Biding my time

It’s 9:00 am, Sunday morning. I’ve been up since a little after four, grading art history essays; the bank of windows that line my wall next to me have gradually changed from a densely black night through the various colors and values of a rosy dawn. And now the day beyond the glass looks marvelous. The sky is blue with only a few wisps of cloud. Nary a branch moves; there is not a hint of wind. A quick check of the internet informs me that the outside temps are hovering – for the moment – just below freezing.

I’ve set aside my rubrics and finished reading art history essays, and I could easily layer up and hit the road, but I linger. There’s no question I will get in a few hours of saddle time today. The question is when.

Do you ever do this? Bide your time until the “optimal” conditions present themselves? Well, I certainly have done…and from time to time it bites me in the ass to do so. Not so many weeks back the January weather promised a late afternoon window of opportunity. The morning had been freezing drizzle and the evening looked equally forbidding. But that afternoon of promise was forecast to be a small slice of heaven.

So I waited, and bide my time. The morning drizzle never appeared. In fact, the temps weren’t at all as miserable as the published forecast. Still, I knew that the afternoon would be terrific, so my bike continued to lean against the wall. The morning passed by, and as mid-day turned to afternoon, and the sky began to turn gray, so too did my mood. Rechecking the online forecast, I was shocked to see that the world had turned upside down. Instead of an incredible afternoon, conditions were only going to get worse. The morning freezing drizzle arrived late and by the time I realized what I’d missed the road was glazing over with ice.

I see that this afternoon promises to be in the upper forties. I could bide my time and wait for things to improve, but I can already hear a bird chirping outside my window. Squirrels are racing up and down one of the huge cottonwoods. And I think I’ll take what I’ve got right now.

…and then it began to rain.

I’m nursing a bum knee at the moment. I’ve no idea what’s wrong or what I did, but things feel all wonky on my downstroke – especially on climbs. So I’ve been taking it easy, avoiding the temptation to overstress the joint and haul it, full tilt boogey.

The thing is, I’m antsy and want to open it up. Y’know, and haul it, full tilt boogey. 

Despite these inclinations to do the wrong thing, I’ve managed to avoid mucking things up further, let my knee and all of the attachments rest, and spin for short periods of time over pretty flat territory. The situation has me in a funk; I crave some real exercise.


 

So, no school yesterday, no one else at home – I’m free. Fat, cushy, supple tires; bum knee; crunchy leaves; overcast sky; cool weather with a brisk wind coming off the lake; leisurely pace; no particular destination in mind. Just about perfect.

This is the kind of day, the kind of path, the kind of riding I built this bike up for. My bike kit is a pair of well worn jeans with velcro ankle clips, a pair of hiking shoes, a gray sweat shirt. The path is very mildly rolling and the surface incredibly uneven. I’m in no hurry, stopping along the way to take photographs as the color, the texture, the muse strikes me.

Squirrels suicidally breach the path, scurrying through brown leaves, scooting past my front tire, chattering in alarm. I’m sure they have something nasty to say about my intrusion. A small group of deer look up, startled as I come round a bend. Slowly, but deliberately, the trio moves off deeper into the trees and then disappear, camouflaged by the underbrush. Birds seem to be as busy as the legions of squirrels, flitting from branch to branch. I wonder if they are preparing to leave for the season? Or just steadying themselves for the looming change?

The sky is overcast, the light is flat, but the day is not gloomy. In fact, far from it. I love these kind of conditions.

I remember the days when I would carry a backpack of photography gear with me, earnestly hoping to make The Great American Image, the iconic and defining photograph of our landscape. These days I carry an iPhone and it’s so much more liberating.

Stop. Compose. Tap the screen. Reposition. Recompose. Tap. Ride onward.

The ride is short. It’s decidedly flat. And I’m not in the least bit tired, at no point am I winded. But my knee warns me not to push things to far, too hard. Dammit. Time to stop and paint for a while.

I’ve carried my sketch kit with me for years, purposely planning my cycling journeys to allow ample opportunity to stop along the way and draw. I’ve even named these outings, referring to this as “bike sketching.” Is that preposterous? Pretentious? Feeling the need to name such a natural extension of my JRA outings? (Oh yeah, I just realized that I acted in similar fashion by giving a title to my leisurely cycling: “JRA.” Just Riding Around.)

