The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
Downtown Vancouver is always a fun place to anchor. False Creek lies at the heart of the city, and offers free anchorages alongside the main channel, as well as a number of full service marinas. Our preferred spot is anchored out by Stamps Landing, which is within easy walking distance to Granville Island as well as numerous shops. Downtown is just a bridge, a bike ride or a water taxi away.
We spent a few days getting things done. I had a commission to work on, internet updates to prepare and art supplies to organise before we went sailing for the summer. The Granville Island Market gave me a chance to stock up on ingredients I probably wouldn't see in the north of Vancouver Island. We met up with friends for drinks and dinner and also received some unexpected visitors.
I was down below painting whilst Jim was relaxing on deck, trying to get the get-up-and-go to get something done after lunch. My artistic flow was interrupted when he began to shout excitedly. I put down my brush and rushed up to see what he was fussing about. There they were; four orcas swimming sedately down False Creek, with a police boat keeping its distance behind them and plenty of awed onlookers. Jim thinks the cops were there to make sure the whales didn't start snacking on the local seal population and kick off a mid-afternoon massacre. I think they were probably more interested in the welfare of the whales, but I can be boringly sensible like that.
After visiting Science World at the end of the inlet and finding that the seals had scarpered, the orca returned the way they came. I took pictures as they passed Prism, surfacing in unison, then swam past artsy Granville Island. The little water taxis received a bonus whale watching experience, and I was delighted with the interruption. It took a few hours until Stamps Landing's resident seal felt comfortable popping back, however.
We left Prism at anchor for a few days to go and visit Harrison and Mission. Jimmie is now a grandpa, so we were off to see little Mackenzie and her proud parents Peter and Keelie. Cuddles were had, a barbecue was cooked and we managed to add in time for a soak in the Harrison Hot Springs and a search for sasquatch at the Sasquatch Days Festival. The beach by Harrison Lake was lined with canoes, and we sat on the wall and watched the racing.
Returning to Vancouver, we were ready to raise the anchor, catching a weather window to head north to Parksville. A break from art was necessary as we helped get Jim's Mom's house ready for sale, then we continued up the coast to Quathiaski Cove on Quadra to catch up with Jim's friend Craig and his wife Jenna. The sunsets here were glorious, and as the sun sunk in the sky I sketched and watched otters frolicking on the dock. This was very cute until they started peeing on our mooring lines; it turns out that otters are quite stinky. Apparently they also snuck on board to explore when we went to bed, though thankfully the only calling cards they left were muddy paw prints on the bottom of our upturned dinghy on the foredeck.
As we left Quadra, we saw our first humpback of the season. It was also heading north for a little while, though it vanished when we neared Seymour Narrows. I don't think I'll ever get bored with watching their blows, looking out for their tail as they dive and trying to predict where they will come up next.
Our day had been careful timed to get through the Narrows. They're best passed at slack tide, when the water is benign, though being carried through with the tide can be an exciting adrenaline rush! Getting through against the current is a risky business even with a powerboat, and would be impossible for Prism!
We made our way through without drama or incident, and anchored for the night at Billy Goat Bay. The lush kelp blocked the first entrance, but the second was passable. We found good holding with a decent amount of swinging room, and settled in to watch a pair of bald eagles adding sticks to their nest. We couldn't see any chicks, but construction and maintenance were definitely keeping the duo busy.
Our final leg took us up to Port McNeill. The currents in the Johnstone Straight made this last day a bit of a slog at times, but the moody clouds and ever-changing weather over the mountainsides meant there was always something beautiful to look at. We dropped anchor and had a day to organise last minute provisions before our friends Jacqui and Pete arrived from the UK.
With Jacqui and Pete cosily installed, we embarked on a week of exploration and whale watching. The resident Northern pod of orca were off elsewhere, but we saw plenty of humpbacks, Pacific white-sided dolphins and harbour porpoises. Many seals lived in the area, lounging on rocks, 'mermaiding' their heads and tails out of the water to avoid the cold rising tide and popping up to investigate the boat. In Farewell Bay, the two residents seemed extremely friendly, even showing up to say good bye when we raised our anchor the following morning.
After another day cruising with whales, we motored round to Village Island. We don't often get to raise the sails during our summer cruising in this area. The air is usually still. When there is wind, it gets funnelled between the islands and due to Murphy's Law it inevitably become a headwind.
Village Island is a beautiful anchorage. On a clear day (which is a bit of a rarity), the mountains of Vancouver Island are visible. We've seen seals, porpoises, otters and weasels swimming in the waters around the island. Low tide attracts herons and wading birds, eagles keep watch from the tops of the trees and ravens flutter about getting up to mischief. Last summer, a bear had made its home behind the remains of the indigenous village of 'Mimkwa̱mlis, and this year we saw deer grazing on nearby islets, presumably accessed at low tide. We piled into the dinghy to putter around the islands, and spent hours sat in the cockpit watching two eagles on their nest. We were also happy to see last year's chick flapping around, still in his brown plumage. Next year his head and tail will turn white as he reaches maturity.
When we finally managed to drag ourselves away from nest watch, we took Island Prism down Beware Passage to reach Potts Lagoon. GPS has made this ominously named passage straightforward to navigate, but it would have been a complicated business back in the days of chart, compass and sextant. Wikipedia suggests that the stretch of water was named after HMS Beware, but I think that the presence of Dead Point, Caution Rock, Beware Rock, Care Rock and Care Island plus numerous unnamed shoals all present a more telling story- you want to be paying attention when you're cruising round here!
We anchored twice in the passage. Our first stop was near Dead Point, at Monk's Wall. There were never any monks here, but a family of white settlers quite literally made it their home, building their house themselves from stones they gathered on the island. We took the dinghy ashore to poke around rock pools filled with clear water, and to hunt for the remains of an old house. Lengths of wall were still standing, including the sides of the main entrance. Previous explorers had discovered pottery, glass, show leather and ironwork, which had all been laid out in an informal outdoor museum. We listened to the ravens and wondered if the creator of the large pile of fresh bear poo was far away. The mosquitoes certainly weren't- they'd claimed this place, thank you very much, and all visitors were welcome to be the buffet. I managed to complete a sketch before escaping to the bug-free rocky shore, where Jim was nibbling on pungent wild leeks. Jacqui and Pete soon joined us to watch the turquoise water, and enjoy not being nibbled themselves.
At the other end of Beware Passage was Kalugwis, the site of another First Nations village. Emily Carr painted here, and old photos show striking totems and imposing long houses. Today, the village site is overgrown. A couple of roofs of more modern buildings can be seen peeking out from the mass of vegetation, but the carvings and long houses are either long gone or absolutely engulfed. We found the remains of part of the board walk on the foreshore, and strolled along the white shell beach. The shells come from the midden, the remains of centuries of seafood dinners. Rusted metal, fragments glass and shards of pottery add splashes of colour- oxidised greens and reds, and the bright patterns of the china chosen by somebody long ago. The pottery is the thing that makes me feel most in touch with the people in these places. Willow pattern, florals, bright geometric- what do the patterns say about the people who lived amongst these islands?
