Embroidering a tale

Generally, when you say someone is ’embroidering a tale’ you mean they are adding details to the story that may not strictly be true, but I assure you the details of this story are quite true and the embroidery is, literally, embroidery.  With a needle and thread.  And hoops and scissors and needlebooks and all the accoutrements one collects for a hobby like this, but I digress.  This story is about why I started a collection of embroidered kitchen towels to celebrate the seasons of the year and here they are:

Why?  To display on this cutting board:

Like this:

And now for the tale, but it’s a bit of a shaggy dog of a teacher tale, I warn you, and it requires some setup that goes back a ways in time.  I’ll be as brief as I can.  

When our son James started high school, he and I went to collect his schedule it seemed to have an error because it placed him in both Algebra and Geometry in his first semester.  I asked the guidance counselor if that was correct because I’d thought those 2 courses needed to be in sequence and that Algebra was a prerequisite for Geometry.  It seemed like a lot of math for a first-semester freshman in high school to take on all at once and James said he didn’t think he’d signed up the previous spring for 2 math classes at once but he wasn’t sure.  The harried counselor took one look at the printed schedule and said, “Oh no, no, no, that’s not right…here we’ll just leave him in Algebra and sub in Wood Shop for Geometry, here you go!”   And she handed the marked up schedule back to us and turned to the next parent/child duo in line to get their schedule confirmed.  Wait, what?  WOOD SHOP?  I turned to James and asked, “Is this okay with you?”  He shrugged and said something like, “Sure, I guess.”  If I’d had more than 10 seconds to think about it, I’d have insisted they leave the schedule intact because he was more than capable of studying high school Algebra and Geometry at the same time, but we’d been summarily dismissed and I figured learning to use wood working tools was probably a good thing for a young boy who spent most of his time reading and noodling on his computer.  

A little more background is required.  The high school had just hired a new Ag/Shop teacher, a Mr. Butters, who was purported to be an expert in farm mechanics and shop with many years of real world experience.  No amount of real world experience in any field can prepare one for the pressure cooker of the high school classroom environment and poor Mr. Butters was no match for the students in his shop class.  James came home day after day with stories about the misadventures of Mr. Butters, but the ones pertinent to the story at hand are as follows.  There were lockers for the woodshop students in which they were to store their projects in progress, but locks were not allowed.   There was a final project assigned: a laminated cutting board.  Each day, James would cut the wood he needed to make his cutting board and place the wood in his unlocked locker.  The next day he would go back and his wood would have been stolen and he’d cut the required pieces again.  This continued until there was no more wood left and he still hadn’t made his cutting board.  So he went to the scrap wood pile and scrounged enough pieces of scrap wood  to make a cutting board that was an exact replica of the one that was assigned, only smaller in every dimension (a real life Geometry problem if ever there was one…) and Mr. Butters took one look at the finished project and said, “It’s not the right size,” and gave him a low grade on that assignment, which brought his semester grade for wood shop down to a C because it was the final and most important project.  Later that year after I’d gotten to know the principal and was meeting with him in his office on a completely different subject I did tell him the story and said, “There goes James’ chance at Valedictorian…”  thinking it was a pretty good joke.  And indeed, he DID miss being Valedictorian four years later by a very few grade points, which was just fine by him since he didn’t want to give the Valedictory address anyway and his nearly perfect SAT scores secured his place at his college of choice.  All’s well that end’s well, although Mr. Butters was summarily dismissed at the end of the next year.

Now, this cutting board became a decorative fixture in my kitchen because James had made it and given it to me and it was a reminder of a very funny story and a visual aid should I care to tell the story of how James, our National Merit Scholar, was graded down and got a C in wood shop for figuring out how to shrink the cutting board pattern to accommodate the scraps of wood left to him after he’d cut pieces for nearly everyone else in the class at the proper dimensions.  All for the lack of a lock on his woodshop locker!  But then, I came into my kitchen one morning and found someone had USED the cutting board and made scratches on it!  Now that would not do at all.  I had to find a way to send a message that this cutting board was decorative only and never to be used.  So I looped an obviously decorative kitchen towel over it.  Then I got the idea that it would be fun to have a rotating seasonal display of embroidered kitchen towels.  And a collection was born.  And a cutting board saved.  And a family story memorialized.

