Washington Heights Diary

I hope my watercolor teacher, the great master Tim Clark, is reading this. After two years of struggle I am finally beginning to wrap my brain around color theory, and catch on to basic principles of watercolor. For this post I am publishing my sketchbook for the months I spent living in Washington Heights with my wife while our apartment was being renovated.

Somewhere along the way on my life in medicine I stopped drawing and put my materials into storage. Two years ago I pulled my dusty pens and brushes out and went back to the Art Students League to see if I still had it. My first steps were rusty and awkward, and I truly worried if I had lost the abilities I had expressed so many years back.

Jeff Levine sketching at The CloistersAlthough my black and white skills were fairly decent, I never quite mastered the use of color. I decided to stretch my boundaries and get past lines, so I bought new paints and a few books, and a ticket to a watercolor class. For what seemed like an eternity I was completely mystified by the concepts of warm and cool, and needed to post a color wheel in front of me whenever I opened my paints.

I filled a couple of dozen sketchbooks with color studies and small sketches. By the time I moved to Washington Heights I had just begun to feel comfortable with paints and brushes. The move was actually helpful because I took only the bare minimum of equipment with me, thus lessening distractions. Making the time was not easy, and I got into the routine of painting for an hour beginning at 5 AM every day. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds because I found it hard to sleep in my new place.

The new environment way uptown brought inspiration. Our apartment was straddling the border of an Orthodox Jewish and a Dominican neighborhood. On the weekend the streets were crowded with well dressed people on the way to synagogue, and a few blocks away were the bustling Hispanic markets, beauty parlors, old folks playing dominos, and the Cloisters. At every opportunity I went out exploring with my sketchbook, sometimes doing plein aire and sometimes working at my desk before dawn.

I find that the finicky medium of watercolor provides an escape from the world of electronic connectedness and information overload. The flow of color, the feel and balance of a fine sable brush, and the combination of hues and textures as they come together create magic on a blank sheet of paper. 

I don’t know whether my teacher Tim Clark will like this work. I still use too much line and my tonal scales are way out of control. I think I have soaked up a small fraction of Tim’s wisdom, and will certainly return for more.

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Related posts:

Maine Watercolor
Sukkot at the Sages
Medical School Memories
The Corpus Callosum, Buddha’s Enlightenment, and the Neurological Basis for Creativity
Painting, Poetry, and Medicine: Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams
Visitng Dr. Chekhov
Venice Beach Sketchbook
Sketching on the Left Bank

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Comments(3)

  • Richard Nagler
    June 16, 2014, 1:19 pm  Reply

    These watercolors are absolutely great!

  • yosef shien
    June 16, 2014, 9:25 am  Reply

    Great sketches. Your colors really create a complex atmosphere of warmth and mysticism, familiarity and at the same time a sense of awe.

  • Linda Harootyan
    June 16, 2014, 9:16 am  Reply

    I continue to be impressed how well you capture the world around you. I truly enjoyed your sketches.

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Dr. Jeffrey M. Levine has authored numerous articles on topics related to healthcare of the elderly. These include medical history, prevention and treatment of chronic wounds such as pressure ulcers, elder neglect and abuse, and physical restraints. He has also edited a book on legal and regulatory aspects of nursing homes.