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.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Taiwan Trip Diary: Days 11 and 12

Dharma words and stamps from our monastery stay.

Here we are at the end of our trip. I've been dragging these posts out in the hope I'd never reach this point. But, yes, all good things must come to an end (I've never really known why) and we were sure to cram as much fun into the last two days as possible. Starting with breakfast at The One and these coffee cups. I loved them so much I had to buy a set for home:




I don't think my husband is as impressed with them as I am, but I thought they were cute. And they're definitely a fine example of "splash ink" technique.

After leaving The One, we headed back up toward Taipei and a village famed for its ceramic work. We were running a bit behind schedule so we decided to forgo a sit-down lunch in favor of exploring what the street vendors had to offer. They were especially plentiful thanks to the ongoing national holiday. My choices included a steamed spinach-green onion-and-cheese bun, a fried doughnut, and a huge cup of iced lemon tea that lasted me most of the day.



Loved this tunnel kiln! I need one at home.

Bought chopsticks for home, too. 
Finally learned how to use them, LOL!

The afternoon took us further into Taipei:


Taiwan's "White House."

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial
(unfortunately covered with
scaffolding.)

. . . and the National History Museum. I thought this little pagoda was perfect painting material:


Before studying any artwork we needed afternoon tea in the museum cafe:


The view from the cafe windows:

Someone actually gets to live in this building.

These beads date from 403-221 BC.
Still so modern. I'd buy them!

After the museum we found ourselves in a busy part of downtown where I had the opportunity to investigate some of the backstreet shops. Thanks to having bought the pig teacups I needed a larger carry-on. I found just what I wanted in a small suitcase store: bright pink canvas and made in Taiwan. A great souvenir for future travels.


Which store first??



Dinner that night was once again "family style" when we met up with some of Ming Franz's cousins, former high school classmates, and teachers in a downtown restaurant. It was a genuine reunion for them all, and wonderful for us to be part of such a special evening.

Then we were back to The Grand Hotel for our final night. By now we had traveled in a huge circle, seeing three coastlines and parts of the interior too. We also arrived back in time for  the start of "frog season." Right outside our windows: croak, croak, croak all night. As I noted in my journal: "These frogs are VERY disagreeable!"

A grand entrance, indeed.

Accompanied by the frog serenade, our packing lasted well into the early morning hours. We had become so spoiled in our big bus, a vehicle designed to sit 30-40 passengers when there were only 10 of us, that our daily habit was to load up the empty seats with our purchases from each stop and then forget about them. Now was the night of reckoning and everything had to find its place or get left behind. First to be discarded were all the beautiful shopping bags--so lovely but way too bulky. 

The next morning, packed and ready for our night-time flight, we still had a full day to spend in Taipei. First stop was a visit with Welsh paper artist, Tim Budden, now a Taiwan resident, who led us to his studio through this interesting neighborhood:

Hot spring water flows right through town.



Mr. Budden explaining the
intricacies of paper art.

Following our studio tour, we were off to Taipei 101, regarded to be the world's highest completed building. We were booked for lunch on the ground floor at an Anthony Bourdain-recommended restaurant specializing in xiao long bao, steamed soup dumplings. Yum.





Before lunch we had 30 minutes to ride up to the 89th-floor. 






Next and final stop: The Eslite Book Store. The best bookstore in the whole world. Several stories high, filled with treasures I'll never see here in the USA, I could have moved in permanently. I bought more brush pens (black, forest green, gray, and rust red), a book on painting cats in the Chinese style, and a book on French shabby chic. In Chinese. Don't judge.

And then we were off to the airport. Our superb and talented tour guide gifted us all with special little items to remember our trip. For me it was a wooden key-ring carved into the shape of a horse complete with saddle, bridle, and tons of intricate detail. She told me she had chosen a horse so that I "may keep traveling, and go far." She also gave me a postcard of a Taiwanese kitten, "Because you love cats!" 

On the way to the airport . . .

