April 24, 2021

I went on a virtual excursion to Isleboro, Maine on the morning of Sunday, April 11. Our artist host gets to live near that part of Maine year-round. Based on what she told us of her life there it sounded like there really weren’t too many who over winter in the coastal parts of Maine—the weather can be very severe that time of year. But it seems that she lives there year-round and enjoys all the seasons. She shared photos of rocky coasts, fishing boats and a couple lighthouses. Her Maine home looks to be a charming Victorian covered with split shingles made of cedar. The house’s exterior has taken on a lovely silver patina—guessing the cold damp weather contributed to that “weathered” color. Her choice of photos was very interesting as she had pictures of some of the same spots at high tide and low tide. She showed us places in the fog and in the sunshine. She also had several pictures with the sun going down over the water, reminding us to be sure to notice the muted and interesting hues at that time of the day at that time of year. She was a really good guide for those of us who have never been to that part of the country. But I am guessing that I would be Maine’s fair weather friend, only visiting in summer and/or early autumn. (Guess I’m a little spoiled to live in SoCal, with our “banana belt” winters.)

She chose 3 pictures for us to sketch and I have shared the first two sketches I did that morning. I didn’t include my third one as it just didn’t capture the “light” of the sun going down on the bay. (It actually kind of looked like a card you might send to  someone around the holidays. Somehow I made the conifers around the water look like Christmas trees.) I was pretty happy with these two. The rocky coast scene was done with a paired down set of Prismacolor colored pencils on smooth Bristol board. The bay with boats was also done with the same colors, but I used a sheet of semi-transparent acetate for that one. But the real story for this week, besides virtually visiting a new place earlier in the month, is the materials I used for these sketches—my beautiful and beloved Prismacolor colored pencils. Last Sunday morning, 4/18, I gave a Prismacolor colored pencil demo to my LA urban sketching buddies. I wanted to share with them my renewed obsession of how to create what I call my tiny urban jewels with just some Prismacolor colored pencils.

Not sure you would be interested, but here’s the invitation I posted to entice them to join me for the virtual demo. 

Top SoCal “urban sketch,” March 21, 2021 (Prismacolor colored pencil on acetate)
Bottom SoCal “urban sketch,” March 22, 2021 (Prismacolor colored pencils on smooth surface Bristol board)

“In the early 90s I was a scientific illustrator at the CAL Academy of Sciences. I worked for a couple botanists and an entomologist there. All of my art was done with pen and ink on Bristol board for the botany folks, and pen and ink on acetate for my drawings of wasp genitalia for entomology. Along the way I took some classes at the Academy on how to use Prismacolor colored pencils. And I was off like a shot—using those lusciously waxy pencils for a variety of subjects on Bristol board and on acetate. I also learned to use them in conjunction with watercolors on Strathmore cold press illustration board and with gouache on Canson toned paper. 

I have recently started using them in earnest for my urban sketches. (And here are a couple examples of my latest obsession.) I have bags and bags of those colored pencils, but for the “on the scene” sketches I have been doing lately I have paired that number down to 12 – 15 pencils. That seems to work for me. All you need to remember is that because they are made with a lot of wax, do not leave them in the sun or they can kind of melt a little.”

The demo went well, but I was nervous and glad when it was all over.

More on Maine

Visiting Isleboro Maine reminded me of Robert McCloskey. If you are not familiar with him, he wrote and illustrated a number of children’s picture books in the 40s, 50s and 60s. His stories are sweetly stuck in a long ago time, but the art of Maine in his “Time of Wonder” seems timeless to me. “Time of Wonder” won the Caldecott Medal in 1958. It was fun to look back at that book after my virtual journey to Isleboro. (Mr. McCloskey even mentions Islesboro in the story.) I told my son that I thought that part of Maine lovely and picturesque, especially when looking at McCloskey’s wonderfully color-saturated art depicting it’s coastal people and places. Of course my son had to remind me of the many Stephen King books that are set in Maine. Oh dear, not sure I want my imaginings of “Maine” to include it as a place of horror right now, or ever, for that matter.

And a final word about the end of April 2021

I have been listening to a Bill Evans Trio (with Stan Getz) live recording of “Emily” quite a bit lately. When I was pregnant with my son I wasn’t sure if I was having a boy or girl. I had chosen the name Henry for a boy and Emily for a girl. Many afternoons my dad would cue up “Emily” on his “Scott Hamilton Plays Ballads CD.” (The song is often associated with the Bill Evans Trio, but the music was written by Johnny Mandell and lyrics by Johnny Mercer.) My dad knew that if I was in the house I would come to find him so we could listen to “Emily” together. It pleased him so much that we could communicate so specifically with his music. Now I find myself playing Bill Evans’s version of “Emily” all the time, hoping that he will come looking for me. And maybe he does. I can still see his smile in my mind as we quietly listen to the music together. Happy Birthday dad, 4/25. I miss you so much, but at least I’ll always have you with your music.

