Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Sketches of Florida

When the dark months begin to close in and the skies are pewter-grey during the daytime, its useful to think happy thoughts and look at some warmer places and times. This year we spent some time with family in the Tampa area, which (discounting hurricanes) has more congenial weather than the upper Midwest. As the temperatures fall and sleet comes slanting across the studio windows here in Iowa, I thought I'd share a few watercolor sketches from visits to Florida this year.

"Bradenton Palms"
May when we visited family in the Tampa Bay area, the weather was already summery and not very humid. My son's home is backed by a forested area that is kept relatively wild and hosts a lot of wildlife including white tail deer, sandhill cranes, and all sorts of small critters, even an occasional bobcat. The area is like jungle, with palms, vines, Spanish moss and a sandy, wet slough of water. Hawks cruise the sky, hunting, and the cranes stalk around as if they own the land. (Although there isn't enough water for big reptiles, there are bodies of water not far away that harbor alligators and plate-sized turtles.) The wall of jungle is perhaps thirty meters away, and endlessly changing, especially at dawn and dusk.

The first sketch is from that May visit, after a passing rain shower. The rain sharpened the colors, it seemed, and made the foliage glow more green than usual. Wild palms clustered along the walking path at the edge of the jungle. I drew the scene lightly in pencil in my 3.5x5 sketchbook, dropped in a variety of green hues, let it dry and inked the details. The quiet of the neighborhood is enhanced by the jungle barrier, so that all one hears most of the time is the wind, and this sketch always reminds me of those moments.

"Sandhill Crane"
The next day a group of five sandhill cranes made their rather majestic way across the lawn between the jungle and the house, ignoring me entirely as they walked between houses to the front yards. These big grey birds are perhaps a meter tall when standing, maybe more, and have about a two meter wingspan--formidable birds. My son had seen them come by many times as they walk from the jungle to a pond a block away. Too close to fly, one supposes, so they simply saunter on over, their golden eyes glowing beneath a red forehead. I did the sketch to the left from memory. I laid in the usual pencil sketch, but only as a few guidelines, then painted their feathers with a few strokes and made only a few details of background after they went by. I added ink lines here and there to finish it.

"Sun on the Jungle"
We returned to the Tampa area last month for the Thanksgiving holiday, a good decision since a big snowstorm struck Iowa during the weekend afterward. As it had been in May it was pleasant to study the jungle-like conservation area, which if anything was more lush than May. The undergrowth had deepened, and Spanish moss draped a lot of the broad leaf trees. Couples and singles walked, jogged, and cycled the path during the day and at dawn a herd of white tail deer ventured out to the grass for a few minutes of browsing, their big ears turning here and there as they listened for danger.

Sketching the conservation area was a significant challenge that I put off for several days, but eventually tackled (above) one afternoon as the sun slanted into the foliage. Attempting to capture the exceptionally tangled and varied trees and undergrowth was daunting because of the temptation to render nearly every leaf. It is more effective to treat trees and undergrowth as if composed of big irregular masses. I used a page in my 5.5x9 inch sketchpad previously toned with a pale red wash of acrylic gouache. Because of the acrylic vehicle watercolor tends to stick unevenly, beading up and giving a sparkling effect. Here I drew the jungle in pencil then painted several layers of watercolor over the gouache, leaving significant areas of the red ground to show through. The underpainting is roughly complementary to the overlying greenery, which adds depth. I added details here and there using paint and ink, sketched in the couple walking their dog and made them pop out with spots of red and blue. In spite of a big snowstorm in the north, it was about eighty degrees that day.

"Strutting With the Dog"
Walking the dog is one a common activity in Florida, it seems, at least in our son's neighborhood. Quite a few dog-walkers passed by as I sketched a street view (right), including a streetlight and an small palm tree planted as landscaping in the new subdivision. In the foreground was a bush with a variety of greens and reds coloring its leaves. ( I think it's a croton, which we grow as house plants here in Iowa.) In any event, so many people came by walking their dogs that I sketched one of them into the scene. I imaged a kind of spring in his step, trying to impart forward motion by the way the trailing arm is cocked. This one was also painted over an acrylic gouache underpainting, so the lamp post has a kind of sparkle owing to how the watercolor paint beaded up on the surface. The same for the palm tree. Otherwise both of these sketches were drawn lightly first with pencil, then painted then accented with ink.

Warm colors and sunny scenes can help light up these dreary days of December. They certainly help me.

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