Slaying boredom by painting dreams at 35,000 feet

Sketching while flying
This is my watercolor kit for traveling. It’s small, fits in my laptop case, and I can paint almost anywhere with it. Clockwise from top left: Sakura Sumo Grip mechanical pencil;  Aquash Watercolor brush; Windsor Newton travel paint box; Handbook Artist Journal (5.5″ x 5.5″).

I admit, we are stay-at-home types. I didn’t use to be, but after we bought the Tree House, it seems like I never want to leave. As a result, we don’t travel much. But this summer seems to be our summer of criss-crossing the country.

First there was a girls-gone-wild week in Eastern Nevada with my traveling red-headed friend. She’s been spending the first few years of her retirement seeing the West from her Toyota Tacoma.  Oh my, but that was fun. We were really out of control. I mean, we had TWO bags of cheesy poofs! We stayed up until 10! We talked to strangers!

Then there were two weeks on the east coast with the fiddler, wrapped in humidity that boggled my mind. (I’m from the arid West, where, if the thermometer drops much below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I wear a wrap to ward off the cold. In Connecticut at 86 degrees,  I sincerely considered just how naked I could get before I would upstage the bride.)

Being on the road; or in the air; or at a wedding; or touring New England means there was little time to drag out the sketchbook and draw, or unpack the plein air supplies and paint.

The best time to paint turned out to be on the airplane. Boredom and enforced stillness turns on my creative tap. I need to spend more time being bored.

girl typing
I took it upon myself to be the dream giver, but one of the other passengers was my proxy model.


Dream surroung
Detail of couple sleeping and the dreams I gave them.

The quick portrait sketch, in time and in tune

I’ll be teaching a portrait drawing class December 10, 2015 at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis. Hope to see you there.

Music party
Music party After Hours
Graphite sketch with watercolor
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

How in the world do non-musicians spend their time?  The day after Thanksgiving, I attended a music party where tunes raged, fueled by left-over turkey, cranberry sauce, and chocolate-pudding pie.

I knew there were going to be a lot of American Old-Time tunes, which I don’t usually play (I’m more of an Irish-jig-and-reel girl). But I didn’t want to be left behind while the fiddler had fun, so I brought my trusty sketchbook and practiced portraits on the fly.

Three musicians
Three musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal
Accordion player
Detail of Three Musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

Drawing a moving target is tough. You can see in these sketches lines that have been partially erased because my subject shifted or stopped playing and I had to start again. Drawing at a musical house party means waiting for a waltzing couple to stop dancing into my line of vision. It means paying attention to the tune so that I know how much longer I have before the musicians stop playing and take a break to drink, eat, or simply gab. It means that I might suddenly have to stop drawing because Hey! I know that tune!

Guitar player, fiddler, recorder player
Three musicians
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

Often, when I teach life drawing, students complain when the model moves. Indeed, that is frustrating, and I used to whine about it too. But then I realized that humans aren’t statues; we twitch and wiggle and shift. We move. 

So if you can’t count on the model being still, what do you do?

  1. Draw fast  Sketch really fast to try to get as much information on the page as possible.
  2. Give up on details Don’t worry about things like faces until you’ve blocked in the big shapes. Block in the big planes of the face before zeroing in on each feature.
  3. Remember Life drawing exercises your memory, but only if you pay attention. Keep track of the position, because it’s likely the model will move back into it.
  4. Observe It’s why you’re drawing, ‘ent it?
Dulcimer player
Mountain Dulcimer Player
Graphite sketch
Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal


Strathmore Hardbound 500 Series
Mixed Media Art Journal

I wish everybody would find the joy in music, and not just as consumers, but as participants. I especially wish for everyone the joy of playing these folk traditions, where people play together, having musical conversations rather than performances. If you’re interested in learning more and live in the Bay Area, please check out the following links.

Santa Clara Fiddlers Association

California State Old Time Fiddlers Association

Fiddler Magazine

Drawing in the Outer Aisle

Paintings of eggplant
Asian eggplant sketches
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

A freelance illustrator often has to scramble to find source material for illustration gigs that fall from the sky. My last task—drawing three kinds of garlic growing at the end of their life cycles—had me calling a friend on Nantucket and pleading with her to take photos of a winter-retarded stand of late-blooming hardneck garlic in her gardens.

