Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Bobcat, Icicles, and Clumsiness


This weekend was quite a beautiful one – with the freezing rain and sunshine, the forest sparkled. A brief, but lovely, sight.


Though with this weekend came a visitor: a wandering bobcat. They’re not dangerous, at least not to humans…pet cats are another story. I just find them unsettling, mainly because their bark sounds exactly like a baby crying. Which is very creepy when that sound is coming from the forest at midnight.

It’s only the second time in my life that I’ve heard a bobcat, and both instances were at night (though the first was while sleeping in a tent, which was definitely more frightening). But bobcats don’t tend to stay in one place, so it may be another 8+ years before hearing another one. (And just on the news tonight, was a photo of one in someone’s backyard. Apparently February-March is a common time to spot them in residential areas, as food sources are dwindling).


In other news, while working on a landscape painting, I made the mistake of placing my palette a little too close to the edge of my painting perch….. I tried to catch it — bad idea. I ended up with cadmium red and orange, with a touch of indian red, on one hand and cadmium yellow on the other (of course, cadmiums being the expensive, and slightly toxic, colors…). It seemed like such a waste of paint, so I swirled some onto the canvas before trying to scrub it off my hands. 

Painting in Progress | Saltwater Birch Studio

It was quite a mess. I didn’t end up catching the palette either, which meant paint was all over my socks, the floor etc. My face (the only part that escaped paint-free), was caught somewhere in the middle of a laugh and a grimace. It was like dropping toast, butter side on the ground. It really couldn’t have been any worse.

Unfortunately it was not a rare occurrence, but at least I had on designated painting clothes (when clumsiness is inherited, you have to take some precautions). And through necessity have discovered that oil paint comes off wooden floors quite easily, so no harm, no foul.

Painting in Progress | Saltwater Birch Studio

Though I do wonder about all those bright white and pristine studio spaces you see floating around on Pinterest – people don’t actually work in them, right? From my clumsy point of view, where paint gets on everything from light switches to doorknobs, I can’t imagine working so neatly lasts for very long.


Have Some More Coffee

Birch Bark Drawing | Saltwater Birch Studio

Another Monday. Another week. Part of my brain wants to go into faux-super-optimism mode, like let this be the best week in your life, and each week will be better than the last! You’re going to be ridiculously super productive! Be the change you want to see! Then, I remember I have 4 hours of shovelling snow under my belt, and another 3 to go (thank you back-to-back snowstorms!). And that I haven’t gotten much Vitamin D lately. And it’s Monday.

Birch Bark Drawings | Saltwater Birch Studio

I have no real solution for such days, except have some more coffee, and maybe stay away from the Chris Traegers in your life (there’s little that makes you feel worse than being pessimistic around a person who permanently radiates positivity). Especially when, in your fog of pessimism, any inkling of optimism comes across as a charade on the edge of crumbling, and you’re tempted to give it a push. Ok. Maybe not that extreme.

Birch Bark Drawing | Saltwater Birch Studio

But we all have those days. And while it – your attitude, how you see the world, and your place in it – is a choice, it’s also not completely realistic to just say, think positive, be positive, embody optimism.

Aiming for middle ground, for a stoic approach to life, may be more attainable. To know awful moods and terrible events will pass, but so will euphoric and truly wonderful moments. You can’t banish foul moods, but you can see them for what they are: on a continuum of human experience, and constantly fluctuating. 

PS. I’ve just introduced these new birch bark sketches in my shop.

5 Ways To Beat Your Painter’s Block

Whether you write, paint, draw etc. – eventually you will encounter the dreaded Artist’s Block. It may last for a few days, or much, much longer if you’re particularly unlucky (my record was about 3 months). It is not easy – it mooches your energy, creativity, and, sometimes, your sanity.

