New beginnings…or “Onward Through the Fog!”

As I said in my last post, sometimes you have to be willing to close one door before you can open another, even if that means standing in the dark hallway alone for a while. I feel very comfortable in the hallway actually: it’s all about how you look at it. Recently a friend told me she thinks I have problems with commitment. Two days later another friend marveled at my bravery, at my willingness to experiment and try new things throughout my entire life. PotAtoes, poTAHtoes, right? Do you focus on the endings or the beginnings? It’s up to each of us of course. For now though, I’m more focused on sniffing out the next adventure.

Financial Security vs. Retail Therapy

As part of this new phase in my life, I decided yesterday to take a hard look at my finances and see if I will be able to tighten my expenses belt enough to make up for the small bit of revenue I will be forfeiting by leaving my very-part-time job. Yes, I can do that, but it will take the same amount of vigilance that my sainted mother put into counting her pennies. I will never forget the day I stood by her in the grocery store (I was probably about 25 years old) and she stated in a righteous tone, “I am NOT paying THAT for a loaf of bread!” She acted personally insulted that anyone thought they could get away with charging that amount of money for a loaf of bread, when undoubtedly it was only a few pennies more than last month, and it was generic not-so-special bread to begin with. It is so much easier to rein yourself in if you never cut yourself any slack in the first place.

God bless you Ruth, I am not willing to follow in your steps exactly, but I can take a lesson or two.  I can go about my day with only a cash purse when I am out shopping, so I am not tempted to whip out my credit card for an impulse buy. Like everyone, I have a few expenses that I see as essential, like health insurance and electricity and yes, internet access is right up there as well, but my ability to justify and fritter away money has really crept up in recent years. I am very comfortable wasting $20 five times in a week when I would never blow $100 in one fell swoop.  So I am following the same wisdom people get from tracking food calories and applying it to budgeting money. First, I need a plan in both instances: a goal expenditure of either calories or dollars for each day. Then I need an extremely easy way to track my “budget vs actual” reality. With calories it is through an app on my phone, and it is working: after six weeks I am seeing good results. With money, I am going to make it even simpler. I go to the ATM machine each Sunday and withdraw a specific amount of cash. That cash has to cover groceries, coffee dates, personal impulse buys, and when the money is gone, it’s gone for the rest of the week. Credit card is reserved for doctor appointments, prescriptions, and emergencies only.

Caffeine, get thee behind me!

This new practice is enlightening and actually enjoyable because I am not being a slave to a budget: rather it is a way to take back control of my life and become aware of how easily ‘retail therapy’ has slipped into my life. I live in the middle of a small city, and my neighborhood might as well be called the Coffee District. Within a two-block stroll there are no less than five very active cafes, three bakeries, and a dozen ways to spend money and consume calories that would be best saved for very special social events with friends visiting from out of town. Instead they all can easily become my ‘extended living room’, a place to take a book, or sketchbook, be with people without being with anyone at all, and indulge in gastronomic luxury.

No more. Now my regular cafe habit is limited to a Tuesday morning date with my good friend L., followed by a blog-post hour and a second cup of coffee. Then home to get on with the work of the day.

Saving [watercolor] time by spending [pencil] time

Speaking of having a plan and sticking to it, I launched a new sketchbook this morning, dedicated to Planning Paintings. In the past I have done some  pre-planning in my head and some of the adjusting mid-watercolor.  Now (and I smile admitting it) I am happily using a pencil in a sketchbook to work out design choices on paper, before I even think about filling my water pail and opening my watercolor palette. Every painting student is taught this their first semester of school, and in my case “sketch first, paint later” was taught as a mandatory step, of course. That black-and-white thinking went out the window decades ago, as soon as I was no longer answerable to a professor. Now it feels good to return to it, seeing it as just one approach among many.

Below is a photo I took at a pond in Northumberland, UK in 2012. Like most folks I instinctively do a bit of composing before clicking the shutter, so much of the work is done already. But looking at this photo, I thought, “There are even more design options I can consider here.” The one I tackled first was locating the horizon line in the frame of the painting.


Wallington Hall, part of the UK’s National Trust, Northumberland.

Do I want the sky to take up the top 20%, 40%, or maybe none of the picture plane at all? 

Do I want the small hut to be a dominant element (done so by making it either larger or by having it a pale color against a dark background) or do I want it to blend quietly into the scenery, letting the natural world be the theme and the human element a minor component?

These are choices that would have been subconscious at best had I not taken the time to pull out a sketchbook, and pencil, and ask myself, “What options am I overlooking?”

