Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My Portugal Adventure Continues: Part III

From my Portugal sketchbook:
Sardines Galore!
Hello, everyone! Here we are at the next stage of my Portugal journey. I had meant to post this entry much earlier, but the recent tragic events in Paris and the rest of the world drove me into retreat-mode. I have been sad.

Paris has always been special for me, as I believe it must be for a lot of people, and my heart and mind are very much with the people of France right now. Which also means I was initially reluctant to write a blog post about European travel. It felt frivolous. Then I was reminded of something a good friend said at our last writer's group meeting: keep traveling. Don't give in to fear. Support the small businesses and people of the world with our tourist dollars and by appreciating all the goodwill travel has to offer. It's a great attitude, and one that encourages me to keep dreaming, keep planning, and keep my suitcase handy. So in that spirit we'll keep going through the wonderful land of Portugal.

One quick aside before we go to the cork forests, though: before leaving home I was so busy with my day-job and all the rest of my life I didn't have the chance to get to an art supply store to buy a Stillman and Birn sketchbook, the brand I took to Taiwan. Instead, I had to dip into my trusty storage container of new, but unused, sketchbooks that I have either bought on impulse because they were on sale, or had been gifted over the years. (I promise this isn't hoarding, just "saving things for a rainy day." And this was the rainy day.)

The one I chose was a 5 1/4" x 8 1/4" Global Art Travelogue Handbook. I had been wanting to try out a horizontal format for awhile, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I used my now-favorite Faber-Castell watercolor pencils, but instead of a waterbrush, I took a travel watercolor brush--it's just like a regular paint brush, but part of the handle comes off so you can tuck the bristle end into it to keep everything a) dry, and b) compact. To be honest, I thought the brush was a little over-priced and I'm still not sure what I think of it. On the other hand, after reading several on-line negative reviews of the Handbook, I have to say I totally disagree with the nay-sayers--it's a nice little book! The paper is good quality, I liked the way it stayed open on a table or my lap even though it was stitch-bound rather than wire-bound, and once I closed it and secured it with the built-in elastic band, any pages that had "curled" while I was painting them returned to their original shape and stayed that way. So, I like Handbooks a lot and recommend them as good travel companions. They come in a variety of sizes, and the one I took was just right for keeping in my purse all day.

So with that covered . . . northwards we go and on to: Arraiolos! Stopping first for Portugal's famed cork trees:

Aren't they sketch-worthy? Too bad I was in a hurry at the time and could only snap a few pics. I was particularly surprised to see some of the trees stripped down to their bright red "naked" trunks (I don't seem to have any photos of them, sorry). Later on I learned that the cork bark must be harvested from the trees at regular intervals to keep them alive. Good excuse to drink more wine--every time you open a bottle you're saving a tree, LOL! I was also surprised to discover how many uses the Portuguese have for cork, from making shoes and handbags, to covers for journals and i-phones, to . . . well, you name it, you can find it made out of cork. (And new cork shoes might make you a much wiser steward of the planet than too many bottles of wine in the long run.)

After viewing various parts of the forest I then saw a sign saying that just up ahead would be an entire maze of prehistoric monoliths. I just HAD to see the monoliths. I mean, they were prehistoric! The only trouble was the signage didn't say exactly where, or how far, so after about ten miles of driving down endless dirt roads searching we gave up and headed back for the toll road and our planned destination of Arraiolos.

We chose Arraiolos for its famous carpets. I had my heart set on something small and pretty for my entryway back home, and as I read to my husband from the guidebook: "Everywhere you look there are people making or selling carpets in this charming town, even from their doorways." Okay. Doorways. Yes, I see them. But they are closed. Charming. Yep. Very pretty town. But the carpets . . . um, where did you say they were?

Unfortunately, and very much like hunting down the monoliths, we couldn't find a single thread or scrap or even a human being. The town was so quiet I couldn't even hear someone vacuuming a carpet! There were NO carpets. But there was a castle:

And a view:

And in that view there was a grocery store. Except when we got down there, it was closed. 

We peered through the windows and saw the owners eating their lunch. It looked delicious, but, they shook their heads: no, you can't come in. Okay. No carpets, no lunch. 

