The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

We kicked off the Christmas season with the Great Dickens Christmas Fair Sunday. It was delightful and entertaining as usual. Dickens and the Victorians practically invented my idea of Christmas, and I love the play-acting.

This year I went prepared to sketch with a Tombow dual brush pen, a Niji waterbrush, and several Staedtler pigment liners. I used the same 7″ x 7″ hard-bound Daler Rowney I used last year for my first foray into public sketching. I have to admit I still haven’t finished that journal, and besides, I thought it a proper and fitting way to round out the year.

I decided that I’d do at least 10 pages of sketching. I counted journal pages, and put a big number 10 on the tenth page so I’d know I’d reached my quota of sketching for the day.

And I did it.  Some of my pages aren’t anything I’d want to show anyone, but oddly, the least successful as sketches have the most possibilities for future projects. I’ll blog about the completed projects later.

Sketches I will show you

Polka at Fezziwig’s Dance Party

Fezziwig’s Dance Party was as fun as always. In fact, it was more fun this year because the players asked us to dance, and then they taught us to waltz.

Waltzing with someone who knows how to do it is an experience verging on the sublime, and I recommend you run right out and find someone to teach you. In fact, any of the old-style dances are barrels of fun, and I think everyone should try them. Fortunately, the Bay Area has a lot going on. Try the Period Events & Entertainments Re-Creation Society  (Peers) website. They sponsor scads of events, and their links page gives even more info on other local and national period reinactments and events.

Irish Step Dancer

The Siamsa le Cheile dancers put on a terrific exhibition of traditional and modern-style Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton dancing. After all these years of being involved in the music and dance, this stuff still makes my heart stand up like a 4-year old kid and whirl around till it’s dizzy.

The Dark Garden window displays seem like a perfect spot to draw, since the models hold their creative and cute poses very well, and let’s face it, just about everybody looks better in a corset. Unfortunately, the windows are also a perfect photo-op, so there’s a lot of jockeying for position with photographers. Also, people do love to look over your shoulder and comment on your drawing. Maybe some year, when I’m more confident sketching in public,  I’ll get a hoop skirt, set up my easel, and become a part of the show.

Lovely lists

One of my favorite bloggers, Ricë Freeman-Zachery at Notes from the Voodoo Cafe has been blogging about getting organized, and she had a great post on the value of lists.

Lists! Normally the dining table (which doubles as my office) is awash in lists.

But her post reminded me that I had sort of fallen off the list wagon, and that I had better climb back on if I wanted to accomplish anything. So I sat down and made a list of stuff that had to be done—grinding, boring, distasteful chores like balancing my checkbook—and it had to be done soon, or my world would would sputter and stall like a 1967 Volkswagon fastback in a rainstorm.

And I actually finished the most pressing things on that list. And, as is often the case, after I disposed of those boulder-like tasks that weigh so heavily, I suddenly had a spurt of creative energy. Now I have three half-finished drawings and ideas for a dozen more. It’s funny how undone business like an out-of-balance checkbook can block my creativity.

Actually, right now I’ve got another type of list that’s working well: a list of things the artist must do.  At the Portrait Society of America, on their archives page there is a good piece in pdf form called From Rookie to Pro by Michele Rushworth. It’s evidently notes from a lecture, each item a bullet point, and it’s very good advice. It helps me maintain my discipline and determination.  A copy of the list now lives on my refrigerator where I read it every morning and evening.

Year of the portrait

Unfinished self-portrait

Each fourth-year student at the atelier chooses a thesis that they work on in and out of class. My area of focus is portraits. Because one of the things I’d like to be doing is drawing portraits. Ppeople fascinate and  confound me, and compel me to try to understand them. And drawing them helps me do that.

In college a million years ago I studied theatre, which is really the study of humanity, magnified by over-the-top drama, stage makeup, and masks. Theatre, and the people attracted it, can be a risky business. It can be quite painful. So one year I gave up theatre to study horticulture.

I did that because—aside from being obsessed with plants—I found that studying the sciences of botany and soils had a certain kind of safe roundness in which I could wrap myself. There were no lumpy inconsistencies and thorny disputes of the kind that make humanity a hard garment to wear. And so for years I immersed myself in the study of horticulture.

During that time I had a dog.  She was a great dog, but she didn’t really know she was a dog. She’d really never been around many dogs. Then we moved into a house where there were two other dogs. Much to her surprise and delight, my dog discovered her canine heritage. And she loved being a dog. So much that for a few months, she would barely speak to me. She just hung out with her two biggest, bestest doggie buddies.

Like that long ago dog of mine, about a decade ago I suddenly found myself  in a place full of people. It was hard going at first. But slowly I’ve discovered that I am, indeed, a human, and that other humans are fascinating. Maybe I like being human again.

And so  I’ve come back around to studying humans. Don’t get me wrong. I still love the green world, and seek refuge among forests, meadows, and gardens when the human world gets to be too much (and it does, believe me, it does). But I’m learning to deal with the humanity of the world.

And I find that drawing helps me figure people out. That’s a plus. And when I’m drawing a portrait, I can sometimes connect with the person I’m drawing in a very deep, intuitive way. I really like that.

And so, I’ll be drawing a lot of portraits, and studying the where’s, why’s, and who-to-fores of portrait drawing, along with the study of all my other fractured interests. I’ll share what I learn here on this blog.

The practice of music and art

Pastel pencil on colored paper
Pastel pencil on colored paper

This is a small drawing I made of my friend Cyndy. It’s from a photo taken as she was sitting around a campfire, playing tunes with a group of musicians.

I know Cyndy’s present teacher. He’s told me that she’s the kind of student a teacher loves to have. She really thinks about the music she plays, and she makes him think about it too. And she practices!

