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

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.

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.

Drawing dancers


Saturday I ventured down a seriously narrow road in the coastal mountains to visit a folk dance weekend. It’s a private event that’s been going on for many years. It involves camping, eating, and pretty much round-the-clock dancing. My husband’s band, Harmon’s Peak, played for a contra dance and I went along with the intention of sketching.

I like dancing a lot, and I had to exert an enormous amount of self-discipline to pull out my sketchbook and get some work done. Of course I was shy to sketch around people I didn’t know (they might look!), but even when a man plunked down right beside me and took a good long gander at my sketches, I just kept drawing.

DancButterflytwirlers present the puzzle of sketching a moving target. When the dancers were flying across the deck, I could only scratch out the briefest of lines. So I mostly drew them as they stood waiting for instruction, and during the repetitive parts of the dance. I had to watch carefully to catch them as they returned to the same position over and over again. Then I’d tear into the drawing and get a few more lines down.

I started by drawing stick figures with the pen side of my Tombow Dual Brush-pen. Stick figures are a great way to get a gesture down fast. I start with the line of action so I’ve got a place to go, then over that line I draw in the barrel of the chest. That’s the most important part—it’s the visual clue about the torso’s inclination in space, and as Rob has told me millions of times in class, it’s all about the torso. When I’d got the torso down, all the rest of the bodily bits—hips, arms, legs, and head—could be attached with some success.  Last of all, I hung flesh and clothes on the gesture drawing using the brush side of my Tombow.

SingleDancerThe contra was short and sweet. Afterward, the dancing rounded back to Israeli line dancing, a style of dancing I don’t know. It was interesting to watch the dancers as they stepped and twirled. They didn’t have partners, as they would in contra dancing, but they did form a large circle and danced as a group. Each song had intricate stepping patterns and lots of whirling, and some dances had arm waving and gestures. It seemed almost meditational rather than social in the way a contra or a set dance is social. Without someone to tell me what I should be doing, I’d sure have to be meditating on what the heck I was supposed to be doing in that circle.

If you live in the S.F. Bay Area and want to find a contra dance, the BACDS (the Bay Area Country Dance Society) is a good resource.

There is evidently a large subculture of Israeli line dancing in the Bay Area. You might try the Sunnyvale Community Center.

Fear of sketching

Sketch from Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass festival. While I was sketching, the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation, and told me how much she enjoyed watching me draw!
Sketch from Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass festival. While I was sketching, the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation, and told me how much she enjoyed watching me draw!

WordPress somehow keeps track of search terms folks used to get to my blog. One of the most frequently searched terms is fear of sketching in public.

I’ve written about being afraid to sketch in public before. I am constantly trying to overcome this fear, and apparently, I’m not the only person shy about public sketching.

I’ve been working on solving this problem, because one of the things I really want to be able to do before I die is sketch freely in public, with no shame. If that’s your goal too, here are some suggestions that have helped me.

  • Take some classes to improve your skills. This is top of the list. I’ve studied figure drawing with Rob Anderson at the Atelier School of Classical Realism for 3 years. It’s improved my skill level to the point where I can sketch people and have them look like people. That has allayed my fears incredibly.
  • Plan your sketch trip as if it were an expedition to an exotic country. Expeditions are hard. They are arduous. They can be dangerous. They are adventure that takes a lot of effort, so think ahead. Select your materials with care. Decide where you’re going (make a map if it helps you). Know how you’ll provide for your basic needs (what you’ll eat, where you’ll be able to go to the bathroom.) Once you’re on your expedition, be curious, look around you, document the expedition with sketches to describe the customs of the natives.
  • Choose places where you can sketch in obscurity. At first, it helped me to sketch in large public places like parks, where I could sit on a hillside with my back against some bushes (so no one could creep behind me and look over my shoulder at my drawing). I drew people who were far away, so they didn’t get self conscious that I was drawing them. I could have been drawing them, the view, anything. And I did draw them, the view, anything.
  • Pretend you’ve got no choice. When I went to the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass festival, I pretended that I was on assignment for a brutal editor and had to come away with ten sketches. I just didn’t have any choice. I had to do it. The sketches didn’t have to be particularly good, but there had to be 10. That worked for me, as I’m used to deadlines and assignments.
  • BassplayerKeep it simple. Don’t try to create a masterpiece. That’s way too much pressure. Draw stick figures if you must. Anyone can draw a stick figure. Try just to get the action or composition down using stick men as shorthand. Stick figures are amusing, and a low commitment for the artist. Later you can hang skin and clothes on the little figures in a place where no one can look over your shoulder and criticize. Same with a landscape. Just try to get the bones of the landscape. Don’t worry about drawing every bush, tree, or leaf.
  • Remember that people don’t see your work the way you do. We artists tend to be our worst critics. We see flaws; others see beauty, or effort, or the coolness factor that you’re an artist.  They may even be thinking, “gee, I wish I had the courage to do that.”

