Although spring should be on its way, we have plenty of wintry skies these days to practice with in watercolor. Skies seem to be meant for watercolor–as, come to think of it, that’s what they seem made of. Still it’s a challenge to get all those fluid wispy shapes that nature has perfected. From my spot here at tree-top level (but inside a cozy room!) I see this lake reflecting back the shades of the sky and the surrounding landscape. Never a dull moment… Having gone back over a lot of art books recently, I have brought back white gouache with near-abandon yet seeking still to keep some white paper untouched. Gouache has always been controversial with the purists but paradoxically always welcomed by artists so accomplished as John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. So us mere mortals should have no hesitation to experiment away…
It’s been a hard year for many people. May the new year 2018 remind us of the potential we all represent to address our world’s serious problems and thereby contribute to helping future generations. To do this, we’ll need to appreciate what each of us brings to the table–we need to appreciate our differences. So I’ll end the year on this blog with some hippo watercolor studies I’ve been playing around with for a side project on appreciating our differences. Happy Hippo New Year!
With another lovely day to enjoy, it was time today to join the Maryland ‘plein air painters’ again. This meant crossing over the Potomac River and setting up a watercolor easel in a lovely small suburban park near the old town center of Kensington. Plenty of shade and breezes made it a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Everyone worked in their medium of choice, whether pastels, oil, acrylic or watercolor–there’s no right or wrong here, and nothing to hear but the sound of water falling from the fountain in the middle of the park.
(A note on materials: These days I am finding the Canson Heritage brand of watercolor paper nice to work with and, perhaps surprisingly, on a par with the Arches brand (and, unfortunately, just as expensive). I picked up a higher end version of Hahnemühle watercolor paper while in Germany and found it to be quite outstanding, allowing for brilliant colors but perhaps subtly with less “sizing’ than Arches or Canson. This latter paper is hard to get in the U.S.
Regarding brushes, the German-made DaVinci Kolinsky Red Sable watercolor brushes seem to do a good job with keeping a very fine point; I have a #6 and a #8, and can tell that in the hands of a professional, they would more than meet the tasks at hand. And for me, certainly, they are more than adequate.)
My younger brother, who has been mentioned in the last few blog posts, never understood my fascination with art materials. (Indeed, he privately might have viewed it as a disorder; well, once he did say “that’s crazy,” so there’s a clue.) He used the first sketchbook (Stillman&Birn Alpha series) I gave him for the last two years, and was on its last pages during our recent trip in Europe. He was captivated, however, by the fine flow of the Platinum Carbon pen, and also the practicality of the water brush, both of which were gifts from me. He had none of the interest others have in whether this or that paint is “student” or “artist” grade, nor in trying different sketchbooks (I’d supplied him with some backups). He wanted his sketches to be in chronological order in the original sketchbook, and never wavered from this. As an artist, he had a beautiful, light style–and even mischievous style, as in a few sketches of people (possibly even us, his family members, but he would not say) on the beach at the Outer Banks. He also used sketches in his work. He could carry his entire art kit in a small zipper pouch designed for a looseleaf folder, and he never set foot in an art supply store, so far as I know. (He wasn’t much a shopper, to put it mildly.) My brother believed in “quality not quantity” and lived this. Special memories, may they live on forever.
A glorious trip to Europe in the company of two of the small circle of people most important to me, my husband and my younger brother, ended two weeks ago today. After returning to the US, jet-lagged, on Monday afternoon, and staying over at my brother’s house (because it was closer to the airport), I did this watercolor the next morning while we sat together in the garden behind his house. This garden was a favorite spot of his and faced the garage off to the side and the back of his house.
We were just enjoying the early morning sunlight, before a drive back to our own home. I was just dabbling, with the only paints I could find in the outer pockets of my suitcase: brown pink (closer to a yellow) and indanthrone blue watercolor. While the house is actually white, I thought I could get away with the yellow because of the light morning sun crowning the trees in the backyard.
