17 June 2018


Yesterday, after a fairly painful visit to the chiropractor (it was a taxing week), I couldn't face cooking breakfast so I stopped at Brent's Deli for an omelette and their excellent hash browns. (Why do so few cooks know how to get hash browns well done and crispy without burning them? Brent's has the secret.) While I waited for my breakfast, I decided to do a drawing of my cup and saucer. I've been working for the past 15 days (when I painted, which was about 10 of those) direct to watercolor with no drawing, but I was self-conscious to just whip out my paintbox and demand a cup for water, plus when it's a busy Saturday morning, you don't want the evil looks from people waiting for your table and wondering why you're sitting there painting instead of eating (and leaving)! So I got out the sketchbook and my Micron pen and made a contour drawing.

I realized, on the way home, as I was reciting to myself "Don't forget the highlights on the rim and in the coffee, and be sure to put in the shadow cast by the cup into the saucer" that my age has caught up with me—someone 15 years younger would have thought immediately of snapping a photo with their cell phone to get those details for later, while I tend to completely forget I have that option. So I was doomed to painting from memory (which also isn't the greatest, the older you get, ironically!).

I looked at the contour and thought, "Maybe I should try painting this on another page, without the drawing, so it fits with the 30x30 challenge," so that's what I did first. I wanted it to be a real Liz Steel partly-there-and-partly-not masterpiece, but didn't come close to accomplishing that. There were some parts I liked and some parts that were total fail (such as the misshapen saucer!), and many parts that I'm sure could have been better, had I had that reference photo on hand!

Afterwards, I went ahead and painted the contour drawing version too, just so I could see the differences. I made some slightly different color choices for shadows etc. There are parts I like better about each, and of course I am not satisfied with either one! But it was an interesting experiment. I find that I do like delineating edges and shadows without benefit of drawn lines, but I also like the quirkiness and personality that the contour line brings. I guess I'll keep working in both modes and see what shakes out!

12 June 2018

Elderly vegetables

Well, the most you could say for today is, "I painted." I got home early due to an afternoon doctor's appointment and thought, Okay, I'm days behind, let's do a couple of easy subjects to catch up a little, while it's still light out. So I pulled these tomatoes out of the fridge, and then I found the onion sprouting away in my cupboard (I haven't been home much), and set them up on the patio table.

The tomatoes weren't really that elderly, but by the time I got done messing up by slopping red over most of the green, they looked more tired than they were, with brown stems instead of olive green. The first one (on the right) is pretty true to life, but I somehow managed to paint the green tops too far away from one another, and trying to maintain the relationship between them (touching and partly blocking) meant that the second tomato inadvertently grew to the size of a misshapen mango. Oh, well. One of the issues with no preliminary drawing (and lack of good observation, it must be said).

I was happier with the onion—I managed to keep some of the colors fresh, and get a little bit of that papery feel of the skin as it comes off. But all in all, not my best work. So..."I painted."


Just to prove that I CAN paint a decent tomato, here's an old picture, "Caliente Cowboy" (done with pen, of course).

07 June 2018


I think I had a little bit of a breakthrough today, though I'm not sure it's something I will pursue beyond this month of painting. The thing I discovered is that when you paint directly, instead of making a drawing first—whether pencil or contour—watercolor can become more like other paints. I don't know that this is "right"—after all, when using watercolor, you still want it to be transparent and have that quality you can't achieve with acrylics or oils. But in today's exercise, at least, I almost felt like I was back with acrylic.

The fun part of it is to SEE and then PAINT what you see, rather than seeing the outline you put down on paper and filling it in. I think it sparked recognition from the old acrylic days because, even though you put a base drawing on a canvas, with acrylic (because it is opaque) you have to let go of your drawing pretty quickly and see the paint instead. With watercolor, you can (if you wish) see your drawing until the very end.

Today, I tried some mixing right on the page, instead of doing it all ahead of time—introducing pure colors into other pure colors and letting them mix spontaneously. In some cases, it was also messily, and in several areas it was overworked, but it's something I haven't done much before. It was most successful in the places (top of vinegar bottle) where I did something quickly and surely and then left it alone. I went back into the olive oil bottle about three times too many.