After dinner on the plane I think I slept more soundly than I did at the monastery. I don't remember much about the flight home except for the movie I watched before falling asleep: The Crossing--a recent film set in Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. It was excellent, and a real tear-jerker, but then it suddenly ended with the words 'To be continued." Apparently Part II comes out this summer, but I wanted to keep watching!

Along with two of my travel companions, I had decided earlier to stopover in San Francisco before going home to Albuquerque, and I'm glad I did, but it sure seemed strange (and lonely) to be on our own without the group or my roommate.

A room of my own.
New pink Taiwan travel bag in the back there.

My version of my cat postcard:
"This kitty is sad to leave Taiwan."

And then we flew into Albuquerque, and . . .  that's all, folks, 12 unforgettable days of Taiwan. I hope you've enjoyed reading my trip diary; I certainly enjoyed sharing it with you. May you one day travel far and wide, too!

(Next post: A review of my travel sketch supplies, what worked, what didn't. Stay tuned.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Taiwan Trip Diary: Days 9 and 10


I'm coming to the end of my Taiwan trip; just four days left as I continue with Days 9 and 10. In many ways, these last days were amongst my favorites, but then I say that about every day in Taiwan, so it's difficult to know if there was anything I didn't enjoy to the max!

Day 9 started in Kaohsiung with a visit to the famed Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, both overlooking a stunning lotus bed and lake.


At this point of our trip we were also poised on the cusp of a national holiday weekend, coinciding with Easter, and so there were lots of  local tourists and food trucks to keep everyone happy.


After climbing to the top of the pagodas and wending our way back "out of the mouth of the tiger" (sounds like a kung fu movie), we next went to a modern art museum. I thoroughly enjoyed the innovative installations including a life-size street scene made from dried banana peels (it was amazing!) and a variety of art videos (which also gave me a chance to sit down for a while).

We left Kaohsiung after lunch in a Hakka-style restaurant (read more on Taiwan's Hakka population here), and headed for our next major stopping point: the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Memorial Center.

Prior to our arrival at the monastery, I had no idea what to expect other than a night of austerity: gruel for dinner (if we were lucky), lights out at 7 PM, compulsory meditation, and pre-dawn rise-and-shine.

I couldn't have been more mistaken. The monastery was a beehive of commercial activity filled with hundreds of visitors, an art museum and up-scale galleries, a shopping mall, plenty of individual specialty shops tucked away into various hidden corners, several top-notch restaurants, a 7-11, and of course a Starbucks right in the main entrance! In other words, it was paradise. And that was just the small part I was able to see. Apparently there's also a university, conference centers, and all kinds interesting visitor and educational facilities.  


It was also very noisy. As well as finding preparations underway for an outdoor concert to be held sometime that weekend, a construction project prevented our tour bus from dropping us of at our dorm-room accommodations:


Despite our difficulties getting up the hill and into our rooms, we were encouraged at all times to look on the bright side:


And they were right: tune out the noise and confusion, and the grounds were magnificent, the main feature being this enormous Buddha:


The theme of spiritual living extended into our dorm lobby . . .


. . . leading to our rooms: simple, clean, and cozy, and designed for students with strong backs. The mattresses were comically rock-hard, probably the only austerity we experienced in the place, but mine also provided the best night's sleep of my life. Maybe I should get a piece of plywood to sleep on here in Albuquerque!

Sketchbook reminder: Do Good Deeds . . . 

Banners and signs placed throughout the walkways reminded visitors to"Do good deeds, speak good words, think good thoughts." A worthy sentiment and one that was very different from what I discovered when I unwrapped a throat lozenge halfway through our tour. I wasn't getting sick, I just felt like I needed some Vitamin C. The lozenges I brought from home were packaged in what the brand called "positive affirmations," and the one I picked on this occasion revealed the statement: "Inspire envy!" Whoa. What a contrast to "Do good deeds." Give me the lessons of the Buddha any day.


That evening we gathered in one of the mall restaurants for the best vegetarian dinner to date (vegetarian cuisine being the only one available, and just right for me) followed by yet more shopping. I was able to purchase more beads, this time ones inscribed with little spiritual symbols and writings (none about envy, I'm sure), and a couple of brush pens I totally fell in love with.

