November 25, 2017

Adelaida Vineyard
Adelaida Vineyard (watercolor and colored pencil on illustration board)

So I did this one from a back deck of the Adelaida Vineyards. Not exactly sure when I painted it—probably around 2000. When I was thinking about this week’s post I had been wanting to write about the amazing yellows and gold colors that were in this landscape and also in my watercolor tray. I have already done my homage to blue and the “blue blood” royalty it has achieved in my painter’s palate. I thought it time I shared my thoughts on yellow and gold, and how I have used it so masterfully through my many experiences painting fields of safflower and bales of golden hay. I had decided this piece, with the golden hills of Adelaida as a backdrop to the almond trees and grape plants you see here, the perfect painting to do that. But I should have learned never to pair art with words too early—something about what I think I want to say is bound to change. And that’s exactly what happened. I thought I would wax eloquently about my layering of Prismacolor and watercolor yellows on cold press illustration board. So, just stop already!

Here’s what changed my tune. Last Sunday I participated in a watercolor workshop (sponsored by Winsor Newton) at the CTN Animation Expo at the Marriott Hotel in Burbank. Gary Geraths and Virginia Hein, art instructors from Otis College of Art and Design, were there to show us how they use Winsor Newton products to create “on the spot” plein air watercolor paintings. Woo hoo! I got there a little early and watched a whole lot of animators, carrying books to be autographed and portfolios to be critiqued, going from building to building, building to tent and room to room (I noticed this particular movement when I went inside in search of a restroom).

Soon, Gary assembled all of us at the Winsor Newton tent and we walked to the hotel parking lot, where we were a bit apart from all the moving animators. But when I say away from the movement, I meant the movement of the people crossing in front of us to go to the various buildings and tents. There was some serious movement going on just to our right in the form of planes taking off from the Burbank airport (aka Bob Hope Airport) about every 20 minutes. It was actually pretty cool to watch commercial jets leave the ground, then a second later that very plane was reflected in the pink/amber tinted windows of a nearby building, and once that reflection moved off the windows a brief shadow was cast down on us standing there in the parking lot. Oh my God, I was in heaven!

Back to Gary. He had set up an easel in the shade (yes, it was in the 70’s) of several huge sycamore trees. (Virginia was sitting in a camp chair off to the side, peacefully painting the people and trees in front of her.) Gary immediately launched into telling us all his tricks for carrying only the most necessary items to paint anything anywhere. He had many stories and talked of many experiences he had while painting outside, all the while he painted layer upon layer of color to the sycamore trees, people and row of cars directly in front of him. He showed us how he arranges his trays of color, with the warm colors in one row and the cool colors in another. Gary referred to the lovely dark colors John Singer Sargent used to great effect in his watercolor paintings. He told us how he (Gary) had painted from moving kayaks/canoes—stashing his tiny watercolor book and paints away at a moment’s notice when they were soon to be in the rapids. Yikes! He even described getting lost once (for a day and a night) and how he only had water from his water bottle meant for painting to drink. Writing this down now I wonder if I heard him correctly. Anyway, there was plenty of water to be found around the Marriott parking lot. And his final piece was lovely—capturing just the right amount of Southern California dark and light color, leaving plenty of white spaces for highlights and rest.

So, now it’s Virginia’s turn, and she chose the exact same composition as Gary, but she included people. And the light on the Sycamore trees and space between them had definitely changed. I have taken a watercolor class from her (at the Descanso Garden) and I see her at various urban sketching venues around town. Her “on the spot” artwork is pretty amazing! She didn’t have harrowing plein air experiences to share, but instead treated us to a lesson in using layers of various yellows to capture the light of a fall day in Southern California. Virginia did a quick sketch of the scene with a golden colored Inktense pencil (I didn’t write down what exact color…), so it would soon fade into the background as soon as watercolor was added. She talked about experimenting with the transparent nature of certain colors, specifically New Gamboge. Virginia layered in the more opaque watercolors like cadmium yellow. Then going in for the kill at the end, she added fluorescent orange and line detail with her “oak” colored Inktense pencil. I think her reference to these golden colors and then golden shaded greens was of further interest to me. She said, and I think I agree, that southern CA foliage greens are more yellow and golden, not generally of a blue driven nature as you might find in the trees/plants of northern CA. And when I look back at early 20th century California impressionist landscape painters who painted in Laguna Beach, you can see that they had figured that out too. The light here in southern California is rather special and golden. And Virginia sure captured that golden essence. I didn’t even have a tube of New Gamboge. Better get on that ‘cause now it’s my turn to see what I can do with the golden light of southern California! Thanks Gary and Virginia.

