Monday, November 12, 2018

Trying out Acrylic Gouache, Comparing to the Original Stuff...

Do you ever get tired of saving whites and lights or painting around them?  Do you love the look of plein air work done in oils or other opaque mediums?

I do, and I continue to look for a medium that I really like (in addition to my beloved watercolor) for plein air and journal work, sometimes wishing for freedom from "preserving those whites" that watercolor depends on so heavily--so I decided to give the new acrylic gouache a try.  

There are a number of brands--Holbein's Acryla Gouache is the one I chose, in small tubes to begin with.

Over the years I've used regular acrylics with pleasure in the studio, but I've only taken it with me once or twice in the field.  It dries quickly, and can't be lifted once dry, on the paper or on the palette, of course, but once your palette is dry in the field, you're done--unless you've packed a bunch of tubes!  

I've painted with regular gouache both as a professional illustrator and in my journal, and it's satisfying its way.  (Also called opaque watercolor, also tempera, I believe, in Europe--though it's not the same as childhood's tempera/poster paints.  These are artist quality.)  It can be frustrating, when lights dry darker and darks dry lighter, and I'd wondered if acrylic gouache had the same issues.

So for the past month, I've been exploring, trying out various approaches and applications!  

And so far I find acrylic gouache has pros and cons, for me. I will probably find it most useful, for under painting, tinting a page with a dark color or a mood-setting one.  It doesn't lift under subsequent applications, which may muddy your colors when using regular gouache unless you work very quickly and with a light touch. I DID use it on several of the pages here and it worked well.

(These are all in a journal, with pages approximately 5 x 7".)

I did a dark, almost black underpainting, mixed from burnt sienna and ultramarine, on this page before adding the late fall field in an opaque manner, allowing the dark to show through the closer earth and on the far hill. 

I used a combination of a watery, washy application and more opaque on this feels a bit garish, to me, and I found it difficult to get quite the color/value I was after.  Like regular gouache, acrylic gouache doesn't always dry like you put it down, if not quite as markedly as regular gouache.  Darks still dry lighter, and lights dry darker to a degree, and I have not yet fully learned how to compensate.
This was a quick study of the falls at Tryst Falls Park near here...and you can see one of my first issues, above the sketch--the crowded mess on my palette!  I was also trying out the smaller Masterson's Sta-wet Handy Palette, and quickly ran out of unsullied mixing space on my very first couple of sketches.  Sure enough the paint DOES stay moist, but...

The one on the left is what is in this little journal.  TOO pebbly...but happily Fabriano's soft press is similar to the original.

I did utilize the roughness of the paper in the trees, though, for a lacy effect.  (This is another one that had an underpainting, this time mostly a thin layer of Acryla's Sky Blue.)
I like a palette with a good mixing area or wells, so I can mix a larger amount of paint. With the small, flat Sta-wet (about 6 1/2" x 8"), I run out of unsullied room quickly.  This is a problem with how I work, obviously, and not with the medium itself.

So because of the mess above, I decided to try again, and allow for more mixing room...I don't use all the colors that came in the set, but these seemed most useful.  (I mix my own greens, so no need for the two greens that came in the set.)

Not thinking about the fact that these are quite a bit runnier paints and need to be stored absolutely LEVEL...they didn't remain unsullied here, as you can see, and I haven't even started painting!  I would have to get used to the fact that these paints are more fluid...perhaps a different kind of palette would be better, and I may try that. 
Mind you, I often paint with a tiny Cotman set from Winsor & Newton that I converted to regular gouache years ago...but I believe it would be difficult to clean with acrylics because of the deep wells.
There are actually several issues I ran into, which may or may not be because it's acrylic. I normally prefer to let my paints dry, and prewet a little while before painting, whether watercolor or gouache. Obviously, can't do that with acrylics, dry is dry, and done! It's not how a lot of painters work, I know, but I always have, even with big studio paintings--I just don't like fresh squeezed paint.  For me, it doesn't mix as smoothly once I wet it.  So that was something I'd need to get used to, with these...shouldn't be that difficult, I suppose, since I have painted with acrylics almost since they were first invented and dinosaurs roamed the earth!

