Sally Lightfoot

Posted April 10, 2018 by Kerry McFall

If you teach your children to love to travel, you’re likely to spend your “golden years” sketching from their photos of places you haven’t been and wondering if their passports are going to expire while they’re exploring exotic locales … the Galapagos in this case.

painting of crab on rocks above sea

“Sally Lightfoot, Galapagos Crab”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

My daughter was just lucky enough to try a cruise in the Galapagos – not only does she travel, she is a concierge travel agent! ( then scroll down to Corey Cruzado Jay)  There’s a part of me that loves what she has been able to do, and another part that kinda wishes the world was less scary…

This is another in a series of experiments with plastic wrap over watercolor for backgrounds – I’m developing ways to “push” the channels in the wrap in the direction I want the paint to flow, and I’ve learned to do one area at a time, and use a little less water and a little more paint.  Another challenge is getting seafoam to look foamy and sand to look sandy…  It’s a process.  And in this case, the subject herself (Sally) didn’t get as much attention as she should have.  I learned a lot about crabs, though – for instance, this type doesn’t even pretend to make themselves less visible to predators.  They are SO out there with their brilliant orange against the black lava rocks it’s almost like they’re daring someone or something to try to pick them off the rock!


Behind the Scene(s)

Posted February 28, 2018 by Kerry McFall

I can’t decide if I would like to be a fly on the wall in the Whitehouse these days, or if that would just make me want to hand someone the fly swatter and put me out of my misery…  The imagination boggles at what must have been said and done “backstage” in those hallowed halls over time, the ultimate “behind the scenes” locale.  But now?  Can it get any weirder?!

sketch of fluffy flowers on shrub

“Mystery Shrub”, mixed media by Kerry McFall, 7 x 10″

As I worked on this painting of a mysterious Seussical flowering shrub, I was thinking a lot about what goes on behind a scene, any scene.  Backstage in a play, literally behind the scenes, is a beehive of activity: actors rehearsing lines, politicians making up excuses…  Backstage in an artwork, i.e. in the artist’s head, is a circus of squirrels (which is pretty much what I’m thinking is going on in DC as well… ) At least that’s what it feels like in this artist’s head as I wrestle with how to manage the background of a watercolor floral.

A background can’t be too detailed or it will take over the composition entirely – I still want those crazy flowers to be the focus of attention.  But it can’t be boring either, or it will overlay the whole work with a big “Ho Hum”.  Then again, too much fuss in the background also takes a lot of time to get on paper or canvas, time that could otherwise be spent getting started on the next work of art, and life is getting shorter by the day.

So what to do?  My latest solution is plastic wrap.  I’m about to get the hang of it: do a quick watercolor wash suggesting colors in your major shapes, and major areas of dark and light, then lay plastic wrap over it while it’s still juicy and wet.  Push and pull the plastic around until it looks interesting, then go empty the dishwasher or water the houseplants.  After it’s dry, pull off the plastic and let the Squirrel Circus begin!  If it needs to be darker, get out your colored pencils and drag the side of the leads over the paint.  This will darken the “veins” formed by the plastic-channeled paint, and pick out any texture that was laid down as well.  Pen and ink, more watercolor, maybe some markers, et Voila!  Well, not quite voila at that point – I also did a few manipulations in Photoshop, trying to reach the same brightness and contrast as the original.

Here’s another example of the plastic wrap approach, although a bit less fussy than the one above:

sketch of Bengal Tiger

“Tiger Camouflage”, mixed media by Kerry McFall, 7 x 10″

This tiger was so complex, and yet he blended so nicely into the surroundings in his enclosure at the San Diego Safari Park.   Clearly all the emphasis needed to be on him, yet he couldn’t just be floating in white space.  I didn’t really want to ink in all those stripes though… so I didn’t.  I focused my efforts on his expressive face, and simply suggested the rest of his body and some strips with a few lines of ink.  He just kind of goes invisible as your eye moves off the page to the right.  If I had it to do over, I’d make that green blob up top not as bright – it must have dried before I got the plastic on.

