Do you ever stop to think about all the brickwork in your world?
It’s everywhere, and yet almost invisible.
Interesting facts: A standard red brick in the United States is 3.625 inches deep by 2.25 inches high by 8 inches long (9.2cm x 5.7cm x 20.3cm), and weighs about 4.5 pounds (roughly 2 kilograms). I discovered so much more about brickwork at this website, things like how many bricks it takes to build a 10 foot by 8 foot wall (answer: 549). The bricks would weigh about 2,470 pounds, and that doesn’t begin to include the weight of all the mortar needed to hold the wall together. Heavy work yes, but not unmanageable for a wall that’s standing on the ground.
But what if you had to carry load after load of bricks up a ladder (using a brick hod of course), 10-12 bricks at a time, then climb onto the platform of the scaffolding, up another ladder, eventually getting to the top where the actual work really begins?
Nowadays the load of bricks may arrive at their lofty destination with the help of a crane, but the brickwork itself cannot be mechanized. It is done by human hands, one brick at a time.
Way up there at the top of the building, as you perform your precise artistry, you realize there are only four parties who will ever notice your hard work: they are you (the brilliant exhausted bricklayer), the architect who dreamed up this intricate design, the hundreds of birds flying overhead, and the crazy lady a hundred years later who has this habit of saying, “Wow, look at that!”
I had such fun taking these pictures to share with you. As I aimed my camera skyward on a busy weekday morning, people walking by looked up too. Most had no idea what I was looking at: after all, there was nothing new up there, no plane flying by pulling an advertising banner behind it, no recently launched rocket ship, not even a child’s escaped balloon. Nothing.
But oh, if you could see what I can see. Now you will.
I have far too many pictures to put into just one post, so Part 2 will arrive in the next few days. I’ve intentionally left out most identifying features of these buildings, because my motive is to show you what you’ve never noticed before. Then after you breeze through this post, I encourage you to look around your own town or city, especially up at the skyline, at the eaves of buildings, and the chimney tops. Do you see any decorative elements that you’d previously overlooked? Smile and look again.
I believe embellishment is in our nature. I do admire the minimalist artwork of Mondrian, Albers, and others: those styles are a cool glass of water on a hot summer’s day. Refreshing, until I’m again aware of my need for nourishment, for real food, for delight. For me, that is found in embellishment.
Decorative brickwork of the mid-1800s, dancing high in the sky where few bother to look, has a special appeal for me. I suppose it’s because it looks mildly tongue-in-cheek: after all, that brilliant design work and heavy-lifting labor could have been featured much closer to eye level.
But no, something that grand needs to soar. You have to stop in your tracks to really see it.
And there’s the point. Stop. Enjoy.
And how many stories throughout the centuries are mixed into the mortar between all those bricks?
Part 2 will be coming to you in a few days. Until then, don’t forget to stop and look up!
Heartfelt thanks to the kind folks who have already dropped a donation into the new Tip Jar. It helps me pay the rent, keeps me writing, painting, sketching, editing photos, and yes, enjoying a cafe coffee now and then. Your support is most appreciated!
I recently returned from visiting two long-time friends whose rustic home and gardens are tucked into a wooded hillside in central New Hampshire. Early Sunday morning, long before I heard my sleepy friends stirring, I tiptoed outside to enjoy my coffee in the cool morning air, smiling at the chattering birds and the scolding chipmunks protesting my presence on their porch. After a few moments I also noticed the delicate quality of the early morning light, so decided to take a few pictures on my smartphone. I took more photos than I expected and later shared them with my hosts. That was when I discovered yet again that I notice things other people may not even see: I do double-takes and slow gazes all the time.
This brings me to a related topic on seeing: I received an inquiry this week from a reader of my book:
“My question is about the recommended index card style view catcher [pages 19 and 30 in “Look at That!”] for the back of my sketchbook. I sort of get the idea of what it is for but do you have any tutorial (or one recommended) regarding ‘best practices’ on how to best make use of a view catcher?“
The answer is yes, of course. First though, let’s take a step back to the beginning, to journey from Looking, to Seeing, to Finding Your Focus, to Designing your Vantage Point.
