Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A "Duh" Moment

While drawing the kitchen-window tree today, I noticed that one of the limbs has practically no bark left on it.

Of course, I have seen this every single time I drew it, and each time I would think, "What an interesting contrast in texture", and that's as far as my thinking went.

Today, for the first time, it occurred to me to wonder why the limb is losing its bark. It's too high to be rabbits or deer, and there's no bird that could do that. Squirrels don't eat bark.

Is the tree dying? Does it need to be trimmed? Is it a late symptom of the stress from the big ice storm eight years ago? Or is this just part of its life cycle? Will the bark grow back? Can the tree survive without bark?

I'm also wondering why it took me so long to make this connection. I think it's because the mental effort of drawing usually doesn't allow any "outside" thought at all. That's one reason it can be a very nice rest from life's usual run of problems. It's all you can do to handle the problems of getting the tree, or some part of it, on the page, and anything else has to be blotted out of your mind. But I've done this tree so many times lately that my mind felt able to let that one little thought in while dealing with the drawing.

Today I studied the bark, particularly the places where branches split off to become new ones. I tried different ways of using the pencils to see if the texture changed. (it did.) I tried a paper stomp, which I don't usually use, to see if it improved the smoothness of the barkless branch or the roughness of the barked. I think it contributed a bit to the round shape of the tree when used sparingly at the edges, but I don't think it helped the smooth trunk at all.

I'm realizing that I have never once done a sustained drawing of this tree or any other. I sometimes manage a graceful gesture, occasionally capture the idea of a massive trunk, but I always quit too soon to get any more than that. After that little bit of drawing, if the tree still attracted me, I would usually move on to paint or pastel. I'm not a detail painter and don't want to become one. My paintings go for big blocks and major movements.

But studying the subject in detail with different media, over and over, helps to develop a knowledge of the tree, an understanding that will strengthen the final product. Who knew?

That's why I call this a "Duh" moment.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Yikes, What Happened to Last Week?

Sorry for being a no-show all week. Life got busy, and I was never able to get the pictures taken before dark. My camera doesn't do so well by artificial light.

Anyway, here are two of the week's trees. The coloured one was done in pastel pencil in my sketchbook. It's not really that bright out there, yet, but I seized upon any hint of non-gray and exaggerated it. Blogger is not being very cooperative today, so it looks as if two is all I can post.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Drunk on Spring

Forget spring fever. This is a drunk, people, an event when common sense is forgotten, you imagine yourself twenty years younger and much more beautiful than you ever were, you fall insanely in love with every puddle and twig. In short, if there was a lampshade out there, I would have been wearing it.

Sunshine, blue sky, a fresh if chilly wind, puddles everywhere. I still love puddles just as much as I did when I was four. I still like splashing in them if I'm wearing the right boots and there are no witnesses. (Being a grown-up is a drag that way.) I could still stare into them for hours. I can still remember specific puddles from different times in my life. Now, during the spring melt, they're everywhere. Yippee!

Every year I look forward to seeing the pools that form at the bases of the trees along the driveway into the park. I guess the standing water is really bad for the trees, but I love to see the repeated reflections going off into the distance. From close up, you can look down through the sparkling water and ice to last year's grass underneath, with the sky floating on top of it all.

I always want to paint it, but there's not a single good spot to work from. The only reasonable place to stand is in the road, which isn't busy but does have some traffic. There's no place to put anything down. My sketchbag, balanced on a handy log, kept threatening to topple into the water.

So the sketches are really quick and crude, in my little book, with the colour added from an already-fading memory after I got home.

The last sketch is of the open water near the faraway shore of the river. Everybody knows that when there's open water, the geese start to come back, and sure enough I saw a little flock - so little that I thought they might have overwintered, but after that I saw two larger flocks. The geese are back! And local farmers say winter's over when you can hear the crows. I didn't just hear them, I saw them flapping around everywhere.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

More Trees

An overcast day with freezing rain edging the branches with ice and reflecting the sky, while the rest of the tree is dark, wet, and broody. I attempted to capture it in the big sketchbook, but I'm not happy with the result.

These trees all look alike to me. The trouble is that they have too many "arms". I mean the real trees, of course, not the drawings, which have too few, because I haven't got the time or patience to put them all in.

Advisers on tree-drawing usually say to just draw the primary, secondary, and tertiary branches (biggest, second-biggest, and third-biggest, to me). After that, they say, you can put in a tone to represent the groups of tiny branches. I've seen this done successfully by other artists, and I always start out with good intentions, but I get seduced first by one branch, then by another, and before I know it I've lost my place. Then it's impossible to give the lines a graceful flow when I'm inching along and following every by-path.

