Archive for the ‘Painting’ category

Of Marriage, Money, Dogs, and the Nahanni Valley

September 12, 2012

I did something back in 1989 that I am so grateful for now.  I took the time to sit down with my ailing mother and interview her on tape about her life and our family history.

On two occasions separated by four months I plunked down a simple tape recorder and asked her questions while she lay on her bed/couch, suffering the long march of the form of multiple sclerosis she had, which would take her life in a few short years.

I don’t remember what exactly motivated me at the time, but I’ve always been curious about certain aspects of our family history.  I figured it would be good to get Ma’s memories recorded.

Maybe it was later in the day the second time and she was more tired, but even over the interval from August to December, I hear now how her voice became more quavering.

Those two sessions, originally faint patterns in iron oxide on fragile ribbon, are the only records of her voice, thoughts and feelings that exist.

The reason this arises is that I’ve got a USB cassette deck that can take my old tape recordings like Ma’s interviews and all those years of mix tapes of great tunes and turn them into mp3 files.  So I’ve moved Ma’s voice from tape to digital, although the quality of the recording, not that great to start with, is slightly worse than the original, although one can still make out what she says.

Besides the photos, and the memories I share with my brothers, this somewhat random oral memoir is really all I have of her that means something.

How to get born in Seattle

I started off by asking her how she and my dad got from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where they met and never finished their studies, to Seattle where I was born in 1951.  On the hissing tape my questions sometimes are audible and sometimes not, while Ma’s voice comes through next to the recorder.

She married my dad in 1947.  This was only a couple of years after the Second World War.  Dad fought as a Marine against the Japanese up until the war ended, including on Iwo Jima and other hellholes in the Pacific.  (I’ve written a little about this before.)  Her major was political science and his was art, oddly enough, but I think they just ran out of money to go to school and wanted to try their hand at raising a family.

Money, or rather the lack of it, is a recurring theme in my parents’ lives together.  They never had very much and constantly had to scratch about to find jobs.  Dad had training as a machinist, so they took off from New Mexico with a car and motorcycle in search of work for him.

Their Indian motorcycle with a sidecar broke down almost immediately in Tempe, Arizona.  Without money for repairs, they abandoned it and piled all their belongings into the remaining vehicle and drove very carefully to San Francisco, worried about blowing a tire without the money to replace one.

Finally they made it across the country, and stayed with family at a Junior Five on the coast near the Cliff House (one of San Francisco’s oldest restaurants).  They soon found a place to live in the Mission District.  Ma took a job in Santa Rosa north of Frisco, where she would stay during the week and return on the weekends.  Her job was to develop photographs for a photofinishing business. Her boss was busy running a chicken farm at the same location, and my mother did all the photofinishing.  “It was nice, cool work, since I slopped around in water all day.”

Most of the photo work was mail order, from Guam, from service people. “I can’t tell you how many acres of beach in Guam I developed.”

Dad was off in Alaska on a high-rigging job putting up a big radio tower, although there’s much more to that story, it turns out.

Ma said about the tower, laughing a little, “…which blew down after he got home.”  Quick to defend my Dad, she went on, “Well, he did what they told him to, so…. it wasn’t his fault it blew down!” Still laughing.  It’s always good to be able to hear her laugh again.

My father died of a stroke in 1963, a couple of years after we moved to northern British Columbia.  Ma never married again, although she certainly had relationships.  But in her voice on this recording talking about my father, from time to time I hear a wistfulness, a loyalty to him, hints sometimes of disappointment in their life together, and considerable caring — all the dimensions of a marriage recalled with a bittersweet ruefulness.

After Dad came back from what had been an ill-fated four months trip to the Canadian north and Alaska, and again having difficulty finding work, the couple decided to flip a coin.  Heads to Seattle, tails to Los Angeles.  It came up Seattle.  They bundled up their belongings in their ’40 Ford convertible, including “your Dad’s typewriter and his guns” and took off for the city where I would be born in 1951.