It’s a whole lot simpler than it sounds.
Whenever you decide to take a photo, or do a sketch, you’ve already begun the process of elimination. Out there in the real world there’s just too much to look at, and if you want the person who’s looking at your photos or sketchbook to see what you saw, to see the specialness of what you noticed, you have to help them.
You simply need to ask yourself two questions:
1- Where’s my focus?
2- Where shall I put it?
The first is easy: Your focus is whatever made your roving glance pause, suddenly stop, or do a double-take.
Is it worth an intentional second glance? Is it worth a good stare? Is it worth a photo or sketch?
On to the second question: Where do I put it?
Call it design, call it composition, but no matter what, don’t let it scare you because this too is not hard. There’s a well-known “rule” in the art world called the Rule of Thirds. Here’s a link to learn more about it.
I use a slightly different guideline (softer than a rule, did you notice that?)
It’s called The Big X.
Rather than a target area to hit(that’s the Rule of Thirds approach), instead I imagine the two lines to avoid(the middle horizontal and vertical lines).
Oddly enough, the results are more or less the same, with a little less thinking, yay!
With The Big X, you simply want your center of interest to be anywhere other than dead-center. (Isn’t that ironic? It’s true though.) Avoid putting your focal point anywhere along those lines (also not at the far edges of your picture frame, of course!), and you’re good to go.
Here are a few photos from yesterday. I do love folks who garden.
If you don’t have time to sketch, or simply don’t feel like drawing at the moment, head outdoors with your smartphone or camera and take some pictures to see what you see. You’re still developing your artistic skills, simply by doing this.
Then later when you’re having your cup of tea, play with them. Try zooming in and out. Try radical cropping so you get a tall sliver of an image or a long low profile in great detail. See how different the same image looks, and even feels, when you do all that. Remember to use the “save a copy” function instead of simply saving, so you have a whole collection to enjoy later.
Most of all remember: All the art training you will ever need was installed as original equipment the day you were born. It’s called gut instinct. You already know what you like.
And when all the instructions and should-oughtas about composition and design and “I’m not artistic” finally quiet down in your head, the rest is smooth sailing. Your outdoors photo collection will be a gorgeous resource for those inclement weather days when you feel like sketching but it’s too yucky to go outdoors. You will have a photo garden right at your fingertips, any time you like.
P.S: I still may not have answered that reader’s question, so here goes.
Why use a view-finder? You look through it when you’re stuck, to simplify the scene.
Peek through it, zoom in, zoom out, go vertical then horizontal, move a little left, a little right, until you see a frame-worthy image in that little window. Then rather than clicking the shutter (because you’re holding a little piece of paper, not a camera!), simply take another minute to give the image a good long stare. You’ve just made friends with your location. You did the big decision making with your eyes, not your brain, good job! Here’s a link to another post I did about using view-finders— to see first, draw second, if at all! Enjoy simply looking and seeing!
I was prescribed eyeglasses when I was about 10 years old, and for me, wearing glasses is as normal as breathing. My poor mother had three kids who all wore glasses from a young age, and I recall her chiding each one of us, saying, “How can you see out of those glasses? Go wash them right now.” Must’ve been tedious for her.
The problem was (and still is for us visually-challenged people), it’s very easy to get used to semi-smudged glasses.
There’s another kind of “dirty glasses” that clouds our vision without our knowing it. It’s called The Thinking We Don’t Know We Have (TTWDKWH).
Yesterday I recognized one of those subliminal brain hums when a quiet thought came to me:
“I wonder what it feels like to not be hard on yourself?”
It felt so novel to even consider it, like my pondering, “I wonder what it’s like to be a guy?” or “I wonder what it’s like to be seven feet tall?”
