Sketchbook: Things I Like About Christmas

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As I slowly recover from the family food fest known as Christmas, a few thoughts.

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Happy holidays, everyone!

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A Transformation: From Yellow Sienna Marble to Limestone

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Last week, I drew the parameters of a project I was working on in my sketchbook journal. This week, I’ll follow up with the details.

The task: to paint an old marble fireplace to look like limestone, matching stone that was recently installed in the room.

This is the former fireplace. It’s probably a variation of Yellow Sienna marble.

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Sorry about the plastic wrap, these are the only photos I have. Here’s a detail.

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Still, you can see how strong the yellow and brown marble is, and can probably imagine how this sort of fireplace will insistently draw the eye. If the designer decided to keep this fireplace, he’d have to balance its heavy visual weight with the other elements and furniture in the room, and integrate or balance its color palette.

One way to trick the brain into believing that the soon-to-be painted finish is real is to match a stone that’s in the room. In this case, slabs of limestone were installed in the doorways. This is a shot of the stone.

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Since the limestone doorways must be passed through to enter the room, our brains will register their stone, then look at the fireplace and assume it’s real, partly because we’ve just seen the real stone, and partly because we expect a fireplace to be made of stone. Our conscious minds won’t be aware of this process.

Here’s the fireplace, now painted bone white, a blank slate. My two samples are sitting on top, but I’ll work off of the real limestone. My work station is set up off to the right.

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The first step, as usual, is to tape off and protect the adjacent surfaces. The base painters, who sprayed on the base coat, had already protected the walls.

Painting most marbles is a process of building up layers of color, which creates visual depth. Marbles can have enormous depth, so generally, the flatter a painted stone looks, the less convincing it will be. That’s why we start with such a light base color, so it can shine up through the translucent layers of darker glaze, creating depth.

Off we go. You’ll see this process from two angles. First, about six or seven layers of acrylic glaze are applied with a damp sponge. The colors are a mix of white, raw umber and raw sienna, with a little black. Here’s the progress of the right-hand column.

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Now, the side of the right-hand column. The colors gradually build up, but the base coat needs to show through as well.

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Off to a good start. That took a day. Here’s where we stand:

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Next up, the detail work that will pull the patterns together and punch up the depth. Out goes the sponge and in comes a little brush. It’s time to link up the patterns of the sponge to create direction and flow. We’re going from general to specific. This will make the stone come to life and will take the better part of a second day.

The blobs are painted with the darkest color that will be used and softened with a badger brush. Then, using a toothbrush, I spatter on the same dark color and a light cream.

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Then on top of the dark blobs and the spatter comes the lightest color, a fine web of creamy lines gently pounced on with a barely damp sponge, its patterns joined together with a fine brush. With the darkest and lightest colors right on top of one another, here comes the depth I’ve been working toward.

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A coat of matte varnish, and the final result.

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It’s hard to see the details of the painted surface in a photo, but it’s easy to see how the mood of the room has completely changed because the stone has changed. We’ve gone from loud to subtle, from old-fashioned to contemporary (well, as contemporary as you can get with columns), and most importantly, we’ve changed the color palette, integrating the fireplace into the room’s new design. Also, we can see the details of the columns caps more clearly, now that they aren’t dominated by the marble’s pattern.

Magic? Not quite. But almost as much fun!

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Are You Where You Think You Are?

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Where do you live? Do you feel that you know your town or city well? Really well? Can you find your way through the short cuts, do you know the nooks and crannies? I thought I knew where I lived. But did I?

Here’s a place I discovered this year. Where do you think we are? This beautiful overlook faces a long, wide river.

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This winding path is perfect for an afternoon walk.

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Look how lush it is here, even in the fall.

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Where is this forest?

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And this street, flanked by a tall wall of rock?

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Hmm, what’s this I see? It seems to be a subway entrance punched into the rock.

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Yep, we’re in Manhattan.

This is my new neighborhood, Hudson Heights, and we just took a stroll through Fort Tryon Park, which is right outside my front door. Here’s a post I wrote last spring, on my first recon mission to the neighborhood to check it out as a possible place to live.

