July 25, 2020

Cars 2
Car in my front yard, 7/16/2020 (assorted gel pens on Mix Media paper)

On the 12th of this month a group of LA urban sketchers and I were treated to an online virtual demo of how to use different colored pens to create an urban scene. Our instructor sat outside on his porch in Long Beach and described how to just draw what you see using random colored ink pens. Right off the bat he told us that he rarely used a pen color that matched what he was drawing, as he ran through about 5 pens that had run out of ink. He just kept talking, trying one pen after another, until he found several that worked for the rest of the demo. At first I kind of wondered about this guy, but soon found myself relaxing and really enjoying the informality of his presentation. Once he had a handful of viable colors he immediately began rendering a car that was parked in front of his house. The front half of the vehicle was obscured by an overgrown tree, but that didn’t stop him—he added it to his drawing as well. After he had sketched in the car and tree another car came along and parked across the street. He seemed truly delighted to have another car to add to his urban landscape and immediately added it to the composition. His commentary was brisk, funny and very informative. But his message was clear, don’t worry about what colors you are using, just use the colors you have to render what you see. He also said that it was important to draw a lot and not worry about the finished product—quantity over quality. (Not sure what I think about that comment…) Anyway, he talked about not necessarily planning what you were going to do and for sure not to worry if you made a mistake. He said if you can capture the essence of objects or people on a page, no one is really going to notice a couple misplaced lines here and there. He suggested using pens with varying thicknesses, cross hatching and using loopy lines and shapes to suggest foliage and plants. Overall, it was great! 

Once he had finished there were lots of comments and questions from various members and it seemed that many were interested in drawing cars specifically. He shared that he didn’t much like drawing plants or trees, but that compositions could be enhanced when matching man-made hard surfaces with organic and natural subjects like trees and shrubs. So, even though he didn’t much like to draw plants he added the tree at the curb to make the cars look more interesting. For me, I am much more interested in plants than cars, but long ago I also learned the wonderful affect you can get when presenting something linear with harsh lines next to something natural and kind of fluffy. I even remember an art teacher saying such a juxtaposition can give a scene a kind of poetry. Really? I remember that teacher also saying that if those lines were presented on a diagonal, you added excitement and action to a rendering. Get the picture?

I realized that my front yard would be the perfect place to practice what this urban sketcher had shared with us as there are frequently cars parked on the streets all around my house. I found that I could make non-preferred drawings of cars more interesting by adding bits of plant life. And for the 7/16/2020 sketch I made sure to draw a car on the diagonal, hoping to add interest and action to the sketch. You may have noticed the street sign is on a different diagonal. It’s hard to tell what is actually straight up and down here. I think the spiky shrub behind the wonky sign and the fire hydrant in the foreground are the most truly vertical item in this composition. I don’t know, does it look like the car might just roll down the street? Maybe?

Cars 3
Car in my front yard, 7/14/2020 (assorted gel pens, and some graphite, on Mix Media paper)
Cars 1
Cars in my front yard, 7/15/2020 (assorted gel pens on Mix Media paper)

For three straight days I made myself sit on my front porch, drawing the cars parked on my street. For those afternoons I needed only a few supplies—a comfortable camping chair, handful of different colored ink pens, a pad of decent paper and a cloth glove for my drawing hand (helps to reduce ink from smearing). But wait! Until this technique was shared with me I had used only black inks, and only had that color in my supplies. Therefore, I needed to get some ink pens with different colors. I had noticed that our instructor used a couple gel pens and thought an assortment of such colors would be adequate. The day before my first “car sketch” attempt I put on my mask, walked to a nearby big box office supply store and bought a packet of gel pens (13 colors plus black).

None of the sketches really went as planned as there was a problem with the pens. Some of the colors worked for a while, but then seemed to dry up, and I had to sometimes switch pens mid line. Now, I have had quite a bit of experience drawing with ink pens (only black of course), and have a few tricks to get the ink flowing again—no luck! I tried to remember the words of our instructor, going with the flow and using random colors. But I was having trouble going with the flow as some of my brand new pens were not flowing—only making deep grooves in the paper as a pressed down hard. It pissed me off. But eventually, I got over it and finished the three days of sketching cars. 

