Portrait of the river in paint markers

[By Marcia Milner-Brage in Cedar Falls, Iowa]

 My passion for paint markers started with a recent series, Portrait of a park. Here is my portrait of the river in my northeast Iowa hometown of Cedar Falls.

The river is the Cedar River. It travels through rich farmland, past towns and other cities, eventually joining the Iowa River and then finally the Mississippi River in the southeast corner of Iowa, having flowed over 300 miles from its headwaters in south central Minnesota.

The dam (above) drops the river 12.5 feet. It is close to downtown. Once there was a small waterfall. Thus Cedar Falls’ name. The first dam was built in 1848. This one was built in 1886.

From riverside parks and trails, one can look out on and across the Cedar River as it wends its way through town. Most of these drawings were done a mile or less from my house in old town Cedar Falls—an easy walk or bike ride.

The Parkade, Cedar Falls’ downtown, seen from the opposite side of the river.


Downriver from the dam, the four-lane First Street Bridge crosses the river. The cluster of white tents is a performance venue in Gateway Park. Throughout the summer, but especially during the three days of Cedar Falls’ annual Sturgis Falls Celebration at the end of June, bands perform day and night under the big tents.

Further down the river from the First Street Bridge there is a grove of cottonwood. One died. I drew from a park bench on top of the earthen dike that protects downtown Cedar Falls from the inevitable flooding that happens every several years. On the otherside of the river from this vantage, a bike trail–unseen through the trees–follows the river’s path.

The bike trail also goes to Black Hawk County Park in northern Cedar Falls, about three miles from downtown. The Cedar River is broad and placid here. There are ample spots to gaze out on a curve in the river and the plentiful birdlife.

Perhaps contemplating nature along the river’s edge is not your thing. Might you prefer something a little bit more exciting? Once a year, as part of June’s Sturgis Falls Celebration, the funfair comes to town. Carnival rides, kiddy bumper cars, try-your-skill at flipping the rubber chicken into a pot, clouds of pink cotton candy and corndogs. It’s set up across from downtown in Gateway Park.

The metal truss railroad bridge is just downriver from the dam. It was built in 1899. About seven freight trains cross it a day. The Canadian National railroad now operates and maintains it. As the trains slow to cross the bridge and navigate the curves in the tracks before and after the bridge, the train engineers repeatedly sound the whistle. After 30 years of living here in Cedar Falls, it’s always a thrill to be by the river near the metal bridge and hear this. At night, if the wind is blowing from the north, I can hear the whistle sounding and the metal wheels clacking and squealing at my house a mile away.


One of the highest points to look down on the river is from Greenwood Cemetery Bluff, upriver from the dam. The vantage affords a view of the vast, still untamable flood plain of the Cedar River. There are small islands and backwaters. Across the river is the white, concrete plant and Tourist Park, which hugs the rivers’ edge.

The river has not flooded this year (yet). When it does, Tourist Park is underwater. For the now, recent rains have left big puddles (and their reflected shadows) in the hard-packed sandy parking lot.

There are more places along the river I could show you. There’s the bike bridge that arches over it, the fishermen who dot the banks, the great blue herons, bald eagles, the flotillas of migrating Canada Geese, the houseboats, the kayakers, the Ice House. I’ll just have to work on a second installment of river drawings (though probably not this summer, because the biting gnats and mosquitos–the Midwest’s summer scourge–have arrived).

All of these drawings were done with POSCA paint markers in a Canson 8″x6″, black-paper sketchbook.   The same is the case for Portrait of a park.


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