Sep 9, 2017

Cowichan Wood

Breath deeply.
Ahh … the smell of Autumn is in the air.
It’s only a couple of weeks away.

A couple of months ago I ordered a chord of firewood. It came from a family of loggers who harvest wood on their woodlot. They also have a contract to scavenge logging sites for fallen logs that don’t make the grade for building houses.

A chord should last the winter in our small cottage. We have electric baseboard heaters, but a wood fire is so much cheaper and better. We plan to turn off the heaters and use our wood fire totally this winter.

The wood was delivered on a July day; early for winter, but to season wood properly it needs to sit a few months drying in a woodpile.  Upon delivery, I had to walk the cut wood, piece by piece, up our slope to the open woodshed. There, I stacked it.

There’s a special way to stack a chord of firewood. A chord is 4 feet x 4 feet x 8 feet;
it should be stacked in rows with a space between so the wood can dry successfully. Dry, seasoned, firewood is key to a good fire.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book about harvesting, drying and stacking firewood. “Norwegian Wood” was a best seller a couple of years ago, and it poetically explains the art of managing wood, almost as a vocation or a meditation.

A best seller about wood? There are lots of households around the world that heat with wood, and today with electricity rates being so expensive, some people are looking for alternative ways to heat. A good book about wood is timely. For centuries man’s main source of heat and cooked food has been the wood stove or fireplace. Electricity is recent, so is natural gas. Harvesting, stacking, drying and burning wood is more natural for which we, in today’s world, give credit.

“Norwegian Wood” is written by a Norwegian woodsman/author who aptly marketed his book with the name of one of the Beatles’ songs. Why not? He couldn’t have done it legitimately as a Swede, a Dane or a Canadian.

The book is an excellent source of vital information about firewood, including; the wood (species of trees), tools (axes, saws, chainsaws etc.), stacking, drying, wood stoves, fireplaces, warmth, cozyness, including a few, interesting characters.

Most of our new shipment of wood is Coastal Douglas Fir, a Western, North America species that used to be plentiful on Vancouver Island. Old growth has now been logged to almost extinction. Perhaps I should feel sad about them logging such a resource.  However, I’m sure it will keep us warm next winter.

Now, my sharp axe comes into play as I chop kindling and hack the wood down to a good size for our fireplace.  There are great meditative qualities of staring at a fire in a fireplace with your feet up, relaxing.

“There is no place more delightful than one's own fireplace.” - Marcus T. Cicero

“Though you live near a forest, do not waste firewood.” - Chinese Proverb

“Chop your own firewood and it will warm you twice.” - African Proverb

“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” Zen Proverb

“Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.” - Francis Bacon


Jun 17, 2017

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry died earlier this year. He was 90.

He was known as the King of Rock and Roll and he inspired so many singers, bands and recording artists of his day. And today, many artists recognize him as an inspirational legend. He had the insight to mix rhythm and blues with a harder rock beat, thus inventing rock and roll.

I first heard of Chuck Berry when the Beatles recorded a couple of his songs; “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music.” Then came his tour of England. This was in 1964 and I was 15. None of my friends knew about him, but I wanted to see this revered living legend. So I took myself to the theatre.

Chuck was the headliner, with the warm-up act being the Animals. The Animals were a new group, and as they played through their catalogue of songs, they stopped to introduce their latest recording,  "House of the Rising Sun."

Wow. This song became such a huge, world-wide hit. I felt privileged to be a part of an audience hearing this song for the first time.

Then came Chuck. His hit at the time was, ”No Particular Place to Go,” a great song that bounced along with beat, melody and humour.

"Riding along in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel."

He jumped on stage and out came a plethora of memorable songs that I knew;
“Johnny B Good,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybelline,” “Rock and Roll Music” and many more. And here he bounced around doing his duck walk across the stage and casting his wide-eyed stare at individual audience members.

Then came his latest hit, "No Particular Place to Go.” And he looked at me. I had a good seat, mid-theatre and I had residual stage lights shinning on me. I guess I was an easy target. He stared at me eye-to-eye, for the longest time, through his hit song and through a couple more, until he found someone else to stare at.

I felt good and satisfied at witnessing a memorable show. I even lined up back stage to get Chuck’s autograph. This, I treasure in my old autograph book.

Through the years, this legendary figure has become even more solidified in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Recently, I was watching a YouTube video of Chuck giving Keith Richards hell for not playing his guitar riff correctly. In a later video, Keith talks about the day Chuck socked him in the eye for picking up his guitar and playing it.

The legend lives on.  Thank you, Chuck Berry.

May 20, 2017

Just Moved In

So it’s stopped raining and the sunbeams are shining through the clouds like Jacob’s Ladder. If I peak through the trees I can glimpse the waters of the bay, as long as I mentally block the view of the small, housing estate meandering down the slope from our ridge. 

Pine trees and spruce trees tower over our cottage and gently wave in the breeze, while the nearby mountains on Salt Spring Island lift into the low clouds. It’s a lovely vista. Water surrounds, but to really see it we need to walk or drive down the hill into town. There fishing boats, houseboats, gift stores, restaurants and a pub built out upon the wharf greet the visitor. There is a wonderful bakery filled with some of the most delicious, oven-baked bread I have ever tasted and a fish and chip shop to remind us of England. This is Cowichan Bay, or ‘Cow Bay’ as the locals call it.