As I was struggling with the pens, I struggled with the idea that under normal, non-COVID-19, circumstances I would have done more than buy gel pens at the nearby office supply store for this project. I would have gone to Blick’s in Pasadena and purchased some proper pens with different colored cartridges and/or pots of ink. But this would not have been a quick “into the store and then out again” scenario. I would have wanted to linger and look at whatever pens they had, trying them out on the spot on the little pads of paper that are always around the pen and ink section of art stores. I’m sure you’ve read that CA is currently experiencing spikes in coronavirus and that makes me not want to hang out inside any kind of LA business for any length of time right now. Even though I realize I can buy the pen’s online, I would have wanted to try out a few before ordering. (I heard that the hair salon I go to in Pasadena has moved everything outside—sinks with hot and cold running water, chairs, hairdryers, mirrors etc. I can’t imagine me sitting outside for all the world to see me with 50 foils plastered to my head. In the past I have entertained a scenario that as the last foil is folded and tapped with a comb we have a major earthquake and I have to run out the door. Yikes!)

So, now the simple wishes of one CA artist takes on national, if not global, implications. I get that my wishes are not really needs that are particularly relevant or earth shattering right now. But I can hardly support a business, and/or local economy, if I just stop purchasing everything except food. Right? I imagine you have had to make similar decisions related to such “non-essential” purchases as well. But I can’t help thinking that such a change in my buying habits will affect the life and livelihood of the businesses that are deemed “non-essential.” That really isn’t fair, is it? Such business owners/employers have employees who would definitely think their jobs are essential to their livelihoods and families. So, what do I do? I guess I will try out a couple pens online and will consider getting my hair colored outside. I mean, how bad could it be to sit outside in front of God and everybody with 50 foils plastered to my head? If we had an earthquake I wouldn’t have to run outside, I’d already be there. Right? 

July 18, 2020

Blue hydrangea
Memories of hydrangea in my mother’s garden, 7/2020 (watercolor and Prismacolor colored pencil on Strathmore cold press illustration board)

There are a couple things I want to say about this week’s hydrangea botanical. First, for the composition I chose two stems with foliage and flower. the one in the background is complete and in full bloom, but the second stem is less mature, representing an earlier stage of blossoming. You can clearly see the green/white inner petals that are only beginning to change color, take shape and increase in size. Second, the fact that a hydrangea can be such a shade of blue immediately makes this particular flower interesting to me. I think that’s because there are so few things in nature that are truly blue. And if you look closely you will see that even something that appears to be so true blue actually has some hints of purple. Finally, do you think it’s an “old lady” flower? Would you plant one in your garden? A friend of a friend said they liked the rendering well enough, but that she would never have hydrangeas in her garden as they are just too “old-fashioned.” Hmm… I don’t have any in my garden right now, but would if I had a good spot for one. I like them because it was a favorite of my mother’s and that makes it old-fashioned in all the right ways for me. I have such wonderful memories of a couple magnificently huge blue hydrangeas in her Grass Valley garden. You walked between them as you went through a gate from the back garden to the front, or front to back of course. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible leaves of a hydrangea plant. I very intentionally made them an equal partner to the colorful petals of the hydrangea. If you have viewed any of my recent botanicals posted at One California Girl you may have noticed that the foliage for those renderings play only a supporting role for each flower. But for the hydrangea the large shiny thick and green leaves are definite costars of this showy shrub. Most hydrangeas are deciduous, which means they drop leaves and petals in the fall. I think that’s why the leaves are so lovely, they get to be new and fresh again every year just like the flowers.

The actual blossoms for this one are specific to a particularly healthy real life plant in my aunt’s garden in Long Beach. But her hydrangea flowers are pink. I found a stock photo of a blue one (Nikko blue) that reminded me of my mom’s and I tried to recreate the color from my memory with a little help from the picture. You may have heard that you can change the color of hydrangeas by adding something to the soil. Steve Bender (aka The Grumpy Gardener) of Southern Living says you can only change the flower color of Mountain and French hydrangeas. He says their flower color is all about the pH of the soil and if your soil is very acid (pH below 6) the petals will be blue. However, if the soil is more alkaline (pH above 7) the petals will be pink and sometimes red. And if the soil is neutral/slightly acid (pH between 6 and 7) the petals might be purple, or a combination of blue and pink on the same shrub. (I actually saw such a hydrangea on a SoCal neighborhood walk the other day.) Mr. Bender says that to make the soil more acid, add garden sulfur to the soil, then water it. And to make the soil more alkaline, add some lime and then add water. He said that if you are trying to change the color of the flowers you should be patient as it could take months to change and you might need to repeat applications several times for it to take. 

