December 28, 2019

Trees and sky at UCSC, with the ocean just out of reach, 2019 (wax crayons/pastels on mat board for 5 by 7 image)

It’s almost 2020 and it’s been cold here in SoCal. The narcissus dot my garden in small bunches of vertical green leaves and stems, and there is snow on the San Gabriel Mountains behind my house. Pretty nice actually…

In year’s past I have made holiday gifts for friends and family. But it’s been so long since I’ve done that and I can’t really remember when I stopped, or why I stopped, for that matter. So this year I thought I would try to revive some of that homespun gifting again. Somehow, not really sure when the idea popped into my mind, I thought it would be interesting to paint little scenes from a photo I took of the amazing trees and ocean plus sky view at the UCSC campus. And I wanted this little scene around the edges of an 8 by 10 inch mat with a 5 by 7 opening. I knew I wanted to flank the sides of the frame with lovely vertical stabs of redwoods and other conifers. But I also wanted to fill in the center backing with the in between continued view of shorter conifers and shrubbery with more of that fabulous blue sky. Normally that space in a mat would be filled with some 5 by 7 inch photo or other special two dimensional image. I was kind of liking the idea that you could either put something in the frame, or not. And whatever went in that spot didn’t need to go behind glass either. I found that by taping the top edge of the mat to the backing I created a kind of free standing sandwich board pop up. If someone wanted to hang something in the frame it could be taped behind the opening with a little piece of drafting tape. If not it could be left open, with nothing else added. (When I finished the first one of these I amused myself greatly by placing a small stuffed UCSC banana slug looking out of the opening. In fact, I can’t stop giggling about it, so random and yet corny. But that kind of describes me perfectly, so random and corny, and yet easily amused…) I am also quite aware that my idea of giving this little gift of Northern CA trees and ocean inspired sky would not be done by the 1st. So, now I plan to give this little gift as a kind of random and corny “anytime” gift, hopefully not too much after January 1, 2020.

But I think the real story here is how I came upon the best media to do this little bit of personal ephemera from One CA girl. When I picked up the half dozen good quality Crescent board mats for the project I thought it would be fun to try using some lovely inks for this landscape. I had found an acrylic pearlescent sky blue and light green that I thought would be perfect for the project. Oh, I also wanted to try out my new Fude fountain pen filled with water soluble black ink as well. (You may have noticed by the above caption there isn’t one of these items listed there…) 

Here’s what happened: I experimented with the materials I just described using a few scraps of Crescent board. Nothing turned out the way I had hoped, with each one taking way longer to do than I had patience for. I knew if it took too long I would become bored doing a similar scene over and over again. And eventually I just got bored with all this trial and error and opened up one of the mat board frames I had bought and tried it there. Not sure why I thought doing the same thing I had just tried would be any different with this board. (Isn’t that the definition of insanity? You do the same thing over and over, expecting different results each time?) I try to be aware of the paper I paint on and the quality of mat board was described as “good.” And it turns out that it was not “good enough,” but somehow I thought I could bend it to my will. So, I finally realized it was just getting too wet and little balls of paper were rolling around underneath my soggy brush. I needed to rethink my materials, loosing the iridescent sky blue ink in favor of something that would be more like a dry brush technique. 

I remembered that I had some wax pastels/crayons that needed only the slightest bit of water to blend the colors together. I have two sets—Neocolor Ink water-soluble wax pastels (set of 15) and Lyra-Aquacolor wax crayons (set of 12) and that material turned out to be just right. I have no idea where I got either tin. But I do enjoy using them as they show the texture of the paper when applied like a pastel or crayon and blend nicely with just the tiniest bit of water.

Now comes the funnier bit. Several years ago I found myself sketching several Buddha’s in the downstair Asian Art section of the Norton Simon. I decided to try out each of them in the frame. There is nothing left to say here, right?

Buddha 1
Head of Buddha, Thailand, 8th century (Norton Simon Museum of Art)
Buddha 3
Buddha Shakyamuni, Nepal, 13th century (Norton Simon Museum of Art)
Buddha 2
Buddha Shakyamuni, Thailand, 15th century (Norton Simon Museum of Art)


Just got back from sketching at the Fiesta Parade Floats in Irwindale. Yes, it’s just about time for the Rose Parade in Pasadena and I saw hundreds of volunteers inside the huge Fiesta warehouse, gluing dried plant parts to various floats that will be rolling along the parade route. The smell of glue in there was almost overpowering and finally went outside to sketch some of the leftover bits of floats that surround the building. (I will probably post those sketches next week.) I don’t often watch the parade anymore, but usually hear the bomber jets that open the parade fly over my house very early the morning of the first. Maybe when they wake me up this year I’ll get up and watch it live. It might be fun to see the floats I saw today with all the live flowers. Stay tuned…

Happy New Year!

