January 9, 2021

Winter Solstice 2020-2021, the second, Descanso Gardens (crayon pastels on burgundy toned pastel paper)

Here is my second attempt to capture the 2020-2021 winter solstice at the Descanso Gardens here in So Cal. Last week I shared a pastel on toned paper of a huge and lovely gingko tree just outside Descanso’s rose garden. This week I rendered a large and lovely sycamore tree with overhanging pink bougainvillea next to an opulent display of bright yellow tubular flowers that were clinging to a brugmansia shrub. I know we of Southern CA are spoiled with mild weather right now and are still enjoying such amazing color in many of our gardens. In fact, I was in the rose garden this morning and there were still quite a number of roses in bloom. And right now, under the canopy of the garden’s magnificently huge oaks, are numerous camellia shrubs with numerous buds all along their branches. (Camellias generally bloom in February all over Northern and Southern CA.) If you are familiar with Southern CA you may have already noticed another tell tale sign of where you are. It’s the white washed Spanish style stucco posts with rustic wooden arbor holding up the masses of flowers, right? 

This week I again used my crayon pastels on toned pastel paper. For this piece the background color I chose was decidedly darker—a deep burgundy color. I don’t think I’ve said why I generally don’t use “chalk-like” oil pastels. It’s kind of a simple reason really. Regular pastels are a messy medium, with lots of dust floating around as you blend one color into another. Using a “crayon” pastel doesn’t produce any dust I can see and that’s good, I think. However, because they are not so soft and squishy I have almost no way to easily blend colors. I can use my finger tips to scrub colors together. But that’s it, and it’s pretty limiting. I have to press so hard it almost seems I am also blending in skin cells and my fingerprints onto that rough and toothy paper. Adding human skin to a sketch is a little creepy, right? Many years ago I used pastel dust to create some of my scientific illustrations, but that involved frequent use of a spray fixative. Dust and chemical spray, yikes! Even though each kind of pastel has its drawbacks, I still love the lovely soft quality of color you can get. So, I guess I will continue using the crayon version for now.

But I wonder if the real story of my recent winter solstice pastels is not the medium I choose to scribble with, but rather the “under” color story which comes from the actual toned paper. I’ve written about using this “under” color technique in a previous blog, but what I described was related to working with oil paint on canvas or birch. For those pieces I first put down a color that is not meant to be seen, but it is meant to positively affect another color that will be added on top. For example, I might first put down a soft pink in the area of the sky, with the intent of that showing through in the tiniest way after I add just right amount of cerulean and white on top. This would then represent one CA girl’s sky just before sunset. Or I might use a bright cadmium red “under” color for a hill that will later be covered in vineyards. I think the “under” red sharpens and intensifies the shades of green that is then layered on top. I have also used yellow ochre as an “under” color for a variety of greenery, adding just a bit of an earth tone effect. As for this series of pastels I don’t need to lay down a color, the paper comes in these luscious “under” colors that I just need to choose from. But it also means that I need to be aware of how I will use that color for everything—sky, structures, as well as any plants or animals I plan to add. There is an added bonus, or consideration, with this approach as I can use the darker background color to create instant shading. All of this is very strategic, but I love this kind of planning. I absolutely love imagining all the different ways to achieve what I want even before I put one color on the paper. 

OK, you’ve probably had enough of my artist geekiness. But wait, I have a couple more 2020-2021 winter solstice pastels to share. Maybe for the next one I will just post the art, no explanation needed? Not likely!

Happy New Year! (I forgot to say that last week.)

