Sunday, 10 December 2017

Ice-colour painting - endangered?

The challenges of using watercolours outside when it is below freezing are well rewarded by, umm... trying to capture details with frozen-solid brushes? blotchy skies? frostbitten fingers? Well, maybe a unique style, a sharper appreciation for working quickly, and definitely a memorable experience.  This is a good example from early November, when it was about -6C on Hollyburn peak.  You can see some nice crystalization in the sky and mountains.
But my recent attempts have failed - it just hasn't been cold enough.  This one from the Hollyburn cross-country area as the clouds rolled in was close, just below 0C, but not quite enough to freeze the paint.

Even Edmonton, on the last day of November - this should be the world centre for ice-colour painting - came in well above freezing as I drew the river from a pedestrian bridge.

And back on Hollyburn Peak, mid-December now, it was a sunny +9C with a warm breeze, in a strong inversion that was blanketing Vancouver below in fog.  It was so warm that I skied up the rapidly melting (but still deep) snow in a short-sleeved shirt, and people on the peak were dancing around in their underwear.  (There are still a few eccentric and exuberant people left in this age of internet shaming).  I am wondering if the days of ice-colour painting are numbered...

Monday, 4 December 2017

Dr Sketchy has a birthday

It was party night at Dr Sketchy's on Sunday (as if it isn't always party night at Dr Sketchy's), celebrating a ninth birthday, all hosted by the beloved Shari Contrary.  The model was the same one who started it all - before my time - the lovely and talented Melody Mangler.  Food, beer, music, lively company, Ms Mangler, and lots of drawing - it's hard to think what else you could want for a birthday.  I'm just a bit leery about what will happen when Dr S  hits those awkward teenage years...

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Polygon Gallery

The Polygon Gallery opened this weekend on the waterfront in North Vancouver.  It is a major upgrade on the old Presentation House gallery, retaining the focus on photography.  The building is interesting architecturally, with a glass-walled lower floor and the gallery upstairs, where a series of triangular roofs give a visual nod to the North Shore mountains while letting in natural light from the north.  A second-floor atrium and balcony give views of Lonsdale Quay, the harbour and the city of Vancouver.  Most importantly, the building provides a beautiful space for the art, without shouting "Look at me, I was designed by an architect!"  In a place where we often sit around lamenting better things that have been replaced by condominiums, I think the gallery will be a very positive addition to the city.  Here is my quick "wet-on-wet-in-wet" impression (it was pouring rain).

The opening exhibition focuses on North Vancouver, with an appealing mix of photographs - some historical, some from the contemporary photographers that Vancouver is most famous for in the international art world - and sculptures and weaving, much of it from local First Nations artists.  A huge light-box photo by Rodney Graham is one of my favourite local art works.  It's visually very attractive, and has layer-upon-layer of interpretations (at least, I think so - I don't know what the "official" story is!)

The sculptures are a happy addition for sketchers, more fun to draw than trying to make a picture of a picture.  I was joined by a couple of knee-high future artists drawing Gabrielle L'Hirondelle Hill's quirky piece made from parts found in the historical shipyards nearby.  And I appreciated Cameron Kerr's large yellow-cedar sculpture representing a central element of North Vancouver culture - a bridge on the highway.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Corsica V: Mountains, and a bonus

Our last day in Corsica was spent crossing the island, winding up one side of the central mountains, and winding down the other.  And regretting not having far more time there, for the whole country but specifically for the several beautiful gorges with long hiking trails.  The trails were fairly old - some of the recent upgrades were done by the Romans.  This bridge near Ota wasn't quite that old, but was an amazing piece of stone work, a slender arch less that two feet thick spanning a large river, and strong enough to support countless mule trains over the centuries.
The higher mountains had forests of pines, other conifers and some deciduous trees showing fall colours, with soaring granite cliffs behind them.  They looked like Yosemite or other parts of the US southwest.  Right near treeline were some huge, weather-beaten Corsican black pines that I had to add to my sketch collection of Really Big Trees of the World.
Overnight at an olive farm surrounded by grapefruit orchards near Bastia, then back home.  I didn't get any drawing done while negotiating the metropolis of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, but I did get this one quick sketch in of our IcelandAir landing in Reykjavik - huge storm waves on the North Atlantic, the dark coastal rocks and green tundra.  About as far as you could get from the sunny turquoise Mediterranean in a few hours' flight...