She’s passionate about her fiddle in the way most of us are passionate about a new romantic partner. But, come to think about it, I know a lot of musicians who are married to their instrument, and playing music is simply part of their everyday experience. I also know artists who feel the same way about their art. (I’m torn between the two. Do I play tunes, or do I draw? Tough question, that.)

Sometimes playing music or making art becomes a stale thing, or a stressful thing, fraught with needs and cravings that block the joy of our passions. But if we really think about what we’re doing, and lose ourselves in the process, suddenly the work becomes play, and we amaze ourselves at our success.

Shannon Heaton, one of my favorite Irish flute players, has a terrific blog at Whistle and Drum called The Inner Game of Irish Music about practicing the music. She’s talking about Irish music, but she could be talking about drawing, painting, old time music, classical music, dancing, or even just plain-old, everyday work.

Framing the figure

BoyonTrainThis drawing I completed after visiting the Vermeer Milkmaid exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What luck to be in the city while the Met had a special exhibit about Vermeer. I was able to study the paintings in real time, and try to understand what made them work.

I wish I could live in that museum (I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was a kid), but, alas, they will not let me. So whenever I visit New York, I spend as much time in the museum as possible, sketchbook in hand, trying to infuse my brain with master works. I don’t always understand what I’m learning while I’m at the museum, but somehow it ferments in my brain and bubbles to my conscious mind later.

One of the things that I noticed in Vermeer’s work was how he often framed the figure with geometric shapes. In A Woman Asleep, he frames the face of the young woman with a gray square. He often uses a wall hanging of a map as a geometric element that frames the subject—look at Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Woman with a Lute, and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in Vermeer, The Essential Vermeer is a terrific online resource.) But it really didn’t make a big dent in the attention I was paying to Vermeer’s color and brush technique.

But I must have filed this bit of framing arcana on top of one of the piles of information cluttering my mind, because it surfaced later that evening. After a three hour stretch at the museum, I tiredly took the train back to New Jersey where we were staying. I sat across the aisle from this young man who was trying to sleep, and took out my sketchbook to capture his lanky pose.

Suddenly I realized that it wasn’t his face (I could scarcely see it), or his figure that attracted my attention, but rather, the way he was framed by the dark of the window and the back of the seat. Light bulbs went off in my mind. This was what Vermeer was talking about when he use a shape to frame his focal point!

It’s a simple sketch, but it pleases me because it reminds me that I’ve discovered a new way of seeing.

Musician’s party


Today we’re going to a musician’s party, and I thought this drawing was a nice illustration of that most enjoyable diversion.

The drawing is  homework I never finished this spring at the Atelier. Maestro Rob wants me to finish it and submit it to a student show he’s having. There’s no guarantee that it will get accepted, but them’s the breaks. And it’s good to have a deadline that will make me finish it. After I finish posting, I’ll get to work on it.

The assignment was to take a master drawing, copy it, and put yourself in it. Vermeer painted the girl with the guitar. And there I am in the background. It’s been challenging to figure out the same lighting, where I’d sit in the composition, and the hairstyle and dress of the time.

All of this and think of color temperature too! The light source is cool, so that means:

  • Highlights : Warm
  • Stronglights : Cool
  • Midtones : Warm
  • Shadow edge : Cool
  • Shadow : Warm

This seems simple in theory. But in practice, I have to really think hard and make real choices (as opposed to just going with intuition). And all this with a limited palette of colors. It’s a good exercise, and I’m learning a lot.

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

Life gets in the way

Tombow brush pen that's been smeared with a waterpen
Tombow brush pen that's been smeared with a waterpen

When I can get away from the day job, I go to the park at lunch and sketch. I draw the moms and their kids as they do the same summer thing I did with my mom in the same park many years ago. (Yeah, this is Silicon Valley, so some of the kids are with their nannies—kinda sad when you think about it. We were poor, but Mom was available almost everyday to take us to the park.) Boy, do I wish for those endless summer days of having nothing to do but play.

In a sense, I am on summer vaction now. Since classes finished I’ve been concentrating on socializing, since I get darn little of it during the school year. I’ve been catching up on seeing friends I haven’t seen in a long time,  hiking at Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve, and hanging out with my family. Blogging has taken a back seat.

momsinpark-1After my disastrous Every Day in May experiment, in which I attempted to post every day and instead ended up stressed and snappy from the pressure,  I decided that it wasn’t worth it.  Blogging was taking away time from actually painting and drawing. I’m not read to give up the blogosphere, but the everyday blog-a-gig isn’t going to happen for me while I’m juggling life as if I were a clown in Cirque du Soleil.

So for now, I’m drawing like crazy, and thinking about  my project next year at the Atelier. I keep a journal handy along with a pen so I can draw when I find a few spare minutes. I manage to play some tunes now and then.

Thesis plans

I’m finished with my third year at the Atelier in Oakland. Next year will be my fourth, and after learning anatomy (year 1), technique (year 2), and color temperature (year 3), I am faced with the “thesis” project.

We don’t get official grades at this school, because it’s 1. not accredited and 2. largely populated by students who have day jobs and so are self-propelled in their artwork. But that doesn’t mean we don’t grade ourselves, and indulge in a tiny bit of good natured rivalry with fellow students. But Rob doesn’t run his Saturday classes as an academic grinding mill, and that’s what I like about it. We learn from other students’ work, and find joy when they make a huge leap forward (and there are students—yours truly being one of them—who poke along for months, then suddenly break through whatever mental block they have and leap up to the next level of competence and sensitivity).

So, the thesis project is a big deal to me. If—no, when—I complete it, I’ll have a portfolio of pieces that are a “body of work.” Expect to hear more of this.