June 16, 2018

Paramount Ranch
Church at Paramount Ranch, June 9, 2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

I belong to a “Meet Up” sketching group. Last Sunday we went to Paramount Ranch to sketch/paint. I’d never even heard of the place, let alone been there. So, here is what I discovered while the wonders and mystery of my GPS showed me a map and the way to Paramount Ranch. It’s in the Santa Monica Mountains, between the hills of Agoura and Point Dume, Malibu. It’s a lovely, hilly area with lots of huge coast live oaks. There wasn’t much traffic on the 101 that morning so I was in good spirits when I arrived. And once I saw the countless oak trees at the visitor center, a particular favorite of mine, I was certain being there for a couple hours would be fabulous. While a waited for some of my painting buddies to show up I ate some yoghurt. Behind me there were a couple fire fighters washing a fire truck. (Always glad to see fire fighters out in such a place, as this area will be very dry and hot in a few weeks.) I wasn’t exactly sure what I was in for, but pretty soon a guy with a huge horse trailer pulled up. He jumped out of the truck and systematically began to unload 8 horses from the trailer, tying each one off at the side. I was starting to get the picture that Paramount Ranch and these horses were somehow going to be joined at some point.

A Background Paragraph on Paramount Ranch

This seems an opportune moment to provide a little background. (I looked all this up on the Internet when I got home later that day.) In 1927, Paramount Pictures bought the land and built some western town movie sets. Paramount used the sets for westerns they made for about 25 years. Then in 1953, they sold the property to a new owner and it became an independent movie ranch. At that time the new owners expanded the size of the Western Town set so the many production companies that were making westerns for television in the 1950s could use it. In the 80’s, the National Parks Service bought most of the land (including the Western Town) and now they rent it out to various production companies who are in need of a ready-made western set. Such production companies are allowed to make alterations to the buildings, but the western town theme is to stay in tact. Based on the photos I saw on the Internet it looks like Western Town can also be rented out for weddings too.

So, once I had finished my snack and my friends had arrived we started into Western Town. On our way in a friend noticed that what appeared to be wooden siding on an old building was actually a sheet of metal siding that had been fabricated and painted to look like a wall of huge wooden beams. But as we both realized, nothing would be as it seemed in this fake western town and I’m sure no one would notice such a fake wall when watching a TV western that might include that building. As we turned the corner I saw quite a few artist posses on each street corner. They had already set up their supplies and were already painting. None of these artists were wearing cowboy hats or western boots, but rather had on sensible sun hats and shorts. It was such a great juxtaposition of yesterday compared with today, real versus fake. And almost as if on cue, the real came along side the unreal when a huge group of people on 21st century bicycles zoomed past us—past the general store, with Dry Goods, Groceries and Clothing, the Hotel Mud Bug and the Great Bend Jail and Sheriff’s office. It was about that time I figured out that the guy with the horses had a plan. And it was about this time that I realized once again the craziness of the California dream, with entrepreneur opportunities galore. It was great!

I wandered around the town a bit and found a great shady spot under a huge coast live oak tree. (Last week’s blog was all about California’s oak woodland and the history behind those magnificent and important trees.) For this adventure I was delighted to find a nice spot, in the shade, under such an oak. It must have been at least 300 years old. I wondered who else might have sat under that tree to cool off. Episodes of the TV show Gunsmoke were filmed here. Maybe the marshal or a bad guy sat under the tree with his or her horse tied off nearby. To my right was a wooden wagon that looked to be at least 100 years old (probably another fake) and directly in front of me was the old church you see here. Of course it’s part of this western town and a fake as well. It was only recently added to the property and used for the HBO show Westworld. If you look it up you can see how it was a white church with a pretty tall steeple and faux graveyard to the right. It was pretty nice to peacefully sit there and imagine days gone by with wagons and horses. But of course the 21st century was clearly still here as directly behind me a group of Eagle Scouts was engaged in some kind of project. Near as I could tell, they were shoveling large amounts of leaves and dried acorns into wheelbarrows. Then they looked for places to distribute all these trimmings to other places on the property. Of course one of the spots they chose to dump the yard waste was only a couple yards away from me. These 13 and 14-year old boys seemed to be having only a minimal amount of fun, kind of complaining about the work they were doing and talking. Most of the conversation I heard was about school and that the grade F for sure meant Fail, but that you could earn an E if you were Emotional. Pretty funny and emotional if you ask me.

We had a throw down on one of the streets in Western Town after a bit. A throw down is when we gather together and place our sketchpads side by side and we talk about our art. For this one, we lined up our art on the wooden sidewalk up against a fake old building. And as I had guessed, the horse entrepreneur had rented horses for people to ride around Western Town as some of the artists had captured just that. Most artists had painted the various buildings, with and without horses. Others had painted the same church, but of course their interpretation of the old looking building was completely different from mine. It was all really great to see. We talked quite a bit about who we were, the art and materials we used. I am always amazed with the people who come to these events—animators, architects, graphic artists and then just regular folks like me.

After we finished the plan was to eat lunch under some trees. I had planned to do that and had my customary peanut butter and jelly sandwich prepared. But I knew the traffic on 101 would just be getting worse as the afternoon went on. Reality was creeping into the wonderful unreality of the morning. So, I ate my peanut butter sandwich and pretzels in the car on the ride home. And yah, the traffic was awful. But I have this little piece of art I can look at to remind me of the old days—the old days of today and long ago. It is a bit confusing at times, but that’s LA for you! Gotta love it!

June 9, 2018

River Road Oak
River Road Oak Tree, San Miguel, CA spring 2001 (watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

This is actually a photocopy of a piece of art I had framed and gave to a friend. She was born in Paso Robles (very near San Miguel) and I think she probably loves oak trees as much as I do. But there is more to this piece of art than meets the eye as the amazing wall of clouds I painted here was not the actual backdrop of the hill with oak trees on that particular day. Here’s what I actually mean. I took the photo of the golden-looking oak trees on River Road in early spring 2001, but I photographed those clouds the previous fall (on that same stretch of River Road), after a wonderful bit of rain. As is the prerogative of a painter, I can do that. I can mix and match what I want. I can add or take away what pleases me. I remember thinking that the golden spring oak leaves I had set against the perfect sky of white clouds and pristine clean blue sky would look amazing. I think I also remember wondering about the color of the spring leaves on those trees as they were not green, but rather a golden color. So, I cannot be sure what kind of oak this is, but I am fairly certain it is not a live oak—a common evergreen oak tree we have here. But whatever kind of oaks I saw that day (and later painted), those sparkling golden leaves look pretty spectacular here.

I have always been enchanted by the oak trees (in oak woodlands) we have here in California. They have such a nice sturdy shape, they produce these cool-looking edible acorns (if you rinse and rinse out the natural bitter taste from the acorn flour), they are often very slow growing and tend to live a long time. For example, a coast live oak can live to be more than 250 years old. And since they live so long, you just get used to having them around. For me they are somehow a constant in an ever changing California world. I have written about the many changes we’ve seen since the missions were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. San Miguel has a mission that was founded in 1797, but burned down in 1806. It was rebuilt and complete in 1821. I like to imagine there were mature oak trees near the mission at that time. Maybe they are not the same ones you might see today, but I am sure they were welcome shade for the people who rebuilt that mission. When I was young I fondly remember seeing far away rolling golden hillsides of oaks from my Paso Robles friend’s kitchen window. Of course lots of houses have filled the spaces between the trees since the early 2000s. And neighboring hillsides of Paso oaks are now also filled with vineyards. I believe mature oak trees are considered an asset to a homeowner who is lucky enough to have one on the property. And I know I have heard that a house will sell for more money if there are such trees on the land.

I wrote about working at Addison Wesley Publishing Co, in Menlo Park (right next to Palo Alto) last time and that the building on Sand Hill Road was part of what is known as “Stanford land.” Not sure what actually means, but I think people who have businesses there don’t get to really own the land…somehow. Anyway, in the courtyard outside the two story office where I worked was a huge oak tree that towered over the top of that building. (I remember a couple of the guys who worked in the design department liked to sit under the tree and smoke cigars. Hmmm…) Next to us was a second Addison Wesley two-story building and towering oak on the property as well. Those trees were at least 200 years old and probably more like 250 years old. I worked there from about 1991 to 1994. That meant the trees may have been saplings in the 1750s, right? And that was way before Leland Stanford built Stanford (1891) and there was no such notion of “Stanford land.” Native Americans were definitely living near there when those trees were young. (A Native American man who worked with us in the editorial department said that Native American artifacts had been found when they put in the linear accelerator (SLAC—Stanford Linear Collider) and Stanford Shopping Center right next door to Addison Wesley. Pretty cool, huh?

Of course if you really want to get a sense of old trees here in CA, I have to mention the CA redwood. A typical lifespan of a CA redwood is 500 to 700 years, with some living to be 2000 years old. They don’t produce anything that we can eat, like an acorn, but you have to marvel at the changes that have occurred since some of those old trees were seedlings. If they could only talk and tell us what it was like…

Speaking of edible acorns

In the fall of 1993 I went on a hike with other like-minded tree huggers on trails through amazing groves of redwoods and oaks at Castle Rock State Park. Castle Rock State Park is on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains and is not only a great place for hiking, but also a great place to go rock climbing. Anyway, the person who took us on the hike talked quite a bit about the oak trees on the trails. She described at great length about the tanoak and the tanoak acorn. It seems that the tanoak isn’t really a true oak at all, but a kind of cross between an oak and a chestnut tree. Native American groups in the coastal ranges of California relied on the tanoak acorns for food. And it seems a single tanoak can produce 200 pounds of acorn per year and it has been estimated that CA tribes would harvest 500 to 2000 pounds of acorns per family per year. Yikes, that’s just mind blowing to me.

An acorn has a very unique appearance. Each one has a little cap that fits snuggly to a small nut that is shaped like a football. As a kid I remember collecting acorns and acorn caps that were under oak trees. This happened during the time of year when the tree naturally dropped the nuts (seeds) in hopes that a new oak tree would sprout and grow into another oak. But also usually at this time the caps and nuts were not together anymore, and there would be hundreds of such acorns and caps spread around under each tree. I would painstakingly try to match the exact cap that went to the exact nut. And when I found one that was still together, I was in heaven. It always seemed like such a prize. I had learned in school that Native Americans ground up the nut part of the acorn into flour and then made bread. What a lot of work! I remembering my mom telling us kids that there were acorn grinding bowls carved into the huge granite boulders near the “swimmin’ hole” on their property in Mariposa. She said there were even smaller granite stones in the bowls that the local Native Americans had used to grind the acorns into flour. At some point I guess the grinding stones disappeared. If I ever saw the bowl impressions in the rock, I don’t remember. I was very little when my mother’s family sold that property.

As I said, I learned about how California Native Americans made bread flour from acorns, and I guess they had done just that (probably for generations) near my mom’s house in Mariposa. But I also remember thinking that after all the work of pulverizing hundreds and hundreds of acorns, you weren’t even close to being ready to make bread. I have never tasted acorn flour that had just been milled, but I understand it is really bitter and inedible. So, there is yet one more step of rinsing and rinsing (called leaching) the flour to rinse out the bitter taste. Then the acorn meal is dried and bread dough can be made and baked. So, there are a couple things I have always wondered about eating acorn meal. First, who thought such a hard nut could be ground up and eaten? (I read that they used to suck on them is they had a sore throat.) Second, who thought of rinsing and rinsing the flour to make it edible? (Probably why the Mariposa grinding bowls were so close to swimmin’ hole.) And third, how many years (generations) did it take to carve out a grinding bowl for acorns in granite? (Granite is one of the hardest rocks around, right?) And finally, didn’t that probably mean you were eating granite dust in your bread? I wonder if your teeth would grind down from years of chewing on granite dust. I wonder about these things…, don’t you?

June 2, 2018

Henry's sunflower
Stanford sunflowers, summer 1994 (acrylic on canvas, (18″ by 24″)

It’s early June, 1994. I am about 5 months pregnant with my one and only child and I am working as a book editor at Addison Wesley, Publishing Co in Menlo Park. I live in Santa Clara and commute to Addison Wesley every day. Each morning I squish myself, with my ever expanding belly, behind the wheel of the Acura and try to think of new ways to avoid the traffic and see something new on my way to work. Sometimes I take surface streets, like El Camino, where I go past Stanford University. Then I hang a left through a short parking lot attached to the Stanford Shopping Center and that brings me quickly to Sand Hill Road. (Addison Wesley used to be on Sand Hill Road.). One day I took a different left turn (before the Stanford Shopping Center) and drove around behind it past the back parking lots. As I sat at a light back there I looked to my right and noticed a mass planting of sunflowers on a corner of one of the parking lots. I was transfixed. And my life was forever changed by the enormous and beautiful display of every kind of sunflower imaginable. I wanted to pull over then and there, but I was about to be late to work and decided I would stop on my way home. And that’s what I did. It was a warm afternoon, but I stopped by that very parking lot that very afternoon and I inspected every inch of that sunflower wonder. There were rows of tall single head sunflowers, medium-sized single head sunflowers, and short squat sunflower bushes that were covered with flowers. Some flowers were dark yellow, some light yellow, some were the color of amber, some were a dark red and some were the color of crème. It was so densely packed with thick and thin green stems and leaves, and colorful flowers that no soil was visible. As I said, I was forever changed, as this would be the theme of the child I was waiting for, my sunflower baby. I drove past this vision every morning and every afternoon after that, noticing that the flower heads were in different positions as they followed the sun across the sky throughout the day. And I was acutely aware that the dark brown flower centers were getting larger and larger (much like my belly), while the flower petals were getting smaller and thinner. Because if you know anything about sunflowers, they don’t last very long in this beautiful “full flower” state as the whole point to the flower’s existence is to produce large seeds. Pretty soon the flower heads were starting to droop. But the people at the Stanford Shopping Center hadn’t noticed that a pregnant lady stopped by every day to appreciate, study and look at this vision and one day they were all gone. Just like that. All that was left was a large patch of dirt. (Maybe they had noticed the sweaty pregnant lady getting out and into the front seat of a blue Acura every weekday afternoon and it was just too much to watch anymore.)

I have done many paintings and drawings of sunflowers since first seeing them those fateful few weeks in Menlo Park, June 1994. In fact, I did a drawing of a couple sunflowers I’d seen there, adding a photo of my son’s “hours old” head popping out of a sunflower bud. Then I hand colored each one and sent them as birth announcements—my sunflower baby. I was just now remembering that was born at the Stanford Children’s Hospital just around the corner from there—pretty funny and somehow part of my cosmic sunflower obsession and journey. I was extremely obnoxious with that sunflower theme for many months after my son was born. In fact his first birthday had a sunflower theme, complete with a sunflower cake and yellow balloons on tall green ribbons everywhere.

What you see here is an example of just one of my sunflower paintings/sketches. I think this one has a kind of cosmic look, if you notice the background. When I rehung it in my house the other day (I am constantly moving my art from room to room, wall to wall.) I noticed another single sunflower on the back. I had forgotten I had painted that one first. But when it was done I decided I didn’t like it that much and re stretched the sunflower canvas so I could paint on the other side, creating the single sunflower stem and flower you see here.

In my blog last week I droned on and on about seeing art at your leisure and not being bothered by people getting in your way when you want to view a special painting. And I actually made a remark that I wanted to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre someday, but it’s pretty small (30 inches by 21 inches) and is probably hard to get a really good view of it without people being in the way. Well, my 24 inch by 18 inch sunflower painting (slightly smaller) could be easily viewed from far away without any trouble I think. That’s probably because the image is simple with great colors that provide such a contrast. If you really want to get the full cosmic sunflower affect of this one though, you would need to be up a little closer. But you know, I don’t really need to look at it anymore, because all I have to do is close my eyes and I can still picture that huge display of sunflowers in my mind. That picture will always be way better than any painting I could make. Besides I just planted a bunch of different kinds of sunflowers (Van Gogh, Garnet Star and Sundancer) in my front yard and I’m just waiting for them to bloom, kind of like I am waiting again for my baby to be born. So in a week or so I can look out my front window and get a real view to match with that memory. Gotta love that!

