To join me on a virtual sketching trip, download a travel sketch-journal here.
I add tutorials to them so you can learn the techniques and details you see in the sketchbooks.

My former workshop students asked me to upload my workshop workbooks to make them available to everyone. So you can also download a workbook and give yourself a workshop! Enjoy!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Cacao Pod Mini-adventure

Sooking Cacao Beans.
Last Wednesday was our weekly Garden Share Day in the milpa at Better In Belize, the ecovillage where I live, and there were cacao pods on the share table, so I brought one home to my little earth bag house. In case you didn’t know, cacao pods are the source of chocolate in all its many guises.  Here’s the pod, about eight inches long, and a brilliant shiny yellow.  It grows from the trunk of the cacao tree – I have been watching a crop of them ripen from green to yellow in the milpa for some time now.  

When my friend José came today to use the internet I asked him to educate me about cacao matters. José is Belizean, and one of my go-to persons for advice and information.

“Well, first you split the pod with your machete,” he said, “then you open it up and the cacao beans are inside…” 

“Will you show me?” I asked, fetching my machete for him. And so began my cacao pod education.

José opened it carefully, first slicing down its length with the machete to open up a crack, then prying it apart with both hands to reveal the cluster of beans inside, each enveloped in a juicy, sweet, rose-scented silver-white jacket.  I caught the rose scent as soon as the crack widened upon opening.  

“Taste one,” he said, passing the pod to me. I shivvied one of the beans out and popped it into my mouth, sucking and tonguing it.  Heavenly!  

“Help yourself,” I motioned for José to enjoy them, too.  We talked for a while about the next steps in cacao culture as we popped and sucked the beans, and since José’s mom used to work on a cacao plantation in Guatemala, I expect he knows what he’s talking about.  

He told me the beans are removed from the husk, sucked if you wish (the sucking isn’t necessary if you are harvesting a lot of them), then they’re spread out in the sunshine to dry if they're to be shipped off to the chocolate factory. We had a good laugh imagining a production scenario where every bean needed to be sucked clean before drying -- “Hurry! Hurry! Suck faster! Faster!”

I’m sitting here plucking the slick, gooey beans from the husk as I write, sooking and sighing with pleasure then ejecting each now nearly naked inch-long bean into the empty half of the husk after the goodness has been sooked off. There’s not a lot to sook, but what there is, is delicious. “Sooking” by the way, is an old Scottish word I have a fondness for. It sounds so much more, well, sucky, than the word “sucking.”

Tomorrow, on José’s advice, I’ll put the cacao beans out on a plate in the sunshine to dry so that they won’t rot or get moldy. When dry, they can be planted by simply poking them into the soil in the rainforest, or they can be started out in grow-bags like any other nursery crop. 

“Hey, José,” I call out from my computer.  “Do cacao trees like sun or shade better?”
“They like to grow in shade,” he responds from where he is surfing the web out on the
veranda.  A moment later he adds, “with a little bit of sun, too.”

 I think I will plant a bunch of these at Micasa, my jungle retreat, and someday (about four years, I believe) I shall pluck a pod from one of my trees and make up a cup of steaming hot, sweet, homemade-from-the-get-go cocoa.  

And when my coffee plants also have a bit more age on them, maybe I’ll add a little of my home-grown, roasted coffee bean essence for a homemade-from-the-get-go mocha. Oh my!  The possibilities are endless.

[Later:  there were sixty beans in that pod. I shall have a veritable chocolate ORCHARD! ]

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Christmas 2017 -- Making Tamales

Happy New Year!  
banana leaves prepared for tamale wrapping 
Last year I shared the narrative of my Christmas festivities with people on my mailing list (I know, I know, I am incredibly old-fashioned in these days of Snapchat, Facebook, etc., but I really LIKE the easy-going ramble of email and blogging)  but people who are now reading this blog may not have seen last year's Christmas celebration, so I'll share the pictures of this year's good times which I enjoyed with my Rivera family and friends.

It's a tradition in Belize to celebrate Christmas with tamales. Grinding the corn for the tamales, preparing the ingredients to put in the tamales, wrapping the tamales, steaming the tamales, then eating them and taking some to share with neighbors who might not have a large family with which to enjoy such festivities.  We did all those things. 