Poor in the Pacific Northwest

They found the cheapest housing they could find in the southern part of Seattle, an old motel for a buck and a half a night. “The sheets, they were clean, but boy, were they worn…..”  The latter was said as if Ma rubbed again the thin material between her fingers.

For enough money to survive at first, Dad was forced to pawn the typewriter and his guns.  The aeronautical giant Boeing was the big employer in Seattle, but they kept having strikes.  Dad, desperate for work, scabbed, crossing the picket lines, and earned enough with his first paycheck to get his belongings out of the pawn shop.   He would go on to work for Boeing after the labor troubles were over.

They had a housekeeping room in South Seattle. They ate “a lot of lettuce,” Ma recalled.  She went to work briefly in a store at the Pike’s Place Public Market. She was offended by the way the down-and-out and the elderly, who came in for the cheaper day-old bread and other stale goods at a rear counter were always ignored in favor of  the more well-heeled who bought new product at the front of the store.  She didn’t stay working there long.

For entertainment she and my dad would walk up and down nearby streets, and window shop all the hock shops.  They occasionally bought horse meat for their dinners.  It was cheap: 21 cents a pound, she recalled.  “It was lovely meat.”

My father had ambitions as a writer, too.  After he got his first check from Boeing, and he had retrieved his typewriter and his guns from the pawn shop, he tried to settle down to work on some stories.  But he was too tired from driving and working all day to do any more than write letters.  Ma said, “Steve [my father] wrote a lot of letters.”   That’s a little like writing a blog, I’m thinking now.

In the early 50s housing prices were not out-of-sight like they are now.  After a year or so, they were able to save enough money for a down-payment on an old and little house in a working class suburb of Seattle. But even so it was little more than a shell that they had to finish building themselves.

Dog stories

In that early household was a squalling baby (me), my grandmother who moved in next door for awhile, and lots of dogs.  Both my parents really liked dogs, to excess.

Most prominent in my mother’s memory from that time was a fluffy black and tan mutt named Feo.  She explained, “Feo — it means ugly in Spanish. And he was stupid too. …. Actually he was kind of a pretty dog.  But he was just so damn stupid. He was so cute when he was little.  You can’t take home dogs because of that.”  She laughed about Feo. “I’d forgotten about him. …He was sweet but he couldn’t keep things straight in his head.  When you have smart dogs you know dumb ones.”

In that little place in north Seattle, apparently there came to be something of a population explosion of canines.

“I finally said, ‘We can’t handle all these dogs.’ Then I came home one night off the bus, and I heard this wailing and keening. It was Steve crying over the dogs because he had to kill some of ’em and he was just heartbroken and he was drinking and he was just crying and wailing.  And you could hear him …all …over!”  After that, they both were determined to hold the numbers of dogs down, because they didn’t want to go through that again.

There were other notables in the pantheon of family dogs as I grew up.

For instance, “….somebody who had been mistreating their dog gave us this huge German Shepherd.”  At the same time, my Dad’s dog Mister, a ferocious beast with a stub tail of Chow descent  was also on the scene.  The two of them had to be kept tied up separately most of the time.

Burma, the German Shepherd, I recall well.  I might have been seven or eight, and I remember this animal always regarding me with a strange air.  Abused as she had been, she didn’t take kindly to children at all.  Even adults couldn’t raise their arms in the air around her.  One day, on the farm we eventually moved to in Snohomish County, she and I were outside alone.  The rest of the family were away.  Burma was off her rope, for some reason I don’t remember.

Burma always made me uneasy.  In her previous home, it had been kids who tormented her by smacking her with boards. She began to stalk me, or so it seemed to me on some inarticulate level.  She never growled or showed her teeth, but I spent the rest of that day in a treehouse out of her reach waiting for my parents to re-appear while she paced below.

Finally my parents tried to give her away to a good home.  The first couple who took her, this beautiful enormous white and grey dog, returned her within a day or so.  Burma refused to let the husband into the house.  But finally a savvy older couple did finally take this problem creature on successfully.

