A walk in the woods finds inspiration in a cloud of ladybugs

Snow and water
Snow and water 10″ x 8″ Watercolor on Arches 300# hot press

On Superbowl Sunday I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park to interview photographer Susan Conner. She shoots landscapes that tell the story of a quiet earth that often seems to be waiting for something.

“Dress warm,” she warned me. “It will be cold.”

That meant lots of layers, and as I drove past drifts of snow on the highway, I was glad for the long underwear, double shirts, down vest, and Sherpa cap.

But as we sat at a sunny picnic table, the air was warm, the sun burnt our winter-pale faces. We had to speak loudly to be heard over the sound of running water.

I get such a charge out of talking about art with creators, especially when they’re as open and talkative as Susan. As we chatted, we began to strip: first gloves, then the down vest, the jacket, the hat, until in the end we were wearing just jeans and shirts. I don’t know about Susan, but I was wishing I could lose the long underwear.

I wanted Susan to take me on a mini photo shoot. I’m deeply interested in how others work. I always wonder, how do they get from point A to point B, C, and beyond.

Susan hunts for photographs nearly everyday. Things catch her eye, and she starts shooting. She says sometimes she just knows a photo will be great, and other times she doesn’t see the composition until she gets home and looks at the photo on her computer.

We crunched through melting snow as she shot random things: water trickling down a redwood stump, burls in an old tree. On the north side of the forest, the snow, rather than melting, turned to ice at the edge of the big meadow.

A boardwalk crisscrossed the fen to protect the delicate ecosystem from trampling human feet; it was covered in slick humps of iced-over snow. “Too dangerous,” Susan said, and we turned back to the sunny side of the meadow.

There, sparkling in the touch of the sun, streams and rivulets of snowmelt ran through last year’s curled and matted grass. From this approach the boardwalk was dry, and we ventured over the meadow.


Suddenly the air was filled with a swarm of flying bugs. Thousands of glowing wings whirred in clouds; on the ground we saw bazillions of ladybugs. There were so many that the ground appeared to be moving. They climbed anything vertical and clung to sticks and stems.

Ladybugs hibernate together in clumps during winter, emerging in the first warm days of spring to eat and mate. “It’s too early,” Susan said, as everyone has said when I tell them this story. They should still be hibernating in February. But ladybugs don’t have calendars, and the sun was telling them to wake up.

We laughed and laughed while ladybugs whirred around us. Susan clicked off a dozen or more shots into the air, trying to capture the floating, glowing insects. Then she jumped to the boggy ground and began composing shots of the clumps of the orange and red bugs that had not yet flown. I stood watching, back to the sun, and later Susan had to brush the bugs off my sweater; they had clumped together in the warmth on my back.

After our walk in the woods, Susan went off to photograph more ladybugs and I dragged out my easel and paint box. I painted the watercolor at the top of this post, trying to capture the feeling and the colors of the day.

For a landscape photographer, for a landscape painter, for a writer, for anyone who creates, I think the trick to inspiration is simply showing up. You never know what will happen when you step outdoors. You could find icy snow on your favorite path, but if you turn around and go a different direction, you could find yourself in a cloud of flying ladybugs.

You can see Susan Conner’s gorgeous work at her website, www.susanseye.com

Lady bugs


30-in-30: How to sketch it now and paint it later



Near my house the pond had gone perilously dry until our recent rains. But El Niño has come to the rescue and filled it to overflowing. Last night on my walk, I noticed water rushing through the overflow ditch and into a spillway. It was a sweet scene in the afternoon light, with tree frogs singing, and the rays of sun streaking the water beyond. I whipped out my sketchbook to capture the mood with a pencil drawing.

Pencil sketch
Pencil sketch

Yes, I always carry a sketchbook and pencil, even on my walks. Doesn’t everyone?

My goal for this exercise was to draw enough information so that I could make a painting from it in my studio (where it’s warm and I have hot drinks and a restroom).

What information did I try to capture?