January 1, 2021

Gingko Tree at the Descanso Gardens, 12/21/2020 (crayon pastels on “soft umber” toned pastel paper)

I ordered a set of POSCA pens a while back and proceeded to go insane with plans to use them. If you have been following my blog you will see definite recent evidence of my obsession. From the outset I knew I would also want to use toned paper with these miracle markers. I first began experimenting with a kind of line work on some grey toned paper I had on hand (see 11/15/2020 and 12/19/2020 posts). But I soon realized this paper was pretty limiting and it would only be a stepping off place for my desired “texture driven” sketches on toned paper. I began looking online for different colors and ordered a packet of “warm toned” pastel and multi-media artists’ paper. It seemed perfect for any medium, even the POSCA markers. The packets of paper were advertised as either collections of cool or warm tones. The warm tones I chose included: sand, rich beige, Australian grey, soft umber, raw sienna, burgundy, aubergine, olive green, burnt umber and terra cotta. But as you may have already guessed, the acid free archival paper is not meant for all media. I should have realized that when something was described as tough and toothy it would not make a great surface for the felt-like tips of my pens. The pen tips would have been shredded in no time at all. Of course, right? Once I realized my mistake I ordered some smooth vellum finished black card stock and once that arrived I gleefully went to work with my POSCA markers (see 12/25/2020 and 11/28/2020 posts).

Initially I was annoyed with myself that I now had all this lovely “warm toned” pastel paper without any purpose. However, it didn’t take me long to find a lovely use for it. It came to me when my Urban Sketchers group got together on the 20th and I saw that one of my buddies had done a stunning watercolor of a gingko tree at the Descanso Gardens to mark winter solstice 2020. (She presented this lovely piece of finished holiday art while I obsessively sketched Santa and reindeer in a cartoon car…) I let that pass, but an idea just kind of went “ping” in my head. I knew I wanted to maybe do a pastel of a gingko tree. Without realizing it, my friend also helped me act quickly to make this happen as the very ephemeral deciduous leaves of the gingko tree can easily blow off the branches this time of year. So, I went over there the first day of my winter vacation, which happened to be the 21st, the official day of winter solstice. As I have been to the Descanso so many times I knew exactly where “her” tree was located. Sure enough, the minute I got near it, I knew this was the one. And as I began to sketch the tree in situ an even greater idea came to me. I knew I wanted to render more Descanso trees on pastel paper as a kind of homage to the first day of winter and the promise of more hours of sun over the next few months. So I took a photo of this glorious gingko and several other lovely golden sycamore trees with plans to render at least three more 2020 winter solstice pastels from the Descanso Gardens. (Good thing I went when I did as we’ve since had some very windy days, with a winter thunder and lightning storm that brought buckets of hail on Monday, 12/28. I was at the Descanso on the 30th and there were very few leaves on this epic tree.)

If you have never seen a gingko tree, it’s kind of worth it to try to locate one in the flesh someday. The autumn/winter leaves are a spectacular shade of yellow. I would guess the actual color to be close to a cadmium yellow, light hue. (The rest of the year the leaves are a very summery shade of light green.) If you find a really old and tall specimen in the fall you will be treated to a shock of countless small fan shaped leaves. And if the weather has just the right amount of wind you will also be treated to an amazing display of yellow confetti all around. Seeing the tree at the Descanso reminded me of a time I helped fabricate plant material for the Life Through Time exhibit at the Academy of Sciences in the late 80s and early 90s. One of the trees we replicated was a full size gingko tree. It seems that the gingko tree is a very old genus and there are fossils of that plant that go back 200 million years. It is believed that dinosaurs like the supersaurs and lambeosaurus (a kind of hadrosaur) ate the plant. We hand painted each tiny yellow gingko leaf that was later affixed to fabricated tree branches. It was quite fun as we were instructed to not only paint the leaves yellow, but occasionally create interest on a random leaf or two with hand-painted bug bites. It actually became a kind of competition to see who could make the most realistic bug bites—what a riot! With the recent remodeling of the CAL Academy that tree and all the other plants I helped fabricate are now gone. I sometimes wonder what happened to all that fake foliage and wish I had one of the prehistoric leaves I had painted, maybe one with a particularly great rendering of a bug bite! (I am so easily amused…)