Paintings

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.

Gouache Florals!

I’m teaching a new class on painting floral still lifes in gouache or watercolor–and you have two choices about how to take the class.

Here on Skillshare, which is a subscription-style platform like Netflix, you can get a free trial and take all the classes you like. 

Or if you’d rather just take one class at a time, and pay as you go, you can take this class on Udemy as well.

More about the class…

Would you like to learn to paint simple, whimsical floral arrangements, or do you want to explore new ideas about color mixing and design? How about both?

In this class, we’re going to use your choice of paint—gouache or watercolor—along with markers, paint pens, colored pencils, or any mixed media tool you like, to create inventive, inspired floral arrangements. We’ll also try out a color-mixing exercise to extend a simple palette of colors by mixing wonderful pastels and neutrals.

Then we’ll look at how to create color combinations from the new variety of colors we’ve mixed.

These techniques form the basis of all still life paintings. I hope you’ll start with flowers, and move on to fruit, bowls, mugs of tea, houseplants—whatever you’d like to arrange and paint.

I’m going to encourage you to be really free and imaginative with your floral arrangements. Concoct your own color scheme! Design your own vase! Invent new colors for flowers that you’ve never seen in nature!

Inspired by the creativity of masters like Matisse, you’ll be able to work from my example, or from your own still life setups, or from photographs you gather yourself. These still life floral paintings make beautiful framed pieces, they’re great as gifts, and they’re lovely on cards. Enjoy!

At Some Point, You Just Have to Deal with the Painting in Front of You

 

Several years ago, I took a class with Qiang Huang, an amazing oil painter from Austin. We were all painting from still lifes set up next to our easels. His work is both beautifully precise and also loose and imaginative. That balance of accuracy and abstraction was what we were all after.

At one point he said, “Your still life setup is just a reference for the design you want to create. You’re not here to copy it.”

In other words, a still life setup or a reference photo or the landscape in front of you should just be a jumping-off point for the painting that you’re going to make. If you find yourself struggling to make an exact copy, you’ve lost the thread of the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think there comes a point in a painting or a drawing where you almost have to set the reference aside. At some point, you just have to deal with the painting that’s in front of you. What it needs next may not be found in the reference you’ve been using. It becomes a matter of stepping back, squinting, maybe taking a black-and-white photograph to check the values, and making a decision about what the painting itself needs, not whether it matches the thing you’re trying to paint or not.

This is true of writing as well. You might start off with a very fixed idea of what sort of book you’re writing and what you want it to be like when it’s finished. But at some point, the book becomes its own thing. At some point, you have to deal with the book that’s in front of you, not the one you had in your head when you started out.

Ann Patchett said something like this when she wrote about book ideas being like beautiful butterflies drifting around in the air. “I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.”

She’s talking about learning to live with the disappointment that inevitably comes when you compare the book you’ve written to the way it looked in your imagination before you started. And that disappointment is real.

In the case of a painting, though, I’d say that I never have a fixed idea, when I start, of how the painting’s going to look. I have my reference (a photo, maybe), and I know I’m going to make something out of it that somehow speaks to whatever drew me to the image in the first place. But I’m just as surprised as anyone else to see what it looks like when I’m done.

Here’s the painting that’s on my easel right now, along with the image I started with. It’s a tricky photo to copy as a painting, because of the way the headlights are blown out and the halos around them. I’ve made a lot of changes and I’m still tinkering. But there’s no point, at this stage, in looking at the photo anymore. The painting’s become its own thing.

It’s Pumpkin Season!

 

This class is available on Skillshare! Get a free trial and check out all my classes with this link.

Pumpkins! Could anything be more fun to paint?

One of the best ways to learn to draw and paint is to do a still life. You get to work on shapes, proportion, composition, values (meaning light and dark), and color.

Best of all, it’ll help you develop your own style.

For this class, we’ll paint a beautiful arrangement of pumpkins on a porch. A project like this is so much fun to do in mixed media, where you build up layers with different materials. You get rich textures and interesting contrast by combining watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, pastel, paint pens, markers, and/or ink.

Use whatever art supplies you have to create a lively, interesting style that’ll be uniquely yours.

Travel Sketching in a Cafe: Food & Drink in Pencil & Watercolor

Check out this class on Skillshare, and get a free trial to check out everything Skillshare has to offer, with this link. Skillshare is a Netflix-style membership platform where you can take all the classes you want for a low monthly subscription.

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you pay only for those classes you want to take.

One of the best parts of traveling is trying a different cuisine. And the fact is, when you’re traveling, you do end up spending a lot of time in restaurants.

That means that your travel sketchbook is the perfect place for drawing food and drink! It’s also a fun way to pass the time in a café.

And it’s not just for travel—drawing your drink, or drawing your dinner, is a great practice for everyday sketching.

In this class, I’m going to show you how to capture food and drink in real time, at the table.

That means we’ll be learning techniques to work quickly in pencil and watercolor.

We’ll practice basic geometrical shapes so you’ll already know how to draw a glass or a plate accurately before you even start.

We’ll learn about a few colors that are especially useful for drawing food and drink.

And we’ll learn a style of drawing in pencil that is whimsical and also personal to you.

This style is quick and informal, but it’s everything you need to know to capture memorable meals and those little everyday moments at the kitchen table.

The Rebecca Diaries

In December I started an art project based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel REBECCA.  I don’t know when I’ll finish it. It’s more like a book than an art project in that way: I can finish a painting in a day or two, but a book takes years, and it’s always an open question whether I’ll be able to finish a book at all. These paintings are like that.