Lately, I’ve been painting en plein air in oils again. I figure I’ve been away from oils for close to a decade, the solvents and toxic heavy metals (like cadmium and cobalt) having weighed heavily on my mind. Not long ago I began to experiment with oils that clean up without solvents and are free of toxins. It’s a lot like rediscovering an old friend, and I’ve been carrying my field kit in the back of the car with me.

My ride is a loop, timed to bring me back round to the car just as my knee begins to twinge. Yes, time to stop and paint for a while.

My hands are cold. I’m still getting my chops back with oils and bristle brushes. I have to think deliberately about placing colors, cleaning the brush after each stroke, mixing and matching – which is functionally quite a different process than with the watercolor media in which I’ve been immersed over the past decade. At some point it will all come back to me, to be a natural set of motions – you know: just like riding a bike, as the adage has it.

As I lost myself in painting, I thought to myself that I’m still pretty fast at laying in shapes and colors and values, even if my brush strokes for the moment feel a bit too deliberate. I allowed myself a moment to yearn for those fluid strokes, but also knew that I can be patient, wait, and they will return. Perhaps doing so will ease this parallel wait for my knee to heal.

Yes, my hands were cold and stiff. The wind began to pick up, and I had to chase down a suddenly mobile paint-drenched paper towel. A mist was in the air and tiny water droplets began to appear on top of the oil paint.

Moments later it began to rain, and all was well in the world.

What is truth?

I confess to being more than a little bit of a geek when I come across an interesting vintage bike “in the wild.” Quite often I’ll whip out my iPhone and snap a photograph so that I can examine the details later on at my leisure. Less frequently, I have the freedom and liberty to make a sketch. While a sharply focused photograph can be a valuable documentation of an unusual discovery, I find I enjoy the sketch all the more. For one thing, it’s something I’ve created by hand – and the act of doing so very much appeals to me and my aesthetic sense. For another, sketching affords me the luxury of including or ignoring as much detail as I wish. Photos include everything that appears within the frame. In my previous life I made photographs professionally, and I can assure you that a lot of effort went into set creation and organization. But out on the street, one is pretty much stuck with whatever one sees: light poles, trash, cars, people – the sort of distractions one can effortlessly eliminate in a sketch.

I also don’t feel constricted by pure documentation when I make a sketch. The mixte frame above was interesting enough that in a few short minutes I very roughly sketched it out in pencil, then continued on my merry way walking about the city of Dijon. Along the way I encountered several other vintage bikes; those that caught my eye were, perhaps, noted. Later on when I decided to tighten up the rough sketch I realized I hadn’t bothered to make field notes: with no idea what color the original bike had been, I decided to go with the colors I recalled from a completely different bike, a vintage Thiely randonneur. As I tell my students, it’s not about making your art true – it’s about discovering a greater truth. I’m quite content with this approach.

The elderly man riding the city bike (top image) never happened. The bike was leaning on a kick stand out in the street, and the opportunity to sketch a stationary object was a nice change from the quick, gestural studies I’d been making of people moving along the crowded sidewalk. Later, I added the man from an observational study I’d made of a fellow wandering around a market. The painting is a sort of collage of sketches, and I think is more reflective of what I had hoped to see than what I actually observed.

I often use this space to share what I refer to as “bike sketches,” those quickly and often very spontaneously inked studies of the places I happen to find myself visiting by bicycle. Like this study of the Broadway Bridge spanning the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City, these are normally more gestural than anything else. Only infrequently does a bicycle actually appear in these scribbles: the bike tends to be the vehicle that makes possible that view I’m attempting to capture. And thus, I call them “bike sketches.” I think it’s notable the difference between the more graphic nature of a bike sketch and the subtle and more sedate watercolor sketches at the top of this page. For me as an artist, they are both equally valid means of expression, and equally valid means of communicating something I find important either via a bicycle, or in relation to bicycles in general. I’m not interested in riding my bike fast, and not especially interested in the latest, greatest technological innovations either. I prefer a slower paced, more thoughtful essence, I suppose. It’s significant that two seemingly different behaviors – cycling and drawing – are yet remarkably similar in the way they mirror that attraction.

And there, it seems to me, lies an interesting truth with much more to be further explored.