It’s all about the materials

In the past, I have primarily used paper products for collage, but this week I’ve had fun trying a number of different materials. I’m continuing collage experiments using the Collage Lab book as a guide, as begun in last week’s blog.

Collage Lab by Bee Shay

One thing I really enjoy about this book is that it suggests activities to explore the materials being used, and then allows for further play or experimentation based on whatever you want to try. I don’t feel the pressure of trying to make something that looks exactly like the pictures – it’s about experimenting with techniques and materials to get to know how they look and feel, to inform further artwork down the road.

I’ve been learning about using matte medium, gesso (both clear and white), and also heavy gel medium – and how they work with various materials. These products can work with a variety of materials, whether as adhesives or as coatings to change the appearance of your surface – adding color, texture, or to diffuse or alter the appearance of your materials.

Gel medium works well as an adhesive for fabric, which was one of the lessons I worked on. I used fabric scraps including old pillowcases, lace, and other cloth I’d collected for collages. You can use old sheets, towels, rags, curtains, t-shirts or other cloth items you were planning to discard. If they aren’t good enough to put out for a yard sale, chances are you won’t feel mind ripping or cutting them up. I’ve also bought cheap scraps at a fabric store. I haven’t worked with fabric much in my collages, so I enjoyed the opportunity to explore different ideas. First, I brushed the heavy gel medium on the surface for the collage, and/or the fabric itself, then pressed the fabric where I wanted it to go.

Lacy fabric is great because, whether you use it as a background, focal point, or visual accents, the holes in the fabric allow color or images to be seen through it, and it can pick up paint or ink wash differently than the surface you’re painting on. Lace can also provide a nice vintage feel to a collage.

Pieces of lace on white painted board

Lace as background; lace and other fabric on board with paper border







The ink wash I painted on this showed up mostly on the lace when it dried (I did blot with tissue so it wouldn’t be an even wash over the whole surface).

I also made a wrinkled satiny fabric surface in the same way that I used tissue paper last week (except my surface adhesive was heavy gel medium rather than matte medium this time). What was cool about this surface was that it retained its softness in the folds, and it has a great shine as the light hits the peaks of the wrinkles.

I also made a couple of surfaces with paper backgrounds or borders for use in future collage.

I hadn’t before tried using paper as just a border, so I appreciated this suggestion. Usually I use a variety of colored/printed craft papers available at my local Michael’s craft store. This type of paper is especially popular since the advent of scrapbooking as a hobby. Craft paper can be expensive, but there are often sales and discounts, and you can buy whole books of some craft paper for less.

I also use old wall calendars, since the paper is fairly thick and easy to use, and I’ve had some beautiful calendars given to me over the years! It’s a great way to repurpose these items. Old greeting cards and postcards are also recommended, as they can be very appealing and varied, and again, the paper or cardboard is thick enough to handle adhesive and/or paint.

While many people like to use magazine and catalogue images (I have, on occasion), that paper is very thin and can be difficult to manipulate. I bought some old books at thrift stores that I’m willing to cut or rip up for collages, though I imagine some bibliophiles would consider that a sacrilege. Other possibilities include old wallpaper, paint chips (samples) from stores, old photographs, old notebook covers or folders, or used wrapping paper. It feels good to recycle items that you know would have just been thrown away, or are just cluttering up your house.

It’s been many years since I used organic materials for collage; not as far back as childhood, but during my days as a preschool teacher. With the book as my guide, I experimented with some seeds and grains I had in the house, as well as some items from outdoors. I’d like to experiment more with dried flowers, seeds and leaves in the future. I used matte medium for an adhesive for these items, and I covered some with clear gesso to help adhere them.

Maple seeds and dried flowers

Maple and watermelon seeds

Barley and lentils

Mustard and caraway seeds

You can also use paint, white or colored gesso, or ink wash to cover them to create different effects, or to highlight just parts of your surface. Below I used white gesso on the first two, and acrylic paint on the third.

For surfaces, you don’t have to buy boards, card stock, or watercolor paper at a craft store – you can cut up old cardboard boxes, use scrap wood, tiles or other materials you may have cluttering up your garage or basement. Just be aware that some surfaces will take on paint and adhesive better than others, and thinner surfaces may not hold up as well to moisture and heavier collage materials (your surface may buckle or warp). If you do work with shiny surfaces or materials that don’t seem to take paint or adhesive well, sandpapering your surface and/or applying gesso first can make your surface ground easier to work with.

If you’ve used other types of items for collage work, I’d love to hear about it!



Creating the foundation

I’ve always been fascinated by art using mixed media. When I blogged about paper collage last year (from A Bird by Any Other Name to Juxtaposition of Elements), I launched straight into gluing paper to create pictures, without any planning, without prepping surfaces for the work that would follow. I wanted to get to the fun stuff — creating a jigsaw puzzle of sorts with images and colors that intrigued me.

Now I’m focusing on learning about techniques and materials, with the help of this cool book:

Collage Lab by Bee Shay

The book is divided into easy-to-digest lessons on everything from ways to prepare surfaces (or “substrate,” as it’s called in collaging and painting) to using organic materials and other items. There’s an emphasis on layering, which is something I learned to appreciate during my month dabbling with watercolor paints.

This week I focused on the opening lessons which recommended materials including gesso and matte medium. Gesso has been used in art for centuries, mostly as a primer. In medieval art, it was applied repeatedly in very thin layers to create a paintable surface on wood or canvas. It is a blend of some kind of binder, like glue, with chalk and white pigment, and it absorbs most paints. Gesso creates texture on the surface, and you can use thick or thin layers for different effects. You can tint it with paint. Matte medium is a white fluid used as an adhesive for collage, and it is often mixed with acrylic paints to reduce glossiness. The first sections in the book use one or both of these products in different ways.

