Twilight in Old San Juan Complete–My Magnificent Octopus

There’s a great scene in the third season of Blackadder in which Blackadder is ranting to Baldrick that Samuel Johnson didn’t like his novel, Edmund, a Butler’s Tale. He concludes his rant by saying, “Everybody has one novel in them, and that was mine,” to which Baldrick replies, pulling a tiny piece of paper out of his pants, “And this is mine. My magnificent octopus.” Blackadder reads it aloud. “Once there was a lovely sausage called Baldrick. The end.”

So here it is, my magnificent octopus.


A bit more than Baldrick’s story, but not quite Edmund, a Butler’s Tale. I am excited to have finished this one. It was my most ambitious effort yet. Thanks for following along.


Thoughts on New Directions, Progress on Old San Juan


A couple more sessions and I will be done with this one. I am excited about how far I have come and how much I have learned by working on this painting. I think I have progressed a fair amount quickly thanks to it, and thanks to some close studies while working on this of John Singer Sargent, Hopper, and fellow blogger David Tripp. At the same time, there are some things I haven’t been able to work on in this painting, and I want to try out some other styles and techniques for a while.

A few things have happened that are pushing me in a new direction.

1. The John Singer Sargent exhibit–The freedom and expressiveness in his work was remarkable. Of course such freedom comes with practice and precision. There are no wasted strokes. He is really in command, even when he seems loose. The work is so lively. I want to see what I can learn from that.

2. My Lakeville sketches– The small sketch of the swans showed me how much can be accomplished with a few pencil squiggles and a couple swipes of the brush. That painting took a few minutes, including drying time. Granted it was 3×5 not 11×14, but I let my gut take over and didn’t worry, and it worked. Similarly with the painting of my Aunt’s kitchen. There was more to it, but I still worked quickly and didn’t worry so much about getting stuff “right.” I just let it work. I want to try treating everything as a sketch for a while, and see what comes of it.

3. The acquisition from my dad of two Series 7 brushes (a 2 and 5). They allow for a much looser style with more life and expression in a few strokes than my synthetics did. I am eager to push this further.

I probably won’t post again on Old San Juan until I finish it, but will keep posting sketches. I have a couple other paintings in mind that I am looking forward to as well.

Thanks for reading.

NADA, Tysons Corner, and Old San Juan

Yesterday I attended a fascinating talk about the future of Tysons Corner that gave me a new appreciation of the town I work in.

I had always thought of Tysons as pretty soulless–the land of office buildings and car dealerships, and of course the mall. Only 17,000 people live there, while about 100,000 people, including me, work there. Other than shopping, there are not cultural draws. One can eat outside at restaurants, and view a strip mall parking lot or a traffic jam. All that will change. It is supposed to become Fairfax County’s downtown. It’s pretty exciting. It has also made me more interested in what’s there now. Today, I ate outside at Panera, probably because my Pandora station thinks I am always hungry, and won’t stop telling me to go to Panera or Firehouse Subs. Something about my choice in music says sandwiches. This was my view, the NADA building and the Best Western across the new Silver Line tracks.

I was not too thrilled at first over what I had available to sketch, but once I started that changed. It’s fun to realize how a quick little sketch can help me appreciate a place so much more. I am starting to get a new understanding of the area, and hope to showcase it more through these micro sketches, and probably some bigger ones as well.

On another note, I got some more work done on the Old San Juan painting tonight. Slow going but it’s really coming together. Here it is:


Twilight in Old San Juan: Using a Series 7 Brush for the First Time

My dad has a nice collection of Series 7 brushes from years ago. I borrowed a #5 last weekend, and have been excited to use it. This morning I got up early before the kids woke up and put in about an hour or so. It’s been interesting testing it and comparing it to my Escoda Prado synthetic brushes. The Series 7 #5 is about the same size as my Prado #8, which I love, but behaves very differently. It’s softer, more expressive, and holds a lot more water and pigment. The Prado is firm by comparison, and easy to control for a more limited range of strokes and marks. I used both in my further progress on the Old San Juan painting, though I am sure, based on what I used them for, you can’t tell which brush I used where. This painting isn’t really set up for expressive strokes. To paint more like John Singer Sargent, the Series 7, or a similarly expressive brush, would be essential. For this, I have found it to be a little too soft. I am looking forward to putting the brush to a serious test in a new painting soon. I am very excited to be able to work with it.

