Demo: Second Cup, Port Credit

The Second Cup coffee shop at Lakeshore and Stavebank is a bit of a landmark in Port Credit. It caught my eye once before –  a long time ago and under very different lighting conditions. On this occasion the lighting is flat. The back-lighting reflects the sky onto the pavement. The cross-walk, and the reflections on it, provide a nice lead-in to the woman with the red umbrella.SecondCup_Raining

She is not in the original photo. I borrowed her from another shot. Quick tip: If you are gathering material for a street scene, take lots of “people” shots on the same day. Figures will seldom be exactly where you want them in you composition so its handy to have  an inventory of people shots taken from the same locale,  under the same lighting conditions, to insert as needed. You can do so literally (by photo-shopping them in) or just by sketching them in and having several photos arranged around your easel as reference while you paint.  Figures borrowed from photos taken on a different day will seldom sit as comfortably in your scene.

The underpainting is, as usual, darker than the intended finished piece and the colours are considerably warmer:


As I work on the underpainting, I am thinking ahead to the final piece. For instance, I made a mental note that the façade of the coffee shop is not uniformly lit, despite the flat lighting conditions. The top right is distinctly lighter than the lower left. The cross-walk shows reflections from the coffee shop and the phone booths of course. But even the sections in full light are not uniformly lit. It is more intense near the sidewalk and fades as it comes closer to the viewer.  It is barely noticeable in the photo, but if I exaggerate it a bit, it may draw the eye in more dramatically. The building on the right, I want to push back into the distance – more so than appears from the photo. Doing this will add to the atmospheric effect I think. With this in mind, I don’t go as dark with the underpainting of this building as I otherwise might.


Once you’re done going dark, it’s time to get bright. When you start to work on a dark canvas, any paint you apply can look bright – almost white. So it’s often a good idea to start the next stage at the brightest spot. The lower sky in this case. Once these lights are established, gauging your mid-tones will be much easier.

The sky, bottom left, is almost pure lemon yellow and white, with the merest traces of cad red and cobalt blue.  In the other corner, the sky is a deeper blue-grey (cobalt blue; touch of Cad Red). How do you go from lemon yellow to cobalt blue without getting green in between? The secret is to blend visually rather than literally. If you juxtaposition very pale tints of each that are of identical value, the eye will not perceive the transition. Once safely over on the blue side, you can then proceed to deepen the colour as needed.


The finished piece.  Getting the “right” value and colour temperature for the façade of the coffee shop was important. The red umbrella acts as a natural focal point. To give a hint of reflected light from the umbrella, I also added a few tiny swatches of red around the face and arm (or where they would approximately be in a more detailed painting!).

A big Thank You to Karen for the in-progress shots!






In Spanish, “cajon” just means “box”. In English however, it refers to a box drum. It originated in Peru, where black slaves used shipping crates as improvised percussion instruments. There are lots of stories about the  banning of traditional African instruments and so on, but my guess is that these are fanciful myths. More likely, the cajon is just another example (like spoons and washboards) of the long tradition of poor people using whatever is at hand as percussion instruments.

Cajons have become popular today because they do a good job of mimicking a modern drum kit, but at volume levels that are easier to manage when accompanying acoustic instruments. More portable too !

Today’s cajons are a far cry from their humble shipping crate origins. They are still ‘just’ plywood boxes, but usually made today of top grade Baltic birch, sometimes with elaborate veneers. The playing surface (the “tapa”) is extra-thin (1/8th inch) 3-ply.

1- 4 Cajons

The dark one was my first effort. I built it with 3/4″ stock. It has a solid wood seat. I originally tried 1/4″ material for the tapa but it was too dead. It now has 1/8th” stock just like the others. The second from the left was mark ll. It was made with  1/2″ material. The thinner stock necessitated adding internal reinforcements to the joints. I felt the solid wood seat in the original model deprived the player of some of the sound options you can get from playing right at the very top of the box. So in the second version, I ditched it in favour of a thinner plywood top.  (My daughter provided the art for that one). The two at the ends are 5/8ths material (or the metric equivalent). This seems to be about the ideal thickness. Using dado joints and biscuits, the case seems plenty robust to withstand all the sitting without the need for additional supports. Generally, the more wood and glue you add to the internal chamber, the less resonance you are likely to get from the instrument

2 - Cajon Back

And of course, you need a sound hole. Usually at the back. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether it is towards the top or bottom. But closer to the top means you also have a convenient way to carry the thing. It can be a simple hole, like a guitar sound hole. Or you can get a little fancier.

The tapa is always attached with screws rather than glue. Two reasons. One, it allows you to get at the inside if you need to adjust the snare (more on this below). And, you can also experiment with backing off some of the screws at the top to provide a “snap” sound like a rim shot. You usually see screws omitted from the top corners of commercial cajons for the same reason.

5 - Corner

Traditional Peruvian cajons do not have an internal snare. Most examples  you see in contemporary settings do. Sometimes these are just guitar strings stretched behind the tapa to create a ‘buzz’ sound when tapa is struck. The better answer I think, and the one I used in all the above, is to use an actual snare drum snare. However, it is not stretched across the back as it would normally be. Instead, you cut the snare in two. Attached to a cross-brace, the snare wires lie against the top section of the tapa like a brush.  In each of the above instruments I experimented with the amount of snare – much like the plywood – going from a lot, to a little, and finally settling on an amount that seems about right to my ear.

3 - Gecko4 - Toucan

Then of course, there is the art work.  Each is an original, but all draw heavily from traditional Inca/Mayan motifs in honour of the drum’s humble origins.

Check out Heidi Joubert on You Tube to see an expert player in action (and some lessons).