The first lesson centered on experimenting with gesso. First you brush a thick layer of gesso on watercolor paper (140 lb.), cardboard or other surface. Then you use household objects to create lines and prints in the gesso while it is still wet.

I used an old comb to “draw” lines in the gesso

I used bottle caps to make circle designs

One other experiment was to use sponges and other objects to apply  gesso shapes to paper. I tinted the gesso with acrylic paint to make different colors.

An additional activity involved laying down a base of one color-tinted gesso, letting it dry, applying another color, then using a comb or other object to “draw” or scrape the surface, revealing the color underneath.

I brushed on a layer of this rather garish shade of pink-tinted gesso

Then I covered it with this muted green

I scraped through the top layer to reveal the pink underneath

Do you remember doing something similar when you were a kid? Drawing with lots of colorful crayons all over a piece of paper, not leaving any blank space, then obscuring the whole picture in black crayon, and finally “scratching” out a picture by revealing the colorful layer underneath? Maybe that’s why I enjoy this experimentation so much; it reminds me of art exploration when I was a kid, when I didn’t care about how useful or marketable what I was doing might be. I just enjoyed the play.

A further exercise called for applying bits of masking tape to paper, then coloring it with a layer of tinted gesso, removing the tape when dry.

I first tore tape to apply to the paper randomly, then brushed a layer of pink-tinted gesso

After the gesso was dry, I removed the tape

The gesso in all these experiments provided surface texture in varying degrees of thickness.

Using paper to create background designs is another way to create surface texture, as I found in a lesson using matte medium as an adhesive. I enjoyed playing with craft paper, first tearing strips of paper for a sort of sloppy weave pattern.

Torn strips of paper on matte medium-brushed paper to create a loose lattice

Craft paper cut into shapes – I used matte medium to apply the shapes and some areas of  the paper that I cut shapes from

When I made the geometric shape picture, I used a useful technique for cutting paper with an X-Acto knife I learned during my month studying kirigami — if you score or perforate the paper along the lines with the tip of your knife, it’s a lot easier to cut lines, especially curves or circles, which can be hard to control.

Yet another fun activity was using tissue paper, applying it to a thick layer of matte medium while still wet, manipulating the paper to create wrinkles. I really liked the 3-dimensional effect; it looked like a topographical map. This would be a great surface for creating collage.

After brushing matte medium on watercolor paper, I applied tissue paper, wrinkling it with my fingers

A side/close-up view to see the 3-D surface effect

An easy way to create an interesting textured surface or “substrate” is to find unusual “canvases” for your collages. It’s great to use recycled materials like corrugated cardboard (I tore up an old box). You can tear or cut out some of the surface layer to create depth and interesting shapes.

I used an X-Acto knife on corrugated cardboard pieces to make geometric shapes; for others I tore away the surface layer

After that, I tried layers of gesso, paint and/or ink wash to add variety. Here are a few cardboard “canvases” I created, before and after adding ink wash or paint.


Finally, I followed a lesson about muting or diffusing an image by covering it with thin layers of diluted gesso, to be a ground for further collage. First I used pages from an old atlas (left is before being treated with gesso).

This craft paper reminded me of vintage wallpaper.

Thin layers of diluted gesso add surface texture and change the colors, depending on the type of paper used. For glossy papers, you can use very fine sandpaper to make the paper more porous.

I plan to use many of these boards I’ve just made as substrate to create collages later. Previously, I would slap images I liked on the paper or cardboard I was covering. Then I would suddenly realize I wanted a background, so I would slather paint around the images I’d glued. It’s clear to me now that I was working from the surface down, rather than beginning by creating the foundation of the picture first. These lessons have made me think more about creating layers beneath my collages to add texture, depth, variety, and visual interest.

When was the last time you let yourself “play” with art?




Music and Mindfulness

When I perform music live, time can take on a very elastic quality – it can seem like it slows down, each moment expanded, while at other times it zips by almost on hyper-speed. When I’m fully focused and present in the moment, paying attention but without overthinking, it usually goes well. The music feels like it’s a part of my very self, and everything in me seems “in tune.” It’s  almost trance-like, although not the same as being oblivious. You’re paying attention, but also letting the moment happen. If I suddenly start overthinking, or my mind wanders for a moment, it’s easy to lose that sense – suddenly something can go off the rails, like I miss a cue or make a mistake.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about Zen Buddhism, but one of its tenets is the idea of being fully present or “mindful” in the moment. While I have never practiced meditation, during which one is supposed to experience being mindful (by focusing on one’s breathing, for example), playing music comes as close to what I imagine being fully mindful might be.

The closest thing I can think of to this feeling is when you are driving. And I don’t mean a highway in the country when you can zone out for a long time when you’re letting your mind wander or singing along to the radio. It’s more like when you’re driving in a busy city; you’re paying attention, you stay present in the moment because if you don’t, you could miss that stoplight turning red or the car braking ahead of you. At the same time, you can’t overthink either – you operate a lot of driving activity on automatic pilot. If you had to think about every single step – I’m braking a bit now, I’m checking my side mirror, I’m signaling to move left, I’m turning the wheel a bit … etc. – you wouldn’t be able to manage it without going crazy. So it’s a combination of being “one” with the car while you make familiar maneuvers, but at the same time being aware of what’s going on around you and your vehicle (hopefully).

Another aspect of playing live music is the activity of performing with others, which is quite different from playing an instrument by yourself. The act of listening and watching others play while you are participating and paying attention to what you’re doing expands your experience even further. You have to maintain your own sense of self and what you are trying to do while simultaneously being aware of everyone else. If you haven’t played music with a group, other experiences in your life may be similar. Perhaps you’ve acted in a theater, or played a team sport – especially one that is fast moving, where you are interdependent with other players, like basketball or hockey. Or, to return to the driving comparison, it’s like when you’re on a busy city roadway and you have to trust that your fellow drivers are also paying attention, indicating to you what they’re doing, as much as you are trying to be aware of them and let them know what you’re doing next.