  • A rough idea of composition  I’ve been working on improving my compositions. In this sketch I was trying to see big shapes rather than worry about detail.
  • Areas of interest I liked the water line as it went from the organic shape of the ditch to the man-made hard lines of the cement weir. Then there’s that little corner in the left hand side where the water starts that I also found interesting.
  • Relative values of the whole scene  There was a simple, stark contrast between water and land, but on the cement weir the values grew trickier. I was also trying to think about how the light and dark values could lead the eye and create the illusion of water.

Although this was a quick sketch, it wasn’t quick enough. Suddenly it got very dark, and I realized that the sun had sunk behind the ridge. I was still a couple miles from home, night was falling, and mountain lions were about!

Clearly I made it home (and I wrestled, not with mountain lions, but with my lazy self  as I climbed the hill towards home) and this morning I painted the study at the top of this post, using information I gleaned from my pencil sketch.

For me, art is all about learning to see. It’s good practice to make these little black and white studies and try to paint them later. It sharpens observation skills, and hones the memory.

Plus, there’s a nice cuppa with milk and honey back at the studio.


30-in-30: How to paint a snow storm

snow storm
White out study
8″ x 10″ watercolor on Arches 140# block paper

A recent photo of a white-out blizzard in the East posted by my cousin intrigued me. A study in high-key values, it called out to me to be painted. Permission to use her photo was granted and here you can see the first pass of the results. (Although deer do roam her property, this little doe is from my own head.)

I love snow. Granted, until this year I’ve never lived where there’s been too much (meaning any) snow, but I live in the mountains now, and this December we had a couple unusually heavy snowstorms. The snow was magical; the cold air made me tingle, the cool light reflecting the sky made my heart sing. But alas, I was too busy to do any plein air painting while there was snow on the ground, but there’s a snow storm promised for next week, so I’m hoping…

The hardest thing for me was keeping my values light. I normally paint with a pretty heavily loaded brush. I also realize that I want to mess with the composition a bit. And it really didn’t turn out the way I saw it in my head, so I think it deserves a couple more attempts, with more time in the planning.

pencil drawing
Pencil study for White Out

30-in-30: Drive-by haiku

While the fiddler drives, I like to paint. Problem is, the car is moving so fast through the landscape that all I capture are fleeting shapes and color. So rather than write a wordy blog post, dear reader, I give you some classic 5-7-5 haiku with my little sketches. Happy Tuesday afternoon!


Traveling, I paint
wet brown hills fading away
from town cloaked in trees.


The yellow grass, wet
but not yet green, dreams like birds
of El Niño rains.


Two rocks rear above
the road. Wet, the big rock’s head
bleeds to meet the rain


The last pass. Fly down
fast past a parked black-and-white.
Play invisible.


Dry furrows cross fields
newly plowed with hopes of rain
that falls on cities



How to paint a tree?
Edges, texture, size and form.
What’s seen disappears.




Lost a sketchbook, bought a coloring book

ColoringBookSketch1As I wrote yesterday, I lost my sketchbook while hiking and sketching in Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area in Nevada. I think I put it down either in the bathroom or the visitors center.

Yes, I did ask at the lost and found. In fact, I filed a lost report with the administrative offices. Keep your eyes open; I really would like to have that sketchbook again.

I admit, I was quite upset about losing this little book that was half-filled with good and bad sketches. A sketchbook is intensely personal, although I don’t write a lot of personal stuff in it. Still, it’s a record of my life—sketches I’d made at my granddaughter’s first birthday party; a painting of my mother; people I meet and places I go—as well as a place where I can work out ideas for projects.

Besides,  I was not there in the stinkin’ hot desert sweating like an old mule to hike (as was my friend, who is oh-just-slightly crazy), but to sketch. I was there to draw the beautiful rocks and mountains in that canyon, dammit.

I looked at the visitor center for some kind of sketch book, or even just a notebook with lined paper, but all they had were tee shirts, desert kitsch, and expensive books about flowers you might see in Nevada were it not 104 degrees in the shade and in the middle of a drought. But I found this little book:

yhst-137970348157658_2374_637844980It’s a nice coloring book, with good information about cactus. There were some blank spaces. It didn’t have clay coated paper, so it would work (sort of) with watercolor. And it was inexpensive.