A bit of context:
Yesterday morning I finished reading a novel which, for a brief while, threw me back into reliving (or so it felt) some pretty sad and frightening times in my childhood and young adulthood. I don’t “go there” often because there’s no reason to, but when that nerve is hit, there’s no pretending it doesn’t hurt. It’s kind of like the fourth toe on my right foot: I broke that toe several years ago, and despite it being fully healed, it’s still more tender than all the others.
So whether it’s my toe or my psyche, the question is, where is that healthy space between pretending my past never happened, and dwelling on it so much that I bring the pain alive again and again, in some naive hope that with the right techniques, it will feel like it never happened at all? Where is the freedom to own my past, without my past owning me?
Thanks to an understanding I came across several years ago, I now can bypass all the techniques and theories I learned in years of traditional therapy. It’s a way of “seeing” that re-centers me on the road to peace, and although it’s not a cure for living, it has greatly increased my resilience. Here are my own, custom, non-technique steps:
First, realize your glasses are filthy
As with many spiritual traditions, awareness has to come before anything else. With this understanding, I realize that when I’m in emotional pain, I’m listening to painful thoughts, and believing them to be true. Distorted vision, right?
Here’s the important part: it’s those thoughts I don’t know I have that hurt the most, not the circumstances. I’ll give you an example.
Let’s say your boss yells at you. Not fun, but it is what it is. The additional subtext that follows, though, is 100% fabricated by me: “Not fair, I’m a way better employee than my coworkers!” Or, “What is wrong with me that I thought I could do this job, I’m such an idiot.” Or any number of fabrications to explain the unexpected. This is what a human brain does, it tries to make sense of events that don’t make sense. And when there isn’t enough data to explain a situation, the brain just makes stuff up. That’s it’s job, right?
Thanks to this new perspective, I now see that any anxious, panicked, depressed, negative feelings are simply red-flags, telling me that something has happened that my brain is cramping over at the moment. I see that my glasses are dirty.
Second, start washing your glasses
The “doing” part of step two is more like “gentle skepticism” and after a while it becomes instinctive. I refrain from believing every word my brain is saying, and instead, to the best of my ability in any moment, I create a neutral perspective.
I don’t dive in and start mucking around in the heavy head-traffic; instead, I back off, because, in truth, there is nothing to fix.
In the case of reading that book full of vivid scenes of violence, all I had to do was realize I’m remembering something that was painful years ago, that I survived it, and at this moment in time, my amazingly powerful mind is re-creating a film-studio quality re-enactment simply because it remembered something. Your brain is like a hyperactive kid jumping up and down, saying, “Mom, Mom, hey, I remember something just like this! Mom, hey, look at this monster I just drew, it’s just like that scary book you were just reading.” And like any good, well-rested mom, you acknowledge that yes, that’s true, there is a similarity, but that scary bit isn’t happening right now, it’s in the past, it’s long over and everyone’s safe now. Good job drawing that picture, but let’s remember that it’s history, not breaking news, right?
Third and finally, is Drying Time (Yes, I can beat a metaphor into the ground, you know that, right?)
Drying time is important when washing glasses, because clean wet glasses still aren’t very easy to see through. The ”Drying Time” for things that feel like a flashback or PTSD is so simple, yet so easy to forget: it’s the Triage of Kindness. It’s an intentional, gentle time-out to breathe, or stretch, or do anything pleasant you like, while the very real adrenalin in your body subsides. We breathe our way back to the present moment, amazed yet again at the phenomenally creative special-effects department inherent in every single human being’s brain/mind.
Most (if not all) of our experience of life is colored by our brains’ innocent attempts to connect past experiences to present life. It’s how our reptilian brain kept us safe, and still tries to, even when we’re not in danger at all.
Our moment-to-moment experience of Life is 100% shaped by the convoluted tales our brains spin. Ideas and opinions pass themselves off as absolute facts all the time (we can see this in others way better than we can see it in ourselves, right!). That is, until we shift our perspective just a little, and see right though our fabrications. It can be no other way, it’s how we’re wired, as thinking, interpretive, creative beings. And yes, it is both humbling and liberating to see this amazing truth.
