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Travelling to the Amazon (by way of the museum)

November 15, 2017

Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière archeological museum has been presenting an exhibition: Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest. I’ve left this post sitting a while so I the show’s now gone –  maybe you saw the show? maybe not – but anyway, here’s my drawings :)

The exhibition featured a collection of wickerwork masks – which I’d more reasonably call helmets or hats – as they’re designed to mount a sculptural element on the wearer’s head, and disguise/camouflage the face and body in a veil of dried grasses.

It’s my understanding (from reading wikipedia) that these masks are worn in ceremonies involving the ingestion of hallucinogens. To the people of the Amazon, these were probably nature spirits come to life.

Many of them represent the fish or animals of the region (the one on the far left was a catfish spirit), but some are so abstract, it’s impossible for an outsider to say what they represent.

A great deal of the exhibition was devoted to colorful feathered headdresses and body ornamentation.  So naturally, there was also a cabinet of taxidermy birds to show us the where the plumage comes from.

Apparently these feathered accessories were among the favorite things for European collectors to bring back, (next to shrunken heads!).

so we have a large number of head-dresses on display, as well as the usual collections of decorative baskets, pottery, spears, bows and stone axes. The items we’d find in any hunter-gatherer society.

I did not find myself sketching the spears and daggers. They’re not a particularity interesting subject I suppose? Today anyway.

In fact, I found a lot of the show – masks and headdresses levitating in darkened cabinets – to be very hard to relate with. Often you couldn’t tell if you were looking at the front or back of a feathered crown. Or if something was a pectoral or a kilt. Certainly you had no idea who really would be wearing these things – male, female, young or old.

I suppose some of that is my own fault, as I was racing through the exhibition only looking at the objects – not reading the information. I find these days so much of the educational content is in video or audio guides – which I do not enjoy.

I can’t be standing around watching the videos when I have sketches to do :)

There was however one wall of contemporary photography, showing native peoples and their lives today. To me, this was the most interesting thing in the whole exhibition. Surrounded by these displays of well lit but somewhat clinical artifacts, I found myself drawing from photographs.

In some of my drawings, where you see cultural objects worn by a person – what I’ve done is drawn someone from the photo exhibit, and given them an artifact from a nearby display.

This is probably a bit misleading. I can’t be sure I’ve associated the right gender or tribal person with the right artifact. But to me it’s a way of visualizing the Amazon.

I suppose, given an unlimited budget, the museum might choose use sculpted figures? But sadly the days of life-size dioramas with wax and plaster figures seem to be over.

On balance, I think this is a worthwhile drawing exercise.

Next time you’re in an exhibit of historical arms and armor, or stone-age pottery and household implements, use your imagination and sketch some of the people that might be using these artifacts – instead of simply drawing floating objects in display cases.

Even if you’re not historically accurate, you’re bringing things to life.

The anthropologists can always write me to correct my sketches! I’d be happy to know the real story.


Post Modernism Post

November 6, 2017

I’m never completely at home with a post-modern subject. I find the lack of ornamentation actually makes it harder to draw. Where are the gargoyles and Gothic arches? I’m supposed to draw these concrete abstractions?

Originally I was going to trash my drawing of Place Des Arts (our performing arts plaza in Montreal) – except, afterwards I saw my friend Liz’s version.

What struck me is – while the drawings are somewhat different – the way we each simplify the view is fascinating in it similarity.

Isn’t it interesting to compare two different artists seeing the same abstract patterns in the curving concrete and dark panels of glass. It’s very hard to find any perspective cues in this post-modern structure, so we’ve both approached it in the simplest terms – a pattern of light and dark.

[Panorama: Gabriele Eccher]

Announcing: Watercolor Workshop Dec 2, in Stowe Vermont!

November 5, 2017

There’s only a short while left to register for my one-day workshop: Still Life in Watercolor!

Given the time of year, we won’t paint on location – rather, it will be a full day in the studio. I’ll demonstrate some key concepts in the morning, then we’ll spend the entire afternoon guiding you through your own watercolor(s). We’ll have a variety of things to work from, but you may also bring objects from home if you have some favorite subjects around your studio.

