Sometimes, when I’m running errands, I see something that catches my eye and I try to snap a picture or make a quick sketch to use later. This building is typical for small towns in my area. When the photo was taken I thought the crumbling building breaking through the weathered paint might make for an interesting composition. I didn’t realize there was a cat in the window. It was a happy surprise when I looked at the shot later and saw it basking in the sun. The painting is rendered in acrylic on board. It’s only 8 inches by 10 inches so it’s fairly simple. I wanted the piece to be more about capturing the feeling of a sun-drenched Southwestern Ontario afternoon rather than a faithful reproduction of the photo.
This blog post was originally shared on my old studio blog on August 19, 2019.
This crow study was completed in my small (5 1/2 by 8 in) sketchbook. Rather than using a pigment (ink) pen this image was rendered with a brush, Speedball Super Pigmented Acrylic Ink, and acrylic paint. Using a brush with the acrylic ink allows for the opportunity to make a variety of marks without changing tools. The super black ink is highly opaque when undiluted but I also used it as a wash here to create different tones. I opted to work from dark to light and layered acrylic paint on top of the ink to flesh out the image.
This blog post was originally shared on my old studio blog on January 25, 2018.
The local non profit theatre organization that I volunteer for (the West Elgin Dramatics Society) staged J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ for their 2017 year end production. I had the opportunity to design the set. Barrie’s 1904 play script includes pages of set and production notes that weren’t a realistic aim for the organisation’s budget or the performance hall footprint. The cast was a large one (32 on stage plus the backstage and tech crew) so space was at a premium. The production called for a nursery, three separate settings in Neverland (daylight woods, lagoon, night woods split with the house underground), the deck of a pirate ship, and a place for Nana’s dog house/the Darling house yard.
I first read Peter Pan as an illustrated story when I was a child. I wanted to bring the same kind of feel to the set design. I decided to build large “boxes” that the stage crew would rotate to display four scenic murals with the other two scene sets remaining in place. Each original mural was 8 feet high by 12 feet long spreading across three “box” faces. I constructed the boxes combining existing theatre flats with additional ¼ inch mahogany sheets over frames made of 1 inch by 3 inch pine boards. Set build for a WEDS production usually begins around two weeks before a play opens so time was definitely a factor in getting the set together. Budget is always a consideration so the paint used to create the imagery was a combination of discount mis-tinted house paint and acrylic craft paint. I created the pieces with the knowledge that the flats used to build the boxes would be disassembled at production’s end to be painted over for use in other plays. In some of the pictures you can see some wear and tear under the paint from other set uses. That does make it hard to determine how much work to put into them but hopefully there were enough details included to create the required atmosphere.
The view from the catwalk shows the Darling family nursery as well as the yard where Nana’s house sits.
The backdrop on the wall and the trees were originally created for past productions (See How They Run and Alice Through the Looking-Glass). Community theatre often means recycle, recycle, and recycle some more.
The beds used were inflatable cots which worked surprisingly well in appearance (they aren’t fully inflated or completely covered here as this was just prior to opening), mobility, and storage.
Two of the boxes formed nursery walls that were hung with curtains to conceal the first woodland scene.
Using two of the boxes as nursery walls was the best solution to where to put them when not in use. As you can see from this picture there was no place for them backstage either stage left…
…or stage right. That’s the third box in front of the theatre’s baby grand piano.
The Neverland woods.
Here’s a closer look. Most of the work was done with foam rollers, house painting brushes, and a 1 inch acrylic flat brush.
Rotating from woodland to lagoon. I used felt furniture pads on the bottom and the boxes moved quite well.
The lagoon set. The lines between the surfaces look quite heavy here. These pictures were shot in regular daylight. With the theatre lights on during the play run the dividing lines weren’t as noticeable.
Lagoon detail. I live near the northern shoreline of Lake Erie. If you’re familiar with the area you’ll definitely recognise elements of it in this composition.
Rotation from lagoon to split night woods and house underground.
During the play run these pieces were set up with a split between them so plot lines could develop on the stage back to back with only lighting changes
Night woods detail.
Rotation from split scene to pirate ship deck.
Pirate ship deck.
Pirate ship deck detail.
I’ve blurred the actors’ faces here so don’t be alarmed (they’re not melting). This rehearsal picture shows the actors utilising the split set.
Again I’ve blurred the actor’s face. This rehearsal (wet tech) picture shows the ship deck scene as stage lighting is being added.
