An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
Spacious and inspirational, Blunden Harbour was a great anchorage. Most people stay there whilst waiting for a weather window to venture further up the BC coast, but we chose it as a destination in its own right. It was a secure anchorage with plenty of potential for art and exploration, including waterfalls, creeks and the remains of a First Nations village. As usual, my watercolour sketchbook was my companion on our dinghy adventures.
After our week of solitude it was a little strange to have to share our anchorage, but Blunden Harbour was still peaceful, with plenty of room. Even if they were only staying for the night, most people ventured ashore to wander along the midden beach. The village was inhabited until relatively recently, so some wooden house posts still remain. Huge logs protruding over the beach would once have supported a boardwalk, and bits of oxidised metal and colourful shards of glass and pottery are scattered amongst the shells on the beach. Middens are regarded as archaeological sites so digging amongst the shells is forbidden, but I find it fascinating to wander along and see what has risen to the top. I think I've written before about the way the colourful pottery fragments and bits of irridescent glass create a feeling of connection to the past, and Blunden Harbour was no exception.
The fog continued to come and go, not always behaving as forecast. Some days there would be glorious blue skies and sunshine above us, whilst the world outside the harbour remained cloaked in grey. We used the sunnny spells for our dinghy expeditions, venturing as far as we dared into the rapids at the entrance to the lagoon and paddling up river mouths which lead into the forest. Of course, my sketchbook was never far away and we'd often turn off the engine and drift as I drew. By the time I finished painting a sketch we'd inevitably be a fair distance from where I started, but I could still get the colours of the trees and water. Occasionally I used sea water to paint with, adding a little bit of the locale to the art.
Eventually we managed to drag ourselves away with promises of more beautiful anchorages and places to paint. It was a typical bipolar day- clear in the harbour, thick fog outside. I was helming us towards the entrance when Jim commented on an uncharted rock up ahead. I looked- and a plume of steam spouted up from the rock. It wasn't a strange geological phenomenon, but a humpback whale. I slowed down and we watched until she dived, then headed out into the Straights and turned South.
One of the joys of sailing is finding a spot so magical that you just want to stay as long as possible. God's Pocket Marine Park was one of those places. It contained beautiful anchorages, plenty of islets and bays to explore with the dinghy, the perfect place for a beach fire, white shell beaches and a population of wolves, sea lions, eagles, whales and resident sea otters. There was plenty for me to sketch and paint, and we'd still be there now if we hadn't run out of veggies!
Our first anchorage was in front of the Gods Pocket Resort. It was a decent spot in a South Easterly wind, though we knew we'd need to move when the wind swung round to the North West as the entrance would be totally exposed. Sailing up to the resort, we'd seen humpbacks and sea otters, and we shared the anchorage with a heron and a community of very vocal ravens. We sat in the cockpit until the rain began to fall and we retreated inside, leaving the wildlife in peace. However, not all of the wildlife was peaceful. In the night I was awoken by the howling of wolves, a primal sound which made me glad I was safe and secure on the boat.
The following day we ventured ashore. The weather was still drizzly and we were hoping we'd be allowed to pop into the resort restaurant for coffee and a biscuit. Kelly the chef invited us to join them for lunch, with toasted sandwiches and delicious soup- just what the rainy day called for. By the time we'd finished, the rain had slackened off and was good enough for me to try the walk up the hill behind the resort. I hoped that the wolves were napping elsewhere as I scrambled up the trail, rewarded by beautiful views of the clouds swirling over the neighbouring islands. It didn't take too long before the clouds swirled my way, and I descended again, muddy, damp and only munched by mozzies.
The wind was due to change, so we shifted our anchorage around the island. Our new spot, Harlequin Cove, was sheltered between two islands, with plenty of bays and islets to explore. For five nights we had the anchorage all to ourselves, with occassional fishing boats and passing the cruise ships the only sign that there was still a world outside.
Although we found the cove to be perfectly calm and settled, the huge quantities of driftwood tossed up on the beaches gave a hint of the ferocity of winter storms. One evening we took the dinghy onto a pebble beach and built a fire to cook sausages and sweet potatoes. We watched the sun set and kept warm in the glow of the embers as the sky turned peach and dusky violet.
One of the beaches was pure white, formed of bleached shells. This was a midden site, a sign that there was once a thriving First Nations community here. The totems and long houses are long gone, and these days the only permanent resident seems to be a sea otter.
