Category Archives: Sketching
Nathanguitars is pleased to announce that we caved in and paid to block those pesky ads that were despoiling the beauty of this blog.
Sometimes my brain rearranges words in a form of temporary dyslexia. This is not unlike the unintentional spelling mistakes my fingers create on the keyboard. Like form, instead of from. I type these all the time, and typewriters have no auto-correction. But my word processing catches it later, sometimes.
I saw a sign recently that was supposed to say HUGE SAVINGS! NO TAX! but of course I saw the opposite. It reminded me of when someone says “don’t worry,” which of course always makes me even more worried.
I typed my weekly letter to #1 son this morning on a 1940 Remington Model 5 Deluxe. Complete with alternate spellings, x outs, and skipped words even, but I think it’s better than an email that is perfect. I like imperfection. Perfection is an insult to the universe. I would never insult the Universe. God forbid. Speaking of which I have just completed my latest novel, which is a charming tale of a pair of intrepid gastropods who set off to explore the world, find a duck, and also the universe, none of which they comprehend or even recognize. It was typed, like all the stuff I write, except this stuff here, on a variety of old and older typewriters. I leave you with an excerpt from the first draft.
Last May, I went out with my portable paint set to do some plein air painting. I did a small painting from a cliff down at the ocean and took a photograph of the scene. Later I sketched it on a large board, planning to do a full size painting. It sat on my easel in the basement for a year, until today. I realized recently that I was avoiding painting large works because I didn’t like spending hours in the basement, where there is no daylight. So I thought about getting a strong but portable easel so I could paint upstairs and move around easily. I looked at one at my art shop but it was about $100. I then had a look at my heavy easel in the basement and realized that I could take it apart and get rid of the heavy bits, like the base on wheels, the heavy bottom tray, the counterweights and the sliding centre rail. So I ripped it all apart and was left with a much lighter easel. I set it up in the living room and spent all day painting. I should have figured this out long ago, but it took me a long time to come to the realization I didn’t like painting in a windowless room. Part of what finally got me moving was seeing the movie Mr. Turner, about JMW Turner. In Turner’s day of course, there was no artificial light. Seeing Turner portrayed at work in his studio with light from the large windows must have made something click, because ever since then I’ve had this idea in the back of my head that I should get going again with my easel painting. Whatever the reasons, I now have no excuse and hope to continue where I left off. Here are a few more sketches and paintings; one small, one medium and one large. It pays to work at various sizes, and especially at small scale, where you really can’t fuss with too much details.
At bedtime Olympia went to talk to Oliver about what Ned had told her.
You know what Dad said, she whispered?
What, said Oliver?
He said that there is no magic, because it’s all just advanced technology. Do you think that’s possible?
Anything’s possible, said Oliver, but how would you know the difference?
I wish I could ask the Magic Typer, said Olympia.
What would you ask it, said Oliver?
If it was magic or technology, said Olympia.
How would you know if it gave you the right answer, said Oliver?
from The Magic Typer (author me).
I am always wondering where the line is between art (magic) and science. What makes a photograph art, as opposed to just chemistry? Sometimes I am pretty sure photography is not art at all, and is merely a technical achievement that imitates art. Then again there are times when some photograph I see moves me in an artistic way. Is this magic or just advanced technology pushing my buttons? There is no definitive answer, of course. Most photography is not art, that is certain. And most art is crap too, for that matter. So how do we judge it all? I gave up long ago, back in architecture school when I came to the realization that even the so called experts can never agree on what is good or bad. So I just allow my senses to inform me about what I like and don’t like.
What got me going on this subject was taking photos today with my Fuji Instax camera. I think it was Cartier Bresson who said anyone could make a masterpiece with a Rolleiflex camera. He may have been right. Photos I get from the instant camera often have more art in them than the best I can take with my super pixel DSLR. Maybe because it’s all down to the subject and composition, as opposed to colour rendition, focus and sharpness of details. In any case, I enjoy the results, even if they are less than spectacular technically. That is what I enjoy about watercolour painting too, because it is imprecise and fuzzy – at least in my hands!
Here are three takes on a big old oak tree in the meadow nearby.
A tree at sunset, and two pieces from a local pub done today:
A month ago it was snowing madly here. Today it hit 20C (70f) degrees. Perfect weather for sketching. I have found a new watercolour paintbox, and have been putting it to good use. For years these paintboxes were impossible to find here. I once had a similar one made by Winsor Newton, with 12 half pans, but it was lost long ago. The key advantage is the ability to assemble your own palette of paint blocks. My art shop now has these boxes for a reasonable cost, so I bought a 12 half pan box. It has a good range of colours, but I tossed out white and added Van Dyck brown. My collapsible brush fits nicely in the centre slot between the paint blocks. The colours are intense and you don’t need much to get lovely bright tones. Here is the box, made in Korea by Mungyo: click for full size pics.
