Thinking of Mexico in November: Watercolor Sketchbook



Beach Key Watercolor


How did the key get into mysuitcase


The Mexican Vase_Watercolor


Solo Rooster_watercolor


The Morning Boat_Boca


Watercolor Journal, Boca de Tomate © Iskra Johnson 2013

If you are interested in doing an artist retreat in Mexico, visit one of my favorite places in the world, Casa de los Artistas. The boat above was moored below my balcony every every night. Sleep, eat and make art just a few feet from the river.  Heaven!  See the post about my Christmas retreat in Boca de Tomate here.



Media Love


Media Study, paint, graphite, gesso © Iskra Johnson

Testing and studying, getting ready for something new……

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Drawing in Hard Times: Occupying the News at My Kitchen Table

Drawing Flowers at my Kitchen Table

Back in the first January after the Crash of September 18, 2008, I was one of many who found themselves bewildered and petrified by the cascade of economic events beyond their control. I don’t need to go into personal details, (just google “auction rate securities + fraud+ retirement savings”) except to note that it did seem that all pillars of safety were falling, most especially the capitalist system — a system I had relied upon as a professional designer to put food on the table. By January I had spent four months archiving, updating, shaking the known trees, and banging my head on a small flat stone. With the phone-line to the capitalist world apparently dead I sat for many long hours at my kitchen table immobilized and staring into the abyss.

In this state I began to read newspapers with a grim scavenger obsession: what had fallen in the last hour? What was next? Who was suffering the most? And that is when I began to clip out the faces of bankers. Through no fault of their own they were all men. I began to draw them. Mr. Goldman Sachs, Mr. Arrested at 4 AM in his red sweatshirt, Mr. I Am Not Either Guilty. Oh, and one woman, Ms. Software Oligarch, in her perfect mannish Nehru shirt. I moved on to men shouting (mostly coaches) and men playing baseball. All this complicity, all this power and rage, captured in the sweet, soft, smudgy newsprint. At a certain point I couldn’t stand it anymore. I bought some tulips and turned the sketchbook around and started drawing petals and leaves, thinking, what will it be like when faces and flowers meet in the middle? And what is the masculine, and what is the feminine, what is this all about?

It was technically a wonderful exercise in how to use colored pencil, which I had never tried before. It was soothing, slow, patient work, perfectly suited to the intimate space of the kitchen. And emotionally it was revelatory. To shift from one subject to another, from livid anger to botanical grace over the course of the day, brought me a measure of equanimity. It also dealt with one of my favorite subjects in art, the Real and the Unreal. The ardent tulip was unequivocally real, the newspaper, not-so-much. Although I was using exactly the same materials for both there were subtle shifts in perception as the subject changed.

Revisiting the sketchbook in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement I found a few other drawings I had forgotten: the innocents, the lost players, the embarrassingly earnest. It seems the theme of power and powerlessness, of crumbling security and tidal economic changes, of the need for refuge, are not going away anytime soon. For millions the world is far more shaky than it was in that first dreadful year after the crash.




Tulip Leaves Colored Pencil Drawing

The-Catcher Pencil Drawing in Moleskine

Of Flowers and Men. Selections from a personal sketchbook, colored pencil and lead pencil on Moleskine.

Artist Retreat in Mexico

This December I really wanted to get away and feel warm, get some sun on my face and my soul and make art in a different environment. I found the ideal retreat at Casa de los Artistas about half an hour south of Puerto Vallarta in Boca de Tomatlan  I signed on for the quiet week between Christmas and New Years, and found myself with the rare luxury of the whole Casa studio to myself, under the benign tutelage of Bob Masla, proprietor, teacher and painter extraordinaire.

Bob and his family have built a wonderful three story retreat in the middle of the fishing village of Boca. A river runs directly below and outside the gate. As the river is the main highway, with two other streets on either side, you have the experience of being part of the village on a 24 hour basis, starting with the roosters and church bells and ending with the moon and the surf.

My room had its own balcony overlooking the river under the protective canopy of a huge Amapa tree.  I could sit here and watch the sun rise over the hills and follow the fishing boats’ passage to the sea and feel perfectly content… although I did in fact wander upstairs to the 1,000 square foot studio overlooking the river and paint every day for a week. I worked in watercolor and Bob painted in oils, but the difference in our two media had no bearing on the quality of his advice. Whatever he had to say about my various projects proved unfailingly useful and insightful from a technical standpoint, and he is a natural teacher in that more intangible way of simply knowing how to make you feel encouraged.

The food was exceptional, whether it was the home-cooked gourmet Mexican cuisine by Ruby at the Casa or “dining out” at the lovely and informal palapa across the river (just take your flipflops).  There I would have fish or shrimp caught that day, finished off by home grown Ricia, a brew smokier and smoother than tequila and made by the proprietor of the palapa from his own agave. I remain convinced that Ricia is somehow…medicinal, even though it is reportedly sold at Mexican hardware stores.

I would love to return and encourage anyone thinking of taking an artist/spirit retreat to Mexico to consider Casa de los Artistas. Bob and his family are gracious and welcoming, and the house is exquisite.  Retreats are held on a regular basis on a range of topics,  from painting to Mexican cooking to psychotherapy and spirituality, and guest teachers are welcomed. Here is a page from my journal begun while I was there:


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