Something old, something new


Carbon pencil drawing in progress

I was baffled, the first time an art teacher handed me a piece of charcoal. A quiet child who compulsively inked animals on inappropriate surfaces (inside textbooks, on school desks, on walls, on the arms of giggling classmates), I had been enrolled in a Saturday class in hopes that it would channel the drawing urge.

Our subject was an uninspiring bowl of oranges — in retrospect, probably not a wise choice for a classroom full of energetic nine-year-olds. My brittle black stick of vine charcoal snapped in half and peppered the paper with a galaxy of specks and smudges. After a few minutes, I abandoned the still life assignment and sketched a herd of prehistoric horses I had seen in a book on cave paintings. Dark smudged heads and bodies fading to pale bellies, slender galloping legs. The teacher did not approve.

I did not return on the following Saturday, and for the next 51 years I had little interest in drawing with charcoal… until I met the carbon pencil a few weeks ago, and immediately fell in love.

A blend of lamp black and clay, the carbon pencil is harder than traditional charcoal. It produces a deliciously deep, flat black with none of the annoying shine that graphite can leave on the paper. The carbon pencil has a lot to teach me about drawing… and none of it involves a bowl of oranges.


Fidelis        carbon pencil, Val Webb 2019




Mama’s Last Picnic

My mom, a prolific writer, submitted this remembrance to NPR a few years back. When they called to arrange legal permission for its broadcast, they were so charmed by her soft southern accent that they asked her to read it aloud on the air.  She would be 83 today. She would be delighted that you are reading her work, and I am too. Enjoy.


The author (center) with her parents, Helen and Claud Thomason


By Margaret-Ann Allison

The pungent aroma of baked ham curled out the kitchen window and wrapped around my head. I had spent the entire morning perched on a limb of the mango tree in our Fort Lauderdale back yard, reading a Nancy Drew mystery. Now the whirring of a mixer and clanking pots and pans briefly took my mind off the mosquito droning in my ear. The day of the big picnic had finally arrived.

All summer I had looked forward to the picnic my parents had planned with my aunt and uncle. I had such fun with my cousins when we visited at their farm, but this time they would be in my territory — the beach.

Mama was a good cook and she loved preparing fancy menus for special occasions. In fact, the only thing she liked better was criticizing someone else. She was especially discriminating where in-laws were concerned. More than once it had been called to her attention that her sister-in-law (a well respected caterer) cooked “the best cakes this side of heaven.” Mama said, “Her cakes are too heavy and her icings taste of lard.” She shared her opinion with the Tuesday Church Circle group and knew it would reach the ears  for which she she had intended it.

“Mama, I’m starving!” I called as I slid to the ground and headed toward the screened door of the back porch.

“If you’re hungry that means you’ll be ready to enjoy your meal when we get to the picnic.” Mama had been cooking for two days, and her time and temper were getting short.

“Don’t come in on my clean floors with your sandy feet and dirty clothes. Go wash off at the spigot and get ready to go. The chicken is almost done and soon as I ice the cake, we’ll leave.”

Daddy watched in silence as Mama stuffed egg halves with a creamy yellow mixture she extruded from a pastry bag and twirled into stars.

“Is the cooler full of ice and did you pack the cloth I put out? I won’t eat my dinner off those dirty wooden tables — be sure the lid is clamped tight on the tea pitcher or we will have tea sloshed all over the trunk when we get there. Will someone please answer that phone? I can’t do everything,” she said, as she covered the deviled eggs with wax wrap and began icing a large layer cake with coconut-and-seafoam icing.

As I passed the hallway I heard Daddy talking on the phone. “Well, we’re running a little late but we should be leaving in about twenty minutes. You go ahead and put your things on a table but save us one nearby. See you soon.”

“I was afraid of this,” came the wail from the kitchen. “We’ll arrive and your sister-in-law will have her gourmet feast spread out and she’ll stand there sneering at my offering. I should have baked some beans to go with the potato salad. I just know she’ll bring one of those seven-spice pound cakes she is so proud of.”

“It won’t matter what you bring if you don’t hurry,” Daddy sighed. “It will be too dark for anyone to see it.”

Finally the car was loaded, the gear stowed in the trunk, and as we backed out the drive, Mama said, “I feel like I did during exams when we were in college.”

The twenty-minute drive was made in total silence. I was joyously anticipating making sandcastles and forts with my four male cousins. Daddy must have been counting the number of trips he would have to make with the baskets of food, cooler chests, towels and chairs before he could finally sit and visit with his brother. I’m certain that Mama was mentally checking the long-thought-out menu she had worked on so hard. This was one time her in-laws would not outshine her! The ham (baked in a mixture of orange juice and honey) was perfect. The fried chicken had just the right shade of gold on the batter. Her deviled eggs and potato salad looked exactly like the picture in the magazine she had copied the recipe from, but the crowning touch would be her homemade coconut cake. She had cracked and ground the coconut meat herself to assure a fluffy freshness.