Click Here to Register

Saturday December 2 – 9:30am to 5:340pm

Stowe, Vermont, at the Helen Day Art Center, 90 Pond Street, Stowe, VT 05672.

($135 member/$160 non-member)

A great painting starts with a great drawing. Any flaws in the sketch will be there in the finished piece.

So we’ll start with my sketching methods – some easy techniques for measuring proper placement on the page, checking object proportions, and thinking about overlap of shapes – but most importantly how to simplify complex objects into a silhouette + shadow shape.

We’ll also cover my three favorite methods for manipulating watercolor: Growing a solid shape, Charging-in, and Edge Pulling.

I’ll talk about layering from lighter to darker in three steps which I call Tea, Milk and Honey, and what that actually means for different objects of various values and materials.

Beginners are welcome, and we’ll work at your own pace. If you’re feeling confident, you can take on a complete composition of multiple objects – or – work on sketches of individual pieces.

My approach to watercolor is based on years of sketching on location. I hope to inspire you to capture the world around you, without getting overwhelmed by unimportant details. These are the watercolor sketching skills that can introduce you to travel sketching, drawing the figure from life, or plein air painting.

Hope to see you in Stowe next month!

Click Here to Register

Saturday December 2 – 9:30am to 5:30pm  – Stowe, Vermont, at the Helen Day Art Center, 90 Pond Street, Stowe, VT 05672.

($135 member/160 non-member)



Book Review: Sketch Now Think Later, by Mike Yoshiaki Daikubara

November 1, 2017

I’ve been a fan of Mike Yoshiaki Daikubara for a while now, so I was pleased to receive a reviewers’ copy of his latest book: Sketch Now Think Later: Jump into Urban Sketching with Limited Time, Tools and Techniques.

Daikubara is an urban sketcher based out of Boston MA, one of the home towns I’ve collected along the way. Unfortunately, I didn’t street-sketch when I lived there, so I’m catching up on what I missed by following his blog.

He’s a prolific sketcher, having trained himself to work fast and use every stolen moment of downtime. That’s no doubt helped him to publish his four previous titles (available online), as well as two more books of early work, now sold-out of print.

This, his latest book, is a beginners guide to Urban Sketching, published by Quarry Books, an imprint of the Quarto Group.

Sketch Now Think Later is a trade paperback book (5.25×8.25”) of 112 pages, looking a bit like a Moleskine sketchbook with an elastic bookmark.

It follows the now-classic approach of an Urban Sketchers monograph; starting with a deep dive into the sketching tools Daikubara carries every day, (something every travelling artist has honed down to their personal minimum), and gradually expanding into his techniques for line art, how he handles color, and how he annotates his pages of sketches.

Daikubara, like many Urban Sketchers, is a visual journalist. His drawings are insightful snapshots, not labored renderings. Spontaneous sketches briskly capturing whatever drew his eye, without any wasted energy. The sweet-spot between fine artist and reporter is a balance every Urban Sketcher has to find for themselves.

It seems to me he weighs in on the side of obsessive note-taker.

His sketches are also his diary; noting down odd details such as laser-sighted measurements of spaces, quoted snippets of conversation, contents of containers, tiny step-by-step illustrations of how things are built, or how they function. (This from his industrial design background no doubt). It’s these annotations that make his drawings fun to pore over. You feel as if you’re over his shoulder listening to him think as he sketches. Always learning something new about his subject.

Like his drawings, Daikubara packs the book’s margins with commentary – and they’re where the book excels. While written for beginners, Sketch Now Think Later is so jam-packed with information, even a practiced sketcher will pick up a thing or two from the many sidebars and captions.

The book is available from Daikubara’s site, your local booksellers, or – if you’d like to support my blog, you can order through the Amazon affiliate links used in this article.


Jean Paul Gaultier at the Montreal Beaux Arts

October 25, 2017

There is as was a show on at the MTL Beaux Arts, (closed Oct 22, sorry) featuring wedding dresses by fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.

It’s just a one room exhibition, with, mmmm, I’ll say about 30 mannequins? Each dress has it’s own theme – many of them borrowing from history, but others based on abstract forms. Everything is in high key neutrals and draped in yards and yards of gauzy veils.

