At cliff edge with a sketchbook

Bean Hollow
Looking out over Bean Hollow State Beach.

Yesterday while plein air painting on the cliff overlooking Bean Hollow State Beach, I watched legions of families troop down to the pebbly beach. Every so often kids would stop and politely ask if they might look at my painting; My goodness, yes!

A small boy sat at the edge of the cliff next to me, a packet of colored pens and a sketchbook in hand.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “I think this will do nicely.” And he opened his sketchbook, ready to draw.

But those cliffs are slippery; it’s best to be careful on the California coast. Absorbed in the view, the little boy leaned forward, and in a scraping of dust and sand he slid down the cliff to the beach below. (Don’t worry. The cliff face is shallow, the surface smooth from generations of kids zooming down on their bottoms, and the sand and pebbles below make the landing soft and delightfully scrunchy.)

He never dropped his art supplies. He stood, brushed himself off and gazed out to sea. Then he turned and ran up the stairs, around my easel, and, still grasping pens and sketchbook, slid down the cliff again.

Gentle painters and sketchers, take a lesson from this small boy. Even though life might send you sliding down a cliff, never let go of your sketchbook!

Breaking waves
Waves at Bean Hollow.
Breaking waves
Waves at sunset after a beautiful day.

Music Sunday


Portrait of a fiddler (but not my fiddler), done in a Canson sketch book with a Pigma Micron pen.

Music is an essential part of my life. You all know what that means. I almost never play much music anymore.

People are funny that way; the things that mean the most to us often take a back seat to everything else. And despite the fact that the fiddler and I love to play music, (in fact, playing traditional Irish music is the oldest, strongest part of our relationship) we are both scheduled to the hilt with non-musical tasks, and so we don’t often have a day devoted to tunes.  To break this trend, we decided to make last Sunday a music day.

The first event we attended was the 9th Annual Santa Cruz Harp Festival at Our Lady Star of The Sea Church, presented by Shelley Phillips of the Community Music School of Santa Cruz. I hope you’ll see more about this wonderful school in future posts.

Harp players

I’ve never seen so many harps in one place! Pixie harps, celtic harps, concert harps, wire strung harps. The music was lovely, the church was beautiful, with lots of milky winter ocean light pouring through etched-glass windows. Perfect for drawing, but the sanctuary was crowded, and I was, of course, struck with extreme shyness.  Someone might look at me! Oh! The Horror! But I dredged up some grit, got out my journal and sketched while the musicians played. If anyone watched me, I didn’t know about it. I listened to the music and drew. It was like a little bit of heaven.


If you click on this sketch, you’ll be able to see a blurry bit on the fiddler’s chin (also not my fiddler) where my pennywhistle dripped moisture as I played a tune over the half finished drawing. Although the pen was a Pigma Micron, and supposedly waterproof, I guess it’s not immune to pennywhistle drool. 

Afterwards we stopped at The Poet & The Patriot Pub for the last bit of the Irish session. It was brilliant fun, and once again I forced myself to open the journal and draw (mostly while the other musicians played tunes I didn’t know). No one even payed attention; they were intent on their jigs and reels. And that was the most lovely thing of all.

Celtic harp

Chicago Irish interlude

Box player at the Abby

A visit to Chicago would have been incomplete without attending an Irish session. The Chicago Irish music scene is legendary. My fiddler said this was the one thing he really, really, really wanted to do. I, of course, was not against this idea.

We found the Abby, where, when we walked through the door,  we were astounded by the most amazing whistle playing.

It was Laurence Nugent, a top Irish whistle and flute player. Pretty cool.

At the Abby

If I’m shy about drawing in public, sometimes I’m even more shy about playing music.  I couldn’t see taking my whistle out and squawking  around on it like a wounded ostrich when there were musicians who were roaring like lions. Instead, I sat at a table, had a beer, and listened to ripping reels, jigs, and hornpipes while I painted. Listeners are an important part of a session too!

I leave you with this video.


Laurence Nugent

Public sketching and the flame of desire

I’m relatively new to the sport of public painting, and I am sometimes surprised by people’s reactions when they watch me paint. Usually I get the standard “Oh, my mother, father, sister, brother paints. They’re really good.” But sometimes other emotions come bubbling to the surface, and I’m surprised by the intensity.