The plan was to anchor at Potts Lagoon for a night. It's a sheltered anchorage with a few float homes around the edge, ranging from joyfully bright to rather dilapidated. A series of islands and inlets mean there's plenty to explore, including the interior of the lagoon itself. At high tide, it's possible to take a dinghy into the shallow lagoon at the back of the inlet. At other times, the water pouring out over boulders creates a set of salt water rapids which would be impossible to navigate in our soft-bottomed inflatable dinghy. We timed the tide carefully when we set out to explore, entering shortly before slack tide. The current was considerable, but there was enough water for us to get through. As we progressed further, we stayed alert for rocks lurking below the surface. The channel made a dog leg into a pool, containing an old wharf, possibly a relic of logging in the past. The shallow water may have provided us with a challenge, but it created the perfect hunting grounds for kingfishers. There were dozens of them, plunging into the water after fish, giving shrill staccato cries as we passed.
The best wildlife viewing turned out to be from the boat. We'd barely seen a bear all week, then found that bears are like buses- you wait for ages then they all come along at once. Jacqui was thrilled to see a cinnamon-coloured bear strolling along the foreshore. It suddenly broke into a run, and dashed off the beach. Then another bear appeared on the beach. It strode purposefully along the foreshore, disappearing into the trees where the first bear had also vanished. Half an hour or so later, there was more bear activity on the shore. Another golden-coloured bear ambled across, this one with the hump and shaggy ruff of a grizzly. It rolled some rocks, searching for crunchy crabs and other critters, before traipsing off into the vegetation.
Pairs of eagles kept watch from the tree tops and a kingfisher claimed the top of a derelict wharf as its lookout of choice, occassionally plunging off to snatch passing fish. Ravens tocked and chattered and the breeze barely rippled the surface of the water.
It was a paradise but Jacqui and Pete's adventure was drawing to a close. We planned a route back to Alert Bay via Baronet Passage, a long, straight channel. As the tide was low, we kept our eyes open for foraging bears and eventually spotted one on the foreshore. We lost sight of him as he rounded the headland, but we hoped to catch up with him on the other side. Indeed we did- but we hadn't expected him to be in the water! He'd decided that this was the moment to swim between islands, and he obviously hadn't looked both ways before crossing the channel. He seemed a little disgruntled to be sharing the stretch of water with a little yellow sailboat, paddling in front of us doing the bear paddle. We kept our distance as much as the current would allow and made the most of the photo opportunity. Reaching the other side, he clambered out, gave himself a good shake and plodded off- presumably to complain about the terrible traffic these days.
Alert Bay is always fascinating. It's full of colourful houses and carved totems, with old buildings built out over the sea. It's not picture-postcard-perfect as some of the structures are slowly crumbling, but that's one of the things I love about it. Jacqui, Pete and I enjoyed a slow and pleasant morning, exploring the Umista Cultural Centre, grabbing coffee at Culture Shock and meeting Jimmie for lunch. We decided on Canadian cuisine- halibut and poutine (hot chips with cheese curds and gravy), and made the great decision to eat at Passn Thyme. Jacqui and I decided to enjoy a glass of wine with the feast. Part way through the meal, Jim pointed excitedly out the window “Look! Orcas!” We all turned quickly, as did the neighbouring tables. No, there wasn't a lunchtime cetacean cabaret. Jim just wanted to distract me so he could drink a big glug of my wine. His punishment was to helm us back to Port McNeill, where we enjoyed a farewell dinner and said goodbye to Jacqui and Pete after a fantastic week of adventures.
My sketching during the Spring was sporadic, though I painted most days. I let a temperamental scanner and weak WiFi get in the way of sharing what I did do, so here is a round up from my 8" x 10" Stilman and Birn sketchbook.
In retrospect, the size of the sketchbook got in my way. A big book is great in summer, but I do like to fill the page- or double page spread- when sketching, and in the cold this just wasn't fun. Multiple sketches on a page just didn't feel as satisfying, and so my book often languished at home. It took me 5 months to fill the thing, which is a very long time for me. Takeaway- use smaller books for the chillier months!
Because these sketches cover such a long span, I'm not going to do much commentary but will let the pictures tell the story. Here's boat life in Victoria BC, from January to May 2019!
It was wonderful to be back on the water again. Farewell beverages had been supped with cruising friends, Jim's family had joined us for happy hour at the Delta hotel, my exhibition had been packed away and we were ready to cast off the mooring lines.
Our first day of sailing had blue skies and the current was in our favour. Brightly coloured whale watching boats zoomed past us as we left Victoria's inner harbour and made a port turn into the Juan de Fuca Straight. We didn't see any whales, though the watchers remained a featured for most of our journey. The tourist boats are supposed to keep away from the stressed and struggling resident pods, instead concentrating their tours on the plentiful population transient orcas which regularly pass through. Lucky boats have also started seeing humpback whales, returning from their winter holidays to Hawaii. Hopefully they'll be up in the Broughton Archipelago by the time we get there at the end of the month!
Wind and tide carried us past Trial Island at over 8 knots; it felt like Prism was as excited to be sailing as we were. Other sailboats were making the most of the Saturday sunshine as we turned North through the Discovery Islands. As the wind died off, we gave the motor some exercise on the last part of our journey to Tsehum Harbour. We tied to a mooring buoy and settled in to the laid-back ambience. Eagles flew above us, calling in their tittering voices, and seals lounged on the rocks near the boat. We did our best to enjoy the golden evenings out in the cockpit, until the chill of the Canadian evenings drove us inside.
Tsehum Harbour was well-served by buses, so Jim popped back to Victoria to get some last things done whilst I spent a day volunteering at Coast Collective. Then the toilet needed some work, so whilst I got things done on my computer, Jim made the necessary repairs. You can imagine the four letter words he chose to describe the job...
Our journey north then took us to Cowichan Bay. We moored at the Fisherman's Wharf then set off to explore. The little village was easy to fall in love with. It's worth a visit for the bakery alone, which bakes fresh bread and pastries from organic ancient grains, locally grown where possible. Their cinnamon rolls were amazing, and became part of our daily routine along with a cup of the excellent coffee. I sent Jim on a bike ride to give myself some time to investigate the pottery, boutique and perfumery, and drew some of the numerous wharves which stretched out into the bay. At low tide, the head of the bay would fill with dozens of herons, stalking the mud flats and snagging passing fish.
There were plenty of things to sketch, and I was glad I'd made a new sketchbook out of Bee cotton rag paper and some leather I'd picked up at Thrift Craft Victoria. My 'perfect sketchbook' requirements change quite often, and I think I'll always end up back with my travellers' sketchbook and homemade inserts, but after months of wrestling with a too-large Stilman and Birn Beta, I was ready for something new to kick start my summer sketching. My little hand-bound book has 48 pages, each 6” x 4.5”. Right now, these feel like a great size for sketching on the go. The Bee paper is 100% cotton and is a pretty smooth cold press, so my Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen works perfectly. Noodlers Lexington Grey ink dries quickly enough on it that it doesn't transfer between pages (the major down side of some other cotton papers I've tried to use in sketchbooks), and it handles washes beautifully. Some of my granulating mineral colours look a little strange on the smooth surface, so Serpentine and Green Apatite might be taking a holiday from my paint box for a little while in favour of the less romantic but more biddable Sap Green.
