The St. John River runs through downtown Fredericton. Besides being the provincial capital of New Brunswick, the town itself is a delightful blend of old and new, including the beautiful campus of the University of New Brunswick a bit of a way up the hill. Like any town built around a river, bridges are important to Fredericton. The bridge I painted was the Fredericton Railway Bridge, built in 1938, and was converted into the Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge in 2008. It was constructed as a “swing span” bridge to allow higher ships to pass under/through, no longer in use.
Richard and I had an invigorating walk on this bridge – it had been raining, but suddenly the early morning spring sun peaked out behind us and lit up the far shore of the South Devon community while the heavy clouds remained. The spire of the old church as well as the crane of a new construction project became visible.
Challenging to paint all that rusty metal, and still capture the delicate spring quality of the light on the far shore.
In May, I entered a plein air (painting outdoors) competition in Elora, Ontario. The event lasted 4 days, culminating in a show/sale on the Sunday. I searched around and found an old church that had been converted into a home (I found out as I was finishing the painting). Sat in my chair, supplies around me, and I spent much of the day painting this beautiful building on a gorgeous, sunny day. There was activity in and out the front door of the building, and around it as well. I was so focused on the painting that I didn’t really pay attention. Later in the afternoon, a pretty woman with a gorgeous baby in her arms, stopped behind me to watch me work. She told me that she and her husband own the building I was painting and it is their home. They own the zipline in town which was not open for the season just yet. In the meantime, her husband brought customers to the house who wanted a bit of adventure, and they would rappel out the window on the far side of the main tower. So, that is what was going on all this time! Fantastic!!
There is a lot of pressure to paint quickly when doing plein air. The light and weather conditions are constantly changing, so deciding on shadows and similar details can be quite challenging!
The next day, I painted a lovely old 19th century house near the gorge in town. The light was dull and the air was chilly – all in the adventure of plein air painting! This painting sold at the show/sale on the Sunday.
Toronto friends asked me to paint their house in an old and very beautiful area of Etobicoke. I decided to paint it en plein air as well. I watched the weather and chose a gorgeous sunny spring day to paint this old beauty. The house was built of stones from the Humber River. The house kinda of spoke to me as I sat with it all day, light changing, winds lightly blowing. It has history, solidity, charm, capacity. I liked the way the landscaping was done with a light, natural touch. The large trees provide a beautiful canopy. The back of the house is gorgeous and they have asked me to paint that scene which I hope to do in the fall.
One anecdote – this year Toronto has seen quite a few wild turkeys downtown, some apparently walking down Queen Street! Something must have happened to their habitat or their predators? As it happened, there was a wild turkey couple hanging at the back door of this lovely old house. They seemed gentle and unimposing. They were there the next day when I delivered the painting. Spectacular colours, especially when the male fanned out his tail. Maybe they’ll still be there in the fall and I’ll include them in the painting?
Plastic. So useful, so malleable, so ubiquitous, so harmful to our environment. I heard a CBC interview with a woman who had gone plastic-free. In fact, she produces only a baggie sized amount of garbage/waste in a whole year. Whoa! What?! How?! Strange how it has become impossible to live without plastic bags and wrap – none of that existed when I was a kid. So, if we could do it then, surely we can do it now?
The interviewee’s advice was to start with eliminating one thing and going from there. I have been making Shibori fabric, scarves, wraps, etc., and I wondered if there might be some use I could make of the fabric to replace plastic. While I have long replaced plastic grocery bags with recycled reusable bags, I was still using those small clear plastic produce bags. Might small cotton bags replace these?
After a few experiments, I used Shibori dye techniques to produce a fine pattern suitable for small bags. I had a few issues with the first two bags, but then produced 8 beautiful bags. I had trouble finding appropriate drawstring material, but finally settled on twill tape which is light and comes in 100% natural cotton. I placed one of my first experimental bags full of asparagus in the fridge crisper and left it there for 3 days. I wondered how fresh it would remain in that bag. Well, 3 days later, it was perfect, fresh, not wilted at all. Success!
The next challenge was tags. Five of these bags in the crisper and you would wonder what’s in each. I needed to make a light weight tag that could be changed depending on the contents. So, I decided on cotton fabric with a cotolin string loop that attaches to the drawstring and can be removed/changed. Total weight is one ounce (28 grams). I asked Bulk Barn if they would allow me to use my bags in their store instead of their plastic bags and they said yes! Bulk Barn will weigh any container you bring in and deduct the weight at the till on your way out. Containers must be clean.
These bags are washable, durable (machine stitched with 100% cotton thread), and versatile. They could be used for organizing items in your suitcase, or as a gift bag, or as a bag for bulk store purchases.
Five years ago this past February (in the middle of winter, don’t ya know), I spied the beautiful property that is now my Cape Breton home – deep snow all around with bright winter sunshine. What was it like under all that snow, I wondered? Smitten, I bought it on the spot.
Little did I know the joys that the beautiful land (and people) around me would provide. When I returned that early summer, five years ago, there was a carpet of low growing Bunchberries covering many areas around my house. These charming plants produce the sweet white flowers (with hints of more red to come) you see in this painting – captured in an egg cup! By fall, the flowers are gone and bright red berries remain, so I have expressive Bunchberry companions from spring through fall.
Sometimes a quick sketch gets us started in the day. In this case, dying tulips caught my interest – for some reason more than newly opening ones. There seems more depth of colour, more character, more expression in those petals that are almost falling. So, I grabbed my sketchbook.