So what on earth does this have to do with sketching, you ask?
Absolutely everything, of course.
Sketching is my favorite way to see the simplicity and power of this understanding, this new paradigm. Here’s how:
Anyone who has a piece of paper, a pen, a functional hand, and eyesight can look at something and draw it. Literally anyone with these four items (pen, paper, hand, eyeball) can draw. Not accurately at first, of course, but still, you can make an easy, pleasurable beginning. Or can you?
Not necesarily, because sketching often feels more risky than writing a grocery list using those same four elements. Why? Because with sketching, you might have a judgmental subtext. It’s the same brain-voice that tried to figure out why your boss yelled at you, and now it’s having a field day making up stories about you, about your rotten character, because you looked at a straight telephone pole, and drew a wobbly line instead. It’s so predictable: when “A” doesn’t equal “B”, your brain is off and running to make sense of it, and decides, more than likely, it’s Your Fault. Or maybe Someone Else’s Fault. Silly brain.
Are you hard on yourself in any area of your life? How about your finances, or relationships, or health, or education, or anything else? Is your brain’s message about that situation neutral, or does its storytelling habit restrict you?
Imagine just for a moment what it would feel like with the exact same situation, without the fortune-telling fearmonger voice. What if you listed the same facts, and then said, “Thank goodness I’m never too hard on myself. I can easily figure out the next step toward my really exciting goal.” Would you find yourself suddenly breathing better? I certainly do.
My very bumpy past has given me experience and wisdom and a depth of empathy for people in rough spots because I’ve been there. I remember those times, but those times no longer own me. They are simply resources in my multi-color, multi-texture reference library. Nowadays, most of the time, I can experience Thought Illusions without falling for them. Instead, I smile and say, “Thanks but I’ve seen that trick before.”
That’s why even my most blundered sketches are fun today, because they’re not about me. Any more than my award-winning paintings bought by collectors are about me. They’re delightful marks on paper, moment-to-moment observations frozen in time.
It’s magic really, once you see how easy it is to get out of your own way.
It has suddenly jumped from almost-too-cold to almost-too-hot to be sketching outdoors, which means there’s no time to waste in fine-tuning my art-supply travel kit. I say “travel,” but in truth for me, “travel” usually means leaving my third-floor loft apartment! I was sitting outside in the park today, enjoying all the tree flower buds falling onto my hair as I sat reading my book. Then I glanced up, looked around, noticed the kids and families enjoying the day.
It was time for a quick sketch, so out came the tools. My kit doesn’t change much from year to year, how about you? I’m sure fishermen, kayakers, and all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts are always comparing their latest tools and toys, why not us too? 🙂
Here’s the tiny bundle of supplies that lives in my purse:
Moleskine sketchbook, Pocket size, 3.5″ x 5.5″ (soon to be replaced by the next size up, an A5)
Wrist sock, well-used, more on that later
Look at That! pen pouch, full and beautifully self-limiting so I don’t carry too much. It usually contains my Lamy fountain pen, my fude fountain pen, a felt-tip pen, a water brush, a pencil (which I almost never use), and just a few watercolor pencils (blue, green, brown, tan) for preliminary linework (instead of using pencil.)
Expeditionary Art palette (see first picture) tucked into a customized ziplock bag so post-sketching leaks stay contained (Note: the stickers on the palette and sketchbook are all thanks to my friends at Goulet Pen Company. )
The latest additions to my kit are worth their weight in gold, and are so simple! A medium and a small binder clip (see below).
This is a tight close-up, hope you can see it. First I clip a medium size binder clip right over the spine of the book, so the book stays open easily. Then I used a small binder clip to fasten the Expeditionary Art palette right to the “wings” of the larger clip. It’s surprisingly stable, and solves that ever-present challenge of how to hold a book open and a palette stable, all with one hand! Of course this trick only works with that compact Expeditionary Art palette.