A Common Malady

I’m calling it P.P.P.P.  Nearly every artist I know has a moderate to severe case of this serious condition: Precious Perfect Paper Paralysis.  The only cure I know of for the artist is the copious application of a graphite pencil.  Once the graphite pencil therapy is well tolerated, the patient can advance to INK!

All joking aside, one of the hardest things for artists (and writers) to overcome is the preciousness of an unblemished page.  It’s worse when the pages are bound into a lovely journal, as above, and you are approaching an empty page with an indelible medium.  Because ruining one page of a journal is tantamount to desecration of the entire book and we are conditioned from our earliest days to revere books and not deface them unless we are making notes in the margins with a pencil, it’s inordinately hard to put pencil to a blank page in a book.  So, the reason I advise pencil as a cure for stubborn cases of P.P.P.P. is because pencil marks are erasable and condoned even for use on the precious pages of textbooks, possibly the most exalted of all books with the notable exception of the Bible.*  This embedded knowledge that pencil marks are allowed and even approved in certain books comforts our souls.  So starting anything with a pencil should be less daunting:

This gourd drawing was started with a faint pencil sketch that I later erased once the inking was well advanced.

 I know many art teachers/gurus, especially among the nature journaling and urban sketching crowd, recommend skipping the pencil phase because starting something that you intend to finish with ink or colored pencil or watercolor with a pencil is a crutch that can be as limiting as a physical crutch you might use if you’d injured your leg.  But, graphite can also be an artistic end unto itself and is inarguably an art tool as fine as any other you care to name and as permanent:

This drawing of a shark egg case was always intended to be finished as a pencil drawing with no additional media required.

Fooling the brain into thinking it’s just playing around and not engaged in making ART can really help.  Or fooling it into thinking it’s making records that will be useful later, either to yourself or to others, can also liberate the timid brain from the fear that it might somehow make inferior art.  This is why I was keen to start my own perpetual journal from the first moment I saw one.  The first thing I did was write a date range on every page of a blank journal.  That wasn’t hard.  Now EVERY page spread of that journal already has marks on it.  The next thing was to tell myself this was simply going to be a useful record of things that happen in nature around me regularly through the year.  That helped.  It continues to help.  I’m filling that journal slowly but surely with drawings of mundane things I see around me that I find interesting.  Sometimes I start right in with ink as Lara Call Gastinger recommends, but that is admittedly scary and not for everyone.  More often, I start with a pencil underdrawing that is meant to be erased as with the gourd drawing above.  Sometimes I make the pencil drawing the whole point of the exercise, as with the Mermaid’s Purse/Shark Egg Case above. Pun intended and the pointing of pencils is a subject unto itself for another day.  But today’s point is that I rarely suffer from P.P.P.P. with this journal anymore. 

Here is one final piece of advice I will share that I got from Carol Bryer Fallert in a quilting workshop:  notice what you notice.  That sounds like it might be a tautology, but really it isn’t.  Pay attention.  Look around you.  You’ll notice small things that interest you.  When you do, put a sketch of it in your book, not because you’re going to make art, but simply because you noticed it in that moment and found it interesting.  Later you will go back and page through your journal and remember that moment when you noticed.  I find I collect things as I go about my life and think, “Ooh, I want to put a sketch of that in my journal.”  This works way better than thinking, “Oh, I need to do a drawing, what shall I immortalize today?”

*The Bible is an interesting exception because while it is the most revered book of all time, for generations, people wrote in “Family Bibles,” recording marriages, births and deaths and then passed these Bibles down to subsequent generations, thus providing a rich trove of information for current genealogists, but that’s another rabbit hole altogether.  Writing critical information in a space designated for that information with an indelible medium is not comparable to making “art” with the same implement on a blank page.

It’s a Crack Up

You never want to slip through the cracks, crack your head or have to get up at the crack of dawn after a night on the town, but you might think something is Crackerjack, or you could want to have a crack at a job or crack up an audience with a joke.  However, cracks on tennis courts are no laughing matter and should be repaired asap. 

