Drawing a candle holder for beginning a watercolor painting


After all those eggs, it feels good to be painting something else besides eggs. Well, and eggs too.

Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting
Graphite on paper underdrawing for beginning a painting

This is how I start a drawing; by measuring the angles, horizontal lines, and vertical lines. It’s kind of like using a grid. For subjects that aren’t so man-made as this candle holder, I can often hold the grid and the lines in my head, but for this I needed to make sure that my horizontals were level (I tend to drift down when I draw horizontal lines), and that my verticals were really straight up and down. Before I start to paint, I’ll erase many of these lines, and lighten the rest. I’ll also erase lines that need to be soft edges, so that I don’t forget when I’m in the heat of applying pigment.

I’m not quite done with this drawing. There are a few area I want to perfect. But it’s pretty close. It’s been for this image that I’ve painted all those darn eggs.

Now I’m going to get to paint something else, and I’m eggs-cited.


Drawing more birds

Click on thumbnails above to see larger images

In my previous post I wrote about John Muir Laws book, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. Imagine how happy I was to find that he also has organized The Nature Journal Club, a monthly meet up and workshops series. I went to my first one last month, at one of my favorite places in the Bay Area, the Palo Alto Baylands. It was so much fun, with people of all ages and abilities there to keenly observe the birds and landscape.

Honestly, I could go out anytime and draw or paint, and I often do. But there’s something about being with a group of people all focused on the same thing that makes it ever so much more satisfying. And you can learn by sharing observations and techniques, stories and jokes.

If you live in the Bay Area, I hope you’ll consider coming out for the next Sunday outing, or one of the weekday workshops. But if you don’t live in the Bay, I hope you’ll organize your own Nature Journal Club where you live.

Palo Alto Airport
Pencil Sketch

The Nature Journal Club is free, but donations are welcome and encouraged.  During a time when our natural world is beleaguered unto the point of disappearance, if people will get outside and really see the world so that they feel close to it, perhaps we’ll find a way to make a healthy world as important as development.


Painting from a fast sketch


The holiday bazaar last Saturday was lovely, with beautiful artwork and Irish music provided by my own fiddler and our friends from the Irish music community (if there’s any reason—other than sheer joy—to learn to play Irish music, old time, or any folk music, it would be the wonderful groups of friends you’ll make doing so).

The day started a bit slowly, so I took the opportunity from my seat inside the circle of musicians (in between firing off the tunes I knew on the whistle) to sketch the dulcimer player with the intention of later making a painting solely from my sketch after the dulcimer player left to go to another gig.

Sometimes I can’t take photos for reference. Sometimes I just don’t want a camera intruding on the moment. And I like the practice of trying to find a painting from my initial sketch.


pencil sketch
Quick pencil sketch

I payed particular attention to these elements as I gathered information for a painting:

  1. The shapes of the features that made a likeness. She has strong features, making it easier to draw them.
  2. The shapes of the shadow forms. There wasn’t a clear single-light source, so I had to choose the shadows as best I could to show form.
  3. Lost and found edges. Frankly, I was pressed for time, so I didn’t give as much thought to edges as I should have.
  4. Color notes. Okay, in all honesty, I didn’t make any color notes on anything other than her hair and her jacket. But I should have. They would have noted things like skin color in the highlights, midtones, and shadows, room color, light quality. Next time!

I had about half an hour (give or take a tune or two) to make this sketch, so some areas, like the far eye and hairline, were left a bit hazy.  These omissions would later bite me in the butt as I tried to recreate this sketch in color.

Then, while the hall bustled around me with holiday shoppers, I painted.

Watercolor painting
Watercolor painting using pencil sketch as resource

After a day of painting between customers, I ended up with a sort of half sketched painting that was almost a likeness, but not quite.

The prevailing wisdom about watercolor is that you can’t erase it. Nonsense! While you can never get down to the beautiful pristine paper again, you can certainly lift much of the color. I didn’t like the purply-red I’d put in her hair, so when I got home, I scrubbed it off with a toothbrush and a spray of water. Then I let it dry completely and repainted.