The more you play with a particular group of people, the more you are able to trust one another. And you can anticipate what your bandmate is likely to do, or sense when they are changing how they’re playing. It’s easier to relax and let go when you trust that your bandmates know their parts and are exerting similar levels of energy to yours, and that they also are aware of everyone in the group while they play. With a group that trusts each other to keep going and hold up their part of the music, you know that even if one member has a blip and misses something, everyone else will carry on playing.

Photo by Laurie Etchen. Left to right: Jean Jarvis, me, Mike Czora

An additional component is the music itself, which seems to take on a life of its own during a performance. There are definitely times when the performance of the whole group far exceeds what the individuals seem able to do within it – when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A certain amount of energy is produced by each of the players, and the energy and the sounds combining, when done well, create what can feel like a living, breathing entity – the music.

The times I’ve experienced this, it’s been magical. Once was when I was singing in a large choral performance with an exceptionally good and very large choir, with a skilled director, as a teenager. It was a gorgeous piece of music (a Haydn mass), with a full orchestra, and it felt euphoric to be a part of it. The sound around me was glorious, to the point where I could no longer hear my own voice as separate from the other singers. Other times have been playing piano as part of a well-rehearsed trio (with a violinist and cellist) as an adult, performing an amazing Mendelssohn trio, and a few times more recently, playing in rock bands as a drummer.

Being a drummer is different from my previous musical experiences in a number of ways. Singing in a choir, you are one of many voices, and you are trying to blend in – if your voice sticks out too much, you’re doing it wrong. A choir is about taking a group of individual voices and turning them into one amazing voice (or at least one per section – sopranos, altos, tenors, bass).

Playing piano in a small chamber group is somewhat closer to the drumming experience – while the three instruments often have different parts that weave in and out of each other, or play harmony together, the piano is the instrument in a trio that keeps everybody together. Piano is the foundation of the group, holding the tempo steady and helping create the changes in dynamics and phrasing, supporting the group as a whole.

This is how I think of drumming when it’s done well, and what I aspire to. But drumming is also very loud! You are often responsible for starting or ending songs, and that can be a frightening responsibility. If you do something wrong, everyone hears it. But the band also needs you – when it can be difficult to hear every other instrument on stage during a live show, chances are everyone can still hear the drums.

Photo by Diane Kilmer

For that reason, it’s even more important that I am fully present while I play, and mindful of what I’m doing as well as the entire group’s sound. When this happens, I feel one with the drums, one with the band, one with the music.


Do you remember?

When I was 12, I faced the yearly ordeal of the piano recital. I loved piano lessons, and even practicing (most of the time). But there was one thing about piano recitals I always dreaded: memorization.

It was an early Beethoven sonata, five pages long, with the first section (two pages) repeating before you play the last three pages. During the recital, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to begin the part after the repeat. I was stuck in an endless loop of repeats, with no idea how to escape. I remember the sheer panic as I struggled to figure out how to conclude the song. I’m not sure how I did it – something clumsy, I’m sure – but I did finally end the sonata.

Later, I much preferred playing in chamber music groups and accompanying solo instruments or singers, for many reasons – one of the prime benefits being that nobody expected you to play without the music in front of you.

I had a great piano teacher who taught me music theory and sight reading. To this day, I can usually decipher piano music without too many errors if it’s set in front of me. But I always struggled with memorization, and I never learned how to play by ear or improvise. I’ve barely tried; the few feeble attempts I made on the piano were enough to dissuade me.

When I started learning to play the drums, I knew that I didn’t want to look at music, and I wanted to learn both picking up songs by ear and improvising. Of course, it seemed like drums would be easier to approach that way, since I wouldn’t have to worry about pesky wrong notes, keys, and chords – just rhythm.

Here’s basic drum music

At the beginning, when my drum vocabulary was very limited, I had my talented teacher Will Kemperman help me learn songs by showing me what to do. It really helped to watch him play. Listening to songs wasn’t enough – my ears could not pick out how those sounds were being made. What’s the bass drum doing? Which tom is the drummer playing? How do you “stick” that pattern (which hand starts, how do you recreate those accented beats, that exact rhythm)?

After a few years of playing, my vocabulary increased. I learned more rhythm patterns and drum fills (fancy drum parts that mark the end of a phrase or section). I began to understand how most sticking works (e.g. the downbeat/strongest beat is usually played on the right hand), and I got a little better about translating what I was hearing into what my hands and feet did on the kit. I also learned that I can pick out drum parts better if I listened to music in the car. Sometimes it helps me to find a good drum cover (on YouTube or Drumeo) so I can watch what a drummer might do to make those sounds. Looking at your average live band video from the original band is not usually helpful. They don’t show the drummer much,  or it’s shot from angles where you can’t see clearly what the drummer is doing. Of course, YouTube drum covers are inconsistent – you have to find ones that are good quality, that you can follow easily, and the drummer plays at least within reach of your skill level.

This month, as I said in last week’s blog, I’m playing with three different bands. The amount of music for all three bands totals 3 ½ hours. My goal is to practice every day. Ideally, I’d want to play all the songs each time I practice, but 3 ½ hours each day is unrealistic. Most days I try to make 1-3 hours available, and I usually play about two. Some days I don’t have time at all (like the three nights I’m in rehearsal, but I guess that counts as practice too).

When I already know the song from playing it with a band previously, reviewing it once or twice is sufficient, if it’s already in pretty good shape. However, I do need to revisit all the songs regularly, especially to remember how to start the song – drummers often have to literally “count the band in” to get everyone started together at the right tempo. Sometimes we also have endings that are different from the recordings. For songs that “fade out” on the radio, we come up with a definite ending that I have to replicate in practice.

