March 3, 2018

Cad Red and vineyards
Paso Robles Vineyard, spring 2003 (oil on 26″ by 34″ canvas)

This Paso Robles landscape hangs on a wall in my house. I walk by it several times a day and love to remember what I was thinking when I decided to paint it. It was definitely springtime, and I realize it isn’t quite spring yet again, but the colors remind me of the coming spring. But why I chose those colors and my overall treatment/technique for the sky, vineyards and oaks, and weeds that were growing in the foreground really had nothing to do with the season. There was kind of a “back story” in my head as I tackled each of those sections. I tried not to over think any of it and I think it came out kind of a nice mood piece that captured a moment of the ever-changing landscape of any place in California. 

So, starting at the top, I can speak about the Paso Robles sky. It often has this kind of hazy color palette. Not sure why. When I was a young girl, and I hung around this area, the sky was deep blue and the air was pretty dry. Back in the 80s, when people started planting (and irrigating) grapes, over time it seemed like the weather gradually got more humid. Makes me wonder if all that irrigation may have put more moisture in the air. About that same time I really started noticing the many vapor trails of big jets that crisscrossed the sky at 30,000 feet, going from LAX to SFO and back again all day long. Maybe that added to the haze as well. I also know of people who have lived in the area for several generations and recently some of them have turned up with seasonal allergies and even asthma. Such attacks of sneezing and difficulty breathing wasn’t the case back when this was just oak trees and golden rolling hills. I have no facts to support any of this, but it does make me wonder. But I have done so many landscapes of this area and it was just what the sky looked like that day. And it was fun to layer and swirl the mist above the vineyards imagining so many jets going off to places unknown, or just to LA.

Now onto the middle ground and why I painted the vineyards this way. There are acres and acres, or what seem like miles and miles, of grapes on both sides of 101 around here now. I tried to somehow give the viewer the feeling that we were speeding past the countless plants, as the green branches moved faster and faster to the left–squishing them down to a curved thin line right off the canvas and into the distance. I had tried this curved technique of vineyards in another landscape, only in that one I added a road next to the vineyard to speed along. For this one, I imagined I was in a car and the road was under me and not visible. I intentionally wanted the oaks to look stiff and still, as they had been for the 100 years or more. I am not sure, but the road probably wasn’t paved back then and you couldn’t travel very fast. From the pictures I have seen of the area it was mostly farmland and people would have traveled that road on horseback or in a wagon pulled by some kind of beast of burden. And there were definitely only farmers here back then, no vintners.

Finally, there are the inevitable weeds that grow in the front of vineyards as well as down the rows of plants. Remember this is all irrigated now and weeds grow there too, and they will stay there until the viticulturist instructs the workers to plow them under. Now, they might seem kind of humdrum to you and maybe I should have left them out. But I didn’t! Instead I decided to accentuate them in kind of vertical green stripes. It was here I remember getting very interested in the colors I would choose and created a great shade of pink-red with my cadmium red lined up next to sap green. I have done several pieces where I celebrate weeds and try to draw attention to the usually mundane parts of a landscape. I remember taking that same pink color and placing it next to the gold of the hills next to the oaks. And I even interjected that same red in the foliage of one of the middle ground trees.

And that pop of color has stood the test of time for me because I like it now as much as I did then. I have since done a number of landscapes with this color combination. I did a small 8 by 10 oil on a birch panel of pinkish vetch with oaks off in the distance. Vetch is a kind of weedy legume that seems to bloom after the lupines are done. However, that foreground was not marked with vertical lines, but dotted with a lovely cadmium pink. I loved the way that turned out and maybe I’ll post that some time with a story about what we can look forward to when we ask ourselves about the changes in our individual lives and “what comes next.” That could be going from one job or profession to another, what kind of car we may drive in the future or whether or not we will do something to our bodies when things start to get a bit saggy.

As for the California I’ve shown here I guess change is a hazy sky, countless rows of vineyards and the inevitable (and usually unwelcome) non-native weeds that pop up out of the ground because they were invited to do so with some extra water. So, this got me thinking about what to do or think about such changes—as though I can rip out all the vineyards, roll out a huge sponge to soak up all that water and somehow wring it out over the ground. Do I want to go back to a landscape of blue skies against the golden hills with clusters of coast live oak trees? Do the changes you see here bother me and make me mad? I’m not sure this is actually the question I should be asking. I guess the question is more like what will I do if I see something that bothers me? Will I just get mad and make everyone around me miserable with complaining about how it should look or how it should be? Or should I just get on with it?

I just finished reading the book, A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. I think the main character in the story, Ove, is a great example of a person who sees problems and problematic people where ever he looks. But he likes to fix things and somehow manages to help his “inept” neighbor drain her radiator, teaches the annoying pregnant lady across the street to drive a stick shift, and shows a young man with a bad haircut how to fix a bicycle. Ove is often seen in the story heading to his garage to find a piece of equipment or to get his toolbox. I like to imagine that we all probably have some kind of toolbox that we can reach into and find something to help us all just get on with it. Some toolboxes might have birdseed to feed neighborhood birds, or a hot cup of coffee and a piece of pumpkin bread for a homeless person outside Starbucks, or a garden rake that could be used to rake leaves in a neighbor’s yard. I keep cadmium red, sap green, new Gamboge, cobalt blue and cerulean pigments in my toolbox. I might need to paint a changing sky, a vineyard or an oak tree set against some golden rolling hills at any given time. And what about the weeds? Who else is going to paint the weeds?

So, what would be in your toolbox?

A further note about the rows of weeds that just naturally come with the CA vineyards: “Hip-high” bright yellow mustard (non-CA native) weeds can be found growing down the center of the rows of grape plants in the Napa Valley. That mass of bright yellow blossoms with lacy green foliage can be absolutely stunning. There have been times I have seen the contrast of light cadmium yellow flowers next to the wet black stumps of rootstock after a rain that would take your breath away. One grower I know said she and her husband had seriously considered planting specific grains (a kind of weed) between the rows. This was during a time when the price of wine grapes had dipped a bit and they were looking for ways to supplement their primary cash crop. They thought they might harvest the grain and make beer to try and make some kind of profit. And it’s not like they were going to stop watering their grapes, so why not water the weeds in between. With pot now legal here, I wonder if anyone will be planting pot in the spaces between the grapes? Now, that’s a party. And you may or may not have guessed, we know how to party here in California!

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