July 29, 2017

milkweed scratch
Asclepias/Bloodflower (common name=tropical milkweed), UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, 1991 and 1992 (ink on scratchboard)

I took a photo of this bright, beautiful, orange and red flowering annual in August 1991. I don’t remember why I did this in scratchboard (a traditionally black and white medium), but I did. I think I was trying to render an “out of focus” background in front of the fine work of the flower itself. What makes this technique so interesting is the scratchboard itself. It’s a piece of stiff thin cardboard that is coated with a wet mixture of white chalk and clay. And when it hardens the surface is very smooth. Ink can be applied to the board with either a pen or a brush. But that’s not all. Because the surface has a layer of clay, you can take a fine-pointed blade/knife and carve out marks where the ink has dried, leaving tiny intricate white stippling (dots), dashes, cross-hatching and/or lines in the black ink. This creates a kind of detail that contributes to texture and shading of whatever you are rendering. The technique has been around a long time and was used by artists who were creating art for black and white publications like books and magazines.

I first learned about scratchboard when I joined the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (both a local chapter in San Francisco and the national group) in the late 80s. And the summer of 1990 I went to a 2-week workshop in Philadelphia that was put on by the national GNSI group. I met people from all over the country and during our daily classes we learned about a variety of scientific/medical illustration techniques including: ink wash, how to render fur, egg tempera, silver point, carbon dust/pastel dust, scratchboard, airbrush and pen and ink. Trudy Nicholson, an amazing scratchboard artist, taught our scratchboard class. (I just Googled her and saw, once again, examples of her beautiful and very detailed scratchboard work.) Many of our instructors were scientific illustrators who worked for the Smithsonian. Karen Ackoff, an illustrator from the Smithsonian, taught us the special techniques of ink wash, silver point and how to render fur. Besides learning about many scientific illustration techniques during class I also had a bit of time to traipse around Philadelphia, marveling at the late 18th century historic buildings. I saw real fireflies for the first time. (I had previously only seen fake ones on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.) And I visited the Brandywine River Museum, just outside Philadelphia, where I saw the artwork of N. C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. Those two weeks were life altering for me. It’s funny, but this is the only scratchboard I have done to date. But, I used lots of what I learned about rendering detail when illustrating plants and animals with pen, ink and the fine point of a knife blade on Bristol Board paper and acetate, while working as a scientific illustrator at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. There I worked for two botanists, creating pen and ink illustrations of plants found in Chiapas, Mexico. I also worked for an entomologist and spent a summer illustrating wasp genitalia (the wasps were from Papua New Guinea). No kidding! When I told my dad about that one, he thought that pretty funny and wrote me a limerick. I need to find the card it’s written on. I don’t know where it is right now…

Note about why the date I completed this piece is not very specific: I finished this scratchboard the first time sometime in late 1991. So, I put it in a nice black frame and hung it on the wall next to my bed. Many mornings I woke up and looked at it. One day I decided it needed more detail. So I took it out of the frame, worked on it a bit more, put it back in the frame and hung it in the same place. Have you guessed that I took it down again and added more detail? Yes, I did! After I added more stippling and cross-hatching (using a hand lens so I could see the detail up close) I hung it back on the wall. I don’t remember now how long it stayed there until I decided I wanted to use the frame for something else, and I put this scratchboard in a drawer. And every time I dig through my art and come across this I vow to frame it again. But if I did that I would have to hang it at the back of my closet because I don’t think I have it in me to take it out of a frame again and add anything else.

* Today I bought a new car. It’s the first time I have done that without my dad helping out. I miss you dad!