This last picture below is me explaining to one of my stage managers how it’s all going to work. She later said she had her hands on her head not because she didn’t think it would work but because she was concerned about the amount of work that was required to get them sorted out. I’m around 5 1/2 feet tall and you can see that even with my arm fully extended I couldn’t reach the top. Though the boxes were large and the stage crew were all small women they had no problem moving them.
This blog post was originally shared on my old studio blog on December 30, 2013.
For a number of years I’ve participated as a volunteer with a local non profit group dedicated to the preservation of local community theater. It’s a cause I believe in and it’s been a great opportunity to utilize my skill set in ways I don’t normally get to. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing is building props and designing and building sets for productions. The director of the play may or may not have a vision for how he/she would like to proceed. There will be specific requirements that need to be met that will enable the story to be told properly. Of course there’s always a budget and as a non profit organization it can be pretty tight. It’s a fun sort of puzzle to figure out.
Production- The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery
– A comedy by David McGillivray, Walter Zerlin Jr
For this play I painted a copy of The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hal. It’s not an exact match as that wasn’t necessary (the painting didn’t present a major plot point in the play). I had an old canvas with a warped frame that I used (budget friendly). It was so crooked that it had to be nailed into the frame but it did the trick. This was a fun piece to work on and I really enjoyed recreating the richness of the fabrics. The painting was mounted on a stage flat that was flipped upside down during the play. I have no idea where this painting ended up. The actress in the photo (I’ve covered up her face as I don’t have her permission to use her image) asked if she could have it and then later passed it on to someone else. These are the only pictures I have of the canvas. This was the very first set I helped build and it never occurred to me to take good pictures so I could share them until later in my history of volunteering with the organization.
Production- See How They Run
Author – Philip King
This was one of my very favourite set builds. The director simply requested that the set looked 1940’s-ish so that left things pretty open. The action takes place in an English vicarage. This was a set build that required quite a bit of construction but the real fun was in the details. We finished the walls with this great wallpaper that looked really dated and used a hand painted faux finish to give the appearance of wood grained wainscoting. The plaster fireplace was left over from a prior production and only required a new finish. There’s a whole school of painting from the 1800’s regarding horse and hound hunting in the English countryside. I used imagery from that tradition to create a painting for the wall behind the fireplace. To save money, I used a frame from a broken mirror with a piece of old hard board as a base. I have friends who are collectors and they were kind enough to let me come over and “shop” their home for 1940s-ish props and furniture. We were able to fit retro French doors and period lights into the budget. I used an old sheet primed with house latex to put together a backdrop that was hung behind the French doors.
Production- Dear Santa
Author – Norm Foster
This play ran from December 5th to December 14th, 2013. The set design for this production presented some interesting challenges. The director wanted a very open set with no flats across the back. She wanted it to appear as if the audience was viewing the production through a picture window but the window couldn’t take up any significant space. The main action was to take place in two areas, Santa’s office and Santa’s work shop. It was a very large cast so there really wasn’t room for much of anything on the stage. Dressing the theater was a great way to create atmosphere so I built a number of props for the space. I attempted to create the picture window effect by placing flats that resembled the outside of a building on the far sides of the stage. I defined the rest of the space through the placement of furniture and props. This was the first play for which I personally constructed, not just decorated, the flats and structures (bit of a learning curve but I got pretty handy with a jigsaw by the end). The theater is located in a public building and the space is used by a variety of groups so I had to construct the pieces offsite (you can see some pictures of the space I used for the build here ). I had built a large archway to look like a giant snowflake. I wanted to make sure it was wide enough and tall enough for Santa to pass through. When I got it to the theater I discovered that it was too large to sit under the stage valance. Oops! We moved it around until half of it rested in front of the valance and the rest behind. The half flats at each end of the stage did look like window openings but because they left the stage really open (as the director requested) there was a line of sight issue that allowed the audience to see back into areas they should not be able to see into. Taking a hint from hand crafted Christmas cards I built decorative accents that addressed that issue.
This painting is SO close to being done I can almost taste it. Today was going to be the day. I have the hook on the wall with a place ready for it to sit until it’s time to varnish it. I’ve screwed the tabs into the stretcher and strung the picture wire across the back. There’s just a bit of this to do and a bit of that but still I’m sitting here at 3 am and it just WON’T. COME. TO. AN. END. I really was going to get it done today but when I took the dogs out this morning (I should clarify my morning is your afternoon as I usually go to bed around 5am) I spotted a wee white bunny in my vegetable garden. It was sitting behind the pegged down wire fence, hunched right up against my peas. It could have fit in the palm of my hand. The white of its fur stood out in bright contrast to the garden greenery. It’s not winter here so those who know better might be surprised by the colour of its fur as the hare (not rabbit) native to this area wears a subtle shade of sable and grey in the summer. Several years ago some well-meaning idiot (the emphasis is on idiot) decided to let their domestic rabbits enjoy an outdoor environment. Since then these very cute but extremely destructive furry bundles have taken over the hamlet. They’ve forced out the native species, attracted apex predators like coyotes, and destroyed lawns and gardens. Despite this some people love them and add to the problem by feeding them. Others are not so enthusiastic. One gent down the road was shooting and eating them. He stopped when he discovered a “wormy” one.