An earlier (and less effective) example of the plastic wrap technique is in an earlier post on



Shirking Winter Realities

Posted February 19, 2018 by Kerry McFall

“Bird of Paradise”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Winter cannot truly be avoided, but I used to believe that its impact could be minimized by escaping to a milder climate.  Nope – experience teaches that when you return to your home base, you’ll find that winter has been laying in wait for you, and the fruit trees will not prune themselves.  I just spent almost 6 weeks in San Diego – not so much vacation as family necessity – and I’m back in Oregon feeling quite disoriented as snowflakes filter down through the fir branches.  The good news is I got the pruning done before the snow flurries began, and I was able to spend a little time art-making while I was there.  Now with a mug of hot buttered rum beside me, it’s pleasant to flip through my summery sketches, even as the faint tan line on my ankles fades back to my usual standard fishbelly white…

“San Diego Hibiscus”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

At first glance, San Diego was a riot of bright florals, but look closer and it’s clear that the greens have a thick underlayer of dying rusty browns, and many gardeners have switched to succulents from tropicals.  I loved encountering lush blooms on my daily walks to the boardwalk at Pacific Beach, but everything comes at a price. It was actually too hot down there, 80+ degrees, with the threat of wildfires constantly in the forecasts, and only one piddly rain event.  After a bit of flash puddling, the thirsty soils went quickly back to being bone dry, and the glorious blossoms went back to parched once again.

sketch of helicopter and waves

“Crystal Pier Search”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Painting the endless variety of the waves is another rewarding pastime at the beach, and it usually brings me a sense of calm and “this too shall pass” for whatever is the challenge of the day.  But twice I felt a “disturbance in the Force”, if you will.  The first time was the day that a helicopter and several boats kept buzzing the pier where I was working, to the point that I couldn’t stand the fuss.  I packed up my art supplies and wandered until I found someone official, who said it was a search for a young man who had fallen from the pier the night before.  Suddenly the waves seemed sinister, not soothing…  The next disturbance did not materialize: the Tsunami watch after the Alaska earthquake.  Whew.  I have to believe that the whole of Pacific Beach will join the remains of that young man far out to sea should a Tsunami hit… climate change, anyone?


Solstice and Peppermint

It’s been a cold December, no fluffy white stuff but plenty of prickly frost on the ground (and the windshield).  The red-breasted nuthatches have been coming to the birdfeeder outside our dining room window, and it’s fascinating to watch them.  As opposed to the jays, they are very polite, taking one seed at a time, then flitting away to eat it elsewhere.

“Red Breasted Nuthatch Thanks”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

It made a fun thank you card for several occasions.  After I painted the first little guy in my sketchbook (at the birdfeeder), I decided it would be interesting to see what changing the background, and a few lines on the bird, would do to the overall effect.  But I really liked the composition just the way it was, so… I tried making a template, and doing four mini-paintings:

Nuthatch Template, WIP Kerry McFall

Same bird, different feelings.  The one with the red berries seemed to be the perfect setting for a Solstice contemplation…

Assorted watercolors in process

The process taught me a lot and there are now four watercolors wafting their way to various folks for Christmas gifts.  Meantime, here is the painting I made from flowers I took to my mother in her memory care home – peppermint is a vivid trigger of holiday memories!  Merry Christmas, everyone!

“Peppermint Carnations”, mixed media by Kerry McFall


An Exercise in Contrast: Pandas vs. Donald Trump

Posted November 10, 2017 by Kerry McFall

Donald Trump is touring Asia, representing the United States. Pandas are residing at the San Diego Zoo, representing China.

Trump is a danger to the planet and every creature on it.  Pandas are seriously endangered, with or without the rest of the planet.

painting of panda bear

“Pigeon Toed Panda”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Black and white is a difficult combination to work with, artistically speaking.  It’s hard to keep one from overpowering the other in a work of art.  After I painted the border for my Panda, my first reaction was, “Oh, boogers, those diangles in the corners are too strong…”  But the more I looked, the more it became apparent that their strength was useful to impart the feeling of being caged in a zoo.  They provide visual imprisonment, preventing your eye from leaving the enclosure, just like the bears are physically imprisoned, walking round and round and round on their pigeon-toed paws.  Don’t get me wrong – I fully understand the need for protection and research, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish for a world where humans weren’t wreaking such havoc with our planet, where pandas were safe in their own environments.  Maybe that’s why his hind foot is ever-so-slightly outside of the border…

Trump is in it for the money and the power.  Pandas are in it for survival.  I am THIS close (holds up fingers with no space between) to wishing we had a panda for president instead of Trump.  It would be way cheaper just in terms of the cost of golf weekends, or making sure the Tweets weren’t being hacked by Russia, China, North Korea, &/or the teenager down the street.  Pardon the rant.  It’s been a year.