Another issue is taking care of my brushes...if acrylic dries in the ferrule the brush may never work well again, or be ruined entirely.  When I'm working at home, that's nut much of an issue, as lots of water is available.  For plein air, not so great.  I DO hurry to thoroughly clean my brushes, though, even at home, as soon as I finish my sketch.  I don't use expensive sable brushes with any acrylic, of course.

I am also used to being able to lift, soften, and adjust some once dry, which is not how you work with dry acrylics, obviously.  A whole different way of working.

I find they didn't blend as smoothly even as regular gouache when wet, for whatever reason. Operator error, perhaps!

So it just doesn't seem to suit the way I work overall.  Keep in mind this is COMPLETELY subjective, based on my own experience and expectations.

I DO like that it dries matte rather than the plasticy sheen most acrylics seem to have.  You can frame without glass or sealing, too, another plus.  My friend and fellow artist/author Larry Seiler works more directly, and told me, when I asked how he liked the acrylic gouache compared to regular, which he has mastered, "Since my method of attack is alla prima, I aim to lay a stroke down as is, not to be fussed over (a brushstroke laid is a brushstroke stayed), it seems to work just fine for me."  Larry's work is gorgeous, so I can only agree!

Check out his website at and explore his books, instructional page, and videos on YouTube, interspersed on his channel, here: !

This is an old bridge near Boonville, Missouri...I'd been wanting to give it a go!

On thing I personally have a problem with is that it encourages more and tighter detail than I'm used to, as in the above sketch.  That could be good, but it felt weird...and somewhat overworked.

I tried for a more direct application this time...
And again, part of the problem may be that I've not yet tried them plein air (see the difficulty of keeping that palette level, above!), and have been working--uncharacteristically for me these days--from photos.  That too can encourage overworking.  When I'm working on the spot, I usually quit when I am tired or uncomfortable!

So, for me:


Dries matte, like regular gouache
Intense color
Soft consistency
Won't lift with subsequent layers
Light over dark possible, like regular gouache
Use opaque or transparently
Doesn't need glass or sealing


Runny, must be carried flat
That same soft consistency!
Still dry rather differently than they go down, somewhat like regular gouache
Don't blend as readily as regular gouache or watercolor
Won't lift once dry 
Brushes need to be cleaned, immediately
For me, personally, they seem to encourage overworking
I will probably continue to explore these paints under a variety of circumstances, but for the present I am more likely to stick with the more traditional forms.   

And that said, my NEXT blog post will be on gouache, in a couple of old-fashioned forms or approaches!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


A few weeks ago I decided to start a new group on Facebook, called Sketch With Me.  In all honesty, it was in the hopes it would get me focused again.  So much drum and flute building the past couple of years cut into my sketching time--or desire.

It worked.  We have nearly 600 enthusiastic members, and it's been amazing.  AND I'm sketching.

It's to be a monthly (probably) virtual sketch weekend, but of course various of us have posted our work before the event (which was October 20th, this first time) and after...'s what I did for the first event...

This one was out my front window before I ever got up and about...

Across from my little shed studio is a new forest I call The Smallwood...this old house is on the hill above it.  I am loving the autumn colors...

My old Prang box and a #4 quill mop were most useful...

This is the actual view...

Trees added...some of them ayway.

Beyond the Smallwood...
 Then we gathered our gear and headed out to Tryst Falls, a local park with a lovely waterfall...and at this time of year the falls are actually flowing!  Our summer's drought had things down to a trickle.

I chose a bent-nib calligraphy pen for the basic sketch...

My subject...
Finished, and pretty happy with it...I love the combination of ink and wash.  (And one of my post popular self-directed mini-classes is on that subject, so I'm guessing others do too!  The link to the class is here.)
I came home and curled up by my chiminea to paint another view of the Smallwood, in gouache on pre-painted paper...that blue was a bit intense!
Just before I called it a day I noticed the sunlight on my neighbor's gorgeous red maple across the street...I could only see a tiny bit of it from where I was, but I liked the contrast...