Our sea otter friend was an endless source of fascination. He spent most of his time in the bay, sleeping amongst the fronds of kelp, hunting for clams and shellfish and frolicking around the anchorage to keep warm in the chilly waters. His mealtimes seemed to coincide with ours, and we often ate dinner with the percussion sounds of clams being hammered open in the background. The otter's feeding technique is to dive for molluscs or crustaceans then bring them to the surface. Crabs get wrenched apart, but shellfish present a tougher challenge and need to be smashed open. The otter places a stone on his stomach and strikes the shell until it shatters and he can get into the delicacy inside. I don't know if the otter collects a new stone each time or if he has a firm favourite that he carries around- if so, he seems like an animal in need of pockets.
After dinner was grooming time, followed by sleep, wrapped up in fronds of kelp to anchor and camoflage him. Two other otters often visited the bay during the day, but only one seemed to spend the night.
The many passes and bays invited dinghy adventures. We poked around stony beaches surrounded by cuboid rock formations and fringed with towering cedars, dripping with mosssy fronds. Crows wheeled above us and we often saw eagles, rhinoceros auks with their curious horns and enormous turkey vultures.
After a day in Port McNeill to do laundry and reprovision, we welcomed Jim's brother Bill and his girlfriend Kati onto Island Prism. They brought two extra guests with them- sea kayaks! Island Prism was going to be the mother ship on a week long sailing and paddling adventure.
August is known as the foggy month in these parts but nobody had told the fog, which was quite happy to turn up in July. It greeted us in pea-soupy fashion most mornings, before clearing away to become sunshine or drizzle. The bonus was we didn't have to feel guilty if we had a lie-in, though it did play havok with my habit of getting up early to paint!
It's been a while since I've sea kayaked. Getting into the kayaks from Prism was a bit of a learning curve, but with Kati's guidance I soon got more confident at using the paddle to stabilise the craft as I slid in from the dinghy. An unexpected swim in these parts would be chilly! The kayaks were a wonderful way to explore Village Island and its surrounding islets. The quiet paddles don't disturb wildlife, so we were able to get relatively close to harlequin ducks and wading birds, whilst seals popped up nearby undisturbed by our presence.
From Village Island we cruised to Lagoon Cove. A family friend of Kati's once owned the marina here, so we visited ashore for an afternoon, and ventured through the narrow pass of the Blowhole to see the nearby Minstrel's Cove. The marina here had seen better days and the buildings were quietly collapsing, but Kati made it round to the beautifully-kept houses on the shore and managed to get some stories of days gone by. Moored up in front of us was a fish boat, currently being hired by the government to research populations of marbled murrelets. These unpreposessing little birds are suffering a population decline. They nest in old growth forests and only lay one egg a year. Clear cutting, pollution and fishing net entanglement are taking their toll on numbers, prompting a survey of their current distribution. As fish populations are also facing collapse with many fisheries currently closed, using fish boats for research gives the fishermen an alternative source of employment.
We gave up fishing on Prism about five years ago, when we saw the intensive fishing industry in South East Asia. I rarely eat fish apart from as an occasional treat, and I feel a bit hippocritical when I do tuck in to a bit of halibut or smoked salmon. We made an exception for Kati's prawn trap as we were told that the prawn population in the area was healthy, and as novices we figured we wouldn't have an effect on the general populace. At Lagoon Cove we were given some tips on prawn fishing. We set the trap on a muddy bottom and left it overnight before our curiosity got the better of us. Our first haul gave us five prawns, our second four. By the end of our second day we had a collection of sixteen, who were a delicious appetiser when fried in butter.
Chatham Channel provided us with another wonderful adventure. Little islets scattered along the way harboured the kinds of old growth trees that we thought murrelets might love, and there were plenty of the little birds around. We anchored for lunch and dispatched Jim and Kati on the kayaks, whilst Bill and I birdwatched and made chocolate drop scones for Kati's birthday. When it was time to leave we found that the anchor chain had been attacked by a seaweed monster, so we all worked to dislodge the kelpy flotilla before it could cause more chaos. Kati and Jim then entered the main channel in the kayaks whilst Bill and I followed behind, carried along on the swiftly flowing current. Bill helmed us most of the way home where we cracked open a bottle of birthday prosecco.
Returning to Potts Lagoon, we set the prawn trap before finding a decent spot to anchor. Kati and I decided to explore the inner lagoon by kayak. Timing meant we had to do this at low tide, when the outflowing water from the lagoon flows over a set of boulders to create a small series of rapids. I didn't think it was passable until Kati proved me wrong, so I followed her up. Making the climb involved paddling hard, chosing a route that was relatively straight and not letting rocks or boulders snatch my paddle. Once over the rapids, the going was much easier. The current slackened and we watched kingfishers and numerous small fish, until the water became too shallow and we had to head back. Sliding back down the rapids was a lot of fun, as an incredulous and slightly nervous Jimmie watched us from the bottom.