Gardens/plantings that should not be missed in Palo Alto and/or Woodside

The plantings at the Stanford Shopping Center are pretty special year round. There have been many times I have gone there just to see what had been planted. But going shopping there can be fun too, although it’s pretty expensive. When I was a girl my mom would take me to buy school clothes at the Stanford Shopping Center Emporium Department Store every fall. That was always a special treat. The Emporium has been gone a long time (like many of the department stores that were around when I was young), but the fountains and flowers are still going strong. I look forward to times in the future I can see what’s  blooming there again.

Another garden I love to go to in Palo Alto is in an old neighborhood there. It’s called the Gamble Garden and a great place to wander through, imaging a lovely glass of ice tea at the Stanford Shopping center when you are done. In fact, I copied part of that garden in the front yard of our house in Grass Valley. We had a couple lovely mature weeping cherry trees with a few roses and mostly lawn. The Gamble Garden also had several mature weeping cherry trees, but instead of turf, they had vinca as a ground cover surrounding the trees. All around that vision of pink cherry blossoms was a lavender-colored vinca carpet, with roses and boxwood. I didn’t put in the boxwood, but I did take out the lawn and added the vinca ground cover. And all around this lovely “Gamble Garden” inspired corner yard in Grass Valley I added countless roses. Oh, and I forgot to add that our garden had a huge 10 foot tall hedge of English Laurel, that mimicked the Gamble Garden’s charming woven fences (painted green) that lined the garden on the street. In spring, our house looked like a giant painted Easter egg! When we sold the house I told the new owner of the inspiration for the front yard garden—weeping cherry trees, vinca ground cover, green lined hedge/fencing and roses. One of the first things she did after they moved in was to take down the hedge and remove the vinca–adding back the lawn. I think she left the roses alone. Yikes and oh well! No accounting for taste. I haven’t been back to Grass Valley since the house sold and I don’t think I could stand to drive by to see the garden as it looks now. But I do have plans to go back to the Gamble Garden one of these days and paint those very trees, the ground cover and roses. That’s the memory of our house and the Gamble Garden I want to have.

Finally, there is a garden just a bit north of Palo Alto (Woodside) that shouldn’t be missed. It’s called Filoli. The house and gardens there have a connection to Grass Valley as the original owner of the Empire Mine in Grass Valley also owned Filoli. I am not mentioning any of this because of my Grass Valley garden angst, but rather to say that the gardens there are amazing and worth going to see. If you are old enough to have watched the TV show “Dynasty,” then you might remember the house they show in the credits. That’s it! That’s the very house on the Filoli estate. Not sure I care that much about the house, but my memory of those gardens is pretty special. As I have said in previous posts about California, it’s a pretty strange and yet amazing place.

 

May 26, 2018

spring pinks
Rose Garden at the Descanso Garden, April 29, 2018 (mixed media on Canson Mix Media paper)

I guess I can’t seem to get out of the rose garden at the Descanso, and I just give up that I will paint anywhere else when I’m there—at least not in the foreseeable future. That part of the garden was just so full of such tantalizing spring colors and all. My mind was so full of ideas of how to capture those amazing pink spring blossoms and the new growth on the roses. Whatever! I give up! (If you haven’t read my blog before, I am lamenting the fact that every time I go to the Descanso Garden I always head for the rose garden to paint.) Oh well. So, before I begin to describe my color choices for this piece I should mention that I was trying out a new watercolor paper. (Actually it’s not watercolor paper at all, but rather a paper for mixed media.) It was ok, but I think I prefer that watercolor paper have more texture than this. It was pretty flat, with no little knobs or dents to obstruct the flow of the paint. In my opinion washes are more interesting when the paper has a subtle texture especially when rendering the sky—with clouds or a cloudless blue.

But my real intent was to use all of the red and pink colors in my watercolor cakes and tubes, as well as my watercolor pencils to render all of the flower petals and shiny new leaves in the rose garden that day. So, listed here are those colors and a few notes I made for each one I used:

Watercolors:

  • Chinese White

Small amounts of: Scarlet Lake, Cadmium Barium (red, medium), Cadmium red (light), mixed with sap green with some of these reds to make the trunks/branches of some trees

  • Alizarin Crimson (tube and cake): Blossoms mostly, but touched the sky as well
  • Opera

 

Watercolor pencils:

Inktense pencils: poppy red, fuschia

Staedtler watercolour pencils–#61, #23

I almost never use a color straight from the tube or in a cake; I just have to add a little something else to every pot of color I make. Not sure if any of you out there use colors just as they come, or if you are like me and just have to fiddle around to make the perfect color, or make the perfect allusion of a color. I thought it worth some thoughts and words about the making of a color like pink, as I think it can go so wrong very quickly. I am such a nut about my blues and greens, so of course I must obsess about pink as well. There are a couple ways I get “Descanso Garden pink.” I usually start with a diluted and pale red color so I can layer more pigment later if I want. I also like to leave white space around the pink as I think it brightens the color as though it’s a highlight. I also like to suggest intensity with spots of scribbled bright watercolor pencil. Sometimes I leave it raw and sometimes I soften and swirl it around with a dab of water. I did that on the blossoms of the two trees to the right and the new growth of the rose in the foreground.* I don’t often add white to my watercolors, let alone to any of my “go to” reds (pretty mad about alizarin crimson in watercolor and oil paints as well) to make pink. Not really sure why I hold back the white pigment (gouache in this case). I am willing to mix huge amounts of white to my oil paints, no problem. Somehow I am OK with that because they are all still oils, where watercolors (transparent) and gouache (opaque) are different. It always feels like I’m cheating or trying to cover up a mistake when I add white. I feel like I should be able to use the white color of the paper underneath or beside the pigment to lighten the load of such a color, not cover it up. For this piece I did mix some Chinese white with my diluted red to make the blossoms in the shrub in the middle. And I like it. I have one exception to my seemingly crazy rules of mixing paint and pink and that is the color “Opera.” I do use that one straight from the tube. I didn’t use it in all its glory here, but I did spread it around quite liberally when I painted a friend’s bougainvillea summer before last.

* I don’t usually identify plants in my work as the two trees on the right or the shrub in the middle. I usually get up and look at the printed name stakes staked under each plant I am drawing. I mean, that’s what I love about places like the Descanso Garden or Huntington Botanical Garden, they have markers with names under all roses, trees and shrubs. Don’t know why I didn’t go and look on that day. I will definitely do that the next time I’m there.

People don’t often stop by when I am working, and I am actually kind of glad to not be distracted. But on that day a man and woman walked slowly past as I had just finished my large watercolor primary and secondary washes and blobs of watercolor foliage on the paper. I was thinking of taking a break to eat half of my peanut butter sandwich. They were about 8 feet away and didn’t really stop, but slowed their pace a bit to comment on what I was painting. Both said they thought it nice, but the man went further and said I should consider stopping as it was done. Of course I was thinking, “What did he mean by that?” I had so many more plans to add color and detail with my watercolor pencils. But I waited till they were way out of range, stopped, and stood back about 8 feet to see if he was right. I usually do this at various times of each watercolor. At that distance I take off my glasses, imagining I am someone else, looking at my art through different eyes. It is always at about this time that I make a mental note of what areas seem to be working best and which need a bit more attention. And I have to say that even though I later added a bit more linear color and detail with my pencils, it really looks pretty much the same as before.