two larva
Monarch larva in my July 2020 garden

Update on the monarchs in my garden (see June 20, 2020)—

I’ve lost count of the number of monarch worms on my two asclepius plants. As you can see they are out there in abundance. But I am on a constant vigil to keep the wasps away from them. I always thought there was nothing that would bother monarchs because they are poisonous. However, I have seen a wasp bite one of my worms and kill it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I Googled my question regarding this phenomenon and it seems wasps will actually hunt the worms, then kill and eat them. Apparently they are not bothered by the toxins in the monarch’s body. When I read this I whipped into action and hung a wasp trap near one of the plants. (It has been out there a couple weeks now and not caught a single wasp.) I also read that only about 5% of monarch caterpillars actually make it to the chrysalis stage. Yikes! I decided to try to bump up their survival percentage in my garden and I now hunt for wasps. How do I do this? I frequently check the plants to either shoo them away with a squirt of water or swat them with my shoe. And believe it or not, I have killed quite a few. 

I recently noticed another wildlife addition to my garden—baby Western fence lizards. This is going on my third summer in this house and I remember noticing baby lizards last summer and the summer before. Western fence lizards are very common in SoCal. They breed in mid to late March and the females lay eggs 2 to 4 weeks after that. And from what I have read, the females can lay up to three clutches of eggs per year. They are so cute and tiny—tiny being the operative word. Summer before last one slipped into my kitchen and I almost stepped on it just as it ran under the oven. Not sure what happened to the little guy—I always hoped he, or she, slipped back outside and is living the high life in my garden right now.

This brings me to yet another recent critter that seems to have joined my summer family—a skunk, or skunks. The smell of skunk has wafted through my bedroom window at night on several occasions. In fact, one night it was so strong it almost made me physically sick, even with the window closed. I have also seen a skunk digging around under the bird feeder at night. She, or he, was probably looking for left over seed and/or night crawling bugs. I read they are omnivores, so such a food variety makes sense. I also read that they eat berries, small rodents and lizards. Did I just say LIZARDS?! So now what? How can I protect my baby lizards from rampaging skunks? I guess I won’t be hunting skunks at night. Don’t think shooing them away with a squirt of water or the swat of a shoe would be the right approach. In fact, I don’t think I will approach them at all. I guess I hope the  baby lizards have good hiding spots at night, I know when I’m licked!

July 11, 2020

early tomatoes
First tomatoes, July 7, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)

As you can see, the tomatoes of my 2020 summer garden are beginning to ripen and turn red. It was interesting to find the different stages of tomato ripeness hanging so close together on the same branch of my bonus unknown tomato plant. You might be wondering how I came to have a bonus unknown tomato plant. Well, for starters it’s a volunteer from last year, so that makes it a bonus. And since I didn’t actually plant it, I don’t know the variety. It’s probably the result of an overripe tomato falling off one of last year’s plants and somehow reseeding itself. That’s probably not so unusual for a SoCal garden as we rarely get freezing temperatures in winter, and last spring’s rains helped out I’m sure. Last summer I planted a Better Boy, Early Girl and some kind of cherry tomato that was supposed to be a Beefsteak tomato. (I think what you’re looking at are Better Boy tomatoes). When I spied them on Tuesday I greedily imagined the joy of eating that red one for dinner (which I did) and loved the idea that there would be many more coming on for many 2020 summer evenings to come. I love to imagine an unexpected plant that would bear even more fruit so I could share with others. I think I remember my son’s Great Aunt Ruth saying that you should always put in a garden with sharing in mind. I like that idea a lot and have already started. (I gave away a couple tomatoes on Thursday to a lady who walks her dog past my house.) This isn’t my first post and art of tomatoes from my July garden. I wrote about last year’s tomatoes and garden for my July 6, 2019 post. That story was another kind of tomato bonus as I also included a “tomato” story I wrote for a children’s magazine in July 2001. I say bonus for that post as the article included a pizza sauce recipe using fresh tomatoes and other veggies.

second red urn
Red Urn at Descanso Gardens, July 6, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)
red roses
Lamp post at Descanso Gardens, July 6, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)

I don’t think the prospect of red ripe tomatoes in my garden had anything to do with my choice to sketch red things at the Descanso Gardens on Monday. When I saw this amazing red urn with greenery I immediately sat down and did the first sketch. (There is an area in front of the train ride station that is planted with all kinds of colorful summer plants, with several large red urns stationed around—it’s very dramatic.) At first it was a little touch and go when I realized I didn’t have my lovely Scarlet Lake or Cadmium Red with me. But somehow I made do with a mixture of Cadmium Red hue and Alzarin Crimson hue from my tiny Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor Sketcher’s Pocket box. Actually, I think the bark-colored Inktense pencil I used for the outline and shading helped to warm up the color of the pot. If you have been following my blog you may remember another red urn I recently sketched at the same location—see my June 20, 2020 post. For that one I used what I call my “just add water” technique where I draw something with Inktense pencils, then add light sprays of water, letting the pigment bleed where it will. For today’s sketch I wanted to have more control of how the color spread, so I did the outline/shading of the urn and flowers with the warm colored “bark” Inktense pencil, then I added red and green watercolor pigment only. For the lamp post vignette I used my cool “sea blue” Inktense pencil, then I added the same red and green as before. I’m always amazed the different feelings and affects you can get when using warm colors, like the “bark” brown, compared to the coolness of a color like sea blue. Color certainly can evoke a feeling I think.

In the mid 80s it was very popular for women to have their colors done. I’m guessing this wasn’t just a phenomena in CA. (I just Googled “having your colors done” and  it appears to still be out there, and it’s not in CA only.) Colorists, as I think they were called, had stacks and stacks of different colored fabric that they would place just below someone’s chin. As the different colors were brought out the person would be asked how the color made them feel. And the colorist would usually say something about whether or not the color was a cool or warm tone. I never had my colors done because of course this was not a free service, but done for a price as a consultation by a trained colorist. (From Google dictionary: a colorist was an artist or designer who uses color in a special or skillful way.) Once this process was completed you were designated either a “spring,” “summer,” “winter,” or “fall,” and assigned specific colors to wear, with emphasis on the coolness and/or warmth of “your” colors. You were also given fabric samples of your best colors that you were to carry around in your purse. Then when shopping you could confidently go into a department store and use those bits of warm or cool colors to help select your perfect wardrobe. Even back then I remember thinking this seemed an arduous task as that meant you might have to look at every piece of clothing in the store, trying to find that perfect shade of red. I also remember wondering if clothing designers had gotten this memo—presenting clothes that might appeal to the “summer,” “winter,” “spring,” and/or “fall” person.

About this same time I was creating hand painted kimonos (see December 29, 2018). Many of my designs were hanging in a vintage clothing store (Rags to Riches) in Los Gatos and the owner of that shop was adamant about the silliness of “having your colors done.” She would get angry and just say something like, “WTF, just wear what you want!” I agreed with her then and still think you should not look for a full proof way to pick out what you wear.

It’s funny, but there is one more CA girl chapter in this “finding your colors” story. In 2011 I was wandering the aisles of a fabric store in Grass Valley. I was looking for inexpensive fabric for a project I had planned to do with some students at an elementary school I was working at. I had learned how to make rag rugs and wanted to invite some regular ed kids to come to my room at lunchtime to do crafts with my special ed kids. As I was telling this story to the store owner, another woman in the shop came up to me and said she was cleaning out her garage and that she had lots of fabric she would gladly donate to the cause. OMG! Can you guess what she had been doing since the 80s? Yes, she was a “trained” colorist and had all this fabric ready to help people “find their colors.” It seems her husband was trying to clean out the garage and was hoping show could let all of this go. I guess she was ready to let go of the fabric and let people dress themselves without any help from her. We agreed to meet in front of the fabric store the next day and she would bring me the fabric. When she opened the trunk to her car I couldn’t believe the bags and bags of fabric she had. She actually seemed relieved to get all this out of her garage, and I was delighted to have it for my project. As the kids and I went through the bags over the next weeks, it was shocking to see so many shades of red, pink, yellow, black etc. And some of those colors were outright ugly! It made me a little sad to imagine someone carrying around ugly colors of fabric in their purse, waiting for the opportunity to use them. Would you wear a color because someone told you to? Even my mother let me choose my clothes when I was young. I guess my advice on this subject is to be sure not to do that and wear whatever color you like, whether you think you are a summer, winter, spring or fall. However, there are some strange warm and cool shades of brown that should not be worn by anyone. I mean, I like drawing with my “bark” colored Inktense pencil, but wouldn’t want to wear anything that color. Just sayin.’

