January 27, 2018

LA skyline
LA Skyline, 1/2/2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil)

So, I thought I would be clever and go to the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park the day after the first. I had never been there before and thought there might be some kind of amazing view on that hill outside the observatory. I arrived just before noon, as the website said it opened at that time. Driving up to the entrance of Griffith Park a sign said the parking lot was already full. What? And as I got closer to the Greek Theater I could see that the area was mobbed with people and cars and I was going to have to park way down the hill. So, I was disgruntled, but determined to get up to the Observatory to paint. The shuttle to the top had way too many people waiting to get on board. So, I started to walk up the hill and realized I was mad and every step I took was making me madder. (Don’t worry, I’m going to get to this spot pretty soon…) I turned around and started to head back to my car, not sure what I was going to do. To my left I noticed a rather steep hill, with very few people there. I pushed forward and headed up the hill. The trail was a kind of switchback and there were only a few people walking along, so I kept going. But I was still mad that I wouldn’t be going to Griffith Observatory. I started to wonder if just too many people had seen “La La Land” and wanted to explore all the LA sites that were shown in the movie.

I finally came around a corner on the trail and I saw this view. It’s not the vantage point I wanted to paint from, but it would have to do as it was getting warm and I didn’t want to drink too much of the water I had brought. I wanted to have it on hand for my watercolors. I rolled out my bubble wrap and sweatshirt in the powdery dirt and set up my paints next to a public trashcan. And I am still pissed off because I could see the Observatory way up on the hill to my right. So, I vowed not to look that way or at any of the people (the “general” source of my anger) hiking behind me. I did my sketch, mixed my colors and started to paint. Actually, I finally got into it and tried to make some nice contrasts between the marshmallow like sky and skyline behind the cooler greens and white spaces for the houses in the foreground. Occasionally I got distracted with the sound of people talking as they hiked on the trail behind me. I wondered if someone’s dog was going to come along and try to drink my dirty paint water. I heard a couple stop for a moment and they announced that I must be a real painter. I took that as a compliment, but wasn’t quite sure what they meant. Was it because I was sitting in the dirt next to a trashcan? Like I was really into it and hadn’t noticed the flies? And then of course there were a couple guys talking about typical LA industry stuff (as if on cue from “La La Land”). One of them was telling the other that he had recently gotten sober and was thrilled to have gotten a part on a very successful FX TV show. By the time I had gotten all my “mad” out I had finished this piece and was eating my peanut butter sandwich. Now, I could turn around and face the people on the trail that had made me angry for just being there. I let the paint dry, which didn’t take long as it had gotten warm, and I went home.

After I finish a piece I have a habit of placing it on my worktable that I walk past frequently. As I breeze by I look at it–scrutinizing it. I decide which section looks best, and then finally decide if it works as a whole. It’s not that I am looking to see if I need to frame it for display. I just briefly critique what I see and then move along. Sometimes an idea for a story pops into my brain, and sometimes not. I had no intention of posting this version of the “LA Skyline” until I realized how funny (and somehow LA) it really was. I mean, the LA skyline didn’t have any “stand out” buildings from where I was sitting. And it all looked rather squishy and soft, like the thick air in the sky was pushing down on the horizon. Maybe the sun had begun to melt the air and the buildings or maybe it was all just a mirage, or “make believe.” I don’t know. But it got me thinking that maybe my angry eyes or mind somehow influenced my final view. And somehow I decided that this is what a venting artist can create when there is more of a negative story behind the art.

Some artists want to share anger, outrage, negative social commentary in their work. It’s really meant to be controversial, not necessarily realistic, predictable or pretty. Over the years I have admired various controversial street artists. Keith Haring and Banksy come to mind. I think I love that these guys took chances to create unlawful art—seemed so daring and a great way to share art that depicts an important story or idea.