I have already mused and written about when an artist knows he or she is done with a piece of art. And I still have no idea how to tell when I am done. I just make myself stop. That sometimes coincides with running out of painting water and my starting to use my drinking water. On that day I had run out of painting water, decided I was done and began packing up. As I did so the on looker’s comments got thinking about how far away one must stand to really get the total impact of a painting? Of course I initially thought it shouldn’t really matter and should be up to the viewer. This is a free country, don’t I get to stand as close or as far away as I would like? (Assuming I haven’t gotten too close and a museum guard has come to escort me away…) So, I wondered about other painters and what they might consider the optimum distance one should stand when looking at one of their finished works. I mean, if you get too close to a Van Gogh, all you see is brush strokes. And while that is pretty wonderful to look at, I would imagine he wanted you back a few feet to get the full affect of one color next to another, so your brain can magically mix them together in your mind. And Monet’s water lilies take up whole walls and getting too close to one of those pieces just doesn’t have the impact of standing way back. And I am certain that more contemporary artists, like Jackson Pollack, really wanted you to stand a good distance away to get the full affect of his large abstract canvases. Maybe when a painter decides to do a large piece, they are kind of daring you to get too close, knowing full well you will be compelled as if by some great force to take several paces back. This can sometimes be a very frustrating and selfish trick the great artists play on us. For example, last winter (2016-2017) the Norton Simon had Van Gogh’s “Bedroom” on Loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. That happens to be a real favorite of mine and I went to see it on a Friday evening during that time. There were so many people trying to get a good view of it, that I never got a real good look at it. I wanted to look close at the brush strokes and then step back until I was at the optimum distance I am sure Van Gogh wanted me to stand. But inevitably someone would see this space I had created and walk right into it. I tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, look through them and hope that he or she would soon be gone. But of course someone else joined that person, and so on and so on, until I finally walked away. I tried several times to go back and look at it again, but it was always the same thing. How do you look past someone with a stroller, or two friends with two strollers? So unfair and frustrating!

I hope to someday see Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre. But I think he has played the ultimate trick an artist can play on all of us because that one is so small. (I just looked it up and it’s 2′ 6″ x 1′ 9.”) It’s also behind bulletproof glass (can’t blame Leonardo for that), which probably means there is some kind of glare when looking at it from some angles. To really see that one you would probably need to start out pretty close and then move a bit to each side to get the perfect view of her smile. And what are the chances that anyone will get out of your way so you can actually do that? (Such a whiner, I know.) I decided that’s when it’s probably good to be rich and famous, so you can pay to have everyone moved out of the way to can get a good look. Not that any of my little watercolors could compare with the Mona Lisa, but I like to create art that would get your attention from across the room. And I don’t want the viewer to be gypped with just one perfect viewing distance to get the true affect of one of my little landscapes. I try to have a little something for everyone in my little works at every angle, just like this one. So I add small details of lines and scribbles of color that you can’t actually see unless you get closer. So, if any of my art is ever hanging in the Norton Simon or at the Louvre you will be able to enjoy it from many different angles. Of course if it happens to be under bulletproof glass or there are just too many people with strollers, you are on your own!

May 19, 2018

wasp1
1. Wasp details, summer 1991 (ink on acetate)
wasp2
2. Wasp genitalia, summer 1991 (ink on tracing paper)

You are probably wondering what you are looking at exactly. Well, these are close up parts of solitary wasps from Papua, New Guinea. This is one of those times where the story behind the art is probably way more interesting and complete than the sketches you see here. In the summer of 1991 I worked at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and I did illustrations for a couple botanists and one entomologist who worked there. It’s kind of crazy as I have plenty of copies of finished plants and plant parts, but I could only find a few sketches of wasps. Not really sure why I have such scant bits of these ferocious bugs to remind me of that work, but I have some great stories about the people I met on the entomology floor of the Cal Academy.

So, now it’s time for the story about drawing wasp genitalia and I need to start with some kind of disclaimer or explanation. The entomologist I worked for at the Academy, and all of the people I got to know on both the entomology and botany floors, was amazing. My entomologist was so passionate about his studies of these solitary wasps from a far-away place. When I told my friends, and husband at the time, what I was doing there I was always met with a bit of a smirk or snort. Of course I don’t remember my husband at the time smiling about someone drawing wasp genitalia. He seemed to be more concerned with my possible deteriorating vision as a result of my looking back and forth at microscopic bug parts under a microscope (sometimes using an electron microscope) and then refocusing my eyes to look at a sheet of acetate where I inked in the lines of the wasp. He told me I should be getting more than 10 dollars an hour if I was going to go blind. Somehow, I just didn’t mind.

I thought all of it was so interesting. I loved the whole process I had to go through to complete just one final illustration. If this is all too odd for words, you have probably stopped reading. But if not, here’s how it went for each wasp I illustrated. First, the entomologist would prepare the genitalia bit he wanted me draw and placed it in a shallow dish of liquid (probably water). Then he placed it under the lens of a special projector that projected the specimen onto the wall of a windowless room that was lit only by light from the projector. Once he adjusted the picture on the wall to the size he wanted, I taped a small piece of tracing paper on that very spot. Then I used a pretty hard-leaded pencil to trace the structure and hairs you see in the second illustration. And once the sketch was done I then went into a well-lit room by a window and rendered the structure with a very fine point mechanical pen (.25 and .30 mm, that continuously clogged) on a sheet of acetate. Next, to add further detail to some “hair-like” strands of the lines I took a fine-pointed blade and scraped away some of the ink to make the lines go from thin to thick then back to thin again. “Lions and Tiger and Hairs, oh my!”

I guess the real question here is was it funny that I illustrated wasp genitalia, or was it funny that I enjoyed working really hard to make the best darn wasp genitalia I could? And I guess what’s really funny at this point in the story is that I assumed that each hairy little bug bit I illustrated was the actual wasp penis. But it isn’t! I never really asked him much about what I was drawing. And I only recently figured it all out when I looked it up online the other day—literally just the other day. Back then I knew that if you looked at the back end of these wasps, they looked different depending on the species. (I am guessing wasps didn’t need drawings to help them decide who was the male and who was the female.) But if you are a bug scientist, this is how you can tell one from another. I remember learning that you can look at wings or the head to also tell male from female. Look at the mandibles of that beast—at the very top of the bug hierarchy of predator bugs. Right? Are they afraid of you and you afraid of them? I’ve had them chase me…

From end to end I was fascinated with these wasps. But I was all wrong about their “back end” anatomy back then. It turns out that those hairy feather-like structures come in pairs and actually surround the penis on either side. So, I never did draw a wasp penis, just one side of the hairy outside covering. Who knew? I wonder why I didn’t wonder about it back then. Maybe the idea that this hairy feather like thing was a penis was kind of amusing to me. But I suspect the answer is even funnier than that. My entomologist had such passion for his work, but I was more interested in just making the best genitalia I could with no questions asked. I’m sure he would have explained it to me if I’d asked, but since I was on the clock it was all business the minute I walked into his office, with no time for explanations. Most of our conversations took place as I was starting a new specimen and when I came back from lunch. He frequently asked me then if I had had any caffeinated drinks, as he was concerned that my hand would be too shaky to draw. I guess the final part of this long winded disclaimer is that I never thought he was funny or ridiculous for studying such things. I got it. And he carried me along with his enthusiasm and I loved all the steps it took to get the final art of male wasp genitalia (penis coverings) from Papua New Guinea.

There were lots of reasons to snigger and smile that summer, I guess. Thinking back, probably the least funny bits were the actual wasp bits I was drawing, but I still smile when I think about some other characters I met on the entomology floor that summer. For example, one morning, as I walked down the hall behind one of the younger entomologists, he suddenly whipped around and presented me with a tiny box. It was a pair of copulating insects that had been captured, pinned and preserved in the act. Of course I was startled, but not as startled as he. He said, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.” Then as quickly as he had first turned to look at me, he turned back around and hurried on his way. I remember thinking then as now, who did he think I was? Pretty funny, right?

Another morning I rode up in the elevator with another entomologist that enjoyed describing something called a “Skipper”—a tiny butterfly-like creature. With a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye he told me that he had spent his career studying this particular insect. Once we got to our floor he asked me if I’d like to look at some of the Skippers he had collected, but I noticed he was a bit slow getting out of the door. As we walked to his office he told me that he was about to have knee replacement surgery. It seems that he had compromised his knee joints from years of crouching in fields and balancing heavy collection boxes on his thighs with bent knees. But once he had a collection box in his grasp he was transported to a field of skippers. And I was there along with him. As a little girl I remembered these tiny golden things flitting from flower in a neighbors back yard. Ah yes, I got it too.