A few sample sketches from my walks of yesterday and today:
Back in May when my son asked me to go with him to hike the TMB I immediately agreed. I had no idea how difficult it would be, but I had a pretty good idea this might be the best shot I’d ever get at doing such a trip. Once I said yes it was too late to back out, something I knew would be a great disappointment to the both of us.
As soon as I read about it I knew that I would have to train hard. Luckily there are some trails right outside my door – one that goes around the lake, and another that goes up over a small hill. One go round is about 5.5 kms, and involves about 100 meters of climbing. The other hikes I had at my disposal were a slightly higher hill of about 200 meters, and another lake walk with a few minor hills, totaling about 5.8 kms.
First I needed boots. With extra wide feet, there aren’t many boots I find comfortable, but I discovered New Balance made boots in 4E, so I bought a pair of those, model 978. Although they were a little light for the very rocky bits, they worked well and I didn’t have any serious complaints, or any blisters, despite the fact that I defied convention by wearing thin socks.
As for a pack, I checked out all the well known brands and found them very expensive. By chance I found a shop with some old stock of internal frame Kelty packs on sale at half the cost of most other packs. I bought a Redwing 50, and it performed beautifully. I liked the fact that this pack had lots of zippers and pockets to keep gear handy when needed. My son’s bag was merely one large sack that he had to dig into every time he needed something from within. The Kelty has one single curved back stay that carries the load down to the excellent waist belt, which cinches very tightly due to compound leverage.
Once I got my essential gear in order, with new boots and a new pack, I set out on regular walks with weight in the pack. To start I had 10 pounds, then I increased it to 20 once I gathered my gear and determined I’d have about 18 – 20 lbs. With my pack and boots I began training as often as I could. The first problem was the heat, which this past summer hit 28C fairly often. This is very hot for these parts, and although it’s not so bad for normal living, 28 is a mite warm for strenuous exercise. Nevertheless, it had to be done, so I was out in the heat hiking away the miles, and sweating profusely. This also proved a problem for me feet mostly, which were very hot. That is why in the end I settled on thin socks.
I also began a journal of my daily training hikes, using a Strathmore notebook with heavy cotton paper pages suitable for watercolours. For practice I did a few, but mostly I recorded my mileage and observations of how I felt. There were many entries about how tired my legs were, and how wet my shirt was. Some days I had to keep myself soaked down with a wet kerchief to keep from overheating. I became quite attached to my boonie hat too, a US army surplus item that fulfilled every requirement for a warm weather sun hat admirably. Tested in Vietnam, so no surprise it works well in heat. The brim is just the right size, and it can be flipped down or up to suit the sun. I should perhaps have been more patriotic and worn a Canadian Tilley hat, but I feel they make me look like an old fogey, and besides which they aren’t any better than the boonie, and somewhat heavier and harder to stow when not in use.
After the whole thing was over I tabulated my training and found that I had walked for 86 hours and 274 kms. That’s 1.6 times the length of the TMB, not exactly a lot, but in my case certainly better than nothing, as I am now convinced that without that I would have been done in after the first day or two. On the other hand, my son who is 36 and super strong, did zero preparation and of course was way out in front of me when he wasn’t behind, ready to catch me when I tripped. What 30 years can do to you, it’s terrible! No complaints however, as I got through it on my own steam and no worse for wear.
As for my best intentions of watercolour sketches, all I have to show are some pre-trip sketches, one solitary sketch from the hike, and a few done before and after. Fortunately I did keep a daily journal, so I have that and a lot of photographs as a record. Now that it’s over I wish I had it to do again! No matter how much you can recall from writing or pictures, nothing can compare to the joy of walking through a beautiful landscape, no matter how difficult it feels at the time.
Some watercolours from France and Germany:
And some from my pre-trip journal:
“The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries”
“I Want You”, by Bob Dylan
As I noted here a month or two past, I spent an inordinate amount of time in deciding what sort of sketching media to take with me to Europe and the TMB hike. Once on the trail I soon discovered that there was no time for sketching. You hit the trail just after 8 o’clock, hike for an hour or three and then eat lunch in pleasant exhaustion while recovering for the afternoon. Maybe you eat a 2nd lunch at 2 p.m. No matter, it’s highly unlikely you are lunching and have energy or inspiration to pull out the sketchbook and paint box. At the end of the day when you get to the next refuge, you dump your stuff and if lucky, you get to sleep for an hour before dinner. Then you talk to folks, and write in the journal.
