Passing through New Orleans International Airport this weekend, I spent some time at the departure gate sketching fellow passengers. It’s surprisingly hard to do, but they say practice makes perfect.
A useful book has meanwhile fallen into my hands called Transparent Watercolor Wheel: A Logical and Easy-to-Use System for Taking the Guesswork Out of Mixing Colors. This unfortunately out-of-print (and therefore often expensive) book is by Jim Kosvanec, whose many watercolor paintings he includes in the book are of native peoples in the region of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (discussed elsewhere here on this blog), where he lived and worked at the time of this book’s publication in 1994 and apparently where he still lives and works.
The book is perfect for those who are curious about the differences between transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque, and opaque watercolors, and also gives one an excellent sense of which watercolors to use (based on top brands prevailing in 1994 at least) and how to mix them. There are instructions, for instance, on how to produce light, medium, and dark-value grays, as below.
As in anything else one undertakes, the further you get into this subject the more you realize there is to learn…which makes it all the more challenging and fun.
There are no hard and fast rules, of course; we are talk about art after all, not science, but the book’s a great opportunity to get up-to-speed on some of the different effects people seek to achieve with watercolor. To achieve transparency in watercolor (and perhaps in anything) requires experience, expertise, and experimentation…and practice! I’ve got a way to go on this.
Today the remaining sketches done before leaving Mexico are now ready to post. Each was done in pencil at the site, and filled in later with watercolor and some ink.
Returning to San Miguel de Allende from Guanajuato, it was possible to observe the different feeling of each city–with the former seemingly slower-moving relative to Guanajuato, which buzzed with the energy of the college town it is.
The tranquility of the beautiful courtyard of the Belles Artes cultural center in San Miguel de Allende was a must for a last-look. Tree branches extending over the fountain drooped with ripe oranges, while a security guard waited for his shift to end. This seems to be the quietest spot in town.
Finally, it was off to Mexico City where a visit to the high Castle of Chapultepec provided an unforgettably well-done overview of Mexico’s history and an equally spectacular overview of the modern capital city.
Chapultepec means “at the grasshopper’s hill” in the native Nahuatl Aztec language and so it shouldn’t have been surprising that there was a big statue of a grasshopper in the center of the fountain adjoining the enormous castle built on this hill (at 7,624 feet above sea level) beginning in the late 18th century and surrounded by the largest city park in the Western Hemisphere. (But it was!)
Visiting Guanajuato can be overwhelming because there’s so much to see. Sketching priorities compete with sightseeing and dining priorities and end up falling to the bottom of the list. So the following watercolor sketch was done from a reference photo taken from an overlook over the city.
Guanajuato City is part of the State of Guanajuato in central Mexico. It is a university town tucked into a deep valley and surrounded by the ruins of once majestic haciendas from the Spanish Colonial period. In the sketch below, the steep steps up to the entrance of the university are clearly visible.
The University of Guanajuato has about 30,000 students–and shares the town with a number of elementary and high schools. Needless to say, at lunch time, the city’s small plazas and narrow alleyways are filled with students. Fortunately for them, most of the main roads pass through the city via underground tunnels which were formed long ago by rivers.
There’s a whole lot to learn about this city from its past as a Spanish colonial city, a silver-mining town, its role in the Mexican War for Independence, and the birthplace of Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Dining on the outdoor patios of one of the historic restaurants lining the main plaza is a real treat, and the chef in the one we visited clearly was world-class. There is enough to do here for several days at least, but we must move on…
On the first day of our stay we climbed up to the “Mirador”, or overlook, for a view of the city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The oldest structures in town, the “Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel” (pink wedding cake-style Neo-Gothic church built in the 17th century) and the bullring, are still the most prominent features in the landscape. But in the last few decades the town has expanded for miles outward into the hinterland. Below this spot, one can hear the church bells ringing their deep chimes to mark the hour and the faint sound of music playing in the Jardin, or central square. People who have lived in the town for decades voiced frustration with the extent of the development and the gradual destruction of the views of San Miguel, but it’s still possible to appreciate the beauty of the town.
In this piece, sketched by pencil initially at the overlook, I tried using De Atramentis “Fog Grey Ink” for the first time, which blended sometimes unhelpfully with the watercolor. This ink is made for use in fountain pens but is not as waterproof as it’s claimed to be. Knowing that it will run makes it useful for experiments. Finally I ended up using Platinum Carbon black waterproof ink and then a Tombow brush pen for some accents. Art is all about “problem-solving,” it turns out: how to shield oneself from strong sunlight, sketch in bright light, carry the right supplies, and develop a sense of composition. A visit a few days ago to the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City provided powerful reminders of the value of side-stepping the details and aiming for simplicity. This is very hard for anyone trained to focus on details, and who isn’t? But more on that later…
Getting away from it all is pretty easy in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a little bubble of old world charm, at least in the historic center.
This is a city with strong traditions and connections to the arts–all of them from weaving to dancing, music to painting–and a place where there is some sort of fiesta, complete with parades, moving around the central “Jardin,” nearly every day.
The downtown area features cobblestone streets, narrow stone sidewalks, little shops, and beautiful architectural details, as well as some fascinating trees in the “Jardin”–central square– which are regularly clipped to maintain their squarish umbrella-like covering over the benches. A main “activity” in this town is people-watching here in this square, and listening to the the mariachi bands playing for paying customers.
There is so much to sketch and record here that it’s probably going to take more than one post. Nearby, of course, are more attractions, such as the former silver-mining center of Guanajuato, a gorgeous city built into a canyon, and south of here is Mexico City. So I will post a few more sketches in the days ahead…