I'm also enjoying the idea of painting with absence—letting the background define the foreground, so to speak. I started this painting with the bottoms of these two bottles, outlining the top half of the garlic, and worked outward from bottom center. When I do a "regular" picture, I usually start tidily at the top and proceed to the bottom, so that's another change. Of course, because I did that, I misestimated sizes and heights and ran out of room for the top of the olive oil bottle, but...oh well.

 I think maybe the bottom line is this, and maybe this is what Marc is trying to get us to see: When I do a contour drawing and then paint afterward, I'm never sure that I'm actually a painter. Sure, I'm focused on things like shapes and shadows, but it's all within an outline, and a little voice in my head is screaming either "illustrator" or "sketcher," not "painter." And many people out there echo that idea—a "real" painter works in oil, right? But this month. I'm definitely a painter!

06 June 2018

Art Therapy

I had a really bad day at work. When I left at 6:15 and got in the car, I thought to myself, okay, this could go two ways:
  1. You go home, eat a box of cookies, and fall into a coma in front of the television;
  2. You find a way to work this mood off.
For once, I was smart and chose #2. So instead of coming home, I drove to the VNSO pool, changed into my suit, and did 40 minutes of water aerobics, which helped with both my temper and my knees. Then I stopped and picked up dinner, because even though I was working on being positive, coming home and cooking at that point was out of the question; and after dinner, instead of turning on the TV, I decided to paint.

I missed last night's painting, so I wanted to do something a little bit challenging. I liked one of Marc Taro Holmes's examples of direct-to-watercolor, which was painting the negative space around the object to make it pop on the page. So for my reference photo, I chose a subject that was mostly white, and painted the entire negative space around the outside first, before going in and filling in the few details that needed defining.

I'm pretty happy with it; some of the outline is wonky, and that back ear is a little too small. But for half an hour's work, I feel like I captured a likeness that would be recognizable to those who know, and also achieved my other objective, which was to focus so intently on this project that I didn't think about anything else for the length of time it took me to accomplish it.

And now, I'm going to go snuggle with my semi-feral cat Orwen and give her lots of love. I finally (after almost three weeks of evasion) managed to catch her tonight at dinner (she stepped too close to me for one fateful moment) and locked her in her (capacious and comfortable) cage preparatory to going to the vet tomorrow. It will be either a bandage change or a status change; either way, she needs some serious attention.

This picture is of another adoptee, my friend Susan's dog Mouse, alias Mow, alias Mischka. Her dogs, like my cats, are beloved.

05 June 2018

Day four: Least effort, most compliments

What with working full-time and commuting, there are going to be days when minimum effort will be expended on the daily painting. I arrived home at 7:55 p.m. and thought, "Oh yeah, I still need to paint today." I was about to embark on a whole process, but instead, I just reacted to the moment. My paints were already set up out on the patio from the weekend, but the light was rapidly dying out of the sky. Rather than going for the process of moving my kit indoors and indecisively pondering photo references for half an hour, I grabbed a jug of maple syrup off the kitchen counter, set it down on the patio table, and started painting at 8:00 with a very wet moppy brush. I didn't stop regardless of runniness and bleediness, and finished at 8:13, almost in the dark.

I looked at it and thought, Well, the best you can say is, it is discernibly a glass jug. Then I wondered, CAN you say that?

I hope to get home earlier and do better tomorrow. I could have done better tonight, but I wanted to eat my dinner and read my brand-new book, and I also needed to study my ballot for voting tomorrow. So I overcame my embarrassment at this messy, inadequate effort, and posted it on the 30x30 site.

Thereafter followed an amazing number and array of complimentary comments from people remarking on the capture of the transparency of the glass, the wonderful looseness, and other various "amazing" qualities. Who knew that being slapdash could pay off in Facebook love? Perhaps people were just being kind, but it was nice to get such a reaction. Guess I'll have to try this again.