Tired and hurried, by then, but fun just the same...

Of course since my subject was backlit, I mostly got shadow in the photo!

I have no idea what we'll do next time, but I know there will BE one~

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Tracking changes, finding heart homes...

Many years ago...close to thirty, of my lifelong dreams came true--with lots of blood, sweat and tears (not to mention exhaustion and expense) to be sure, but the dream came true all the same.

Down a dusty gravel road I found a bit of land with a pond, a creek, and acres of oak, hickory, walnut and cedar forest.  There were, in some places, a concentration of redbud trees, so that in the spring the forest was painted with splashes of pink.  Wildlife, plants and flowers were abundant...I was in love.

I found it in the midst of a hard drought, not unlike the current conditions, when small creeks and farm ponds were drying all around and wildlife searched for any source of life-giving water.

That small pond glittering in the sun made a backdrop for a dusty "for sale" sign that I almost missed under its coating of dust, and I had to stop to explore.  I jotted down the phone number on the sign, thinking perhaps the land would be in 5 acre plots or smaller, like the homes on the cul de sac on the hill...and perhaps I could think about buying this tiny bit of paradise.

I was working hard, in those a freelancer, I wrote a regular column in Country Living Magazine as well as The Artist's Magazine and then Watercolor Magic (now Watercolor Artist).  I was doing a bit of screenwriting, as well as commercial illustrating for Early American Life, Country Life, and Sports Afield, among others.  Added to the books I was writing--two at a time that year--I often put in 14 hour days.  And was paid for it!  (And paid for it as well but that's another story...)

Turned out that it was NOT a 5 acre plot for sale but almost 20 acres!  I was sure that I couldn't afford it...but given all of the work I was doing, everything fell into place, and lo, I could...and did.

I hadn't intended to build...only to explore, and learn, and have a safe place to wander with few people.  But my childhood spent in tiny cabins all over the Ozarks and Colorado kept haunting my dreams...I knew a place in the woods would give me a place to work undisturbed.  And so the dream took hold.

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." --Henry David Thoreau

So, I took the old man's advice, and did.  With the help and guidance and mentorship of young friend and builder Greg Young, that's exactly what I did.

And of course, wrote a book about it...

Published in 1991, the book was the culmination of a dream. And what a joy, first to build the place and then get to share that process...
And to my great delight, nearly 30 years later the book has been republished, by Echo Point Books and Media!  You can find  The Naturalist's Cabin; Constructing a Dream on Amazon and elsewhere!

I've drawn and painted the place many times and written several books there.  I've shared it with friends, celebrated milestones, and gone to ground there when my heart was broken by grief.  And then, took myself there to heal...and start the cycle of life all over again.  It's one of my heart homes...

We've been through a lot, that little 14' x 16' cabin of mine...floods, droughts, losses, triumphs, celebrations...we're aging, hopefully gracefully, together.

And so, still, I find things to chronicle.  Closer to the cabin, these days, since arthritis curtails much of my wandering down the rocky creek or up and over the steep bluffs.  but even when I was younger, I was fascinated by my covered bird feeder.  It once had plastic sides to hold more seed, but the resident raccoons soon made short work of that!

Triplets were a bit hard on the thing, and once I found the whole superstructure on the ground...
This is all that remains,'s aged, as have I!  What's left of the roof is under the deck, and the remainder is now a platform feeder--and moss garden!

But as always, I wanted to chronicle the changes...
Pen and ink and watercolor were my mediums of choice...first washes, here...

I was using my customized small Schmincke travel set--I'd removed the inner metal tray for half pans and replaced it will full pans with my own pigment choices.  A pen and a travel brush kept my gear simple!

I played around a bit with my kids' set as well--I ordered it online from Wet Paint in Minneapolis, where my friend Roz Stendahl finds such fun things.  I pulled the guard off the Niji flat waterbrush to make a longer, juicier's still small enough to fit in those little round pans, though!  (Check out Roz's linked blog and classes, she is a GOLDMINE of information!)