When cracks on tennis courts reach a certain width and depth, I have observed that they can contribute to player injuries in 2 primary ways.  The first way is the most obvious and that is simply catching a shoe in a crack and falling.  That actually happened to me many years ago and I was out of the game for months as my deeply bruised right wrist healed from that fall.  The second way is more subtle, but can be just as injurious.  When you play tennis, you learn to anticipate how balls will bounce and you position yourself accordingly to intercept and return the ball.  Anything that causes an unanticipated odd bounce is going to require a last-second adjustment and that is what can cause players to injure themselves, either by losing balance and falling or from having to reach for the ball unexpectedly and wrenching a back or overextending an arm and shoulder. 

Of course, some wily players can knowingly create odd bounces by putting back or side spin on the ball (aka “English” or “slime” in the vernacular of the courts) but experienced players can usually spot spin immediately off the opponent’s racquet and/or in the air and are therefore on the alert to the fact that the anticipated trajectory of the ball may change and the bounce might be unpredictable.  Forewarned is forearmed and adjustments can be made for taking an oddly bouncing ball in a safe way.

Also, wind can wreak havoc with tennis, but again, everyone on the court is aware when it is windy that balls can bounce erratically and extra precautions must be taken to avoid injuries.

So my plea to clubs where I play is always, “Fix the cracks, please!” 

Incidentally, aren’t those about the cutest tennis shoes you’ve ever seen?  Let your uniform committee choose any color for your team and you will be prepared if you own these babies.  Thanks Julia for permission to feature your shoes, which, happily and for the record, did NOT get stuck in any cracks today.  Whew!


Perpetual Journal Rescue Operation

A few years back I started a Perpetual Journal inspired by the work of Lara Call Gastinger

I used a journal I’d made and still had on hand that was blank.  Lara divides her books into weekly spreads, but I didn’t have enough pages in my chosen journal to do that so I did some math and decided I’d use 10 day increments in my book.  That worked out perfectly.  I figured I could manage a drawing every 10 days or so throughout the year if I was diligent.  Of course I haven’t been as diligent as I hoped and my journal has many gaps 3-plus years later, but it also has lots of drawings in it and is progressing more or less how I hoped it would, just a little more slowly.  It’s a project that is close to my heart and I carry this journal with me both into my own backyard and also whenever I travel about the country.  I use it mostly for botanical subjects but I’ve been thinking I might insert some small landscapes here and there as well.  Carrying the journal with me so I can do field work is essential.

Enter my aging LL Bean backpack:

I’ve carried this pack for years and it is still quite serviceable.  In fact, it looks almost new from the outside.  When we travel, I use it to carry all of my art supplies and often games and books as well.  It is capacious and the divided sections allow me to separate the books and journals from the supplies that might soil them.  BUT, when I pulled out my journal after our last trip to the coast where I never got a chance to draw at all,  I noticed there were black specks of something scattered throughout the journal on every page, some worse than others.  I assumed a pencil sharpener had exploded or something similar and was so saddened by the dirt everywhere that I just set the book aside and moved on to another project. 

When I got the book back out and started trying to remove the specks of dirt that were behaving exactly as if they were flecks from a black colored pencil lead scattered across the pages, it seemed wise to stop and really figure out what had caused this explosion of particulate matter that was significantly worse at the bottom end of the book.  So I removed everything from the pack and discovered that all of my pencils and sharpeners were intact and safely stowed apart from the journal.  It was the lining of the pack itself that was disintegrating, but only in certain places where there was a water-resistant coating.  I took a white cloth rag and swiped across the area at the bottom of the pack that had the coating and here’s the result:

Oh my goodness!  This reminds me of the material they used at about the same time to make the soles of some Clark shoes that suddenly and unexpectedly began disintegrating years later, especially in shoes that had been stored in boxes, like my favorite red shoes I trotted out each holiday season.  Each one of those flecks of rubber-like material has the capacity to leave a mark on clean white paper.  I have spent hours with a very fine X-acto knife carefully attempting to lift each speck off of the paper before it smears an indelible mark.  I’d say my success rate has been about 85%-90%.  Many of the specks came cleanly away from the page and others left marks that could be lightened with an eraser.  Very few left marks so dark that I won’t be able to cover them with a subsequent drawing and none of the drawings I’ve done so far was ruined.  So it’s not an unmitigated disaster at all.  And as I was looking at one of Lara Call Gastinger’s perpetual journals displayed on her website, I saw some embedded dirt in the spine area of one of her page spreads so I guess I’m in good company if my perpetual journal has a few stray marks here and there.  Whew!  Now, back to that drawing board after I issue a warning to any of you who might have LL Bean backpacks that are 15-20 years old: check that any waterproof interior linings are still intact before each use!

