Future Memories

My wife, Joy, and I are currently staying at her cousin’s house.  I may have mentioned the other day that the house , Joy and her cousins have a long history together. I find myself sketching and painting in the back yard every day. There are wonderful rocks and iron lanterns in what is left of a Japanese Garden that her uncle installed many years ago.

After finishing the picture below, Joy’s cousin mentioned that when she sells the house (as she surely will), the paintings will bring back fond memories of her time at home. I had already told her the pictures were hers, at which time she welled up with tears. I hadn’t expected that.  To me, there are always some improvements I could have made, problems with tonal values, design or something else that could have done better.  It is somewhat shocking to know that what I create could have an emotional impact.  Now and then, I am relatively satisfied with my work, but still I see room for improvement. I often paint the same subject over and over again with the idea of correcting the faults from the previous attempts (Settling, Back to Reading).

I wonder if it is a common phenomenon that artists receive disproportionate emotional responses to their work. I believe this was one of the themes of the movie Five Easy Pieces.

Today’s experiment:

I sketched the painting below quite heavily. I used my jumbo pencil again. I started with a rough sketch with hardness HB, putting in the shadows of the rocks; I then used jumbo pencils with 4B and 6B softness to make the shadows darker. I was uncertain of the effect of applying watercolor on top of the pencil marks.

Watercolor Sketch - Another View of Rock Garden in Back Yard

Back Yard Memory
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

The foreground is clear of detail partly because it is an outdoor carpet. Joy’s uncle used it for golf practice.  I wanted the foreground to be very dark, but the sunlight was bright on the left side of the picture. I used sap green for the lighter part and shadow green (Holbein) for the dark side. I glazed with lemon yellow, which brought out the brightness on the left but did not lighten the shadow on the right.

I used my favorite earth tones for the rest of the ground work (burnt sienna, quinacridone gold, warm sienna and yellow ochre). The rocks are a combination of ivory black, Payne’s gray and Neutral Tint (Dailer Rowney). I used burnt sienna for the ground shadows next to the rocks.

The pool basin, which lies underneath the wooden bridge, is Prussian blue, as in previous sketches. The bridge itself is mainly white tinted with blue, the shadows composed of Payne’s gray.

It didn’t seem to matter that I did not erase or brighten up the pencil marks before I started painting. However, if you look carefully, you might see a ‘B’ that I marked in a couple of areas to indicate where I should use blue paint.

Back to Reading

I was like a kid in a candy store yesterday. However in this case my candy store was a book store. Instead of just browsing, I actually bought a stack of really interesting books, thanks to the thoughtful birthday gifts from my friends and family. I bought a lot of books about the brain.

Fascination with the brain

The reason for my fascination with the workings of the brain is my personal experience with autism. My older brother is autistic, also very low functioning and has never spoken. I don’t know if I specifically thought of my brother in terms of brain function when I was a kid, although my parents explained that he couldn’t help himself. I was more than a little frustrated by my inability to make meaningful contact with him. Perhaps the failure to connect with him drove me to the intellectual pursuit of reasons to explain Mike’s condition.

I have been very fortunate to work with Dr. Andrew Lautin, author of The Limbic Brain, as co-author and editor of a forthcoming introductory neuroanatomy text. I have learned quite a bit about the development and organization of the central nervous system from embryonic stages to maturity.

History of brain study

One of the unique features of our book is its devotion to historical context of the brain anatomy. The brain has been studied since the time of Aristotle. With the passage of time and improvement in technology (such as the advent of the microscope, brain tissue preservation techniques, etc.), a clearer picture of brain organization and function has emerged and is continuing to develop.

Mirror neurons

One of the books I bought is called Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni. ‘Mirror neurons’ were discovered in the 1980s. These neurons, in the premotor cortex fire in response to a sensory input. As explained by Iacoboni, the act of observing someone throwing a ball, for example would cause the mirror neurons to fire.  This seems odd in light of all the historical evidence that separates sensory and motor functions of the central nervous system.

Mirroring People promises to be an interesting read. The synopsis of this book notes that mirror neurons are important factors in empathy, and might be involved on one’s sense of morality.  Food for thought, indeed. I look forward to sharing more about mirror neurons as I make progress through the book.

Today’s watercolor experiment:

It has been very hot out here in California lately. I took advantage of the relative coolness in the morning to sketch a scene in our cousin’s back yard. My wife has been visiting her cousin at the house where we are staying presently, for more than 50 years. The bloom has left the Japanese garden that her uncle built, however, the basic structure remains. Joy remembers it as it was.

The watercolor sketch below is a different vantage point from yesterday’s backyard portrait:

Watercolor Sketch - Rock Garden and Pool in Back Yard

Rock Garden and Pool
12″x9″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block

I sketched the scene with one of those jumbo pencils (HB hardness). I like the thickness of this kind of wooden pencil and the graphite encased within. I must admit that I shaded the darker areas with pencil before I painted. I did not erase any pencil lines prior to painting.