We’d had a wonderful trip to Europe, and soon we were saying our own goodbyes, as we continued on to our own home in another state. A week went by–with all of the ordinary contacts now so special in hindsight: emails, a phone call just a week ago, then more emails…And then, quite suddenly, that brother, the younger brother, was taken from us, in a seizure that was not his first. A father, a husband, a son, an uncle, a brother, and a friend to so many…and everything went haywire in an instant.
The world has thus been turned upside down. From a joyous trip involving close family and magnificent sights to a gaping hole that can never be filled. My confidant and co-sketching buddy who also had great hopes for our country and our world–despite worrying evidence to the contrary–has now suddenly gone. Such are the tough times we all must go through, in some way or other, I realize. This pain is a part of life, and we are all here temporarily. But, it’s a fact: Art so far has been (much) easier to do–in generally happy times. The challenge is to work one’s way through a devastating loss, and to comfort the many people beside myself who also are affected–as my brother would also want.
I have a feeling I will paint again. My brother would not want me to stop. RIP my soulmate: I can’t believe it but I must accept it somehow that we won’t again be sitting somewhere in a green field sketching some historic view together. I am thankful, so thankful, that just a little more than two weeks ago, we were doing so in Germany and France. Rest in peace. The world is diminished without you in it.
I share this here because I started writing this blog in a spurt of joy and relief in the week after this brother of mine was discharged from a rehabilitation hospital following a highly risky surgery in late 2014. It was called “elective surgery” because you had to choose it, but to not choose was to choose a certainly fatal route. All the family members were very involved. There were highs and lows. My younger brother would tell me he liked this or that painting, and he made his own wonderful sketches. His sudden departure left many thoughts still unspoken. He would want me to carry on painting if something like this happened; we never talked about it but I do know that. I hope he is sketching too. These are crazy times with intense news cycles that can demand so much of our attention. But what’s really important is often right next to us. RIP.
When one is accustomed to watercolor painting, experimenting with oil paints is initially frustrating. There are a lot of differences and one is that it’s a whole lot messier. There must be a method to your madness too, or the colors will quickly become muddy from careless mixing and intermingling of brushes. I set myself up with some Gamblin oil paints, which came with a handy 6″ x 12″ wooden panel. I used this panel as my first surface (seen below). It’s easy to see how (and why) one could spend a lifetime trying to master this. As with watercolor, however, there is a difference between somewhat heavy-handed applications of paint, and a lighter hand. It’s all going to require a lot more experimenting…
As to this image, it sprang to mind when I faced off with the blank wooden panel. While out taking a walk recently, I noticed that a nearby fountain is currently undergoing maintenance and our ubiquitous Canadian geese were resting on it in the middle of the lake. This became my subject. But remembering what Canadian geese look like proved harder than it should be–given that there are so many in this area that groups of them waddle through parking lots in search of food. So I went out and looked at them again!
A “touch up” later and the whole thing got still more complicated; (maybe this is like revising an already unacceptable healthcare bill). When I start over next time, I will try to stick with simple shapes, and see what happens. Anyway, this is welcome distraction from the just-announced “healthcare” bill which, if passed, will cause immense damage to this country, apparently intentionally so!
A brief break from the easel to check the news online… and what do I see? Video clips of U.S. Capitol Police trying to carry elderly and apparently disabled people out of the halls of the U.S. Capitol… This is not very positive imagery for the erstwhile “leader of the free world” clearly. Evidently these people had gathered there at considerable personal effort, in wheelchairs and on canes, to protest the secretly cobbled-together “healthcare” bill that will throw all of them out onto the street. Here they were being picked up off the floor to be carried out to the street…how symbolic of the new government approach to people in need. These are exactly the type of people who will be harmed the most if this bill passes, as major insurances companies warned again just today: The proposed bill will most hurt “74 million low-income, disabled and elderly Americans whose health care coverage through Medicaid” depends on Congress’s next moves. Right now, their obvious preferred option is to make the rich richer, and let the less fortunate fall through the widening cracks, come what may… What kind of policy-maker thinks this way?
Ironic that Canadian geese must have determined this is a better place to live when, at least for American people (except for the famous “1 %”), it will become much more difficult in the U.S. in the years ahead. That is, unless we suddenly see an outbreak of forward-thinking readiness to consider the public good among the people’s elected representatives–thinking that is not much in evidence, tragically. They cannot connect the dots between the public good and national and global security, obviously.
