On illustrating the invisible

I’ve got a new picture book project in the works! It’s about astronomy, with a focus on the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world. Located in Castel Gandolfo, just outside of Rome, the observatory is a fascinating place, home to world-class astrophysicists, one of the largest collections of meteorites in the world, and four impressive telescopes.

One of the things that is fascinating to me about the Observatory is how they deal with the relationship between science and beauty. I’ve been really interested in astronomy lately, and besides the pure joy of being able to identify the constellations, and learning about the science of galaxy formation, I’ve also just been struck by how beautiful it is.

In his book Brother Astronomer, Guy Consulmagno, Jesuit astrophysicist and Vatican Observatory director, writes, “The physics behind how a star shines is not only logical and reasonable; it’s also beautiful. And so is the star itself. The joy we experience from that beauty is why the universe is such a delight for us.”

In many ways, working on this project has come very naturally to me. I love to paint night scenes, and I love painting the juxtaposition of organic and inorganic elements– the human geometry of the buildings and gardens, under the abstract mass of stars in the sky– bumping up against each other, in conversation with one another.

In other ways this has been completely different from my previous work– this is the first time I have explored scientific themes in my art, ventured into space, or tried to illustrate things that are invisible! (h/t Andy Miller) I hope to portray a sense the vastness of space and time, and the vastness of scales, between the infinitely huge and the infinitely tiny, as shown in the illustration below– these are images of light from the stars, called stellar spectra, that are created by electrons jumping tiny fractions of nanometers, and the patterns that they create can tell us the temperature of a star, in tens of thousands of degrees, and the star’s distance from Earth, in billions and billions of kilometers. Today these diagrams are made digitally, but one of the pioneers of using spectra to classify stars was Fr. Angelo Secchi, Vatican Observatory director in the 1800s, and he made his spectra by hand, and I think they’re really beautiful that way, as well as useful, so I painted mine by hand as well.

I had the opportunity to share about this at a conference at the University of Notre Dame last week. It was really fun to share the art for the first time, and speaking about it led to some fantastic conversation about astrophysics, beauty, and the nature of science. Excited to continue working on this project!

Night scene of Castel Gandolfo

I’ve been working on a night scene illustration for a new book project, and it’s starting to come together! I’ve taken a few process pictures to show you the work in progress. It’s amazing to me how much a few layers of paint changes the look of the painting! Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Castel Gandolfo houses the Vatican Observatory, which is home to some awesome telescopes for astronomical observation, so it was fun to situate the observatory under the stars. Excited to try a few more night scenes!

Painting night scenes

Ever since we put up string lights in the backyard, I’ve wanted to try to paint the warm glow they create in the garden at night! I’d never created a “nocturne”, or painting of a night scene before, but I read a bit about it, and learned that it involves a lot of layers, working from light to dark. After a few small “studies” (tiny test paintings to get the colors and layout the way I wanted it), I took it full size (9×12 in), and this was the result.

“Backyard Nocturne with Calladium” by Katie Broussard

I was so happy with it, and it was so different than anything I had ever painted, that I entered it in a show at the Carrollwood Cultural Center called “Florida Landscapes”, and was thrilled that it received an honorable mention!

I was intrigued enough to sign up for a workshop about this, and I took Lynne Ferris‘s amazing workshop at the Florida Watercolor Society’s annual conference called “Chasing the Light”. We painted a night scene from a photo she had taken, and she walked us through each step. I loved the piece I created in the workshop, and I learned a ton about what colors to use, how to plan out the painting, and a cool trick for creating electrical wires in a painting! Here’s the finished product (a copy of Lynne’s original painting)

Exercise from Lynne Ferris’s workshop “Chasing the Light”

I can’t wait to try more! I’m working on a new book project about the night sky and the stars… so I will have plenty of opportunities to practice. More updates soon!

