September 26, 2020

Sonoran Desert, 9/20/2020 (Inktense pencil and watercolors on watercolor paper)

My latest virtual sketching journey actually took us to a location pretty close to my actual Southern California home—the Sonoran Desert. The Sonoran Desert includes parts of SoCal, a big chunk of southwestern Arizona, a small corner of western Mexico and most of Baja CA. With our recent triple digit temperatures you might wonder why anyone in CA would want to even virtually traipse through a desert right now. Probably one of the best aspects of a virtual journey to a such an arid climate is you can do all the traipsing around desired hills and dales you like without actually breaking a sweat—unless the ceiling fan is making a funny sound and you have turned it off. But you may have noticed, with this first sketch, the desert can actually be quite lovely without a hint of heat. What you see here is the Sonoran Desert in spring. I’ve posted a story or two about our nearby desert areas, and springtime in such an unlikely place can give you quite a spectacular color show when spring wildflowers come into bloom. There is a trick to really enjoying such a scenic journey and it has to do with very specific timing. First, you must be prepared to go there at a moment’s notice. No one really knows when great displays will appear. As if by magic great fields of every imaginable colored flower begin to show, usually after some kind of rain. I’ve heard it said that you can expect lots of flowers after a particularly wet winter, but not always. There’s another important thing to keep in mind if you want to see such a sight and it again has to do with the timing—it just doesn’t last very long, only a few precious weeks at the most. Once the sun comes out in earnest again, the color fades and everything get crispy again. It lasts just long enough for a few pollinators to show up and secure future generations of flowers. Because soon the flower goes to seed, somehow hiding away on the ground to hopefully grow again at a future flower extravaganza. The flowers could care less if we are there to see them at all. And they go through this process over and over again, but not in any predictable or particular way. Maybe that’s just as well, as you might imagine this ecosystem is quite delicate and doesn’t need lots of yearly traipsers stepping on the flowers. So, if you ever decide you want to visit the Sonoran Desert to see the wildflowers, have your bags packed in early spring, ready to go when you get the word. Also, be sure not to ever plan a visit in the summer unless you are part of some weird science experiment where you are asked to count horn toads while sitting in the shade of your truck or the shadows cast by a giant saguaro cactus.

Among the many college prep classes I took in high school, I will always remember an oceanography class senior year. Over that spring break we traveled to Baja CA to study the inland waters of the Gulf of CA as well as its salt water creatures. It was quite a trek from San Jose by bus to Puertecitos. And to get there we had to go through a bit of the Sonoran Desert. I already mentioned that we had all given up a week of spring break for this adventure and that would make it mid-April I think. I do not recall seeing any wildflowers, but I do remember the heat of the desert even though we were right next to the ocean. And when the afternoon sun was particularly nasty we all looked for shade. There were no shade trees, with no trees to speak of at all. In fact the only shade I remember was the shadows cast by the bus and various trucks that had made the trek with us. If you were lucky you could actually lean against a truck and visit with a friend while listening to music. (Yes, some of my friends actually brought cassette tapes to the Sonoran Desert.) You might think you could find a tall cactus for some shade. In researching possible larger flora that could be found in this part of the desert, there aren’t any. There is a huge tree-like cactus called the saguaro, but it does not appear to be native to Baja. So, it would be unlikely to find even one. It looks like there might be some in the southernmost part of the Sonoran Desert in SoCal. But most seem to be in Arizona and in the Sonoran state of Mexico. Even if there had been such cacti in our vicinity, I’m not sure leaning against such a prickly plant would have been considered, even with the promise of listening to the Doobie Brothers. 

One afternoon we saw the superintendent of our school district and his wife breeze past our parched group in a speed boat. I wouldn’t have known who they were if our oceanography teacher hadn’t pointed them out. I was surprised. I hadn’t seen them on the bus, nor had I seen one of our trucks pulling such a large boat. Our teacher told us they had come down to join us for our educational experience. You might imagine that we thought we would be taking excursions on that boat for the various projects we had planned while we were there. But we never saw them again. That was it! You’re not surprised, right?