Morning proved to be far more peaceful than the day before, the machinery turned off and the air humming with the sound of nuns chanting while others walked in silent procession or worked in the gardens:



The only catch to the day was the complete absence of coffee in the breakfast room. I need coffee in the morning, as in, I really need coffee in the morning, and I've already mentioned how good the coffee in Taiwan is. In my desperation I remembered the Starbucks, but I also remembered it being a long way to walk and I wasn't sure when our tour bus would be leaving.

As I stood alone in the middle of an empty courtyard, contemplating what to do, a party of nuns and monks led by a tall German greeted me with a hearty, "Good Morning! Where are you going?" Immediately I thought this was one of those trick koan questions, and that I was supposed to have some brilliant reply such as, "To find enlightenment, O Master!" Instead, all I could weakly croak was, "Starbucks?"

The monk's reply: "Hahahaha! Then I wish you luck! They are closed!" Drat.

However, thanks to my quick-thinking roommate, I was able to avoid a caffeine headache when she surprised me with a can of iced coffee from a vending machine. Yay! The day was saved. I thank her with a thousand Buddhas:


Even after we left the monastery, monks and nuns seemed to be following us. Lunchtime in a village known for its wood-working artistry let me snap this photo:



And then we were on our way to: THE ONE. Oh, my goodness. Oh, my. THE ONE really is, The One. (That's what it's called, The One. The One what? Just. The One.) Now a luxury spa, resort, hotel and restaurant, it was originally the playground of a Taiwanese newspaper mogul. Built in the 1980s in a traditional and palatial style (no nails were used in its construction), it is gorgeous. I took dozens of photos, mainly for art references, but here are just a few to capture the ambiance:






Really, I could live here forever.

Highlight of the Day: Before dinner at The One (which was. what else?, a multi-course extravaganza) I had a chance to sit and dream with my sketchbook in my own private alcove. The area I found was decked out in pale lavender silk, embroidered cushions, antique Chinese furniture, and dimmed lighting. 

While I was luxuriating upon the divan and pretending to be an eighteenth-century empress, I thought I would experiment with one of my new brush pens. Wow--where have these pens been all my life? It was like painting with silk. Another unforgettable moment from Taiwan.


(Side note: the stamp in the upper corner on this sketch was from our visit to the King Car Whisky Factory where they make--and we got to taste--Kavalan whiskey, judged to be the world's finest. In an interesting coincidence, King Car was founded by the man who developed "Mr. Brown Coffee," the canned coffee that saved my life at the monastery. Thanks, Mr. Brown!)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Taiwan Trip Diary: Days 7 and 8


Okay, I'll cut right to the chase: Taiwan Trip Day 7 will forever go down in history as: 
DAY OF THE MONKEY 

Long story short: my poor roommate was attacked, MUGGED, by three of the little devils. (And they weren't all that little.) 

I have never been so stunned--or frightened-- in my whole life. Monkeys might look cute and innocent on the surface, but wow, can they get mean. I was thoroughly impressed at how my roommate stayed so cool, calm, and collected as she divested herself of the creatures, talking to them in a quietly authoritarian voice (even whilst getting a huge bite in the process!), but it was a terrifying moment. 

Personally I would have had a complete nervous breakdown. The worst part was that we were on a bridge stretching a deep ravine. One false step and . . . well, we won't go there. All I can say is, if you ever get the chance to see monkeys in the wild: run. (Needless to say I made the above sketch from an image on my camera at a later date. No way was I going to stick around for longer than it took to snap a photo or two.)

Before monkey madness, the day started out quite peacefully in this coastal village where we stopped for lunch and some sightseeing:


The restaurant we ate at was what they called "chef cook style." Instead of customers choosing meals from a menu, lunchtime clientele simply got what the chef made that day. And of course it was delicious!

