Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: Urban Watercolor Sketching

Recently, I was sent a copy of Felix Scheinberger's new book "Urban Watercolor Sketching" and asked if I'd review it.  I'll happily read any book on sketching and watercolor painting, so I readily agreed.  I figured it'd be another in the line of books featuring sketches by someone and I'd love looking at the pictures and I'd be inspired.

But when I sat down with this book, I discovered immediately that I was wrong.  This book is SO MUCH MORE than that.  Really.

The first thing I noticed was the quirky style of Scheinberger's sketches.  I wasn't familiar with his work and the idiosyncratic style is not one that I'm drawn to, at least on first blush.  But I liked that every page featured his sketches, even the technical pages were illustrated by his sketches of pens, paints, etc.  It makes for a book that feels visually exciting and fun and even surprising.  And the more I looked at his sketches, the more I fell in love with his variable line, with a style that expresses his unique view of the world, and his use of watercolor -- oh, it's fabulous.  Such gorgeous color and such splashy, confident work with paint.  It's remarkable and very inspirational.  I have come away feeling that I'll learn a lot by studying his sketches, if just for the placement of color, how he leaves white, how he lets the color splash outside of inked lines. 

And then I started reading, and I was equally surprised and impressed.  I've read a lot of bookds on sketching and painting, and most of them -- while wonderful books -- tend to follow a fairly basic formula.  This book is different.

It talks about what's in paint, and it gives a bit of history of basic color pigments.  It was full of interesting facts.  (Did you know that yellow is said to have originated from camels that were fed a diet of mango leaves, and then their urine was boiled and reduced to a pure pigment? That most mammals can hardly see red?)  He talks about the different aspects of color -- local color, iconographic color, how light affects color.  He talks about how to use color to portray distance.  He talks about leaving white, and even shows a page of sketches, with the same one in black and white and then again with color, to illustrate that neither is better, but that they are excitingly different.

And there's a lot more here.  Finding your own style.  Selecting the most important part of what you want to sketch, and accentuating it.  Using the negative space.  He talks about the tools -- the choices for paint, how to choose paint brushes, how to stretch watercolor paper, and he gives tips for sketching outdoors.  I loved his page on how to illustrate air, smoke, and fog with paint.

And for all of the content, none of it is dry.  It's written pretty conversationally, as if Scheinberger is talking to you and urging you on and giving you is sketching tips and philosophy.  

So here's my conclusion:  if you think, as I did, that this is just another one  of those books that show some artist's sketches, think again.  There's a ton of valuable information here, presented clearly with great illustrations.

The only thing I was wishing for as I read this -- and really, it was the ONLY thing -- was more information about Felix Scheinberger himself.  I like knowing how someone came to sketching and what it means to them, and especially because Scheinberger's sketching style is so individualized, I really wanted to know more about him.  The back cover reveals that he lives in Germany and that he's an illustrator, artist, and designer who has illustrated quite a few children's books.  I remembered that his art is featured in Danny Gregory's book "An Illustrated Journey," and there is more about him and his sketching background there.  I also found this video in which Danny interviews Felix.  So I'm going to go watch that now.  But really, do buy this book.  It's amazing.

*  I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.  But I would have written this exact same thing if I'd bought it myself.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: The Mermaid of Brooklyn

I read a lot of novels, but a lot of time can pass before I find myself engrossed in a novel that I just love.  And to my surprise and delight, "The Mermaid of Brooklyn" by Amy Shearn was one of those books.

First, I have to say that the title is so intriguing and perfect.  Just that made me want to read this book.  The first line was a real grabber, too.  But what really got me about this book when I started reading it was the narrator's voice.  Jenny, the young, stay-at-home mom of a toddler and a new baby, is wry and honest and snarky and funny and depressed.  She's struggling with two kids, the constant feeling that she's never good enough, and trying to figure out how she got where she is.  And, with all of that, her husband leaves the apartment to buy cigarettes one night and doesn't come back.

This isn't a mystery.  But a complex story unfolds as Jenny is left, angry and sad and overwhelmed, to carry on mothering and trying to keep things going.  Then a mermaid enters her life -- and by enters, I mean, starts inhabiting her and bucking her up and challenging her and prodding her forward.

There was so much in this novel that rang true, about child-rearing and marriage and friendship and competition and being a grown up.  So many women, especially moms, will relate to this.  And with all of this, it stays light while covering deep, important life themes.