Sonoran Desert with giant cactus, 9/20/2020 Not sure what kind of flowers are in the foreground. They are not CA poppies. They look a little like something from the mallow family–checkerbloom I think. (Ink with Fude nib fountain pen, watercolor, Inktense pencil, Prismacolor colored pencils for the sky on watercolor paper)

Looking at these cactus I was struck by the fact that these human looking tree-like plants seem to be an image I conjure up in my mind when picturing a desert landscape. (Maybe not so much for the Saharan Desert. For me, that’s camels and huge red sand dunes I guess.) What about you? Of course there are many kinds of cactus out here, but the distinctive tall tree-like saguaro aren’t everywhere in our nearby deserts. As I have already said the saguaro can only be found in a thin strip of SoCal. I can’t remember ever seeing one. Old cowboy movies seemed to proliferate a desert filled with such cactus for sure. And my brothers and I watched a lot of Looney Tunes cartoons growing up, and Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner were certainly part of our viewing pleasure. (Coyotes and roadrunners can definitely be found in our nearby deserts. And coyotes are everywhere—even in a Glendale neighborhood.) Aside from Wile E. Coyote buying items from Acme Corporation there was never a shortage of giant saguaro in those cartoon backgrounds. Actually, Looney Tunes was part of Warner Brothers Studios—far away from a desert filled with actual tall cactus. Only in LA do such strange and dreamy desert landscapes occur. Such is life in this so-called SoCal Dream Factory of past cowboys and cartoons.

First day of autumn was 9/22/2020

I love this time of year. The light is definitely different–less harsh I think. Hopefully our evenings will become cooler. If only the Santa Anas will be kind to us this fall–we all might breathe a little easier without those intense winds stirring up more fires. Here’s to hoping that comes true. Stay tuned.

September 19, 2020

Sunday, 9/6/2020–Virtual trip to Collioure, France, Church of our Lady of Angels (Inktense pencils and watercolors on watercolor paper–in the Fauvist style)

Do you even know what Fauvism is? If you were like me, you’d have heard of it, but that would be the end of that. On September 6th of this year we took a virtual trip to a place that principal fauvist painters Henri Matisse and Andre Derain made famous—Collioure, France. Collioure is on the Mediterranean at the southern tip of France. In fact, Collioure is just 15 miles from Spain and shares a lot of the same Catalan culture. I found that out by looking up information on the internet. But one of the members of our virtual sketching group is actually from that area of Spain, and she ardently confirmed the Catalan connection to Collioure. In fact, she contributed appropriate music for our exploration of the city.

So, now I can actually answer the question: What is fauvism and what does it have to do with Collioure? The actual word comes from the French word “fauve,” which means “wild beast.” Not really sure why anyone would want to be called a wild beast, whether you were a painter, fisherman or even a lion tamer. But there you are. And it seems there never would have been such colorful wild beasts if it weren’t for Collioure. It was the perfect storm of “place” meets Matisse and Derain with their amazing, revolutionary and thoughtful style of painting that was directly related to their visit to Collioure in 1905. Derain was credited as saying he was tired of the dreary grey skies of Paris and was seeking the sun. He was dazzled by the bright orange tiled roofs of Collioure’s buildings set next to the sapphire-colored sea. (Such a striking contrast is evident to anyone who has studied color. Orange and blue are on the exact opposite sides of the color wheel and known as complementary colors. Using that same definition, red and green are complementary colors, as are yellow and violet. Cool, right? Derain Matisse had it going on…) While immersed in the life and charm of this fishing village they developed a kind of freewheeling and creative style that was all about intense colors and emotions. A key feature of the fauvist style is the use of bold non-realistic and non-naturalistic colors. Other artists such as Dufy and Picasso also got the “fauvism bug,” traveling to Collioure to take in the color while painting. After I read that Picasso had also gone there to paint I kind of wondered why. He was from Malaga, which is on the southern coast of Spain. Hadn’t he already seen such a golden beach? I guess there was just something about magical colors that only existed further north. So, it probably wouldn’t be surprising that many artists still live and paint in Collioure today.

The first place we stopped on our virtual trip to Collioure was the beach with the distant 17th century church and bell tower that was once a lighthouse. It was actually great fun to go as bold and colorful as I could just with some heavy-handed saturated watercolor colors and Inktense pencil on absorbent watercolor paper. The fauvist artists of the 20th century primarily used oil on canvas and the pigment stood proud and bold next to each stroke of paint. It was fun when we all shared our personal interpretations of this scene in such color. I noticed that many of my buddies still hung onto a watercolor strategy, using softly blended washes and definitely realistic colors.

Sunday, 9/6/2020–trip to Collioure, France, Fishing boats (Inktense pencils and watercolors on watercolor paper–in the Fauvist style)

For our second stop we went closer in and visited some colorful fishing boats that seem to be emblematic of the old and new Mediterranean coast of France. By this time, I was ready to go for much bolder color choices. When Siri chimed, telling us our time was up, we again shared our work. It was evident that many of sketching buddies had had the same idea as I—embracing the wild and colorful beast inside. Very fun to see our transformations, much like the fauvists must have felt when they attempted something new.