That reminds me of an artist I got to know in San Francisco back in the late 80’s. She definitely had some things that made her mad and she wanted to share her outrage in her art. I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember her name, but she used to swim in the SF Bay and was in charge of volunteers (like me) who were helping to create an exhibit for the Academy of Sciences. It was called “Life Through Time.” We made plaster casts of bats, painted bug bites on fabricated gingko leaves and air brushed huge redwood branches that had been numbered, preserved in glycerin and air dried. (I also remember a couple funny guys that did most of the diorama paintings. They would come in, turn on their music and paint beautiful background scenes of dinosaurs, all the while talking about random things non-stop.) OK, back to the artist I was describing…she was incensed with people trapping animals and killing them for their fur. She had put together an art installation that included a fur coat made from teddy bear hides. And she had staged a scene of teddy bears trapped in bear traps with gruesome blood red paint that had been dribbled about for a rather horrible, but effective, message. She had used her “mad” to make a statement about her outrage over people killing animals for their fur and/or skin. (I seem to remember her making different styles of shoes with teddy bear skins as well.)

Of course I loved getting to know this artist and I really loved the work we all did together to make that exhibit. (It was removed some years ago, when the Academy was remodeled. It makes me sad to think the diorama backgrounds are now gone. And I wondered what happened to the amazing ginkgo tree we made. I think I still have a plaster bat fossil in a box somewhere…) Part of the joy of working on that project was the ride into the park. We lived in the East Bay at the time and I took public transportation into San Francisco to work on it. I rode BART under the Bay to Market Street, then transferred to Muni (the N-Judah line), got off at Ninth and Irving, walked north on Ninth into the park and then finally on to the Academy. In the tunnel, just before the UCSF Hospital were some amazing “Keith Haring like” figures that had been painted on the walls. Every time I went through there I would notice a new bit of detail or shading added to the figures that seemed to be running and floating in the ever-expanding scenes. So fantastic that this must have been done by some kind of unimaginable light source, after the trains stopped running at night when no one was around. The N Judah didn’t go very quickly through the tunnel, so there was plenty of time to look at everything by “train light.” Thinking back on it now, I envy the space and the solitude the artists had to share their messages. Must have been pretty exciting to run around inside there too. The last time I went through the tunnel all of that art was gone. Now the walls are covered with graffiti art made up of mostly words. That drives me crazy because the letters don’t make any sense to me. They don’t really spell anything! Makes me a little mad. I wonder what I will paint the next time I get mad?

Diego Rivera murals (frescos) in San Francisco

I’ve always enjoyed Diego Rivera’s murals. He was definitely an artist who was known for painting controversial scenes. So if you find yourself in San Francisco, go check them out.

  1. Allegory of California, 1931

Grand stairwell of The City Club on Sansome Street

This spot is not open to the public very often, so you need to check when and if it’s open when you are there.

2. The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, 1931

Diego Rivera Gallery inside the San Francisco Art Institute

3. Pan American Unity, painted in 1940 and installed in 1961

Diego Rivera Theater on the campus of the City College of San Francisco

Oh yeah, there are some pretty amazing murals inside Coit Tower too…

January 20, 2018

San Juan C
Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1/6/18 (watercolor, watercolor crayons)

Urban sketchers from Los Angeles, San Clemente and San Diego met the first Saturday of this year to sketch and paint at the mission in San Juan Capistrano. Hard to believe it, but I had never been there before. I’d been to the missions in San Jose, Santa Clara, Carmel (Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo), San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. Once I got to the San Juan Capistrano mission I circumnavigated the outside of the building—very impressed with the details of the old architecture. I came across one interesting wall that was not part of the original structure. It had been fabricated with some kind of man made material and it had several nesting sites for birds around the top—more about that in a bit. Then I wandered into the huge inner courtyard. There were almost too many amazing vistas (Spanish word—more about the Spanish connection later…) as I contemplated a subject for a watercolor. So, I found a random stone bench in the shade, sat down and set up my paints. Then I went to work making the colors and details of the bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus you see here “sing in the foreground” with the pink walls and terra cotta roof of the mission as the supporting players. It was a typical winter day, around 70 degrees (This is California, so don’t hate me…) with a hazy white cloudy sky. Perfect in every way!