I loved it. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

An Art Play Day in San Francisco

           Yesterday, I woke early to a gorgeous, sunny, blue-sky day, and decided that instead of staying home and doing the household chores I'd been thinking about, I'd head to San Francisco to give myself an art date.  I packed up my art supplies and off I went.

     My first stop was the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco's Presidio.  It's a wonderful place, all about Walt Disney's life and career and contributions to animation and film-making.  But my reason for going yesterday was that I've been wanting to see the special exhibit about Mary Blair, the artist who did so much work for Disney from 1940 to the mid-1960's.  She's probably most well-known for designing the look for It's a Small World, but she did a lot of other modern abstract/stylized stuff and was influential in art directing the look of various Disney productions such as Alice in Wonderland and Song of the South. You can find out more about her and see more of her art here.

   I loved seeing the exhibit, but what surprised me was how much I enjoyed seeing her sketchbooks.  They had the originals (one was a moleskine!) under glass, but they had digitized all of the pages and put them on an Ipad so you could page through them, one by one.  I was especially fascinated by the sketches she made on a trip with Walt Disney and other artists to South America, which they made for the purpose of researching and collecting imagery and designs to inspire future projects.  It was kind of reassuring to see that even though Mary Blair was a classically trained artist, her sketches -- especially the ones of people -- looked, well, SKETCHY.   Not perfect.  Weird faces, strange proportions.  Sort of like what I might do!  That was sort of eye-opening.


   While at the museum, I did a quick sketch of the case holding some of Disney's Oscars -- the special award he won for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is quite eye-catching and I wanted to do that.  I sketched fast and then used watercolor pencils to add color, with some water from a waterbrush quickly over that.  I enjoyed sitting there and doing it (and listening to all of the conversational bits as people flowed by) more than the result, but for me that's the joy of sketching.  Seeing this will always bring me back to the memory of being there.

     By then, I was hungry so I went exploring around the Presidio to find lunch.  (The cafe at the Disney Museum looks surprisingly dire, with very unappealing looking plastic wrapped food.)  I found the Transit Cafe, where I sat outside in the sunshine and enjoyed a great caesar salad and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Perfect.

    The Presidio is part of the Golden Gate National Park system, but was a long-time army base.  The buildings are beautiful and the grounds and views are stunning -- expanses of green lawn bordered by white clapboard buildings, views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, groves of eucalyptus and cyprus trees.  I spent a while walking all around and exploring, and then settled myself in front of a former officer's house to sketch.

      Many of the homes are available to lease and are occupied and lovingly cared for.  It'd be a fabulous place to live, I'm guessing, if you could afford the very steep rent.  But I love these little Queen Anne style houses -- they date back to the 1840s. 

      By then, I was in need of a pick-me-up, so I headed over to another favorite spot in the area, the Warming Hut at Crissy Field.  It's also part of the national park and is a little hut/shop/cafe almost under the Golden Gate Bridge. I got a coffee and sat outside, enjoying the sea breeze and the crystal clear view of the city skyline and the great people watching. 

    Sitting there, I realized that heading home just then would put me in the thick of rush hour traffic heading out of the city across the bridge.  What to do?  I decided to spend a bit more time sketching before I headed north.  So I hopped back in the car and went over to the Palace of Fine Arts, another amazing, gorgeous San Francisco landmark.  

I love this place.  It was built for the  1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, and is the only structure still existing on its original site.  It looks pretty in this photo, but it's hard to convey how huge and grand it is when you're standing next to those columns.  And, I might add, it is quite the sketching challenge. 

I kind of lost control of the perspective and proportion, but I had a good old time, and I had some nice conversations with tourists who stopped as they passed by. 

All in all, it was a lovely day.  Sometimes going to San Francisco feels like a big trek from where I live (it's a bit over an hour into the city, more depending on traffic) but going on the spur of the moment was just the thing. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pucker Up!

The good news: I think I've sorted out how to combine images and lettering to design quilt labels.

And I have a good handle on transferring the design to the machine so it's ready to embroider.


The bad news: I really have to improve the pucker situation.  I now know that all of these required tension adjustments that I didn't make (most likely, loading the bobbin a bit differently) , and probably should have been hooped a bit differently too.

But  it's progress, and frankly getting these done felt like such an ordeal that I'm not ready to do them over again.  But perhaps in a day or two I'll be ready to take it on again. 