July 22, 2017

Norton Simon
Back garden of the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, April 2017 (colored pencil, graphite and ink on sketch paper)

I did this sketch the evening of the first Friday of April this year. One of my sketching groups meets at the Norton Simon the first Friday of the month, as admission to the museum is free from 5 to 8 (when it closes). It has become an activity I look forward to and participate in most first Fridays. And I not only enjoy sketching and talking with the artist friends I have made there, but I have also gotten to know, and enjoy, many paintings and sculptures in the Norton Simon collection. However, probably my most favorite part of the art museum is the outdoor sculpture gardens at the front and back of the building. Walking to the front entrance you go past a number of Rodin sculptures. (I have tried to sketch several of them, but almost all of those attempts became an exercise in anatomy that didn’t turn out looking so great.) So, moving on… Once you step into the front door you can either go to the left or right to see the wonderful art collection. Or you can just keep going straight and you will find yourself outside again in another outdoor sculpture garden. Of course I have happily wandered around for hours inside, to the left and right as well as the downstairs galleries, looking at the many halls of paintings and sculptures. This sketch was done while I was sitting in the back garden at a table next to the café, looking across the Monet’s Giverny inspired lily-filled pond.

But the story that goes with this art actually started in this back sculpture garden the evening of the first Friday of March. I was sketching a flotilla of mallards swimming between the clumps of water lilies in the pond and I noticed a couple of Canadian geese sitting on the roof of the museum. That seemed a little odd, as they were about two stories off the ground. I tried to sketch them sitting up there, but they were really too far away to see properly. And what I sketched didn’t look like anything—a silhouette of two long necks with beaks next to each other on the flat roof of the museum. So, I finished my sketch of the ducks and some nearby sculptures and left. When I came back in April, that very pair of geese had taken up residence in a spot on the ground, near the water by the trail that meanders through the garden. Thank goodness someone at the museum must have noticed the nesting geese and put up a temporary fence to keep people away from the mother goose as she sat on her clutch of eggs. I sat at a table with my son, right next to the nest and fence, watching the female sit on her eggs while the male walked around just inside the orange plastic fence. From my perch I could see directly across the pond and did this piece of art of garden sculpture and some people.

I really liked the idea that someone at the museum had been so accommodating to the birds and it made me feel good to be sketching in this lovely garden that I had come to enjoy. Canadian geese do not seem to be welcomed in other places in California. For example, many of the golfers at the Lake Wildwood country club (just outside Grass Valley proper) don’t like them at all. The geese swim in the nearby lake and can be found wandering all over the various greens, leaving small piles of “dog-sized” turds everywhere. And that particular golf course also has large flocks of wild turkeys running around the greens as well. I don’t know if they leave poop everywhere, but they also seem to be unpopular at that golf course. I think the turkeys are kind of cool. Early in the morning and at dusk you can hear that distinctive “gobble gobble” all around you.

So I guess what I found pleasing about the geese at the Norton Simon was the fact that maybe in such a grand outdoor sculpture garden it was OK to put up a temporary orange plastic fence to protect a random pair of “nesting” geese—geese that were bound to make a mess while living there. I haven’t been going to this museum for that many first Fridays, and maybe this pair nest by the pond every spring. Such thoughts are especially pleasing to my sensibility of what life well lived should be about. I mean, sometimes it’s messy and doesn’t look very good. And it might even smell a bit. But sometimes, unexpected life drops from the sky and lands right in front of you and you just can’t ignore it. You might even find you look forward to life’s messy bits year after year. Of course I have a long history of fun times at the dump and messy bird experiences. And I have loved every stinky, turd-filled minute.

July 16, 2017

Salinas River2
Salinas River, next to highway 101, Paso Robles (copy of a watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

Throughout my adult life I have given away pieces of my art to friends and family. And sometimes I paint something for a family member for a special occasion. For example, when each of my nieces was born I painted pictures of flowers that were blooming in my garden at that time. One niece got a watercolor of white irises (on a beautiful green Canson paper) that were blooming in my backyard, and one niece got a watercolor of colorful primroses that were blooming in my front yard. Recently (April 2017), I did a watercolor of Crystal Cove (near Newport Beach) for my younger brother (their dad) just because.

Before my son was born (September 1994) I became obsessed with sunflowers as they were blooming at that time. When I was pregnant I drove past an amazing patch of all kinds of sunflowers just outside the Stanford shopping center everyday on my way to work. I stopped many times to take pictures of them. I was so obsessed with sunflowers that I began referring to my son as my “sunflower baby.” I did lots of obnoxious things with that sunflower theme his first year, and that included an acrylic painting of a single sunflower for my older brother.

So, when my older brother got married I gave his new wife this painting of the Salinas River for Christmas. It was my way of welcoming her into our family. When I went to pick up the painting from my framer he told me that one of his customers wanted to buy it. But I assured him that the painting was not for sale and would soon be in the mail for my new sister-in-law. We left the discussion there.

A few years later, my brother got divorced. Maybe I saw that coming. She had pissed me off when she got the painting, as she had opened it before Christmas morning. (I had written on the box “Do not open until Christmas!”) Of all the nerve! And I am not very proud of what I did when I heard they were splitting up, but I asked my brother to get this painting back from his soon to be ex wife. He didn’t appear to want to do this, and of course I asked him a couple more times to get it back. I even thought of sneaking into her house when no one was home and taking it from the wall. After all, I had done the painting and wasn’t it really still mine?

Pretty harsh, right? So, as time passed and I saw all the heartache my brother was experiencing it got me thinking–what was I doing? Couldn’t I just let this go? It’s like we do things in love (love for my brother, not for his wife really) and give of ourselves. Sometimes we might feel betrayed and want some kind of revenge or restitution. I have to admit I was thinking I could sell it, and getting that money was going to somehow show her and give me some kind of satisfaction. Ok, so more time passed and I didn’t bug my brother anymore about getting it back. Once I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get a time machine and save my brother from this painful divorce and more importantly, I wasn’t getting the painting back, I let it go for good. (I was thankful I had made a color copy of it before having it framed.) My dad used to say that there were givers and takers in this life and the givers made life worth living. So, my brother is married again to what we all hope is a “keeper.” He seems very happy. I have offered to paint his new wife something, but they both declined my offer. I guess their apartment is pretty cramped and there really isn’t any empty wall space to hang another piece of art. Maybe I am a little relieved as their apartment is on the second floor and I’m not sure I could get into their place unseen if I needed to remove a piece of art from their wall any time soon.

Note about how I got this shot: I used to wiz past this view over and over again as I drove south on 101 just after Niblick Road. And I remember thinking it would make a great painting if I could just figure out how to take a picture of it (this was before I had “Plein Air” painting time). So, one day I realized there was a frontage road on the west side of the freeway where I could probably stop and take the picture I wanted without getting killed by a speeding car going down the freeway. I found the perfect spot with the perfect view on that road, but I was looking through a chain link fence. I scaled the fence until my head was just above it and I snapped off a whole bunch of pictures. So glad I did that, and so very glad I didn’t fall onto the freeway, or get stopped by the California Highway Patrol. The Salinas River is a pretty cool river as much of its water is underground. I understand there used to be quite an aquifer under the river and the whole Paso Robles area, for that matter. That was before all the wineries came to town and planted their grapes. The landscape of the Paso Robles hills has been completely altered with countless vineyards, businesses and houses. But of course that’s another California story.


July 8, 2017

Glendale Window9
Palm trees I can see from my window in Glendale, 2017 (watercolor and ink on watercolor paper)

One of my sketching groups challenged each of us to draw the same thing over and over for a week. So, since I can see palm trees through my kitchen window, and I am obsessed with palm trees and want to get good at drawing them, I did just that. I drew a couple “window views” of palm trees on grey toned paper with black ink and I did one at night with only the moon light behind a palm tree as my light source. I looked out the window at the same palm trees over and over, and did one with just ink, and another with ink and blue and red inktense pencils. And I did this one, where I first drew in all the detail in black ink and then added watercolor color. I have done way more than a week’s worth of palm trees I could see out of that window. In fact, I now have so many pictures from my window that I created a file of art called “my window.”

