What’s New

Painting skies in watercolor and gouache!


Paint skies with me! You have two options for taking this class:

Skillshare is a Netflix-style platform for classes where you sign up for a monthly subscription and take all the classes you want. On Skillshare, I’ve divided this class into two parts. The first part is Five-Minute Watercolor Skies, and the second part is Vivid & Colorful Skies in Gouache & Ink . These links will give you a free trial to check out everything Skillshare has to offer.

On Udemy, you just sign up for the individual class you want to take. Go here to take this class on Udemy.

In this class, we’re going to explore two different approaches for capturing skies in a way that’s fresh, lively, and colorful.

First, we’ll use watercolor to do five-minute, wet-into-wet skies. The idea with these skies is to do them very quickly, onsite.  These are going to be loose and quite abstract. They might be inspired by what you see in front of you, but they’re not meant to be a perfect copy. After all, you have a camera for that.

This is a method you can use when you’re sitting on a terrace with your friends, having dinner on a rooftop, and you just want to capture the light and colors in the sky before the sun goes down. It’s perfect for travel sketching and urban sketching.

And then, once they’re dry, we’ll add some details from the landscape with ink or watercolor to help give a sense of scale and place.

And if you really only paint in gouache, you can do this class in gouache as well. Just water it down a little and pretend it’s watercolor. You can get a lot of these same effects.

In the second part of the class, we’re going to take a little more time to paint really vivid, bold skies in gouache.

I’ll show you how to treat gouache kind of like watercolor to get light washes for clear skies, and also as backgrounds for something like a sunset.

Then we’ll do some dramatic daytime and sunset skies, and work on blending and shading to get convincing cloud shapes that still reflect your own style.

I’ll also show you how to use watercolor like gouache, by mixing tube watercolors with white gouache. So this is a great trick for watercolor painters who haven’t quite made the leap into gouache yet, because you’ll only need that one tube of white gouache.

Also, if you happen to have a color you really love in watercolor, but you don’t have that color in gouache, well guess what? You can just mix a little white gouache into it and bring it right into your painting.

Whether you’re primarily painting in watercolor or gouache, and whether you’re usually drawing from life in a travel sketchbook or working in your studio from photographs, these loose, colorful approaches to skies will add life to your urban sketches, cityscapes, and landscapes.

On People and Stories and Drawing

I’ve always shied away from getting people into my drawings and paintings. For years almost everything I did looked like this:

Drawings of buildings and streets in Italy

No people. Entirely depopulated streets and towns, as if all the citizens had been raptured or abducted by aliens.

Sometimes I’d drop just one little figure in, for scale.

street scenes in Mexico and New York painted in gouache with one figure walking down the street

But really, they were still drawings of buildings, with a couple little lumpy shapes to show that people do exist in cities.

But of course, if you’re into urban sketching, you can’t ignore the people forever. Over time (and with the help of some terrific teachers, such as James Richards) I started to be more deliberate about populating my sketches with people.

Still, these figures are accessories, like the street trees and lampposts and picnic umbrellas, meant to convey the sense of a lively street. They’re not about any one person doing any one thing–they’re about people collectively, like a flock of birds. And that’s great–I love these pictures. (I love all the pictures I’ve posted here–none of this is a criticism of my own art at all, just an observation about what I tend to focus on and what I don’t focus on.)

But lately I’ve been admiring the work of artists like Jenny Kroik, whose illustrations tell such a story about the city she lives in. I also admire her gouache technique, so I started making little studies of her paintings (“study” is an artsy word for “copy”) in my sketchbook, to figure out how she does it.

I was mostly working on technique but what occurred to me is that if you really want to tell a story in your sketchbook, you need to have people acting out that story.

This is hilarious, that I would only think about this now. I’ve been a full-time, professional writer for 20 years. I’ve written books about earthworms, cut flowers, poisonous plants, and I’ve written a bunch of novels. What I always tell people is, “That wasn’t really a book about earthworms. It was a book about people who study earthworms. Stories have people in them. If I’d left out the people and only written about worms, I wouldn’t have had a story. There’s no book in that.”

So I was thinking about this, and looking at Jenny Kroik’s interesting illustrations of interesting New Yorkers doing interesting things, and kind of envying her interesting art practice, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I live in Portland. This place is interesting. Come to think of it, every place is interesting in its own way.”