Nacho and Nora prepare the masa
By the time I arrived at Riveras' house at 8:30am on Christmas Eve Day, the banana leaf wrappers had already been cut and held over flames to soften them, and Yesenia a neighbor who had come for the day with her little girl Caroline, and Gaby, the only girl in the Rivera family, were cleaning smoke off the leaves. So I cleared a space on the outdoor kitchen table and joined in with the task with a damp cloth. 

As we were finishing, Doña Nora and Don Nacho returned from Benque in the truck with a five gallon bucket of the masa, corn flour made from corn they had just taken to town to be ground at the tortilla factory (a little tienda in Benque with a grinding mill).

Kevin stirs the masa as it thickens
We mixed the masa with water in dishpans, squishing it between our fingers until it made a slippery gruel, then Nacho poured it into a cauldron and added water while Nora stirred. Then they put it over an outdoor cooking fire to thicken under Kevin's vigorous paddling. 

When it was properly thickened, José was set to stirring the home-made tomato sauce over the fire while four of us -- Nora, my friend Millie who lives with the oldest Rivera son Oscar, Gaby and I -- set out piles of banana leaves, chicken and pork chunks, the masa dough, and the tomato sauce when it came off the fire. 

Jose cooks the tomato sauce
First, a large spoonful of masa dough was patted onto a double layer of banana leaves.  Then a piece of chicken or pork was pressed into it and a spoonful of sauce was ladeled over it.

Nacho had to teach me again how to wrap the banana leaves around the tamale so no sauce could escape and no water could enter when they would be later steamed. 

It's fun working together. That's me on the right.
Soon my fingers recalled the dance from the many tamales I had made last year, and we all spent a couple of hours spooning, scooping, patting, folding, and piling our finished tamales on the table to be snatched up by Kevin, the tamale-runner, who stacked them in a big tub to await their debut in the giant cauldron, which would soon be emptied of masa, scrubbed out, and filled with tamales for steaming. 

Tamale making as spectator sport
It was a warm, fun time, with laughter, joking, an occasional "Ooops!" when a banana wrapper would split and need repair or replacement before being carried away by Kevin.  This was Gaby' first year making Christmas tamales, as last year she just watched. It IS a bit of a spectator sport as you can see here. 

Total immersion is a great way to learn Spanish

It was a lovely sunny day, in the 70s, perfect for our energetic activity on the wooden table next to the clay cooking fogón where Nora and Gaby prepare family meals.  My Spanish is still rudimentary, but now and then I understood an entire sentence, which was a great pleasure to me.

That night, we feasted on the perfectly cooked tamales, and after dinner Nora, Millie and I carried a stack of them to Millie's father and stepmother, who live about half a mile down the road, then stayed to chat an hour or so until Nacho came to find us. We walked back to Riveras by the light of a half moon, accompanied by cricket chirps and a couple of refrains of Feliz Navidad.

Wrapped tamales, ready to steam
I particularly enjoyed the tamale delivery, because it was the first time I had been able to see how my Lights for Students project lights up a family's house at night (I have been purchasing and installing solar lighting in the homes of neighborhood students so they can do homework after dark, and the entire family benefits from this project -- maybe I'll do a blog about that later). 

All in all, it was a lovely day. We ate tamales the next day, too, Christmas, but it seems that most Belizeans celebrate Christmas and New Years Eves, for the most part, and just eat and socialize on the actually holiday. 

Micasa, my little jungle house
So that was my Christmas. A few days later I spent my 74th birthday solo (by choice) at Micasa, my tiny Belizean house in the jungle which I had built this summer, and which I am still working on -- shelves, curtains, stuff like that. 
It's gradually becoming my second home, with a few little adventures along the way -- like this one which I journaled my last morning there: 
I'll blog my progress with Micasa later, too. 

And with that, I leave you with my fine memories of 2017 in the Belizean jungle, and with hopes for many more good ones in 2018 for us all.  Happy New Year!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Adding Color to the Wasps! I DID IT!