In search of some food, we then found a mega-mall that we were sure would have a restaurant. Hahahahaha. Lots of stereo equipment, garden furniture, and children's bedding, but no food to be had. Certain we would pass out around now, we managed to drive to another beautiful mountain town, Santarem (a city, actually) and there we found a little hole-in-the-wall of a bar where they made us a wonderful feast of Super Bock, boiled egg and salad sandwiches, coffee, and cake. Which meant we now had the strength get to the eastern coastal town of Nazaré and a beautiful modern hilltop hotel for the night. We could see both the swimming pool and the sea from our room:

The next day we explored the village (where everything was wonderfully open!) and I bought one of my few souvenirs: a lacy, embroidered tablecloth. It's not a carpet, but it's sweet and will forever remind me of a happy day. 

The morning ended with more sandwiches and more Super Bock on the beach and a view of the fishing boats:

And then we were off to the surf town of Ereceira, of which I will write much sooner than I have these other posts. In the meantime, may you be safe, may you be inspired to go far and wide, and Let There Be Peace on Earth. Thank you for visiting and to my US readers: Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Adventures in Portugal, Part II

From my Portugal sketchbook: Roman Temple of Diana 
ruins in Évora!

Hello, everyone. Anybody signed up for National Novel Writing Month 2015? Me! (Much against my better judgment.) So far, so good--I'm actually enjoying myself, making me wonder what's wrong, LOL. The title of my WIP is The Calling, and I have no idea what it's about, which is fine--writing for the sheer pleasure of writing is really what #Nanowrimo is all about, don't you think?

But before I get back to today's word quota I wanted to take some time to continue sharing my Portugal journey, so here goes:

I ended my last post in the seaside town of Quarteira. From there we headed north and inland to our chosen destination of Évora, billed in our guidebook as a walled medieval World Heritage City and the home to an ancient university. Driving there we went through what our guidebook described as "the golden plains of the Alentejo" (very golden, very desolate, and very beautiful):

passing more castles on our way:

By the time we reached Évora, I couldn't wait to start exploring, the only problem being where to put the car. Spaces were practically non-existent, and nowhere near any hotels. At this point of the trip we didn't even know where the hotels were or where we would stay as we hadn't booked anything in advance. However, after creeping up and down the minuscule winding lanes (never designed for cars) we at last found an approximately 6-inch slot in which to park. Best of all it was right next to the vending machine where you put in lots of money and got a little slip of paper verifying your parking space. Wonderful! 

Next step was lugging our suitcases toward the local posada, a lovely old former convent now turned into a state-run luxury hotel with, naturally, luxury prices. Like, um, really, really expensive. We weren't sure we wanted to spend so much money, so suitcases still in tow, we headed down the cobbled lanes to where we thought there might be some place to stay, and found this adorable little family-run inn:

I loved the old-world charm (as well as the old-world pricing). After unpacking and freshening up (listening to our neighbors' rooster while they worked in the kitchen and watched a Portuguese soap opera--noisy. but homey and real) we went to see the sights and have a late lunch in the square:

(A shot of our outdoor restaurant under the umbrellas. As usual, I don't know who these people are in the foreground--I tend to just take photos without thinking too much about where I am,  and end up with all kinds of strangers tagging along.)

After traipsing down more hidden lanes and admiring the architecture, we thought it was time to go check on our car and possibly put more money in the machine. The parking was free at night, but we wanted to be sure we'd paid enough until the cut-off time. We got to our car, and lo and behold, a parking ticket! Bummer! We couldn't read what it said, but I was able to decipher something about the price being 300-500 Euros which made me want to faint on the spot. The police station was right around the corner so we went there with our paper showing we had paid, the time hadn't run out, so why? What? How could they do this to us?

The police officer we approached was very nice but he didn't speak English and couldn't explain anything other than saying we hadn't paid. But we did! Honestly, officer, we have the proof! He smiled, shrugged, and told us as best he could we'd have to go to the traffic department in the morning. Ugh. 

We then spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find where that building would be so we could be there nice and early. We walked, and walked, and walked . . .

No, this wasn't it . . . 

Nor these places either . . .