Overlooking options is something we all do, every day. It is a necessity up to a point, but a pause now and then can be enlightening. Choices about calories, and money, and artistic design are everywhere. Becoming aware of choices allows us to make better choices, or at least make our poor choices intentionally! (Yes, I do that too.) It feels good to own my life, every bit of it. I spent years trying to hold other people and circumstances responsible for my lot in life, and it just didn’t get me anywhere. Today I choose to take responsibility for my actions, thoughts, opinions, and choices. It is heady stuff, but has led me to feel quite rich in ways that have nothing to do with bank balances.

Posted in Cafe Wisdom, Sketchbooks, Watercolor | Tagged | 5 Comments

Knowing when to quit

My intention when wrote that title was to simply talk about a watercolor technique, specifically how do you know when to stop fiddling with your painting and call it good. As soon as I typed the title, though, I realized how great it feels to know when to quit a whole bunch of things. It’s that time of year for me, endings and beginnings. I look at all the automatic charges on my credit card, subscriptions to video services and online exercise programs and charitable organizations and I ask myself, “Which of these would I sign up for today if I were starting with a blank slate?” It is so easy to keep doing things because you have always done them. In January, I question everything.

Checkbooks and datebooks

If you want to see where your values are, look at your checkbook and your datebook. That is not an original thought, I assure you, but it is an old truth that I carry with me. In January I look at all my weekly/monthly commitments and ask myself, “Am I still willing to spend what little time or money I have left in this life on that activity? And if I eliminate a few things, what might I be making room for?”  It is reinvention time.

Teaching vs Learning

I have been teaching at my local art school since October 2017 and have derived a lot of enjoyment from it. Aside from meeting a wonderful collection of folks, I have learned how to have a lesson plan that is solid yet flexible. My classes attracted some naturally shy people, and hopefully I was able to help them get more comfortable experimenting with like-minded explorers. My classes were never directed at developing advanced, specialized expertise, though; my goal, instead, was for each student to acquire  a heightened level of comfort and excitement in order to sustain interest for the long haul. I would rather instill hunger than technique.

And now it feels like this role has run its course. Sketchbook Skool (an online teaching organization that has been my guiding light and a resource I encouraged students to explore) changed my life in 2014, but I see now that it is not for everyone. I already had ‘the creative itch’:  in 2014 I had reached another plateau of restlessness that was not assuaged by weaving or gardening or cooking, or even by writing. I wanted my full eyesight back so that I could paint the way I used to paint. And Sketchbook Skool taught me, “So if ya can’t do that, you can still have fun playing with all the art supply toys, ya know.” Sketchbook Skool removed my ambition and gave me back my joy. It left my Inner Critic baffled and aimless. That Critic had nothing to pick on, because every time it said, “Ouu, that line, that mark is wrong!” my heart’s response was, “Yeah I know, I love it! Isn’t wonky so much more interesting??” That is what I learned from Sketchbook Skool.

And that is what I have tried to convey in my classes: the sheer joy of ‘mark-making’ can exceed any other pleasure you have as an artist. What if Joshua Bell cringed every time he hit a wrong note when he was learning to play violin? He never ever would have become a virtuoso. It is that simple. What I have tried to teach for the last three years is that reacting to our moment-to-moment successes and failures uses up energy better spent on the next drawing. Keep going, keep practicing, until it feels like something is missing when you go a whole day without a hot date with your sketchbook.

This Saturday January 11th is my next class at Kimball Jenkins, and February 8th will be my last class there. All are welcome, no experience necessary. Just sign up online at  Kimball Jenkins School of Art , bring your supplies, and we will see how much fun we can pack into three hours.

When I started writing this blog post (in my favorite cafe this morning with oatmeal raisin cookie in hand), my intention was to focus on an article in the February 2020 issue of  Watercolor Artist Magazine . In it, the author asks six artists the question, “What’s your #1 strategy to avoid overworking a painting?” The answers are brilliant of course, and I may well talk about that in my next post. For today though, my fingers wanted to explore a larger version of the question:

How do you know when you’re done? 

For me it is more of a realization, an a-ha, than a decision. I may wobble, and ponder, and weigh pros and cons. But then, out of nowhere, my gut quietly whispers, “Yup, we’re done here.”

A painting, a project, a hobby, a job, a relationship, a focus. How do you know when you’re done? How do you know when you are long past done?

These are very good questions for this time of year. Endings make room for beginnings, and both can be exhilarating if we let them be.