The photos were helpful, but there’s nothing like drawing from life for accuracy and understanding. As I struggled to make visual sense from the distortion of photography, I realized that I need to create a library of plants drawn from life that I can use as guides for future jobs. But how? I don’t have room (or water) for a garden of my own, plus our little yard is a crossroads for every animal that lives in these mountains. (I haven’t seen any bears yet. But you know if I did, I’d  be frantically drawing them while they chased me down the hill.)

I realized I’d have to find a garden or a farm at which to draw.

And fortunately, I discovered a small one-day-a-week farmstand of ultra-local vegetables called the Outer Aisle Farmstand. The produce is so local that most of it is grown less then 5 miles away from the store on a small 2-acre farm in the mountains.

A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged in the loamy soil of Taylor Mountain Gardens, sketching a light purple Asian eggplant. Owners Christine and Eric Taylor had just given me a tour of their lovely slice of organic paradise, and introduced me to at least 4 kinds of eggplant growing in lush, thick rows.  Eggplant heaven.

A farm of this kind—small, intimate, and worked by humans who love the land—is a sort of a sacred space. The earth is so lovingly cared for, the plants grown so well, and everything is managed with respect and foresight, that the farm seems almost radiant. It’s an honor to be allowed to make portraits of their plants. Stay tuned.

Christine and Eric, along with partner/chef Jimmy own Outer Aisle Farm to Table Restaurant in Murphys, California. Try their summer barbecue on Thursday nights, or enjoy fine dining Friday and Saturday. They source everything themselves and feature only what’s in season. If you live too far away, you can try their eggplant recipes at home.

Paintings of eggplant
Asian eggplant sketches
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Drawing on the farmers market

FarmersMarketThe fiddler fiddled at the Sonora Farmers Market last Saturday. He likes me to be present for moral support and to bring him pastries. I go and spend dollars while he plays for dimes. (Folks, please support your farmers market musicians; throw quarters in the fiddle case, at least!)

After my dollars are spent, it’s lovely to sit on a curb and while my butt falls asleep, sketch the crowd. A little chair would be more comfortable, but there’s a neat thing that happens at curb level. I’m closer to the kids, and instead of looking down on the tops of their heads, I can sketch at their eye level.

I’m not sure why, but farmers markets seem to bring out the goofy in kids, and they are often beautifully dressed as pirates or fairy princesses, or pirate fairy princesses. Leprechauns. Furry animals. It’s like there’s this alternate world that’s swirling around adult kneecaps, and curb sketching gives me a window into it.


Hoops, and hats, and bonnets, oh my! Public sketching in Columbia State Park

Pastel drawing
Pastel and charcoal on Canson paper

I’ve long been a fan of historical reenactments. I love costumes—hats, hoops, bonnets, boots, holsters, buttons, bows, and frippery from another age—and a park full of people wearing them makes my pencil hand itch to draw.

Columbia State Historic Park in the Sierra foothills offers all of those things when the volunteer docents are out in full force. Since I’ve been longing to sketch people in costumes, I dragged an artist friend along for company, fun, and moral support, and we went drawing for a day during their big birthday celebration. (They had speeches! They served cake!)

Charcoal drawing of speechifying

The two ladies at the top of this post sat and knitted gracefully while we drew. I went full-on artiste-geekazoid mode and set my easel up in the gutter (I need the canvas to be vertical as my new-fangled specs distort my drawings if I don’t look at the paper head on. Wish I could see without the blasted things.) I even dragged out long neglected pastel pencils.

According to a friend who volunteers at the park, everything they wear is as accurate as possible. “We’re dressed from the skin out,” she says. Scandalous to tell me, but when I ask to see her petticoat, she proudly showed off her corded underskirt. “They didn’t have hoops in 1850, so they used strips of cords around their petticoats.” (Make a corded petticoat here:


Clothes from the 19th century are so flattering, and best of all, they need curvy girls who can adequately fill out corsets and stays. (Ladies, when an artist tells you that you are beautiful, don’t tell us you’re not. Smile and nod graciously. We’re artists. We know what’s beautiful.)


The docents at Columbia often have characters to go with their costumes. Isaac Dinwiddie posed for us a good long time. When you look like this, you really need to have your portrait drawn.


All the charcoal drawings were done on an ancient pad of Strathmore Charcoal paper, Pad. No. 460-1. It’s fabulous paper, with a rough laid pattern that the charcoal loves, but it’s turning buff colored from age. I haven’t played with the sketches in the studio, and I’ve left the scans the way they are because I like the color of the paper.


Drawing birds

Book coverI recently discovered The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it if you’re looking to learn how to draw birds. He has terrific instruction on things like drawing feathers, birds in flight, and field sketching.

Laws is a very good bird and nature artist, but the focus of this book is to give up on the idea of pretty pictures and really look at what you’re drawing. He believes that by studying nature in order to draw it, you change yourself, saying in the first chapter of this book,  “As you grow in patient observation, the world will open and you will be changed forever.”

I agree with him. After drawing, I see things more clearly. After plein air painting, colors shout and announce themselves. One of the great joys of drawing is the act of studying, the process of slowing down enough to really look at what you’re seeing. I’m not going to say that it’s meditative, because for me, there’s a pulse of excitement when I’m really looking at something and able to co-ordinate my hand enough to get my observations down on paper. My heart beats with each line, and my mind seems to sparkle and tingle. Seriously? Better than any drug or drink.

Try it!


At cliff edge with a sketchbook

Bean Hollow
Looking out over Bean Hollow State Beach.

Yesterday while plein air painting on the cliff overlooking Bean Hollow State Beach, I watched legions of families troop down to the pebbly beach. Every so often kids would stop and politely ask if they might look at my painting; My goodness, yes!

A small boy sat at the edge of the cliff next to me, a packet of colored pens and a sketchbook in hand.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “I think this will do nicely.” And he opened his sketchbook, ready to draw.

But those cliffs are slippery; it’s best to be careful on the California coast. Absorbed in the view, the little boy leaned forward, and in a scraping of dust and sand he slid down the cliff to the beach below. (Don’t worry. The cliff face is shallow, the surface smooth from generations of kids zooming down on their bottoms, and the sand and pebbles below make the landing soft and delightfully scrunchy.)

He never dropped his art supplies. He stood, brushed himself off and gazed out to sea. Then he turned and ran up the stairs, around my easel, and, still grasping pens and sketchbook, slid down the cliff again.

Gentle painters and sketchers, take a lesson from this small boy. Even though life might send you sliding down a cliff, never let go of your sketchbook!

Breaking waves
Waves at Bean Hollow.
Breaking waves
Waves at sunset after a beautiful day.

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!

The short long pose

I dropped in on Linda Corbett’s life drawing class last week. I was at the Pacific Art League for a portrait class, but it had been canceled and Linda said, “You’re welcome to stay for my class. We have a ballerina for the model tonight.” And on cue, a beautiful young woman strolled in, a tutu under one arm.

Good teacher. She knows what kind of lure will catch a student.

The drawing I’ve posted above is a “long” pose—two 20-minute sets and two 15s. That’s not much time for me; I’m used to much longer poses at the Atelier. I have clocked in 20 to 30 hours on one pose. I haven’t drawn from short poses much in the last couple years.

It meant I had to manage my time more rigidly so that I could bring the entire drawing up to some small amount of finish by the end of the evening. I allowed myself only the first 20 minutes for the block in, 10 minutes into the second pose to check measurements and make any adjustments, then the remaining time to build up the form with pastel color.

That was an exciting exercise. At the time it felt like drawing like the wind. But now I can see all the flaws in execution. It felt good to draw that way, but I traded emotion for precision.

On the other hand, this sketch above was done in about 2 minutes as the model was tying on her toe shoes. Although the proportions are off, the sketch still has an energy and integrity lacking in the twenty minute sketch. Weird how that works. Sometimes a really fast sketch will capture the model better than a longer pose.

I decided to attend the rest of the class—4 classes in all—and concentrate on pastel portraits. I’m interested to see what happens when I only have one 20-minute pose to catch a likeness.