Color in a monochrome world

If you follow me at all on social media, you know that I’ve fallen hard for watercolors. I’m posting pictures several times a week: some I’m proud of and some I’m frustrated by. I dream about watercolors, when I am not having that dream where you go to a party and realize halfway through that no one is wearing masks. My art adventure started in July with basic of learning how to draw, and then in September I tried a watercolor of White Lake. I’m saving the before/after until I’ve been doing this for a year, assuming I’m still interested this summer. But I’ve made a lot of progress.

A recent (uninstructed) attempt

I’ve been waiting for two weeks breathlessly for a shipment from an art store. (Shockingly Amazon isn’t a good source for the stuff I’m trying to buy.) I’ve been whining a lot about how it’s taken TWO WEEKS to get me these paints. I, unlike most Americans, like STUFF. When I was a kid, the best part of going to school was that sweet, sweet 64 crayon box with all the sharp, unblemished colors. I’m not alone in having learned the names of every crayon Crayola produced for years. But my art education never advanced past the Crayola and Coloring phase, although my love for colors shows in my extensive pen selection.

My favorite genre of painting

For years, the closest I’ve come to artistic expression has been stamping cards. This is also a pleasure with color and paper – the sharpness of a crease, the perfect match of pattern, image and words. My favorite was always coloring in the stain glass window stamps with watercolor pencils – a bare step above coloring book and crayola. But with the water colors, all the joy of the 64 box has come flooding back, but with even more complex and multilayered joys.

Remarkable how much the mind fills in

One of the first books I read advised me to buy about 8 colors of paint. So I went to Michael’s and bought 8 tubes of cheap student’s paint (appropriate, given my skill level). The book had instructions on how to mix the colors to make other colors, but neglected to understand just how inexperienced a student might be. I struggled mightily squeezing out gobs of paint trying to get proportions right and cleaning huge amounts of paint off my little plastic palette after every picture. It felt… wrong and wasteful. Because it was wrong and wasteful.

I did this one twice, so you can see the amount of my skill vs. the skill of the instructor

I’ve been doing a lot of classes from a teacher online, and my new strategy has been to have blick.com up for the materials section of every class and buy everything I don’t already have. NORMALLY they’re here by the next weekend’s painting time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the tools and my preferences. For example, the right brush is absolutely transformational – at least at my skill level. I adore indigo with a deep and enduring passion, but cerulean is just meh. And it’s not just the one color, it’s the colors as you move from pure paint to nearly-water with the same paint. It’s the richness of the paint, and how the paint loves the water. Whether it longs for or disdains the paper. Is it smooth? Is is translucent? Does it haunt your dreams? But it’s hard to guess by paint names. I mean, cerulean is a great color name. Indigo is boringer. But I love indigo so much.

So much potential

So this last order I got a dot sheet, which allows you to paint from a tiny dot of watercolor all 109 colors that Winsor & Newton make. 109 times you introduce the paint to the water, and share both with the paper. It’s a deeply contemplative activity (how can a person be bad at painting swatches? But yet I am.) It took me almost two quiet hours. And in that time I delved into a world previously unseen to me. Each color is coded with the permanence, series number, staining, granulation, transparency and light-fastness. These are realms I have not considered.

From a recent class

As the time spread like water on the paper, I also started contemplating the color names – so different from their Crayola predecessors. I think of myself as having a pretty good vocabulary, but have never heard of perylene or quinacridone or gamboge or indanthrene. Mysterious patterns lay themselves out: there are cadmiums of every color, and then a non-cadmium option. Why? What makes the cadmiums both so prized and so flawed that they cannot be left out but also need some alternative? What does it mean that there is one Winsor in every color. Does that harken to the manufacturer? Does it mean the base color, like a box of 8 crayons? Then we go a step farther. One of the colors is caput mortuum violet. I know that once they made a paint called mummy brown, made of mummies. Is this … latin for mummy brown? There is a tale to this color, likely over a century old. And every color in this swatch. And then there is also the science to it. Intrigued, I looked it up and caput mortuum is made from hematite and the name stretches further back than the 19th century to the alchemical experiments of the enlightenment and yes. Is related to mummy brown.