Nope. Couldn't find it. Eventually we decided to just go back to our hotel and collapse. But after about five minutes inside our room my husband got all antsy and said he wanted to move the car to outside the city walls. On his own. He then promptly disappeared, leaving me to fret and invent terrible scenarios of ending up in the Évora dungeons for non-payment of parking fines. Eventually I got so carried away imagining horrible outcomes I think we were being burned at the stake by the time my husband returned and said the car was safely in a public zone outside the city walls. He thought. 

Doing our best to put it all behind us, I concentrated on the beauty of the evening:

The cathedral view from our window:

Followed by one of our best meals at the luxury hotel for dinner. If we couldn't stay there, we could at least have a wonderful meal:

The chef prepared a special vegetarian leek, cheese, and potato dish for us, complete with a huge selection of breads and olives, Portuguese wine, and of course, a sampling of Port to finish the meal with dessert. Delish! We were the last people to leave, hence the empty tables.

Stepping outside, we came right to this amazing sight: the ruined temple floodlit against the dark sky.

The next day after chocolate croissants, fresh orange juice and lattes for breakfast, we set out to deal with THE TICKET. Within minutes we found the traffic department offices set within a gorgeous eighteenth-century building that could easily have doubled as a museum (probably why we had walked past it a dozen times without realizing what it was), and showed the receptionist our ticket. She didn't speak English, so she sent us to a colleague, and guess what: he laughed and said, "Oh, this is only a warning. You were in a government parking spot. It's okay. Just don't park there in the future. Have a nice day!" Whew. No wonder the police department had been so easy to find--we'd poached one of their own spaces. On that high note we decided to leave town while we could. My husband went to get the car, leaving me to wait with our suitcases and to people-watch outside the cathedral.

The horses were nice, but I was glad when my husband finally drove up and we loaded the car, ready to leave for the next stops: the towns of Santerem and Arraiolos--but I'll save those for my next post. In the meantime, Happy Nanowrimo-ing, and "Have a nice day!"

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Adventures in Portugal! Part I

Back from Portugal! It's been a few weeks since our return and I finally have all the laundry sorted, the souvenirs displayed, and my sketchbook/journal in semi-order. Now to process what the trip was all about. (Because every journey is always ABOUT something, right?) 

For my husband, this trip was basically a much-needed vacation, especially as he didn't get to go to Taiwan with me and hadn't taken any time off for the last two years, but we also had a second motive for choosing Portugal as a travel destination. For a long time we've thought about Portugal as a place to eventually move to. Maybe not "move forever and ever" to, but as a nice place to spend at least half the year every now and then. I'm not sure why we thought of Portugal above all other countries in the world, but after this trip, I think we need to reconsider. 

Which sounds far more negative than I mean it to--we had a wonderful time! We enjoyed our stay very much! The people were lovely, the scenery was pretty, the US dollar went far (great exchange rate at the moment), but there were just too many differences between our way of life here in Albuquerque and the Portuguese modus operandi starting with the fact we could never, find a single grocery store that was open (or really any kind of practical store at all), followed by having a lot of vegetarian-difficulties with restaurant menus featuring sardine, cod, squid, and piglet. In two-and-a-half weeks I think I ate my entire life's quota of vegetable soup, omelets, pizza, cheese and olives to certainly last "forever and ever."

So that was the small downside of the trip. But once we embraced those omelets and gave up on the idea of having to visit every real estate office we came across while wondering where we would shop if we "really did live here," we became happy tourists and simply fell into holiday mode. We drove down speedy toll roads, soaked up beach after beach, and somewhere in between I even got a little sketching done (a very little, thanks to my husband's obsession with racing down the luxurious and very empty toll roads as fast as possible while I tried to speed-view the countryside).

But rather than go on and on about omelets and "Slow down--I want to see the ruins. Oh, we missed them. They were back there . . . . No, don't turn around . . . ." I thought I'd just share some of my photos through a series of blog posts, starting with this one today.

First impressions: after landing in Lisbon, getting our rental car and zooming straight into Friday night rush hour, we headed for Copa Capricia, a twenty-minute drive down the east coast:

Crossing the bridge across the Tagus River with no idea of where we were really going other than vaguely south, we did arrive at our hotel in one piece, only to find they had no record of our reservation. No problemo, they just put us into a bigger and better room with a beautiful sea view at our original rate!

