the photo, then they increase or decrease accordingly. Sounds simple. It's not. And knowing how big to make people is similarly challenging.

After the drawing, we went back to the demo station, and she painted the first wash. Her audacity when painting is truly amazing--she put in the light sky and road, and then jumped in behind the main elements with something I would have considered about five shades too dark. Then she started on the buildings and again I was blown away by the speed and confidence with which she does everything. Here is the first wash:

Then some of us went to lunch. There are always those die-hard students who skip lunch or down a quick sandwich while madly painting, but I personally need a break from all the stimulation!

After lunch, Keiko finished the painting in about 40 minutes while we watched, and then we went back to our desks and attempted our own versions. Here is hers:

You can see how much she alters from the original photo--she places the cars differently, she adds people for interest, plus the guy on the bicycle and the flags flying from the building on the right, and what seemed like a snapshot of a not-very-remarkable city scene suddenly became something special!

I have to say that I have never worked as hard and been less satisfied with my results. The cars look like toys, the people are weird-looking, the buildings are overworked and have little of the light-and-dark pizzazz of Keiko's--finesse is missing. But I am proud of myself for putting in the time on this (three hours at the workshop and another hour when I got home!), and I know that if I just do this about 300 times more, I will have something I'm really pleased to show! For now…here's my best effort:

Tomorrow is the last day, and we are choosing our own pictures from which to paint. Hmmm. What to do, what to do. You'll see tomorrow night…

20 February 2015

Weekend workshop

I once met a woman who had just moved to Los Angeles and who was puzzled by something: She said, "Every time I ask someone how far it is from A to B, instead of telling me 'It's 15 miles,' they say 'Oh, it will take you about 45 minutes.' Why does everyone give travel in time instead of distance?" Well, you have to live here to get it.

I'm taking a watercolor workshop this weekend with the awesome Keiko Tanabe, and it's in Westminster, which is somewhere inland a bit from Long Beach. I'm a little vague on the exact locale because when you are driving from Van Nuys to Westminster on a weekday, you don't just jump on the 405 (like I plan on doing for Saturday's and Sunday's sessions), you have to plot out the route that will take the least amount of time in traffic, regardless of the mileage. My route this morning involved six freeways, and it took me just about two hours. Tomorrow it will take an hour and 10, maybe. That's the reality of driving in L.A.

But, it's all worth it to study with Keiko. What a mastery she has of light, water, tone, and pigment! What a pleasure it is to watch her work! One of my co-workshoppers compared her method to that of a hummingbird--she moves swiftly, her brush jumps between wells of color, grabbing and mixing just the right ones to get what she wants, and she flits back and forth across the page, letting her attention move organically as it sees the next thing and the next and the next…

It's also a bit intimidating, for that very reason. This is a person who has been painting for little more than a decade, which is exactly how long I have been painting--but this is a person who paints every single day of the year. And she doesn't mess around--she teaches, from what I can see, about 45 out of 52 weeks a year, and paints two demo paintings per day at each of those workshops! (in addition to painting for herself--i.e., for shows and clients--during her "down time"). She travels all over the world--Europe, Japan, Mexico, China--which sounds amazing until you realize that she sometimes teaches a week-long workshop, gets on a plane, spends that day getting from one place to another, and teaches for another week starting the next. I don't know how she does it. The jet lag would kill me.

So today, she painted one painting between 9:30 and 10:30, and then we attempted to imitate it until lunch; then she painted a second painting, which we were also supposed to accomplish today. I spent the afternoon finishing the morning painting, as did three quarters of the class, so now we have homework--to draw the second painting in preparation--because tomorrow we will have two new demos! Wow. So much for my DVR!

Here is a photo of her painting from which we worked:

And here is my pale imitation:

It's not a horrible painting…but I see so many flaws. I utterly failed to save whites in the ocean, my washes are choppy and brushy, I had to give up and turn the parked cars on the right into shrubbery, and my tones and values are all over the place. I found it frustrating and unsatisfactory, but by the end, I was just pleased to finish something!

Here is the photo from which we are working for painting #2:

And here is her value sketch and her demo painting:

I came to a realization today as I watched Keiko work and listened to the questions, comments, and issues of the others around me: I can still learn a lot from anyone with whom I study; but ultimately it's not about watching what they do and imitating it, or using the exact color mixes and brands of brushes and paper (and parenthetically, I'm so tired of those who go to workshops and ask incessantly, "Now, what did you mix there?" Knowing what color she used won't make you able to paint like her!). It's about practice. Practice, practice, practice. At some point, you find your style, and you go with it, and then you practice it until you are the best you can be at whatever style that is.

I'm not ready to give up studying with others yet, but the realization here is that unless I am willing to commit to painting on a regular, consistent, repetitive basis, I'm never going to have the mastery I so admire in people like Keiko!

I'm off to make my drawing…