Mister, my dad’s dog, an intelligent animal of uncompromising character who loved my father and sort of tolerated the rest of the family, and who had to be kept tied up due to the threat he posed to the general populace, outlived my father.  Ma regretfully had him put down the summer after Dad died.  He was 13 or 14, mythic in his way to my brothers and me.  His departure was an additional numbing echo of change.

My mother sighed deeply after the recitation of all the dog stories.  “More damned dogs than we knew what to do with.”

Their little home in Seattle which I can barely remember as a young child, and where my two brothers were also born, was finally finished inside in eight years, and then traded for a 20-acre farm in Snohomish, a still rural part of Washington State. My parents kept a couple cows, a beat-up old horse, and most memorably, goats.  “Goats are pretty picky.”

They still didn’t have much money, and we had well problems, among other things, that they couldn’t afford to get fixed.

Leaving my father

There would be a couple more moves in Washington before we finally ended up in northern British Columbia.

But while we lived in Snohomish, my mother informed me during our second session, “I left your father.”  Now this was something I hadn’t known.

“He went off shooting guns with a bunch of guys and they were drinking.  And I thought, what if he gets shot in some quarry.  He couldn’t understand that. He’d say, ‘I know how to handle guns,’ and I’d say ‘How about the rest of those idiots….’

“His buddies thought this was just the thing to do on a Saturday night.  …. I came back [in a couple of weeks] after he promised to be good. But we didn’t have any more of those… situations. I like to think he missed me, but he probably missed you kids more.”

Dad’s Nahanni Valley scientific expedition

In 1948, three years before I was born, my father bought shares in and planned, with some buddies from Albuquerque (perhaps associated with the university), an ill-fated expedition to the famed Nahanni Valley in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Also known as the Headless Valley, this place of spectacular waterfalls, sulphur hotsprings and ice caves was first explored just after 1900 by fortune hunters in an era of gold prospecting fever.

But early prospectors and others who ventured into the area either vanished or were found with their heads removed.  Even a fierce mountain tribe of natives had disappeared years earlier.  The valley took on a dark reputation.

By the late 1940s, there was extensive public interest in the Nahanni Valley.  There were rumours of it being some kind of lush Shangri-La.  The Vancouver Sun newspaper in 1947 sent two reporters to fly over the place.  They reported that it was not some mythical oasis but a rugged and cold wilderness, albeit with a few extensive hotsprings.

Two years earlier, in 1945, the body of yet another prospector in the valley had been found in his sleeping bag without his head.  There were rumours about the local natives, or even Sasquatch, deciding that white interlopers needed to be warned away.

So it was in this context that these guys from New Mexico formed the plan for their “scientific” expedition.  I can imagine that this endeavour was hatched in a bar somewhere over a few beers after reading in the newspapers about the tropical wonderland in the far north.

One of the fellows had a plane, so the group figured that this expedition could get underway in fine style from Edmonton, already well north in Alberta, where they all travelled to begin their adventure.  Unfortunately, the plane didn’t meet Canadian standards and wasn’t allowed to fly in.  Due to the problem with their planned transportation, they ran out of money to supply themselves and to charter a flight to the Nahanni.  And some of the expedition members were too young  and immature, and became less than serious about the expedition after encountering a few of these difficulties.

But they did manage to receive certification as an official “scientific” expedition from, I gather, the Canadian government, before the whole thing fell apart.  By this time Dad became disgusted and hitchhiked across the north, with almost no money now, where he ended up in Anchorage, Alaska.

He continually wired Ma for money, which she had very little of, until finally she sent him a telegram with the message, “Not here.”

He wired back “What did you say that for?”  (That was just before he resorted to high-rigging that radio tower so he had enough money to return to the lower 48.)  Ma said she told him when he came back.

On the recording, the way she described this episode made me laugh, and her too.



Notes on images, from top down.

1) My favorite painting of my father’s — painted in 1938.

2) From May, 1958, my mother with her three sons and my half-sister.

3) The Nahanni Valley, from an adventure website where you can raft for a week on the Nahanni River for only about $5000.  The site doesn’t mention the headless phenomenon.

