Corvidsketcher Becomes a Bisonsketcher

On today’s walk I headed north to Golden Gate Park. My intent was to go to the Bison Paddock in the wild western portion near the Chain of Lakes and do some bison sketching.

Bison are good subjects because well, they just sit there allowing you some time to get a sketch in. They are certainly better subjects to sketch than say, a Wilson’s warbler, a hyperactive bird that is a challenge even to photograph well. I had practiced sketching American bison in the wild, on a fall trip to Yellowstone National Park in 2017.

This is a sketch from a photo of my October 2017 trip to American’s oldest National Park!

The goal I set for myself was to loosen up my sketches and apply some of the things I have learned in a book I am currently reading, Felix Scheinberger’s excellent: Urban Watercolor Sketching. He advises “less is more” when it comes to watercolor painting and I also take this to mean the economy of the sketch itself. I’m not sure if I succeeded but every sketch can be considered a success because you learn something with each one. And sometimes you learn what not to do!

I picked my spot near the fence and making sure I was at least 12 feet away from any other park visitors (The Bison Paddock is a very popular spot) and I started to sketch a lounging bison. I started using a Micron sepia PN, not using any underlying pencil sketch! I then laid in some color, making sure to leave parts of the sketch unpainted (featured sketch).

An overenthusiastic art lover walked over and would have stood above me breathing into my left ear had I not halted his progress by proclaiming, “I’m practicing social distancing!” He stopped and admired the sketch from a distance.

A bison wandered by, grazing as it went along. I couldn’t let this happen without getting another sketch in! This time I challenged myself to do a continuous line sketch. This means that I sketched the bison without lifting my pen (although the rules of continuous sketching say you can lift your pen for a rest but you have to return to the exact point where you left off). This type of sketching is good practice for loosening up your lines and injecting improvisation into your sketching life.

A continuous line sketch of a bison. To get to other parts of the sketch you have to retrace lines you have already drawn. This is such a freeing way to draw!

First of Season (FOS)

The unfolding of the year
And now our season is here
All the balances are clear
Now that our time is here

~Season Song, Blue States

A student of mine, let’s just call her Amelia, keep requesting that I post more bird drawings. I’m sure she’s tried of trains and more trains. So I decided to do a bird sketch in these times of social distancing.

The previous weekend, before anyone really got the message about shelter-in-place, I headed out to the San Mateo Coast to do some sketching and birding. (Two sketches from that outing were posted in my blog: Sketch in the Time of Covid.)

I was birding mainly on the coast, looking for kittiwakes and northern fulmars but I decided to take a detour inland to do some birding in a riparian habitat.

I took a right turn off of Highway One on Tunitas Creek Road. I remember the first time I birded this road was on an afterwork excursion. When I told my fellow teacher where I was going. She said, “You going now?! I wouldn’t go there. Be careful.” She then told me that Tunitas Creek Road was haunted and she had grown up in Half Moon Bay and no sane local would ever be on that road at dusk or in the night. Yeah right, I though, sounds like the rural coast’s version of an “urban myth.”

I birded Tunitas Creek afterwork and had a nice experience and I didn’t see any ghosts. When I got back home I did and an internet search with “Tunitas Creek Road haunted” in the search window and I came across the website titled, “10 Scariest Haunted Roads in Northern California”. I looked at the website and I scrolled down, scanning the 10 entries, not seeing Tunitas Creek Road. I had to reach the bottom of the page until there was any mention of the road in question because Tunitas Creek Road was ranked number 1 as the most haunted road in Northern California!

There have been reports of a long-armed blue lady who had been seen haunting this road at night and also bodies strewn among the bushes, the spirit reminders of a long ago Native Californian slaughter. But I was here on a mild March Saturday to see what I could find in the roadside bushes. I was not looking for bodies but birds!

I parked in a dirt pullout and walked west down the road, birding by ear. This is the time when bird calls and songs that I have almost forgotten come back to me. These are the times when migrants from Mexico and Central and South American are slowly returning to their breed grounds, here in the trees and bushes of Tunitas Creek.

Across the creek came the song of a bird that I am very familiar with. A fellow birder described the call as sounding like one of those lawn water sprinklers. It was a call that I hear from the deck of my cabin in spring and summer. This was the call of the Wilson’s warbler.