And at that moment, Portland was having an interesting event: an epic snowstorm. I could see from my window that Portlanders were out in the snow, doing whatever Portlanders do. So I grabbed my camera (not my sketchbook, c’mon, it’s cold outside) and decided to go looking for stories. Here’s what I found:

Portlanders and their beverages, hours before the next wallop was predicted to hit and possibly knock out power: One last coffee run, and a trudge to the liquor store.

Kids carrying around enormous chunks of ice, for probably the first time in their lives, and somebody making the all-important Trader Joe’s run.

An unplowed side street getting turned into an impromptu dog park. A walk (with trekking poles, just in case) while FaceTiming with incredulous relatives who have never seen Portland like this.

It’s intimidating to put people front and center. I did a lot more in the way of preliminary sketches for these than I would normally do. Something I learned from Marc Taro Holmes: It’s perfectly fine to do seven or eight pencil sketches of a person and just pick one to ink and finish. Studio artists do this all the time: they’ll work up a lot of sketches before committing to a big painting. But I tend to forget that even within a sketchbook, a sketch can have sketches. (This in spite of every teacher who has ever taught me to make thumbnails, including Shari Blaukopf.)

Anyway, this is what I got out of Portland’s snowstorm and a lot of idle time to think about art: Where there are people, there are stories. Those stories might be small–a woman trudging through ice to get to Trader Joe’s–but isn’t that what cities and towns and villages are made up of?  A million small stories that somehow come together to tell us something about the place?

Plus pretty buildings and trees and streets and lampposts, of course.

Drawing Interiors in One and Two Point Perspective

Hi folks! You can take this class on Skillshare, which is a membership-style platform like Netflix where you can take all the classes you want for one low monthly fee. This link will give you a free trial to the first part of the course, Travel Sketching Interiors in One-Point Perspective.    Here is a link to the second part of the course, Sketching Interiors in Two Point Perspective.

Or you can take both classes combined on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. See it on Udemy here.

Here’s a bit more about the course:

When we’re doing travel sketching or urban sketching, sometimes we forget about interiors. But when you travel, or even when you’re out and about in your own hometown, you’re inside all kinds of interesting spaces. That could be your house, or the apartment or hotel you stay in when you travel, or maybe it’s an art museum, a cathedral, or the café where you have your morning coffee.

All of these are places you can capture in your sketchbook to just help evoke a sense of place and remind you of little moments in your everyday life or your vacation.

The trick with interiors is that you need to really understand perspective. So in this class, we’re going to work on simple one and two-point perspective, which will help us build the room and place all the furniture within it. You might be used to doing this outdoors, on the street, but we’ll work on applying those techniques indoors as well.

Once we work out how perspective works inside a room, we’ll get really creative and playful with ink, watercolor, markers, colored pencil, and any other mixed media you’d like to use.

Although we’re going to be working from photos in this class, the idea is that we’ll create quick, simple sketches that you can absolutely do on location.

Some Thoughts About the Bee Gees, The Little Prince, and What Exactly Is the Point of It All

I loved the Bee Gees documentary on HBO, so much so that I would consider it worthwhile to pay for a month of HBOMax just to watch it. I am not ashamed to admit that I love their music, which takes me back to happy moments in my childhood. I also loved learning about their songwriting process, and I found it to be a moving and complex story about siblings working together. (I am literally only just now realizing the parallel to the Kopp sisters story. I’m not real insightful sometimes.)

One thing struck me: Over and over, through the years, you hear them say that their very specific goal was to be FAMOUS. And you know, when that’s your goal, you make very particular career decisions. You see this play out time and again as their fortunes rose and fell.

There are a lot of different reasons to make music or art, and they don’t have to be about fame or fortune. Just look at Seth Rogen and his ceramics.

Most of us WANT to make some money doing the thing we love, or…well, doing something, but what is the money FOR?

I mean, it’s to put food on the table, obviously. We all have long lists of things we’d do or buy if we had more money, but underneath all of that is the idea that if we had more money, our days would look different. We would do something other than what we’re doing right now.

I guess this wasn’t the case for the Bee Gees. Fame was the point. As long as they were doing “fame,” they got what they wanted. But I think that for a lot of us, we struggle with what we actually want and what we’ll do now to get what we want someday.