4) Another painting from 1949, a self-portrait by my father, hitchhiking along the Alaska Highway.

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Haida Gwaii Watercolor, Part II

October 21, 2009

This continues a much earlier post, Haida Gwaii Watercolor, Part I, when I first began exploring doing a watercolor painting of the North Beach area near Tow Hill on the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the west coast of British Columbia. (The Islands are known more and more by their Haida people’s name, Haida Gwaii.)

It’s taken me awhile. I’ve struggled with the watercolor medium, partly because I’m not painting as much as I used to, and I digressed to work on another painting or two, and because technically it always seemed to be just beyond my grasp.

The end result, as you will see below, is still not completely satisfactory, but it does give me the feeling of space and wildness I was working towards, in the kind of sketchy impressionistic manner I like. It will have to do…

P1020236Here are several of my aborted attempts. It pains me to show them but I learned one or two things from each abysmal failure — especially what not to do. The things that kept throwing me (you wouldn’t know from these outings that I’ve actually painted a few acceptable daubings of other subjects), were the sunlight in the trees and the mist or fog. OK, I was having trouble with the ocean, too… and the waves… and the figure on the beach…

P1020237Getting the mist should have been really simple. Work wet on wet, let the paint fade in the background and in the foggy area. But it never seemed quite right. I started to develop a complex about it. In the final version, I got the fade as much as possible and then clouded it up more with a tiny little bit of pthalo blue in chinese white, just enough to cool it, and that seemed to get closer to what I wanted.

Waves on the seashore were a new subject for me as well. I approximated more by suggestion and innuendo than by a convincing depiction, I think.

P1020235The sunlit portion of trees also gave me trouble. I studied my little reference photos a lot, trying to find the simple signs that would tell the viewer, if I could get them down, that these trees were lit by the sun. Again, the final version makes an attempt, but how successful I don’t know.

On separate sheets of paper, I tried to produce dry-brush figures that actually looked like some kind of person, and not a blob with blobby appendages, after choosing the size I wanted with a couple of pencil marks on the painting.

Finally I worked at getting the suggestion of a person walking the beach with a stick. With trepidation, I brushed something down on the actual painting.

He even seems to be wearing a hat… The dog was an afterthought, and turned out surprisingly well.

Pilgrim Seeking Where Raven Created Man Framed

I’ve settled on the slightly pretentious title, Pilgrim Seeking Where Raven Created Man, referring to the Haida creation myth at this location.

Since I like my little figures, here’s a close-up:

Pilgrim detail

Now I have to figure out what the next painting project should be… I’ve got some great subject matter to choose from, and I hope not so difficult to get to grips with.

Some wonderful pastels are standing by that I haven’t used at all yet. But I think I will stick with watercolor again… I’ve a new limited palette idea to try out, courtesy of John Lovett. That’s the thing about watercolor… there’s always something more to try.


Watercolor Painting Inspiration

November 30, 2008

I still struggle with watercolour painting. I chronicled some of my efforts in earlier posts: a painting about Haida Gwaii that many versions later I have still to get close to what I want; and thoughts about starting with the medium and a little of what I have learned about it.

I broke off my umpteenth attempt at that Haida Gwaii landscape with a small watercolour portrait that turned out surprisingly successful. That momentary relief from the larger frustration let me realize I have to be gentler and more subtle with my approach to the landscape painting. At my stage with watercolours, I have to be rough-hewn, yet delicate. And that’s not an easy thing, and may not be very pretty… sort of like ballet in cork boots…

The attraction of watercolour

winter sunshine I’m attracted to the style of watercolour that is loose and suggestive of form; still realistic, but not tight and fixated with detail in the way of many beginners (and photorealists). That is why many accomplished artists are skeptical of working from photographs, although that has its obvious advantages. It is often easy to get caught up with fussy rendering, and because of the limitations of photographic exposure, lose knowledge of the shadows and the three-dimensionality of the world.