A trio of nocturnes

I had the opportunity to create some illustrations for a short story written by Ellen Jewett entitled “Eight Hours in Late December”. The story will be published in an upcoming issue of Loyola University Chicago’s Nexus Journal. The story takes place on a rainy night in San Francisco on Christmas eve… it was so fun to play with themes of light and dark that came up in the illustrations. In the beginning of the story, Ellen writes of her protagonist, Adeline: “Across the street, a neighbor’s tree mirrored the lights of her own, creating a private galaxy of stars and constellations known only to her small segment of the neighborhood.” I love this line, and immediately thought of winter nights living in the city, where I admired the same thing out my own windows.

Christmas Galaxy

Softly-lit nighttime scenes like these are called “nocturnes” in art, and I’ve painted a few other nocturnes lately, before illustrating this story. They can be really cozy, even on a train!

Christmas Even train ride

In the story, Adeline spends part of Christmas Eve at the historic Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco. I was lucky to have some photos taken by the author to use as reference, but I’m not sure how they decorate for Christmas– I had to use my imagination for that one! This was such a fun project that just happened to incorporate all my favorite things to draw– trains, lights and darks, historic churches… Can’t wait to see the journal when it comes out!

Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church
in San Francisco

First limited edition print for Sorin Starts a School

Back at the beginning of 2021, I posted about completing the illustrations for pages 21-21 of Sorin Starts a School. It’s still one of the most complex illustrations I’ve ever done, and one of my favorites. When I first started working on Sorin Starts a School in the winter of 2019, I imagined I’d get to draw on campus a bit. I love painting on location, seeing the relationship between different landmarks, and capturing the feel of the place in person.

As spring arrived in 2020, a trip to Notre Dame was not in the cards, and so I struggled to figure out how to create some of the more architecturally detailed illustrations. Even the very first page stumped me– if you’re looking at the Sorin statue, what angle to do you see the dome and the Basilica? Can you see Walsh Hall? Which trees are around you? I couldn’t find enough photos to help me piece it together, but I finally discovered that you can walk around campus on Google street view! (This is actually a fun thing to do with kids, even if you’re not trying to paint it.) I was able to walk to the building I wanted to see, get the right angle, count the windows on a particular side, etc. There are also a few amateur drone videos of campus on youtube that were super helpful, too. And it doesn’t hurt to have a few years of experience walking around campus in person!

It took weeks to finish (punctuated by e-learning, baking bread, zoom book club, and all the other 2020 diversions…) but it was so worth it– once it started to come together, I’ll never forget how excited and proud I felt! I’ve been wanting to hang it on my wall, and so I was thrilled for this to become the first ever limited edition print available from Corde Press! I’ve got it hanging in my office now, above my desk, and I can absolutely get lost in this illustration. It’s a little like walking across campus, or even going for a run around the lakes (see the tiny running figures??)…

Limited edition print: Sorin Starts a School, p 29-30

The paper is a thick, archival, 100% cotton watercolor paper, which works great with watercolor paintings (looks a ton like an original…). They’re all hand-signed and numbered, and there are only 500! You can check it out and snag your copy here.

The print hangs on my wall in my office ❤️

Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern

I joined Urban Sketchers Orlando at the campus of Florida Southern College for their Frank Lloyd Wright tour. Frank Lloyd Wright designed many of the buildings on campus in the 1940s– two churches, a huge dome fountain, covered walking paths, and even the planetarium!

I painted Usonian House, which was designed for faculty housing.

It looked really cool on the inside, too!

Since it was an urban sketchers gathering, we all shared our drawings at the end!

Getting started with watercolor

Occasionally I get asked about what to buy to get started with watercolor… I love this question, and it’s been almost exactly five years since I bought my first watercolor supplies! In honor of my five year watercolor anniversary next month, here’s what I would buy if I was just getting started today:

art supplies! 😍
  • Paint: I would buy small watercolor paint tubes (8 mL) of the Windsor & Newton Cotman brand in the following colors: alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, sap green, ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, burnt umber, and payne’s gray
  • Brushes: I’ve had good luck with Princeton brushes, and this set from Princeton Heritage is a great deal, and would be perfect for getting started– a small round, a larger round, and a flat brush for washes– perfect! And if you’re feeling fancy, I would get this brush set from Etchr. I have it and I use it almost every day.
  • Paper: these watercolor blocks from Fluid are so great! The paper is attached at the top and bottom, so the paper doesn’t curl up while you’re painting, and you can peel it off easily once it’s dry. Get the 6″ x 8″ size if you’re painting on the go, and the 9″ x 12″ size if you’re painting at home.
  • Palette: I would get the small folding palette box from Blick.

