July 27, 2019

July 2000 article
July 2000 magazine article

Thinking of last week’s art and story about flowers and insects reminded me of an article I did for a children’s magazine when my son was little and we lived in Paso Robles. As you can see the art for last week’s story and this week are of insects on flowers, but the art for the July 2000 article featured a project a parent might do with his or her child. Last week’s story was actually linked more to the art rather than the words, I think. And even though my son just graduated from college, I decided to see if the “beetle making” procedure I wrote about still worked as well as it did almost 20  summers ago. It’s been a hot week here in So Cal, so making and painting the Plaster of Paris beetles was a fun indoor project. How well I remember thinking of such things to do to keep a little kid entertained when it was just too hot to be outside. (Oh yes, Paso Robles can easily get to over 100 on a typical July day. Of course the best remedy for that kind of heat involved putting the dog, the boy and few beach toys in the back of the station wagon and heading to Cayucos for the day. Ahhh…) 

The art for this July 2000 magazine article shows a couple ladybugs, or ladybird beetles, on a favorite CA wildflower. The common name for this flower is tidy tip and it is part of the genus, Layia. It can be found in lovely blankets of bright yellow on some of the grassy hills of CA in spring. I love the jagged edges of the flower with a definite line that seems to have been painted onto each flower petal. I have actually seen them in shockingly bright circles of yellow in a “fairy ring” (vernal pool in Fairfield—July 1, 2017) And as far as I can tell, you can see ladybugs flying around most months in California except in winter. It seems that they like to find warm spots to hibernate when it gets cold and I have a personal story about that. When my then husband and I were living in 1989 Walnut Creek (East Bay) I put some ladybugs on the potted plants I had out on our deck. There was quite an infestation of aphids that summer and I was sick of picking them off my flowers. I wanted some heroic ladybugs to come and eat the dreaded aphids. So, I bought a bag of ladybugs at a nursery. I remember carefully following the directions on the bag that described how to release them into your garden. Here’s what you do: On a coolish evening, lightly spray your plants with water. Then cut open the bag and gently shake out the beetles onto your plants. (I guess the water is to give them something to drink.) The idea is to distribute them as the sun is going down onto damp plant material. This is so they will hang around and not fly off immediately as they probably would if it was warm and the sun was high in the sky. (I don’t actually remember what time of year I did this—it was probably early fall.) After a time, I noticed the aphids were gone. I wondered if the ladybugs had done the trick or the evenings had just gotten too cool for the aphids to survive. I actually forgot all about the ladybugs until sometime after Christmas when I moved a pot that was close to the deck enclosure wall. And what did I see? There were at least 100 hibernating ladybugs clinging to that wall. I realized I may have compromised the little red nest of beetles and quickly put the pot back exactly as I had found it. I went out there everyday that winter, trying to view the ladybugs in the dark crack between the pot and the wall, but didn’t dare move anything. I couldn’t see anything! When the warmer spring weather finally turned up I finally got up the courage to move the pot. There wasn’t a single ladybug to be seem anywhere. It was always my hope that I hadn’t disturbed them too much and they had stayed there all winter. Such are the funny wishes and dreams of a gardener.

If you are not interested in making Plaster of Paris ladybugs or other beetle you won’t want to read the directions for making your very own insects as described in my July 2000 story. But, if you are a kid at heart, like me, you will want to make them just for fun.

set up for beetles
Materials needed to make the Plaster of Paris bugs
plaster of paris spoons
Plaster of Paris in spoons on a cookie sheet

I happened to have on hand all of the materials you see here, except the Plaster of Paris. I had the plastic cups, water, old cookie sheet and compostable spoons. Remember, this is California and of course I used compostable spoons for this project, but there was no such thing in July 2000, so I used non-compostable spoons. (Of course back then I would have washed them after I did the project and used them again.) Time to reread the directions as stated in that story. (You may have noticed I only made 6 this time around.)

bugs are done
Painted Plaster of Paris beetles (Clockwise from upper left to lower left: dung beetle, two-part stag beetle, ladybug, potato beetle, 1960s VW Bug)

Once the Plaster of Paris dried, I popped out the little beetle shapes and began planning the destiny of each one. Oh, and just for the record, the potato beetle is actually a pest and is not a happy sight for potato farmers, but I liked the colorful stripes and made one anyway. I also thought myself clever in making a two-part stag beetle and a dung beetle, and of course the 1960’s VW beetle was amusing to me…a kind of “tongue in cheek” beetle.