LatefallRon Ranson’s work has always inspired me, as mentioned on other occasions. There are many other talented contemporary artists with their own style of grasping the essence of a scene such as Charles Reid, Andrew Pitt or the realistic abstracts of Andrew Wyeth. Of course there are those figures of the past waving at us from the heights of greatness, JMW Turner, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer .

Besides those widely known and justly famous watercolour painters, there are also a number of lesser known and equally superb watercolorists of more recent vintage, particularly from Great Britain, such as Edward Wesson and Edward Seago.

I wanted to mention some sites that I’ve found useful, off the beaten path a ways, that do not come up on the first page of Google when you type in “watercolour” (or “watercolor”).

The best online watercolour guide

autumn laneExcept, that is, for Bruce MacEvoy’s work of watercolour love and obsession, handprint. You’ll find it on that first page of Google, just as you should, given its importance.

It is what it claims to be: “the world’s finest guide to watercolor painting”, at least on the web. From in-depth treatment of perspective to frank evaluation of books to marvelously detailed examination of watercolour paints and colour theory, it is an unparalleled learning resource that MacEvoy has developed over the years and which he offers to the world for free.

the marsh millThe sections that I have gotten the most out of and often return to are his guide to watercolour pigments, the discussion of palettes (the paints chosen to make a painting), and his assessments of the works of many watercolour artists from early days until now.

If you take up more than a passing interest in watercolour you will inevitably come to examine very closely the characteristics of the paints you choose. There are staining colours (MacEvoy prefers the accuracy of saying “pigments”), there are fugitive paints, there are transparent and opaque and saturated and sedimentary pigments, and warm and cool colours… There is a world of obsession available in learning about your paints.

MacEvoy’s site and the book Hilary Page’s Guide To Watercolor Paints are the most useful sources I’ve found for the detailed information that you need so as not to waste valuable money on paints that don’t do the job you want. (The book is somewhat out of date, but there is a web site with updates.)

Sunflowers with DuckPart of the fun of learning about watercolour pigments is making up colour wheels and mixture sheets in order to choose your palette. In handprints palette example section, I’ve gotten a lot out of the discussion of accomplished artists’ choices around the colour wheel, from the discussion of the “velázquez palette” to the “classical palette” to Nita Engle’s, Jean Dobie’s and Chuck Long’s choices of paints. (I found the Chuck Long discussion particularly interesting.)

If you go through MacEvoy’s list, although unfinished, of watercolorists and their works you will come away with a great sense of the history of the medium.

Winslow Homer Sunset Beaching The Boat 1875 os 9x14There are various entries on the handprint site that are greyed out, indicating more to come. The site is still a work in progress. In the last several years, MacEvoy didn’t add much to the site, but happily he started again this past summer with a new article on “learning color through paints” and revision of “the secret of glowing color.”

When I look for useful watercolour information or approaches now, I’m not very interested in what seems to be the stock in trade of many, many watercolour websites and books and what usually amounts to filler: how to make a wash, how to stretch paper, how to use masking fluid and so on. These may be worthwhile things to come back to, but I’m wanting more detailed and technically useful information. And I want the person doing the demo or giving the tutorial or writing the book to have a certain high level of skill and the capability to impart what they’re doing. Please, no books by Marcia Moses

Other online resources

So I was happy to find on the web a series of free online watercolour lessons (and other media too) by Yong Chen and friends. I was impressed with the quality of the portrait demos especially. (Portraits being that branch of painting where there’s always something not quite right about the mouth, as John Singer Sargent said.)

9088 636221If you like to go back to the old English watercolour masters like Francis Towne, John Robert Cozens, and Thomas Girtin, and try to see how they did their painting, the article Masters of Watercolour Painting by H.M. Cunstall has some wonderful examples for study (at the bottom of the text).

I like to find out little tricks about technique such as are available on an About.Com painting site: using white wax crayon or candle as a resist instead of frisket, or using crochet hooks of different sizes for applying frisket (masking fluid).