I was in my usual haunt of Bicentennial Square in Concord NH, the centerpiece of which is a marvelous stone sculpture garden that has delighted childen of all ages for years.
Start with simple, expressive lines made with the fude pen. I could have stopped here and been pleased with my day. (I was sitting in the shadow of a tree so the pictures are a little dark.)
Then clip on the palette and discover moment-to-moment how far I want to go. Again, just these dashes of greens would have been enough. Note: I’m learning how to create what Liz Steel calls “Watercolor Magic” by under-mixing the paint, and getting it onto the paper with as few strokes as possible.
Close enough! Many inaccuracies, but it works as a stand-alone example of several minutes well spent. Finally, time to pack up.
That’s the joy of having an every-day, rarely-changes, always-with-you sketch kit. Like Goldilocks says, it’s not too small, not too big, always just right.
As a final note, don’t forget to remove the wrist sock you’ve been using as a convenient rag to wipe your brush on. If, like me, you go out for coffee after you’ve been sketching, you too may get to hear a wait person say, “Oh my goodness, what happened to your wrist!” It does look like a bandage that’s been through the war. I just smile, wearing it with pride, and say, “No worries, I’m just an artist. . . “
What’s in your art kit nowadays? Have you discovered a way to make it both tiny and adequate? Share your answer in the comments below, or on our Facebook page at “Look at That! Sketchbook Adventure Club.” All of us look forward to hearing from you!
that they may see, it may be, their own images . . .
and so live for a moment with a clearer,
perhaps even a fiercer life
because of our quiet.”
–William Butler Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore, 1893
This is my favorite prose poem in all the world. I aspire to this state of mind, and manage to visit it occasionally.
Lately I’ve been spending much of my time sketching/painting, at home and out in nature; that explains the recent quiet spell on my blog. No worries, I’m still here, just not bubbling over with words. Instead, I’m enjoying admiring and creating images.
This Yeats prose poem has haunted me for years, and now is the perfect time to share it with you. I hope your gentle sketching sessions allow your soul to be a bit more still from time to time. Happy spring to everyone, I do so adore May.
You think you know someone, and then you listen to a podcast that launches your understanding to a brand-new level.
I just finished listening to Episode 14 , “Making It Look Easy” with Liz Steel and host Nishant Jain on his podcast The Sneaky Artist, and had to pause it at about 50 minutes (it’s a 90-minute interview) to sit down and write to you.
Liz is talking about how you get a much clearer understanding of what you know – and what you don’t know – by teaching. That was certainly my experience for the three years I taught at Kimball Jenkins. During that time I found myself stammering, then pointing, then demonstrating, because words simply didn’t show what I was trying to explain.
After years of collecting art instruction books and feeling disappointed in myself as a learner, I now understand that some things are much better taught through videos or in-person. Think about it: How could a single frame from Casablanca or The Godfather or The Color Purple tell you much at all about the movie?
Of course a lot can be taught through books, thank goodness! Take art instruction for example. Picture yourself reading one of those books right now; it takes you down a lovely country lane of learning, then you find yourself at a fork in the road.
The fork to the left is marked DRAWING. You can learn a lot about drawing from books. You can use graphite pencil, or colored pencil, or ballpoint pen, or fine-liner, or even fountain pen, and the instructions in a book will serve you very well. (I like to think I did that reasonably well in my book, Look at That!)
But the fork to the right says PAINT, so you add water and all hell breaks loose.
Can you imagine trying to learn gymnastics or equestrian prowess from a book? Only the very basics could be conveyed and then the wise teacher would find a way to say, “Come with me, I have something to show you, not tell you.”
I love books, and sometimes I love video-learning even better, but today I was shocked to realize that some things are conveyed even more clearly using just audio. The podcast mentioned above comes closer to revealing the heart of this artist than a book full of her gorgeous illustrations. Why? Because of one thing: The colors in her voice.