As in yesterday’s sketch, the primary palette consisted of earth tones: burnt umber, yellow ochre, quinacridone gold and warm sienna. The rocks were painted with a combination of ivory black for the shadows and washed with Payne’s gray. I tinted the white of the bridge with a little blue that was on my palette and used Prussian blue for the inside of the empty pool.  I filled in some details and edges with pen and ink.

I don’t know for certain if my mirror neurons are at work when I paint. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are. I hope a read through my new book will answer that question.


My friend Jessica Safran coined the term ‘identity shift’ to apply to how one’s view of self changes when a settled way of life suddenly changes. Examples of this include: losing a parent or loved one; becoming sick; getting married, and so on.  Some life changes alter the future course of one’s life while others are speed bumps or divits (or even axel-bending potholes) along the way.

Non-axel bending potholes

In thinking about the latter class of identity shifts, an image comes to mind: The Gongman, trademark of The Rank Organisation, a British entertainment company that produced films beginning in the late 1930s. I love the opening title sequence where a sweaty, muscly man swings a giant mallet or club at a gong suspended from a rack.  When the sound of the gong settled down, the movie would start.


This is my metaphor for abrupt changes in life: A gong being struck by a mallet.  The initial sound is startling and even overwhelming. However, with time, the gong’s vibrations lessen in amplitude and eventually die out. Like the hammer hitting the gong, the speed bumps and divits are jarring, but one can recover from them and generally move along in the same direction.

Axel bending potholes

The first class of life changes mentioned above, is not really a good fit for the gong metaphor.  A better image for those major life changes is a gong, struck by a mallet and shattering to pieces. One would have to figure out how to re-assemble the pieces into a new way of life, under those conditions.

Today’s experiment

The gong sound is settling down for Joy and me. We arrived certain decisions and have planned certain courses of action. It is much easier to carry on in a more-or-less normal way with our new outlook.

Below is my painting of our current back yard. I made some space to set up my painting paraphernalia, I had the time I needed and was a bit less stressed than I have been lately. Perhaps the act of painting helped me to relax as well.

Watercolor Sketch - Back Yard with Fountain

New Back Yard
9″x12″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block

I used a lot of earth tones in this painting. The fence is Warm Sepia (Sennelier); the ground is a combination of yellow ochre glazed with lemon yellow; the green foreground is sap green. I used Warm Orange (Dailer Rowney) to color the tangerines on the tangerine tree. For the foliage, I used Hooker’s green, Shadow Green (Holbein) and some  other green that was on my palette, for which I don’t have a name. The water in the fountain is Prussian blue; the bridge is a mixture of Titanium Buff (Dailer Rowney) and white. The rock garden is a combination of ivory black, Payne’s gray, quinacridone gold and burnt umber.

Traveling Case

With great displacement comes great responsibility – to coin a phrase.

I haven’t painted that much recently. Since Joy and I relocated to a relative’s house, it hasn’t been my top priority, nor do I have a regular place to paint. When I do paint, I check to make sure I’m not in the way; I set up; paint; clean up; pack up my stuff and put it away.  It’s only right; I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing any less.

Then I thought of my painting travel case. “Just the ticket!” I thought, “They make this kit for people who travel and, I am traveling, in a way…”

This is my portable painting kit:

Photograph - Paint Box for Traveling

The only trouble is, I am now used to painting on paper that is 9″ by 12″. The brush that comes with the case is teeny, probably about an eighth of an inch long. It would take me forever to cover that surface. I don’t think I could even paint a straight line more than an inch in length with this brush fully loaded.

Today’s experiment

I didn’t have the time to use the itty-bitty brush for today’s painting, but I wanted to use all the colors in the box.  I used my 3″ brush and dipped it into three of the pans at once to load it with three adjacent colors. Then I applied brush to paper. I painted the 4th color separately. I repeated the procedure for the opposite side and then painted the colors of the middle row.


The colors on one side of the kit are: cadmium yellow pale; cadmium yellow; cadmium red pale; sap green.

The colors of the other side of the kit are: ultramarine; viridian; cobalt blue; alizarin crimson.

The colors in the middle column are: Chinese white; burnt sienna; burnt umber.

However, I could be mistaken, since, working in close quarters, before I began to paint, I tipped the box over and all the paints fell out of their respective pans. I put them back in the correct order (I think), but I could have made some mistakes.

Here is my painting:

Watercolor Sketch - Crows and Paintbox

Murder of Crows and Paintbox
9″x12″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block

Frankly, I don’t know why I painted in the crows. Perhaps it was a way to balance the cheery rainbow-ish colors. Maybe I just wanted to say the word ‘murder’, as in, “the situation Joy and I are in is murder.”

Post-Birthday Post

The day went well

I am so happy to say that my birthday went well.  Most of my cousins from Joy’s side of the family came to dinner in celebration of the start of my 63rd year.  I was so pleased that those involved in the melt-down and our subsequent displacement also came, as invited.  That made me feel really good.

Prior to the dinner party, Joy and I took the day to ourselves. I love bookstores, so we went to one of the few used-book stores in town and I found some books about Paul Klee and Paul Cézanne, that I hadn’t read!

We spent the rest of the day puttering about the mall until just before the dinner.