April 10, 2021

As of last Monday I really had no idea what I would share for this week’s art and story. But that evening I found myself looking again at some sketches I had pulled from an old portfolio several months ago. I think my interest in these finished sketches was simultaneously peeked as I put away the stuffed rabbits my son had gotten when he was little. I had an Aunt Bunnie, and when my son was little she seemed to like giving him stuffed bunnies for various birthdays and holidays. I don’t know, maybe she thought he would forget her name or something. But how many little kids, or even the mom of a little kid, have an Aunt Bunnie—Great Aunt Bunnie to him. She passed away last August and it seemed time to put the bunnies away, but maybe a story of rabbits needed to be told. 

I did these sketches as part of picture book I had planned to write and illustrate when my son was young. At that time I was an editor of educational materials, but wanted to crack the trade book market. I didn’t have a lot of spare time back then, but I loved the idea that my stories would someday be published and catch on. I put together several picture book ideas (see 7/28/2018 for a complete picture book thumbnail). But for this one I had in mind the idea of mixing a kid’s fantasy life of playing with her rabbit next to the reality of owning a potentially very demanding pet. My fascination with having a pet rabbit started long before my son was born, and all told I had 5 pet rabbits. My first bunny I named Numbert. My mom and dad loved Pogo Possum (Walt Kelly cartoons) and Numbert was one of the characters that lived in the Okefenokee Swamp with Pogo, Howland Owl, Albert the Alligator and Churchy LaFemme. I got baby Numbert when I was a freshman at UCSD in the 70s. You weren’t supposed to have pets in the dorm, so I hid him in my room. My roommate didn’t seem to mind and would let Numbert out of his cage to hop around. As you may have guessed, that didn’t turn out to be a good idea because he would hop in my closet and poop in my shoes. Then he would jump onto my roommate’s bed and pee on her bedspread. But of course the story of Numbert didn’t end there. I had painted a giant tree and gumball machine on a wall in our room. (I’m not sure that was allowed either. I never bothered to ask, I just stood on my bed and painted.)  That crazy rabbit would stand on his hind legs and lick the red paint off the gumball machine’s base. 

There was a long dry spell, where I had no interest or opportunity to get another rabbit. But once I started teaching science at an elementary school in the late 80s I had a whole string of them, one after the other. First, there was a mini lop eared rabbit named Cookie (father named Chocolate, mother named Chip). She was pretty placid. I would let the kids put her in a cat leash and take her for a walk on the grass outside my classroom. That was pretty funny to watch as Cookie didn’t quite get how to go for a walk attached to a human. She would just randomly take off with the kids holding on tight to the leash, laughing all the way. When she got older she had a rather serious kidney infection. I had to give her injections twice a day, and she actually got better—surviving the kids, a serious medical condition and me. Then I was given a large lop eared bunny that the kids in my class named “Thumper.” After that I found myself the proud owner of a petite black and white spotted bunny named Hopscotch. Finally, I had a kind of standard white rabbit that I named Frisby. I had just read the book “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh” to my students and I named her Frisby. Of all my pet rabbits, Frisby had the most personality. And the ideas for the picture book you see here were mostly based on that sometimes very naughty rabbit with a little sprinkling of Numbert, the number one.

Frisby was long gone from my life before my son was born, but I guess I hadn’t quite let go of my love of bunnies and wanted to write about them. Frisby had some peculiar habits, but her bad behavior was probably my fault. I had trained her to use a cat litter box inside the apartment I shared with my then husband. But if I didn’t keep that litter box spotless, Frisby would have an occasional accident on the carpet or the bathroom floor. So, I lined our outdoor balcony with chicken wire and took to putting her outside. And sometimes I would leave her out there when we would go out for the evening. I know, I know… who’s the one with the bad behavior? But that turned out to be kind of hilarious because she figured out how to jump up onto a table out there and would be looking for us when she heard our voices as we were coming up the walk. Once we made eye contact, she would jump down and wait patiently at the sliding glass door. But of course leaving her out there unattended was not a good idea. I soon found out that she had figured out how to get in a small shed on that deck and she had chewed up the plastic handle of my then husband’s very small, very cheap suitcase. I thought her doing that so funny, but he didn’t think it amusing at all. It still makes me laugh when I think of him trying to show me what my rabbit had done to his suitcase, but he couldn’t hold it up because the handle was in shreds. OMG, it still makes me laugh. I am laughing right now as I am remembering all of this! Oh yes, we are divorced—no sense of humor is definitely grounds…

Anyway, between Numbert and Frisby, I was sure I had the perfect story of a child’s fantasy of having a fantastically wonderful pet rabbit, juxtaposed to the reality of a real live naughty rabbit. And on each page was the imagined bunny with the reality penciled in below. I never finished the story and actually don’t remember how I had planned to end this cautionary tale. 

