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Drawing in the garden

The days have become hot but here by the lake the mornings and the evenings cool down beautifully. I’m thinking about making some large paintings out back in the garden but first I want to I draw for a week or two, in my notebook and later perhaps some larger ones.

It takes some slowing down. Don’t overthink it. Find a comfortable spot, pick something around me to focus on and begin to draw. Later I may bring out an array of drawing tools but today I’m keeping it simple, a mechanical pencil with 2B leads and an eraser on the back. 2B is softer than your average pencil. Pencils are graphite and clay with some binders. HB is a happy balance. H, 2H, 3H and so on are increasingly hard, more clay and less graphite. B, 2B, 3B and so on are increasingly soft, more graphite and less clay.

Back in the early 80s when I was an art student, I worked on a Sol Lewitt wall drawing here in Toronto. Part of the drawing consisted of a pencil grid executed with a 9H pencil. A 9H pencil is so hard its mark is barely discernible, even on a slightly textured surface such as painted drywall. The crew doing the drawing was managed by Mr. Lewitt’s studio assistant. I recall him criticizing my work because I failed to twirl the pencil as prescribed as I made the ruled lines of the grid. He said this omission resulted in lines which were unacceptably uneven. I looked at the grid I was drawing and could not see any variation in the line. The hardness of the pencil was such that all the lines were hardly visible. I admired the minute attention to detail, I really did. The instructions said twirl the damned pencil and he wanted to see the pencil twirled. At the same time, my grid looked fine to me and I confess to a bit of impatience.

It’s amazing how much perception changes when you sit still for a while. In a way it’s similar to being out on a trout stream, standing in the water, beginning to notice the insects and the birds, the trout splashing after emerging caddis or gently sipping duns. Be quiet and slow down and the world opens up around you.

I’m sitting out by one of the heaps of wood and brush and many surprises we call Imagination Stations. This one has been growing and changing for 8 or 9 years now. There is little engineering involved in surrounding some space with the structure. Over the years this one has collapsed a couple times, requiring major renovations. It seems strong this year, and I’ve added many layers already. There is an old piano stool on top like a crown, and an old gate giving it some backbone. I can see the head of a broken uke sticking out through brush into the cavity. At the garden tour, many people asked me what these things are for. There are 3 of them now in the garden, each with a distinct character. I don’t know the answer, really. They’re an evolving part of the garden, and I like them. I give my stock reply: they’re for the local supernatural beings to sleep in, the pixies, fairies, trolls and un-named imaginary creatures. Oh, ok.

I hardly heard the birds when I first sat down and opened my notebook, but their songs gradually asserted themselves. At first it was like a symphony, many parts contributing to a complex composition. Soon, some of the songs emerged on their own. The house sparrows appeared, goofing about around their houses by the path. Two young mourning doves, hanging out together. Starlings. Grackles. Cardinals. Robins. Last week the baby Baltimore orioles were going through flight school but I don’t hear them today.

There are a few mosquitoes, which I brush away when they try to land. Run of the mill house flies are around, and a smaller variety as well. There are bees buzzing about among the brush. I wonder if they live in there somewhere. There are over 800 species of bees in Canada. I can’t begin to tell one from another. Note to self: learn your bees. I notice a few ants and a spider too. The midges, which emerged from the lake in swarms for a few weeks are no longer around in the summer heat.

I’m thinking about making morning drawings and evening drawings. How will the character of drawings at the start of the day differ from drawings in the waning light?


  1. I love the idea of the “imagination station!” I have also learned a bit about Sol Lewitt but imagined the process being a bit more…playful? But I guess not!

    • Part of the drawing included ink washes, carefully mixed ink and water wiped onto circles, squares and rectangles – or around them, in a prescribed manner. As we wiped on the ink, letters began to emerge, large letters spelling out a phrase. I recognized them immediately. It was a piece by Larry Weiner, installed on the same walls at some point in the past, painted over in latex. When the ink was wiped on it exposed Weiner’s work. I thought it was wonderful – like two giants of the NY conceptual art scene having lunch. Le Witt’s assistant had to find him and seek direction. Old Sol was off in Europe somewhere. I very much thought we should keep this happy accident in play but word from the Master was that no, no, no, it had to be erased. We bought gallons of an alcohol-based sealer and painted everything over, then started the drawing from scratch. We lost days of work. Fortunately for us art students, the dealer, David Bellman, was buying amazing lunches every day for the crew, an appreciated perk since we weren’t getting paid for participating. Our drawing is published in a book about Le Witt’s wall drawing. I even got a credit in it with my name spelled incorrectly.

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