Brendan Behan in ArtGraf black carbon


Shawn Hatosy as Brendan Behan

Saturday night I watched Borstal Boy, a romanced version of the early life of Irish patriot, playwright and poet, Brendan Behan. Mr. Behan was a man of letters—he wrote in English and in Irish—who unfortunately died quite young from the drink. He was the public face of the stereotypical Irishman, as well as typifying a whole generation of artists:  brilliant star and stumbling, mumbling drunk. He once described himself as a drunk with a writing problem.

BrendanBehanBrendan Behan as Brendan Behan

The above painting is from a Youtube video here, where Mr. Behan sings the Auld Triangle.

These were painted using my new toy, an ArtGraf black carbon block. It’s a neat little block of water soluble carbon with which you can draw on wet or dry paper, or just rub a wet brush across the block for shades of gray. It’s an easy and clean way to practice brush work while watching television, so long as you don’t kick over your pot of water. The paper is my new favorite, cheap cover stock from the copy store.

José Emídio paints with the tailor shape of ArtGraf in the video below. Beautiful!

Figures under water

After reading Sue Smith’s blog at Ancient Artists about pushing your art to the next level, I felt I needed to challenge myself. So, watercolor backpack in hand, and a stack of failed paintings (the backs of the paper still pristine, ready for work) under my arm, I headed to a local life drawing session to try my hand at sketching with water and paint.

I was in a kerfuffle from the first moments, adrift without the guiding compass of charcoal pencils and kneaded eraser.  And painting at the session was completely different from painting at home. Normally I stand at my easel and work on a vertical surface; at the session, I sat at a table, paper propped on my backpack.

1-minute watercolor war zone

Right away, my body rebelled against sitting. My neck and back ached, my hands stung, and my butt fell into a pins-and-needle coma. The process of painting like that was awful.

I floundered during the first 20-minute set of 1-minute poses, completely rudderless and out of control. I thrashed about with brush, paper, paint, water, making a mess.

The quick gesture paintings looked like a war zone. Body parts were disconnected. Chaotic limbs and runny torsos bled across the page. The figures turned into misshapen blobs of color.

During the break in poses, I screwed up my courage and asked if it would bother anyone if I stood. Talking to people! Asking for something! That was a breakthrough in itself, overcoming my  little mouse-self that doesn’t like to make a fuss in public.

You know what? Nobody cared. So I stood.

That helped. The next set of 2-minute poses made me much happier. I began to make friends again with my paintbrush, and like any good friend, my trusty Kolinsky sable helped me to see in a new way. It taught me to look for the large shapes, forms, and shadow patterns.

2-minute watercolor sketches

The 5-minute poses came along a bit better . The one below is my favorite. The horns on her helmet-hair were accidental, but I love them. Watercolor warrior woman!

5-minute watercolor sketch

At 10-minutes I thought that I could give myself a few graphite guidelines to help me control where I put the paint. And that is where I lost the energy of the previous paintings.

10-minute watercolor sketch

Below you can see the final 20-minute pose. Except for the extraordinarily long arm, it’s a pretty correct representation of the model’s position. But that’s about it.  It has lost some of the wonderful freedom of the quick sketches.

20-minute watercolor sketch

Somewhere  between loss of control and total control there are pictures to be made. The challenge is to navigate to that tricky space.

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.

If the Northern Lights played the fiddle

The text says: "A Listening tune should be like a wonderful day where everything is as fresh and clean as when the Shaper shaped it."

Today we went to the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association to hear fiddler Sarah Kirton play her hardingfele. It was sheer magic.

The hardingfele, or hardanger fiddle, is a traditional instrument of Norway. It’s got 4 strings stretched across the top of the instrument, like a regular fiddle, but beneath those strings are 4 more strings that buzz and moan in sympathy when the top strings are played. The music is other-worldly. When I hear it, I think of ice goddesses, snow fields, midnight suns, birch trees in brilliant green meadows.

If the northern lights played music, it would be on the hardingfele.