Rows and Floes and So It Goes…


Pure watercolor, wet into wet with some scumbling.

So all those years ago when Joni Mitchell was singing about clouds that got in the way and rained and snowed on everyone, many people got her very poetic lyrics about cloud formations absolutely wrong.  How many of us have been singing along to these lyrics: Bows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air?

To me, the first line of lyrics to that song always seemed non-sensical, but the rest of the lyrics were very good and the melody is lovely so I just sang along like everyone else and didn’t worry too much about it.  Occasionally I’d think, “I wonder what she means by bows and flows of angel hair?  Oh well, there’s simply no accounting for what was going through the heads of songwriters (or anyone) in the 1960’s!” 

That was until recently when this song was proposed as one to do for my ukulele group and I needed to make up a music chart so I went seeking definitive sheet music to help me get everything right.  Well much of the sheet music you can buy out there for this song also begins with the “Bows and flows” line BUT on Joni Mitchell’s  personal website she generously offers transcriptions of many of her songs and this happens to be one.  When I read the first line of music I found on her site and it said “Rows and floes of angel hair,” I suddenly could envision the exact cloud formations she was singing about and I bet she was looking at some Altocumulous Stratiformis clouds when the idea for the song came to her while sitting on that airplane and looking at clouds from above.  Thus, Both Sides Now! 

I like looking at those formations too, at sunset (above), at midday (below), and after a storm (further below).  They tend to stack up in rows and look rather like floes of ice!  Or angel hair if you have a good imagination.  Aha!  But if you really want to appreciate the timeless appeal of this song, watch Joni singing it at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival

She brings the crowd to tears with her poignant rendition of this song she wrote in her early 20’s.  Here she is at nearly 80, convincing you that after all that life has thrown at her (and it’s been a LOT), it’s still the illusions she recalls and furthermore, she still really doesn’t know clouds or love or life at all and you get the sense that that’s how it’s meant to be and it’s okay.  It’s okay.  Just keep on looking and loving and living.

The 2 watercolor cloud studies here are from a journal project I did some time back when I had a wide   view of the sky available to me at all times.  The framed painting is from further back, but again from the Sexton Road days.   Now I am mostly focused up close on botanical subjects, but some days I do miss the joy of splashing about with abandon on wet watercolor paper.

And So It Goes…but that’s another song from another artist for another day. 


Watercolor and gouache. The superimposed darker rectangle is from a sticker that was on the paper when I bought it. That sticker made the paper take the paint differently on this journal page. Theoretically, this was intended to be the back of the paper, but why, oh WHY do they put stickers on art paper at all? Go look in anyone’s watercolor studio and you will see plenty of paintings on the back sides of other paintings. The best paper can take work on both sides with no trouble.
Watercolor and oil pastel: a combination I’ve experimented with through the years as a way of adding resist under or lights over watercolor paint and highlighting the texture of cold press paper.

Tick-tock, tick-tock

And no, it’s nothing to do with the internet, but a reminder that a deadline is fast approaching and it’s going to be down to the wire.  I’m participating in Round 2 of the Northern California Chapter of the American Society of Botanical Artists, abbreviated NCalSBA and I’m working on my title page and first ‘sketch.’  I put sketch in quotes because I think of a sketch as something that takes minutes to an hour or 2 at the most and these little illustrations have taken on a life of their own and I’ve been working on this one for well over a week.  I need to mail this to the next artist on the list around the 25th and here it is the 21st and I’ve still got one huge leaf to render after I finish the little one I’m working on now:


Note how I got all excited by the spotted petals of this flower. I went on the internet to research “spotted cyclamen” and couldn’t find any speckled or spotted varieties of cyclamen except one photo of a “rare spotted cyclamen” photographed on the plains of Galilee. A deeper dive revealed that dark purple spots on petals in cyclamens is a sign of a fungal infection called Botrytis blight. Sigh. Not so rare. Botrytis blight is a very common plant pathogen that attacks all sorts of ornamental flowers but I think it usually shows up as brown spots. These purple spots are actually quite pretty and the plants and flowers looked healthy, but closer inspection showed holes at the center of some of the spots. That’s a dead giveaway. Farmer Gary recognized it as blight immediately from afar, of course.

