Under a wonderful fall sun accompanied with nice fall breezes, a bunch of us met at an apple and pumpkin-picking farm this weekend for a bit of painting. Hundreds of people beat us to the place on this beautiful fall Sunday, with scores of children ready to look at the pigs, goats, alpaca, chickens and other animals on the grounds. It was the quintessential fall scene and a great vibe as everyone dragged their wheelbarrows around to gather up apples or pumpkins. Many of the people enjoying this annual tradition spoke languages other than English, including German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. Such a beautiful setting makes you want to come back!
A month ago– a mere four weeks–I was sitting on this busy square in downtown Karlsruhe, Germany, enjoying a latte at a sidewalk cafe and idly sketching the scene in front of me, busy (still!) with construction of an underground train system. I would make sketches of the most normal scenes, because everything offers practice for the eye. But, now when I pick up my sketchbooks, a whole lot of other memories come flooding back to me. It is amazing how everything little thing we did on this recent trip is now so utterly important to hold on to as a memory, never to let go at least of this.
Few places in Washington, D.C. are more relaxing than the fountain area in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art.
As with most parks and museums in this city, entrance to the sculpture garden is free and it’s open until 7 p.m. There is a patio restaurant and cafe to one side with indoor air-conditioned seating and ample outdoor seating.
It’s all truly an oasis in the middle of a busy, politically fraught city…and so, yesterday, taking a break from some other concerns, I sat there a while, near the fountain, and practiced sketching some of the people, many of them apparently visitors to this usually beautiful and dignified city. It’s restorative to see people of all backgrounds and walks of life enjoying the spray of water from the many jets of water criss-crossing the Sculpture Garden pool in huge arcs above. It’s hard to see how they could leave this city with a bad impression if this garden is representative of their experiences. And indeed many of the people I watched were in no hurry to leave, staying an hour or more.
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.
On a day when a U.S. President seemed to threaten nuclear war (%@?*?!X?), further undermining our security relationships and standing around the world, the sanest thing to do seemed to be to sit on a quiet lakeside beach and watch people on all manner of boats and boards enjoying a beautiful evening out on the water. I have a whole lot of paintings to complete, mostly still in my head, from the recent trip to Europe. Following the sudden, unexpected death of a sibling a couple of weeks ago–a sibling who so recently (only a month ago) was enjoying that same trip to Europe…he,clambering up steep cobble-stoned streets, admiring cathedrals, and admiring a replica of a Bronze Age village built on pilings over water on the edge of Lake Constance in Germany– I am finding I must ‘sketch-crawl’ my way back to working in the bright colors I prefer. It may take a while but enjoying the interaction of watercolor with paper seems likely to help me get there.
As I sit lakeside in the twilight of an evening, I do reflect on how uncommonly good people, such as my recently departed brother (who used to read this blog as it appeared in his email), sometimes have uncommonly rare things befall them, and are taken from us uncommonly early in their lives. It is too soon to find any sense or solace in this. But it has long been clear: We must make more space for such people–the ones like him who are driven by a larger sense of global responsibility—to share their abilities with us while they are here in this earthly world. The world needs uncommonly good people right now, who act in the awareness that we are all part of a larger whole. Only by having a critical mass of such people exhibiting their genuine caring and leadership to making the world a better place, can we have a chance (in the remaining time left to us as a species) of tipping the planetary scales into a sustainable direction. Nothing is more urgent these days, but it is restorative to watch people fishing and stand-up paddle-boarding on this evening as if they had no cares in the world. I will probably do more of that today.
August often surprises with some beautiful, low-humidity days in this area. The beauty of nature never ceases to be awe-inspiring and, these days, a source of healing from a recent extraordinary loss and its ongoing shock waves. So, out walking the dog earlier in the week, I took out a sketchbook again to try to capture the wonderful scene in front of me. My personal goals included leaving some white on the page, and letting colors blend on the page even as I tried to keep them separate on the palette. This is a neighborhood scene rich with weeping willows and even lily pad gardens. Enormous pond reeds framed part of the view as I sat on top of an over-turned rowboat on the shore. There’s something satisfying about plein air watercolor painting! Sitting around this lake–never busy with visitors–is always soothing.
They say that for the best views of Konstanz (in the south of Germany on the border with Switzerland), you need to be on the water. The views from Konstanz, however, seem equally remarkable to me, especially in the changing light at the end of the day. Recently I sat right down to make a sketch, fascinated with the lemony tinge of the treetops in the evening sunlight and the sailboats in the distance. Later I made a watercolor of the same scene, experimenting with some watercolor paper made in Germany. (A great deal of art material we’ve come to expect actually comes from Germany, home of many types of inks, watercolor brushes and the Lamy fountain pen.)
Konstanz is a great city for walking around, and almost everyone here seems to go to work by bike or bus. The city is nearly surrounded by water, the air is fresh and mild, with nice breezes coming off of Lake Constance, or the “Bodensee” in German. Three countries border on this vast lake: Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. You can see mountain peaks blending with clouds in the distance, and know you are looking at Austria or Switzerland. This is a great jumping off point for explorations by ferryboat to the many sights around the lake, including the island of Mainau (pronounced “my-now”) with its semi-tropical atmosphere, palm trees, and an ornate hilltop palace built by Swedish nobility that can be seen from far away. I’ll save all that for a future post though. The hordes of tourists reportedly over-running Venice this summer are absent here. There is no shortage of sight-seers on the ferries but the crowds are manageable. In short, it’s no wonder this area has long attracted writers, artists, travelers, sailing enthusiasts–and people seeking to relax in the many spas around Lake Constance.