The area around Cowhichan Bay cried out to be explored, so we pedalled out to Maple Grove. I was surprised to learn that the eponymous trees are tapped for their sap, which is then boiled down to create syrup. I'd always assumed that sugar maples were confined to the east coast of North America but I'm sure the sugary stuff of the west is just as good.
The trail took us through the grove of mature maples, festooned with trailing mosses, and along a river to a lookout with wonderful views of the bay. I soon wished I'd taken my bird book to identify the various species of swallows, blackbirds and colourful small darty things that we came across. Back on Prism, I looked up iridescent tree swallows, American blackbirds with their gaudy red flashes and little tufted titmice, whose blue-grey, buff and russet colour scheme feels very on-trend. The vegetation took me back to England, with briar roses, blackberry bushes and ox eye daisies (or their Canadian cousins) growing amongst tall grasses and thimbleberries.
The village made a great base whilst I worked on a commission for a local couple. I'd been asked to paint their house, which is up on a hillside and commands stunning views over the bay and surrounding mountains. They wanted something big, so I splashed out on a full sheet of 600 gsm watercolour paper. Sometimes it surprises me how much of a difference paper can make. I love my usual 300 gsm Fabriano Artistico, but doubling the weight of the paper makes a world of difference. It can handle heavy washes without a ripple, giving even more control over how the paper behaves, and was stiff enough that I could still rotate it when painting. This was handy because the sheet was the same size as Prism's table! If I couldn't turn the sheet to reach different areas, I would need to paint standing up, which would get pretty uncomfortable as the table is quite low.
With the art finished to everyone's satisfaction, we had time to grab one last loaf of bread before turning towards Vancouver. The sun decided to shine upon us, though the north wind brought chilly air and the faint scent of narwhal. We'd timed the tides right through Samsun Straight and were swept through Portlier Pass. We pitied the other poor sailboat going nowhere fast as it tried to fight against the current. Whirl pools, tide rips, currents and upwellings kept me busy on the helm until I pleaded beautiful scenery and put Jim on the wheel so I could sketch. Afternoon light gave a golden glow to the rocks and illuminated the greens and reddish bark on the arbutus trees, whilst the mainland and the Olympic peninsula were shifting shades of snow-capped blue. My hand-sized sketchbook let me get multiple sketches finished throughout the afternoon, exploring the colours and how to capture the swirling currents and billowing clouds.
It was midnight by the time we picked our way amongst the anchored freighters of Englishman Bay and found a spot to drop the anchor in False Creek. Being early in the season, finding an anchorage was straightforward. We set the hook, turned on the anchor light and put the engine to sleep. It didn't take long for us to follow it, and I fell asleep dreaming of how to mix mountain blues.
May passed by in a blur of watercolour. Plein air events and an Etsy market kept me busy at weekends, and my artist residency at the Delta Ocean Pointe gave me more motivation to keep creating. I had a wonderful spot in the hotel's well-lit, airy lobby where I could display a selection of my paintings and demonstrate the art of watercolours.
Painting in front of people can be a little intimidating, though the people I met were incredibly positive. I knew I needed to try to engage people, as many guests assumed that they'd be disturbing me if they talked to me whilst I was painting. However, hotel guests have many other things on their minds apart from looking at art, and not everyone passing by was going to be interested in or even like what I was creating. The purposeful walk of busy people was easy to recognise, but it was a little harder to get used to the up-turned noses of people who slowed to look at my art and were clearly unimpressed. I tried to smile anyway, and my artist's skin grew a little tougher.
After a couple of days I had more of a feel for how long to let people look before I started to talk to them, and had to try hard not to get so lost in the flow that I forgot to register the people around me! I met some wonderful people during my month at the hotel. The staff were all very welcoming, and some were artists themselves. Plenty of locals stopped to say hello on their way to get coffee in the restaurant. I met business people from across Canada, spoke to students and educators visiting for conferences and chatted to travellers from all over the world. It was always lovely when other artists stopped by, whether they were looking for advice, had their own wealth of knowledge to share or just wanted to discuss the joys of Daniel Smith paints and Opus Allegro brushes. I was particularly amazed by the skills of Pat, a paper maker/ book binder who could name the paper I was using by looking at its colour and texture. I was also lucky enough to meet Roy Henry Vickers, whose art I really admire. He complimented me on my technique for painting currents pouring through a pass, and kindly overlooked the fact I was a bit star-struck.
The trickiest part of the residency was keeping a stream of inspiration, especially when I finished a piece part way through a session. Sometimes the subject of my next painting would be ready in my mind, just needing my brush and some paint to carry it onto the paper. Other times, a quick flick through a sketchbook would present an idea begging to grow on watercolour paper. The hardest times were when the flicker of inspiration didn't come, and when I was aware of people flowing by wondering why I was doing nothing. I needed an 'I Am Thinking' badge, or maybe a flashing neon sign proclaiming 'Awaiting Inspiration'. I learnt to allow myself a little time out between paintings if I needed it. A fifteen minute walk along the inner harbour would often be enough to get my mind focused and back in gear, or relocated to the coffee shop to scroll through photos over a cuppa until I found something that clicked. Changing up my palette choices also helped to add some zap to my creativity, and a series in blue and yellow was a great refresher.
Mental stutters aside, I was very happy with most of the paintings I'd created by the end of the month. The intense practise helped me hone my skill levels and made me more aware of why most of the paintings worked whilst a few didn't. Some of the art made it into frames as part of my display at the hotel, but I'd have liked to share them all. If I'm invited back next year, I want to figure out a way to display more of the paintings created during the residency, even if I can't frame them all, and I'll definitely rotate the art on display more to keep it fresh.
Now we're in to June, I've had time to get decent photographs of most of the art I created (apart from a couple of pieces which sold too fast to make it near my big camera)! Most of the paintings are listed on Etsy- the links are connected to each photo- and four of my West Coast paintings will be featured in Coast Collective's upcoming show, 'Oceans'. Scroll on to see the rest of the paintings- and I'd love to know which is your favourite!
It's been a busy few months for Island Prism's crew. We've been tied up at Causeway Marina, opposite the historic Empress Hotel. Prism's engine has been being difficult and cantankerous, requiring hoisting out and extensive repairs. Jim's replaced the leaky seals that were causing all the problems, and given an extensive overhaul that will hopefully (maybe? perhaps?) give us a summer of smooth operation.