Friday, 3 November 2017

Corsica IV: Piana and the Calanches

Back to the coast, we stayed a couple nights in an elegant hotel from the early twentieth century.  Les Roches Rouges in Piana was the place to be in the 1920's, but was abandoned for several decades.  It is now being resurrected, and has an appealing decayed art deco Jazz Age vibe - it is a pretty fine place to be in this century too.
Like most places in coastal Corsica, there's a beach.  No aggressive cows here, but there was a large herd of goats to navigate by on the winding road from Piana.  And - unusual in our experience on Corsica - there were other people on the beach.  Nine of them, to be precise (I counted).  One of the 16th-century anti-pirate guard towers dominates a rock outcrop in the background.
A main attraction in the area is the Calanches, a range of jagged red mountains eroded into fantastical shapes.  We climbed way up into the alpine, seeing only one other person - a Corsican hunter who pointed out the best trails, speaking in Corsu, which is a surprisingly understandable medieval form of Italian with some French thrown in.  We did a bit of scrambling up some small peaks, where the eroded stone made ridiculously easy hand- and foot-holds.  I sat on top of one outcrop and drew the rock formations, one of which looked either like a French aristocrat or mating cows, depending on your point-of-view.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Corsica III: Hill towns

Along with the coastal fishing villages, Corsica is also covered in a scattering of hill towns.  A few hundred people cluster together in a dense ancient settlement, largely surrounded by forest.  In Pigna, the thing to be is a luthier, although potters, music-box-makers and other artists and craftspeople are popular choices too.  There is also at least one good cook, as our al fresco lunch featuring wild mushrooms showed.
The lower hillslopes also have vineyards, including about 20 small family wineries in the Patrimonio region.  We did a quick tour one afternoon, then had a picnic of wine, cheese and bread on the pier in St. Florent.

We spent one night in one of the higher towns, Speluncato, which wraps itself around a rocky outcrop, surrounded by bigger mountains.  It was a cool autumn late afternoon when we got up the long, winding and narrow road to the town, with the clouds hanging on the nearby peaks.  Kids were playing "spy" in the piazza, complete with walkie-talkies, and were delighted that a foreigner showed up and engaged in clearly suspicious behaviour involving a notebook and something cleverly designed to look like a watercolour kit and brushes.

The next morning was brilliantly sunny, perfect for hanging out in all the little nooks and crannies in the centuries-old laneways.  It's a pretty quiet place - passersby were two cats, and one old dog who also thought I was suspicious, until he decided that he was more sleepy than suspicious and had a nap at my feet.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Corsica II: Cinturi and St Florent

The drive across Cap Corse and down the west coast is slow - not just because of the narrow winding roads, but because you want to stop at every picturesque village and beautiful undeveloped hillside or coast.  Which is to say, everywhere.  The fishing port of Cinturi was one stop on the way, where we lingered long enough for a quick sketch of the boats in the harbour, and the actual Cinturi, a hillside village, way above it.  This is a common set-up - the main village far above the port.  We wondered why - pirates?
St Florent is a bigger town, popular with the yachting set (one harbourside restaurant cleverly offered delivery to your boat), but very quiet in the still-perfect days of early autumn.  The main event in town is the 5 o'clock gathering of older men to play bocce/petanque/boules in the tree-lined piazza dedicated to the purpose.  The same thing happens at the same time in every settlement with a male population of 4 or more throughout Corsica.
The area also has large nature reserves and beautiful swimming beaches.  I tried a quick paint-only sketch of the outrageous colours in one bay - not very successful, and not helped much by the addition of some water-soluble blue ink.  I blame a long hike in the sun, plus lack of practice.  There must be some kind of Canada Council grant I could get to work on my sketching of remote Mediterranean beaches...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Corsica I: Bastia and Cap Corse

For people used to BC Ferries, the ferry to Corsica was ... different.  Think restaurants with waiters, lounges with armchairs and brass fittings, reclining deck chairs, a pool.  It was a re-purposed cruise ship, so now I can check "Go on a cruise" off my bucket list (where it occupied one of the bottom-most positions).  We cruised past Capraia Isola, Island of Goatherdesses, on the way - one of several sparsely inhabited isolated Mediterranean Islands that very few people have ever heard of.
Bastia is a main town on Corsica, but still small.  We walked across half of it and back in the two and a half hours that the rental car agency was closed for lunch.  We toured the old town and had lunch in the plaza of the citadel, where this old palace had two clocks - an original sundial that was perfectly accurate (except not programmed to change to daylight savings time), and a more modern mechanical clock that was broken.
When we got the car - a fearsome Citroen Berlingo - we made our way towards the north end of Cap Corse, and were quickly winding along mostly undeveloped coast, with little villages above on the treed slopes, and almost no one on the roads.  And that's the way it would stay for our entire trip around the north half of the island - relentlessly curvy roads, large areas of wild maquis scrubland, forest and alpine, scattered ancient villages, and more pigs and goats than cars on the roads.  We hiked for over three hours around a nature reserve and several beaches the next morning, following the Sentier des Douaniers on the north end of the island, and saw precisely 0 other people.  This guard tower is one of a series that ring the island.  They were built to warn of pirate attacks, apparently the bane of Corsicans for several centuries.  The watchmen lit a fire on the tower when pirates sailed over the horizon, and the signal was taken up by adjacent towers, spreading the message around the whole island in a couple of hours.  It was the Twitter of its time.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Cinque Terre II, and Livorno