For songs I don’t know, there’s only one way to memorize: repetition. I don’t use sheet music or visual notes. Even if I came up with a way to notate what I’m doing on drums that made sense, I can’t look at music while I’m playing – I have to watch what I’m doing. I also need to watch the other band members. I have to memorize by the sound, which uses an entirely different part of my brain than any other kind of memorization, combined with the physical movements I need to do with my hands and feet. (On top of that, I’m singing backup in a few songs, so I have to know the lyrics and timing for those as well as remembering to turn my head toward the mic.)

When I learn a new song, even if it’s familiar from years of hearing it on the radio (which helps), I have to listen to it repeatedly, both passively (while driving, working) and also actively – really paying attention to what the drums are doing. It’s great when I hear patterns and fills that I know already. But sometimes, because of my limited experience, I’m starting from scratch.

When I first start to practice it, I try to get the overall feel of the song – what’s the basic “groove” (beat pattern)? What parts of the song don’t use that groove? Maybe the chorus and verse are different, or something new happens during the “bridge.” Once I’ve identified the basic beat, I play along with the song a few times, making note of where there are deviations. That helps me figure out the basic structure of the song. Many pop songs are predictable – there’s a verse, sometimes two, before the first chorus. The chorus repeats between the verses, maybe twice or more at the end. There may be a “bridge,” a unique passage in the song that leads from the verse to the chorus. There can be one (or more) instrumental solo sections. Most rock or pop songs are variations on that structure. I spend a lot of time learning the intro and outro, as the drums may have to get the band into (or out of) the song together, so if I mess that up, it would throw everybody off. That would not be a good start (or finish) to the song!

In order to internalize an entirely new song, I’ll play it 3-5 times in a row the first several days. I’ll stop and start also, spending extra time on one section (such as the intro), especially if there’s an unusual fill, stop or change. I often have to count out the beats or phrases between one section and another, and/or listen for consistent musical cues like chord changes, lyrics or guitar/bass phrases that signal a particular part I’m trying to remember. I’m careful not to count solely on one cue (like a guitar riff) that might be hard to hear during live performance.

The introduction of one new song can suck up the bulk of my practice time on that day. I also need to repeat the song a few times the next practice session to be sure that what I worked on before has stuck. At times it feels like if I try to cram one more song into my brain, others will start falling out!

Oddly, the early learning phase can be the most enjoyable. It can take several days or even weeks to memorize a song. But I like the challenge, and even though I may struggle with getting a section “down,” once I do, it’s very rewarding!

Once I really have it “down,” the song suddenly feels short to me. During the figuring out/memorizing process, a 4-minute song can feel like it lasts a half an hour, and it seems that I’ll never memorize it. Then suddenly it’s like a switch flips in my brain, and the song seems short. Even then, more repetition is crucial for the song to enter the realm of muscle memory; so if my brain shuts off during performance, my arms and legs remember what to do.

That doesn’t mean I’m finished. Once I get the “gist” of the song – I know how to start and stop, and have the structure down – then I have to fine tune it. That drum fill I was faking my way through, approximating the timing but not the correct sound, needs to be dissected. When I can’t play the way the drummer does on the recording, with my experiential and physical limitations, I have to figure out how to make it sound as much like the recording as I can while being able to play it consistently. I prefer to nail down something that fits the timing, and that I can count on  to play consistently well. The risk of playing something more technically complicated is that I might screw up during performance, potentially tripping up both myself and my bandmates.

My ultimate goal when I’m drumming for a band is to support the band. I want to help keep the group together, at the best tempo for us, and to feed energy into the group by my best efforts. I try to listen as well as I can while I’m playing, and hold my own to keep the beat steady. I work to be as consistent as I can. I’ve been lucky to have very patient and encouraging bandmates during my learning process these last few years.

Playing drums has taught me that I can learn music by ear, and though it may be a longer, more difficult process, in the end I feel that I know the music much better than pieces I’ve learned on piano just reading the music. Memorizing the music makes it a part of me.


A Different Drummer

As some of you may know, I took up the drums after I turned 50. You can read about it here. It was certainly not a typical hobby for a middle-aged female empty nester to take up. And it was vastly different from anything I had ever tried before.

By nature an introvert, it now seems very odd to me that I chose an instrument that was so very loud! But of course when I first started, I did not expect to be playing in public. Ever. It was just something fun to do on my own, playing along with music in the house.

I started learning from a drum teacher, and after conquering the basic rock drum beats, I’d just put my vast iTunes library on shuffle and play along with whatever popped up. My taste in music is pretty varied, so some days I’d find myself playing along with songs by Janet or Michael Jackson, then the Clash, then some Culture Club, followed by a little Motown or the Monkees. It felt good — drumming is definitely a physical workout, and it gets your endorphins flowing, for sure. It’s also an incredible release for built-up tension and anger! Each day of practicing would be a fun surprise, as I’d try to figure out how to make beats that would work with U2, or Melissa Etheridge, or Bruce Springsteen, even when I still had a very limited drumming vocabulary.

When I did finally venture out to play with other people, I found comfort in being at the back of the band, behind the kit.

When fellow drummer Jacques (now my husband of one month!) first saw me at Rock Camp for Dads, he said that it looked like I was “hiding behind the kit.” Looking back, it does feel that way.

What I didn’t realize then was what an important role the drummer plays, and how that would force me out of my shell. While I have never really wanted to call attention to myself, playing solos and the like, drums are not quiet. If you make a mistake, everybody hears it. And drummers are responsible for setting tempos and starting everyone together (most of the time), as well as frequently helping to signal changes and getting everyone finishing together.

