Nature Abstractions

Not a Leaf

A rare treat it was to host my Muse sister-friend-student, Muriel for a few days last week. I met her way back in 2009 when she showed up in one of my early Muse groups. Her first full day here in Olympia it rained all day long, so we happily sequestered in my studio for a Muse group of two, getting out the paints and inks and tools of the trade. Did the whole thing, from poetry reading to meditation to art play to free write and sharing. The sequence works like it always has. She worked throughout the day to finish her stunning piece (and I failed to photograph it!)

Chinese ink applied with folded pen, fingers, acrylic paint and collaged paper on w/c paper, 10X11″

Not a Leaf

A stroll in the garden with eyes squinted to discern that which must at first go unnoticed, and even after serious moments of open vision, blank minded thrall, still invisible as isolated things but rather made of ephemerals, glances of leaf skin and petal wisp and fuzzy something and long skinny filaments of ribboned metaphor, not exactly a bird or properly a flower or a dead rodent even, and certainly not a small crowd of people on their way to the scene.

The particulars catch the eye and a story could be told about about them. Here I chose to let the mind keep wandering as it does when the spring garden offers new banquets for the senses each day.

I had more time that day and the gel prints were still out and intriguing, so I did another piece.

cut and paste gel print collage

I could call this one No eyes watching me.



Daler Rowney sepia and antelope brown acrylic inks painted with brush and water

Gentle you are, subtle too

Formed by earth and water 

A helping of atmosphere

Sepia the ink stuff of squid

Granulating in pools

Particles pairing with H2O

To whisper the story/tale of creation

Of blooms too impossibly perfect to be believed

As how can one wrap the senses adequately

Round the wonders of spring

The first wasps, sheer moments from pupa 

Bunnies lounging eye deep in grass

Munching munching munching

How impossible it seems to the winter wearied soul

Who had almost abandoned the thought of a sun

Committed to undressing and warming bare skin and

The petal tender garments encasing the bloom.


And so, while the ink was out, I thought I’d see how it looked in a portrait, as always, from the Sktchy Museum app.


pencil and sepia ink applied with brush on w/c paper

The water shapes did the work of sculpting this wonderful face, starting lightly with a touch of ink and charging in a darker concentration where needed. After the pencil drawing was done, the portrait came together in minutes with the ink. Sepia, after all, the luscious tone of antique portraits in early photography. I call this painting-with-water-shapes though much of water media painting can be viewed in this way.

Have you tried this? Would you like to? What’s your experience?


Tipping into Tulips

me, mesmerized by tulips at Knutsen Farms, photo courtesy Paige Dietrich

What happens when you put just-bloomed tulips shoulder to shoulder in rainbow rows, and on the warmest sunny day in six months? A bunch of artists show up to try their hand at the impossible task of painting “it”. It was a Tacoma Urban Sketchers meet up.  We of the neighboring Olympia contingent arrived an hour and a half late and dove in quickly. 


Determined to get the color in I figured I’d just start there and use lots of paint to speed things up. Soon I’d lost all sense of perspective, but it didn’t seem to matter. A young mother and her one-year-old were in my row, so I got the tinkling background music of glee from a little girl who had just learned to walk and couldn’t seem to stop, he giggles directed more at the ground moving beneath her feet than the glorious blooms on either side.

At the end of another row a woman was sitting in a bathtub. I know. Why? and what was it doing there? A perfect backdrop or foreground for a sketch of the tulips! I would have snapped a picture and sketched her and the bathtub later, but I’d left the house in a hurry and left my iPhone on the counter. What artist goes to a tulip farm without their camera? Grrrrr. 

There was just enough time for a quick drawing of paperwhites on the tractor before we headed home, satisfied with our first “real” spring day well spent. 

More pictures can be found on our Facebook page. And if you’re local, you are welcome to join us some time!

A Story of Spring

watercolor on tissue-textured gessoed w/c paper

If you live here in the Pacific Northwest like me, you’re probably watching out, day after day, for new signs of spring. There are some bulbs in my yard that are growing soooooo slowly, holding their bloom-breath, waiting for the sun to shine more than fifteen minutes at a time. The story of spring this year is a long drawn out one requiring some patience. One must let the eye wander slowly enough to catch a certain swelling on that dead looking branch, a subtle color shifting of a branch from brown to red before the green pokes out. You have to keep up the wonder-wandering. The Irish never found the leprechaun and his pot of gold by rushing through the spring woods. 

I was tempted to add some blossoms and wildflowers to this scene, to move things along. But this is a magical forest which reveals its secrets to those who deign to sit and rest a while. If you start to see those eyes, don’t be spooked. They mean you no harm. Great them civilly and the inhabitants may even speak to you!

Do you want to play with this tissue paper tree texture? The Sonoma County Muse Group challenged themselves to a lesson they found on youtube: Experimental Watercolor Techniques with Linda Brown 

Not wanting to miss out, I tried it on my own. Thanks Linda Brown! Give it a try and make it your own.

UW Cherry Blossoms

It’s always a treat to join the large group of Seattle Urban Sketchers for their meet ups. From my home in Olympia it’s about the same distance I used to drive from Sonoma Co. to San Francisco for that group’s meet ups.

