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A Fundamental Lesson – Part Two

In last month’s newsletter (A Fundamental Lesson – May 2011), I discussed how, in the early part of my career, I cultivated the habit of carrying sketchbooks. They became great vehicles for improving my drawing, exploring concepts and measuring my artistic growth.

As my career matured and I became more solvent, I began taking trips abroad. The sketchbooks became a record of my travels. Now I have a cabinet full of sketchbooks containing watercolors executed on both domestic and foreign junkets, and they have become an invaluable cache of information and inspiration for my larger studio works.

I realized early on that a bag full of photos was a poor substitute for a sketchbook full of paintings. Photos are never more than detached documentation. They are a non-objective record of data, which can be useful for supplementary material, but are rarely a good substitute for an experience of place.

Sketches, on the other hand, are like little meditations – an hour of time that we spend soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of our surroundings. The experience is indelible. Even now, I can look at sketches I painted twenty-five years ago and remember the circumstances surrounding the effort.

I thought it might be fun to share a few paintings from my sketchbooks. These paintings are my visual autobiography, with each sketch representing a kind of self-portrait at a particular moment in time. I hope that, in some small way, they might inspire you to consider carrying sketchbooks on your travels, and begin compiling a record of your life’s experiences.

I randomly selected paintings from a few sketchbooks. They don’t represent all the places that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, buy they are a fair cross-section of the subject matter I that I like to paint. The sizes indicated on the titles are relatively close.

Tarahumara Goatherders  9x12 wc

The Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is five and a half times larger than the Grand Canyon and fifteen hundred feet deeper. It lies just south of the U.S. border in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. I’ve traveled there many times to paint. My chief interest is the Tarahumara Indians, who inhabit the interior. They live in caves and rustic wood shacks and eke out a living tending goats and meager crops. I’m fascinated by the fact that these gentle people have survived for centuries in such a hostile and unforgiving environment. I’ve spent many hours painting their portraits, economy of life and the colorful matachines dances that occur at Easter and on the Feast of Guadalupe.

Wedding Night – Batopilas, Mexico  8x8 wc

The little village of Batopilas lies along the Rio Batopilas at the very bottom of the Copper Canyon. Up until about 1910, they were pulling 300 pound chunks of silver out of the surrounding hills and the population was about 15,000 strong. Now Batopilas sleeps quietly, the mines are closed, the mine owner’s mansion is essentially crumbs and the town is powered by a sometimes generator that runs until about 7 pm. It should be noted that the town is dry, however, one can always find some homemade hooch if you know who to ask, but more on that later.

On this particular night, there was a wedding, and, having nothing better to do, I elected to join the village on its festive march to the church. When we approached the church, I was struck by the facade in the evening glow and decided to do a watercolor instead of attending the service.

Eventually everyone exited the church, and I joined them for the festivities on the zocalo (central plaza). Moments after arriving on the zocalo the groom was arrested by the local constabulatory and carted off to the local jail. It seems that he had been manufacturing moonshine, and the police decided that this was as good a time as any to make a statement. Well, the crowd got sullen, the bride wept, the mother wailed and the brothers of the groom headed of to the local hoosegow to either pay the fine or bribe the police. Anyway, they returned triumphantly to the plaza, the crowd cheered, the band played on and we all danced, sang, drank Coke and ate barbacoa until the generator gave out around eight.

 

Feast of Guadalupe – Copper Canyon, Mexico  8x10 wc

On December 12th, the people of Mexico gather to celebrate the Feast of Guadalupe, one of the most important dates on the Mexican calendar. I had heard much of the exotic rituals of the Tarahumara Indians during this special feast. Despite the difficulty of getting down into the Copper Canyon for the festivities, I decided that this was one experience that I did not want to miss. So I hooked up with Juarez native and artist, Mario Parra, who spoke the Tarahumara language and agreed willingly to be my guide.

After a couple of days of travel, we arrived in the village of Cusarare, and the spectacle far exceeded my expectations. The Tarahumara were dressed in their Matachines costumes, and they danced, chanted, sang and played their primitive guitars and violins from early afternoon until late into the night.

It was the night activities that really got my artistic juices flowing. I managed to execute four or five watercolor studies in the minimal light afforded by the campfires burning on the church grounds.