As our car pulled into the parking area, Mama’s worst fear was realized. My aunt was standing beside a table which was obscured from view by the crowd of relatives around it. “I’ll carry the cake,” Mama said, opening the car door for me, “and you take the tea pitcher. Your father can bring the big hamper.”

Mama held the cake in front of her as a warrior would his shield, and walked through the sand toward the tables. As the crowd parted, she looked confused — and then triumphant. There, sitting atop newspapers, was a large jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, a bag of chips,  a jar of grape jelly, a sack of apples, a carton of Pepsi and a pitcher of tea.

Eyeing the coconut cake, my aunt said, “I hope you didn’t go to a lot of trouble. I’ve been so busy with my catering I haven’t had time to cook for my family.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” smiled Mama sweetly. “I’ve been busy too, so I just threw together a few things I had in the refrigerator.”

Mama never went on another picnic. “You just can’t improve on perfect,” she said.

Paint a Little Black Hen

Back by popular demand, a sample project from my Birds in Watercolor and Beyond course. Enjoy!

 Watercolor is an astonishing medium. Beginning with spatters and splashes, and using only two colors — Pyrrole Orange and Phthalo Blue — it’s only a short, happy journey to a completed hen. This is the warm-up project for Lesson 5 in my online course, Birds in Watercolor and Beyond. Watch the video all the way through and print the pdf pages that appear below the screen before you begin painting. Enjoy!

L5 Hen Progression

L5 Texture Sampler

Chicken Reference 1

Chicken Reference 2

Your preliminary sketch can be very simple — no need for detail. The watercolor will provide surface textures and shading. Here’s what my sketch looked like…

L5 chicken sketch

…and here’s the finished Little Black Hen:

L5 Little Black Hen

Down on the rescue farm

rv at farm

My favorite childhood illustrator was Wesley Dennis, whose miraculous pencil work brought to life dozens of best-selling animal stories. Horses and dogs were his primary subject matter. In homage to his work, I copied one of his drawings in great detail on my fifth-grade desk. The fact that my teacher considered this vandalism and took away my recess for an entire semester did nothing to dampen my devotion. I wanted to grow up to be like Wesley Dennis.

The publicity photo on the flyleaf of his books showed a somewhat grumpy-looking man seated at an easel, with a crow perched on his shoulder and a horse watching through the studio window.  In my ten-year-old opinion, nothing could be more heavenly than drawing animals while a horse looked over your shoulder.

As it turns out, I still feel that way. It took 50 more years of drawing and painting and living life, but during this week’s video art lesson — the one on painting owls, which went out to students in my Journey Through the Natural Year course — a donkey suddenly brays in the background. That was Jenny, who was looking in through my studio window as I filmed the lesson. Beside her was Decker, a huge and ancient spotted saddle horse. Take that, Wesley Dennis.

I am drawing and painting the 60+ animal residents of a private rescue farm in north Florida. My little RV is parked outside a rustic cabin, and my plan is to split my time between working here and traveling. Each animal living on the farm — birds, chickens, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, pigs — is a rescue with a unique story to tell. Their stories are sometimes shocking and sometimes heartrending, but every single one has a happy ending.

From time to time, I’ll share more about the farm. I’ll post sketches and paintings as they develop. I will have an exhibition of these illustrated rescue stories in a few months — and I will share more about that, as well.

But for now, if you will excuse me, I have to go get a carrot out of the refrigerator. There’s a horse looking in my window.




Join the Journey

use this 1

We’re having fun in my weekly email video course, Journey Through the Natural Year.  I thought you might like to see our most recent projects: summer cottage garden (above) and watercolor koi (below).

use this 2

Upcoming lessons (which land in your inbox every Thursday) include sketching autumn landscapes in ink and exotic birds in watercolor — and every fifth week is a hand-lettering project. The cost is $30 per month, and you can start anytime. Click here to find out more.

Crow or Raven?

Crow or Raven art - Copy

This week’s email video art lesson uses ballpoint pen to explore the differences that set apart two geniuses of the avian world: the crow and the raven. Of more than 800 bird species in North America, these two are the only who are completely black… and, perhaps for that reason, people tend to mix them up.

Sketching them quickly reveals some enormous differences: the raven is four times the crow’s size, for example, with an imposing wingspan of up to four feet. The raven has a massive beak and a shaggy ruff beneath his neck. He tends to be a solitary fellow, while the gregarious crow likes to fly in raucous groups.

Both are delightful to draw. (Registration is still open for the weekly email course, Journey Through the Natural Year. For info, click HERE.)

Scancrow - CopyScanraven - Copy