Note: As I was trying to do a quick study of this sketching challenge, I couldn’t help remembering that I had seen similar boat shapes and colors that had been painted by Van Gogh. Sure enough, when I later looked for just such an image I found that he had painted fishing boats on the Mediterranean coast of France (Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer) in 1888. If you Google Van Gogh’s fishing boats of 1888 and Derain’s 1905 painting of fishing boats you will definitely see the similarity. I guess as revolutionary ideas may seem, such things rarely occur in a vacuum. Wonderful colors for both artists, I think. (The light in both places must have been similar.)

If you think you might someday like to take in the light and color of Collioure, I’m sure the town would welcome you and I as it did the fauvists of the early 20th century. They even have what’s called a Fauvism Trail that leads interested painters and tourists around the village to 20 different sites that both Andre Derain and Henri Matisse painted. It looks like fun. At each of the stops there is a marker and a reproduction of the painting they had been done on that exact spot. We are encouraged to compare the actual view with the hundred plus year old painting. It is a little shameful, if you think about it, as the town wants to exploit those wild beasts. I guess they aren’t breaking any kind of law, but I do wonder what Matisse and Derain would think of the flagrant tourist attraction. From what I’ve read of Picasso, he loved to be noticed and would probably be thrilled with the idea of a kind of pilgrimage to see his work in a kind of plein air setting. In the end I guess what fascinates me most about Collioure is that it’s probably changed very little in all that time. I don’t think there is a single place in CA that has stayed exactly the same for 100 years, or even 50 years for that matter. Or 10 years…What about where you live?

September 12, 2020

Virtual tour of Narragansett Bay (8/8/2020), Rhode Island (water soluble ink and Inktense pencils on watercolor paper)

On the 23rd of August I was treated to another virtual sketching trip. For this one we didn’t even leave the US, but instead went sailing on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. But before we left, our host shared the actual sketch book and fine point permanent black ink pens he used while sketching onboard the sailboat. (That was for the geeks and art materials nerds like me…) Then he showed us what was inside. I just love the way this guy sketches—small jewels of continuous fine line, with just the right amount of spare watercolor dropped onto the page. At first glance the color seems so random, but once you look at his overall composition, you realize it’s strategically placed. If I were to use one word to describe his work it might be “intimate” or even “romantic.” (If you have been following my blog I have already shared the ideas behind some of his sketching. He is the one who does what he calls “red light” sketches—see August 29, 2020 post.)

Once we had ogled his amazing pen and ink sketches he told us stories of how he captured his views. It seems he sat at the very back of the boat (There’s a name for that part of the boat, right?), sketch book and pen in hand, rendering the open water, other sail boats and shoreline as the wind scooted the crew, plus artist, along their way. He told us he first he did a continuous line ink drawing, then when he was ready to add watercolor, he just leaned over the side (There’s a name for that part of the boat too…) and filled up his water cup from the bay. OMG! I was so in love with this idea, making his painting process just as romantic as the finished pieces in hand. He also described the interesting watercolor effect he got when he mixed the bay’s salt water with the watercolor pigment. He said you didn’t notice any difference right away, as the magic happened only after the water evaporated and the paper dried. And once it was dry, small white halos are left behind where the tiny bits of salt have stuck to the paper. Just brush that off and it’s done. Magic!

Now it was our turn to virtually set sail on the Narragansett, sketching as we went. (Our host even found us some salty sea music and played a version of “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” I know that jaunty little tune, but the words I seem to remember were much more “off color.”) I did as he described and began the line work with my new Fude nib fountain pen filled with new purple ink. I let the ink dry, and added Inktense pencil. Finally, I grabbed a brush, dipped it into my paint cup filled with imaginary bay water, and started to blend the Inktense colors. Yikes! The ink was bleeding all over the place and into the other colors! Silly me, I hadn’t realized my new purple ink was water soluble. But you know what? I just let it go, letting the colors run and blend where they wanted. It was magic. I mean, I was out in  sailboat on the Narragansett, what was I going to do?

This might be a good spot to talk more about creating different paint effects whether you add the natural salt of bay water to damp watercolor pigment or attempt such a technique on dry land. You can see more about the effects of using rock salt with a watercolor wash by Googling just that. And if you want to go further with a cool background effect, check out a product called Brusho. It may look like a craft material rather than something a serious artist might use. But I have several sketching friends who have used Brusho and salt crystals to create amazing backgrounds. 