We attempted a second kayak before we left the anchorage. We were the only craft on the little inlet we chose to explore, and we soaked up the tranquility as we chatted to ravens, watched huge schools of small fish and bright red crabs in the waters beneath us and kept our eyes open for the multitudes of darting kingfishers and occasional seal. We returned to Prism to find we had a visitor. Bill and Jim had met Terry from Australia on his boat Lonely Bird, and he'd stopped over for coffee. Our prawn trap was woefully empty, but he gifted us a bucketful, which became a delicious lunch and dinner!
On our way back to Port McNeill we stopped in the Plumper Group. This gorgeous set of islands are a marine park, and a wonderful place to kayak. The currents gave us a good work out but Kati and I saw plenty of seals, a buck on a small islet, eagles, noisy stellar sea lions, purple starfish and colourful orange anemones and sea cucmbers. We poked around between the islands before finally returning to Prism just before the heavens opened. Kati was a trooper and helmed Prism to Port McNeill, ready for their departure the next day.
Downtown Vancouver is always a fun place to anchor. False Creek lies at the heart of the city, and offers free anchorages alongside the main channel, as well as a number of full service marinas. Our preferred spot is anchored out by Stamps Landing, which is within easy walking distance to Granville Island as well as numerous shops. Downtown is just a bridge, a bike ride or a water taxi away.
We spent a few days getting things done. I had a commission to work on, internet updates to prepare and art supplies to organise before we went sailing for the summer. The Granville Island Market gave me a chance to stock up on ingredients I probably wouldn't see in the north of Vancouver Island. We met up with friends for drinks and dinner and also received some unexpected visitors.
I was down below painting whilst Jim was relaxing on deck, trying to get the get-up-and-go to get something done after lunch. My artistic flow was interrupted when he began to shout excitedly. I put down my brush and rushed up to see what he was fussing about. There they were; four orcas swimming sedately down False Creek, with a police boat keeping its distance behind them and plenty of awed onlookers. Jim thinks the cops were there to make sure the whales didn't start snacking on the local seal population and kick off a mid-afternoon massacre. I think they were probably more interested in the welfare of the whales, but I can be boringly sensible like that.
After visiting Science World at the end of the inlet and finding that the seals had scarpered, the orca returned the way they came. I took pictures as they passed Prism, surfacing in unison, then swam past artsy Granville Island. The little water taxis received a bonus whale watching experience, and I was delighted with the interruption. It took a few hours until Stamps Landing's resident seal felt comfortable popping back, however.
We left Prism at anchor for a few days to go and visit Harrison and Mission. Jimmie is now a grandpa, so we were off to see little Mackenzie and her proud parents Peter and Keelie. Cuddles were had, a barbecue was cooked and we managed to add in time for a soak in the Harrison Hot Springs and a search for sasquatch at the Sasquatch Days Festival. The beach by Harrison Lake was lined with canoes, and we sat on the wall and watched the racing.
Returning to Vancouver, we were ready to raise the anchor, catching a weather window to head north to Parksville. A break from art was necessary as we helped get Jim's Mom's house ready for sale, then we continued up the coast to Quathiaski Cove on Quadra to catch up with Jim's friend Craig and his wife Jenna. The sunsets here were glorious, and as the sun sunk in the sky I sketched and watched otters frolicking on the dock. This was very cute until they started peeing on our mooring lines; it turns out that otters are quite stinky. Apparently they also snuck on board to explore when we went to bed, though thankfully the only calling cards they left were muddy paw prints on the bottom of our upturned dinghy on the foredeck.
As we left Quadra, we saw our first humpback of the season. It was also heading north for a little while, though it vanished when we neared Seymour Narrows. I don't think I'll ever get bored with watching their blows, looking out for their tail as they dive and trying to predict where they will come up next.
Our day had been careful timed to get through the Narrows. They're best passed at slack tide, when the water is benign, though being carried through with the tide can be an exciting adrenaline rush! Getting through against the current is a risky business even with a powerboat, and would be impossible for Prism!
We made our way through without drama or incident, and anchored for the night at Billy Goat Bay. The lush kelp blocked the first entrance, but the second was passable. We found good holding with a decent amount of swinging room, and settled in to watch a pair of bald eagles adding sticks to their nest. We couldn't see any chicks, but construction and maintenance were definitely keeping the duo busy.
Our final leg took us up to Port McNeill. The currents in the Johnstone Straight made this last day a bit of a slog at times, but the moody clouds and ever-changing weather over the mountainsides meant there was always something beautiful to look at. We dropped anchor and had a day to organise last minute provisions before our friends Jacqui and Pete arrived from the UK.