That long meeting

Meeting3You might know that long meeting, might have fought the urge to wriggle in your seat, bounce your shoe at the end of your toe, stare woefully into your empty coffee cup. The information is interesting, but really, how long can a person be expected to sit still?

Meeting1Sometimes I’ll draw through the meeting. Portraits of the speaker, landscapes of the audience. I am paying attention to the meeting, honest I am, but I’m also learning about the lay of the workland.

I paint and draw mostly because it keeps me alive. It’s a compulsion, yes, but I believe it’s born of the need to interpret—no, actually translate the world into a language I can comprehend. So often the world in incomprehensible to me.

I’ve learned much about my bosses from sketching them. One of my bosses has a native good humor and kindness; I never saw it until I sketched her a few times and then I realized that specific turn of her lower eyelids that denotes a laughing nature, hey, that’s a permanent feature! I’ve learned much about my co-workers from placing them in the meeting landscape. What are the ideas that get them all sparkly, or make them slump like they’ve been filled with sand.

These drawings are just lined notebook paper. But sometimes that makes my hand more free. I don’t feel like my output has to be worthy of the quality of the paper.

Once I stumbled on an exhibit of drawings by David Siqueiros when I was in San Cristobál de las Casas in Southern Mexico. They were all on lined notebook paper that was yellowing with age (no, I am NOT comparing myself with Siqueiros-just pointing out that a master also used cheap, easily available materials, out of necessity, no doubt). They were still tremendously powerful, as if they’d been drawn by a person suddenly ignited with an idea. I’m wondering what long meeting he was sitting through when he drew them.


Good old fashioned sketchbooking

Guitar playerWell, whattaya know! The Great Bluegrass Festival Drawing Expedition was a blast. Despite my fears at venturing into public drawing, I sketched unscathed at the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival. Musicians didn’t take offense at my sketching: bass players didn’t mow me down with their gigantic instruments; fiddlers didn’t skewer me on their bows, nor did banjo players strangle me with their twangy metal strings. And the people who looked at me (yes, they did. They actually looked at me with my little journal and bag of pencils) while I drew, why, they were delighted! One woman saw me drawing, grinned widely and said, “what fun is that!”

And darn it, it is fun. Normally I dislike listening to music while I work. I find it distracting—one of the uncomfortable things about being a musician is that there is no background music. My musical brain always stands at attention for anything resembling music, and disallows any action by the other thinking parts of my brain. I am not a good multi-tasker when music is playing.

The Barefoot Nellies singing harmony
The Barefoot Nellies singing harmony

But this was different. For one thing, I was prepared for music.  I knew there would be lots of it. Besides, I wanted to sketch musicians while they played.

One thing I learned. Bluegrass really sets your toes tapping and makes your drawing arm swing.

It was really hard to sketch people as they played. Those musicians are moving all the time, and each drawing was an exercise in fast gesture poses—good practice for me. You can see that the drawings weren’t entirely successful, especially around the hands. And even less successful around the instruments.

One of the Winton boys playing dobro and a small sketch of the dad playing guitar.
One of the Winton boys playing dobro and a small sketch of the dad playing guitar.

I point out the unsuccessful parts because drawing at this festival really made me see the areas in which I have smaller knowledge, the parts of the world that I need to really look at and understand. That means concentrated study.

To draw a form rapidly, and draw it well, I think you need study it. It needs to be in your head already. You have to study forms so hard that you can trot out a hand, a foot, a face, a fiddle, and draw it perfectly from memory. Once you’ve internalized it, then I think you can really accomplish something.

Again, it’s the analogy of musical scales. You’ve got to get those major and minor keys down so you can shift between them at any turn of the tune. Then you can really start to have fun when you play with other people.