Last Wednesday I was not prepared for the surge of humanity that was filling the streets and the parking lots of the University of Washington’s colossal campus. Wasn’t it just a regular Wednesday afternoon? Yet everyone seemed to be streaming in the same direction as us, to the quad. When we reached it, I had the same reaction I have without fail when I catch a glimpse of Mount Ranier. Plain and simple. Awe.

These trees are Somei-Yoshino and they are close to 90 years old. UW is so proud of them that there are two webcams that live stream the cherry blossoms. You can visit it now!

When I first arrived I immediately surrendered to the impossibility of capturing the experience in a sketch. My first effort was abominable. 

The sun was playing hide and seek, constantly changing the color scene and values. Light blossoms against dark background, dark blossoms against light sky. Up close the blossoms were decidedly white. Yet the light and shadow was playing games of color tag.

fountain pen and watercolor in 9 X 12″ Canson Mixed Media sketchbook

There were visitors of all nationalities, ages, and diverse orientations. All, it seemed, were taking pictures and most were posing with the blossom backdrop, a kind of Hollywood set for the masses. Right by me a mother with two early elementary school children sat them down on a blanket, got out their art supplies and gave them a sort of lesson in Haiku writing. They colored for a few minutes, ate their snacks, and moved on.

A high school art teacher hovered near me, and then asked if she could take a picture of me for her class, to demonstrate the set up of an on-location artist.

A woman with a very pregnant belly and a voluminous and very bright, gauzy pink gown posed in front of a tree for a picture, the fruitfulness of the tree mirroring her fruitful body, or vice versa.

While I was being romanced by the blossoming trees I was unable to wrap my mind around adding the mass of humanity to my sketch. Only one couple stepped in afterward to give their version of spectator. 

Will I try again next year? Perhaps. Or tomorrow at the Capitol building blossom display, if it stops raining for a bit! There is only this slice of a window, before the spring storms remove the blooms from the trees, creating a blanket fit for a fairy princess.

Sebastopol: Muse Group Reunion and a Visit to Lewis Dr

This was my second annual Muse Group Reunion since I moved away from Sebastopol and the group of students/friends I’d known for years. They of course had continued to meet and explore all kinds of new mixed media fun without me and grown stronger as a group. Happily my honorary member status lets me slip right back into the group when I’m in town. That Tuesday last week was one of those now familiar downpour days where you wonder if the puddle will follow you inside. 

It was the second day of Spring and I shared a technique that works so beautifully to channel that inner spring bloom mania many of us get when, after a long winter, the blooms start to manifest. I call it Painting with Water Shapes. It actually works best, I think, when you apply it to shapes from your imagination. So whatever your imagination is full of at the moment (haha!), which for me is leaves and blooms, can manifest in your water shapes.  For some it might be people, or musical instruments, or even cars and airplanes! Here’s my demo from the day.

Higgins waterproof inks blended in water shapes and folded pen calligraphy

There’s a carnival going on in this spring garden, and you’re all invited!

Skip over the puddles or splash through and join us. 

The seeds have teamed up this season and shared their genes

In passionate coupling under dripping trees

Creating in their dye pots wild alien species

Abandoning all rules of floral etiquette

Falling over each other in a dizzying drama of originality

Twining and turning and popping up their heads

Giggling at the absurdity of it all. 

Higgins inks charged into painted water shapes.

If you want to try this. my advise is to start by painting watery shapes with your brush, maybe with a touch of pigment so you can see them. Then just charge the inks or watercolors (with just enough water to make them fluid) into the water shapes. As soon as you tip the paper to watch the colors blend, the action starts! So be on your toes to connect new water shapes, charge in more pure color, stop inclining the paper and let it dry! Otherwise mud has been known to happen.

Another practice painting. You learn from each try!

And here they are, the Sebastopol Muses, (minus 3). Golly I miss em! Always up for art fun together.


Laguna de Santa Rosa

Next day, out on the flooded Laguna de Santa Rosa,  the mustard and oxalis were blooming and skies and earth doing that scintillating mirror dance.

And my favorite countryside sketching spots. . .

Those gnarly oaks I struggled for years to paint! 

Before leaving Sonoma County for the Bay Area part of my visit, I stopped by our old home on Lewis Dr., talked to a couple neighbors and got a tour of the property from the current (and exceedingly happy) owner, who is turning my art studio into a guest cottage. 

My mother’s memorial weeping cherry tree was in bloom! The pipevine, long cultivated by me for the life cycle of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, was displaying its signature Dutchmen’s pipe blossoms, and the lemon bush was blanketed with Meyer lemons. 

And then the chicken coop, Bob’s studio, and the interior of my studio was gone, making room for new home owner dreams I guess.

Meanwhile Bob is outside right now securing our vegetable garden here in Olympia so the deer don’t get in when we start planting veggies. The blossoms are popping out everywhere now in Olympia and in my back yard. Changes everywhere every day. Isn’t life a wild ride!?

Berry Hunt on Masa Paper

Last week’s Playful Muse lesson was painting on crinkled Masa paper. I just never get tired of this technique and have blogged about it for years. No matter what season it is, the crinkling of the wet Masa paper invites fluid paint to do the intricate work of nature’s delicate forms in the color palate of the season.

Muse Group demo: acrylic inks and collaged pieces on Masa paper, mounted on w/c paper, 10 X 11″

Lets play Mother Nature’s winter game

Find color hidden in roots 

Under frost and rotting leaves 

In fog and chill, sprinkles and glum skies

Each discovery making sunless days glow

Red berries and white ones til the daffodils 

Spread their yellow skirts

I learned this technique over 20 years ago from master artist Cheng-Khee Chee. I just ran across an old video of him demonstrating it, if you’d like to take a look and try it yourself! 

Wintertime birds and trees

fineliner pen and watercolor in w/c journal

Two days before Christmas the ground was frozen solid and icicles cascaded from bird feeders. The suet basket outside my studio window was swarmed by a band of tiny birds unlike the Juncos and Chicadees, Finches and Sparrows I’d been seeing. The winter light was low, and they were so fast and their heads so thoroughly embedded in the suet that I couldn’t see their heads or any species identifying details. They had enough shape though to venture a color sketch!

And God Bless my birding mentors, this group of savvy women I occasionally go birding with. On Monday this week I joined the monthly meet up and sure enough, my simple description was enough for them to venture an ID. Bushtits! These tiny birds crowd-cluster a feeder, just like the one above, with tails helter skelter. As we walked along the trail, sure enough the little guys made a frenetic, tittering appearance in a tree.

As a beginner birder I used to think birding was just about seeing and hearing a bird and knowing its name. But the behavior angle is even more interesting, especially with these Pacific Northwest gray skies, when any but the brightest colors against tree branches is hard to discern. 

And leaves that remain on trees masquerade as bird shapes! Location and type of movement can be the final identifier.

No, this picture was not taken at 5pm. It was 10am. Could you ID these birds? Too big for Bushtits. Robins probably.


We were at Pioneer Park which is 5 minutes from my house. At first the bird activity was minor, so I paid attention to the vegetation, which is so dramatically different from other seasons. And my mind was brought back to the crinkled masa paper painting I’d just finished. When you wet the paper and crinkle it, you get a complex filagree of spidery texture. And that turns into instant vegetation when paint is added.

acrylic paint on crinkled masa paper mounted on w/c paper

It becomes impossible to not see the branches and trunks and brambles and . . .birds! I turned a dark smudge here into the crow I’d imagined and otherwise let the imagination take over.

You can see more examples on my blog here and here I learned the technique from master artist Cheng-Khee Chee a good twenty years ago and have been exploring with it ever since, often in Muse Groups, but also on large abstract canvases. The Masa paper is inexpensive and available online and in large art supply stores if you want to give it a try.

Bark and Garden Center

various pens and watercolors in w/c journal

It was a day of “wintry mix” precipitation last week and we sketchers were not to be deterred. A wintry mix forecast on the weather apps, I’ve learned, means an unpredictable and freezing mix of rain, sleet, and snow with a similar mixture involving some ice on the ground. In all cases it means lots of layers of clothing to put on and take off throughout the day unless you just stay inside. 

Wintry mix does not mix well with sketching on location outdoors, obviously, so the always resourceful Jane Wingfield suggested the perfect solution: the enormous indoor plant nursery at the Bark and Garden Center with its endless (still life-) displays of plants and statuary. And it was a balmy 50 – 60 degree temperature!

Of course the nursery was in full-on Christmas tree, poinsettia and reindeer mode, and I probably go back there to do at least one Xmas card illustration sketch! The owner was so welcoming to us sketchers.

But there was something about this Greco-Roman mother figure that attracted me to sit with her for a while. She seemed powerful and indrawn, and so at one with the enveloping plant life, that the sketching of her became my own afternoon meditation. 


Dazzled by fall colors! And anxious about how quickly the fall rain and wind storms are denuding my favorites! 

I keep thinking I’ll find the colors to mix, the techniques to employ, the tools to utilize. . .to capture. . .a touch of the outrageous autumn foliage displays. I keep working on it, but. . .

You probably think I’m exaggerating. But Nature is the biggest and most outrageous exaggerater, always. It was awful windy at the Capitol building this week, too much to try to put the color on the page on site. A more intrepid urban sketcher surely would have done so. I just wanted to memorize the look of that redderthanredred against that greenerthangreengreen with the gold thrown in . So at home I just kept putting paint on til I gave up. . .yet strangely still felt satisfied from the effort. 

Autumn glory upstaging Washington’s state capitol building!

And meanwhile this artistry was going on in my neighborhood. What would you say. . .New Gamboge with a touch of Quin Gold? Quin Rose? 

And then this morning this 4 inch glowing something in the middle of our lawn. A golf ball? A piece of paper trash (it is trash day) a wrapper? A fried egg for goodness sake? Would it glow in the dark to flavor up the spooky Halloween?

Did you guess? A mushroom of course! Time to get out the mushroom ID books!