With Jacqui and Pete cosily installed, we embarked on a week of exploration and whale watching. The resident Northern pod of orca were off elsewhere, but we saw plenty of humpbacks, Pacific white-sided dolphins and harbour porpoises. Many seals lived in the area, lounging on rocks, 'mermaiding' their heads and tails out of the water to avoid the cold rising tide and popping up to investigate the boat. In Farewell Bay, the two residents seemed extremely friendly, even showing up to say good bye when we raised our anchor the following morning.
After another day cruising with whales, we motored round to Village Island. We don't often get to raise the sails during our summer cruising in this area. The air is usually still. When there is wind, it gets funnelled between the islands and due to Murphy's Law it inevitably become a headwind.
Village Island is a beautiful anchorage. On a clear day (which is a bit of a rarity), the mountains of Vancouver Island are visible. We've seen seals, porpoises, otters and weasels swimming in the waters around the island. Low tide attracts herons and wading birds, eagles keep watch from the tops of the trees and ravens flutter about getting up to mischief. Last summer, a bear had made its home behind the remains of the indigenous village of 'Mimkwa̱mlis, and this year we saw deer grazing on nearby islets, presumably accessed at low tide. We piled into the dinghy to putter around the islands, and spent hours sat in the cockpit watching two eagles on their nest. We were also happy to see last year's chick flapping around, still in his brown plumage. Next year his head and tail will turn white as he reaches maturity.
When we finally managed to drag ourselves away from nest watch, we took Island Prism down Beware Passage to reach Potts Lagoon. GPS has made this ominously named passage straightforward to navigate, but it would have been a complicated business back in the days of chart, compass and sextant. Wikipedia suggests that the stretch of water was named after HMS Beware, but I think that the presence of Dead Point, Caution Rock, Beware Rock, Care Rock and Care Island plus numerous unnamed shoals all present a more telling story- you want to be paying attention when you're cruising round here!
We anchored twice in the passage. Our first stop was near Dead Point, at Monk's Wall. There were never any monks here, but a family of white settlers quite literally made it their home, building their house themselves from stones they gathered on the island. We took the dinghy ashore to poke around rock pools filled with clear water, and to hunt for the remains of an old house. Lengths of wall were still standing, including the sides of the main entrance. Previous explorers had discovered pottery, glass, show leather and ironwork, which had all been laid out in an informal outdoor museum. We listened to the ravens and wondered if the creator of the large pile of fresh bear poo was far away. The mosquitoes certainly weren't- they'd claimed this place, thank you very much, and all visitors were welcome to be the buffet. I managed to complete a sketch before escaping to the bug-free rocky shore, where Jim was nibbling on pungent wild leeks. Jacqui and Pete soon joined us to watch the turquoise water, and enjoy not being nibbled themselves.
At the other end of Beware Passage was Kalugwis, the site of another First Nations village. Emily Carr painted here, and old photos show striking totems and imposing long houses. Today, the village site is overgrown. A couple of roofs of more modern buildings can be seen peeking out from the mass of vegetation, but the carvings and long houses are either long gone or absolutely engulfed. We found the remains of part of the board walk on the foreshore, and strolled along the white shell beach. The shells come from the midden, the remains of centuries of seafood dinners. Rusted metal, fragments glass and shards of pottery add splashes of colour- oxidised greens and reds, and the bright patterns of the china chosen by somebody long ago. The pottery is the thing that makes me feel most in touch with the people in these places. Willow pattern, florals, bright geometric- what do the patterns say about the people who lived amongst these islands?
The plan was to anchor at Potts Lagoon for a night. It's a sheltered anchorage with a few float homes around the edge, ranging from joyfully bright to rather dilapidated. A series of islands and inlets mean there's plenty to explore, including the interior of the lagoon itself. At high tide, it's possible to take a dinghy into the shallow lagoon at the back of the inlet. At other times, the water pouring out over boulders creates a set of salt water rapids which would be impossible to navigate in our soft-bottomed inflatable dinghy. We timed the tide carefully when we set out to explore, entering shortly before slack tide. The current was considerable, but there was enough water for us to get through. As we progressed further, we stayed alert for rocks lurking below the surface. The channel made a dog leg into a pool, containing an old wharf, possibly a relic of logging in the past. The shallow water may have provided us with a challenge, but it created the perfect hunting grounds for kingfishers. There were dozens of them, plunging into the water after fish, giving shrill staccato cries as we passed.