Of course the people who studied spiders were also on the entomology floor. I had a few encounters with those folks. Somehow I remember one “spider-guy’s” office as being more sinister and dark. Glad he didn’t ask me to draw any spider bits. I probably would have done it, but it would have seemed like Halloween all the time. Was I really ready to go blind squinting at spider parts for 10 dollars an hour? Too much for me, I think.

But the final and not very funny story of it all was when I told my entomologist that I was leaving. He was truly sad. So, when I finished my work on my final afternoon on the entomology floor at the Academy, he took me to a local, and very wonderful pastry shop, for a cup of tea and lovely sweet. And of course at that point, he didn’t really care if I had had any caffeine, as it didn’t matter if my hand shook. We visited for a time—don’t remember what we talked about—and he dropped me off at the BART station and that was that. I never went back as a Cal Academy employee. All future visits have been as a visitor. I’m sure such art would be done with a computer these days. Once you’ve drawn one bit of genitalia on the computer it’s just a bit of maneuvering that would need to done to elongate/shorten parts or add hairs. No more clogged mechanical pens and scraping. Of course now I do need glasses to clearly see this screen, write these words and create my art. But I can’t really blame it on my time with my entomologist or the solitary wasps from Papua New Guinea. It’s all due to just the passing of time.

May 12, 2018

Gene Autry tree
Gene Autry Museum, summer 2017 (mixed media on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inches)

The first piece of art is of a tree outside the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. (I’ll get to the row of fantasy flowers in a bit.) Griffith Park is kind of big deal around here. I just looked it up on Google and saw that it is over 4210 acres right here in the city of Los Angeles and it goes from an elevation of 384 up to 1625 feet above sea level. That space includes the Autry Museum of the American West, the Hollywood Sign, Greek Theatre, Griffith Observatory (La La Land and Rebel Without a Cause featured this location), the LA Zoo, and 70 miles of trails to hike on. And it’s very close to the Warner Brothers Studios (in Burbank) and Universal (in Universal City). I guess to say Griffin Park is a big deal is kind of an understatement! And all of this is very close to downtown Los Angeles.

One early cool morning, last July, I was wandering the grounds outside the Autry Museum of the American West and I saw this tree and felt compelled to capture the shade and coolness of the tree. It was kind of nice as I found a picnic bench nearby and I sat there and painted away until the heat of the day started drying out my pots of color too quickly. I filled up that paper with all that lovely cool blue, green and pink. I think it was just in my last blog that I wrote of “filling the page” or “filling the space” and I have been thinking a lot about that idea. And that idea really started the afternoon of Friday, April 20th, when I taught a class of 2nd graders how to use oil pastels.

In my real life I work with children at a couple schools. When a teacher at my elementary school saw/heard that I was a painter and had been an elementary school art teacher, she asked me if I would come in and show her students how to use oil pastels. When I walked in the door, they were ready for me–with butcher paper on the tables and each student wearing a smock to protect their clothes from this very non-kid friendly medium. I quickly put on my apron and began to describe the color wheel, with its primary and secondary colors, to this rapt audience. I’m never sure if kids are really listening to me at this point of a lesson, or if they are just dying to break out a cool new material and start drawing Spiderman, a car, a princess or something from a video game or movie. But I gave it my all and not only explained what the color wheel looked like, but how those 6 colors of pigment, plus white and black, are related to each other.

row of flowers
Made up row of flowers, summer 2017 (mixed media on 6 x 9 inch watercolor paper)

(Now would be a good time to look at this flower illustration for inspiration. But I should say that this piece is only vaguely like what I demonstrated for them that afternoon. Besides, these flowers came from my imagination and I was trying to get them to picture flowers they may have actually seen before.) Since it was spring I contrived to have them first draw a row of 3 flowers (tulip, daisy and hyacinth) on long stems coming up through a bit of grass.  And aside from telling them not to use black because it can make everything kind of smudged I didn’t say anything about filling the space, or filling the paper. I didn’t tell them to first arrange the paper like a window, not a door. I thought they would notice that I had done my sample drawing in a horizontal position, but a couple didn’t notice and placed their paper on the vertical (like a door). And that was fine with me. So, I passed out the oil pastels, encouraged them to see what happened if you layered one color on top of another on some scratch paper and scrubbed, or mixed, the different colors right on the paper. Then… Ready! Set! Go! As I walked around the room it was so fun to see that some had done the row of flowers near the bottom of the page, some in the middle and some floated the row of flowers near the top. Some drew large flowers that filled the space, while others drew a row of small flowers. So interesting to see if anyone would want to fill the space and add something else, or would they just stop with the flowers and grass? When I could see that some were adding the sun, clouds, butterflies and lots of grass, I encouraged them to do so. Some were focused on each flower and were actually trying to mix the oil pastels on the paper, while others kept the colors very distinct and pure. All of the art was smudged a bit (a definite downside to this medium, especially for children), but no one seemed to mind. All were busy bees and the room practically hummed with the energy from such a creative hive. The teacher had gotten a special shiny silver pen for each student to boldly sign his or her art. She also told me she would mount each piece on black paper, much like a frame. The teacher added that the art would be displayed in the classroom for Open House. (This is a “time honored” spring event where families are invited to come to school and view each student’s classroom. Our Open House will be Tuesday.) And when it was finally time to clean up, I looked around one last time. The diversity in their finished work was lovely to behold. Some had completely filled the page, some had not and a couple convinced me to let them try the black and it really added to the overall effect of their flowers. I explained that the only artist I thought got how to use black was Vincent Van Gogh. Not sure if anyone was listening by that time because they were pretty close to being done. (I was thinking of his “Wheatfield with Crows” as he just added that dark bit of black to the sky and the “flying crows” detail so effectively. But I didn’t want to go any further and scare the little kiddies as Van Gogh did that one at the end of his life. And I guess there is much speculation as to his state of mind by that time.) I asked the teacher if she wanted to tackle watercolor with her students before the school year was out. She just kind of looked at me, with that “Are you kidding expression?” and reminded me that Open House was coming and there would be much to do before then. She agreed to talk about it, but seemed relieved when I said we could do it next year, with a new batch of second grade artists. Actually, the middle of August would be a great time to talk about watercolor. It’s so hot here at that time, which would make it a perfect time to talk about that medium and the miracle of evaporation. Oh yeah, I have also been a science teacher. Remember the answer to this one? What are the three states of water? What do you know about ice, liquid water and water vapor? Wouldn’t watercolor be a complete disaster without evaporation? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen with watercolors at elementary school? Someone spills water on the floor? No problem. Everything dries out eventually, right? Stay tuned…

Further note about my row of flowers:

My aunt has a friend who lives in Seal Beach. Her friend is an amazing artist and has done a lot of painting. She enjoys using all kinds of media and in the past liked to paint on furniture. Very whimsical and pretty! My aunt told me that this friend invites people over to paint with her, and my aunt likes to join the group when she can. My aunt doesn’t think she is much of an artist, so she usually knits when they get together. Most times my aunt’s friend has some new kind of art material or project to try out for these get togethers. Some bring art they are working on and others try out whatever she’s got going. I happened to be visiting my aunt last summer when she went to Seal Beach to hang out with the group. I had a great time trying out some of her pens, doing the repetitive details you see here. It seems like the artists I meet these days are very interested in trying new materials or techniques. (One of my Urban Sketchers said something like, “We all just love to ‘geek out’ over new pens, brushes, watercolor colors, paper, techniques and general painting stuff.” That is so true!) As you can see, I really filled up that flower space. And when I ran out of the obvious white spaces I imagined other kinds of spaces and began layering more and more detail on top of everything. And I even added the dreaded black! Not really sure outlining everything with a great black ink pen counts as being as bold and brilliant as Van Gogh though. Oh well.