pencil sketches

Panda prep sketches, Kerry McFall

Ducks Foot In The Mud – Finley National Wildlife Refuge

Geese are reliable, to a point.  They fly in V formation.  Pretty much.  They migrate every autumn and spring.  Except the ones who decide that life on the golf course year round is way less work.  They are majestic flyers.  Mostly, aside from those awkward landings now and then.  I suspect that they post sentries, so most of the flock can relax and poke around in the mud — I saw it at least once, and tried to capture it “en plein air”, as shown below.  What you don’t see here is that these guys were around the edge of the marsh, but several hundred yards north were literally thousands of geese.  They were all about 1/4″ apart, gabbling excitedly in the shallow water… until with a roar they were suddenly all airborne!  Didn’t manage to capture that…!!

painting of geese in the marsh

“Finley Geese Sentries,” mixed media by Kerry McFall

Ducks I know less about.  When I hear them communicate out at Finlely, I am reminded of the Three Stooges laughing, “quwhack-whaa-whaack!” The one thing I’m really sure of about ducks is that their wings flap really, really fast when they fly.  I also know that they leave terrific footprints in the mud, and the traditional quilt pattern Ducks Foot in the Mud is based on the simple geometry of their webbed feet.

Traditional quilt pattern interpreted 

Purists may look at the painting below and note that the quilt pattern in the border is about ducks, but there are no ducks in the painting.  What you don’t see is all the mud where the cattails grew, and there were bound to be some duck (or goose) prints in that mud, so technically we’re OK.  Call it artistic license!

Painting of cattails with quilt-like border

“Ducks Foot in the Mud”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Speaking of technical, below is the progression of my paintings.  The final one above was Photoshopped using the Poster Edge tool, which gives it a bit more texture than the one in my sketchbook.

Flamingos and Balance

sketch of flamingo design, work in progressFlamingo Paisleys sketch, mixed media by Kerry McFall

The San Diego Zoo welcomes you with a breath-taking splash of Hot Caribbean Pink, the perfect color therapy for difficult times.  The Flamingo Pond caught my eye for sketching the minute I walked through the entry last week – such gorgeous, elegant colors and shapes!  Out came the watercolors and the squeezy brush, and splish-splash I almost captured those vibrant pinky-oranges.  A week later back at home, I pulled out my sketchbook again and studied the shapes more closely.  I decided that flamingos are really a simple series of paisleys… I sketched out my impressions on the painting, and plan to work them into one of my “diangle” projects.

But the flamingos weren’t finished with me.

flamingo on one leg, painting and ink

“Flamingo Balance”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

I tried another painting from my photos of just one bird, balancing on one leg and looking quite smug.  Even the tiniest of eyes can convey conceit:  “I can stand on one leg forever and you fall over after 10 seconds – hah!”  I need to work on lengthening the neck and legs for my next bird… and on my own balance!

“Flamingo Balance”, by Kerry McFall close-up on eye

Purple, the Ultimate Complementary Color for Autumn

Posted by Kerry McFall, September 28, 2017

If Orange is the color of the Season – then purple is my Go To complementary color.  That’s mostly because it seems to be Mother Nature’s Go To color as well.  Purple asters, both wild and tame, lurk at every roadside and flower bed.  Purple fall crocus appear out of nowhere in early fall, without benefit of leaves (how do they that?!)  Berries ripen into purplish globes, even tomatoes come in purple!

sketch of bamboo and purple tomatoes

“Purple Tomatoes”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Wild asters show up in this primarily black and white scheme, so tiny you can barely see them in the background, more lavender than purple:

white ink sketch on black paper of milkweed pods and sees

“Plant It and They Will Come”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Domesticated asters are showier, and they provided the perfect offset to the “Delicata” squash my neighbor Carolyn grew this year.  Okay, so banana yellow isn’t exactly orange, but the flesh inside IS orange, so close enough for the guys I hang around with.  Now there’s an oldie but goodie expression… my guy doesn’t even like squash, come to think of it… but he’ll eat it if I bake it with enough maple sugar and butter.  But anyway, the purple complements the background, which is my very orangey wooden table top.

Yellow squash and purple flowers

“Delicata Squash and Asters”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Photo by Kerry McFall, still life arrangement with squash and asters in a Botswana sweet grass basket

In the autumn, I’m pretty sure autumn is my favorite season!  Then again, I love it when McMenamin’s has a big fire on the hearth in the Winter, with rich hot clam chowder, snow on the firs… fickle, that’s me!  You can probably tell I have trouble sticking with any given artistic style or layout, too.  I should probably do something about that.  Maybe.


