Sunday, 30 October 2016

New York 5: Times Square and Cats

I've had people crowd around me when I'm drawing, including Ecuadorean policemen and Cuban soldiers, and small people have climbed right on to me a couple times, but I've never actually been physically assaulted - until I got to Times Square in New York.  They have bleachers overlooking the craziness of the square (which is a triangle - am I the first person to notice that?).  It's a great place to draw the scene.  I was drawing peacefully, talking to a few other bleacher-sitters, when two immensely pudgy 8-year-old boys from Wisconsin or some other fly-over state (as New Yorkers contemptuously call anywhere else besides Los Angeles) came up to me, each holding an immense bag of M&M's.  They stood staring at me, handfuls of partially masticated candies drooling from their mouths.  I showed them my drawing, made every effort to be polite.  Then they went and stood right behind me and started making squealing noises that quickly became full screeches when I ignored them.  Next, they start poking me in the shoulder.  I continued ignoring them.  Finally they switched to punching in me in the head.  I lost it at that point - I leapt up, spun around and was one millisecond from throwing them off the bleacher onto the crowd below.  Fortunately, I remembered about lawsuits in the nick of time, so the New York Times headline didn't read "Hurled Iowa brats crush twelve".  I just moved so I was surrounded by a nice Swedish family.  But really, what are two awful children from Nebraska doing without parents in New York, and who thought it was a good idea to buy them 10 pounds of chocolate?  Anyway, I like my drawing.  It's the busiest place I've ever been.
You have to go to a Broadway show if you're in New York, if only because every one you mention your trip to will ask if you did.  Fortunately, we don't feel any need to go to the trendiest shows, so we got to go to one we like.  We like cats, and look, there's a whole show about them!  It's being re-whatever-the-word-is on Broadway after a decade break, and we'd never seen it.  Hopefully some critic has said that it is "full of sound and furry, signifying nothing", because that's a good line.  There's nothing resembling a plot - but I don't think you go to Broadway musicals for moments of profound contemplation and insight. There are lots of feline characters, colourful costumes, lights and dancing, it's extravagant and fun, and a novel place to draw, which itself is worth the price of admission.  

Friday, 28 October 2016

New York 4: Met and Central Park

There's something exciting about seeing famous paintings, even if you've seen pictures of the pictures a thousand times.  I guess it's the same thing that pop-culture people feel when they see celebrities. The Metropolitan Museum is full of art-history celebrities, throughout its 800-and-something rooms.  Drawing them helps me slow down and look, and avoid complete oversaturation.  I should be done the whole collection in about 5,000 more visits.

One room has 4 Vermeers, of the 36 or so total (although one of them was fairly unimpressive - I hope they have a good provenance for it...).  Along with a few other paintings by Dutch contemporaries, the small room held what I figure would be over 500 million dollars worth of art.  Which totaled about 20 square feet of canvas - 25 million dollars per square foot, even more than most Manhattan apartments.

I also admired Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, mainly for a story about it that I have repeated often: Someone saw the picture after Picasso had finished it, and said, "That doesn't look like Gertrude Stein."  Picasso replied "It will."  It does show Picasso's "self-confidence".  But it is also a good lesson - once the model is gone, or you leave the street scene, all that's left is the picture.  So you should make it what you want it to be, not just what is actually in front of you.  This is also a good consolation when someone's drawing goes really wrong.

Central Park is one of the saving graces of New York.  We ended up there a couple times, like an over-stimulated child sent for a time-out.  The view from the Met roof is a good one, and from the belvedere lookout over the turtle pond and amphitheatre.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

New York 3: The statue, the skyline, the subway, the highline

The Statue of Liberty doesn't need much introduction.  So I'll jump right to the big question: Is the Statue of Liberty male?  You have to wonder when you've done a lot of life drawing and you see that big square jaw, the huge crushing hands and the distinctly barrel-shaped body.  On the other hand, I guess, who really cares?  It's a great iconic symbol, whatever gender it wishes to be.

The same immensely crowded (!) harbour boats continue from the statue to Ellis Island, which served as the main immigration gateway to the US for several decades.  It has a wonderful museum, full of old pictures of the immigrants and what their world was like.  I didn't get enough time there, because the island also has a classic view of the Manhattan skyline, including the soaring One World Trade Center.  It too is a symbol of a tragic past for many, and a hopeful future.

I was nervous about the New York subway.  I remember images from the 70's and 80's.  But it turned out to be safe, efficient for getting everywhere, and kind of fun in a rattle-trap old circus ride sort of way.  It was also the only place we really encountered the archetypical Rude New Yorker - two ladies, 4-foot-10 tall, who stood right across the doorway, arms locked to the poles, and refused to let anyone on or off the train, ignoring all polite and less-than-polite requests.  All while complaining in loud grating voices about their therapists.  Keep it up, ladies - you're a tourist attraction!

The High Line trail is a former elevated railway down the west side of Manhattan that has been turned into a walking trail, complete with native vegetation, art installations and, on a sunny fall afternoon, an entire mid-sized city worth of people.  It weaves around and sometimes through buildings.  There are benches, and even little grandstands looking out over industrial buildings, the river, street scenes or the crowd.  It's pretty much what I would come up with if I was asked to design the World's Greatest Urbansketching Park.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

New York 2: Flatiron and water tanks

Broadway slices across the otherwise regular grid of New York streets, forming a series of narrow triangular areas.  Fortunately, someone found a building with exactly the right shape for the lot.  The Flatiron building is elegant, ornate and a challenge for two-point perspective.  To add to that, you have to sit almost on the street to get a view of both sides of the building.  It's a popular place for tourists, and since everything on the street in New York is a show, me and my sketchbook were photographed by a German tourist, a French couple, a group of Japanese girls and possibly even one native New Yorker.  I think the Japanese girls were responsible for some of the top rows of windows going a little bit wonky.