I am now officially past my "artist's block," 
thanks to you
I expect to be adding more entries from time to time, so if you want to know about it, put your email over there in that box to the right so you will be notified. Just in case you didn't do it before, you may have missed the second entry I made, a couple of weeks ago (this is the third one).  If so, just scroll down.

Here's the wasp drawing with color added.  It's a lot easier to understand what's happening, isn't it?

Check below in the previous entry to see what this drawing looked like before color was added.  I also wrote in that entry about how I painted the mural on my house walls -- lots of pictures.
Macal in May. Now it's 8' tall.
That's Nacho's thatched hut where
he stays when we go out to El Rancho.

Stay tuned. I'll be adding color to the cecropia drawing (my first one), and also to a drawing I just finished this week out at Micasa, my little house in the jungle at El Rancho.  I finally was able to get there after seven weeks of the road resembling a turtle pond (complete with turtles) and pretty much impassable. When at last I arrived, I fulfilled my vow to make at least one sketch during each visit. (Hint: this latest one is a fungus).  

And they're improving the road -- there's a crop of macal out there that's due to be harvested in January!  

Hasta mas tarde!  

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Mural Painting Tutorial (and Sketch #2)

Onward with my quest to restart my sketch journaling while balanced daintily on a 6’ ladder. 

Where am I on my journey to Restart My Journaling? Well....I have actually gotten out my watercolor pencil box. It is lying on the desk. 

A ladder got me really close
nice, calm wasps
I have not opened it yet, but I will, because this sketch is a little confusing in black and white.

But color will improve it, and what better way to jog my hand to apply the color than to tell you about my intentions? 

I’ll scan in the colored drawing when I get it done.  Hold my feet to the fire, my friends!!!!!


a panorama photo of my house mural about half-way
before the house was re-painted cream.
Okay, now, I promised in my November 11 blog that I would do  step-by-step tutorial on how I painted the murals on my house walls. 
If you aren’t into details, this one may be a bit “much" and you can stop here. But if you’ve ever wondered how the heck one gets that art from a  sketchpad up onto the wall, read on.
I’d gotten a little experience at mural painting on the walls of the North Mountain Park Nature Center in Ashland, Oregon a few years back, so I was intrigued by the invitingly blank walls of my new Belize house. 

a Mayan ball player
My earthbag house, which I have cunningly named Casa de la Tierra (House of Earth)  is actually built on an old Mayan terrace, next to a completely buried (it is said) Mayan temple ruin, so obviously the most appropriate decorations would be Mayan in nature. I wanted them to look authentic, so I nosed around on the internet to see if I could find some good subjects. 

Chilam Balam texts of Chumayel
My research turned up ancient figurines, hieroglyphs, wall paintings bas-reliefs carved into stone stelae (like this one of Lady Wac-chanil-ahau standing atop a bound captive warrior), plus painted or inked codices – bark-paper books the Mayans created around the 1100s. Some were pretty gruesome, so I avoided those. Others, like this winsome little jaguar tickled my funny-bone.

With lots of subjects to choose from, I picked out several for my mural, looking for drama and detail and avoiding modern interpretations (as far as I could tell) with which the internet is flooded. I decided to copy them almost exactly to keep them authentic-looking.   
feathered serpent god and supplicant
I originally planned to make the serpent god, a really stupendously magnificent being, the first thing you see as you come up the walk to the house. I even had it all graphed out and ready to transfer.  But after a few months of thought (you shouldn’t rush such things) a benign realistic jaguar began to manifest itself, because really, the jaguars have a wonderfully strong presence here, they, and the other wildlife, are some of the main reason I chose to live here. I wanted to honor that. 

Ready to begin muraling, I took photos of my house walls (not so easy on a round house!).  I joined them together in Photoshop and created a flat view to use as a template with correct proportions (I could have just sketched out the plan, but I was having fun in Photoshop).
this plan is called a "cartoon" by muralists
On the house, I measured and recorded every wall space, the distance between windows, and the distance from the floor to what would be the bottom of every image. Then, in Photoshop, I superimposed a transparent grid sheet over the plan, sizing it so that each square represented one inch. Then I “pasted” a mural image into each spot onscreen.

my 8½x11" working cartoon
Now, with subject choices made, I created a fresh 8½” x 11” .jpg file for each image and superimposed a transparent grid on THAT so that every inch grid line on the house wall plan corresponded with the inch markings on my printed-out paper grid.