For now, here is some further progress on the main building. The windows have been an interesting challenge. The wood is worn and of various colors, even within the same window, so getting that down in such a small space has been difficult, but necessary, so the image doesn’t seem flat and the scene retains the feeling of the fantastic and of competing spatial identities I wanted to convey when I started. There’s still a lot of work left in this, even in the woodwork. It was nice to get one of the window air conditioners in to see how that would work out. I am looking forward to putting in the mess of power lines and birds, though I will probably have to wait another session or two before I get there.

Thanks for reading.


Getting Back Into the Old San Juan Painting

Seeing John Singer Sargent’s watercolors in person gave me a strong motivation with both my watercolor and my sketching. He has such confidence in every stroke, and I am a long way from that. I think sketching more frequently will help me. I hope to see that in my full paintings over time.

Maybe because it’s raining here, the kids are still asleep, so I’ve put in some time on the buildings on the left side to get them more or less finished off, except for some detailing and maybe scraping at the end. One of the lessons I took from John Singer Sargent was how much can be handled roughly on buildings and still have a convincing, lively result. This gave more some confidence to handle the middle building on the left, which had been holding me up.

Here it is now. Thanks for reading.


Twilight in Old San Juan: Progress and Paddleboarding

After some more time away and too much thought, I am finally into this painting. I don’t know why this one has been more intimidating. Probably because there are so many aspects to it, so many details to make decisions on that I wasn’t ready to make. Fortunately, there is no better cure for over thinking than paddleboarding, which I was able to do twice this week on one of the local man-made lakes, once before work with one of my best friends who was in town for a few days, and then yesterday with my family. This really set the tone for the weeks to come, and now I feel like summer’s really here. Today’s ridiculous humidity helped with that impression too.

As I have gotten into this painting in detail now, I have been surprised over the amount of green that came into play, such as in the glass of the big doors on the left, and even in the shadows. I drew on my study of Hopper’s Marshall’s House to do this. I have found that my darks and grays are including some hints of green as well. I am also relying on Cerulean blue to cool off the yellow of the left side buildings. Adding even a small amount of Cerulean to a mix immediately brings out the humidity. Here’s where it stands now.


Twilight in Old San Juan: Some Thoughts on People in Paintings

What is the role of people in non-portrait paintings? Scale? Narrative? After a very insightful comment posted on my last entry, I got to thinking about this topic.

The loneliness of Hopper’s figures was a key aspect of the mood in his paintings. The unpopulated paintings are very open for interpretation, either as outdoor still lifes, or arrangements of line, surface, and volume, or any number of things. When he adds people, what happens? His unpopulated paintings aren’t without evidence of human life–they never appear post-apocalyptic, for example, but what a difference a lone figure can make. There’s a new level of sadness conveyed, or perhaps not sadness but pregnant ambiguity.

I have three options regarding figures.

1. Add several figures in some form of interaction.
2. Remove all figures, and have an unpopulated building-scape.
3. Have a single figure, the man in the window, and remove the man on the bench.

The first option is inviting, full of life. Theres much to be made of a crowd, both in terms of potential drama, and in terms of composition. But in order for this to work, I might need to be a better painter than I am.

The second option is also interesting, but, thinking of my goal of conveying a sense of the fantastic, a space without a human to interrupt might be more easily viewed as without tension of the right sort. This isn’t a Wyeth piece where certain objects are imbued with so much meaning, drama, tension. I need a human to show that conflict of spatial identities that makes up the fantastic.