Even though I have no memory of how I was going to end the story I do remember how much I enjoyed them even with the warning signs of what might happen when caring for a busy critter. Maybe that’s the ending, be sure to enjoy your pet rabbit, but be on the look out as well. And if you start to notice that your rabbit jumps up on the outside table when she hears your voice, then waits at the sliding the glass door to be let in…maybe you have gone too far. Oh well! No regrets! Maybe the story ends like the “The Velveteen Rabbit” in a kind of reverse. Instead of the stuffed bunny becoming real, the good domestic bunnies get to become wild rabbits that run around the Descanso Gardens—free as bunnies can be. (That’s actually what happened to Cookie. I gave her to a friend and she let the rabbit run around in the backyard, free as you please. I went to visit her one day and that rabbit not only ignored me, but ran into the shrubbery when I tried to pet her. Of all the nerve!) But here’s the non-velveteen rabbit twist—the naughty bunnies are turned to stone like the one you see here, and they are forever left to sit in one place. And they will be tormented by the many children who like to sit on them and scream. Not sure, but this kind of ending doesn’t sound much like a book for kids, maybe more for adults who are fixated on some kind of weird rabbit revenge? 

While wandering the Descanso Gardens today I discovered a nest that I’d missed. It is another one made by a local artist named David Lovejoy. It’s his interpretation of a Bower Bird nest. Google Bower Bird, you’ll see photos of their actual nests. They are definitely cool birds.

April 3, 2021

Signs of Spring at the Descanso Gardens, 2021 (Majestic purple ink with Fude nib and Inktense pencils on Canson Mix Media paper)

As the tulips have been opening at the Descanso Gardens, so has my ever expanding need to see this year’s spring. Looking for spring flowers and the newness of green on all the plants continues to be my current obsession. I had the week off and went to the Descanso a number of times to sketch. They have a spring theme going on that of course involves the blooming tulips, iris and clivia, but it also includes much more. They have named their March 15 to May 31 offering “Signs of Spring.” And for spring 2021 at the Descanso Gardens they are emphasizing the idea of homes made by birds, or nests. The display involves bird nests of various sizes, shapes, materials and even some that are different colors. (They were sprayed bright pink, yellow and green.) Many of the nests are right out in the open, while others are tucked away in various locations along the paths in the garden. For these you have to look a little closer. All of the nests I have sketched here were man made, not constructed by birds. In fact, one of the nests you see here was made by the local artist David Lovejoy. I pretty much scoured the place, looking for nests to sketch. It seems that the only ones made by actual birds were along the fence next to the larger pond. I didn’t sketch any of those as they were each individually tucker under a glass dome and I was just not inspired to try to capture that kind of image. There were various signs describing each nest and the birds who had actually made them. These were closer down to the ground, compared to the other fantastic nests. I suspect the low level and glass covering was done to encourage little children to hunker down and look, but not be able to touch them. As the Descanso is very much into education for the younger garden goers, the location of these nests was perfect as there are a number of different kinds of birds that hang around that pond, as well as numerous of turtles that bob around in the pond. That being said, the other nests in the garden seemed to be in places someone under 3 feet in height could not reach. (Just guessing…)

To be an urban sketcher or not to be, that is the question…

If you have been reading my weekly stories and art, you may be wondering if my urban sketching group met last Sunday. Well, thanks for asking. And yes we did. We went on a fabulous online virtual visit to Bermuda. It was great! Guess I could have posted those sketches today, but was clearly more obsessed with these spring nests at the Descanso. As always, our virtual excursions are welcomed by all attendees. But, as we have gone longer than anyone expected with our unreal virtual sketching events, we often end each session talking about how to post and share our sketches. Lately, we have had some very lively discussions about what is and isn’t an urban sketch. If the art truly reflects the Urban Sketchers manifesto, you can post it on their website. Basically the group seems to agree that true urban sketching must tell a story, be done on sight and in real time. I might add that I think the art must include some kind of reference to humans—be that a telephone pole with lots of wires, a car or two and of course people. If you can include someone walking through your sketch that’s all you really need to create a true urban sketch. However, as our virtual sketches are not done on sight and in real time, we can only post our work in a very specific backdoor of the urban sketching world. It generally means the art is just for us and not for the consumption of the international group. OK. I’m not really a huge fan of posting my sketches there as it’s part of Facebook, and I am kind of done with Facebook. Posting any of my art on Facebook is not something I do…ever. But at the end of each of these virtual travel sessions the leader of our group reminds us how to post our art, as it is not a normal and straight forward maneuver. At these times it seems there is a residual, but seemingly ongoing discussion of what constitutes urban sketching. I believe that what I am sharing here constitutes urban sketching as I am definitely telling a story—albeit I’m sharing a collection of sketches done over a couple days. And as all of these nests were made by people, I think that adds the necessary human touch to each one–you just can’t see them. But none of this really matters anyway as I won’t be posting any of this on Facebook.