September 30, 2017

Descanso 7.25
Descanso Garden, July 25, 2017 (watercolor and crayon on watercolor paper)

Trying to Say Goodbye to Summer in California

This bright green scene was seen in what I would call the best of the summer days and weather here in southern California. The fresh bright greenery is made outrageous with amazing pops of annual colors. Because of our many warm and sunny days in southern California, many colorful plants grow here and you get kind of used all that color, sun and warm weather.

However, summer officially ended Friday, 9/22. But the temperature in my part of southern California was over 90 again Friday, 9/29 and I just want the heat to go away. Everything’s a little crispy right now, even in my beloved rose garden at the Descanso. It looks like they have been trying to get ready for a fall harvest event for the kiddies (lots of signs around—heralding the event), but no one over there seems to really have the heart, or will, to start lugging out all those pumpkins and bails of hay. Not even sure what would happen to several hundred pounds of pumpkins sitting in the sizzling sun. Sunburned pumpkins….only in California. Now, I know many non-Californians think we whine way too much about being too cold or too hot here. So bring it on, call me a weather whiner. I can take it! My family has earned the right to whine about the weather!

A little non-California family history…

I am a second-generation Californian. All my grandparents came from places of very cold winters. My mom’s parents were both born in Michigan. But after my grandmother was born, her immediate family went to Ontario, Canada–where the rest of that clan had been living since the Revolutionary War. My mom’s sister (my aunt) did some research about them and they came to the U.S. on one of the ships just after the Mayflower. However, when the then 13 colonies were done with England my family sided with the king and left for Ontario for good. Some of my mom’s cousins, from Brantford Ontario, came to visit us in Saratoga when we were kids. My younger brother really liked Florence, but didn’t care much for Clifford. Florence liked to entertain us with her great Irish accent and Clifford liked to hug and kiss everyone way too much. I don’t know what brought my mom’s parents to California in the early 20’s, but I do know my grandmother and her sister wanted to be in the movies. There are a couple of great “head shots” of the two of them—smiling broadly—having just had their hair marcelled.

My dad’s mom and dad came from Minnesota and Wyoming, respectively. I think I mentioned in an earlier story that my paternal grandfather was born in a sod house on the prairie of Nebraska. But I didn’t mention that he was born in the dead of winter, January 5, 1905. When he was a young man his family moved to Cheyenne. With regards to that side of the family I could be in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). My younger brother recently found out that we have ancestors (father and son) that fought in the Revolutionary War. They were both born in Virginia.

Not really sure how my paternal grandma got to Cheyenne to marry my grandpa, but she was 15 years old when she got married. He was 19. As a very young married couple they came out to Santa Ana, California, to visit a great Aunt Ida. (Such a great old name.) It seems they went back to Cheyenne and spent one more winter there. That was it! By the following spring they were living in Long Beach, where my dad and his brother were later born. There is a family saying, that doesn’t really make much sense outside my family, but I heard it frequently growing up. If ever one of us kids left an outside door open on a “cool weather” day/evening my dad would yell, “Close that door. It’s cold in Cheyenne!” Guessing by now if you are not interested in any of my family stuff, you’ve long stopped reading. But hopefully you liked the art well enough to come back later. (I was thinking the next piece of art would be a pen and ink botanical I did for a botanist at the Academy of Sciences. Stay tuned for a story about the 1906 earthquake…)

Coming to California

So, I guess everyone knows somebody who has moved to California. If you have ever read Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, you can get a clear picture of the determination of desperate families, like the Joads, trying to get to here. But when we were kids it was rare to meet someone that was actually born in California, and the fact that we were second generation almost made us celebrities—not really. I had a friend in high school who’s family was originally from Spain, and they had been in California for many generations. I guess I didn’t think much about the loads of people who were coming here. I mean, California is a big state; there was always room for more. But my younger brother clearly had a different opinion. One day, when he was 13 or 14, he was lying on the couch, watching TV. On came an ad that showed a beautiful image of the Golden Gate Bridge. Out of nowhere my brother yelled at the top of his voice, “Don’t show that! People will want to come here!!” Of course now it’s gotten really expensive to live in California, so it seems lots of folks are leaving the golden state. Not sure my brother has noticed. Go figure.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Henry!