This was the first Wilson’s that I had seen since the turning of the year and it would be noted as FOS, meaning “first of season”. This data provides ornithologist with an idea of the pattern of migratory birds over time. Are these warblers migrating at the same time every year or are the arriving earlier or later than usual?

I love this warbler. It’s one of our smallest warblers and the adult male is easily identified with it’s bright yellow face and body and it’s black “yamaka”. This warbler is always in motion and in the spring and summer, calling frequetly.

As I walked along the road I came across a loose feeding flock of bushtits and chestnut-backed chickadees. In the flock was a bird I hadn’t seen in a long while. This is a bird that is often confused with the over-wintering ruby crowned kinglet but once this bird sings, it is all vireo. This is Hutton’s vireo.

It was nice to see these migratory birds. It is nature’s way of signaling the changing of the seasons. From the cold dark days of winter to the longer, green days or spring. The air filled with the scent of flowers and sounds of birdsong.

A male Wilson’s warbler photographed from my deck in the Santa Cruz Mountains, last spring.

Keep Your Distance

“The scariest thing about distance is that you don’t know whether they’ll miss you or forget you.” ~ Nicholas Sparks   

As part of my Daily Route, exercise and creative time are an important part of my afternoon (after my school work day ends at 3:15). I decided to combine both activities into one.

I planned to walk around my neighborhood and force myself to make one sketch per trip. I wanted to keep the loose and free style that I had been experimenting with over the weekend (see previous post: Sketch in the Time of Covid).

For my first attempt, I walked north on 27th until I hit Golden Gate Park. I entered the park, not knowing what my subject would be. I found myself drawn to the Polo Field which was now occupied by Canada geese. I sat in the bleachers in the northern side of the field, looking at a line of cypress trees and beyond then the rising trident that is Sutro Tower (which I have sketched many times).

After I did a quick pencil sketch, I laid in the sky and before the sky was completely dry, I painted in the trees with sap green and violet. The dark green grew into the sky like mold.

I then painted the lower scrubs and then the thin line of the footpath and finally at the bottom the bright green of the green. After the painting was mostly dry I added loose line work (again with a Micron 005). I loosely outlined the trees and scrubs and along the path, I added distant figures, my fellow San Franciscans, out to get some exercise.

I stopped and looked at my work. What I was really drawing was social distancing. The tiny figures were spaced out along the trail. They looked like isolated figures in the landscape. This sketch certainly captured this moment in time. A time of fear, anxiety, and isolation.

I add a few paint splatters add some motion and mood to the painting. It took about 25 minutes. Done!

The following day, Tuesday, I headed west down Moraga, toward the Pacific. As I crossed Sunset, it started to drizzle. And the closer I got to Ocean Beach, the more it rained.

I was not deterred, I kept walking. I was going to do my sketch no matter what the weather. Watercolor paining does prove to be challenging in rain. But at least I wanted to get in a sketch.

I crossed Great Highway and climbed up a dune to look out at Big Blue, which was now a dark blue-green furrowed with churning white. The Farallon Islands, which were visible on the horizon when I started my walk, were now shrouded.

I pulled out my Stillman & Birn Delta Series spiral sketchbook and started sketching with a Micron 005, I did not have time for a pencil sketch. The rain had abated a bit, it was now a intermittent drizzle and my pen lines ran and smudged. I loved this because it is a record of the making of this sketch and is now part of the process.

I again noticed walkers, spread out and isolated in the landscape, walking alone along Ocean Beach, despite the weather. Walking in rain is alway a wonderfully visceral experience and I see the rain did not deter other beach walkers. I would rather walk in rain than sit indoors.


Sketch in the Time of Covid

It was the weekend and it was time to get out and bird and sketch. Both activities are paragons for social distancing.

Birding is done out in the open away from crowds of people. And for sketching, I sketched and painted in my car, to avoid people peering over my shoulder and breathing on my ear and asking, “Whadaya doing?”

After my humble breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee, I headed down the coast on Highway 1 into San Mateo County. I planned to sketch and bird my way down the coast as far at Gazos Creek.