My sketchbook is a Moleskin watercolour book (that is, it has a nice texture from cold pressed paper and I think the paper is about 60 lb weight (though not sure). The book (closed) is about 8″ x 5″ in size.
Step 1: Using a 2H pencil I decided on layout. I did this first by putting in oval shapes to represent the flower heads. I am working from the life plant in front of me so the sketch will retain some “life” to it (even if the flowers are dying, haha). Note that none of the stems are completely vertical – the angles tell a story of their own. And I like uneven numbers so I decided to include 5 flower heads. Initially I thought I might turn the sketchbook so its length is vertical, but I realized that would allow limited flowers and would show a lot of stems and leaves. My real interest was in the flowers. The leaf tips add some dynamism and context and that’s all I needed.
Using a 2H pencil (or H or 4H) allows me to lightly sketch in the image. What is important at this stage is to ensure that the overlaps are correct. Everything makes sense. It is possible to understand what is in front of something else. For each flower head, the pistol and stem went in first to align the angle of the flower. Then, starting from the centre (where the stamen and stem meet), I drew the petals in front on either side, then progressively filled in the petals all round. Note that if I was drawing this as a final pencil sketch, I might use different lines, different weights and certainly 2B, 4B and 6B pencils. But this is an undersketch so I am more interested in getting an accurate idea of the flowers, stems and leaves. One of the petals fell off just as I finished that flower head. Lucky I captured it before that happened.
Step 2: For this kind of quick sketch, this step is fairly simple. Still, there are some important considerations. I used a black ink Micron 05 waterproof pen. This pen is going to give a design-like image, not so much expressive in the lines as we would get if we used waterproof ink and a drawing nib or other implement. Because I am going to paint over the ink with watercolour, I want the ink to be waterproof. An interesting variation can occur if we use soluble ink, but that is a different kind of look and has its own tricks to master. Bear in mind that you can still get a bit of expression in this ink sketch. The lines that overlap other lines can be a bit heavier. In order for the image to “read” properly, I ensured that the lines met each other so the sketch has a look of completeness (is that a word?). The image is now a much stronger statement. I waited a few minutes to ensure the ink was completely dry. Then, I used a soft malleable eraser to erase the pencil undersketch.
Step 3: My goal in applying the watercolour is to loosely apply the colour, remembering this is a sketch not a painting. I don’t want to spend all day on this. I deliberately allow the paint to move outside of the lines a bit, apply the paint quite wet and let it flow, while dabbing in some more intense colour in places. I do aim for accurate colour where I can. For this painting, I used my Winsor & Newton professional quality watercolour palette.
For the stems, I used Aureolin and then, while still damp, I ran my brush down the right side of the stems with a bit of Cerulean Blue mixed with just a touch of the Aureolin to create a slight shadow. Because the paint is going over an ink sketch, the result is always going to be flatter than if I used paint alone. Since this is a sketchbook sketch, I am fine with that.
The leaves were painted with the same colours, Aureolin & Cerulean Blue, with a bit more intense colour mixture was added on a second pass while the leaves were still damp.
Starting with lighter colours is a good idea. So, with a clean pot of water and a very clean brush, I used a yellow mixture of Aureolin and Cadmium Lemon Yellow for the centre of the flowers. I applied a light wash, then added a more intense mixture (less water) to get more concentrated yellow in places. I did much the same with the purple petals, using Dioxazine Purple (be careful! this is a very powerful colour) quite diluted, then dropped in a more intense mixture while the petals were still wet. Because the petals had a rosy hue in places, I dropped in some Permanent rose in places to capture that sheen.
The the pistol had a yellowy-green round tip, and the stamens were more yellow. I didn’t want to dwell on all the subtle differences, so made the pistol a pale green with Aureolin and a tiny touch of Cerulean Blue, and the stamens yellow with the Aureolin and a touch of the Cad Lemon Yellow.
So, there it is. I captured some energy of these dying tulips and got a good exercise in at the same time. I can now decide if I want to make a larger polished painting of this subject matter. I have captured some important information if I decide to do that. A photo of the subject matter can come in handy too in case I decide to create the painting which would focus more on light and dark, foreground and background, highlights, and depth of colour.
Let me know if you find these steps helpful in considering watercolour. Have a great spring day!
The pieces* above were made using three different shibori techniques on a light cotton muslin and dye. Shibori is the Japanese term for multiple methods of creating resist in a dyeing process. Great precision can be created using these techniques. Right now, I am just experimenting which is allowing me to see where precision can be introduced. I love the drama of the process. It can be quite laborious to prepare the fabric for dyeing. The dyeing itself is reasonably quick then, shazaam!, the resist is removed and the beautiful patterns are revealed. While I can control quite a few things in the process, I can’t control it all. So, every piece is different, and every piece is a surprise. Love it!
*These large squares make beautiful three season scarves. The one with triangle shapes has a lace trim sewn on (dyed to match). They would make nice summer picnic cloths as well.
Next experiment will be to stretch one over a painting stretcher so I can hang it on the wall.
Above are some pics of the prep, the dyeing, and the reveal process.
These smaller squares (and one longer sample) are what is called Furoshiki – they are traditional gift wrapping cloths in Japan. These were done in a variety of techniques, stitching, tie-dyeing, pole wrapping, clamping. They work well as cloths in which to wrap a dish for a pot luck or a bottle of wine or . . . I use one as a cover for my printer. Versatile.
These required a different approach compared to a pineapple. And they were fading fast in my painting space! Started with some small sketches, then the large sketch and went from there. Final image is 17″ x 17″ on 30″ x 22″ Arches watercolour paper. Click on pictures for a clear image.