Behind our property, on the top of the ridge, the lush, green, farm fields are teaming with large birds; Canada geese, ravens, Trumpeter swans, Seagulls, and the odd Bald Eagle watching intently as each finds food among the abundant, fresh scatterings. There are cows; black, white, brown, tan and others, and as many wineries and a cider brewery to excite the taste buds. We could ride our bikes to a couple of the wineries. One of my favourite wines is a deep, rich, ruby-red from the nearest winery sold by a Spanish owner who looks like a transplanted onion seller from Spain, complete with his tilted black beret. We went sketching among the rows of grapes there last year.

Cowichan Bay is country, ocean, mountains and fresh air. The bay itself is the outlet for the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers that stream from Cowichan Lake and the nearby mountains that surround the farm-rich Cowichan Valley. This Vancouver Island valley was so named by the native peoples as “Warm Land.” E. J. Hughes, one of the many local artists, once said, “I have painted in the Cowichan Valley for fifty years and it is the most beautiful place on earth.” It is also Canada’s only Maritime-Mediterranean climate, resulting in the mildest year round temperature in the country.

Mowing grass and chopping fire-wood is going to keep me busy and possibly fit, and one day we have plans to paint the outside of our cottage. We’ll outshine the neighbourhood yet. We have christened our little cottage “Hygge House.” Hygge, pronounced hoo-guh, is a Danish word meaning coziness, pleasure and peace. It seems there is always a word in another language to fit the bill.

I have always wanted a home by the sea, in the country, near the mountains. What could be better than to live in such a wonderful place along with our pet cat, art, good music, sail boats, a glass of red wine, a wood burning fireplace and love? And in our garden hummingbirds come to visit. As long as we don’t miss garbage day or forget to pay our taxes, we have found our little bit of heaven.

Apr 7, 2017

790 Bay Street

Take a walk by 790 Bay Street in Toronto and you’ll see why most people would never give it a second look. There's nothing distinctive about it, nothing to draw your interest, excitement or imagination. In fact, it's rather utilitarian and sad, nondescript, ordinary, featureless.

It's a mid-century modern-style building from the late 1950s, and it was built as the Canadian offices of the Continental Can Company. Then, it was sold and refurbished to make money from tenanting.

It's a drab, eleven-story building situated on a standard, street corner and there's nothing special about it. Not in architecture, styling, location or presence. Today, it's a simple medical building that exudes nothing in character, history, culture or elegance. It just is.

Yet, this building is a-part of Toronto's history and it is a major part of Canada's storytelling legacy. For this building housed the creative offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during the 1970s and ‘80s, until the new CBC Broadcast Centre was built on Front Street.

The CBC offices at 790 Bay Street became the nucleus of television production in Canada. Here, television drama was created, current affairs and documentary programs were innovated, television specials were instigated, and crews were sent out all over the world to bring back stories and footage from everywhere. It was here that the productions were edited and post-produced, ready for broadcast to the nation.

This building housed, not just production offices for writers, producers, directors and staff, but other floors where film camera units were ready for action, editing rooms were assembling shot footage, screening rooms, negative cutting rooms and sound editing rooms were in a huddle creating and finishing programming. There were camera maintenance departments, film evaluation rooms, scheduling offices and travel offices. Throughout the many floors the CBC rented in this office building, there was a total production facility, from script to screen.

This was hub of creative and artistic talent and anyone who was anyone, the Who's Who in Canadian production, walked these unassuming corridors.

And from 1971 to 1986 this building was the epicenter of my career.

Here, I learned how to be an assistant cameraman, a camera operator and a Director of Photography. Here, I learned to be an international cinematographer, sent around the globe, to return with stories within the many cans of film that I shot.

We would be sent to the jungles of the South Pacific, across the iron curtain into the heart of communist countries, across the oceans and continents to hunt out the most interesting of stories, from the wine-making vineyards of California’s Napa Valley to the high speed rail systems of Europe. And each story had it’s own drama, happy moments and sorrow, birth and death. We were sent everywhere across the USA and we explored and documented every inch of our own country of Canada, from sea, to sea to sea. It was a busy world and we were shipped off for months, weeks and days.

Everything that stemmed from 790 Bay Street, for me, was the greatest of education. The subjects were endless and the people I worked with and documented were fascinating.

Here I also learned the essence of drama cinematography, and I would build my resume of television series, TV drama and movies for television.

The building itself was filled with life. When I came home from an assignment, I would sit with the editors who became my friends. I might climb the stairs to the drama department to see what productions were in the works. Sometimes I would get a call from a friend who was producing documentaries or have a coffee with a scheduling clerk. Then, there were the wrap parties and the office Christmas parties, one on each floor. I had a blast at every one. Friendships were made and lost, we loved, we cried, we laughed, we created together. Where are they all now?

In 1985, I left the CBC to become a freelance Director of Photography, but a year later I was asked back to shoot a lawyer-based TV series.