So it’s kind of like…we spend our days doing this thing that earns money so that someday we’ll have enough money to be able to stop spending our days doing that thing and instead spend them doing something else.

I think a lot of self-employed people in particular struggle with this: We get an idea to do something, but then there’s this question: Am I doing this because it’s something I genuinely want more of in my life, or am I doing it in the hopes that I’ll make enough money that I can then stop doing it and go on to do whatever I genuinely want more of?

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. And the difficulty is that if you put a lot of time and energy into doing a thing, you’ll generally get more of that thing. But maybe what you’re really hoping for is the freedom to have less of that thing.

It’s been such a hard year that I’ve been thinking a lot about how to fill my days with activities that are pleasurable in the moment, with no future outcome in mind.

The Little Prince book coverAnd that got me thinking of this passage from The Little Prince, where a man is selling pills that quench your thirst, so you can save fifty-three minutes a week by not having to drink.

The little prince replies, “If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

I guess my point, which I admit is half-baked, has to do with finding the intrinsic value in doing the thing you’re doing, or finding a way to do more of the thing that has intrinsic value. I’ll leave that for you to ponder and I’ll do the same.

Join Me for a Flowery Valentine’s Day Zoom Event!

 

Photo of Amy Stewart and Teresa Sabankaya in her flower stall

 

On Tuesday, February 9 at 5 Pacific/8 Eastern, I’m going to host a Zoom chat with the delightful and charming Teresa Sabankaya. Teresa is the florist I interviewed for Flower Confidential. Here we are together in those days, back when we were young and cheerful and our hair more closely matched the color we were born with.

Teresa and I felt an immediate bond because we are both Texans. The joke is that if you meet somebody from Harvard or Texas, you will know it within five minutes because they will tell you. That was true of me and Teresa. But I also adored her seasonal, garden-grown bouquets, which at the time she sold from a flower stall in downtown Santa Cruz, where I used to live.

Now she’s written a gorgeous book of her own, The Posy Book, in which she explores the old-fashioned language of flowers and tells us how she makes her delightful posies (which she also ships!)

This chat is quite deliberately timed for Valentine’s Day and will certainly be a floral-themed lovefest. Please join us to talk about the flower business, to learn more about Teresa’s sentimental posies, or just to hang out with your gal pals for an evening.

Please register here! We can’t wait to see you.

Meet Aspiring Ceramicist Seth Rogen.

Seth Rogen is probably the only ceramicist to have 8 million Instagram followers. He got into ceramics the way many of us get into art–by following his interests, his enthusiasm, his curiosity. If you scroll down his Instagram feed, you’ll see that he’s a longtime collector of ashtrays–don’t laugh! They’re really interesting ashtrays!–and then he went to a pottery studio and made something, and then, being Seth Rogen and having all the money, he had his own studio and kiln built, and now there’s no stopping him.

He takes the most wonderfully pedestrian approach to his art. When he posts a new piece, he generally says something like, “I made this thing and I like it.” When he made some pots he wrote, “I made these pots and planted these plants in them.”

In this lovely interview he says, “I do like tactile things; I like to produce tangible work. With movies, we spend years on them and then they’re very intangible. They don’t have weight, they don’t occupy a physical space. You used to at least get a DVD or a Blu-Ray, and you don’t even really get that anymore. I don’t like to keep my own movie posters around because those are just advertising for the product, not the product itself. I do really like being able to create an artistic expression that is a thing that I can pick up, hold, show to people. It is just so different from what I normally do which has no mass to it.”

In other words, he’s doing it because it scratches an itch for him. It’s personally satisfying. He’s obviously not trying to build a business or win any awards. He says, “It’s been fun because I can just explore and play around and try different things. If something turns out terribly, it’s not ultimately damaging to my overall reputation as a ceramicist.”

Be Seth Rogen, everybody. Just go make your pots. Explore and play around and try different things, and don’t worry about your overall reputation as a ceramicist, which is just another thing that has no mass to it.

Donate to the International Rose Test Garden, Win Some Paintings and a Book

 

 

I live just down the street from the International Rose Test Garden in Portland and I visit it so often that I think of it as my backyard. It’s a very nice backyard.

