Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Painting with chalk pastels

I have recently completed a series of painted chalk art and although this is not a new art technique, I have not seen my method taught anywhere, and so I thought it would be interesting to share. 

I begin with a loose pencil drawing of the entire image so I don't have to think about where shapes and colours are going to be placed.  I begin in the upper left corner, applying a rough layer of chalk over a small area.  I then smooth the chalk with a paper stump so I am not trying to work uneven areas of pigment.

I next apply a wet brush as if I was "polishing" the surface, smoothing and blending colours and areas in a spontaneous way.

As each area gets added to the last, the water seems to fix the chalk so the painting surface becomes stabilized as I work across the image.

I discovered this way of painting because chalk pastels are sticks of pure pigment and I figured pigment and water mix, right?  What I didn't know were some of the ways of working that this technique would require.

I create detail, not by adding in but by lifting out.  Even when dry the chalk will lift off with subsequent water applications so light areas are pulled from the already dark surfaces.  This is the technique that created the water flowing over rocks.

It is possible to add in white and other light colours, just the opposite of my watercolour training when white areas must be left as the original paper.

Since I love detail, it was a hard lesson for me to grasp that less is more.  Minimal gestures seem to read as a more complex surface because the texture the chalk creates is already complex. 

It is hard for me to just stop.  Yet this is perhaps the most demanding working requirement using this technique of painted chalk.  Areas can be worked and re-worked two or three times and then watch out!  The paper surface begins to degrade and the delicate relationship between color and texture is lost.

This finished piece titled Naming it makes it so has a complexity and liveliness that really captures my interest.  But then I took the title to heart and turned the image over, and a whole different world emerged.  Art is like that.


More about the other four paintings featured here in a future blog.  This series, titled 5 Conversations with Water, will soon appear on my website and as prints in my Etsy webstore.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Winter Solstice traditions

My winter solstice traditions started in the tropical heat of Hawaii thirty nine years ago.


John and I sailed away and found ourselves very tanned and wondering what to do to celebrate the return of the sun, in a landscape almost always blessed by the sun.

We decided on a longest night wilderness feast.  Adding only pocket knives and a book of matches to our hands, we built a wind shelter against the warm trade winds, roasted our dinner on a beach wood fire, and stayed up all night to greet the sun.

This story is fully told as a fairy tale  I wrote titled "Feeding the Longest Night." for the Winter Solstice card in my Journey Oracle divination deck.

When we were living in Nova Scotia the wilderness feast continued outside--despite with wind, snow and freezing rain.  We celebrated by honouring each creature and plant that keeps us alive: dining on chicken, fish, pork, beef, root, ground and tree vegetables, nuts and fruit. Once back from the forest we built a large bonfire at first dark so the sun could see the flames and find its way back.

During our years on the east coast we added many birds to our winter solstice decorations.  The bird theme gradually became stronger when we moved to Cortes Island.

We let go of decorating an outdoor tree,

and started making ornaments for the birds to eat.

Now we begin Solstice morning with a toast to the sun in our garden,  We fast as we take our wilderness feast out to the beach and find a sheltered place among the drift logs and rock.  We cook our special collection of keeps-us-alive food and then go for a hike along the shore to find our tree.

After decorating a tree for the birds and small animals we come back to our feast site to leave gifts of salmon and venison for the eagles, ravens and vultures.

We no longer stay up all night, nor do we build and tend a watch fire. But we do fill our house with the warmth of radiant heat from the woodstove, and light candles to help the sun return. 

May the light always return.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thoughts on living with a bird

Our Lutino Cockatiel has died, and I have been reflecting on how it has been to live with a bird.  His bird wife Briea (beautiful in Gaelic) passed many years ago at the appropriate age of 16—apparently Cockatiels have a life expectancy of from 15 to 20 years—but Airee (song in Gaelic) did not get that memo, and lived for 28 years, 4 months.  So, these thoughts are not unduly sad or regretful as his life was long and full; they are more a reflection on the dynamic of living at the bottom of a bird cage.  Just to be clear, that would be John and I living there, since Airee was fully flighted and rarely inside the actual cage.   

 When we moved from Nova Scotia to Cortes Island to continue my painting and drum making, and to become oyster farmers, “How to move the birds?” was an up-front issue.  Turned out the solution was also up front.  A hamster cage was converted into a flight deck.  We understood to keep the box high enough for them to see out the front window, but to cover the sides of the travel cage.  Apparently, birds get car sick if they watch scenery whizzing by out the side window.  Go figure. 

We were driving a moving van and a pickup with a camper so after a day on the road the kids (dog included) were all shifted into the wee camper space in a sort of layer cake arrangement.  Birds above, humans in the middle, dog at floor level.   Birds had an aerial diaper fashioned of washable nylon so the upper and middle zones did not interact unpleasantly.

Our first landing on Cortes Island was in a housesitting arrangement, with Airee and Briea taking residence in my studio space.  They promptly took up their own housekeeping and began making egg babies. We discovered that to keep these from becoming bird babies, one was required to hard boil and then replace the tiny eggs.  I know this sounds harsh, but we learned that eggs don’t hatch in the wild for many reasons and birds are not troubled by this.  They sit for the required 21 days and then roll the white ball out of the nest.  It is much more traumatic for eggs to disappear (as they are also wont to do in the wild).  This initiates much stressful bird parent searching and beeping and flying about. 

When we built and moved into our own house, the bird story shifted to include a cat. Mesia was a cat with considerable attitude, even within the arc of cat attitude, which is already considerable.

She had a great affection for boxes.

And quite a nuanced definition of what constitutes a box. 

Mesia’s passing overlapped with the arrival of Losha, a young beauty who clearly had at one time belonged to a family, but had fallen on hard times and was living rough.

Losha combined the family and the box, and suddenly the birds were looking down on 6 cats.   When the bird dust settled (birds are actually quite dusty, and when they accidently fly too close to an inside window and graze it with wings or body, they leave a white dust imprint the glass) we were a family of 8, representing the entire food chain if one counted the fish in the garden pond. 

All three cats were remarkably uninterested in the inside birds, and then just the one bird, while ridding our dooryard and surrounding woods of many many birds and mice, the latter for which I admit gratitude.

You will have to take our word for it, since I never managed a photo, but John would regularly sit with Airee on his shoulder and a cat in his lap. 

Long before Airee became old, we discovered ways for life on top of a bird cage to be easeful.  Why struggle over bars when pressboard makes a good roof-top floor; why keep food and water inside when the recipient is outside?  And why not have a fresh warm breakfast every morning?  We do.  And then on November 29th he was gone. 

Long ago, I used to collect epitaphs, in anticipation of having a selection to choose from for my tombstone, but since my life with birds, there is really only one:

You could not say she was refined,
You could not say she was unrefined.
She was the sort of person who kept a parrot.
Mark Twain