03 June 2018

Day Three: A real challenge

Today I did in paint what I have been hesitant to do in pencil or pen. I have a project I'm doing for the library (an example map for our teen map-making workshops later this summer) that is going to incorporate a small (3-inches high, max) sketch of Notre Dame de Paris. So on my patio table, I have a bunch of pictures of the cathedral lying around. Today, after I woke up and breakfasted, I thought, What shall I paint for today's 30x30? and the picture was sitting there staring up at me....

No. No way. Can't do that without a pen! But it's all about challenge, so I decided to try. I painted an outline and blocked in a pale base color first, and then I went back in, first with a straight brown for the lighter darks, and then with a combination of Umber and Jackson Blue for the darks, mixing that lighter and thinner to use also for the shadows. The real cathedral, now that I look back at the photo, is more gray stone than it is cream, but I'll ask you to picture it as standing in the sunset and picking up some warmer tones from that!

It took me a really long time (a couple of hours), but I'm actually quite pleased with the result. I even threw in some little people, for scale, remembering what Jim Richards says about the eye perceiving what it believes to be there and not getting all crazy about correct shapes and petty issues like feet!

Maybe I will try some other ambitious things this month, instead of opting for the simplest still life I can concoct!


02 June 2018

The Challenge, Days One and Two

Foolishly or not, I took up the 30x30 direct watercolor challenge, and so far I am two for two. We will see how long it lasts amidst teen summer reading, which starts a week from Monday.

Anarda and I spent two hours yesterday afternoon covering our book covers and folding our signatures to create some sample travel journals for our teen workshop how-to. We need another two hours to do the coptic stitching that puts the book together. Yesterday was a good exercise: It let us know a few things (like we were right to schedule TWO sessions to complete these books) and, because we immediately did everything wrong, we could make notes to tell the kids what not to do! Next week we will practice our coptic stitching to complete our books, and then probably make two more, just to be sure we have it down and also to serve as different examples. I'll post some pictures here when I remember to take some.

Anyway, back to the challenge. Day one, I decided to do a familiar illustration for me—a book cover. But without the ability to draw first, I decided that I couldn't very well do the fiddly little lettering, so I just did the tags and made an illustration out of the front cover. Then I went on the 30x30 Facebook page and saw a couple of people who HAD done fiddly little lettering, so next time I will have to step it up! Here is my direct-to-watercolor (no pre-drawing) painting of Jonathan Stroud's book The Hollow Boy, the third in the delightfully spooky Lockwood & Co. series.

Here is the actual book cover, for comparison:

Today I wondered what to paint. While on Facebook, I saw a post of beautiful photographs taken by a friend who is on the Italian coast right now, one of which was an artistic triple stack of boxes filled with beautiful lemons, at the local farmer's market. I saved the photo, but then decided I didn't have the time, the will, or the patience to paint ALL those lemons, so instead I got out my favorite little cobalt blue bowl, went out to my own lemon tree, and filled the bowl with lemons! (There are decided benefits to living in Southern California.)

This painting took me an hour, while drawing it first might have added 30 minutes to that. But it definitely would have been better if I had had a drawing to go from. I was made so uncomfortable in the way that I had to do this painting: Normally, with a pencil sketch, I would get the shape of the bowl down first, because that is the hardest part—anything that is smooth and regular in shape is much harder to replicate than something with curves and angles that you can exaggerate or leave out without anyone knowing you have done so! But in doing this direct to watercolor, I had to paint the leaves and then the lemons first, because they are in the foreground and are also the lightest colors. That meant I had to look so carefully at the lemons to see how they were cut off by the curve of the bowl; and then once the lemons were in, I had to go put in the curve of the bowl and likewise get that right! It took a couple of reworkings, but it's fairly regular. Not quite as tall as my bowl, and also a bit narrower, but it looks convincingly like a bowl.

I am also used to being able to put in darks using a pen, which I didn't do here, so the color variance isn't as great as something that would have been drawn with a pen first.

Finally, try painting very close to a pale yellow object using cobalt and ultramarine! Any dampness means you have a green color mix. I had to blot off and start over in a few places, some of which are detectable.

Anyway, here is my bowl of lemons. I'm definitely learning from this process; whether I will be making any good art as well remains to be seen!