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Fun, yes. Easy? No.

May 25, 2018

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I’ve discovered what many artist/writers already know: creating your own illustrated storybook is definitely not easy.  Among other things, there is the insecurity of wondering if the work is good enough, and the doubt as to whether anyone will buy the book when it’s finished.  Combine that with creating characters and their environment while writing interesting text and you’ve got quite a job going.   I’ve come to the conclusion that, like most artistic endeavors, a project like this has to be, first and foremost, a labor of love, a hackneyed phrase to be sure, but nonetheless true.  Like playing jazz or the blues… or reciting poetry out loud… or working on a hot rod.  First, you have to simply love the doing of it.

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And, like all of those other endeavors, you have to be prepared to reject and re-do. You have to be brutal in deciding what works and what doesn’t, what stays and what goes.  For example, the image above was the second attempt to illustrate a part of the story that has been developing for Sherwin The Snail for well over two years.  This morning, as part of the paring down process, the farm image was edited out of the book. The book had too many pages for an illustrated children’s book, and the farm was weak visually compared to the other images.

Sherwin was born as a sort of spot cartoon from a character that first showed up in another book (which got set aside as Sherwin moved to the front).  The snail had personality from the start, but was always portrayed in one-shot sketches. When the idea for a book began to grow, there were two directions to go: first was a collection of these one-off spot cartoons; and second, as an actual story with a beginning, middle and end.  The humor of the first would have been aimed at adults and the story in the second would be aimed at children.  I’ve opted for the children’s book.  I like the idea of people buying it for their children and grandchildren.

Even as I continue to edit out images and text, the story begs for new illustrations that portray things better and text that (hopefully) makes the story more meaningful.  I’ve finally settled on some format and composition things, so it’s getting closer.

I can’t honestly say this is hard work, but it isn’t easy, either. The artwork emerges from my mind and makes its way onto the page easily enough.  I’ve created a lot of storybook and whimsical art over the years, much of it set in a forest and all from my imagination.  And with two and a half unpublished novels on the shelf, writing has always been an enjoyable pursuit.  But combining the two into a coherent package that flows and holds a reader’s attention while meeting certain criteria is a challenge.  It will be self-published, but it still needs to stay within a few industry guidelines.  Making it all up is one thing.  Making it work is another.

I think I’m in the home stretch.  I just don’t know yet how far it is to the finish line.



May 15, 2018

When life hands you lemons…

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The weather allowed me to sit outside a couple of mornings this past week while I spent time on some of the Sherwin artwork. Nell went walking around the park and went past a couple of times. She said it was obvious that I was deep in concentration and I was unconsciously gesturing slightly with my left hand, a sort of “this way or that way?” kind of thing. I think her point was that I was immersed in something I love.

I have always been impressed by artists who are storytellers. N.C. Wyeth illustrated written stories and Howard Terpning illustrated moments in Native American life, just to name a couple.  There are, of course, the storybook artists but interestingly enough, I’ve never spent much time studying them, so people like Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit} and  Ernest Howard Shepard (Winnie the Pooh) are, in a way, new to me. I haven’t studied them because I had no thought of being that kind of storyteller. Yet here I am, doing work that is completely foreign to the landscape paintings I’ve spent the last ten years trying to do.

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Mrs. McLady’s House, 10 x 12, ink & watercolor

Mrs. McLady’s House isn’t quite finished, but it combines so many things I love:  humor, whimsy, color, a structure, landscape… and the sheer enjoyment of just drawing things, all for the purpose of telling a story.

After several weeks of physical therapy for my shoulder problems there has been some improvement, but I can tell I’m still not ready to paint at an easel.  And that’s okay, because I am thoroughly enjoying this storybook work.  This is my lemonade.

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And the possibilities are endless.

But First….

May 9, 2018

Before I pull the gouache tubes out there is some unfinished business that needs to be dealt with. The Sherwin book has been sitting on the shelf for quite a while.  Although I seem to be constantly changing my focus, not being able to do any easel painting changes the game, creating a void that brings about an unintentional refocusing. Over the last few days, I have been re-reading my rough drafts and reviewing the illustrations of our little friend’s adventure. I have also got two 10′ x 10′ illustrations started and nearing finish.

