An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
My sketching during the Spring was sporadic, though I painted most days. I let a temperamental scanner and weak WiFi get in the way of sharing what I did do, so here is a round up from my 8" x 10" Stilman and Birn sketchbook.
In retrospect, the size of the sketchbook got in my way. A big book is great in summer, but I do like to fill the page- or double page spread- when sketching, and in the cold this just wasn't fun. Multiple sketches on a page just didn't feel as satisfying, and so my book often languished at home. It took me 5 months to fill the thing, which is a very long time for me. Takeaway- use smaller books for the chillier months!
Because these sketches cover such a long span, I'm not going to do much commentary but will let the pictures tell the story. Here's boat life in Victoria BC, from January to May 2019!
It was wonderful to be back on the water again. Farewell beverages had been supped with cruising friends, Jim's family had joined us for happy hour at the Delta hotel, my exhibition had been packed away and we were ready to cast off the mooring lines.
Our first day of sailing had blue skies and the current was in our favour. Brightly coloured whale watching boats zoomed past us as we left Victoria's inner harbour and made a port turn into the Juan de Fuca Straight. We didn't see any whales, though the watchers remained a featured for most of our journey. The tourist boats are supposed to keep away from the stressed and struggling resident pods, instead concentrating their tours on the plentiful population transient orcas which regularly pass through. Lucky boats have also started seeing humpback whales, returning from their winter holidays to Hawaii. Hopefully they'll be up in the Broughton Archipelago by the time we get there at the end of the month!
Wind and tide carried us past Trial Island at over 8 knots; it felt like Prism was as excited to be sailing as we were. Other sailboats were making the most of the Saturday sunshine as we turned North through the Discovery Islands. As the wind died off, we gave the motor some exercise on the last part of our journey to Tsehum Harbour. We tied to a mooring buoy and settled in to the laid-back ambience. Eagles flew above us, calling in their tittering voices, and seals lounged on the rocks near the boat. We did our best to enjoy the golden evenings out in the cockpit, until the chill of the Canadian evenings drove us inside.
Tsehum Harbour was well-served by buses, so Jim popped back to Victoria to get some last things done whilst I spent a day volunteering at Coast Collective. Then the toilet needed some work, so whilst I got things done on my computer, Jim made the necessary repairs. You can imagine the four letter words he chose to describe the job...
Our journey north then took us to Cowichan Bay. We moored at the Fisherman's Wharf then set off to explore. The little village was easy to fall in love with. It's worth a visit for the bakery alone, which bakes fresh bread and pastries from organic ancient grains, locally grown where possible. Their cinnamon rolls were amazing, and became part of our daily routine along with a cup of the excellent coffee. I sent Jim on a bike ride to give myself some time to investigate the pottery, boutique and perfumery, and drew some of the numerous wharves which stretched out into the bay. At low tide, the head of the bay would fill with dozens of herons, stalking the mud flats and snagging passing fish.
There were plenty of things to sketch, and I was glad I'd made a new sketchbook out of Bee cotton rag paper and some leather I'd picked up at Thrift Craft Victoria. My 'perfect sketchbook' requirements change quite often, and I think I'll always end up back with my travellers' sketchbook and homemade inserts, but after months of wrestling with a too-large Stilman and Birn Beta, I was ready for something new to kick start my summer sketching. My little hand-bound book has 48 pages, each 6” x 4.5”. Right now, these feel like a great size for sketching on the go. The Bee paper is 100% cotton and is a pretty smooth cold press, so my Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen works perfectly. Noodlers Lexington Grey ink dries quickly enough on it that it doesn't transfer between pages (the major down side of some other cotton papers I've tried to use in sketchbooks), and it handles washes beautifully. Some of my granulating mineral colours look a little strange on the smooth surface, so Serpentine and Green Apatite might be taking a holiday from my paint box for a little while in favour of the less romantic but more biddable Sap Green.
The area around Cowhichan Bay cried out to be explored, so we pedalled out to Maple Grove. I was surprised to learn that the eponymous trees are tapped for their sap, which is then boiled down to create syrup. I'd always assumed that sugar maples were confined to the east coast of North America but I'm sure the sugary stuff of the west is just as good.
The trail took us through the grove of mature maples, festooned with trailing mosses, and along a river to a lookout with wonderful views of the bay. I soon wished I'd taken my bird book to identify the various species of swallows, blackbirds and colourful small darty things that we came across. Back on Prism, I looked up iridescent tree swallows, American blackbirds with their gaudy red flashes and little tufted titmice, whose blue-grey, buff and russet colour scheme feels very on-trend. The vegetation took me back to England, with briar roses, blackberry bushes and ox eye daisies (or their Canadian cousins) growing amongst tall grasses and thimbleberries.
