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.
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.
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.
Making our way by ferry on Lake Constance, not far from Konstanz, we were able to see the island of Mainau as soon as our ship passed around a small peninsula.
Up ahead on the hilltop of the island, a baroque manor-palace was visible through the tall trees, including palms. Once we disembarked, we found that the whole island was a park, with a few cafes and restaurants. To get to the palace, you must walk up some steep and winding paths, lined with flower beds. Here and there are…banana trees! It can be surprising to see banana trees in this area, but their presence attests to the mild climate of the lake region.
The view from the top makes your effort worthwhile. This island is famous as a botanical garden–the whole island–which is why it also is known as “flower island.” It has many walkways, one of which is a large flower bed designed to show, with plants and flowers, all the towns around the large lake of Constance, or “Bodensee” in German. There also are sculptures and statues in the gardens, about which it has been difficult so far to learn anything. (Despite the tourist crowds, this is a highly protected botanical environmental–rightly so–so clearly I did not use watercolor paints in this area but concluded the sketches after the trip. Moreover, as many have noted before me, it can be difficult to fit in a sketch when traveling with even a small group of companions.) From here we soon were headed, again by ferry, to the other side of the lake.