Virtual tour of Narragansett Bay (8/8/2020), Rhode Island–overlooking a lighthouse (water soluble ink and watercolor on watercolor paper)

At this point in our virtual tour of the Narragansett we were dropped off near a light house to sketch. And before I knew it the sailboat sailed away. All in all it was a great day in and by the bay. And I now have a real sailing adventure I would love to try someday. 

Until next time.

Virtually yours,

One California Girl 

(Please think of us kindly as we struggle to live and breathe with all this smoke.)

September 5, 2020

View from a hotel window in Ribeiro (riverside) district, Virtual Visit to Proto Portugal, August 8, 2020 (black ink and Inktense pencil on 6 in by 9 in watercolor paper)

Church (Igreja de Santo Ildefonso) with azulejo tiles and streetcar, Virtual Visit to Proto Portugal, August 8, 2020 (black ink and Inktense pencil on 6 in by 9 in watercolor paper)

Virtual View of street scene in Porto, Portugal, August 8, 2020 (black ink and Inktense pencils on 6 in by 9 in watercolor paper)

On July 4, 2020 I wrote about my June 5th virtual sketching tour of Italy. It didn’t go well, artistically speaking, for me and several days later I took myself on a solo tour of Vernazza. While looking at photos I had taken on a previous visit there I came across a view from our hotel window. The memory of my looking out that window immediately transported me to a pleasant virtual visit to the Cinque Terre. I think that image transferred much more successfully with my water soluble pastels on pastel board than the watercolors I did while virtually visiting Pienza and Bolsa, Italy. (I will probably never post those watercolors on One CA Girl.) Fast forward two months to August 8, and on to yet another virtual sketching event. This time we went to Porto, Portugal. Several of my sketching friends had been there for the July 2018 Urban Sketchers symposium. Each of those attendees said they had had a lovely time there and wanted to go back for another visit. I have never been to Portugal, but was definitely game for this trip as I had a plan to make this journey more successful than the June 5th trip to Italy. For our three thirty minute sketches in Porto I planned not to do full on watercolors, like I had previously attempted. Instead I had 6 by 9 rectangles of watercolor paper at the ready. And I was prepared to use only permanent black ink and a few colors of Inktense pencil. Then, when our group leader told us we had 5 minutes or less to finish a sketch, I stopped what I was doing, adding water to each piece as either a spray or a wet brush. 

I think my sketching plan worked. These pieces are OK. But I have to say that even though our “Porto” leader was playing music from Portugal while we were painting I was expecting to hear a different kind of singing, a different sound. What was I looking for? You’ll never guess. I was looking to hear a Bossa Nova beat, like something from Brazil. In fact I am listening to just that kind of music as I am writing this. I know, I know, just because the people in both countries speak Portuguese, I shouldn’t expect them to have the same kind of music, right?

So, I put it to you, if you could go somewhere to either sketch or just hang out (maybe listening to some music), where would you go? Maybe there’s someplace you have always wanted to visit. I have a few places on my list: several castles in Scotland, a couple gardens in Ireland, the Nairobi National Park, Vancouver/Victoria BC and Japan’s Nakasendo Trail, to name just a few. Of course if I could take a virtual trip in the Star Ship Enterprise’s Holodeck, I could go to all of those places and more. Because not only could I journey anywhere in real time, but I could also go back in time to a certain place as well. That would be amazing. 

Well, here we go! Set the Holodeck controls for 1960s Rio de Janeiro. I can just imagine a young girl walking down a street on her way to Ipanema Beach. A song was written about just such a girl by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, who sat many afternoons at a bar watching her walk by. In 1964 a song called The Girl from Ipanema was released on an album featuring Jobim, with his unique vocals and guitar and the bossa nova sound. But there was much more to this first recording and subsequent album because it also included the saxophone stylings of Stan Getz, a prominent and well known American jazz musician at that time. (Getz and Gilberto on the Verve label) And as I am still in the Holodeck I can listen to that hypnotic sound as it comes through my dad’s huge speakers in our living room in San Jose. He was enchanted with almost every song from both sides of that LP. And because we were surrounded with such music on a daily basis, I also became enchanted with that bossa nova jazz sound—even though most of the songs were sung in Portuguese. (I couldn’t understand a word.) But what’s great about that virtual trip is that I will never really need the Holodeck to go there. If I wish to be transported to that place and time all I need is the Getz and Gilberto album cover. Olga Albizu, an abstract impressionist from Puerto Rico, did the painting for it. Check out her work and music that went with it. You won’t be disappointed. As for me, I didn’t have to even take out my paints or brushes for this virtual sketching trip. I was just along for the ride.