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“After dark, Sherwin awoke to the sounds of grunts and rustling of grass. Knowing that armadillos eat grubs, worms and yes… even snails, he moved quietly further back under the rocks.”

While all of the illustrations for this story are currently pen & ink and watercolor, Sherwin and the Armadillo incorporates gouache. The original ink drawing had some heavy-handed black outlining the armadillo and gave the appearance of it being in some kind of cave or burrow. That wasn’t the intention.  The armadillo is supposed to be moving through the grass. I simply got caught up in the trap of “if a little bit is good, then a lot is better”. It showed up dramatically when the watercolor went on and nearly destroyed the drawing.

I was faced with the choice of trying to repair the artwork or completely redraw it.  It has been my experience that there is a 50/50 chance of the piece being as good as the original. Because I start my illustrations directly onto the paper in pencil and take a pretty casual approach to inking, I’ve found that often there is a loss of spontaneity and freedom when one is redrawn. So I chose to try to repair this one. Chinese white and watercolor didn’t quite get the job done in trying to pull the grasses out of the black, so I used gouache to repaint that area and then retouched the ink work. It’s almost there and I think I’ve saved this illustration.

sherwin and squirrel. progress

“You can’t see the world from down here. You need to climb up to the tops of the trees to see the world!”

Sherwin’s encounter with the squirrel is ink and watercolor. While the trees in these illustrations are usually twisted and gnarly I wanted to put some emphasis on their height in keeping with the conversation.


The Tools

The ink work in these illustrations consists of Micron pens (#1 and 5) for the fine work and Sharpies for the bold line touch-ups.  If you’ve been following for very long, you know we live in an RV and my studio is a corner in the living area. The whole process has to be contained in a small area. I use a small Windsor & Newton watercolor palette and replace the colors from tubes when necessary. Idea sketches are done in one of my favorite sketchbooks, the Canson Mixed Media 5.5″ x 8.5′ with 98 lb paper that takes any medium, wet or dry.  The final work is usually done on Strathmore 140 lb Watercolor paper in the 11″ x 15″ size. The paper takes my fine Micron ink work well. The Sharpies are a little different. The hold so much ink and the tip is so fibrous that I can only touch the paper surface for an instant or it will bleed.  I still use them because I like the look they give to my ink drawings.

There is more Sherwin to be done and I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads.


April 30, 2018

No, not those kind of joints. I’m talking about the kind with bones and muscles and tendons. I have been seeing a physical therapist a couple of times a week, and this morning the physical therapist told me to put the brushes away for a while. After a couple of hours yesterday, my right shoulder, bicep and elbow became increasingly painful, to the point that I had to stop painting. My doctor, the xrays and the PT all indicate it’s not the rotator cuff but the muscles and joints from the back and shoulder down to the elbow that are causing the trouble. The PT’s exercises make it better, but the movement of easel painting makes it worse (different motions). So… I’ve put the large canvases and the easels away and will go back to table top work. Maybe some small gouaches or pen & ink and watercolor work. We’ll see what happens with the smaller arm and wrist motion. The physical therapist advised that, even with that, I should stop every 50 minutes to an hour and take at least a 5 minute break. That’s not easy to do when you’re focused, in the zone and enjoying the process.

I may try painting left handed again, but I found that there’s a subconscious switch that takes place, the brush somehow finds its way back into the right hand and I’m painting normally again without even thinking about it. So the easel painting may just have to go on hold for a while. I’ll pull out the gouache and illustration board and see how the arm does with that at smaller sizes. Looks like more meandering is called for.

I need a gouache refresher anyway.



I Am A Meanderthal.

April 25, 2018

mēˈandərTHôl: noun. One who meanders  See also wanderer

Yep. I am a meanderthal. And since my last post I have continued to meander through my own little world of art. (My last post, Ramblings, gives a greater explanation.)