After settling in, we joined the locals for an evening stroll along the beach followed by the first of our delicious omelets for dinner. (Oops, forgot. No omelet talk.)

Early the next day we headed farther south again for the village of Quarteira, where we were booked in for two nights:

Sometime during the afternoon I lounged in the hotel lobby sketching the waves and these tiki huts while my husband went around the corner to get a haircut--a somewhat strange thing to do on holiday, but there wasn't time for him to get one before we left home.

Sunday morning found us on our way to Faro, a beautiful seaside town east of Quarteira, where we hoped to find not a castle or a museum, but a sports bar so we could watch the Formula One Singapore Gran Prix. (I tell you, this vacation just got weirder and weirder.) 

Faro Old Town:

Loved the colors and cobblestones. I'll be painting this scene soon:

Tiny little streets galore:

Still looking for that sports bar. We thought there would be one at the marina:

So we walked and walked and walked all around it:

Except there was no sports bar that was OPEN. So who would've thought the place to go was the Chelsea Tea Rooms far, far away from the marina and right in the middle of town?

Our only companions in the whole restaurant!
We sat behind these nice people who seemed to
 enjoy the race as much as we did.

And because there's no such thing as too many sporting events in a single day, as soon as we arrived back in Quarteira we were just in time to grab a seat in yet another restaurant with a giant TV featuring a huge football match between the cities of Porto and Benfica. Unlike Faro's apparent disinterest in F1, the whole of Quarteria was packed into the beachfront open cafe with us, including the local dogs, non-stop platefuls of teensy squid roasted on chains (seriously, they looked like they'd just come out of a medieval torture chamber), and lots and lots of Portugal's own Super Bock--my new favorite beer. Went great with my salad. A super way to end the day!

Stay tuned for Part II!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Got My Chop: Happy Little Cat!

Introducing: Happy Little Cat,
my new stone seal
all the way from Taiwan!
Finally getting a chance to catch up with my blog again after another long break. The reason for my absence this time has been, what else, editing. Each time I thought I was finished editing my WIP, oops, oh no, there was more work on my plate. However, I am now finished, as in one-hundred-percent finished. The final draft of  my new novel, The Abyssal Plain, is ready for submission to agents and editors alike. Which means that other than my daily freewriting (flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, whining), I'm planning to spend the rest of the year concentrating on establishing "Happy Little Cat," an online studio/shop that will include visual art, pottery, jewelry, and of course, books. I'm more than excited. And as you can see in the photo above, I even got a special seal carved to celebrate my debut, although . . .

. . . there's a certain irony to finally getting my seal made.

Backstory: Prior to leaving for my trip to Taiwan, my fellow travelers and I were emailed an itinerary of our day-to-day activities. One of the things listed for the first day was to visit an art supply store where we could order carved seals or "chops" as they are sometimes called. Back in March I was pretty sure I didn't need anything remotely like a carved seal, and when we did get to the art store, I was so fixated on buying a replacement for my broken water brush (you can read about that little misadventure here), that choosing a nice rock was the last thing on my mind. Other reasons for not wanting a seal included the fact that I didn't think "Valerie" sounded very Chinese, especially when I didn't paint in a Chinese or Asian style. Or at least I didn't then.

Fast forward to this summer and post-trip when I found myself still obsessed with everything Taiwanese. I bought a book on Chinese brush painting. I bought Chinese watercolors. I studied the books I bought in Taiwan on painting trees and tigers. Somewhere in the midst of all this enthusiasm for sumi ink and bamboo pens I had the profound realization that I loved Asian art and wanted to include as much of it as I could (given my limited and "beginner's mind" skills) in my own work. At the same time I very quickly learned something was vitally missing from all my pieces: my seal!

Immediately I started regretting my decision to forego buying a seal in Taipei when I had the chance. Things reached a crisis point when I attended a reception for the New Mexico Art League and saw a stunning floral watercolor painted by our Taiwan tour leader, Ming Franz, that naturally included her seal. My husband asked why I hadn't bought one. How could I be so remiss? Or so silly? I had to get that seal.