On the paper grid (my "cartoon"), I counted squares and wrote down measurements (in red on the ballplayer figure here) to correspond to measurements of the actual wall. That done I slipped the gridded diagram into a plastic sheet protector to keep it from getting wet or dirty – I didn’t want to have to re-count all those measurements.   

Time to transfer!  Using a #2 pencil, a yardstick, and a kneaded eraser, I measured the wall up from the floor and in from the window to find the outermost point of the ballplayer's toe (27” up and 4” in from the door frame – see the red arrow on the cartoon) and made a dot there.  Then I located a distinctive spot a few inches up, at the edge of his anklet (34” up and 7” in) and put a dot there.  I kept working, finding important points on the drawing, measuring VERY carefully.

the ballplayers feet, pencil outline
Finally, I had a dot-to-dot outline.  I went back and added some dots. Then checking back and forth frequently, I sketched the outline, erasing when I goofed, redrawing again, and re-checking measurements if something looked off. It is much easier to draw the outline with all the dots to aim for (I’ve enlarged the dots on the ballplayer grid so you can see them) than to try to do it freehand.

I didn’t put all the details in this pencil outline on the wall. I added those later when I was actually painting it.

the ballplayer, checking out my cleavage
At first, I thought I would color the figures, but after looking at the black outlines awhile, I realized that the simple black outlines looked elegant and that adding all the colors might make the mural too overpowering.

But it did need some color, so studying Mayan drawings online I found a motif called a skyband, a horizontal element which supposedly was used as a division between the natural and the supernatural worlds in Mayan mythology. It’s usually brightly colored in Mayan paintings, and I used it to connect all the murals into one continuous design.  

A short section of Mayan skyband
With the ballplayer outlined in black paint, I penciled in then painted a section of skyband in the colors that seemed typical to many Mayan paintings: teal green, cinnamon, a darker red-brown, light yellow, and yellow ochre (back to the paint store in San Ignacio!). Just for the record, the mural paint I’m using is Comex Vinimex, pintura vinil-acrilica premium, interiores/exteriores, satinado, which is pretty easy to translate: Interior/exterior vinyl-acrylic, satin finish house paint.

Ix Chel, holding Moon Rabbit
Over a period of several months, I penciled in, then painted outlines for the rest of the figures, plus some fascinating glyphs like these at left (I’ve no idea what this one  means.  Maybe “Your grandma was a howler monkey!”?  Fortunately, few other people can read them either, so I’m probably safe.) I continued the skyband as I worked my way around the house toward the entry, completing Ix Chel, the moon goddess holding the moon rabbit (did you know many people don’t see a Man In The Moon? They see a Rabbit!). 

Then I added that whimsical jaguar with a lotus on its head (jaguars often swim, coming up draped with pond -- or lotus -- weeds). 
Lady Wac-chanil-ahau

jaguar figure
Lady Wac-chanil-ahau with her basket of offerings (but without her doomed captive!) came next. 

One other thing happened before the mural was done. When I’d finished with the Mayan parts, I saw that I was having a problem with the natural red clay wall surface crumbling off, sand-grain by sand-grain. 

I realized that my murals were destined for a short life unless I took measures.  So I painted cream-colored house paint carefully around each figure while Freddy, who has been working at my house to pay off the price of items brought to him from the US, painted the rest of the house. 
house-painting in progress

That stabilized the walls around the figures, and I then varnished the figures themselves to glue all their little sand grains to the wall.

Only then did I paint the jaguar on the cream-colored wall, using the same grid and dot technique. Jaguar spots were applied free-hand. Here’s my feline friend, the life-size jaguar in full color, who now greets visitors with his inquisitive and riveting gaze. I still need to paint the rock he is perched on. The skyband will continue around the rock to be covered by his front paws. 