Hiking between the isolated villages is a main attraction in Cinque Terre.  With the steep terrain and a couple of trails closed because of landslides, some of the hikes are quite strenuous (= more than half a Grouse Grind, for Vancouverites).  But they give great views of the coast and the villages before you descend down to them.
The villages were once all about fishing.  I think there is still some of that, but now the boats mostly transfer train-weary tourists from one village to another, and serve as props for sketchers.
We were lucky enough to be there when there was a storm somewhere over the Mediterranean.  We had calm and sunny skies, but there were big waves breaking over the piers and the rocks at the base of the cliffs.  We went to Riomaggiore, the southern-most village, and had a glass of wine in a cafe right on the edge of the coastal cliffs with the crashing surf right below us.  We stayed to watch the sun set, then caught a train back to our village for dinner.
After our three days in Cinque Terre, we caught a train south to Livorno.  The city is trying to market itself as "The New Venice".  Indeed, it has canals - drawn here in the last 5 minutes of daylight - but the charm? - not quite there.  Still, we stayed in a funky witch-themed bed-and-breakfast full of modern art and ate at a fun cat-themed restaurant speaking hilariously terrible Italian to the owner who spoke hilariously poor English, so what more could we want in a quick overnight stay before our morning ferry to Corsica?

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Cinque Terre I: Vernazza

From Genoa, it was a simple train ride to Cinque Terre - TrenItalia doesn't have a problem with wet leaves, mainly because it is always dry and sunny.  Cinque Terre are a group of 5 old villages spaced along the Ligurian coast.  Because the area is so steep, roads are marginal and there is really no car traffic.  The villages are well served by a rail line - mostly underground in tunnels - but the best way to get between the villages is on the age-old footpaths.  We stayed in Vernazza, a beautiful village steeply arrayed around a perfect little harbour.  The buildings piled on top of each other up the hill offer many places to have a glass of wine and enjoy the view of the other side of town.  The shutters are all green, as specified by the Commissioner of Good Taste*.
The little caruggi (alleyways) here are narrower than in the big city, and much steeper.  Half of them are stairs, often winding around, and sometimes under, people's houses.  It gives that half-indoor / half-outdoor architecture that is so appealing as human habitat - and challenging for urban sketchers!
The church tower is easier to draw, especially when you're sitting on the wharf in the sun with a chocolate croissant.

The area is largely overrun by tourists, but you can time hikes and train trips to avoid most of them, and it is easy to find quiet places off the beaten trails.  Many of the tourists stay in nearby towns, so it is quieter in the piazza in the evening, when more locals come out for soccer games on the beach and discussions in the square.
* Oh yes, there really is a Commissioner of Good Taste.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017


Our best laid plans to get from Cornwall to our flight from Exeter and thence to Italy neglected a simple but little known fact - trains don't work when there are wet leaves on the tracks.  Which happens quite regularly in fall gales in England.  The train arrived late, then we sat on it as it crept along, shuddering every time the engine slipped, while we watched the projected train arrival time get closer and closer to the flight departure time.  Eventually we made the decision to bail out in a small town, still in the pitch dark storm, and managed to roust a local taxi driver for the long drive to the Exeter airport - a bit stressful and fairly expensive, but we made the flight and ended up in Genoa as planned late that afternoon.  And in time for a quick sketch of the central piazza.
Genoa doesn't get much respect among Italy's cities, and a lot of it is a gritty-looking industrial port.  But the large old town is a fabulous mix of grand buildings on big piazze, streets of the elegant palazzi of previous centuries' very rich, and a chaotic warren of narrow caruggi (winding laneways), much of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The caruggi are my thing - from about 1 to 3 meters wide, they are too narrow for any vehicle bigger than a scooter, so they are just full of people going about their business on foot.  Sometimes that business is quite disreputable, especially in the narrowest caruggi, so it was a bit exciting exploring at night, but during the day they cover the range from fashionable businesspeople and stylish luxury shops in the widest parts, families doing groceries at the fish markets and vegetable stands in the mid-width ones, and in the narrowest side branches - well, the prudish might still want to stay out of those.

