Goldilock’s Sketching Travel Kit

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.

All but the sketchbook fits easily into the side pocket of my shoulder bag.
The closed version. Beware anyone spotting your tissue splashed with lime green paint though– they may worry that you’re very ill!

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!

Posted in Look at That! book, Look-at-That! Pouches, Pen & Ink, Sketchbooks, Sketching tools, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity), Watercolor | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A time of gentle peace, with W. B. Yeats

Basingstoke Canal, Hampshire England, watercolor by Bobbie Herron, inspired by Judy Coleman photo

“We can make our minds so like still water

that beings gather about us . . .

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.

Posted in Musings on Life, Watercolor | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

An inspired podcast about “Why bother?”

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.

So simple, no lines, just water brush, neutral tint watercolor, and look, look, and look again.

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.

Posted in Musings on Life, Pen & Ink, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity), Watercolor | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

A modern-day sacred scroll: Your CVS receipt!

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!

Posted in 3- Magic: Art Epiphanies, Sketching tools, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity), Watercolor | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

“The chatter is what’s the matter . . .”

Don’t you agree?

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.)

Posted in 3- Magic: Art Epiphanies, Look at That! book, Musings on Life, Pen & Ink, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity), Watercolor, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Draw what drew ya.”

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!

Posted in Look at That! book, Pen & Ink, Sketching tools, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Never plagiarize: copy instead!

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:

“Lesson Learned:

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!

Posted in 3- Magic: Art Epiphanies, Look at That! book, Musings on Life, Pen & Ink, Pencil sketching, Sketchbooks, Sketching tools, Watercolor | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

“You never know . . .”

Have I used that as the name of blog post before now? Maybe. It would make sense because it’s one of my favorite expressions when things don’t go to plan.

A beautiful cold, sunny Saturday, after doing chores around my home in the morning I decided to reward myself with a stroll outside and a coffee-and-oatmeal-raisin cookie at my favorite cafe a block away. Fully masked, social-distanced, and well past whatever rush hour there is on a Saturday in these odd times.

After getting my coffee and cookie, I settled down to journal a little then sketch. Nope, too restless to journal, must be time to get right to sketching. Pull out the sketchbook and favorite Sailor Fude pen with that great bent nib and . . . insert screeching sound of brakes. Inside my head. Every line on the page was wrong, wonky, ill-placed. What??

It’s a long time since I’ve had an “I have no idea how to draw” day. It stunned me a little to be honest. After a while though, I realized the problem was I had no my focal point whatsoever. The solution of course is simple: slow down and look around.

Suddenly I realized my subconscious was hooked on what appeared on the page rather than on the joy of first simply gazing. As a dear friend says, “Take my advice, I’m not usin’ it!” No kidding. Reread page 9, first paragraph of “Look at That!” Hmm. . .

So, here you go. I’m lowering the bar of expectations for you and for me, and sharing my off-beat sketching time today.

First things first. Sit and gaze. Maybe breathe a little. Then repeat. When something grabs your attention, you will know. In the meantime, breathe and wear a Buddha smile.

Text on right-hand page:

“All I need to do to gauge my restlessness is to try to sketch when my mind is jumpy. Simply doesn’t work!! . . . Sometimes you just need to switch to a simpler pen—Fude too difficult today, Bic Cristal is perfect. . . .And consider simply writing something slowly – with your normal “grocery-list” handwriting. Ah, much better. Not every day is an easy sketching day, but every day is a “Look at That!” Day.”

Posted in 3- Magic: Art Epiphanies, Look at That! book, Pen & Ink, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Your dent may be your gift

Okay, I’m outing myself. I’m two weeks post-op from a surgery that didn’t deliver the outcome the surgeon planned, but also didn’t go as bad as it might have. Why am I sharing that here, though?

“Where words and watercolor soar together” is the tagline for this blog, but for a little while longer, I can’t actually see well enough to write or type or paint or sketch very well at all. My only real challenge, luckily, is patience, because a couple weeks from now I’ll finally have new eyeglasses and will enjoy slightly better eyesight than I’ve had for a couple years. Still monocular, of course, but my right eye will be happier, and hopefully my trying-to-make-sense-of-it-all brain will be less pooped.

