October 20, 2018

Indian Paintbrush
Atascadero Castilleja, spring 1991 (watercolor and Prismacolor colored pencil on illustration board)

I saw a hillside of these wildflowers in Atascadero in the spring of 1991. I was riding around in the car with a fellow wildflower enthusiast. Her name was (and is) Aunt Ruth, and she had seen this patch of flowers and took me there one afternoon when I was visiting from northern California. The road we were on was kind of a funny single lane old country road that desperately needed some potholes filled. At one point we jumbled around one corner and she slowed to a stop. Yeah, it was that kind of road—no one was there. The view that I saw took my breath away. It looked like a million paintbrushes had been dipped in red paint and then pushed into the ground, bristles side up. When I say red, it’s so much more than just red from a crayon box, it’s a kind of scarlet that takes some mixing when trying to come up with just the right watercolor color. The irony is not lost on me that these flowers look like paintbrushes and also have that as part of their name. A true painter might use the common name, but a true botanist would not call it Indian Paintbrush. Oh no. They would of course have been just as “gob smacked” as I upon seeing all these “lovelies,” but would have been much more cool. Instead, they would have commented on the very lovely display of Castilleja affinis and not used the common name. It’s just too common and most definitely the incorrect nomenclature if you are that kind of purest. At that time I had already become aware of this taxonomic scoop as I had been working in the botany department at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. There I helped prepare specimens for their herbarium, did some pen and ink drawings for a couple botanists and was taking art classes from some of the natural science illustrators in the San Francisco area. I loved it all. I loved traipsing around hillsides with Ruth, I loved traipsing around the Strybing Arboretum, I loved the quiet halls of the botany department, I loved the long and important words I was learning and I loved the scientific, natural science and medical illustration I was learning at the Academy.

One of the classes I took at the Academy gave me the idea for this botanical rendering of the Castilleja you see here. First, it’s all about using this amazing Strathmore cold press illustration board—it has a wonderful texture and will take a pretty wet watercolor without rippling. If you start by laying in the dark shadows with Prismacolor colored pencils, the flower seems to immediately take on a three dimensional quality. And as I am scribbling in that first bit of color I am thinking about the colors I will be mixing in my watercolor pots. This is way different from what I seem to be doing now because back then I was more interested in painting very detailed and realistic flowers and trees. So, for this one I didn’t want to set up my paints on that road, I wanted to ponder the paper and colors back in my studio to get just the right layering effect that would make it look so real you could reach out and grab it right off the page. Of course the actual size of this piece is way larger than an actual Indian Paintbrush. But it’s very common to do such illustrations pretty big because if it were to be reproduced in some journal or other, it would be at least ¼, or less, the size you see here. This would give the renderings an even more realistic appearance. So, because I wasn’t going to sit in the dirt and paint I took a bazillion close up photos and did the art back at my house in San Ramon when I got home a few days later. No worries.

I have already written about my life with Ruth in my One California Girl ramblings (June 17, 2017). For that entry I inserted a copy of a sweet vase of wildflowers (that had come from her garden) I had painted for her birthday one year. It’s quite a story—meeting the same person three separate and disconnected times in a lifetime. I was first introduced to her when I was 10 or 11, then our paths crossed again when I was doing my student teaching as a senior at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and last she became a permanent member of my California Girl’s Club (she was born in Adelaida) as I married her nephew. I’m not married to her nephew anymore, but I have a son that is a blood relative to that amazing Aunt Ruth. So, I am related to her by an unmarriage, which somehow works splendidly for me.

I think wildflowers are an interesting thing to decide you like. Wildflowers spend lots of the year nowhere to be seen at all. Then they burst on the scene in all too brief blobs of glorious color and finally they just look like a bunch of weeds. But Ruth and I love them for sure and don’t mind the waiting, or the weedy stage because the blooms are just that special. So, when our life paths crossed for the third time (this by the late 80s) I took up the wildflower mantle and began traipsing through spring fields, always on the look for just such bits of beauty. Since then I have gone on many such walks with Ruth, as well as other wildflower lovers. And there’ve been times when there was no one to walk with, so I went by myself. To this day I still enjoy traipsing through roads and fields in search of those tiny blobs of color.

1991 Indian Paintbrush and journal
Catalina Castilleja, spring 1991 (watercolor on watercolor paper in wildflower journal)
tiny art materials
Sample plein air materials from 1991 traipsing–sans H pencil with sheet of sand paper for sharpening

There was another particularly interesting hike I took in the spring of 1991 and that was on Catalina Island. One morning I came upon a more delicate version of a California native Indian Paintbrush. As you can see, I put this little “Paintbrush” in a journal. In fact, that journal marks the beginning of my California traipsing. Funny to read that I wrote about the “flower’s inflorescence”—harkens back to those beginning botanical days. At that time I was taking more photos, so I always had my camera with me. (This was way before the ease of taking photos with a phone.) So, this first journal was mostly photographs. It contains photos and a sketch of a peony I saw in Mendocino the winter of 1992, photos of almond trees in bloom in Paso Robles in early March 1992 and a bunch of photos of wildflowers in the native California plant section of Strybing Arboretum in spring 1992. There are also photos of wild flowers in the Alamo Hills, huge field of lupines and Crow Canyon Garden in San Ramon, lupines in Atascadero, and roses and irises in Aunt Ruth’s yard in Atascadero. There’s even a picture she took of me sitting in her garden painting a particularly lovely rose in bloom. Then in January 1993, I got out my little painting set up again, took along a couple colored pencils and painted a clump of red hot poker as I sat overlooking Monterey Bay. (This was before I had learned that I could easily pack a small sheet of bubble wrap that I could roll out and sit on comfortably.) I remember that whole morning was pretty fun as there were about a half dozen ground squirrels that popped out of the ground every now and then to see what I was doing. If I had been sitting on bubble wrap they probably would have wondered about the occasional popping sound as I shifted around while working. We are all such curious creatures…

So, now I’ve come to the end of this week’s traipsing through time and California, and I wonder about you. Where have you traipsed? Or where would you like to traipse? I feel something new coming on for me. I have set up a place in my garage to do large canvases. I mean these can be at least 5.5 feet by 7 feet. But I’m wondering what I can actually see from my garage. I guess I picture myself having my colors all mixed and running in and out of the garage—looking up at the beautiful hills I live amongst. Then I can quickly run back into the garage to add more color to the canvas. (And oh, acrylics dry really quickly…) That sounds fun for a time I guess. Actually, I have been working on a collapsible frame that I could take along with me and it would allow me to paint something 32 inches by 60 inches. Stay tuned…


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