August 26, 2017

Illustration for story Penguins Count (torn and cut paper, ink on acetate)

I created this piece of art for one of my picture book ideas. The book was to be entitled Penguins Count and was actually a counting book for young children. It’s kind of weird to look at the art and remember when I did this. At the time my son was pretty young, under 4, and I was working at home as a freelance writer/editor for various educational publishing companies that were in Silcon Valley (e.g. Addison Wesley Publications, Creative Publications etc). Most nights I would put my son to bed 7:30 or 8 pm and then I would sit at my computer and do my work until 11 or 12pm. Some nights, or afternoons, (when I had a baby sitter), I would work on my own stories. I even belonged to a “Kiddie Writer’s” group and would share my work with fellow children’s book writers and illustrators.

I thought it would be fun, at least for me, to post here the text [and art direction] I wrote for Penguins Count. I am looking at the original manuscript right now. It has the black and white thumbnails I drew for each spread (i.e. two facing pages). The words in the brackets describe the art that goes with the text. And this color penguin illustration is for the first spread. So, here goes.

A. [2 page art of 10 squawking penguins walking toward the edge of an ice floe]

10          Hurried penguins talk and walk.

B. [left page—art of 9 adult penguins sliding on their bellies on the ice, right page—art of 8 penguins swimming underwater]

9         Graceful penguins slide

8         and glide.

C. [left page—art of 7 preening adult penguins, right page—art of 6 penguins swimming in the surf]

7         Fussy penguins preen

6         and clean.

D. [left page—art of 5 penguin chicks huddled together to keep warm, right page—art of 4 penguins (2 adults, each feeding a chick, total of 4 penguins)]

5         Growing penguins bunch

4         and lunch.

E. [2 page art of three baby chicks with eyes closed (sitting on the adult’s feet), 2 of them peeping and one with closed beak]

3         Snoozing penguins sleep

2         and peep.

F. [2 page art of one adult penguin on the left, only the number 0 on the right page.]

1         Does a penguin try to fly?


G. [2 page art of huge colony of penguins]

Or is the ice a place that’s nice?

I sent this manuscript and art off to many children’s book publishers at the time, but received rejections from each one. No one was interested. Maybe I just needed to wait until now to share the story. And maybe I’ll create more penguin art when I have the time. I think I still have some of that paper…

Note about the art materials: The idea for the cut paper penguin illustrations came from a favorite 1968 children’s picture book called Frederick, by Leo Lionni. Lionni, used simple cut paper shapes to create an amazing story about mice. It even won the Caldecott medal honor for 1968. (Every year, since 1937, Caldecott medals have been awarded to distinguished American picture book illustrators.) Not always sure if such awards mean anything to children. I remember reading a Caldecott winner to a kid. I was very excited and kept pointing to the colorful animals that had been drawn. The kid I was reading to could have cared less and looked relieved when I finished the book. He never asked me to read it again. However, Frederick is different. Every child I have read that book to has been engaged and interested with each turn of the page. Look up Leo Lionni. He has written and illustrated some wonderful books.

August 19, 2017

3 nymphs
“Three Nymphs” bronze at Norton Simon, August 4, 2017 (Ink and watercolor crayons on toned paper sketch)

When I walked into the Norton Simon Museum the other day I quickly moved to an interior bench next to these fine bronze ladies (three nymphs). I thought it might be too hot outside, so I wanted to stay inside with the air conditioning. I planned to do a sketch from this vantage point. It was my intent to look past the naked ladies and out into the back garden. I thought the view between the mixture of thighs, arms and heads would make a nice frame to the greenery outside. First, I did a quick thumbnail sketch, with the idea of rendering the exterior trees and hard scape only, but without giving the statues any real detail. This is actually a common exercise when you are first learning to draw. (I think I remember doing this “negative space” exercise in an art class in high school. However, there were no nudes to draw there. The nudes came later—when I had figure drawing classes at UCSD and UCB.) You are to focus on what’s behind an object. And if you draw what’s in the background, the outside edge of the positive space (in this case the bronze statues) should almost magically appear without really trying.

These very thoughts were running through my mind as I finished the preliminary sketch. So once I had “set” the composition, I grabbed my tablet of toned grey paper and began to draw what you see here. But of course as I got into the piece, I noticed that I had inadvertently slimmed down the thigh of one of the figures. I was so intent upon what was in between them that the “negative space” magic didn’t happen as I had hoped. Now it seemed appropriate to focus on the bronzes specifically, adding a breast or two and both back cheeks. They reminded me of the 3 graces in Botticelli’s Primavera painting that hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (There were actually three nymphs in the sculpture I was looking at, but I sketched only the two nearest me.) The faces of my three female forms were classic and serene, just like the 3 graces in Botticelli’s painting. But my relaxed and engaged face on the facing figure seemed to invite play with the other woman. So now, my figures took on a life of there own, completely different from the sculptors original idea. In fact, as I worked more and more on their intertwined hands and fingers, I decided they were actually engaged in a kind of thumb wresting activity—funny thing for a couple naked women to do I think. That also amused me no end.

Just about the time I finished the wiggling thumbs the 30 minute “I’m done” timer went off in my head. I put everything in my backpack and moved outside to sketch something else. I walked down a favorite path, past the pond and found a beautiful spot under a tree on the lawn. Off to my right I saw a woman from one of my sketching groups. She was madly drawing and painting the pond. I pretended not to see her as I laid out my sheet of bubble wrap on the grass to sit on. We engaged in parallel painting (kind of like parallel play) for a short while. Then a man with his four small children ran up the path and the children immediately started running around the lawn next to the pond. It wasn’t very distracting at first, but then I noticed the guy sat right next to my friend and began talking to her. Pretty soon one of the museum staff came up to him to tell him that the kids were not to be running around. My friend moved quickly to stash her watercolors and paint brush, as you are not allowed to used wet art materials at the museum, only pencils and pens. The back and forth running around and museum staff warnings continued for about 15 minutes longer. It was about that time I had definitely become distracted with all the commotion and had also finished another drawing. I began packing up again. My friend seemed to get the same idea and she looked my way. I pretended to see her for the first time. We both thought it a good idea to sit at the café next to the garden and visit as the sun went down behind the trees. She had a beer and started yet another painting. We sat there, chatting about this and that, until the outside lights came on and the museum staff told us the museum was closing. What a perfect day!

It’s been a year since my mom passed away. I used to call her on the phone every Saturday. “Hey mom I just bought a new car. What do you think about that? I miss you.”


August 12, 2017

Hay 2
Hay bales in Paso Robles (oil on birch panel, 1 of 2)

When I decided to feature this piece for today’s post there were several topics that were rolling around in my brain. I do a lot of landscapes, especially those that show symmetric rows of vegetables, grape plants, trees and sometimes rows of golden hay bales in a field. Such rows of food are a very common site here in California. When driving along 101 and/or 5 you can see citrus, avocados, strawberries, onions and flowers, to name just a few items that are grown in California. As I have said before, I’m not really sure I like people, so I rarely paint them in. I like the idea that people can eat and drink what we grow here, but not sure I want them in the picture. Along 101 there are interesting murals of growers holding the fruit and/or veg that have been planted and harvested in the nearby field. I’ve seen paintings of “larger than life” farm workers carrying produce and I think I remember seeing the painting of someone’s dog next to the crop that was grown in that area. Maybe this is how I can tolerate seeing people in a California landscape. First, you see something colorful on a sign from far away. Then you get closer and closer and you can make out interesting details of what the people are wearing, or someone’s hands or face. Maybe someone has done a great job rendering an old truck. And before you know it you wiz past and then they are gone. The whole viewing probably takes no more than 2 or 3 minutes. Works for me.

But I guess what really came to mind has more to do with the colors I chose and how they were applied for this particular effect rather than the actual subject matter. When working with oils I often first apply non-colors on the board, or canvas, outlining broad details I want to have in the finished product. Then I add the real colors I want on top of that. The hard part of painting this way is you need to let the first layer of oil paint dry before adding the colors that go on top. That can take days. I guess this is an old technique and not done very often anymore, but I like the overall “glowing” effect it creates. The 17th century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, frequently underpainted his work with what he called “dead” colors and I have always admired his paintings. Of course he is famous for painting people in his studio and was known to take a long time for each piece (not my favorite subject matter to hang around with for long periods of time). Maybe you have seen “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Pretty special. Not sure what other painters use the technique. I don’t think Van Gogh did much underpainting, especially as his technique became more experimental.

As for the specifics of the under colors of the skies in my landscapes I usually first put down some kind of red hue. Then I mix my lovely blue, green and white pigments, and scrub that over the red. The brush strokes I create doing that adds a really nice texture when painting on a birch panel like this one. The effect is very different when scrubbing on canvas, as you see more or less of the canvas’s woven texture depending on how hard you scrub. When underpainting trees and/or hills I first layer in umber or dark violet. Then I add my beautiful greens, yellows and dark blues to create the finished foliage, hills, and sometimes I add a house, a couple cows or a two hundred sheep. I think it’s tricky to layer or mix pigment for human skin color. Maybe that’s why I don’t include them in my work very often. Nah, that’s not it, they just mess up my landscape and they usually detract from the compositions I create.