In the Bay Area we gab ceaselessly about diversity, and yet, most people only really listen to music presented to them by mainstream radio; they don’t know that there is a whole world of music out there that isn’t just Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber.  It’s the musical equivalent of eating at only McDonalds when you live 2 blocks from a wonderful street where every restaurant serves food from a different country . If you never go down that street, you never even know that there are other foods.

If you want to taste some Norwegian hardingele music, you might start at the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. There are some sound files to give you an idea of what this wonderful and mysterious music sounds like.  And there’s a radio show about the fiddle (Sarah’s in it!) here.

And you might want to explore some of the fabulous musical menus that the world has to offer. Who knows? There might be a hardingele fiddler living right next door to you!

New Year Sketch hike

To kick off the New Year in the right way, I always try to go hiking on January 1. So I convinced my other half (the patient, easy-to-get-along-with half) to go out to Hidden Villa for an easy jaunt on the “Bunny loop.”

But I must admit, I had ulterior motives; there are farm animals at Hidden Villa, and Roz Stendahl’s New Year’s Day post lit a fire under my lazy rear end to get out and draw. She said, “set an intention this year to live your life applying your energy to your passions.” This is something I try to do anyway, but it’s always great to have a reminder, especially when I get tired.

As we were leaving the house, The Man spied the sketchbook under my arm, and, rolling his eyes at me,  he grabbed one of his mathematics books. “To keep me company,” he muttered. We all have our own strange passions. Right now, his is linear algebra. Go figure.

After we’d clambered over the Bunny Trail (a trail that turned out to be not an easy hike, but a trail for rabbits who think they are mountain goats), he sprawled in the front seat of the car to admire hieroglyphic equations while I hiked back up the trail and sketched until dusk.

These silly cows decided they didn't want to be drawn and headed into their stall. All I could see were their tail ends!

Harmon’s Peak

Tombow brushpen and waterbrush
I drew this while Harmon's Peak sang Buffalo Gals, a song from the 19th century that's still a terrific song in the 21st century.

The best part of the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival was the jamming that took place after the amplified music stopped. There was music all night long—of course bluegrass, but also old time, blues, jazz, and a group of folks having a dance party while they played bluegrass tinged Beatles, R&B, and disco. By 1 am I was exhausted, and I drifted off to sleep under a nearly full moon, hearing banjos, fiddles, guitars, and stand-up bass in the campsite 3 spaces over. Sheer heaven.

The amount of talented folks in everyday life astounds me. People go crazy for superstars, but there’s a lot of people out there who are top-notch musicians. They might even be living next door to you!

The next morning my husband’s band, Harmon’s Peak played. They’re an old time string band, which is a different style of music, but it’s part of the roots of bluegrass. As you can see, they’re the best dressed old time band in the Bay Area.

Harmon's Peak
Harmon's Peak

Peaking at 50


After climbing the steep trail all morning, we missed the fork that would have taken us to the completely tame (or so I was promised) tunnel trail. Now we were high on the mountain side at Pinnacles National Monument, looking out over the state of California all the way to the foggy coast, and the trail only led higher.

TrialWe clambered around a corner and suddenly we stood at the base of a cliff. Footholds chipped into the rock face marched almost vertically into the sky. There was nothing but the rock, a pipe to cling to, and the air around it.

“Oh my god,” Jo said. “Do you want to go back?”

Camping buddy Jo, who is smart, brave, and intrepid, knows well that as I suffer from an inexplicable terror of heights. This fear is something new that has come with the years. Altitude never bothered me when I was a kid; at 12 I would have scampered right over that mountain face. Twice.

But now,  here I was, two weeks before I turned 50, having a hard time staying calm looking at the crazy steep trail. Maybe you know the feeling: your intestines crawl into your chest and cling to your lungs so you can’t get a breathe, your head gets woozy, and suddenly the only thing you can feel in your hands is a cold sweat.