Clearly, there needs to be more science in my method. Tomorrow I'm going to try doing all the primaries in one session, then leaving it and coming back later to do the secondaries, etc.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Sunday and Monday

On Sunday I worked from the bedroom window, little pencil sketches of our back yard trees, and some distant ones behind the neighbours' houses. There were great patterns of intense blue shadow cast across the snow, but I never got to paint them because my husband lost a lens out of his glasses. He can't see without them, so he needed me to put them back together. I dropped the little screw, couldn't find it, and then had to go look for some wire and pliers. So the shadows were gone when I got back to it.

Today was much milder than it has been, allowing me to go outdoors for a while to draw the big pine tree. Had to quit when my hands got cold. This is a huge tree, probably 50 feet high, and it surprised me how dumpy it looks in my drawing. Needs more study. I loved using the charcoal, though. It's always been my favourite for sketching, if I can use a big enough surface. The paper is some kind of manilla that I found in my stash, a nice yellowish colour.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Few Trees

Laura of http://laurelines.typepad.com chooses a different subject to study every month, resulting in beautiful and fascinating sketches that show impressive skill development as the weeks go by. And her drawing skills weren't too shabby to begin with, not by a long shot.

This month she's inviting us all to join in on her study of trees. I'm a little late getting started, but here are my first attempts. The idea is to make as many sketches as there are days in the month (or more, of course, if it suits you), so by the end of March I need to have 31 drawings of trees.

It happened to be freaking cold here yesterday. I did go outdoors, but then wussed out and came right back in again. It's not much better today, so all these were done from the house windows. You may have gathered from previous posts that we have lots of trees around us. I figure I can do a dozen different trees before having to to venture out again. Surely the weather will have improved by that time?

The last two pencil drawings look as if it's the same tree continued upwards, but that's not the case. One is an ash tree from an upstairs window, and the other is a softwood maple from the kitchen. Maybe by the end of the month the difference in the trees will be apparent in the drawings.

Actually, these are just sections of the trees. A whole one is too big to do all at once -- at least from this short distance -- and my sketchbook is also too small. For the bigger drawings I borrowed an old book of my daughter's which wasn't full. I don't like the paper, though. It's only 60 lb and buckled badly under the tiniest bit of watercolour.

Robert Bateman sketchbooks have been my standard brand for the past few years. They have 110 lb paper, thick enough to take light washes without buckling, although the pages will curl at the edges. I also like being able to use both sides of a page, getting 100 sketches into a 50-page book. I just wish they would make them with more than 50 pages. Recently I've been finding this landscape format in stores, and I love it, but I don't see them online at Curry's, only the old standard sizes. Dick Blick doesn't carry Robert Bateman books at all. I'll have to try to hit an art supply store next time I go to Ottawa, which won't be until March 15, and meanwhile root through my stash of supplies for some big drawing paper.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Tacky Crafts I Have Done

This is for the Friday List on Pomegranates and Paper. You asked for it, Loretta.

  1. Those woolly men made out of yarn and pinned on your lapel. You looped the yarn around a piece of card about twenty times, made a second one just like the first, then pushed one through the other to form a cross. Then came the artistic part. You cut short lengths of yarn and tied them to form a head with a topknot, a belly, legs with topknot feet, and arms with topknot hands. I loved those. For years they satisfied my wool-craft craving when I couldn't learn to knit.
  2. Silver pillows made from cigarette wrappers twisted up and looped somehow. To be honest, I never made any of these, but I wanted to. It was de rigeur to have two of them in the back window of your car and we didn't have any in ours. I could never get enough wrappers together to try it. Besides, I think you had to "send away" to the cigarette company for directions.
  3. Wineglasses and pipes made from cigarette wrappers. These only took one wrapper each so I used them to while away many a quarter of an hour.
  4. Paper drinking cups made from a folded piece of notebook paper, the only thing I learned to make in Brownies. We had the pretty Brown Owl who didn't know how to make anything, let alone keep twenty-five eight year old girls under control while she taught us. We had a lot of singalongs and poetry recitals. The other pack had the smart, capable Brown Owl (a school teacher in real life) who taught them all kinds of things, and when our Brown Owl was out for a sick day, she took the two packs together and I learned how to make a paper cup. I still make these sometimes, when I'm bored. You have to drink fast. It doesn't leak, but it will dissolve.
  5. Speaking of folded paper, what about those Fortune-Telling things? Eh?
  6. Eyeglass cases made from a square of felt sewed up with a blanket stitch.
  7. Place mats made from two pieces of waxed paper ironed together, with pictures of food cut from magazines sandwiched between. I learned to make these in Grade Four Health Class and was very taken with the process. You could make a pretty scalloped edge with scissors.
  8. Every Christmas, my sister and I got an Embroidery Kit. It contained four napkins, a cross stitch pattern, embroidery floss, a hoop, a needle, and a thimble. I don't think I ever completed a set, but I liked cross-stitch. It was a better gift than the stupid model airplane my brother got.
  9. Once I got a ceramic kit. There was a plaster statue of a "colonial boy", paint to colour him with, a brush, and some kind of glaze that you didn't have to bake. It turned out terrible. The glaze didn't go on exactly right. I liked that kit, though. But I never got another one.
  10. Potato prints. Yuck.
  11. My goodness, I could go on an on. I'm going to stop here with Kleenex Flowers. What can I say? It was a rite of passage to womanhood. You couldn't feel like a grown-up until you had made a bushel of these for someone's wedding. Also, a teacher once had us make a lot of artificial flowers but you had to get special florist's wire which was not generally available, so I never made any more, although I still remember the basic how-to.
  12. Oh, and one more, to make a dozen. In Grade Three I learned how to make folded paper baskets to hold Easter candy.
  13. All right, a baker's dozen. In my kindegarten class I saw a sample of a little mat woven from strips of coloured paper. I waited all year to get taught how to do that but the teacher never came through, wasting our time on reading, writing, and counting, so I just figured it out for myself at home. Of course I didn't have the nice construction paper to work with. You couldn't get that stuff just anywhere, and at school they conserved it as if it was silk peau de soie. When my daughter was small, I bought her stacks of construction paper and she liked making those mats, too.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Going Back in Time