My painting has been far steadier than my blogging over the last few months. The static boat, frigid weather and state of busyness led to a bit of a wordifying block. I have been creating regularly, especially with my watercolours, but my sketching has been pretty sketchy. Thank goodness for the local Urban Sketchers group, whose regular meetings stopped me from getting too rusty! The details of my creative flow over the last few months could (and probably should) be a blog post of its own, but my recent paintings have been a huge reminder of how important sketching is to my creativity. I've been pulling out my sketch books and revisiting my favourite West Coast spots by turning them into full sized watercolours. Some of them are on display at the Delta Ocean Pointe hotel in downtown Victoria, where I'm the resident artist for the month of May. I'm demonstrating watercolour painting every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this month, so please pop in and say hi if you're in the area! I'll be joining in the Hatley Castle Paint-In on Mother's Day too.
We'll be in Victoria until the end of the month, when we'll untie the dock lines and embark on a summer of sailing! The sail plan is to make our way up to Telegraph Cove for adventures with friends and family, and then to explore the secluded nooks of the Broughton Archipelago. I'm sure there will be plenty to paint!
Whether it's spring or autumn where you are, I hope you're enjoying balmy days that are just the right temperature. I'll be back very soon with more details of boat repairs and arty life, and I'll leave you with a few more paintings to enjoy!
I'm starting off 2019 with a bang, with my debut solo art show opening in Victoria, British Columbia! 'Pacific Reflections' charts our sail boat voyage from New Zealand to British Columbia, and exploring French Polynesia and Hawaii on the way. My ocean inspired watercolour paintings include art created on the voyage, as well as new works inspired by my sketchbooks and revealed for the first time at the exhibition. The show runs from January 23 until February 10 at the Cafe Gallery of the Cedar Hill Recreation Centre, and I'm holding a 'Meet the Artist' reception from 1-3 pm on Saturday 26 January. You can find out more details on the event page.
When I applied to Cedar Hill Arts Centre for the chance to hold a solo exhibition, I really didn't think I'd be successful. Back in September, when applications were due, I'd only had art in one juried show, with an unjuried exhibition lined up. I thought that the solo show application would be a good learning experience, so I did some research, wrote my artist bio and put together an exhibition application. I didn't think I'd be successful. I was still too new as an artist; surely they'd want more experienced people. But I clicked send anyway, and really wasn't surprised when a month or so later I hadn't heard back. I applied for gallery shows at the Port Moody Arts Centre, Coast Collective and the Victoria Arts Council, and was very excited when I had work accepted into all three, and was invited to join Coast Collective. My Etsy sales were going well and I was progressing up the learning curve of trying to make my art into more than a hobby. It was hard work, and the administration side of things kept me busy.
Then just before Christmas, I received an email saying that Cedar Hill had accepted my application! I'd been given one of the first slots of the year, which meant I needed to get to work. I had been delighted that my original paintings were popular Christmas gifts, but the side effect of this was that I had a month to put an exhibition together and was a little lacking in work to go in it! Another artist told me that my small watercolours would look lost in the cafe gallery I'd been assigned, and I was left feeling that this amazing opportunity would turn into a huge flop.
How to solve that problem? Paint, of course! We'd been moored up in Victoria for December but my sketchbooks provided a goldmine of ideas and inspiration. At times the potential felt overwhelming. What should I paint next? What would best tell the story of our voyage? I wanted the marine environment to be a focus, and also to explore humanity's relationship with the ocean. In the end, a lot of my paintings used an above/ below the water approach, which would cover both bases. The upcoming show also provided good motivation to try some bigger watercolours, venturing into the exciting world of 16 x 20". I was worried that smaller works would lack impact, and wanted some big, vibrant, colourful paintings to grab people's attention. The expanded size also expanded my horizons. I could swing between fine detail and large washes, which kept me engaged, and the result was a series of paintings with the impact I was looking for. I'm tempted to try increasing size even more in future, if the paper will fit on the table in the boat!
It's not a surprise that the intense periods of painting helped me refine my technique. The experience of preparing for the show helped me in other ways too. I find I'm more productive in the mornings, so was getting up between 5 and 6 am to start creating. The pressure also taught me to say no and to prioritise. Commissions with a later completion date could be put to one side until the show was hung, however enthusiastic the client, and I learned to say no to things which would just cause extra stress and workload if they weren't essential and beneficial in the long term. I just have to hold on to that thought now the pressure is off!
In the end, I had about 35 ocean themed paintings to take with me, exploring the ocean and the wonderful creatures that live there. The pieces ranged from paintings I'd made during the voyage to new work I'd created in the run up to the show.
The images I'm sharing today chronicle our journey through French Polynesia then Hawaii, with bright tropical colours and warm, gentle seas. You might recognise a couple as being larger updates of other paintings I've created. Most of the others are inspired by drawings in my sketchbook. It's really emphasised the importance of my sketchbook practice. My sketches recapture experiences at a deeper level than photos. Looking at the colours I'd used in my drawings helped me select palettes for these bigger pieces. The way I'd interpreted the scene when I was there often flowed in to the finished piece, for example the pinks and purples in the mountain of 'Oponohu Bay'. Painting from my sketchbook often felt easier than choosing photos as I'd already done part of the colour and composition work, and could now develop it further.
After a couple of weeks of painting madly, I was feeling frazzled. I hadn't reached burn out stage but I was definitely stressed. We were moving the boat from Victoria to Parksville for the month and the impending two day sail in potentially rough water worried me even further. Could I afford to lose the two days it would take us to get there? If it was rough, my painting would be confined to sketching and I wouldn't be able to make any progress on the show.
It turned out the experience was just what I needed. On the first day I helmed all morning with a couple of breaks to sketch the gorgeous sunrise, then I left the wheel to Jim and spent the afternoon dozing and reading. We anchored in gorgeous Princess Bay for the evening, with seals and bald eagles and pretty little diving ducks. It was raining but that didn't matter. My soul felt lifted and I slept wonderfully.
The next day followed a similar pattern. Helm, sketch, feed Jimmie, work on a giant cephalopod for a Coast Collective show I'd thought I'd need to miss out on. We met a pod of orca with a calf and saw thirty bald eagles swooping down on a ball of fish. It was exactly what I needed, I just hadn't realised it.
In Parksville, I got right back to my painting schedule, but was careful to take time out for walks and family. I'd never stopped enjoying painting, but it felt good to dial down the stress level a bit. Anxiety hit again when a business course I'd signed up for started. The course was online but we were encouraged to keep up with the class. I tried, but then saw the gorgeous arty responses other people posted to the lessons and felt a severe case of inadequacy. After battling through for three days, I pressed pause. The materials would still be there when my show was hung, and then I'd get to enjoy the 'Money Badass' class I'd signed up for with 'Make Art That Sells'.
Two days before the show, I put down my brushes to spend the day framing. I'm glad I stopped at this point as I'd underestimated how long it would take to frame so many pictures, and I will certainly allow longer in future! I prepared the tags to hang next to the work, printed off my bio and some information about the show, helped Jimmie pack everything into the car and put together a bag of everything I could possibly need, from scissors to a spirit level.