The third, for me, is the most interesting, the most full of mystery. Would could the lone figure, the shirtless sentry, be looking at? Theres no one else in the scene. What is he retreating from? What is going on in his mind? This is the key question. By putting a figure alone, all of the drama of the “scene” is mental. That mental state is informed by his environment, but his presence also interjects some value into the space.

As for the execution, I am trying to be looser with this one to showcase the humidity and the twilight and the the age. I have so far worked only with my quill. I am going to see how much I can do in this fashion. Here it is with some preliminary washes.

Thanks for reading.


Twilight in Old San Juan Day Two: Finishing the Drawing and Reading Pavese


After a brief hiatus for Father’s Day and some work that carried on through the evenings, I am getting back into this painting of Old San Juan. Though it’s only been a week, I had to spend time reacquainting myself with the subject, so I focused on the drawing again. I cleaned up the left side and drew in more of the details, then masked some of the areas I want to focus on later.

I am finally ready to start painting, which I won’t get to tonight. I am still wondering what to do in the bottom left corner. The two figures in the photo are actually me and my older daughter, and our presence doesn’t quite fit the mood I want to convey. I will have to put some different figures in, I think. I will make that decision once I start painting. I don’t want to overdraw, and if I don’t move on, I will.

In thinking about that decision, I have been thinking about Pavese, and how well he sets a scene. I will quote one of my favorite beginnings to a novel. Here is the first paragraph of Pavese’s Among Women Only.

I arrived in Turin with the last of the January snow, like a street acrobat or a candy seller. I remembered it was carnival time when I saw the booths and the bright points of acetylene lamps under the porticoes, but it was not dark yet and I walked from the station to the hotel, peering out from under the arches and over the heads of the people. The sharp air was biting my legs and, tired as I was, I huddled in my fur and loitered in front of the shop windows, letting people bump into me. I thought how the days were getting longer, that before long a bit of sun would loosen the frozen muck and open up the spring.

In such a short space Pavese lays out the narrator’s character, the city, and the mood, not just in the present scene, but also for those to come. Look at the last sentence: “loosen the frozen muck and open up the spring.” This is typical Pavese. At first blush, this appears hopeful–the coming spring–but a spring of loosened muck is as foreboding as it is promising. Sure enough, within the first few pages, a failed suicide is revealed, and the narrator gets caught up in the sad affairs of a group of rich women.

This is the trick that I one day hope to accomplish in a painting–all of the details coming together to convey the depth and complexity of mood in a space and the lives that occupy it.

Twilight in Old San Juan: Starting a New Painting


The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
-H.P. Lovecraft from The Call of Cthulhu

Two years ago we went to Puerto Rico with the kids and some close friends, and spent some time wandering through Old San Juan. We often returned to this square. For some reason, it was the only place I could seem to orient myself to. Fortunately our friends had been several times, so knew the way around. Old San Juan was a fascinating city of many identities: city of soldiers, rum, and pirates, but also city of churches; cruise ship destination with high end shopping, but also a source for cheap tourist kitsch like body part shaped shot glasses that said Puerto Rico; home to delicious fancy restaurants, but also cheap food, and even Ben and Jerry’s; a city built for walking, but full of cars upon cars in streets to small to accommodate them (not to mention the afternoon trash pick-ups with trucks made for the narrow streets, which led to both general cleanliness and a lingering odor of trash in the humid air as the truck lumbered by); a city loaded with wandering tourists, but also people in doorways and upper windows who called the place home. In short, it was a place of many spatial identities superimposed and syncretized, with an underlying feeling of the fantastic. H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood would have felt just as at home here as a Travel Channel camera crew.

Painting the scene photographed above is going to be a challenge. The drawing alone was a challenge, and there will be so much to incorporate and decide on once I get to painting. I am sure I will learn a lot from this not only on the technical side, but also in terms if capturing those syncretized and layered identities in a way that can be felt by the viewer. I also think I want to draw out that fantastical element (hence the creepy Lovecraft quote). This one may be slow to develop. For now, here’s my rough framing drawing.

Thanks for reading.