Then, in 1986, I ended my CBC days and never looked back. I had learned what I could, and had traveled the world. It had been a charmed life of adventure, knowledge and creativity. Not long after, the CBC moved out of 790 Bay Street and into their new production facility on Front Street.

Today, nothing remains of the CBC’s involvement with 790 Bay Street except in the minds of the many people who worked and created there.

Much like the workings of a drama where sets are designed and erected to bring a story to life, then they are torn down when the production is finished, 790 Bay Street was discarded and cast away in the same way. It was of its time and nothing more.

It is now a medical building, helping bring wellness to thousands who remain unaware of the history it holds.

So take a walk by 790 Bay Street in Toronto and see a place that, for one shining moment, gave Canada and the world a touch of film magic.

Mar 17, 2017

Who Wrote Shakespeare

Recently I was asked to participate in a debate on the works of William Shakespeare, and who really wrote them.

Having read many articles and listened to many speeches, points-of view and videos on the subject, I felt that I could take either side in the argument. Also, over the years, I have attended at least half of all the plays of Shakespeare, some of them many times, and I know his sonnets and poetry well.

The affirmative side of the argument simply states that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote all the works, plays, stories, sonnets, poems, and any other writings attributed to him.

The counter argument speculates that because there is very little written down or known about Shakespeare, he could not have written these great works. It is stressed that he had very little schooling, didn’t travel, was a country bumpkin and just an actor, a thespian who lacked the culture, knowledge and education to have written the works. On the other hand, Christopher Marlow, a theatre writer and a contemporary of Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford, a well-educated and well-traveled writer, Sir Francis Bacon, a brilliant philosopher, writer, politician, thinker and futurist, and Ben Johnson, a well-respected playwright, among others, are cited as worthy scholars to have written the works of Shakespeare.

I decided to argue the affirmative; that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon indeed wrote all the writings attributed to him. The problem was, I only had four minutes to make my point. I did this by bringing the whole story down to earth as a simple story about a highly creative individual.

First let's see what we know of the life of Shakespeare.

He was born William Shaks-pere on April 23rd 1564 in Stratford upon Avon, England, the son of a merchant, a glover, a town alderman. It is assumed that he attended Stratford Grammar School, but no records remain. At the age of 18, he fell in love with his sweetheart Anne Hathaway; she was 25. They got married and had three children. Sometime later he left home to look for work in London. Not much more is known of William. Anything could have happened in the life of this young man.

Many years later we find him on the London stage, an actor, writer, producer, and theatre owner. At the age of 49 he returns to Stratford as a rich retiree. He dies in 1616 at the tender age of 52. 

And that is most of what is know of the life of William Shakespeare. His life remains mainly undocumented. A bit of an enigma.

My argument follows a creative life and embellishes moments that could quite easily have been lived by William. These moments are lived by most creative people, especially the ones who become the "exceptional ones", the ones we call ‘Genius.’

The debate begins.
Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare

He was born William Shaks-pere in 1564, in a small market town with no cinema, library, theatre, or cultural activities except for the odd traveling circus, theatre company, comedy show or wandering minstrel.

William was a creative soul, and a creative is filled with energy, curiosity and
a hunger to find his calling: Something where he can plow all his energies into creating something in a meaningful way.

I suggest that young William got caught up in the magic of a traveling theatre. He was bedazzled by the stories, the actors, the workings of the stage and the creativity of it all. I think young William saw the potential in something that excited him. So he later took off for London to join the theatre.

What followed were his lost years where not much is known. Anything could have happened in the life of this young man. So I will give you this scenario.

As a young boy he read lots of books and wrote many stories and poems. At school he read books, he participated in school plays, he acted out stories with his friends.
No wonder he was hooked on the theatre.

He went to London and studied to become an actor, changing his name to William Shakespeare. It sounded better for an actor, "Shake your spear."

He wouldn't be the only person to change his name. Archie Leitch changed his name to Cary Grant, Samuel Clements changed his name to Mark Twain, Lady Ga Ga is really Stefani Germanotta and of course Reggie Dwight became Elton John.

As an actor, William would hang around with the folks of the town. The good guys, the bad guys. He may even have known people from other countries, i.e. Italy, Denmark. He may have taken a trip to Italy or Denmark. We really don’t know. But who's to say he didn't? He may have been so taken with Italy that he decided to set many of his plays there. We just don’t know.

He was surrounded by creative people, actors, writers, directors, producers in London. He may have paid a tutor or a teacher, or even befriended a mentor to help him learn and fine tune his use of the English language. "A good teacher teaches you how to teach yourself." From here he would collaborate on writing plays for his theatre. As a creative artist he would be continually learning. The more he did, the more he learned, the better he got, and like all great artists he became a master at what he loved to do.

He didn't have to go to university, he was in the university or the school of life. He was surrounded by street life, culture and great characters. They were in every doorway, pub or within the tales of the great storytelling culture of his age.

Beethoven never went to university, nor did other highly creative genius
composers such as Mozart, writers like Charles Dickens, Robbie Burns or Mark Twain. Winston Churchill, who was a great writer, never went to university.