We left in plenty of time to meet with Dixie MacUisdin, who instructed me on how to use the hanging wires and gave me plenty of advice on organising the paintings. Rather than sorting them by place, she suggested I organised them by colour, and put my brightest works on the back wall to grab people's attention. The tropical paintings still ended up together, and I don't think anyone will mind a few Canadian orcas amongst the watercolours of New Zealand. Hanging took about five hours, with time to make sure everything was level and give the glass a final clean. We managed to get out of the way just as the runners' club arrived, but I'd run out of time to take many photos of the installation.
If you're in the Victoria area then I'd love to see you at 'Pacific Reflections'! I'll be there from 1-3pm on Saturday 26 January, and the show runs until 10 February. Click the button below to go to the event page for more details. If you're further afield and would like to purchase a piece from the exhibition then please contact me. I can ship unframed paintings worldwide.
10% from all sales from the show go to SeaChange, a marine conservation society which connects ecosystems, cultures and communities in Victoria and the Salish Sea. The society is dedicated to education and conserving the marine and watershed environments I love. You can find out more about them or get involved directly through their website https://seachangesociety.com/.
Our sail from Broughton Archipelago to Desolation Sound was beautiful- and required some very careful timing. The current carried the boat through a succession of narrows as our speed topped ten knots (unheard of for sturdy but heavy Island Prism)! The passes we went through were only to be attempted round slack tide- whirlpools and rapids made them treacherous at other times, and the currents were too strong for Island Prism to ever stand a chance of going against them. We took turns on the helm so that I had the opportunity to sketch as we cruised, though I had to move my brush fast as the landscape passed us by.
Desolation Sound was the kind of cruising ground which could provide years of sailing all by itself. A maze of passes and islands stretch between Vancouver Island and the mainland, with the Coastal Range as a dramatic backdrop. We regularly saw humpbacks and bald eagles, and plenty of seals and sea lions cruised the waters or sprawled on the rocks along the shore.
Shoal Bay was a special little anchorage. The community there is tiny, but there is a wharf, and in the summer resident Mark opens his deck and living room as a pub. We dropped the anchor in 13 metres of water and rowed ashore for a glass of wine. The pub was full of yachties, and the communal tables create an easy way to meet people. We soon got trading stories. Tales of cruising Alaska caught my imagination, whilst bluewater-sailors-to-be Jake and Patricia listened to our stories of Polynesia and gave us some great information about local anchoring spots. We wound up on Prism with dinner and a night cap or two, and arranged to meet up again the next day in Phillips Arm.
Phillips Arm was part of the mainland, and was known to be a good spot to see grizzly bears- so much so that the local residents didn't recommend walking long distances ashore without bear bells and a rifle. We were keen to see a grizzly but preferred to do our searching from the water. We piled into Patricia and Jake's spacious tender and made our way up the Phillips River. A herd of elk were grazing in the grass just above the high tide line as we approached the river, and there was a healthy population of Canada geese. A shallow section by the river mouth, full of fallen trees, was a favoured haul out spot with seals, who 'mermaided' with nose and flippers in the air in what I always assume is an attempt to keep out of the water. Their poise and ability to maintain the pose for ages reminds me of yoga.
Salmon jumped as we continued down the river, and we saw a couple of herons keeping vigil on the riverbanks. The bears were sadly absent, but we took a stroll along the shore to talk to some researchers and volunteers who has spent the day counting the annual salmon return. The day was rounded off very nicely with an excellent dinner cooked by Patricia, and they were kind enough to gift us with a cruising guide to the area.
We next made our way to Cortes Island. Getting there was a little bit magical. Our day was carefully timed to get through the Yaculta Rapids at slack tide- the rapids would be so powerful that we wouldn't stand a chance of going against them, and we'd heard that they weren't a picnic even if we rode the tide through. Our timing meant that the experience was uneventful, and we were soon at a white sandy spit. It looked almost tropical, and was covered in sailing dinghys as there was a race meet on. The little anchorage was crowded with the sail boats and power boats that were accommodation for the competitors. We kept going as this wasn't our destination, instead approaching the steep cliff face of Cortes. Like something from Indiana Jones, as we got close the rock wall revealed a narrow opening. We squeezed through, painted rock towering above us on both sides, until the gorge opened out into a lagoon fringed with a few houses and a marina.
We anchored in front of the marina and campground, and rowed ashore. Here we found hot showers and a swimming pool. A few dollars bought us a day pass. It was late in the day, but we still had a few hours to soak- and the final hour was adults only. We had the hot tub to ourselves then, with a great view over the anchorage. When a live music performance began, we had the best seats in the house- and when the pool shut we moved to a bench to carry on listening and enjoy a dinner of local tomatoes, bread and goats cheese bought from the little store.
We enjoyed it so much that we extended our stay by another day. There was lots to do- the island has a busy art community and I enjoyed poking round the galleries and excellent farmers market at Mansun's Landing. At Jimmie's suggestion, we went oyster gathering- carefully checking that the fishery was open and safe. Jim's fishing license let us collect twelve oysters a day- and these were beauties. Between the number of oysters and the huge population of sand dollars, it was hard to find space to put our feet as we selected our shellfish. They grow them big here- and with a bucketful of a dozen oysters bigger than my hands, we returned to Prism. I helmed as Jimmie shucked them, and I was treated to a late lunch of Jim's oyster burgers (especially excellent with bacon- but then, isn't everything)?
The wildfires burning around BC were still having an effect on the air quality. There was usually a slight haze around, and the sunsets were particularly pink. Combined with the wildlife we saw, the colour combination inspired a series of paintings. The first was of one of the loons from Village Island. I selected quin rose to achieve the bright pop of pink I wanted for the sun. I found quin magenta makes beautiful greys and blacks with jadeite and perylene green, so chose these to round out my palette. I'm not normally a particularly pink person, but the effect was very harmonious and I was able to create rich, deep blacks for the loon and a huge range of soft greys and greens for the vegetation and reflections. Part of my fascination with loons comes from a version of a West Coast Native myth called How the Loon Lost her Voice. It explains how gentle loon lost her beautiful song when trying to help Raven regain the stolen sun. Raven was ultimately successful, but Loon cries plaintively every day at sunset, saying goodbye to the sun and remembering what she lost.
After my tribute to Loon, I got thinking about the elk and geese I'd seen. I wondered if they ever paid each other any attention when they share the same grassy swathes as they did in Phillips Arm. Adding a brown to my palette, I painted a meeting of species- 'Connecting'. In 'Together' I got thinking again about the close family bonds of flocks of Canada geese and pods of orca, and wanted to represent these. I snuck in Moonglow- a wonderful granulating watercolour paint which is perfect for orcas. It toned in beautifully, and I used it again for 'Exuberance'- a breaching orca of Telegraph Cove- and 'Seal Yoga'. 'Guardian' was a tribute to the bear we met in Mamalilikulla (see my previous blog post if you haven't read about that close encounter), and 'In Flight' was based on a photo I took of a great Gray Heron at Phillips Arm. 'Elementals' celebrates the Pacific white-sided dolphins and bald eagles of the Broughton Archipelago.