After some extensive online research, I found a great company, Asian Brush Art. They had the stones, the carver, great pricing and a nice feel to their website that encouraged me to go ahead and place my order. The big question now, though, was what was I going to have carved on the stone? I still didn't want to use my name. That's when I had the idea to describe not me personally, but how I feel about life and art in general: I feel like a Happy Little Cat. I asked the company if there was enough room on the stone for the characters; they said yes, and ta-dah, I have my own seal at last.

The best surprise of all was that the seal came not from the company's mailing address in North Carolina, but from Taiwan! What are the odds? And not just any place in Taiwan, but from one of my favorite stops on the tour: Kaohsiung. I was thrilled.

I'm still learning to use the seal properly, experimenting with how to tap and dip it into the special red ink paste which was included with my order (I tell you, this company was great). The hardness of the stone and the creaminess of the ink are both very different from my past experiences (and failures) with rubber stamping, so I'm still in "test" mode, but I'm getting there. My best impressions so far have resulted from placing a piece of folded felt under my paper before pressing down with the seal. The sample at the top here is in on rice paper. (Expanding the size of the photo made the edges go fuzzy. They don't look like that in real life.) After playing around with the rice paper, I moved on to stamping some artwork I had recently finished using various supplies (including my trusty bamboo pen) on Arches 140-lb cold press watercolor paper:

Splash Ink Goldfish.
Sumi ink, watercolor, and gouache
on Arches watercolor paper.

Lanyang Museum, Taiwan.
Watercolor, sumi ink, colored pencil
on Arches watercolor paper.

Kwan Yin.
Watercolor, sumi ink, colored pencil
on Arches watercolor paper.

Some of the best images I was able to achieve (and of course I don't have any photos just when I need one to show you) were from using the seal on kraft paper cardstock gift tags, the same tags I experimented with last year applying collage and stick-on "pearls," (examples shown here).

So where I am now is I need to stop playing with my seal and use it for real: getting down to work to fill the shelves of Happy Little Cat Studio. It's going to take me a while to build up my inventory and then incorporate everything into my website, but it's a project I'm looking forward to. I'm also planning on illustrating some of my books for the first time, a great combination of my two favorite disciplines: writing AND painting.

For more information on the history of carved seals and their use, here's a good Wikipedia link to start with, but there are many, many other sites to investigate. My Happy Little Cat seal is carved in what is called "yin style," meaning that the characters are carved into the stone, leaving a red impression around them, as opposed to "yang style" which leaves white space around red characters.

It's also very common to use more than one seal in a painting, e.g., a "mood seal," a bit of poetry, etc., etc., and that's where things get really scary. Because I have a strong suspicion I'm going to want more seals in the future, which also describes me to a T--going from not wanting a seal at all, to now wanting a dozen. Go figure, LOL! Whatever, I love this first seal, I thought it turned out beautifully, and being the first it will always be special. Very happy, indeed.

Tip of the Day: Getting my seal was another step toward creating my "personal brand," something I first blogged about over 5 years ago (!). You can read the post here: What's Your Brand? Although you might find the idea of "branding" somewhat restrictive, it can also be a great help in defining your work to both yourself and your audience. Just for fun, brainstorm a list of 12 things you could use or do that would identify your work as uniquely yours. You might just want a seal of your own.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Return to Writing: Twelve Ways to Get Back on Track

The last few weeks have seen me getting back into writing full-time again, hence my long blog hiatus. And with writing comes, of course, editing and revising, and then revising again, and well, you know how it goes. An endless cycle of chop, change, doubt, re-organization, and finally having to say, "That's it! This book is FINISHED. No more edits until a copy editor tells me what to do." 

It wasn't easy to settle back into a writing routine. Most days I just wanted to go through my photos from Taiwan and play with watercolors. Fun ways to make the hours fly, but nothing that was going to get my WIP ready for a potential agent or publisher.

In order to instill some discipline into my writing life, I desperately needed to remind myself of all the things I've ever taught and encouraged my own writing students to do. (Sometimes you have to be your own teacher!) 