Age-istential angst

The tick, tick, ticking of time slipping by was muffled somewhat by being surrounded by good company. However, I’m sure I have not experienced the last of those feelings. It is nice to have a respite now and then.

Thank you

I thank my friends, Mac McConnell, Jan Hilley, Alison Hansel, Liz Barrett, Kathy DeAngelo, Lynn Williamson Webster, Jessica Safran for the happy birthday wishes.  They mean a lot to me.

No watercolor today, unfortunately, BUT

Here are some photos of interesting fire plugs that are in the queue for painting:

Photograph - Rite Aid Fire Plug

Rite Aid Fire Plug

Photograph - Rite Aid Fire Plug - Detail

Rite Aid Fire Plug – Detail















Photography - Lucky's Fire Plug

Lucky’s Fire Plug

Photography - Lucky's Fire Plug - Detail

Lucky’s Fire Plug – Detail
















It has always been interesting to read about the lives of others. The biography genre offers so many possibilities. One can read about successes and failures and, in many cases can identify with famous thinkers and writers.

Identifying with other people can be comforting in many cases. Somehow, being odd or out of place isn’t that difficult if one reads about other people who are the same way.

However, there is another edge to that blade: lifespans of those whose biographies I read.  I think I am particularly prone to that darker side of that sword these days since my sense of stability has been shaken.

I am 62 years old today. I can’t really complain…  No one wants to hear complaints anyway and I have no more grungy photographs at my disposal to show and say, “I feel like that.”

I know that “the 60s are the new 40s”, blah, blah, blah…. but all I can say is, “tick, tick, tick.”

Today’s experiment – next stage in tilted building picture

I made a little progress today in my painting:

Watercolor Sketch - Tilted House in London - Watercolor Second Pass

Tilted House in London – Watercolor, Second Pass
12″x9″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

At least I didn’t waste my time painting every brick. I used pen and ink for the railings and bars. I glazed the fire escape and the bottom portion of the wall of the tilted building with lemon yellow, and re-washed the bottom wall of that building with a burnt umber/titanium white mixture; after underscoring the bricks with thin lines of ivory black, I washed the area with my umber/white mixture.  As I recall, I washed the building on the right with a combination of gamboge yellow (an orange-tinted yellow), burnt umber and titanium white. The yellow cast to the watercolor is due to taking its picture under incandescent light.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to post something more cheerful tomorrow.


I haven’t finished the watercolor from yesterday’s sketch yet.  There is so much turbulence: 1) my wife and I are in one room of a cousin’s house. She was frequently here as a child, so she has fond memories. It is sad though, since her aunt who’s house it was died just a month ago. 2) there is upset about the circumstance of our leaving and there is upset at the house where we now live, due to grief; 3) we must delve into the housing market here in Silicon Valley, an overwhelming task; 4) I haven’t settled in to a morning routine where I can drink my coffee and read my books.

When one goes over turbulence in an aircraft, the captain often says, “Fasten your seatbelt.” I would do that if I knew to what I should fasten it.

As I mentioned to Liz, in a comment, it is difficult (for me at least) to make a coherent written narrative in the midst of an emotional situation. Time needs to elapse for the intense transient feelings to subside.  To put it in engineering terms, one must wait for the system to arrive in its steady state. Think of it in terms of our man with the hammer. When he strikes a bell, there is an immediate concussive clang, but (if he doesn’t keep beating it) the sound dissipates.  At that time one can collect and prioritize one’s thoughts about the incident and come up with meaningful work.

That is not to say that one cannot initiate an artistic response to an emotional incident while the bell is still clanging. One can start a poem (as Liz has done) or, with a brush in hand, it is possible to transfer one’s stress into a streak across the page; that streak would in turn inspire a splatter or another streak. Depending on the amount of thought that can be mustered during extreme stress, the results could be very interesting. Even if it turned out to be a brownish mass of streaks and spatters that no one else appreciated, the artist will have converted his or her stress into a visible manifestation (and possibly will have relieved some stress).

Today’s progress

I didn’t make too much progress in my tilted building painting, for some of the reasons stated above.  However I did want to show what I did today.  My self-imposed goal of presenting something different every day seems to keep me focused to some degree.

Here is today’s incremental step forward from yesterday’s sketch:

Watercolor Sketch - Tilted House in London - Start of Watercoloring

Tilted House in London – Start of Watercoloring

Very bland indeed. I used colors on the brown side of the spectrum. Strictly speaking, there is no ‘brown’ part of the spectrum. Brown is a combination of all primary colors, so different shades of brown contain different combinations of the primaries.  For the darkest brown in this iteration of my painting, I used Warm Sepia (from Sennelier). The reddish areas were made from burnt umber (the lighter reddish areas were lightened with titanium white). I used Buff Titanium (Dailer Rowney) for the concrete wall on top of the building on the left.  I used Hooker’s green for the leaves on the tree. Finally, I used either Payne’s gray or neutral tint, combined with white for the background buildings.

I hope that by the end of the day tomorrow, I’ll get some more detail into the painting (but not each and every brick!).


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