I made this pencil sketch at the museum restaurant (nothing but graphite in the museum, remember?), and that evening, while sitting in a crowded restaurant, I pulled out my gouache paints and watercolor brush and started adding paint.

The table where we sat was at  a choke point in the floor plan; it slowed traffic considerably.  The customers, intent on ordering tapas, didn’t pay much attention to my splashings, but the waiters did. They stopped briefly each time they passed our table to watch the progress of the color sketch, smiling and whispering to each other.

One young man was particularly interested. He asked several times, insistently, where and how I learned to do that. Then he asked if I taught classes.

“No, I don’t,” I answered. “But in Chicago there are tons of ateliers and schools.”

He grumped. “I tried a school for art once. There was to much book stuff for me. I don’t want to learn other people’s ideas, I want to do my own.”

¡Aye Chihuahua! Not like books? Not study other people’s ideas? That makes my mind reel about like a drunken turkey on Christmas eve.

I tried to keep my flabbergastment to myself, because I could see a flame in his eyes, and I didn’t want to extinguish it. I recognized that flame because I know that bit of fire. It burns inside your chest. It burns and it hurts, because you want to do something so much that you don’t even have words for it, you don’t know how to get there, and you’re afraid to even try.
A flame like that is easily blown out by the wrong word, a flippant remark, or indifference from another artist.

My step-daughter and I spent the rest of dinner  searching our smart phones for  Chicago ateliers and by the end of dinner, we had given him a list of ones that looked promising—schools that looked like they had solid programs in drawing and painting rather than a lot of theory and academics. At the end of the evening, we presented him with the list.

“Try these schools,” I advised. “I think they’ll teach you how to draw and paint. But I hope you look at art books. You’re studying art, so the books you’ll study are full of pictures. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?”

He hesitantly nodded, and took the scrap of journal paper I handed him and stuffed it in his wallet. I hope that strong blue flame I saw in him burns brightly enough to get him down to one of those art schools, do the work, and, yes, read some books.

Copying art in the Art Institute

The first place I went in Chicago was the Art Institute. That was the first stop on our trip; I really didn’t care what else I saw in that big city. The art museum was my “it” stop.

People have asked me (rhetorically, of course) how many hours can you stand to be in a museum? I snort. I can stand in front of one painting for at least an hour! Sheesh! How can you stand to leave an art museum!

My family went along with my obsession, but they began to look a bit gray after 4 hours of wandering through illustration, folk art, modern art, and impressionism.

And then I discovered gallery 273, the room that held works by John Singer Sargent. Hearing my squeals of excitement, husband and step-daughter sighed, collapsed on a bench, and whispered to each other until they fell into art-induced comas.  I wallowed in the paintings.

The Chicago Institute of art allows only pencil and paper in the museum, so I copied this painting (after Sargent’s Madame Paul Escudier) in graphite on BFK Rives, making notes about the color and value. That night in our B&B, I sat at one of the fussy little Victorian-style tables and added gouache paints to the drawing. The Rives takes gouache very well.

The design in this painting was so powerful. I love the little shapes of the lighted windows behind the heavy dark curtains and the figure. She seems to be trapped by those curtains. If you squint your eyes, she becomes a part of them, the dark value of her skirts forming another bar against the bright daylight behind her.

We also saw the play Ethan Frome, and the ticket stub as well as the theme of the play seemed to fit nicely on this page of Victoriana.

Sketching at the airport

These are some gesture drawings from my Chicago journal. They were done quickly, because people in airports tend to wiggle around.

I was trying to capture the gesture of  light across the faces. Airports are great for studying the effects of light on faces; those gigantic windows are every artists’ dream, especially when the airport wing faces north. And there are herds of free models available for quick sketches!

Finding the gesture of the light means quickly figuring out the basic value pattern—the simple lights and darks—and the shapes of those lights and darks. If you can get those things down correctly, you can get some kind of likeness.

They were drawn and painted throughout our travel day on 140# Arches hot press. using a Pigma Micron #08 (it’s waterproof), a Pentel Aquash pen and a little travel kit of watercolors.