Listen to Liz in this interview. Over and over again you hear the bubbling enthusiasm in her voice, you hear her smile. You feel the “why bother” of creating a sketching habit in a way that no book or blog could ever explain, no matter how well written.
And isn’t “Why bother?” the most important question you could ever ask yourself?
Let’s zoom out for a moment: What are you doing habitually with your days lately? Why bother?
Yes, yes, there’s the food and shelter and dishes and laundry and bathing of daily life, but beyond that, what are you doing with yourself, and why?
I’m as guilty as anyone of binge-watching movies or a TV series when I don’t think I have the energy for anything else, but that’s a slippery slope, as we all know.
Daily living drains the well, so what are you doing to refill it?
I’ve discovered a surprisingly simple thing that changes the flow in my well from draining to filling: Change Tempo.
An example: my main meal most days is a very large complicated salad. I can rush through preparing it, annoyed that there are so darned many things to chop. Or I can slow my pace 50%, actually look at each vegetable or fruit or pickle or piece of tofu, and marvel at the journey it went on to arrive at my kitchen cutting board.
I can fold laundry just a little more slowly, and be amazed at how many years those slightly worn-out socks have protected me from my shoes.
I can sit just a little longer on the granite stoop downtown, where I must pause to catch my breath because my lungs are struggling a bit lately. I can be aggravated that I have to waste time sitting in the middle of my walk back from the market, or I can look up, really look at the street lamp that I’ve seen so many times, and I can think, “Wow, that lamp is so ornate! I thought I’d seen it before, but no, it’s far more decorative than I ever realized.” And instead of just pausing to catch my breath, I find myself pausing to sketch something that takes my breath away.
Once again, I’m not amazed at what I see— I am amazed that I see. It’s such an exquisite privilege to be able to open your eyes and actually see. Not everyone can do that. I’ve had more than a few adventures with dicey eyesight so I know. When I say, “Look at That,” I’m also saying, whoa, slow down, this life we have is more amazing than we know, especially if we’re rushing through a to-do list, acting like that list is our reason for living. It’s not.
What’s your reason for getting out of bed and participating in this day today? Why bother? What’s in it for you?
Have a good ponder— I hope your answer makes you smile.
The café tables are back on the patio at my favorite downtown haunt, and I’m once again luxuriating in a cup of coffee-someone-else-made as well as a uniquely New England hermit bar. My shoulder bag is loaded with all the usuals, but sadly no journal for writing because I swapped that out for a sketchbook years ago.
Still, I want to jot down a few notes for a blog post, so I rummage around and discover the solution: the back of a CVS receipt! I’ve often joked about how useful they’d be for unplanned sketching, etc., but I’ve never actually used one. And yes, when rolled up from both ends it could certainly pass for a modern-day scroll.
(I use a cross-body messenger bag as my everyday satchel, and every single time I try to swap it out for something smaller or more lightweight, I regret it. So now when I want it to be lighter, I simply empty the water bottle. Instant 16 oz. relief!)
Later. . . as much as I enjoy being outdoors, it’s now a few days later and the wind is whipping around, rattling my windows at 25mph with gusts to who-know-what, so indoors feels much better, even safer! Not much has changed in my little world for a while now, hence the gap in blog posts, but I do have some exciting news.
Some years ago I purchased two art courses from an artist in Australia, Liz Steel, who has since updated and reintroduced both courses. She’s allowed us alumni to join the latest batch of people taking this course for the first time, and there’s a delightfully interactive feeling to the forum she created just for students. I believe most of us alums are “drop-outs” like me: we got part way through the course initially, then Life happened and we each silently muttered, “Oh well, lifetime access, I’ll get back to that later. . .” Oh, those good intentions!
I’m thoroughly enjoying both classes, far more than I did in 2015 and 2018 when I originally purchased each course. Here’s the surprising part: every bit of the lessons sounds and feels brand new. How could that be? And even better, the homework I’m doing is much better than what I produced all those years ago. You can be told over and over again that “putting in the pencil miles” (as John Muir Laws calls it) is the only thing that will substantially improve your artwork, but to see proof with your own eyes (of your own work, not someone else’s), well, there’s nothing like it to motivate the heck out of you.
