Rider’s Lens: Pepper Cook’s Watercolors
In this Rider’s Lens, we catch up with our spoon-carving, ukelele-playing friend Pepper Cook in Alaska, who shares her relatively newfound love of creating watercolors while bikepacking. Find a gallery of Pepper’s watercolor paintings, her thoughts on how being creative while riding adds to the experience, tips on getting started, and more here…
Words and illustrations by Pepper Cook (@bookbikebrew)
Hello there! My name is Pepper and I live in Anchorage, Alaska. I am an EMT, and I recently started a new career in aviation safety, but during my “real life” (non-working hours) I love to do backcountry ski and bikepacking trips with my tent and watercolor set. My favorite adventure rigs right now are my titanium Salsa Timberjack, which I recently took on a painting trip to Baja, and my carbon Salsa Mukluk, which I ride all over Alaska in wintertime looking for glaciers to paint.
I don’t have a background in art. I was never really good at art when I was younger! I’ve always loved picking up what I consider to be “portable hobbies” because, over my time of working odd guiding and medical shifts, it’s proved to be tricky to find backcountry partners who can take as much time off as I can to do big trips. To keep from getting bored or lonely camping so much alone, I’ve learned to carve wooden spoons, play ukulele, play a number of solo card games, and I also became an avid birdwatcher. Then, when the pandemic started, I found it even more difficult to find anyone who was willing or able to let me breathe on their face in a tent, so I decided to pick up watercolor painting.
My favorite subject matters to paint are my camp spots and busy colorful streets when I pass through towns. I think my relationship with bicycles has impacted my sketching and painting by helping me train my eyes to become more observant. Riding a bicycle truly is the perfect speed to take in a landscape. Walking can be too slow, and driving is too fast. Bikepacking a route is perfect for watercolor painting because you can get between scenes you want to paint relatively fast compared to hiking. Plus, you have more time between stops because the ride is quicker than if you were to hike the same route slowly all day. I typically will sketch the landscape in a waterproof black ink pen, and then have fun “coloring it in” when I’m lying around in my tent later that evening with my watercolor kit.
As I mentioned before, I also enjoy carving wooden spoons, and while there are some similarities between carving and painting (both are meditative, and you end up with a super pretty souvenir/gift to give adventure pals), I have to say so far I’ve been enjoying watercolor painting for some special reasons. I used to take a lot of photos and then never look back at them, and the act of taking the photos almost took away from the experience of remembering the actual trip. When I sit down to paint a campsite or urban scene, I sometimes am staring at that scene for an hour at a time and really pick out all the colors and details. I end up with a vivid memory of the trip, and when I get home I can flip through a whole sketchbook of all my favorite places.
Another fun consequence of practicing watercolor is that over time, my eyeballs have somehow gotten trained to see more colors. When I used to look at a forest of pines I would just see a sea of green. Now, I can pick out a handful of greens, blues, purples, and colorful birds secretly perched here and there… a whole rainbow suddenly appears everywhere I look!
I have learned a lot in the last couple of years of watercolor painting. Alaska has taught me that to paint “en plein air,” you will need to mix a little vodka or something in your squeezy travel watercolor paintbrush to keep the water inside from freezing. Another lesson I learned is that objects almost always have shadows, and once you learn to include the shadows at the right angle, it adds a lot of depth to your painting. I also learned to stop being such a perfectionist and just enjoy a messy sketch and experiment with color sometimes.
Much of watercolor painting is just “suggesting” something and letting the human eye and brain fill in the detail. You don’t always have to perfectly paint a person in the scene, you can sort of sketch in a person-shaped blob and by the end of the painting, anyone looking at it will find that their brain sort of translates the shapes.
My advice to other new painters is this: if you don’t think you can paint, crack a beer or other fizzy beverage and put on a Bob Ross video on YouTube. I absolutely love following his videos. Sometimes I put one on in the background while cooking or doing chores just because he has such a relaxing voice and is such a gentle, friendly teacher. I also occasionally love painting in a coloring book to play with colors and practice! And finally, remember: no one has to see your paintings or even knows you paint. I painted for almost a year in sketchbooks before mentioning to anyone that I carry the tools to do so on my bike trips. You don’t have to be “good” at painting to enjoy the meditation that comes from it, and you don’t have to do it for anyone but yourself!
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