I like the polaroid size

I stand on the banks of the river of my ignorance and am only now seeing just how deep and wide those waters run. Truly, I have known nothing and come to this as a babe. It’s been so long since I have approached something so innocently. I mean, this is just paint colors that have my heart running fast with excitement tonight. There are other paint manufacturers, who have other storied colors. There are other kinds of watercolors, like the unpronounceable and unspellable gouache. There are brushes. I know they matter, but I do not know what they MEAN. The papers, sold with so many languages on their covers, hint at sacred mysteries like cold pressing and rough grain. (Are these mutually exclusive? How do they change the dance with the paints and the brush?) There are techniques, and trick and things everyone knows (did Picasso have one shade of blue he used in his blue period?). There’s the difference between pigment and hue. There’s how to see, and how to communicate what you see, and which tools you need to pick for what you’re trying to do. And that’s before we get to acrylics or oils.

In this pandemic time, I feel like all my horizons are room-sized: small and constrained and maybe just a little worn. Watching this world of painting unfold in my own mind is like braving a winter hike to stand on a summit and gaze beyond purpling horizons lined with mountains. When I first started hiking, those mountains were unnamed and undifferentiated too. And now I know them with the intimacy born of sweat and suffering.

My love and longing

There is no telling how long this phase of exploration lasts. Do I quit when progress is no longer immediate? Is my time swallowed by the return of the world? Does it lose its charm? Do I develop a near-fatal allergy to cadmium? Even here I have no path, and simply walk ahead, seeing what vistas may yet await me the next time I pick up a brush.

Indigo mountains

Time to panic

Guys, I hate to be the one to tell you, but SUMMER IS ALMOST OVER!!! QUICK PANIC!

It’s possible that I’ve counted out the remaining summer weekends on my fingers and come to the conclusion that this weekend needed to be ALL THE SUMMER. This was definitely exacerbated by a realization I had during my “sabbatical” that I only had four summers left with Grey after this one, and I might well never spend another July with him. I am not ready for many (or any) lasts with my children that do not involve diaper pails. My friends will point out that I’m always looking way ahead and anticipating what happens next with my kids. This is true, but in this case it nicely focuses me on what I need to do right now: panic.

So this weekend I tried to cram in as much quality family summer time as humanly possible.

It started on Friday night with some rock climbing. A Very Nice rock climbing gym has recently opened about 3/4 of a mile from our house. Adam and I both did belay classes, and went in together (and with the kids) to get certified and do some climbing. Both kids loved especially climbing with a top rope (obviously they’re not lead climbing). We had a great time just being together and doing that as a family. The kids are excited about going back, and I’m excited about more activities we can do as a family that don’t involve sitting down.

Hanging out as a family

Saturday morning on the early side, we headed up to New Hampshire. Over 20 years ago, Adam and I hiked up to Mt. Major with our fellow college friends during Fall Break. The boys ran up the mountain, in an excess of testosterone. We have never revisited it, until this weekend. It’s a pretty easy hike with a big scenic payoff. There might have been some whining as we climbed to the top of the mountain, but not too much. We celebrated our summiting with a meal at nearby Hart’s Turkey Farm. Mmmm turkey gravy poutine….

Summit time!

But we needed to get back in good time, since some friends had invited us over for dinner! BBQ, of course, being the summer. A neighborhood-favorite game of bottle bash broke out, prior to the consumption of hamburgers. It was great to catch up with some friends! But we had to leave at a moderately reasonable time, due to needing to get up early again today.

You try to hit the bottle with the frisbee

See, it’s already August and we have not yet hit the beach! I mean, our children have been MIA for most of the summer, but basically all remaining summer weekend days are spoken for. So we HAD to hit the beach this weekend, or not at all. And so we did, on a summer morning with perfectly blue skies and relatively warm waters.

Beach bums
Absolutely perfect weather

Now, when not posting breathless updates to my blog, I’m cleaning out the first and second floor hallways. Finally, almost a year after it should have been done, we’re doing the last planned part of the attic project and getting hard wood put into the first and second floor hallways, and pulling the carpet off the stairs. Given that this carpet may well be older than me, it is past due. But I definitely procrastinated on the work of it! Also, once again I failed to take a “before” picture. Why do I continue to be so bad at remembering that?

Anyway, back to panicking!

