July 11, 2020

early tomatoes
First tomatoes, July 7, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)

As you can see, the tomatoes of my 2020 summer garden are beginning to ripen and turn red. It was interesting to find the different stages of tomato ripeness hanging so close together on the same branch of my bonus unknown tomato plant. You might be wondering how I came to have a bonus unknown tomato plant. Well, for starters it’s a volunteer from last year, so that makes it a bonus. And since I didn’t actually plant it, I don’t know the variety. It’s probably the result of an overripe tomato falling off one of last year’s plants and somehow reseeding itself. That’s probably not so unusual for a SoCal garden as we rarely get freezing temperatures in winter, and last spring’s rains helped out I’m sure. Last summer I planted a Better Boy, Early Girl and some kind of cherry tomato that was supposed to be a Beefsteak tomato. (I think what you’re looking at are Better Boy tomatoes). When I spied them on Tuesday I greedily imagined the joy of eating that red one for dinner (which I did) and loved the idea that there would be many more coming on for many 2020 summer evenings to come. I love to imagine an unexpected plant that would bear even more fruit so I could share with others. I think I remember my son’s Great Aunt Ruth saying that you should always put in a garden with sharing in mind. I like that idea a lot and have already started. (I gave away a couple tomatoes on Thursday to a lady who walks her dog past my house.) This isn’t my first post and art of tomatoes from my July garden. I wrote about last year’s tomatoes and garden for my July 6, 2019 post. That story was another kind of tomato bonus as I also included a “tomato” story I wrote for a children’s magazine in July 2001. I say bonus for that post as the article included a pizza sauce recipe using fresh tomatoes and other veggies.

second red urn
Red Urn at Descanso Gardens, July 6, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)
red roses
Lamp post at Descanso Gardens, July 6, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)

I don’t think the prospect of red ripe tomatoes in my garden had anything to do with my choice to sketch red things at the Descanso Gardens on Monday. When I saw this amazing red urn with greenery I immediately sat down and did the first sketch. (There is an area in front of the train ride station that is planted with all kinds of colorful summer plants, with several large red urns stationed around—it’s very dramatic.) At first it was a little touch and go when I realized I didn’t have my lovely Scarlet Lake or Cadmium Red with me. But somehow I made do with a mixture of Cadmium Red hue and Alzarin Crimson hue from my tiny Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Sketcher’s Pocket box. Actually, I think the bark-colored Inktense pencil I used for the outline and shading helped to warm up the color of the pot. If you have been following my blog you may remember another red urn I recently sketched at the same location—see my June 20, 2020 post. For that one I used what I call my “just add water” technique where I draw something with Inktense pencils, then add light sprays of water, letting the pigment bleed where it will. For today’s sketch I wanted to have more control of how the color spread, so I did the outline/shading of the urn and flowers with the warm colored “bark” Inktense pencil, then I added red and green watercolor pigment only. For the lamp post vignette I used my cool “sea blue” Inktense pencil, then I added the same red and green as before. I’m always amazed the different feelings and affects you can get when using warm colors, like the “bark” brown, compared to the coolness of a color like sea blue. Color certainly can evoke a feeling I think.

In the mid 80s it was very popular for women to have their colors done. I’m guessing this wasn’t just a phenomena in CA. (I just Googled “having your colors done” and  it appears to still be out there, and it’s not in CA only.) Colorists, as I think they were called, had stacks and stacks of different colored fabric that they would place just below someone’s chin. As the different colors were brought out the person would be asked how the color made them feel. And the colorist would usually say something about whether or not the color was a cool or warm tone. I never had my colors done because of course this was not a free service, but done for a price as a consultation by a trained colorist. (From Google dictionary: a colorist was an artist or designer who uses color in a special or skillful way.) Once this process was completed you were designated either a “spring,” “summer,” “winter,” or “fall,” and assigned specific colors to wear, with emphasis on the coolness and/or warmth of “your” colors. You were also given fabric samples of your best colors that you were to carry around in your purse. Then when shopping you could confidently go into a department store and use those bits of warm or cool colors to help select your perfect wardrobe. Even back then I remember thinking this seemed an arduous task as that meant you might have to look at every piece of clothing in the store, trying to find that perfect shade of red. I also remember wondering if clothing designers had gotten this memo—presenting clothes that might appeal to the “summer,” “winter,” “spring,” and/or “fall” person.

About this same time I was creating hand painted kimonos (see December 29, 2018). Many of my designs were hanging in a vintage clothing store (Rags to Riches) in Los Gatos and the owner of that shop was adamant about the silliness of “having your colors done.” She would get angry and just say something like, “WTF, just wear what you want!” I agreed with her then and still think you should not look for a full proof way to pick out what you wear.

It’s funny, but there is one more CA girl chapter in this “finding your colors” story. In 2011 I was wandering the aisles of a fabric store in Grass Valley. I was looking for inexpensive fabric for a project I had planned to do with some students at an elementary school I was working at. I had learned how to make rag rugs and wanted to invite some regular ed kids to come to my room at lunchtime to do crafts with my special ed kids. As I was telling this story to the store owner, another woman in the shop came up to me and said she was cleaning out her garage and that she had lots of fabric she would gladly donate to the cause. OMG! Can you guess what she had been doing since the 80s? Yes, she was a “trained” colorist and had all this fabric ready to help people “find their colors.” It seems her husband was trying to clean out the garage and was hoping show could let all of this go. I guess she was ready to let go of the fabric and let people dress themselves without any help from her. We agreed to meet in front of the fabric store the next day and she would bring me the fabric. When she opened the trunk to her car I couldn’t believe the bags and bags of fabric she had. She actually seemed relieved to get all this out of her garage, and I was delighted to have it for my project. As the kids and I went through the bags over the next weeks, it was shocking to see so many shades of red, pink, yellow, black etc. And some of those colors were outright ugly! It made me a little sad to imagine someone carrying around ugly colors of fabric in their purse, waiting for the opportunity to use them. Would you wear a color because someone told you to? Even my mother let me choose my clothes when I was young. I guess my advice on this subject is to be sure not to do that and wear whatever color you like, whether you think you are a summer, winter, spring or fall. However, there are some strange warm and cool shades of brown that should not be worn by anyone. I mean, I like drawing with my “bark” colored Inktense pencil, but wouldn’t want to wear anything that color. Just sayin.’

