Thought I’d share some of the pictures I’ve been taking of things I’d like to paint.
Thought I’d share some of the pictures I’ve been taking of things I’d like to paint.
I actually wrote this story three years ago, and sent it out to some friends and family members in a holiday e-mail. I thought I would publish it again here, because now I have the tree painting to go with it. I had planned to send out a few hand painted cards this year, but got sidetracked by the crazy planet-building frenzy, so this is my attempt to compensate. Enjoy. And have a lovely Christmas day.
Almost as soon as I started taking watercolor lessons, burning with the desire to paint Grand Canyons and beaches and sunsets, it was time to paint Christmas cards. Christmas cards? I think the last time I sent out Christmas cards was over twenty years ago. I was still a student, trying to write a little personal message in each card to all my friends and family, and my in-laws, and trying to study for finals. No wonder I gave it up as a hopeless business.
But I decided to make the best of the painting lesson, anyway. Knowing how to paint a snow scene might come in handy some day, although Christmas in central Texas almost never involves snow. The next two lessons were “painting Christmas decorations,” and “painting poinsettias.” The Grinch in me came roaring to life and I skipped those two weeks. After all, I had paid for six lessons, and I could exercise a little discretion over which six lessons I chose to attend. At the “paint what you want” lesson I painted a beach scene and a desert scene while almost everyone else worked on their poinsettias from the week before. The next lesson would be “painting a snow scene.” Jeez, will this never end? Once again, I opted out, this time using my dad’s birthday as an excuse.
“I have to bake a cake that day,” I explained.
I used to enjoy the Christmas season. I was always eager to drag out the old decorations, dust them off, and set them out for another holiday season. So what happened? Maybe it’s because I live in the “House of Grinches.” Four years ago I left my job and life in Kentucky and came home to look after my aging father. My mother died in 1989, and since then, my dad and my divorced brother had been living under the same roof. Now I (also divorced) was going to move in with them. Oh, joy.
Neither of them has ever runneth over with holiday spirit. That was my mother’s department, and mine. Or it was thirty years ago, before I left home and tried to live with other people’s expectations. Come to think of it, I was married to a couple of Grinches.
So maybe I can paint a memory, I thought. Maybe I can paint a Christmas tree, and hang it on the wall where it won’t take up any room, and the dogs can’t knock it over, and I can paint all the old ornaments on it — the ones I remember from childhood. I can paint a perfect Christmas tree. And I remember one that came very close.
I think it was my last year in high school, and with one thing and another going on, no one had had time to go shopping for a tree until finally, my mother and I went out with only a few days left before Christmas. We were expecting to find a bargain. We also expected to find the trees no one else wanted — the ones with uneven branches that created flat sides and asymmetrical gaps. We needed a funny looking tree because some of those old ornaments I mentioned were eight-inch long daggers — glass and tin “icicles” — that needed space to swing.
The tree we came home with needed work.
“This is not going to fit on the coffee table,” Mother pointed out.
“So we’ll have to saw off a few inches. We can do that,” I assured her. The masculine family members were off hunting for the weekend, but I was confident that we didn’t need men for this job.
I found a saw and went to work. Mother held the tree while I removed several inches of the base of the trunk. Needles rained down. When I was finished, the tree wouldn’t fit in the tree stand; lower branches were in the way. Simple. They would have to go, too. I started sawing again. More needles fell.
“If we keep going like this, we’ll end up with a naked twig,” I muttered. Mother started giggling. The tree slipped. I dropped the saw. I started giggling. Pretty soon we were both laughing so hard we could barely stand up, much less cope with a balky Christmas tree. Finally, after much huffing and puffing, and pauses to get our giggling under control, we had the tree in the stand (with water, to save the few remaining needles), and the whole thing perched atop the coffee table in the living room, with a white sheet draped around the bottom to hide the stand and simulate a snowy landscape for our “Christmas village.”
We strung the lights, then hung the ornaments.
“Look at this,” Mother said, as she held up a huge blue globe. She added an extra hanger to the one already attached, and hooked it to a branch. She gave the ball a light push and grinned as it swung free.
“Now that’s how tree decorations are supposed to look,” she concluded.
After the ornaments we added the “icicles,” shiny strips of silver plastic, one strand at a time. Then I arranged the houses and residents of the village under the tree and turned on the lights. Mother turned off the room lights and we stood back to admire our work.