Posted in Cafe Wisdom, Life Insights, Views from Aloft, Watercolor | Tagged | 5 Comments

Taking stock of the soup we are in

A year ago today, Christmas Eve, I was in the midst of my second major right-eye retinal hemorrhage in two months, each occurring at the beginning of an extended holiday weekend. I hadn’t driven my car since mid-November 2018, and as a result of that second hemorrhage, I was forced to forfeit my car and my ability to drive in early January 2019. Everything I loved, everything that makes my particular life worth living, (reading, painting, drawing, and writing) was slipping through my fingers. I had lost the sight in my left eye about thirty years ago. Secretly and silently I was planning my exit from this world if the sight in my right-eye was to vanish as well. It was the lowest low point of my life, sounding like the cymbal crash of a 46-year glaucoma drum roll.

And today? A crooked smile crosses my face I must say. I am not living the life of a Hallmark movie ending, and yet as I sit on the verge of “Old Year’s Week” (Dec 26-31) it is instinctive to pull back from the myopia of daily life and see how far I, and perhaps we, have come.

First off, I have seen the retinal specialist regularly in the last year, with several treatments (pharmaceutical injections into my eye), and further vision loss has been slowed. In January 2019 I deepened my connection to Future Insight , the statewide agency based here in Concord, that works with people just like me as they adjust to independent living with visual impairment or blindness. I can’t say enough about that organization, rich with wisdom and adaptive equipment and, above all, heart. They also host a monthly peer support group where men and women of all ages and all stages of vision loss get together to check in, shares joys and struggles, and encourage one another. Although, for now, I have more sight than most of the members, they welcomed me with open arms, saying, “We have each been where you are now, and it is not easy at any point in this journey.”

Last February I wrote a blog post called,  “Why Giving Up Doesn’t Work” and felt a subtle but unmistakable shift in my writing. Now I feel a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’, to write a post most weeks. I found there is a convergence of pleasure, humor, and clarity when I am seated at White Mountain Gourmet Coffee each Monday, with my inexpensive tablet computer, Anker keyboard, a simple cup of coffee, and one of their spectacular oatmeal raisin cookies. I expect words to flow rather than feeling I need a plan and a theme. It just happens.

In March I resumed teaching sketchbook art at my local art school, something I was sure had been taken from me because of the retinal problems. Since then I have led a class at least monthly, and although the attendance is low, the quality of the people who show up to learn together has been very satisfying.

With these new delightful companions, I found myself looking at my friends and acquaintances through new eyes. Most relationships are give-and-take, right? I recognized I have friends who tend to be ‘takers’ and I cringed when I realized I too can take on that role if I’m not careful. I decided to turn that inner flinch into a call to action. I asked myself, “Who do I know who only hears from me when I need something?” Then I made a plan to correct that bad habit, one person at a time.

Early Spring: I developed a new friendship with an author, and was privileged to be one of his readers for a soon-to-be-published book. I renewed my passport and booked a flight to London to finally meet in person an online friend who has become a soul sister over the past three years. I also lost a dear friend with whom I had had weekly coffee dates for a couple years, and I utterly fell apart at his funeral. Yet another reminder that none of us have any time to waste. The shift continued to deepen, a stronger and stronger sense of “To Thine Own Self Be True” in every aspect of my life. May 5th -15th was spent in England, my first time there as a guest of a UK citizen rather than as a part of an American tour group.  Much slower tempo and a good amount of time on my own as well, walking and going to cafes and sketching everywhere I went. Upon returning home, the adjustment to being back in the States and on my very predictable home turf was a struggle as always, made worse by the inability to grab the car keys and treat my cabin fever restlessness with joyriding.

Mid-year:  To put an end to an annoyingly angsty few weeks, I chopped off all my hair. Actually a stylist did it, cutting off way more than I had asked, turning that face in the mirror into someone I barely recognized. It didn’t matter that my friends loved it, I was disarmed and disoriented! Several weeks later though, I realized something as innocuous as a haircut could set me free in unexpected ways. Not having to fret over straggly hair that no longer existed, I wondered what other opportunities I was overlooking. A friend from twenty years ago came to mind one day, and I decided to ‘google’ her, hopefully to reconnect and to apologize for a minor hurt I knew I had inflicted on her many years ago. The first word that came up in the search was ‘Obituary”, and I cringed when I saw she had died in March 2018 of pancreatic cancer. What a powerful reminder: when in doubt, be kind. There may never be time to set things right.

Another book crossed my path last summer, Untethered Soul , right up my spiritual alley. I also saw the movie All Is True in my local theatre– three times. It is about the private life of William Shakespeare, and it moved me deeply. It didn’t matter that many of the details of the story are fictional imaginings. I am drawn to any tale that explores the dichotomy of a person’s inner vs. outer life, because it is so easy to think that what we see on the outside is the truth, possibly the whole truth. I doubt it is ever so.

