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False Starts : or, It’s Good to Throw out the Baby

April 22, 2017

Last post I was saying how I’ve always wanted to do a shipwreck painting – based on some of the first paintings I remember from art history.

I’m proud I finally managed it because it’s a technical victory for me, and it was accepted into a show – and I hear I even took second prize. (yay!)

But, actually, I was kind of surprised the jury chose the ship painting –  instead of this one – my current favorite painting ever:

This is just something we found. Not a landmark or a destination view – just what you see while walking in the forest.

There’s no great meaning behind it – except the shared meaning that’s always present in works about nature.

Don’t we all have a feeling of contemplation, or ‘inner peace’ when we find ourselves wandering alone, surrounded by nature? I think that’s a common response. We call these kind of places ‘magical’. Or say they’re ‘a sanctuary’.

So, unlike my shipwreck, which is a narrative – an illustration, really – with this glade in Glengariff, I want to make you *feel* what I felt discovering this shallow pool surrounded by mossy oaks.

I do have a fatal flaw as an artist – I’m in love with studying my own paintings!

I hope one day I’ll be able to let go of all this navel-gazing – but it’s part of my process right now.

So, for the interest of all the other auto-didacts out there, this is the secret sauce behind the final painting.

This (above) is my false start.

A painting I wasn’t satisfied with. In fact, I disliked the results enough, it provoked a complete redo. Starting again immediately on a fresh sheet, with a new drawing.

These are both studio paintings. Full sheets of 200lb Fabriano paper (so that’s 22×30″). Painted from Laurel’s photographs taken on location. And of course, I intended this to be the final work. I didn’t plan to do it twice in a row! Each one took a couple of days to draw and paint, and I didn’t have the extra time to spare.

I probably shouldn’t recommend you do this – paint the whole thing twice back to back. But it does work!

You see the same sad story in art history. In which the artist had to go through dozens of studies before ‘suddenly’ they’re able to pull it off.

Just look at Sargent painting Madame X – over 30 times. Or Monet testing the Rouen Cathedral in every possible lighting situation.

Looking back at the reference – maybe you can see why the first draft just wasn’t good enough.

I’d done a fair job capturing the trees, But it’s not so much the drawing – it’s the values that weren’t working.

My classic complaint with watercolor – too pale! You need to feel you’re *inside* the forest. That deep shadow under the canopy.

To get darks like this, while working as directly as possible in watercolor (that is, attempting to get the color in the first pass – but often needing three touches in total), you have to use your pigments at full strength. Taken right from the well.

At the end of the day, it’s funny how much the painting resembles the paint box :)

You can see all my color choices right there in the pans!


Endurance: or, The Argument for Inexorable Progress

April 4, 2017

I’ve always admired the genre of marine painting, with it’s ferocious battles and poignant depictions of hopeless shipwrecks.

I’m pleased to be able to say, my painting Endurance is appearing in an upcoming Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolor show, at the Santa Fe Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario. (April 8-May 26, 2017).

In particular, I’ve always been fascinated with the sub-genre of the ice-bound ship.

One of the first paintings that I remember really looking at as a kid (like, looking at for more than a few seconds), was Caspar David Friedrich‘s The Wreck of Hope.

Friedrich’s painting has been associated with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, appearing on the cover of various copyright-free-classics editions. I believe that’s where I saw it first. Most of my early exposure to art was paperback book covers.

The painting  was also exhibited under the title: An Idealized Scene of an Arctic Sea, with a Wrecked Ship on the Heaped Masses of Ice.

I didn’t exactly set out to clone Caspar – but that title is quite appropriate to my own.

My other inspiration was Frederic Edwin Church‘s icebergs. Another of my first experiences with a painting that formed long term memories. I don’t know when I saw this first, but I’ve always remembered this painting.

I had read Church painted this from the deck of a ship travelling to the Antarctic. That’s not true – he did it back home, working from his sketches. (Probably with the secret assistance of photography).

I also remember a story that this canvas was lost for years, eventually found in the attic of a boy’s school in New England.  This is probably also not true.

Though there’s some evidence that might be a true-fact about an entirely different F.E. Church painting.

