When I opened my eyes and looked over at my bedside clock's LED display this morning, it was after 6:00AM, but only the faintest pre-dawn light outlined the window. A milder day than Saturday was forecast, and by habit not inclined to lounge in bed, I thought it would do me good to be out early in the day. "Maybe I'll try another pastel" became "Just go do it", so I put a couple of under-used boxes of foam packed colors carefully into my old day pack with a pad of Strathmore medium drawing paper while my coffee was steeping, then walked out into the morning. I looked up at a cloud strewn sky dappled pink and purple grey, and knew that if I was going to take advantage of the day's best light, I needed to get moving, and I'd best not wander far. Uncovered the MG, tucked away the top, snuck out of town and into the corn and soy fields. Found my scene less than two miles away, parked on the grassy berm, and quickly got settled and started.
Working with soft pastels, especially the really good ones that Terry Ludwig makes by hand in Colorado, is for me like being a rough framing carpenter accustomed to swinging a 20 ounce hammer to slam 20d nails into 2x4s, then trying to do fine finish work with my heavy hand. The squares of rich pigment crumble under all but the lightest touch. My usual vigorous strokes result in breaking sticks and smearing colored dust around. Blending happens almost inadvertently, and not always with happy results. I'm having to re-learn how to draw.
But the light across the dark green soybeans was quietly glorious. The sun rose, casting beams through the partly occluded sky, picking out luminous highlights in the treetops and tickling the contours of the fields and the wooded hills across the hidden Susquehanna. The scene shifted and morphed before my eyes; one moment a distant stand of corn glowing like burnished gold, and the next faded to grey. The sky undulated softly through a range of subtle pattern and color. It was hard not to just sit there slack jawed and staring instead of trying to do what I was there to do.
I didn't tarry all that long - it was a fleeting scene, and I didn't want to totally screw it up by overworking. A dog barking at me across the way was my signal to scoop up the purple stick I'd carelessly crushed under my shoe, put away the rest of the pastels, rinse my chalk covered hands with a squeeze bottle and wipe them in the grass. Stowed everything in the trunk and pulled back onto the deserted road. I was back home before the rest of my pot of coffee had cooled. But it isn't the duration of the experience that really matters. It's the quality of the moment.
A suggestion that I try to draw every day this coming week was enough to coax me into taking the bike route home from a banking stop in Mt Joy this morning, parking the Volvo in the grass along a certain obscure little road, and walking down into the woods to take another look at the spot I’d drawn on Monday. I'm working my way up to attempting a larger studio piece, so I need to understand the scene more thoroughly. I framed a view that I liked, moved a flat rock out of the weeds to sit on, and opened my sketchbook and pencil tin. Concentrated on simplifying the confusion of bridge, trees, stream, and undergrowth with glimpses of open field and distant farm house through the tangle.
There’d been a hot breeze up on the road, but in the tree sheltered depression where I sat the air wasn’t so much as stirring a leaf. It might have been a minute or so before perspiration was tracing streams down my face and dripping from my nose and chin, and the mosquitoes appeared in force. If I were accustomed to the heat and humidity of an equatorial jungle, it wouldn’t have seemed so awful. But I’m not, and it did. Nonetheless, I was there and didn’t want to be a complete wimp, so I did a quick study as I slapped mosquitoes and flicked sweat away from the open page. Hastily stuffed everything back into my shoulder bag, scrambled back up to where I’d pulled the car into the shade, started the car and cranked the air conditioning, and retreated to the house.
Now as I spend the remainder of the day bouncing back and forth rendering digital models in AutoCAD for an upcoming product introduction, doing house and yard work, and writing this update, I remember that just over a week ago, I had my first tantalizing hint of fall weather. Today I'm thinking that a few months of going out there and trying to keep my hands warm enough to finish a sketch can't come too soon. I'll try not to complain about the cold.