In that time, I’ve started several acrylic paintings, done some pencil sketches and a watercolor, and added a nice little ink and watercolor sketch. We delivered that 24×30 acrylic Texas landscape to the Mason Gallery and froze on a cold, windy Saturday on the square in Mason, Texas. And… I’ve been going through physical therapy for some shoulder and elbow pain in my right (painting & drawing) arm.


It was a cold, windy day in Mason, Texas and the sidewalks were empty. The good news was that we got to try out our greatly downsized booth and we like it. Setup and teardown were about 15 minutes tops.

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Facebook artist friends suggested I try painting left-handed to alleviate the shoulder and elbow pain in my right arm.  It went a little better than I expected. I’ve let this one sit for a while at this point and now I think I’ll make some major composition changes and try some more left hand work.

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The painting above is an 8×10 acrylic plein air piece on canvas panel. I’ve attempted to paint these trees in our back yard several times and I think this is the closest I’ve come so far. I’m a slow plein air painter and the light changed drastically on me the first day. I went back out the next day at the same time and “finished” it.

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Sometimes it’s fun to just make stuff up. The little painting above is a 9×12 acrylic on canvas panel. It’s a total invention, falling into the category “Places In My Mind”. It’s inspired by images of the Texas Hill Country in early April, when the bluebonnets are blooming. So you see…. you CAN make this stuff up.

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“Truck and Tractors”… this 11×14 acrylic on stretched canvas was based on a 60 mph photo taken on a drive down to Kerrville, Texas. Of all the photos I shot of the Texas Hill Country, I had to choose this old vehicles and tractors. It was fun to do and nice to discover that I could actually paint something like this.

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“Craftsman At Work”… this little 5×7 watercolor grew out of some sketches I did of workmen doing some “sprucing up” work at the RV park where we live.

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“Working Man”… 20 x 16 Acrylic  I haven’t done a portrait study in a while and thought I’d take a shot at this one. It’s based on a photo shot by urban explorer William Moore. William’s street photography is amazing and he’s also a very talented artist with an interesting viewpoint.

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My attempts at painting cows continue. While I can draw them with a pencil, I find the translation into paint isn’t easy for me. This one wouldn’t be bad if only the head didn’t look like a pinata.

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And the painting above, working title “River of Gold”, is the latest acrylic in progress. It’s 16×20 on stretched canvas. I’ve made some new gallery contacts, but I don’t have enough inventory of the right genre and medium to show them yet. Thus, my Texas landscape work continues. And besides… I love painting these river scenes.

veranda plants april 2018

And of course there is my personal favorite, ink & watercolor sketching. I  believe I gain as much pleasure from these little 5×7 drawings as the larger paintings. This was done recently while sitting on our patio.

I guess the point of this post was that while I didn’t have a lot to say, I did have a lot to show. Just keeping everyone up to date. Now, go pick up a brush or a pencil and get to work!





February 25, 2018

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I’ve written before about my tendency to move often from one art discipline to another, and even between genres within those disciplines. I love to draw and sketch and I love to paint. I love landscapes and portraits and old barns and storybook art.  It is, in some ways, a curse. I suspect this shifting focus has cost me over the years. It’s hard to build a reputation as a painter if you don’t always paint. And it’s hard to build a reputation as a pencil or pen & ink artist if you don’t pursue that work consistently. The admonition “Find what you’re best at and focus on that” certainly comes to mind. The other version of that is “Find what you love to do and focus on that.” It sounds so simple.

Several years ago, my dear wife bought me an electronic keyboard, the musical kind. She rationalized the purchase in her mind by saying “You don’t have many toys.” So I began to play, learning not only the melody lines for songs, but also the chords. Eventually I made a CD of several original improvisational pieces of music. It really wasn’t very good, but when one of Nell’s sisters heard it, she commented “If Ralph would just focus on one thing, he could become pretty good at it.” And therein lies the problem.  I have too many things to focus on and I love every one of them.

The music fell by the wayside as I put more emphasis on painting. The keyboard sat in a corner of the studio and, while I plinked around on it occasionally, I spent most of my time trying to learn to paint. When we became fulltime RVers, the keyboard went to a grandson.

