Category Archives: Sketching

Preparing for the TMB

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Mt. Blanc from the Col de Balme

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.

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Italy somewhere

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.

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alpine tarn and Mt. Blanc

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.

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a refuge or auberge

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.

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on the trail

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.

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making friends with a cow

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.

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misty evening

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.

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a bridge in Switzerland

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.

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one step at a time; 20,000+ a day

Some watercolours from France and Germany:

And some from my pre-trip journal:

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The Lonesome Organ Grinder

“The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries”

“I Want You”, by Bob Dylan

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Orgel Bernd I presume?

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.

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one tick on the coaster for every glass you drink

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.

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the old Fuschschen Brauerei, Dusseldorf

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.

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looking down the street, Alt-stadt, Dusseldorf

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?

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organ grinding is a lonesome job

 

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Sunday Sketch In

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.

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Seaside Sketching

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.

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Instaxography

the Instax 200 – instaxographers weapon of choice

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?

the bay bridge (not THE Bay Bridge – our Bay Street Bridge)

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.

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The Inner Harbour

A harbour is a body of water deep enough for ships and sheltered from the open sea. Many of the world’s cities have harbours, or should we say the reverse – many of the world’s harbours have given rise to cities. Thus it has been everywhere I have lived. Victoria Harbour is one of two that happened to be created side by side here at the south end of Vancouver Island; the other being Esquimalt, which is used for a naval base. The most interesting things happen in the Inner Harbour however. That body of water is presided over by the Parliament Buildings of the Province of British Columbia, the Empress Hotel, the old CP Steamship Terminal, and various other buildings of note. It is also an international airport, with seaplanes coming and going constantly.

My favourite sight is the coming and going of the Coho Ferry however, which I happen to have watched so many times I couldn’t count. At one time it was a ritual of morning break to grab a cup of java from the office machine and walk a block to a viewpoint where we could see the ferry leave at 10.30. There was a blast of the air horn and then she’d ease away from the dock and  back slowly across the harbour before pivoting and heading out to sea, destination Port Angeles, Washington. This ship has been doing that trip daily for over 50 years, and it’s still going strong. A few years back they put in new engines and she still runs like a charm, a simple boat with no fancy shops or lounges, and the same old hamburgers and hotdogs wrapped in foil like at a ball game. Last week a fellow came over on foot to buy 2 typewriters from me, via Coho. When the ship gets underway they play a recording of Bing Crosby singing about the Blackball Ferry Line, the owner of the ship. They’re down to this single ship now but once they were a major ferry line around Puget Sound.

My plein air of the weekend was painted on the side of the inner harbour to which the Coho backs up before departing. It looked far away when I began sketching and fortunately I knew it was about to leave so I painted the ship in first. When it backed up it came practically right up to my nose, whereupon it was several thousand times larger than it had been when I began, figuratively speaking. I didn’t even watch it go, as I was too engrossed. Subconsciously I figured it would be here later and tomorrow and probably forever, but one day it won’t be – so at least I have one more sketch of it.

1-vic harbour scene apr 14 18150

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Plein Air Sketching

Plein air: a term for sketching or painting outdoors.

Recently I read a wonderful book, Defiant Spirits by Ross King, the story behind the famous Canadian painters known as The Group of Seven. They used to journey out into the great woods with portable painting kits, and did many little oil sketches as studies for larger, more complex works that were produced later in studio. I had been toying with oil paint, hoping the magic of oil might suddenly be revealed to me, but my experiments with that medium have resulted in frustration, so for now I am sticking with acrylic, my favourite paint. Acrylic is simple and easy to clean up – that’s for me! I took my sketching kit out this afternoon with some 8×10 panels, a good size for carrying around.

I am trying to keep in mind not to overwork my sketches; to stop just before they seem finished. Usually they are truly finished at that point. I may have overworked this, but I hope not too much. It was a cool, dull afternoon on the side of the mountain looking out to the distant hills. I was lost for over an hour, as the sky spit a few random drops and the breeze caressed the hillside. Sometimes a grey day can be more beautiful than a sunny one.

April afternoon, Garry Oak meadow

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