After spending Sunday morning riding bicycles, then the afternoon touring country backroads down to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, and enjoying delicious small plates at the Blue Pear Bistro, Labor Day required several hours of my time in the studio to complete a project due for presentation Tuesday morning. But the morning was so lovely that we figured we had to squeeze in a little time outdoors, someplace pretty. It just had to be very near to home. The tall order was to find a beautiful spot that wouldn't be inundated with throngs of people out to enjoy the beautiful weather.
September already, and on the very first day, a welcome shift in the weather. Cooler nights, and days more pleasantly mild. My art student daughter is gathering her focus for her senior thesis and decided that she'd benefit from a semester off, and a few months sharing an apartment with her cousin who attends Syracuse University. I of course got elected to help her make her move yesterday. Route 81 is the shortest route, but a nasty drive, so after loading her bed and dresser into her mom's minivan, (borrowed for its cargo capacity), I told Noble we'd be taking the longer but more scenic route up along the Susquehanna then through Ithaca, where I'd just been less than a week ago.
After passing through rain showers, the clouds broke apart and the afternoon became lovely. On Route 13 shortly before our refreshment stop in Ithaca, I noted an old Chevy panel van, a rustbucket moldering by the roadside in front of an auto glass shop. I'd first seen it last Sunday when Ina and I were returning from our brief Finger Lakes getaway, thinking idly that I ought to do a sketch of it sometime ...
It got too late and I was too tired to drive all the way home last night, so after a few hours of fitful sleep on my sister's couch in Syracuse, I pulled myself together and got back on the road before sun up this morning. Work awaited my attention several hours south in Marietta. Still boycotting the horrid Route 81 truck corridor with its endless road construction delays, I decided to retrace the way I'd come.
Stopping at Green Star co-op in Ithaca to grab a cup of coffee and a wholesome organic grain muffin for the road, I couldn't help noticing what a stunner of a morning it was, and regretted that I couldn't tarry for the day. Then, on the way out of town, an impatient guy in a monstrous pickup tailgated me and angrily passed me, shaking his fist and screaming some unintelligible rage through his closed windows as he roared by. I wasn't driving slowly or inattentively, but I guess not fast enough for him. For an abrupt moment, my mood blackened as I watched him rocket away, sporting a Trump "Make America Great Again" sticker on his huge rear bumper. I felt the heat rise in my chest. Then I thought, "I'm not going to let some bad tempered asshole wreck my morning."
A couple of miles later, I pulled into the parking lot of Choice Auto Glass, shut off the engine, and got out. I walked into a large cluttered front office. A woman was on the phone with a customer. While I waited, I gazed at old gas station pumps and automotive memorabilia that lined the walls. She finished her call and asked me what she might help me with. I asked if it would be all right to sit outside and do a drawing of that old delivery truck. "Be my guest," she said with a smile.
As I sat on the gravel, sipping my coffee, absorbed in my sketch and trying to get the contours and foreshortening right, I was struck by how richly the early sunlight illuminated the palette of colors on that rust perforated truck, against the backdrop of dark green trees still in shade across the road. I noticed the brilliant blue of the sky between the ragged clouds overhead. Another guy in a work truck drove in and nodded at me as he got out and crossed the lot to the shop. I nodded back and finished my sketch, thanked the woman inside, got a business card so I could send a print for the owner. A minute later I climbed back into the minivan and resumed my drive home.
Marveling at the beauty of the rolling hills and valleys as I drove the gorgeous stretch of highway between Corning, NY and Williamsport, PA, I thought some about pickup trucks driven by angry men. I mused on how autumn is coming, and how the rust color on that truck reminded me of the leaves that will take on a similar hue before they fall. But the truck will rust into the ground, while the leaves will be renewed every spring. I thought how fleeting our time is compared to the cycles of the earth. When I choose to focus on that, the human drama and turmoil I so often find myself enmeshed in loses its grip a little, and I can be grateful for the privilege of my life again.