July 4, 2020

Vernazza final
June 2010 view from our hotel window in Vernazza, June 2020 (water soluble pastel crayons on grey-toned pastel board)

This week I have been on an extremely diverse journey of artistic expression, even for me. It all started with this nicely complicated pastel of a long ago view of Vernazza that I began week before last. It was a reaction to my frustrating attempt to do a quick painting during a virtual trip to Pienza with a sketching group (from last week’s post). I just finished this yesterday. When I create such a piece I kind of like to live with it and in it. I worked on it in sections, adding the non-colors underneath all the way to the final top coats, allowing for the grey tone of the actual board to show through in places. I have learned to be careful to stop each day before I go too far. Once I am done for the day I place it in a conspicuous place and try to walk past it often, scrutinizing it to see if I am happy with each days addition of pigment. And I say I like to live in it as I imagine myself looking out that second floor window of this view on the Visconte Via Roma, or walking up and down that particular street to and from the harbor. It’s no accident this is done on the rough pastel board, as I enjoy how it mimics the very rocks that were carved out to make this 11th century village. I read in Rick Steve’s 2010 Italy book that those buildings were not originally covered with brightly colored stucco, but rather made from indigenous stone. My recent virtual returning to Vernazza was divided with other artistic interests all week. And that all started last Sunday when I participated in a plein air workshop. The focus of that class was to create simple plein air sketches as simple value studies. You begin with an outline and deep shadows using a water soluble ink adding no more than 3 or 4 other colors after that. So, as I said, it was a week of differing focuses and techniques. Believe it or not, it was great fun! I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy a virtual trip to a beloved Italian town on the Cinque Terra, and still be able to go to the Descanso Gardens to sit on my handy dandy sheet of bubble wrap and sketch.

blue roof, 7.1.2020
Blue roof in Japanese Garden at Descanso Gardens, July 1, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)

I went early to the Descanso on Wednesday (nice cool SoCal June gloom morning), hoping to try out the new (simpler) technique I had just learned. I thought I might go to the Japanese Garden to sketch. Before social distancing had become part of my life I almost never went into that part of the garden as there always seemed to be just too many people milling around for my level of pre-COVID comfort. However, I’d noticed recently that there didn’t seem to be too many in that part of the garden the last couple times I had walked past—just fewer people in the garden have helped I think. Also, I noticed they have placed ENTER and EXIT signs directing people along the paths inside. That probably helps people to keep their distance too. Works for me! But as I got closer I heard a skill saw and saw that someone was right where I had planned to sit, and they were repairing the wooden deck area. Hmm… I continued to wander, looking for the perfect spot. I came upon this view just outside that garden and across the trail. I could see the amazing “tea house” blue roof and the sound of the skill saw seemed farther away. Perfect! I laid out my materials and finished this one in no time—loving the simplicity of it. All it took was leaf green Inktense pencil as the outline/shadow pigment and just 3 other colors. As I was finishing up I noticed a mom with a babe in arms and what looked to be a 4-year-old watching me. I could tell that the little girl really wanted to come closer to see what I was doing. But practicing social distancing they stood about 10 feet away from me as the mom and I had a brief mask-muffled conversation about wanting to come closer. You could see in the little girl’s face that she really wanted to see what I was doing. It didn’t take me long to register that the reason I could see the little girl’s face was because she was not wearing a protective mask. Mom and I were each wearing ours, but the baby and little girl were not. I have noticed that such families seem to be all over the garden, but I am surprised to see that mom, or dad, is wearing a face covering, but often the little ones are not. That does make me wonder why they wouldn’t think to protect their young children too. I suspect they might say that the little ones won’t wear the masks. I guess that makes some kind of selfish sense to these parents, but they are still potentially exposing their children to the virus. And as much as I can imagine these parents wanting to get their kids outside to a garden, if they can’t wear a mask I’m not really sure they should be there.

Japanese Garden, Descanso, 7.3.2020
Colorful bridge in the Japanese Garden, Descanso Gardens, July 3, 2020 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

Not only did I finish the pastel yesterday, but I also went back to the Descanso Gardens, where I actually sketched this colorful bridge in their Japanese Garden. And the palette for this one was only birch colored Inktense pencil and two other colors. Woo hoo!

Next, I need to get some water soluble ink, a proper fountain pen, and do these again with proper ink and a couple watercolor colors. Such are the lofty plans for this one CA girl on July 4th, 2020. Don’t know about you, but it’s really hard to imagine making plans or mapping out future projects. I did start the sketch for a hydrangea botanical. But I’m taking it one day, or piece of art, at a time. Seems like the best non-plan for now. What about you?

Happy 4th of July!

June 27, 2020

orchid botanical
Orchid, 6/23/2020 (Prismacolor colored pencil and watercolor on Strathmore cold press illustration board)

Last Saturday I joined an online sketching group and we did a virtual sketching trip to Italy. Our group leader chose a couple lovely and colorful photos to render—one in Tuscany and the other from the island of Sardinia. She set the stage for the first sketch, in Pienza, with a little intro from Rick Steves. She added to the theme by playing some Italian music and off we went—sketching/painting a lovely scene for the next half an hour. With that lovely introduction you might be wondering why I posted my latest botanical and not anything from that virtual visit to Italy. 

Here’s what happened. It started out OK, but I soon found myself struggling with the watercolor paper I was using. It’s cheap, but I thought I was such a master of watercolor I could bend it to my watercolor whim, making a “sink purse from a sow’s ear.” Before I knew it I was actually scrubbing off the top layer of paper and even the jaunty Italian music did not lighten my “pig’s ear” mood. Once the time was up and we were supposed to share I didn’t want anyone to see the definite bald spots right in the middle of some shrubbery. But I did anyway. It’s such a nice group and they were all very supportive—even those of us who were frustrated with the experience. It was funny that another sketcher shared how she had also been struggling with her cheap paper. It seems that we had a similar idea that as we were at home doing such art, nice paper was not required. Our leader shamed us, in a nice way of course, and we finished our critique. Our next stop was Bosa, Sardinia. Well by now, I was done and didn’t want to go to Bosa with cheap paper. Actually, about a third of the group seemed to beg off at this point, but I hung in there because that’s what I do. As we only had 15 to 20 minutes left I thought I would just go for it, with lots of color and big, wet, loose brushstrokes—no scrubbing. In 15 minutes I was more than done, but the group decided they would take another 10 minutes or so to finish up. Really? But as I said, I was done and there was really nothing left for me to do, but wait. That’s when I made a plan to order some good Italian watercolor paper and vowed to create something beautiful with the beautiful Strathmore cold press illustration board I had ordered recently. 

