Saturday, March 28, 2020

Here's to Shelters with History

Ever since the sheltering-in-place took effect last week in California, we’ve been taking more of our daily walks closer to home in Alameda.

Alameda is an East Bay island city of 80,000 just south of Oakland. There are so many wonderful, architecturally interesting homes here. The city boasts around 3,000 Victorian dwellings – it is said more Victorian homes per capita than anywhere else. They include Queen Anne’s, Queen Ann cottages, and Edwardian and Italianate homes. All around the island are also many attractive one- and two-story California bungalows.

Whatever the style, there is often a single tall palm next to a home, or even a redwood or two or three. Those tall trees dwarf the homes underneath, and the contrast always makes me smile. You don’t see those contrasts back in the Midwest, where we lived until recently.

Alameda was once known as the “City of Homes and Beaches,” with many houses built in the late 1800s and early 1900s as summer homes for wealthy San Franciscans. Other homes were lived in year-round. Some houses built during that era have been replaced by non-descript apartment and condo complexes like the one we live in, but in the last few decades there have been efforts by city and many residents to preserve the older homes. I am so grateful for those efforts. Whether we live in an historic home or not, all of us can appreciate their beauty.

We may be sheltering in place for a while yet, but thankfully there’s plenty to see around Alameda. Sometimes we take the bay view trail and watch the water, sky, and shorebirds and enjoy the glimpses of the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco cityscape. Other times we head to one of those beautiful historic neighborhoods. The gardens help us savor spring colors, and the old homes remind us that a society that weathered the 1918 pandemic can probably handle this one, too.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Art is the Only Way to Run Away....

It doesn’t take much to spark joy when working with ink and watercolors. A few lines and a few colors can be so transporting. As Twyla Tharp wrote, “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” 

Friday, March 20, 2020

What a Difference a Day Makes

Ink and w/c
Stillman & Birns Zeta Sketchbook, 7.5" x 7.5" 
Emily Weil is doing some e-tutoring with me this month as we're sheltering in place because of COVID-19. When I told her by email that I was unhappy that I had drawn the vertical line (intending to suggest a crack in the stone wall), she suggested adding more color to the right of the vertical line. (The top image is "after"; the image below is "before.") 

I think the top image is an improvement; regardless, I am in love with the colors I added. The rich red-brown is a combination of hansa yellow light and quinachrodone magenta (Daniel Smith), and for the blue-grey I added phthalo blue to those two colors. Amazing that all of the colors in this painting come from those three primary colors!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Hydrangeas, revisited

Ink and Watercolor
Stillman & Birns Zeta Sketchbook, 7.5" x 7.5" 

I'm still trying to create a painting of a hydrangea bush I saw crowing out of a crack between paving stones at Alcatraz last summer. It amazed me to see such a large plant thriving with so little room at its feet. 

So I used Emily Weil's color triad today: Daniel Smith's hansa yellow medium, quin magenta, and phthalo blue. The image above is a crop of this larger painting below: 

I felt that the vertical line in the background, which I drew intending to suggest a crack in the wall, detracted from the painting. When I cropped the painting, it became more interesting to me. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Painting What You're Drawn To

"Beverly's Flowers"
Ink and w/c
Stillman & Birn Zeta Sketchbook, 7.5" x 7.5"

I’m still getting mileage out of Emily Weil’s advice to paint what I’m drawn to, in a style that feels right. For both of these paintings I first made a simple contour drawing with my Sailor calligraphy pen and then used minimal colors, to get to know more about how those limited few colors behave.

For the top image, I used Daniel Smith phthalo blue for the sky, which is a very dominant color in what I’d say is a medium value (tone) range. I allowed the paint to puddle and bloom, thinking the blooms (fuzzy round circles) would add interesting texture. Then I added the yellow and yellow-green trumpet flowers in mostly a light value range, and then I painted the leaves and background palms in light, medium, and dark ranges.

It took several days to decide whether or not I liked this painting, but the more I look at it, the more I do like it, especially the contrast between the yellow flowers and blue sky. 

As far as the painting just below, it's the opposite: I liked it at first more than I do now. 

But I still learned a couple of things. First, I learned I’m not crazy about the way cerulean blue granulates, at least not in this painting. Second, I learned that purple is such a dark color that it can overwhelm a painting. That is why I cropped the painting. As you can see in the version below, there's a little more to it, but the full version has an uninteresting sameness, I think partially because of all the dark purple. For that matter, the greens have a sameness, as well, so I’d better add “learn to mix a fuller variety of greens” to my list. 