As a kid growing up in California we learned in school that the Spanish Empire wanted to colonize California and they had built 21 missions here from 1769 to 1833. These “churches” went from San Diego to San Francisco. (Actually, Spain’s desire to colonize both North and South America started with Columbus in 1492. Just sayin’.) As I was raised in Silcon Valley, we took field trips to our nearest missions—Santa Clara and San Jose. It seemed to me we learned the following about our California missions: they were the oldest structures in California, it was important to where each one was and what it looked like, Native Americans seemed to be hanging around each mission and of course there was Father Junipero Serra. Father Serra was a Catholic Franciscan friar who was credited for founding/building the first nine structures, as well as one church in what’s now Baja California (Mexico). Other Franciscan friars completed the other 12. At the time he seemed to me to be of a kind of mythic, larger than life, “father” figure. I’m not Catholic, so calling someone “Father So and So” was kind of puzzling to me. There were pictures of him in our school books—with his heavy brown cassock, huge cross hanging from his neck, and a bald head with a tiny fringe of bangs. He was never depicted smiling and he really didn’t look like he could have been anyone’s father. But I pictured Father Serra as the one who took care of the Native Americans and literally built those first missions. So that meant that Mission San Juan Capsitrano, where I was sitting, was one of his creations. (In school we had heard of San Juan Capistrano because it was very famous. Every winter masses of cliff swallows migrated from Argentina to build mud nests in the roofline of that old mission.) But of course Father Serra didn’t actually build anything. He just had his Native American Catholic converts do the heavy lifting. And from what I have read about him since I was in school, he was not much of a “father” figure to the Native Americans in his subjugated California flock. So, I guess because I went to a secular public school we didn’t dwell much on why Catholic Spain went to such trouble building churches to spread Catholicism in the new world, and in turn convert the heathen Native American Californians into Catholic Spanish subjects.

As I said we learned that these were the oldest permanent structures in our state. And they are truly the oldest. However, we weren’t taught that Native Americans had been living in these same areas for countless generations without needing permanent structures to do so. And maybe these indigenous people weren’t exactly happy about being forced to become Catholics and build Spanish churches on land that wasn’t really owned by anyone, certainly not the Spanish. Spain rained king in California for a long time. However, Spain’s hold on their huge Spanish Empire began to crumble in California in 1848, when gold was discovered near Sacramento. And when California became a state in the US in 1850 Spain’s plan to colonize California finally came to an end. (If you look at a map of the western United States before 1850 you can see how huge the Spanish Empire was at the time.) There are so many cities and streets named from that early Spanish occupation of California. Names like: Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Junipero Blvd., Sepulveda Blvd, Los Alamitos, El Camino and so on and so on.

So, looking around at this beautiful building I am left to wonder what I am really looking at. I mean, I learned in school that each California missions was made with great timbers and hundreds and hundreds of stacked adobe bricks. (I’m sure the original timbers had to be replaced. Termite infestations are common in wooden structures here and can eventually bring down the mightiest buildings. And oh yeah, earthquakes can also be a problem for California’s oldest structures.). And we are no longer under Spanish rule, and this church (nor any of the others for that matter) will necessarily convert someone to Catholicism against his or her will. Seemed a kind of simple, but punitive, rule of law back then. Spain welcomed you to live here, as long as you went to their church and gave them your immortal soul. Simple, but very restricting I think. Now we have laws that describe who is allowed to come into the United States via California or Texas and who is not. And our current politicians and lawmakers can’t seem to figure this out, without it feeling so very punitive to some who wish to come here and stay. In fact, I think it would be easier to come to California if you were a cliff swallow and could fly in every spring. Of course that would mean your journey would have started in Argentina and you would have flown thousands of miles to get here. But that’s not all, in 6 months you would make the same journey in reverse, back to Argentina. Yikes! But at least people would be glad to see you come and sorry to see you go. There’s even a song about the birds comings and goings and it’s called “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” And there is actually a pretty good rendition of this song as sung by The Inkspots. Check it out on Youtube.