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When most of us think of New York City, we think of skyscrapers and crowds of people and concrete and noise. What I didn’t discover until recently is that New York City has a flip side: 38,000 acres of parkland, leading the country in parkland as a percentage of city area at 19.5% of the city’s land.

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Northern Manhattan, where I’m now living, has more than 500 acres of parkland between 155th Street and 220th Street, made up of 5 major parks and 9 miles of shoreline, including Manhattan’s last stand of virgin forest and the last remnant of the tidal marshes that once surrounded the island. Last Saturday morning as I woke up, I heard a red-tailed hawk screeching. I looked out the window and there he was, circling my apartment building with a friend.

It’s fun to be surprised.

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Painting in the Paleozoic

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Here’s a little job I took care of last week: playing magician again, making things disappear.

It’s funny how, once a client finds out something is possible, they’d like it done everywhere. In this case, it was my ability to paint light caps to blend into the background that landed me in the bathroom.

This is a beautiful bathroom almost entirely clad in a gorgeous travertine, a form of limestone. Here’s a corner of the room, to show how the stone flows together. I love rooms like this: so well thought out, the stone perfectly cut, such precision, no room for error. You can see how the uninterrupted pattern moves up the walls to the crown molding, over soffits and around corners, revealing that the pieces are cut from a single slab before assembly. Stone covers the floor as well, including the interior of the shower stall, and juts out to create a countertop around the sink below the window. Stone installed in this way is usually about 3/4″ thick.

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There’s one of my little light caps taped off above, inset into the stone-clad soffit. There were four lights in all, three set into the ceiling soffits and the fourth in the shower. I’m painting the fixture itself, so that it will appear that the light is shining from a hole in the stone.

This is a close-up of two sections of the travertine. It has a random design that’s almost blurry, all sorts of organic patterns blending together in shades of white, cream, brown and grey. So pretty.

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I’m in the middle of reading a book called “On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes,” and in one chapter, the author circles a New York City block with Sidney Horenstein, a geologist from the Museum of Natural History.

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He points out that when we think about geology, we think about what’s underfoot. But in a city, geology surrounds us. Starting on a large scale, with the stone used to construct the streets and buildings, then moving to the smaller scale of the stone and natural materials we use in the interiors of our homes. We are surrounded by stone that was millions of years in the making, each from a specific geographic area.

Have you noticed that some stones have patterns that resemble liquid? It’s because its particles were once suspended in liquid. Travertine is a sedimentary rock composed of calcium carbonate, formed when river and spring waters evaporated, usually near hot springs or in underwater caves or water tables. Limestone often contains seashells and remnants of ancient sea life. Depending on where the stone was quarried, it could be millions upon millions of years old.

Back to those light fixtures. Below is the first light, naked and way too noticeable. The fixture is about three inches square.

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First thing to do, sand it a bit to get a little tooth on the surface, then tape it off and prime it. I added a bit of raw umber and raw sienna to my white primer to head the color in the right direction.

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With stone like this, I’m working from general to specific, so we go for the big patterns and directions first. The palette is easy because the colors are so limited. I’m using Golden Liquid Acrylics in white, titan buff (a cream), raw sienna, raw umber and lamp black.

Here’s the first pass. The key to tricking the eye, besides getting the color right, is to continue the pattern onto the new surface, as if I’m simply filling in the blank that was lost when the opening for the light was cut into the stone.

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Then the fun starts, bouncing my brush around to create all kinds of squiggles and dots. After two more passes, I’m done.

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To finish, I clean up the messy line between the stone and the fixture.

Here’s another, with a close up of the stone turning the corner of the soffit to go down the wall. Look at that perfect match-up in pattern.

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I’d never thought about the age of the many marbles and stones I paint before I read the book. An excerpt:

“If you think of the city as geology unearthed, it is nonstop: he pointed out features of the sidewalks and streets; walls, roofs and stairs; atriums, cornices and decorative rosettes. All were stone, all were known to him. Just this one block, a random sample of any block in this city or any city, contained the history of geology across eras and locales…

The stone has multiple stories to tell us, for it has had multiple lives. Every stone has a parent — for the limestone, it is the creatures of the sea — and even in this latest, most quiet phase of its last hundred million years, it has seen some things. Quarries, created to pull stone out of the earth by the tonful, each have distinctive characters, and the people who know stones come to know the quarries… A street full of rocks, made buildings, becomes a whirlwind tour through eons.”

