Vignette camera on the Droid


I just put the Vignette camera app on my new smart phone. It’s really fun to add all the funky effects to make it look like—gasp!—film. I expect apps like this will dislodge a smart phone-powered avalanche of arty photos that look like they were taken with an old Diana or Holga camera. I never had one of these when I was a kid, although I believe my little brother, always on the cutting edge, and freer with money than I was, had some kind of cheap camera bought from an ad in the back of a comic book. I remember he was a superstar for a while, because he had a camera, and took arty photos (even at 9 years old, he was a creative genius). I was jealous, fit to beat the band.

But now I’ve got a smart phone, and I’m going to be playing with the camera function like I’m in my second childhood. (Crazily, when I first wrote this post, I kept writing “phone” instead of “camera.” Since we all now take photos with our phones, will the word camera drop from our vocabulary?)

I love my DroidX, although I don’t like the name. It sounds like a robot. Who wants a robot except for testosterone-flushed young male gamers? I’d rather have a puppy. I expect I’m more the type for an iPhone, but there was the AT&T issue. So far, Verizon has been expensive but great.

So my droid is known as the blue puppy (it’s dressed in a blue silicon case, until Otter box finally starts making Droid cases). Then I think I’ll call it the gray dog.

Man. Can I waste a lot of time on this phone, and I don’t even play video games!

Empty nest

Watercolor on Arches Hotpress watercolor block
Watercolor on Arches Hotpress watercolor block

One of the sad parts about life is saying goodby to people you love. This summer has been especially hard.  Two friends leave the area (going first on an excellent adventure, then to settle in the Pacific Northwest). And my two beloved neices left for college (also in the Pacific Northwest—is there a trend here?). I know that they are all doing exactly what they need to be doing, but that doesn’t fill that hollow space in my heart.

I know that I can go see them. In theory. But finding the time…that’s nearly impossible. Still, I’ll have to do it.

Peaking at 50


After climbing the steep trail all morning, we missed the fork that would have taken us to the completely tame (or so I was promised) tunnel trail. Now we were high on the mountain side at Pinnacles National Monument, looking out over the state of California all the way to the foggy coast, and the trail only led higher.

TrialWe clambered around a corner and suddenly we stood at the base of a cliff. Footholds chipped into the rock face marched almost vertically into the sky. There was nothing but the rock, a pipe to cling to, and the air around it.

“Oh my god,” Jo said. “Do you want to go back?”

Camping buddy Jo, who is smart, brave, and intrepid, knows well that as I suffer from an inexplicable terror of heights. This fear is something new that has come with the years. Altitude never bothered me when I was a kid; at 12 I would have scampered right over that mountain face. Twice.

But now,  here I was, two weeks before I turned 50, having a hard time staying calm looking at the crazy steep trail. Maybe you know the feeling: your intestines crawl into your chest and cling to your lungs so you can’t get a breathe, your head gets woozy, and suddenly the only thing you can feel in your hands is a cold sweat.

To be honest, my upcoming birthday, the big 50, is making me feel woozy like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff.  I’m amazed at how two little numbers—a 5 and a 0—can open the door to anxiety and actually send out stamped invitations to an open-bar, fully catered worry affair, complete with band and disco ball. (Ok, ok, I’ve always had a worry party going on in my head. It’s just gotten more crowded as I—gulp—age).

In our culture that’s dirty word—age. Yes, yes, I’ve heard that 50 is the new 30 (Frankly, I’d be happy to see 40 again). Sure, Jamie Lee Curtis received applause for going topless at 50.  And I’ve read that employers are starting to value those of us who have more experience than we have collagen in our lips.  Even Barbie has lost only a smidge of popularity despite reaching the half century mark..

But I live in Silicon Valley, where we worship youth. And why wouldn’t we? The young are so lovely, so luminous. They don’t have years of living that cover the inner shine with a dusty layer of experience.

And I think they’re mostly not afraid to climb over a mountain peak.

Up on that mountain, I had to think hard. I thought over the trail we’d just climbed. We’d huffed and puffed up the Condor Trail (no condors to be seen), then wound our way around and up the side of the mountain. We had to clamber up and down steep rocky bits lined with poison oak. And Central California in May is already hot like summertime; we’d started hiking at 8 that morning in shirt sleeves, and the day wasn’t getting any cooler. The trail was on the west side of the hill where the afternoon sun would be blazing. Did I really want to descend the mountain  using the same trail I’d ascended?

I remembered my grandfather’s motto: Always go home by a different road. Never backtrack.

ClimbingI clenched my teeth. Wiped sweat from my eyes. “Jo,” I said. “We can’t go back. So we gotta go forward.”

And I climbed that mountain, dammit. White knuckled it all the way, pressed on even when I felt like I was so exposed that I was flying. Jo talked me over the really scary bits, and both of us slid down one entire passage on our butts.

I’d like to say that I felt victorious and renewed afterwards. I guess I did, a little. But mostly I was tired and hungry. And needing to paint something. Out came my little hiking journal, a waterbrush, and a afew Caran d’Ache watercolor sticks. I rested in the shade, ate a tortilla with hummus, and did what any artist at any age might do. I painted a picture of the mountains.


Prud’hon method

Self-portrait in charcoal and white chalk
Self-portrait in charcoal and white chalk

In the third year at the atelier, Rob started teaching us different techniques which will eventually lead to color temperature theory. Leaping into technique was a little daunting, as I was still (am still!) struggling to get an accurate rendition of the figure on my paper. Rob has an exacting eye, and with his help, I’m slowly learning to see where I go wrong in the initial stages of a drawing. These days, when I’m working on a drawing, I don’t just accept the first marks that go on my paper; instead, I try to use a more critical approach.  And measure, measure, measure.

After we started working on colored paper, Rob introduced the Prud’hon method. Prud’hon was a French Romantic painter who produced some amazing drawings using toned paper, charcoal, and white chalk. A brilliant Bay Area teacher, Rebecca Alzofon (who, unfortunately is no longer teaching) has a tutorial on the Prud’hon method. I rarely follow tutorials, but I did follow some of this, and found it helpful to build on what I’d learned in Rob’s class.)

There’s a lot of smudging going on with this method. Tone is put down by a series of hatch marks, which are then smudged and blended. Charcoal and chalk can be blended, or not. After you’ve built the volume and form, to accent areas, you use line—not contour line, which would go across the form, but rather, line that follows the direction of the form.

Self portrait

Mockingbird moon
Mockingbird moon

Charcoal and white chalk on toned paper

This is a rather idealized self portrait in charcoal and white chalk on grey toned paper. We were just learning to use black and white chalk on colored paper at the Atelier and it seemed a great opportunity to work on an image that’s been in my head for a while.

The exercise was to use black charcoal, white chalk, and the tone of the paper as different values. We weren’t supposed to mix the chalk and charcoal, but rather keep them adjacent to each other. I worked hard in this piece to really push the values, as I have a tendency to be too afraid of the charcoal, and never get my midtones and dark values really dark enough. I think I still could have pushed the values further, particularly the darks.

Learning to see value has changed my artwork tremendously. The first time I really understood how important value is—what you can accomplish with value—it was like I had a mental earthquake. Although we can draw convincingly in line, the eye doesn’t really see line, it sees value. And adding value really brings depth and volume to a drawing or painting.