As you can see I also made a ladybug. And while mixing the perfect shade of red I remembered another “true” ladybug story. It goes something like this: Once upon a time one CA girl followed a northern CA creek in some northern CA woods. Some of the time she walked in the water, but most of the time she had to scramble up and over boulders to stay with the narrow creek filled with slow moving water. She imagined great winter storms of water moving the large and smoothly rounded rocks all around her. By and by she climbed up onto a large boulder and decided to take a break. She laid down on the rock and got as comfortable as she could. It was pretty enchanting there, looking up into the trees while listening to the creek swoosh past the rocks. Just above her there was quite a swarm of ladybugs and she thought this an even better detail to later remember and retell to others. A couple of them landed on her. She wondered if this was some kind of woodland welcome, but almost instantly they began biting her. Each bite actually felt like a kind of sharp “pin prick” pinch. She jumped up immediately—getting off that rock as soon as possible. She quickly moved away further down the creek. After she had gone a few feet she turned around to see if they were following her. Thank goodness they stayed right there, hovering in a bright red swarm directly above that rock. She was surprised and a little horrified at what had just happened. When she later told someone of the encounter they just laughed and told her that just wasn’t possible. 

I think most people believe in a ladybug’s benevolence rather than as a swarming nipping terror in the woods. (BTW, I just asked Siri, “Can ladybugs bite?” and she responded, “Ladybugs can bite humans.”) So, even though I obviously like having them in my garden, I prefer to see them from a safe distance, or as little bits of painted Plaster of Paris.

I have to say that I probably spent too much time painting all these little beasts—working too hard to get the detail just right. I mean, little chips of Plaster of Paris are pretty ephemeral, and I think planning and making them was actually the most fun. But throughout this whole process I was reminded of making them long ago with my 5 year old son. They didn’t look this detailed and finely painted. I remember using watercolors with him, encouraging loose and colorful application of pigment. Such a project is pretty messy, but perfect for a little kid. And other than my adding two definite eyes on each one, I don’t remember whether each one could be identified as any particular kind of beetle. I will try to save these to show him sometime. I wonder if he will remember making them? Of course he won’t remember, he was 5! The end. 

July 20, 2019

white bachelor buttons
Bachelor buttons, 7/16/19 (gouache on pink wash, watercolor paper)

Last week’s post was all about the meadow of flowers that’s still blooming away in my backyard. For that one I used my “just add water” art technique or idea to capture the  myriad of soft colors of individual flowers. I dilute a sketch made with transparent Inktense and watercolor pencils for a soft and maybe dreamy image. This week’s art shows a small detail of life in that same mass of blossoms. But for this view, I zoomed in closely and used a completely different technique that is a 180 from last week’s loose and wet approach. It’s actually more of a dry brush technique where opaque gouache is applied and each stroke is visible, resulting in a thicker application of pigment. When I first learned to do gouache on toned paper, it was to get close up—rendering the outer covering of birds and mammals (e.g. hair, fur, feathers etc). So, of course it would work for the close up look of a beloved insect and flower petals. It was fun to plan and execute art depicting the same subject matter with a completely different intent and outcome, hence the final comparison of last week’s art to this week. 

This flower is called a bachelor button, or cornflower. I have to admit that I thought this particular flower only came in one color—cornflower blue. I was wrong, it comes in many colors. So, when I went back out there to do this close up I was certain I would paint a brightly colored bachelor button. But as I was looking around for a likely candidate I noticed the bees were particularly busy in this part of the garden as well, especially on the bachelor buttons. I decided to capture one of those busy females as she visited one of the blossoms, but soon discovered that the bee showed up best on the white flowers. It was then I decided to do a pink watercolor wash for a background with a couple white flowers and visiting bee. This background pink is the exact shade of my pink bachelor buttons. (I mixed Opera with Cadmium Red, Pale Hue—from my Winsor Newton pocket travel set—for the color wash.)

Note about my meadow: I think I am coming to the end of the bright colors as it’s time for them to go to seed. I saw a pair of goldfinches chowing down on the bachelor button seeds this morning. (They don’t seem to care what color flower they devour.) It appears the heat is finally making its way out west this week. I think it’s time to stop deadheading, and feed and water my garden birds and bees—they are probably going to need it.