With my sweet peas in jeopardy, unhappily it was time to call on my inner Mr. McGregor. I didn’t scheme to bag up the bunny to trade for tobacco but I may have accidentally trapped him/her in my garden shed. As soon as I saw it, I hustled the dogs into the house as a bunny is just an interesting chew toy to them. Being the grown up full-sized adult that I am, I then went to the wood pile to get a stick so I wouldn’t have to come too close to the wee little bunny. I’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail so I knew I had to be careful. I was going to try to prod it out of the garden from a very respectable distance with the longest stick (remember it was the size of a new-born kitten) that I could find. I stepped over the fence and moved towards the white bundle of fur with my stick a-a-a-and it bolted. That was a bit of a surprise. Normally rabbits freeze instinctively as predators are attracted to motion. This little guy took off like a flash towards the garden shed that makes up the back wall of my garden enclosure. It headed towards the shed and then right up under the wall. Damn it! So off I went back to the house to get the shed key.
I couldn’t find the bunny inside but to be honest my garden shed is very messy as well as very old. It looks like it might have had lathe and plaster in it at one time. The bunny had squeezed in under some rotting boards at the bottom of the wall. I spent several hours removing board so rotten I could pull it out by hand, replacing it with new wood, and tidying up the shed. I did my best to be as noisy as possible by banging things around exclaiming “Why on earth is this still here?” or alternatively “Why isn’t this in the garbage?” and occasionally cursing as I encountered cardboard boxes full of mouse droppings and curtains of dust clotted cobwebs still very much inhabited by their creators. I made enough noise to scare any passersby so the bunny should have been well on its way. I finished up by making sure the fence was firmly pegged down. I had to close the shed door though as an open shed door is an invitation to other even more problematic visitors like raccoons, possums or skunks.
There’s just something about this painting. I could attribute it to an adverse universe but that’s just an excuse. It should have been done over a month ago but it isn’t and I’m not sure why. I really want it done. So why have I started to write the two plays I’ve been roughing out in my mind for the past couple of months? Why have I completed an abstract painting, started another landscape and prepped saw blades? The bunny came out of nowhere but really the plays, the blades, the abstract, and this blog entry (AND the other two I’ve started but haven’t finished yet) that I’m writing, as I enjoy a gin and tonic and sing along with an old blues CD, don’t need to be done right now. I should probably confess that I’m actually singing quite loudly. The dogs are used to it, the cats don’t care about anything I do unless it has to do with gratifying their needs or desires, and I’ve got the windows closed so the neighbours can’t hear me. I’ve a half-acre on either side between the houses but it is the country and voices carry. Goodness…now I’ve taken some pictures of my messy work space.
Another confession, there was some arm waving and a brief bit of “chair dancing” as I uploaded the pictures. So-o-o I think it’s going to be one more day (night) for this painting. I hope the bunny got out of the shed. I’ll check when I get up. I’m not really the true Mr. McGregor type.
There’s been a downturn on the health side for a friend of mine. He and his wife stopped by earlier today to drop off some stuff and let us in on the news. Years ago he was the victim of a virus that damaged his heart. He and his wife have never made a big deal about it but it’s always there in the background. Lately he’s been feeling a little more tired than usual and decided to find out if there was reason for additional concern…unfortunately there was. His heart is now only working at a 20% capacity (compared to the 40% it was at before). It’s time for a pacemaker. I can unequivocally swear that though this man’s heart may be physically weak it works overtime in the generosity and caring department. He’s the type of person that is always trying to figure out how he can make life better for those around him (whether they want him to or not- I say that with the greatest affection). He works in an industry where he is exposed to the lowest of the low when it comes to the awful things that people can do to each other. Although it’s made him a bit jaded he does his best not to let that drag him down. He’d give you the shirt off his back if his wife didn’t point out that other people don’t need or want used shirts with bold Hawaiian themed prints on them. My friend isn’t a small guy and he enjoys “orange chips” (Nacho Doritos), the occasional libation and bacon- lots and lots of bacon. Though his weight didn’t cause his heart problems it doesn’t take a genius to determine that his heart wouldn’t be as stressed if he weighed less. They’ve decided a paleo type diet might be the way to go. It calls for lots of small meals, lean meats, no processed food or dairy and (unfortunately for my friend) as much fruit and vegetables as he’d like. To be honest the amount of fruit and vegetables that he would like would be “zero” so they’re going to have to work on that.
