There are lots of ways to get me to pull over and make an impromptu detour to a town I know nothing about. The best one I can think of?
Name the place something that sounds like a Spaghetti Western. I’ll be there before you can yell “Draw!“
Of course, if you really want the feeling of sketching a cathedral…you could just go sketch a cathedral. I figure that’s just as valid a way to go about it. And considering that I scored an absolutely rock star parking space on a busy thoroughfare in the middle of San Francisco to do this sketch (stopping along your way to draw is hard in a place where a car is a burden)—well, I was feeling pretty blessed that morning!
Cathedral Park is one of my favorite spots in Portland. It’s pretty far off the beaten path, so I don’t know how many non-locals make it out that way, but it’s well worth the effort to get there. The park is named for the effect created by the gothic arches under the span. The long row of arches acts like a kind of barrel vault, while the diffuse Northwest light filters in at an angle—which feels a whole lot like you’re standing in the nave of the airiest cathedral you can imagine. The whole effect is as inspiring (for me) as visiting Notre Dame in Paris or St. Patrick’s in New York—only with a distinctly Northwestern spin on the experience.
Today is one of those rare sunny fall days in my town—as sunny as it was the day I was in Albuquerque a couple of years ago. But in the Northwest, bright weather at this time of year means a wicked cold front—which has me missing the warmth of sun-baked adobe today.
Whenever I travel closer to home, where the flora and fauna are familiar to me, my birdwatching sketches look a lot like any other in my sketchbooks: full scenes, with plenty of time taken to get the details right. (And if my subject should happen to wander away—well, if it’s something I’ve seen before, memory can usually fill in the rest.)
When I was at Big Bend, however, the combination of excitingly “exotic” wildlife and an insane amount of it made my drawings just a jumble of frantic chicken scratches and field notes.
I felt like a student in art school again, concentrating hard to commit my subjects to paper in just a few seconds, drawing and redrawing everything again and again to try to nail down anatomy and details in real time.
As you can probably guess, I like having more time to “finish” a sketch… but I also love that life drawing in a place where I don’t know bupkis keeps me on my toes.
If I’m traveling by car, you can put me in any landscape—even the most barren, treeless, flat places that most sane people would label “dull”—and I’ll be fascinated. No matter how long the trip and unvarying the scenery, there’s always something for me to sketch, some vista to marvel over.
Put me in an airplane over cloudy skys, and I’ll go out of my gourd with deadly boredom. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but on this day a couple of years ago, it was especially torturous. The flight time was doubled in length thanks to bad weather—and I had run out of things to draw, and pages in my sketchbook in which to draw them. And I can’t sleep on planes. So in desperation, I grabbed the in-flight magazine, and when the flight attendant asked me my drink preference, I picked the beverage with the most complex can design.
(I still finished with an hour left to go on the flight.)
Last week I was invited to come and sketch the view from one of Seattle’s famous houseboats (best perk of what I do: being invited to sketch interesting, hidden things!). Unlike the biannual houseboat tour, where there’s barely time to jot down a few chicken scratches on the spot before it’s time to move on (I have to finish those sketches after the fact), this time I had all the time in the world to spread out, choose my vantage point, and luxuriate in finishing the drawing then and there.
Since the houseboat was the kind of place that made me want to just plop down and stay forever, the gift of time was even more wonderful than being presented with that stellar view.