Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Pictures at an Exhibition: From Sketches to Paintings

As the summer winds down, it’s time to prepare for an opportunity extended to local artists to submit about 10 paintings each to a “solo exhibition” through an Art-in-Public-Places program.  Of course, nine or ten pieces are quite a lot when most of your work is inside sketchbooks.  So, I’ve decided to see if I can convert some of my sketches from earlier in the year into a piece or two which could be included in the final selection of pieces to display.

Inevitably some of the “freshness” (and free-style/sloppy look) of starting a sketch right on-site, especially in a spot so beautiful as the one below, gets lost in the translation process to another sheet of paper far from the scene.  Though, it must be said, there are advantages too of this post-sketch revision, including no exhaust fumes from the local bus lines laboring up the steep road behind you, no tourists impatiently waiting to take your spot, and no surprisingly rapid drying of your watercolors in the heat of direct and intense sunlight.

San Miguel Draft 2

Illustration: Photo of painting in progress

In any case, here to the right is a photo of a recent attempt to re-do a sketch into another piece.  The sketch at the top of the easel is in a sketchbook and crosses the dip between pages.  It is from  earlier this summer when overlooking the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende .  Below it is the work-in-progress.

This latter attempt  is seen in a  more finished state in the photo at the bottom of the post.  This is on Saunders Waterford paper (a popular U.K. brand) which I’m finding appealing but seemingly a tad more ‘thirsty’ than the Arches brand, relevant when it comes to issues of transparency raised in the previous post.  (Update: I am close to completing a v2 of this view on Arches hot press.)

As time goes on, I try to factor in lessons I’ve picked up from the reading I’m doing.  For instance, finding those dark values is the first order of business, according to Charles Reid in his book Watercolor Secrets, and then you can move to the lighter values.  This makes sense but is still counterintuitive and even contradicts what I’ve learned in some classes.  (If you need to go back and pump up some lights, there is also a fairly expensive liquid Arches “paper” as a form of white-out for watercolorists–it comes in most shades of watercolor paper whites. It seems a bit like cheating until one reads that John Singer Sargent no less resorted to white gouache rather liberally for similar reasons.  More on gouache and “body color” (and British and American watercolor practices in history) in an upcoming post.

Achieving a balance of transparent and opaque watercolor effects requires skill not only with a brush but also familiarity with the interactions between the types of paper, the amount of water,  and the characteristics of the paints you’re using.  Jim Kosvanec’s book on Transparent Watercolor Wheel (discussed in the previous post) is sure to sensitize any reader to the different qualities of both papers and paints (as of the book’s time of publication in 1994).  And, a heightened awareness of the “staining” and “attacking” qualities of some pigments when they are mixed with transparent ones brings to mind at least metaphorically some real-life situations.   Whether we are dealing with pigments or policies, it seems we must concede (in plain English) that some things just don’t mix: they create “mud.”  Come to think of it, such interdependencies are the stuff of life itself, ever more so given the interconnectivity of everyone and everything on the planet these days. (Who knew that the art of watercoloring might translate to a still larger stage?) Maybe the next time I’m at this overlook, I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned so far right there in ‘plein air’.  That would be terrific!

San Miguel watercolor

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink, “San Miguel de Allende (v1)” on Saunders Waterford paper by Black Elephant Blog author


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!)


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…