Some Cool Green Memory

Artists find inspiration from many different sources. Visuals of course fire our imagination, as does scent, memory, music, a place, or a snippet of conversation. A contrast of textures can get us thinking about technique, as can a new brush or a handmade paper.

Sometimes inspiration is sneaky, and catches us by surprise. I recently rediscovered a favorite poem, and realized how perfectly it captures the way I feel about painting, especially landscapes:

I shall keep some cool green memory in my heart
To draw upon should days be bleak and cold.
I shall hold it like a cherished thing apart
To turn to now or when I shall be old.
Perhaps a sweeping meadow, brightly green,
Where grasses bend and the winds of heaven blow
Straight from the hand of God, as cool and clean
As anything the heart of man can know.

Or it may be this green remembered tree
That I shall turn to if the nights be long,
High on a hill, its cool boughs lifting free,
And from its tip, a wild bird’s joyous song.
A weary city dweller to survive
Must keep some cool green memory alive.

Grace Noll Crowell – Keep Some Green Memory Alive

Even in the portraits I paint, whether they be people, animals or objects, I realized that I look for that breathing room that nature offers us. A sense of stillness, a moment of calm, a feeling of rest-that’s what you’ll find in most of my paintings. In a juried show filled with vibrant color and intense energy, they often get overlooked, waiting for the second pass to catch a viewer’s eye. That’s OK-it’s easier to live with a whisper of a breeze than a gale-force wind…

The joy of the art retreat

Whether you call it art camp, paint-out or a retreat, there is nothing better for an artist’s soul than uninterrupted time to paint. I just returned from three days at the Samish Island Paint-out (offered through NWWS) and am amazed at what I was able to accomplish!

In addition to having time to work on your own paintings, it is invaluable to see what other artists are working on. At the beginning of Paint-out, it is a race to see who can get the first painting “on the wall.” Throughout the weekend, a gallery grows as we all put up our efforts.

Art retreats get a little competitive over who can put the most paintings up!

The other advantage of a group retreat is being able to walk around and see how others “do what they do.” While it’s important to respect artists who are in the zone, most are willing to chat about their approach, demo a technique, or even share a dollop of a favorite color.

With lots of time and plenty of space, a retreat is a great opportunity to work on larger paintings. This one I started is 11″ x 30″.

When selecting a retreat, ask artist friends for recommendations. Check out the facility’s website, and find out what comfort level the accomodations are. Lodging can range from spartan to spa-like.

Lodging can be pretty spartan, but a few comforts of home can make a space cozy!

Ask past attendees about the food, too! At the Samish Paint-out, a wonderful crew comes in and cooks for us. The food is delicious, and they’re always happy to provide alternate ingredients. Some retreats will be DIY, with attendees taking turns preparing meals.

Oh – bring plenty of art supplies! Many retreat venues are from shopping centers (that’s what makes them perfect). Now over to you: what words of wisdom (or happy stories) do you have about retreats?

Learning abstract principles

As an artist, it’s good to explore new subjects, mediums and techniques. In this case, abstract principles that can be used in future paintings.

If you’re at all familiar with my work, you know that representational art is my wheelhouse. Rendering detail is a joy to me; I find it somewhat meditative to get lost in the fine lines of a subject. That being said, a painting that is all detail can be exhausting to look at, and doesn’t invite the viewer to add their own thoughts to the story of an image. It’s much more interesting as an artist too, to create a painting that leaves people guessing a little. (And entertaining to hear what they think is happening!)

With this in mind, an ongoing goal of mine is to create more abstract moments in my paintings. Recently, I attended a 3-hour class given by Kristi Galindo Dyson, and hosted by the Mt. Si Artist Guild. Kristi’s presentation is great – I highly recommend her as an instructor. She lead us through a discussion on the elements of abstraction, including: personal mark making; intuition, experimentation, visual elements, style and design.

And then she turned us loose to paint…or scribble, or create texture, or…(click images to zoom)

Step 1: Just do something! The blank page-even a small one-is incredibly intimidating…

Kristi had samples of an art board by Arches for us to try, however she uses many different papers and boards. The watercolor board was a 4-ply thickness and had a smooth, or hot press, surface.

With a blended watercolor background, I started making marks with watercolor pencils.
At the end of 90 minutes, a board with lots of color, lots of marks, and an indication of a structure.

One of the topics Kristi touched on is how free children are when creating art-they are absolutely fearless in their expression. Before they learn rules of composition and the expectation of adults that their art “look like something,” kids will fill an entire page with color, scribbles, and surprising insights. While I didn’t get there in 90 minutes, it was good to hear that you need to allow your artistic mind some freedom once in a while!

A few final touches with a white pen help unify the piece. I liked the idea of representing a structure with the white marks, while not defining a specific building.