Conquering Chocorua

Carter Ledge Trail crosses a small brook and soon ascends a steep gravelly slope with poor footing, then turns sharply right and up at a gravelly slide with a view of Mt. Chocorua; this turn is easily missed, especially on the descent. Continuing to climb steeply… The trail passes through a sag then climbs, steeply at times, up the slope of Third Sister, with several excellent outlooks, but with some ledges that can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions. Higher up is a particularly tricky scramble across a potentially slippery, downward sloping ledge (especially difficult on the descent)… White Mountain Guide 30th edition p.385

If only I’d seen this

About the time we hit that gravelly slide bit (on the descent, of course), we’d already been on the trail for about 8 hours. I’d noticed the beautiful way the light slanted through the jack pines that we were just about to lose it behind Chocorua, on whose summit we’d so recently stood. I figured that it was probably a bad idea to point this out to Erin, who was clinging to the ragged edges of sanity after the “slippery, downward sloping ledge” bit. It had rained torrentially the night before and was very humid, turning all the granite rock faces to a slip-slide zone. But I picked up the pace just a bit anyway.

Note how ominously close that sun is to the horizon – that’s also where we’d been a few hours prior

My fears were justified. We reached the blessed safety of our car at just the tipping point between when ruining your night vision with a flashlight would’ve been worth it. Every muscle in our body screamed. Successive adrenaline jolts were wearing off, and we scarfed a bag of M&Ms by the fistful. Erin is an extremely polite and well mannered person. So when she turned to me to express feelings on the hike all she said was “I am NEVER hiking that mountain again.”

Not the steepest, scariest part of the trail

It’s possible I’d slightly undersold the experience. You see, I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Chocorua REALLY BADLY for about the last six years. I made an attempt six years ago (on a shredded knee, right before surgery) but had gotten turned back. It’s logistically challenging. It’s definitely a full day hike. The kids definitely aren’t up for it. And it’s several hours drive from my house. Also, you really really shouldn’t do it alone. This made it hard for me to “convince” my husband he wanted to do it, or to figure out how to do it at all. But this summer, a window opened. The kids were off at Camp Gramp chasing the eclipse. Adam was at Gencon. And I had a summer weekend all to myself. Sometime this spring Erin and I were talking about hiking and the high pressures of modern life and I said, “Hey, you wanna come on this hike with me? We’d get a hotel, make a weekend out of it, and really relax.”

My usual view of Chocorua from White Lake State Park

The last few times I’ve gazed at Chocorua’s lovely & taunting profile I’ve taunted back “This time I’m going to get you!” But for having been on my bucket list for years, I’d spent remarkably little time thinking through which trails I wanted to take. We’d been using a hike book the last 6 or 7 years, but Irene did a number on several off the local trails and we’d gotten in a bit of trouble, so I stopped at EMS to try to buy a new copy. They were fresh out! But hey, if I wanted a “Paddling the Ohio” copy no problem. I figured I’d stop at the Ranger Station to get a copy there. But traffic was awful and I hit the ranger station after 5 when it was closed. But hey, I had a recent map of Chocorua! Erin and I reviewed the route that night.

Not enough information

We had two cars and wanted to do a circle route. I picked one of the shortest loops that seemed to also include the most viewpoints. “So we’ll go up the Hammond Trail, pick up the Liberty Trail across the summit, and then come down the Carter Ledge Trail to White Ledge Campground, which has plenty of parking. It’s about 10 miles. Sound good?”

I mean, ten miles eeeeeeaaaaasssssy right? AHAHAHAHAHAH!

Chocorua is on the left here. We’d be coming down where the white cliffs are to the right.

Well, it was absolutely gorgeous. The pull up was long and hard and humid. The ground was steaming. The leaves were steaming. We were definitely steaming. It had rained so hard the night before, but it was still warm – touching 80. We’d brought lots of water – nearly 5 liters – as well as a UV water purifier that I’ve wanted for years but never splurged on. (See also: stop at EMS) But we were losing water at a great rate, which was ironic given that vast muddy puddles littered the trail. The rocks couldn’t dry off in the humidity, so stayed slick the whole day. And we needed to climb 3,200 feet. Then summit about three different peaks in a row. Then descend that 3,200 feet.

The wild blueberries were superb and I grazed continually as I hiked!

We ran out of water with about 3 miles to go. Fortunately, I did have my schmancy fancy new water purified and got us a critical additional liter for the last two fast miles out. Did I mention on that descending Carter Ledge Trail we saw not a single other human? We were definitely going the wrong direction, and were very likely the only people on that trail. We couldn’t call mountain rescue if we got in trouble, either, since Erin’s brother would’ve been the one to answer our call and that might’ve been mortally embarrassing.