May 5, 2018

Earth Day 2018 art
Doris Japanese Garden, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, April 21, 2018 (mixed media on watercolor paper)

I did this watercolor at a World Wide Sketch Crawl for Earth Day this year. I had never been to the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Center and was a bit confused about where I was as I went past quite a few vacant lots with oil well pumps. (Random rows of oil well pumps in SoCal and parts of Central CA are pretty common sites. In fact, whole block areas of Long Beach are still loaded with oil well pumps. When my dad was a kid growing up in Long Beach he and his cousin used to climb the wooden derricks. His cousin thought it great fun to go to the bathroom while twenty feet off the ground. Yikes!) So, it was a bit disorienting to go past so many familiar CA sights in an unfamiliar part of Los Angeles. Finally, I started to see a few thickets of eucalyptus trees and fewer oil well pumps on the right side of the road. Then I saw the entrance, just as the GPS had predicted and my phone died. Since this was a new place for me it took a few minutes of walking around to find my little gang of LA Urban Sketchers. They were all gathered around this little bit of water and greenery and had already started to paint and sketch. So, as is usual for the urban sketchers I know (including me) we first walk around a bit to decide where we might like to settle and paint. I noticed that I didn’t see anything on this side of the pond that I wanted to capture and it looked cooler on the opposite side. So, I walked around. And there, I could see all these sketchers on the grass. I thought, I don’t often put people in my art and planned to immortalize everyone I saw on the spot—especially as I could clearly make out a couple painters I knew that were wearing large red hats. Adding those hats seemed like a lovely bit of unexpected color to accentuate sketchers on a patch of cool green and yellow. And I loved the idea that everyone sat very still, with no one moving around and doing strange things with his or her arms or legs. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that there aren’t any people in the finished piece. I tried. I did try. Oh well.) I sat at a bench in the shade and looked at a lovely little bit of water with bright red bridges, sloping grass with sketchers and rows of trees in the background with a tall stand of eucalyptus touching the sky at the very back. After a time, one of my friends across the way decided to move over to my side of the pond. She was one of the people who were wearing a large brimmed red hat. Uh-oh. I was now one stationery “red-hatted” person down. I quickly scribbled in the remaining people sitting on the grass, careful to include the other person still wearing her red hat. I then felt comfortable to focus on the rest of the composition, and started looking around. I watched a row of turtles at the edge of my side of the pond as they plopped into the water, one after another. I chased a couple of squirrels away from my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, mixed my pots of color and added the sky and tree layers. There was a rather large party of young people also at this pond. It was a young lady’s Quinceanera, or her fiesta de quince anos, and she was being followed around by her entourage and a photographer who was chronicling the event. A girl celebrates her Quinceanera when she turns 15. It’s a coming of age celebration that has its origins in Latin America, but is widely celebrated in both North and South America. Google it to see more. It is a very popular thing for a Los Angeles adolescent Latina to plan for and celebrate, so it’s a pretty big deal around here. There were about 8 boys who ranged in age from 5 or 6 to 13 or 14 years of age and they each wore matching charcoal-colored suits with pale pink ties. There were also about 5 young girls in fancy dress and long gowns, with assorted adults wandering around with the group as well. (I didn’t get an actual head count as they never stayed in one place long enough to do that.) At the center of all the commotion was a 15-year old girl in the midst of celebrating her Quinceanera, looking very much like a princess in her long “Cinderella-like” gown. I continued to watch the group move around the pond for photo opportunities and continued to add everything but the people to my watercolor. Can you tell that the wrong people had my attention? And you know where this is going, right?

So, by the time I got back to adding the sketchers in earnest, many of them had moved into the shade, or had moved behind bushes. What the heck! I began trying to ad lib the people I had previously scribbled in, trying to remember where they were and what they were doing. The only thing that stood out to me at this point was the remaining red hat. That was a mistake and it soon became too large for anyone’s head on that scale. My original plan to permanently add humans to my little world sort of deteriorated from there. I went to work scrubbing out everyone and the offending hat from the grass with a slightly wet brush. And just like that they were gone. The squirrels before me persisted, but I wasn’t about to put one of those pests in this piece.

It got to be time for us to get together and share what we had created, so I gathered up my materials and repacked my backpack. As I was walking around to the other side of the pond, a woman stopped me to ask what we were all doing. It turns out she was quite an artist and she showed me a couple photos of her work on her phone. She did these amazing close ups of flowers, kind of on the order of Georgia O’Keefe. She used such vibrant colors with a kind of fantastic realism. Not really sure if what she showed me jives with the Urban Sketcher mantra, but I suggested she join us anyway. She didn’t seem that interested, but was interested in my watercolor and said that she liked that I had “filled the page.” When doing a landscape like this, I can’t really help myself—I like to fill the page. (That might actually be a good subject for another time. Hmmm…) We said goodbye and I joined the gang to share our work. That part is always fun to me. Painting and writing are very singular endeavors. I think that’s why I like these events, it forces my rather shy self to get out there and mingle. It was amazing to see just what everyone had painted, as they were all kind of looking in the same direction at the same things—or so I thought. But everyone’s art looked completely different. Some painted in tiny tablets or books. Some did pen and ink on white paper, while someone else focused on the turtles using only graphite and white gouache on toned paper. We laid all the work on the ground and one of the artists set to work organizing each piece into a kind cohesive patchwork of art so a photo or two could be taken and get everyone’s in the shot. (She was pretty good at it and I thought she would probably be good to have around when it came time to load the dishwasher after Thanksgiving dinner.) Then one of the organizers of the group told us she was thinking of putting together a San Francisco Film Noire excursion this summer. She thought it would be fun to go to various haunts of Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon (by Dashiell Hammett) to draw and eat. Sounds great, right? Of course I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the weather in San Francisco during the summer months can be cloudy and cold. (You may or may not know the best months to visit San Francisco. September and October are usually best.) But I wasn’t about to spoil the moment and decided that people would for sure be wearing hats and that would give me another great opportunity to add some sketchers to a watercolor.

A Parting Look at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Center

So, it was finally time to leave for home and I was wondering how my internal GPS was working as the battery in my phone needed to be recharged. I walked past a huge limo and was guessing that the Quincenara group was inside, ready to go to the next part of the celebration. I recently met a young lady who is a Quincenara choreographer (Yeah, you should Google this. It sounds pretty fun!) and I was guessing they were all about to go dancing. And based on the 3 or 4 year old girl who was having a melt down as she and her mom walked past (maybe more like on tip toe and screaming) this little one was not invited into the limo. But I imagine she will probably soon be planning her Quincenara. Of course she didn’t see it that way! She wanted to party, but probably really needed a nap! And even though Cinco de Mayo has absolutely nothing to do with young girl’s special party on a beautiful spring day in California, it somehow seems fitting to say Happy Cinco de Mayo because it is!

April 28, 2018

Eberle Vineyard
Eberle Vineyard, Paso Robles, 2000 (oil on canvas)

When I did this oil I thought I had been commissioned to do so by someone I knew at a local Paso Robles winery. That person told me that the local group that puts together their annual Zinfandel Wine Festival was looking for an artist to create a poster for the event. And then I guess sometime during the festival the painting would then be auctioned off. I was excited. I picked a pretty spectacular view of vineyards off a back patio of Eberle and I thought it a nice touch that it was like the viewer was standing at the railing, drinking a lovely dark red Zin while eating crackers and cheese. (Oh yeah, this originally had large hunk of cheese on the plate and not the pear.) I finished it quickly and proudly took it to the person who had told me about the event and poster. It seems that she had forgotten to mention that they wanted it to be a certain size, and this one was too small. And she also forgot to tell me that they wanted something that was a bit more commercial. (I guess the previous year’s poster had somebody running half naked through the vineyards.) I was extremely disappointed and of course with my “bent” sense of humor my imagination took me to a kind of ridiculous place. I imagined some kind of strip poker game where I added a glass of Zinfandel flying off the balcony and a pair of white “bun huggers” and a pink thong flying through the air just off the balcony of the winery. So what did I do? I went home and painted out the big cheese hunk and changed it to a lovely green pear. I sure showed them! I wasn’t about to defile the beautiful view of beautiful grape plants with obnoxious humans. Wasn’t it obvious that someone was there with a glass of Zinfandel and snacks? Too subtle I guess. Whatever…

Thank God my cousin’s daughter was getting married about that time and my mom arranged to buy it from me to give as a gift. I had it framed and dropped it off at my mom’s and she decided that she wanted to keep it. So, I gave her another painting of the J Lohr vineyards (same east side Paso vineyards view) for her to give to my cousin’s daughter. Funny how that all works out. And now that my mother has passed away, I have this amazing view hanging in my house and I get to enjoy the Eberle vineyards with my lone glass of wine, cheese and crackers and fruit without imagining anyone’s underwear flying off in the distance.