The village made a great base whilst I worked on a commission for a local couple. I'd been asked to paint their house, which is up on a hillside and commands stunning views over the bay and surrounding mountains. They wanted something big, so I splashed out on a full sheet of 600 gsm watercolour paper. Sometimes it surprises me how much of a difference paper can make. I love my usual 300 gsm Fabriano Artistico, but doubling the weight of the paper makes a world of difference. It can handle heavy washes without a ripple, giving even more control over how the paper behaves, and was stiff enough that I could still rotate it when painting. This was handy because the sheet was the same size as Prism's table! If I couldn't turn the sheet to reach different areas, I would need to paint standing up, which would get pretty uncomfortable as the table is quite low.
With the art finished to everyone's satisfaction, we had time to grab one last loaf of bread before turning towards Vancouver. The sun decided to shine upon us, though the north wind brought chilly air and the faint scent of narwhal. We'd timed the tides right through Samsun Straight and were swept through Portlier Pass. We pitied the other poor sailboat going nowhere fast as it tried to fight against the current. Whirl pools, tide rips, currents and upwellings kept me busy on the helm until I pleaded beautiful scenery and put Jim on the wheel so I could sketch. Afternoon light gave a golden glow to the rocks and illuminated the greens and reddish bark on the arbutus trees, whilst the mainland and the Olympic peninsula were shifting shades of snow-capped blue. My hand-sized sketchbook let me get multiple sketches finished throughout the afternoon, exploring the colours and how to capture the swirling currents and billowing clouds.
It was midnight by the time we picked our way amongst the anchored freighters of Englishman Bay and found a spot to drop the anchor in False Creek. Being early in the season, finding an anchorage was straightforward. We set the hook, turned on the anchor light and put the engine to sleep. It didn't take long for us to follow it, and I fell asleep dreaming of how to mix mountain blues.
May passed by in a blur of watercolour. Plein air events and an Etsy market kept me busy at weekends, and my artist residency at the Delta Ocean Pointe gave me more motivation to keep creating. I had a wonderful spot in the hotel's well-lit, airy lobby where I could display a selection of my paintings and demonstrate the art of watercolours.
Painting in front of people can be a little intimidating, though the people I met were incredibly positive. I knew I needed to try to engage people, as many guests assumed that they'd be disturbing me if they talked to me whilst I was painting. However, hotel guests have many other things on their minds apart from looking at art, and not everyone passing by was going to be interested in or even like what I was creating. The purposeful walk of busy people was easy to recognise, but it was a little harder to get used to the up-turned noses of people who slowed to look at my art and were clearly unimpressed. I tried to smile anyway, and my artist's skin grew a little tougher.
After a couple of days I had more of a feel for how long to let people look before I started to talk to them, and had to try hard not to get so lost in the flow that I forgot to register the people around me! I met some wonderful people during my month at the hotel. The staff were all very welcoming, and some were artists themselves. Plenty of locals stopped to say hello on their way to get coffee in the restaurant. I met business people from across Canada, spoke to students and educators visiting for conferences and chatted to travellers from all over the world. It was always lovely when other artists stopped by, whether they were looking for advice, had their own wealth of knowledge to share or just wanted to discuss the joys of Daniel Smith paints and Opus Allegro brushes. I was particularly amazed by the skills of Pat, a paper maker/ book binder who could name the paper I was using by looking at its colour and texture. I was also lucky enough to meet Roy Henry Vickers, whose art I really admire. He complimented me on my technique for painting currents pouring through a pass, and kindly overlooked the fact I was a bit star-struck.
The trickiest part of the residency was keeping a stream of inspiration, especially when I finished a piece part way through a session. Sometimes the subject of my next painting would be ready in my mind, just needing my brush and some paint to carry it onto the paper. Other times, a quick flick through a sketchbook would present an idea begging to grow on watercolour paper. The hardest times were when the flicker of inspiration didn't come, and when I was aware of people flowing by wondering why I was doing nothing. I needed an 'I Am Thinking' badge, or maybe a flashing neon sign proclaiming 'Awaiting Inspiration'. I learnt to allow myself a little time out between paintings if I needed it. A fifteen minute walk along the inner harbour would often be enough to get my mind focused and back in gear, or relocated to the coffee shop to scroll through photos over a cuppa until I found something that clicked. Changing up my palette choices also helped to add some zap to my creativity, and a series in blue and yellow was a great refresher.
Mental stutters aside, I was very happy with most of the paintings I'd created by the end of the month. The intense practise helped me hone my skill levels and made me more aware of why most of the paintings worked whilst a few didn't. Some of the art made it into frames as part of my display at the hotel, but I'd have liked to share them all. If I'm invited back next year, I want to figure out a way to display more of the paintings created during the residency, even if I can't frame them all, and I'll definitely rotate the art on display more to keep it fresh.
Now we're in to June, I've had time to get decent photographs of most of the art I created (apart from a couple of pieces which sold too fast to make it near my big camera)! Most of the paintings are listed on Etsy- the links are connected to each photo- and four of my West Coast paintings will be featured in Coast Collective's upcoming show, 'Oceans'. Scroll on to see the rest of the paintings- and I'd love to know which is your favourite!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.