5-minute portraits by Avier Koerier

How was your weekend? Mine was filled with color and art, thanks to two side-by-side events in Haarlem: Stripdagen (Comics Days) and the Illustratie (Illustration) Biennale.

At the Illustratie Biennale, we found illustration collective Avier Koerier at work doing portraits for the public.

Avier Koerier at work

Avier Koerier specializes in doing portraits on A4 paper—thus the name, which translates to”A4 Courier.” Their little corner was peppered with their work, and I was immediately drawn (no pun intended) to their quirky, humorous style…

Avier Koerier at Illustratie Biennale

… and their hand-lettered signs, which were also good practice for my Dutch. I can tell you, with no help from Google Translate, that the sign on the right reads: “You run no risk!”

Hand-lettered signs by Avier Koerier

Marlon and I had our portraits sketched in Singapore a few years back, and thought it was time to add Dutch-drawn portraits to our little collection. So we forked over €10 for four different portraits, and sat down for a portrait session that turned out to be fast, friendly and fun.

Fun with portraits!

The experience was light and casual, not awkward or stiff as you might expect a portrait session to be. After all, not everything in life should be taken so seriously—especially not on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

I’m pleased to present the artists of Avier Koerier and their five-minute masterpieces. Which one do you like best?

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Courtyard cats

Two weeks, two trips to France and a house full of guests later… I’m back! So much has happened that I would love to blog about. But first let me catch up on a blog post that I was working on before I left to attend Mimi and Pete’s wedding in the south of France.
I had my first outdoor watercolor class on one of those sunny days that are proving so rare in this Dutch summer. Penny arranged for us to paint at the Frans Loenenhofje on Witte Herenstraat in Haarlem. Okay, I know that’s a rather large gaggle of letters—let me explain. 
A hofje is a courtyard around which rent-free houses, called alms houses, are clustered. Dating back to the Middle Ages, hofjes were built by wealthy families as a form of charity, where places where the elderly (usually women, mostly religious) could live for free. 
Living rent-free depended on a number of conditions such as religion, gender and income; Amsterdam’s most centrally located (and most famous) hofje, the Begijnhof, forbids its female residents to have overnight male visitors, partners, husbands or children. (Amsterdam Magazine gives a great glimpse into the house of a Begijnhof resident.)
Many of these houses still exist. The best thing for those of us who are not privileged enough to earn residence in these hofjes is that their courtyards are open to the public daily, usually between the hours of 10am to 5pm. 
And this is what I love about hofjes—entering one is like pulling open a random door to find a special secret garden. Some, like the Begijnhof, are unmarked, so it’s only when you push the right door or gate that you are rewarded with the sweet little thrill of finding it unlocked. 
Inside, chances are you’ll find a small courtyard that’s charming, tranquil and beautifully maintained, with well-planted gardens that, like everything else here in Holland, simply spring to life in the sunshine. 
This particular hofje Penny arranged for us to paint in was built for those of the Lutheran faith, with a Lutheran church within its grounds. 
It also had plum trees and apple trees, which I’ve never seen before. Some of the plums were just beginning to ripen.
But aside from the tranquility, history and lushness of these courtyard homes, I found yet another pleasant surprise that endeared this particular hofje to me. Cats!

Contented, fat, well-fed cats everywhere!

I remarked on this to my painting classmate, Louis, a genteel old Dutch man. “Well,” he said after a thoughtful pause. “You know how it is. These houses are full of old women. And you know about old women and their cats.”

I could have played with these kitties all afternoon, but then I remembered I had some painting to do.

My favorite was this adorable orange-and-white kitty stretched out on top of an old brick wall. She was snoozing contentedly in the sun and looked perfect against the fluffy white clouds and crisp blue sky.

She must have sensed the little old lady in me, because she woke up for a cuddle when I walked up to her.

Then she started squirming and rolling around in the sun. I melted.

Even Dutch cats seem to know better than to waste a single ray of sunshine!

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Second lesson

My second watercolor lesson with Penny was supposed to be an outdoor session, but the evil Dutch weather gnomes had other plans. Instead, we stayed inside her studio and pored over glossy photos of Dutch landscapes. I chose one of a stream by the woods (how precious!), not knowing that the big swathe of water was going to be tricky for a beginner like me.
Penny had a big group that day, five students, of which I was the only one below sixty. Seriously. I seem to have this knack for gravitating to all the geriatric hotspots. It must be the little old lady inside me. Anyway, I found myself getting huffy as I was painting because I felt I was largely being ignored. So I just went ahead painting with big, loose, and somewhat reckless strokes.
I was so put out that I almost forgot to be pleased with the afternoon’s work.