So again, why am I sharing this in my blog, rather than keeping it to myself and my handful of loyal friends who get to suffer through my mood swings with me?

It’s because I see now that each one of us, eventually, gets our very own dent.

(And be forewarned: those of you with a hankering for multiple superpowers may get more than one dent.)

Stay with me on this. It’s not that I wish ill on anyone, honestly, but the truth is if you live long enough, you too will experience a challenging situation that you have to face. There’s no saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and walking away. 

Think of all the people in your life: how many folks do you know whom you admire because they keep their head above water and carry on, despite some tremendous challenge? 

An old singer-songwriter friend of mine, Scott Alarik, told tales between songs at his gigs, often ending with a pearl of wisdom. One of my favorites was, “My father used to say, ‘Son, there are no problems in life, there are only opportunities.’ Once in a while, though, you do run up against an insurmountable opportunity…”

Isn’t that the truth? For me, eyesight has been an insurmountable opportunity for the past 45 years, literally shifting the focus of my entire adult life. I was an art major in college, was diagnosed with an eye disease at 22, and spent a couple decades desperately trying to craft a life where I no longer adored visual art expression. I failed miserably (thank goodness), so I relented, falling in love yet again with sketching and painting and teaching, and even wrote a book about how deeply pleasurable eyesight really is.

I invite you now to think about the people in your life who may have a dent of their own, and ask yourself, does it seem like that dent is a custom fit? No blame here at all, of course, and I don’t think the gods are nasty by nature, but I suspect the universe does enjoy a bit of irony. Isn’t it curious that Beethoven went deaf, not blind? And Georgia O’Keeffe developed macular degeneration later in life, not hearing loss? Leonardo da Vinci must’ve been good at dodging arrows because he had a full-size target on his back if the gods were taking aim at genius!

Here’s the secret no one told you: we each get a dent so that we may become a mentor. Every single one of us.

You’re given a passion, it becomes a bit challenging, and when you persevere (because you can’t imagine not persevering), you start to look like a mentor, and you weren’t even trying.

There’s no getting out of it. If you hang around long enough, someone is going to cross your path who needs exactly what you can teach them from first-hand experience.

Some examples of my past mentors:

* A couple decades ago I got a job working for an organization, VSA arts, that provided creative arts opportunities for people with and without disabilities in integrated settings. There I learned that the creative impulse is inherent in every one of us. That is also where I made peace with being an artist with challenging eyesight.

* That job introduced me to SAORI weaving, which later led me to open my own Saori weaving studio. There I learned to meet people where they are, to listen with my whole heart.

* A few years later, I realized I had to slow down and refocus the trajectory of my life. Problem was, I didn’t know how. Sure enough, I came across a mentor, Michael Nobbs, whom I wrote about in my book.

* And finally, earlier today, a dear friend shared a podcast with me that reinforces the notion that gifts are often found during challenging times. The reliably wonderful podcast is called “On Being” with Krista Tippett. The episode I recommend is the unedited version from January 21st with Katherine May. I dare you to listen to the first 15 minutes without smiling and nodding just a bit.

Here’s the final point: I’ve discovered it was my heart that needed opening, not my eyes.

So many options are still open to me if I can just drop a few assumptions and see things from a different angle. Years ago I heard an interviewer ask Bette Midler what the key was to her endless resilience. Her answer, as I remember it, was, “You only need to know one thing: Plan A always goes away.” That was it. Brilliant.

Here’s some exciting news: dents and gifts, or unexpected trials and mentors, are the inspiration for my next book. After a look at the joy of seeing by sketching, I wanted to look back over my shoulder at the crossroads and fellow travelers in my life, folks I may have raced past at the time, but now see as gentle docents guiding me forward. Many of them had dents, of course, for those folks make the best tour guides. I’ll be creating illustrations for this book as well, and plan to spend the upcoming months (as soon as those eyeglasses arrive!) studying the artistry of Ernest H. Shepard, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, and Charlie Mackesy. Mentors abound, once you embrace your genuine passion.

As this pandemic and subsequent sharp-stick-in-the-bicycle-spokes time continues, I hope you find a bit of unexpected time to ponder now and again. Think for a moment: what dents are all too familiar to you? If you were to slow down long enough to look directly at that dent, what might you see out of the corner of your eye? 