Grabbing a new dry erase board and pen, I made myself a flow chart listing the top 12 ways to get me and my manuscript back into the writing zone. Here's what I came up with:
  1. Focus. Boy, did I need this one. After Taiwan, my mind was a mess: I wanted to work on my novel, only to then want to write poetry, or work on a screenplay, or hey, what about that Young Adult thing in my filing cabinet, or no, a picture book might be even better. . . .  After several false starts, I knew this had to stop. I had to narrow my vision, forget about the other projects (they're all lined up in boxes ready to be tackled one at a time), and concentrate solely on the most important manuscript, the one I was working on before I went on my trip. That's it. Just one manuscript at a time.
  2. Mindfulness. Because I so desperately wanted that manuscript finished, I started to slash words, sentences, and paragraphs without thinking about how much work had gone into creating them. It seemed easier to toss phrases and pages that were bothering me rather than try to improve or rewrite them. After several hours of draconian "ruthless revising" I went back and retrieved all those toss-outs, learning that it was far better to savor each unwanted word, sentence, and paragraph until I knew how I could either fix or use them elsewhere in the story to their advantage.
  3. Brevity. That said, sometimes my choices were right. Less is better in a manuscript. Focusing with mindfulness, I looked for all the ways I could say what I wanted to say without having to say it twice or with too much description.
  4. Let go. It was imperative that I let go of everything that was blocking my way forward or eating my time: unrealistic expectations that I could be finished in a few days (leading to speed-editing); unnecessary shopping trips; housework that was simply routine and not because the house was dirty; and especially social media sites, including, unfortunately, my blog. It was hard, but I got so much done. And I'm back now!
  5. Ritual. For some people it's lighting a candle before they start work, or choosing a favorite pen. My writing ritual, at least for this current book, was to make myself a cup of jasmine green tea, go out of my office and upstairs to my breakfast nook, and read a Chinese poem (translated into English!) from The White Pony before I began freewriting or editing. It was a great system, and one I intend to continue with my next project.
  6. Music. I've always loved the idea of writing to music, and have enjoyed doing so when I've been in workshops or seminars, but it's often something I forget to do on my own. Recently I bought a small portable radio that I can use in both my office and the breakfast nook (or anywhere else for that matter). I've found it very helpful to put on what I used to call "elevator" or "waiting for the dentist" music to calm me down and set the tone of my writing session. 
  7. Magazine or artwork prompts. Using cut-out images from magazines, old books, and catalogs has always been my go-to story starter. Whether the pictures are of fashion models or reproductions of famous artworks, I couldn't live without my image library. For my current WIP I thought I had more than enough pictures to keep the story flowing, but I also realized many of the images had become somewhat stale--I had looked at them so often I had stopped seeing them. Starting a new collection solely for the last stage of the book seemed to revive all my interest in the story again, and gave me a fresh perspective on the older pictures when I paired them up with the new ones.
  8. Meditation. I've never been a "good meditator" (whatever that means), having hopeless monkey mind and a tendency to squirm when I have to sit still without a book or a pen in my hand. That said, I have always appreciated the need to be quiet for a bit before I start my day or any creative work. The secret I've learned is to not set a time: "I will meditate for twenty minutes straight or else!" but just to give myself permission to stop and not be so busy-busy from the minute I get up or the second I sit down to write. Take a breath, take a minute, relax. Let go.
  9. Choose a path/theme/genre/medium. My usual working style when starting anything new is to just let it happen. More times than not, genre or theme is something I choose for my work after my first draft. This time, though, and following through with #1: Focus, I decided to study and develop my genre/theme before I did anything else. It was a good decision--I found myself taking less side trips and getting right to the heart of my story a whole lot faster than in the past.
  10. "How can I help?" It's nice to help other people, wonderful, in fact, but how often do we stop to help ourselves? I once read a quote that has always stayed with me about how the writer would never work for a boss as mean as she was to herself. Me neither--nothing but constant criticism, impossible deadlines, food and drink deprivation, and definitely no bathroom breaks allowed! When I'm writing, I can be horrible to myself. To break this tyranny, I wrote a "Letter to Me" asking what kind of help I needed to change the pattern. Some of my reply includes writing in 25-minute increments, followed by 15 minutes of anything non-writing related; rewarding myself with something special at the end of each day (can be as simple and inexpensive as a new library book); and making sure I put my writing, rather than the laundry, first.
  11. Find a problem, brainstorm a solution. Halfway through my manuscript I realized I was being far too darn nice to my characters. I hated it when anything bad happened to them, so I'd hurriedly make it all better so they wouldn't suffer. Bad idea. Characters crave suffering--it's what makes them whole in the end! My solution was to make lists of terrible things that could go wrong for each of them, and then brainstorm several dozen ways to prolong the trouble. The lists also gave me ways to solve the problems without relying on coincidence or magic wands.
  12. Write a gratitude or daily achievement list (especially after a rejection or a bad writing day). Not every writing day is a good day. In fact, a lot of them can be downright horrible, or at least they can seem to be until you really examine how the day went. Writing a gratitude list at the end of every day is an amazing practice. I like to go for a list of twelve. Even if the best I can do is write, "I have enough ink in my printer to send my manuscript out again." Or, "I got rid of four typos in Chapter 3," it's a win. (It's also positive proof that you're making progress, a good thing to remember and remind yourself when you don't even have ink in the printer.)
Tip of the Day: My absolute all-time favorite writing tip ever: Take a nap. Yes! Seriously! Napping can be a real creativity-saver, and it doesn't have to take up a lot of time. Whether it's in the middle of a hot Saturday afternoon, or as soon as you come home from work, don't fight the need to snooze--use it. To turn naps into real productivity, always have pen and paper right by your side so that as soon as you wake up, you can start writing. The results can be miraculous--new insights, new characters, new energy. I love it.