There are problems with the perspective (I didn’t bring out the bend of the stream quite too well) and shading of the tree trunks, but Penny seemed really pleased with it. “And it’s only her second lesson!” she exclaimed, patting me on the hand. It was a departure from the careful, precise work of my classmates, off in a direction that I’m really liking. Looks like my days of obsessive detail are over.

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Watercolor lessons

I’ve always been into drawing and painting. The first medium I ever learned to use was watercolor. My mom hired an artist to give me and my sister watercolor lessons when I was about 9 or 10. He was a really precise, uber-detailed kind of painter who came to the house once a week. We would move a big desk from my mom’s study outside onto the front lawn, where he taught me how to mix colors and manipulate water and brush on paper. 
Over the summer, I produced two obsessively detailed watercolor paintings: a still life with fruit that still hangs in my mom’s house, and one of unicorns (another lifelong interest of mine) in a cave. He liked to go over my mom’s art books to find “inspiration”, and the unicorns’ cave resembled Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks in quite a few places. 
Since then, though, I’ve kind of… lost the knack for watercolors. I started getting really impatient if I couldn’t finish something in one sitting. There are ways to pull off really quick watercolors, but because that wasn’t my tutor’s style, I never learned how.
It was a flyer posted on the bulletin board of the Van Beek art supply store on the Weteringschans that led me back to watercolors. Penny Johnson, an artist based in Haarlem, was offering watercolor sessions at her studio. After trading a few emails with Penny, I signed up for the last of the Tuesday afternoon sessions before her summer break.
The city of Haarlem is about 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam. A lot of Marlon’s colleagues actually live there because of the lower property costs, which makes it a good alternative to living in Amsterdam. Since I was running late (as usual) for my first lesson, I didn’t get to look around much. 

I went back with Marlon the following Saturday to walk around the center and explore a bit more. It seems like a pretty town, a lot smaller and quainter than Amsterdam, with not as many tall buildings and far less tourists (which is nice). Still, I haven’t quite decided if it’s a city we’d want to live in further down the road.

Penny, a late-middle aged British lady with a brisk and cheery manner, welcomed me warmly with a cup of coffee and my art materials for the day. I immediately felt at home in Penny’s studio. It was bright, with high ceilings and enough work space for a small group, with heaps of interesting odds and ends piled together in small vignettes… a charming kind of clutter.

I liked her little collections of ceramics and glass bottles, all ready to be captured by paintbrush and water. I suspect I’ll be like this someday. I already have a starter collection of wine bottles on the kitchen counter, which I kept just because I found the colors so pretty.

One wall was covered with cards, posters and various bits of paper showing different styles of watercolor. Some were loose and fast, with luminous colors bleeding together; others were more precise and detailed. These two pieces in particular caught my eye, and I snapped a photo with my iPhone. I would be more than happy if I could learn to paint like this.

Penny, and the two ladies who were here students that afternoon, stopped. “What are you doing?” Penny asked. “Are you taking photographs?” Then they all started talking about picture-happy people, how this tourist on one woman’s cruise couldn’t stop snap-snap-snapping away, blah blah blah.

I didn’t realize that taking photos could be annoying to others. Is it just the generation gap showing here? I didn’t want to be one of those “annoying types” so I meekly put away my phone, and resolved not to take my DSLR out of my bag for the rest of the afternoon…

… which was devoted to painting, of course. Penny started me off with a relatively easy project: getting a feel for the wet-on-wet technique, or painting on wet paper.  Wet paper makes the paint (which is also loaded with water) blend and bleed together, so it’s for quick, loose work; vastly different from the style of my first tutor, but perhaps more suited for the less deft and more impatient me.

I surprised myself by starting out… cautiously. Timidity is not something I normally expect of myself, but there I was dabbing tentatively at the paper, producing pale, washed-out landscape. Penny took one look at my work and pronounced: “Color, my dear. You need more color. Let’s put it this way: the paints are free.”
By the end of the two and a half-hour session, I had gained a measure of boldness with my colors and strokes. I was re-learning how to see things differently, to look closer at light versus dark, since with watercolors you start with the lightest colors first, before building up the darker shades. I was beginning to learn how to be patient with mixing colors to achieve just the right shade, and not to settle for what I thought it looked like, out of impatience. And I was remembering how to just… play. All of these things that I thought I’d forgotten were reawakening in me. 
And I have to say: I kind of like it.
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