Last word on Mission San Juan Capistrano:

It seems that the large numbers of cliff swallows haven’t been returning to Capistrano in recent years. Scientists have installed swallow walls on the outside of the original mission. I saw one when I was there with my sketching friends. It’s a freestanding wall of plaster with a “mission like” arch at the top. And all around the rim of this arch are pre-fab swallow houses for the birds to nest in. It also appears that in the early spring, the sounds of swallows are played over some kind of speaker system all throughout the mission. Bet it sounds kind of cool. I hope this helps them come back to Capistrano. Gotta love California! It’s for the birds!

January 13, 2018

Native Peony
Western Peony, Paso Robles, Feb 2003 (watercolor, colored pencil on illustration board)

Hard to believe it’s been almost 15 years since I saw this flower. I was traipsing around the oak studded hills of a friend’s winery near Vineyard Road and Highway 46. They had just completed their first tasting room and a few of the old wooden cattle structures from the previous owner were still standing. The winery is now triple the size and the corral is gone. And they have a new entrance with a gate and you need an appointment to be allowed on the premises. Gone are the days when I could pull up to there, unannounced, hang my art in their tasting room and wander the hills with their winery dog, Bear Dog.

I remember the day I came across this small patch of native paeonias. I was shocked that there was even such a thing, blooming its little heart out with no one but me and the dog there to notice. I think Bear Dog was surprised too. (Have your ever noticed that dogs can mirror your feelings at just the right moment? Of course their souls are so generous, they don’t care about what we do, just as long as we include them in our little lives…) I thought my eyes had played a trick on me as I looked at the amazing jewel-like red against almost chartreuse leaves and stems. I don’t know if you are familiar with peonies, but sometimes the flower is so heavy with petals and other flower parts it can hang completely upside down from the shear flower weight on a slim stem. And this native flower was no exception. At that time my son was still in elementary school and I had to take lots of pictures for a later time when I could paint anything I’d found on my walks. No plein air moments back then. Bear Dog soon got bored of my rapt attention to a half a dozen plants that didn’t smell like anything interesting. He continued on his journey, leaving me alone with my discovery. It felt like I was the only one to have ever seen such a thing and maybe I could even be allowed to come up with a common name like “Ruby Red” or “Ruby Jewel.” Maybe no one would believe that I discovered something that had never been seen before. But who did I think I was? I was just One California Girl. Who was I trying to impress? My only companion for my hike through the weeds that day had already run off somewhere else. Since it was February it would be too early for shiny red poison oak leaves to be out yet. So, I didn’t have to worry about Bear Dog running through the poison oak, and then coming back for a scratch behind the ears.

I didn’t know it at the time, but such wanderings in the Paso Robles, Templeton and Atascadero hills would come to an end with people building houses and putting up fences. In the late 80s and early 90s my then husband’s Aunt Ruth took me to many special places to see random patches, and sometimes huge fields, of wildflowers like poppies, lupines, Chinese houses, fairy lanterns, larkspur, baby blue eyes, gold fields, tidy tips and shooting star in those areas. She took me on drives down narrow back roads in Atascadero to see masses of tiny violet and white colored lupines. On many of our drives or walks she pointed out long “strap-like” leaves that would soon be white ball-shaped flowers called fairy lanterns. I did an oil painting of a narrow road flanked by a hillside of those lupines as well as several watercolor and colored pencil botanicals of single fairy lanterns and Mariposa lilies. Once we stopped by the side of the road on Highway 41 (that goes from Atascadero to Morro Bay) to see a meadow of shin-deep dark purple larkspur. Aunt Ruth also took me to a hillside of wildflowers near her daughter’s house (off Highway 41) that had every imaginable wildflower. (I did an acrylic painting of that view and will post it one of these days, with a story that I haven’t yet imagined.) Five or six houses with fences between each one is now in that spot. And even though her nephew and I got divorced, Aunt Ruth and I are still friends, friends who love wildflowers and are still on the look out for them. When my son was a baby, late 1995 I think, Aunt Ruth took me and my son, my aunt and mom to Shell Creek Road. That year the wildflower colors of yellow, purple, orange and pink were so bright it almost hurt my eyes to look at them. Years later I took a son and a friend and her two kids to see the show. They all had attacks of hay fever and we left early because everyone, except my son and I, was sneezing. Aunt Ruth used to say that one person’s wildflower garden was another person’s patch of weeds. Oh well.

