Sunday, April 14, 2019

Roxy and the Crows

Crows are smart and funny.  They are also very social beasts, and they take care of each other.  I heard a story from a driver who witnessed this event, about a group of crows in the street, clearly distressed, who flapped and cawed, beseeching the driver of the car not to proceed until they had moved an injured crow to the side of the road.

For a project for an illustration class, I did this picture for an as yet unwritten story about our next door neighbor Roxy who is about seven years old, and St. Benedict's Prep School in Newark, NJ, and an injured crow.  Benedictines are great; I am a Benedictine oblate myself.  They have a serene way of understanding that good things take time and practice.  This school is a modern miracle, an educational oasis in the middle of downtown Newark.  And Roxy is so full of energy that it was hard to picture her sitting still, though she is an animal lover, and so I am pretty sure she could do it if a crow's well-being was at stake.

Here is Roxy in a more characteristic pose, twirling in joy. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Naming the Animals

Adam names the animals

God loves to create.  He made animals of shapes and color combinations and processes that we could not have imagined.

At an illustrators' workshop a few years ago I met Iain McCaig whose job it was at that time (I don't know if it is still his job) to design monsters for George Lucas.  Design creatures: what a job!  Talk about playing God!  Because it's a monster, by definition a creature unencumbered by reality, the boundaries are wide open, and one is limited only by imagination.  Iain showed us how he freed his mind from the strictures of an unimaginative day or not enough caffein that morning.  He led us through a process that used objects at hand to reimagine as monster parts, and challenged us to design our own monster.  It was great fun, and when we were finished I had drawn a creature that I would not have imagined without using his method.

God did it (does he still do it?) his own way, from scratch.  There is a niche that needs a creature, and he finds a way to fill it, always with panache. 

Adam in this picture has not yet eaten the awful fruit.  He is a simple, straightforward, guileless man who has been given the joyful mandate to give names to all the animals as they parade before him.  He gives them names and so asserts his stewardship over them. 

I tried to include in this picture as many genres of animals as I could without getting confusing, and still have an elephant as the centerpiece.  (Could a picture of animals in general NOT include an elephant?)  So there are mammals, birds (one extinct), reptiles, and an insect.  They have to stand in for all the animals that are outside the border of this picture. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cut paper art

It has been nearly a year since I've posted anything here, so maybe it's time to put up a representative sample of the kind of work that I've done lately.  This is St. Martin de Porres, a Dominican monk from Peru in the early 16th century, a man of prayer who was known as a healer, but did not stop there.  He also cared for animals large and small.  The most famous small story about him concerns some mice that had overrun the monastery.  He invited them to live outside the walls in a place he designated, and they followed his suggestion, solving the monastery's problem while doing providing the mice with a proper home.

Working with cut paper is quite a different process from any work where one fills in a drawing with color from a brush or pencil.  First of all, there are the many gorgeous papers to choose from. Textures, colors, varying translucence, the papers bring their own personalities to the work.  It's like working in collaboration with a group of artists who all love beauty.

Then the size of the picture makes a difference.  I can't do details that are too fine; they would just be lost.  I have found that just redoing a watercolor picture in cut paper doesn't really work well.  The sort of image that watercolor does best is quite different from the sort of image that cut paper does well.  Sometimes there is energy in a scene that I would not have been able to express in watercolor, but can do with cut paper.  Perspective doesn't seem to be as big an issue with these works; they will never be photorealistic in any case; I can let them suggest rather than show the action.

This work to me now is a pleasure and a joy.  I hope that translates to others.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015


After doing about fifteen or so watercolor illustrations for stories about saints and animals, I got fed up because it was so laborious every time.  I would continually find other things to do than to face the unfinished page that was sitting on my work table.
When I had a personal sort of project to do however, like a birthday card, I would find some pieces of colored paper, cut out shapes, and make a picture out of them, bang, bang.  No matter how complicated or time-consuming these cut paper projects are, I head to the art table to work on them whenever there is a spare moment,
For example:
This one on the left is the card for Tofu's birthday this year.  The boy (Tofu, of course) has a wheel behind his feet so that he can move fairly easily up the path to the top.
It was so fun to make.
I have been making cut paper collages since I was in college, always for fun.  I never considered them serious art.
Why not?

Finally a lightbulb went off! Maybe I could do the art for my book in a medium that I truly enjoy...
What seems Real about this process is that the layers are truly layered: the background is in the back and the foreground objects are pasted on top. What's more, each color is its own discrete entity.  It makes sense in a simple-minded, literal sort of way.  For some reason that seems thrilling.  Also the textures of the papers add an organic beauty that I couldn't have invented.  And the clean edges are, well, clean, crisp.  

So I am starting over from scratch, doing cut paper pictures instead of watercolor ones.  
In order to finish this project in my lifetime, I'll cut down the number of pictures, so that each story will have three at the most, instead of about eight.  
I posted earlier the watercolor that this one is replacing which can be seen here.  

I suspect that I am an engineer at heart.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Abbey sketches

We spent the weekend at St. Andrew's Abbey.  I always take my little watercolor sketchbook; this is one of the few places where I actually use it. There are no telephones there ringing for me, no computer, no laundry, no meals to fix: only lessons about God and prayertime with the monks, and walks. So there is time to paint when nothing else is calling me.

Each of these little sketches took about an hour.

There are many turtles in the pond, red sliders, the kind kids keep in those little plastic kits until they get tired of them.  I guess someone brought one or two here because the abbey's pond is quite big, a small lake really, and the turtles thrived and multiplied.  It's funny how they pile up on top of one another on those rocks in the afternoon sun.  They don't seem to mind close association with each other, even to being used as benches.  Some of the rocks seem as though they would be too steep for creatures as clumsy as a turtle to climb up, but we watched one of them sitting on a rock at about a 45 degree angle for a long time, until he finally slid back down into the water.

In the pond also are some very large koi, some smaller gold fish, or goldfish, frogs that sing on summer evenings, and a flock of ducks. The ducks are the descendants of a pair of mallards and some white ducks, hybrids that have mallard markings in a tan color.  They live here year round, coming toward me when I walk down the path, but scuttling back to their posts at the water's edge when they see that I have brought them no food.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

St Spyridon and the Poor Farmer and the Snake

I finally finished the story whose title is the title of this blog post.  It is about St. Spyridon, a fourth century bishop of Cyprus, greatly beloved in the Eastern Orthodox church, a man both kind and down-to-earth, and a wonder worker.
The picture here is the last one of the story, and contains all three of the title characters.

According to the story (one of many told about St Spyridon), during a drought in Cyprus, the supplies of wheat dwindled so far that even the vendors, who bought wheat from the farmers and then sold it to others, ran out.  Only one vendor foresaw that scarcity meant high prices, and bought up all the supplies himself.  Eventually he was the only one with wheat to sell, and he raised his prices to the moon.  One poor farmer tried to borrow wheat from him, saying that he would pay it back with interest the following year, hoping for rainfall and a good year.
The vendor slammed the door in his face at that suggestion.  The poor farmer then went to see St. Spyridon, hoping at least for a kind word.  He received a kind word, and encouragement to hope in God.  The following day, St. Spyridon visited the poor farmer with a chunk of gold.  He told him to go to the vendor, and with the gold as collateral, to borrow wheat to plant and to feed his family. Spyridon told him to be sure to bring the gold back the following year when he had repaid the vendor.  The farmer did as he was told.  The greedy vendor gladly lent him the wheat in exchange for the gold, knowing that there was no way he would be able to repay it.  But the following year the rains were plentiful, and the poor farmer had a bumper crop of wheat.  He returned to the vendor with a large sack of wheat--enough to pay his loan with generous interest.  The vendor reluctantly returned the gold to him, and the farmer took the gold back to St. Spyridon.
The saint said to him, "Come, let us return the gold to the one who lent it to us," and he led him out to the back of his own garden where he set the gold on a rock, and prayed to God.  The gold turned into a yellow snake, which slithered away.  
The poor farmer then fell on the ground and covered his face, saying, "I am not worthy of such miracles!"  But Spyridon gently lifted him up and said that for those who are humble of heart and ask him, God is pleased to work all kinds of wonders.

Among the stories of saints and animals, I chose this one because it is an unusual story because the animal in question is a reptile, a snake redeeming his kind from the bad press generated by the snake in the Garden of Eden.  It is an unusual sort of miracle too, whereby an animal gives its life temporarily for use by a saint, a gesture that is kind without being warm and fuzzy.

This is the first story where I put the words into form on the pages and then made the pictures to go into the spaces I determined for them.  That is clearly the way to do it.  People who take classes in this sort of thing probably learn this on day one or two, but when you are doing it all by the seat of your pants, as I am, it takes much longer to figure out.  But that's OK.
I am ready to begin the next story.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Anniversary at the abbey

We spent our anniversary at St. Andrew's Abbey, an anniversary destination that has immediately become a tradition.  Why didn't we think of it before?  It is a place we both like to be, for the prayer, the quiet, the monks with their ordered, present, happy lives, the bookstore (for Bob), Seth's grave (for me), the dry, grey-green beauty of the high desert, and the chance to go striding about in the hills.  I can paint there undistractedly, small desert landscapes that have no purpose except as exercises in putting on paper what I see.
This little painting was done in one of those 5 1/2" square Moleskine knock-off books, with a tiny watercolor box, and a couple of paintbrushes that hold water in a reservoir in the handle. Lightweight and easy to carry about, and fast to get started and clean up.

I started the first afternoon and went back to finish the following morning.  Bad to do if you are an Impressionist, but I'm not, and I was quite satisfied with the colors.

As I sat in the sand, I was accompanied both times by a small creature rustling about in a cluster of dry bushes nearby. It could have been a family of quail, or possibly a squirrel, though usually both of those appear at some point as they dart about doing their housekeeping. Whatever it was, it scratched and scrunched in the brush the entire time I painted, with noises so regular that it seemed as though it must be building something: maybe a palace just the size and form to suit the builder and its family.  I kept hoping it would appear, but it was evidently as consumed with its work as I was with mine, and had no interest in meeting a large intruder from the world of humans.  So the small creature and I concentrated on our work, side by side, each perhaps dimly aware of the other, but each with our own project to complete before the time came when it had to be finished now or never.