Hi writers! I hope you had a great time this month trying something new and writing about it! I did not write every day. Nor did I paint every day. But I did a whole lot more writing and painting than I would have done without the challenge.
Now onward to something new! Join me tomorrow as we begin a two-month lead-in to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In September we’re going to grab a good old-fashioned prompt book (I’ll be using 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers Grotto) and generate just a ton of raw material. We’re also going to absorb some lessons about good storytelling from Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Then in October we are going to get our ducks in a row, focusing on plotting, outlining, and world-building. I hope you’ll join me!
Day 20 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
It has a generic name: masking fluid. But I always think of it as frisket. I wonder if it should be capitalized, like Kleenex or Xerox? The acrid tang of liquid rubber. I remember–too late–not to shake it so hard. It is frothy and pink when I unscrew the jar, and the little bubbles refuse to dissipate. Transferred to the page in sweeping streams they finally fizz out, giving everything a fuzzy aspect. It suits what I’m painting, I suppose. Nothing too careful. I do it fast. The stems and twigs, little upturned blossom cups.
And later, when it’s dry, I use what’s left of the old paint in my palette, splashing it on in a messy wet wash of yellow, green, and blue.
Finally, with a square rubber pick-up, I lift the stringy pink gum, am rewarded with a crisp white negative image.
Day 19 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
I gave myself a one-hour Internet course in the history of watercolor painting. I was drawn, most of all, to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Not her famous blossoms or skulls, but a few bold landscapes. Especially Red Mesa and Canyon With Crows. I made my own Red Mesa–not getting the greens quite right, wishing I had a larger brush–but all the while picturing Georgia, standing in the cooling air, watching the sun paint the canyon walls the colors of a child’s schoolroom. She must have known, with such certainty, that she had come to precisely the right place, was doing precisely the right work . She heard a call that was answered with these paintings.
O’Keeffe was drawn to the American southwest. She painted landscapes in the badlands of northern New Mexico, a place she called “the Far Away.” She would set out alone, early in the morning, in a customized Ford Model-A. She later bought property called “Ghost Ranch,” with views of the painted desert cliffs. I’ve read that, as you walk through that area, a scene she painted may modestly settle into view. The director of the ranch will tell you: “She didn’t paint the obvious.”
But Red Mesa is not one of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings. It belongs to a series of 50 or so watercolors–the Palo Duro Paintings (I think they’ve also been called the “Canyon Suite”)–she is said to have made from 1916 to 1918, when she lived in the Texas panhandle. MWhen shown together at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, in 2016, it was said that the paintings formed “a period of radical innovation … the moment when [her] commitment to abstraction [wa]s firmly established.” Lost and then found, their provenance questioned. Are they truly hers, or the work of her students? Some mystery surrounds, or once surrounded, the paintings.
Mysterious paintings from a mysterious place. A bit of travel writing evokes it. The striking contrast between the red sandstone and green junipers, lavender dusk falling down over it all. The place has been described as “a magical world of simple yet powerful forms and hot, primary colors.” The paintings do it serious justice.
Day 19 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
It is the first marks that often have the most life. Practice strokes made in a hurry, round and round, while the brush is far too wet. Heedless drips, drops, and C-curves. Liquid whirlpools, leaping remainder-marks from brush cleanings and color trials. A scrap of paper cast aside. Wholly unofficial. Nothing.
But later, there it slips from the spiral-bound pages. And there they are, the pirouettes and sashays, soft pink asymmetry of a traveling ballet slipper. Still nothing. Not quite bud or petal. Too unintentional to be abstract art. But there is something there, within the nothingness. Some pure gesture and movement, unfurled from the brush like a banner and waved aloft, free of all expectations.
Day 17 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
Painting a hummingbird is an exercise in slow motion. A whirring reel clipped to a single frame. Let loose a spill of inky blue for the fast-flapping wings. Your brain knowns the details there are unseeable. It will not protest. Save the fine tip of your brush for the feathered blue-green belly, radial starburst halo of the staring eye. There lies motionlessness, the part suspended beneath the drum-beaten air. There the circle of stillness, shared with a blossoming branch, calm eye of the storm from which all else is thrown. A sort of fleeting symmetry is at work here, centripetal and centrifugal forces tugging at the eye. And there, at the not-quite-center of it all, a tiny staring face, as surprised to see us in this frozen moment as we must be to be seen.