Aunt Ruth’s mom, my son’s great grandma Mary, also loved wildflowers. When Mary got too old to drive Aunt Ruth would take her out to Adelaida, where Ruth and her sisters and brothers had been born, to look for shooting star. (Great grandma Mary had been born in Klau, California.) I never went with them, but Aunt Ruth told me her mother looked forward every spring to going back to their old family home and orchards to look for the first flowers of spring. And that was the shooting star. Google it. They are pretty little flowers that come in a variety of colors and can be found in the hills of Adelaida. There are remnants of the almond (pronounced a-mond by the old farmers) and walnut trees that those early German settlers planted there, but much of that area is now covered with vineyards. Great Grandma Mary, Aunt Ruth and I loved such excursions and flowers. They didn’t look much like weeds to us! Don’t get me wrong, I like vineyards and have painted quite a few in the area. But patches of shooting star are so fun to watch for because they come and go so quickly. I love that kind of ephemeral beauty.

When my son and I lived in Paso Robles we had friends way out on the east side, near Geneseo Road. We went to their house one windy day and my friend had staked the strings of 2 or 3 kites into the ground in her back yard. The kites were high in the sky, whipping back and forth against the blue. And behind this rather cool scene were amazing golden fields as far as the eye could see. My son and my friend’s kids would traipse way out into those golden fields. (Wish I had thought to take a picture.) Now vineyards cover those same fields, and a couple houses are also part of that previously simple and windblown landscape.

The landscape of Paso Robles, Templeton, and Atascadero (and California for that matter), has really changed over the years. And I have other stories to tell about our changing landscape, but that is for a future California story or two. So, do I have any final words? Am I sad that so many fields of flowers are gone—covered with houses, roads and vineyards? And I would say, maybe. But I’ve always loved the symmetry of vineyards, and the beauty of the bright green leaves as they come alive in the spring, the plump bunches of dark purple grapes on dark green leafy vines, finishing with gorgeous fall-colored leaves. I have done many paintings of vineyards at different times of the year in Paso Robles and will always love that. Maybe what I really miss is that I need permission to traipse around a hillside, discovering miraculous patches of wildflowers with a winery dog. Not many surprises when you walk around a vineyard, and besides you need permission or an appointment to do that now. Otherwise someone might yell at you or chase you away. Maybe what I really miss is Great Grandma Mary, Bear Dog and watching my young son traipse through those golden fields with his young friends as colorful kites snaps in the air in the endless blue sky above them. Ah me.

January 6, 2018

Enchanted stars
“Enchanted Lights” in the Rose Garden, December 2017 (mixed media)

As this is my first post for 2018, I’m wondering if it should be related to some kind of New Year’s resolution. Nah… Instead I like the idea of talking about the “structure” or “bones” I have in this piece of art and how I need to have structure or at least a point of reference for each piece of my art. Some artists can just conjure something in their head and paint as if from memory. Whenever I try that, it looks kind of contrived or forced. I need to get out of my head and be transported somewhere else when I paint. That means I need to be looking at something of interest, and maybe even listening to music.