And what this view got me thinking about, besides my mom, is the life force that green plants use to produce beautiful fruits. (I get that the plants produce fruit to continue their own “life force,” but I am still in awe of the beautiful colors and shapes of fruits.) I love to wander through apple, apricot, plum or peach orchards when the tree limbs are heavy with fruit. The smell is intoxicating and the idea that people can eat these bright balls of red, green, orange and yellow is very appealing. And the inside of ripe fruit is just as beautiful as the outside. Years ago I read a book about a family farm that raised old-fashioned peaches in the Central Valley of California, 20 miles south of Fresno. The book is called Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, and David Mas Masumoto wrote it. Mr. Masumoto attended a literary event in Grass Valley when my son was young and my mom and I went to hear him speak about the book and his family’s love of a particular peach called the Sun Crest Peach. Read it if you want to share one California girl’s passion for some of the fruit the state produces.

Food nourishes us, but is also sensual and beautiful. I love to go to the produce section of a grocery store or a farmer’s market to see piles of dark purple onions, stacks of green leafy lettuce or a brown paper sack with handles filled to overflowing with bright oranges just ready to be taken home and eaten. My dad loved to shop for navel oranges and he always knew how to pick out the sweetest and juiciest bright orange oranges imaginable. He would say that the best ones couldn’t have skins that are too thick and bumpy or too smooth and thin. And the brighter the color, the tastier it will be. He was always right! I guess the thin-skinned variety (Valencia oranges) makes better juice and the navel oranges are the best for eating directly. Of course the best navel oranges can always be found when they are in season, which is January to April here in California. And speaking of pears…oh yeah, back to the painting. My dad also loved Comice pears. The pear in this painting is not a Comice variety, I don’t remember that particular pear right now. When ripe they are squat light yellow/green balls of juice, with an almost white flesh inside that tastes amazing with chunks of sharp cheddar cheese. The skin can have a bright red blush, but it is thick and tough to eat, so this one needs to be peeled. Comice pear trees used to be found all over Santa Clara. Not so much anymore. This is a fall/winter fruit and comes in season the end of summer.

People have forgotten that fruits used to be available only when they were in season—without hothouses or any tricks to ripen fruit that’s been picked green at other times of the year. And I watch out for fruit that has been grown and flown in from some far away place, instead of coming from our own California soil and sun in it’s own time.

It seems that many people in my family have a variety of favorite fruit passions and subsequent stories. My son’s favorite Aunt Ruth says that the perfect strawberries come from Santa Maria, an hour south of Paso Robles. And she says that the perfect time of year for such berries is from April to early June. My ex husband’s family used to grow the best dry farmed watermelons imaginable out by the airport in Paso Robles—very near where this vineyard view is located. They are still grown by the families who live out in Estrella and they would tell you they are best when harvested in mid to late summer.

My mom’s dad died when I was about 2, so I only remember him in pictures and stories I’ve heard. My dad said that he loved to eat Bing cherries and that one afternoon my grandpa bought a couple pounds from a roadside stand near Mountain View. I guess he sat outside with a metal bowl on the back porch and ate all of them, one after another, laughing and spitting the pits into the bowl in a kind of rapid-fire action. Dad said it sounded like he was firing a machine gun out on the back porch. That story always made me smile as a kid. Of course as I got older and knew that eating too many stone fruit fruits could really make you sick. I got the impression that my grandpa was having such a good time; he could have cared less if he would feel terrible later. Oh, and Bing cherries are best in early June.

My mom loved Blenheim apricots. And a spherical chunky, tree-ripen Blenheim is a site to behold with that amazing light yellowish orange and outside skin and flesh, with the large and shiny brown inside pit. They’re in season mid summer. (That one you really need to be careful and not eat too many in one sitting, or you will be sick. Take if from me.) Southern California is the land of the avocado. For some it has an unpleasant squishy texture, but for the rest of us that soft light green and yellow flesh is amazing when spread liberally on a saltine cracker. Because it’s green, some think it’s maybe a vegetable, but because it has that huge pit it is considered a fruit. Mom said that when she was a girl in LA they frequently had a half avocado filled to overflowing with French dressing for a salad Feb through Sept, with summer being the best time to eat an avocado.

I already mentioned my dad’s love of oranges grown here in California. He also loved to eat vine-ripened tomatoes that came from our mid to late summer garden. My dad loved nothing more than walking out to the garden to check for ripe tomatoes. There he would pick a couple sun warmed crimson colored Early Girl or Better Boy tomatoes while my mom fried the bacon for the deliciously anticipated BLT sandwiches. This was a favorite lunch for them on any given day in the summer. Most years they planted Brandywine or Beefsteak tomatoes as well. They are quite a bit larger and fit nicely on a sandwich, but they would take a bit of time to get up to speed with production, and the flowers on the Early Girl and Better Boy plants set first and produced the bumper crop my mom and he would require for what seemed like their endless burgers and sandwiches. He would almost be in a swoon as he sliced the tomatoes and my mom drained the bacon and assembled the rest of the sandwich. It was always hard for me watch as he would sprinkle salt on the tomato slab, as though the salty bacon wasn’t enough. He put salt on lots of things I found questionable. My dad liked to sprinkle salt on cantaloupe and watermelon. And when I say sprinkle on salt he had this very noticeable and kind of ritualistic sprinkling technique. He brought the shaker way up in front of his face, extended his elbow (Maybe his pinky was extended too…) and he lightly jiggled his wrist to make the shaker go up and down as he carefully watched the shower of salt spread evenly over his food. Crazy what we remember.

Happy Birthday dad! (April 25th) I planted an Early Girl and Better Boy in my garden this year. Can’t wait for the tomatoes to ripen so I can make a BLT and think of you and mom. It is the memories of beautiful food and the people we associate with that food that nourish and sustain us. Right dad?

April 21, 2018

March 2017 Palm Trees
Glendale Palm Trees, March 2017 (watercolor and watercolor crayons on watercolor paper)

I did this watercolor on a lovely spring day last year (March 2017) as a kind of rebound piece of art. I had actually started out to paint at the Descanso Garden, but I got to the front gate and saw it was mobbed. I have always had such a hard time with crowds of people, even when I was little. I call it the “Disneyland Syndrome.” You go someplace, like Disneyland, with a great sense of purpose and fun because you have really enjoyed being there before. But you can’t even walk through the front gate because there are just too many people milling around aimlessly outside your “Happiest Place on Earth” for that moment. My relationship to Disneyland has completely changed and all I have to do is picture myself at the front gate, in a huge long line, and I can’t even think about purchasing a ticket on line and making the drive to Anaheim.

This story seems to have taken an unintended turn, so back to the palm trees…

So, broken hearted and just a wee bit mad I left the Descanso and drove home through a Glendale neighborhood I had passed through countless times both by car and on foot. But that morning I saw something I hadn’t been looking for before. I turned the car around, pulled over and set up my three-legged stool on a corner to paint. (Yeah, I used to have a wonderful lightweight fishing perch to sit on, instead of sitting on the ground/curb on my sweatshirt and sheet of bubble wrap. But I think I left it in the parking lot at the Gene Autry Museum across from the Los Angeles Zoo. Now I have a heavy metal camping chair that I sometimes put in the back of my car, but I loath to take it from the trunk and carry it around. Because every time I think I might lug that thing around I get pissed off all over again and remember that I don’t have the perfect stool anymore.) Get over it, right? OK, so I arranged the paints and myself so I could really see this amazing row of perfectly spaced palm trees that snaked up the street, around a corner and then out of sight. And I began to sketch—happy that I had a definite purpose, there weren’t any people and I wasn’t mad anymore. After about 45 minutes of sheer bliss, I had the art you see here.