Like other old European cities, there is detail everywhere.  Which means you can stop at a random location - like, say, a pasticceria serving pastries and cappuccino in a little piazza - and find any number of things to draw.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Cornwall III: St. Michael's Mount, cream tea and Admiral Benbow

On our third day in Cornwall, I took the Great Western Railway to the end of the line in Penzance, then a short bus ride to St. Michael's Mount - a castle on a tall rocky outcrop in the bay.  It's an island at high tide, but at low tide you can walk out along a causeway.  There's a little harbour (so you can get a boat ride back if the tide comes in), a small village and a fantastic castle above the steep forest.  It is still inhabited by the local lord and family, but most of it is open to the public.  It is covered in turrets, ramparts and other castley bits, but the inside is what really impressed me - timber-framed dining hall with stained glass windows, ornate sitting rooms, a cozy library with armchairs around the fire, places to store the blunderbusses, even a chapel.  I think I'll put an offer in if it comes up for sale.
I sat in the sun on an upper deck (or whatever such a thing is called in a castle), against a wall to shelter from the blustery wind, and drew the top parts - chapel, armory, guard tower, all in full crenulation.  Definitely not the sort of thing I get to draw back home.

Keeping an eye on the tide, I stopped in at the island's cafe for a "cream tea" - the traditional way in that part of the world to consume several thousand calories and not have it count as either lunch or dinner.  There were two large creamy buttery scones, a bowl of clotted cream (basically a hybrid of butter and cream), a pot of jam, tea, and, of course, a jug of cream.  It's the thing in Cornwall and neighbouring Devon.  In Cornwall, one puts one's jam on the scone first, then the clotted cream.  In Devon, one does the opposite.  And so inter-regional scorn and contempt ensue.  Being in Cornwall and a culturally-sensitive person, I went jam first.  But I used a little artistic license in the drawing, because it looked better with the red on top.

To metabolize all that fat, I walked in the brisk wind through a nearby nature reserve before catching the double-decker back to Penzance.  I walked around the old town, then, to balance my diet, stopped in at the Admiral Benbow for a pint.  The old pub is where a distant relative set the first chapter of his Treasure Island, and it is full of paraphernalia, nautical and otherwise.  It would drive a detail-oriented sketcher to drink (which is conveniently available).

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Cornwall II: Mevagissey

On my second day in Cornwall, I walked from the hotel in St Austell to the port of Mevagissey (pronounced "Mvgsee", apparently).  I learned that British signs report distances in miles, and that miles are a lot longer than kilometers when you are walking.  But the unexpectedly long trail was a classic of laneways, woodlands and English countryside, and came complete with people in Wellies, people in tweed jackets, people on horseback and even a bedraggled shepherd/hermit/Druid(?) who stood behind me mumbling to himself as I drew.
The harbour at Mevagissey is enclosed by two sets of ancient stone wharfs, full of picturesque boats, and backed by the pretty town.  The only thing it lacked, when I got there, was water.  They are serious about their low tides in that part of the world.  But the tide was rising, and in the time it took to eat a Cornish pasty (an acquired taste, which I failed to acquire), the boats were afloat and several were heading out to sea.
If this boat looks like it is sitting partly out of the water, that's because it was - it's keel was still on the bottom as the tide came in.  It has a colour-coordinated post on the non-dock side to keep it from falling over.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Cornwall I: St Ives

We are just back from a carefully-themed trip to "regions that start with the letter 'C' and have old coastal villages and famous walking trails": Cornwall, Cinque Terre Italy, and Corsica.  With a couple larger towns thrown in for good measure.  So lots of sketches to come...

The trip started in Cornwall, where my partner had a work meeting - and so I had free accommodation and lots of time to draw.  The UK has an incredible train system (except when you have a flight to catch in a distant town and a fall storm hits - more later...), which allowed me to explore southwestern England without having to drive on the "wrong" side of the road.  Transfers between trains also give sketching opportunities, starting with a pub in Reading on the way from Gatwick to Cornwall, where I worked on my burgeoning career as an international beer illustrator.
English Heritage kindly provided us with a group of drunken lads on the next leg of the journey - fortunately more amusing than obnoxious - so we were able to enjoy that aspect of British culture.  My first foray the next morning was to St. Ives, a palm-bedecked coastal village near the southwest tip of the country.  It started with a transfer in the little village station of St. Erth, where there was a pleasant tea room and another 30-minute sketching opportunity.

St. Ives is a lovely old fishing town, with traditional narrow winding streets and stone cottages in the old part of town.  Someone was playing a fiddle and singing sea shanties nearby, mothers wheeled prams noisily up the steep cobbled streets, and everyone stopped to say hello and check if my drawing was up to local standards.
St. Ives is also a beach town, probably overrun in the summer, but just pleasantly busy in October.  I arrived in sunshine, but the remnants of an Atlantic hurricane were bearing down for an afternoon arrival.  There were big waves on the town's beaches, and even a few surfers.  I walked out into the heath along the headland on the Southwest trail that starts in the town to watch waves crash against the cliffs.  
Needing to recover from such exertions, and pass a bit of time out of the storm before my return train, I found - surprise - a pub, with a view of the harbour.