Morning by the river

I've been drawing for a long time. Mostly with pencils. It takes some skill to attain good results, but with pencil points, control is a matter of dexterity and focus. The medium is very direct, and results are predictable. I sort of know what I'm doing.

Watercolor, I'm finding, has put me humbly at the bottom of what looks to me like a very long learning curve. Spilling dyed water onto a piece of paper, pushing it around with floppy brushes and trying to control the outcome? Pretty different set of challenges, not the least of which seems to be letting go of the idea that I can be totally in charge.

Out in the woods this morning, balancing a pad of watercolor paper on my knees, it occurred to me that in that sense, it's kind of like adult life.

14 x 10, Windsor & Newton cake watercolors



Before their time

Magnolias were blooming in Washington, DC before the beginning of March. Like pink silk kimono in the morning light of a darkened room. Too early for these spring blossoms. Still, their sensuous beauty is irresistable. Anxiety yet enjoyment nevertheless.

8 x 11, Derwent Inktense pencils

Inspired by seeing the fabulous American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent exhibition last weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Been thinking about making myself learn to paint for years. Can't learn anything that I just think about but don't try. Have start somewhere ... so I gave it a whirl. Now I wish I'd started years ago. But as goes the cliche, better late than never.

24 x 18, Windsor & Newton watercolors



A few sketches from recent days, quick exercises really. A roadside stop on the way home from the supermarket on a raw and very windy morning, looking across dormant fields. The stubby base of the butterfly bush in my side yard, because I felt guilty about just lounging on the patio yesterday afternoon. A pensive reflection in the mirror this morning before starting my work day.

It often matters less to do something extraordinary than simply to engage, and to keep at it. Moments of inspiration are rare, but you have to be ready when they come. You have to be present.


Not ready for retirement

I have this Saab 99GL, a 1978 wagonback model. It was weird looking when it was new, with its unsexy but distinctive and distinctly odd profile, and this one a strange brown color, like toasted turmeric. I didn't get it brand new - I bought it cheap from a Saab mechanic in Vermont in the fall of 2009, at the beginning of a brief but quite insane period of vintage Saab acquisition. At the apogee of my madness, I'd collected seven, ranging from a 1968 93 and 95 through a second 1978, a 99GLE that I turned into a turbocharged terror before I sold it. Ultimately I sold them all, except for the first one. This one.

I don't really need it. I still have a 2007 Volvo V70 wagon that I got brand new, which I've maintained well enough that I expect to drive it for a few more years. It's handsome, comfortable, quiet, safe, and has all the conveniences and comforts that the '78 Saab lacks, like blemish free paint, air conditioning, power windows and locks, a great stereo, leather seats, cup holders ... and I have a 1974 MGB ragtop that I likewise don't need. And yet.

The 99GL is a snaggletoothed beast with a couple of dents and a finish that's fading and discolored where it isn't rusting. The windows are hard to crank, the steering is manual, as is the 4 speed transmission, and the engine is merely a normally aspirated 2.0 liter. There's no A/C, the cloth upholstery is tired and worn, the wiper motor will intermittently squall like a cat getting its tail slammed in a door. The speedometer and gas gauge don't work, nor does the radio. But I've bonded with it in a way that I've never loved any other car, and I've had some pretty cool cars. For one thing, the view in all directions, what I like to call "driver prospect", is minimally impeded, and from a high eyepoint. The cabin feels snug but not at all constricting. The suspension was slightly modified for better performance and handling by my predecessor in Vermont, and it is extremely engaging to drive. Sport steering rack, stiff springs, Bilstein shocks. It's no rocket, but when I'm behind the wheel, it's like an extension of my own body, more so than any sports cars I've ever driven. My favorite mechanic at Swedish Motors, who used to race a '78 99 Turbo, adores it. When I drive it (often), I feel giddy like a kid on a fast bike.

Yeah, it would have been nice had I been able to give it a concours quality body and paint job and could have kept it garaged instead of sitting out on the curb these seven and a half years that I've owned it. But part of its appeal to me is that it's showing its age. I identify with it. And it's far more interesting and unique than the young hotshots out on the road. I'm not inclined to retire it any time soon.



Foggy interlude

The day was neither pleasant nor the landscape remarkable where I was in western Kentucky this Monday. Dreary, damp, and unsettlingly warm for early February. Even the locals found it worrisome. We were at loose ends with less than an hour before a brief but obligatory meeting that had brought us to this out of the way place. A sign just down the road from the Huddle House chain restaurant where we'd breakfasted indicated "Scenic Overlook", an arrow pointing down a side road leading through a break in the trees lining the highway. We followed it a mile to a mostly empty parking lot and a nondescript park next to the serrated edge of a wandering lake, and decided that a short walk was better than sitting gloomily in the car with nothing to do. An asphalt paved path disappeared over a slight rise into a barren woods. We followed it.

Winding along the edge of a small promontory, the path took us across the lakeside brow of a rocky cliff, trees and bushes clinging above the grey waters, a fall of thirty feet. Our destination turned out to be a cracked concrete pad with a wooden bench and a low stone wall in front of the drop, with a "No Diving" sign and a view of an old prison compound across the lake, partially occluded in mist. The scenic overlook was less than breathtaking. Still, I've found that there's always something to see if I simply leave any expectations behind. I sat down, opened my sketchbook, and focused closer.

There was not much time, but when is there ever? We work with what's in front of us, and make the best of it. Not everything worthwhile is revealed in a glance. And always, even on a bleak day, there's opportunity for progress.