Perhaps an unexpected gift? Maybe, you never know…

Posted in Musings on Life, My Story, Pen & Ink, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity) | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

T, O, ST, G? What does it all mean?

A careful reader of my new book wrote to me this week with the following question:

“I just bought Look At That! and the Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher Pocket Box you recommended. On the page where you talk about drawing and painting our palette [pages 32-33], the picture has all the colors and they’re labeled and there’s also some abbreviations under each color: T, ST, G, O. I give up. What do those abbreviations stand for?”

Here’s the image:

Color chart for Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher Pocket Box

Here’s my reply:

“Very observant!

When I created that illustration I planned to explain all that, but later realized I was getting too far into the weeds for a book that was intended as a simple overview for shy beginners. But, since you asked, here’s the answer! 

Those initials are all to do with the properties (sometimes chemical properties) of the specific paint itself. Understanding those properties will give you a roadmap to more successful color-mixing, and of course, painting.

Remember, watercolor’s magic is due to the way light passes through the paint, bounces off the whiteness of the paper, then travels back through the paint a second time.

“T” stands for transparent, which means the “colored water” is very clear rather than cloudy. You can use it layer upon layer (a technique called “glazing”) and you’ll still get a clear, bright, stained glass effect.

“O” is basically the opposite; it stands for opaque. Those colors are beautiful as well, but the white of the paper doesn’t shine through the paint quite as much. It’s easy to run the risk of creating muddy colors when mixing with opaques, but, having said that, paints labeled “O” have the power to give solidity to a painting, thereby complementing the airiness. The difference between transparent and opaque paint can seem very subtle until you have painted a great deal.

The “ST” stands for staining, which means the pigment itself is a dye, and therefore, once it touches the paper, it’s very difficult to lift it off entirely. 

Finally, “G” stands for granular. Granular means just as it sounds, the pigment never fully dissolves so it leaves a lovely bit of granulation that can sink into those tiny valleys of traditional cold-press watercolor paper, leaving an evocative residue pattern. 

The explanation by the manufacturer, Winsor & Newton, can be found here. (You’ll note in their explanation that “ST” can stand for “semi-transparent” or “St” can stand for staining. That’s unfortunate, right? The giveaway though is if it already says “T” (as it does in the Sap Green area for example), then you know the ST means “Staining”— which Sap Green is in the extreme!)

Note: These are all descriptions of the pigment compounds, not the colors. And now there’s more to explain!

The abbreviations (like PY-175 by the Lemon Yellow Hue) are the Pigment Codes and are very useful. It’s a universal coding system used by all watercolor paint manufacturers so that artists have a better sense of what they are buying from one brand to the next. Color names can be very poetic (as anyone knows who has gone to the hardware store looking for a simple off-white room paint!), but these Pigment Codes are far more consistent. You can use PY-175 from one brand to another and you should get a similar result, whereas if you search by the English name (like “Burnt Sienna”) you’ll get vast variations. There you go!  A detailed color lesson I first learned from an amazing instructor I had back in 1986 who taught us chemistry, and paper compounding, and all sorts of things so we would understand the very bones of watercolor.”

The book that my first watercolor instructor, Gif Russell, used to teach us was brand new at the time in 1986, and has gone on to become a classic. It is Jeanne Dobie’s Making Color Sing. For me it definitely earns the “one book I would take to a desert island” status.

So now you’ve had a glimpse at one of many rabbit holes I had to back out of when writing “Look at That!”. Throughout the book I gently disparaged my fellow how-to-sketch-draw-paint authors for being overly verbose, then I immediately found myself acting just like them, writing way too much with great enthusiasm, only to go back and delete, delete, delete! It is so easy to “over-deliver.” The admonition to “keep it simple” is easier said than done.

Have you bought the book in either ebook or paperback version? If so here’s a question for you:

Have you found any other loose threads in the book? Would you like to send me a quick note through the “Contact” tab above to tell me about it? I know of a few myself. Here’s one:

What about that “rigger brush” I mentioned and illustrated on page 17, but never mentioned again? What’s up with that??

Stay tuned, dear reader. More will be revealed…

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