And I found out that the common technique of applying salt (in this case rock salt) to watercolour before it dries for the sake of the interesting texture has even been patented. Don’t know how that’s enforced…

Roland Lee has a series of informative watercolour tutorials on his site. I came across his tutorial on painting water reflections and found it useful. He has quite a few others as well.

The combined site of The Artist’s Magazine, Watercolor Artist and The Pastel Journal has a large number of what amount to teasers and excerpts from articles in the magazines, but there’s still some good information and pleasing examples in there. For instance, there’s an idea about using gesso with watercolor that I hadn’t come across before…

Here’s a couple of blogs I ran across with interesting posts on watercolour technique: Maria Wiley describes an unusual effect obtained with charcoal and watercolour, and Nancy Standlee shows how she developed an unconventional background or underpainting for one of her works (hint: involves teabags).

The importance of Cleveland

1am302I have discovered that for some reason, Cleveland, and Ohio in general, has had an unusually high proportion of skilled watercolour artists. For instance, this site still has a description and fine examples from an exhibit in 1999 of many quite wonderful watercolor artists from what was called the Cleveland School. At a certain point in the 1920s, Cleveland surpassed Boston as the United States’ leading centre for watercolour artistry.

I am especially interested in the dusk and evening paintings since serious darks of the right tint, warmth and coolness are not so easy to get in watercolour.

At the Cleveland Museum of Art site, many fine paintings can be viewed and studied. I am trying to learn more about the illusion of space, aerial perspective, in the two dimensions of the painting surface, and not just in watercolour. The painting Approaching Storm from the Alban Hills, by George Inness, although an oil, is one I’ve been looking at closely to understand how he gets that effect of huge space.

The nice thing about this site is that the Museum allows you to closely inspect many of the artworks on display on the website. One exhibition of note in the archives is Nature Sublime: Landscapes from the Nineteenth Century , largely watercolours by American artists.

Google Books

One important source of watercolour painting information I found which is rarely mentioned is that available through Google Books. Many watercolour texts can be found there. Although the books shown are typically excerpted and not shown in their entirety, the excerpts are large and useful.

For instance, there’s a lot of useful information and demonstrations in the sample from Realism in Watercolor, by Christopher Leeper. Another of interest is Creative Watercolor Workshop by Mark E. Mahaffey. It’s a good way to look at specific watercolor books and see if the information is of any use to you before you buy.

Video watercolour

Joseph Mallord William Turner 017And of course there is the whole world of video watercolour demonstrations on the web. Here is just one by Steve Hall that gives a taste of the loose style of Edward Wesson. Like many such videos it is a teaser for you to buy a more extensive version. But there are a number of fuller introductory video tutorials online such as those at how to draw and And here’s a couple of more complete video tutorials, one on variegated skies and another on distant hills and mountains , by Bob Davies.

There’s a whole world of watercolour instruction on video which I haven’t really explored very much. For another post!

[Home ]


If you’re so inclined take a look at and give me a piece of your mind on my next painting project… although it may not be necessarily watercolor.


Notes on watercolour paintings shown:

From the top down:

1) Winter Sunshine, by Ron Ranson.

2) Late Fall , by Andrew Wyeth

3) Autumn Lane , by Edward Wesson

4) The Marsh Mill , by Edward Seago

5) Sunflowers with Duck , by Charles Reid

6) Sunset Beaching the Boat , by Winslow Homer

7) Workmen at Carrara , by John Singer Sargent

8) Black Shadows , by Carl Broemel

9) Alpine Scene , by JMW Turner. One of several paintings shown in this Wikipedia entry on watercolour.

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Art the Lazy Man’s Way

November 13, 2007

I’m struggling right now to paint a watercolour the traditional way.  For those times when I’m fed up with watercolour, I’ll have go at a subject with soft pastels and I’ve also dabbled with acrylic paints.

I keep trying smaller versions of this particular watercolour, a landscape, trying to squeeze enough out of my limited technique to have confidence about going larger with it.

