Library display wall

Sometimes you just need a little push to get started drawing.  In this case it was two books at the Story Library that got me going, both with the title How to Draw Cool Stuff, by Catherine V. Holmes.   These books feature step-by-step illustrations that show how to develop drawings of various objects using simple shapes, such as ellipses.  It also encourages the budding artist to experiment with line weight and shading.

The Story Library staff used my drawings to create a wall display with the goal to get people to try sketching from the books.  They provided pencils and the books for sketching in the library activity room, and a signup list  for those who would like to take the books home once the display is finished.

The "Climbing Tiger" is the most ambitious drawing of the bunch, and involves multiple ellipses in its construction, as well as varied line weight and shading.  It looks kinda scary, which is cool.

The title piece, or "Piece of Cake", combines pencil with hard pastel.  This is an easy way to experiment with color.  It uses just think butcher paper as the support, but a light mist with acrylic paint using my airbrush was able to fix the pastel without buckling the paper, or changing the quality of the color.

home made perspective frame

Just as my hero Vincent Van Gogh used a custom made device to help him master drawing scenes from real life, my latest aid for outdoor drawing is my home-made perspective frame.  It features a 4:3 aspect ratio with grid lines that can help the artist orient angles and objects in the scene with similarly gridded paper on the easel. 

Looking through the viewing aperture guarantees the same point of view each time you check the scene, which saves lots of time versus trying to find the same view with a handheld frame.  This makes it easy to transfer lines from the frame to the drawing via the grid lines overlaid on the scene in the viewfinder, and drawn lightly on the paper or painting support on the easel.

The angle of view can be widened or narrowed by moving the viewfinder aperture closer or farther from the grid mask.  This is easy to do by twisting the large knob on the top, which racks the grid mask in or out.

The rubber bands can hold straight line objects such as wooden dowels or even plastic zip ties.  This allows you to precisely measure and transfer angles of important edges in the scene to your drawing.

Can you guess what this device served as in its previous life?  Answer: the focusing standard on an old photographic enlarger.

The ocean is such a vast wilderness, and the beach brings you as close as you can get to it without getting wet.  Both you and your dog enjoy walking along the beach face, where the sand is somewhat hard from the water underneath, but your shoes keep your feet dry.  Today your dog is particularly energetic, and you think it will be good to let it run off the leash.  Nobody seems to mind if a dog comes up to investigate, and there don't appear to be signs that dogs have to be tethered.  Besides, what kind of trouble can a dog get into on a wide expanse of sand and surf?

All is going well, and your mind starts wandering to the various books waiting for you at home when you return from your walk, when your dog yelps in surprise and lunges forward.  You jolt back to the present moment and see a boat beached nearby, and wonder if that is what excited your pet.  It takes a few seconds to spot what your dog has identified: a cat sleeping on the deck.  Oh no!  Your dog hates cats.  This one seems more like a sitting duck, with no place to go.  You doubt that it can swim, or if it can, that it would dive into the ocean.  Drat it!  You should have used the leash after all.  The last thing you need is an angry cat owner and an injured pet on your hands.  Think of the liability!

Just as it seems that your dog is completely out of control, ignoring your frantic calls, the beach comes to life.  Out of the hinterland and sprinting across the backshore come the most amazing creatures you have ever seen.  They look like agave plants, but they have legs and arms, and are heading directly for your dog.  One of them reaches out its spiny arms and grabs your dog by the tail, and puts two more arms -- yes, two more arms -- around its body.  Then you feel the piercing pain of two spines in your own leg.  In the struggle you glance over at the boat and see several more agave creatures guarding the boat, while the cat looks nervously around for an avenue of escape.

It is all over before long, though.  Your dog cries out in pain as the spines on the agave creature dig into its flesh, and suddenly all the fire has gone from your pet's attack.  You breathe a sigh of relief, and then hear a strange sound coming from above, like the raspberry tart of a contemptuous onlooker.  Have you been observed?  You look around quickly, up onto the headland overlooking the beach, but there is nobody.  In a panic you scan the horizon and then lift your vision to the sky, where the fantastic vision of a floating palm frond, lips parted, tongue protruding, is mocking you and your pet.

Clearly, the beach has its own rules and enforcers, as well as overlords that protect those who belong to the sea.  You are just a visitor here, and you better mind your manners.  Heading for home, books forgotten and limping slightly, you hope your dog learned its lesson, but somehow you have your doubts.

Value and color study

General Bird had to admit that the situation looked grim.  The coastal fortifications were still intact in places, but the enemy had breached them on two opposite sides, intending to crush the defenders in a vice-like assault.  It was time to call in the advanced guard and regroup in a defensive stance, with perhaps the chance of closing the gaps and trapping the enemy forces already inside the homeland.  She issued the command to the beacon tower to send the recall message, and the three remaining detachments headed for the gate.  They were ahead of the advancing hoard, although the farthest could feel their clammy mass coming up behind, adding to the desperate flight.

