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.

Charcoal portraits: lessons learned

These pictures, the first two I drew for Felicia Forte’s portrait drawing class, should have gone with the post Drawing the portrait: week one. But they didn’t make it, so I’m showing them now.

Week 1: Charcoal portrait on rough newsprint

After 4 years learning to draw at the atelier, I can hit a likeness pretty well. But although this first drawing (above) might resemble the model, it’s not hanging together drawing-wise. Too many scratchy lines and no clear shadow pattern. I know that. I knew that when I drew it. But I’m afraid of making those kind of marks. I don’t know why. Sometimes as artists we fear unreasonable things.

Week 2: Charcoal portrait on rough newsprint

This second drawing is better. Felicia stopped me midway through and said, just draw the shadow pattern around the eyes. Don’t worry about the eyes themselves. She was right.

Getting caught up in details right away doesn’t improve a drawing. Lesson learned on this drawing: Simplify. Look for the big pictures, the big shapes; the rest will follow.


Winter of the portrait

Graphite portrait of a good friend as she told me stories of her life on the farm.

I love drawing and painting people. It’s a passion that runs contrary to my introverted character, but there you have it. Our brains don’t always behave in completely logical fashion.

The thing I love most about portrait painting is that I get to touch a subject’s stories. I touch those their tales with my ears and with my paintbrush. Above all else, I love story.

Last year was my Year of the Portrait, and I see no problem with 2011 being Year of the Portrait Part II. Wednesday I start a portrait drawing class with Felicia Forte, a teacher new to me. I am nervous, a bit (meeting new people is always out of my comfort zone), but looking forward to it.

Loving the fiddle

I’ve been working on this watercolor of my friend, Cyndi, holding her fiddle. Finally it’s finished (oops, except for strings. I’m going to add those using chalk).

I don’t have much to say about it right now, except that it took me longer than I expected.

Camping portraits

Last week we were camping in Mendocino at Van Damme State Park (a perfect example of why we should save our state parks. Without parks such as this, places like Mendocino would be off limits to all but those wealthy enough to afford $300-a-night rooms in high-rent “Inns.”)

Camping in the park provides much needed respite from the noisy, hot neighborhoods and city streets of the Bay Area. You can hear the birds, see banana slugs, hear the wind in the trees.

But I have to admit that we were the loudly chattering neighbors that keep you from hearing the birds and the windy trees. Even the banana slugs fled. But we did entertain (or bother) the campground with Irish music. And we do shut ourselves down at 10 p.m.

Cast of characters:

This is Liz and her new earring. I sketched this with pencil, Tombow Brushpen, and Niji Waterbrush, at the Mendocino Cafe, where the food was okay, and the light from the window was exquisite.

This is Kat. I drew this at dusk, in front of the campfire. The light lovely to begin with, but as the sky faded, the flickering confusion of firelight (and the eye-stinging smoke) made it harder to see form. She was listening to a story while I sketched this.

Sunday morning we went to breakfast, where I sketched Jo-the-Librarian (on the right) and architect of camping trips and other fun stuff. On the left is her husband Doug, who looks lopsided and grumpy in this sketch because he kept fidgeting around so that I could not get a good likeness. He is an author of wonderful books for children and young adults. His most popular (I think) is Vampire High, although my favorite book he’s written is The Janus Gate, a creepy ghost story as well as a treatise on art and beauty.

I’m really fortunate to hear him read aloud from his projects in progress, acting all the characters as he hears them in his head. In fact, he was reading from a book-in-progress as I sketched Kat, which is why she sat so still (except for the occasional outbursts of laughter).

You can see other books he’s written at


I’ve been working on this drawing of Catherine McEvoy for my watercolor class. It’s been problematic because my photo reference is so bad. I took it in class last year at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. Really, the photo is mostly just the idea for the painting, and a brief reference for Catherine’s face.

My teacher, Steve Curl, brought up something that has helped me with the drawing. “Think about the angles,” he said. “That will give you the dynamism you need to show the intensity the has when she plays the flute.” Steve is a musician as well as a painter, and right off he recognized  the dynamic force with which Catherine plays the flute. That force is what I’m trying to capture.

So I put the drawing in Adobe Illustrator and picked out the angles and the line of action to better understand the drawing. The purple lines are the dominant angles, the light blue lines secondary, and the orange lines are the lines of action. I still don’t have it quite right. I’ll have to spend some time in front of a mirror with a flute (holding it backwards since Catherine plays left-handed) in order to understand the pose. It’s times like these I wish I could afford a model. And I’ll have to spend some more time watching Youtube videos of Catherine. Darn.

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.