“Now blow,” Mother instructed, and we blew softly toward the tree, stirring the glittering icicles and swaying the ornaments. The tree sparkled. My eyes filled with tears. They still do, at the memory.
And that is the Christmas scene I want to paint. If I don’t get it right this year, I can keep trying next year and the year after; and every year, no matter how the painting looks, I’ll have that memory — that spirit — back again.
I started this new watercolor a few days ago, using a piece of watercolor canvas glued to a piece of corrugated cardboard. Watercolor canvas is interesting stuff. When you first start to paint on it, it’s almost water resistant. You have to go over it with plain water to condition it a little before you start painting. And the paint doesn’t soak in right away, so if you don’t have it fastened to something to keep it flat, it will curl up and the paint will slide all over the place, which can create some interesting effects, if that’s what you’re after. Anyway, it’s one of those surfaces, a little like Yupo, where it helps to let the “layers” dry before you start to work on the next bit.
Before I did this one, I had decided to experiment a little on a smaller, leftover piece of canvas that I had glued to a piece of poster board. Poster board is too flimsy for this purpose, as I discovered. I had to tape the edges down to keep the painting flat. My “experiment” is turning into a landscape. I started off just covering the whole surface with a shade of blue with some greens mixed in, but most of it turned out blue enough to pass for sky.
As I added more green I realized I was making some “tree shapes.” So I made some more tree shapes — more conifer-y, because they looked like the right shapes for that particular color. After that layer dried, I mixed up the old standby — burnt sienna and ultramarine blue — and added the humpy bit to the left of the trees. Kind of looks like a hill. Later I added a thinner wash of the same colors to make another hill look more distant. Another feature of watercolor canvas that’s different from paper is that as you add new layers of wash, the layer underneath comes loose and blends with the new. So if that’s not what you’re after, you have to use a light touch. The blue that blended in a little with my second hill gave it a misty/hazy look. I added a deeper, more olive shade of green in the foreground, and “poof,” instant landscape. I may add some more details, just to see what else might show up. And I will chart the progress of both projects here.
I finished the Colocolo picture, and I like the results. Unfortunately, it was a little hard to get a good photo since the flash was bouncing off the surface of the colors and making glare in places. I didn’t work much on the Weimaraner, so will wait on that photo until next week.
I spent most of yesterday playing with my new sewing machine. My friend brought it to me so I wouldn’t have to do all the work on my shirt project by hand. Now I have no excuse not to start on it!
This past week I have been working on the colored pencil “painting” of the colocolo, and I’ve discovered something. It’s the medium I’m really best at. I also was reminded of why I wanted to find a different medium to work in. 1. It is slow. 2. It is often hard on my eyes. 3. It is sometimes impossible to get the light right for working for an extended period of time (which results in #1 and #2). I guess I’m supposed to suffer for my art. Heavy sigh.
Colored paper really is the best way to make a drawing look good with colored pencil. You get to let the paper do some of the work. Yeah, lazy. I also skip other steps. Some people would call it “cheating.” Computers are so wonderful. I can take a digital photo and make it larger or smaller, print it, trace the outline of the animal and make a grid on the tracing. Then I can lightly draw the same grid on my art paper and just copy what’s in each little box. And I actually learned that in art class in high school, so if it is cheating, I’m not the only one who does it.
Anyway, here’s the colocolo after I worked on it some, and after I worked on it some more, and a new picture of a big gray dog on gray paper. (Yeah, I know, it’s a Weimaraner.) I got the picture out of a doggie magazine, but I didn’t think to write down the dog’s name or who owns it or anything, so, for now, I just have to call it an orphan. Nice looking dog, though.
So I’ve decided I’m finished with the snow leopard painting. I did a lot more of the detail work with paints than I originally planned to, but it was good practice using the “dry brush” technique. You know what was the trickiest part? Those white whiskers. Anywhere you want to have plain white on a watercolor, you have to paint around that area. There’s stuff called mask that you can use to cover those areas while you add washes, but I only used it when I put on the first layers. After that, I just had to work the darker shadows in without obliterating the white lines — which was a good place to use the pencils.
