May 12, 2018

Gene Autry tree
Gene Autry Museum, summer 2017 (mixed media on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inches)

The first piece of art is of a tree outside the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. (I’ll get to the row of fantasy flowers in a bit.) Griffith Park is kind of big deal around here. I just looked it up on Google and saw that it is over 4210 acres right here in the city of Los Angeles and it goes from an elevation of 384 up to 1625 feet above sea level. That space includes the Autry Museum of the American West, the Hollywood Sign, Greek Theatre, Griffith Observatory (La La Land and Rebel Without a Cause featured this location), the LA Zoo, and 70 miles of trails to hike on. And it’s very close to the Warner Brothers Studios (in Burbank) and Universal (in Universal City). I guess to say Griffin Park is a big deal is kind of an understatement! And all of this is very close to downtown Los Angeles.

One early cool morning, last July, I was wandering the grounds outside the Autry Museum of the American West and I saw this tree and felt compelled to capture the shade and coolness of the tree. It was kind of nice as I found a picnic bench nearby and I sat there and painted away until the heat of the day started drying out my pots of color too quickly. I filled up that paper with all that lovely cool blue, green and pink. I think it was just in my last blog that I wrote of “filling the page” or “filling the space” and I have been thinking a lot about that idea. And that idea really started the afternoon of Friday, April 20th, when I taught a class of 2nd graders how to use oil pastels.

In my real life I work with children at a couple schools. When a teacher at my elementary school saw/heard that I was a painter and had been an elementary school art teacher, she asked me if I would come in and show her students how to use oil pastels. When I walked in the door, they were ready for me–with butcher paper on the tables and each student wearing a smock to protect their clothes from this very non-kid friendly medium. I quickly put on my apron and began to describe the color wheel, with its primary and secondary colors, to this rapt audience. I’m never sure if kids are really listening to me at this point of a lesson, or if they are just dying to break out a cool new material and start drawing Spiderman, a car, a princess or something from a video game or movie. But I gave it my all and not only explained what the color wheel looked like, but how those 6 colors of pigment, plus white and black, are related to each other.

row of flowers
Made up row of flowers, summer 2017 (mixed media on 6 x 9 inch watercolor paper)

(Now would be a good time to look at this flower illustration for inspiration. But I should say that this piece is only vaguely like what I demonstrated for them that afternoon. Besides, these flowers came from my imagination and I was trying to get them to picture flowers they may have actually seen before.) Since it was spring I contrived to have them first draw a row of 3 flowers (tulip, daisy and hyacinth) on long stems coming up through a bit of grass.  And aside from telling them not to use black because it can make everything kind of smudged I didn’t say anything about filling the space, or filling the paper. I didn’t tell them to first arrange the paper like a window, not a door. I thought they would notice that I had done my sample drawing in a horizontal position, but a couple didn’t notice and placed their paper on the vertical (like a door). And that was fine with me. So, I passed out the oil pastels, encouraged them to see what happened if you layered one color on top of another on some scratch paper and scrubbed, or mixed, the different colors right on the paper. Then… Ready! Set! Go! As I walked around the room it was so fun to see that some had done the row of flowers near the bottom of the page, some in the middle and some floated the row of flowers near the top. Some drew large flowers that filled the space, while others drew a row of small flowers. So interesting to see if anyone would want to fill the space and add something else, or would they just stop with the flowers and grass? When I could see that some were adding the sun, clouds, butterflies and lots of grass, I encouraged them to do so. Some were focused on each flower and were actually trying to mix the oil pastels on the paper, while others kept the colors very distinct and pure. All of the art was smudged a bit (a definite downside to this medium, especially for children), but no one seemed to mind. All were busy bees and the room practically hummed with the energy from such a creative hive. The teacher had gotten a special shiny silver pen for each student to boldly sign his or her art. She also told me she would mount each piece on black paper, much like a frame. The teacher added that the art would be displayed in the classroom for Open House. (This is a “time honored” spring event where families are invited to come to school and view each student’s classroom. Our Open House will be Tuesday.) And when it was finally time to clean up, I looked around one last time. The diversity in their finished work was lovely to behold. Some had completely filled the page, some had not and a couple convinced me to let them try the black and it really added to the overall effect of their flowers. I explained that the only artist I thought got how to use black was Vincent Van Gogh. Not sure if anyone was listening by that time because they were pretty close to being done. (I was thinking of his “Wheatfield with Crows” as he just added that dark bit of black to the sky and the “flying crows” detail so effectively. But I didn’t want to go any further and scare the little kiddies as Van Gogh did that one at the end of his life. And I guess there is much speculation as to his state of mind by that time.) I asked the teacher if she wanted to tackle watercolor with her students before the school year was out. She just kind of looked at me, with that “Are you kidding expression?” and reminded me that Open House was coming and there would be much to do before then. She agreed to talk about it, but seemed relieved when I said we could do it next year, with a new batch of second grade artists. Actually, the middle of August would be a great time to talk about watercolor. It’s so hot here at that time, which would make it a perfect time to talk about that medium and the miracle of evaporation. Oh yeah, I have also been a science teacher. Remember the answer to this one? What are the three states of water? What do you know about ice, liquid water and water vapor? Wouldn’t watercolor be a complete disaster without evaporation? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen with watercolors at elementary school? Someone spills water on the floor? No problem. Everything dries out eventually, right? Stay tuned…

Further note about my row of flowers:

My aunt has a friend who lives in Seal Beach. Her friend is an amazing artist and has done a lot of painting. She enjoys using all kinds of media and in the past liked to paint on furniture. Very whimsical and pretty! My aunt told me that this friend invites people over to paint with her, and my aunt likes to join the group when she can. My aunt doesn’t think she is much of an artist, so she usually knits when they get together. Most times my aunt’s friend has some new kind of art material or project to try out for these get togethers. Some bring art they are working on and others try out whatever she’s got going. I happened to be visiting my aunt last summer when she went to Seal Beach to hang out with the group. I had a great time trying out some of her pens, doing the repetitive details you see here. It seems like the artists I meet these days are very interested in trying new materials or techniques. (One of my Urban Sketchers said something like, “We all just love to ‘geek out’ over new pens, brushes, watercolor colors, paper, techniques and general painting stuff.” That is so true!) As you can see, I really filled up that flower space. And when I ran out of the obvious white spaces I imagined other kinds of spaces and began layering more and more detail on top of everything. And I even added the dreaded black! Not really sure outlining everything with a great black ink pen counts as being as bold and brilliant as Van Gogh though. Oh well.

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