For any pencil artists in the audience, and really more as a reminder to myself, I discovered a few useful new pencil colors on this project as I was trying to replicate the colors of the stems and leaves. Cyclamen stems are a very interesting mix of reds and greens and the leaves are a dull green that was easily replicated with a few of my standard greens (Polychromos 174 and 165) and I have backups for those colors in my stock, but those lighter areas of dull green were a little more challenging. I found Polychromos 189/Cinnamon and Tombow Irojiten LG-6/Mist Green were quite helpful (you can see them on the table) and I’m well on my way. I just have to buckle down and draw!

Lost Art

Of separating…

the wheat…


the chaff.

If you don’t take the time to eliminate the chaff, you’re going to destroy your grinder and/or contaminate your flour and one way or another you’ll be unable to make successful bread.

Nice metaphor for life. Be the wheat. Eliminate the chaff. Leaven with joy and make wholesome bread.

Streamlined Sketching Kit

After years of trying to find a system of carrying sketching tools that works I finally saw a kit that looked exactly like what I wanted during a presentation in JML’s (John Muir Laws) online Nature Journaling Workshop the last time I attended.  I cannot recall the sketcher’s name but I do remember that people kept asking him about his kit and no one seemed to get a decent answer about where to get the simple small pack that he used.  He had an Amazon affiliate site where you could buy pens and sketchbooks and books he’d written and other supplies he likes, but nowhere was the pack that so neatly held all that gear you could buy from his site.  Well, I have all the gear I need and then some, but I’ve never found a way to carry it that would allow me to access it easily and quickly on the go.  JML suggests using a cross-body bag, but I tried that and found that it bounced around when I walked and unbalanced me and I still couldn’t access the contents quickly or efficiently.  Plus, most of the cross body bags I saw or tried were really too big and tempted me to carry more than I thought I really needed to execute the kind of sketches I like to do en plein aire. 

So I just went searching on Google and Amazon, knowing that if I entered the right search words I would eventually see something that looked close to the mystery pack that the speaker used but for some unknown reason wouldn’t identify when asked, and sure enough, I did.  I can’t tell you now what search terms I used but in the end what finally came up were “nurse fanny packs.”  There were a slew to choose from and I chose the 2 that looked most like they might suit.  In the end this one is the one that fit the bill for me.  As of this writing in December of 2023, the link is active and Amazon still carries this exact same item at a very reasonable price.  Below are photos showing how I’ve kitted out this great little pack.  I’ve used it for some time and I find it is just about perfect: 

Here is the pack all ready to go out into the field.


Here is a top view showing the pack opened with my sketchbook and travel palette inside.


Here are the Handbook sketchbook and Winsor Newton palette I use.


And a few other things I like to carry that also fit inside: the JML sock blotter, a view finder and a bit of a cotton rag.

Here are a few other things I carry:

  • The JML cotton crew sock top to wear on the wrist for a handy water brush cleaner.
  • A view finder.  I love these view finders for landscapes.  
  • A water brush.  My palette actually holds a very nice sable travel brush that I like better than waterbrushes, but I still carry a waterbrush because I like to use it to release ink from the…
  • Tombow marker pen.  Since college I’ve used old-style black plastic barrel flair pens to do drawings with lines that I would then release with water and a brush to get a nice wash effect.  Recently, Flair ink has been reformulated and the technique no longer works with the new “improved” pens.  The ink smears terribly while you’re drawing and when you touch it with water it releases way too much pigment.  I’m on the hunt for a new pen that will function more like the old Flair.  These Tombow markers are meant to be used with this technique, but the jury is still out.  I need to do more experimentation before I can recommend them wholeheartedly.
  • Micron Pigma Sepia 005 and 01 pens, plus a black Micron PN. The sepia pens are for drawing and the black PN is for writing.  None of them smear with water or when writing on any paper so you can draw and then go back and add watercolor without fear you’ll release the ink from the drawing.
  • Crowquill drawing nib in a Tachikawa holder with a cap.  I keep this not for doing pen and ink drawings because transporting ink and using it in plein aire settings is too difficult, but sometimes I like to use a drawing nib to get fine lines with watercolor.  I will fill the nib from a brush and draw with the watercolor wash I’ve mixed rather than with ink.  This saves me from having to carry a very fine brush for calligraphic linework I will sometimes need do at the end of watercolor landscape sketches if there are fine lines needed, like telephone wires, window panes, signage or boat rigging.