This is one of those progressive pages...testing inks, pens, brushes...

Again, if you'd like to read about finding the land, exploring its natural wonders, and building a cabin in the woods, here is the link!  Just click on the title: The Naturalist's Path

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Dry Spell...

Flute making--transitioning to sketching more again.  I hope.
I've been exploring the meaning or origins of my dry spell--we all have them, and they can be simply cyclical, or indicative of time for a change.  Growth, perhaps. Sometimes other things capture our interests...and this past year, it was flutemaking, for me.  This is a vessel flute, sometimes called an ocarina.  It was made from a cedar tree from my land that bark beetles had excavated their beautiful designs on, and I love it.

My first flute, of deer bone I found in the woods...
I became fascinated by the earliest bone flutes, some 40,000 + years old, and imagined it would be simple to make one.  It's not...but the challenge captured my imagination, off and on, for 2 years.  I was playing it yesterday, out at the lake...

But honestly, in thinking about it--and coming across old journal entries--I see it's an ongoing challenge to keep sketching, keep making art, keep simply being who I always thought I was, despite the changes life throws at all of us.  I've sketched when traveling, at family gatherings, in meetings, in big cities, deserts, and deep forest.  I've sketched broad vistas and tiny microcosms at my feet.  I've sketched to celebrate and to calm myself in a hospital setting, to cope and to delight.

Waiting through Joseph's long surgery a few years ago...
 So what does contribute to our dry spells?

Probably many factors, and perhaps as individual as we are.

I just came across a note in an old journal--years old, actually: "feeling frustrated with my sketching time, lately--always hurried and shallow and meaningless."  Uh oh.  That wasn't good.  I need meaning...and I suspect most of us do.

Part of the problem, at that time, was adjusting to my recent remarriage...supportive though Joseph is, and he is, I realized I didn't want to bore him, keep him waiting, inconvenience him.  We often feel that way when traveling with non-sketchers, I've heard it over and over from fellow artists, and I was no exception.  (And yes, J. used to sketch some with me, and that was lovely!  But his interests have taken him in a different direction...) 

One day, I simply told him what I needed--what a concept, right??  Time to finish, not to feel rushed...and he of course understood completely!  If I said I needed to finish a sketch, we sat there till I finished.  Sometimes he read, sometimes he napped.  He even initiated sketching opportunities, asking if I wanted to stop by a gorgeous lake in New York state, or if I wanted to go to Cooley Lake.  When my sis died, he knew I need to process loss by sketching in nature, and bundled me into the car to get OUT there.  That's one problem solved...

I did a LOT of sketching in parking lots...J. shops and I don't like to.  And in fact that became the inspiration for my quick sketching mini-classes on my website!  Lemons to lemonade...
Sometimes, it's outside pressure.  It begins to feel like a job, and obligation.  Meeting the expectations of others, especially if you're an inveterate teacher, as I am.  A sketch a day.  People telling me to sketch this or that, whether or not I felt moved to do so.  "Aren't you going to sketch that?  Where's your sketchbook?" As I said above, meaningless begins to wear on our pleasure in doing it.

I have several friends who have quit or madly scaled back sharing online...again, it began to feel like an obligation.  It's not.

That's one reason I don't do challenges.  I want meaning, not an assignment, and I don't enjoy the pressure.  No "30 sketches in 30 days" or "100 People" (or noses, or eyes, or whatever) for me, thank you.  I know many people who thrive on it, and produce wonderful, imaginative work...but I feel trapped.  It's a personal quirk.  (I discussed that in some length in this post.)

Part of the problem sometimes, is frustration with materials.  I know--"it's a poor workman who blames his tools," blah blah quack quack.  But dammit, it IS frustrating!  I moved from technical pens to fountain pens, and years later I am STILL searching for the line variation I like, with a smooth nib, in a super dependable pen--the right size for my small hands.  Oh yes, and ideally that will work with water-resistant ink so I can watercolor over it.  Like my technical pens used to do.

And yet, I keep experimenting, so there you are.  I must like frustration!