I’m usually there with my sketchbook, so when the time came for a fundraiser to do some important work at the garden, the staff asked if I’d donate some paintings to sweeten the deal.

So. Read all about their fundraising campaign and make a donation here. You’ll be entered into a drawing to win these four paintings, all original gouache 5×7 paintings on 7×10 paper, signed on the back by me, PLUS a signed first edition of Flower Confidential, my book about the global flower industry.

Even better: Donations are being matched by a private funder!

Get over there by January 31, 2021 to make a donation.

Mixed Media Landscapes

This class is available either on Skillshare (a membership site similar to Netflix) or Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take.

Preview the class and get a free trial on Skillshare here.

Or take the class here on Udemy.

More about the class:

Whether you’re traveling to beautiful landscapes, or just sitting on your own front porch, you’ve probably wanted to capture the natural scenery around you in your sketchbook.

Landscapes have always been a favorite subject of artists. The challenge is to find a way to really make them your own.

So in this class, we’re going to work in either watercolor or gouache-your choice—and then bring in mixed media, in the form of colored pencil, markers, paint pens, or ink. With tools like these you can make quick, playful scribbles, add layers of texture, bring in highlights and shadows, and make something that’s really fun and has some spirit and some personality to it.

In this class, we’ll focus on:

  • Discovering your go-to choices for blues and greens, the most common colors you’ll use in most landscapes
  • How to make choices about what to leave in and what to leave out.
  • Understanding where to place the horizon line
  • Distinguishing between the foreground, middle, and background to give a landscape a sense of depth.
  • Taking a very simple approach to skies, because this time, we’re going to let the land be the star of the show.
  • Using mark-making with mixed media tools to let your own style shine through

And I’ll show you my favorite trick for getting over that fear of messing up a perfect blank page!

Are You Getting Ready to Declutter?

Photo of messy paper files on a desk

It’s the time of year when everybody’s thinking about getting organized or decluttering. Maybe you thought, at the beginning of the shutdown, that this would be your big shutdown project, but then time just drifted down a lazy river and it never happened.

I know. A lot of things never happened last year. But here we are in January, and I’m guessing that some of you are about to roll up your sleeves and tackle a messy desk or a room or a garage or whatever.

I have two things to say about that.

The first has to do with paper clutter. A few years ago, when I got ready to move to Portland, I finally decided to go completely paperless for all my household and home office stuff. I just didn’t want to move boxes of unnecessary paperwork to Portland. That forced me to get it done.

I figured out a system, worked out what equipment I would need, and decided on a way of approaching it that would not be too overwhelming and would actually happen.

So the first thing I want to say is: I created a class on how to go paperless. You can read more about it here. It’s for household paperwork and for very small businesses like mine–businesses that are too small to require Quickbooks but still need some sort of system beyond a shoebox full of receipts.

The second thing I want to say is aimed at those of you who are thinking, “I need to go through all this stuff before I die so my kids don’t have to”…or for anyone who KNOWS someone who is thinking that (like your parents, maybe?)

This bit of advice comes from my having been married to a rare book dealer all these years. He gets called out to look at a lot of estates. The advice is: Don’t declutter just to spare your children the chore. Do it if it will make your life better now. Do not worry about your heirs.

But that’s crazy, you say! How awful to leave that job for my kids! So here’s the thing: Your heirs do not have to, and hopefully will not, sort through every single thing in your house and decide what to keep, toss, donate, recycle, sell.

Instead, they can and should take whatever family heirlooms they personally want to keep, along with important papers, anything with private/financial information on it etc. This does take some effort. (And all of us should get our financial and private/family papers together!) But then the heirs can hand the keys to an estate liquidator and walk away. The estate liquidator will decide what to sell/donate/recycle/toss, and return to your heirs an empty house, along with (probably) a small check. Or maybe no check at all, but at least your heirs didn’t have to do it.

Easy. Done. Not a burden.

(Edited to add: A lot of commenters have said, “But what about hoarders?” I’m not talking about hoarding, which is a serious problem. I’m talking about you and me, feeling guilty because of the boxes in the attic or that closet full of stuff we never use or that overly full garage.)

I once met a woman at a party who told me that she and her husband had just spent TWO YEARS going through her mother’s massive house, garage, and storage units, painstakingly handling every item, holding garage sales, hauling loads to the dump, sorting recycling, and donating to thrift stores.