The feast also included ample amounts of food and drink. The Tarahumara brew up a corn-based beer called “tesguino”. It’s not particularly tasty, but it has the kick of an angry burro. A couple of those and my watercolors got pretty loose. There was also a cauldron of stew boiling on one of the fires. I’m not sure what the ingredients were, but strange things would occasionally roll to the surface of the cauldron and then disappear. The broth was actually quite delicious, but I was careful not to swallow anything that had to be chewed.

 

Al Mercado, Patzcuaro, Mexico   9x12 wc

Irish Cottage – Achill Island  8x12 wc

The west coast of Ireland has a plaintive quality that is felt more than seen. Sheep, like rock salt, dot the rolling, green hills, that slope, stone walled, right to the water’s edge. Drafty cottages, like this one, cling precariously where the land meets the sea, and seem to belong to neither.

Bali

Bali is my favorite place in the whole world. It’s an island of saints – pure Socialism, completely infused with spirituality. The Balinese live their lives in total understanding of the interconnectedness of it all – something Westerners generally give lip service to, for an hour, once a week. These gentle, creative people have, to this day, remained a true inspiration for me.

Path to the Temple – Bali, Indonesia 15x11wc

Git Git Falls – Bali 12x9 wc

 

Balinese Girl 15x11 wc

When I travel in developed countries, I tend to concentrate more on landscape and architecture. In third world countries, I tend to get more involved with the people, and so I do more portraits. This young girl is Made (pronounced Mah-day). She had a gentle grace about her, and made a wonderful subject.

British Isles

I’ve traveled and painted all over the British Isles. I love the translucent light, and the continued sense of antiquity. Mevagissey, on the south coast of the Cornwall peninsula, is my favorite harbor town.

Mevagissey Harbor – Cornwall, England
12x9 wc

Along the Cornwall Coast – England 
11x15 wc

Along the River Clune – Braemar, Scotland  8x10wc

Moorish Mill – Cordoba, Spain  9x12 wc

I have a real connection to Spain, and I’ve traveled there several times. I love the people, the music and the Moorish influence. Sometimes I think maybe I was Spanish in a past life. This was painted from a bridge spanning the Rio Guadalquivir.

Street Scene – Granada, Spain  9x12 wc

Granada is my favorite Spanish city – with the Moorish palace El Alhambra, the Albaicin, with its Gypsy caves, twisting streets along the Rio Darro, flamenco clubs etc.etc.etc. Que Romantico! I stayed in a quiet neighborhood above the Alhambra. This was the street I walked down daily.

 

El Transparente – Toledo. Spain 10x7 wc

The cathedral of Toledo, Spain is not only beautiful, but is renown for its ceiling aperture that is an artistic masterpiece of Narciso Tomei. El Transparente is several stories high, with fantastic figures of stucco, painting, bronze castings and multiple color of marble. Purely by chance, I walked into the cathedral at the time of day when the shafts of sunlight were pouring through the entire opening. It felt as if I were looking directly into the heavens. As it turned out, they did not allow photography in the cathedral, and monitors walked the floor to ensure that this policy was enforced. The signs didn’t say anything about painting. So I set up my easel and executed this small watercolor study. It was utilized later as a springboard for a larger piece that was exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society in London.

 

 

 

 

Barges on the Seine – Paris, France  9x12 wc

Ah, Paris! My favorite city, and I keep returning. History, art and romance are in the air. Right Bank, Left Bank – who cares? You just stand on the Ile de la Cite, in the middle of the river; let the river traffic surround you while you paint the moored barges along the river walk. Then it’s off to an outdoor café for a cognac and a gustatory overdose. La vie en rose!

Street Vendors – Fez, Morocco  9x12 wc

Morocco was pure approach – avoidance. Despite being hassled, hustled, harried and harangued daily, I felt as if I were painting in the Old Testament. The walled medinas, with their serpentine alleys, were a cornucopia of sights, sounds and smells. My sense of romance is seldom tempered by prudence, and Morocco proved to be no exception as I wandered, lost, for hours, in the labyrinths of the old cities.

Over my career, I won my share of awards, been in some of the best shows and galleries, gained signature membership in the National Watercolor Society, the Oil Painters of America and the Pastel Society of America. Despite all of that, I’m most proud of my sketchbooks, which continually reward me with inspiration.
I strongly encourage you in this worthwhile pursuit.

Happy painting!