I write this as our area begins to follow at least a three-week “shelter in place” order requiring nearly 7 million people to stay in their homes, in an attempt to slow the COVID-19 outbreak. I keep thinking of Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “I am a rock,” and especially the lines “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.” The line is meant ironically, as the song is about the danger of isolating ourselves too much. But as we enter this time of sheltering in place, I truly am grateful that I have my art "to protect me," in the form of already having this stepped-up drawing and painting practice in place. 

May everyone sheltering in place have some kind of deeply satisfying daily, meditative practice during this strange time.

Thursday, March 12, 2020


Ink and watercolor
Stillman & Birns Zeta Sketchbook, 7.5" x 7.5" 
It's so hard to work when the poppies are popping! 

Monday, March 9, 2020


Ink and watercolor
Stillman & Birns Zeta Sketchbook, 7.5" x 7.5" 

Is this more of a drawing or more of a painting?

I am not sure.

Does it matter? Not really.

What does matter?

The way as soon as I saw the watercolors begin to puddle and mix, I felt very satisfied and happy.

The way the combination of cobalt blue, cobalt violet, and quinacridone magenta vibrate with energy, at least for me.

The way I felt connected to a helpful community artists before and while I painted: Emily Weil advising me, in-person at a painting lesson just days earlier, to paint what I’m drawn to in the style I like in order to learn more deeply; Liz Steel, via online video Sketching Now watercolor class, demonstrating how to use washes; and Antrese Wood, via Savvy Painter podcast, talking about resistance and the artist.

Yes, I experienced the magic I’d been seeking.  

The Redwoods

Redwood Hike
Ink and w/c
Stillman & Birn Zeta Series sketchbook, 7.5 x 7.5"
I snapped the reference photo that I used for this painting at the Oakland Redwoods, where my husband and I hiked last Friday at the beginning of a two-day celebration of his birthday. The lines and color washes here are very simple, but the image calls up the smell and beauty of that area that always makes us both feel so very good. Ahhhhhhh!

During last week’s lesson with artist Emily Weil I told her about the “caught” feeling I’m been having between using ink vs. not using ink with watercolor and between using a quick, expressive approach to watercolor vs. a more traditional, realistic approach by building up several layers of paint.

Her advice was two-fold: first, paint and draw what you are drawn to. Second, paint in a style that feels right at the time.

For herself, she said she almost always uses ink in her watercolor paintings because she simply likes to draw. “Just because you like a certain style doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn,” she said. “I think it actually frees you up to learn when you’re using a style that feels right to you.” 

Just the words I needed to hear. My goal here was just to experiment with Emily’s color triad (Daniel Smith quinacridone magenta, hansa yellow, and phthalo blue, green shade). The biggest surprise was the earthy yellow-brown color in the middle foreground, created with the quin magenta and the hansa yellow (medium). And I appreciated the way the washes of pigment on the smooth paper (“Extra Heavyweight”) created interesting puddles.  

Guest Artist: Emily Weil

Patio Flowers, by Emily Weil
ink and watercolor
Stillman & Birns Sketchbook, Zeta series, 7.5 x 7.5 "

How lucky am I to be taking a few individual art lessons with the talented artist Emily Weil this month.

For our first lesson last week, we decided I would watch her paint. I wanted to know how she would approach a photo I’d taken last summer of two pots of flowers. (See my Patio Friends and Patio Friends 2 for my own painted versions).  

What fun to watch her work. Using her Sailor calligraphy fountain pen, she quickly drew some basic lines and then jumped right in with a triad of Daniel Smith watercolors, both mixed and direct (quinacridone magenta, hansa yellow medium, and phthalo blue, green shade). She uses this triad often as a basic foundation for her watercolor paintings because she feels it lends cohesiveness to her work. She also added quinacridone coral.

With a large, round brush she dropped washes here and there, first in the lower left table foreground, then moving on to the flowers, the leaves, then the background on the top right. After the painting dried she added color to the background fence, then final touches of color. One more short drying session, then a few white circles and lines added with a white acrylic marker because she felt the composition had become too dark. Ta da! – this lovely painting.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

More About the Sally Project

I met Sally forty years ago when I was twenty and she was the one in her sixties. I was a waitress at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant on...