While my friend courted heat exhaustion on the park trails, I collapsed in the shade of a gigantic rock and disgorged my painting kit. Painting in a coloring book was not the same satisfying experience as painting in my Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook, but it was interesting to attempt to incorporate the artwork in the book into my paintings. I recorded some of the landscape. And it satisfied that awful craving to paint.

Finally my friend crawled off the desert, having decided that it was too hot for even her lizard-lady blood, and we drove around in the air conditioned truck as the sun sank and the hills glowed in the heat.


Kathleen Dunphy Workshop: I’ve painted with chiggers and lived to tell the tale

Kathleen and Vicky sketching before class

This week I am recovering from last weekend’s plein air-excesses at a Kathleen Dunphy workshop. Kathleen paints wonderful landscapes. I’ve admired them for a long time, and like most workshop attendees, I hoped she could transmit (directly into my head, thank you very much) a bit of the magic she uses to weave her paint-on-canvas spells.

But learning to paint isn’t as simple as sticking your head in a pensieve. Plein air skills are gained by—and you knew this already—long hours behind the brush, direct study, and hard hard work.

Plus, plein air painting is not a picnic in the park. The weather was hot. There were chiggers. There was wind. There was the siren-song of wineries that we had to ignore. The standing joke among workshop attendees: If painting is so relaxing, why am I so stressed?

Patty under her creation, the BestBrella. They really work well!

However, it wasn’t all stress. There was lots of learning. Here are 7 valuable lessons that came home with me.

1. Squint It helps you see the values.

2. Apply the paint thinly I never realized this. I am first and foremost a watercolorist; the gloppiness (and messiness) of oil paint has always confounded me. After half an hour in the field, my canvas, clothes, face, hands, and hair are smeared every color of mud. But Kathleen begins a painting by applying a thin layer of paint—it looks like she’s drawing a charcoal sketch—and only builds the paint thickness as she approaches the finish. Woah! Control!

3. Squint Because values!

4. Narrow down the range  Everything—value, chroma, and color—lives much closer together in space than I understood. When painting, it’s better to stay near to the center than migrate to the extremes (kind of like life, huh?). For practice I’m going to spend a lot of time mixing paint in the middle of the octave.

5. Squint That hill on the horizon is not that dark.

6. Oil paint is not watercolor paint  As a watercolorist, I work like a stone mason, carving my darker values from the lights. But oil painters work like potters, adding layers of lighter values on top of darker values.  It was a different way of thinking. My head was addled by trying to think like an oil painter. I had to imagine my painting in reverse, like an old film negative. I needed wine. But didn’t get any.

7. Pay attention to values Squint!

Landscape sketches (draw more, Kathleen said) and Juliana painting

Drawing mountain contours, wireframing the landscape, and topping it all off with a little gouache

Mountains drawn in charcoal
Mountains drawn in charcoal


Sometimes I need to tear apart a subject and really understand what is going on with it before I can continue a project. There’s a view near my home that I’ve been trying to paint, to no avail.

I decided to strip it down to a simple charcoal study, which you see above, but before I could continue working on it, I needed to break it down even more.

Landscape contour drawign
Landscape contour drawing

A wireframe, or a contour study, helped me see the folds of the hills, and where the planes are catching and blocking light. I also realized that mountains and folds in fabric are built in the same way (I’ve realized this before, but you know, when you get older, one of the joys in  life is the endless repetition of epiphanies.)

Mountain painting
Gouache on paper
11″x 8.5″

Then I added gouache for some color. I love that the paint can be applied transparently—you can still see the marks of charcoal under those glazes—but the pigment can also be slathered on and moved around like oils. In fact, gouache seems to encompass characteristics of both watercolor and oils, depending on how much water you use. I’ve just begun using gouache, but I’m really liking it so far.

Watercolor car kit travels small but paints big

TravelWatercolorKitMy last post about painting in the car got a lot of interest. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve got my system down pretty well. This is my kit for painting while in the passenger seat.