The next day I ordered five 20 by 30 inch sheets of Fabriano Artistico 140 pound weight watercolor paper, soft press (wondered why the Italian paper was cut into inches and not cms…) I picked it up as a curbside delivery in Pasadena on Tuesday and now can’t wait to take it for a test drive! And as promised, here is a botanical I created on the cold press illustration board. Actually, I have already done a sketch/post of this particular orchid, look at October 6, 2019 if you’d like to see it. For this one I did not rush, but instead did a complete and finished pencil sketch. And as I had recently repotted this particular orchid, I took a studied look at the roots and have included them here. Then I luxuriated in the planning of the colors I would use. I had recently purchased a tiny tube of Winsor Newton’s permanent magenta and that seemed an appropriate start for the petals. To that I added my beautiful quinacridone opera and the promise of the petal color was assured. Once I’d transferred the sketch to the paper/board I began to layer the pigment. The paper was a dream, taking the pigment exactly as I had expected. Having cut many sheets of this board over the years I have assorted thin leftover strips that I use to try out combinations of colors. To add to this familiar painting process I listened to some Andre Previn (After Hours, with Joe Pass and Ray Brown) and Miles Davis’s “Kinda Blue.” And the picture was complete.

Vernazza, 6:27:2010
View from our room in Vernazza, 6/27/2010 (unfinished–water soluble crayons on pastel board)

But I didn’t leave Italy completely. Around Wednesday or so I looked back at an album of photographs and other bits of memorabilia I put together after a trip there. Here I found a photo of Vernazza I took exactly 10 years ago to the day. (Well, not exactly to the day as Italy is ahead of CA time wise, so this was actually taken 6/26/2010 Pacific Coast time.) I have been enjoying my recent revisit to the Cinque Terre for several days now, but am not in a hurry to leave. I first did a small finished sketch, then a larger one. I imagined how Vernazza’s stucco buildings attached and carved into the rocks would look on the grey pastel board articulated with water soluble pastel crayons. It is my hope that it will be finished by my next post. No more cheap paper for me and no more hurrying. If I’ve learned nothing else from being at home so much over the past three plus months, there is no need to hurry, right? (Of course, if a kitchen towel suddenly catches fire, I will hurry to extinguish that.) Stay tuned for more of Vernazza… 

June 20, 2020

urn with succulents
Urn and succulents at Descanso Gardens, 6/16/2020 (Inktense pencils, with sprayed water on watercolor paper)

As today is the first day of summer I am excited to begin a new season—exploring the new and numerous things related to my changing art and garden, as well as numerous thoughts about other changes in my day to day work life as a result of the coronavirus. To start with, my last day working with children online was Monday, the 15th. My therapy sessions for the last three months have been mostly successful even though I often felt like just a talking head—only able to use two of my five senses. However, there were a couple students left alone with limited adult supervision that indeed provided me some funny moments, gifting me the reminder that they need us and to not take myself too seriously. One third grader, in particular, seemed to be more creative than most. Several times he pressed a half full bottle of water against the computer screen, sloshing it back and forth much like underwater ocean waves. I guess he thought it more entertaining to imagine we were at the bottom of the sea having a conversation. But his final session with me was the most creative of all. He frequently liked to mute the sound and turn off the video camera at the beginning of our time together, as well as at other times throughout the session. Ok, I’d seen that trick before. This time, when he finally unmuted himself and turned on the camera, he was quietly looking at me through a pair of binoculars. I noticed the strap of the binoculars was in an odd place and soon realized he was looking at me through the wrong end. I seem to remember giving a loud snort of almost laughter, dutifully asking him to put the binoculars away. But of course he didn’t do that as he sensed my weakened condition. Instead he moved in closer, pressing one of the lenses against the screen. All I could see was one tiny blinking eye, way off in the distance. I lost it of course and once you start laughing, that’s the end of anything substantive. We ended with him not wanting to say goodbye, but knowing I needed a break from this process so I could begin again in earnest in the middle of August, when school starts up again.

But I didn’t wait until Tuesday to kick off some pre-summer art, I started it last Sunday. And how did I celebrate this momentous day? I went to the Descanso Gardens, of course. In fact, as of yesterday I have been there 3 times, sketching garden vignettes like the one you see here. I am so thankful they have once again opened their doors. But my sketching/painting routine in the garden has changed. Oh, I still head for the rose garden first, but for now I am just going early in the morning, when they first open and there are few people. And instead of my bringing watercolors, brushes several kinds of paper and water, I am just bringing small sheets of watercolor paper, Inktense pencils, a small collapsible chair and a sheet or two of bubble wrap. I have made this change, for now, as I want to do only small, quick sketches that I later spritz with water when I get home. This way I can do a couple sketches and also spend a fair amount of time hiking around as well. In the past, when I did full on watercolors I would leave the garden once the majority of wet had dried. It was always a little cumbersome to carry around a wet piece of art, plus all the supplies. Now, I feel like I not only need to sketch something beautiful, but it seems just as important to move around in the garden, wandering the trails and filling my lungs with fresh outside air. So, now I am content to do little vignette garden sketches, as you seen here.

monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed in SoCal garden (Fude fountain pen, Inktense pencils on watercolor paper)

What’s new in my garden? Thank you for asking. As you can see I have monarch butterflies hanging around my newly planted milkweed. It is quite exciting, for me, to go outside and watch a monarch butterfly flit from plant to plant, leaf to leaf and flower to flower. That event is lovely, but quite brief compared to the anticipation of the hatching of the teeny tiny eggs they lay. Yes, I have actually seen a couple, but you definitely need a magnifying glass to appreciate their pearlescent quality. But oh my, the real show comes when the wildly striped caterpillars miraculously pop from the eggs. And OMG, those creatures can eat—quickly chomping stems, leaves and seed pods down to nothing or a nub.

new cucumbers
New cucumbers in a SoCal garden, 6/2020

What else is new under my SoCal girl’s sun? Veggies! My tomatoes are coming along nicely. And as you can see, so are the cucumbers. Not really sure about the garlic, the early Italian seem to be laying down, but the CA select appear to be on track. The basil is healthy, but the dill is weird. The plant I bought in April appears to be going to seed, which usually means it’s about to finish its life cycle and die. And the dill seed I planted around that same time are pretty tiny and look as though a slight breeze could break them to pieces. We’ll see, I guess. 