It took up every weekend of their lives for two years.

When I asked her (because I’m not very tactful, which is why I don’t get invited to a lot of parties) why on earth they hadn’t simply turned it over to an estate liquidator and walked away, she looked at me in astonishment and said they simply hadn’t thought of it.

SO…THINK OF IT!

Another mistake people make is in assuming that their possessions (or their dearly departed’s possessions) are worth a fortune and must be dusted off, polished up, and put up for sale to the highest bidder. Sometimes people go online and see that an identical teacup sells for $35 on eBay, and they start looking around and doing the math, and decide that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of real American dollars can be extracted from that estate.

Probably it can’t.

Most people’s collectables are not that collectable. Most of those prices on the Internet are aspirational: the dealer would like to get that price for the teacup, but hasn’t yet.

And the labor involved in photographing, describing, pricing, listing for sale, and then packing and shipping each item is considerable.

Most people’s stuff is not worth nearly as much as they think it is. Let go of the idea that all those possessions can be easily turned into money. It’s harder than it sounds.

If you’re truly convinced that the painting above your fireplace is worth a fortune, then have it appraised (which you will need to pay for), and get professional advice on how to store and care for it. (Hint: maybe not above the fireplace) Leave the appraisal along with your will so your heirs will understand how it needs to be handled.

Otherwise, trust the estate liquidator to get you a fair price for anything of value. People like my husband get called all the time by estate liquidators to look at potentially valuable books, for instance. There are few things more heartbreaking than to show up at an estate filled with worthless books, only to realize that the heirs have spent weeks sorting, organizing, and making computerized lists of every book on every shelf, along with a price they found on the internet. Do not do this! Go live your life! Do not spend your precious time on this earth making lists of a dead person’s possessions!

It’s also true that often the most valuable items are things people don’t recognize as valuable, so they get thrown away in an overly ambitious clean-out. (My husband once showed up at the estate of an elderly gay couple. He asked, “So where’s the porn?” The heirs looked shocked but finally confessed that they’d thrown it out. That vintage gay porn would’ve been the most valuable thing in the estate.) This is why estate liquidators would advise you not to touch anything, do not spend time sorting, do not spend time cataloging, and to leave it all up to them.

So if any of you hear yourselves (or your parents, or your elderly aunt) in the words “I’d better go through all this stuff before I die so my heirs won’t have to,” the answer is: No, you don’t. Do it if you’ll enjoy it, do it if you just want a good clear-out for your own well-being, but don’t do it for your heirs. Your heirs can call an estate liquidator. Make sure your important papers, finances, and family heirlooms are in order, but if you don’t want to deal with your old coats and extra coffee mugs and unopened jigsaw puzzles, you don’t have to.

This advice goes for people who are downsizing as well. Pack up the stuff you want to take with you to your shiny new little condo, and leave your half-empty house for an estate liquidator to deal with.

So. I hope this helps. And go take my class on going paperless.

Sketching Street Scenes with Ink and Watercolor

You can take this class on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style membership site. On Skillshare I have divided this into three short classes. These links will get you a free trial to explore everything Skillshare has to offer:

Travel Sketching in New York

Urban Sketching in a French Village

Travel Sketching in Italy

I’ve also bundled these classes together on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. You can find it here on Udemy: Sketching Street Scenes with Ink and Watercolor.

The best part of travel sketching is capturing lively, bustling street scenes, whether it’s a big city like New York or a small village in Europe.

To do that quickly and accurately, it helps to have a grasp of the basics of perspective.

In this class, we’ll work on simple one-point perspective with New York as our model.

Then we’ll go to France and look at a village scene where those rules of perspective have to be tweaked to handle a sloping, winding road and a jumble of buildings that are lined up in a row.

Finally, we’ll go to Italy and work on adding just enough detail to really capture all the elements that make a scene so compelling.

Using pencil, ink, and watercolor, we’ll work on:

  • Perspective
  • Light and shadow
  • Varying line weights
  • Differences in color and shading in the foreground and background
  • What details to focus on, what to simplify, and what to leave out entirely

By the end of this class, you’ll have all the skills you need to incorporate lively street scenes into your sketchbook practice, when you travel and also in your own neighborhood.