Eye and Hand
Practical Art for Paddlers—
By Tamia Nelson
January 4, 2011
It's midwinter in Canoe Country. The holiday season is history, tax forms are already in the mail, and the rushing waters are sheathed in ice. Happily, the days are now growing noticeably longer, but spring still seems impossibly distant, like a headland barely glimpsed across a broad, fog‑shrouded bay. All is not lost, however. There may not be many reasons to take your boat down from its cradle during this season of hard water, but there's no better time to relive the pleasures of paddling seasons past. Just pull your dusty trip journals, sketchbooks, and photo albums off the shelves, or ransack the Pictures folder on your computer for saved digital images. Then settle back to enjoy a pleasant float through the labyrinths of memory. But why stop there? Why drift with the current when you can take paddle in hand, figuratively if not literally? Every journal entry, sketch, or photo contains within itself the seed of something more. Something new. A painting, perhaps. Or a pen‑and‑ink drawing, suitable for framing.
Interested? Good. Let's shut the door to the boathouse for the time being and…
Move Into the Studio
You say there's no place in your home for a studio? Don't worry. While it's nice to have a "proper" studio—a spacious room, with high ceilings and a northern exposure, for instance—it's by no means necessary. Some of the Hudson's Bay Company's 19th‑century "servants" produced wonderfully detailed watercolors in cramped and drafty cabins, in temperatures so low that they often had to stop painting to thaw their colors. Even the smallest apartment can do better than that. In fact, there are only three essentials: good light; a clean, smooth, solid work surface; and a comfortable chair (or a place to stand, if, like Horace Rumpole, you prefer to do your work while up on your hind legs).
Good light comes first, obviously. Indirect natural light is best, which is why professional artists' studios have big, north‑facing windows. But a swivel desk lamp will work almost as well. Be warned, though: The type of lamp will affect how you see colors. The light from incandescent bulbs has more "warmth" than that from either fluorescent lamps or light‑emitting diodes. For my part, I prefer the warmer light of the incandescent bulb, despite its higher energy cost. (That said, the waste heat from inefficient bulbs isn't always a dead loss. It's mighty welcome in a cold room!) Whatever your light source, however, arrange your workspace so that the light is either in front of you or on the side opposite your dominant hand. In other words, southpaws will want the light on their right; right‑handers, on their left.
Your work surface is nearly as important. It should be free from clutter and perfectly smooth, with no tendency to wobble. Almost any well‑constructed table will fit the bill. If you're going to work on a family heirloom, however, it's best to protect the surface with a plastic tablecloth or something similar. Spilled India ink or splattered Windsor blue watercolor does nothing to increase the value of a fine piece of furniture.
It also goes without saying that you'll need to be sitting comfortably while you work—unless, of course, you prefer to work standing up, as I do. Even so, long hours take their toll, and I often find that my feet give out before my fingers do. Office supply stores sell cushioned floor mats to blunt the impact of gravity (so do kitchen equipment retailers), but I find that a square cut from a carpet remnant does just as well, and you can spill ink or paint on it with impunity.
So much for the essentials. Now let's look at some exemplar home studios, beginning with…
The Minimalist's Refuge This is the Murphy bed of studios. It lets you work just about anywhere. Begin with a sturdy, wobble‑free folding table. (I've used a Black & Decker Workmate with good results, though it takes some fussing to get it at the right height.) A drawing board and swivel lamp complete the setup. You don't need to spend a lot of money for your drawing board, by the way. A bamboo cutting board from the kitchen supply aisle in your local HyperMart will work just fine, and it shouldn't cost more than ten bucks. I've also pressed a scrap of Masonite into service, and you can, too. Just check that whatever you choose is clean and smooth. Of course, it also has to be large enough for the paper you'll use. (Hold your paper in place with bulldog clips or heavy‑duty rubber bands.) Then, when you finish a studio session, be sure to wipe off the board and stand it upright against a wall, where it won't get knocked about. Your materials—pencils, pens, paints, and the like—can be kept in a tool chest or tackle box. Paper that's too large to store flat should be rolled and placed in plastic or cardboard tubes of the sort used to hold blueprints, site plans, and posters. (Check drafting‑supply outlets for examples.) A cautionary note: Sunlight is wonderful to work by, but it's hard on materials. If you store paper or paints in transparent containers (I do), then keep the boxes in a dark corner.
So much for minimalism. Maybe you're blessed with more space, or perhaps you're just eager to commit. In either case, you're ready for…
The Enthusiast's Enclave This is a permanent workspace, a place set aside solely for studio work. It needn't be much, however. A small work table is enough. Mine is only two feet wide and three feet long. Most of the time, I stand at it to work—it's nearly three feet high—but when I want to give my feet a rest, I lean on the edge or sit on a bar stool. Natural light streams in from a window next to the table, though when Sol hides his face, as he often does in winter, I resort to a small desk lamp. My materials are tucked away inside plastic bins arrayed on shelves around my office, with the largest paper relegated to the wide, deep shelves under my computer desk.
Such a setup should satisfy most part‑time artists. But if you're really keen, you may want to make the move up to…
The Professional's Studio Even if you're not earning a cent with your art. (Did you see the Mystery miniseries Painted Lady? If you did, you may remember an exchange between an Irish cop and one‑time singer Maggie Sheridan. Cop: "Do you still make your living out of music?" Maggie: "No. I make music. I don't make a living." But Maggie remained a professional, nonetheless.) The sky's the limit here. Set aside a room solely for your art, with tall windows and a northern exposure. Someplace that's spacious and bright, airy in summer and warm in winter. Outfit it with a drafting table or a large work table—or both—and flat files for paper storage. Plus a rolling cart with drawers to hold supplies, lights in strategic locations, and shelves for your extensive library of reference books. Not to mention a dedicated computer, flatbed scanner, and color laser printer. And don't forget the espresso machine!
Just don't send me the bill. Mind you, creating a place to work is only the first step. Once you've settled into your new studio, it's time to…
Choose a Subject (And a Medium)
Begin by thumbing through your journals and sketchbooks. Maybe you made a hasty pencil sketch of a landscape that you'd now like to turn into a finished pen‑and‑ink drawing. Or perhaps you'd like to make a painting from a shot you took of a buddy running a rapid. Whatever the subject, you'll have a wide range of media to choose from, including…
Pencil Pencil sketches can be as simple, or as elaborate, as you want to make them. Art‑supply catalogs offer pencils in every imaginable variation of hardness and composition. And there are colored pencils, too. Experiment and see what works for you.
Charcoal Charcoal may be the oldest medium, but it's still a favorite of many artists. You'll find it offered in several forms—pencils, sticks, and chunks—and in a range of hardnesses.
Pastels These combine something very like the feel of charcoal with the versatility of colored pencils. And pastels are available in a wide range of hues and hardnesses. For even more striking effects, use pastels on colored paper.
Pen‑and‑Ink A venerable medium, this is nonetheless among the most versatile—and most demanding, whether you use a crow quill pen, a nib, or a modern technical pen. And you're not restricted to black on white. True, black ink is the standard for much pen‑and‑ink illustration, but you may want to try sepia ink, or any (or all) of a whole rainbow of colors.
Paint Watercolor was long the favored medium for quick color sketches, while oils were reserved for important studio work. However, this distinction, never hard and fast, is now pretty much ignored. And today there's a third choice: acrylics. Each of these makes special demands on the artist. Each requires special materials. But learning as you go is part of the fun.
Does this exhaust the list of possibilities? Not at all. There are crayon, chalk, sumi, and even felt‑tip markers. To say nothing of sand‑painting. And then there's the whole field of sculpture, including soft sculpture and carving.
I can't begin to touch on all these options here, of course. But before we leave the subject of artists' media, I should say a brief word about an area I've neglected up till now—paper. Don't give paper short shrift. It's as important as paint or ink, and studio work deserves the best quality paper, acid‑free stuff that's much heavier than the sheets in your field sketchbook. You'll probably be working on a larger scale, too, particularly if you plan to hang your work, so you'll need bigger sheets. And make sure the paper you have is suitable for the medium you'll be using.