The view of Chocorua from Middle Sister

This climb was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Every single stabilization muscle was spent. The big muscles of my legs screamed. Bands of pain radiated across both knees with every step up and down. The next day, I could hardly walk up or down a staircase. The biggest surprise was how incredibly sore my arms and core muscles were. We did a LOT of climbing and used a lot of arm strength to get ourselves up and down. I’m not sure any part of my body didn’t hurt. Erin had some blisters she didn’t even know she had because their pain signals were hidden in the overall pain-signals from all other parts of her body.

But oh my friends, what a triumph it was. What a great blessing it is to push yourself to and past your limits, and emerge victorious from the battle. I live so much in my mind, that to spend 10 hours being very much within my body was a great gift. It was truly everything I wanted – and more. Now to figure out how to talk Erin into making this an annual event….

See more pictures here!

The white gulls are crying

I was, perhaps, unduly influenced by Tolkien in my youth. And by “unduly influenced” I really mean “secretly spent Junior High living in Middle Earth” and “can still recite Elvish poetry”. I was raised in tall and wild mountains with tall and wild trees and short and prosaic people, (Ah, Tuffy Suter!) although one or two of them might have passed as Bjoernings.

My first love – you would dream dreams too if you read Tolkien in this place

In one scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” (skipped over in the movies) Legolas is warned by Galadriel of the lure of the sea – that once he hears the gulls cry he will never again know peace. Of course, Legolas does not then say, “Right ho! I’ll just head back through the Mines of Moria and forget this whole Fellowship business.” He travels the Paths of the Dead and in the course of commandeering some slave ships hears those fated gulls.

I always thought this bit was lame because pffft. The sea. Lamesauce. I was all about the mountains: high, majestic, completely familiar and yet unknowable, omnipresent and unscalable with volcanic secrets buried deep in their hearts and an aspect of icy glory overlooking millennia of maudlin human history. Give me the mountains, the forests, the deep glades and rushing streams and I will be content. I lift my eyes unto the hills. Living between the mighty Mt. Rainier and the sliver of the Pacific Ocean known as Puget Sound, my heart could have been swayed either way. But I turned my back on the sea and gave my heart to the hills.

This has remained true even as my coastal allegiance has switched. I spent four years of college in New London – gazing out of Long Island Sound – and only ventured to the shore a handful of times. I live now within 10 miles of the Atlantic Coast in an old and storied land, and over the past few years – again – I have only ventured to the seltzered strand a handful of times. When I drag my complaining menfolk to wilderness, I drag them to the lakes and “mountains” of New England. (I spent several years rather disdaining the label mountains for the worn down nubs of granite in New England, but closer proximity has given me rather a more grudging admiration.)

But then this new job, and this new commute that have driven so much of my wordcount in 2012. And as part of this urban 2 mile adventure I undertake every day, I pass over a tiny slip of the sea – the shivered remnants of the once great Fort Point Channel. It is the ocean in its most bounded – a sliver of barren water bounded on either side of my commute by iron bridges, commuters and noisy trucks.

My seducer

And yet that sliver of water is to me as the gulls were to my dear Legolas. It commands my attention when I pass it. Is it high tide, low tide or some in between state? I gaze at the mussels and barnacles encrusting the stations on the bridge. On dark dull mornings, the water is a choppy gray. On bright cheerful afternoons, a sparkling blue. The waters carry with the mysteries of the ocean, unbounded, unknown, unplumbed and it lures my imagination. As I once gazed out my window and imagined myself trekking on dusty trails through quiet groves, now I imagine myself the intimate of those vast waters. I see a slowly growing friendship between myself and the mysteries of the deep – or at least of the New England coast.

This summer I’ve managed already to cadge an invitation with a friend to spend at least a weekend close enough to hear crashing waves in your sleep. Gloucester and its beaches are a quick jaunt away, when the heat of summer weighs down the suburbs. Perhaps some chance will come to gaze on Maine’s rocky coast and investigate tide pools. And my summer plans tentatively include a few days on the other coast – the mists and rocks of the Oregon coast.

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voice of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years are failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices of the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressea, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people forever!