Unlike a book manuscript, there’s no way to save earlier drafts. Most of the art I’ve made for this series is gone already; these photos are all I have to remember what I’ve done so far. I decided I ought to document it before I forget where I’ve been and what my intentions were.

Last fall I discovered cold wax medium, a soft, waxy paste that mixes with oil paint to change the texture and make it spreadable, like cake icing. Cold wax painters build up layers and scrape them back, as the paint hardens gradually to the consistency of a wax candle but remains pliable. I thought that was interesting, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with it.

Then I went to a cold wax painting demonstration where the artist mentioned that she layers collage papers into her abstract cold wax paintings. I knew immediately what I wanted to do: I wanted to paint on book pages.

I wanted to paint on my book pages.

But the prospect of layering oil paint over the words I’d written seemed too…fraught. What was I saying, exactly? What would it mean to look back over twenty years of work, rip pages out of books, obliterate them with paint, and scrape them back to reveal what was left? What would be left? What would I be trying to say about my own life’s work?

Better to start with someone else’s book, I thought.

I had a galley of Courtney Maum’s wonderful novel COSTALEGRE floating around my office. Surely Courtney wouldn’t mind if I used her book as an art experiment. Her book IS an art experiment: it’s an absolutely gorgeous, vividly imagined telling of  the time Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, spent in Mexico. It was a novel about painting.

So I painted on it.

 

Urban Sketching in New York City!

 

My new art class is live on Skillshare now. Use this link to check out the class and get a free trial to explore everything they have to offer.

You can also take this class on Udemy as a bundle with two of my other travel sketching classes! Go here to check that out.

Do you love New York? So do I! It’s my favorite spot for urban sketching, travel sketching, and kind of exploring and art-making.

In this class, we’re going to focus on the one skill you really need to paint a city like New York: Perspective.

We’ll use Manhattan for our laboratory to look at the fundamentals of perspective.

We’ll work out how to identify your horizon line and your vanishing point.

We’ll see how all the lines in an image converge to that vanishing point.

We’ll start a drawing by putting down some perspective lines to help guide us.

And then, with those guidelines in place, I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can create an accurate drawing.

When you get this piece right, you can be really free and loose with your drawing and painting.

This is easy to learn and fun to practice. Join me!

Anybody dreaming of Italy?

 

Ah, Italy! I was there exactly one year ago, and I wish I was there right now! At least we can dream.

My new Skillshare class is all about simplifying a classic Italian village scene. Go here to preview the class and get a free trial on Skillshare, which is more than enough time to travel the world (virtually, anyway) and improve your sketchbook skills! Skillshare is a Netflix-style subscription site for online classes.

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you just pay for the class you want to take. I’ve bundled this one with two other travel sketching classes. Go here to check that out.

First, we’ll focus on getting the major shapes in place by measuring how they fit into the frame and how they fit next to each other.

Second, we’re going to use wet-into-wet watercolor techniques to capture the feeling of stone and tile without actually drawing every single stone and every single tile.

Third, we’re going to use wet over dry techniques to add in shadows and a few bright colors and other details.

The idea is to get the major shapes and the light and shadows right, and then to simplify everything else.

Learn these simple tricks, and you can paint all of Italy with a pen, watercolor, and a sketchbook.  Just be sure to bring me along!

How to Paint a Chicken

My new =class is called How to Paint a Chicken. Guess what it’s about???

For about ten years I raised chickens in my backyard. I can tell you from experience that chickens are wonderful subjects to paint!

My style is to paint them against a simple, neutral backdrop, as if they are sitting for a formal portrait. With this style they look almost like members of the family, and you can capture their unique personalities. (Yes, chickens have personalities!)

In this class I demonstrate four chicken portraits using ink, watercolor, and gouache. You can do all four in either watercolor or gouache, or try both.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

How to take good photographs of chickens (or other birds!)

How to quickly sketch in the features by measuring proportions

How to mix colors so that you’re showing light and shadow

How to use brushstrokes to suggest feather patterns

How to mix a neutral background and make sure it blends with the rest of your portrait.

This is all about making quick, simple, charming portraits. And of course, if you’d like to paint another type of bird, please do! Ducks, geese, parrots—everyone’s welcome!

This class is happening on Skillshare now! Skillshare is a Netflix-style membership platform where you can take all the classes you want for a monthly subscription. Sign up with this link and get a free trial: https://skl.sh/3gyfU0r

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. On Udemy, I’ve bundled this course with my class on painting animal portraits. Go here to take this class on Udemy.

Come sketch with me in a French village!

 

OK, we’re not actually GOING to France. But you can practice being in France with your sketchbook!

Take this class on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style subscription platform for online classes. Get a free trial with this link: https://skl.sh/3hXKhyN

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you just pay for the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this one with two other travel sketching classes and you can see it on Udemy here.

Join me on a travel sketching adventure in the beautiful village of Cambos-Les-Bains, France! We’re going to paint a scene that addresses one of the biggest challenges of travel sketching: how to give a scene depth, so that you feel that you’re stepping into the picture.

You’ll learn how to handle perspective in a scene like this, where the road is winding and sloping.

You’ll also try different types of lines to make these buildings feel real—even when we’re just doing a quick travel sketch.

Finally, you’ll see how to use strong light and strong shadows to give the scene depth and capture a particular moment in time.

I’ll share my photos for you to work with, or you’re welcome to try out these techniques on photos from your own travels!