December 3, 2017

Napa Winery, summer 2005
Napa Winery, Winter 2007 (watercolor crayon on green pastel board)

I’ve done a number of winery landscapes. In 2007 I was living in Grass Valley, but I was painting Paso Robles and the surrounding area (my son and I had previously lived there). Back in 2007 my son was still pretty young and as a single mom I didn’t have the luxury of doing much plein air painting. Mostly I took photos of places I loved and wanted to paint, and then when I had a moment or two I would paint them either in oil, watercolor or colored pencil.

I took this photo the summer 2005 when I was on a trip with a couple lovely friends. We were in Napa and doing some serious wine tasting. I thought these “crazy shaped” cypress pretty fun and made my friends stop so I could take a picture. For many months after our trip, I pulled this photo out of the box with the intent of painting it. It took me until the winter of 2007 for me to finally create this piece. By that time I was experimenting with pastel board and watercolor crayons. I had just finished a pastel board of some of the grape plants of Lucchesi Vineyards in Grass Valley and thought I’d be clever and magically add some grapes, the driveway and cypress trees of a winery in Napa—making another diptych. Not so sure how clever all that really was…

During my “sans” plein air outdoor painting period I usually played some Mozart, Miles or the Chieftains and had a ball painting. Picasso had his “blue period” and I had my “tunes period.” But most of this one was done sans music, amid “ear splitting” silence, punctuated by intermittent chanting and meditation in the sanctuary of the Grass Valley United Methodist Church one Sunday morning. Our pastor was trying to establish an early morning “contemplative prayer” service and she asked me to sit and paint while they all worshipped during one of these services. I thought it an interesting idea and wondered how I could do without listening to bagpipes, but said, “OK.”

The set up for watercolor crayons and pastel board isn’t as messy as random trays of watercolors or smelly oils. I just had a cup of water that I used to mix some of the water-soluable crayons right on the bumpy surface of the board. But there was nothing that would really leave a horrible stain if something spilled. So, I sat and painted in the darkened sanctuary, with only the light of the sun streaming through a rather large stained glass window behind me and had a ball. The service lasted 45 minutes and of course I wasn’t done. I think I had finished the sky (where I often start my landscapes) with the wonderful Italian cypress weaving up through the blue. And I had most of the other plants and the road roughed in. It was still in what we in the painting trade call it’s “ugly period.” So, as the 8, or so, people who were in the service filed past me, no one gushed in excitement and admiration at the site of the few “Italian” cypress trees standing before my blue sky. The pastor seemed pleased I was there, but she didn’t invite me back to be “contemplative” and never asked to see it when I was finished. So, I took it home and contemplated the amazing saxophone stylings of Paul Desmond, finished the landscape and never looked back.

Maybe they were expecting the Madonna and Child, the visual representation of someone speaking in tongues, something on fire or an angel or two—looking much like the cherubs from Western Europe’s religious painting of the 15th and 16th centuries. This got me thinking about what it must have been like before the Renaissance (14th century), when all art was meant to be devotional and had very stylized representations of the people from the Old and New Testament. And before the Renaissance, “nature” was not represented. If the painter added something behind an apostle or two, where the sky might be, it was often done in gold, not blue. And if plants were indicated at all, they were not as you would find in nature, but a stylized idea of foliage that was in the painter’s head. In fact, painters didn’t really go out to paint until the impressionists set up their easels outside. Western Europe’s Impressionists didn’t seem to care about the pesky changing light and bits of detritus that blew onto their palettes and/or onto the actual painting. They set up their easels all around the town and country, and had a ball (I’m sure).

Probably the best thing I can say about the whole “contemplative” experience was my surprising use of black—a color I rarely used then or even now for that matter. While sitting in that rather dark spot, I thought I had discovered a lovely dark blue in my tray of watercolor crayons that I hadn’t noticed before. But that lovely dark blue turned out to be black. That was a funny moment for me, when I stepped into the light and began looking for the dark blue color. It wasn’t there! I was happy how that bit of black turned out, but didn’t use it again until last night when I sat on a sheet of bubble wrap on the damp grass in the darkened back garden of the Norton Simon Museum. There I painted that magical garden and “Monet Inspired” pond by the light of the almost full moon and the night light of a nearby statue. This time I intentionally reached for my darkest blue again. I guess crazy and wonderful things can happen in the dark.

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