July 4, 2020

Vernazza final
June 2010 view from our hotel window in Vernazza, June 2020 (water soluble pastel crayons on grey-toned pastel board)

This week I have been on an extremely diverse journey of artistic expression, even for me. It all started with this nicely complicated pastel of a long ago view of Vernazza that I began week before last. It was a reaction to my frustrating attempt to do a quick painting during a virtual trip to Pienza with a sketching group (from last week’s post). I just finished this yesterday. When I create such a piece I kind of like to live with it and in it. I worked on it in sections, adding the non-colors underneath all the way to the final top coats, allowing for the grey tone of the actual board to show through in places. I have learned to be careful to stop each day before I go too far. Once I am done for the day I place it in a conspicuous place and try to walk past it often, scrutinizing it to see if I am happy with each days addition of pigment. And I say I like to live in it as I imagine myself looking out that second floor window of this view on the Visconte Via Roma, or walking up and down that particular street to and from the harbor. It’s no accident this is done on the rough pastel board, as I enjoy how it mimics the very rocks that were carved out to make this 11th century village. I read in Rick Steve’s 2010 Italy book that those buildings were not originally covered with brightly colored stucco, but rather made from indigenous stone. My recent virtual returning to Vernazza was divided with other artistic interests all week. And that all started last Sunday when I participated in a plein air workshop. The focus of that class was to create simple plein air sketches as simple value studies. You begin with an outline and deep shadows using a water soluble ink adding no more than 3 or 4 other colors after that. So, as I said, it was a week of differing focuses and techniques. Believe it or not, it was great fun! I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy a virtual trip to a beloved Italian town on the Cinque Terra, and still be able to go to the Descanso Gardens to sit on my handy dandy sheet of bubble wrap and sketch.

blue roof, 7.1.2020
Blue roof in Japanese Garden at Descanso Gardens, July 1, 2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolor on watercolor paper)

I went early to the Descanso on Wednesday (nice cool SoCal June gloom morning), hoping to try out the new (simpler) technique I had just learned. I thought I might go to the Japanese Garden to sketch. Before social distancing had become part of my life I almost never went into that part of the garden as there always seemed to be just too many people milling around for my level of pre-COVID comfort. However, I’d noticed recently that there didn’t seem to be too many in that part of the garden the last couple times I had walked past—just fewer people in the garden have helped I think. Also, I noticed they have placed ENTER and EXIT signs directing people along the paths inside. That probably helps people to keep their distance too. Works for me! But as I got closer I heard a skill saw and saw that someone was right where I had planned to sit, and they were repairing the wooden deck area. Hmm… I continued to wander, looking for the perfect spot. I came upon this view just outside that garden and across the trail. I could see the amazing “tea house” blue roof and the sound of the skill saw seemed farther away. Perfect! I laid out my materials and finished this one in no time—loving the simplicity of it. All it took was leaf green Inktense pencil as the outline/shadow pigment and just 3 other colors. As I was finishing up I noticed a mom with a babe in arms and what looked to be a 4-year-old watching me. I could tell that the little girl really wanted to come closer to see what I was doing. But practicing social distancing they stood about 10 feet away from me as the mom and I had a brief mask-muffled conversation about wanting to come closer. You could see in the little girl’s face that she really wanted to see what I was doing. It didn’t take me long to register that the reason I could see the little girl’s face was because she was not wearing a protective mask. Mom and I were each wearing ours, but the baby and little girl were not. I have noticed that such families seem to be all over the garden, but I am surprised to see that mom, or dad, is wearing a face covering, but often the little ones are not. That does make me wonder why they wouldn’t think to protect their young children too. I suspect they might say that the little ones won’t wear the masks. I guess that makes some kind of selfish sense to these parents, but they are still potentially exposing their children to the virus. And as much as I can imagine these parents wanting to get their kids outside to a garden, if they can’t wear a mask I’m not really sure they should be there.

Japanese Garden, Descanso, 7.3.2020
Colorful bridge in the Japanese Garden, Descanso Gardens, July 3, 2020 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

Not only did I finish the pastel yesterday, but I also went back to the Descanso Gardens, where I actually sketched this colorful bridge in their Japanese Garden. And the palette for this one was only birch colored Inktense pencil and two other colors. Woo hoo!

Next, I need to get some water soluble ink, a proper fountain pen, and do these again with proper ink and a couple watercolor colors. Such are the lofty plans for this one CA girl on July 4th, 2020. Don’t know about you, but it’s really hard to imagine making plans or mapping out future projects. I did start the sketch for a hydrangea botanical. But I’m taking it one day, or piece of art, at a time. Seems like the best non-plan for now. What about you?

Happy 4th of July!