These are the classes: Foundations and Watercolour at Sketching Now, by Liz Steel. This woman over-delivers so although the courses are pricey, you’ll get more than your money’s worth from it.
Here’s the latest from that delightful day sketching outdoors recently. First, a very wonky cityscape where I used a funky little limited palette so ended up with much more exciting colors than I usually have! (Note the priceless piece of equipment shown in the photo, something that never leaves my bag: a light-weight 6” x 9” clipboard that gives the heel of my hand a great place to rest when sketching or writing, especially toward the bottom of a page.)
And here’s the second, of one of my favorite subjects, rocks.
Be sure to get outside and safely breathe some spring air this week—and while you’re at it, be sure to schedule in time to sit and stare. Look at That!
The chatter in our head is often the only thing holding us back from happily giving sketching a try, or anything else for that matter. That sweet little brain of ours is trying so hard to keep us from harm, yet it often derails our joy as well. We can know it’s doing that, but dang, how do we intervene and get beyond all those counter-productive cautionary thoughts?
I’m about to tell you the secret right now. (This will be a short blog post to read, but a long one to watch. Might be a good time to put the kettle on.)
A few weeks ago a good friend of mine, Dave Fry, asked if he could interview me about my new book, especially as it relates to a philosophy Dave and I share. Over the past forty-eight years this understanding has gone by many names: Innate Resilience, Health Realization, Inside-Out Understanding, but most often it’s called the Three Principles.
I came across the Three Principles (3Ps) over a decade ago, and must admit I was a very slow learner. The problem was that I kept trying to figure it out intellectually, and when finally “the penny dropped,” the understanding became profoundly simple. I burst out laughing, it was like finally getting the punch line of a joke I had heard my whole life. Anyone who talks about the 3Ps invariably starts using metaphors, because images are the best description. (Right up my alley, ya think?)
I won’t ruin the surprise, but rather I invite you to enjoy this 65-minute video when you get the chance. I confess, Dave could hardly get a word in edgewise. You see, watercolor, sketching, and the Three Principles are my hands-down favorite things in life, including chocolate. That’s how delicious and life-affirming they each are for me. I hope you’ll get a taste of it by watching this, and as always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below. Enjoy!
Here is the link (for some reason it starts 21 minutes into it, so “rewind” to the beginning!), and here’s a secret garden entrance to sit by while you listen.
(Near Stagshaw Garden, Ambleside, on Windermere, UK. Watercolor by yours truly.)
There are so many perks to slowing down. Sometimes external elements help out, things like . . . the weather.
Yesterday I decided to slow down and be fully present to my neighborhood by walking home from an appointment rather than calling a taxi. The walk was only a little over a mile, but it’s been crazy cold and windy here lately, as well as icy underfoot, so pleasure walks have been out of the question. But not yesterday.
I decided to give it a try, and told myself I could call a cab anywhere along the line if I needed to. It was about 36 degrees F (that’s 2 degrees C), but the sun was out and the breeze was quite gentle. My first stop was for a take-out latte from a local cafe, then I just kept strolling. Sure enough it happened: the double-take.
A double-take is when your eyes take a second peek without asking your permission. There was something about that sky-space shape between the two chimneys. I looked, then I looked again. Yes, I told myself, that’ll make a pleasant look-at-that lingering moment. I sat down on a nearby step, and started to lay in the GPS points. (That makes more sense if you’ve read my book!)
I wanted to do a fairly quick sketch, and when I “came to” and compared the scene to the sketch, I saw my skyhole wasn’t quite right. No worries, it’s just practice seeing and sketching! I added several more courses of brick to the left-hand chimney and voila, I achieved that heavenly state of a smiling “good enough.”
Here it is.
