August 9, 2020

PG and E with lupines
PG and E geodesic dome (San Ramon Technology Center), part of the Bishop Ranch Industrial Park in San Ramon with a great hillside of lupines. Photo taken in early 1990s, but watercolor was done 8/1/2020. (Watercolor, Inktense pencil and white acrylic on watercolor paper)

If you have been following my blog you might have seen the botanicals I posted this spring and summer (April 25, 2020, June 7, 2020, June 27, 2020, July 18, 2020 and August 1, 2020). You may remember those posts included flowers from the following plants: monk’s hood, rose, gladiolus, hydrangea, and orchid. And I have just about finished another one—maidenhair fern. I had also planned to focus on cherry blossoms and lupines. Kind of forgot about a cherry blossom botanical until I looked back at my notes. Hmm… And this is clearly not a botanical of a lupine. But I think such a landscape is better than a couple CA lupines as they would seem so lonely and frankly underwhelming. To truly bring out its best California features you need a whole hillside of flowers. I vividly remember taking the series of photos this particular view comes from. I was married at the time and we lived in an apartment not far from there. It was part of a huge planting on a hillside, behind an even huger industrial complex (Bishop Ranch). And the purple lupine enchantment did not end there. At the top of that hill were countless purple Ceanothus in bloom as well. It was such a glorious sight it took my breath away. 

Funny how things work. I had pulled out these photos to do a botanical of a lupine and wound up capturing a wonderful “urban sketching” moment. It’s also funny that if I had not included PG and E’s geodesic dome, and hint of surrounding buildings, it would not have been an urban sketch at all, but rather just a lovely lupine-filled landscape. Not sure it would technically count as an urban sketch anyway as it was done from a photo, not in the moment and plein air. Guess I would have needed a time machine to go back and paint this on the spot, but urban sketching didn’t really exist until 2007. So what’s the point? Besides, I wouldn’t want to waste a time machine trip for that. But this was such a pretty sight and memory that I decided to step into my “mind made” time machine for this landscape. I could almost smell the heady springtime fragrance as I worked.

As it turns out I had quite an art filled weekend as I also participated in an online LA Urban Sketchers event the next day. One of our members gave a wonderful demo of how to use a product called Brusho Crystal Colours to create backgrounds. (Yes, it’s made in England.) If you look it up you may notice that it says it’s for kids. Don’t let that put you off as the colors are so intense and wonderful. Looked like fun and I plan to order some and try it. When she was finished we went around the group and shared our recent art. For me, this is when it really got interesting, and it had nothing to the art I held up to the screen for others to see. One of our members shared that she had recently participated in some “nature journaling” with a group in Northern CA. Before she held up what she had sketched/written, she said it would not count as urban sketching, wondering if it would be OK to share. Thank goodness no one objected. When she held up her journal of plants and animals that she had sketched, I was immediately drawn to her art and intrigued with this idea. (And I don’t think I was the only one in the group who got the same feeling.) Anyway, she talked about someone called John Muir Laws and has books and website that encourages us to sketch and write about what we see in nature. His mission is for everyone to be aware of “Nature Stewardship Through Science, Education and Art.” This may not sound very earth shattering, but there is one more important aspect to his nature sketching stewardship that totally got me. He believes that when you keep a nature journal, you should be prepared to answer three questions about what you see. Those questions are as follows: 1. What do you see? 2. What do you wonder about what you see? 3. What does it remind you of?

Once she listed the importance of answering such nature questions when engaged in a plein air moment I realized I was already hooked. I fact, I had been unconsciously contemplating the answers to those very questions while doing this landscape. No kidding! Here’s what I mean:

What did I see? This actually has a two part answer. First, and foremost, I saw a riot of color and organic shapes that appeared to be hurrying down the sloping hillside. But I realized there was more to see here and it was important to this composition. Of course I had to include the human made horizontal line of implied buildings and the bright white geodesic dome. Now it becomes an urban sketch.

What did I wonder? I have couple “wonders” about this spot. Who planted the lupines, right? I tried to Google it, but no luck. My next “wonder” related to this hillside goes to wondering what it looks like now. I haven’t been back there since the early 90s, so I haven’t checked. My cynical side seems to tell me there are probably buildings at that location, with no more wildflower explosion every spring. But I bet you wonder what goes on inside that dome, right? I think I can answer that question. When my then husband and I lived there he worked for PG and E (Pacific Gas and Electric) in a building right next to the dome. I went on a tour of the place. It seems that experiments are conducted inside that huge dome related to high voltage electricity. They test transformers, power lines and other electrical equipment that might be problematic or malfunctioning. Such experiments are meant to test energy efficiency and safety. I remember an experiment they were conducting back then. They had a huge tree (maybe a redwood) next to some power lines attached to wooden power poles. A controlled storm inside the dome was whipping the lines against the tree. They were looking to see what kind of stress the lines could take before they would fail. OMG, they were simulating an electrical storm in there. I remember my husband saying that some of the experiments they did got pretty loud…do ya think?

What does it remind me of? As it turns out this CA girl was reminded of several other huge hillside explosions of CA lupines. I was reminded of a time I walked behind a friend’s house in Templeton and was treated to a sea of tiny balls of perky purple and white flowers covering a sloping hillside. Then there was a springtime that I was traveling north on the grapevine with my mom. There were masses of lupines on the left and CA poppies on the right. It looked as though someone might have tossed out the seed from an airplane.  I wrote about a hillside of lupines on a road in Atascadero (see December 8, 2018 post). I also remember an amazing display of not only lupines, but poppies, tidy tips and gold fields off another road in Atascadero (March, 24, 2018 post). And I did a huge oil of some hillsides of lupines across from Walmart in Paso Robles. I thought I took a picture of that painting before I sold it, but can’t seem to find it. I do wonder who planted all those seeds. Seems like such a wonder that there had been anything so beautiful on such an unlikely California corner. I’ve been back there and can tell you that there are now buildings on that spot. Guess if I want to see that again I’ll just have to step into my “mind made” time machine for that landscape. I can almost smell the lupines mixed with just a little oil paint, for good measure. 

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