As I turn back to the easel, I think about what I just saw: U.S. Senators are embracing a bill that the U.S. President has described as “mean” even as he urges them to pass it without delay. It’s not making America great apparently that is the goal, but making America “mean”? How could this sort of thinking possibly prepare this great nation for the unprecedented challenges rushing headlong at us, irrespective of our political leanings, in the years just ahead? Clearly making sense of the news is harder than painting in oils. I’ll stick with the task at hand…for now.
This week we are supposedly going to learn if the United States will stay in the Paris Climate Agreement alongside nearly 200 other countries which, like the United States, are already parties to the deal. By the end of this week, we may learn that the United States has decided to join the two countries, Syria and Nicaragua, on the sidelines.
It is unclear why this latter course would make sense. It makes no sense to a whole range of major multinational corporations, however, such as:
Adobe, Allianz, Apple, BP, Chevron, DuPont, eBay, Exxon Mobile, Gap, General Mills, Google, Hilton, Intel, Johnson&Johnson, Kellogg Company, L’Oreal, Microsoft, Monsanto, Nike, Royal Dutch Shell, Salesforce, Staples, Starbucks, Symantec, Tesla, Dow Chemical Company, Tiffany&Co., and Unilever.
It makes good economic sense, it turns out, to embrace reality. Who knew? (That reality is something which, to be fair, has been ignored for a long time, in the sense that civilization itself depends on a stable climate and healthy ecosystems.)
Just last month, the planet’s atmosphere breached the 410 ppm (parts per million) threshold for carbon dioxide concentration, a height not reached in millions of years. This means our atmosphere is trapping more heat and accelerating changes in our climate. Scientists say we’re on track to create a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century.*
So it’s hard to see what kind of “deal” would be worth taking that kind of risk. In fact, Mother Nature doesn’t care a whit about the “art of the deal” and she has the upper hand for sure.
- Kahn, Brian, “We Just Breached the 410 PPM Threshhold for CO2, Scientific American, 21 April 2017, accessed at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/we-just-breached-the-410-ppm-threshold-for-CO2/
While preparing for a presentation (and a little book stemming from it), and doing some color studies for sketches to accompany them, the news has continued to be very distracting as it is presumably for everyone. In the last 24 hours alone, from a journalist sent crashing to the floor allegedly “body slammed” by a person aspiring to elected office (or is he already in office?)–to confirmation from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that the health of our nation is going to take a huge body blow if the latest health care plan is passed–to disconcerting news about NATO (also “body slammed?”), it is tough to keep one’s eyes on the task at hand. But perhaps the combination of these colliding impressions is good for something after all…
In sorting through older material, I came across the famous “boiling frog”–a metaphor, of course, for not noticing when there are gradual changes in your surroundings, until it is too late. According to the metaphor, a frog in a pot of slowly heating water will not react quickly enough to save himself and will eventually die. (This is literally not true; the frog will jump out if he can, apparently. I myself have not tested it, but I respect scientists and experts and they have).
This is a week too in which we have heard the word “suborn” used in open testimony. It’s a useful word. It seems related to another one rarely heard: “inure”, which the dictionary defines as “becoming accustomed to something, especially something unpleasant.” (Perhaps this is a good time to recommend a currently best-selling new little book, available on Amazon for less than $6: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale.)
With so much coming at us almost hourly, it sometimes seems like the fate of the world is being decided right now.
People are tired of being distracted by it but the most conscientious know that too much is at stake to turn away. Much as we might like to, we can’t tune out what is going on because it’s unfortunately true– the fate of the world is being decided right now. And if we tune out, we will surely not be as fortunate as the sensitive frog who manages to escape the dangers of his warming world.
So, we must not become inured to the bruising pace of the news cycle. It seems to me essential to find ways collectively to both deal with every incoming distraction and yet look beyond it to make sense in time of where we are going and might wish to go instead.
Momentous times indeed, but I have faith we will prove to be at least as smart as frogs. So back to the drawing board…