As a creative individual, William Shakespeare had an internal drive to be better and he was surrounded with great stories, from the street, from traveler’s, from friends, from hear-say and from his own imagination.

He wrote plays, he collaborated on plays, he acted, directed, produced and
was a partner in a theatre company. He was a very busy man for many years. Until one day, he was so burnt out that he decided he couldn't take it any more. He left everything behind in London and retired back to Stratford, to a quiet life; a very rich man. And he took back his real name of William Shaks-Pere

He died three years later at the age of 52. He had written 38 plays, 154 Sonnets -
and whatever else he wrote is gone; lost in time

Most writers rarely get good credit for their plays or movies. Can anyone remember the person who wrote Steven Spielberg's last movie? Or Alfred Hitchcock's writer? We remember Walt Disney, but how about the many writers who wrote his movies? It wasn't until ten years after Shakespeare's death that his theatre friends got together to publish some of his works. Because they thought he was so good.

No! Other people did not write Shakespeare - William Shake-Pere of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote Shakespeare.

There was a recent study undertaken by a university in the United States that compared the writings of Shakespeare on computer, to all the other people who were speculated to have written his plays.

The conclusion:  William Shakespeare wrote those plays. No one else came close to his style, class or substance.

The study is online. Go see it.

While I fully support the merit and affirmative side of this issue, if need be, I could quite easily argue the other side of the story. It is a mystery that needs to be explored with an open mind, fully knowing that in the end there may never be a definitive answer.

There is a great ignorance of creative artists among the ranks of the general public. Creatives are the misfits, the eccentrics, the troubled people of society. So-called normal people really don’t know how to slot them in the file system. They pass them off as being “different” while trying to ignore them. In many cases they are shunted around and rarely understood while they create their magic. In other cases they are the heads of highly successful companies that lead through innovation.

Most creative people would gladly do their work for nothing because they love what they do, and they usually do it well. This is why they are quite often short changed, bargained down, diminished, cheapened. If a creative artist does become popular and reaps the benefits by drawing in the money, he or she is hounded, degraded and made to feel that he or she doesn't deserve the wealth. They are even belittled by their own class. Yet, their products become commodities that are highly valued by financial sharks.

Then the true creative artists become so overworked and burnt out that they can't  stand the people they are working for or with, and they find it difficult to continue to create. They are finally put out to pasture.

During their lifetimes, creatives make a major difference by enhancing their world in a significant and profound way.

We remember ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt by the art, the artisans and the architects who designed their edifices, their carvings and paintings. We find old cultures and religions through their writings, art and philosophies. We find ancient paintings in caves, jewelry and pottery, and we are left a wealth of literature and musical works from creative masters and those we label as genius.

We have no lasting memory of the accountants, the bankers, the politicians, the lawyers or the civil servants who control our world. They are the insignificant ones.

The ones who are truly significant are the creatives; for they have made our world.

While I will never discount the value of a good education, learning in itself does not always come from educators or institutions. And this is proven every day by the individuals who rise to greatness through the basic human traits like curiosity, willfulness and gravitas. Some people are constant learners no matter with what they are involved. Usually, the creatives are the ones who defy the schools. They are the slow ones when it comes to grasping academics, yet when they latch onto a subject that interests them, they fly with it and excel through their willingness to try something new and innovative.

Take Winston Churchill. He was not a very good student. So-much-so that his father, Lord Randolph Churchill thought he would never amount to very much.  When he finally left school he couldn’t pass the entrance exams for university, but he had just enough education to be admitted to the army.

However, Winston’s interest lay in adventure and writing, and in this he excelled. He used the army as a spring board to be a war correspondent and by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he saw combat on three continents, rose in the ranks to Lieutenant, won four medals, was mentioned in military despatches, wrote five books - one of them a novel - gained international fame as a war-correspondent, and won a seat in Parliament, all before his twenty-sixth birthday. Churchill later went on to become a landscape painter, a major writer of history books and an accomplished speaker.

From there we know the rest of the story. Churchill used creativity to propel him through life, until he finally became Prime Minister of Great Britain and a war-time leader who was at the forefront to win the war over one of the most evil regimes in history.


We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
- William Shakespeare

All the world’s a stage.
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
and one man in his time plays many parts.
His acts being seven ages.
-William Shakespeare

Sonnet 66
Tired with all these, for a restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely trumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly - doctor-like - controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save, to die, I leave my love alone.
- William Shakespeare

The Spelling of the name Shakespeare.'s_name

The University study into who wrote Shakespeare.
Claremont McKenna College
Computer study.

Sep 6, 2015

Life at the Speed of Sketching.

I love sketching.  It is basic art. Grassroots creativity. 