  1. A Windsor Newton travel paint box. You want something small, something that will fit on your lap, or on the verso of your journal. I use an old Windsor Newton travel palette; unfortunately the little paint holders don’t come out of the box. This set came with Cotman Student Grade paints, which are okay as far as they go. Over the years I’ve used them up (or scraped them out) and filled the pans with higher grade paints in colors that I use more often. I wish it were easier to change out the paint. If I were to buy a new one, I’d buy an empty watercolor tin, and fill it with my own paints. Or something slightly larger: the Guerrilla Painter Backpacker Watercolor Palette. I’ve tried to make my own using old Altoid tins, but they’ve never worked quite like I thought they should.
  2. A Windsor Newton travel bag. You can still buy these, fully equipped, but you’ll pay through your pierced little nose. I bought mine at a deep-discount sale years ago when I had more money than sense. It’s great, but I think a quick trip to a few thrift stores might have yielded something almost as good at a fraction of the price.
  3. 6-inch ruler. It really comes in handy when you want to make boxes of a certain size, make straight lines, or scratch your back.
  4. Micron pen. For making notes, drawing cartoons, etc. I don’t use it that often, as it requires far too much looking down, which would make my stomach do the hootchy-kootchy in the car. Not a pretty site for heavage.
  5. Aquash watercolor brush. No, it’s not like painting with fine sable brushes, or even not-so-fine synthetic brushes, but it keeps the water contained in the handle until you squeeze the soft plastic. I’ve gotten pretty good at regulating the flow of water.
  6. Pencils. These are fancy art pencils. One is a 2h and the other is a 2b. I don’t do much drawing in the car, other than a few lines to mark the big shapes that I’m going to fill with paint. My favorite pencils for car painting are the Sakura Sumo Grip mechanical pencils, with big, soft .9 mm lead. But they’re the fiddler’s favorite pencils too, so they tend to—ahem—disappear.
  7. Pencil sharpener and kneaded eraser. I don’t really need these when I can find my the Sakura Sumo Grip, but, um, fiddlers…
  8. Eye dropper for filling the watercolor brush. Before I had the eyedropper, filling the brush was exciting, especially when the fiddler was navigating badly maintained state highways.
  9. Small container of water (that doesn’t leak). Coffee will work, in a pinch, if you don’t use sugar and cream, but your colors will suffer for it. Don’t use soft drinks.
  10. Spice jar. To store the eye dropper. This keeps the inside of your kit dry.
  11. A Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media soft cover journal. I love these. The paper takes watercolor really well, the binding really does lay flat as advertised, and the cover makes me feel like I’ve got a special book.

30-in-30: Plein air watercolor painting at 60 miles-per-hour

Distant water 3.5" x 2.5"  watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal
Distant water
3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

This week I had to make a sojourn to the Bay Area. The fiddler likes to drive, so while the fiddler steered the infernal combustion machine, I painted.

I love passenger-seat painting. Give me a wide enough view and a straight enough road (I suffer from motion sickness), and I can paint for miles.

In the studio, it’s easy to get in that zone of hyper-focus where thought takes a backseat to conscious action. If you’re a painter, you know what I mean. Pick up some color with the brush, dab it on—ooo pretty—dab some more—ooo pretty pretty—dab, dab, dab—pretty pretty pretty—dab, no, wait, dang it, arggh! What have I done? If you don’t pause and move back, pretty soon you’ve created a muddy mess.

Green Hill 3.5" x 2.5"  watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal
Green Hill
3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

Painting landscape studies in the car (while someone else is driving—duh!) is a good way to break that kind of zen-zoned out paint daubing. You can’t focus for very long on one scene, because the scene changes minute-by-minute. So you have to make your decisions rapidly and correctly.

Fallow field 3.5" x 2.5"  watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal
Fallow field
3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

All you have time to do in the car is decide on a quick composition, draw the big shapes, get the right color and value on the palette, and paint the shapes. I start with the sky first usually, the brightest and lightest shape. The jiggling of the car prohibits any attention to detail; it’s all about composition, color and shape.

I love these little watercolors. The challenge is to bring this freshness and life into larger studio paintings.

Winter trees 3" x 6" watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal
Winter trees
3″ x 6″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal