On the stems of the Calaveras tomato and the importance of observation

Field sketch of Vogliotti tomato Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook
Field sketch of the Camalay tomato
Graphite and watercolor in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Two weeks ago I spent the hot summer morning sketching amazing tomatoes at Taylor Mountain Gardens, the farm that supplies much of the fresh produce found at the Outer Aisle Farmstand and  Restaurant in Murphys, California. (Read about why I am drawing at this farm here.)

Owner Eric Taylor was understandably proud as he showed me the rows of these magnificent tomato plants, as well grown as everything else on this farm. The vines were big healthy mounds bearing nearly perfect classic tomatoes from pearly green unripe knobs to glowing summer-red fruits.

Originally bred by early Calaveras County Italian settlers (who had been friends of Eric and Christine Taylor)Camalay tomato is a big girl (according to Marianna’s Heirloom Seeds it can reach 2 pounds), is a pure clean red, and according to Eric, is completely suited to growing in Calaveras County.


A tomato such as this deserves its own artwork, and I’ve been working on a finished illustration to honor it (and use as a portfolio piece). I had my field sketches and a couple of blurry iPhone photos to work from.

As I designed the picture, I grew suspicious about this part of the field sketch.

Tomato_StemHad I seen that knobby structure on the stem correctly? Was it really so big? How exactly was it attaching to the tomato stem?

This week I returned to that row of big green plants and looked more carefully.

Field sketch of Vogliotti tomato stems Graphite in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook
Field sketch of Camalay tomato stems
Graphite in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Indeed, the tomatoes are attached to the plant by burly stems and hefty knobs; the fruit is heavy and so needs secure support. Now I wonder, do all big tomatoes have these odd knobs? I’ve never before looked that closely.

But that’s what’s so wonderful about drawing from life. Slow, careful observation reveals what is hidden from the impatient eye. Direct observation creates space for discoveries, and those revelations not only make my life so much more interesting, but they help me feel connected to my world.  Plus, my illustrations feel so much richer for being correct.

Gentle readers, your assignment for today is to look really hard at something familiar. Try to find something about it that you never before noticed, and note that in your sketchbook or journal.

Then slice a sun-ripened tomato (a Camalay if you can find one), sprinkle with salt or sugar, and while enjoying this summer treat, ponder what you’ve learned by observing what most people ignore.

In the Central Sierra look for Camalay tomatoes (as well as other varieties) at Taylor Mountain Farms booths at farmers markets throughout Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties. In Murphys, check out the Outer Aisle Food Hub or the Outer Aisle CSA.