Most of the parking lots were closed and traffic was light. My first stop was at Devil’s Slide and I sketched the coastline with the ruined World War II bunker. I worked quickly, finishing the pencil sketch, line work, and painting in 15 minutes. I was able to do this because I worked wet-on-wet (not waiting for the paint to dry before adding another tone or color) and painted the scene just in sepia. In the end I was not trilled with the sketch. It was too standard and didn’t really leap off the page. So I looked at it as a warm up to get my sketching muscles moving!

I drove south through Pillar Point and Half Moon Bay and pulled off Highway 1 at Pigeon Point. I pulled off the road on a dirt shoulder. Through the windshield was Pigeon Point Lighthouse and the sprawling buildings at it’s base. Now it was time to sketch.

I started with purpose. I wanted to be freer and looser in my line work and painting. I first loosely sketched in the scene in pencil and then I wet the sky with clean water. I laid in Payne’s gray and purple clouds with no regard for the actual color or if paint crossed the line work into the lighthouse. I boldly painted one side of the tower in purple. I was not going for a realistic color palette but painting from a place of emotion and playfulness. I guess that what happens when you are cooped up at home for the last three days, peering at screens. I painted wet-on-wet, not caring if the color ran together or if I created blooms. There was a true sense of improvisation in this painting and I loved it! I flicked a loaded brush on the paper creating emotive paint splatter. I was painting like a kindergartner!

I after laying down the paint, I did a brief seawatch through the passenger side window. No northern fulmars or kittiwakes. I returned to the painting, which was still wet. I chose to use a Micron 005 (a very fine line) to loosely sketch in the forms, leaving broken lines and child-like scribbles. I completed the sketch in about 15 minutes. Done!

After a proper seawatch with my scope, where I did see a dark morph northern fulmar, about 300 yards from shore. I headed south to Gazos Creek, took a left at Gazos Creek Road and did some bucolic driving towards Butano State Park and Pescadero.

I drove through Pescadero and headed north on Stage Road. At the intersection of San Gregorio Road I found my next subject to sketch: the San Gregorio General Store. The store was opened in 1889 and was across the rode from the stage coach stop.

This buidling, which also houses the tiny post office, is literally a general store where they sell everything: books, brooms, beer, hats, gloves, scarves, groceries, seeds, rakes, hoes, pottery, glassware, cast iron skillets, postcards, posters, and the kitchen sink. Today the store was closed and would not reopen again until April 7 (hopefully). Apparently the San Gregorio General Store is considered a “non-essential” business. That could have fooled me!

I again used a very loose and free style while painted the store. The sketch to no more than 20 minutes.
Sketching in the Time of Covid-19. Say in you vehicle and don’t talk to strangers!

The Daily Routine in a Time of Shelter in Place

Last week I knew for sure that I would be working for much of the three weeks leading up to Spring Break working from home. Add to that the Shelter in Place order that restricted much travel and social gatherings in the City and County of San Francisco. I knew I would be spending a lot of my time indoors, working remotely on my laptop. Communicating with students, lesson planning, talking with my fourth grade team, and assessing student work.

I knew that I would have to create a daily weekday routine that would give my day form and structure. So I created a daily routine diagram to flesh out the blocks of time during my waking hours.

For this diagram I used one of my favorite fonts, Sara Elizabeth. I discovered this font in the Dover publication: Rustic and Rough-Hewn Alphabets by Dan X. Solo. I have used this font in many of my illustrations from Central and South America. I also added illustrations to parts of each chunk of time. I intentionally didn’t add times because I knew that in relation to this weekly schedule, I had to be fluid in such an ever-changing time.

In one of the blocks I added “Creative Time” because for me it is like breathing air. And that is when I created this illustrated timetable.

I will go over every chunk of time:

Wake: This is when I wake up. Represented here by the crowing rooster, if we had roosters in my urban neighborhood, which we don’t. Otherwise I would be woken up much earlier. My wake up time is listed as 7AM. This is a little later than a “normal” working day because I only had to commute from my bed to my computer.

Break the Fast: Breakfast, usually of oatmeal and coffee. Keep it simple.

Teacher Time: This is when I open my work laptop and connect with my students. I do this through messaging on Google classroom. There were many questions the first day and I reminded then that patience is required in the weeks ahead as we are all learning in a new way. The title of this block comes from the name of the 30 minutes we have with our own students during our Coloma overnight trip, which we have, unfortunately, had to cancel.