As you can probably tell, summer has arrived again in all our neighborhoods. Now we can go outside and walk the perimeter and area of our gardens—looking for new life and hope that the tomatoes will be wonderful again this year. I hope you have something new to look for outside in your garden or in your city. I don’t think going back to the old is an option anymore. It’s time, once again, to carefully step outside to see what is new and somehow make it good.

June 13, 2020

Oakdale 2
Vineyard/out buildings on Oakdale Road, behind Linne Calodo Winery, early 2000 (oil on birch panel)

I haven’t shared a Paso Robles vineyard in a while and thought it time I did. It was only by chance that I came upon this wonderful “wine grape” view almost 20 years ago. I was going to another vineyard/tasting room that was just across the road. I probably wouldn’t have found it today as the vineyard I was headed for then has their entrance on Vineyard Road, and I’m not even sure there is an entrance to anything back there now. Maybe it goes to the vineyard owners house on the hill? But no matter, I’m glad I captured this amazing CA sight with oil on birch. (Actually there is another that goes on the left. I will share it on another post—keeping you in suspense!)

I’ve posted other landscapes I’ve done with oil on birch panels. (If you are interested  to see more of this technique you might look for April, 4, 2020, August 31, 2019, January 19, 2019 and August 12, 2017.) I guess the only other thing I can say about this art is that this image is way darker than the actual piece and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s because I sold this one a long time ago and this is just a color copy of it. There was a great photographer that lived in my neighborhood in Paso and when I wasn’t in some kind of hurry, I would call him and have him take photos of my originals. But I hung it in a coffee shop in Auburn and it soon sold. Don’t you hate those kind of tiny regrets? It’s not like that individual lack of judgment truly means anything, but add up all the tiny regrets and somehow it seems to loom larger than it should. Is that true for you too?

I have been doing art more recently. In fact this week I did a couple “start with a wash” watercolors that was set as an Urban Sketchers challenge. This entailed starting with what I assumed as a random wash of color—keeping the tones warm or cool. Then you were to sketch on top of that. For the first one I made a warmish green wash and sketched a scene from across my street using my Fude fountain pen filled with black ink. The next day I did the same with a cool sky blue color and black ink—sketching a similar view across the street and down 20 feet or so. Both images looked kind of flat to me and I had a flat feeling upon finishing each one. By the third day, I created a sunny cadmium yellow wash, but waited till the next day to sketch yet another view just outside my front door on my side of the street. That day I used an Inktense pencil (bark) to add the sketch. It took me yet another day to spray some water on that one, hoping to bring some interest and life to yet another sketch that left me flat. I was done and none of them were worthy of a One CA Girl post. Some of my urban sketcher friends said it was very freeing to do this challenge. As for me, there was nothing very freeing about creating flat urban landscapes that didn’t even inspire me to use them as a preliminary sketch for something else. But something good did come from this frustrating week of art and maybe you have already guessed what I am referring to. It seems that my mind wandered to a “rural” landscape that I had remembered doing some 20 years ago. My mind needed a rest from this challenge and the other challenges facing us today. I found it by remembering the warm rolling greens and yellows of the Paso Robles hills, capped with a cool blue sky that was so bright it hurt your eyes to look at it for too long. I hope that looking at this long ago California landscape can bring you a bit a peace right now.

One final note about this typical Paso Robles vineyard landscape 

I have often written about these amazing Paso views that I was lucky enough to live near, but I have never spoken about their wine. I’m not a huge fan of white wine, so I don’t really have much of a repertoire of tasting them with the next thought of making a white wine purchase. (I guess I’ve tasted some pretty nice chardonnays in a couple wineries in Napa, but that’s another story…) I am a fan of the big reds, wine with legs. And you know, there are really too many Paso vintners with great reds to name here. If you ever get the chance to go wine tasting in Paso Robles, I highly recommend it. It’s pretty fun to spend an afternoon going from winery to winery. Be sure to designate a driver, as tasting too many lovely reds on a warm summer CA day can make your head swim, literally. It used to be that you could taste for free, but no more. It will cost you to be presented with little tastes. And just between you and me, I almost never buy wine at the actual source—the prices per bottle are sometimes staggering at these little winery boutiques. Of course if you join their wine club and purchase a case of wine, the price per bottle goes down. But that still seems like a racket to me. Actually, for a nice Paso red, you don’t need to go wine tasting at all. You can find a lot of good red wine in the grocery store, or Trader Joe’s. If you see a moderately priced Paso Zinfandel or not too young Cabernet, try it. I had a lovely red wine from Modesto with my frozen cheese enchilada at dinner last night. Of course the dollop of sour cream and sliced SoCal avocado helped to elevate the meal to make it pretty special. Until next time…

June 7, 2020

Just Joey botanical
Just Joey rose, May 2020 (Prismacolor colored pencils and watercolor on Strathmore cold press illustration board)

If you have been following my blog, you know that I have been talking about doing a series of botanicals. Here is the latest one. If you have no idea what I’m referring to, I would tell you that this technique/style of art is a kind of botanical. And in a way, that’s all I have to say about this piece. The rest of this post is actually another side of an artist’s story. If you want to find out what I am referring to, read on. If not, please enjoy the subtle colors and lushness of this enchanting rose. It’s called “Just Joey.”  The rose breeder of this heavenly scented apricot beauty, Roger Pawsey, named it after his wife, Joey. According to Wikipedia, it was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1972. I guess there is something called the Rose Hall of Fame in the UK and this hybrid tea rose was inducted into that Famous Hall as the “World’s Favourite Rose” in 1994.

If you are still curious about my other tale, here we go. It’s actually a kind of shaggy dog story that started when I participated in an Urban Sketchers (USk) online event last Sunday. I have often written about sketching groups I belong to, but never actually talked about any one in particular. I belong to the Los Angeles Chapter of Urban Sketchers. Urban Sketchers is a nonprofit organization that describes itself as a “global community of artists that practice drawing on location in cities, towns, and villages they live in or travel to.” It was started in 2007 by Gabriel Campanario, a journalist for the Seattle Times, as a way for artists to share their artwork. In 2008 he started a blog that soon became very popular world wide. In 2009 he established Urban Sketchers as a nonprofit organization. The whole purpose of this group is not to only create fine art (or botanicals for that matter), but more of a kind of “street” art with a definite story and point of view. And they have quite a complete, and very specific, manifesto. Here it is:

  1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.
  2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel
  3. Our drawings are a record of time and place.
  4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness.
  5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.
  6. We support each other and draw together.
  7. We share our drawings online. (I tend to not do this…mostly because such postings are on Facebook and I have really stopped engaging with anything Facebook…)
  8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

The group is very active and regularly invites members to engage in events and/or challenges. They are also interested in educating artists and regularly present workshops and/or tutorials to help artists explore new and different techniques and materials. There are now lots of local chapters, like the one I belong to in LA. And once a year, they host a huge symposium, inviting all members from all over the world to attend not only workshops, but panel discussions, lectures and of course numerous opportunities to meet other artists so you can get together and draw on location. The first symposium was held in Portland in 2010. But they have been held in: Singapore, Chicago, Amsterdam, Manchester England, Portugal, Brazil and Barcelona. The 2020 symposium was supposed to take place this summer in Hong Kong, but was unfortunately cancelled. It was announced last November that there would be no USk Hong Kong Symposium the summer of 2020 due to unrest in the city. The Urban Sketchers Executive Board and Urban Sketchers Hong Kong were concerned for visitor safety, and fun, but hope to reinvite sketchers to their beloved city when it is back to being stable and able to ensure a great experience for everyone.

Still with me? So, back to the USk LA Sunday meeting. Most of the participants were from LA, but a few from San Diego had also joined us. But we were also joined by a lovely man, and talented artist, from Hong Kong. (I have a couple postcards of his art that he handed out to us the last time he was in SoCal.) His name is Alvin Wong. He co-founded Urban Sketchers Hong Kong in 2013 and is the founder of USk China. Mr. Wong also participated in the “Umbrella Movement” in Hong Kong in 2014, where he and over 30 sketchers recorded the event with their sketches. If you are interested in seeing that artwork of unrest, he also coordinated and published a book with their sketches called “Sketches under the Umbrellas, Hong Kong 2014.” It’s amazing. Of course we talked about world events in light of our first night of curfew in LA (that actual day). It was so interesting to hear his perspective on the world, as he sees everyday a view of the world through his Hong Kong lens. 

We went around and said what we had been doing and what art we had been working on. I had just finished this botanical, but knew I wouldn’t actually be sharing it as it does not really count as Urban Sketching. That was fine. I did mention this piece, nonetheless. And I wasn’t the only who shared that the art they had been creating was just personal stuff and meant to help us from going insane because of all the insanity around us. It wasn’t long before the moderators stopped and reminded us that art is art and whatever we were doing just now was wonderful, valued and had a place, just don’t post it on the Urban Sketchers website. (Ha! Artists are a funny bunch…don’t think they meant to be funny in that instance though.) All funniness aside, it seems one of our members has been going out to sketch the Black Lives Matter protests around town. After learning about the Hong Kong sketchers doing the same thing in Hong Kong in 2014, I might be coaxed back to see what gets posted on the Urban Sketchers Facebook page. In fact, I am doing a USk Instructor challenge this afternoon. Maybe you would like to try it too? Here it is:

Start with a Wash

  1. Start your sketch with a watercolor wash.
  2. Choose either warm or cool colors.
  3. Make a line drawing of a place on top.

One last thing.

Here is a book that EVERYONE should read: The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (she also wrote another fav of mine, The Secret Life of Bees)

Good luck, stay sane and stay tuned.

May 30, 2020

strawberries in a teacup
Fresh strawberries in a beloved teacup, June 2001? (Prismacolor colored pencils and watercolor on Strathmore cold-press illustration board)

Not exactly sure when I did this one, but I think it was 2001. I had planned to write a story to go with it and send it to a local San Luis Obispo magazine. It must have been around this time of year as that is when strawberries are in season, really in season. It sometimes seems strawberries are in season year round here in CA, but if you Google “When are strawberries in season?” you will get an answer that reads something like this: Strawberries are officially supposed to be in the grocery store around here from April through June. According to the Google info 10 million pint baskets of strawberries are shipped every day from CA during that time. It may or may not come as a surprise to you that lots for fruit and veg come from the golden state and there are almost 25,000 acres planted here. That translates to 83% of the strawberries grown in the US come from California. Some of you may think that everything grows here and some of you might be right. However, I have tried to grow them with only spotty success. I say spotty success because most of my berries I’ve grown have had spots, or maybe tiny holes would be a better description. That’s because the slugs love to eat them too. In an evening a whole row of gorgeous red ripe strawberries can be ruined by the slugs. And I don’t think you can just cut off the holes and gobble down the rest. It’s really hard to get past the fact that each little red gem is also covered with slime that doesn’t seem to wash off easily. Darn and yuck!

It’s funny that when talking about crops being harvested, you have to remember that for strawberries, someone has to pick them. The process of harvesting lots of crops here have been mechanized, but there is still a lot of humans that need to bend over and pick a fruit or veg and put it in a box or on a conveyor belt. For crops that are planted each year, the whole plant can be removed. But other crops, like strawberries, are not replanted each year and therefore someone has to bend down and carefully remove each one from a slim stem. And picking 25,000 acres of strawberries takes a lot of people bending down. People in the grocery store want each piece of fruit to look perfect—no blemishes and certainly on slug holes. It’s hard work. While looking around for information about strawberries grown here in CA I came across a May 3, 2013 Los Angeles Times story where a newspaper writer, Hector Becerra, picked strawberries and broccoli with the migrant workers who do this work. If you look up that archived story online you will get a sense of how the lovely strawberries we buy make it to the grocery store. All of this talk of harvesting fruits and veg here in CA has also got me wondering how well that is going right now with COVID-19 forcing people to stand at least 6 feet apart and wear a mask. So, of course I wanted to check that out and found another LA Times story (April 29, 2020), directly related to this. You might want to check that out to—“A family of strawberry growers had big dreams. Then came the pandemic.” It’s such a poignant and heartbreaking story of 3 generations of a family growing strawberries in Ventura County.