Finding Flow

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Artists often talk about a term called “flow,” which is when you become so engrossed in the task at hand, you lose all sense of time, the outside world falls away and you’re floating along on your own little planet.

For me, the feeling of flow is one of the biggest thrills of making art, where all of the decisions are right ones and things come together effortlessly.

Over the past few weeks as I’ve unpacked from my recent move, I’ve seen the effects of being hooked on the feeling of flow. Here’s a symptom: these are bookmarks I’ve made by combining handmade paper with all kinds of ephemera, everything from old stamps and postcards to my own drawings and photos to yesterday’s junk mail.

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Oh, isn’t that nice, you say. A bunch of bookmarks. No, I REALLY like the feeling of flow. There’s something about the combination of color, image, texture and text that clicks in my brain.

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And that’s just the tip of the bookmark iceberg. I love the zone that I find when I work with paper.

The term “flow” was invented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmaihalyi in the 1980s. He describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Like I said, flow feels great!

After I made enough bookmarks to sink a ship, I graduated to pencil cups. These are tin cans that have been covered with papers. Once again, couldn’t stop.

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A few tips from Mr. C. on some of the components you might find when you’re in a state of flow:

• Clear goals that are challenging yet attainable

• Strong concentration and focus

• The activity is intrinsically rewarding

• Feelings of serenity and a lack of self-consciousness

• Timelessness: an altered state of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time

• Immediate feedback

• A balance between skill level and the task at hand

• Feelings of control over the challenge and the result

• Lack of awareness of physical needs

• Complete focus on the activity alone

If you’d like to explore Csikszentmaihalyi’s fascinating books on flow and creativity, here’s his Amazon page.

On the days I’m looking for something other than paper, well, there’s always rocks.

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The best thing about flow? You can find it everywhere, from cooking to making music to reading to running: whatever engages your senses so deeply that you are utterly in the moment. The tricky part? Finding focus in our distraction-filled world. Get away from your electronics, let go of anxiety and sink into it. Flow feels so good that you’ll want to find it over and over again.

What about you? Where do you find it?

Farewell, Sweet Little Gardens

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I finally closed on my new apartment, so I’ll be heading uptown later this week and moving in. One thing I’ll miss in the East Village is the plethora of community gardens. I thought it would be fun to sing a farewell love song to Alphabet City, an ode to the gorgeous oases that dot its streets. (If you don’t know where this area is, here’s a little help.)

I drew a map of the neighborhood’s community gardens. Look at them all. Amazing! Each is named. Some are over 35 years old.

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When I first started wandering around the hood on my morning walks, I was surprised by the number of gardens. I’d never seen so many gardens in one area before, a number of them mature and substantial. After all, NYC real estate is valuable, and I wondered how these patches of community-supported soil had managed to stave off man’s irrepressible impulse to claim and build, not to mention the city’s ability to use “eminent domain” to seize any patch of earth it chooses.

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The story of the development of these gardens is long and rich. In the 1960s and 70s, this part of the city was deeply neglected, falling prey to crime and slumlords. A number of buildings were destroyed by arsonists. The city razed these buildings, leaving open land, and since the neighborhood was dangerous and destitute, there was no interest in rebuilding.

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In 1973, Liz Christy, an artist and activist, founded an environmental group called the Green Guerillas. They began by throwing “seed bombs” over the fences surrounding the lots, packed with seeds, fertilizer and water. She caught the attention of the city’s Parks Department, who leased her an empty lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston Streets for $1 a month. This became the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden, the first community garden in the city. It eventually contained 60 vegetable beds and inspired a horticultural revolution.