To be honest, my upcoming birthday, the big 50, is making me feel woozy like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff.  I’m amazed at how two little numbers—a 5 and a 0—can open the door to anxiety and actually send out stamped invitations to an open-bar, fully catered worry affair, complete with band and disco ball. (Ok, ok, I’ve always had a worry party going on in my head. It’s just gotten more crowded as I—gulp—age).

In our culture that’s dirty word—age. Yes, yes, I’ve heard that 50 is the new 30 (Frankly, I’d be happy to see 40 again). Sure, Jamie Lee Curtis received applause for going topless at 50.  And I’ve read that employers are starting to value those of us who have more experience than we have collagen in our lips.  Even Barbie has lost only a smidge of popularity despite reaching the half century mark..

But I live in Silicon Valley, where we worship youth. And why wouldn’t we? The young are so lovely, so luminous. They don’t have years of living that cover the inner shine with a dusty layer of experience.

And I think they’re mostly not afraid to climb over a mountain peak.

Up on that mountain, I had to think hard. I thought over the trail we’d just climbed. We’d huffed and puffed up the Condor Trail (no condors to be seen), then wound our way around and up the side of the mountain. We had to clamber up and down steep rocky bits lined with poison oak. And Central California in May is already hot like summertime; we’d started hiking at 8 that morning in shirt sleeves, and the day wasn’t getting any cooler. The trail was on the west side of the hill where the afternoon sun would be blazing. Did I really want to descend the mountain  using the same trail I’d ascended?

I remembered my grandfather’s motto: Always go home by a different road. Never backtrack.

ClimbingI clenched my teeth. Wiped sweat from my eyes. “Jo,” I said. “We can’t go back. So we gotta go forward.”

And I climbed that mountain, dammit. White knuckled it all the way, pressed on even when I felt like I was so exposed that I was flying. Jo talked me over the really scary bits, and both of us slid down one entire passage on our butts.

I’d like to say that I felt victorious and renewed afterwards. I guess I did, a little. But mostly I was tired and hungry. And needing to paint something. Out came my little hiking journal, a waterbrush, and a afew Caran d’Ache watercolor sticks. I rested in the shade, ate a tortilla with hummus, and did what any artist at any age might do. I painted a picture of the mountains.


Irish set dancing

Playing for set dancers  Graphite
This is a drawing from my sketchbook, made up from memories of all the dances for which I've played, and all the dances at which I've danced. It's just a sketch, but it captures how it feels to be in the band, making music that lifts the feet of the dancers. Graphite on paper

Last night we played for the set dancing at the Brittania Arms in Cupertino. Irish sets are usually danced with four couples, like American square dance, but they are more elegant, the dancers moving more smoothly and closer to the floor. There’s less bounce. But a lot of energy. I love to play for dancers. I also love to dance the sets.

I’ve wanted to paint the dancing of the sets ever since I first saw a huge céilí mór (a big dance party) at Cois na hAbhna, the Irish regional resource center in Ennis, County Clare, 11 years ago. The energy was incredible; the hall was filled with the wheeling sets, the young men battering out percussion, the women smoothly stepping. The music was brilliant, of course (it’s County Clare!), with so much lift and urgency that I imagined the trees outside would pull their roots and start dancing.


glovedladyThis summer I attended a costume party where one of the guests wore elbow length opera gloves. I don’t recall the rest of her outfit, but the image of the gloves stuck in my mind. I don’t think they were expensive leather gloves, but it didn’t matter. They still gave her fascinating aura; in gloves, her hands spoke more eloquently, more elegantly than the rest of her body.  It was like her hands were wearing masks.

I’m in the habit of drawing every evening right before going to sleep. It’s my way of processing the day and working through things that have bobbled around in my noggin for the last 24 hours. After the party that night, I drew a picture from memory of the woman and her gloves. It’ one of my favorite drawings.

Amazingly enough, gloves are some of the few things you can still buy that are made in America! Sullivan Glove Company makes work gloves, including riding gloves that look lovely. Linda Lorraine Gloves is based in San Francisco. La Crasia gloves are supposedly made in New York; they’re fabulously expensive, but really beautiful.

I say, let’s go back to wearing gloves!