Note about this art: I can’t find the photo I used for this piece. I moved on the 11th and packed my photos in a box. I think I did this more than 10 years ago and will look it up when I get settled and update this post. This piece is part of a diptych, without a hinge holding the two pieces together. The companion piece is of a lovely oak with more bales of hay. (Come to think of it I should have put a hinge between these two pieces, then I wouldn’t have to try to figure out how to hang them evenly next to each other on the wall. And I will most certainly have to try and figure that out when I hang them in my new place.)

August 5, 2017

July 2017, Glenwood neighborhood house, Glendale (watercolor, water soluble pen and water soluble wax pastels on watercolor paper)

I enjoy walking my neighborhood Glendale hills with houses done in a particular Spanish revival style from the 20’s and 30’s. These homes have stucco walls, a terra cotta tiled roof, interesting windows (many with a curved top), “curved top” archways, and often—if someone hasn’t made a big mistake and replaced the front door with an abomination—a heavy wooden door (also often with a curve at the top). Many of those original doors have a small window at “head level” so someone inside can see who’s at the door. This watercolor is of a house in the Spanish revival style and has all of what I just described, except I can’t see the front door from my sidewalk vantage point. They may have done the unthinkable and replaced it with something unworthy of this special California architecture, but I can’t see it. The door is set way back in a deep front porch and it’s in deep shadow. And of course that is a problem with these houses, they often have very dark areas around the porches and patios. The interior of such a house can also be very dark.

As I walk along I critique what the owners have done with the house and yard. I notice things that have been replaced without a thought of what it initially looked like—like a door, or the wrong shaped window. I’ve even seen some of these houses where windows have been completely removed and/or plastered over. It looks weird, in my opinion. And some people have painted their house a strange color that is too yellow or orange for my taste. The other day I noticed a house that had been recently been painted a nice crème color—covering a rather unfortunate shade of orange. That is so much better, for my taste.

I think when these houses were originally built the stucco was probably white, much like the 21 white washed Spanish missions you can still see in California (built in early 18th and late 19th centuries). The walls of the buildings were made by stacking thick handmade adobe bricks, with local timber beams as the framework of each building. Those missions were built along what was called El Camino Real, and went from San Diego up to Sonoma. It used to be that every public school 4th grade student in California studied those missions. And as a culmination of that study wrote a report and made a model of one particular mission. Sometimes kids were clever with the materials they used to make their particular mission, but more often than not they were made with stacked and glued sugar cubes. I probably made my mission with sugar cubes when I was in 4th grade. My mom would have had to buy a couple boxes at the store, as my parents just used granulated loose sugar in their coffee. Not sure if it’s easy to find sugar cubes at the grocery store anymore, I haven’t looked lately. And it takes a lot of sugar cubes to build one of those structures. White glue and sugar cubes, what a sticky mess! Yikes!

There are a couple houses on my route that are the same lovely rose color as the house in my painting. I like it. I think the reason I am OK with a non-white Spanish revival color choice is because it makes the plantings in the front yard look stunning, in my opinion. Tall dark green shrubs look amazing next to the rose stucco. And if a signature specimen plant with dark bark and tiny bright yellow flowers (like this tree) is near the house, you have set the stage for a lovely vignette of a hard stucco surface next to organic soft plantings. Oh yeah, when I take my walk I also critique the plants in front yards too. And my biggest pet peeve with front yards in Glendale, and all over California for that matter is a huge front lawn. Somehow because everything grows well here, people have planted a wide variety of things, especially lawns and tropical plants that need lots of water. But the climate here is Mediterranean, not tropical. And grass needs lots of water to look nice. Some people here have let their lawn die, saying “brown is the new green.” I say, no way!

So, this house and garden are especially perfect for me because the house is not an unattractive color choice, the plantings accentuate the beauty of the house and there is no huge green, or brown, lawn. There is quite a debate here in California about lawns and using our precious water to keep them green in the dead of summer. But some folks think having a lawn is somehow a personal right. They are willing to pay the fines imposed by various CA water districts when they go over a specified limit. And some seem OK with letting their grass patch die without giving a thought to replacing it once it’s dead. You see, most of the water used in California is meant for the farmers who grow massive amounts of fruit and vegetables. For years there have been lots of illegal “grass” farms here as well. But now that pot is legal, I suspect there will be more “grass” planted. This makes me wonder how the farmers who grow almonds will feel about the farmers who will be growing “grass.” And I can’t imagine telling someone who wants to have a green lawn in Glendale that some of their water will be going to a pot farmer. I’ll stop here because of course that’s yet another California story. I just hope more and more homeowners here in California might consider no lawn at all. Why not consider having such a lovely drought tolerant vignette of color and texture in the front yard? But of course, all of this is just my opinion. What do you think?

Note about this house: I saw a “for sale” sign in front of the house the last time I went for a walk. Never been inside this pink beauty, but there is an open house tomorrow and I may go and check it out. I hope the new owners will maintain the integrity and beauty of the house and garden. And it goes without saying, that that is just my opinion too.