Anyway, on to more fun and games. As I believe I mentioned, I found another wild cat photo to make into an art thing, this time a colored pencil painting on colored art paper. I first saw the photo on “Stranger Fruit,” which is on Science Blogs. The photo, of a colocolo, comes from here. It is a very cool picture. Here is what I’ve done so far.
Since I’m not going to be going back to work in a full time job soon after all, I need to make a schedule for my blog work. I think a Monday, Wednesday, Friday posting schedule is pretty reasonable, and I need the structure. Self-discipline is not one of my long suits.
For now I’m going to make Monday my off-the-wall topic day. Anything goes. On Wednesdays I’ll talk about my dogs, or dogs in general, or pets, or back yard wildlife. Fridays will be art blog day. I’ll post pictures of the painting or drawing or piece of jewelry that I’m working on, and/or the process of making things (my process, anyway).
At some point, I’m going to have a separate series of biology articles. I tutor freshman biology students from the local university. I tried teaching at the local junior college, but discovered that I don’t really have the temperament to deal with a whole roomful of students. I like the one-on-one dynamic a lot better. But I still like the idea of teaching, and I love my subject. Knowledge of basic biology is something a lot of people have been shortchanged on — or they shy away from it for one reason or another. I’d like to try and see if I can make it less angsty. I’ll expand on this idea later.
Right now, since it’s Friday, here is a photo of the snow leopard painting that I took a few days ago. I have been working on it every day, so have made more progress, and maybe by next Friday it will be nearly finished.
I have not worked on the painting much this week. Adding all the detail with colored pencils would be very slow going, I found out. So this morning, I tried using a very small brush and not much water to add some more color and depth without lifting out some of the color already there. And I’ve come to realize that this process of photographing and publishing the work in progress makes me feel a little like I’ve gotten up in front of a room full of people and dropped my pants. Not quite as bad as taking off all my clothes…but I feel exposed! For one thing, I’m already excruciatingly critical of myself; and then I look at the photo of the painting at this point and think “that looks like crap.” There’s also the possibility that it will still look like crap when I’m finished.
To keep myself from getting too up tight about the whole thing, I decided to “just” draw something. Of course, drawing is never “just” drawing for me. It’s an ordeal. I can’t not do it, but it’s an ordeal.
And just to show that I sometimes do something that turns out right, I’m adding a couple of old sketches. And I mean these are about eight years old. Usually, my stuff looks better after I haven’t looked at it for several years…and if I don’t use the flash.
I continued adding washes to the painting to get the shadows a little darker in the background, and set up the body color of the snow leopard. I used yellow ochre and sepia, and I used a set of pan watercolors, just for variety. There are painters who won’t use pans, and others who won’t use tubes. I’m so new at this, I want to try everything. Plus, the set of pan colors I have is small and much more portable than my other palette.
At this point, I’ll start using colored pencils to add detail. That has always been my favored medium, and the reason I wanted to learn to use watercolor was so that I could add another dimension to my colored pencil compositions.
I have also finished the bracelet I started last week. I like the way it turned out. Next I have to start on that shirt. May will be here before we know it.
I have no idea how this is going to work. I’m making it up as I go along.
This is the sketch I made of the snow leopard I’m going to paint. Yes, it’s a very light sketch.
Next is a small palette with two colors — ultramarine blue, and burnt sienna. Mixed together with water, these make a nice, clean gray. Depending on how much water you add — or don’t add, the gray can go clear to black.
A lot of watercolor purists won’t ever buy a tube of black paint. I’m not a purist. I sometimes need pure black for my attempts to paint outer space. But for shadows, it’s better to mix colors and go for gray. Plus, sometimes the pigments sort of separate out in the wash and you get areas that are a little more blue or a little more brown. In nature, shadows aren’t black.
Also, it doesn’t work as well with other shades of blue or brown. I’ve tried. You get “mud.” Like when you were a kid and had the grocery store watercolors and for some reason, decided to mix them all together. What did that look like? It takes a while to learn which colors mix well together and which don’t. Usually, if you go above two, you’re asking for mud. So much for the lesson.
And finally, the sketch after I added the background shadows. I have to let that wash dry completely before I paint anything else, so the gray won’t bleed into areas where I don’t want it. The trick in doing watercolors is only getting the paper wet in the area you are going to work on immediately, and then waiting for it to dry before working on an adjacent area — unless you just want stuff to run together, which is sometimes a fun way to paint.