A shift in painting focus

At the end of June I received in the mail my copy of The Apocalypse Variations by Marc Taro Holmes. This man, who has been an encouraging leader in the Urban Sketching movement of the last decade, has pushed past painting from rigorous on-site observation, to envisioning and painting a world where the glorious landscapes themselves (which he had so skillfully portrayed for years) no longer exist due to climate change. The images in this book are stark and dramatic, as are his words. He offers no simple answers, but rather conveys a very personal sense of despair, loss, and then a small glimmer of hope that there may still be time to stop the insanity surrounding us all.

As much as it may sound like I live in a little pink bubble of creativity, that is not the case, and like all other Americans, I was drawn into our national crisis with the Mueller investigation and the continued illegal and immoral shenanigans of so many of our leaders at the federal level. Having said that, it all still feels so far removed from my daily life of making ends meet, deciding which bus to take to the laundromat, and shopping for my small bit of weekly groceries that I can carry up those two flights of stairs in one trip. I am so grateful that I can actually manage taking care of myself these days without being a burden to others, and then I look around and see that my country is on fire and all I can offer to help put out the flame is a teacup of water. It is not enough to simply not be adding to the problem, I must find a way to be part of the solution as well. But sad to say, other than voting and being a generally decent person, I have yet to find a civic duty niche for myself.

A shift in my own artwork approach

Thanks to a recommendation from a UK friend, I ordered up ten full sheets of 22 x 30 inch Saunders Waterford watercolor paper in July, enough to make forty decent-sized paintings in the style I have admired since I first discovered the teaching of  Ron Ranson  in the 1980s, This misty, evocative style was front and center in my studies back then, but sadly I abandoned it all when I lost the sight in my left eye, and as a result lost all depth perception. The lovely, controlled hairline details I had become so skilled at painting suddenly become impossible, and I found myself either painting clumsy fat skid marks or missing the paper entirely. (Ironically, Ranson himself was monocular in later life. I would have loved to have had a chance to ask him about his transition to what a friend of mine calls ‘pirate-sightedness’.) I often feel like a beginner these days, but now I see there is a way to cash in on watercolor’s ‘uncontrollability’. That is where the freshness and beauty resides.

Later summer: The dog days of August got into my apartment, and a bit into my soul as well. Although I am not technically bi-polar, I am well aware that I thrive on “gee-golly-ouu-shiny’ new ideas, and I love a tangent far more than a well traveled road. August and September found me doing the drudge work of implementing several brainstorms of early summer, rearranging my furniture so the easel is now right by the north window for one. I also superimposed a Monday-through-Friday routine so I either write or paint five mornings a week, and only run errands and socialize in the afternoon, after the real passions of my life have been fulfilled first. Healthy living in general seems to take more effort, time, and focus than I want to give it, but I have learned the hard way that living ‘from the neck up’ (as I have done my whole life) comes with a high price tag. So in my mid-sixties I am stumbling along learning to take care of my body as well as my mind and spirit. Perhaps on a related note, I have had three fierce head colds this year (including right now), and they leave me with very little energy to do much more than simply rest and keep generally out of trouble.

Finally autumn… I discovered the way to loosen up my artwork was to work bigger in every way. I resurrected my Pike palette from the 1980s, set up my watercolor easel, and am working on quarter Imperial sheets all the time now (11” x 15”) using an interesting brush called a hake (another tool used in the Ron Ranson style.) I am trying to reintroduce some foundational habits into my work by making sure I have good light, an ergonomic work area, and a decent chunk of time to drop into The Zone. Painting with others is also important and in November my niece and I visited with Urban Sketchers Boston on a crisp Sunday afternoon, had a great time, and I hope to make a return visit in the near future, by myself or with friends.

If you have made it to this point reading my Tale of 2019, I applaud your perseverance. The message I want to convey is not so much about the details, as it is about seeing the threads that string one’s life together. I often feel I am adrift when I do not see those threads (oh ye of little faith, yes indeed.) That is why for some time now I have taken an hour or two at the end of each month to look back and take account of my accomplishments, struggles, and insights. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a solo life: after all, who has time to take stock when living in the middle of a family whirlwind? But whirlwinds eventually slow down and stop. What I experienced this year (with losing a bit more eyesight and the freedom of driving) is not that far from the experience of empty-nesters I suspect. Even though you knew it was coming, your whole world has suddenly shifted, and there is a black hole at the center of it all.

What can one do?

Well first, don’t panic. Even when you feel to your very marrow that you are utterly alone, you are mistaken. And if you do panic, that is okay as well, just don’t hurt yourself too badly in the moment.