September 23, 2017

Academy gar
Alligator Gar, Steinhart Aquarium, 1990 (colored pencil on acetate with watercolor background)

The subject of this piece of art is probably not as interesting as the story that goes with it. But this fish (and the day I painted it) will always be part of my memory. The alligator gars at the Steinhart Aquarium (CA Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park) have been there for many years. I think I even remember seeing them swimming around when I was a little girl. Our family would go to the aquarium in San Francisco to cool off on a hot summer day in the Silicon Valley. In 1990 the aquarium was pretty antiquated and all the tanks/systems needed an upgrade. They began to renovate the Academy and aquarium in the early 2000’s and by 2008 it was reopened. Nice to know those same logs with eyes and fins, swimming endlessly around and around the tank of water, have new digs. Hard to tell if they noticed the change, with their unblinking eyes and that far away look…

Back to the story… In the late 80s and early 90s I was taking a variety of natural science and medical illustration classes at the Academy. I was very interested in learning how to use different media to draw realistic looking plants and animals. I started with a Prismacolor colored pencil class, took a colored pencil with watercolor class, perfected my skills with pen and ink from another scientific illustrator there, and finally I learned how to use gouache to render fur and feathers. My last class at the Academy was the coolest class of all as it gave me a chance to try all the techniques I had learned while drawing any fish we liked at the Steinhart…at night…when the Academy was closed…and everyone was gone. That was probably the best part of all. I think there were 8 or 9 people, including me, in the class. Our instructor would suggest a technique or media to try at the beginning of each class and then he would let us run around the aquarium to find a fish, or whatever, to draw. We were all giddy with the prospect of being alone there and discussed at length how were going to attach flashlights to our drawing boards and/or heads, how to get comfortable sitting on the floor, or what kind of portable chair we would be bringing to the next class.

For those of you who have maybe taken some kind of art class, the format of such a class is the same. First, the teacher makes a presentation of some kind. Second, you are left to try what was suggested and last, at a predetermined time later, you gather to share what you had done. This class was no different. However, there was one classmate who was clearly doing something quite different during our practice time. When we all came back together for the evening’s “critique” she never had anything to show. I seem to remember her being there when the teacher shared a technique at the beginning of class, but I never saw her drawing near any of the tanks in the aquarium when we were on our own. Thinking back it was odd that none of us encountered her along the dark corridors. I mean, part of the fun of this class was walking around before settling down to draw. And it did get a little weird that at end of the night she didn’t have anything to share. Why was she taking this class and what was she doing in there?

OK, so the last night of class, when we had all finished with our final “critiques,” she asked the teacher a question. She said, “I have been working with an artist that cannot speak for themselves and I think I would like to represent them and help them with their art.” We all looked at each other and the teacher locked his eyes on hers and asked her to explain further. (I suspect he had been wondering what she had been doing these many weeks as well.) I don’t remember her exact words, but the gist was that she had been working with a dolphin in one of the tanks and wanted to know what the teacher thought of her somehow representing this dolphin’s art. The teacher asked her for more clarification. She went on to explain that while we were all running around the aquarium, she taped a large sheet of white paper to the outside of the dolphin tank. Then, I guess, the dolphin swam up close to the paper and moved its nose against the tank. The woman said she used a marker to draw on the paper wherever the dolphin’s nose went. OK, by now you could have heard a pin drop in the room. I could only imagine that the paper was probably covered with a giant squiggle when they were finished. Or maybe, one of the pieces they had created together looked like the profile of Richard Nixon. I distinctly remember that the woman believed she had some kind of psychic connection with this particular dolphin and she was all in with the idea of a collaboration. She just wanted permission from the teacher to go ahead. (I have to admit I kind of liked the idea. Maybe it had to do with the fact that such a thing could probably only happen in California, hence my overall acceptance with such an idea, and the reference to Nixon—a very famous Californian.) Well, of course the teacher shut down that idea in an instant, but in a gentle way. He said something like, ”I don’t believe anyone at the Academy would give you permission to do so…” That was it. She just let it drop. (Maybe she already had some kind of plan to do it on her own.) Of course, all of this happened before the Internet. I could just imagine a Banksy type artist trying to share “underground” dolphin art on Youtube. Any proceeds would of course be going to Greenpeace.