Our 15th floor hotel room looked out across rooftops, with the Empire State building in the background.  Not a bad view, especially for an urban sketcher!  One morning we found a crew of workers installing  a new wooden water tank across the street.  They were climbing around on make-shift scaffolding 120 feet off the ground, with no sign of any fall protection.  I was a nervous wreck, and I was just drawing them.

The water tanks are a picturesque feature of many rooftops.  They look quite incongruous against the stylish old and new architecture, but they make a lot of practical sense.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

New York 1: Empire State, library and the clock.

From Southampton to the somewhat bigger and busier New York City...  The excuse was a birthday party with my high school classmates, who are much older than me and therefore having their 50th birthdays this year.  But I'd never been to the urban-sketching mecca, so we spent five days there, and I did a lot of frantic drawing.  We checked off many of the well-known sights, but the list of really well-known places that we didn't get to, even just in Manhattan, is probably longer than the entire list of well-known places in any other North American city.

The Empire State building was first, since it was nearby and pretty easy to find.  It actually doesn't look enormously big, maybe because of its complex shapes and human-scale windows.  The standard glass office towers of many cities look bigger, because they are so unfriendly.  I drew the building standing on the corner of 5th Ave and 33rd St - like everywhere else in the city, a throng of people on one side of me and taxis on the other.  But New York sidewalks are full of permanent scaffolding - building inspection laws and avid lawyers mean that it is easier and safer for owners of buildings with old facades to keep these up all the time.  They provide good posts for sketchers to lean against and not be run over by cars or pedestrians.

The main branch of the New York library is a fantastic place, with a fabulously grand reading room.  If I lived there, I'd be in there reading all the time, just to be there.  Or maybe not - there would probably be too much other stimulation to fit in anything so contemplative.  They only let camera-toting tourists into one corner of the room, but I confidently strode right in with my sketching gear and no one questioned me.

My mom told me that when you turn 80, they make you take tests to renew your driving licence, which include drawing a clock.  Apparently it's a struggle for people with impending dementia.  I have a few years to go, but I started practicing with the clock outside Grand Central Station.  I'm hoping to say to the driving inspector "I need a couple more minutes, I'm still working on Minerva's robes."

Friday, 21 October 2016

Southampton: Lighthouses and more

I had a conversation about Southampton with someone at a party.  It was a bit of a weird conversation, until I realized that he was talking about the city in England and I was talking about the small town on Lake Huron where my family has a cottage.  There are good micro-breweries in both places.  Otherwise they are apparently quite different.

I got to our Southampton on Thanksgiving weekend.  A local bylaw states that at least 75% of anyone's artistic output has to include a lighthouse, of which there are three nice historical examples.  I did 4 drawings, so I was allowed to do one of the lighthouse-free one-block main street, on the Day After The Summer People Leave.  It must be a great day for the local residents, although they certainly didn't show it by parading up and down the main street.
The lighthouses are classic - a large old stone one on Chantry Island offshore, and a wooden one on the dock at the mouth the Saugeen River.  I drew the island from dunes at the end of the beach, which were scraggly things when I was a kid but are now a flourishing ecosystem after active restoration.  

And following that other rule that says you have to finish a slide show with a sunset picture, here's a quick sketch of one over the lake.  (The little vertical line at the far left is a lighthouse, so I'm okay there).  I used a technique I saw in an Alan Fletcher book - putting an intense drop of paint right at the horizon when the washes for the lake and sky were still wet, and letting that give you whatever sunset you happen to get.  It's hit or miss.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Toronto: Salmon, autumn and Chihuly

The Don River running through Toronto near my family home was once a polluted mess, and flood-controlled into a concrete channel.  When I was a kid, you held your breath near it.  Now Nature is winning over Engineering, and people upstream have cleaned up their act.  I've seen - and been amazed each time - kingfishers, night-herons, snakes and mink in the water.  This trip I saw a BC sight, spawning salmon.  They don't have to swim very far from Lake Ontario, so they are full of energy, leaping several feet out of the water in their battles.  It's a happy thing to see the river recovering.  (But it is still a dangerous place - as I was drawing, a golf ball from the nearby golf course crashed through the trees, bounced off a rock and splashed into the creek a few feet from me.  The salmon seemed unperturbed.)
It was a prolonged Indian summer, so the first fall colours were just showing up in the view over the leafy suburb.
Speaking of colours, the Royal Ontario Museum had a show by Dale Chihuly, the Tacoma glass-blower extraordinaire.  His work is always worth seeing if you have any sense of joy and exuberance.  One new work had long red glass "reeds" stuck into birch logs, beautiful complementary shapes suggesting a campfire, but an ideal uncharred one.  The boat filled with big round glass balls, inspired by old floats for fishnets, was similar to an exhibit I had seen in Seattle - fun to draw.  And the room with various exotic glass shapes displayed on a clear glass roof streamed colours down onto some otherwise awfully grey business-suited visitors.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Figures - black-and-white and colour

Sometimes life drawing is about form - contour and shading...

... and sometimes it's just an excuse to play with colour!