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In 1978, the GreenThumb program was born, which encouraged neighborhood groups to lease land parcels for sometimes as little as a dollar a year. This program was intended to encourage grassroots neighborhood revitalization and was wildly successful. The catch? The gardens created were considered temporary and the city still retained rights over the land. This concept hummed along nicely until the 1990s, when the city decided it wanted to sell some of the gardens to developers to shore up the budget. By this point, the gardens had become such an integral part of their neighborhoods that the prospect of losing them was unthinkable. This being New York, all hell broke loose.

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The Attorney General had to step in to broker a deal. One of the key players in that deal was Bette Midler, who, appalled at the lack of community green space in the city, had founded the New York Restoration Project a few years earlier. Her group bought 52 of the gardens outright. Of the 520 gardens in the city at that time, 400 were saved, many becoming permanent as part of the Parks Department.

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Today, NYC has about 640 community gardens scattered among the five boroughs, with about 60 clustered in the East Village and Lower East Side. The gardens boast 20,000 members; the gardens themselves make up about 32 acres. Wow! is all I can say. Each garden hosts events and workshops and all are open to the public.

The garden below is a tiny sliver of land, yet it explodes with greenery.

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Each garden has its own sign.

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A bonus of the gardens is that lucky apartment dwellers can look out their windows and instead of seeing other buildings, they see trees.

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Mural and garden and comfy bench! Does it get any better?

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Some gardens contain sculptures, decorative nicknacks, or someone’s latest creative installation.

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These lots once represented the detritus of a neighborhood under siege. It’s amazing to see how the concentrated work of determined visionaries was able to utterly turn around this devastation and from it, create not just a sense of community, but a vital part of the local culture that brings people together with a sense of purpose and joy.

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Today, it’s thrilling to walk in Alphabet City and stumble on these lush pockets of green, welcoming anyone to sit down and take a deep breath. I’ll miss them on my morning walks, but I’ll be back often to wander among them again.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: Urban Camouflage

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When I was a kid, I loved looking at books about animals and nature. Some of my favorites contained photos of animals that blended in with their surroundings, like caterpillars who looked like sticks or moths who resembled tree bark or grasshoppers who matched the colors of rocks (like this little dude below).

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Some of the color matching projects I do remind me of those books. Here’s a fun job that I completed last week, painting a metal contraption in an exterior courtyard to blend in with the brick wall behind it.

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This metal pole supports heat sensors used for a mysterious purpose that I was unable to decipher. Anyway, I used the strongest primer I had to be sure that the paint would stick, and tinted it with universal tints to create each color. Every layer had to be as strong as possible, so only primer was used. First task, taping off and painting the metal to match the color of the brick’s grout.

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Then it was time to play, bouncing around between the bricks, matching by mixing in venetian red, burnt sienna, raw umber, raw sienna and black.

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Each brick had three or four layers of paint, pounced on to create texture. I used a smaller brush to define the edges of each brick, and by lunch time, I’d finished the support. Off came the tape!

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After lunch, I painted the horizontal box at the top of the pole, then promptly ran out of juice in my phone and couldn’t take the final photo. Everything was sealed with an oil-based varnish while crossing my fingers. I can’t guarantee that anything outside will survive winter without cracking, but I try to reduce the chances.

To me, the most interesting thing here isn’t the painting, but that this Park Avenue building asked me to do this. The sensor unit is in an unused courtyard, 25 feet back from the street, around the corner from the entrance. This cosmetic fix was done simply to create the illusion of an unbroken brick facade. No detail too small!

To continue the theme, here are a couple of outlet and switch plate covers I completed this year. Painting these covers to match their backgrounds is one of those final touches that makes a room look integrated and perfectly done. This outlet cover is painted to match granite, one of five in this kitchen.

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This switch plate is on a wall of bleached and stained oak. I think of these kinds of painting days as mental health days, because although it looks difficult to match wood and stone, it isn’t that hard and is actually relaxing, since I become completely absorbed as I paint each plate. Regardless, almost anyone who sees what I’m doing is impressed that I can match and I’m showered with compliments all day. Not a bad job if you can get it!

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One of my all-time favorite types of camouflage is body paint. Once I have my files out of storage, it will be time for a feature on the legendary Veruschka, bearer of body paint extraordinaire. Here’s a preview, in keeping with our urban theme. Do you see her? Incredible!

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