Back to the art…

I knew that a bee wouldn’t stay very long gathering nectar at any given flower so I took a photo and used it for this week’s art. It was also easier for me to work from a photo as I have been spending a lot of time at my aunt and uncle’s in Long Beach this summer. So, I sat at a little metal table under a patio cover covered with wisteria and painted. It was a charming spot to mix my pots of color, do some color trials and sketches. Of course, I got fixated on the bee and how to tell a color story where the background had no real connection to the images I painted. It became a kind of experiment to see if I could make this contrast work. And I became hyper focused on the bee and decided to make everything larger than life.

Bees are funny insects for sure. I love to see them busy in my garden. But some people (adults as as well as children) seem to freak out when they think one is too near. The other day a friend of mine said he wasn’t going to plant a certain variety of tree in his backyard because it would attract bees. I don’t think he is allergic to them, but he was adamant about that statement. I thought it rather sad actually. I have a birdbath in my front yard that has become a haven for bees and I must admit I feel rather brave when I refill it with water and a few of them begin to gently swarm around me. Most birds, especially the doves, don’t really notice the busy bees as they walk the rim of the bath. It’s funny, but the crows seem to be the only creatures who acknowledge the buzzing bees, besides me of course. I have seen them take a snap at them when they sit on the rim. The crows seem to like to drop peanuts in the water to soften the shell, making it easier to get the meat out of the nut. And if a bee seems to get too close, they open their large beaks and SNAP!

Once I had everything the way I wanted it I remembered a poem about insects that I wrote at least 20 years ago. At that time I was working in educational publishing and was trying to write and illustrate children’s trade books. A lot of my “kiddie writer” friends at the time also submitted work for magazines. This one was written for that purpose. I was always warned that it is difficult to write “rhyming” verse, and it is. But I think this one works and it’s fun to actually get it in print after all these years…


Look for some insects if you dare.

Some are out looking for you.

They’re on your food and in your ear.

I see quite a few on your shoe.


Watch out for the humble bees and ants, 

their numbers outnumber us all.

They buzz at your nose and cling to your pants

and crawl with great skill up a wall.


But some bugs are fine to have around.

A lady bug is a bright sight.

And summer would surely be missing a sound

if crickets were quiet at night.


No need to go find such six-legged beasts,

like hornets, mosquitoes or flies.

They show up on time for your picnics and feasts

of apples and crackers or pies.

July 13, 2019

before spritz
Backyard flower meadow (no spritz), July 8, 2019 (Inktense and watercolor pencil on watercolor paper, 6 x 8 inches)
after spritz
Backyard flower meadow (with spritz), July 8, 2019 (Inktense and watercolor pencil on watercolor paper, 6 x 8 inches)

Last week I attempted to paint this amazing display of flowers in the backyard using my “just add water” technique. If you read that July 6, 2019 post you might remember that I said it was a total disaster and threw it away. Thankfully, I was distracted from that epic artistic failure with the sighting of the first ripe tomato of 2019. (It takes so little to launch my attention into another seemingly random direction.)

But I didn’t give up on my backyard flowers. Here they are! I thought of not painting this right away, waiting longer as I was still a bit concerned I would blow it again. But as the warm summer temperatures begin to climb here in SoCal, I knew it was now or never. Those bright balls of color are going to get crispy quickly. The first image you see is what the color sketch looked like before adding water. I normally wouldn’t reveal something I am working on in it’s “ugly” stage, but took the picture anyway. What is the “ugly” stage? It’s when you’re adding the bones of a piece and it doesn’t look like anything. Of course such a notion is truly up to the artist and rather subjective. However, it has been my experience that all the art I create goes through a kind of “ugly” stage and I know I need to hang onto my final vision and work past it. Or, I need to trust that it’s not going as planned and I want to see where the color and design lead me. A really good example of this stage for me is when I paint with oils. The “ugliness” begins when I first put in large areas of the under colors, or non-colors. At that stage my landscape looks pretty crazy—with the sky in bright shades of lavender and/or the rolling hills a kind of a red or even ochre. And this “ugly” stage hangs around on my easel for a few days as I like to wait for the pigment to set before I add the over colors. This approach is very different from Van Gogh’s later landscapes done in oil. He sat right there in the weeds and slapped on the paint, not waiting for anything to dry. I sometimes wonder if we were looking for a similar effect with his colors layered side by side, and my non-colors peaking through the top coat. Either way, your eye mixes the side by side or upper and lower colors, and the desired affect is achieved. As I have said in the past, I would never compare his skill with mine, but I have always liked looking to the masters, attempting to understand and use certain techniques.

For this one, I had a clear vision of the finished art and took a chance that it would turn out all right. Needless to say, I am happy with this one and it was not tossed into the recycling.  For my previous “just add water” pieces (2/23/19, 4/13/19, 5/25/19, 6/9/19, 6/22/19) I used a spray bottle that was a bit of a blobby gusher when I squeezed the trigger. For this one, I remembered that I had a small atomizer. I’m glad I still have it because it emits a much finer spray. I had bought it for my son and he used it for his trombone. (Don’t really remember what he used it for, but I do recall his trombone teacher being adamant about the size and type of bottle. He even told me where I could purchase it.) I really like the relative control I have over the amount of water that I can layer on. It’s almost like using airbrush, but unlike airbrush the spray of water goes on in spurts, rather than an even flow. I like that I could get the soft pink and yellow “afterglow” effect with a single plunge, compared to a wetter application in the darker blue areas.

It seems to me there could be a couple themes for this week’s art and story. First, it’s important to never give up. And second, and probably more important, it’s key to actually start a story or piece of art, and not wait for some kind of inspiration. I have never really believed in writer’s or painter’s block. At some point you just need to start (an oxymoron?). Anyway, I am reminded of a couple times I have heard, or read, words of encouragement to keep going and to keep trying. Years ago I read the book Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. In it, she describes the process of writing and how some get bogged down with reasons not to write, but that such excuses were a waste of time and to just get on with it. I can’t find the book on my bookshelf right now. (Last week I said the same thing about another favorite writer/story teller, Garrison Keillor. For two weeks in a row now I have been relying on my memory of words written by favorite authors. I should definitely reread Bird by Bird and Lake Wobegon Days as soon as possible.) But getting back to Anne Lamott’s words of wisdom in Bird by Bird, I remember her saying that sometimes beginning writer’s want to first know how to get his or her work published. It seemed she was surprised by such interests and/or requests. She reminded them that the writing was the thing and you must do that without worrying about getting it published. She added that the wonderful feeling of being published was pretty fleeting. It was so funny to see in print her words that told the reader and/or writer to just get on with it and that she was OK with her books beginning with a “shitty” first draft.  In a way this reminds me of not being afraid of my art going through what I call an “ugly” phase. As artists maybe it’s just hard not to second guess what we are doing—like it isn’t right somehow, or I should have done it this way or that, or no one will understand what I am trying to say. I guess it’s hard not to second guess our decisions. 

There’s another nice example of “just getting on with it” and it comes from the first few minutes of the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The opening scene is of a young writer in a bookstore thanking his mentor, Frances Mayes, for some advise she had given him. Of course I can’t remember it word for word, but it goes something like: “Don’t worry if you think all your ideas are bad ideas. Take one of your bad ideas and work on it.” Even if you are not an artist or writer, I think those are words to live by. I don’t think I can add anything more here, except to do the work and enjoy the flowers.

July 6, 2019

first tomato 2019
First Tomato, 2019

When Orchard Supply went out of business I bought a can of mixed flower seeds (Renee’s Garden, Endless Bouquets, Cut Flower Garden). I must have planted them in the perfect spot in my backyard as I have a dense meadow of all kinds of flowers that range in height from a few inches tall to 3 and a half feet. And it’s a riot of color with alyssum, cosmos, baby blue eyes, calendula, marigolds, sunflowers, rudbeckia, clarkia, forget me nots, CA poppies, Shirley poppies, zinnias and a colorful array of bachelor buttons. (Actually, SoCal had some later rains this spring that I suspect helped get it going so vigorously and spectacularly.) Now all I have to do is dead head the spent flowers and add water. I have written about my “add water” quick painting technique. So, I attempted a quick painting of this amazing floral vision with my watercolor and Inktense pencils on watercolor paper, with a light spritz of water. It was a complete disaster! I had a dark patch that ran down into the bright flower colors and it looked awful. I threw it away. But as I was wandering around out there, muttering to myself, I found this little red bauble at the bottom of my Early Girl tomato plant. It was my first tomato of the season—picked Friday, 6/28/2019. Once I had it in my hand I almost swooned on the spot. I carried it inside, took a picture and ate it. The discovery, recording and eating of the tomato took less than 5 minutes. It was still warm from the sun. Pretty great, huh?

