Friday, January 25, 2019


Marks made with balsa wood tool

I am not a calligrapher. I love to do hand lettering, which is drawing letters instead of writing them as calligraphers do. I practice to improve my letterforms, but I couldn't make a living as a calligrapher as some people do. That said, at the annual Trivial Pursuits put on by the Friends of Calligraphy last week, I tried my hand at using a folded or cola pen. Folded pens are a cheap alternative to a ruling pen, formerly used by graphic designers and drafters to rule straight lines. You can make your own cola pen by cutting out a half moon shape from a soft drink can, shape it over a narrow handle, and then attach it to the handle. I've tried folded pens before, but I haven't had much luck with them.  I love the free-form look of the writing.

Ruling pen & folded or cola pen

Alphabet made with a folded pen

During TP I sat with six other people and Rick Paulus, a former White House calligrapher (yes, people do make a living as calligraphers) who loves working with a ruling pen. He asked us to bring in a saying we could write. I tried to think of something short that I could attempt. "Begin Again" came to mind. After manhandling a few practice sheets, I decided my best bet was to use the pointed end of the pen and to write in my own handwriting. I also decided to repeat the phrase over and over again within a square. When I was almost finished, I accidentally dragged my left sleeve across the still-wet ink, a common problem for lefties. Looking at the page, I thought how ironic to have chosen the phrase "Begin Again."

My attempt at a folded pen saying.
The two phrases outside the square need to be stretched out.
I will do this piece over again until I am satisfied with the results.

What did I take away from the workshop? To remember to let go of my own expectations, to try something new and realize that practice is the key, and have fun doing all of that.

Calligraphers have found other ways to make marks on a page beside traditional pen and ink. For  me, these tools provide more freedom and a step away from the meticulous calligraphic practice. Twigs, tooth cleaners, tongue depressors, car detailing brushes, bamboo and balsa wood can become instruments in the artist's hands. The marks made start out as letters, then become exaggerated or condensed, strung out or boxed in close.

Lots of options for making marks on the page

Here are some examples of mark making with various tools. Each of them started with letters or words.

Letter G made with a folded pen, sumi ink and watercolor ink

Made with stippling brush, paint brush,
round piece of wood shaved to a point, sumi ink, walnut ink

Made with an alder twig

Various brushes & sumi ink

 Check out these two masters of mark making:

Friday, January 18, 2019


Chickadees, titmouse, wrens, goldfinch, junco, doves and towhees flutter and scamper across the patio picking up seeds from the liquid amber trees. I watch them as I eat breakfast. With a rush of wings, they disappeared all together. I looked up. In a tree branch stood a red-shouldered hawk with its head swiveling back and forth, looking for prey. It spread its black and brown wings and soared down into the ivy on the other side of our garden wall and back up again without any morsel in its beak. The prey also used camouflage to fool the hawk.

The hawk was hard to see against the wet trunks of the liquid amber and sycamores around our yard.  I tried to get a photo, but the bird disappeared into the branches. Can you see him? I was reminded of the PBS program Nature with its episodes about Super Cats. The multi-colored coats of the cats gave them perfect camouflage while hiding either in a canopy of plants or moving across grass or stone canyons.

Camouflage provided the subject for one of the short classes last Saturday at the annual Trival Pursuits (TP) art day put on by the Friends of Calligraphy. Each year the day is full of 6 classes of art play. The instructor, Alan Blackman, came dressed in head-to-toe camouflage. He was easy to spot among the rest of us in our plain attire. At TP, he explained that the British navy first used camouflage during WWI as a means to deter German U-Boats. The navy asked fine artists to develop patterns to hide or at least confuse the gunners on the German boats. They wanted the camouflage to disguise the ship's direction so that the gunners would aim for the wrong place before firing. Now with heat-seeking technology and other advances, other camouflage methods, such as a continuous blanket of fog around a ship, are being tested.

My modern version of what the British called Dazzle camouflage during WWI

Camouflage is designed to interrupt our visual clues. When we look at an object, we look at the outline to determine what it is. If that outline merges with its surroundings, the object becomes difficult to discern, just like the hawk inside the tree branches.

Camouflage for the military disrupted the tradition of wearing bright uniforms in previous wars. Those uniforms and the men in them became easy targets for snipers on the modern battlefield. Camouflage fabric has moved beyond the military as Alan showed us in his own costume for the day.
During his class, Alan asked us to draw new versions of camouflage for both ships and fashion. 

This morning I watch again as the hawk sails above the trees. He is still looking for prey, but he no longer is using the cover of our trees. Instead, he is a small dark spot in the sky.