The finished piece reflects making marks, playing with color and texture, and looking for balance…all elements of my current practice, but expressed in a completely new way. It will serve as a great reminder to play once in a while…

NWWS Signature Membership

There are milestones in every artistic journey, and a big one for me was achieving Signature status in the Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS). I feel very blessed to have reached this goal in such a short time – the first show I entered was in 2010.

What is Signature Membership, and why was that status in this organization so important to me? Signature status allows me to add “NWWS” after my name on my website, business cards, paintings and marketing materials. It’s a signal to buyers, gallery owners and other artists that my work has been recognized by some of the top artists in the country. As I begin to teach and offer demos, it lets interested attendees know that I have been painting at a high level for a number of years.

To receive Signature Membership, an NWWS member must be accepted into two International Open Exhibitions, or two Waterworks (members only) and one Open. The NWWS has very high standards for jurors, and most have multiple Signature memberships of their own in regional and national organizations.

The NWWS has been recognized by The Artists Magazine as one of the ten most prominent regional watercolor societies in North America. While most members reside in Washington, Oregon and California, the organization has recently begun to accept membership from international artists. Shows typically receive hundreds of entries, so to be one of the 60-75 paintings accepted is quite an accomplishment.

The title, show, year and the juror for qualifying shows are:

Illumination* | Waterworks 2011 | John Salminen, NWS, AWS.DF
Flight | 75th International Open 2015 | Judy Morris, AWS, NWS, NWWS
A Taste Of Spring | Waterworks 2016 | Fealing Lin, NWS, WW, SDWS
*Illumination received the President’s Merit Award

The year of the tree

If every artist has their kryptonite, trees are mine. I can find the shape, shadow and expression of horses, people, buildings and skies, but trees have been much harder to grasp. Maybe it’s the chaotic distribution of overlapping shapes and intertwined branches that confuses my eye, or an inability to describe the random holes the sky cuts into a tree. In fact, when painting trees, I often forget to leave “space for the birds to fly through.” (I wish I knew which artist originally gave that advice!)

This has been an issue for years – I’ve had the Drawing Trees book by William F. Powell, part of the Walter Foster “How to Draw and Paint” series, since it was published in 1997. So this year, I’m going to focus on drawing and painting trees. From the individual details of bark, needles or leaves, cones and seeds to the shape of the different species, my goal is to understand the anatomy of the tree. (Much like I’ve studied horses in the past.)

While I’ve managed a few successful landscapes recently that included trees, it has felt like a lucky break rather than a true mastery of the shape and form of wooded spaces. A few of the studies I’ve completed from Drawing Trees are included. (The watercolor was completed on New Year’s Day while staying at Lincoln City, OR.)


When habit wins…

One of my favorite days of the year is the Friday after Thanksgiving. Not for the shopping, but for the decorating. At 9AM, the tree goes up; by 1:30 it looks like Christmas exploded all over the living room, and by 5:30 or so the 1st round is over.

Christmas studio

This year, I decided to decorate the studio, and even swapped out my old plastic water container for a festive holiday cup. Or not. The shiny new cup is pretty, but it doesn’t swish brushes properly; the rim doesn’t catch drips the right way, and the porcelain”clink” is all wrong. So, the festive cup can hold my stash of chocolate, and the perfect plastic container can resume its water-holding duties. Sometimes, you just gotta go with what works!

Who knew that the water container could be so important to the creative flow??
Who knew that the water container could be so important to the creative flow??


The pleasure & pain of fall

It’s an odd thing to say, but today was almost painfully beautiful. As autumn fully takes hold, the big leaf maples are in the peak of their gold and orange glory. Ornamental trees and shrubs are showcasing hot reds, bright yellows, lime greens and even rich shades of purple. And still, remnants of summer surprise with their tenacity.

hydrangea bloom in fall

Why is it painful? First, because I want to paint it all, and of course that’s not realistic. Worse though, is knowing that the light, warmth and color of the last few months is staging its grand exit. Once this display fades, the dark, cold and rain of winter in the NW will settle over us.

fall color reflected in water

Yes, there’s a subtle and sometimes harsh beauty in that too, and as an artist, I’ll find it…but welcome winter? Only in celebration of the shortest day of the year, knowing that each day will be a couple minutes brighter…


Igniting the spark

The artistic fire is a strange beast. In some, it burns hot, demanding that the artist creates every day. In  others, it flares once, brilliantly, then burns itself out.

My fire is an inconsistent creature. The embers are always smoldering, so I’ll find myself considering the color palettes of scenes flashing by the car window, or rolling painting ideas around in my head. I’ve spent the last two months at smolder, with no flame creating the urge to paint.