I’d written one of my only memorable college papers on Church. Making the argument that in the 20th century, film effectively murdered and cannibalized painting.

In Church’s time, viewing a gigantic painting was essentially an IMAX experience.

A panoramic ultra-real illusion placed before our optic nerves is functionally different than a conventional painting. The brain reacts differently to something that completely dominates our field of view. Soon the idea of IMAX will seem quaint – after VR,  and whatever direct-brainwave interface comes next.

Back in Frederic’s day, people would line up around the block, plonk down their coins, and have the velvet curtain drawn back for five minutes in front of his epic canvasses.

Clearly, we’ve missed that boat. Born a bit late for that kind of success as a painter :)

My painting is based (vaguely) on the infamous Franklin expedition, but more directly on the slow destruction of Shackleton’s ship Endurance. His expedition waited for months, camped out on the ice, making futile repairs – pointlessly reinforcing the splintering hull. watching as their vessel was inexorably crushed. Hoping against all evidence to the contrary that the ice might spare them.

I’m sure the debate raged nightly. Start walking south, knowing most of them will die? Could you drag a small boat back to the edge of the ice pack? Or just hold out till spring and hope the ice will part? Maybe send someone back to lead the rescue mission. I wouldn’t want to be one of the people left behind watching the dwindling supplies.

So, I’ve always known I would paint one of these ice-ships – and finally, the time was right.

The truth of the matter is, I was waiting for my own miracle. For my abilities to arrive at the stage where this was within reach.

I’m plagued with an impatience about art. I find it excruciating working on a long-term project. I’m at my best when a thing is finished in under an hour.

There’s a long list of projects that I’ve abandoned, simply because they took longer to complete than my short window of attention.

The key for me, was being able to draw well enough that I could sketch this all in one go.

The old wisdom is to painstakingly draw your image on disposable paper. Working out your composition, erasing or redrawing, whatever is necessary to perfect the design.

Then, you’re supposed to transfer your rough drawing to your pristine watercolor paper.

Some people use a graphite transfer paper. Some shade the back of the drawing. Some project the drawing and trace. Some people go so far as to pounce the drawing.

The fact is, I despise all of these methods! I’m simply unable to transfer a complex drawing without becoming overcome with boredom. Every single time I’ve attempted it, I get a stiff, unpleasant drawing that looks over-cooked.

Finally, I’ve reached a fluency with drawing, that I can sidestep all that rigmarole.

Don’t get me wrong, I did use photo reference. I made a little collage out of various pictures of ice, and an actual photo of the Endurance, and sketched that a few times. That way I had something to look at, and could just do the final drawing directly onto the watercolor paper.

It’s the first time this has clicked for me. That I’m able to look at my rough drawing and my reference, and simply re-draw it side by side – and have it come out exactly the same, but better.

Kind of amazing. But there you go. There *is* a pay-off for years of training :)

Then, there is the ability to paint values in watercolor.

I don’t want to dwell on this. I’ve been banging on for years about achieving the full range of values in a watercolor. If there’s one great weakness to this media, it’s the natural tendency for transparent watercolor to come out too pale.

So again, all I can say is; there is a moment in time, after sufficient practice, when you can simply do this.

You’ve learned the behavior of your pigments so instinctively, and figured out what colors give you the range you need, then suddenly, you can put down a value correctly ‘by feel’.  Or know how many layers you can use to get there without killing the luminosity.

I’ve always wanted to make big, epic paintings in the manner of these works I admire from history. And I always thought I needed to discover some superior working method. But for me, it was never a matter of proper planning, or setting aside enough time, or taking pains not to make mistakes.

It was simply a matter of staying the course.

Training (field sketching) and analysis (this blog over the years), and countless partial failures (that you’ll never see), and eventually – reaching the point where it can just fall off your brush.

Thanks for reading this long musing – and next time I’ll show you the one that didn’t get selected by the jury! For whatever reason, they never take my favorite.


One Minute Watercolor: Tinting a Single Line Sketch

March 19, 2017

I found this old footage on my hard drive the other day. This is an example done back in 2015 for a workshop on travel sketching. I still have a free PDF of the exercises up here for download.

It’s a sped-up time-lapse video, which is not my favorite way to show drawings – so I though I’d make it into a One Minute Watercolor short :)

It’s easy to *say* – just draw without lifting the pen :) Harder to actually do it! Here you can see exactly what I mean when I say – ‘stick to the spirit’ of single line.

I was trying to do this in 5-7 lines. But I see a bunch of single-line people in there – so I’m not sure how few lines it really was.

In any case – don’t be so strict with it you end up hating the drawing :) But use it as a way to encourage simplification. And speed!


#OneWeek100People2017: Day Five: Winding down with studio portraits

March 10, 2017

I have been loving this little artistic vacation. Thanks to everyone who has been drawing their own 100 – you’ve all been keeping me motivated!

I know, I know – I’m very fortunate to be able to sketch as much as I do. And I’m just gloating about it in front of you guys who have to take time off work or find drawing time after taking care of the household. I know everyone might not have the luxury of all this free time.

But of course, there are always trade offs. I have to go back into the salt-mines of digital art next week, and every minute of this fun is going to make the next deadline harder. I’ve been relishing every drop of watercolor these last few days.

>Note: You can read the rest of this series of posts HERE <

I spend so much time at home, I think I don’t have a healthy immune system. Going out and being around humans – definitely makes me sick. These were all done with a thudding head cold. I had numerous close calls. Trying not to blow my nose with a tissue dabbed in Perylene Maroon.

These heads are done from people in the Sktchy app.

I used little 4×6″ cards of watercolor paper, so they’re kind of ‘life size’ next to my iPad. I would say they were about 20 minutes each? Definitely faster and smaller than my last Sktchy binge. No particular reason, I just wanted to see how many I could do in a single day, and working smaller is usually faster.

The answer when you’re sick with a cold is: 15 in a day.

I wasn’t timing myself, and I would work on two or three at once. Laying big shapes (planes of the head, pools of eye sockets) on one head, then starting the next head. By the time I had a few ‘sculpted’, I could go back and put dark details on top of the dried wash.

With these, I’m trying to use less modelling than I might normally. Seeing how much I can do in the first pass. The guy on the left, being the only really successful example. His beard, the brows, pupils and nostrils are the only ‘retouches’. The entire head is otherwise done in the first pass. I will be impressed if one day I can manage to completely paint in one go. That would be awesome. I think it’s possible. But in the others here, I think you can see I had to go back into the shadows my usual three times.

This fellow is my absolute favorite of the day. Keeping the retouches to the minimum each layer. Trying to make the under painting do more work. This is the upside of this whole process. If you can keep up the pace, at least ONE of them will be a gem.  Whereas, if you work the whole week on a single masterpiece – it’s kind of a gamble.

Anyway – getting somewhere Less is More-ish with him. But he’s such a character! It’s actually much easier painting a guy like this – over say, a smooth faced young lady.

If you want to check out the before/after of the reference photos, you’ll need to get Sktchy on an iOS device. Find me in there (under Marc Holmes) and these will be tagged to the models profiles. And thanks also to you guys who gave of your faces!

So that’s #OneWeek100People2017 for me.

It will be interesting to do it again with you all next year. I have no idea what I’ll be thinking about that far in the future:) But we’ll all be able to post our progress – these ones, next to the 100 in 2018!

>Note: You can read the rest of this series of posts HERE <

#OneWeek100People2017: Show me the People!

March 9, 2017

The response around the web for #OneWeek100People2017 has been tremendous!

Here’s a small gallery of sketchers I found on Instagram. Click the pics to be taken to the artists’ photo streams.

There’s just as many on Twitter. <click there!

If you’re on Facebook, throw the hashtag in the search bar and find out who your friends have been sketching :)

I’m having a blast going down this internet rabbit hole. A vast range of styles and subjects from sketchers all over the world! People seem to be having a great time with it :)

Thanks to everyone who’s been posting with the hashtag. Are you feeling the world wide sketching community?

>Ed Note: You can read the rest of this series of posts HERE <


#OneWeek100People2017: Day Four: Canadian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship

March 9, 2017

I will say this. Sketching on location is never boring.

We managed to score some press passes to the Canadian National Pro Jiu-Jitsu tournament, via the good people at the Montreal Camera Club.

The sporting event was originally scheduled to be held here, but due to an obscure and rarely enforced rule regarding which combat sports the public is allowed to perform, it was banned from Quebec, and had to quickly find a new venue in Ontario.

> Ed Note: You can read the rest of this series of posts HERE <

But this is #OneWeek100People2017! So a four hour drive for four hours of sketching – that seems about right!

At least for a subject that is so different from the everyday coffee shop sketch. (Oops, that’s not a dig at any other sketchers :), Some people make coffee into a real subject :)

These drawings are interesting to me.

That’s a trigger-word in art. ‘Interesting’.

It’s always dicey when someone unlimbers Interesting vs. the clearly favorable ‘Stunning’.  Though I always find that a bit of an over-statement. (‘Literally Stunning!’). But on the other hand, nobody wants to hear ‘Nice’.  I personally like to provoke a ‘Fascinating’. But even a ‘What am I looking at?’ is an honest response.

Photos: Laurel Anne Holmes

Fight Cloud: David King

There’s a fine line between an observational sketch and a cartoon.

These drawings are done so quickly and so instinctively – they end up being a kind of visual short hand. Like all spontaneous sketches, they’re a form of note-taking.

How, after all, do you draw something that is happening too quickly to see? That really is gone before you have understood it?

All you can do is make shapes that echo the angles and the masses. Then work as quickly as possible from a fading memory. It truly is an impression.

As much as I talk all the time about separating your ego from ‘good and bad’, ‘success and failure’, I am kind of impressed with what I got. Check that center drawing against the photographic evidence! Come on! That’s pretty cool eh?

I think, when it comes to sketching people in action this week, I’m not going to top this.

Tomorrow I’m going to try something different. I’ll be back in the studio, babying a juicy head cold I’ve picked up, and I’ll be seeing what I can do with a marathon portrait painting session.

See you tomorrow!

> ED Note: You can read the rest of this series of posts HERE <


#OneWeek100People2017: Day Three: Hip Hop Dance at Studio Diss Tortion

March 8, 2017

One of my goals surrounding reportage sketching (as a past-time) is never draw the same thing twice.

I figure, that’s got to be the best way to keep on learning. Both about drawing, and about how to use my sketching to engage with the world.

> Ed Note: You can read the rest of this series of posts HERE <

So, I found my almost 50 year old self, feeling very much out of place, at a late night Hip Hop Dance workshop put on by Studio Diss Torsion.

This event was a small part of our Nuit Blanche or “Sleepless Night”. A French invention in which a city puts on an all night arts festival.

Here in Montreal, it’s a mix of street fair, public performance, and contemporary art. There’s an emphasis on giant out-door projection art and robotic light shows. Our downtown Place des Arts district is full of small stages; this year there was a zipline running over the square. All the galleries and theaters are open, and the underground city (our metro-level shopping mall) is host to the Art Souterrain festival.

But if you’re looking for a chance to sketch people in motion, a classroom is a perfect situation.

The instructors know they’re on display, so it doesn’t seem as weird to have someone ‘taking notes’. Plus most of these groups live by word of mouth – so they’re likely to be open to a visit from a group of online sketchers.

But mainly, they tend to be doing something over and over while the students imitate. Giving you a chance to develop a sketch from gesture through repeated passes of refinement, each time you see your pose come back around.

There was a lot more going on out there at Nuit Blanche. I did stop for a few moments when I spotted these anachronistic Habitant Fire Jugglers.

This is so typical of Montreal. Hipster History!

But sadly it was too dammed cold to go any further with these. I will say, when it’s absolutely freezing – just a pencil works better than a frozen fountain pen.

So just imagine these guys juggling flaming torches and spinning double-ended fire sticks to the accompaniment of rollicking fiddle music.

I only kid because I love. It’s awesome the way Montréalais look for any excuse to do something in historical costume! I’ve got no problem with sketching that :)