Every person does it, whether as an artist or not; doodles, scribbles, diagrams, maps, sketches of mum, the house or the neighbour's cat. We use pencil on paper, pen in notebooks, brush on canvas, sticks in sand, fingers on wood, chalk on a blackboard, scratches on the back of an envelope, a stylus pen on an Ipad, paintings in caves. We see the world in images and we connect with each other by drawing. Like music, it's one of our international languages.
All artists do it. Some don't admit to "just sketching," but if nothing else, they draw with the paint they are using to plot their canvas. Leonardo Da Vinci sketched people in pubs. He used them as models in many of his paintings, including the Last Supper. Michelangelo sketched people on street corners and he used those sketches as models for the Sistine Chapel. Can you imagine the fellow he used as his model of God?

We have all sketched something. It's a part of our nature to communicate our ideas, our dreams through the creation of images. It's a way to create understanding. It is something that everyone knows and in its simple form, it's a way of passing time in a fun, instinctive and creative way.

In small ways, I have been sketching all my life. Like most, I started at school with scribbles. But thinking back through my life, I have sketched to get a point across or to design a pictorial, to draw a map or to simply pass a moment or two by sketching a building or a relative.

Since moving to Victoria and being inspired by the worldwide Urban Sketchers movement, I felt as if I had found my tribe. Hence, my wife and sketching buddy and I decided to start a sketching group. Island Sketching started with the two of us. We have now expanded to more than 250 members and it's going strong. Thank goodness they don't all show up at once. We average about 20 enthusiastic members at a meet-up in the summer and about 10 -15 in the winter. We now both feel compelled to sketch, at least, once every two weeks on our meet-up days. 

Picture a group of dedicated sketchers sitting around a subject on small camping stools. Quiet and in a meditative state, they are drawing, scratching, marking and staining small pads or books of paper with graphite, pen, watercolour; and what emerges is art. Wow. What an amazing thing to do.

People who pass by glance and wonder what's going on. Some don't understand and would rather be golfing or watching football. Some show respect and walk on while others wave. Others, oblivious to our purpose, walk in front and totally block what we are trying to sketch. Some take pictures. Some take selfies. Some stop because their kids feel the basic human instinct to want to sketch. Some are curious. Some are jealous or envious. Others gasp in astonishment at something of beauty emerging from a blank sheet of paper. However, there are a select few who show total interest and want to politely chat. They ask how to join the group, how often we meet, what tools they will need to start sketching. I usually tell them a pencil, a piece of paper and their brain. 

"Is that all?" they ask.
"Yes", I say. "The rest comes from observation, learning and practice, practice, practice. The more you do the better you get. After that, and as you get better, you will need to refine your tool set and grow your creativity."

There are no rules. Like most sketchers, over time I have developed a set of tools that I carry with me. Artists are very different individuals and we all have our own unique style, but many of us use the same or similar tools. 

So, other than your brain, what are the basic tools of today's urban sketcher?  
Well, as this blog is from me, I will tell you my own personal approach.


I use an F pencil. This is the middle of the graphite range. It gives me a medium look without being to light or too heavy. I don't want my lines to be overpowering because I pen over the pencil lines later. I need the pencil to make fine lines and marks that will draw my intent and vision, as most of my sketching time is spent plotting out my composition and perspective with a pencil.

Pencil sharpener.
I like a sharp pencil so I carry a tiny Staedtler sharpener. I also have a mini Swiss army knife that is very sharp and is great for graphite pencils. I always collect the shavings in a paper towel or napkin for disposal later, or throw them in a flower garden as they are bio-degradable.

This is a very important tool for me. It helps me see. It helps me find and unify my composition and perspective. And, of course, it helps me correct my mistakes seamlessly. I use a Staedtler PVC free eraser. Good for wide swaths and to eventually get rid of the pencil marks that I cover with pen. I also have a pull-on eraser that fits on the back of pencil. Great for those quick corrections.

Fine tip pen.
An extra fine tip Micron 005 Archival Ink pen is my pen of choice. 500 signifies the sharpness of the tip. Sometimes I use a Lamy fine-tip fountain pen for just pen and ink sketches or sketches where I intentionally smudge the line of the ink with a water pen or brush.

Sketch book.
I prefer the Pentalic 5 x 8, 140 lb, watercolour sketchbook or a Moleskin 5 x 8 watercolour sketchbook. These books are a wonderful archive of your drawings and as a matter of personal observation, I truly think that some of the best art is hidden in small sketchbooks on peoples shelves and in boxes around the world. I also use larger watercolour books, pads and blocks including: Arches and Fluid brands. For quick pen & ink sketches I use a Robert Bateman 5 x 8,  90 lb sketchbook.

I purchased a couple of small, tin paintboxes into which I squeeze fresh watercolour paint out of the tube. I use Winsor Newton watercolour paints. I also experiment with M. Graham and Daniel Smith watercolours. I usually work with basic colours because I can mix almost any other colour with them. But, I do like a good selection. 

I use a small Nalgene screw top jar in which I carry a small amount of water. I also carry a drinking bottle of water. Good for replacing my watercolour water, should it get too murky.

Paint Brush
I have a couple of good travel brushes and a small set of synthetic brushes. On occasion I use a water brush. This is a nylon brush that has a mini water reservoir within it. You squeeze it and you have as much water as you need.

Some people think, and adamantly so, that sketching is just sketching with a pencil or pen. They will almost fight you for this basic idea of sketching. However, many of us, including some of the great masters who sketched, i.e. John Singer Sargent, J. M. W. Turner, Winslow Homer, etc. also used watercolour. Watercolour is easy to transport, it has rich colours, it's adaptable to different styles and it dries fast. And for the dedicated amateur, like myself, it looks good. It adds a fresh completed look and its amazing what great effects you can create on your drawing with a varied approach to watercolour.

I have a canvas school bag which is good for an over-the-shoulder, relaxed outing. It carries everything for the small quick sketch. I also have a typical back sack for larger trips. As well as having three, good compartments, it has two side pockets for containers. These I use for an umbrella and a small camping type stool.

Other notables
A floppy hat to keep the sun off my face.

Sun glasses, because drawing with the sun on a white piece of paper shining back in your eyes, leads to eye strain. Sun glasses help cut the glare.

Rain poncho. This is good for those wet days when I feel that I must complete that sketch on location.

Umbrella, for those pesky little showers. But the way, I love the rain. To learn to sketch and paint different weather patterns is a wonderful way to educate myself.

A camera, to take pictures for reference of the colours and location. This, so I can complete the painting process later at home.

Sunscreen. It's amazing how time flies when you're sketching in the same place for two hours. You get burnt and you don't notice it until later when it's uncomfortable.

Small camping stool. It's always good to have somewhere to sit or somewhere to put your tools.

Extra layer - sweater or jacket. Your body can cool down when you sit still for a couple of hours. Extra layers can go a long way for comfort.

Bottle of water - keep hydrated. Also used to replenish your watercolour water.

Energy bar or snack to help keep you alert.

A pack of tissues or a roll of kitchen paper towels. I use these when working with  watercolour. 

So, where do I start?

I am often asked how I choose subjects. What do I sketch? Well, anything is sketchable. As a creator, your job is to create something out of nothing. It is for the individual artist to turn, what some see as, a mediocre subject into an inspired piece of art. Some like sketching buildings while others like to draw trees and flowers. One of our artists in the sketch group has spent the last couple of years sketching faces. Subjects are everywhere; the cows in the pasture, the ornament on your desk, the fire-engine around the corner, the fancy hotel downtown, the kids on the swings, the washing hanging on the line, the knots in a tree trunk. I like unusual structures; airplanes, antique cars, curved buildings, grave yards. However, find something that has a unique flavour where you can attempt to capture an interesting angle with your sketching tools. If it doesn't inspire you, use the occasion as a practice to turn nothing into something.

After I grab my tiny, traveling, camp stool, I sit where I can see my composition perfectly. Sometimes it's better if I stand but I like to sit.

Usually, I find a composition with my eyes first. This comes with experience. I have been a photographer and cinematographer all my working life and I can place a camera in a good spot at a moment's notice. This skill I carry through to my art work and sketching. After I have found my subject, I usually find a composition quickly. For others it may take some time to find a subject that inspires them to start a sketch. There are many books that you can find on the subject of composition, as well, you can study the great masters; how they formed their compositions, what makes a balanced picture etc.

In pencil, I draw a border line around the paper onto which I will sketch the composition. This leaves me with a frame and some "spill room" in case I need to extend my composition or painting outwards. I then plot out the composition and pencil sketch it lightly. Here I can make mistakes that I correct later with an eraser. I sketch the perspective and the background and later add foreground people or objects. The pencil sketching process takes me the most time as this is my blueprint for the whole art work. 

The sketcher sees, draws and captures things that most people never see or even comprehend in front of them. People go about their daily process and pass buildings, people and areas, yet they rarely take the time to see the life around them. Whereas sketchers study the things they draw, they ponder the shape, size, colour, contrast, dimensions, connections of every little corner, crevasse, join and detail they want to include in their drawing. Some sketch more detail than others, while some scribble a likeness of something to be shaped with colour later, and somehow it ends up a masterpiece. Go figure. 

Only the sketcher knows what he or she sees, because we all see things differently.  I am truly amazed at the varied quality and styles within our sketch group. Everybody is truly unique when it comes to art. It's very refreshing to see.

I am very much a realist with my drawings. Although I do like to use artistic license and not include items that get in my way. I use a light pencil sketch as a basic outline drawing of form and light, and when I am happy with it, I pull out my  fine lined ink pen and go over the pencil lines. Here, I also add some shading and nuances that I have missed before. I then take my eraser and rub out all the pencil lines leaving a pen and ink drawing, which will be improved upon later.

So this is the sketch. Here, I decide if I am going to keep it as a pen and ink drawing, or move on to create a watercolour painting. If it's to remain a drawing, I will add more intense light and shadow and refine the elements that will bring it to life. If it is going to be a watercolour painting, then I will plot the colours, the light and shade, and all the elements needed to accentuate the painting.

With watercolour, I usually start with a wash; sometimes with the sky where I might add threatening storm clouds, sunshine or sunbeams. I next add colour, shade and texture to the sketch. I am forever trying to emulate English artist John Constable's, puffy clouds. He was a master at clouds. He studied them endlessly. 

Am I ever satisfied with my sketches? Sometimes I can find a rare piece of which I'm proud, but mostly there are sections in each drawing that I like, but not the whole piece. From my point-of-view, I am learning to control the medium and that takes time. It's a hobby and I enjoy the learning process.

Do I ever use other mediums? I have used coloured pencils in the past but I really enjoy using and learning watercolour techniques for now. Sometimes I will not use a pen. I will use the pencil sketch as a form to create a watercolour painting.

For me, sketching is better than golf or any other hobby I can think of. Although I do like to ride my street bike and listen to great music. This I can do while I sketch. I can bike to a good sketching location, get out the tools and the ipod and find a good composition to sketch. I often listen to some classical music while creating something special, or I put it away and listen to the sounds from the location. 

My goal with sketching is to enjoy the moment and get better. Yes, it's the journey not the destination that matters. It's about doing it, it's not about the finished sketch or painting. I have sketched some interesting places and my sketchbooks are filled with great memories. But the best memories are of actually sketching.

On a recent visit to England my wife and I sat down among the reeds on the banks of the River Avon in Stratford-upon-Avon. There we sketched a spring scene in the shade of some willow trees with the river flowing beside us. We were immersed in a landscape of perfection. Swans were taking their babies for a swim, while a tiny, man-powered, ferry boat was plying back and forth across the river. And the focal point of the sketch was the church, just down river, where William Shakespeare was buried. Yes, I value the sketches, but the memory of that moment is so very precious. 

When I sketch, all my senses are alive. I hear the seagulls or the crickets or the waves lapping on the shore. I smell the salt air, coffee brewing or I get a sniff of the hotdog vendor barbecuing a smokey. I hear the kids playing or the skateboarder wiz by. I feel the cool wind on my face and sense the approaching rain. And I see things that others pass-by and miss. I am a slow sketcher. I don't do it for speed and I don't do it for anybody's approval. I do it for me. It's very much like a meditation. Being in the zone.

Sketching is a revery, a muse of contemplation, concentration and application. It's an art and as a creator you can turn it into anything you want. You can move buildings to enhance a composition, you can remove ugly power lines to show a mountain top, you can add colourful people doing colourful things. You can be as creative as you wish.

As with all things creative, art is a freedom where the only limitation is my own ignorance of the technical task of working with the tools and the medium. But I'm learning. I may not know as much as I want, but I'm getting better. And who knows where these many practice sessions will take me? Someday I may crack the creative wall and paint something of significance. Until then, "doing" keeps me happy. When you find something interesting to spend a few hours of undivided attention on, you really do experience life at the speed of sketching.

Here are a few items to illustrate the sketching tools I use.


Pencil Sharpener
Staedtler® Handheld Metal Pencil Sharpener 510-10

Staedtler STD525B30 Lead Pencil Eraser, Latex-Free, Smudge-Free, Small

Micron 005 Archival Ink
Sakura 50034 6-Piece Pigma Micron-005 Ink Pen Set, 0.20mm, Black

Watercolour sketchbook
Pentalic 100-Percent Cotton Watercolor Journal 5-Inch by 8-Inch

Watercolour Paint Box
Empty Metal Watercolour Box : will hold 12 Half Pans or 6 Full Pans

Watercolour Paint
Winsor & Newton Artist Watercolor

Watercolour Brushes
Jack Richeson Plein Air Travel Brush Set

Water brushes
Pentel Arts Aquash Water Brush Assorted Tips, Pack of 3

Nalgene screw top jar    

Small camping stool 
ALPS Mountaineering Tri-Leg Stool



“I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.” 
~Robert Henri

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” 
~Vincent Van Gogh

“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” 
~Junot Diaz

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” 
~Pablo Picasso

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”. 
~Thomas Merton

“The earth has music for those who listen.”  
~William Shakespeare

"Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation."
- Henri Cartier-Bresson

Jul 30, 2015

T. E. Lawrence

The gravestone read: Died 19 May 1935.
"But isn't it May 19th today?" I queried.

That morning we had stumbled upon the 80th anniversary of the death of T. E. Lawrence. There had been ceremonies at the gravesite, his birth place, the hospital where he died and the place where he crashed his motorcycle. It was a significant passing; 80 years ago, to the day.

We were in a small churchyard in Morton, Dorset, not too far from the Thomas Hardy area of Dorchester. We had visited Hardy's home and had wandered the country lanes of his childhood but I was more interested in Lawrence.

Like many, I first learned about T. E. Lawrence from the David Lean film "Lawrence of Arabia," starring Peter O'Toole.

Thomas Edward (Ned) Lawrence had been a young British Army officer, advisor and the western energy behind the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in the Arabian Desert during the first World War. He had made quite the impression riding the deserts on camels, dressed in the clothes of an Arab Sharif and helping the Arab leaders strategize and win their war. American journalist, Lowell Thomas met him and was so impressed that he created a traveling road show where he spoke about Lawrence and his story. This contributed in making Lawrence one of the most famous heros of World War One.  And Thomas gave him the title Lawrence of Arabia.

It must have been the early 1960s when I first saw the movie, and it inspired me in many ways. I was a teenager and I was caught by the epic story, the adventure, the man, the music, the film. This was a spectacular introduction to great movie making; it was well directed, well written, well photographed. I wanted more, and it was an encouraging prompt for me to want to become an adventurer and a photographer.

Of course, adventure was the draw. I had always been inspired to travel and photograph distant places within the pages of the National Geographic Magazine and other such periodicals. However, it was the great films that solidified some of my goals and challenges.

As I found my way within the photographic and movie industries, I always looked back to "Lawrence of Arabia" as my favorite film. When I saw the next two films from David Lean, "Doctor Zhivago" and "Ryan's Daughter," I was smitten with the photography of films. So-much-so that when I was asked what I wanted to do with my life, I answered in such a way that inspired my mother to help find me my first job in the photographic industry.

Over the years, I saw "Lawrence of Arabia" many times. I bought the script and all the video versions. But the movie was not the man. As I aged, I began to find interest in the character of T. E. Lawrence himself and I realized he was so much more interesting than the character portrayed in the film.

I bought books about his life, his death and his many adventures in-between. T. E. Lawrence was a character haunted by passions. He was very personable, liked and conversed with almost everyone. Although he could not stand the puffed-up, self-centered, English buffoons or military types with whom he worked.
On his return to England, after the war, he was hounded by the press, as are all celebrity heros. He hadn't realized the impact of Lowell Thomas's "Lawrence of Arabia." At first he loved the portrayal, but he began to despise the character as something other than himself.

Lawrence gathered his robes for one last time when he joined the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, taking the side of the Arabs against the imperial ambitions of France and Great Britain. He had always told the Arabs that they would rule their own lands. But, eventually, the lands were split between the European powers.

He was devastated. He felt so betrayed by his own country. He wanted to hide.

He had been promoted to Colonel, received the Order of Bath, the Distinguished Service Order, the French Legion of Honour, the French Crox de guerre. He was offered and refused the post of Viceroy of India and he refused a Knighthood of the British Empire in front of the King.

He resigned as Colonel from the British Army and bought a hill top retreat next to Epping Forest where he built a small shack. Here he worked on his biography "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and he set up a Boy Scout camp. For a while he also worked for Winston Churchill in the Colonial Office, but to get away from the press he decided to re-enlisted in the RAF under the name Air Craftsman John Ross. Of course the press found him again, and would not leave him alone. He moved to Dorset and joined the Army's Royal Tank Corps under the name of T. E. Shaw. Here he found a tiny cottage "Clouds Hill" where he was able to complete his biography and author a couple of other books. But he didn't like the Tank Corps so he applied to the RAF again. He was sent to a remote base in India for two years and upon return he was stationed at an RAF base in Yorkshire, specializing in speed-boats. He eventually retired at the age of forty-five and moved permanently to Clouds Hill,  his tiny Dorset cottage.

At Clouds Hill he was out of sight. Just the way he liked it. But he was never forgotten. In fact, he became a legend in his own time. His book became highly successful and well received. Winston Churchill said "it ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language."  George Bernard Shaw said, "The work is a masterpiece, one of the few very best of it's kind in the world."

Lawrence loved speed and was comfortable on his "top-of-the-line" Brome Motor bike. He had owned many. On the 13th May, 1935, on the way back from posting a letter, he swerved to avoid some kids in the road and he was hurtled head first onto the ground. No crash helmet. He died of his wounds a few days later, 19th May, 1935. He was forty six years old.

For me, it was time to experience Lawrence first-hand. On a planned trip to England to deal with some family matters, we traveled through Dorset. My wife is a Thomas Hardy fan and I am a Lawrence Fan. Hardy and Lawrence were good friends and lived only a few miles from each other.

We spent some time at his grave, found the place where he had crashed his bike and slowly wandered around his cottage. The cottage is really tiny with four small rooms on two floors, but it was furnished as if he'd left it yesterday. Here was his favourite reading chair, his bed, his bath and the room upstairs where he entertained friends and listened to music. It was a small connection but a connection.

T. E. Lawrence, the man, I always found fascinating. I own many books about Lawrence and his great life, and am pleased to have the 1922 text edition of "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," the memoir written by Lawrence after the revolt in the desert. This version is the complete book before he started to edit it down for public consumption. And as you read about the man, you very quickly come to understand that a movie, no matter how well conceived, could never do justice to a person as complicated and as interesting as T. E . Lawrence. Lawrence was just so much larger than a movie character.

I just started reading "The Young T.E. Lawrence" by Anthony Sattin. Yet another book to shed light on his adventurous life. This time following his path as an awkward youth, and an Oxford University student plotting his life as an archaeologist.

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."
- T. E. Lawrence

"At this moment, somewhere in London, hiding from feminine admirers, reporters, book publishers, autograph collections, and every species of hero worship, is a young man whose name will go down in history along with those of Sir Frances Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Gordon, and other legendary heroes of Great Britain's glorious past."
- Lowell Thomas

I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time... We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history. It will live in the annals of war... It will live in the legends of Arabia."
-Winston Churchill

"I am not much of a hero-worshipper but I could have followed T. E. Lawrence over the edge of the world."
- John Buchan