Lunch: Lunch is from noon to one and I try to be consistent with eating healthy. Something that helps me stick to the normalcy of the working day.

Distance Learning: At this time I might arrange a Google chat and invite my students. They are jazzed to see each other (and what the interior of their houses look like) and I found that I had to do a lot of redirecting (just like in the real classroom) to keep my students focused and not all talking at the same time. I have employed the phrase, “You have the floor!”, just keep it Parlimentary.

Exercise: Physical and mental health are so important in this time of sequestration. I plan to walk down to the Pacific Ocean (25 minutes one way) or down through Golden Gate Park. My goal is to get 45 minutes to an hour of walking in each day, including weekends.

Creative Time: I live to create so this is a must in my day. At this time I can draw, paint, write, or play music. I may also do some field sketching as part of my daily exercise.

HH ~ Read: I love to read and I set about 60 minutes of reading time every day. I have a few books in my reading queue. I am currently reading non-fiction, a wonderful book by Christian Wolmar: A Short History of the Railroad. I am reading this in anticipation of my trip on the California Zephyr to Chicago which I had to cancel in light of the current pandemic. I also have three graphic novels that are extremely popular with my students by local author Raina Telgemeier: Ghosts, Sisters, and Guts. I also love to revisit poems by: Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets), Basho, William Stafford, Shakespeare, John Donne, Pablo Neruda, Borges, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Soto, and Billy Collins. Just to name a few.

Dinner: I have enough healthy food to last me for three weeks (I think!). The Shelter in Place order should be no excuse to eat unhealthy foods.

Great Movies: This is a time to revisit some of my favorite films in my extensive collection of DVDs. Many of these films are considered masterpieces of world cinema. A partial list includes: Amelie, 49 Up (Roger Ebert called the series, “on my top ten greatest films of all time”), Amores Perros, Being There (much better than Forrest Gump), Butterfly (Spanish film about the early days of the Spanish Civil War), Cabaret, Chushingura (The Japanese tale of the 47 Ronin), Citizen Kane, Cria Cuervos (Title refers to the Spanish saying, ” Raise ravens, and they’ll gorge your eyes out”), Das Boot, Delicatessen, Grave of the Fireflies (a Japanese animated heartbreaker), Harakiri, Ikiru, Jean de Florette/ Manon of the Spring (Just amazing!), The Lives of Others, Playtime, Odd Man Out (one of the best soundtracks ever created for film), Once Upon a Time in the West, Rashomon (Seminal piece of World Cinema), Rio Bravo, Senna (a great documentary and I could care less about Formula One), Seven Samurai (one of my all time favorites), Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock’s favorite film), Spirited Away (Miyazaki’s masterpiece of animation), The Spirit of the Beehive (a dense film but probably the best Spanish film ever made), The Third Man, Sunset Boulevard, Tokyo Story, Watership Down (love the book and the animated film), Ugetsu, Vertigo (Often recognized as the best film ever made), and Unforgiven. I have many more films on this list but these are the films that speak to me at the moment.

ZZZZZ . . . Repeat: Perhaps a little bedtime reading but this is the time to rest in a time of unrest. I need all the sleep I can get to recharge the batteries to repeat the day and keep to the same route. Again and again. But hopefully not again.

I challenged Grasshopper Sparrow to create his own Daily Route in this time of shelter in place, and I would have to say that he rose to the challenge!

Distance Learning

Today seemed like a normal Monday during the school day. The teachers where here, preparing, with their coffee closely by. But one very important part was missing: students.

On the previous Thursday evening, we found out that our school district would be closed to students for three weeks, running up to our April Spring Break, because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. We would still be working and teaching our students, but not in person. This was to be the start of a new and uncertain territory: distance learning.

This was not teaching by semaphore or passenger pigeon but by smart phones, laptops, and take home packets. We would have three days to prepare, as a grade level team, to put together all the materials needed and create the structures to put into place for twelve days of “at home” learning. We would be rolling this out to students and parents on Thursday, in a mere three days time!

And I have to say I was looking forward to the challenge.