Hot Club of Palo Alto

Last week we made it down to the Red Rock coffeehouse to hear the Hot Club of Palo Alto. They were great! In their own words (lifted from their website):

Our music has direct origins back to the gypsy virtuosos who played the Parisian dance halls, bistros, and cafés of the 30’s and 40’s. It was referred to as “Hot Club” music, taken from the name of it most famous group, the Hot Club de France, who was prominent in the 30s and 40s. These Hot Club style musicians took American Dixieland Jazz and Swing, blended it with European Tangos and the dance hall Musettes of the day, creating a very pleasing musical concoction that became among the most popular music forms of its time. Just about every top-flight band in America rewrote and rearranged large sections of their repertoire to accommodate this Hot Club new style. This Hot Club music went on to greatly influence American Jazz, Pop, and Swing. Even Rock and Roll traces roots back to these rhythmic and melodic giants.

Oh yeah. Reinhardt, Grappelli. Hot Club music meant for listening (and some dancing by a cute couple who could still swing despite the silver in their hair) I dig this music. And I got to indulge in my greatest pleasure: sketching musicians while they play.

Hot Club Palo Alto plays at the Red Rock the last two Sundays in December, and at Cafe Zoë in Menlo Park the first two Sundays. Be there or be square.

Who is Roz Stendahl and why is she on my blog?

I’ve never met Roz Stendahl. All I know is she braids her hair, draws a lot, and wears comfortable clothing in case she’s ever chased by spies. And she writes one of my favorite blogs, Roz Wound Up, from one of those hot-or-cold (they get snow!) northern states. Minnesota.

Not content to be chased by only spies, Roz has devised a  “cunning plan” to be chased by handmade journal-craving artists who happen to be in that odd steamy-or-icy land Roz calls home. All so that she, Roz, can infiltrate their sketchbooks, populate their pages, and live forever in Tombow Brushpen infamy on artists’ studio shelves everywhere.

If you can spot Roz in Minnesota (or wherever she happens to be) and sketch her in your sketchbook, you can have the chance to win a very cool looking handmade journal with extinct Dewint paper. Just click on the “Draw Roz” button on the left hand side of the page for more information.

Me? Although I crave that journal, it’s true that I live far from Minnesota. I’ve never been to Minnesota in my life, although I admit a fascination with that exotic sounding state (did I mention they get snow!). Perhaps someday I’ll visit and get my chance to spot Roz and immortalize her in my journal pages.

But for now, I, too,  get a chance to win a different journal, one with readily available paper, but never the less, a handmade journal. Simply by posting this blog.

Neat, huh?

Vacation journaling in a sardine can

InsideAirplaneThis was done rapidly in pencil on a packed cross-continental flight for New York. You can barely draw on a flight like this. There’s no elbow room at all; there’s barely room enough to get your pencil and sketchbook out. There’s not a centimeter of extra space for your sketching arm.

Airlines have been packing flights full these days and I guess to make up for the relatively inexpensive airfare, we had to pay by sitting arsehole to elbow with the 169 passengers that a 737-800 seats.

2 bathrooms for those of us in steerage…I mean, coach. The passengers in first class had their own bathroom. Hidden behind a drawn felt curtain, they might have been engaging in the kind of rich people-on-an-airplane debauchery that those of us mashed into the rest of the airplane could only fantasize about. Like getting up and going to the bathroom when they needed to, rather than  planning ahead as if going on safari.

But in the back of the plane, our 2 bathrooms were fair busy. And 20 minutes after the flight attendants bustled through with the refreshment cart, doling out fizzy drinks and weak coffee, it got worse.  Imagine roughly 140 people hearing nature’s call to action in the same 10-minute period. At times, the gotta-go line stretched more than half-way down the aisle.

And that aisle was narrow. Exceedingly so. And here, dear reader, I’d like to make a plea.

People! When you’re waiting in line for the potty on an extremely crowded airplane—and believe me, I know it’s exhausting. I’ve been in that line too. But I don’t care how tired you are—please don’t rest your huge squishy bottom on my shoulder. Don’t rest it on anybody’s shoulder. Especially if said bottom is clad in a worn pink sweatsuit.

And if you do, be aware that some of the folks you’ve rested on might not be as polite as I am.  Some might be inveterate sketchers,  and upon seeing  that expanse of faded pink jersey, might possibly be overcome with the urge to sketch. The person on whom you’re leaning might just whip out their Tombow brush pen and sketch a little scene on your rear end.