April 13, 2019

flowering crabapple
Flowering crabapple tree in the rose garden at the Descanso Gardens, 4/5/2019 (watercolor pencils and Inktense pencils on 6″ by 9″ watercolor paper)

Last Sunday I went to the Descanso Gardens to sketch whatever was blooming. I suspected the tulips were done and hoped that other spring flowers were showing their colors. Some of my sketching buddies went to Placerita Canyon State Park to sketch the native CA spring wildflower show going on right now. I didn’t want to drive that far and thought I might just as well catch the nearby color of native and non-native flowers. It seems that a lot of people had the same idea and there were lots of them milling around the Descanso. But for once I didn’t mind, as I was on a mission. Urban sketchers, like myself, are always on the look out for ways to satisfy our craving for drawing/painting without carrying a lot of stuff. By the time you have been traipsing around for a couple hours, everything seems to feel heavier and awkward. I use the term awkward because it can be a problem if you have brought too much stuff and it never goes back in the bag as easily as it first went in. Too many tablets of paper can weigh you down and carrying around jugs of water adds a kind of sloshing heaviness to my backpack. I have been trying to be more creative with carrying around less water and have been experimenting with “just add water” to my little 6 by 9 “almost” watercolor pieces. So, for these little sojourns I just put graphite pencils, ink pens, colored pencil and Inktense pencils in my bag—sans water. But if I want to do a wash, brush on a color or scrub around some wetness, I want water. If you have read some of my previous blogs I’ve indirectly talked about how to best travel light, somehow finding water along the way. While at the Getty (back in February of this year) I talked about a drawing I had done of the garden with Inktense pencils and then maybe putting it out in the rain and letting it mix the colors. (I didn’t put the sketch in the rain as I had been sick and didn’t want to chance sitting in the wet for an undetermined length of time. So, I just added water when I got home.) At the Autry Western Museum the second week of March this year, I described how I perchance came upon a cup of rainwater complete with a brush that I used to mix the Inktense colors on my little sheets of 6 by 9 paper. I remember a couple times at the Descanso that I didn’t travel with my large set of watercolors, just the tiny Winsor Newton travel set (12 tiny cakes of color) and my Inktense pencils. I didn’t even carry painting water or a cup, but instead I attached a small plastic bag to my brush holder with clothespins, then I filled it with water once I got to my sketching spot. Last summer, when I was painting a beautiful stand of Romneya at the Descanso, I got one of the gardeners there to fill my bag full of water. (She had the hose out and was watering nearby.)

But last Sunday I had the idea to come only with water for drinking, Inktense pencils, watercolor pencils, my brushes, a sheet of bubble wrap to sit on, a rag and three small sheets (6 by 9) of watercolor paper. And oh yeah, I brought a small spray bottle that I later filled with a bit of my drinking water. My plan was to sketch three small scenes of spring, and then when I finished each sketch, I would “just add water” by spraying it down with instant rain to see what would happen. The flowering crabapple was my first attempt at a spritzing spring scene. After I laid down some colors with the Inktense and watercolor pencils I sprayed it all over, letting water run a bit here and there. Then, while it was still wet I used a small brush to spread out some of the water, mixing colors as I went. That was a bit tricky, as I wanted to dip my brush in water and didn’t have a cup or baggie. So, I dipped the brush in my drinking water and spread it around. Then I reapplied some Inktense pencil color to brighten certain parts. And yes, I did later drink from the same water, but it didn’t taste weird and nothing untoward has happened to me as yet. My flowering crabapple vision also had some irises in the foreground, so I added those as well. They weren’t like my mom’s deep purple flowers, but were a bearded variety and a lighter shade of pink. In fact, there were lots of lovely irises I could have sketched that day in the rose garden, including a border of a beautiful bearded variety that had a cream colored interior with a frilly yellow trim. When my niece was born (first week in May) I did a watercolor on toned paper of some incredibly lovely white irises that were blooming in my backyard in Paso Robles. I didn’t take a picture of that piece of art. I wish I had so I could post it here with all the other spring flowers.

Fremontodendron in CA garden at the Descanso Gardens, 4/7/2019 (watercolor pencils, Inktense pencils on 6″ by 9″ watercolor paper)

Once I finished the flowering crabapple I was very excited about how my “just add water” idea had turned out. The whole process was so much fun that I didn’t get the least bit grumpy with all the people that walked in front of me while I was sketching. The crabapple tree was quite beautiful and large, so I guess there was room to share. Next, I headed for the CA native section of the garden for a second attempt. I wasn’t certain what I would find, but knew there would be something. I came across a couple mature Fremontodendron shrubs in full bloom—such a lovely and vibrant shade of yellow. It was fun to see these grand plants as I remember wandering through the same section of the garden last spring with a close friend and they were absolutely stunning now as then. But for this one there wasn’t a bench to sit on, so I rolled out my “trusty” sheet of bubble wrap and sat on the ground. I was just about to add water when a family with two young girls came up the trail. As they got closer I realized they weren’t speaking English. It sounded like Ukrainian or Russian. But I knew they would stop to chat and that would be OK because the older girl (maybe 6 or 7) was carrying a drawing she had made. So, when the girls stopped to look more closely at my drawing, I said something like, “Do you like to draw?” Mom translated what I had said very quickly and the girls nodded “yes” at the same time. Then I said, “Would you like to see my favorite color?” They were nodding again very rapidly as the mom again translated what I had said. I brought out my tube of Opera (always have that with me…it doesn’t weigh very much…) and took off the lid. They both uttered “ooooo” at the same time and I said it was a kind of pink. Mom again translated what I had said and pointed to some of their clothing. Yes, they were both wearing various shades of pink! All seemed to be satisfied with our little encounter and just like that they said thank you and continued on their journey. I was absolutely delighted to think that we all understood and spoke the language of “pink.” Then I got back to work and spritzed the sketch (easy for you to say…). I like the way it turned out. But it had gotten kind of warm and I didn’t think it a good idea to drink from the water I had been using to paint any more. I decided that the next time I would be sure to bring a baggie to hold painting water. I had also decided it was time to go home even though I had not done a third piece yet. I was happy with these two. So I took the long way around the back of the garden to the front entrance. Along the way I found a couple drinking fountains to drink from. That worked out great as I wasn’t carrying too much water weight and it didn’t matter if everything fit perfectly into the bag because there just weren’t that many items to put away.

So, now what? I think I will plan many more opportunities for traipsing around with my “just add water” theme. If I am very patient I might try to do this with the birds that come to my birdbath and feeder out front. They are so skitterish, and fly away even if I just open the front door or close a window near the feeder. But I think I have found the perfect solution of how to get pretty close to them. I noticed my trashcan is just about the right distance and height from my bird scene. I can easily place my 6 by 9 sheets of watercolor and other materials on the top of the can. Such a set up is perfect as it will be easy to get my necessary materials to fit in that small space! Maybe intentionally standing in front of a trashcan for 30 minutes or so doesn’t sound good to you. But I figure as long as I don’t open the lid I won’t be bothered by the smell of rotting grass clippings. This seems very doable for an urban sketcher. Stay tuned…

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