My first public gig at Rock Camp for Dads (which welcomes non-dads also!) was pretty terrifying. I suddenly realized that my ability (or lack thereof) to start everyone at a good tempo, holding my ground and remaining steady, plus keeping my energy up without racing away with it, were vital to the whole group. As good as you might think you are when you’re playing along to a recording in your basement, the real test is whether you can not only be part of, but to some degree lead, the group.

Photo by Laurie Etchen

It’s a very different experience when you’re just practicing. When you listen to a recording, they’ve set the tempo for you, and you’re mostly following it (or trying to stay right on it). If you were to follow a band when playing with real live musicians (rather than lead), you’d always be behind them, letting someone (the strongest or loudest player, perhaps) lead, or risking everyone slowing down as they listen for your beat while you are trying to follow. You have to have that beat in your head, in your body, and keep it as rock solid as you can no matter what everyone else is doing.

Sometimes you can feel members of the band pushing or pulling against that beat, but you have to stay the course, even while you listen to what everyone is doing. It’s not easy — you can be pulled in one direction without even realizing it’s happening. Or your own excitement or nerves can cause you to inadvertently speed up or even start a song too fast.

One of the other challenges is learning how to play different styles of music. Even just within the general “rock” category (in the broadest sense), there are many sub-categories and genres of music to choose from, plus different decades and different drummers with widely varying styles.

During the past few years participating in great month-long camps at Rock Camp for Dads I’ve tried playing a wide variety of styles of music, including the Kinks, Bob Seger, the Bee Gees, Joe Cocker, Billy Joel, Steve Miller Band, Devo, Abba, Blondie, the Cars and many more! Here’s a video of the Joe Cocker tribute band I played with in February, and the Billy Joel tribute band I played with in March.

Photo by Mark Walentiny

This month will prove to be one of the busiest in terms of drumming that I’ve had yet. I’m playing in a Steely Dan tribute camp at Rock Camp for Dads, which will be very challenging drumming, while also doing some backup singing. We’ll have a gig on June 30th.

I’m also practicing with two other bands. Lovercraft is a band that plays a fun, eclectic mix of music with an emphasis on danceable tunes — funk, R&B/Soul and some rock/pop music, ranging from the late ’60s through the last decade. It’s a band with members who can play a few different instruments (including saxophone and trombone!), and they switch off on lead singing. Our set includes Sam & Dave, Har Mar Superstar, Kendra Morris, Mandrill and Bill Withers. We’ll be playing for a house party on July 1st.

I’m also playing with Atomic Beat. We play mostly ’80s rock and pop songs, including Blondie, The Cars, Simple Minds, The Sweet and Tears for Fears. I also do some backup singing with this band. We have a gig coming up on July 6th.

Photo by Todd Hoffman

This month I’m going to talk about my process for learning new material, rehearsal challenges and the different types of music I’ll be working on. I’m also going to look back at other musical adventures I’ve had (mostly in the classical realm) and the differences and similarities between them.

I’d love to hear about your musical challenges and adventures!


My year of living creatively

It’s been a year since I decided to try a new creative endeavor every month and blog about it. Overall, it’s been quite an adventure! Here’s what I did (you can click on any one of these to see one of the blogs that month; easier than scrolling through “older posts” from the most recent page!):

Photo by Jesse Miller / Rock Camp for Dads

  1. Backup singing in a rock band
  2. Baking
  3. Paper collage
  4. Calligraphy
  5. Cooking with unfamiliar ingredients
  6. Belly dancing
  7. Cooking soup
  8. Kirigami – the Japanese art of paper cutting
  9. Creating mandalas and mosaics
  10. Poetry writing
  11. Water color painting

Watercolor painting month

You may notice that these do not add up to twelve (as in months in a year). That’s because I did take one month off when I was really busy with other things.

Looking back on the entire year, I have learned a number of things about myself:

Collage is wonderfully messy and imprecise

  1. I like creative activities where precision is not necessarily required to make a satisfying product.
  2. The most enjoyable activities for me are those that I can primarily work on alone, without worrying about the potential (or perceived) judgement of others.
  3. Creative activities that I can work on and add to over time are a plus; I enjoy seeing a project transform and grow.
  4. Creative activities with results I can eat = win/win!

I would definitely enjoy doing more visual arts such as paper collage, mosaic and painting, or some combination of the three.

While I do like movement and music, I don’t necessarily want to feel obliged to perform; attention from an audience is not what’s most enjoyable to me about dance or creating music.

I have already begun using what I’ve learned about cooking and baking on a weekly if not daily basis – it’s certainly improved my lifestyle!

I wish I’d learned to cook years ago

There were months when it felt like it was too short a time to be fully engaged or to progress sufficiently in one activity. Sometimes I felt like I was moving way too quickly from one thing to another, especially while I had other obligations and goals to complete that month. Most of the time I am working three or more part-time jobs, such as teaching/writing/editing/coaching gigs, on top of my usual creative activities and recreational pursuits. Adding more on top of that was sometimes too much.

For the next year, I will take a different approach. I still want to blog about creativity, what I’m learning, and how important it is in my life. I want to share how vital I think creativity is for most of us, whether we fully realize it or not, and to keep discovering new things as well as pursuing improvement in other activities I’ve already begun to explore. Each month I will talk about whatever aspect of creativity I worked on or thought the most about, and I will organize the discussion around a theme or a particular creative pursuit.

I hope you will join me!

Process Creates Product

Things I’m learning about watercolor painting:

— It’s all about the process
— You need to plan ahead
— You can always use more water
— Layer, layer, layer
— It’s only done when you decide you’re done

Clearly one month is woefully insufficient to make much headway in the very complicated art and skill required for watercolor painting. I wish that I’d had more time to devote to practice during this very busy month. But overall, it was really fun, and I plan to return to it, possibly to combine with my other endeavors such as collage making. It would also help me to devote more time to drawing skills.

This week I tried a couple of simple exercises, one of which was a basic tutorial on painting leaves recommended by my daughter. I appreciated the simple instructions, and the real-time video that I could easily follow. The creator of the tutorial, Cate Sheffer, spent time discussing the materials (such as brushes) she used, and why she did things the way that she did. She spent some time on why it’s good to leave negative space (white, unpainted parts of the paper), and how that could suggest the vein of the leaf, or light, or imperfections in the leaf.

The leaves on the left were created using my pan paint set (Windsor & Newton Cotman paints), and ones on the right were made with tube paints (Artist’s Loft from Michael’s).

I have been using a syringe like this (not the needle kind; I’ve used these for giving cats medicine!) to add a little water to the paint in the palette when needed. It’s easy to control the amount you add.

Then I tried to paint some seashells, partly inspired by my shower curtain, which I really like (and which was clearly based on watercolor painting)!

sea shell shower curtain

I have lots of seashells to use for models, but it was a challenge for me to draw them first with light pencil, and also to create any sense of three dimensions while painting. For these shells I used my tube paints.

One trick I picked up from Cate Sheffer’s leaf video was to use a little corner of paper towel to suck up a little paint/water if you’ve got a pool of paint or water and don’t want to leave a mark.

My daughter reminded me that to create a 3-D effect, it helps to imagine a source of light, and to use lighter colors to show that (darker layers of color for shadow).

A lot of the charm of watercolor painting is in its power to suggest, rather than always specifically delineate. While some painters in this medium use incredible detail and realism in their work, many others employ a looser, more suggestive style (like the cat shapes in last week’s blog), allowing the viewer to participate in the painting in a way, as the eye fills in details or the brain interprets the shape without a lot of specifics provided. That is something I would really like to learn. While I can certainly admire and appreciate art that is extremely skilled and detailed, my own preference is for art that suggests more than it specifies. I prefer abstraction, such as in the work of early American artist Arthur Dove, or in Japanese artist Sesshu Toyo.

Clouds and Water by Arthur Dove, 1930

Landscape attributed to Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506)

These paintings suggest through shape and color or through monochromatic brushstrokes rather than delineate, allowing the viewer’s mind to enter the work and imagine what’s not represented, an experience which I personally prefer to more realistic works. It takes a different kind of skill to suggest with only a few brushstrokes, in an effective way that viewers see what’s implied even though it’s not actually clearly represented.

What may have surprised me the most about trying out watercolor is how you can work on a painting over a long period of time. I thought that was more the process with paints such as oils (which I know nothing about), and that once you put down watercolor, that’s the end of it. But adding water allows you to manipulate lines and colors to a certain degree (especially before the paint is too dry), AND you can always add layers of color after the painting is dry, as my daughter kept reminding me, going from light to dark.

I hope you all find fun and interesting ways to explore your creativity! Next week I’ll be looking back on my year of living creatively . . .


Climbing Mt. Fuji

When I was in my twenties, I traveled to Japan. During my visit, I was taken on an outing to climb Mt. Fuji. At midnight. The idea was to climb the mountain all night and arrive at the summit at sunrise. It’s not a steep mountain (as mountains go), and in the middle of summer there is no snow. It’s made of volcanic rock. You don’t need equipment to climb it, and tons of people do it all the time, from young kids to old ladies. There’s a clear path, a zig zag route so it’s not super steep to walk. You begin about halfway up the mountain, at the “Fifth Station,” which is the last place cars and buses can access. However, it’s still daunting, and it takes several hours.

When I first saw Mt. Fuji from a distance, before the climbing outing, I couldn’t imagine climbing to the top. I still had trouble imagining it during most of the trek upwards, with large groups of people ahead and behind me snaking their way towards the top. But people kept urging each other on, “Gambatte,” they would say. “Keep it up,” or “Do your best.” I almost couldn’t believe it when I finally made it to the top just as the sun was coming up.

When I first began painting, my daughter Julianne steered me to a Facebook group of watercolor enthusiasts, some beginners, but some very experienced and skilled. To be honest, it was pretty intimidating. They shared information about materials and techniques, some of which I’d never heard of. They posted their work, looking for encouragement and feedback.

Some of the paintings were truly stunning. I had no idea how they created such beauties, especially after my first attempts at trying to learn how to paint. It was hard to imagine getting to a point where I’d be able to paint anything nearly that skillfully, unless I practiced every day for a couple of decades.

You may see where I’m going with this comparison. You may have heard the Chinese proverb (ascribed to Laozi/formerly transcribed as Lao Tzu): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

No matter how difficult or how long the journey, you begin the same way you would a short, easy journey – with that single step – and if you just keep going long enough, step after step, you will get there.

Some of my steps this week were easier than others. My daughter recommended a tutorial to get me painting looser, more quickly, using more water. This video showed a quick technique for making the shapes of cats. The artist filled in details later with a fine pen, after the paint dried. Being a long time cat owner, I’m very familiar with the shapes of cats! So I tried it.

The goal was not to make a realistic animal, but to capture a  silhouette rapidly, possibly adding more color or outline if desired. I tried a few different cat poses as quickly as I could, using different colors and different levels of paint and water saturation.

It was fun! Some turned out more cat-like than others. Some resembled maybe a chinchilla, or a guinea pig with a tail. I enjoyed making cat blobs with paint, loosely and quickly, and did not feel they’d be improved by adding any detail.

watercolor paintings of cat shapes

But then I was frustrated by roses. My daughter also sent me a tutorial on how to paint some loosey-goosey roses, which she thought I might find easier than the trees I painted the previous week. But they were not. I couldn’t make them look right, and I was sure I was missing something.

watercolor paintings of roses

Despite trying both tube paints and the very cute new mini palette of good quality Winsor & Newton paints I’d ordered online

(very inexpensive! And so portable), I just wasn’t getting it.