As I drove home over the Bay Bridge that night I was thinking things like, how do you enter into a contract with a dolphin? Or what kind of remuneration would be fair to give to a dolphin for his or her art? Thinking about that class now, I can’t imagine artists being allowed to take a class at the Academy at night—running around the dark hallways, sketching favorite fishes as they swim around, and/or having an opportunity to artistically commune with a friendly dolphin. So, maybe I am just thrilled to have had such an experience and no dolphin was harmed and/or exploited in any way in the process.

September 16, 2017

9/9/17 Descanso Garden 30 minute sketch (watercolor, leaf green and apple green inktense pencils, watercolor crayons)

I finally got to the Descanso Garden last Sunday to do some long awaited sketching. The end of August and first part of September brought triple digit heat here in Southern California and it has been too uncomfortable to make the effort to sit outside—even for a quick sketch. In fact, that heat caused a substantial fire that I could see from my front porch on the top of some “all too close” mountains across the way. So, Sunday morning I packed my backpack with my paints and bubble wrap, found a favorite shady bench in the rose garden and did this watercolor in about 30 minutes. Sheer bliss!

I think I’ve mentioned in previous posts that there is quite a worldwide “urban sketching” phenomenon going on right now. On my Facebook urban sketchers group page, people from all over the world post their art. Many do renderings of vacation spots they are visiting; some include people in their art and some do historic buildings, train stations or back allies without anyone there at all. For those who include people, they’ve posted art with people sitting at cafes drinking coffee or reading, people strolling along the street, people walking in and around art museums and even people doing laundry at a Laundromat. Some of the really good urban sketchers do short videos (with time lapse) to show the rest of us how it’s done—with beautiful and purposeful pencil and pen marks as well as perfect washes and layered watercolor details.

When I do a quick sketch/painting like this, I rarely add the people who are wondering around. (Come to think of it, I don’t usually add people in any of my art much at all. Hmmm…) I am usually more fixated on the movement of clouds across a soft blue sky or the greenery of a block of trees as the changing light deepens or brightens the trees and shrubs in a landscape. I am also more fixated on preserving as much white space as I can and adding, almost as an afterthought, highlights of pink or yellow. The people that seem to be milling around in my view are often too much of a distraction. I’m drawn to movement of another kind.

So, after 30 minutes or so I started packing up my stuff. I had propped this sketch up on the bench to dry. About that time a couple 9 or 10 year old girls and their adults stopped by to see what I was doing. Since I was done, a conversation with them seemed appropriate. You could tell the girls were interested in painting and wanted to see my paints and brushes. (One of the girls told me that she had just moved and couldn’t find her brushes. She looked up at her mother and her mom said they would have to look later when they got home.) I opened up my paint box and began to wonder if they would think my rather messy pots of paint would look like anything special. But they were all in and seemed even more drawn to the 15 or so different colors I have in the tray. By now they weren’t saying anything and were just staring. From out of nowhere I started talking about a color I am fond of using at present. I talked about how I think it’s important to have special colors that inspire you when you paint. (My favorite right now is an amazing pink called Opera.) I showed them the color and then showed them on my phone some other pieces I had done with that color. (I quickly breezed past the naked lady piece I did at the Norton Simon Museum the other day.) We talked about their favorite colors and then we all went our separate ways.

On the way home I got to thinking about having a favorite color and it seemed that might be something we do, and/or talk about, only when we are very young. “Why is that?” Don’t you remember when pink or purple was your favorite? Or maybe you were a child who liked black or red? I was working with a kid the other day and asked him to pick a marker (from a choice of red, green or blue) and he chose green. I almost fell off my chair as for the past two and a half years he has always chosen blue when given a choice of colors. He had a large grin on his face, as if he was trying to surprise me. I mean, he even commented that his new favorite color was not blue, but green. That was really a fun moment for both of us.

So, I challenge you to pick a color you like and get a shirt or hat in that color. And of course don’t forget to wear it. Maybe it will make you feel good to have a favorite color next to your skin. I have a t-shirt that is the same pink as the “Opera” color in my paint box. Every time I wear that t-shirt someone says that it’s a good color for me to wear. And I think to myself, “Thanks, but I already knew that! It’s in my paintbox.”

September 9, 2017

Safflower Road
Field of safflower, east side of Highway 46 (3 feet by 4 feet oil on canvas)

I don’t usually paint on canvas this large. But I bought a roll of it (63 inch wide) several years ago and I’ve stretched a lot of canvases since then—some really small and some larger like this one. On a previous post (August 12) I described how I sometimes under paint my landscapes so I can scrub colors on top for a kind of glowing effect. The art for that post was oil on a birch panel. This landscape is on canvas and the over painting looks amazing as it accentuates the texture of the woven cotton fibers, especially for the sky.

Over the years I have enjoyed painting huge masses of golden safflower. Safflower is a crop that used to be common on the oak-dotted hillsides of Paso Robles during late summer and early fall. I haven’t seen such huge plantings in quite a while. Much of that ground in the Paso area has been replaced with massive fields of wine grape plants.

This got me thinking about what kinds of things I like to see en masse. Of course I guess the opposite thought of what I wouldn’t like to see en masse is also hard to avoid when contemplating such a list. And of course you could go for the obvious and say that you would like to see massive amounts of coins, paper money and precious jewels and metals. And sure, I would love to see (and have) massive amounts of such items so I could buy what I want. But I think the real story here should be what would you like to see, and not necessarily have, en masse. Such a list could probably be endless, and might even change from day to day, based on emotions or perceived needs or desires in our lives.

So, this is my list as of today:

I love to see huge fields of golden yellow safflower rolling over the hills. And I have also been ecstatic over the sight of masses of wildflowers like poppies and lupines that are so bright with saturated color that they can almost hurt your eyes. Rafts of penguins in the ocean look pretty perky to me, as well a great waddle of Emperor penguins on an ice floe. (I think I would even love to hear the sounds of a large waddle of adult and juvenile penguins as they waddle about in such a mass gathering.) Off the coast of many beaches in California great pods of grey whales come up from the Gulf of Mexico certain times of the year. (Some people like to get in boats and get up close to them, but that doesn’t really give you a sense of number, in my opinion.) A flock, a colony, a brief, a pod, a pouch, a scoop or a squadron of pelicans are pretty cool to watch as they fly very close to the surface of the ocean looking for fish to eat. My son reminded me that flocks of snowy plovers or sandpipers running along the surf line near Morro Rock are really fun to see as they scurry up and back with the constant ebb and flow of water. I seem to have some kind of ocean theme going here. So, that brings up what I am not fond of seeing en masse when at the beach. Not fond of too many people with towels, umbrellas and tents covering the choice bits of sand near the surf line. Not fond of the massive piles of kelp that has washed up on the beach certain times of the year. And OMG, I am really not fond of the massive amounts of flies that are attracted to those rotting piles of detritus.

So, if I leave the ocean and contemplate other large groups of things I love to see that would have to be a forest of trees, and/or a great number of fledgling bald eagles in a single giant conifer in the forest. I love to see lots of apples in a tree or olla berries on the vines. And now that I have delved into things that relate to humans, I think I like the idea of a library full of books, and the skyline of San Francisco as you come over the Golden Gate Bridge from Sausalito. A three-scoop ice cream cone that has just been scooped will always make my mouth water, the surface of a mug of hot chocolate completely covered with marshmallows is always tempting and a mouth full of teeth is great to see. Maybe a mouth of cavities isn’t so great. And speaking of a mouth full of teeth I’m not sure I want to see a gam, herd, frenzy, school or shiver of sharks, even if they are way out in the ocean.

As I am editing this list for the final time today, I can think of more and more things en masse I would and would not like to see. So, I am stopping for now. What would you like to see en masse? Or what wouldn’t you like to see?

Note about painting on large canvases—When I was taking art classes at UCB in the 70’s all my buddies in class were renting garages to have space to paint huge canvases—6 or 8 feet or greater for both length and width. I wasn’t interested in doing that at the time. Stretching such a large piece takes special consideration when building the frame it is stretched on. But lately I have been thinking more and more of painting large pieces, but maybe not bothering to stretch them on a frame. In fact, I have painted huge skies of clouds on large canvas sheets. The trick is to find floor space to paint. Maybe I need to rent a garage? Here I go again!