It’s always hard to know what to say at times like these. Obviously it’s upsetting and the first thing you want to do is offer comfort and support. Sometimes though I’m an idiot and I either say the wrong thing or I try to say the right thing but I don’t say it the right way. Case in point…My friend is a writer. It’s not his primary occupation but he’s been published in local print papers. For as long as I’ve known him he’s been mulling over the idea of writing a book. He wants writing to be his legacy. I can understand that. My family makes jokes about how my work will be worth more after I’m dead (SO hilarious every time they make that joke-NOT). They don’t understand that one of the most important things for me, after the all-encompassing fascination of the process and how “whole” I feel when I’m painting or drawing, is that it does carry on even when I’m gone but it’s not about money. Though that would be nice for my family (don’t tell them I said that). I want my work to have a life of its own, to touch people and continue to develop in ways I can’t even imagine. In a way I’m endeavouring to leave my mark on the world. History decides what constitutes culture. I have no control over that but I still want to be part of the mix no matter the outcome. You might wonder who I think I am; to have such a grandiose ambition. My answer would be, I am merely my own self and as such I’m free to dream my own dream…as is anyone. So what did I say when my friend told me his heart is literally breaking? I said “It’s time to write your book”.
Not the first thing out of my mouth but pretty damn close. I’m surprised it could make it out from around the foot that I was determined to wedge in there. I meant what I said in the best possible way. He wants to write a book. He is more than capable. He has just never got around to starting. To be someone who creates regularly you have to feel a sense of urgency. You have to make it a priority. I, for example, get terribly distracted by the minutia that makes up a day-to-day routine until I sometimes find all the time in the day has been used up by things that only take me further from where I want to be. You can’t let that happen if you want to produce a body of work. I repeat that to myself daily as I try to focus on becoming who/what I want to be. You have to remove the barriers that you’ve created. The first thing my friend said when I told him he should write his book was that he was concerned about the stress working on it might bring. I told him that if he would just try to write an hour a day he was not going to up his stress level (it might even reduce it as he would be doing what he’s really meant to do). So I had opened up my mouth and said this thing and of course his wife, who is also my very good friend, started to cry and then I started to cry. We ended up hugging and laughing because despite my inability to keep my mouth shut, she knows I love them both dearly. After they left I spent an hour online looking up paleo snacks that he could have at the bonfire we’re having next weekend. Apparently you can buy organic paleo hot dogs so he can have those (if I can find them locally) with no bun while everyone else has the regular ones.
I don’t think my friend is going to up and die on us just yet. There are no guarantees but even if he had a smidgen of a thought about giving in without a fight his wife would never have it. That doesn’t mean this isn’t scaring the shit out of him. He’d be a fool if it didn’t and he’s no fool. You may be familiar with the saying “Life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is one hundred percent”. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned more about the latter part of that quote than I would prefer. I have had people I love leave suddenly (the unfairness of a child’s death will ever be a mystery to me). I’ve said good-bye to loved ones who suffered terribly before they left. I never did say good-bye to the one who decided he would just rather not be here. Although I accept all these as truths, there is still a part of me that can’t help but find it all utterly surreal.
Years ago I had a wonderful friend. Her name was Sue. Sue and her girlfriend were originally friends of my mother and her 4th husband. She and her girlfriend were breaking up at the same time that I came back to live at home after leaving a horrendous relationship. I had a 3 month old baby, a crazy stalker ex-boyfriend, I was 20 years younger than her, and I had returned to live with my mother because I had nowhere else to go and I was in terrible trouble. Despite our differences we became great friends for the year I lived at my mother’s house. When I moved back out on my own our lives grew apart but we still kept in touch. Several years later Sue was diagnosed with cancer. She made it through the first treatment and then the cancer came back. She couldn’t go through it again and opted to let nature take its course. The last time I called to talk to her was on a Wednesday evening. She was lying down and didn’t want to come to the phone. She died that night. She wasn’t alone though. She’d met a woman and taken a chance on love again. Sue was a person who enjoyed everything that life had to offer. That didn’t mean she hadn’t struggled in her journey. She was gay well before there was any kind of advocacy for lesbians. She was a large woman and had faced negativity because of it. She had an 18 year long relationship with a woman who had physically and mentally abused her. That partner had come to the relationship with a child that Sue helped raise as her own until he was killed when he rode his bike out of the driveway into the road without looking. She hadn’t had it easy but she was full of joy. Sue loved children, cats and dogs, food, and talking about her big boobs, and laughing at her own farts. You may think those last two things are childish but she rocked who she was and when she laughed she made you laugh too. And then one day she wasn’t there and the world was a poorer place for it. I had known people before who died but this was the first person I considered not just a contemporary (despite our age difference) but an actual friend. I’ve been thinking about her lately. She had this fantastically big booming laugh that made you want to be in on the joke and when she said my son’s name you could actually hear the love in her voice.
