Every time I visit San Juan Island, my collection of fox sketches grows. They’re inescapable there, as much a part of the landscape now as the treeless prairies they prowl at Cattle Point.
They’re not native to the island, though. In the 1890s, settlers introduced rabbits here for game, and apparently failed to foresee the obvious consequences. Of course, the rabbits did what rabbits do, and in the following decades island residents introduced red foxes to try to make a dent in the rabbit hordes. What has followed ever since is a population tug-of-war: some years the rabbits get out of control again, and the foxes have plenty to feast upon. Then the rabbits decline and the foxes get overpopulated and start dying off…the cycle repeats every few years or so.
For the past five years or so, I’m guessing the island’s been in a fox cycle, because I have yet to see a rabbit on my visits there (though Orcas and Whidbey Islands are both overrun). And unfortunately, tourists tend to feed the foxes, which doesn’t help matters. But whenever I feel like studying fox anatomy, all I have to do is head down to Cattle Point, pull over at a certain overlook, and wait. It never takes long for someone to show up to have their portrait painted.
You already know that San Juan Island is perhaps my favorite place on earth, and the California poppies that grow wild at Cattle Point are just one of the many reasons why. I actually started this sketch on an earlier trip, and came back to this spot exactly one year later to finish it. And it’s a good thing I did, because after the super-wet winter we had on the West Coast, I’ve never seen quite this many poppies in bloom before. After I finished the sketch, I just sat there on the hillside for another half hour or so, not wanting to break the spell of such a perfect moment.
Here in the Northwest, we’re in the thick of my favorite season right now. I don’t mean summer, per se, but lavender season. Our climate is pretty much perfectly suited to growing lavender, so other than maybe the south of France, there’s no better place to stand on a purple hillside, awash in scent.
Lime Kiln Point is one of Washington’s best state parks. For one thing, it’s on my favorite island (and since I love all of Washington’s islands with a mad passion, that’s saying something). For another, it’s got a great lighthouse—which is something for which I’ll always come running. Best of all, if you happen to be there at the right time of year, or are just insanely lucky, you’ll be treated to an extra surprise. Don’t see what I mean? Look again, closely, at the sketch, and you’ll get what I’m angling at…
Sometimes one’s point of view can make or break a picture. The jury is still out on this one, as far as I’m concerned. This was such a weird vantage point for sketching—between the location high up on a hill, the wide-angle view of the rest of the porch, the water and ferry landing below, and the islands off in the distance, everything was just…odd. Unsettling. I spent a long time on this one, using every art-school trick I knew to check and re-check that my perspective was correct. It was…for the most part. But the drawing still feels like something M.C. Escher would have come up with.
When I sat on the pier to do this sketch, I only meant to draw the boats—I’m a sucker for bunches of masts and linear elements like tielines. To make sure I could fit the whole mast in the picture plane, I started at the top and worked my way down. It wasn’t until I got to the mass of windows and decks that I noticed the corgi sitting quietly and staring back at me!
This is the perfect example of why I prefer to sketch my surroundings, rather than photograph them. If all I had done was snap a photo of the scene, I never would have noticed that pup in a million years. Instead, I got to have a private little thrill of discovery, like I had just found out a small secret.
Speaking of indigo, I think I go through more blue paint when I’m in the San Juans than I do anywhere else. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere that has so many different shades and hues of blue in one place. Capturing anything that comes remotely close to what I see there is a big challenge.
Good thing there are plenty of rainy days up there—which makes the landscape flatten out a little, and give my brain a break.
You know, as much I love Paul Bunyan and his mighty axe, I’m breathing a sigh of relief that he and his ilk haven’t gotten to every bit of forest on the continent. Because far better than any lumberjack (even a mythical one) is a patch of virgin, old growth forest. Thankfully, the only folks you’ll see among these towering douglas firs and red cedars are fellow tourists—carrying camera tripods instead of axes.
Roche Harbor is a hidden little pocket on San Juan Island, with impeccably preserved turn-of-the-century buildings, picturesque lime kiln ruins, a pristine saltwater inlet, and wharf buildings that hearken back to some (perhaps slightly revisionist) halcyon era gone by. Yet I had to force myself to even look at those things, let alone sketch them—because I would have been perfectly content to spend all day staring down at my feet.