So what works for you? Drop a line in the comments section and let me know some of your favorite tips, too. Thanks for visiting!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Reviewing My Taiwan Trip Art Supplies: What Worked, What Didn't

Trying my hand at "splash ink"!
I call this "The Spirit of The One"
and I've pasted it to the back cover
of my sketchbook.
The shadow in the middle is
where I had to fold it to fit.
Rice paper, sumi ink, Derwent Inktense pencil. 9" x 12". 
Time certainly flies. It's been several months since I've been home from Taiwan, and I've now had a chance to start working on some larger art pieces based on my travel sketchbook. At the same time, I've also been rethinking my choice of travel art supplies, all in the search for the "perfect pack." 

(Note: If you'd like to see what I took with me, or just need a reminder, here's my post listing the art supplies I packed.) 

In retrospect, I think most of my choices were good; others were . . . well, here's my verdict:

1. I loved my Stillman and Birn Epsilon 6" x 8" sketchbook, but it definitely took some getting used to. This was the first time I'd bought this brand, and I didn't have time to try it out before I left home. Not that I wasn't forewarned. Prior to making my purchase, I did quite a bit of research on the company and its products, and the one online comment I kept reading from other artists was that any kind of watercolor tends to "swim" on top of the book's paper. 

It's difficult to explain, and I didn't understand what they meant, but "swim" is the right word for sure. Until I learned how to manipulate the amount of water I applied to the areas I had colored in with my watercolor pencils, I had to be careful not to flood the pages. For instance, one picture I drew of the nursery we visited morphed into what looks like a rotten smashed cauliflower. It makes for an interesting abstract, but all the detail I wanted (and had drawn) was lost. (And no, I'm not sharing that one with you. Just use your imagination.) 

I think the problem is that the paper isn't very absorbent, so water and/or paint tends to pool on it. However, once I got used to this, I actually grew to enjoy and used the effect to advantage. Stillman and Birn sketchbooks are now the only ones I plan to buy, especially as they make so many different types of books and papers for various media.

2. Regardless of brand, the sketchbook I chose had too many pages: 50 of them. And because they were of such good quality paper, I could sketch on both sides without any kind of bleed-through whether I used my inky brush pens (purchased during the trip), watercolor pencils, or water-soluble graphite. (The paper didn't buckle when it was wet, either.) But planning to sketch 100 pictures in 12 days was ridiculously ambitious. I came home with the book less than half-filled. (The extra pages weren't wasted since I kept sketching once I got home using Taiwan references from my own photos, museum guides, and magazines. Every page is filled now, but it did take a whole three months.) So the next time I buy a Stillman and Birn for travel, it will be the 25-page version. 