What does this have to do with my heavy-hearted friend and the foot in my mouth? What I really want for my friends is what I want for myself and for my family; for them to be fulfilled and to live life to the fullest. Ugh…that sounds terribly optimistic but it is how I feel. Truth be told, as a rule I run more along the pessimistic line. I always expect the worst. If it turns out bad, well that’s what I expected. If it turns out well, I get a happy surprise. Despite all that, I still believe in “the dream”. There are factors we can’t control like cancer or a heart virus but if you have something you really think you should be doing, do it. Now I’m not advocating abandoning your family or shooting hobos (if that last one is your dream I feel compelled to tell you that’s definitely a “no-no” and there are better things you should be doing with your time “treatment” than reading this blog post). What I am saying is stop getting in your own way. Find a version of your dream that works for you. You want to act? Register with a talent agency or try community theater. You want to sing? There’s an audience of millions waiting for you on U tube. Are you going to make big money? Probably not but then again …you might. Is everybody going to love you? Who knows?
As far as I could tell Sue always remained true to herself, living life and facing her death on her terms and to the best of her ability. She owned her death like she owned her life. None of it was easy but she took everything she could from it and she didn’t apologize for that. I’m not saying she didn’t have regrets. What I’m saying is she didn’t let fear hold her back…not from life or from death. That’s what I meant when I told my friend to write his book. Not “Hey you’re going to die you better get on it” (because really that could be said of us all). What I was trying to say was “Wow that’s scary but you’re going to get through it – one way or another (as a reader of this blog please feel free to substitute whatever bit of shittiness you prefer for the word “it” in this context). While you’re working your way through it why not look for a bit of happiness (immortality if you so desire) doing that thing you were born to do?” In addition to the wonderful friendship that Sue gave me during a difficult time in my life she taught me this great lesson. You’ve got to own it. It’s yours so why not? I really hope my friend writes his book. He was thinking about it. I could tell. In a way I guess it would be a story within a story. Whether the subplot has a happy ending is really up to him.
Music for this post
Ben Taylor’s ‘Not Alone’ as it speaks to friends, relationships and changes that come. Then there’s the Fabulous Thunderbirds with ‘Stand Back’, a song that captures the spirit of “getting it done”. Lastly for my dear friend Sue (pictured below having a chat with my son when he was a baby) because this post is not only about how much I miss her but how she continues to be a presence in my life so many years after she left, James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’.
I don’t have photo studio equipment or even a light box so when I want to shoot my art work I wait for a day when the daylight is conducive to getting the best shots possible. I usually shoot in the backyard with my Canon Rebel XTi on a tripod and my work on an easel. It’s not a fancy setup as you can see in this picture.
I’m getting to the end of an old sketch book and last week I decided to commemorate its place in my journey by posting some photos of the contents on my art blog ( you can check that out here if you’d like). As I had already set up my easel I decided to take a couple of pictures of two of my larger sketchbooks. I use different sketchbooks for different reasons. The one I’ll soon be retiring is small enough for me to carry around with me and I use it as the occasion arises. When I’m in studio I have a tendency to work in a larger format.
I often use drawings to explore ideas for projects such as these props that were used at a variety show put on by a local theater group I volunteer for. A limited budget required ingenuity so the final props were made out of used boxes I picked up for free at the local liquor store.
Sometimes the drawing process is a little less straight forward. I found a photograph I liked in a gardening magazine and used it as resource for a painting. I then used that painting as inspiration for a drawing.
I’ve often heard people lament their drawing skills by saying they can’t draw a straight line. To me that seems like the strangest thing to say. I draw all the time. If I’m not using a sketchbook I’m doodling in the margins of the newspaper or on the lined piece of paper I’m supposed to be taking notes on. I’d be hard pressed to think of a single time that I have ever required a straight line for anything I’ve rendered.
The link for this post is to an old television show about drawing I would watch when I was very young. The quality is not good but perhaps some of you might remember it. Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings