Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketch of the Day

Illustration:  Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the "Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950) exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Illustration: Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the “Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950″exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Studying Transparency (in Watercolor)

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.

New Orleans sketch

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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.

Transparent Watercolor Wheel Book cover

Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author of cover of book, Transparent Watercolor Wheel by Jim Kosvanec

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.


Illustration: Swatches of gray mixtures by Black Elephant Blog author

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.


Adios Mexico Sketches

San Miguel 2

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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.


Belles Artes 3

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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 1

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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!)


Watercolor sketching in Guanajuato, Mexico

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.


Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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…


Overlooking San Miguel de Allende

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…

Mirador 2 view

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch, “View from the Mirador of San Miguel de Allende, June 2016” in a Stillman & Birn “Zeta” sketchbook by the Black Elephant Blog author


Watercolor Sketching Around San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

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.

Having Coffee

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch. “Sidewalk Cafe in San Miguel de Allende, June 2016” by Black Elephant Blog author

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.

Belles Artes 1

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink, “Belles Artes,” by Black Elephant Blog author

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.

Jardin 1

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch, “Jardin in San Miguel de Allende” by Black Elephant Blog author

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…

Surprise, Uncategorized

Urban Sketching on the Maya Riviera

Playa del Carmen

Illustration: Photo of the view in the direction of the island of Cozumel from the central plaza of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, New Year’s Day 2016

On New Year’s Day 2016, temperatures here in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (about an hour’s drive south of Cancun) were in the low 90’s but the heat and humidity didn’t seem to be slowing people down.  With Mexicans enjoying the day off, people were  out in large numbers by late afternoon to enjoy the beach and calm sea.

Earlier in the week, the weather was somewhat cooler with breezes, making it possible to sit at the Central Plaza in the town and enjoy a performance of the Voladores de Papantil, or the “Flyers of Papantil.”


Voladores 1



The Voladores do this performance several times a day.  Each time, an international crowd joins local residents in admiring the colorful costumes and traditional performance and music of the flying artists.


Voladores 3

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author of the Voladores of Papantil getting ready for their flying performance from a 75 foot high pole in the central plaza of Playa del Carmen, late December 2015


Not far away are the only “free admission”  (in quotes because the ruins are located on the grounds of a gated community) ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization–at Xaman Ha.  This amazing sight comprises several complexes of small temples, structures and walls, gently shaded under the  canopies of royal palms throughout the elegant “Phase 1” and “Phase 2” of the vast Playacar condominium community adjacent to Playa del Carmen.

Xaman Ha 2

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author of “Xaman Ha” site of Mayan structures on the grounds of Playacar, south of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, late December 2015

Back in town, the Quinta Avenida (“Fifth Avenue”)–lined with scores of restaurants and shops–bustled with tourists and locals all week, with evenings so busy that a literal sea of people moved up and down the street in both directions.  One can hear Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and English–as well as reggae and hits of the 80’s– all around you in the space of a single block here.

Fifth avenue Playa del Carmen

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake brush pen) by Black Elephant Blog author, “Waiting for Customers on Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen” in late December 2015

Despite the bustle, it’s been a calm scene–with tranquil aqua blue seas nearby welcoming all to take a dip to escape the heat, and the bartenders more than ready to cut open a cold coconut for you, served with lime, –or a cold cerveza, if that’s what you prefer–for a refreshing drink when you need one (which is often in this heat)!

It’s been a great start to a new year, that’s for sure; and I hope it’s been the same for you.

Guacamaya 1

A beautiful Guacamaya at the Aviary at Xcaret in the Yucatan  (Photo:  Black Elephant Blog author)