I have always been drawn to landscapes with several components—blue sky, with an occasional cloud or two, trees, vineyards and/or wild flowers—not necessarily in that order. And when it comes to vineyards and palm trees, I am attracted to the symmetry of what I am looking at in these kind of diagonal or curved lines, wider in the front and then tapering back to an end curve.

The other night, when I was at the Norton Simon Art Museum with a Pasadena sketching group, I learned that the old masters intentionally incorporated vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curved lines of interest in their works. And I guess painters that did still life paintings realized that adding such lines and curves or suggestions of such linearity added interest to each piece. We decided to look at some 19th century still life paintings, looking specifically for that kind of line action. Not sure if anything has been written on the subject. Have you heard of anyone writing about design elements and techniques that were used by such painters? We looked at a couple and it was fun to look for such an element in what I actually consider pretty boring stuff. The first one we looked at has an interesting story, but it really has nothing to do with linearity of 19th century still life paintings. It has to do with the subject matter of the painting and how one of the people in the group interpreted this exercise. I forget the exact title of the piece, but it was really dark with a pot with a handle, a soup tureen with a ladle that curved to the left, smaller jars and other kitchen items on a nondescript suggestion of a horizontal table surface. And then in the foreground on the left was a dead chicken, or fowl, as it was called in the painting’s description. It was definitely in a curved shape with its head dangling just off the table. I didn’t think much of this poor chicken, although someone in the group said that such carrion was common in old still life paintings. It must have been pretty smelly in the rooms where these painters worked, what with the smell of oil paints and a dead bird. Of course I started laughing and wondered if anyone had thought to add flies buzzing around to such an art piece. Everyone seemed so serious back then, right? Finally, we all finished our little drawings, complete with sketched in horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curved lines of interest. After we do such a group assignment we have a “throw down,” where we lay out what we’ve drawn on a bench to share with each other. Nothing really caught my eye except one person had not only drawn the chicken upright and alive, but the hen had laid 2 or 3 eggs in this still life. When it was her turn to describe what she had drawn she said that she was vegan and did not wish to consider the chicken as something to be eaten then or now. Only in California, right?

The other still life we studied was a rather large painting of items that might be found on an architect’s drafting table. It actually looked life-size, with stacks of books, pens and other tools of the trade, drawings on large sheets of paper and a Greek column in the background. For me, this one had way too many linear points of interest to be interesting. And even though I am sure the painter used a number of colors, it almost seemed like a large black and white photo. I could appreciate the historical aspect of the subject matter—what it might look like in the work room of a 19th century architect, but that was it. There were just too many lines to count, so I got kind of bored and started chatting with the person next to me. Don’t even remember what he or she was saying, but it kept me distracted enough to pretend to be interested in this still life.

That’s about it for today’s blog. Later this morning my urban sketching group is meeting at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreational Area on La Cienega Blvd. to be part of an urban sketcher’s WW SketchCrawl #59. It’s supposed to be in honor of Earth Day (tomorrow). Never been to this place before. I am going to travel on several LA freeways (the 210, Glendale Freeway, the 5 south, the 110 south, and the Santa Monica Freeway), and this will take me directly through the “belly of the beast” (downtown LA) to get to my destination. I kind of have an LA driving rule that I seem to be living by these days. If the traffic is too horrendous, I won’t be going back to this place any time soon. Hope it’s nice. Stay tuned…

Happy Birthday Dad, April 25th

April 14, 2018

first 3:31
1 Descanso Garden, March 31, 2018 (mixed media)
2, March 31
2 Descanso Garden, March 31, 2018 (mixed media)

As I have said in previous blogs, I am addicted to the Descanso Garden and was there over spring break. And I almost always head for a shady spot in the rose garden. I tell myself, probably every time I have walked in the front gate, that I will find some place else there to sit and paint. But if I am really truthful, all the groups of strollers always overwhelm me and so do the shear number of people pushing strollers, so I head for the rose garden to calm myself down. And when I once again am lured to yet another perfect spot there, I tell myself that I will do better next time and will definitely paint in a different quadrant of the garden in the future. On the 31st it was a little cool that day, and I actually sat on a bench that would normally be too bright and hot for my paints and me. I have found that the bright white blank paper is just too bright and my paints seem to get darker and darker as the water in my pots of color quickly evaporates. For this view I was interested in capturing the first new bursts of spring color in that part of the garden. And from my chosen vantage point I was treated to the first emerging pink blossoms of a flowering crabapple you see to the right and the drifts of bright blue forget-me-nots in the middle ground amongst the twig like stems of the roses. And all of this set against the San Gabriel Mountains and the perfectly clear blue blue sky.

As I sat there I found myself wanting to channel Vincent Van Gogh, to help me visualize how I wanted the bench and the crabapple blossoms to turn out. I was thinking about him as I was wandering around. And before I sat down I had looked carefully at some lovely irises that I could have done in his honor, but ultimately decided to focus on the tree blossoms and the chunky wooden bench instead.

OK, you may or may not believe this, but I just now Googled Van Gogh to see if he had done any watercolors of blossoms and I read that he was born on March 30, 1853. (Cue the creepy Twilight Zone theme song.). Happy birthday Mr. Van Gogh! Too bad you never made it to California. You would have loved the southern California light. So, both paintings are dedicated to you and all the wonderful painters who came before you to inspire all of us going forward.

So, the question I want to know about him, and really I guess it’s a question for all of us who paint. How do you know? How do you know when you are done? How do you know if you really achieved what you set out to do, or are the best parts just by chance? Or do you just stop at what might be considered a random place because you think you’ve gone too far? Van Gogh used black and that has never worked for me as it always seems to get too dark too fast, or it kind of takes over to my eye. But he knew how to use that pigment. Were his paintings planned, or did he just get bored and want to move onto something else? When I Googled him just a minute ago I also read that he created some 900 paintings, as well as 1100 sketches and drawings, and he died before he was 40. And he produced all that amazing art in about a 10-year period. And if I mentally crunch the significance of all the numbers I have described here, my mind reels. But there is one number that relates to him that truly staggers the imagination, and that number is one. It appears that after all that work, he sold only one piece in his lifetime. Yikes!

So, if I think about my process, Van Gogh would have probably thought me an art slug. I always take time to at least figure out (sketch) my composition and then I start mixing colors and planning what part I should do first, second etc. This is based on what areas will need to dry before I can move on. And I usually stop at some self-imposed critical moment to let things dry, step back and eat a peanut butter sandwich. I know there is always a chance that what I started out to do will get changed or I realize the focal point should really be something else. Or I misjudge the distances between things, or I leave things out or shift things around. So, did Van Gogh do that? How much of what he did was really planned, or was all those canvases just quick experiments. Of course, he didn’t start out doing the really memorable stuff, but did he know it was great? I hope so. My son reminded me of a “Dr. Who” episode that brought the doctor to meet Vincent Van Gogh. It was kind of a bit of contrived writing that had Van Gogh seeing things (bad guys) that others could not. So after Van Gogh helped Dr. Who destroy the bad guys, the doctor takes Van Gogh to a “future” museum. He shows the painter that his art is displayed with such relish and reverence in the future. And that he was known by countless numbers of people worldwide for his groundbreaking use of color and technique. But we all know how the story really ends and Van Gogh’s glimpse of his work after he’s gone, does not affect the choices he makes and the outcome of his personal story. I guess the true point to that bit of fiction is we want to somehow let Van Gogh know that all he went through was worth it, at least for all of us. I suspect Vincent Van Gogh could have cared less about all of us in the future. But maybe not. Maybe that’s what all of us who paint want to know, in the end—did we do it right? Was it really worth it, all those tiny details and decisions we made for every corner of every canvas or piece of watercolor paper? Guess I should really be working on a time machine instead of countless watercolors. I think I read that Vincent Van Gogh spoke English. So then I could ask him.

Note about the two paintings:

I actually sat in the garden and painted the top one on March 31, 2018. But then I got home I decided I didn’t like it much. I then painted the second one at home while looking at a photo I had taken. Of course now I can’t decide which one I like better. I wish Vincent was here.