The range of choices can be bewildering, I know, but the catalogs of art‑supply retailers are good places to start your survey of the market. If you live in a big city or college town, you may be lucky enough to have a store right on your doorstep. Then you can get expert advice as well as first‑quality materials. (Some larger stores even offer regular classes in a variety of media, as do many colleges.) Failing that, look online. The websites of some companies provide useful guides to selecting materials for particular purposes, and—as I've already suggested—their printed catalogs make it easy to compare different media and tools.
OK. You've set up your studio, chosen a subject, and decided on a medium. Now it's time to…
Get To Work
Begin by making yourself comfortable. "Smoothing it" makes as much sense in the studio as it does in the backcountry. Lay your inspiration—whether it's a journal or one or more sketches or photos—out on the table before you, and assemble your materials. Your studio voyage has now begun. How you proceed from this point is up to you, of course, but here's my way: Unless I already have a clear mental image of what I want the final work to look like, I make several quick preliminary sketches, either on scrap paper or in a large sketchbook set aside solely for that purpose. Working fast, with light strokes of a soft lead pencil, I play around with the elements of the composition, adding and removing them at will. I also shift my (figurative) point of view several times, the better to explore different perspectives. Only when I'm satisfied with all aspects of the composition do I begin work on the final piece.
I now place a fresh sheet of paper or a watercolor block before me. (The former if I'm making a drawing; the latter for a painting.) Next, I sketch in the main elements of the scene, using a light touch and a medium‑soft lead, in much the same way as when I'm sketching in the field. And since mistakes are inevitable, I keep an eraser handy. Then, when I've finished sketching, I pick up pen or brush and start the real work.
My technique depends on the medium. With a pen‑and‑ink illustration, I begin on the side opposite my drawing hand and work back across the paper, first blocking in the extremes of bright and dark, then returning to fill in the transitional areas. I'm careful to allow the ink to dry before placing my hand or arm on the paper a second time, of course. I also use a sheet of clean white paper to protect inked‑in areas and to avoid smudges. This work can't be hurried. If a scene is at all complex, it may take several sessions to complete the drawing. When it's necessary to put a work‑in‑progress aside, I first let it dry completely, then protect it with a clean cover sheet, before slipping the drawing into a folder and placing it on a wide, flat shelf.
Watercolor paintings require a somewhat different approach. I start to build the scene with one or more washes, often allowing them to dry between applications, a technique known as a "glaze." I then work from the light areas in the painting toward the darker regions. As you might imagine, I spend a good few minutes waiting for colors to dry, but this time isn't wasted. It affords me a chance to look out the window, and it gives my hands a break. Moreover, despite such necessary delays, watercolor paintings come together fairly quickly. Still, there are times when I have to leave a painting only half finished. If this happens, I let it dry thoroughly, place a clean cover sheet of acid‑free paper over it, and close the watercolor block. I also let the paints on my palette dry, before tucking it into a clean plastic bag. Brushes, too, have to be rinsed thoroughly and allowed to dry completely before they can be stored. I then roll the dry brushes up in the old cotton diaper that I use to blot up any water or spilled paint. When I'm ready to return to work, I simply remove the palette from its bag, unroll the diaper‑brush holder, and open the watercolor block. That being done, I'm good to go.
I store completed paintings and illustrations in large, covered plastic boxes until I'm ready to hang them. Many will never be hung, of course, but each and every one has already served its primary purpose: fixing an image on the emulsion of my memory. And if that memory ever dims? I need only remove the painting or sketch from its storage box to bring the scene to life again. A studio voyage has no end.
Winter in Canoe Country isn't the best time of year to hit the water. Not for most of us, at any rate. But there's no reason why we can't take our trip journals and sketchbooks down from the shelf, settle into a comfortable chair, and relive the pleasures of past paddling seasons, is there? Drawing and painting can be part of the fun, too. After all, the voyage doesn't have to stop when you reach the take‑out, does it? Certainly not!
That wraps up this series of "Eye and Hand" columns, but if you've rediscovered the pleasures of capturing images from your travels the old‑fashioned way—in pencil, ink or paint—don't stop now. And if you have any sketches, paintings, or other creative works you'd like to share, just photograph them and send the shots along to me. I'd love to see what you've been doing.
Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.