This pack is sufficient for my sketching needs and I can carry it in the small of my back while walking but easily bring it to the front and access my drawing materials immediately.  I can also still wear a backpack for other items like a jacket, water bottle, binoculars, wallet etc.  Why was that workshop instructor so reluctant to tell people he was using an inexpensive nurse’s fanny pack to carry his sketching essentials?  Maybe he was concerned that the links wouldn’t be stable and people wouldn’t be able to find exactly the pack he uses anymore.  Who knows? Suffice it to say that if the exact version I link to above becomes unavailable, that there will always be other nurse fanny packs available that are similar because nurses are not going to stop carrying all that stuff around and clearly these little packs are what they need to do their very important jobs.

On the Road Again

On the road somewhere between California and Utah, possibly even in Nevada.

We are enjoying the wide open vistas of southern Utah. The screeching flash flood warning that came through everyone’s phones this morning was a bit of a flashback to last January’s killer wave incident on our vacation to the beach. We seem to have developed a way of attracting historic weather conditions when we vacation. Just call me Chicken Little. But the resulting skies are so beautiful, it’s hard to complain about being asked to sit still for a day while the storms pass through. We’re safe in our hotel room on high ground.

So why, if you already have a lovely photo of a dramatic sky and were unable to sit and sketch that sky in real time because you were either rolling down the road, or it was too cold, or you didn’t have time, would you want to then want to go back and make a duplicate of that in your sketchbook? Oh, so many reasons! Let’s look at a few:

  • To narrow the focus on what excited you about the view
  • To eliminate things in the view that don’t excite you like cars, antennae, or other interlopers
  • To fill time stuck in your hotel room during a winter storm
  • To really cement the memory of what you have seen in a way that a photo cannot
  • For practice with your materials so that when you are able to work in nature, you will know the materials well and be able to work faster
  • As an adjunct to written notes you’ve made in your journal
  • So that it will be in your journal and not lost in the thousands of photos on your phone
  • Because you can

Another wonderful sweeping Utah sunset sky.

Let me give a shoutout to our new Entegra Expanse RecVan for the sweeping views from the cabin as we rolled down the road. Never have I been able to capture the true feeling of a landscape while moving down the road in a vehicle until now. Also props to iPhone cameras and the onboard photo editing software. Snap-Edit-Snap-Edit-Snap-Edit is all I did for 2,000 miles, except when I was knitting.

Who Uses Pens With Nibs and Bottles of Ink Anymore?

I was asked this question today. The short answer is, “I do!” Also Calligraphers and Cartoonists do, but I’m no Calligrapher or Cartoonist, just a backyard sketcher.

I think the natural follow-up question would be, “Why would you, then?” Well, and I think the Calligraphers and Cartoonists of the world would agree, my simple answer is that these tools produce marks that are noticeably different from marks you can make with other types of tools. Also, at least for me, using these pens is ergonomically better than using comparable modern pens. Because you have to stop and dip the pen periodically, you get a break from the constant repetition required to shade with the stippling technique I prefer. I can choose nib holders that are a better fit for my hand than the cylindrical barrels of the ubiquitous Micron Pigma pens and the flexible dip nib gives less resistance when you touch down to the paper, over and over and over, until your hand cramps if you don’t take breaks.

I’ve been enjoying my dip pens with Walnut Ink so much lately that I’m on a mission to make them a portable medium I can take on location. For years I’ve used microns in my journals for ink drawings and they have performed well, but the dip pens are calling.

Tachikawa T-25 holder, Hunt 104 nib, gourd image about 50% complete in my multi-year journal.

More nibs and holders and my favorite tilted inkwell that makes dipping so much easier:

Front and center: T-36 holder and a Nikko maru mapping nib. Next door an unfinished persimmon drawing from last year that looks suspiciously like it was done with the micron Sepia 005. How can I tell? It’s the uniformity of the stippled dots. The difference is subtle, but I can tell. To me, the work with the dip pens is livelier somehow. Anyhow, that’s how I’m feeling today.