Watercolor Workshop in the Skagit Valley

View of Samish Bay from Bonnie’s living room window

This past week I spent four days as a student at Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop in Anacortes and the Skagit Valley.  Shari is a professional painter and design teacher from Montreal, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to study under her, if even for a few days.

The workshop was wonderful on so many levels.  My good friend Bonnie, whom I met several years ago through this blog, invited me stay at her home overlooking Samish Bay, and she was a gracious and welcoming host (besides feeding me the most nutritious and delicious meals!)  The other workshop participants were a mix of kindred spirits, old friends and new.  The organizers of the workshop selected stunning locations for painting our landscapes, so I discovered even more beautiful nooks and crannies in the Skagit Valley, already one of my most favorite places on earth.

Mount Baker on view from the Skagit Valley


Pastoral landscapes, Skagit Valley near La Conner

It was evident that Shari had scouted the locations before we met each day, and that was important because we “wasted” no time settling in to paint.  Here are the locations where we painted:

Old schoolhouse on the grounds of Christianson’s Nursery in Mount Vernon, location of our workshop on Day 1


Christianson’s Nursery


Lovric’s Marina, location for Day 2 of our workshop; this painting was completed by our teacher, Shari Blaukopf during one morning session.


Cannery overlooking Guemes Bay, site of our workshop on Day 2; painting by Shari Blaukopf


We painted trees in Washington Park in Anacortes


Cap Sante Marina; location of our fourth day in the workshop; painting by Shari Blaukopf.



Under the piers at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes


Madrona grove, location for our final afternoon of painting

As it was, the time flew by.  There were morning and afternoon sessions, each three hours long, during which Shari taught, demonstrated her techniques and skills, and then critiqued the paintings we made trying to apply her lessons on the spot.  It was a revelation to watch a master painter at work — planning and anticipating the order in which she would be applying pigments, paying attention to the range of light and dark values, actually painting with sure, confident strokes.  It was a miracle to see, daily, beautiful images emerge gradually from a blank sheet of paper.  Sometimes what looked like a mess early on became a finished masterpiece.  (Lesson:  don’t give up on your work too early.)

Watching Shari’s painting demonstrations


A painting lesson imparted under the trees of the madrona grove

Shari said that when she paints, her objective is to “capture the essence” of what she sees, the “fastest impression” of her experience of a place.  Successful paintings, to her, have “something genuine” in the work.

Painting demo by Shari Blaukopf: loose lines and fresh painting

I take with me some precepts and lessons that I hope to use in the days, months, and years ahead to improve my work.  Here are some of Shari’s key tips that I will be carrying with me:

  • The two most common mistakes watercolor painters make are:  1) not enough water and 2) not enough pigment on the brush.  Shari said, “My watercolors got better when I started using more water.”
  • Aim for loose line work and fresh painting (it helps to hold your drawing and painting implements higher on the stem for more expressive lines and strokes).
  • Before painting, and while deciding upon your composition, analyze values without thinking about the actual colors:  darkest and lightest parts, decide what to leave white.
  • When you get the values right, color doesn’t matter.
  • Start with what you love (when you have a complex scene or composition with several parts).
  • Paint foliage in masses, large shapes.
  • Think about shapes: make interesting shapes within big shapes, pay attention to overlapping shapes, mass together some shapes, simplify shapes.
  • Pick up paint from the sides of the brush rather than digging in with the point (keeping your pigments moist helps).
  • Don’t go more than one inch without changing color.  Use a variety of colors in dark and shadow areas.
  • A good amount of neutral makes the color sing.
  • Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue make a nice neutral gray.
  • Not all white is white white.  (Sometimes a white in shadow is a darker value than the sky.)
  • Most of the time when you don’t like your work it’s because your darks are diffident.  Take the time to add dark accents and final touches.  Don’t quit too soon.
  • You can never practice values enough.
My practice paintings completed during Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop

The Journey and the Destination, Both

Sunset, Pacific coast at Manzanita, OR

The Oregon coast is a superb destination for some rest and relaxation.  I could have easily spent hours just on the long beach over the dunes from our yurt at Nehalem Bay State Park.  I think that I sometimes collect bits of driftwood, stones, shells, etc. so that I can hang on to those beautiful beach experiences.  But as Emerson says below, you cannot freeze time and beauty by grasping:

“The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave;
And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me.
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore,
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Each and All”
Oregon coast nearing sunset

You cannot keep and package a sunset, for example.  A photograph attempts this, but in truth, things like sunsets can only be appreciated in the moment.  And isn’t it wonderful to know that the Universe will offer many, many more glorious sunsets so that you really have no need to try to preserve any particular one?

There is a lesson here, I’m sure, about trying to cling to the good things that come our way.  But we must be ready to let them go and return to a state of openness and receptivity to the next things — good and bad — that come our way.

Hug Point, Oregon coast
Watercolor sketch, Hug Point

Too soon our departure day arrived.  We left Nehalem Bay early Sunday morning so that we could have a leisurely drive back to Seattle.  We had time to follow our whims when we saw something picturesque or interesting from the road.  Our first stop was a picnic breakfast at Hug Point — bread, brie, hard boiled eggs, bacon, tomatoes and coffee.  It was our final walk on the ocean beach for a while.

Astoria Sunday Market

We stopped in Astoria to wander the stalls of the Sunday Market.

Poplar tree tunnel
Watercolor sketch of tree tunnel

We took a short detour off Hwy 30 so that I could photograph these rows of poplar trees.  I loved the natural “doorway” created by the tree tunnels.