Note: I kind of went a little overboard about everything except this painting and the lovely landscape I got to capture that day at the Adelaida Vineyard. And all my “carrying on” about the golden southern California light cannot diminish the joy and triumph I had creating the colors of the Central Coast of California you can actually see here. Just saying…

Oh, here’s a note about John Singer Sargent watercolor paintings: If you are most familiar with his oils, treat yourself and Google his watercolors. Done, and fade to black…

November 18, 2017

Decanso water
Descanso Water, Fall 2017 (watercolor, Inktense pencils on watercolor paper)

A couple weeks ago I wrote about Monet’s water lilies and the amazing pond he had installed at Giverny. I decided to make it my mission to get in touch with my “Monet side” and paint California bodies of water, big and small, as often as I could. So, the last time I went to the Descanso Garden, I looked for the perfect bench, “waterside,” to sit and paint. It took some doing to veer away from my favorite spots in the rose garden. But I persisted and found the perfect bench beside the perfect dark waterway that led to the bright patch of green sunlight at the end of this view. I was a little intimidated to paint moving water and wondered if I could capture the reflections of the dark “greenness” of the trees.

As was usual for me, I intentionally avoided contact with people as I walked around the roses and under the oaks. Maybe I worry that someone will get to the spot I want before I can fill up my water bottles at the drinking fountain. I thought the view from this bench perfect as there were no nearby paths other than the one that lead directly here. So, I could be certain not to have anyone spoil my view. As I set up my materials, I felt a little smug that I had fooled everyone and would be unseen until I realized the train tracks for the miniature railroad at the garden were just to my right. Darn! But I soon realized I could angle my body all the way to the left and would therefore not have to look directly at any children or their adults as they “tooted” past my view of the secret garden.

I don’t often think about what I want to write as I paint. The words usually come after the art for me. If you have read any of my other posts you may have noticed that I sometimes write about painting in general—how I mix colors (sometimes talking to various blues), stress over details and generally discuss how I apply paint. I also like to include something that is very specific to California in the form of a place or person. Then of course there are my family stories and just general musings that float through my brain throughout the day and night. So, on this particular day I was stressing about making the water look “Monet-like,” as I assumed I would be writing about that experience. I was also trying to avoid eye contact with the people on the train that went past me about every 10 minutes. (I noticed that the lady sitting at the back of the train smiled at me the first couple rounds, but I am guessing she finally gave up as I stopped looking in that direction). Toot, toot!

Even with all these rather weird thoughts I managed to make a go of it, and was generally pleased with the feeling of green peace being reflected in the water. When all of a sudden, out of shadows, a rather large koi drifted into view. I hadn’t expected to see anything other than the dark colors of the water and was surprised that a bright spot of orange dared to appear here. But I was determined to add this shiny splash of color on the spot even though I hadn’t planned earlier to add such a “tart” color into the cool blue and green mix. I grabbed my Inktense Poppy Red and Tangerine pencils and began mixing a bit of lovely cadmium red paint. Another fish joined the first one and now I welcomed two fish into my composition. I thought this hilarious because I probably wouldn’t have done the same if a couple kids had walked through the scene, but instead I would have waited till they passed by. I was so glad I had saved some white space and I worked quickly to put them in the water. Within a minute or two they were gone from my view.