The best wildlife viewing turned out to be from the boat. We'd barely seen a bear all week, then found that bears are like buses- you wait for ages then they all come along at once. Jacqui was thrilled to see a cinnamon-coloured bear strolling along the foreshore. It suddenly broke into a run, and dashed off the beach. Then another bear appeared on the beach. It strode purposefully along the foreshore, disappearing into the trees where the first bear had also vanished. Half an hour or so later, there was more bear activity on the shore. Another golden-coloured bear ambled across, this one with the hump and shaggy ruff of a grizzly. It rolled some rocks, searching for crunchy crabs and other critters, before traipsing off into the vegetation.
Pairs of eagles kept watch from the tree tops and a kingfisher claimed the top of a derelict wharf as its lookout of choice, occassionally plunging off to snatch passing fish. Ravens tocked and chattered and the breeze barely rippled the surface of the water.
It was a paradise but Jacqui and Pete's adventure was drawing to a close. We planned a route back to Alert Bay via Baronet Passage, a long, straight channel. As the tide was low, we kept our eyes open for foraging bears and eventually spotted one on the foreshore. We lost sight of him as he rounded the headland, but we hoped to catch up with him on the other side. Indeed we did- but we hadn't expected him to be in the water! He'd decided that this was the moment to swim between islands, and he obviously hadn't looked both ways before crossing the channel. He seemed a little disgruntled to be sharing the stretch of water with a little yellow sailboat, paddling in front of us doing the bear paddle. We kept our distance as much as the current would allow and made the most of the photo opportunity. Reaching the other side, he clambered out, gave himself a good shake and plodded off- presumably to complain about the terrible traffic these days.
Alert Bay is always fascinating. It's full of colourful houses and carved totems, with old buildings built out over the sea. It's not picture-postcard-perfect as some of the structures are slowly crumbling, but that's one of the things I love about it. Jacqui, Pete and I enjoyed a slow and pleasant morning, exploring the Umista Cultural Centre, grabbing coffee at Culture Shock and meeting Jimmie for lunch. We decided on Canadian cuisine- halibut and poutine (hot chips with cheese curds and gravy), and made the great decision to eat at Passn Thyme. Jacqui and I decided to enjoy a glass of wine with the feast. Part way through the meal, Jim pointed excitedly out the window “Look! Orcas!” We all turned quickly, as did the neighbouring tables. No, there wasn't a lunchtime cetacean cabaret. Jim just wanted to distract me so he could drink a big glug of my wine. His punishment was to helm us back to Port McNeill, where we enjoyed a farewell dinner and said goodbye to Jacqui and Pete after a fantastic week of adventures.
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!
It's been a busy few months for Island Prism's crew. We've been tied up at Causeway Marina, opposite the historic Empress Hotel. Prism's engine has been being difficult and cantankerous, requiring hoisting out and extensive repairs. Jim's replaced the leaky seals that were causing all the problems, and given an extensive overhaul that will hopefully (maybe? perhaps?) give us a summer of smooth operation.
My painting has been far steadier than my blogging over the last few months. The static boat, frigid weather and state of busyness led to a bit of a wordifying block. I have been creating regularly, especially with my watercolours, but my sketching has been pretty sketchy. Thank goodness for the local Urban Sketchers group, whose regular meetings stopped me from getting too rusty! The details of my creative flow over the last few months could (and probably should) be a blog post of its own, but my recent paintings have been a huge reminder of how important sketching is to my creativity. I've been pulling out my sketch books and revisiting my favourite West Coast spots by turning them into full sized watercolours. Some of them are on display at the Delta Ocean Pointe hotel in downtown Victoria, where I'm the resident artist for the month of May. I'm demonstrating watercolour painting every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this month, so please pop in and say hi if you're in the area! I'll be joining in the Hatley Castle Paint-In on Mother's Day too.
We'll be in Victoria until the end of the month, when we'll untie the dock lines and embark on a summer of sailing! The sail plan is to make our way up to Telegraph Cove for adventures with friends and family, and then to explore the secluded nooks of the Broughton Archipelago. I'm sure there will be plenty to paint!
Whether it's spring or autumn where you are, I hope you're enjoying balmy days that are just the right temperature. I'll be back very soon with more details of boat repairs and arty life, and I'll leave you with a few more paintings to enjoy!
I'm starting off 2019 with a bang, with my debut solo art show opening in Victoria, British Columbia! 'Pacific Reflections' charts our sail boat voyage from New Zealand to British Columbia, and exploring French Polynesia and Hawaii on the way. My ocean inspired watercolour paintings include art created on the voyage, as well as new works inspired by my sketchbooks and revealed for the first time at the exhibition. The show runs from January 23 until February 10 at the Cafe Gallery of the Cedar Hill Recreation Centre, and I'm holding a 'Meet the Artist' reception from 1-3 pm on Saturday 26 January. You can find out more details on the event page.
When I applied to Cedar Hill Arts Centre for the chance to hold a solo exhibition, I really didn't think I'd be successful. Back in September, when applications were due, I'd only had art in one juried show, with an unjuried exhibition lined up. I thought that the solo show application would be a good learning experience, so I did some research, wrote my artist bio and put together an exhibition application. I didn't think I'd be successful. I was still too new as an artist; surely they'd want more experienced people. But I clicked send anyway, and really wasn't surprised when a month or so later I hadn't heard back. I applied for gallery shows at the Port Moody Arts Centre, Coast Collective and the Victoria Arts Council, and was very excited when I had work accepted into all three, and was invited to join Coast Collective. My Etsy sales were going well and I was progressing up the learning curve of trying to make my art into more than a hobby. It was hard work, and the administration side of things kept me busy.
Then just before Christmas, I received an email saying that Cedar Hill had accepted my application! I'd been given one of the first slots of the year, which meant I needed to get to work. I had been delighted that my original paintings were popular Christmas gifts, but the side effect of this was that I had a month to put an exhibition together and was a little lacking in work to go in it! Another artist told me that my small watercolours would look lost in the cafe gallery I'd been assigned, and I was left feeling that this amazing opportunity would turn into a huge flop.
How to solve that problem? Paint, of course! We'd been moored up in Victoria for December but my sketchbooks provided a goldmine of ideas and inspiration. At times the potential felt overwhelming. What should I paint next? What would best tell the story of our voyage? I wanted the marine environment to be a focus, and also to explore humanity's relationship with the ocean. In the end, a lot of my paintings used an above/ below the water approach, which would cover both bases. The upcoming show also provided good motivation to try some bigger watercolours, venturing into the exciting world of 16 x 20". I was worried that smaller works would lack impact, and wanted some big, vibrant, colourful paintings to grab people's attention. The expanded size also expanded my horizons. I could swing between fine detail and large washes, which kept me engaged, and the result was a series of paintings with the impact I was looking for. I'm tempted to try increasing size even more in future, if the paper will fit on the table in the boat!
It's not a surprise that the intense periods of painting helped me refine my technique. The experience of preparing for the show helped me in other ways too. I find I'm more productive in the mornings, so was getting up between 5 and 6 am to start creating. The pressure also taught me to say no and to prioritise. Commissions with a later completion date could be put to one side until the show was hung, however enthusiastic the client, and I learned to say no to things which would just cause extra stress and workload if they weren't essential and beneficial in the long term. I just have to hold on to that thought now the pressure is off!
In the end, I had about 35 ocean themed paintings to take with me, exploring the ocean and the wonderful creatures that live there. The pieces ranged from paintings I'd made during the voyage to new work I'd created in the run up to the show.
The images I'm sharing today chronicle our journey through French Polynesia then Hawaii, with bright tropical colours and warm, gentle seas. You might recognise a couple as being larger updates of other paintings I've created. Most of the others are inspired by drawings in my sketchbook. It's really emphasised the importance of my sketchbook practice. My sketches recapture experiences at a deeper level than photos. Looking at the colours I'd used in my drawings helped me select palettes for these bigger pieces. The way I'd interpreted the scene when I was there often flowed in to the finished piece, for example the pinks and purples in the mountain of 'Oponohu Bay'. Painting from my sketchbook often felt easier than choosing photos as I'd already done part of the colour and composition work, and could now develop it further.
After a couple of weeks of painting madly, I was feeling frazzled. I hadn't reached burn out stage but I was definitely stressed. We were moving the boat from Victoria to Parksville for the month and the impending two day sail in potentially rough water worried me even further. Could I afford to lose the two days it would take us to get there? If it was rough, my painting would be confined to sketching and I wouldn't be able to make any progress on the show.
It turned out the experience was just what I needed. On the first day I helmed all morning with a couple of breaks to sketch the gorgeous sunrise, then I left the wheel to Jim and spent the afternoon dozing and reading. We anchored in gorgeous Princess Bay for the evening, with seals and bald eagles and pretty little diving ducks. It was raining but that didn't matter. My soul felt lifted and I slept wonderfully.
The next day followed a similar pattern. Helm, sketch, feed Jimmie, work on a giant cephalopod for a Coast Collective show I'd thought I'd need to miss out on. We met a pod of orca with a calf and saw thirty bald eagles swooping down on a ball of fish. It was exactly what I needed, I just hadn't realised it.