We were all nervous and apprehensive, as most would be at the beginning of any great or important undertaking. There were many unanswered questions: What would distance learning look like? How would we keep in contact with our students? What about students without access to the internet? How could we hold students accountable for their work? How do we create engaging yet rigorous work from afar? How do you teach from a distance? Can a packet, app, or computer program really replace the everyday, one-on-one, relationship between a teacher and student?

Well the answer to the last question is a very obvious “No”. But distance learning made me reflect about the almost sacred connection between teacher and student. There cannot be a facsimile for such an experience as this. But we needed to create a system for satellite learning, in a very short period of time.

Every Monday I have yard duty on the upper grade yard during our morning recess. To keep some sense of normalcy, I headed out of the classroom, past empty lunch bins, to the yard. And I did my recess duty by sketching the empty playground as the light drizzle created patterns in my watercolor.

A quick recess duty sketch without children. This was an eerie scene for a Monday morning during the school year. With the light drizzle it probably would have been indoor recess anyway.

We found out that all Bay Area Counties would be enforcing a “shelter in place” mandate that would start at midnight. We later learned that we would have only one day to create the take home packets and not three because we would be getting them to parents on Tuesday instead of Thursday. After packets would be picked up, we then would be sent home for five weeks (including the two weeks of spring break).

The lines at the copy machines where long like the lines at the grocery stores. We worked hard to make the seemingly impossible happen so our students would has some semblance of the fourth grade curriculum.

Be well everyone, and wash your hands!


California Zephyr

I have always wanted to travel on the original Transcontinental Railroad, from the West Coast to the East and see some the sights from the original right of way over the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. The closest you can come to doing this today is by taking the California Zephyr.

AMTRAK operates the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago (not the East but the Middle Coast). The daily route covers 2,438 miles and takes 51 hours and 30 minutes (that is if the train is running on time). The route covers seven states and stops at 35 stations including Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Helper (Utah), Denver, and Omaha, to name a few of the major stops.

So I booked a roomette for my Spring Break in April. Which at $550, I thought was a good deal because it included two nights and all the food was part of the fare.

Since the time of booking the trip, the spread of Coronavirus and Covid-19 (not related to Corvid in any way!) in the United States has thrown a monkey wrench into the works. At this time my continental train trip hangs in the balance as some predictions estimate that the virus might spike in late April.

One thing that I sketched, regardless of if I would be boarding the California Zephyr in Emeryville in early April or not, was to sketched out the route with all the stops in a visual map (featured sketch). I also drew the locomotive that is used on this route, the P42DC, with all it’s specifications (below).

The workhorse of much of AMTRAK’s long distance routes, General Electric’s P42DC.


Mission Revival in the Presidio

Many of the train stations I had sketched recently were designed and built in a Spanish Mission Revival style: Burlingame, Salinas, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. Truly the best way to understand an architectural style or architect is to sit in front of a building and sketch it.

And so, on a Friday afternoon, I headed to the Presidio, in the northwest corner of San Francisco, to sketch one of the finer examples of Spanish Mission Revival in the City of Saint Francis. I was also getting back into the habit of doing an after work sketch, which is a great way to decompress from the week’s work.

My subject was Fort Winfield Scott and the buildings that lined the parade grounds. These were the army barrack buildings built between 1910 and 1912 as the headquarters for the Coast Artillery District. I walked around the semi-circle of buildings until one spoke to me. It really wasn’t too hard because it was the only building with a hawk at its height.

An adult red-tailed hawk using building 1202 to survey the parade ground for gophers.

I set up my sketching chair on the parade ground and started to sketch building 1202. This was a former Army barrack built in 1911, and housed up to 95 to 109 soldiers.

I framed in the lovely lines of the barracks and added the red-tailed hawk at the top of the curve. The raptor flew to the field, this time coming up with only grasses in its talons. The hawk flew off only to appear later at the top of the flag pole at the edge of the grounds.

Building 1202 now houses the Presidio Graduate School and the World Economic Forum. Both sound a bit mysterious. People kept coming and going from the building. Some where getting on their bikes to ride home. A young woman bikerider stopped and asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was drawing the building and noted that that it was beautiful. She replied that she was “spoiled” to work in the building. These are the nice little conversations you frequently have when urban sketching, it really seems to take out the threat and the isolation of being in the city when people see your sketching.