By this time I was almost done and ready for a break. So, I took out my half a peanut butter sandwich and turned to watch the next trainload of children and their bored looking adults chug past me. Toot toot! I was certain they were all very curious to see what I was doing and maybe wanted me to hold up the watercolor I had been working on. I was prepared to say, “No. No. I couldn’t. It’s still wet and not ready for anyone to see.” I was surprised to see that the train was completely full and no one was looking my way, including the lady sitting in the caboose. No one looked bored. They were busy enjoying the train—smiling and talking, waiting for the conductor to blow the whistle again. Toot toot! It made me smile to watch them wiz past without noticing the smug and self-important painter. They sure hadn’t left any white space for me! (I guess we are all allowed to find our place at the park.) Maybe they were trying to avoid me. And just like that, they went around a corner and disappeared from my view.

As I finished my sandwich I thought of my dad, and how he was quick to remind us that no one was “all that.” In my mind I heard him say one of our family sayings, “So, you think you are * Mrs. Astor. But you are more surely Mrs. Astor’s horse.” Toot toot! Time to pack up and go.

* If you don’t know who Mrs. Astor was, she was married to a very wealthy man (John Jay Astor). They were on the Titanic. She made it across the Atlantic, but he did not.

Just checked the weather for turkey day in SoCal. It’s supposed to be 90 degrees! Good Grief. Happy Thanksgiving!

November 11, 2017

Crystal Cove
Crystal Cove, Newport Coast, April 2017 (watercolor, Inktense pencil and watercolor crayon on watercolor paper)

Last spring I visited my brother and his family while they stayed at Crystal Cove, near Newport Beach. This is the view from their little house on the hill, looking down a rather nice bit of California coast. Crystal Cove State Park includes a couple miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, some chaparral canyons and a number of historic beach houses that were built from about 1920 to 1940. I guess they started renting out these little cottages in 1979. When I looked up more details about this place a minute ago, their official site described Crystal Cove State Park as one of the last bits of natural seashore and open space in Orange County. I think I like adding this last bit in my narrative because there really isn’t much of our coastline that hasn’t been claimed by someone and/or developed with condos, hotels, businesses, golf courses and of course huge homes.

When I was a kid there were a couple beachfront areas, like Newport Beach (further north of Crystal Cove), La Jolla (San Diego) and parts of Malibu that seemed to have been reserved by the wealthy and/or famous. But even Malibu was known as the Malibu Colony back then and there were definitely some simple and unadorned houses right on the sand.

It’s always been so funny to me to see the seaside places that were once considered to be kind of dumpy, with the worst possible foggy weather, that now boast million dollar homes with continued terrible coastal fog. I mean, on the central coast no one went to Pismo Beach, Cayucos, or Morro Bay for a fancy “get away.” Those places always seemed to be “socked in” with fog, and only passable dives that served “greasy spoon” fish and chips. The sand-filled wind at the beach in Cambria in winter can literally blast the freckles from your nose, and yet lots of folks flock to that area these days. The California coast just north of Cambria (on the way to San Simeon) is pretty spectacular, with wonderful bluffs and no houses. But the Hearst family has tried, over the years, to develop that area–so far without success. Traveling south from here, near San Diego, there is Pacific Beach. And when I was young it had many scary looking houses near the water. It seemed that the only people who went to that beach back then were looking for a bar or a tattoo, or both. And of course there are Northern California beaches that weren’t particularly glamorous not so long ago. Santa Cruz had the beach boardwalk with some terrifying roller coaster rides, and the requisite bars and tattoo parlors. And there were lots of “white-haired” surfer dudes with beach dogs, riding around in old V dub vans. The downtown really changed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. A lot of the brick buildings there were taken down because they weren’t safe anymore. And with that went some of the quaintness of that sleepy beach community.

Writing about the long ago beaches of California reminded me of a particular family SoCal summer rental. It was a little house in Sunset Beach, near Huntington Beach. I guess my grandfather and uncle picked out the place for us, site unseen by my mother. We actually have a home movie of us getting out of the family van and taking our stuff into that little house. There was just a tiny road between the sandy beach and our house, and I distinctly remember that I had the attic room at the very top of the stairs. I spent some amazing time in my little hidy hole reading a bunch of Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers (aka Helen Lyndon Goff). And at night I could hear the ocean. My brothers and I thought it was pretty great. Of course, when my mom spoke of our little house she reminded us there were slugs in the shower and a mouse in their bedroom that could be heard chewing on the carpet at night. Poor mom! And it seems there was a rip tide in the ocean just in front of our house. I guess my dad was disappointed that his body surfing there would be limited. But aunts, uncles and cousins came by to visit and that all seemed pretty great to me. I can’t remember if my grandpa and uncle (that picked out the place for us) came by. I suspect my mom would have loved to tell them about the critters that were sharing the house with us.

Those little houses are all gone now. Sunset Beach and Huntington Beach has some really fancy condos, restaurants and shopping. I think the nostalgia for old California beach areas is why my brother started taking his family to Crystal Cove. He wanted them to see what was like to stay in a little house right on the water, minus the bars and tattoo parlors. I think getting a reservation at Crystal Cove isn’t particularly easy, compared to the many slightly dumpy places we rented when we were kids. Crystal Cove isn’t as cheap as it was back then. I guess people today expect to pay more, and probably wouldn’t think it fun if there was a slug or two in the shower.

Note about this watercolor: When I finished this watercolor, I sent it to my brother to hang in the vintage tugboat wheelhouse he has restored and placed in his backyard in Northern CA. He likes to go sit out there and smoke cigars. I’m sure he enjoys the view. (I guess I should add that you can’t rent any of the little houses you see here. They have fallen into disrepair. And if you look closely, you can see the faint outline of a chain link fence between the row of houses and the surf line. I’m sure there are more than a few slugs, mice and other assorted critters (e.g. termites and dry rot) living in those places right now.)

Note about Veteran’s Day and my dad: My dad was a vet, serving just as WWII was ending. He wanted to get the GI bill so he could go to UCLA and study physics and engineering. Thanks dad for your service and thanks for going to UCLA–where he met my mom.

November 4, 2017

fall leaf
Fall Leaf (watercolor on cold pressed illustration board)

With a bit of rain, a drop in temperature and the drop of a few colored leaves from nearby liquidambar trees, fall seems to have finally arrived in SoCal. I bring this piece out and hang it on the wall when it is finally clear that summer is finally over.

The “Stuff” for Watercolor

Watercolor can be very tricky and this particular one represents the first time I realized I could tame and manipulate the medium satisfactorily. Woo hoo! Up until then I spent way too much time soaking expensive watercolor paper in the tub, using gummy brown paper tape to affix the paper’s edge onto a hollow board (made for just such a maneuver). If you don’t wet the paper, stretch it and then let it dry it will leave ripples when you paint on it. So, here is the secret to such control. Don’t use expensive watercolor paper, use Strathmore cold press illustration board. Or don’t worry about the ripples and just paint away. The next biggest secret to watercolor, in my opinion, is that you will need to practice, practice, practice—another reason not to use expensive watercolor paper, as it will seem like you are wasting it. Then, once you start, try working really wet and loose, try letting different layers dry and then paint on top, or just let colors bleed together. Try to enjoy what you are doing, and remember what you did by mistake and see if you can do it again on purpose. You will make mistakes. You need to understand that using watercolors is not very forgiving—meaning you can’t just paint over what you have decided is a mistake. That’s because watercolor is transparent, so whatever you put down on that paper it will be seen, no matter what. Gouache is for making mistakes; it’s opaque and will cover up almost anything. Browsing the Internet you can find plenty of resources for teaching watercolor painting. My personal favorite is a YouTube video where an amazing watercolorist from Studio Ghibli (Kazuo Oga) creates a simple looking piece of nature with his masterful watercolor technique.