Wildflowers along Hwy 30 in Oregon
Lupine and daisies along I-5
Watercolor sketch of roadside wildflowers

I thought the wild flowers growing along the roads and in ditches were also quite beautiful. I am lucky that my husband is a willing travel companion who lets me explore unexpected nooks and crannies. Those turnings taken on impulse really help to make a memorable journey.


Camping on the Oregon Coast

Nehalem Bay Beach on the Oregon Coast

My husband and I spent last weekend on mini-vacation camping on the Oregon Coast.  Two other couples that we know camped in the same Loop A at the Nehalem Bay Beach Campground, an Oregon State Park.  We took turns making dinner in the evenings, shared bicycles and camp fires, and watched a couple of sunsets together.  This was the perfect start to our summer.

Bicycling on one of the trails at Nehalem Bay State Park
My husband and I stayed in this yurt.
Watercolor sketches, camping on the Oregon coast
These are shore pines, or coast pines — lots of them in our campground

I love the wildness of the Oregon coast.  There are some touristy towns, but many, many more miles of undeveloped beaches.  From our beach over the dunes from our yurt, we could walk about three miles south to a jetty that marked the entrance to Nehalem Bay.  Or we could walk north a mile or more to the small town of Manzanita.  Our steps were accompanied by the sound of the surf and waves — eternal, awesome.

Walking south toward the jetty
Nehalem Bay State Park is also a horse campground.

The ocean beaches are full of “sea-born treasures.”  I have written before about the irresistible appeal of beach combing, filling my pockets with nature’s charms.  This trip was no exception.

Our beach sojourn was a lovely respite, but I could have stayed much longer.  Sometimes it takes a few unscheduled days to get into the flow of a vacation and benefit from those timeless hours.  I would have liked to spend more time drawing and painting.

Monday morning, back in the city, I woke to the distant sound of freeway traffic.  For just a moment, I pretended I was hearing the sound of the ocean surf.

Irises as the Doorway into Thanks

Skagit Valley, May morning
Skagit Valley

This week I spent one morning painting in my friend Kitty’s iris garden on Samish Island.  The drive there took me past the farms of the Skagit Valley, one of the most beautiful agricultural landscapes I know.  The views out my car window were amazing enough, but then I arrived at Kitty’s house.  The irises were blooming in a profusion of colors and frills.  Wow.

Kitty’s iris beds, Samish Island

These maroon and gold irises are called “Ancient Echoes.” They are the colors of Buddhist robes. And the team colors of the University of Minnesota’s golden Gophers!

Several women friends dropped in for the painting session.  A fun day of art and conversation.  We all appreciated Kitty’s hospitality and were thankful to be able to experience Nature’s exuberance in this special garden.

My watercolor paintings inspired by the irises in Kitty’s garden. The blue ones are Siberian irises, “Silver Edge.”

by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Home Again: The Predictability of a Place

Ink drawings of lilacs
Vase of cut lilacs

We returned Seattle to find the lilacs in full bloom, filling the air with their gentle floral scent. We are home again.

Why do we travel?  There are many good and valid reasons.  We just returned from spending a rather whirlwind two weeks as tourists in Texas.  It was good fun to look with curiosity at new places, but vacationing like this just scratches the surface.  One of the reasons I travel like this, from time to time, is to make memories with my husband or family and friends.

For true understanding, for deeper experiences and connection to new places, we would have to travel differently.  I am not sure how to do this, but I yearn to learn.  Perhaps in retirement, with more time, we can figure out how to travel better, not just as onlookers.

In the meantime, it helps to practice by living more thoughtfully at home.

“It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home.  What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community?

It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you’re not going to go away.  It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in ‘casserole diplomacy’ by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick.  These kinds of commitment are real.   They are tangible.  They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.

That way we can begin to know the predictability of a place.  We anticipate a species long before we see them.  We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons, we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the strength within ourselves and each other to hold these lives.

That’s my definition of family.  And that’s my definition of love.”
— Terry Tempest Williams

April’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller

Most of the reading I’ve done lately has been background and preparation for a two-week vacation to Texas, so aside from that, I have just one book to recommend from my April reading.

The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller is a novel about a 12-year-old boy, Walter Lavender, Jr. who knows about lost things.  His father, a pilot, went missing when his plane disappeared mid-flight shortly before Walter was born.  Walter is still waiting for his Dad to return home.

Walter’s life at school is lonely because he has a physical disorder that makes it difficult for him to talk.  But his home life compensates — his mother creates a warm and comforting community centered around her dessert shop, The Lavenders.  After she kindly invites a stranger to wait out a storm in the shop, she is gifted with a book  of several paintings from that stranger.  The book seems to suffuse the shop with magical reverberations of kindness and belonging.

Although Walter cannot communicate well, he has a special gift for helping people find lost things.  He says, “I keep finding because it is a way for me to be part of something bigger, even if it is only for a while.”  He learns a lot about humanity during his searches:  “. . . everyone loses things . . . In the things they look for, parts of people turn clear as glass and you can see into them and what they are made of and how they live.”  He says, “With just a few phrases, two or three questions, I will know enough to understand someone, because people only bother looking for things that matter.”

Walter knows his gift is tied to the disappearance of his father.  “. . .[T]he more you persist in searching, the more you are likely to stumble across something unexpected. In looking for someone else’s lost thing, I am also looking for mine — some sign that will lead me to Walter Lavender, Sr., and tell me what happened to him.”

When the shop’s landlord threatens to close the shop,  the security of Walter’s and his mother’s lives starts to dissolve.  And then the magical book goes missing.  Walter sets out to find the book and save his mother’s shop.  This search takes him across New York in a series of adventures and encounters from which Walter learns even more about himself and what matters in life.

In my public library, this book is catalogued as adult fiction, even though it is about a 12-year-old boy.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.