The faceless mannequins are blank masks that occasionally come to life with the projected faces of models. But, strangely they only talk back and forth in banalities. How they are jet lagged, or which expression is good for the camera.

The white-on-off-white theme got me thinking – what a great subject for #Inktober2017. An event I’ve largely ignored this year, but hey – y’all have probably been watching other people doing it?

What a challenge to draw all these white dresses with black ink :) But of course here I’ve cheated – using my usual Platinum Carbon Black sparingly, and relying on dilute Lexington Grey, (sometimes just dirty water), Rome Burning (a pale gold) and Liquitex acrylic ink in Titanium White.

Did you know they made white ink? It’s not really all that white. I can’t imagine what it’s really for. You could never use it properly on black paper for instance. It’s only about 25% opaque. And it settles instantly making it very hard to pick up on a pen nip. I only tried it with a brush. I wouldn’t recommend using these Liquitex acrylic inks in a fountain pen.

In any case, I really just used it for glazes, drips and spatters. Any sharp bright white retouches you do see here are ordinary white gouache.

That’s pretty much cheating in the world of #Inktober2017 right? By now it’s basically a black and white painting.

This one was my favorite dress. A kind of cable knit Irish sweater-dress, dissolving into a ragged net of ropes and fibers. It has a look of seaweed, or fishing nets, and reminds me of the myth of the Selkie. There were no titles on the work, but I’m sure that was the theme.

I know people will ask, so no, I didn’t ink-paint these in the museum. Splattering indelible black ink in the small room full of white dresses. That would have got me quickly ejected.

When I sketch in a museum I just get the most basic drawing inside the exhibit, then usually step out to the lobby or the cafeteria to paint. Or one memorable time, the washroom, as the building was deserted on a weekday morning so I figured I’d use the entire counter top.

This time, I just took them home and I inked over my very light 0.3mm pencil drawings done on 11×14″ plate bristol.

I wanted to use a wide range of tools including scroll writers, steel brushes, music nibs, some worn out synthetic brushes, some splatter, some dripping, even a little finger painting.

But my current favorite lines are coming from a new set of witch pens. I think I’m going to move exclusively to these, so I can have this conversation:

“What are the best pens to sketch with?”

“Witch Pens”

“Your dipping pens – the ones you sketch with…”

“yes, Witch Pens!”

“er, yes… but which one would be your favorite pen?”


“No, I mean – what KIND of pen do you like the best!”

“Witch Pens!!!!”


New Brush: Rosemary and Co, Comber Brush

October 17, 2017

The second interesting brush Rosemary offered me, was their Series 2250 Flat Comber.

The gimmick here is, we have a flat, with tiny serrations along the edge. Giving you rake-like marks – a series of parallel lines.

I do this normally using a pointed round and grinding the brush into the palette so the tip splays out into a jagged fan. But that’s kind of a grim way to handle your brushes. Nice that Rosemary’s created this serrated flat, to give you a similar effect.

I have a few more examples from figure drawing, but there’s hand-drawn nudity involved. If you’re of legal age to view such scandalous material, you can click over to my life drawing blog. Otherwise, you’ll have to take the word of that one example above.

But seriously, it’s really a neat effect – and I’m sure I’ll find many applications for this brush next time I go landscape painting.


New Brush: Rosemary and Co, Pyramid Brush

October 10, 2017

I’ve recently been given a couple of brushes to test – this first set of sketches is the Rosemary and Co Series 40 Triangular Pyramid brush. It’s a natural squirrel hair fiber, with a needle sharp point and an odd pyramidal brush-body.

By popular demand – photo of what the brush tip looks like. (Sorry, mine is a little blood-red spattered now).

My first impression – what fun brush!

It’s a little weird – getting the feel of it on my first attempts. But the fine line drawing with the point is excellent, and you’re able to lay it on on the triangular sides, squash into a wedge, or twist the pyramid to get unpredictable chisel shaped mark making. It goes from thin to thick very quickly, with a fun feeling of being on the edge of control.

If you’re at all a fan of gesture drawing, or a direct, calligraphic kind of painting – you might very much enjoy this brush. I’ll be looking forward to doing some more figure drawing or street sketching with it.