Black felt-tip Flair pen, water brush to reactivate the ink in order to add shadows and leaves. The drawing’s not impressive, wasn’t meant to be. But wow, the way I felt after sunbathing-sketching in February . . . priceless!
According to the dictionary, plagiarism is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” We can all agree that plagiarism is a very bad idea; even if you don’t get caught, you’re asking for seriously bad karma-cooties. Don’t do it!
Copying though, well that’s a very different thing. And ironically, it used to be a core part of all artistic training.
Centuries ago, in order to learn to be an artist you had to enter into a long period of focused apprenticeship. Usually that training was a formal agreement between master and student; other times it was training thanks to proximity, as with one of my heroes, Artemisia Gentileschi.
At various points in history, though, this servile attention to “follow-the-leader” was thrown off, and very exciting artwork resulted. The Impressionists come to mind immediately.
Those revolutionary artists had one thing in common: audacity.
But what about the rest of us?
As an art major in school, I wanted to learn techniques, to become intimately familiar with the materials. Unfortunately at the time it seemed that skill wasn’t being taught, only style. Thus, every person who took the painting class at my college ended up creating very abstract work that looked oddly like the professor’s work. I didn’t see the point.
Now decades later, thanks to wonderful online and in-person mentors, I know my favorite art materials fairly well. I enjoy trying to “copy” someone else’s work in order to really study it. Honestly, twenty minutes of hands-on trying to copy a watercolor will teach me more than hours of simply looking at it.
That’s why a few years back I created a sketchbook called, “Inspired by Facebook.”
I belong to several Facebook watercolor groups, so I browsed through them until I found an image I liked. I took a screen shot of the image (this one is by the wonderful Suhita Shirodkar) and I printed out a small thumbnail of it. Then I attempted to capture the freedom and spontaneity of her line work and watercolor marks on the right-hand page. Wow did I learn a lot about what I didn’t know!
Then on the left-hand page, I wrote the following:
Although it looks good enough, mine is much more “worked” than the original.
-Many more brush strokes than needed.
-The sky dried much paler than I expected, had to do a second coat.
– Bolder ink lines to begin with would have made it a stronger design. I’m tempted to “touch up,” but then the lesson would be lost.
– Still love my Ron Ranson 7-color palette plus 2 (burnt sienna and cerulean.)”
Soon after I started using Facebook groups for inspiration, I came across a wonderful class by Andy Walker on Udemy called “Watercolor Fast and Loose.” In it he introduces you to seven core principles in painting, and uses the works of famous watercolorists to shows you a step-by-step way to “copy” their watercolors. It was so liberating! I copied work I would never have taken on had I been left to my own tastes. I highly recommend this very affordable course, here’s the link.
(I don’t receive any gratuities for recommending this, I just love his encouraging teaching style.)
There’s a reason I’m writing this now: I’ve hit a dry patch creativity-wise. I think I ran the well a bit dry in writing and publishing my book last year, and now it feels like, “I got nothing.”
But wait! That’s not true! I do have something;I have The Watercolor Itch. I still desperately want to play in the multi-colored water, I’m just utterly uninspired as to subject matter. (It’s been miles below freezing outdoors lately, that might be part of it. Plein air is out!)
Solution: Take another class with Andy. I’m in the middle of his “Paint Landscapes in Watercolor- Part 2” and I’m having a blast. While I’m painting, I get to pretend I’m sitting in the beautiful sun by a lake across from a lovely cottage in England. Seriously, what more could you want?
So there you have it. Don’t be afraid of using your sketchbook as a place to “copy” other people’s drawings and watercolors. Look around Facebook, search by “watercolor” or “sketching.”
Aside: Did you know that in the vast world of art imposters, you’ll rarely see a watercolor forgery? It’s true, it’s because the water itself plays such a huge, uncontrollable role in the tempo, the spontaneity, and all the unexpected “happy accidents” that are the hallmark of great watercolors.
So never fear: “copy” away, keep it all in your watercolor-paper sketchbook, and you’ll be free to practice your skills to your heart’s delight!