When I’ve finally had enough for a while, instead of trying another painting medium, sometimes I play around with my digital photographs.  There are a number of software programs around which can almost simulate a painting from a photograph.  In addition, the various versions of Photoshop have enough filters and plugins to experiment with, although sometimes the final product is pretty lame.

mr-chilliwackrvoct30-019sat.jpgTake the so-called watercolour filter in Photoshop, either Elements or the more full-bodied versions.  Here’s an example of a landscape photo.

And then there’s Photoshop’s idea of a watercolour rendering (see below):  Definitely very s0-so… very little of that liquid, transparent, looser quality that I’m striving for in my own watercolours.

In fact, I haven’t found a really good filter or even a more complicated process that will convert a photo to an appealing simulated watercolour.  They may be out there, but I haven’t found any.  This one seems close, but you’ll need to absorb six pages of mr-chilliwackrvwc.jpgdetailed instructions as you work your way through.

At this site is another example of an attempt at making a photo into a watercolour, but it looks nothing like that medium to me.

And this site has another variation that starts to come closer to that unique watercolor quality.

But, it turns out, simulated oil paintings are an easier job.  Here’s a photo of mine, from the Grand Canyon, and a digital oil painting transformation (although it suffers from a horizon line in almost the exact middle):

canyon.jpgcanyonart.jpgI start to get some painterly satisfaction from this…  This was done with the aid of a program called Art Rage.  I first starting playing with this software when it was in beta and free.  The full version is now $25, but there is still a free version — Starter Edition — which is somewhat reduced in function but still at least as good as what I used in beta.  It’s a lot of fun, I find.

A similar program, although more complicated to use, is called Deep Paint 2.0 which has been released as freeware by its developer.  (It can be difficult to find, due to scrambled links on one download provider, so follow this link….).

Here is another example from the Grand Canyon, original and digital paint version, done with Deep Paint:



Basically, you use a digital brush as expressed through your mouse, or as a pen on a graphic tablet such as one of the Wacom series, and the program confines the colour variations and textures chosen to the underlying shapes of the photograph.  I know, it’s cheating.

There’s another program called Gertrudis, not free, that does interesting alterations to photos.

Here’s a photo and a transformation into a mock pastel:

gondolier.jpg gondopaint.jpg

And finally, linking back to the real watercolour painting I’m fighting with, here’s one of the subject photos and a rendition through a program called Virtual Painter:


Actually, the result has some watercolour quality to it, and aren’t those just lovely colours!

Besides the fun of making this ersatz art, I find some value in the clues it gives me for doing towhillrevwc.jpgreal painting work: looseness, different colour choices, and especially simplification.  They teach me how much I enjoy an ambiguous, rough quality.

Time to get back to the real drawing board…


Haida Gwaii Watercolor, Part 1

January 13, 2007

I paint occasionally in watercolor, pastels and acrylic, although not as much lately as I would like. I started late, a few years ago, and although I’ve sold a couple of small things, I still have an incredible amount to learn.

Painting watercolor is what I keep coming back to, partially because it was the first medium I started to get serious about and partially because it’s so challenging. I keep wanting to get it right. It’s like the game of go to me: there is great simplicity but that simplicity allows a complex concatenation of choices that lead to either failure or success.

It’s just water, pigment and a brush or some other applicator. No varnishes, lacquers, gessos, thinners, thickeners, rabbit-skin glues or fixatives. But the paper you choose for a watercolor is as important, or more, than the other ingredients. It’s got to take a lot of moisture and abuse without falling apart like wet Kleenex.

One’s inadequacies in the medium are too easily laid bare. There’s a tempestuous relationship here, after you tear up a few messes in disgust. But I keep returning to bang my head against the wall once more!

In this attempt, I am spurred on by a request by my Chinese brother-in-law, who is an official in the Chinese government’s scientific bureaucracy. (He can be seen in a non-speaking role apparently greeting Al Gore in Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth when the ex-vice president visits China.) He is a gentle, intelligent, thoroughly hard-working person, and I was flattered when he asked me to do a painting for him.  He has visited us in British Columbia and loves the landscape here.  He asked for something of that.