These sketches are the beginning of an attempt to recreate a past that is very long gone.

At a recent family wedding, my cousin Patti asked me to paint a picture of our old home. Normally I'm uncomfortable with commissions. Trying to fulfill a client's request makes me nervous and has a depressing effect on my creativity. But this was different. I had actually been turning the idea over in my own mind for a while before Patti mentioned it.

This was our grandparents' house, where I lived from the age of two until I moved to Ontario at age 25. Patti spent a few weeks there every summer and lived there year round for a time. So, of course, we both have very clear memories of this house. I don't even have to close my eyes to bring it all back, detail upon detail. The wallpaper in the front room when I was four. The curtains lifting in a breeze at an open window on a summer day. A vase of lilacs in the center of the lace cloth on the dining room table. Well, you know. You probably have similar intense recollections of your own childhood home. I could probably create dozens of these little vignettes from memory.

But to draw the whole house, a portrait, from the outside, turns out to be surprisingly difficult. What view to work from? We were back-door people, but the front garden was nice, and Patti would like to see the snowball bush, but also the roses that grew in the back yard.

The worst thing, though, is that the house doesn't exist anymore, at least not in its original form. Long ago the second story was removed and it was remodelled into a bungalow. The wood shingles have been replaced with aluminum siding, and the original 4-paned windows with a plate glass picture window and sliders.

So I can't go back and look at it, or ask someone local to photograph it for me. There are very few photos of it, and those not very helpful. It only got into a picture by accident, a window ledge here, a doorframe there, a background against which some family member stood, squinting into the sun. It never occurred to anybody that we would ever need a picture of the house itself.

I can't remember ever wanting to draw or paint it, because my idea of subject matter was a New England salt box with green shutters and tall, shading elm trees, or a Victorian mansion with bay windows and wraparound verrandahs. Our house was basically a big box, with an almost-flat roof, 2 chimneys, and rectangular windows evenly spaced. Neat and tidy, no frills. Although it was never a company house, it was exactly like hundreds of other houses flung up by the coal company in 1913. Not a single building in town predated that year. There were a few built in the Victorian style,, and some attractive craftsman-style bungalows, and there was a handsome brick post office with a clock on top, but it was a raw place, exposed to the four winds, waiting for trees to grow, for sidewalks to be laid, for time to cast a mellow patina over it all.

It was our home, and we were sometimes moved by affection and pride to think it better than it was, and at other times were unable to see anything but its all-too-familiar shortcomings. But, honestly, it wasn't a pretty house. If I had tried to paint it then, I would have had trouble making a composition out of its uncompromising bulk. I still don't know how to do it. And now I can't even see it.

How I would love to be able to walk back in time and see all these things again. My sister disapproves of this desire, but she thinks I'm trying to relive the past. I don't want to re-live it, I just want to see it. Check my memories against the facts, study proportions, make notes. Be able to say to my daughter, "See, this is how it was". Obviously that's not going to happen. I'm thinking this is going to be harder than building a new house from scratch.