3. My Faber-Castell Art Grip watercolor pencils were the best. I liked the triangular shape, and the grippy surface really did work, keeping the pencils from slipping and making them very comfortable to use. Like my sketchbook choice, I've decided to stick with this brand for travel. The colors are rich and intense with excellent coverage--probably one of the reasons I initially had trouble judging the amount of water I needed to use with them.

I had also mentioned in my earlier post on the subject that I had limited my colors down to 7. Now that I've had time to reflect, I would have added 2 more: black and pink. Yes, pink! Usually I don't like to use black paint out of a tube, preferring to mix my own, but this was one situation where a black watercolor pencil would have worked well. Not only would it have imitated the black ink that makes Chinese painting so unique, but I think it would have been a good mix with my other colors to give me a few more subtle, sophisticated hues. 

As for needing a pink pencil, I think I wanted to use pink about twenty times a day. The only red I brought was "scarlet" (a Caran d'Ache sample I received at a color pencil meeting). It's a beautiful red, and it turned out to be just right for Chinese lanterns, but it was absolutely hopeless when it came to drawing Taiwan's magnificent orchids and other flowers. Pink also would have been very helpful for drawing sunrises and sunsets, as well as Hello, Kitty!

One benefit of using such a limited palette was that it did give a coherent appearance to my sketchbook, but from now on I'm bringing a standard tin of 12 colors--including black and pink.

4. I brought--and used--a water-soluble graphite pencil (another Caran d'Ache sample from that same meeting I attended), but in all honesty I didn't find it that important or useful. Once again, I wished I'd had a black pencil in its place. So I'd leave this one at home.

5. I wrote about my water brush disaster here. I was lucky that we had already planned to go to an art supply store on the same day it broke, but what if I'd been in the middle of the woods? Or stuck on a desert isle? You can't always just go to the mall. To prevent any future mishaps, I'll be carrying three brushes with me at all times: 1 medium round, 1 large round, and 1 flat. And I am never, ever going to fly with them assembled again. (They're probably even easier to pack when the brushes are separated from the barrels.) So, lesson learned the hard way, but at least now I know.

6. One of my favorite pieces of advice I read before I left home was to just open my sketchbook "anywhere" rather than draw in page-by-page chronological order (my usual style of doing things). The good side of this advice is that it really helped me to think of my sketchbook as a working tool and not as a sacred text. It also kept me from freaking out about the pages I hadn't filled because I didn't realize how many were blank until I got home!

The downside of this system, though, was that none of my pictures follow the route of the trip. And because I failed to date anything, the where and when of some of my sketches will forever be a mystery. Next time: date the drawings, and maybe jot down a note or two about the location.

7. What I didn't bring and desperately wanted: my pocket-size viewfinder. Too often I was overwhelmed by Taiwan's scenery: huge green mountains, giant Buddhas, vast blue seas, enormous city blocks that went on and on and on . . . much of the time I couldn't grasp or take in the size of it. A viewfinder would have made sense of the vista and helped me to find the right portion to sketch. It's an easy item to pack and one that would have made a big difference to my sense of perspective. Note to self: Pack viewfinder!

All-in-all, though, I was pleased with my little kit, especially as it encouraged me to cultivate and continue a daily art practice, one that's become as important to me as my daily writing. I often think writing and drawing come from the same source anyway: both are about telling stories, making sense of the world around us, and endowing our daily experiences with gratitude and meaning. Last year I even wrote a post about it: Art and Writing, Two Sides of the Creative Coin.

So while you're digesting that happy thought, here are a couple of intermediate pieces I've been working on for your entertainment. They're larger than my sketchbook pages, but still in the "idea stage" as I work toward finding my true Taiwan art voice:

9"x 12". Color pencil on hot press watercolor paper.
I had to add the washi tape when the masking tape
I used to keep the paper on my drawing board
tore the edges. Happy accident?

9" x 12". One of the many vistas from The One.
Derwent Inktense pencil 
on hot press watercolor paper.

Tip of the Day: It's summer! You really don't have to go as far away as Taiwan to start a sketchbook habit. Keep a handy sketch pack in your car, purse, or backpack and just . . . sketch! Ideas for stories, ideas for jewelry, ideas for collage--you don't have to be a professional artist to express yourself with pictures. Go for it.