Sketches from the fair

In the last two weeks, that all changed. So what sparked the flame? Color. I’ve been sketching in pencil all summer, and was ready to move past that. So on a hot day at the state fair, I pulled out the watercolor pencils and brought a couple of 20 minute sketches to life.

Horse portrait in sketchbook

That lead to a studio session where I could explore the pencils some more – I’ll probably do an entire blog post on that! It was interesting to see how the layered drawing of the horse, left, came to life with the addition of water, right.

Renee and Carol

Then I went to Carol Carter’s demo at the Daniel Smith store. I’ve long been a fan of her non-traditional use of color and the way she uses “blooms” to her advantage. Watching the way she handled water and pigment, the urge to head for the studio began to grow.


The next day, out & about with my husband, I started noticing the way manmade objects interacted with the sky, and my mind started racing with ideas and approaches. Within 15 miles, I had an entire series of paintings mapped out. Spark lit.

Study in blue

Of course time and daily life dictates studio access, so my brain ping-ponged around creative ideas and settled back on color (for now). This little study is just 2.5″ x 3.5″ and was done entirely with blue and purple paints (and a touch of white pen).

Detail of horse portrait in progress

By Friday night, the creative fire was burning brightly, and I couldn’t wait to get into the studio and play with color and technique! While painting two very different subjects – a cranky horse and a rusty lock – the focus is on color, and allowing pigments to mix and mingle with limited interference…

Four feet

Mingling colors

Breaking in a new journal

Like most artists that sketch, I’m always searching for the “perfect” journal. My collection includes purse-size 3″ x 5″ books, a 9″ x 12″ lightweight paper for pencil work, and different sizes with tan paper, black paper, and various weights (thickness) of cream and white papers.

The latest entry, and quickly becoming a favorite, is a wire-bound Super Deluxe journal from Bee Paper Company. The 9″ x 6″ size is easy to handle and large enough to work in comfortably.

Horse in sepia ink

I really like the paper in this book. It has some texture to it, but not so much that fine pens skip over it. The sepia Microns I used for this sketch flowed over the paper easily.

Sepia sketch detail

At 93 lbs, it takes watercolor pretty well, although it does buckle when it gets wet. (Happy to say it dries almost entirely flat.)

Stormy sky over the butte

Since it’s a soft paper, the watercolor really spreads and creates diffused edges. Details need to be added after the paper completely dries.

Stormy sky detail

For the third page, I sketched the design with a mechanical pencil, then inked over that with a 0.3 Artline pen. (Also a new favorite, as it seems smoother than a Micron.)

Fresh Apples

For color, I used watercolor pencils. This worked great, as the pencils provided lots of texture and vivid colors. They didn’t require much water either, so the paper didn’t buckle as much and dried quickly.

Fresh Apples detail

The only downside to this book is that the mechpencil smears easily on the soft paper. (Has anyone found a journal that doesn’t??) Since I prefer to ink in sketches and add color, that won’t be a problem. We’ll call this one a winner so far!

Sketching horses

For me, drawing horses goes back to the early days of “pencil + paper + horse photo = happy place.”

Recently, as I’ve become more serious about painting horses, I’ve been drawing and live sketching a lot more. Working from photos is a great way to practice shading and to learn the structure of the horse.

Learning how the different parts & pieces connect is invaluable.
Learning how the different parts & pieces connect is invaluable.

Live sketching is an exercise in speed and observation. Horses almost never stand still, especially at a show, so I’m looking to capture shape, posture and mood.

Outside the arena before a class, when everyone is waiting...
Outside the arena before a class, when everyone is waiting…
Quick gesture studies - no chance for details here!
Quick gesture studies – no chance for details here!

Some shows are open and friendly about barn access, so more time can be spent on a single sketch. I look for horses that are calm and not concerned with observation. As prey animals, horses can get agitated about being watched closely, especially when confined to a stall.

It's always a good sign when a horse can't keep his eyes open.
It’s always a good sign when a horse can’t keep his eyes open. (This is Cowboy again.)

I always pay attention to body language when I start sketching. If a horse fidgets, shifts weight back & forth, continually looks at me or starts pacing, I’ll move to another stall. Even with calm subjects, I make sure not to stare too long, and will look down and around frequently.

OKW Berlyn, hanging out between classes.
OKW Berlyn, hanging out between classes.

Every sketch outing is a great learning experience, and continues to build observation skills and my knowledge of equine anatomy and moods.

Found lots of relaxed horses at the Region 5 Arabian Show.
Took a tan journal with a pencil, black UniBall and white GellyRoll pens to the Region 5 Arabian Horse Show.
Not all horses like shows...some of them get pretty testy...
Not all horses like shows…some of them get pretty testy…