I found there were advantages to using a limited palette. Because the colour choices were already made, I could focus more on tone and composition. Bright colour couldn't save the day, and if I hadn't planned the picture well, nothing was going to provide a distraction. I worked on my colour mixing and my use of value (light and dark). I think the series has helped me become a better painter- and I've extended it beyond the initial series of five images I set out to create.
The original paintings from the series are currently being exhibited at Coast Collective's Gifts and Wishes show and Port Moody Art Centre's Winter Treasures exhibition.
If you're looking for an extra special Christmas gift for a loved one (or a winter treat for yourself), limited edition signed giclee prints of 'Guardian', 'Elementals' and 'In Flight' are available from my Etsy shop. I've also had a range of blank greeting cards printed, with a range of designs suitable for winter birthdays, festive messages, or just to drop a note. There are also some new original paintings and limited edition giclees in the shop! Gift wrapping and world-wide shipping are available if you want to take the stress out of Christmas shopping and give a unique gift- or give the gift of a commission for an affordable yet truly personal gift. Finally, whilst I don't run sales often, as a thank you to my readers I'm giving 10% off all original paintings between 19 and 25 November. I hope you see something special!
It was mid-August and we were back in Telegraph Cove. Island Prism had sat quite happily at the dock whilst we bussed to Parksville. Jim's son Peter had married the lovely Keelie and now the whole clan was in convoy to Telegraph Cove for a family adventure by the sea.
Prism was put in service as the family whale watching boat, whilst brother-in-law Tim's powerboat was responsible for hunting and gathering seafood. We went out every day and were rewarded with sights of acrobatic humpback whales. Seals perched on tiny rocks in mermaid poses, trying to keep clear of the frigid water, whilst sea lions cavorted in the waves. We had brief glimpses of small shy harbour porpoises, swimming at the surface with a distinctive tumbling motion. We witnessed Pacific white-sided dolphins skimming over the sea, raising a huge spray. We even saw a few Dall's porpoises, black and blunt-nosed with strange right-angled dorsal fins- a species I'd never seen before.
The orca were playing hard to get. Our first day out was orca-less, and on the second we didn't see any orca from the boat, although the resident pod swam past Telegraph Cove as we barbecued dinner. Then our final day of family explorations rolled round. Entering Blackfish Sound, we saw the pod being trailed by a research boat. They were a long way away, moving farther off at high speed, so we kept our course and went to look for humpbacks.
We were rewarded by a pair of breaching humpbacks, and a spectacular display of tail lobbing and fin slapping, sending huge plumes of water high into the air. Scientists think that this behaviour is used for communication- if so, this humpback looked like he was grumpy about something. We were happy to be at a distance!
We kept our eyes peeled for grizzlies, which sometimes swim out to the Broughton Archipelago, but we were unsuccessful. It wasn't a huge deal- the scenery was lovely, and we did find another humpback who swam parallel to Island Prism for a while. Eventually we turned around, ready to head back to Telegraph Cove. Exiting Blackfish Sound, Peter spotted a breaching orca- and the rest of the tribe were hunting nearby. The water was full of swirling dorsal fins as the orcas engaged in a complicated ballet. When three Pacific white-sided dolphins went steaming into the fray it seemed extremely foolhardy- were they about to end up as part of the buffet, gobbled by killer whales? The water spun and frothed and smaller dorsal fins appeared amongst the big ones. In an incredible example of team work, the dolphins were cooperating with their larger cousins. I was glad I wasn't a fish!
Stuffed after their fishy banquet, the orcas turned towards Telegraph Cove. This gave us lots of viewing opportunities as they surfaced to breathe. Their pace was slow and once or twice we found ourselves overtaking them. We stopped to let them catch up. Island Prism's yellow hull then caught their attention, and one of the orcas peeled away from the group and came speeding towards us. I turned Prism away, very mindful of orca viewing regulations, but the orca changed course as I did. In the end, I put the boat in neutral, and Peter, Keelie and Michelle were rewarded with an incredible view as the orca swam across the bow of the now-motionless boat, then inspected our port side before rejoining the pod. I hope we passed the inspection.
After that, the whales were happier to obey the 400 metre viewing regulations and we returned to Telegraph Cove without incident. Whilst we'd been playing with cetaceans, the Davidson portion of the family had been hunter-gathering themselves- the result of which was enough crab to make a very respectable barbecue. I'd never tried crab before, other than the odd white and pink stuff marketed as 'crab' in sushi (I'm not a fan). At uni, my housemate had been sent a prepared crab, but in my memory the meat was brown and unappealing (twenty years may mean I've got this wrong)!Tim and Robert's Dungeness crabs were a huge eye opener. It turns out that crabs don't have to be boiled alive (I felt much happier knowing that my dinner had been humanely dispatched), and that crab tastes absolutely amazing. It reminded me of very good king prawns or crayfish. I was in seventh heaven.
The next day, most of the family returned to their various corners of British Columbia and Alberta. Peter and Keelie sailed with us to Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island. There is a large First Nations community here, and it is fascinating. Totem poles fill the graveyard, and along the waterfront are shelters topped with beautifully carved emblems- one shelter for each of the main family groups here. One of the locals, Michael, explained that shelters like these would once have been where families would meet and solve disputes and problems. There's a move today to go back to these ways of healing issues within the community, talking them through and fixing what's broken. It seems like a healthy option for the society, at least when it works.
The old net lofts are still in use, despite many holes in the roof. Hopefully the floors are in a more solid state! Other old buildings over the water have been renovated and are now shops or small hotels. Many of the houses on the other side of the road are brightly painted, and some feature beautiful native carvings. Up the hill, in Gator Gardens, skeletons of tall trees drip moss above swamps full of skunk cabbage and black, peaty water. I don't know what ecological change turned this from healthy forest to equally healthy bog, but it wouldn't be out of place on the outskirts of Mordor.
The highlight of Alert Bay is the Umista Cultural Centre. Canada has a dark history of trying to destroy native culture. Children were sent away from their parents to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages. Potlatches (ceremonies and meetings) were banned, and the masks, costumes and other objects associated with these rituals were confiscated. The items were then scattered around the world, dispersed to museums. Umista represents part of the healing process of revitalising the local Kwakiutl society. It houses weaving, bentwood boxes and carvings, biographies of local people and guides to the language. Videos play of cultural ceremonies, songs and dances, and if you arrive at the right time you might be able to see a dance or take part in a workshop. There are even masks and costumes you can try on.
The centre is housed in an enormous long house, surrounded with totems. Once you pass the glass cases, stroke the surprisingly soft bear skin, read the histories and marvel at the vast number of things that can be done with red cedar, you enter a dark room. Hundreds of eyes stare at you, in painted wood, copper, glass and metal. Mouths gape, grin and grimace. This is the home of the potlatch collection, where wandering artefacts have been returned to their people. Each mask or costume was once part of a particular dance, giving its wearer a connection to another world when they danced it- or perhaps bringing the other world here. The syncopated drum rhythms add to the atmosphere, and visitors are welcome to sit at the large slot drum and join in, whilst the eyes gaze on.