Then after the panic, the shock, the big harrumph of it all, it is never a bad idea to gently take pen in hand and look back at “the facts, ma’am, just the facts” of recent months or years. Make a list of your accomplishments and your true friends, they are good reminders to have in writing for the down days. You, and I, and everyone else, we are each an essential cog in someone’s evolving life. Your impact matters, even when it feels inconsequential.

Your readership matters too. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for spending some time here this past year, it means a lot to me. As always, feel free to share any of these posts with friends who paint or write or are wannabes. And chat back your own thoughts here as well.

We are all in this soup together.


Painted Christmas Day 2019

Posted in Art-Making, Journaling, My Story, Storytelling, Urban Sketching, Watercolor | Tagged | 8 Comments

Dowsing for the Ultimate Watercolor Secret


My alternative to smartphone scrolling…

This morning I was working on a lesson plan for my next  Sketchbook Adventure Club class this Saturday (theme for the day will be ‘Watercolor 101’), and honestly, I was struggling. I had way too much to say, insights into the ins and outs and predictable pitfalls of this magical medium, and was at risk of losing everyone in an avalanche of detail. Then I suddenly asked myself:

“Why does watercolor have the reputation of being so difficult?”

It is for one reason and one reason alone. It’s not the paint, the paper, or even the brushes. The challenge every single time is the dang water.  Yup, that’s the big secret, it’s the water. The part that is absolutely free. In watercolor, evaporation is your best friend and your arch-enemy.

Watercolor is often a race against the clock.

Dry art media (like pencil, pen, markers, pastel) afford you the time to draw a little, then look, and ponder, and go out for coffee, and return and carry on.  Wet media (like acrylic and oil) have their own drying tempos, but they are each a stroll in the park compared to the stop-and-go sprints of watercolor.

Some experts say there are four stages of evaporation in watercolor, and about a gazillion things you can do to cooperate with or sabotage these inevitable phases. The stages are wet, moist, damp, and dry. Think of a paper towel, not really mysterious right? But what you can successfully accomplish during each of these stages, now that is where the real art of watercolor comes in.

Beginners are taught about the materials, but are never taught about the dance.

The dance of multi-layered drying times. Watercolor has a starting gun at the beginning of every brush stroke, as the evaporation process begins over and over again. The good news is you can get to know this obstacle course so well that the starting gun will no longer startle you.

Here are some things I have learned: I work mostly from observation rather than from my imagination, so I do a lot of ‘mental painting’ before the first wet brush stroke hits the paper. By simply staring, observing, and selecting my focal point first, I make a lot of decisions in advance, deciding what areas I want juicy and soft, and what areas will need crisp edges. Then I create a light pencil sketch of the most important areas in order to confirm my design. By the time I pull out my brush and palette, I have done a lot of the work (which is actually play of course). Then the only challenge left is to practice, practice, practice in order to become skilled at understanding the wetness of the paper, and of the brush, and how much wind there is. A metaphor sometimes helps…

A human bird call

Have you ever been walking in the woods, heard a bird singing, and tried to call back with your own rendition of their language? However feeble your attempt, sometimes it gets the bird’s attention. It continues to sing, and you continue to try to improve your own whistle.

This is exactly what painting is for me. I see an image before me, a landscape, a still life, a shadow across a pile of bricks and rubble, and I am drawn to call back, however feeble my attempt. Sometimes my ‘whistle’ is pretty good. Sometimes it’s like I have been eating crackers. No matter, I still whistle.

So my watercolor lesson is, “Don’t worry if occasionally you have a mouth full of Saltines. Some days, for no reason at all, you will confuse the robin by being right on pitch yourself, and downright lyrical. You and the bird will be amazed. It is worth every failed attempt for those silent inner happy-dances of, “Yes! This time I got it!”

Evaporation Happens.  Sally forth, brush in hand, whistling all the way.


Last night I amazed myself. You never know!


Posted in Art-Making, Cafe Wisdom, Sketchbooks, Storytelling, Uncategorized, Watercolor | Tagged | 3 Comments

My roots are made of celluloid

I was born in the early 1950s and cannot remember a time when I wasn’t swooning over cartoons. The ones that my generation grew up with were crafted by Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, Disney, and Hanna-Barbera. These were our versions of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. Rather than learning manners and inclusion, we were fed a steady diet of pratfalls, stolen acorns, balloon mallets, and cliff dives. While we laughed at the antics of these beloved characters, we were also bathed in some of the finest classical music and extraordinary graphic design that, in my case, became part of my DNA.