When Nell and I got married, I was drawing, primarily in graphite pencil and occasionally in Prismacolor colored pencil. Our first forays into the world of art shows/markets came with acceptance into the Huffhines and Cottonwood shows in Richardson, Texas. About that time, three of my pencil drawings pulled a blue ribbon and two honorable mentions at the Texas State Fair.  I ultimately did Texas Indian Markets in two cities and a large market in Houston. While there were a few early acrylic paintings in the mix, the bulk of my work was pencil and a bit of pen & ink and it would stay that way for several years.

My sister-in-law’s observation came around the same time I started learning to paint. I don’t know if I took her thoughts to heart or if it was just some sort of raw dedication on my part, but for the next couple of years, I worked 40 to 50 hours on my day job and painted into the wee hours of the night. I chose gouache as my medium and painted religiously. When I finally retired from the day job, the painting hours extended into the daytime. We took my work to the First Saturday Arts Market in Houston.  My traditional, representational paintings were in the minority at the time, surrounded by abstract and decorative art.  We did reasonably well for someone with relatively low prices and art that didn’t exactly fit the average Millennial and Gen-Xers decor.

When sales began to slow down at the Market, we developed Whimsitecture, a collection of miniature artworks that were a collaboration of whimsical drawings by me with bold quirky color added by Nell. Thus, drawing came back into my routine.  The whimsical art had a good run, but the crazy low prices for these tiny pieces of art don’t generate huge revenues. I’m convinced that people who were used to my traditional paintings were confused by this new work, but it’s still a lot of fun when someone buys one of them.

After my heart surgery we took a few 11×14 paintings, a mix of gouache and acrylics, to The Mason Gallery in Mason, Texas. They kept several of them and told me to paint bigger, with an emphasis on the Texas landscape. Experience had taught me that gouache paintings at 16×20 are a bit complicated, so I spent the next roughly three months producing a number of paintings using acrylics, something I had done only briefly some twenty-five years ago. When we carried seven paintings to the gallery, they kept all of them. At their request, I have completed a larger piece at 24×30 and will deliver it in the next few days. Meanwhile, while we wait to see how those paintings are received, I’ve started doing some smaller 5×7 very loose landscape paintings in acrylics, again trying something different.

After twenty-eight years of being married to me, Nell has come to accept that it’s impossible to predict what I’ll be working on tomorrow. She just knows that it is rare for more than two days to go by that I haven’t drawn, sketched, painted or studied art of some kind.

Somewhere along this meandering road I’ve lost the “focus on one thing” idea. From where I sit while writing this, I can see several pieces of art, all mine, done in gouache, acrylics, and pen & ink. There is “serious” work and there is whimsical work. They range in size from 24”x30” to 2.5” x 3”. There is an unfinished book, and there is a note with a dozen ideas scrawled on it. At this point in my life, I’m finding it hard to feel guilty about losing that laser-like focus. Instead, I feel guilty about all those unfinished or yet-to-be-started projects.

Through this blog and Facebook, I’ve had a lot of people around the world say they have gained from watching what I do. Total strangers and friends have paid money for things I have created. At 74, I am still able to do what I love, and continue to be encouraged by someone I love.  When I stop and think about it, isn’t this what an artist’s life is supposed to be about?

It certainly works for me.

Barn in Acrylics

February 24, 2018
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Barn, 5×7, Acrylics

This little painting is a departure for me. Nell says she has seen me paint up to this point many times and then keep going, adding more detail and realism. I know the point she’s talking about. It’s somewhere after the initial block-in.  And she’s right. It’s that point where I see it as an unfinished painting, but if I left it alone, it could stand by itself.

This time, I focused on keeping it simple and loose.  I’ve recently discovered the work of Ukrainian painter Aleksandr Kryushyn, whose Ruussian Impressionist style intrigues me. He uses far more color than I’m used to, and my little painting in no way compares, but his work touches something in me.  My larger work is directed at a specific viewer, one who likes and appreciates greater realism.  These little works are fun to do and, at least for a while, I’d like to play with the idea of simple, more colorful small paintings.

We’ll see how it goes.