So I made a few more cats, another tree, and put some dots for stars on a galaxy I’d worked on since my first week doing watercolor painting.

Then I thought I’d try something different. Mr. Shibasaki, who made the great tree YouTube video from last week, had another tutorial Julianne recommended, to paint a very vivid, colorful, almost impressionistic landscape of Mt. Fuji.

Watching the video, I couldn’t imagine being able to paint that well. He’s clearly very talented as well as experienced, and when he paints he makes it look effortless. It was a complicated painting, with lots of bold colors for the sky, water, land, and the mountain itself, which he’d chosen blue to represent. It’s a fun video to watch, even if you don’t paint, just to see the process. He uses colors you wouldn’t expect for the water (yellow!), the sky (purple!), and mixes them in interesting ways. It’s not a realistic painting, but very evocative.

At the start, I thought I’d try to follow along with his video quickly, without thinking much about each step or worrying how it looked. He started with a pencil sketch of the horizon, waterline and mountain. Because he’d already mixed his paints, and there was editing in the video, there was no way to keep up. I did end up stopping the video and going back while painting. Wanting to rush through it was probably a mistake! I hadn’t prepped the paper, so it buckled a bit with the wetness of the paint, and I didn’t always let parts dry before moving to the next step, as I should have.

For one area of the water, he used torn strips of masking tape to preserve the lighter color underneath to indicate the whitecaps of waves, lifting them after applying a dark blue over the area. When I tried it, some of the paper tore as I lifted the masking tape away. Painters on the Facebook group had talked about using masking fluid, which creates the same type of effect, but I didn’t have any.

By the time I was done, I didn’t like the picture. It looked too flat, there wasn’t enough depth and dimension of color, and I’d lost control of the paint in many areas of the picture.

watercolor painting of Mt. Fuji

Before I even finished this attempt, I’d already made up my mind to try again and do it more carefully a second time. Because I noticed that Mr. Shibasaki’s paint sometimes dripped down, I could tell he wasn’t painting on a flat surface, so I decided I’d use the feature of my art desk that would allow me to paint at an angle.

I prepped a sheet of 300 lb. paper by wetting it on both sides and taping it down on a board to stretch as it dried, to reduce later buckling. Once it was dry, I took my time watching parts of the video over, and I took more care with mixing the paints as well as choosing brushes for each part of the painting. I also let more time pass to dry sections of the painting before adding an outline or highlighting the color.

Overall, I was pleased with my efforts and learned a little better how he was creating some of the effects. I had to learn not to fill every area of the paper with so much color, and to let colors mix and blend in interesting ways.

With masking tape on, before painting over it

With masking tape on, after painting over it










When I used the masking tape to form waves, I was more slow and cautious when removing it.

After the masking tape is removed

I also took care to blend hard edges I didn’t like by brushing over with a little water, the way my daughter had shown me when creating the galaxies.

One decision I made was to change the color of Mt. Fuji. I didn’t like seeing it blue in his painting. I’ve looked at many paintings and prints of Mt. Fuji over the years, and I’d also seen the real thing, both from a distance and up close. In my mind it mostly remains the dark, brownish red of volcanic rock that you see in the height of summer. So that’s the color I tried to recreate.

watercolor painting of Mt. Fuji

The picture is definitely impressionistic rather than realistic, and the colors are more creative than representational, but I enjoyed making it, and the result is pleasing to my eye! I learned a lot while working on it. I would be interested in trying again, perhaps a different type of landscape or different view of Mt. Fuji.

The journey to climb Mt. Fuji began with a single step, and my quest to paint it began with a single stroke of the brush!


The Trouble with Trees

Trees are all around us (thank goodness, since they create oxygen!) and we see them every day. But do we really look at them? When I’ve tried to draw or paint a tree, though most likely because I’m not trained or experienced in creating representational art, I’m finding that they don’t turn out as I intended.

Over the past week I’ve been trying my hand at painting trees, partly inspired by the YouTube video (Watercolors by Shibasaki) that my daughter had recommended to me last week.

Mr. Shibasaki makes it look SO easy in his video! Some of my attempts were more of an effort to look like his, while others did not really use his video as a source, as I got a little frustrated trying to recreate what he painted.

My first couple of trees did not use watercolors to their best, as I was still getting the hang of trying to use more water with the paints, and at first I was not experimenting with layering different colors as my daughter had instructed me in last week’s painting lesson. I was trying to create the lighter colored leaves in one area to indicate where the light source was coming from, and I made an attempt at shading on one tree trunk. I believe I painted the one on the right first.

The colors here were dark, as the paint was too thick (I used little water), and my brush was fairly dry. The paper I used was dry. I did not attempt any kind of background, but just focused on the tree. I sketched the overall shape of the tree lightly with pencil first, as the artist in the video had done.

Feeling frustrated with the inexpensive tube watercolors I’d been using, I tried another tree using a pan of dry watercolor paints I’d gotten for my daughter years ago.

pan of watercolor paints

Some of the colors in this pan were very pleasing to my eye, and I tried a little color mixing and using a bit more water. I was not entirely happy with my brushes, however. I experimented with a wetter brush in some places, and drier in others. Some of the brush effects for the leaves turned out the way I wanted them to. I also worked more with trying to add texture to the tree trunk, though the shape came out pretty weird looking.

When I returned to the tube watercolor paints, I thought I’d try a wetter surface to create some background color hinting at sky, grass, and sun. I used a lot more water overall. I did a little color layering for the leaves. My paper wasn’t the super good kind (I’m learning why 300 or 400 lb. is far superior to 140 lb.), so it sometimes buckles with the water/watery paint, especially if you don’t wet and stretch the paper first. The result was that color pooled in some areas.

After that I tried a couple more trees without worrying about background. Painting the first one (with tube paints), I focused on layering colors more.

I was still not happy with my brushes, as I wasn’t getting the shapes I wanted when applying the brush to paper. So I went and bought a couple of better brushes, using the type my daughter had used (Princeton, including one round brush) for examples of what to get.

Wanting to make a more vertical tree, I turned the paper for my second attempt using the pan paints. Mixing colors a little more boldly this time, I tried to do more layers. This process requires patience, as you have to wait some time for the paint to dry before you can effectively apply another layer. (Though I have heard some people use hair dryers to hurry the process!)

My most recent attempt was on a piece of the 140 lb. paper that I first wet on both sides, then taped down to stretch while wet, to prevent some of the paper buckling when painting. I used the tube paints once again, and also re-watched the video on YouTube.

Watching the YouTube video again, I realized that I hadn’t paid enough attention to how the artist was applying the brush, sometimes using sideways strokes. I also noticed that he had recommended blending the bright green that used for the light leaves with a brown paint to make the trunk, and then using a cool color (adding some blue perhaps) to the color used for the trunk for the shading on the dark side of the tree. So I think I was more successful in doing the shading on the trunk this time, though I am still frustrated with not being able to make more “sketchy” looking leaves the way he does in the video. I’ll keep experimenting with this. I’m also trying to let myself add more layers of color for the leaves. Since I haven’t succeeded in making this tree’s leaves look “sketchy,” I’ve decided to embrace its fullness instead! Mr. Shibasaki used three different colors for his leaves; I tried at least five different shades of mixed greens for mine.

I’m trying to take more time with mixing colors and water, trying out the colors on a sample paper before using them, and not just settling for the first combination I come up with, as well as using different sizes and shapes of brushes within each painting. Watercolors seem to be all about patience, and layers, and not just being done with your work quickly, no matter what some of the books I’ve looked at say about “capturing the moment” in a rapidly created painting.

Next week I’ll try out another source of inspiration . . . any suggestions?


In a Galaxy Far, Far Away . . .

When I was a kid, I once got one of those paint by number kits. It was a kitten. Since I didn’t have a real kitten, it seemed pretty special. It was not difficult to paint, following the directions, and the final result looked good (or so I thought at the tender age of 8 or 10 years old). But it didn’t feel like a creative activity, that’s for certain. I was just following directions.

Since then I have rarely dabbled in painting, trying acrylics on rare occasions. This month I’m experimenting with watercolor painting, primarily because I know a few people who are enthusiastic watercolorists. One of them is my daughter Julianne, and though I may be a bit biased, I think she has a lot of skill and talent in this medium.

This is a painting Julianne made of the Dolomites in Italy (from a photograph reference)

She very kindly agreed to come over and help me out with some watercolor basics.

She showed me some of the materials she works with.

Watercolors come in either trays (above), or in tubes, but the key is, you use a lot of water. Because you’re using so much water, you need heavy paper (140 lb. or more, and Julianne recommends “cold press”) that can withstand the moisture, like this:

It’s also best to tape the paper down to a hard surface in case of buckling, and it also creates a nice hard edge when you remove the tape.

Julianne described how the ratio of paint color to water changes the value of the color you’re trying to create. She assigned me a task to grade from light to darker color value, which was a lot harder than you might think! A little color goes a long way, and the paint also looks darker in your palette when mixing than it shows up on the paper, especially after it dries. A couple of my stages really needed to be swapped to make the gradation make sense.

The next assignment was to create a galaxy, similar to those cool pictures like this from the Hubble Telescope.

It was surprising how long it took to build up the layers of color. You begin by brushing plain water on the part of the paper where you want to apply paint. You start with the lighter colors and layer over with darker colors as you go, blurring hard edges with water gently, and then waiting for the paint to dry before doing the next layer. It’s less like applying paints (as you would with acrylics) then pushing colors around within the watery surface of the paper. We worked on this for a long time.

I sometimes had to spend a lot of time tamping down (again, with water) some of the overly vivid colors I’d laid down too early in the process. I hadn’t realized just how malleable water color paints are. My impression of watercolor was that you just laid down the colors, and that was it; you were stuck with what was there. Surprisingly, you can actually move and change a lot of the pigment already on the paper by applying more water and pushing color around with your brush. So, while sometimes it feels like what’s happening with the color on the paper is vastly out of your control, much of it IS in your control; it just takes a lot of practice (and perhaps instruction) with techniques to master it.

Julianne pointed out that I had selected too many different colors to play with, making the overall picture seem less cohesive. I could see what she meant. When we got towards the end of developing the lighter colored layers, we began to create pockets of deeper hues, like black (created usually by mixing a few darker colors together rather than using pure black) which then appear like they are deeper in space.

Julianne has a lot of experience working on these types of galaxy paintings, so hers turned out to look pretty amazing:

She has a lot of patience with developing the layers.

After the entire pictures were dry, we splattered on a little white acrylic paint for stars (the one on the right is after I removed the border tape):

I have started working on some of the“homework” I was assigned by Julianne. One is to follow a couple of YouTube videos — Watercolors by Shibasaki — by an amazing Japanese artist (translation provided!) who provides “how to” lessons step by step.

I experimented with the tree  he makes in the above link a few times, but Julianne pointed out that I was still treating the watercolors more like acrylics, applying paint in too dark hues rather than working more with water washes, layering, and letting the water do more of the work. I will keep going with these assignments, especially now that I’ve got this amazing new table for an art area I created in my house.

Have a great time doing whatever art engrosses and enthralls you! I know I’m started to get a little obsessed. . .