I remember when I was in school at UC Berkeley; I had some amazing art teachers there. My figure drawing instructor’s first assignment was for us to go outside onto a second floor back balcony and paint the sky. Well, the sky in Berkeley that day was completely cloudless—an all-over perfect blue. Funny assignment for a figure drawing class, right? I figured she hadn’t lined up anyone for us to draw that day and decided to have us draw outer space. Artists can be like that and I was inspired to do my best even if there was nothing actually there. I had previously stretched a sheet of watercolor paper and proceeded to mix what I thought the most perfect blue paint color. I then went to work evenly covering the paper, creating the most perfect afternoon blue-sky wash I could imagine. It didn’t take me very long. Most of my time was spent mixing the color. Because, as you may or may not be aware, doing a wash is tricky and you have to apply the paint quickly and evenly, especially when you are outside in the warm sun. (I found this “long ago” piece while digging through a stack of old portfolios the other day. Still a perfect blue sky, I might add.) I had noticed a guy wearing a black beret and cape when we all filed into the studio that first day. So of course he created a sky that looked like it was on fire—with bright shades of purple, red, deep gold and black. It took him quite a while to create his sky. I can still picture it in my imagination. (I didn’t watch him do it, but I always wondered how one paints while wearing a cape.) I don’t remember what the teacher said to any of us when we were all finished (some had painted fluffy white clouds). But she was pretty great with all other critiques, not crushing our very tender and delicate artistic souls as we painted the subsequent parade of nudes that came and went during the rest of the quarter. I can only imagine she thought mine was too literal and a bit of snooze and that “beret” man had tried a little too hard to be different. I can still picture her pleasant face as she sipped from a huge mug of tea—walking carefully among the easels, stepping around the large birdcage and hatboxes that one of the models often brought with her. I seem to remember painting her too. I remember her wearing bright red lipstick, a colorful hat with a plume while holding a parrot. She might have been wearing a pair of spring-a-laters as well…

So, besides including a beautiful blue California sky in my work as often as possible I always have in mind some kind of underlying structure. That might mean I draw a few pencil marks on the paper or canvas before I start. Or I create a sketch or thumbnail before I dive into the white abyss of a blank canvas. I don’t often actually use pen and ink first, as I have done here, but sometimes I want the structure very evident. I think it stems from all the detailed pen and ink plant and animal renderings I have done in the past. I try to add some stippling, crosshatching and/or line detail to indicate depth or texture. Sometimes I mix colors and try them out on scraps of paper or board before I add them, or layer one color on top of another to see if it’s what I really want.

I love all the thought and prep I engage in before starting a painting. I think this comes from my process that involves a certain amount of internal grit. What do I mean by grit, you might say? When I Googled it just a bit ago, Wikipedia said something about having passion for long-term goals and a level of perseverance. When I was in grad school I learned of a woman named Angela Duckworth who was doing research on this very topic. Her theory is that to be successful you probably need a certain amount of intelligence, but you also need a certain non-tangible amount of willingness to not get easily discouraged, try not to be overcome with setbacks or disappointments and finish what you start. There is even a test she has developed called the “Grit Scale.” And you can take it online to determine how “gritty” you are.

I think if you want to be an artist of any kind, you need to be pretty “gritty.” You need to keep going and finish what you start. And as a painter, it is very important to me to finish most pieces of art I start and I think that’s why I spend some time making each piece important to me, important enough to finish. Of course I don’t finish every piece, that would be impossible and somehow crazy to even imagine! Sometimes I have to admit that what I’m working on isn’t working and I need to just stop. This is especially true with watercolor. I just have to stop because I’ve inadvertently covered up too much white space. It just starts to look dark and dim somehow. There are times I have tried to reintroduce white spaces with white gouache, but that never works for me. It all starts to look kind chalky, maybe a little greasy and definitely overworked. When working in oil, I can usually salvage a piece by just painting over whatever it is that’s bugging me. But that usually means waiting for a section to dry and “stepping back” in the process and waiting can drive me “up the wall.” I have actually gessoed a finished canvas and started over completely, with a completely different painting. I have also scraped and sanded off dried paint to change part of a finished painting. Crazy huh? What would my laid back Berkeley figure drawing art instructor say to that? Too much grit I think, literally! I mean, when you try to scrape and sand hardened paint it literally makes bits of grit that stick to other parts of painted canvas. What a mess. Stop already!

So, how gritty are you? Do you go to the point of obsession like me? Or do you pick your battles more discerningly and know when it’s time to stop and let it go? I think watercolor has almost saved me from being too obsessively gritty because you can’t sand or scrape off watercolor paint. It just makes a big hole in the paper. Did I just admit to doing that? Not going to try to be less gritty for a new year’s resolution again. Happy New Year!