On Blogging Again and Opening New (Classroom) Doors

I could sit around all afternoon and explain in great detail all the posts I wrote in my head between last January and right now. Life hasn’t exactly been boring, and I’ve had plenty to say. I just haven’t said it.

I could have written about the heavy days following the almost-breakup I was writing about in January… but that seemed hypocritical in view of the relatively positive note I’d last ended on. Also, I doubt it would have made very good reading.

I could have written about the really cool Tom Bombadil painting I did (after all, isn’t that one of the reasons I have this blog? To write about my art?) But the time came and passed.

I could have written about my close friend’s struggle with mental and physical illness this summer, but that was not my story to tell. Besides, I didn’t want to embarrass her.

I could have written about my reactions to the whole gay-marriage debate, but I’d grown far too tired of everyone yelling at each other and no one thinking straight (I know, I know, horrible pun) to subject myself to that same scrutiny (cowardly, I know). Also, by the time my thoughts on the matter had begun to gel into something resembling coherence, everyone seemed to have moved on to Cecil the Lion.

I could have written about writing, but, after all, isn’t it more time-effective to just go ahead and write the novel instead of writing about writing? (Besides, my summer job consumed so much of my time, I barely wrote. Why write about writing when you’re frustrated about not being able to write much in the first place? Talk about counterproductive!)

The time for excuses is past, though. A new school year is upon me, a new convention season is coming up, more people are going to be taking my business cards and looking up this hapless blog… so I’d better post something worth reading, sooner rather than later.

And what I’m going to post is, surprisingly, that I’m thankful to be still here, still posting. I’m thankful for the bad times and the good times I’ve had since January. Because even though there’s been an awful lot of awfulness this year, all of that awfulness has, I think, had its good sides. It’s refining me into a person who is better able to face life fearlessly and love others even when things seem bleak. It’s teaching me to take action, to cut out things that aren’t really worth my time and energy so I can focus on the things and people who really do matter so much to me.

And also, all of this has somehow inexplicably made me very thankful to be starting a new school year. I feel at home in my classroom, almost safe, settled. I love having students come to me, watching their faces light up as we talk about things that I love. I love seeing them learn. It is a beautiful thing.

It’s also, I might add, a particularly exciting school year. After years of such low numbers that most other schools would have given up, my little Christian high school has expanded… we’ve grown from the six students we started last year with to twenty students (!) from 6th through 12th grade. For the first time, I’m teaching middle school. For the first time, I’m teaching enough classes to merit having my own classroom (!!) which I spent way too much decorating. There was a lot of energy and excitement leading up to this past week, the first week of school.

And then the students came in the door.

And, after a week of organized chaos, the rhythm of a new school year has begun to settle–and it is good.

With this rhythm, I’ve even had time to work on my story. And, later today, I fully intend to get a new art project started. I’ve got big plans to do an Eowyn piece before GeekGirlCon next month. Maybe, if the first one goes well, I’ll even do a set.

I guess there’s a reason we have seasons. There’s a sense of refreshment as an old season closes and a new season starts, as a summer ends and a new school year begins.

It’s just enough refreshment to kick me into blogging again. Maybe I can keep it up for a while this time.

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All It Needs Is a Dragon

Several weeks ago, I had an “art night” with Amy, a young friend who has Down’s Syndrome. Amy loves art, so I figured we could do some watercolor. I got out two 11×14 pieces of rough-press watercolor paper, taped them to foamcoare, got out the brushes and paints, and went and picked Amy up.

The plan was to have her over for two hours. She tends to enjoy just working on projects quietly at her own pace, so I showed her how to use the different tools and how to mix and apply the paint, and then I turned to my own blank board.

I was just messing around. I never do a painting without first drawing, but this time I decided to give it a whirl. For some reason, I felt like painting a foggy, rainy landscape with lots of evergreens, kind of like the ones I see around me constantly here on Whidbey Island. I used primarily two colors, oddly enough–green and grey.

With no pressure to get a painting done perfectly, but with the goal of finishing whatever I was going to make within two hours, I threw down a generous wash of grays, deliberately making the lower parts of the rainclouds darker. At some point, I decided to have the rain receding, only falling on half of the picture. I think I must have had an image of Thomas Cole’s “Oxbow” painting in the back of my mind, because my painting developed in a similar composition.

The painting with several wet-on-wet washes, building in the shapes of the fog, coastline, and an undercoat for the trees.

The painting with several wet-on-wet washes, building in the shapes of the fog, coastline, and an undercoat for the trees.

"View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm," Thomas Cole (1836). Looking back at my painting, I'm pretty sure that this famous work of art, commonly known as "The Oxbow," was in the back of my mind. Mine, however, is a Pacific Northwest version. With a dragon.  Because... why not?

“View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm,” Thomas Cole (1836). Looking back at my painting, I’m pretty sure that this famous work of art, commonly known as “The Oxbow,” was in the back of my mind. Mine, however, is a Pacific Northwest version. With a dragon. Because… why not?

At some point, it turned into a coastline with a seascape, with the rain primarily over the sea. I don’t usually paint this much wet-into-wet, but I had two hours and nothing to lose. I let myself throw down more paint before letting it dry for a few minutes while I got out cookies to serve to my friend.

As the paint dried, I added details: some crisp lines in the clouds, strokes for the rain, trees. I added the first layers for a large tree in the lower left, then put in lines of distant trees on either coastline. To capture the effect of fog, I painted in the trees using a round brush, then blotted the lower edges. Then I used a wet brush to blur it even more. I’ve never painted fog like this before, but I think I will need to remember the technique, because I was certainly happy with how it turned out:

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As I added details on the trees and more lines for the rain, I noticed that I’d accidentally splashed a few drops of green into the sky. At this point, the painting took a turn for the whimsical, because, honestly, although it was beautiful, it was still missing something. Why not try some whimsy? So I splashed more green, and a little bit of pale, bright blue into the lines of the rain and in the upper right corner. Lovely.