Day 16 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
Paint a shape with clean water. Load your brush with color and touch it down. Watch it flow in little rivers of its own choosing, seeking out its boundaries. Work fast, before the shape dries. Move with intuition. Do not despair the puddles; they will dry. The wavy paper will flatten. Let your colors bleed and burst, seep, swirl, and soften into each other. Let the surface evoke a hide tough as leather, creased and scarred, pocked, chaffed, and mottled. But also let bloom there murky pools, light filtered through water, suspended clouds of interstellar dust. Let there be whole galaxies in the dimpled skin of this whale. And when it has all dried, come back. Give him a watchful eye that tells you he knows it all, and more.
Day 15 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
Sometimes I’m happy with the light pencil sketch done before I even mix my paints. Faint lines meant to dissolve into the painting or be lifted up later with a soft eraser. But I don’t mind the lines peaking out. It’s hard to think of watercolor paintings, no matter how complete or refined, as anything other than sketches. It seems natural for the bones of the painting to show.
The little hummingbird that is about to jump onto the page in a splash of blue and green must have some starting point. We must say, here, his round shining eye, here the curve of his body, rounded, arching away from the curve of the flower stems, mirroring their lines with his whole self, completing the circle.
And for the whale, lumpy and morose, with its great jutting forehead and sliver of jaw, the proportions must be just right. The placement of the eye is crucial, the relationship between the dark pupil and the white sclera, the direction of the gaze. That will be everything. And it is all there, in a faint trace of graphite, before the first drop of paint hits the page.
I read a picture book–Ike’s Incredible Ink, by Brianne Farley–with my son recently that reminded me so much of this month’s challenge. The main character, Ike, wants to write a story. “He had read many incredible stories, and he felt sure he could write one of his own. He was ready to start.” But of course, when little Ike sits down at his very nice desk, in his very nice, book-lined study, he is totally blocked. He cannot think of a single thing to write about. Sound familiar? Ike tries a lot of things, to no avail. He finally becomes obsessed with creating his very own ink to write with. If only he can do this, he thinks, then inspiration will surely strike.
Ike winds up making a very special ink indeed, from shadows he pulls from beneath chairs, because they are “shady and shifty and mysterious”; from the inky-black feathers of booga birds; from the dark side of the moon (here, he embarks on a small side project: building a space ship), which is “velvety and pretty and round.” He then makes an awful mess blending it all together. But, let me tell you, Ike is pretty happy with the result. He sits back down at his desk to write.
I know what you’re thinking. The fancy ink didn’t help, did it? That’s just what writers do. We are such extravagant procrastinators. But no, Ike sits down and writes his incredible story. All about shadows, booga birds, space travel, and the mixology of truly incredible ink. The cure for writer’s block? Living! Doing things–really doing them–and taking note of it all as we go.
Hello writers! So sorry for the long silence. Life got in the way of my posts. (One kid had a tonsillectomy, the other started Kindergarten.) But I managed to keep up my painting and journal entries. I am going to try to post them retroactively and catch up. I hope the month has led you to write about some new experiences too! If you are just checking in or need a refresher, here is a description of this month’s challenge.
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Day 13 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
There is something about painting the desert that is just right for watercolors. The muted palette, odd traces of color in the sky and striations in rocks, the way a low-swinging sun can paint the land surprising colors. Books on beginning watercolor techniques are full of cacti, distant rolling mountains, little hummocks of sand and vegetation. Nothing intimidating. Not the layered growth of forest or jungle. Nothing as illusive as trying to capture the proper shape and color of water. Everything is straightforward, stripped down; simple forms in a simple light, repeating themselves on into the distance.
Day 12 – A Watercolorist’s Journal
I write in defense of small sketches, in writing and in painting. Gesture drawings, a tiny tree, small studies of herbaceous leaves. Like character sketches, flash fiction, sketch stories, drabbles; they hint at whole worlds.