Saturday, March 31, 2012

At the Perkins cafe

Another drawing from a trip to the campus of Duke University, this time in the gorgeous cafe with the Calatrava-style piers and metal tracery next to the Perkins library.

Not that any of the background is visible here.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A girl with a flower in her hair, drawn with a micron while sitting on a patio in Durham, NC.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


A landscape watercolour of the Tuscan town of Certaldo. It's a charming place, as I hope this painting suggests, although overshadowed by nearby San Gimignano.

There is not, to be honest, much to the place beyond its picturesque exterior. Famous today chiefly as the home - for a few years - of Boccaccio, in the 12th century it played an important part in the series of obscure wars that established Florence as the ruling city of the region.

The first mention of the place in history was in 1164, when it belonged to the local counts of the Alberti family. Still, it must have existed prior to that date, judging both by archaeological remains and its location on the Via Francigena, the main pilgrim road to Rome. In 1202 it fell to Florence, and remained under its sway until the unification of Italy in the 19th century.

I made the painting during a cycling trip in Tuscany. I was staying in nearby Barbarino Val d'Elsa, and biked out to see Certaldo, enjoy the scenery, and make some pictures. There is a modern town, as well, but it's out of sight to the left of this view. I made some other long-format landscapes on the same trip, such as this one of the nearby countryside.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A quick sketch done outside the Bryant Center at Duke University.

Friday, March 23, 2012

No Contest

Danielle enjoys a No Contest cocktail on the porch. It's made from rum, port, lime juice and both Angustura and Peychaud bitters. More information on that here. It's delicious!
Maya the cat is not partaking.

The drawing was done very quickly with a micron. I added some colour later in photoshop.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Plague Doctor

Many a despicable or repulsive practice may be laid at the door of pre-modern medicine. Among them the fact that, so as to avoid troubling the dying with the chance of a peaceful or relaxing death, the medical profession thought it a good idea to dress up in one of the most terrifying costumes known to history.

Not all the time, of course. Only during the plague, when mortality was at its highest, and fear the most unchecked. During the Black Death of the 14th century, visions of skeletons and worm-gnawed reapers danced in everyone's heads. Apparently feeling the need to live up to their ancestors in the matter of macabre visions, doctors of the 17th century invented the image of the Plague Doctor.

It purported to be practical: a waxed cloak and glass goggles to keep away the fumes of the plague, a cane to poke or adjust the patient without direct contact, a mask that contained a filter of herbs so that the doctor might breath without either inhaling the plague or noticing the stench of the dead.

Now, of course, we know that the plague vector was not airborne. The costume, therefore, did no good at all, save to lighten the mind of the physician and oppress that of his patient.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Assisi, downtown

A view in the city of Saint Francis. I sat down to draw this one warm evening in April. It was easter, if I recall correctly. I was cycling around central Italy that spring, and had made my way to Assisi from Florence by way of Siena, Chiusi and Perugia.

Assisi struck me as a rather bipolar town. At one end, the famous basilica of St. Francis dominates, along with its trappings of pilgrim and tourist infrastructure. At the other end of the town, things felt more secular. A topographical distinction between church and state is in fact typical of many medieval Italian towns, whose inhabitants often felt ambivalent about their bishops and his relationship with the Pope in Rome. The Pope was the Pope, yes, but he was also the boss of a rival city.

Of interest is the temple of Minerva, a rare example of a pre-Augustan era temple surviving intact in an urban context. There must have have been hundreds of such structures throughout the towns of the Roman empire, but the great majority were cannibalized for building materials well before the modern period. This one served as a municipal office in the 13th century, and during the Renaissance - an age more reverent of classical remains - transformed into a church.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Tarragon reads

An old sketch of Tarragon, in the house in Compton. It was done with a china marker and limited selection of watercolours on a moderately toothed block watercolour paper. It may have taken 15 minutes or so.

I think he's reading Sense and Sensibility.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Maya the cat

At rest, and at rest again. This is how she spends most of her day, when she isn't building forts out of the area rugs or pretending that she doesn't want to be fed. I've read that cats need about 12 hours of sleep a day, so I suppose she's well within the normal range for her kind.

She moves a lot in her sleep. Sometimes when I'm working on a bigger drawing she curls up nearby, and the next thing I know there are curious sounds and rustling noises. I think she must be dreaming.

What she dreams of, I don't know. Can dreams only encompass things drawn from waking experience? If so, I suppose she dreams of swaying trees, small mammals, humans making human noises. If not, perhaps a palace on the Nile.

