Portland Chinese Gardens

Portland Chinese Gardens. watercolor, pen & pencil. 11 x 3.5 inches.

Visited the Chinese Gardens on my recent trip to Portland. They’re small but gorgeous, many twisting little pathways around the central pond. Wish I’d had time to take in the teahouse, but this took me most of the 3 hours I had to spend here.

While I was drawing this, two septuagenarian  gentlemen came and did Tai Chi – or possibly Qi Gong? – right in front of where I sat (after asking if I minded, which I did not). As soon as they started I was awash in spirals of energy, a physical sensation like someone drawing feather-light fingers over my skin. It ebbed in intensity occasionally but didn’t stop until they did. I’m often very impatient when I start a sketch, I get this jumpy anxiety and tend to rush through my initial drawing. Thanks to these guys I got into that calm state of flow much faster than usual.

Kennedy school lamps

Kennedy School lamps. watercolor & pen, 11×3.5 inches.

The Kennedy School in Portland, Oregon has some awesome decor. I went to their restaurant for dinner with the vague intention to draw something. I had no idea it would be so gorgeous there! I could probably spend a week drawing all over this place and still not be finished.


While I was doing this a woman from another table came up to see. She asked if I was a professional artist. Took some mental “hnngh–argh–fjdak–Idjst–”  before I could smile and say “Working on it.”  Despite the fact that people have already started paying me to make art for them, this is a difficult mental shift to make. There are all those internal disclaimers of ‘well I’m not that good yet” and ‘I don’t make very much at it’ and ‘I wish my style were more like _______’ and so on. I’m working on that, too.

Kanshinbashi bridge

Kanshinbashi bridge

Another 3×5 inch “I’mma paint this bigger someday” watercolor study. Not a great scan, but it’ll have to do for now.

I’m starting to get a good workflow with these. I just set up a “photos to paint” folder, much easier to flip through when I get the urge. Only has my Japan 2009 trip photos in it so far, but that’ll change. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures over the past few years with this aim in mind.

I picked this one out on Friday night and spent a little while tweaking it in Photoshop, adjusting levels and changing the colors to bring it closer to what I wanted. I deleted some elements to improve the composition, and because I knew I’d be doing this too small for them to come across. Then I did a quick pencil sketch to warm up, get a sense of the values, work out perspective and do a little more compositional editing in the process. Then I drew it again on watercolor paper and busted out the paint!

I took lots of notes this time on the color mixtures I used, techniques that worked well, and things I wanted to improve on the second time around. I also tested my colors out on scraps of paper, with even more notes about things like dilution strength and drying times.  I’m going to file these all together with this painting, to refer back to when I go to do the big version.

I like these little paintings: I can get them done in the course of a couple of nights, which is satisfying, and I’m not terribly worried about screwing them up. They also force me to simplify, since there’s not as much room for detail. But I do tend to go crosseyed after a few hours of working on them, and I kinda miss all that detail. I’m trying to coax myself into painting bigger.