A final return to the historic Telegraph Cove was the scene for some apple whisky and a few sore heads. We said goodbye to Keelie and Peter, then returned to Alert Bay. I was allowed to sketch inside the Cultural Centre, and then walked up to the long house on the hill to paint. Kind Tracy brought us dried salmon to chew as I sketched, and the ravens circled and squabbled nearby, picking over the fish carcasses left for them in the car park.
And then the fires started. They were on Vancouver Island, on the West Coast- many miles away. They were no danger to Cormorant Island, its art or inhabitants- but they sent their smoke, so thick that we extended our stay as visibility on the water reduced to a few metres. The sun struggled to penetrate the cloud, appearing a pale, milky white at midday and an angry red in the late afternoon. It seemed incapable of heating the air, and all its efforts tended to focus, like a heat lamp focused on a single spot of my head or shoulder. We wrapped up in jumpers although it was still summer, and passed the time sketching and watching the ravens scavenge fish scraps on the shore.
Eventually, the air cleared enough for us to feel safe leaving. The orcas came by, swimming through waters which sparkled red beneath the baleful sun. We anchored in solitude at Mamelillikulla, just us and the eagles and the ravens. And the bear.
The next day we had company on the island when a cruising yacht from Seattle arrived. One of the yachties enjoyed the view from his paddle board, whilst the other went tramping through the bush. Very sensibly, he had taken anti-bear measures- though we probably should have told him that you're not supposed to sound off your bear horn every two minutes in case there's a bear- you use it to frighten them off when you actually see them. When Jim mentioned that we'd seen the resident black bear on our previous visit, the horn-sounding frequency increased to one-minute intervals. By the time he was back on his boat, I assume the bear was either immune or had swum to another island to get away from the racket.
The weeks were ticking on- it's incredible how quickly a summer can go. We said goodbye to Mamallillikulla and took one last spin through the whirlpools and rips of Blackfish Sound, to let the Johnson Straight sweep us south on the tide.
Our journey from Vancouver to Telegraph Cove took us through part of the Inside Passage. Our daily hops were dependent on the current, leading to some early mornings and a few long days. Mountains on both sides made it a very scenic voyage. Each night we'd find a little bay to anchor in, sheltered from the north westerlies and roaring tides.
We left Vancouver at 6 am to make the most of the tides. After a full day of sailing we stopped at Scotty Bay at Lasqueti Island. This community revels in its isolation. There's no car ferry, and life there is off the grid. I'd have loved to explore, but our visit was short and sweet- supper, sleep, then up anchor and off towards Texada. Here we had a wonderful surprise- a humpback whale. She was quite a distance away, and soon swam off on whale business. We pressed on, entering Quathiaski Cove but leaving without anchoring- the wharf looked busy and though it is possible to anchor here, the strong current rushing through made us feel that Gowlland Harbour, a few miles to the north, would be more secure.
Gowlland Harbour was very pretty, and is somewhere I'd love to go back and spend more time. There was a healthy seal population, who spent their time in pursuit of the plentiful fish. My harbour seal sightings have usually been sedate, so it was exciting to see them porpoising out of the water and splashing about. I also saw my first loon, with graphic black and white plumage. I made a quick sketch with the help of binoculars- one day it will become a larger painting! Legend says that Loon lost her voice when she tried to steal the sun back from the ice giants. Her throat was crushed as they threw her from their frozen fortress, and to this day she cannot sing but gives a haunting cry when the sun goes down. The sun was finally rescued by that trickster, Raven, whose white feathers were burnt black in the attempt. Loon appears on the Canadian dollar coin, which is affectionately known as a loonie. There seem to be less puns about this than I would have thought.
My sketch of Gowlland Harbour was hastily done, and resulted in a splodgy mess which at least captures the colours of the golden islets. These were named with a sense of whimsy- Mouse Islets being the smallest, working up through Wren and Raven to Fawn, Doe and Stag. I think a return to this lovely sheltered anchorage is in order.
On we went, through the treacherous Seymour Narrows (less terrifying in these days of GPS and tide tables). In the Johnstone Strait we met another humpback, who was in an acrobatic mood with a series of breaches and tail slaps. Then he got in motion, but didn't seem to be on a schedule. Prism ticked along at her lowest speed and we enjoyed half an hour of hanging out with the whale, who would pop up at varying distances, sometimes swimming parallel to the boat (at a nicely whale-friendly distance).
The wildlife watching continued at anchor. We stopped in lovely sheltered Billy Goat Bay, and watched seals jumping and hunting as the sun went down and the temperature dropped to the stage where I don't have enough jumpers to stay outside.
We were then able to wind down a bit. We were almost at Telegraph Cove, and had a couple of days to enjoy the area. The region around Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago is paradise for whales, and today we were not disappointed. Five humpbacks were swimming through, seeming relaxed and in no rush to be anywhere. They took turns surfacing, so there was usually someone on the surface. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but lunch was calling and we wanted to see if the orca were in Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. The pod was there- along with some fishing boats. Tourist and recreational boats are not allowed in the reserve- but purse seiners are, if they have a permit. We saw the orca hunting- then were shocked to see two purse seiners pay out their nets just a short distance away. The orca vanished and I was fuming, my sketch of the bight abandoned half way through. We turned of the engine to sit and eat and rant. We drifted a few metres over the edge of the reserve- keeping to the boundary seemed less important now that we'd seen people taking fish from the whales' mouths and I was too angry to care about regulations. But other people did- a zodiac with two wardens arrived to ask us politely to move. We moved- politely- whilst making our displeasure at the fishing known. The reserve feel like a bad joke. I abandoned my ideas of sketching orca as inspiration hit. “The race to catch the last fish” became a theme for a series of paintings- with ideas for more to come.
On our first night we found a secluded anchorage where I finally heard Loon's mournful farewell to the sun. The next day we passed the First Nations settlement of New Vancouver with its Big House and brightly painted totems. Continuing on to 'Mimkwamlis (Village Island) we stopped at Mamalilikulla. This was a walk through history. The village was abandoned by 1972, left for the forest to reclaim. Massive posts for an unfinished long house still stand, vast trilithons staring out to sea, the decorative axe marks still clear in the wood. Two standing poles have nursed new trees, the old life giving way to the new as roots grow down through the ancient trunks and aged wood splits from the pressure of the vibrant life growing within. Nearby, a fallen totem provides a home to ferns and saplings, its carvings now unrecognisable as it returns to the earth.
Jim told me of a wolf carving he remembered from younger days. I set off down a narrow trail, between the salal berries and the brambles. The trail narrowed , closing in, the blackberry-rich scat of a large bear warning me to go no further. If the wolf was indeed this way, prudence suggested I left him and his guardian in peace.
I didn't make the trek to the residential school, a relic of the days when native children were torn from their families, banned from speaking their language, barred from the dances, stories and rituals of their culture. First Nations artifacts were stolen along with the children, scattered between private collections and the museums of the world, relics of a culture being slowly strangled. I preferred to sit quietly with those huge beams being reclaimed by the forest. They gave me more hope. They belong to their people once again, and they are home to Bear and Raven through choice, part of a tradition where old things are allowed to fade and join again with the soil. The village may be abandoned but the people are nearby- with their brightly painted Big House and their colourful, confident totems carved with pride.