I have page after page of pen tests...

...and brush tests, and color tests...

Drives me nuts when I don't like my drawing instrument, brush, or paper surface.  And so a LOT of my journal pages are just testing, like the two above.  Looking for what works best for the effect I want or the way it feels in my hand.

Now our lives have changed again, with the elderly dog we've rescued.  I have indeed sketched her some, but I also find she's not exactly conducive to sketching on the spot...Joseph's fishing has changed more into walking the pooch, as well.  She's a love, but she's made a big change...

And sadly, here is the most recent journal entry on the subject of the latest of my intermittent dry spells, just about a week ago:

"I think I have lost confidence in my sketching--as if it matters if it's not a perfect likeness.  Guess what?  It never was.  Perfect is not possible.  I don't want to lose my plesure in the moment, in the act of sketching itself, in capturing the moment, however fleeting, not worrying about making a false step.

Well.  not worrying, exactly.  I know I will, and do, and always have. 

So what is going on with this?  Yes, criticism bugs me, I'll admit it.  It sucks the fun out of it for me--the life out of it, really.  But that's after the fact, after the actual act of sketching.  What, I'm pre-emptively defensive now?"  It was good to get it down on paper.

(That issue is addressed beautifully in the brilliant Terri Windling's blog post, here, by the way.)

And then there's the issue of just not feeling like taking on some complex subject.  It's too much. I adore Stephanie Law's work, and my botanical artist friends, and so many others who incororate texture and color and pattern and detail. just feels overwhelming to begin.

And yet...what I find truly fulfilling is to sit and draw contemplatively...a tree, an interesting stone, a tangle of brush...

I suppose the upshot of all of this musing is that we all have been there, and will be there again.  I am beginning to enjoy sketching again.  I'm not doing all that much with flute making.  I'm exploring materials, yes, but actually feeling the glimmers of "yes, I'd like to sketch that!"

And so, last night, I did.

Frustrations and all--whiney pooch, too-smooth paper, ink I'd forgotten was water soluble, I enjoyed this!

Monday, July 2, 2018

Sketching on the Spot, again...

It's been a long dry spell for sketch journaling, for a lot of reasons.  Of course, as some of you know, I've been learning to make Indigenous-style flutes, and learning anything well is a challenge.  (Okay, not sure I'd say "well," yet, but well enough to bring pleasure...)  It IS time consuming as well as fascinating.  But more on that another time...

I've been re-refining my tools, and trying to lighten my load while still having what I need with me.  Sometimes, I slip up, like this day at Lawson Lake!

I didn't want to work with waterbrushes, exclusively, I wanted "real brushes"...and a water container.

OOoops.  No water container!  Not much water, either. 

Happily, there had obviously been a BIG whoop-te-do at the park and the trash bins were stuffed full...I found a lot of bottled water containers, and whipped out my little Swiss Army Knife to make a waterbowl.  Voila', another bottle was almost full! 

Obviously I wouldn't DRINK it since it's been opened, but it was fine to paint with....

It was a hot say and I couldn't settle on what I wanted to sketch...till I noticed the beautiful blue shadows on the curving road into the park.

This was what I had with me for little customized Altoids tin, my TINY kids' set I put my own artist-grade paints in (don't laugh, I filled an entire sketchbook in Charleston 3 years ago with that wee tiny kit!), my new water cup, a couple of brushes, and my new pen carrier from JetPens, which holds just a wee bit TOO much stuff!  (The tiny set fits in the pen carrier, the Altoids tin doesn't.)
The summer colors were lovely...and yes, I edited out the signposts!  Love that artistic license...

I was fairly happen with the resulting sketch...and a lovely record of the day.  The little black cat at the curve drove me nuts, every time a car would come down the road into the park, but he never moved a whisker!

Last I saw of him, he got bored and wandered off into the woods!
It was a satisfying evening, challenging but a learning experience.  (Nope, my big watercolor brush ALSo drove me nuts, need to change it out...)  And happy to say I've been edging my way back into more frequent sketching...more on that anon...


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