However, I did do some sketching before and after the hike, when I had plenty of time to sit and observe. My first stop was Dusseldorf, a beautiful city on the Rhine River. Among the attractions is the alt-stadt, where the streets are full of people, not cars. How ridiculous! Also there are some lovely beer gardens that dispense alt-beer, a dark and flavourful brew which, unlike most German beer, is top fermented. Unfortunately most German brew-masters who emigrated to North America brought with them lager beer, which in my opinion isn’t half as tasty. But you can still get alt-beer in Dusseldorf, a drink I enjoyed while sitting at a bar in the alt-stadt with sketchbook at hand.
While lolling on my stool I discerned a faint sound coming from down the street. Soon I realized I was hearing a hand cranked miniature pipe organ, from which pipes came a sweet folksy tune. Shortly, before my eyes appeared a real live organ grinder. He parked his organ beside me and took a seat at a table; then proceeded to smoke a full pipe, after which he shut his eyes and had a snooze. Refreshed, he got up after a half hour and returned the way he came, grinding out a new tune.
Stealthily, I managed to capture him on camera and in my sketchbook. Maybe this is so commonplace in Europe that organ grinders are taken for granted, but to me it was a magic moment. As for the question of whether or not he was lonesome; if you spent all day pushing an organ around, who could you talk to?
The annual Opus Outdoor Challenge Paint-In has come and gone, and it was a perfect day, weather-wise. Some years I have been too cold to hold a paint brush for more than an hour, but this year it was mid 20’s C and glorious. I found a shady spot beneath a tree across from this old hotel, known hereabouts as the JBI, and set up my plein air kit around noon after wandering the neighbourhood for an hour in search of a subject. Lots of folks stopped to peak and chat, which I don’t mind at all, as most of them are very complimentary – which is nice but a little embarrassing too. One lady asked me where I sell my work. If only it was that good!
It takes a lot of study to draw buildings accurately, since it is so easy to detect flaws in proportion when rendering a building, compared to the amorphousness of landscapes. This sketch took three hours, compared to the last one, a landscape, which took 45 minutes.
It is as fine a place to sit as I can think of, to be on a high bluff overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait with my plein air kit at hand. I have revised the kit with one major change – I removed the head from my tripod and now I screw the pochade box directly to the top of the vertical post of the tripod. I can level it with the legs and it’s much steadier than on the three way tilting head made for a camera. That piece was unnecessary for my purpose, and I saved another pound or two of useless weight. I also set up an umbrella on a walking stick, which shaded the canvas. This is also a major help, as staring at a bright white surface in full sunlight is bad for the eyes and also makes it difficult to judge colour and tone. I had 45 minutes yesterday to do this sketch, but sometimes faster is better. Had I worked it more it probably would have only gotten worse! Sketches are supposed to be rough and fresh anyhow. I may do a large painting of this scene using a photograph I took, as it was exceptionally beautiful there.
Instaxography (copyright) is my latest hobby of the week, for this week, until the film pack is gone that is. I picked this baby up at a thrift shop complete with the batteries, several shots left on the pack, and a new pack of 10 pictures, for cheap – about what the film pack costs. I knew I had to have it after I took a test picture of the clerk in the store who showed it to me. They keep these under glass, like gold jewelry, and you must request a showing. They don’t wear white gloves however, which spoils the entire effect. However, it brings me back to the days of Polaroidography (copyright that too) and my old SX70. I thought the film was expensive 35 years ago! Holy crap! Today…. don’t ask! But Fuji is cheaper, and just about as bad as Polaroid was, so why not?
While out for a bike ride we stopped beneath the bridge and I also did a watercolour sketch.
Looking the other way we have a lovely barge and a lot of water and sky, but Instaxography gives it a very artistic feel, don’t you think? Ugly can be beautiful.
Anyhow, I’m not finished this experiment yet, and I have to say it is still a sort of thrill to watch and wait for the image to appear as if by magic. My Dad had a Polaroid, I had a Polaroid, and recently I sent my son in Germany – a Polaroid! I hope the film is cheaper there. If not he can get himself a Instax, or just forget the whole thing. But one day, I know his genes will express themselves and he will take up instant photography, if only now and then. It’s in our blood! Also, I took Polaroids of the babies… you gotta love that.