Looking back at the teacup filled with strawberries I am reminded of my son’s beloved Great Aunt Ruth. She gave me that sunflower teacup when my son was born. He was my sunflower baby and such a teacup was thoughtful on so many levels. Ruth was and is an avid gardener, and there have been many times I have walked amongst her giant sunflowers on her hill beside a huge walnut tree. Sunflowers were blooming when my son was born and I obnoxiously coveted all things “sunflower” —Ruth knew that! But the cup also reminded me of so many cups of tea that she and I have drunk together over the years. When I went to visit, before and after my son was born, she always had baked something quite yummy to eat and of course we always had hot tea for those occasions. That got me thinking about a cake I have made over the years that tastes pretty amazing with a hot cup of tea. (Recipe to follow.)

I found this recipe in a 2001 Martha Stewart Living Magazine. (I couldn’t find the actual month it was printed, but it was probably sometime that summer.) The original recipe called for rhubarb and blackberries, but I have made this countless times with just about every kind of fruit imaginable, except bananas. Usually I would make it when some fruit was just about to go bad and I didn’t want to waste it.

Snack Cake

(Makes one 9 inch round cake)

4 T unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the baking pan

1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for the baking pan

5 ounces (1 and 3/4 to 2 cups) of chopped fruit

1 cup plus one T of sugar

1/2 tsp baking powder 

pinch of salt

2 large eggs

1 tsp of vanilla

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a 9 inch in diameter springform cake pan (removable bottom) and set aside. Combine whatever fruit you like with 1/3 cup of sugar in a medium bowl, allow it to sit for 45 minutes or so, stirring it occasionally. Depending on the fruit, quite a bit of liquid may form around the fruit. (It’s a good idea to strain off all the liquid or it will make the cake soggy when you cook it.)
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. Set that aside. Using a medium size bowl cream the butter with the 2/3 cup of sugar with an electric mixer. Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure to beat the mixture well after each egg is dropped in. Add the teaspoon of vanilla extract and beat to combine. Now add the flour mixture and and beat to combine that as well. Spoon the now finished cake batter into the prepared spring form pan and spread in flat.
  3. Strain off any juice that has formed with your fruit and sugar mixture (rhubarb and strawberries give off lots of liquid when you cook them, so this step is critical if you are adding them to your cake). Spoon the fruit directly onto the cake batter, then sprinkle the last tablespoon of sugar on the fruit and batter. 
  4. Place the cake in the oven on the rack second from the bottom and bake it until the cake is golden brown and the center is set. The original recipe says to cook it for an hour, but I take it out way before an hour has passed. I usually check it when it’s been in the oven 25 to 30 minutes. Once it’s cooked to your idea of perfection take it from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool slightly before releasing the collar around the base.

I like to eat this cake when it’s still slightly warm. In fact, last Thursday I made it with some strawberries that were just past their prime. It came out OK, but I should have left the sugared berries to drain a little longer before adding them to the cake batter. While cooking they released extra water and it was a little soggy. But no matter, I found a can of spray whipped cream that hadn’t quite reached its “sell by date” and squirted a healthy amount on the still warm cake. And of course I washed that all down with a hot cup of tea in my beloved Ruth’s sunflower teacup. Very nice!

May 23, 2020

South Arroyo
Desiderio Park, 5/16/2020 (Inktense pencils, Fude Fountain pen and ink on Canson Mix Media paper)

I have a friend who has been dying to take me to a place he goes running in the arroyo near the Rose Bowl. In recent months, before COVID-19 public places closures, he described running past many wonderful sketching spots in the Lower Arroyo Park area. He knew I would enjoy doing some plein air art there. Very recently his beloved arroyo trails have become another “soft open” spot that he can now return to. Of course all who go there must stay 6 feet away from each other and wear a mask. He told me that there were some pretty terrific displays of California and Matilija poppies (also known as the fried egg plant) in the lower arroyo. We made a plan to go there together last Saturday. We’d had a couple warm days and the CA poppies were starting to fade, but there were several wonderful stands of Matilija poppies. (I hope to do a botanical of that native CA flower pretty soon.) And some of the nearby hillsides, shaded by magnificent oaks, were blanketed with nasturtiums. 

Once we had seen the nasturtiums and Matilijia poppies he walked me to the area you see here. It’s part of the Desiderio Park and quite an unusual sight, actually. All of this is in Pasadena and the huge building in the background is the Richard H. Chambers 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Courthouse. And if you thought it looked like an old Spanish Colonial Revival style resort called the Vista del Arroyo Hotel and Bungalows you would be right! It was built in 1903 and my friend told me that in it’s early days midwestern tourists loved to stay there when visiting the area. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many such hotels built at the turn of the last century that are still around. And that would have been the case with this historic building if the federal government hadn’t come on the scene. It seems that during the Second World War it was turned into the McCornack General Hospital. After the war it was then used as a general-purpose federal government building. I guess it fell into some kind of disrepair and in 1985 it was restored and converted to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Courthouse. I couldn’t find any stories about how the federal government came into this lovely SoCal arroyo, but it’s nice to see that the old historic building had not been torn down, but rather recycled for a new purpose. 