Check out Alan Blackman's work, especially his Letters to Myself page:

To find out more about camouflage:

Friday, January 11, 2019


Yosemite in Winter, painting done at end of last watercolor class

New Year
New start to watercolor class

Each new watercolor painting feels like I have to learn watercolor all over again. I don't have the 'feel' for it that comes from deep practice. Each time I have to relearn to mix colors together, figure out the right consistency of paint-to-water, and most of all, I have to slow down.

I tend to attack painting. I want quick, masterful results, which rarely, with watercolor, happens for me. I need to go back and remember to draw what I see not what I think the images look like before I apply paint, and I need to know what colors mixed together give me the hue that I am looking for.

And I need to slow down.

I love making color swatches. They help me understand what colors mix together to give me the hues I want. My favorite set is this one which shows a variety of cool and warm greys.

Shades of grey
Painting trees has left me frustrated with making greens. In order to find different greens, I need to understand that both yellows and blues can be warm or cool and can make the resulting mix warm or cool depending on the ratio of yellow and blue. I had been mixing Cadmium Yellow Pale (CYP) together with either Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue or Cobalt Blue. The combinations gave me a warm, almost gold, greenish color. But I wanted a cool green as well.

Can you pick out the warm and cool yellows here?

I went back to basics and made color swatches of different yellows mixed with different blues. I finally found the cool green I wanted with Cadmium Yellow Light and Cobalt Blue. Another version came from mixing Lemon Yellow or Hansa Yellow with Cerulean or Cobalt. 

Here I succeeded with both warm & cool greens

Sketchbook of Trees

Trees aren't always green. At sunset these trees where dark blue (indigo) and light grey

Evergreen trees at sunset
While my watercolor class was on hiatus during the holidays, I decided to concentrate on painting trees. What better way to practice greens? I tried some practice pages and tried to avoid my painting nemesis, Mud. To change the shade or tint of my greens, I added different blues, violet, Burnt Siena into my original yellow and blue. Often they turned to Mud.

By painting every day, I was hoping to leap across to intrinsic knowledge of my colors. Did I succeed? When I set up my painting equipment this Wednesday, I felt that same hesitation before I started. How do I paint with watercolors?

Then I remembered to take time. I sketched out the scene, I made some color swatches, and then before I knew it, I attacked the paper.  Another misfire.

So, I turned the paper over, redrew the scene, made more color swatches, took a deep breath, and slowly, inch by inch began the painting.

Unfinished, but better greens

This week I also took a class with John Muir Laws who demonstrated the use of a flat water brush to make tree shapes.

Check out watercolor classes with Leslie Wilson:

For a comprehensive list of cool and warm colors, seek Birgit O'Connor's website:

John Muir Laws, a naturalist, author and illustrator, offers classes in the SF Bay Area:

Friday, January 4, 2019


Do you like books that keep you on the edge of your chair, books that provide deep information about current issues, books that make you think outside your normal comfort zone by taking you on adventures you wouldn't make yourself, or books that will lead you on a quiet journey with someone like you? I like all those reasons to read and more.

Good books provide much richness to my life. I am always searching for thoughtful, inspiring reading. Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris led me to the discovery that the Oxford Junior Dictionary editors eliminated from the current edition words that describe nature, such as acorn and goldfinch, and included more technological or virtual words such as blog, broadband and voice-mail instead. Lost Words is a beautifully illustrated book that took me on a hunt for those lost words with a reminder that we are losing our necessary touch with nature.

Another favorite is Infinite City, a San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit, one of the best current essayists we have to read, who probes the layers of life in San Francisco. A book illustrated with maps with titles such as "Green Women, Open Spaces and Their Champions" and "Graveyard Shift, The Lost Industrial City of 1960 and the Remnant 6 A.M. Bars."

And my favorite fiction, Sweeping Out Glass by Caroline Wall, a riveting tale set in Kentucky with a strong, no-nonsense female character confronted by all kinds of heart-wrenching events while she defends her home from malicious gossip, mean people, lies hidden under friendships and misunderstandings. One of those books that kept me up way past my bedtime.

More good reads

Here are offerings from readers of this blog:

Joan S: Shade, A Tale of Two Presidents by Peter Souza

PatK: The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane
           Circe by Madeline Miller
           The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery
            Sunlight on a Broken Column by Atia Hosain
            Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Sara L: Promise Me Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship & Purpose by Joe Biden
             Endurance by Scott Kelly

Teresa C: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, an interesting read in light of present-day circumstances

MaryM: The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
               The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd
               Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
               The Dressmaker's Dowry by Meredith Jaeger
               The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
               The Perfume Collector by KAthleen Tessaro
               The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe
               The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
               The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes
               Karolina's Twin by Ronald Balson
               Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Jane B: The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

JoanneK:  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (recommended by several readers)

Thank you for your great suggestions! Have a good year of reading.