The jaguar is a powerful god in Mayan mythology, so to my mind, he guards the entrance and graciously protects all within.

SO!  Now to show you the whole series, finished (including the guardian jaguar above) in the order in which they appear from the front door to the entrance,  where the guardian jaguar dwells:

So there you have it -- "How I Painted My House Murals." 
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it
Hasta mas tarde - until later!

Friday, November 17, 2017

It Started Two Days Ago...

“It’s time,” I said to my hand.  “Pick up the sketchbook.”

“uh-uh!” my hand crept behind my back.

“Pick it up.” I said sternly. My hand slowly, slowly, emerged and picked up the sketchbook gingerly.  Yes! I thought. This is working! 

“And the pen,” I continued. “Sketching won’t happen without the pen.”  I watched my fingers reach out and wrap around the pen. Squinting at them, I thought I could feel my new 
determination to draw getting a grip.

“Out to the veranda,” I directed my reluctant self. It was a struggle, but with the sketchbook and pen in hand, my resistance was losing its hold. I softened my tone a bit. “You can do this. You used to do it all the time. It’s gonna be fine!”  Really? Really can I start up again after more than two years?

We (my mind, my body, my hand, my determination – the whole package) walked out and sat down in my hammock chair on the veranda overlooking my rainforest yard.  There, a few feet directly in front of me were two cecropia  (see-CRO-pee-uh) trees, with their bamboo-like hollow sections and gorgeous umbrella-like 2-2½’ broad leaves.  One was skinny and scarred, the other was fat and saucy. Maybe I'd just do the trunks. Perfect subjects, stationary, hard to mess up – mostly straightish lines. Not too ambitious for this first try. 

I sat down, opened the sketchbook to the first empty page after my July 7, 2015 sketch of a Giant Red-winged Grasshopper and hesitantly sketched the first bit of outline. Okay, that's a start... 
I took a sip of coffee, made a few more tentative marks with the ballpoint pen. I watched a blue-crowned mot-mot flicking its tennis-racket tail in a tangle of leaves a few yards away. Stop procrastinating! I drew a bit more, and finally, at last, I settled down to my first sketch-journal drawing in more than two years. Ahhhhh....

Things were a little shaky at first. My lines were not clear and concise, my attention wandered when it needed to focus, I seemed to have forgotten movements that once were easy – all things that I hope will improve with practice. I was using a pen since using a pencil here is not an option. In the tropics the high humidity makes the sketch paper soft, and a graphite stroke that would be black and forceful in a dry climate leaves only a soft gray line on damp paper, so shading is next to impossible. The pencil stroke indents the paper as well.  Forget trying to erase, as that destroys the damp paper immediately.  

I started the drawing on Wednesday afternoon, day before yesterday, but I had other obligations Wednesday night and Thursday, so I only was able to return to it this morning, which is good, actually, because after a day without looking at the sketch I could see that the design was pretty skimpy and it needed something to anchor it and to make the page more interesting. So walking out into the yard, I found a young cecropia top to sketch into the upper right corner.  Ah!  Much better.

Next I added a title and some things I know about cecropias. The page is not as good as it would have been when I was sketching steadily a couple of years ago, but it’s good enough to tell me I haven’t lost the ability to draw (I was wondering). 
and it is

Below are some photos of what I was sketching. I always try to take photos in case I can't get back to the original to draw for some reason, such as:  it starts to rain; my subject runs away, rots, or otherwise changes or disappears; daylight ends; or I want to work on it or add color later.  Maybe I'll add color to this one later.

left to right:  2" cecropia,  4" cecropia, new cecropia leaves
I want to thank Carol for commenting that she hoped I would be able to start up again and continue on. 

Carol, this sketch/journal page is dedicated to you. Thank you!  Thanks for giving me a specific goal and a reason to get it done. I told myself I didn’t get to answer your comment until I had created something in order to show you that I was serious about starting up again.  It worked.

Maybe this will give you a nudge as well, since you said you’ve been finding it difficult to keep sketching without a cheering section. 
Shall we keep going?  I'll watch for yours if you'll watch for mine.  Anyone else want to join us?

Here's a grab-bag of other entries...

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