Much of what an artist does is observe. When I quietly look—whether it’s a face, an animal, a landscape, or a mundane, everyday object-- I learn more, about the object of my gaze and about myself. Writers, composers, and choreographers, as well as visual artists, carefully study life to collect material to respond and communicate with their audience.
Last week, my world suddenly changed! Due to an unexpected fall (are they ever expected?) during our recent snow in the Mojave Desert, my hand is in a cast and my knee twisted (waiting for an MRI). Let me assure you, I feel incredibly fortunate, and this brief rest will allow me time to slow down and ponder many things.
Since this is a painting blog, let’s start with observation. Much of my best work follows careful observation of color, sunlight, small details and how they relate to each other. Yesterday, upon the counsel of a wise friend, I sat in our backyard to quietly to observe and to allow my senses to experience the surroundings. We have a view of open land and often see coyotes, roadrunners, and rabbits among the Joshua Trees as we glance out a window.
At first, I saw no wildlife. Clouds slowly moved indicating the approaching storm. The warm sunlight and gentle breeze comfortably enveloped me. I heard a few bird calls and random dog barks. Suddenly, a larger bird flew into the cholla, which I was just thinking needed to be cut back. At first, I was fascinated that he could fly among the branches that are so antagonistic to mammals! He carried something large in his mouth, and I thought he was seeking a safe enclosure for his snack. Soon another bird appeared, and I thought a confrontation would arise! Soon, I realized this pair of cactus wrens were building a nest! Well, it is obvious I do not do a lot of bird watching. However, I was encouraged to be developing my powers of observation, and although I cannot use my hand effectively, I can make mental notes for the future. I feel like a squirrel, storing up a few kernels. I love to journal, and without my hand, I dictated into my iPad.
Above - cactus wren nest in the making!
No matter where you are, let me encourage you to develop your observational powers. Our lives grow incredibly busy, and even the most innocent and noteworthy activities steal our time.
To the left is a sketch made last summer in Gourdon, France. It was too hot to stand and sketch the view from a tower; instead I yielded to sketching the view from the cool grass under a tree!
Today, I had been scheduled to teach and all-day plein air workshop for the Desert Institute at Black Rock Campground, part of Joshua Tree National Park. I was sad to cancel. A bit brisk, but today is one of those gorgeous days we desert dwellers brag about. I chose to drive to the site, close to my home. What a joy to see the clouds, the shifting sunlight, and many visiting campers! I noted busy figures, brightly colored tents, and the changing values and colors of of the Joshua Tree spines.
Photography is quite different from sketching, yet it provides an opportunity to record, making mental notes about colors, shapes, temperature and mood. I opened my car window to experience the cool breeze, and I admit I am happy that I will not sleep in a tent tonight. The wind is now beginning to grow fierce. I noticed several campers struggling over sheets of nylon and poles, hoping they would magically assemble themselves!
Three photos from Black Rock Campground today
Here is a sketch created in France last summer. I learned so much by carefully observing!
However, when time does not allow you time sketch or paint, mentally note small details such as the jagged silhouettes of mountains, the curve of a mouth, and the color blue of distant hills. Imagine your pencil or brush on the surface making these shapes. Note what colors you would mix to achieve that specific tone you see. Encourage your kids to identify shapes in the clouds! Try to imagine the scene as a black and white study - or take a photo and change it to noir!
These activities do wonders for stress levels as well. As we move away from the blue screens of our computers and spend time in God’s grandeur – or even a crowd observing the movements of figures, our spirits and minds have time to take a short restful vacation. Spend some quiet time observing! Thank you to my good friend for your suggestion!
Note: The last 15 months have challenged us! This month I encourage you to learn from the isolation and I wish you a cautious, but joyous June reopening!
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