August 17, 2019

Ford House
John Ford House, built in 1887. Originally located in downtown LA, but later moved to Heritage Square Museum, sketched it plein air, July 19th

On July 19th I took the Gold Line Metro to the Heritage Square Museum. I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church, originally built in 1897, to sketch the Ford House. I chose to sit there because it was shady and I liked the view you see here of the house and garden. The Ford House and Methodist Church were not originally constructed here, but moved to this location at a much later time. Such is the disposition of a total of 9 LA structures you can see at the Heritage Square Museum. They date from the time of the Civil War to the early 20th century. (If you want to learn more about the history of the museum you can Google heritagesquare.org)

It was a warm Friday midmorning and I had gotten there later than planned. And even though I had originally intended to add some watercolor color to the Ford House (kind of a golden ochre on the wooden clapboard siding) I resolved to at least get the house and garden rendered in ink, with some graphite for additional shading. When I finished it was mid day and I was done with the heat. I decided to try to return on a cooler Friday midmorning for some additional sketching. (They are open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 to 4:30.)

Methodist Church
Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church, 1897, sketched this one August 9th at Heritage Square Museum

On Friday, August 9, I once again got on the Metro Gold Line and headed for the Heritage Square Museum. It promised to be a cooler day than my previous visit. This time I thought it would be fun to try to render the curved wooden shingles, clapboard siding and windows of the Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church. I sat at a shady picnic table under a sycamore tree that afforded me the straight on view you see here. Once I roughed in the pencil sketch I added ink and some colored pencil. (Last time I had brought all my watercolor materials. But for this visit I decided to travel light and only brought my colored pencils, and pen and ink—no brushes, paints or water for painting. Oh, but I brought a snack and water to drink, of course.) I read on the Heritage Square website that the original stained glass windows in this church (as well as some pews) were stolen before it was moved here. For now, large panes of solid colored glass have been substituted. However, it seems that research regarding what those windows looked like has begun and it is hoped that someday soon reproductions of that glass will be installed. And in the event that the glass is replaced I would certainly enjoy returning to that picnic table under the dappled light of the sycamore tree to sketch the church again with all the rainbow wonder of my watercolor colors. It was a beautiful day, with the sky an inspiring shade of cerulean and the surrounding trees were bright with greens and golds. Even though I only added just a hint of color on the church itself I was happy with this sketch and spent more than a few minutes taking pictures of it. (I have recently been experimenting with the “live” setting of my phone. And I found that I could capture this image with the hint of the breeze that was blowing at the time, making the corner of the page flutter. I have tried to include that bit of movement in my blog, but I can’t figure out how to do that.)

southwest museum station
Photo of one of three mosaic tile guardian figures on columns, made of painted tile and sculpted metal wings at Southwest Museum Gold Line metro stop. The guardians and some fun seating at the stop were implemented by Paul Polubinskas. (Not sure what implemented means, but let’s just say there are some fun artistic elements at this and most of the Gold Line Metro stations.

There is a Heritage Square stop on this metro line, but believe it or not the Southwest Museum stop is actually closer. And believe me, I tried both. This station is actually key to a couple other LA museums—the Southwest Museum of the American Indian (open Saturdays from 10 to 4) and the Lummis House (only open on the weekends). Getting off at the Southwest Museum stop you can see the Southwest Museum on a hill to the left. And when walking on Avenue 43, on your way to the Heritage Square Museum, you go right past the Lummis House, also known as El Alisal. This little piece of northeast LA, near the edge of the Arroyo Seco, has a lot of LA history that you wouldn’t even guess at when zooming past them going north or south on the 110 freeway.

As I was sketching the church I was reminded of the various kinds of architecture you can see here in CA. I have sketched and written about some of them. I have described CA mission dwellings that were built from huge blocks of adobe, stone, timber, brick, and tile (January 1, 2018, July 14, 2018).. I have also described stucco- covered Spanish revival homes that were built here in the 20s and 30s (art only, May 28, 2017, October 21, 2017). I have also made mention of Greene and Greene craftsman style homes that can be found here as well (March 31, 2018). Sketching the wooden cladded buildings that can be found at the Heritage Square Museum reminds me of a kind of architecture known as Victorian or Edwardian. According to Wikipedia, structures with Victorian architecture were built from the mid to late 19th century. Anything built later, when Edward was king of England (1901 to 1914), would be considered Edwardian architecture. (Not sure I can actually tell the difference between Edwardian and Victorian.) But if you Google “The Painted Ladies of San Francisco”, you will see a row of Victorian/Edwardian homes that I think have become quite famous and a tourist attraction at Alamo Square. (Sadly, I think lots of other wooden “stick houses,” or Victorians, burned down as a result of the 1906 earthquake.)

As it turns out I know a little about a particular farmhouse turned Victorian in Grass Valley. My parents bought the house in the late 70’s and they lived in it from the mid 80s until 2013. The house was built in 1863 and started out as a single story farm house with no electricity or running water. Sometime later a second story with a wrap around porch and lots of Victorian brick-a-brack was added. Such brick-a-brack included decorative railings, turned porch posts and a large hand carved wooden sunburst above the front door. Once that was completed it became a rooming house for gold miners who worked in the mines in town. The house did have some non-Victorian interesting quirks in that the upstairs door openings and doors were all pretty short. And the doorknobs and railings were lower than you would expect. It was surmised that the Cornish miners who had come to this part of the gold country were short in stature, and such things as door knobs and railings were lowered to accommodate these men.

As these houses were made entirely of wood and needed to be painted to protect the wood from the punishing effects of wind, rain, snow and sunlight (probably the most destructive weather element).  But it always seemed funny to me that such homes were often painted all over white. You would think that the wood carver of such a beauty would want to use color to show off their exacting and detailed work. And if you have now looked at the “Painted Ladies of San Francisco,” you will see how such color was added to rows of Victorians/Edwardians in the 1960s. In fact, when my parents bought their Grass Valley Victorian it was all over white. But they soon painted it a warm yellow with white trim. And before they sold it they changed the white trim to a deep blue, forest green and a plum color–emphasizing all the various carved wooden details. 

I now live in a house that was made with large river stones and covered in stucco. It was built in the 1920s, but I don’t think it could be described as any of the styles I have mentioned here. I don’t need to live in an architecturally significant house. My house is old and quirky, just like me! And I love it—just another quirky SoCal house for one more quirky California girl. 

August 10, 2019

NS1, 7:5
Aristide Maillol “Mountain” sculpture (1937), back garden of Norton Simon, July 5, 2019 (Prismacolor colored pencil on Bristol board)

Sorry I missed posting on onecaliforniagirl.com last week. I was on vacation.

For this week’s offering I have again included a couple versions of a favorite sculpture in the back garden of the Norton Simon. If you have been following my blog you may recognize this lovely “Mountain.” On September 8, 2018 I shared two versions of her from the other side of the pond—one rather close up and the other far away, creating the illusion that she was nestled in the lovely background shrubbery. For my September 15, 2018 post I focused again on this lovely “Mountain” for a speed sketching activity with a sketching group. For this activity we stepped outside to the back garden and walked along the path until our group leader suggested we stop and find something to draw. We stood there for 20 minutes, feverishly sketching, until the alarm on her phone went off. We then walked a bit further until another sketching spot was chosen for a quick 20 minute sketch. (This is actually very similar to the April 20, 2019 Sketchcrawl I wrote about, except we weren’t getting on and off a train every 20 minutes to draw what we saw.) 

I think I have shared here that the first Friday of every month the Norton Simon Museum is open and free from 5 to 8 pm. And there is a kind of standing invitation from one of my sketching groups to gather at that place and time. From 5 to 6:30 we are invited to sketch what we like. At 6:30 we have a throw down and then go together somewhere in the museum (could be inside or out) to do a coordinated group sketch. As is my usual, I shoot out the back door at 5 pm and head for the garden. And it seemed the “Mountain” was calling me again. So, I rolled out my bubble wrap on the grass in front of her—actually it’s “her” rear view—and began planning my sketch. Not really sure why, but I decided I wanted a vertical rearview with a kind of diagonal flow of the background trees and shrubbery behind her. I remember learning long ago in an art class that when you include something on a diagonal, it gives the piece a kind of action or element of movement. It made me giggle a little as this statue is pretty massive and I’m sure she wasn’t going anywhere. Of course, perhaps she recognized me and was tired of me repeatedly looking at her. Maybe she planned to jump over the pond and hide away in the background of darkness next to the tree I had conveniently placed there for her escape.

NS2, 7:5
Aristide Maillol “Mountain” sculpture (1937), back garden of Norton Simon, July 5, 2019 (ink, Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

That hour and a half went by very quickly and soon it was 6:30, so I joined our group in the lobby just inside the glass doors. It was time for the throw down. (This is when we share our sketches.) It’s such a geeky artist thing to do…but I love it! Once we finish with this wonderfully “self affirming” bit of sharing our group leader usually suggests some kind of group activity (like speed sketching in the back garden) before the museum closes for the evening. She didn’t have a particular assignment for us on that July 5 evening and we were instructed to sketch what we liked and meet back in the lobby at 7:45.  So, I found myself back on the grass, looking again at the back end of that beautiful “Mountain.” But this time I wanted to render her in a completely different way. For this one I have her sitting largely in the middle of a horizontal field of grasses, and I rendered her with my Inktense colored pencils and black ink pen on watercolor paper. (I also did a little spritzing of water to diffuse the background colors a bit.) With that calming horizontal plane there was no hint of action on her part—no escape plan seemed necessary. However, it did seem that she was definitely communicating something with her body language, even though she was facing away from me. Maybe with the downward angle of her head close to her extended left hand she was trying to say, “no more, please stop.” 

For both images you may have noticed the ambient light coming from the left. That was a completely accidental, and yet wonderful, lighting effect. I took those photos on my kitchen table on July 6 at 6:26pm, and that was the exact light that was coming through the window next to the table. I’m not sure, but I think the striated effect was due to the angle of the sun’s rays as it passed through the window screen. It’s not a typical screen as it is metal and a kind of heavy gauge. And the glass on that window is old and wavy—that may have contributed to the effect as well. Anyway, I hope to remember to try taking a photo of a piece of art in that same spot next July 6th at 6:26pm. What are the chances I’ll remember to do that? Trying to stay positive!

As I was writing this week’s words I reflected on all the different ways I had rendered this same statue, with a different and pleasing outcome for each sketch. Each time I found myself near the “Mountain” I wanted to draw her, but I never expressly went to the Norton Simon for that purpose. Not really sure why I have had such an unintended obsession with that statue. There are quite a few statues out there, but she seems to be my muse that draws me to the pond, trees and shrubbery that she watches over. But maybe now I’m finally done with the “Mountain?” Probably not! Although she may have had enough of me…

August 2
Ducks in pond in back garden of Norton Simon, August 2, 2019 (ink and colored pencil on Bristol Board)

As you can see I was at the Norton Simon on Friday evening, August 2, and found myself once again in the garden. I often sit on the grass beside the pond and sketch. That evening I breezed past the grass and sat on a bench overlooking the pond from the opposite end. I decided to sketch that end of the pond—imagining I would catch a couple ducks as they breezed between past the two foot grasses that lined the foreground. I didn’t intentionally avoid the “Mountain,” she’s just off to the left and out of view of this view. 

And yet another update on the guards at the Norton Simon…Keep off the grass!

In previous posts I have written about the “guards” at the Norton Simon. Unfortunately, my stories have not painted these officious women and men in a very favorable light. Here is yet the latest…

For this sketch I sat on a bench and didn’t attempt to sit on the grass. And it’s a good thing I didn’t want to sit there. It seems there is a new rule now and no one is allowed on the grass, or too close to the edge of the pond. It seems that a week or so ago someone got too close and fell in. But instead of the rule being stay a foot away from the edge, the entire grassy area is now off limits to all humans. (Maybe that’s why I noticed only a group of ducks gathered on the grass, near the water’s edge. There were also no small children were running amok on the lawn either…) There was just one guard on duty out there that evening and she tried to make it sound like they don’t have enough guards to wander that back garden to remind people to keep away from the edge. So, she marched continuously around the garden, telling people to keep off the grass. I just hope this new rule will not keep me from sketching what I like back there. One of my artist friends set up her camp chair on the edge of the trail. I wonder how long that will be tolerated. Well, I won’t be back there for a month or so. We’ll see what happens next time time I am there. Still trying to stay positive. Stay tuned…

 

July 27, 2019

July 2000 article
July 2000 magazine article

Thinking of last week’s art and story about flowers and insects reminded me of an article I did for a children’s magazine when my son was little and we lived in Paso Robles. As you can see the art for last week’s story and this week are of insects on flowers, but the art for the July 2000 article featured a project a parent might do with his or her child. Last week’s story was actually linked more to the art rather than the words, I think. And even though my son just graduated from college, I decided to see if the “beetle making” procedure I wrote about still worked as well as it did almost 20  summers ago. It’s been a hot week here in So Cal, so making and painting the Plaster of Paris beetles was a fun indoor project. How well I remember thinking of such things to do to keep a little kid entertained when it was just too hot to be outside. (Oh yes, Paso Robles can easily get to over 100 on a typical July day. Of course the best remedy for that kind of heat involved putting the dog, the boy and few beach toys in the back of the station wagon and heading to Cayucos for the day. Ahhh…) 

The art for this July 2000 magazine article shows a couple ladybugs, or ladybird beetles, on a favorite CA wildflower. The common name for this flower is tidy tip and it is part of the genus, Layia. It can be found in lovely blankets of bright yellow on some of the grassy hills of CA in spring. I love the jagged edges of the flower with a definite line that seems to have been painted onto each flower petal. I have actually seen them in shockingly bright circles of yellow in a “fairy ring” (vernal pool in Fairfield—July 1, 2017) And as far as I can tell, you can see ladybugs flying around most months in California except in winter. It seems that they like to find warm spots to hibernate when it gets cold and I have a personal story about that. When my then husband and I were living in 1989 Walnut Creek (East Bay) I put some ladybugs on the potted plants I had out on our deck. There was quite an infestation of aphids that summer and I was sick of picking them off my flowers. I wanted some heroic ladybugs to come and eat the dreaded aphids. So, I bought a bag of ladybugs at a nursery. I remember carefully following the directions on the bag that described how to release them into your garden. Here’s what you do: On a coolish evening, lightly spray your plants with water. Then cut open the bag and gently shake out the beetles onto your plants. (I guess the water is to give them something to drink.) The idea is to distribute them as the sun is going down onto damp plant material. This is so they will hang around and not fly off immediately as they probably would if it was warm and the sun was high in the sky. (I don’t actually remember what time of year I did this—it was probably early fall.) After a time, I noticed the aphids were gone. I wondered if the ladybugs had done the trick or the evenings had just gotten too cool for the aphids to survive. I actually forgot all about the ladybugs until sometime after Christmas when I moved a pot that was close to the deck enclosure wall. And what did I see? There were at least 100 hibernating ladybugs clinging to that wall. I realized I may have compromised the little red nest of beetles and quickly put the pot back exactly as I had found it. I went out there everyday that winter, trying to view the ladybugs in the dark crack between the pot and the wall, but didn’t dare move anything. I couldn’t see anything! When the warmer spring weather finally turned up I finally got up the courage to move the pot. There wasn’t a single ladybug to be seem anywhere. It was always my hope that I hadn’t disturbed them too much and they had stayed there all winter. Such are the funny wishes and dreams of a gardener.

If you are not interested in making Plaster of Paris ladybugs or other beetle you won’t want to read the directions for making your very own insects as described in my July 2000 story. But, if you are a kid at heart, like me, you will want to make them just for fun.

set up for beetles
Materials needed to make the Plaster of Paris bugs
plaster of paris spoons
Plaster of Paris in spoons on a cookie sheet

I happened to have on hand all of the materials you see here, except the Plaster of Paris. I had the plastic cups, water, old cookie sheet and compostable spoons. Remember, this is California and of course I used compostable spoons for this project, but there was no such thing in July 2000, so I used non-compostable spoons. (Of course back then I would have washed them after I did the project and used them again.) Time to reread the directions as stated in that story. (You may have noticed I only made 6 this time around.)

bugs are done
Painted Plaster of Paris beetles (Clockwise from upper left to lower left: dung beetle, two-part stag beetle, ladybug, potato beetle, 1960s VW Bug)

Once the Plaster of Paris dried, I popped out the little beetle shapes and began planning the destiny of each one. Oh, and just for the record, the potato beetle is actually a pest and is not a happy sight for potato farmers, but I liked the colorful stripes and made one anyway. I also thought myself clever in making a two-part stag beetle and a dung beetle, and of course the 1960’s VW beetle was amusing to me…a kind of “tongue in cheek” beetle.

As you can see I also made a ladybug. And while mixing the perfect shade of red I remembered another “true” ladybug story. It goes something like this: Once upon a time one CA girl followed a northern CA creek in some northern CA woods. Some of the time she walked in the water, but most of the time she had to scramble up and over boulders to stay with the narrow creek filled with slow moving water. She imagined great winter storms of water moving the large and smoothly rounded rocks all around her. By and by she climbed up onto a large boulder and decided to take a break. She laid down on the rock and got as comfortable as she could. It was pretty enchanting there, looking up into the trees while listening to the creek swoosh past the rocks. Just above her there was quite a swarm of ladybugs and she thought this an even better detail to later remember and retell to others. A couple of them landed on her. She wondered if this was some kind of woodland welcome, but almost instantly they began biting her. Each bite actually felt like a kind of sharp “pin prick” pinch. She jumped up immediately—getting off that rock as soon as possible. She quickly moved away further down the creek. After she had gone a few feet she turned around to see if they were following her. Thank goodness they stayed right there, hovering in a bright red swarm directly above that rock. She was surprised and a little horrified at what had just happened. When she later told someone of the encounter they just laughed and told her that just wasn’t possible. 

I think most people believe in a ladybug’s benevolence rather than as a swarming nipping terror in the woods. (BTW, I just asked Siri, “Can ladybugs bite?” and she responded, “Ladybugs can bite humans.”) So, even though I obviously like having them in my garden, I prefer to see them from a safe distance, or as little bits of painted Plaster of Paris.

I have to say that I probably spent too much time painting all these little beasts—working too hard to get the detail just right. I mean, little chips of Plaster of Paris are pretty ephemeral, and I think planning and making them was actually the most fun. But throughout this whole process I was reminded of making them long ago with my 5 year old son. They didn’t look this detailed and finely painted. I remember using watercolors with him, encouraging loose and colorful application of pigment. Such a project is pretty messy, but perfect for a little kid. And other than my adding two definite eyes on each one, I don’t remember whether each one could be identified as any particular kind of beetle. I will try to save these to show him sometime. I wonder if he will remember making them? Of course he won’t remember, he was 5! The end. 

July 20, 2019

white bachelor buttons
Bachelor buttons, 7/16/19 (gouache on pink wash, watercolor paper)

Last week’s post was all about the meadow of flowers that’s still blooming away in my backyard. For that one I used my “just add water” art technique or idea to capture the  myriad of soft colors of individual flowers. I dilute a sketch made with transparent Inktense and watercolor pencils for a soft and maybe dreamy image. This week’s art shows a small detail of life in that same mass of blossoms. But for this view, I zoomed in closely and used a completely different technique that is a 180 from last week’s loose and wet approach. It’s actually more of a dry brush technique where opaque gouache is applied and each stroke is visible, resulting in a thicker application of pigment. When I first learned to do gouache on toned paper, it was to get close up—rendering the outer covering of birds and mammals (e.g. hair, fur, feathers etc). So, of course it would work for the close up look of a beloved insect and flower petals. It was fun to plan and execute art depicting the same subject matter with a completely different intent and outcome, hence the final comparison of last week’s art to this week. 

This flower is called a bachelor button, or cornflower. I have to admit that I thought this particular flower only came in one color—cornflower blue. I was wrong, it comes in many colors. So, when I went back out there to do this close up I was certain I would paint a brightly colored bachelor button. But as I was looking around for a likely candidate I noticed the bees were particularly busy in this part of the garden as well, especially on the bachelor buttons. I decided to capture one of those busy females as she visited one of the blossoms, but soon discovered that the bee showed up best on the white flowers. It was then I decided to do a pink watercolor wash for a background with a couple white flowers and visiting bee. This background pink is the exact shade of my pink bachelor buttons. (I mixed Opera with Cadmium Red, Pale Hue—from my Winsor Newton pocket travel set—for the color wash.)

Note about my meadow: I think I am coming to the end of the bright colors as it’s time for them to go to seed. I saw a pair of goldfinches chowing down on the bachelor button seeds this morning. (They don’t seem to care what color flower they devour.) It appears the heat is finally making its way out west this week. I think it’s time to stop deadheading, and feed and water my garden birds and bees—they are probably going to need it.

Back to the art…

I knew that a bee wouldn’t stay very long gathering nectar at any given flower so I took a photo and used it for this week’s art. It was also easier for me to work from a photo as I have been spending a lot of time at my aunt and uncle’s in Long Beach this summer. So, I sat at a little metal table under a patio cover covered with wisteria and painted. It was a charming spot to mix my pots of color, do some color trials and sketches. Of course, I got fixated on the bee and how to tell a color story where the background had no real connection to the images I painted. It became a kind of experiment to see if I could make this contrast work. And I became hyper focused on the bee and decided to make everything larger than life.

Bees are funny insects for sure. I love to see them busy in my garden. But some people (adults as as well as children) seem to freak out when they think one is too near. The other day a friend of mine said he wasn’t going to plant a certain variety of tree in his backyard because it would attract bees. I don’t think he is allergic to them, but he was adamant about that statement. I thought it rather sad actually. I have a birdbath in my front yard that has become a haven for bees and I must admit I feel rather brave when I refill it with water and a few of them begin to gently swarm around me. Most birds, especially the doves, don’t really notice the busy bees as they walk the rim of the bath. It’s funny, but the crows seem to be the only creatures who acknowledge the buzzing bees, besides me of course. I have seen them take a snap at them when they sit on the rim. The crows seem to like to drop peanuts in the water to soften the shell, making it easier to get the meat out of the nut. And if a bee seems to get too close, they open their large beaks and SNAP!

Once I had everything the way I wanted it I remembered a poem about insects that I wrote at least 20 years ago. At that time I was working in educational publishing and was trying to write and illustrate children’s trade books. A lot of my “kiddie writer” friends at the time also submitted work for magazines. This one was written for that purpose. I was always warned that it is difficult to write “rhyming” verse, and it is. But I think this one works and it’s fun to actually get it in print after all these years…

Insects

Look for some insects if you dare.

Some are out looking for you.

They’re on your food and in your ear.

I see quite a few on your shoe.

 

Watch out for the humble bees and ants, 

their numbers outnumber us all.

They buzz at your nose and cling to your pants

and crawl with great skill up a wall.

 

But some bugs are fine to have around.

A lady bug is a bright sight.

And summer would surely be missing a sound

if crickets were quiet at night.

 

No need to go find such six-legged beasts,

like hornets, mosquitoes or flies.

They show up on time for your picnics and feasts

of apples and crackers or pies.

July 13, 2019

before spritz
Backyard flower meadow (no spritz), July 8, 2019 (Inktense and watercolor pencil on watercolor paper, 6 x 8 inches)
after spritz
Backyard flower meadow (with spritz), July 8, 2019 (Inktense and watercolor pencil on watercolor paper, 6 x 8 inches)

Last week I attempted to paint this amazing display of flowers in the backyard using my “just add water” technique. If you read that July 6, 2019 post you might remember that I said it was a total disaster and threw it away. Thankfully, I was distracted from that epic artistic failure with the sighting of the first ripe tomato of 2019. (It takes so little to launch my attention into another seemingly random direction.)

But I didn’t give up on my backyard flowers. Here they are! I thought of not painting this right away, waiting longer as I was still a bit concerned I would blow it again. But as the warm summer temperatures begin to climb here in SoCal, I knew it was now or never. Those bright balls of color are going to get crispy quickly. The first image you see is what the color sketch looked like before adding water. I normally wouldn’t reveal something I am working on in it’s “ugly” stage, but took the picture anyway. What is the “ugly” stage? It’s when you’re adding the bones of a piece and it doesn’t look like anything. Of course such a notion is truly up to the artist and rather subjective. However, it has been my experience that all the art I create goes through a kind of “ugly” stage and I know I need to hang onto my final vision and work past it. Or, I need to trust that it’s not going as planned and I want to see where the color and design lead me. A really good example of this stage for me is when I paint with oils. The “ugliness” begins when I first put in large areas of the under colors, or non-colors. At that stage my landscape looks pretty crazy—with the sky in bright shades of lavender and/or the rolling hills a kind of a red or even ochre. And this “ugly” stage hangs around on my easel for a few days as I like to wait for the pigment to set before I add the over colors. This approach is very different from Van Gogh’s later landscapes done in oil. He sat right there in the weeds and slapped on the paint, not waiting for anything to dry. I sometimes wonder if we were looking for a similar effect with his colors layered side by side, and my non-colors peaking through the top coat. Either way, your eye mixes the side by side or upper and lower colors, and the desired affect is achieved. As I have said in the past, I would never compare his skill with mine, but I have always liked looking to the masters, attempting to understand and use certain techniques.

For this one, I had a clear vision of the finished art and took a chance that it would turn out all right. Needless to say, I am happy with this one and it was not tossed into the recycling.  For my previous “just add water” pieces (2/23/19, 4/13/19, 5/25/19, 6/9/19, 6/22/19) I used a spray bottle that was a bit of a blobby gusher when I squeezed the trigger. For this one, I remembered that I had a small atomizer. I’m glad I still have it because it emits a much finer spray. I had bought it for my son and he used it for his trombone. (Don’t really remember what he used it for, but I do recall his trombone teacher being adamant about the size and type of bottle. He even told me where I could purchase it.) I really like the relative control I have over the amount of water that I can layer on. It’s almost like using airbrush, but unlike airbrush the spray of water goes on in spurts, rather than an even flow. I like that I could get the soft pink and yellow “afterglow” effect with a single plunge, compared to a wetter application in the darker blue areas.

It seems to me there could be a couple themes for this week’s art and story. First, it’s important to never give up. And second, and probably more important, it’s key to actually start a story or piece of art, and not wait for some kind of inspiration. I have never really believed in writer’s or painter’s block. At some point you just need to start (an oxymoron?). Anyway, I am reminded of a couple times I have heard, or read, words of encouragement to keep going and to keep trying. Years ago I read the book Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. In it, she describes the process of writing and how some get bogged down with reasons not to write, but that such excuses were a waste of time and to just get on with it. I can’t find the book on my bookshelf right now. (Last week I said the same thing about another favorite writer/story teller, Garrison Keillor. For two weeks in a row now I have been relying on my memory of words written by favorite authors. I should definitely reread Bird by Bird and Lake Wobegon Days as soon as possible.) But getting back to Anne Lamott’s words of wisdom in Bird by Bird, I remember her saying that sometimes beginning writer’s want to first know how to get his or her work published. It seemed she was surprised by such interests and/or requests. She reminded them that the writing was the thing and you must do that without worrying about getting it published. She added that the wonderful feeling of being published was pretty fleeting. It was so funny to see in print her words that told the reader and/or writer to just get on with it and that she was OK with her books beginning with a “shitty” first draft.  In a way this reminds me of not being afraid of my art going through what I call an “ugly” phase. As artists maybe it’s just hard not to second guess what we are doing—like it isn’t right somehow, or I should have done it this way or that, or no one will understand what I am trying to say. I guess it’s hard not to second guess our decisions. 

There’s another nice example of “just getting on with it” and it comes from the first few minutes of the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The opening scene is of a young writer in a bookstore thanking his mentor, Frances Mayes, for some advise she had given him. Of course I can’t remember it word for word, but it goes something like: “Don’t worry if you think all your ideas are bad ideas. Take one of your bad ideas and work on it.” Even if you are not an artist or writer, I think those are words to live by. I don’t think I can add anything more here, except to do the work and enjoy the flowers.

July 6, 2019

first tomato 2019
First Tomato, 2019

When Orchard Supply went out of business I bought a can of mixed flower seeds (Renee’s Garden, Endless Bouquets, Cut Flower Garden). I must have planted them in the perfect spot in my backyard as I have a dense meadow of all kinds of flowers that range in height from a few inches tall to 3 and a half feet. And it’s a riot of color with alyssum, cosmos, baby blue eyes, calendula, marigolds, sunflowers, rudbeckia, clarkia, forget me nots, CA poppies, Shirley poppies, zinnias and a colorful array of bachelor buttons. (Actually, SoCal had some later rains this spring that I suspect helped get it going so vigorously and spectacularly.) Now all I have to do is dead head the spent flowers and add water. I have written about my “add water” quick painting technique. So, I attempted a quick painting of this amazing floral vision with my watercolor and Inktense pencils on watercolor paper, with a light spritz of water. It was a complete disaster! I had a dark patch that ran down into the bright flower colors and it looked awful. I threw it away. But as I was wandering around out there, muttering to myself, I found this little red bauble at the bottom of my Early Girl tomato plant. It was my first tomato of the season—picked Friday, 6/28/2019. Once I had it in my hand I almost swooned on the spot. I carried it inside, took a picture and ate it. The discovery, recording and eating of the tomato took less than 5 minutes. It was still warm from the sun. Pretty great, huh?

art for 2001 article
Art of vegetables for July 2001 article (watercolor and Prismacolor colored pencils on cold press illustration board)
July 2001 article
July 2001 article

Once I realized that the wonderful time of vine-ripened tomatoes had begun, I forgot all about the doomed flower watercolor. (Don’t worry, I haven’t given up on it. I don’t give up so easily and will try again soon. Those flowers must be captured in pigment before they die out.) And with the last chunk of tomato tasted and then gone I began to plan for future meals with my beloved tomato as there are lots and lots of green ones on my three healthy plants. As tomatoes seem to be sought after by some and abhorred by others it didn’t take long for me to remember this art and article I did when my son was little. 

Rereading the story I was reminded that most kids I know don’t like tomatoes—vine ripened or picked green and allowed to ripen on a shelf. But it’s such a great source of vitamin C. Of course they like ketchup, which I think appeals to kids because of the other flavors in that bottle rather than the red tomato base. There was some controversy about ketchup being declared a vegetable when Reagan was president. It seems that there were big changes in funding of school lunch programs at the time and districts were looking for ways to cut costs. I guess there is nutritional value in ketchup because it does have Vitamin C, but it can’t really be counted on as a vegetable serving as you would have to consume quite a bit to get any benefit. I can just imagine how many French fries would need to be consumed for a a child to eat say 1/2 cup of ketchup. Seems like children would be getting a veg, but at the expense of eating more junk food. I see what looks like baked tater tots in school lunches these days, but still think kids don’t really need that many carbs dipped in ketchup. 

Every now and then I meet an adult who doesn’t care for them as well. I find that very strange indeed. I remember one summer (when I was in my early 20’s) that I ate so many tomatoes I got an upset stomach and decided that maybe all the acid from consecutively eating 3 or 4 tomatoes was the reason. I must say that my little plan to get my son to eat his vegetables really worked. Every Friday I made pizza or pasta and the sauce for the that Italian inspired meal was made up of our glorious vine-ripened tomatoes with as any other left over veg I had in the frig. Some weeks the sauce was not particularly red as it contained broccoli, zucchini squash and/or green bell peppers. But blended up in the food processor, it looked fine to my son and he ate lots of it. Unfortunately, he didn’t grow up to love tomatoes as I do, but he does enjoy them in salads and on hamburgers. And of course he loves ketchup! So, I guess my work here is done.

Garrison Keillor wrote a funny story about tomatoes in one of his Lake Wobegon books. I looked on my many book shelves for the book, but couldn’t find it. (It’s probably in a box in the garage.) As I remember it, he carefully crafts his tomato tale by telling the reader about the anticipation of tomatoes and the joy the residents of Lake Wobegon experience at the beginning and middle of tomato season. Much is made of their long awaited arrival and the frantic eating, canning and giving away of tomatoes. Of course there is a twist, because eventually everyone is done with tomatoes, but no one says they can’t look at, let alone eat, one more beautiful vine-ripened tomato. Countless jars have been put up, sauces and recipes have been exhausted and no one is giving away or accepting tomatoes from anyone anymore. The final scene comes when he and his sister are once again out in the garden picking tomatoes for some imagined use by the adults. At one point he decides to throw one at her and makes a direct hit on her bum. I hope I haven’t left out any really good details and I’m sorry if I did. But MY final take away from his tomato story is that it’s good to be a kid and do childish things that show our true feelings about things we are asked to do and not question. Besides, they’re just tomatoes, right? We’ll see how I feel later in the summer. Stay tuned…  

Update on our recent CA earthquakes

It seems we have had several thousand quakes since the 4th of July. I don’t know anyone who lives in Ridgecrest (Kern County), but when a big one hits (with it’s many many after shocks) CA becomes a small community of sorts. That means that friends and family who live here (north, middle or south) call each other to check in. We all want to say we are fine and describe what we were doing when the shaking started. My uncle in Long Beach reminded me that his uncle (my Great Uncle Earl) slept out in an open field for weeks after the 1933 earthquake. That’s actually a very smart thing to do because then nothing can fall on you. Such stories are a kind of a way of life here—earthquakes and fires. Living in California is not for the faint of heart and sometimes it still feels like the rough and ready wild west.

June 29, 2019

Scottie and Judy
Siamese Cats at Home, 5/29/19 (watercolor and Prismacolor colored pencils on cold press illustration board)

Do you have a neighborhood cat?

When considering this question it may have crossed your mind that these particular Siamese beauties would probably not be what you would call neighborhood cats because chances are you wouldn’t see such cats just walking around your neighborhood. They are indoor cats and do not go outside unless it’s in a special carrier on the way to and/or from the vet. I would consider a neighborhood cat a very independent feline who roams away from home, and in and out of various neighboring yards with actually surprising regularity. These two kitties are actually house mates of the Siamese cat I posted on June 1st, and their collective neighborhood includes all the various rooms in the house they share with their humans. For my friend’s birthday this year (5/29/2019) I did two paintings of his three cats. The reason for one cat lounging by himself and the others as a pair has no particular meaning and is based solely on photos I was given. As of today, my friend has not seen either piece of art. (I did not tell him that I had already posted the first Siamese.) I hope to have an unveiling of both either later today or tomorrow. In any event, happy birthday again my friend! Because by now you have seen the originals and are reading this post.

There are a couple neighborhood cats that slink through my yard—looking at the birds at the bird feeders. In fact, one of them knocked over the birdbath the other morning—getting a little too close to the birds. I’m not sure which of the three did it, but I have my suspicions. Two of the three are pretty skittish and when they hear me open the door they run away. But the third neighborhood cat is more friendly. According to his tag his name is Rusty. He’s a pretty good-sized white and a rust colored male—hence the name I’m sure. Most times when he sees me, and I can get his attention, he will stop and let me pet him. (Notice how I say, he “lets” me pet him. And yes, he is one of those very self-possessed felines that is just too charming to be ignored.) He has a few marks on his face and ears that suggest he has been in a few “kitty scrapes” over the years. But if he is in the mood we can have a conversation for a minute or two. I guess the verbal part of such communicative events is all from me, but I think he understands when I tell him to leave the wild birds in my yard alone. Of course this one sided conversation is pretty funny when he spies a hummingbird and every muscle in his body tenses to attention. He just doesn’t seem to hear me at all then. I have told him that I don’t really mind if he sprays my yard, and of course I really do mind. But I have assured him that he can mark his territory at will if he just stops hunting the birds in my yard, also staying clear of my birdbath. I suspect either he, or one of the other neighborhood cats, have caught a slow moving dove on occasion, as I have seen so many feathers under the feeder now and again. Lately I have seen Rusty patiently watching a tall patch of flowers in my backyard. I suspect there are some lizards in there that he feels compelled to hunt. When we have our little talks I guess I will now have to warn him to leave the lizards alone as well. We’ll see how that goes.

I hope it’s clear that I really do enjoy having him around because I do enjoy our brief chats. But I think what I like about seeing him around is that he is around, and I know nothing bad has happened to him. When I was a kid, in San Jose, we had a dog, Shadow, who waited daily for a neighborhood cat to appear on the fence by a side gate. That cat jumped into our backyard at the same time every morning, according to my mother. Mom said the cat and Shadow loved to play together. One day she said the cat did not arrive for her playdate. She said that Shadow waited for her friend and whined quite a long time when the kitty did not appear. Later, mom said that she had heard that the cat had been hit by a car. Poor Shadow had lost her friend.

There are definite perils for a neighborhood cat—cars speeding on neighborhood streets are just one of many. I have also alluded to some of the perils Rusty has faced when describing the scars he has on his ears and head from fights with other neighborhood cats. But I still I look forward to seeing him, even if he ignores me as he saunters under my gate or jumps off my front porch on his way to the next door neighbor’s yard. (Oh yes, Rusty gets around.) So, then the question about noticing a neighborhood cat changes. “Is it really safe for a neighborhood to roam outside, or should our feline friends be kept inside exclusively?” I know my birthday friend with the three Siamese says with great certainty that they should always be kept inside. Now, I wouldn’t normally get on my “catbox soapbox” and take sides on this one, but for this post I am taking sides in favor of keeping cats indoors. So, just be warned that the rest of this post will be directed to why I believe that to be the best course of action .

From the Humane Society:

Cats face many dangers outside. And if you let your cat roam around they are exposed to careless drivers in speeding cars, diseases, dogs, poisons, cruel people and coyotes. Some people think it is unnecessarily cruel to keep your cat indoors. The truth is cats who are protected by living indoors will be happier and live longer than those allowed to roam around. And neighborhood wildlife (like my lizards and wild birds) will stay safer and live longer as well. (The Human Society has further guidelines to help you with keeping your cat inside.)

Watch out for CA coyotes! They are everywhere!

I have to say that I always thought it was up to the cat owner to decide to keep their pet cat inside all of the time or not. But as of Tuesday morning, June 25, I decided that your beloved pet cat should be kept inside and you should also keep a close eye on even your pet dog in your own backyard. So, what happened? On that morning I went out my front door around 10. I was looking to see if the mail had been delivered. On the grass next to fire hydrant and the street was someone’s pet dog (with a collar) that had been killed by coyotes. I ran back into my house to get the phone to call animal protection, when I saw their truck come around the corner and stop in front of my house. I then noticed a woman across the street, and she was waving to me. She said that she had already called them. So, yeah, keep your eye on your pets. I don’t know where you live, but I’ve seen coyotes in all kinds of neighborhoods in California—urban as well as country. And I’ve seen them at sunset as well as at noontime. The animal control guy said again that they were everywhere, but were most active in the early morning. Sorry about ending this post on such a downer, but I don’t think I can unsee what I saw on my lawn that morning. I will continue be on the lookout for Rusty, and I will continue to hope that Rusty and my other neighborhood cat friends are safe and live a long and happy life.

Happy Birthday to my baby brother (6/29/2019)

 

June 22, 2019

Montrose Lamp post
Lamp Post outside Coffee Bean in Montrose, 4/27/2019 (6 by 8 inch Inktense pencils and watercolor pencils on watercolor paper)

On Saturday, April 27th, I decided to walk to Montrose to use my “just add water” technique to paint some of the buildings and expanding garden at Rockhaven. I knew it would need to be a quick sketch as I could only peek through a chain link fence to see any part of it, but I was game. Once I got there I realized there was really no way to access the materials I would need and sketch what I had planned while peeking through the fence. I was disappointed, but I carefully took a couple pictures of the Spanish revival bungalows and surrounding garden, and vowed to paint that at a later time. So, I continued my way down Hermosa, and on to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Honolulu. While sitting outside I was determined to sketch something while I drank my cappuccino. I looked across the street, but nothing caught my eye. But directly in front of me was a tall vintage (1930s or 40s I think) street lamp, so common to many residential areas in Glendale and throughout SoCal. I decided right then that I wanted to paint the street lamp and set about doing a preliminary sketch of the whole lamp and flanking tree. However, I was really drawn to the glass shade and became enchanted with this vignette that focused on the stamped industrial milky blue/white glass orb set against the patchwork of green leaves backlit with patches of bright blue sky. So, I took my materials out of my backpack and went to work.

Vintage Lamp post1
One minute scribbled lamp post, Glendale, 6/13/17 (pen and ink in scribble pad)
Vintage Lamp Post with Telephone Pole
One minute scribbled lamp post with cactus, Glendale, 6/30/17 (pen and ink in scribble pad)

When I got home I remembered similar vintage lamp posts I had sketched in my minute “minute” scribble book. What is a minute (my-NOOT) minute scribble book? On the cover of this pocket sketch book is a rather terrifying tiny Picasso paper doll (meant to be a removable bookmark), with his piercing eyes staring out at you. I carry him with me in a small plastic bag with black ink pens of varying point size. I use it to sketch little spontaneous moments as I walk along. And I have decided that whatever I draw in this tiny 3 by 4.5 inch doodle pad, it must be completed in 1 to 2 minutes. I have opened it horizontally to make a number of 3 by 9 inch images. For example, I have drawn a row of symmetrical trees, as well as the sprawling detail of a row of second story windows of a house. I have also opened it vertically to sketch a 3 by 9 inch image of the trunk of a palm tree in Santa Barbara, a bird perched on the seat of a swing hanging from the branch of a large tree and a couple of old neighborhood lamp posts in Glendale. The whole point of this little sketchpad is to help me be more spontaneous by just stopping at random moments to draw something very quickly.  I wrote about quick sketches I did on a Sketchcrawl the other day (April 20, 2019), but this is like the lightning version of those “sloth-like” 20-minute drawings and puts me very much in the moment (augenblick), literally.

When contemplating “sketching” adventures outside my comfort zone, I tried to think of other times I did something spontaneously. All of sudden, it came to me. If you are only interested in my art and/or stories of one CA girl that take place in CA, you may want to stop here. Because the following spontaneous tale does not happen in California, but it does involve a lifetime CA friend. 

In the 70s I was living in Munich. It was getting time for me to come back to the states to go to UC Berkeley when a childhood friend (third generation native California girl) decided to visit me before I returned. We had numerous plans of what were going to do and places we would visit. We started our journey together in Munich, of course, with a proposed final destination of Norway (we made it as far as Copenhagen, but had a great time even without seeing Oslo). We both had “student” train passes and rode the rails for the whole journey. I had given up my room in my flat in Schwabing and was staying with a friend. It didn’t start out well as our first day trip to Fussen, to see Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, ended with my friend getting sick from eating Leberkase mit ei for lunch that day. While she recuperated at my friend’s apartment we formulated our plans. And just to prove I hadn’t tried to poison her, we took another day trip to Salzburg—without too much fuss. And we were off!

We stopped in several lovely German cities/towns on our way to Bruges. I had been there before with my boyfriend and wanted to show her this very enchanting town. If I remember, after Bruges we meant to head for Amsterdam, and then planned to go north to Oslo from there. On our way to see the lovely lace in Bruges we met a couple really cute guys from South Africa, as well as a couple Americans. They were all on their way to Ostend, then Dover with London as their final destination. When we got to our stop in Bruges we said our goodbyes, grabbed our bags and left the train. We got two steps out the door, simultaneously looked at each other and without a word got back on the train. We were on our way to London. It was grand and a memorable spontaneous moment for me. Of course the two South African guys ditched us at the train station in London, but we didn’t care. We found a cheap hotel and stayed there the better part of a week, with no regrets. 

I’m not sure I need to be spontaneous all the time. I think I have experienced more than one frustrating occasion waiting for my spontaneous friends to show up. And now that I am rereading this story I am wondering if I have blurred the idea of being spontaneous with being in the moment. Maybe the difference between the two can be better discussed with another piece of art and a later story. But suffice it to say that I know my little Picasso pocket sketchbook has helped me to be in the moment on more than one occasion, and I am grateful for that. And when my Picasso pocketbook is full, there are many other similar inspirational sketchbooks that I can carry around with me in a plastic bag with black ink pens of varying points—just waiting for that moment to be used to do a very quick sketch. My next minute “minute” sketchbook, with tiny staring person bookmark, might be: a fauvist, a graffiti artist, organic architect (Frank Lloyd Wright), folk artist (Frida Kahlo), the Scream (Munch) or fashion model (Twiggy). Stay tuned.

Happy first day of spring!

And so sorry to hear that your mom passed away Monday, 6/17/2019, my CA friend. You told me that she enjoyed hearing my stories and I know she would have loved hearing this one as well.

 

 

June 16, 2019

hip bone
Human hipbone, summer 1990 (airbrush and some colored pencil on crescent board)
brochure for airbrush
GNSI (Guild of Natural Science Illustrators) description of summer 1990 natural science workshop, Philadelphia

Monday, June 10, was the last day of school for me. When working at a school you spend a lot of time in the weeks before summer vacation talking about looking forward to summer vacation. You do this with the kids as well as the other adults. Such conversations usually also always come round to discussions of plans for the summer. Adults seem to be obsessed with trips, spending time with his or her own children and sleeping in. My summer list includes sleeping in (of course), but reading is also an important part of my summer plans. I am always for sleeping in, whether it’s summer vacation or the weekend, as I am a night person in a day person’s world. And I can easily stay in bed dozing and reading until 10 on days with no imminent or important plans. I often ask my students what they plan to do, trying to suggest they read of course. The kids don’t usually ask me about my plans because it is all about them, of course. But if I can slip in something about me, I say that I plan to read a book whenever possible and draw or paint, of course.

What I have posted today is what I did one summer vacation almost 30 summers ago. The airbrush of a now 130 year old human hip bone from a Smithsonian collection, was done as part of an amazing 2-week scientific illustration workshop in Philadelphia at the the University of the Arts Philadelphia. It was sponsored by GNSI and we took inspirational illustration classes with some of the best scientific illustrators working at that time, many from the Smithsonian. I have also included a brochure created by one of the artists I met then and there, not to show something amazing that I had created (out of at least 100 or so possible pieces), but to show some of the other art that my fellow scientific illustrators produced. If I think back on that time, there were a couple illustrators working with various software programs to produce such art. I think we all had an inkling of future computer programs that would take over what we were doing by hand. But we kept protesting that real scientific illustration (e.g. ink wash, silver point, carbon dust/pastel dust, scratchboard, pen and ink etc) could only be done by hand. Nothing like having that kind of monastic attitude of “wearing a hair” shirt for bonding some geeky artists. I posted some pen and inks I later did at the CA Academy of Sciences (October 7, 2017, May 19, 2018) that I am sure could today be generated with the aid of a couple drawing programs. 

I suspect the domain of airbrush then as now is part of car detailing. But today, it seems that some use an airbrush to apply make up, or to spray on a tan. Sounds like a bigger event than I would like to engage in because whatever you are spraying there is still a problem of getting the pigment to the right consistency to go through the fine sprayer. If it’s too watery, it will be drippy and run. If it’s too thick or lumpy, the nozzle will clog. Oh yes, it doesn’t matter what kind of pigment you are spraying as it is drying out as you work. Not to mention you really need to have a cursory knowledge of how a compressor works. There is probably one advantage to an airbrush spray tan and make up as you are probably only mixing one color. But if you have cut a bunch of friskets for car detailing or art of tiny swimming fish, you will need countless color changes as you go. And oh yeah, do you know about friskets? That’s the sticky film that needs to be applied to the surface you are painting on to mask the spots you don’t want covered in paint. For the hip bone, I had to cut and apply a frisket to the crescent board to mark the clean edge around it, as well as the opening below the socket for the femur and above the ischium. When exploring this technique with a gifted illustrator at the workshop, she told us that when she had a big job to finish, she actually hired someone to help her cut the friskets. She also reminded us to be sure to wear some kind of protective mask over your face, as you don’t want to breathe in any of the airborne particles that are actually the magic of airbrush. And some people actually spray airborne pigment towards his or her nose and/or eyes? I wasn’t a complete novice for this technique as I had learned to use it the summer before at the CA Academy of Sciences. At the time I was a volunteer plant fabricator for an exhibit that was called Life Through Time. We were hand painting gingko leaves and using the airbrush to spray redwood branches that had turned brown when preserved and needed “life-like” green needles. We did those branches outside and that helped greatly with the ventilation you should have with such a medium.

So, what else do I plan to do this summer? Glad you asked. I haven’t had many opportunities to do any volunteering recently, so I hope to work in the garden at Heritage Square Museum. I also hope to do some sketching out there as well. 

As I have already written I hope to try my hand at making some YouTube presentations based on my One CA Girl theme of presenting a piece of my art and responding to it. As always I plan to talk about the materials and technique used for each piece, and when and where the CA image came from—northern CA through the central Coast and then on down to SoCal. The third part of my blog has also included stories of my CA family. Not really sure how that would translate to a moving picture of me creating art and talking about it. Not really sure how interesting that would be to anyone unless you knew me or my family. So, I think I will focus on the art and the places in CA I have seen, past and present, in and out of different mediums, techniques and inspirations.

But the vacation has only begun and I am just trying to keep up with what I have been doing for over two years now. Oh, and I am assiduously working on the sleeping in and reading part. Not sure why I started with Catch 22…

Henry, so glad I saw you graduate from UCSC on Friday, 6/14. I love you!

June 9, 2019

coral tree
Coral Tree, Marina Vista Park, 4/17/19 (6 by 8 inch, watercolor colored pencils and Inktense pencils on watercolor paper)

The other day I was in Long Beach, visiting my aunt and uncle. As I drove around Marina Vista Park (English/Spanish translation=“marine” distant view) I noticed there were a number of coral trees (Erythrina) in bloom. The park is actually just an expanse of grass, dotted with these trees, and of course the marina. In summers past I have actually sat on a lawn chair on the grass, with hundreds of other people, to listen to live music. Pretty nice actually. Such events are generally in the evening and whoever is playing sets up right next to the water, so you look out over a narrow strip of very calm break water while enjoying the music. But I don’t remember seeing any of these amazing bright flowers on the trees in summer, so they must be done blooming before then. On the 17th it was just me, a few dogs on leashes with their owners and gardeners riding around on large lawn mowers, cutting the grass. 

I have driven through the park countless times and hadn’t planned to stop this time either. But I had just come from Starbuck’s and decided I would sit at a picnic table under one of the trees and drink my cappuccino. As luck would have it I also had my little “just add water” sketching bag in the car. So, I sat down, set up and began sketching with my watercolor and Inktense pencils. When I had finished I took the cup of water I got from Starbucks and poured some in my squirt bottle. Then I gave the sketch a light spray of water, tipped the paper from side to side, top to bottom—moving the color around. I also scrubbed some of the pigment with a wet brush, then I added just a bit more of the pencil to brighten up some of the color. And there you have it!

As spring is here in sunny southern CA, I have been on the lookout for blossoms on plant material that looks like it should have some kind of flower—roses, wildflowers, irises, gardenias… There are quite a number of flowering trees in the various neighborhoods and parks all around. The coral tree is very exotic looking, even without the blooms and I had a feeling that it is not native to CA. So once I got home I looked up “coral tree” on the Internet. Sure enough, it is not only not from California, but it is also not native to North America. It is actually supposed to be growing in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world. I also learned that the seeds, flowers and leaves of most species are poisonous. It was actually very shocking to learn that as it is quite a gathering place for lots of people and animals throughout the year. Not to mention, I was there, and so was a crew of gardeners mowing the lawn under the trees where I sat drinking my coffee. Good thing that cup had a cover on it. I’m guessing it wouldn’t have been good if anything from a coral tree dropped into my coffee.

If you have been reading my blog you may remember the art and story I did the other week about another non-native brightly blooming beauty called the jacaranda. As I just said, Southern CA is loaded with exotic looking non-native flowering trees, as well as flowering shrubs (e.g. geraniums, bird of paradise, hibiscus). Our winters are so mild that tropic plants grow very well here. All you need to do is water them regularly. (Not really a great idea to have tropical plants in this desert climate. Did I mention that there are also lots of palm trees here?)

With all this blooming going on around me, and probably in your neighborhood as well, I am acutely aware of the exposed pollen each and every flower presents each and every time another flower opens. For some this time of year is not only the spring season, but also the allergy season—with sneezing, watery eyes and a runny nose. I usually only get seasonal allergies (hay fever) during spring and it usually isn’t the pollen from flowers that gets me—it’s grass. In fact, ragweed seems to be the biggest blooming bad boy for me. (I just sneezed thinking about it.) Several years ago I worked on a book about ornamental grasses for Sunset (Landscaping with Ornamental Grasses, copyright 2002). For that book I interviewed Tom Ogren, an expert on the subject of allergies and how it relates to all manner of plants that produce pollen. He lives in San Luis Obispo and wrote a book called “Allergy-Free Gardening.” In the book he has a kind of handy list of plants that he has rated for allergy—with an allergy index scale from best (1) to worst (10). It’s pretty extensive and I found it very interesting reading. I found out that the coral tree has a ranking of 6 on that scale. So, it isn’t really bad for allergies, but it isn’t great. I remember him saying that allergies have been on the rise in recent years because people just want to landscape with ornamental flowering trees that produce only flowers (male) and not fruit (female). So, there is a problem here. People don’t want fruit dropping on the ground, but I don’t think they want extra pollen blowing around that might kick up some allergies either. BTW, he said that you can’t really blame your neighbor for having a flowering tree that’s blowing pollen your way. That’s much too far away for one or two trees to make you sneeze. It is more likely that the pollen offender(s) is in your own backyard. As you would probably guess, grass is a big allergy producer too. Mr. Ogren said that most grasses produce pollen in the morning. So, he said to be sure to keep grasses short, but not to mow during early morning hours when the pollen is most likely to be at its peak. And isn’t that when the garden guys come around to mow and blow? Hmmmm…

But what if there are thousands of pollen producing trees nearby?  This might be a problem if you live close by them and have allergies. And if you live near California’s Central Valley, you would definitely be subject to large amounts of pollen in spring. It is here that mile after mile of fruit and veg have been planted and grow in abundance. I looked up the allergy index for some of the fruit trees we have in huge numbers here. Prunus is the genus that includes over 400 species of deciduous shrubs and trees. I was most interested to read about our garden variety “Prunus” fruit trees such as plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds. Mr. Ogren has rated all of these trees for possible allergies. It seems that the different kinds of cherries ranged from 5, 6 or 7—so not bad, but not good either (similar to the coral tree). Plums and peaches were pretty good for allergies at a ranking of 3 or 4. What was most surprising, however, was the ranking for almonds. It is the biggest offender for allergies with an index value of 10, the worst. I wasn’t surprised that apricots are the lowest at 2. This is because it is not really that easy to grow and have it bare fruit, as it needs very mild winters. I have had a couple of these trees drop every blossom after a couple cool evenings in a row. He mentioned that plums and pears are pretty good, with a ranking of 3 or 4, but that pears are susceptible to fire blight. I thought it interesting that he said some people thought the blossoms of pear trees had a bad odor. Who wants a beautiful blossom that stinks? And I have had a tricky time with pears because of the blight and worms that love the fruit as much as we do.

So, what to do? Should you take a chance and plant a tree that produces flowers? This is what I suggest. Go to the farmer’s market and enjoy the fruit that others grow. And, if you want to look at beautiful blossoms, just keep looking here at One CA Girl and I will brave the pollen and poison for you. Until next time (A-choo)!