But there is much more going in this sketch than an old hotel finding new life. You might ask, “What else could be so interesting?” I’ll tell you, it’s the very unassuming single story bungalows you see in foreground, and here is the story behind those structures. Not so long ago those homes weren’t there, but rather it was owned and home to the Desiderio Army Reserve Center. It had been built during WWII, but had closed in 2005. So, the question became, what should be done with an old government building once it had been emptied of personnel and what ever army stuff was inside. It would be nice to imagine that those structures would have been recycled just like the old hotel. (Actually from what I could see in some old photos, the buildings on site were not historic Spanish Revival architecture, but rather nondescript two story buildings surrounded by a lot of old and cracked asphalt.) At that point it wasn’t clear what the federal government would do with the 5.1 acres. However, the city of Pasadena acquired the property and in 2013 began planning what to do next. In the end the US Army, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), City of Pasadena and San Gabriel Habitat for Humanity raised the old army buildings and put up 9 affordable homes in its place. And the rest would be open spaces and trails for the Pasadena community to use. It is now called Desiderio Park. But the wonder of 9 Habitat for Humanity houses doesn’t end there as 3 of the courtyard bungalows are reserved for vets. Wow! Right? A story where everybody gets something wonderful. Now aren’t these tidy little affordable homes way more interesting and important than saving some old hotel?

CO St Bridge
Colorado Street Bridge (built in 1913)

There is one more image you need to see to get the full effect of Desiderio Park. You need to see the Colorado Street Bridge, it’s just to the left of the scene I sketched. It’s pretty monumental and I think it looks a lot like the aqueducts of Rome. As you might imagine many artists have painted this bridge over the years. And one of these days I plan to go back down there and try a sketch or two. 

But my quick landscape captured a rather perfect day for one CA girl. It was the perfect combination of some of the things I hold most dear here—Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, open spaces with wild flowers, oak trees, time spent with a wonderful CA friend (born in Chicago) with a couple of my beloved palm trees thrown in for good measure.

But maybe my perfect CA day was way more than spending time with a beloved friend in an amazing SoCal spot. Maybe the story was even bigger than CA itself. Maybe it was the realization that sometimes the stars and stripes align and the US Army, HUD, stuffy old Pasadena and Habitat for Humanity could create something pretty wonderful for someone. Now you might think that such a project didn’t really provide for that many people in need of affordable housing, and I thought about that. And then I thought about the Starfish Story. If you don’t know the Starfish Story, look it up. I think you’ll see what I mean. 

May 16, 2020

Mother's Day, 2020
Neighbor’s trees, Mother’s Day 2020 (watercolor, Inktense pencil and water soluble crayons on watercolor paper)

Enjoyed a nice spring day last Sunday afternoon. I sat on my front porch and did this random and ever so bushy watercolor of my “across  the street” neighbor’s trees. I was able to sit in the shade and take my time with mixing and remixing pots of color, waiting as long as I needed for the water to dry between layers and plenty of time between while to eat my lunch. On such a slow low 70s temperature day in the past I might have found myself at the Descanso Gardens. But of course that was not an option for me, or anyone, on that particular day. I have to say that even if the Descanso Gardens was open on a typical Mother’s Day I would not have gone over there—too many mom’s, grandma’s and strollers walking about for my level of comfort. I think I have always felt most comfortable at a socially appropriate distance from others. (So, what kind of mother am I anyway?) But I didn’t wallow in self pity because I wasn’t free to go where I wanted. For that matter I soon forgot that I shouldn’t be enjoying my personal porch zone and actually luxuriated in the shady confinement it provided. I wasn’t settling for second best at all. It was good.

But last Monday I got an email from the Descanso Gardens. It seems they would be opening again Saturday, May 16, 2020. It also seems they have quite a plan to help all of us safely visit the garden again. Even though you may or may not have ever been there I thought I would share with you just what they propose. Maybe you can imagine a garden near you that has been closed. Maybe they are considering similar rules for reopening. I have paraphrased what the email said here and I am wondering if what they are doing will be enough to keep us from spreading the virus to each other. Maybe the real question here is; Will people be OK with so much to think about before visiting a garden? Will they just follow the rules without complaining to the management? I need to digress here a bit as this is all sounding a lot like what is to become our New Normal if we are ever to leave our respective houses for fun outings. I’m not even sure the phrase New Normal isn’t some kind of oxymoron. Can something really be new and normal at the same time? I always thought being normal described something that had been around a while, not something brand new. Was there ever an Old Normal? I guess I also wonder if the definition of “keeping safe” has also taken on a New Normal meaning. When I was younger keeping safe meant something very tangible, like don’t take rides from strangers, look before you cross the street and don’t eat oysters in months without an “R.” 

OK, back to the Descanso’s grand opening. All in all it seems they have 5 major rules to help us stay safe and enjoy the space.

  1. Maintain 6 feet or more distance between everyone, and that includes staff and other visitors
  2. Wear a mask (for all staff and visitors).
  3. Bring your own water as all drinking fountains will be closed (maybe the water has been shut off).
  4. Purchase a ticket to enter before your visit or show your membership card to get in (2 months of membership have been added to each card carrying member)
  5. Descanso Gardens will be a cashless establishment.

Are you with me so far?

Then they elaborated further (my comments in parenthesis):

  • Hours have been extended—Open daily from 9am to 7pm. Members only from 8 to 9am (I’m a member, I like that.)
  • The entrance has been altered to help with social distancing. (I’m curious to see what that will look like…)
  • Hand sanitizing stations have been provided in the front courtyard.
  • All indoor spaces have been closed—no gift shop, art gallery or Boddy House will be open.
  • Restrooms will be cleaned every 30 minutes.
  • No special programs will be conducted until it is deemed safe to do so.
  • The Enchanted Railroad is closed for now.
  • There is no seating in the central courtyard. This should help with maintaining appropriate social distancing. (That’s a huge change as they have a large area with cafe tables, chairs and umbrellas bunched together. That will have been cleared out.) 
  • Wheelchair rental will not be available. If someone in your group requires a wheel chair you will need to bring one.
  • The Kitchen will be open for limited hours. You may purchase drinks or food. You may consume drinks in the garden, but must take the food home or to the picnic area outside the facility. (That’s actually a little weird as in the past they never allowed visitors anything but water when walking around. And I can’t really imagine drinking anything while wearing a mask, anyway. I guess you might be able to slip a very flexible straw under the mask if you get really parched…) 

Don’t get me wrong, I am willing to try anything they suggest or demand from me for the privilege to walk in the rose garden again. I do so love to plein air paint there. I wonder if that will be allowed right now. Of course I can’t imagine how long I could sit among the flowers with a mask on. I would be so tempted to lift my mask just so I could smell the roses. How about you?