I painted the view, then crunched along the shell-strewn beach to the dinghy. As well as the shells, this midden was full of shards of crockery and broken glass. It's forbidden to take anything or excavate, but interesting to see what has floated to the surface and wonder what stories they could tell if they could talk. Above the beach, wooden poles are all that remain of an extensive boardwalk which would once have stretched in front of a row of longhouses.
We launched the dinghy and were rowing away when I saw something black moving on the foreshore. The bear was foraging for supper. She was big- grown fat on her summer diet of seafood and berries. She turned over hefty logs and big rocks, intent on gobbling the crustaceany goodness underneath. Sometimes she'd hear our oars and look at us, but we were of no concern to her and she continued munching her way along the pebble beach. Jim thought the water was a decent barrier between her and us and kept trying to get us close- so near that I could hear her snuffling- but I did point out that, because of the way he angled the dingy, I was closer to her than he was! With a bit of encouragement and the threat of no dinner if he didn't behave, he finally paddled us a little farther out. Oblivious to all this, the bear continued to ignore us until the beach ended and she padded off into the forest, perhaps to rustle up some berries for dessert.
The next day, Telegraph Cove was just a short skip away. We were given a berth on the fuel dock, tucked out of the way of the busy tour boats, then made the most of fresh carrot cake and the chance to catch up on laundry before we caught the bus down to Parksville to see Jim's mum and enjoy a family wedding.
When I was asked if I'd like to test and review the full range of Van Gogh watercolour paints on behalf of Royal Talens North America and Doodlewash, it was a bit like Christmas had come early. Van Gogh are made in the Netherlands by Royal Talens. They are intended for 'the serious artist', filling a niche for affordable quality paints that are less expensive than their Rembrandt Professional range but of a higher quality than student paints. I received an empty 24 pan plastic palette and 40 pans of colour. The brown box of delights caught up with me on Island Prism during our family invasion of Telegraph Cove, and the family were happy to help me unpack.
First out of the box was the plastic travel palette. This is sturdy (an essential feature as it will be spending its life on a boat), and I found the curved design very appealing. The mixing area is large, and easy to clean with a cloth or by gently detaching it at the hinges to rinse. Like most plastic palettes, it gets stained by a couple of the pigments, but the marks are easy to remove with a tiny bit of cream cleaner. The sponge is a nice feature- perfect for removing excess moisture from a brush.
I'm inclined to keep this as a studio palette rather than using it out in the field. There's no thumb hole or ring, suggesting that it's intended for table-top use rather than to hold. The palette is a bit on the large side, although that is one of the things I really like about it. The size allows the colours to be nicely separated, reducing the chance of the pans contaminating each other. The pans are a little loose, and fall out if the palette is carried on its side, though this is easily solved by popping a bit of blu-tack on the bottom (I'd imagine double sided tape would work too). If I was looking for something to carry in my bag all the time, I'd pick the metal palette or pocket palette also available from Royal Talens.
Fifteen of the colours are single pigments. This means that the colour is pure- ideal for mixing. The remaining shades are created from two pigments. Potentially this increases the chances of creating muddy colours when mixing, as it's best to have no more than two or three pigments in a mix. However, Royal Talens have thought carefully about their pigment selection- for example, the blended yellows and greens mostly use PY154, giving a good success rate when it comes to mixing these together. I was also happy to find that the viridian and phthalo greens are both single pigment, meaning I could use these as a base to mix more realistic shades from.
I was very happy with the overall results. Most of the colours were bright, intense and translucent. After moistening them, it was easy to lift pigment from the pans and quickly get a rich colour. The yellow ochre and red iron oxide were opaque, as was the cerulean blue. This last pigment was made from phthalo blue blended with white. Although the pan had a slight white bloom when wet, the paint didn't appear chalky on paper. The colour is very intense and needs to be well-watered down for skies. The one disappointment was the phthalo blue pan, which produced a faint and insipid colour, although the Prussian blue made up for it with its warm intensity.
Once I'd tried out the shades individually, the mixing fun could begin. As I often paint the ocean, landscapes and wildlife, I wanted to make sure that I could mix a good range of greens and obtain mud-free neutrals. I started off by choosing some of the primary shades to make triads and see what happened as I mixed them together. Then I moved on to some less orthodox groups of three. I was delighted to find that the Prussian blue and burnt sienna created a wonderful sea foam green, and raw sienna made great greens when mixed with viridian or cobalt.
I was extremely happy with the results- these paints let me create bright secondary colours, and I was also able to make gorgeous grays, rich browns and beautiful deep blacks. It's great to know that I'd still be able to mix a huge range of colours even if I was using a more limited selection of pans.
Then it was decision time. I loaded the palette up with the two single pigment yellows, and azo deep was a must-have as it's the same colour as the boat! Permanent red light created some beautiful warm and cool greys when mixed with different blues, and I'd fallen in love with the gorgeous quin rose and permanent red violet. Of course, I needed a good selection of blues and a few convenience greens, then raw sienna and a range of browns.
Finally the really fun bit- painting! First I tried the paints out on a pair of hummingbirds and a duo of seals. The paints flowed well, kept giving me the clear bright colours I expected from my trials and were fun to use. The browns gave me a little granulation in the kelp, and the colours of the hummingbirds glowed.
I then put them to the test in my Fabriano watercolour sketch books, colouring some whales I'd drawn. Viridian and madder lake deep created great blacks for the orca, whilst Prussian blue, phthalo green and indigo gave me the perfect shades for the ocean. The following day I took the set outside to paint as we cruised through Green Point Rapids. I mixed up a wide range of greens from viridian. The paints layered well without creating mud. I did fall into the trap of over-saturating the sky when I failed to water the cerulean down enough, but that was user error!
In conclusion, I was very happy with the results I obtained from the Van Gogh paints. Their quality pigments, uniform price and high lightfastness make them a fantastic starting point for students, beginning artists or for artists on a budget. They are far superior to any student line I have tried, which are often weak, chalky or impure. The use of standard artist quality pigments also means they will behave well with other artists' watercolour ranges.
I really enjoyed the range of colours I could fit in the 24 pan, but the ease of mixing means that even the smaller travel set is very flexible. I'm not about to cast aside my Daniel Smiths (their vast range of pigments and beautiful granulating paints mean they're still my favourite), but Van Gogh does represent a vastly different price point and makes quality watercolour very affordable. I'm certainly going to enjoy playing with this set more in the future (and have in fact reached for it quite a few times whilst preparing this review)!
Whilst I was given the paints to review by Van Gogh, I have not received any payment in return for testing them. The opinions contained within this article are wholly my own!
You can find out more about Van Gogh paints here on the Royal Talens North America website.
They are available from art stores including Opus, Amazon and Dick Blick.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.