So how do you get past it? Saltwater Birch Studio

Here are five techniques that I regularly rely on..some were collected through trial and error, and others from sage former instructors: (these are more painting focused, but they could be applied to other mediums)

1. Look at other artwork. Your nearest local gallery, BOOOOOOOM Online, American Art Review magazine, ‘Inside The Studio’ posts at Saatchi Online, Pinterest or websites of galleries in your province, are good places to start. Just looking at other works can be enough inspiration to get the itch to paint. When I lived in Ottawa, I used to take regular purpose-less strolls through the National Gallery, for hours at a time (or until the pain in my feet became too excruciating…I had this insane habit of not wanting to miss out on a potentially life-altering artwork that would help make sense of the world, so I tried to see it all at once, every single time).

Living in a rural setting makes it a little more challenging to get that art gallery fix, which is where the internet comes in handy – while it’s not the same as seeing artwork in person, it does have its own benefits – like viewing art while sipping hot beverages, in your smock and woollen socks.Gallery Wall | Saltwater Birch Studio

2. If you’re struggling to find a subject, or having difficulties choosing and mixing the right colors, paint a self-portrait. Set up a mirror beside your easel, and paint what you see. Painting from life is a great practice in observation: you have to pay attention to subtle changes in hue and light, while dealing with a moving (though patient) subject. Try to get the colors as accurate as you can – the shapes, while crucial in making the portrait look like you, are not as important in this exercise (so don’t worry if the end result doesn’t look exactly like you). By focusing on just the color, instead of the “big picture”, it narrows your attention, allowing you to focus more time on getting as close as possible to the exact color that you see, which usually means trying out new color combinations. And these new combinations can be applied to other paintings, helping you get out of color ruts.

This is not a be honest, I think I painted over most of mine, so I included a recent painting instead.

This is not a be honest, I painted over most of mine, so here’s a recent painting instead, entitled “Summer’s Beckoning”.

3. Begin your next project by declaring “I’m going to make a terrible painting”, and say it with a smile. It may seem ridiculous, but allowing yourself to make one giant mistake of a painting, frees you from the constraints of having to get it right every time. A lot of creative blocks stem from fear, especially of failure. So let yourself fail on purpose – to play, to innovate, to take a riskNo one has to see this painting, it’s intended for the back closet, and the paint-over pile (though you may be pleasantly surprised what you come up with!).

Both paintings that began from using this technique…(R) one of the more successful outcomes I’ve had, while (L) was among the worst (and was eventually painted over). 

4.  Try a new medium – if you usually paint in oils, try acrylic or charcoal, or something completely different like writing a poem, taking photographs, or making a sculpture out of driftwood. I’m not saying you have to master a whole new skill set, but making time for other (creative) hobbies helps keep you curious and excited. Personally, I switch back and forth between all of them (except acrylic paint…we just don’t get along).

5 Ways of Overcoming Creative Blocks | Saltwater Birch Studio

5. If you’re stuck for inspiration, or want to improve your skills but not sure how, try copying a painting from an old master (like a Rembrandt, Degas or Delacroix). Many great painters learned to paint by imitation – it really enhances your ability to observe and mix colors, and you may even discover new techniques of applying paint. This is actually how I learned to mix skin color, by attempting Eugene Delacroix’s Orphan Girl At the Cemetery (see below). To say my version comes anywhere close to the original is an exaggeration, though maybe if you squint your eyes you can see the resemblance.

(on the left is my version) It took me 10-12 hours just to get the skin color to stop looking orangey-red, by which time, the proportions were all wrong. But I didn't want to risk ruining the skin color again, so I just left it. Not great advice, I admit. Though, later on, as my skill improved, I learned that you can always get a painting back to the way it was, so don't fear messing it up.. which is far better advice.

(on the left is my version) It took me 10-12 hours just to get the skin color to stop looking orangey-red, by which time, the proportions were all wrong. But I didn’t want to risk ruining the skin color again, so I just left it. Not great advice, I admit. Though, later on, as my skill improved, I learned that you can always get a painting back to the way it was, so don’t fear messing it up…which is far better advice.