art for 2001 article
Art of vegetables for July 2001 article (watercolor and Prismacolor colored pencils on cold press illustration board)
July 2001 article
July 2001 article

Once I realized that the wonderful time of vine-ripened tomatoes had begun, I forgot all about the doomed flower watercolor. (Don’t worry, I haven’t given up on it. I don’t give up so easily and will try again soon. Those flowers must be captured in pigment before they die out.) And with the last chunk of tomato tasted and then gone I began to plan for future meals with my beloved tomato as there are lots and lots of green ones on my three healthy plants. As tomatoes seem to be sought after by some and abhorred by others it didn’t take long for me to remember this art and article I did when my son was little. 

Rereading the story I was reminded that most kids I know don’t like tomatoes—vine ripened or picked green and allowed to ripen on a shelf. But it’s such a great source of vitamin C. Of course they like ketchup, which I think appeals to kids because of the other flavors in that bottle rather than the red tomato base. There was some controversy about ketchup being declared a vegetable when Reagan was president. It seems that there were big changes in funding of school lunch programs at the time and districts were looking for ways to cut costs. I guess there is nutritional value in ketchup because it does have Vitamin C, but it can’t really be counted on as a vegetable serving as you would have to consume quite a bit to get any benefit. I can just imagine how many French fries would need to be consumed for a a child to eat say 1/2 cup of ketchup. Seems like children would be getting a veg, but at the expense of eating more junk food. I see what looks like baked tater tots in school lunches these days, but still think kids don’t really need that many carbs dipped in ketchup. 

Every now and then I meet an adult who doesn’t care for them as well. I find that very strange indeed. I remember one summer (when I was in my early 20’s) that I ate so many tomatoes I got an upset stomach and decided that maybe all the acid from consecutively eating 3 or 4 tomatoes was the reason. I must say that my little plan to get my son to eat his vegetables really worked. Every Friday I made pizza or pasta and the sauce for the that Italian inspired meal was made up of our glorious vine-ripened tomatoes with as any other left over veg I had in the frig. Some weeks the sauce was not particularly red as it contained broccoli, zucchini squash and/or green bell peppers. But blended up in the food processor, it looked fine to my son and he ate lots of it. Unfortunately, he didn’t grow up to love tomatoes as I do, but he does enjoy them in salads and on hamburgers. And of course he loves ketchup! So, I guess my work here is done.

Garrison Keillor wrote a funny story about tomatoes in one of his Lake Wobegon books. I looked on my many book shelves for the book, but couldn’t find it. (It’s probably in a box in the garage.) As I remember it, he carefully crafts his tomato tale by telling the reader about the anticipation of tomatoes and the joy the residents of Lake Wobegon experience at the beginning and middle of tomato season. Much is made of their long awaited arrival and the frantic eating, canning and giving away of tomatoes. Of course there is a twist, because eventually everyone is done with tomatoes, but no one says they can’t look at, let alone eat, one more beautiful vine-ripened tomato. Countless jars have been put up, sauces and recipes have been exhausted and no one is giving away or accepting tomatoes from anyone anymore. The final scene comes when he and his sister are once again out in the garden picking tomatoes for some imagined use by the adults. At one point he decides to throw one at her and makes a direct hit on her bum. I hope I haven’t left out any really good details and I’m sorry if I did. But MY final take away from his tomato story is that it’s good to be a kid and do childish things that show our true feelings about things we are asked to do and not question. Besides, they’re just tomatoes, right? We’ll see how I feel later in the summer. Stay tuned…  

Update on our recent CA earthquakes

It seems we have had several thousand quakes since the 4th of July. I don’t know anyone who lives in Ridgecrest (Kern County), but when a big one hits (with it’s many many after shocks) CA becomes a small community of sorts. That means that friends and family who live here (north, middle or south) call each other to check in. We all want to say we are fine and describe what we were doing when the shaking started. My uncle in Long Beach reminded me that his uncle (my Great Uncle Earl) slept out in an open field for weeks after the 1933 earthquake. That’s actually a very smart thing to do because then nothing can fall on you. Such stories are a kind of a way of life here—earthquakes and fires. Living in California is not for the faint of heart and sometimes it still feels like the rough and ready wild west.