Truly cat oneirology is an underappreciated science. Underfunded too.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Officer of the 17th Lancers

The 17th Lancers are mostly notable for their part in the charge of the light brigade, commemorated in a famous picture by Caton Woodville. The officer in my picture, however, is arrayed in the full dress uniform of 1914.

And if the thought of soldiers wearing such a uniform on the eve of World War I seems alarming - or ridiculously picturesque - in fact this outfit was reserved for such things as royal weddings. On campaign it was switched out for a set of khakis.

The British, fresh from the lessons of the Boer War, had probably the most practical uniforms of the early part of the war. The French were still gallivanting around in red trousers, while the Germans, although they had adopted field grey instead of their former vivid colours, had retained all the stylings of the old uniforms. So their lancers went into combat with caps as awkward as the one in this picture, if less colourful.

None of which obviates the fact that as the lamps were going out all over Europe, every army sent men equipped with lances riding against machine guns and artillery. The French even gave lances to their bicycle corps, but the less said about that the better. There was in fact a single cavalry combat on the 9th of September, 1914, when the 9th Lancers met the German Guard Dragoons at Moncel, but it was resolved when one side dismounted and used their rifles. Soon after, it was mud and trenches, a lot of tedium and a bit of terror. Things were different on the Eastern Front, of course, but that's another story altogether.

I did this picture years ago, relying on various sources. I had a roll of butcher's paper, and somehow a series of soldiers seemed apt. It was done with watercolours and acrylics, and I made no attempt at high realism. I don't really recall why I gave the guy a black eye.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

One of those random pages where you begin to draw one person, and end up having to finish another. It's from my daily sketchbook, but drawn with a micron instead of the usual china marker.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


"All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story." - Isak Dinesen

Monday, March 5, 2012

Black City

A sombre, high-walled city looking over the waters of the bay.

This city has no name, but like other pieces in this series, it emerged from the pool of fantastic stories I read as a teenager.
Which means we can make a list of its sister cities, each of which has a name that will do for this one. For example:

"Distant, twin thunderstorms played to either side-north over the Inner Sea and south above the Great Salt Marsh-as they approached that monstrous city and as its towers, spires, fanes, and great crenelated wall emerged from its huge, customary cap of smoke, being somewhat silhouetted by the light of the setting sun, which was turned to a dull silver disk by the high fog and the smoke."

"On the seventh day a blur of smoke rose on the horizon ahead, and then the tall black towers of Dylath-Leen, which is built mostly of basalt. Dylath-Leen with its thin angular towers looks in the distance like a bit of the Giant's Causeway, and its streets are dark and uninviting."

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.

"But the windows of Andelsprutz in her houses looked vacantly over the plains like the eyes of a dead madman. At the hour her chimes sounded unlovely and discordant, some of them were out of tune, and the bells of the some were cracked, her roofs were bald and without moss. At evening no pleasant rumour arose in her streets."

"Over the irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow."

The city is not ruinous, although
  Great ruins of an unremembered past,
With others of a few short years ago
  More sad, are found within its precincts vast.
The street-lamps always burn; but scarce a casement        
In house or palace front from roof to basement
  Doth glow or gleam athwart the mirk air cast.

…At length he paused: a black mass in the gloom,
  A tower that merged into the heavy sky;
Around, the huddled stones of grave and tomb:
  Some old God's-acre now corruption's sty:              
He murmured to himself with dull despair,
Here Faith died, poisoned by this charnel air.

And of course:

Per me si va nella citta dolente.

Well, I could go on. Dreadful cities are dreadfully common. Nonetheless, they retain a certain allure.

Quotations in order of appearance:
Fritz Lieber, The Circle Curse.The city of Lankhmar.
H.P. Lovecraft, Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. The city of Dylath-Leen. Which is also, apparently, a French metal band.
Robert Browning, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. No name for this one, just the Dark Tower.
Lord Dunsany, The Madness of Andelsprutz.
Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan. Gormenghast, which is called a castle, but is clearly a city.
James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night. This one is London.
Dante. And this one is hell.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


A bit of life drawing from the Toronto drawing group the Collective.

Friday, March 2, 2012


The plant, not the drink.

Another iPad still-life by Tarragon. He's aiming here for a more painterly style: Camille Pissarro rather than Dutch still-life, if you will. It's possible - even natural - to make everything very sharp in iPad paintings, just as it was in the golden age of Dutch still life painting. The gleaming precision of it was part of the point, after all.

But a digital picture is not about the materiality of possessions. How could it be? It barely exists in itself. So instead Tarragon has opted to play an impressionist-style game of focus, in which the subject is not the objects in the picture, but the light streaming through them, and the reflections they cast.