A few decades ago I began studying vintage Disney graphics in earnest. Not the animation itself, but instead the backgrounds. One of my investments at the time was the colossal 5.5 lb. book called  “Walt Disney Animation Studios Archive Series #4: Layout and Background”

I also bought a collection of postcards called   “The Art of Disney: The Golden Age (1937-1961).” 

I fell in love with the hitherto unpublished pencil sketches, line-and-wash tonal studies, and close-ups of well-known scenes from the best films of this wonder-filled era. As you may know already, sketches and sketchbooks are my thing really; from Rembrandt to Monet to Disney, I enjoy seeing their sketchbooks, the thinking processes, as much as the finished images.

Something haunted me about those finished images as well though. There seems to be a subtle difference between illustration and ‘fine art’ (or as I call it, ‘art-art’), and I’m still not quite sure what it is. When in doubt though, dive in, right? Since I lived in a picturesque village at the time, I decided to use the buildings nearby as subjects for my own cartoon background practices. Here are some of the results.

[An aside: As I worked along, my cartoon brain engaged again, about the same time a blizzard arrived, so I documented this scene showing the back of my home and what was left to see of the storm door. It’s called, “It Snowed Last Night”.]img_20191126_1549562

So as I was saying, there really is an subtle yet unmistakable difference between an image that evokes the feeling of a story, and an image that is “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

So what makes the magical difference?

The answer is complicated I’m sure, but I do know one watercolor technique that has the power to instantly alter the mood of a picture. It is called glazing. (Here comes your watercolor lesson, get ready…) This technique has the power to transform a painting from the facts to a feeling. It is simple enough to do, and only requires patience and a bit of materials knowledge. First to the patience. Complete a simple watercolor, being sure that any ink lines are done with permanent ink, not water-soluble. Allow the sketch to dry completely, I mean bone dry.img_20191128_1041022-1

Then mix up a mild solution of a very transparent watercolor pigment such as quinacridone gold, or perhaps raw sienna, or a bit of rose madder. With the least abrasion possible, use your brush to glide a thin layer of your ‘tint’ over a few select areas of your painting, any places that might be kissed by the sun, especially late afternoon sun. No fiddling allowed, or you run the risk of lifting the watercolor layers beneath your layer of tint. Let it dry, and be amazed.img_20191128_1103132-1

It takes a bit of practice, and of course a few failures, but in the end, any painting/sketch that is ‘okay’ but looks a bit dull can suddenly come to life via glazing. There is a glow where there used to be ‘just facts’. There is atmosphere where there used to be air. Suddenly you are inviting your viewer into the picture, to visit your art as a storybook illustration. Your viewer begins to create a story all their own, of course. That is magic.

Animation cartoonists of the early-to-mid-20th century had a technique similar to glazing. They could use tinted sheets of celluloid (called ‘cels’) as overlays to create a rosy glow in the morning, or the blue-grey cast of twilight, without disturbing the detailed original image beneath. To portray the animation itself, the characters were drawn and painted separately, directly on clear layers of celluloid. Then these mostly-transparent cels were placed on top of the highly-detailed background art so that a series of dashing dwarves could run everywhere without disturbing the beautiful images below.

You use glazes and cels too. All the time.

Bet you didn’t know that, did you. Metaphors abound in my art supply collection, and this is a big one. The thing that is so magical about a raw sienna glaze is that you can’t see it, but you can feel it. The magic of tinted cellophane is that without even touching an image, it changes its appearance entirely. And like those glazes and tints, we too look out through eyes that are glazed, all the time, and we don’t even know it. It is the human experience for all of us, every moment of every day, whether we know it or not. When I am humming a sad song, it colors my experience of the day. When I need a grey sheet of cellophane to look through, in order to validate my Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy attitude, it is instantly available. Our minds and hearts and souls are overflowing with cels of every hue and they color our moment-to-moment experience of life. If I act Pollyanna, it is because I chose my rose madder lens through which to view my day, just for now.

My point is, we all have images (events and circumstances) that are the real deal, ‘the facts, ma’am, just the facts’ of our lives at the moment. It behooves me, though, to remember I am also, at every moment in time, adding my own glaze, my own tint, my own spin to the facts, in order to create a compelling story. There is no denying there is a picture underneath it all. But equally important there is a tint.

Choose your tints carefully. They are the filters through which we see everything.

Posted in Art-Making, Cartoons, Life Insights, Views from Aloft, Watercolor | 7 Comments

I just finished a sketchbook

When you are using a 160-page sketchbook, as well as two other ‘specialty’ sketchbooks, all at the same time, it is a big deal when you Finish A Sketchbook.img_20191114_1033302

Why three at once you ask? Simple.