That should do it! Let me know if you try these out, and what you think… I love talking about art supplies!

State Fair Plein Air competition

I’ve been enjoying plein air painting (literally, “open air” painting– popularized by the Impressionists to capture the light at a particular time and place) lately, and so I signed up to be part of the plein air painting competition at the Florida State Fair. I wasn’t sure what to expect (would I be painting a ferris wheel? Fried twinkies?), but I discovered a lovely “living history” village within the state fair, composed of historic homes, a post office, black smith shop, and other structures that had been collected over time for educational purposes. I fell in love with the view of Carlton House, which was the governor’s mansion in the 1800s, tucked under some enormous oak trees, and so I set up shop there!

Painting Carlton House at the plein air painting competition

I was really happy with how the painting turned out, and honored to win second place in the judging!

watercolor plein air painting of Carlton House

I’ve got my eye on a few other plein air competitions– it was exciting, and great to meet other artists. And in the meantime, I’ll keep exploring and painting outdoors!

New art studio!

#shelfie!

Hi there! I’ve been in the process of setting up an art studio in our new house these past few months, and I’m really happy with how it’s coming together! I love painting outside, but this is where I paint when it’s more practical to work indoors… I love the bookshelves (can you spot Audacious Ignatius and Sorin Starts a School on the shelf??) and all the natural light that comes in.

January painting roundup!

Lake Carroll at sunrise, backyard fern jungle, beachy blues, and a tunnel of banyan trees, 4″x6″

I can’t believe that I was able to paint outside almost every day in January! Here are my favorites from this month. I ended up with pictures of my backyard (the orchid tree is blooming!), a nearby lake, Lettuce Lake park (my favorite spot this month!), and just one interior that I did on a rainy day.

several Lettuce Lake paintings, and one rainy day interior!

I’ve been liking how painting small helps me finish a painting more quickly, and not get bogged down in too many details. I bought a 4×6 inch block (Fluid cold press), and used that a lot this month. I also ventured a bit bigger on a few occasions– 6×6 and 9×6 inches!

Backyard studies
suburban sketching (the oak trees!), 6″x6″
orchid tree and key lime tree, 9″x6″

Illustrating a cityscape

I’m working on the illustrations for a new book (more details soon! It hasn’t been officially announced yet…), and really enjoying this one of a character (and her cat) living in a high rise building. I loved imagining the view out the window, and drawing the skyscrapers and a little rooftop garden! I enjoy urban sketching, which is done on location, and got started with it in Chicago– though this illustration is not of specific buildings, I definitely think that it was influenced by the time I spent urban sketching in Chicago!

Painting, noticing, and curiosity

I moved back to my home state of Florida last year, and it’s been a joy to rediscover the natural landscape that I grew up in. I really love the parks in our area, and I’m hoping to do more outdoor painting in them this year!

Yesterday, I went to Lettuce Lake Park, and brought my paints along. The park has a boardwalk with lots of views of the Hillsborough river, tons of birds (especially in winter), and huge cypress trees. I found a sunny spot on a bench, and painted the river and trees. The colors are interesting in the winter– a lot of the trees are brown with no leaves/dead leaves, and others have bright green leaves (spring growth already? Need to learn more about this!) After I finished painting, I noticed so much more about the colors, values, and shapes around me, and felt really curious about the plants and animals I had seen. Stopping to paint made me notice more, and noticing made me curious. This is one of my favorite things about painting!

4×6 watercolor at Lettuce Lake Park
Watercolor setup on the go – loving this 4×6 watercolor block