In Parksville, I got right back to my painting schedule, but was careful to take time out for walks and family. I'd never stopped enjoying painting, but it felt good to dial down the stress level a bit. Anxiety hit again when a business course I'd signed up for started. The course was online but we were encouraged to keep up with the class. I tried, but then saw the gorgeous arty responses other people posted to the lessons and felt a severe case of inadequacy. After battling through for three days, I pressed pause. The materials would still be there when my show was hung, and then I'd get to enjoy the 'Money Badass' class I'd signed up for with 'Make Art That Sells'.
Two days before the show, I put down my brushes to spend the day framing. I'm glad I stopped at this point as I'd underestimated how long it would take to frame so many pictures, and I will certainly allow longer in future! I prepared the tags to hang next to the work, printed off my bio and some information about the show, helped Jimmie pack everything into the car and put together a bag of everything I could possibly need, from scissors to a spirit level.
We left in plenty of time to meet with Dixie MacUisdin, who instructed me on how to use the hanging wires and gave me plenty of advice on organising the paintings. Rather than sorting them by place, she suggested I organised them by colour, and put my brightest works on the back wall to grab people's attention. The tropical paintings still ended up together, and I don't think anyone will mind a few Canadian orcas amongst the watercolours of New Zealand. Hanging took about five hours, with time to make sure everything was level and give the glass a final clean. We managed to get out of the way just as the runners' club arrived, but I'd run out of time to take many photos of the installation.
If you're in the Victoria area then I'd love to see you at 'Pacific Reflections'! I'll be there from 1-3pm on Saturday 26 January, and the show runs until 10 February. Click the button below to go to the event page for more details. If you're further afield and would like to purchase a piece from the exhibition then please contact me. I can ship unframed paintings worldwide.
10% from all sales from the show go to SeaChange, a marine conservation society which connects ecosystems, cultures and communities in Victoria and the Salish Sea. The society is dedicated to education and conserving the marine and watershed environments I love. You can find out more about them or get involved directly through their website https://seachangesociety.com/.
Our sail from Broughton Archipelago to Desolation Sound was beautiful- and required some very careful timing. The current carried the boat through a succession of narrows as our speed topped ten knots (unheard of for sturdy but heavy Island Prism)! The passes we went through were only to be attempted round slack tide- whirlpools and rapids made them treacherous at other times, and the currents were too strong for Island Prism to ever stand a chance of going against them. We took turns on the helm so that I had the opportunity to sketch as we cruised, though I had to move my brush fast as the landscape passed us by.
Desolation Sound was the kind of cruising ground which could provide years of sailing all by itself. A maze of passes and islands stretch between Vancouver Island and the mainland, with the Coastal Range as a dramatic backdrop. We regularly saw humpbacks and bald eagles, and plenty of seals and sea lions cruised the waters or sprawled on the rocks along the shore.
Shoal Bay was a special little anchorage. The community there is tiny, but there is a wharf, and in the summer resident Mark opens his deck and living room as a pub. We dropped the anchor in 13 metres of water and rowed ashore for a glass of wine. The pub was full of yachties, and the communal tables create an easy way to meet people. We soon got trading stories. Tales of cruising Alaska caught my imagination, whilst bluewater-sailors-to-be Jake and Patricia listened to our stories of Polynesia and gave us some great information about local anchoring spots. We wound up on Prism with dinner and a night cap or two, and arranged to meet up again the next day in Phillips Arm.
Phillips Arm was part of the mainland, and was known to be a good spot to see grizzly bears- so much so that the local residents didn't recommend walking long distances ashore without bear bells and a rifle. We were keen to see a grizzly but preferred to do our searching from the water. We piled into Patricia and Jake's spacious tender and made our way up the Phillips River. A herd of elk were grazing in the grass just above the high tide line as we approached the river, and there was a healthy population of Canada geese. A shallow section by the river mouth, full of fallen trees, was a favoured haul out spot with seals, who 'mermaided' with nose and flippers in the air in what I always assume is an attempt to keep out of the water. Their poise and ability to maintain the pose for ages reminds me of yoga.
Salmon jumped as we continued down the river, and we saw a couple of herons keeping vigil on the riverbanks. The bears were sadly absent, but we took a stroll along the shore to talk to some researchers and volunteers who has spent the day counting the annual salmon return. The day was rounded off very nicely with an excellent dinner cooked by Patricia, and they were kind enough to gift us with a cruising guide to the area.