1) I want one sketchbook made of decent watercolor paper (think heavy and thick paper, like each page is five paper towels welded together). This is for intentional local painting excursions when I know I will have Time To Hunker Down.

2) I usually have a partially-filled Travel Sketchbook going as well, made of decent watercolor paper. My current Travel Sketchbook began in May 2019 during my trip to England, and I want to keep it as a travel book, all about adventures outside my zip code.

3) The final book, the one I just finished, is lovingly called my “junk sketchbook”. It is always in my shoulder bag, always. Its paper is adequate, but much thinner than the paper in the other two books: thick enough to handle a small, controlled bit of watercolor without falling apart, but thin enough, inexpensive enough, to use for jotting down sudden brainstorms, insights, and quick, not-so-perfect sketches. The paper crinkles and buckles when wet, never again returning to a pristine flat page. It is best for pen and ink, light washes, and lots and lots of random journal entries. More than adequate, less than precious.img_20191114_1034542

Essentials of a Junk Sketchbook

Here’s what to look for if you too would like to be the proud owner of a Junk Sketchbook. First of course is the paper quality, described above. Second is overall size. For me, it has to fit comfortably in my shoulder bag, or else it will spend its whole life comfortably on a shelf at home, never used, just reeking of potential. If I can’t easily carry it with me every day, it is not a good Junk Sketchbook.

How to know your book is finished

I often lose my enthusiasm before I get to the actual end of a sketchbook. When there are a fistful of finished pages in my left hand, and a back cover and a few feeble blanks sheets in my right hand, I am ready to move on. That used to be a bit of a problem, but no longer. Yesterday I invented a solution.


I found myself a comfy cafe where I could hunker down and number the pages discreetly in the lower outside corners. Then began the really fun part: Reading. The book I had just completed started 18 months ago, so it contained a lot of thoughts and sketches and mini-movies that seemed like ancient history to me now. The index I was about to create would depend on what contents I found interesting while reading the book, a very organic process. (Note: This index is so much richer for having been created when the book was finished. In hindsight many things are more [or less!] interesting than they were when first written, right?)

The first index category became Watercolor/Full Color Pages.img_20191114_104811

The second was Brainstormed Teaching Ideas for the sketching class I teach at my local art school.

Next list of pages was for sketches that were Tint Only,img_20191114_104821

followed by Mostly Ink. I thought that would be enough for an index.

But no!

I realized I wanted a whole page devoted to Follow-Up Soon entries. Now I was getting into it, and discovered it really had been worth the time to number all these pages, and harvest any gold within the book, because this index was going to be valuable in the future. The Follow-Up Soon list included names of  YouTube art instruction videos, ideas for blog posts like this one, and an idea for my next themed sketchbook.

I also created an index page for My Favorite Quotes from the book:

12- “I love this book for irrational reasons.”

95- “Looking is common; actually seeing is rare.”

41- And by Kasimir Malevich, early 1980s Russian painter.img_20191114_1058302

Another whole index page appeared, devoted to:

Plein Air Lessons Learned:

8- Don’t forget to pack the bug spray in May

24- Add a couple watercolor pencils to purse kit. Good for sketching dry and for adding a pop of focus on pre-wet paper

67- Watch the slant of the sketchbook! If I balance it in my lap, or angle the paper (like we all naturally do when we are writing), I end up with drawings of buildings that look like they are listing to the right every single time. I never notice it until the sketch is almost finished! It’s fun, and funny-looking, but not always what I’m after.

159- In November remember to add a folded plastic bubble wrap mailer to my art bag, to use when sitting on a granite bench in the winter

160- Add a few blank post-it notes to the back page of every active sketchbook, so if I get a brilliant idea while sketching (it happens all the time), it will be easily transferable to a planner book.

What next?

I have an idea for my next themed sketchbook: “Waiting for the Bus”. It has been almost a year since I gave up my car and discovered the unexpected world of wandering on foot, and community travel by bus. I never would have been able to reduce my carbon footprint this much by sheer willpower alone; it happened because I can no longer see well enough to pass a driver’s license eye test. The good news is that I can still see enough to look, and look again, and really see things that other people with 20/20 vision overlook. Perhaps it’s because people who can see so much have to constantly filter out distractions. Not me.

My “Waiting for the Bus” sketchbook will have to be lightweight because I’ll be sketching standing up, balancing the sketchbook and pen without the aid of a table and chair. In it I will capture glimpses of ideas rather than full-blown ponderings. I can use my favorite spur-of-the-moment writing prompts, like, “I’m so glad I noticed…” and “the part that makes this sketch really work is…”, and my favorite “what I learned from sketching this was…”


It goes without saying that this small “Waiting for the Bus” sketchbook will have to know its place from the very beginning though. It will always be deferring to its big brother: my next beloved Junk Sketchbook.