But then it was back on the bus to monkey territory. If I seem a little obsessed, it's because a) I was really looking forward to seeing the monkeys, and b) then I was traumatized by their antics. I can't even look at monkeys on TV at the moment. However, for your enjoyment, here they are again:




Me, before witnessing "the attack."
Hurrying back into the bus to resume traveling (and making sure my roommate was okay (She was. No puncture wound, thanks to the thick weave of her shirt, but there was a large bruise.), we then carried on in a state of exhaustion to an organic tea plantation. 


Here we tasted (and purchased) a variety of fragrant teas, the most-prized and expensive being a type known as "honey oolong." This particular tea gets its sweetness from cicada secretions. Yes. (By now nothing could faze me.)


Next stop: a "Buddha's Head" fruit stand. Each of these interesting little fruits is an exact replica of the tight curls atop the head of the familiar representation of the Buddha. Or this is at least what we thought. There seemed to be some difficulty in translation because sometimes they were called "Buddha's Hands." But to me they look like Buddha's head. Whatever they are called, they are wonderful, kind of like apple and pear custard.


And then our hotel--a lovely family-style hot springs resort owned by a friend from Ming Franz's high school days. What a treat! The sulphuric water scent was strong, but, oh, so healthy. For me it was pure nostalgia reminding me of my teenage trips to the hot pools of Rotorua in New Zealand, always with that smell hanging in the air at every turn. Here at the resort we could get the spring water in our rooms too, so naturally I took advantage of a long soak before bed.

Resort koi pond. I fed them, too.

Day 8 continued our up-close-and-personal portion of the trip, getting to see a side of Taiwan most tourists rarely see. After leaving Ming's friend's hotel, we next went to visit her former high school where one of her classmates is now the principal. (They were a very dynamic group!)


These kids were the lucky ones. The rest of their classmates 
were busy cleaning and mopping the hallways.
Wish my school had been this pretty.

After a short tour of the school grounds, we then assembled in the library where Ming gave the school one of her books and we were all presented with official school tie pins and a morning snack.

And then we were off for lunch and adult beverages at the Tsingtao Beer Factory:

Dragons love beer too.

Where I discovered this poster:

And had to know who these bad boys were . . . 

Before I could find out though, we then had the very special opportunity to visit with some of Ming's family living in her grandfather's one-hundred-year-old house. Parts of the home are still maintained just as they were in the past, and it was a unique privilege to be invited inside. I was especially taken with the family pet:

It took me forever to realize this kitty
didn't speak English, and that  it was useless
to repeat, "Kitty, look up! Look at me, Kitty!"

Ming's family owns a nursery in the town, and they graciously next took us for a visit there. The plants were exquisite, nothing like the dry specimens we have here in Albuquerque.

All that lovely mist . . . 

Cooled and refreshed, we then took off for Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city, an architectural mixture of London, Barcelona, New York, Paris . . . It's beautiful! Here we stayed on the 39th-floor of a luxury hotel atop a posh department store with late night shopping. Dinner in the building's restaurant continued the family theme as we met with our tour guide's mother, sister and her husband, and their two adorable little children.

And then my solitary adventure began . . .

Remember the guys in the poster? I had the bright idea that I would try to find some of their music in that downstairs department store. Except I didn't know the name of the band, or anything else about them except they like Tsingtao beer.

So under the universal heading of "heavy metal" I bought what I thought would be some good old Taiwanese rock'n'roll. Carrying my daintily-wrapped package, I went in search of tea-towels, thinking that would be a nice thing to bring home. Except I couldn't get anyone to understand what I wanted. I even demonstrated what I thought "towel" looked like if you were playing charades. All that happened was the sales clerk started imitating my extremely strange movements until we were both doing this weird dance in the aisles and I had to shake my head, say, "Sorry, but thank you so much," and run away. 

I ran so far I then got lost and couldn't find the exit to the hotel. To make matters worse, the loud speakers came on: "The store is closing in 1o minutes." In English, nonetheless. For which I am eternally grateful. Otherwise I would have had to have slept somewhere between women's fashion and men's shoes. I think I got out of there with 30 seconds to spare. Whew.


Grateful to be back in our room with a view.
More exciting than New York!
Good night, Kitty!

Highlight of the Day: Say it isn't so. Discovering that the CD I had bought was this: