June 26, 2021

Rose Garden/Descanso Gardens, 6/19/2021 (watercolor, Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

A morning of close encounters…

As I indicated last week, the LA Urban Sketchers were at the Descanso Gardens on the 19th. It had been over 15 months since we had gathered for an in-person sketching event and it was greatly anticipated by most folks in the group, and that included me. The night before I laid out all my usual watercolor materials. It felt a little weird because for my recent visits there I had only been taking my stealth bag of “non-wet” gear to do quick sketches. I would need a larger backpack and would be carrying water. I was concerned that we were meeting at 10 and I was used to arriving at 8—when it’s much cooler. In fact, for most of my recent sketching time at the Descanso I head for home at 10. I kind of wondered how I would feel sitting for a longer period of time, as doing a watercolor can’t really be timed or hurried. Would I freak out with more people nearby and milling around? Would I remember how to keep my pots of paint perfectly hydrated? Or would the dry hot temperatures of a typical SoCal day quickly dry out my carefully mixed colors? Silly, huh?

I guess my first close encounter for the morning was when I arrived at the rose garden pavilion. There were about 10 sketchers milling around. Some were quite sweaty as they had already been wandering around for some time. And most of them were not wearing masks—sweaty and no masks. Of course we were all standing pretty close together. I wondered what I was doing there. I had on my mask, but wondered why as I had been vaccinated. I had so many unanswered questions rolling around in my brain. I needed one answer to one question at this point. What was the plan for our morning together? I looked for our group leader, but she wasn’t there. It seems she had eaten something (a bit of disagreeable shellfish) the night before and wasn’t feeling well. Oh no! Now what? I was starting to sweat. Someone suggested we individually find a place to sketch and come back together at 12: 30 to share our work. Two and a half hours? It was already getting warm, and I wasn’t sure I would stay that long. But I thought I would give it a try. And just like that, everyone wandered away. I wondered if I would see anyone later that day.

I started looking for a spot in the shade and found that a sketcher had taken a favorite shady and cool bench. Darn. I looked for other shady spots under the trees, wondering how long each location would stay in the shade as the sun moved across the sky. I found what looked to be a shady bench across the path from a patch of roses. I set up everything. But I soon realized that the solid shade around me seemed to be changing to filtered sunlight. Hmmm… I decided to move down the trail to the next bench, about 10 feet away. This new spot would stay in the shade all day and was across from the beautiful arbor of roses you see here. As I re set up my materials, a number of couples seemed to like this same arbor. They sat at my arbor bench and took numerous selfies—smiling and having a good time. But they were blocking my view and I didn’t want them to think I was staring. Maybe I should move again? I didn’t want to as I had noticed a least a half dozen fellow sketchers sitting on the grass behind the arbor. I wanted to be near them, so I stayed put. Thank goodness couples stopped coming around and I could focus on what I wanted to draw.

But I soon found myself engaged in one close encounter after another. First, I chatted with a fellow sketcher who was sitting at the next bench, further along the trail. Once she left I did a rough sketch of the rose arbor. Then a man with a walking stick stopped in front of the arbor and started a conversation. He was rather charming, and by the time he walked away he had definitely shared with me his philosophy of life. Then a woman stopped to ask me about what we were all doing. She shared that she loved to paint and I suggested she look into Urban Sketchers. She thanked me and moved on her way. Finally, I had a minute to mix my pots of color and I added the first layers of rose and arbor colors.

I stopped to stand up and eat a snack. I noticed a couple with their two small children standing in front of my first bench. They were watching a snake as it made its way under my first bench, across the path and into the nearby roses. All of sudden the whole family took a step back. I walked a little closer and saw the 3 foot snake just as it had made it into the shrubbery. It’s rattle (with maybe 5 rattles) was still clearly visible. Yes!! It had a diamond pattern on its back and was most certainly a rattlesnake. I alerted my sketching friends on the nearby grass and they all stood up quickly to see what I was talking about. Nobody sat back down right away, but instead took turns looking to confirm that a rattler was mostly hidden in the nearby roses. A short time later a Descanso Gardens employee went past in her golf cart. We got her attention and told her about the snake. She called someone on her radio and soon a guy showed up with gloves, a proper snake stick and a bucket with a lid. We knew he meant business as he very skillfully used the stick to get the snake into the bucket (marked with the word “rattlesnake”) and carefully put on the lid. No harm came to the snake, the snake wrangler or anyone else. When asked what would happen next, he said that he would take it to an area way at the back of the Descanso and release it. Good!

While this was going on a family had begun hovering near my bench. The parents and grandfather were talking intermittently to each other and me. Their 4-year-old child/grandchild was mesmerized at the sight of my palette and pots of paint. Even with a snake in the bushes it was clear she wanted to paint with me. However, once the snake excitement was over they continued on their way along the path. I was finally alone, but still hadn’t completed this watercolor. And it was noon! Somehow I had managed to stay in the rose garden the whole morning. I finished up and headed over to the rose garden pavilion. There were at least 20 sketchers and they had already placed their finished artwork on a concrete bench. It was so crowded with art there wasn’t enough room for all of us to share. Some of us had to find space on a nearby post. How wonderful is that? Can there ever be too much art to share? And for my final close encounter we crowded together for a group picture, with all of us holding up our art and smiling. We were all sweaty and there wasn’t a mask in sight–we’d all been vaccinated! What a perfect way to come together for some in person sketching and welcome summer 2021!

Happy Birthday Brian (6/29)  

June 19, 2021

At the beginning of the week I found myself wondering what to share today. I went to the Descanso Gardens last Saturday morning, and wandered around. I did some sketching, but nothing really moved me to write about. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time at the Descanso, as is my usual. They have some funny displays for summer that include a huge model of a trap door spider half buried in the ground, a larger than life oak gall that’s been painted bright red and hanging from an oak branch, life-size and oversized models of butterflies all around, and hovering/emerging from the water in the front pond is a giant dragon fly beside a dragon fly nymph respectively. Even with all those thought provoking items I found myself thinking was a children’s picture book I had started in the late 90s and early 2000s, very much like my bunny book (see 4/10/2021 post). And for some reason I thought I had given that book the title, One California Girl. Weird huh? Indeed, it would be very odd if I had used that same name over 20 years ago and only just remembered doing that. I had done some sketches and completed a thumbnail for a 40 page picture book that I was sure I had entitled On CA Girl. I had a good idea as to which portfolio I would find all of that and went looking for it. It was where I expected, and I was actually relieved that it had a different title—The Native Californian. I remember that I was kind of obsessed with native CA plants at the time and since I was also a native, it all just seemed like a good idea for a story. And I still love the idea for such a picture book. I must admit that what I wrote about then and now are very similar. For both the blog and the picture book I sketched/painted/rendered specific places in CA, told stories of my CA family as well as shared things that have always interested me about CA. However, The Native Californian was an imagined and partly real story of me as one 11-year-old CA girl. And as it was imagined as a book it had a definite beginning, middle and end. One California Girl doesn’t necessary run in such a linear way as I seem to drop myself into places and times in mostly CA, and each story is my response to a specific piece of art I have created. 

What you see here are a couple sketches I envisioned for the title page of The Native Californian. As I said, I was pretty obsessed with native plants at the time and the lettering for the title was done as native wildflowers with “Californian” as a car license plate. I know the sketch of the actual title is pretty light and might be hard to read. Sorry. I guess I never got around to inking it in—it’s still just what I wrote with a hard leaded pencil on graph paper all those years ago. The house you see here is real and can still be found in Atascadero. It belongs to my son’s great aunt. I did a couple versions of this house on the hill, and thought it would be interesting to share both. (Both were done with quite a fine point black ink pen.)

I don’t plan to share the whole story here like I did with my thumbnails for another idea I had for a picture book (see July 28, 2018, Life on the Farm: A tale of the magical reality in my CA life). I’ve always loved this house, and my son’s great aunt still lives there. You may have noticed that it looks a bit like a boat, and in fact it was constructed to look like Noah’s ark. However, it has never looked like it’s floating in a sea of sunflowers—I imagined that. Actually, on that side of the house there is a huge expanse of asphalt that leads to her basement. It’s where my son’s great aunt dries out her walnut crop each year. Once they are dry she bags them up and sells them to a variety of people as well as to the folks at farmer’s market in San Luis Obispo. Even though she doesn’t have flowers that close to the house she often has sunflowers somewhere in her garden. One year she had quite a sunflower patch on the hill behind the house. But that particular year she had also planted hot pink hollyhocks with the sunflowers. What a sight! It’s funny, I have never shown her any of the art I did for the book. I even did her portrait…I wonder what she would think of her house floating in a sea of sunflowers and hollyhocks? But she’s just another native CA girl from the country and would think that was nonsense. “Where would I dry my walnuts?”

Went to the Descanso Gardens with my urban sketching group today. That was great! It was so fun to see everybody—there must have 20 of us. There was even a 3 foot rattlesnake in the roses. (Not kidding!) I didn’t draw the snake, but did a rather nice watercolor of the roses climbing a nearby arbor. I’ll share it next time. I wonder if someone sketched the snake? Stay tuned…

