Boring? Not!

Peet's Coffee Corner, El Cerrito, ink & watercolor, 7x5"

View north from Peet's Coffee, El Cerrito, ink & watercolor, 7x5"

At first glance, the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Carlson in El Cerrito is boring, boring, boring: a wide busy avenue with boxy buildings. But when viewed on a lovely summer day from a cafe table outside Peet’s Coffee with pen in hand, it transforms itself into a sketching delight full of fun details and color.

San Pablo Ave. Wells Fargo, El Cerrito, ink & watercolor, 5x7"

View South down San Pablo Ave. Wells Fargo, El Cerrito, ink & watercolor, 5x7"

Looking the other way down San Pablo, the Wells Fargo Bank building holds little hope for drawing inspiration. But start sketching and it too transforms itself. There are trees of all kinds and colors. A cerulean sky with only a hint of clouds, a pink apartment building and a gold dentist office. Sun, shadows, banners.

Not boring! I don’t think I’ve ever felt bored when I was sketching. Years ago a friend told me that when I was sketching I looked like I was roller-skating. Whee! Let’s skate!

Ostrich with Hole in the Sand (How I Get My News)

Ostrich with Hole in the Sand, ink on Stonehenge paper

Ostrich with Hole in the Sand, ink on Stonehenge paper

One of the Everyday in May drawing cues is “Draw How You Get Your News.” The image that immediately came to mind was an ostrich with its head in the sand. I am the opposite of a news junkie. I cancelled my newspaper subscription years ago when I realized it made me cry nearly every day. TV news is even worse, with “If it bleeds, it leads” as the guiding principle.

So I just stick my head in the sand instead of consuming all the fear-based media, and do what I can to create better news. Avoiding the news means I can continue to believe that most people are mostly good and that it’s great to be alive.

About the paper: Stonehenge just started making their wonderfully soft drawing paper in this color called “Kraft” except unlike regular Kraft paper it’s archival 100% cotton. It’s fun to draw on with black ink and white gel pen.

About ostriches: They don’t really bury their heads in the sand. When frightened they try to hide by lying low and pressing their long necks to the ground which could look like they have buried their heads in the sand.

What is This Bug I’m Fighting?

Not Swine Flu, Ink & gouache

Not Swine Flu, Ink & gouache

It’s not the swine flu, not so bad.

Not Bird Flu, ink and gouache

Not Bird Flu, ink and gouache

Definitely not the Bird Flu.

Just an ordinary bug, ink and gouache

Just an ordinary bug, ink and gouache

It’s not a cold, a fever, a pill bug or a lady bug, and probably not something from getting a flu shot on Wednesday. It’s just a sleepy, coughing, red-eyed, sneezey, sniffly little bug.

And it looks like I’m winning! I hope so. Tomorrow is a plein air painting day at a winery in Sonoma, the last of the season with my primary plein air group, and I’d really like to go.

Strange Garden Ecology: From Birds to Mice to Wasps to Ants to Birds

Weird Ecology, ink & watercolor in sketchbook

Strange Ecology, ink & watercolor (click to enlarge or see big images below)

I used to love feeding the birds and seeing my little customers flocking to the feeder. But one day I thought I saw the wood chip ground covering moving under the feeder. When I looked closely I saw it wasn’t the tan bark moving, it was dozens of mice! By feeding the birds I was also nourishing a growing army of mice with all the seed the birds scattered!

1. Feed the Birds  2. Mice grow strong and prosper

1. Feed the Birds ---> ---> ---> ---> ---> ---> ---> 2. Mice grow strong and prosper

I called “Vector Control” (a euphemism for the county rat patrol) and an interesting female rat inspector came out and inspected. She told me the only way to get rid of the mice was to stop feeding the birds and that for each mouse I saw there were 50 more I wasn’t seeing. I was sad to stop feeding the birds but it was better than the alternative (which included multiple mouse traps, even sadder).

Meanwhile, the spilled millet seed grew into a lovely, tall, feathery bush under the feeder, which I left hanging in a bit of wishful thinking that one day I’d be able to return to feeding my feathery friends.

3. Millet grass grows under feeder. 4. Wasps move in.

3. Millet grass grows under feeder ---> ---> ---> --->4. Wasps move in.

A couple years pass, the feeder and bird house remain empty and the millet bush continues to be a pretty garden feature. One day I notice something odd: wasps are buzzing in and out of the feeder and have built a nest inside it. I learned that while wasps do not pollinate like bees, they are still beneficial because they eat insect pests in the garden. I decided to leave them alone and enjoyed watching them care for their  babies (larvae) in the nest.

Wasps eat potential garden pests including the venomous black widow spider. Adult wasps eat only pollen and nectar (or your soda at picnics). They only hunt for meat (insects, worms, your barbequed hamburgers) to feed their larvae. Wasps nests have only one purpose: to ensure the production of young. At the end of the nest’s cycle, every member of the nest, except emerging queens, dies.

5. The wasps move in next door ---> 6. The Greenhouse Effect

5. The wasps move in next door ---> ---> ---> 6. The Greenhouse Effect

I guess things got a little crowded in the nest because the wasps started hanging out at the neighboring empty bird house too. Then one day we had a scorcher of a summer day. The temperature in my usually cool and foggy neighborhood by the Bay was in the 90s (f). The clear plastic bird feeder turned into a greenhouse and cooked all the wasps in the nest. So sad. All those poor little larvae, all that building and hunting and gathering of food.

But it wasn’t entirely wasted…

7. The millet bush becomes a little ladder and the ants have a party

7. The millet bush becomes ladder to an ant party

The stalks of tall millet grass made a perfect ladder for the gazillions of ants who live in my garden (and don’t even get me started about the ants and their nasty aphid ranches). The ants were streaming up the grass onto the feeder and having a lovely dinner party of roasted wasp.