May 16, 2020 update:

I didn’t go to the Descanso Gardens today, but I did see some short videos people at the garden have been posting today. Looks lovely, with no reports of a garden revolt.

Also, I shared this watercolor with a virtual sketching group last evening. We were supposed to draw human heads in different positions and at different angles. I didn’t do that. One person said my neighborhood landscape had great energy. I thought that an OK comment as it did have a bit of a scribble going on. But I wasn’t the only one who did not draw heads. One grandma has not been able to see her 3-year-old grand daughter for a while, so she has been recently drawing virtually with that youngest grandchild. She shared some cute cartoons they’d made together. I especially liked her rendering of a duck going shopping. And so it goes with the new normal I guess…


May 9, 2020

May birthday roses
May 2020 birthday roses (Inktense pencils and Opera watercolor on Canson Mix Media paper)

Here are a few preliminary sketches of roses I’m thinking of rendering as a botanical or two. (I’ve ordered the illustration board from Blick’s and waiting for it to arrive.) Sometimes I wonder how anyone, me included, could think they are remotely capable of improving on, or even maintaining, the beauty of such roses in the flesh. But I am always drawn to attempt imitating the colors of such lovely ephemeral things anyway. It is my experience that none of the colors from nature actually come from a tube or cake. (I just realized that I sometimes use Opera right from the tube. The top rose was drawn with several Intense pencil colors, as well as undiluted Opera watercolor. I guess I’m not really the color diva I think I am. Oh, well.) Even though I know I won’t actually create the colors of nature I do enjoy the challenge of experimenting with combinations of one color or another, always mindful to leave enough white paper showing to add a highlight or color effect that I am seeking. I’m very aware of the number of layers of pigment I plan to use. If I’m not careful sometimes a color looses its intensity and luster. And there have been many times that I’ve gone too far with a pot of watercolor and it looks kind of muddy. I just toss it out and start again, trying to remember where I should have stopped in the first place. For my botanicals on illustration board I speed up the initial color threads with Prismacolor colored pencils.

Anyway, last time I wrote about the diseases and critters that can ruin roses. But of course there are all kinds of vermin that can get into any garden and take it down whether you have roses or not. A while back I planted what I am calling my victory pickle garden and have had a bit of trouble with the bugs ever since. But instead of listing all the creepy crawling things who decimated two thirds of my cucumbers and dill I decided to describe the unsung online appropriately socially distanced heroes who have helped me along the way, turning all that buggy mayhem into a pretty good start to a summer vegetable garden. Go pickle plants and friends, go! 

My son has been making pickles and enjoys putting garlic in the brine with the cucumbers and dill. If this pickle garden was going to have all possible ingredients I knew there should be garlic and it should go in the ground first. I ordered that straight away. (I have actually already written about ordering garlic seed from Filaree Garlic Farm in Omak, WA. See the art of garlic and story, January 25, 2020.)  Filaree Garlic Farm also sells asparagus, potatoes, shallots and sweet potato slips. (I grew Yukon Gold potatoes in Grass Valley a number of years ago, and harvesting those spuds was a fun version of digging for gold. I discovered many plump potato nuggets in every shovelful of dirt. I also tried growing asparagus in my Grass Valley garden, but that didn’t turn out so well. My chickens ate all 7 spears down to the ground before I could chase them away.) Once the garlic arrived I tucked it into the prepared ground. About that same time I also got a small dill plant and two different kinds of dill seed from my local Ace Hardware Store. I soon planted the plant and dug in the dill seed (Ferry-Morse Bouquet and Long Island Mammoth). Then I turned over the soil for the tomatoes and cucumbers. It was about this time that we were to stay home and if we were to go out we were to keep 6 feet away from everyone. I called my local Armstrong Garden Center and ordered 3 different kinds of tomatoes and 2 kinds of cucumbers (one for picking and one for salads—Lemon Cucumbers). They were delivered to my door the very next day. I put the tomatoes in right away. But I waited a bit to be sure the small cuke plants had hardened off before putting them into the ground. During that time I ordered online a cucumber and squash A-Frame support from Gardener’s Supply Co (in Burlington Vermont). It’s a metal lattice frame that folds into a triangle and a cucumber plant can then grow vertically up the sides. I don’t have a lot of room in my garden and thought this a good solution for a plant that needs some space to spread out. Once that arrived, I set it up and planted all the cucumbers. We had a fair amount of rain then and it seemed to suit everything in the garden, and everything started to increase in size ever so slightly. But once the temperatures warmed and the sun peeked from behind the clouds I noticed several of the cucumbers were looking puny and maybe a little dried out. I thought they were getting too much sun (that doesn’t seem like a bright idea now, but it seemed right at the time). I put out an umbrella. After a day or two of shade it was clear that wasn’t working. By then it was making sense to me that these plant needed the sun to grow, right? I finally realized, too late I might add, that some creepy crawly critters were eating the cucumbers and tiny dill seedlings. I decided I needed to get some cucumber seeds and start again. But I had heard that lots of people were planting gardens and vegetable seeds were becoming scarce. I looked online at veggie seeds available at Ace Hardware and there were no seeds of any kind to be seen. I took a chance and called my local Ace Hardware and a person there went to check to see if they had any pickling cucumber seeds. They had three kinds—(Ferry-Morse Sumter, Cucumber Slicer and American Seed National Pickling Cucumbers). I was saved and asked her to set these aside, which she gladly did for me. Within the hour I donned my mask and sun hat and walked there to get the savior pickle seeds and some diatomaceous Earth to take care of the crawling bugs. So, do you think I was satisfied? Was my garden now complete? Of course not. I realized I wanted a basil plant, even though it was not to be part of the pickle project. I knew it would be more of a friend of the pickles like the tomatoes. For this one I splurged a little and ordered an ‘Italian Large Leaf’ basil from the Grower’s Exchange in Sandston Virginia. As of Saturday, May 9, 2020, I can report that the victory pickle garden and friends is looking great. So, now we wait for the actual fruit.

If you are not a real gardener at heart, you probably stopped reading this garden tale by the second paragraph. But I thought it important to share all the businesses who are still out there, waiting to help us with a dream garden or whatever you are dreaming about right now. And they don’t have to be from CA to please this CA girl. Thank you!