We next made our way to Cortes Island. Getting there was a little bit magical. Our day was carefully timed to get through the Yaculta Rapids at slack tide- the rapids would be so powerful that we wouldn't stand a chance of going against them, and we'd heard that they weren't a picnic even if we rode the tide through. Our timing meant that the experience was uneventful, and we were soon at a white sandy spit. It looked almost tropical, and was covered in sailing dinghys as there was a race meet on. The little anchorage was crowded with the sail boats and power boats that were accommodation for the competitors. We kept going as this wasn't our destination, instead approaching the steep cliff face of Cortes. Like something from Indiana Jones, as we got close the rock wall revealed a narrow opening. We squeezed through, painted rock towering above us on both sides, until the gorge opened out into a lagoon fringed with a few houses and a marina.
We anchored in front of the marina and campground, and rowed ashore. Here we found hot showers and a swimming pool. A few dollars bought us a day pass. It was late in the day, but we still had a few hours to soak- and the final hour was adults only. We had the hot tub to ourselves then, with a great view over the anchorage. When a live music performance began, we had the best seats in the house- and when the pool shut we moved to a bench to carry on listening and enjoy a dinner of local tomatoes, bread and goats cheese bought from the little store.
We enjoyed it so much that we extended our stay by another day. There was lots to do- the island has a busy art community and I enjoyed poking round the galleries and excellent farmers market at Mansun's Landing. At Jimmie's suggestion, we went oyster gathering- carefully checking that the fishery was open and safe. Jim's fishing license let us collect twelve oysters a day- and these were beauties. Between the number of oysters and the huge population of sand dollars, it was hard to find space to put our feet as we selected our shellfish. They grow them big here- and with a bucketful of a dozen oysters bigger than my hands, we returned to Prism. I helmed as Jimmie shucked them, and I was treated to a late lunch of Jim's oyster burgers (especially excellent with bacon- but then, isn't everything)?
The wildfires burning around BC were still having an effect on the air quality. There was usually a slight haze around, and the sunsets were particularly pink. Combined with the wildlife we saw, the colour combination inspired a series of paintings. The first was of one of the loons from Village Island. I selected quin rose to achieve the bright pop of pink I wanted for the sun. I found quin magenta makes beautiful greys and blacks with jadeite and perylene green, so chose these to round out my palette. I'm not normally a particularly pink person, but the effect was very harmonious and I was able to create rich, deep blacks for the loon and a huge range of soft greys and greens for the vegetation and reflections. Part of my fascination with loons comes from a version of a West Coast Native myth called How the Loon Lost her Voice. It explains how gentle loon lost her beautiful song when trying to help Raven regain the stolen sun. Raven was ultimately successful, but Loon cries plaintively every day at sunset, saying goodbye to the sun and remembering what she lost.
After my tribute to Loon, I got thinking about the elk and geese I'd seen. I wondered if they ever paid each other any attention when they share the same grassy swathes as they did in Phillips Arm. Adding a brown to my palette, I painted a meeting of species- 'Connecting'. In 'Together' I got thinking again about the close family bonds of flocks of Canada geese and pods of orca, and wanted to represent these. I snuck in Moonglow- a wonderful granulating watercolour paint which is perfect for orcas. It toned in beautifully, and I used it again for 'Exuberance'- a breaching orca of Telegraph Cove- and 'Seal Yoga'. 'Guardian' was a tribute to the bear we met in Mamalilikulla (see my previous blog post if you haven't read about that close encounter), and 'In Flight' was based on a photo I took of a great Gray Heron at Phillips Arm. 'Elementals' celebrates the Pacific white-sided dolphins and bald eagles of the Broughton Archipelago.
I found there were advantages to using a limited palette. Because the colour choices were already made, I could focus more on tone and composition. Bright colour couldn't save the day, and if I hadn't planned the picture well, nothing was going to provide a distraction. I worked on my colour mixing and my use of value (light and dark). I think the series has helped me become a better painter- and I've extended it beyond the initial series of five images I set out to create.
The original paintings from the series are currently being exhibited at Coast Collective's Gifts and Wishes show and Port Moody Art Centre's Winter Treasures exhibition.
If you're looking for an extra special Christmas gift for a loved one (or a winter treat for yourself), limited edition signed giclee prints of 'Guardian', 'Elementals' and 'In Flight' are available from my Etsy shop. I've also had a range of blank greeting cards printed, with a range of designs suitable for winter birthdays, festive messages, or just to drop a note. There are also some new original paintings and limited edition giclees in the shop! Gift wrapping and world-wide shipping are available if you want to take the stress out of Christmas shopping and give a unique gift- or give the gift of a commission for an affordable yet truly personal gift. Finally, whilst I don't run sales often, as a thank you to my readers I'm giving 10% off all original paintings between 19 and 25 November. I hope you see something special!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.