In 1943, Jackson Pollock did an 8′ 1 1/4″ x 19′ 10″ painting, called “Mural,” for Peggy Guggenheim. She commissioned him to paint this giant piece as something she wanted to hang in her NY city apartment. Art historians think it was probably removed from it’s wooden frame, and rolled and unrolled at least 5 times as it was moved to: Ms. Guggenheim’s apartment entry hall, the Vogue Studios to be photographed, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Yale University and finally to the University of Iowa in 1951. In 2012 the J Paul Getty Museum and Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles began restoring his mural. It took two years to do that. The mural had been hanging at the University of Iowa since 1951 and was sagging in a weird way. So a custom frame with state of the art flexible materials was developed to preserve the work. No more rolling and unrolling for this mural. Check out the mural and the story of how it was studied and preserved online. I think it’s pretty amazing.

September 2, 2017

Descanso Oaks
Oak woodland, Descanso Garden, La Canada/Flintridge (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)

Early in the summer I went to the Descanso Garden and did this watercolor. I was a little annoyed that some people were sitting in a shady spot in the rose garden that I had planned to occupy. So, I wandered around, out of my immediate comfort zone, until I came to a shady bench overlooking a grove of mature oak trees. A squirrel and me shared that bench while I painted and he/she scrabbled around in the oak leaf duff. I was looking to set up a backdrop of dark, huge coast live oaks with a small bright green Japanese maple as a focal point jewel in the center. The squirrel was either looking for various acorns (from the oaks) or burying found acorns under the bench. Hard to tell what was going on exactly, other than he/she was very busy and couldn’t be bothered with a woman with a shapeless canvas sun hat talking to her dark blue and green pigments in the paint tray. I’m sure the squirrel was equally disinterested in the woman with the shapeless hat trying to level her tray of mixed colors so they didn’t inadvertently run together. (I used to take a level and a bag of dried quinoa with me to level the mixing tray. I have since found a tray with large round holes that keep the colors away from each other.)

Enough of my idiosyncrasies and back to the trees… So, besides the amazing conversation I was having with myself regarding the spattering of blue wash for the sky, I was reminded of my love for oak trees. It’s not our state tree, but in my opinion it should be. (California’s state tree is the CA Redwood.) I think one of my favorite landscape subjects is a spattering of oak trees in a hilly vineyard, field of safflower or just in amongst the low golden weeds of summer. Over time I have painted just such landscapes in the Paso Robles area. There is a grove of oaks clumped together in a large green heart shape on the south side of some hills on Highway 46 on the way to Cambria. (Locals call that oak tree view “heart mountain.”) I did a watercolor and colored pencil rendering of the view—adding a row of nonexistent sunflowers in the foreground to that one. Those trees used to be a unique feature of those golden rolling hills, but recently vineyards have been added and now those rows of plants surround the clump of trees. Even though I adore vineyards, they can take away from the unique beauty of the oaks. I guess I should be thankful that the people who own that land didn’t remove the trees all together. That would make my heart hurt.

In July 2016 there was a scandal of a mass oak tree removal of thousands of oaks at a prominent winery in the Adelaida area of Paso Robles. Of course if you believe that owning land means you can do whatever you want with it, it may not seem such a scandal. But if you are a “tree hugger” like me, the removal of thousands of oaks just feels wrong. And so it goes here in California, we are always in a state of extremes. When the news broke it was just a local story I think. I happened to be in a coffee house in Morro Bay at the time and a patron of the shop said she was going to boycott the wine of said winery. I thought this a good idea, even though I had never purchased any of their wine, as it was too expensive for me. (If you go to their tasting room in Adelaida it costs 20 dollars just to taste the wine.) When I was first 21, wine tasting was free.

This got me thinking about boycotting products to make a political statement, but maybe that is for another CA story. Suffice it say, if I had been a regular patron of that wine I would have changed brands. There are plenty of other vineyards that make wonderful cabs and zins, and they have left their oak trees alone.

Note about the oaks in the Descanso Garden: Earlier in the summer one of our local public television stations did a nice “Lost in LA” documentary about the Descanso Garden. A great deal of the program focused on the oak woodlands of the property. I sat and drank a wonderful zinfandel wine cooler (no wine from the scandalous Adelaida vineyard), enjoying the stories and coolness of those huge dark oak trees. I was glad to know those trees weren’t going anywhere and I look forward to going back there and painting them again soon.

  • There is a big fire just across the 210. I worry about the firefighters, animals, other people, trees and houses (in that order) during such a fire. And BTW, whatever they pay the people who fight such a fire—it’s not enough!