So, it got me thinking, not about obsessively drawing the same thing over and over again, but rather what I have enjoyed looking at through a window. And the question then became “What have I seen through a window I’ve really enjoyed looking at?” Or maybe the question should be “What would I like to see through a window?” Of course there could be a number of creepy, or voyeuristic (Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”), reasons to look out a window. But if you just don’t go there, “What would you like to see out a window?” My mom was a great one for this. She was continuously talking about having a view from a window. When she lived in Morro Bay she loved going out to lunch or dinner if we went to a restaurant with a window view of the ocean or Morro Rock. She loved it when we took her to the bay right next to the Rock and she could watch through the car window as the sea otters paddled around, diving for things to eat. And she absolutely adored going for trips in a motor home where she could sit right up front and look out the window at “her view” as it passed by.

Here are a few more great “window view” stories:

When my mom was a girl, her family lived on the floor of the valley of Yosemite (her dad was the plumber for the Yosemite Park and Curry Company during WWII) and she could see Half Dome from her bedroom window. Yikes, right? Of course when she spoke of that view she also reminded us that she had to share the room with her sister, and that it was really cold there in winter.

However, my son loved the view of snow falling from his bedroom window when we lived in Grass Valley. You see, if snow was falling heavily and steadily on a school night there was a chance that school would be cancelled the next day. He loved the 5 am calls that came from the principal calling for a “snow day.” I think my son loved to then confirm this information and look out the window again, in the light of day, to see a foot or two of snow on the road, sidewalk and trees outside his room. I seem to remember a Christmas time that he put a chair at that window and watched for the cousins to come up the walk just as snow was falling and sticking to the ground. And when my son was an infant I also remember looking from that same window (in the very early morning hours), watching the school buses go by and hoping he would somehow be mesmerized by the motion and go back to sleep for at least one more hour. That was a great window—with many childhood memories for my son and I.

Before I kept our chickens (Peepo, Leepo, Eepo and Tweedy) exclusively in the side yard in our Grass Valley home, I let them run around the backyard during the day. I even set up a small roosting bar for them to sit on in front of the dining room window so they could look in at us and we could look out at them. (It seems I was the only one who really liked this view.) So, I put them back in their side yard, closed the gate and scraped up the sizable amount of poop that seemed to be everywhere. Ultimately, I think I was actually done with them running around the yard. About this same time they got into my garden and ate every single asparagus sprig that had popped up that spring—all 7 sprigs.

If you ride on the train from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara (or from Santa Barbara to San Luis) you go right by the ocean. I have sat in the dining car of that train a number of times and looked out the window at the amazing Pacific Ocean. A couple times I have seen surfers in the water out there. If you have never seen the Pacific Ocean, you have to imagine the surfer’s are wearing black wet suits because the water right there is pretty cold.

Sometimes “advertised views” are interesting. When my then husband and I went to a bed and breakfast in Sausalito, our room was advertised as having a view of the bay. I remember even paying extra for this view. However, we soon discovered that to see the bay you had to stand on the end of the bed and lean out towards the center of the room to see the bay through a very tiny window. Hmmmm…

So, then the question becomes, what would you like to look at through a window? Would it be the ocean or Half Dome? Would you like to look through a beautiful stained glass window, watch for someone to come up your walk, or maybe to count the number of hummingbirds at your hummingbird feeder? Maybe there isn’t just one perfect window view. Maybe it’s just important to stop for a minute and look out a window and notice what’s out there. Maybe we should be thankful we have somewhere to live where it’s safe and warm in winter and cool in summer. I kind of like that I have been looking out the same window in my kitchen for almost two years now, and I never tire of looking at palm trees. Sometimes I see a guy washing one car or another. The other day I noticed he was polishing a weird-colored two-seat convertible with a cracked front windshield. And there was a FOR RENT sign in that window. What’s that all about? Oops! I guess it’s time to stop looking out that window for a while.