My two brothers live in the Queen Charlotte Islands (or Haida Gwaii, the native name, which is gaining currency), a major group of islands off the northern coast of British Columbia.  Its climate is surprisingly mild considering how far north it is, although subject to major ocean storms of wind and rain.  A little snow, but not much, falls in the winter.  Anyway, the subject for my painting is there on the north coast near Masset, at a landmark knob of rock called Tow Hill, named after a battle in the legends of the native Haida.  North Beach runs along here, which is where Raven first brought people into the world by coaxing them out of a clam shell, making North Beach the site of creation.  This is a mythic landscape, ordinary looking though it may appear to you and me.  Seems like a good spot for a painting.

towhillrev.jpgI have two source photos taken there. There are a few things here I find attractive as subjects for a watercolor painting.  The light on the trees.  The wave front and receding perspective.  The shape of the hill.  The reflective pools of water in one photo.  The mist very importantly, including in what will probably be the focal area, where a small dark figure stands out in one photo.  The shore birds, both in flight and on the ground.  The foreground large cobble-sized rocks in the second photo.  The slant of the beach in the second photo.  The distant line of rock creeping along the horizon from the hill.

towhill2rev.jpgThere are problems though.  How best to combine both photos?  What is the best composition?  One major problem is the unbalanced mass on the right side.  I have to balance it better somehow on the left.  I propose to better place the flying gulls.  Another technique is to have a strong sense of space or distance, illusory though it is, as a counterweight.  Finally, I have to make the sky more interesting, and by making the upper left a stronger blue with a defined line of clouds through the middle of the sky, I hope to help solve two problems.

The next stage for me is to play around with the shapes and composition.  I did a bunch of these, ink on index cards, just fooling about.  Here’s one:


That’s starting to get there, although I’m not totally happy with it.  I’ve got to settle on the size of the figure in front of the mist.  Smaller but distinct is better, I think.

Time to move on to the next kind of thumbnail sketch, the value study.  Here’s a rough one:


The point of this is to start to figure out where the light, the dark and the mid-value tones might go without the distractions of colour.   And you don’t want the same extent for each broad value class — the painting becomes too static and boring.  That’s the meaning of the little diagram on the right side, indicating that light values will predominate, then mid-tones, and then the darks as smallest total area.

I have a little more work to do on these two aspects of shape and tone until I’m happy with the final composition.  But I’m almost there, and I’ve settled on my colour palette: Prussian Blue, Venetian Red, Quinacridone Gold, Green Gold, Cobalt Turquoise Light, Ultramarine Violet and Transparent Yellow.

Prussian Blue is an old-fashioned pigment favoured by the watercolor greats like Winslow Homer which has been replaced by near dyes such as Phthalocyanine Blue.  But I love what Homer did with the older colour.  In fact, combine Prussian Blue and Venetian Red and you get a beautiful gray called Homer gray.  One other nice thing about Prussian Blue is that you can make a wide variety of greens with most of the orange and yellow pigments, unsaturated in colour or not.  Quin Gold and the Yellow will find uses in the tree lighting on the right as will the Green Gold.  Prussian Blue is not a very natural sky colour so I will mix it with the Turquoise in a gradient for the upper left.  The Violet will have its uses in shadows and accents along with the blues.  The water will have traces of blues and violets and greens.  That’s the plan.

I have to think out more the distribution of warm and cool colours, hard and soft edges, detail and ambiguity.  I’m going to use about a half sheet (15″x22″) of Opus European 200 lb. watercolour paper.  (Opus is a local great, and reasonably priced, art supply store on Granville Island in Vancouver right next to the Emily Carr School of Art.)  I’m emotionally preparing myself to mess up and have to waste the paper and start over at least once.  This paper is over $6 Canadian for one 22″x 30″ sheet, but that’s not bad for good watercolor paper.

A lot of the work in watercolor seems to be the preparation before you first rub a colour-smeared brush on paper.  Get that all clear in your mind and the painting itself is not so overwhelming.  With a little more work, I’m ready to proceed.


Note: For what I ended up with as a painting, see Haida Gwaii Watercolor, Part II.