Smoky Autumn

Posted September 17, 2017 by Kerry McFall

Finley National Wildlife Refuge, especially in these quiet few days at the end of a long, hot summer, provides a calm not quite like any other.

Yesterday we saw where Invisible elk have left their hoofprints in the newly plowed soil at the edge of the dike, seeming to appear out of nowhere and slip back in to impossibly narrow tunnels in the brush.

“Finley Barn: Still Standing”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

The old barn is still standing against all odds.  I sat for several hours, completely focused on counting window panes and trying to get that red just right. The roof, once a tidy expanse of wooden shingles, is a living surface, moss upon moss upon lichen, thick and undulating, brightly colored orange and gold molds topping off green and copper and deep chocolate layers.  Owl poop – or is that swallows? – drips down the red siding of the sheltered roof peak.  I could justify the wonky perspective in my sketch by maintaining that it’s a saggy old building, but that would be cheating… the wonkiness is primarily my failure to understand some architectural basics!  Lessons learned!

Beside Cabell Marsh, Chickadees call softly to each other.  Great Blue Herons stare into their lonely reflections on the surface of the pond… and just as you feel yourself relaxing into a nice little Zen stupor, one of them bellows hoarsely at the world for no apparent reason and makes you jump and squeal.   What is that noise they make?

Lazy carp seem to wave from the middle of the pond, big fins sticking up from the shallow muddy water.  Swallows flit and twist above the surface, sometimes scooping up lunch with small sprays dripping back.

The geese have not arrived.  Unlike the rowdy OSU students due back to town this weekend, I so look forward to the arrival of the geese every year as they sing their way back from the far north.  Four ducks apparently stayed the summer.  Many more will join them soon.  Our day of wandering and relaxing ended earlier than planned as smoke drifted in from wildfires up north and out east… I hope the geese aren’t delayed or harmed by the smoke, but how can they not be affected?  The rains arrived this afternoon, perhaps that will put things right in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps nature can restore herself yet again.  Here’s hoping.

Seussical Inspiration: Cornus Kousa

Posted September 13, 2017 by Kerry McFall

When I read Dr. Seuss as a kid, I used to think the guy was crazy.  Fresh off the Bookmobile shelf, I flipped through a couple of his easy readers and quickly concluded that most of his books were filled with drawings of impossible plants and animals.  None of them looked like anything that grew in Klamath Falls, Oregon, (or even Eugene which was the cosmopolitan center of my small universe), and were therefore unworthy of being taken seriously.  Even his words were silly.  Fine for little brothers, maybe, but far too childish for my 3rd grade level of sophistication.  Besides, my mother disapproved of the Cat in the Hat… duh, he was naughty.

A few decades later, I have decided that my 3rd grade self was a conceited little snot, and my mother was an uptight troll.  And Seuss was a genius.  And his art was Inspired, and inspiring.

Painting of berries

“Kousa Dogwood Berries”, mixed media by Kerry McFall

Every now and then in my wanderings around the world, I believe I have discovered some of his inspiration for those crazy plants.  The critters still mystify me, but the plants aren’t silly at all – they are REAL!  Take the above drawing for example – doesn’t this plant just take you back to  some of the illustrations in Seuss’ landscapes?  I’m not sure which book this reminds me of… but I saw this tree on my Sunday neighborhood stroll and fell in love with these crazy berries.

Kousa Dogwood Berries, photo by Kerry McFall

I consulted Google and decided that these must be Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa), native to China and Korea.  It took me several days to work up the nerve to start this painting/drawing because I needed to figure out how to get the berry details right… which I didn’t quite manage because the final doesn’t do justice to those bluish berries, but I almost got the green and pink ones.  For my art geek friends, here are some of the stages as a work in progress:

Pencil and watercolor layout, then yellow highlighter for leaf veins – an unfortunate choice as it turns out, because it kind of overshadows the green watercolor of the leaves.  Lesson learned. Then more watercolor under crumpled plastic wrap for background texture.  Finally brown, black, and white ink, and a bit more colored pencil.  If I need an illustration for a fantastical story about soccer balls on a stick, I’m halfway there!

And for the record, I like to eat cake in the tub!

Cake In the Tub, by Dr. Seuss