July 1, 2017

vernal pool
Jepson Prairie vernal pool, spring 1994 (watercolor, colored pencil and gouache on cold pressed illustration board)

According to the website related to the Jepson Prairie, vernal pools are rare. So, I guess I’m glad I got out there in the native bunchgrass prairie to see these wildflowers. A vernal pool happens when winter rainwater is trapped in a pool just above an impermeable layer of soil. But the pool doesn’t last long, and during that time a variety of plants and animals go through a brief, but definitive, life cycle. Once the water evaporates completely that lush and lively spot dries up. Some of the creatures that inhabit the Jepson Prairie pools include: Delta green ground beetle, vernal pool fairy shrimp, Conservancy fairy shrimp, vernal pool tadpole shrimp, and the California tiger salamander. And a number of these creatures are either endangered and/or threatened. I think one of the coolest parts of a vernal pool is the ring of flowers that circle the edge of the pond. As the water evaporates, the pool shrinks and different varieties of flowers appear in ever shrinking rings of color. The day I was at the Jepson Prairie I saw a number of different kinds of flowers, but the yellow you see here are “butter and eggs”, tidy tips and goldfields.

So, thinking about the transitory strangeness of a vernal pool got me wondering about what I’ve seen/experienced in my life and what I might make the effort to wait around to see again. Or how likely is it that I will wait around to see or experience something new? My dad used to say that anticipation was almost as fun as the actual meal, special vacation and/or movie. He also said that it was important not to expect too much, then you wouldn’t be disappointed. In a day when so many things are instantaneously available, I think I am the kind who is usually willing to wait. I hope one day to go back to the Jepson Prairie in the spring and hopefully I will see a shrimp or two, as well as my beautiful flower rings.

But sometimes waiting can be tricky. Of course no one wants to wait for the doctor. And waiting in traffic for a tow truck to clear a wreck on the freeway can be shear torture. I might add that I am not a fan of waiting in line at Disneyland for 45 minutes for a ride that will last 3 minutes or less. And getting a Fastpass or reserving a place online for a ride is just insane to me. You could be standing in line for a ride somewhere else in the park when your scheduled time comes up and you have to run to get to your reserved ride time in time—I have had that happen! I saw that Johnny Depp was hanging around inside The Pirates of the Caribbean ride the other day. What are the chances I would have been floating by in my little boat when he popped out and started chatting with people? If I had known he was going to be there, I might have waited in line, but for how long? I am willing to wait for a favorite weekly program rather than binge watch any show. I am willing to wait for a chocolate chip cookie that has cooled slightly, as I am not interested in burning my tongue on molten chocolate chips. And I am willing to wait for a cooked cookie and do not want to eat raw cookie dough. I am willing to wait for flowers or vegetables to pop up from the ground after I have planted and watered them. I guess that means that for the most part I am willing to wait and I value delayed gratification.

When my son was little I wrote and illustrated a series of stories for The Tribune newspaper in San Luis Obispo. (In a previous blog I shared a story I did about some birds in my backyard.) In those pieces I wrote about plants, animals, books, gifts, and activities—with a sprinkling of life lessons one could learn in the garden. In another story I suggested to parents that it was worth it to plant tulips in the fall with their kids as a way to teach them delayed gratification. Even though my son isn’t little anymore, I still think it’s a good thing to do with kids. Then when spring comes around they will see these beautiful pointy green shoots push through the ground, and then they can watch as small globes of color open up on perfect green stalks. I think that kind of beauty is worth the wait! This time of year you could plant vegetables and/or flowers for later summer color. I am partial to cosmos, marigolds, sunflowers, pumpkins and morning glory as they will still be colorful even into the fall. Oh, and if you do decide to plant tulips next fall with your kids, be sure to put them in the ground pointy side up and watch for gophers. Otherwise, you might be looking at a garden lesson that has more to do with handling frustration or anger. You can never know what will happen in the garden, you just have to wait and see.