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But something was still missing. Something in the upper third on the right hand side. Something flying blissfully through the sky, like the bald eagles do over Penn Cove here on the Island. One little problem, though. I can’t draw birds to save my life.

I looked at Amy. “I think I’m going to put a dragon in it.”

Amy grinned. “A dragon?”

“Yep.”

So I got out my pencil for the first time in the evening, sketched a quick shape with wide wings and a long neck flung back in happiness– after all, I imagined this dragon must be about as happy as the eagles to be flying up there in the fresh air after the rain– and painted him quickly in with more grey.

I looked down at my painting and couldn’t stop grinning. Two hours. I’ll have to try that again sometime. There’s nothing like no lines, no restrictions, and no critics to make you try something new.

I’ll also have to remember that adding dragons improves landscapes. I think I’ll call it Water Dragon #1. Because, who knows? I might decide to paint another.

Water Dragon #1, completed. Prints of this painting will be available in my Etsy shop by 9/24/14.

Water Dragon #1, completed. Prints of this painting will be available in my Etsy shop by 9/24/14.

Creating “Shadow-Bride,” Part 2

Sometimes art is not fun, or creative, or exciting. Sometimes it is extremely frustrating.

Take yesterday, for instance. The night before, I had been industriously working on the illustration for “Shadow-bride” when my pen blotted right in the middle of the trees. It was unfixable. Believe me, I tried to fix it.

Never mind, I told myself. I hadn’t been thrilled with how the man’s face had turned out anyway. He hadn’t ended up looking like the handsome rogue I’d drawn on the tracing paper; he looked a little more like David Hasselhoff’s Dr. Jekyll. Not as bad as Mr. Hyde, I grant you, but still not what I was going for. So, I figured I could re-transfer my drawing and start over again the next morning. First, though, I would have to go to the art store again. I was out of illustration board.

So, the next morning, I finished the calligraphy on the poem while I waited for the art store to open. The calligraphy, by the way, turned out lovely.

The art store was out of medium weight cold press illustration board. Sigh. Thankful that it was spring break and I had a wide-open day, I drove the full hour or so to Mount Vernon to the next nearest art store, picked up more board, then drove back.

About three o’clock in the afternoon, then, I retransferred the drawing, picked up my pen—and my pen refused to work.

It’s a Rapidograph Koh-i-noor—a refillable precision pen that costs at least $25 and is only available online. I know, because I’ve been on the last minute hunt before. It’s also a fairly new one which shouldn’t be giving out on me yet.

I’m trying to get the piece done by Wednesday, and, although I have plenty of time, the pressure is still there. So I tried and tried and tried to get my pen to work again, to no avail. Finally I figured it could use a soak overnight. I put away my stuff, took the pen apart and put it in the cleaner, and opened up my laptop. I would work on a story I was writing instead.

Now, the task cannot be put off any longer (especially now that I’ve put it off by blogging about it). I will rise from my computer, reassemble my pen—and pray that it finally works!

Creating “Shadow-Bride,” Part 1

Ever since I read Tolkien’s poem “Shadow-Bride” about six years ago, I’ve been wanting to illustrate it. This month, I decided to accept the challenge.

The poem itself is the perfect little mix of sweet, sad, and just slightly creepy. Creepy in the sense that I like—the Doctor Who sense, in which creepy enhances rather than overrides any inherent sweetness. For it is very, very sweet. Judge for yourself:

There was a man who dwelt alone
as day and night went past
he sat as still as carven stone
and yet no shadow cast.
The white owls perched upon his head
beneath the winter moon;
they wiped their beaks and thought him dead
under the stars of June.

There came a lady clad in grey
in the twilight shining:
one moment she would stand and stay,
her hair with flowers entwining.
He woke, as had he sprung of stone,
and broke the spell that bound him;
he clasped her fast, both flesh and bone,
and wrapped her shadow round him.

There never more she walks her ways
by sun or moon or star;
she dwells below where neither days
nor any nights there are.
But once a year when caverns yawn
and hidden things awake,
they dance together then till dawn
and a single shadow make.”

(originally published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil)

All thematic elements aside, the poem presents an immediate artistic challenge: drawing two figures, dancing, but casting a believable single shadow that, at the same time, could represent those two figures.

Beautiful little poem with vivid imagery and a sadly sweet story? An artistic puzzle to solve? Bring it on!

I decided to do the piece as two separate 16×20 parts, which would allow me to reproduce the entire poem in calligraphy and, at the same time, have room for a large illustration. If I did it right, I could even make it look like two facing pages of a manuscript. So I planned the two by sketching ideas.

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The next step in my process is to draw the pieces, full-size, on tracing paper before transferring to the illustration board. This allows me to make all my messes without damaging my final surface. As you can see, I’m still at this stage. Today I hope to finish the tracing paper work, transfer, do the ink work, and possibly begin painting—after, of course, my lesson plans are done for Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll see how far I get.

Yesterday I focused on the faces. The faces are, to me, the most important part of this piece—it’s in the faces that I, the artist, choose which mood or theme I want to emphasize, and in this work, I want to emphasize the gentle romance. The colors—by very nature of being moonlit—are going to emphasize the other aspects of this poem. So I drew the faces and drew them again and again. I’ll have to see how well they transfer—sometimes it’s a gamble—but for now, I am pleased:

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Hopefully, by next week, I will have some final pictures to share.