June 12, 2021

In the fall of 2018 I found myself at the entrance to the Descanso Gardens, studying a large and unusual autumn sculpture made from the woody bits of palm trees, called bracts. Such bracts surround the flower spikes (inflorescence) of a palm tree and are normally way up at the top of mature and tall palms. However, such palm tree bits often drop to the ground—especially on windy days. Each bract and inflorescence can grow to be pretty long up there. And the display I was looking at had many individual bracts that were at least 6 feet in length. Each one had been spray painted a wonderfully bright color, then layered one on top of the other to form tall organic columns. On the ground and all around these colorful piles of SoCal palm tree detritus were lots of bright orange pumpkins. It was very dramatic. I wasn’t sure if I could recreate the display, but knew I wanted to do something like it for my 2018 outdoor holiday display. Once I left the Descanso I began to look around for interesting and usable palm tree parts that had fallen to the ground. Palm trees are pretty common here in SoCal, so I hoped I would find what I was looking for just laying around. That Thanksgiving I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Long Beach and saw great piles of palm tree bits in the streets and yards of their Belmont Shore neighborhood. (We had had a major storm and the wild winds snapped off just what I was looking for.) I picked through the damp mess and made a pile of bracts/flower stems I wanted to take home. As it turned out, they were pretty heavy and I had to drag the stash to my car in several loads. Once I got them home, I let them dry out and sprayed painted each one metallic gold. Then I placed them around my front door and windows. The gold was not as dramatic as the bright colors I had seen earlier, and my display didn’t look like much from the street. But, once you got up close it was much more interesting, or so I kept telling myself! In the end I had to admit that it looked quite underwhelming and I should have put all of it in the green waste after the holidays. But they were too long to fit easily into the cans, and I didn’t want to go to the trouble of cutting them down. So I tucked them away in the garage for another day of ?? 

Fast forward to spring break April 2021. Some of my climbing plants (specifically my moonflower morning glory) had greened up and were looking for something to climb. I found myself again looking at the palm bracts/flower stems that had gathered quite a bit of dust in my garage and decided they might be interesting to use for just that purpose. I brushed them off, got out my saw to cut each one down a bit, then I placed them near the climbing morning glory. Looking at the art I have shared here today, you may have guessed, something unseen by me, must have also been looking for a place to climb.  

I didn’t see the chrysalis for this specific monarch butterfly until the 8th, but there it was nonetheless. Once I see something that’s so bright and obvious I am astounded that I didn’t notice it earlier. But maybe it’s best if such events are not always evident to us mortals. We don’t need to see or know everything. However, once I caught on that monarch caterpillars from a nearby milkweed plant might be looking for a place to climb I monitored this very palm tree flower spike daily. 

And guess what? On May 19 I saw another monarch caterpillar that had clearly climbed the same palm tree flower spike. It had attached itself to a spike tip that was very close to the first chrysalis. However, this one had not yet magically cloaked itself into a sparkly green shell, but by the next day it had changed. I am pleased to report this one finished its metamorphosis just as the other one had. But I didn’t get to see this one crawl out its chrysalis skin. As I said, I don’t need to see or know everything. I was just thrilled the caterpillars had found a safe place to continue their life cycles—sending yet other lovely monarch butterflies into the world. I guess I’m glad I didn’t bin those palm tree flower spikes after all.

However, I must report that one of my squirrels and her two babies seem to enjoy climbing the palm tree bracts against a post, across from the chrysalis. It appears that with this additional height, a leap into the air could result in contact with the bird feeder, which might result in a bonanza of sunflower seeds on the ground. I’ve hear them banging around out there, trying to launch themselves from the golden holiday palm bracts. I already know too much about what’s going on, I can’t look…

June 6, 2021

Artistic cats and random COVID masks…

This is a painting I did of a friend’s kitties in 2016. (Their names were Matisse, Picasso and Georgia—yes, Georgia as in Georgia O’Keefe.) I saw it hanging in their house the other day and realized I had never taken a photo of the finished piece (oil on birch panel). So, I took it off the wall and took this picture for my records and to share here. If you have been following my blog this grouping may look a little familiar. Before doing the painting I did a finished sketch as well as a quick color test sketch. I always do a finished sketch for a painting, but don’t always experiment with colors the way I did for this one—see November 1, 2020.

I don’t have much to say this week, other than my usual highs and lows with global, local and personal events. Suffice it to say that I spent much of the week and yesterday trying to perfect the perfect boule using Nancy Silverton’s starter recipe. And I was still trying to get the bread to properly ferment last night at 10 pm so I could set it to proofing. It did neither and I went to bed. Then the power went off for several hours this morning, so I went to the Descanso Gardens to reflect on all things not related to bread and the possibility of food spoiling in my frig.

However, looking at this piece of art makes me happy. I distinctly remember having great fun working out how to render the fur of these three lovely silverpoint Siamese. And believe it or not, there is a connection between the art and the following photo.

I used some kitties and puppies at a birthday party themed fabric to make some masks at the very beginning of the pandemic. This was back in the days before they were as common as they are now. The pattern I used was from a New York Times article I found online (from March 31, 2020). I made a couple more with this very fabric, but only had enough elastic on hand for this one. I had to make cloth straps for the others. I gave the non-elastic strapped masks to the owners of Matisse, Picasso and Georgia. (I ordered more elastic and later updated the masks for my friends.). And before getting vaccinated, and we found ourselves at an appropriate distance apart, we would wear our “kitty” masks. I will miss those days. Do you think I really mean that? Am I crazy? Of course, there is nothing I will miss about worrying, staying a measured distance from my friends and wearing a mask where ever I went–even one made with such cute kitty and puppy fabric.