There is definitely a learning curve to this machine embroidery. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Meet Me at the Fair

When I was a kid, I lived in a neighborhood in San Mateo (a suburb south of San Francisco) just behind the county fairgrounds.  Each summer when the fair came to town, over the tops of the houses and trees I'd see the tops of the ferris wheel and other sparkly rides.  It felt magical to me, those glimpses of the carnival excitement that was just a few blocks away.  Going to the fair was a big family event, filled with loud sounds and bright lights and rows of vendors hawking unusual, enticing wares.  It was a Big Deal.

For the last two years, I've been invited to judge quilts at that very fair.  In fact, the San Mateo County fair was my first official judging job after I got my judge certification, which seemed especially meaningful somehow.  (I sketched this when I judged there that first year.)

Judging quilts is amazingly fun and fascinating, and this fair attracts quite a few (350+) quilts from very talented quilters.  The San Mateo judging crew is incredibly organized, which makes it easy and smooth and very pleasant.  I judged my allotted categories, but because there were so many quilts, I didn't see quite a few of them.  But the quilts aren't hung when we judge them, and things aren't open or set up at all. 

So yesterday, I drove back down to San Mateo (a 2 hour drive from my home) to go to the fair now that it's open. I took my sketching gear and planned to spend the afternoon looking at quilts and cruising the fair and indulging in a fair amount of nostalgia.

I can highly recommend a county fair as a fun place for sketching.  There is so much to see, so much color, so many amazing sights.  I ran out of time and never got to draw any of the animals, but (thinking I guess of my childhood attraction to the ferris wheel) I started in the carnival game and ride area and had a good old time sketching there.

Later on, after I tired of sitting out in the sun, I found a shady picnic table near one of the performance stages, got myself a cold drink and the Perfect Fair Snack -- "funnel cake" -- and then looked around to see what I could sketch from there.  Well, the funnel cake booth was pretty engaging.  So I had a wonderful time, watching local teen dancers and a troup of Chinese acrobats, sketching, and nibbling away at my cake. 

The day ended quite nicely when I met up with my friend Pat for fish tacos at a favorite spot in Mill Valley. We caught up after not seeing each other for a few months and talked quilting and art and compared our favorite colors of watercolor paint. Oh yeah, and ate chips and salsa and tacos.

It was the perfect play day. 

(I just realized that in my previous post, I wrote about the Sketching Disneyland project I'm working on with my sister.  Apparently I'm in an amusement park sort of mood these days!)

Sunday, June 01, 2014

It's June and I'm Going to Disneyland!

Happy June 1!  I know it's not officially the start of summer, but if it's June, it's summer in my book.  So I'm feeling in the mood to travel and have fun. And what's more fun than Disneyland?!

Actually, I'm not going anywhere.  My dog Gemma, sweet aging girl, is having some back problems, and she needs to stay relatively inactive.  When I board her to go somewhere, she's around other dogs and she gets excited and agitated and wants to jump around like a maniac ... which is how she hurt her back in the first place.  So her back issue means no boarding, and until I find a house/dog sitter to stay with her if I go away overnight, I'm home.

So my sister Laura and I hatched a plan.  We decided that instead of going to Disneyland, we'd sketch Disneyland from photos.  We'll avoid the crowds and the expense and the hassle of getting from here to there, and we'll just work from photos and immerse ourselves in looking at Disneyland up close and personal through sketching.

I've been poking around online, and it's amazing the photos you can find.  Google Earth provides more, and of course I've got my own scads of photos from trips from years past.  It has been really fun just hunting up photos of my favorites places and sites, and each time I've come away feeling happy and relaxed, as if I have had a mental mini-vacation.

This idea was inspired, in part, by a wonderful art group called The Virtual Paintout.  Bill, the host of the VP, selects a location somewhere in the world each month, and participating artists agree to use Google Maps to find a scene in the designated location and draw or paint it, then post the original shot and the art on the blog.  I've only participated once -- Detroit -- but I had such a good time exploring a new place via Google Maps that I feel as if I've sat right in front of the Motown Museum and spent time there sketching.

So today, I'm off to Main Street in Disneyland to see what grabs my attention.  My rule for myself for this Disneyland sketching "excursion" is to work with colored pencil.  I've rarely used it (except for fill-in-the-space coloring when I was a kid) so it'll be an adventure and a learning experience. 

I have my virtual E-tickets and hand stamped and I'm on my way.