December 21, 2019

close up of fremontia
Close up of Fremontodendron, 5 petals and 5 stamens, early 90s (watercolor on watercolor paper, Prismacolor yellow for stamens)

To add detail, or not to add too much detail. That is the artist’s question. Or at least that’s always my question when I’m beginning a piece of art. For me, I usually have some kind of picture in my mind of what I want to paint, or create, and that vision usually has a certain amount of detail in place, or not. But when you do a botanical like this one, there are “implicit” details you must include to make it so. Back then I was truly enamored with creating beautiful botanicals and had fallen for all those lovely late 19th and early 20th century detailed plant renderings. And for me that looked like the wonder and thrill of limitless detail. There is something very romantic about this art, with very soft colors and seemingly overly exaggerated curves in the leaves and petals. It’s as though the plant was still blooming and thriving in its perfect spot in the world. But of course all of those early plant renderings were not done Plein air, but rather from looking at a dried specimen that the artist or botanist had collected, sometimes months earlier. Maybe that’s why the art has such seductive curves and implied plumpness as the artist added imagined moisture to the dried up plant they were looking at. At the time I did this watercolor I was working in the botany and entomology departments of the California Academy of Sciences. I was not doing watercolors, but rather pen and ink renderings of plants from Chiapas, Mexico and wasps from Papua, New Guinea. I remember working with another botanical illustrator in the artist’s room in the botany department. She had surely captured this curvy quality even though she was only drawing with pen and ink. I had noticed her lovely art as we sat silently side by side, scrutinizing our dried up plant parts. I knew that Sheva was on to something wonderful that I vowed to try to add to my work. I often wondered if she learned this tiny bit of exaggeration from other botanical illustrators or if she just knew it intuitively. One way or another, I didn’t get that memo, but I can still see the lovely romantic roundness of her drawings in my mind to this day. 

To attempt rendering a true botanical you need to be all in with the horticultural aspect of every specific detail of the plant. For example, for this Fremontia (common name flannelbush) I first did a finished sketch, making sure you could count the five petals and five stamens. I also made sure that the shape and venation of each leaf was correct and they were arranged with the perfect posture, which relates to how the leaves sit on the stem. This kind of drawing/painting is known as the plant’s habit, or what an actual stem of the plant looks like. Sound like too much detail for you? Not for me. But there was one important step for this watercolor that I neglected to share. When I first started working at the Academy I hadn’t had much success painting with watercolor. But I was convinced that my pen and ink skills would overpower and diminish my lack of watercolor confidence. So, I went to the Native CA plant section of Strybing Arboretum one spring day and attempted to paint this plant. I sat on a rock, did a very nice sketch in my sketchbook, transferred that drawing to the paper and painted. I found myself once again trying to make the pigment do my bidding. It was an awful experience and the art looked tortured and awful. But I didn’t give up and I later took a watercolor and colored pencil illustration class right there at the Cal Academy of Sciences. It was taught by an amazing scientific illustrator who worked at the Morrison Planetarium. She showed us how to layer the watercolor and colored pencil onto good paper—drying the watercolor with a hand held hair dryer with every application of watery pigment. The romance and detail of those early botanical illustrations I described earlier began to appear before my very eyes. I was enchanted.

I did not sit on a rock for this botanical as I wasn’t sure where I would plug in my hair dryer. Instead, I painted it from one of my photos while sitting at my drafting table at home. It was so much more convenient to have a hair dryer plugged in there. 

You might be wondering about the raggedy paper I used for this illustration. I think I have shared that I try not to waste any of my materials and this paper had been a large sheet of expensive watercolor paper I had gotten wet, stretched onto my watercolor board, and then attached to the board with brown paper tape. I seem to remember that the bottom part of this paper had been the previous Fremontia disaster. I cut that off and used the upper left side of the paper you see here. 

Fremontodendron in CA garden at the Descanso Gardens, “Just add water,” 4/7/2019 (watercolor pencils, Inktense pencils on 6″ by 9″ watercolor paper)

Fast forward 30 years and I have another watercolor of a Fremontodendron that I did at the Descanso Gardens last spring. I think it is not only the antithesis of a botanical, but it also has a story of a different kind of day I had while painting it. This was done in SoCal, not in San Francisco. I didn’t sit on a rock to paint it, but did sit on the ground on a sheet of bubble wrap. And we have a botanical painstakingly done compared to a quick 30 minute Plein air experience—same plant, different day. (I have already posted this piece of art and it’s story April 13, 2019. I thought it interesting to share my artistic journey of style and substance from then to now.) What is probably the true story here is that maybe this piece isn’t so great, but what I have learned in more than 30 years of painting is that it just doesn’t matter. Paintings the thing, and that’s all that matters!

Happy Holidays and happy first day of winter!

In past posts I have described my love of flowers and landscapes. I just tucked in the ground 20 more Narcissus bulbs. I was reminded that my mom said that her dad had said you should put bulbs in the ground during the new moon phase. I’m a couple days off, but maybe it’s close enough. We’ll see if there is a difference in those flowers compared to the others that are already greening up in my garden. Stay tuned.

December 15, 2019

French poster, with water
French poster from Paris in the Belle Epoque, Norton Simon Museum, 12/6/2019 (Inktense pencil on mixed media paper with dry brush technique added)

I found myself downstairs at the Norton Simon last Friday evening in the salons of art from the “By Day & by Night: Paris in Belle Epoque” exhibit. My sketching gang hadn’t quite gathered together yet, so I thought it would be interesting to sketch Georges de Feure’s 1894 poster with my 6 Inktense colored pencils—sun yellow, bark, baked earth, leaf green, tangerine, and sea blue. I did it on mixed media paper because I planned to later “just add water” to the sketch and thought the mixed media paper would take the water better than just some old sketch paper. If you are an artist you really understand how important it is to consider your paper before you get it wet. I mean, I don’t care if paper gets a little ripply, but color on cheaper paper will look dull when it dries. In past posts I have described how I’ve experimented with drawing with watercolor and Inktense pencils that I later squirt with water, but often use watercolor paper to get nicer color. I like the softened, splattered and/or runny effect you can get. (Actually using such descriptive words makes me wonder why I think so highly of this technique. It sounds rather terrible and ultimately like I am trying elevate something that looks a bit of a mess and shouldn’t be celebrated.) When I “just added water” to this one, later in the week, I was much more civilized in my approach. I used a 1/2 inch flat brush and added water using a dry brush technique—no splatters for this one, and the paper had only a couple ripples. Of course, going back to this piece to “just add water” reminded me again that I had left out the second letter A in Almanach. I was reminded of that error several times as my damp brush butted up against those pencil marks. Yuck!

I think what struck me most about de Feure’s poster, as well as other posters done by Toulouse-Lautrec, is that those were all advertisements for something. Many of Toulouse-Lautrec posters were done to advertise the Moulin Rouge and of course de Feure’s poster is an advertisement as well. I read the description of the piece next to the actual poster and it said that it was meant to advertise a city guidebook of Paris. It was published by a famous 19th century Paris print dealer, Edmond Sagot. I guess consumers were to see the fashionably beautiful and sophisticated urban woman holding the Paris guidebook and want one too. I think it was to make you want to be like her or maybe even meet her in some cool hot spot, like the Moulin Rouge. The description goes on to describe the men in the background as thought they were looking at her through a plate glass window—hence the grey/blue color. If you look at those guys, they really seem to be leering at her as well. Had advertisers back then already learned that “sex” sells? It made me wonder if the Moulin Rouge would have been listed in there as a place to visit while in Paris. From what I have read the Moulin Rouge, especially in it’s early days, was quite a naughty place. According to Wikipedia the can-can began there as a kind of seductive dance done by courtesans who “operated” from that sight. (Maybe like the dancehall girls in “Sweet Charity?” Except courtesans were usually prostitutes for the upper-class and/or wealthy clients.)

I’ve already mentioned Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and you have already probably already heard of him. He was a contemporary of de Feure’s during Le Belle Epoque. Toulouse-Lautrec frequently painted women he saw at the Moulin Rouge and produced quite a few posters featuring them. Those were meant as advertisements as well. He was a master of capturing the movement of the people he saw. If you have ever seen those depictions of women doing the can-can you will know what I mean. I bet it really brought them in to see such a spectacle. And as I have already said, sex really did sell at the Moulin Rouge. Speaking of the can-can, it seems that as time passed the can-can morphed into something a little more about entertainment in a cabaret setting. (Oh, I imagine sex continued to sell at the Moulin Rouge…) But there is a scene of French girl marionettes doing the can-can beside Pinocchio in the Disney movie, “Pinocchio.” That definitely has a “G” rating.

Both men were serious artists and did more than make posters. They painted Paris’s changing urban landscape of people and places, both sophisticated and “everyday.” They were some of the artists, who painted from 1871 to 1914, and they established the artistic area known as the Montmartre district. 

It’s kind of cool to imagine such an urban change in Paris that changed the art world forever. I mean, the Eiffel Tower was constructed during this time. Such an urban and artistic achievement, Oui? Maybe this CA urban sketching thing I seem to be swept up into will someday be given a name like “dessinateurs urbanism de Californie?” Maybe not. However, I do intentionally try to capture people, places and things in one CA girl’s urban life. And what I see won’t look the same to coming generations, much like Paris has changed quite a bit in the past 100 years. Maybe that’s an important contribution to these “good times?” Not sure about the “sex sells” angle of the various urban sketchers I have met in the Burbank/Glendale area. OMG, Walt Disney would be rolling in his grave!


December 7, 2019

1stained glass house
So, where is that stained glass house at the Descanso Gardens? 11/26/2019 (watercolor on watercolor paper)

Sometimes, it is the journey I guess. And it seems that even pursuing art can be a journey of looking for something, or imagining something, that’s not there. For my November 16, 2019 post I wrote about going to the Descanso Gardens on the 10th because I had heard there was to be a stained glass house next to water for their Enchanted Forest of Lights event. I walked all around the garden, all around the duck pond, looking for that house. It was no where to be found. Of course you may be wondering how something as bright and festive as a stained glass house could be hiding somewhere. I began to wonder if I had imagined hearing about it. Anyway, I didn’t find it and decided I wasn’t going to the enchanted light show (showing contempt with lowercase letters and incorrect event title) this year as I had already seen everything there was to see, right? Maybe this watercolor captures the idea that something was missing…

By Sunday, November 17th the Enchanted Forest of Lights at the Descanso had opened. And I had forgotten that I was gravely disappointed with the missing stained glass house and went back there on Monday, 11/18. (Note the correct title and capitalization here.) I didn’t take any art materials with me, thinking that I would just walk around. And there it was—not in the larger duck pond, as I had imagined, but rather in the smaller pond by the waterfall. This was even better as the lovely deciduous trees around that pond were in striking shades of yellow and chartreuse. It’s a wonderful little spot with the added attraction of the sound of tumbling water. And if you’re lucky you might see a turtle or two paddling around in the water as well–only during the day of course. But today, and through January 5th, there is a stained glass house sitting on a platform in the middle of this smaller pond. I don’t know, maybe it’s the size of a small greenhouse (4 by 8 feet?). I knew I wanted to paint it and planned to go back the next day, Tuesday, as it was going to rain on Wednesday. I thought that if I waited till after the rain the lovely ephemeral leaves on the trees would be slick and slimy on the ground. I took a picture of it, messaged that image to friends and then went for my walk about. After about an hour I went back to be sure I had actually seen it. Actually, I knew it was there, but I wanted to see what it looked like with the sun in a different spot. I’m glad I did because by then the whole pond area was in shade. So, I made a mental note to get to the garden the next day as early as possible. I was really excited and packed my art materials the evening before, so I would be really ready…such a geek, right?

stained glass house
Enchanted Forest of Lights–stained glass house on a pond, Descanso Gardens, 11/26/2019 (watercolor, watercolor crayons and pen and ink, on watercolor paper)

So, my art journey continues and here it is. As I already said, I didn’t have my art materials with me on Monday, so both versions of the stained glass house were done that Tuesday morning. But the first photo was just the background/foreground of water colors. And I saved the best for last, first inking in the black lines that hold the various pieces of colored glass. It was lovely. But there is more to the story and my art journey. As I was thinking how I planned to ink in the house, another bit of my journey presented itself. While sitting on my sheet of bubble wrap on a large rock, trying to decide what size ink pens to use to first blacken in the lines of lead that hold the various pieces of glass, a very quiet small boy approached me. He was with his mom and grandma. He didn’t say a word, but it was clear he was very interested in what I was doing. I needed a distraction before diving in and engaged him in a bit of conversation, asking him if he liked to draw. He didn’t look at me to answer, but instead looked up at his mom and nodded. I asked him if he would like to draw with me, and he once again he looked up at his mom and smiled. So, I pulled out a couple sheets of drawing paper and let him use my tin of Inktense pencils. I don’t know how long we sat there together, he next to his mom and grandma on the bench under that beautiful deciduous tree with the yellow and chartreuse leaves, and me on my rock by the pond. But it was long enough for me to finish the stained glass house and enough time for him to finish his drawing. I showed him a sample of what happens to the Inktense pencils when you get them wet, but he seemed happy not to change anything he had created. It was quite a moment, and I told the mom and grandma that I thought them quite lovely to let this kindergarten-aged young man sit on a bench and draw. Of course I was sure to compliment the young man about his art and encouraged him to continue. I attempted to shake his hand, but he didn’t seem comfortable with that. He was OK with giving me a high 5. Then they continued on their journey through the garden. It was perfect! 

Thinking back, now, I am reminded that there were two artists on a journey that day. And we should always be on the lookout for the rare opportunities that our paths can cross. If you are an artist, I hope you look for such opportunities to share. And if you are not an artist, maybe you can think of a way to support art in the schools. It seems my young friend was from Texas and his mom told me that he had an art teacher in school. Such an individual is not very common in public schools here in CA. And we are the poorer for that. You never know where the next musician, playwright, painter or animator will come from… I don’t think we can live without the arts. I know I can’t live without them. What about you?