And because my garden is well stocked with ants and aphids, I am, in a way, still feeding the birds. They still flock to my garden, but now they eat the ants and aphids off the rose bushes and it doesn’t even cost a penny in bird seed.

Meanwhile…. Life Goes On

Zoom Magazine

I’ve been away from my blog this past week, for a number of reasons, including setting up a new computer, an extended family member suddenly hospitalized in a coma with no brain activity, plus other more positive family events.

So in this brief intermission, here is a page from Costa Rica’s Zoom magazine I received recently. My sketches illustrate an article about Leaf Cutter Ants (amazing creatures that live in Costa Rica). When the editor was looking for illustrations she came across my sketches on my blog and asked for permission to use them in the article. It’s fun seeing them in print:

Leafcutter Ants, in "Zoom" (Costa Rica magazine)

(Click image to enlarge)

I’m looking forward to some solid studio time for the next two days and getting back to regular posting. Meanwhile, life goes on…

Why I’m Not Here + Intuition, Velcro, Broccoli

Lovers Mongrels Curs #1 M.H., Acrylic on canvas 28x22"

"Lovers Mongrels Curs #1 M.H.", Acrylic on canvas, 28x22"

It’s not what you might think, based on the above work in progress. It’s that I finally started the series of paintings that I’d been waiting on for over a year. I hadn’t realized it, but I was waiting for the painting to tell me how to paint it (see below about intuition and broccoli).

I’m just having so much fun with the series  and haven’t wanted to use time I have for painting being on the computer. Also I wasn’t sure if I was ready to post what I’m working on yet. I’m also not sure how much I want to share about each painting and the series as a whole, except to say that it’s sort of auto- and bio- graphical, about the men who’ve played a role  in my life, hence the title of the series: “Lovers, Mongrels and Curs.”

This painting  is the first in the series and it is still a work in progress; a little sketchy but I like it that way and may just leave it…or not.

I followed the saying, “If you don’t know what to do, just wait until you do,” instead of forcing the start of the series. It just took some down time to conceptualize how the series needed to be painted and for the ideas to bubble up (literally: I was on vacation, lying on my back on the deck of my little, private, open-roofed, hot-tub room at Albany Sauna, watching the clouds float by overhead while the hot tub bubbled beside me when it came to me that the series needed to be painted large, in acrylic.)

I wanted to work on two paintings simultaneously,  side by side on the wall so first thought of using gessoed paper or unstretched canvas, finally settling on stretched canvases. But how to hang them?

Using Velcro to Hang Canvases on the Wall  for Painting

After some brainstorming I found an easy way to mount two canvases side by side on the wall without harming the wall or making holes with nails.

hanging 2 canvases

2 canvases mounted on bulletin board with Velcro

I applied a few strips of Velcro along the top rail of my 36×48″ metal framed bulletin board already hanging on that wall (the cork is covered by a sheet of paper pinned to it). Then I measured and matched the other half of the Velcro strips to the backs of the canvases and stuck them together. To stabilize the canvases a bit I put a few large push pins along the bottom and sides. It’s working great!

Listen to Your Broccoli, colored pencil, 16x14"

Listen to Your Broccoli poster, colored pencil, 16x14", created after reading Bird by Bird in 1994

Intuition: Listening to Your Broccoli

As Annie Lamott said in Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life:

“There’s an old Mel Brooks routine, on the flip side of the ‘2,000-Year-Old-Man,’ where the psychiatrist tells his patient, ‘Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.’ And when I first tell my students this, they look at me as if things have clearly begun to deteriorate. But it as important a concept in writing as it is in real life.

It means, of course, that when you don’t know what to do…you get quiet and try to hear that still small voice inside. It will tell you what to do. The problem is that so many of us lost access to our broccoli when we were children. When we listened to our intuition when we were small and then told the grown-ups what we believed to be true, we were often either corrected, ridiculed, or punished. God forbid that you should have your own opinions or perceptions–better to have head lice.

. . . So you may have gotten in the habit of doubting the voice that was telling you quite clearly what was really going on. It is essential that you get it back.

. . . Get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.

. . . Get your intuition back and make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. . . Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

. . . If you don’t know which way to go, keep it simple. Listen to your broccoli. Maybe it will know what to do. Then, if you’ve worked in good faith for a couple of hours but cannot hear it today, have some lunch.”

How Maira Kalman (and I) Create Gouache Paintings with Ink Lettering

Why Are Flamingoes Pink? Gouache on hot press paper, 5.5x7.5"

Why Are Flamingoes Pink? Gouache on hot press paper, 5.5x7.5"

Why Flamingoes Are Pink (Hint: You Are What You Eat!)

Why Are Flamingoes Pink? Gouache & Ink, 5.5x7.5"

Why Are Flamingoes Pink? Gouache & Ink, 5.5x7.5"

I adore Maira Kalman‘s wonderfully quirky gouache and ink illustrations. When I’ve tried to use ink on my own gouache paintings, the ink always got sucked into the paint and blurred, or the pen clogged immediately (or both). I searched every way I could on the internet and finally found this link to India Amos’s blog. India, as Art Director, was responsible for preparing some of Maira’s artwork for print. In the post she wrote that Maira creates the painting and lettering separately. Then they’re scanned and layered together electronically using Photoshop.

So yesterday I investigated this approach. I painted the flamingoes above from a photo I took at Six Flags last month. Then I tried various pens and tracing papers. I also sent a message to India asking if she’d be willing to provide more information about the process. Read More

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