The mouth also didn’t match the sketch, and so lost much of her character, so I lifted the paint using an old sable brush (I don’t know why this is, but nothing lifts watercolor as well as sable), let it dry, redrew it, and repainted it. The nose got a little surgery and lost its bottom edge. I adjusted the angle of the far cheek and the perspective of the eyes.

Watercolor from fast sketch

This almost captures the likeness of the dulcimer player, and I’m pretty pleased to have done it without a photo-aid. To be fair, I’ve known her for years, so that when my brush drove past the likeness, I knew I’d arrived.

How’s your art practice?

Blue Lines
Breathing lines practice from Creative Triggers

Oh, November! Internet meme month of get-on-the-stick- and-get-started challenges. Write a novel in a month! Post a drawing a day for 30 days! Draw 30 characters in 30 days! Write, design, and ink a manga comic page every day! Make a masterpiece in November!


We all know that artistic and creative success doesn’t happen in a month (don’t we?). That do accomplish goals, we need a sustainable rate of practice every day of the year. But it’s hard to do, especially in the vacuum of those empty rooms in which we’re supposed to work.

Enter painter and blogger Paul Foxton. Riffing off the book Composition, by Arthur Wesley Dow, and tapping his own knowledge of drawing (Paul is a lovely painter) he created a series of exercises to help build skills, as well as sensitivity to design and artistic ability. Then he created a place called Creative Triggers where folks could find the exercises, and get together to support each other as they work.

Creative Triggers video (Here I’d like to embed Paul’s video, but WordPress won’t let me, so you’ll have to go check it out yourself)

The exercises are well thought out, and he’s built them so that they are bit-size junks that bring you to the next step. I’ve been drawing  and painting my entire life, and even so, it’s nice to revisit these basic (and not so basic) exercises in a systematic manner. Plus, it’s been very nice to post to the forums, and later that day get a couple supportive emails from other students (you don’t have to sign up for the emails if you don’t want to).

My favorite exercise has been the most beginning exercise: “breathing lines,” a way of developing your drawing muscle in a quiet and meditative way. I make a page or two at the beginning of every work session; they put my chatty-Cathy monkey mind into a more reflective, deliberate mood. And I do them every night before I go to bed; they are calming, and I can say goodnight to my favorite paints and paint brushes (you know that I’m in love with my #14 sable Rosemary watercolor round.) Of course, sometimes this backfires, and I have to stay up and paint!

On November 1, Roz Stendahl wrote a great blog post exploding the “empty room” notion as she suggested some ways to deal with being creative in “all conditions, whether he or she feels so inclined, isn’t “inspired,” is tired, is stressed, whatever.” I suggest you read it if you’re interested in upping your art (or writing, or stitching, or any kind of practice you might have). Because since life just happens, we have to make sure we get our own stuff done.

A meditation on gesture drawing

1-minute gesture drawing
Charcoal on newsprint

Last month I spent a brilliant morning drawing at a model guild benefit, and it reignited my love of life drawing, and especially the gesture. And since I get an disproportionate number of hits for “gesture drawing,”  I thought I’d scratch out some thoughts on gesture drawing from life.

Gesture drawing is often described as capturing the action of a pose, the feeling of a thing, the “inner essence”. It’s quick, it’s forceful, it’s to-the-point. It captures an active moment in time. A frozen glimpse of a model balancing on one leg; a dog loping along the beach; a bank of clouds blowing like boulders across the horizon.

At it’s most academic, gesture drawing is about studying. It’s about drawing—a lot of—poses, or people, or animals, or landscapes, in a short amount of time. It’s a rapid and deep immersion into a multiplicity of form and line. It’s an exploration of media and mind. A flick of the wrist and the arc of the arm discover new shapes and spaces, new angles and elements, new ideas  to build upon later when drawing time has once again slowed to a careful crawl.

But at it’s most basic level, gesture drawing is simply and awfully darn fun.

4 1-minute gesture drawings
Charcoal on newsprint

Drawing the portrait: Week 4

Charcoal on smooth newsprint

The image I see in my head when I start to draw a portrait is ever so much better than what I actually draw; why won’t that image in my mind come out through my fingertips onto the paper? While I was happy that I caught the likeness of the model in this portrait (week 4 of Felicia’s portrait drawing class), the rest of it leaves me, well, disappointed.

Felicia often tapes tracing paper over students’ drawings to demonstrate how they might better change their drawings. As she demonstrates, she often mutters to herself. In those half-verbalized thoughts, there is a whole lecture for the student who pays close attention.

That night, she traced over my drawing of the model, concentrating on the nose. She talked about where she saw edges. Were they crisp edges? Soft edges? Form or cast shadows? How did they wrap around the form; where did they create a sharp angle? She applied her charcoal pencil as if it were the finest sable brush, and modeled a perfectly dimensional nose in a few strokes.

I realized—once again—that I still wield my pencil like a bludgeon. I need practice in order to handle it like a fine brush.

I need to go home and simply play with the materials we used for the class. Play with them with no expectation of results, except for learning what a simple charcoal pencil can do.

Now there’s some great homework. Play. Play. And more play.

I’m smiling.

Two drawings

In The Art Spirit, Robert Henri says, “The most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory is of the vital movement.”

Often, when setting up a long pose, I see the moment I want to capture right away; sometimes I have to watch the model for a while, even talk a little with him or her, to find what I’m looking for. And then, after the long days of model and artist assuming the same position, the pose loses that crystalline moment that interested me to begin with. I must remember to continually restate that first found emotion, that vitality of personality that captured my eye and intellect.

Gesture drawings are good for capturing initial emotions and impressions. The two drawings connected to this post were started each as 10-minute drawings. My goal when I made the sketches was to choose a composition that clarified the spirit of the pose and then get down as much information as I could while the models were there so that I could finish the sketches at home.

Things suffered: perspective, proportion, hands, foreshortening. But in general, I feel like I remembered the feelings—and the narratives—I had in my head when I composed the drawings. I wonder, what narratives do you see in these two paintings?

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.

Quick color temperature

Pastel and chalk on toned paper
Pastel and chalk on toned paper

This year at the atelier I learned modeling using color temperature—we used a limited palette of 4 earth-toned pastel pencils, charcoal and white chalk, and toned paper to create form and shadow.

This method is about intellectualizing your drawing. It’s about making a conscious plan rather than just grabbing a color and hoping it will work. We drew value scales in color to denote the color temperature of highlight, strong light, midtones and shadows, paying close attention to warm and cool color temperature and where it was placed in the scale. This is agony for me. I don’t do it well. Scales suck.

Since I am also a musician, I know the value of scales. I think of them as athletic training, like the drills that prepare the football player for that winning 100-yard dash. Playing scales prepare the musician for a blindingly brilliant set. Playing the actual notes become muscle memory, the body goes on automatic pilot and the musician’s  intuitive brain is free to choose the music she hears in her head.

I figure it must be the same for the style of painting I’m yearning to do. Once I’ve internalized color temperature theory, I’ll be more able to make intuitive choices that are based on logic.  That’s when I think true creativity can emerge.

Value chart for warm light
Value chart for warm light

So I drew value scales religiously for each of my drawings this year. They helped. It’s surprising how far astray you can go from your original values over the course of a long pose. I leaned heavily on those value scales to re-orient myself and to overcome frustration. I know I frequently muttered things like, “strong light is cool. Cool, dammit!”

But on the last day of class this year I decided to whip out a drawing using the color temperature principles without agonizing over a value scale. The drawings at the top of the post were of ten minute poses each on toned paper. I did have to write the color temperatures down so I could remember which shadow was cool, which highlight was warm, but I didn’t need to draw a value scale. I was pleased that the concept is beginning to integrate into the way I choose color.