Posted in Art-Making, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Storytelling, Urban Sketching, Watercolor | 3 Comments

Globetrotting as a Local Sport

Living about an hour away from a large, relatively old city means I can go there, I don’t have to go there, so I rarely go there. You can know intellectually that you are near a goldmine, but gee, it takes effort to grab the pick, right? Well, this past weekend I grabbed the pick.

On Saturday morning I got on the bus here in Concord and 90 minutes later found myself in the heart of Boston, meeting up with my niece to start our 48-hour adventure together. We met at South Station and decided to head off to Boston Public Library, a famous place I had never visited.

The current incarnation of the Library was completed in 1895 and its main architect Charles Follen McKim dubbed it his “palace for the people.” I spent a lot of time taking photos, and made a commitment to myself to come back soon for a whole day, sketchbook in hand, of course.


The Library alone was stunning not to mention the Courtyard…


and the John Singer Sargent murals in the Sargent Gallery.img_20191102_102229



From there we traveled by subway and foot to a delicious lunch at a North End Italian restaurant, then onward on the perfect fall day to my niece’s home in the East End, a stunning fourth floor brick-walled apartment with a surprise feature of private roof-top garden and seating area. The view of the Boston skyline from the rooftop was breath-taking.fb_img_1573050571418-1


Day 2: Our weekend together was actually designed around a Sunday afternoon gathering of  Urban Sketchers Boston , a first for me and very exciting! After brunch on Newbury Street with my niece and her friend Joanna, the three of us walked to the Urban Sketchers meeting place on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley St, near the Church of the Covenant.

This church is one of Boston’s many hidden gems. Built about 180 years ago in the Back Bay area and redesigned by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in 1896, we decided to visit inside before settling down to sketch outdoors. We were met at the door by the docent, a quintessential Boston elder woman, slim, classy, upright, dressed simply (think tweed) with hair pulled up and back in a casual bun. This lovely woman launched into her speech about the history of Back Bay and of the church, and directed us to the donation box with encouragement (but not pressure) to contribute. Understatement sold me of course.

Beyond the vestibule, we arrived in the main sanctuary and although the interior was very dark, I used my camera to zoom in on the windows and woodwork and was amazed at the beauty of this undoubtedly underappreciated building. I cannot fathom the costs to maintain such a place. This four-minute video  here gives just a small sense of how impressive our visit was.  I will return.


We eventually left the church and despite the chill in air, several regular members of Urban Sketchers Boston appeared right on schedule. After brief hellos, my niece, her friend, and I found a stone bench where we hunkered down for the next two hours. The three of us picked totally different subjects to draw (that always fascinates me): Joanna,  despite being a beginner, took on the hardest subject, the cathedral itself, and did an amazing job. Carra took on people, sketching two of the sketchers as well as the view of a distant steeple framed by the branches of a tree. Very creative! At one point the three of us got laughing at ourselves, joking about how wonky our sketches were, and one of the regular artists strolled by with a smile and said, “You sound like a bunch of giggling school girls!” Of course! Just because some artists may frown a bit, it is not because we are serious or unapproachable, we are just squinting, or thinking, “What the heck is going on here?” Carra, Joanna, and I were just there to have fun, thus the laughter. At about 3pm the ten of us reconvened around a park bench, laid out our sketchbooks, and admired each other’s efforts.


Urban Sketchers Boston meets every single weekend, year ’round, indoors and outdoors, being mindful to always choose meeting places that are accessible by public transportation. This is just the kind of group I have tried to create in Concord. In the meantime, wouldn’t it be great if a group of my ‘sketchy friends’ here could take the bus from Concord to Boston to draw with these folks again before springtime returns? What a great way to break up the wintertime blues. Whether it is at a cafe or museum or gallery in Boston, I am up for it.

As I rode the bus home to NH, something felt oddly familiar. It seemed like I was returning from another trip to England, without even having  gotten on a plane. For less than $40 round-trip, I can take the bus to Boston any day (especially when USk Boston is gathering), and by the end of the day I will have refilled my creativity tank. Sketching with others makes the whole experience so much richer.

If you’re interested, check out Urban Sketchers Boston on Facebook, and let me know when you’re up for joining me on the next Sketchbook Adventure! You will be amazed, guaranteed.

Posted in Art-Making, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Urban Sketching, Watercolor | 2 Comments