As I kind of mentioned, picking the right paper is very important, and of course the expensive cotton rag paper is by far the best to use. However, the watercolor paper you can find in pads will work too. I look for pads of paper that are on sale. You can start at the back of the book and move forward with each page, trying washes of every color (ultramarine blue or cobalt blue are favorite sky color washes for me), watercolor layering and dry brush techniques. Then flip the pad over and do the same on the back of each sheet going forward.

The watercolors themselves can be kind of daunting when you walk along the isles of supplies in an art store. And the higher priced (better quality) tubes and cakes are really better than the cheap stuff. And of course choosing colors may also stop the faint of heart from looking. However, as a starter there is a nice Winsor Newton travel set that gives you a dozen colors, including a cake of “cheater” white gouache. I almost never use black (it’s not in this set) because once you start adding layers of black everything seems to go dark rather quickly. And too much black may even make your watercolor look kind of dirty. I let my dark blues (Indigo) and greens (sap green) do the dirty work—the darkest tones I use. Personally, I think you can get away with cheaper paints than cheaper paper. Oh, and don’t forget to try watercolor pencils, those are fun too.

Brushes can really cost a lot. I pretty much just use my trusty #14 synthetic watercolor brush for everything. It’s fat enough to hold the perfect amount of water/pigment to achieve nice washes on 9 by 12 inch watercolor paper. The tip works well for any detail you might like to add at the end, like the veins on this fall leaf. Oh, and keep your water clean—trying to mix beautiful colors with muddy water kind of muddies the colors, I think.

The “Patience” for Watercolor

So, now you’re ready to create a masterpiece. Not really. Probably the most important lesson I learned (with this leaf) was being patient while the paint dried between the many layers of color it took to create it. In fact, I used a small hair dryer to dry each layer of the “sepia-like” paint. Someone once asked me how many layers of color wash I put on before adding the final vein details. I lost count, but I think I applied at least 7 or 8 layers, drying each before applying the next. If you don’t let it dry completely, the brush and water will start to pick up the color you just laid down when you add the next layer. This can be very frustrating and might undo whatever plans you had. Oh, and it’s good to get up and walk around a bit to let the paint dry. And if you think you are done, you are. Know when to stop and really stop. It’s so easy to overwork watercolor and I somehow want my watercolor paintings to look kind of fresh, with plenty of white and soft places for your eye to go.

The “Passion” for Watercolor

So, you might ask if I use this kind of watercolor technique anymore. Are you kidding? No way! It’s way too much work, and I have no idea where I would plug in a hair dryer when painting outside. Besides, hair dryers make a lot of noise—not very conducive to the natural plein air urban sketcher outside experience I am passionate about now. My outdoor paintings are the result of a kind of quick three-step approach that includes a snack. First, I find the perfect spot for that day’s painting, do a quick thumbnail sketch and set up my stuff. Then, I lay in all my washes and deepest, darkest shadows on watercolor paper. This helps me think about where I want to leave white spaces—covering 1/3 to ½ of what I plan to do on the whole page. This is not usually where I want too many colors to bleed into another—that kind of effect comes later. So, I take a few beats, look where I plan to add paint and mix more colors in my watercolor pots. Then I go back and forth in the painting and add more layers, encouraging colors to bleed or dry. It’s at this point I start to worry that I may be going too far with color or detail. I stop for a snack. This gives the painting a chance to really dry. After the snack I add final details that might include some Inktense pencil scribbles or watercolor crayons.

You might have already realized that I am still perfecting my watercolor technique. I think it will continue to be a life long passion for me. Mastering watercolor might seem like too much trouble and you might have a passion of your own. Maybe it’s oil painting or acrylics, or visiting art museums and galleries? Maybe your passion is baking, gardening or reading? Maybe you’re passionate about walking, running or traveling. It’s kind of like, if you had a time machine that could speed up or slow down time, what would you use it for? Would it be to zip through a day of work so you could spend time doing what you’re passionate about? And then, you could turn the speed to “slow” and linger a little longer doing what you love. If I had such a machine, I know how I would use it. What about you?