Behind the attacking front was the more serious occupying force, developing probing arms that would exploit gaps in the boundary once the first wave had subdued any initial resistance.  One such probe had already gotten inside, but now appeared to be separated from the mass and could be surrounded and destroyed if the main assault failed.  With continual and increasing pressure, the defenders would be too busy to take that opportunity, but time was on their side.  The invasion had to succeed with speed, or the whole operation would fail.

General Bird dispatched her best troops inland to rally the people.  They knew what to do in the event of an invasion, and they were Summerland's secret weapon.  The sea wall was actually a decoy, to trick the enemy into thinking that was the sole defensive barrier.  Certainly the General would defend it.  She would make the invaders pay dearly for their initial assault and possible capture of this fortification, but once inside its perimeter, the rules would change.  The enemy would see the land itself rise up to devour it. 

What had kept them free for so long was not the army or any sort of wall, but the nature of the land itself.  The vaporous creatures from the ocean wilderness might flow across the hills and fill the valleys, but they would never dominate the soil.  Even if they succeeded in burning the surface plants and animals with frost and fire, the roots and burrowing animals would remain.  When the creeping mist  finally exhausted itself and fell as rain, it would nourish the earth with its blood and new growth would rebound, retaking the land in an explosion of life.

 

Of course my vantage point was the best, with a view of the pier with loading crane, and the dramatic rocks in the foreground, with the waves breaking on the sweeping curve of wet sand. Funny how everyone else had set up their easels looking other directions, to boring views of the ocean with the Catalina Islands in the distance and the off-shore oil platforms. What were they thinking?

 

Feeling on top of the game, it was easy to dive into a sketch and skip the instructor's demo. Even though it had been five years since my last watercolor painting experience, my paints were still soft, except for two, a green and a red. My last painting of the Mission and fountain in Santa Barbara had been fairly successful, even if the details were vague in my memory.

 

My plan was to make a quick sketch to block out the shapes and values, and maybe choose my focal point and simplify the scene. Then after transferring that sketch to my watercolor paper the actual painting could begin. By skipping the demo, my painting should be under way by the time the other students got their paints out.

 

The sketch turned out to be just as big a challenge as the painting. My first attempt focused on the rocks in the foreground and they wound up way too big, crowding the pier and crane out of the picture frame. The curves in the vegetation and path up the hill to the side of the rocks took on a crescent shape and seemed to grab attention away from even the rocks. What was going on?

 

My mind was magnifying certain elements in its own model of the scene, and my drawing reflected the distortions in that model. The goal was to draw what was out there beyond my eyes and brain, not inside my skull. It reminded me of what Professor Evans had said about my drawing of a plaster bust of a Roman senator back in drawing class in my university days: “an interesting caricature”.

 

Starting over on the backside of the paper, my attention fixed on the horizon line and the boundary between the water and the sand. A few lines indicated where the pier stood, and just some blocks sufficed for the rocks. A few circles and parallel lines suggested the driftwood logs. So far, so good.

 

Then a funny thing happened. The sketch started taking on a life of its own, with lines connecting and shapes flowing into each other. Erasing here and there, adjusting lines, thinking about light direction and shadow, using hatching to render shadow, the time gradually slipped away. Soon the other students drifted in to find their spots and start their paintings, and my sketch wasn't even finished, let alone transferred to my watercolor paper.

 

The sketch wouldn't let go, and after a while it became obvious that my painting would be a quick affair if it happened at all. A glance at my sister Sylvia, further up the hill and painting one of those “boring” scenes of the ocean, confirmed that she was well on the way to completing her painting. Well, that was to be expected, since she had been painting outdoors for at least thirty years.

 

By the time we were ready to leave, my sketch was still just a sketch, and not even a well finished drawing. There were some attempts at rendering volume and shadow, but nothing very definite and certainly not dark enough to define adequate contrast. My rendering of the clouds in the sky was weak and vague, and the actual shapes had long since disappeared. My phone camera had captured a few interesting events in the scene, though. One was a shuttle boat that carried workers to and from the offshore oil platforms docking at the pier, and another was a woman and her two children returning from a walk on the beach to retrieve their bicycles.

 

My plan, as explained to my sister and the instructor as we were making our parting remarks, was to refer to the photos and work on the painting at home in Sylvia's studio. Maybe the sketch could be simplified when transferred to the watercolor paper. That at least was my way of easing my chagrin over not producing a painting on the spot.

 

Later that evening, carefully studying some watercolors in a library book Sylvia had checked out of the Ojai public library, it dawned on me how ambitious my scene was for a beginner. It was way too complicated. Maybe the more experienced artists in the class knew that, and deliberately chose simpler subjects, painting the water or the clouds, and not attempting to pack lots of detail and compositional elements into the picture. My task was to start thinking like a painter, not a photographer.