30-in-30: Going east at dusk, watercolor in hand

Jan22_LandscapeJournalJan21_LandscapesThese are what my car-journal pages look like. The smaller rectangles are 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, and the vertical rectangles are whatever size my little heart desires.

We don’t travel much, so I don’t always remember what colors are in my little travel palette. It helps to make a little swatch palette before I begin (that’s why there are twelve color swatches all in a row on the page at top).

Interstate 680 through Pleasanton at dusk
Interstate 680 through Pleasanton at dusk

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

Open Studios Profile: Denise Natanson-Marcus

Only a few more days until the second weekend of Silicon Valley Open Studios. I hope to see you there. I think you’d enjoy seeing the many artists exhibiting in Los Altos.

Today please meet Denise Natanson-Marcus. Denise paints landscapes: lovely little jewels and great big grand canvases. The first time I saw her work exhibited, I enjoyed the sense of place she brings to her work, and especially her paintings of California, in which she has so well captured the baked dry hills of autumn and the cool shade of the our forests.

Bolinas Lagoon 10" x 20" Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Bolinas Lagoon
10″ x 20″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

Describe your artistic journey

I have always drawn and painted since childhood.  I minored in art at university, as my parents wanted me to get a science degree. After getting a B.S. in Psychology, I went to Boston University School of Fine Arts and received a classical art education. During this time, I learned to meditate, which has helped me immensely in my life.  My life since has been about painting and meditation. I have taught meditation for many decades and have shown my art in various galleries and shows throughout the years. I have taught art in the schools for 11 years while my kids were in school.  I am currently enjoying a period of delving deeper into my plein air painting.  Is my science degree wasted? No, I also work at Kaiser part-time, as a health educator, teaching meditation and stress management.

Where has art taken you in life?

Art is a form of meditation for me. I paint landscapes, and I love to paint outdoors; it is a way to commune with and look more deeply into nature and love nature more dearly.  Art has taken me to Santa Fe, where I showed my art for sometime; to the East coast, where I studied with the great colorist  Henry Hensche; to many museums around America and Europe; and to painters’ studios and museums in Bali, which has a fantastic art style and history. Whether looking at art or doing art, it brings me into balance and harmony in my life. It’s a way to connect with other cultures in a universal language.

Foothill Park Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Foothill Park
9″ x 12″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

What do you think about when you begin a painting?

I think about composition first.  What will make the scene before me look dynamic, move the viewers’ eye and draw the viewer in? What do I see before me that is inspiring me to paint this scene and how can I make the viewer see that too?

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?

Many times, my favorite is my most recent, but there are a few I will not sell because I’ve managed to paint the light of a sky with such light, color © subtlety that I’m not sure I could do it again.  These are most precious to me.

Arizona Sunset Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Arizona Sunset
24″ x 30″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?

I would love to see one of the Impressionists, like Monet or Pissarro, paint on location and see for myself how they layer their colors and how they get the light in the shadows and the color relationships. Also, Twatchman, an American Impressionist. I’s like to see how he painted all those subtle whites in the snow, and maintained such a light palette yet had so much color and depth in his scenes.

You can see more of Denise’s work at  http://natanson-art.com

Denise Natanson-Marcus will be exhibiting May 10-11 at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024

At cliff edge with a sketchbook

Bean Hollow
Looking out over Bean Hollow State Beach.

Yesterday while plein air painting on the cliff overlooking Bean Hollow State Beach, I watched legions of families troop down to the pebbly beach. Every so often kids would stop and politely ask if they might look at my painting; My goodness, yes!

A small boy sat at the edge of the cliff next to me, a packet of colored pens and a sketchbook in hand.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “I think this will do nicely.” And he opened his sketchbook, ready to draw.

But those cliffs are slippery; it’s best to be careful on the California coast. Absorbed in the view, the little boy leaned forward, and in a scraping of dust and sand he slid down the cliff to the beach below. (Don’t worry. The cliff face is shallow, the surface smooth from generations of kids zooming down on their bottoms, and the sand and pebbles below make the landing soft and delightfully scrunchy.)

He never dropped his art supplies. He stood, brushed himself off and gazed out to sea. Then he turned and ran up the stairs, around my easel, and, still grasping pens and sketchbook, slid down the cliff again.

Gentle painters and sketchers, take a lesson from this small boy. Even though life might send you sliding down a cliff, never let go of your sketchbook!

Breaking waves
Waves at Bean Hollow.
Breaking waves
Waves at sunset after a beautiful day.

Landscape painting vs. landscape walking

Pinnacles National Park

Rocks at Bear Gulch Resevoir, Pinnacles National Park

7.5″ x 9.5″
© 2013 by Margaret Sloan

I am still reading—and recommend—The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane. MacFarlane is a walker; he experiences the landscape through his feet, even walking barefoot through several pages. He travels at shanks-mare pace, slow enough to notice things as he walks over mountain, bog, or desert, passing landmarks, pathways, and people. Fair enough. Good writing has to keep moving to get anywhere.

I’m enjoying this book, as I’ve always loved walking, and fantasize regularly about a walkabout of my own. But since I’ve started landscape painting, my relationship with the landscape has changed.

As a landscape painter, I don’t so much move through a landscape as move into it. I build a temporary studio with tripod, pochade box, and backpack full of supplies and sandwiches (this army travels on her stomach). And there I stand at the easel, brush in hand, watching the landscape move around me.

Pinnacles National Park
Small watercolor sketch at Pinnacles National Park

Wind crackles through grass, and cloud shadows ripple and dimple the surface of the hills. Tides ebb and flow, birds fly by, eyeing my sack of sandwiches, and people stop, chat, then continue their own walk. When you stand still on the earth, the landscape moves like a flood around you, driven by the solar-storm of the sun as it rockets overhead.

Pinnacles National Park
Small watercolor sketch at Pinnacles National Park

And that is the landscape painter’s challenge, isn’t it? To try to capture a scene, to freeze a feeling, a smell or a taste of a moment that is constantly zooming past, on towards the next moment. The land is never, ever going to hold a pose long enough for me to capture a perfect likeness. In the field, all I can hope for are impressions: an idea of color, a gesture of form. In the studio, I can rely only on memory (and perhaps photographs).

Although I’m not walking across the land when I paint, I am making a slow sort of progress in tracking the world. I’m learning to notice things I don’t see when walking. Sometimes standing still is the best way to move.

“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” —Franz Kafka

Here’s a lecture by MacFarlane. It’s long, so get a cup of tea, pull out your sketchbook, and draw while you listen.

Rapid Painting

Lilly Lake near Estes Park, Colorado
Lilly Lake near Estes Park, Colorado

On a recent trip to Colorado, I painted at Lily Lake near Estes Park.

I’ve been trying to loosen up my watercolor landscapes; normally I make a tight pencil drawing on the paper before I start applying water and pigment. But I’m not liking the results. The image is too tight,  much like a cartoon.

Watercolor landscape painter Jonathan Pitts advises starting out with a 5-minute sketch before launching into a longer painting. In 5 minutes there’s only so much you can do. You have to rely on simple shapes, colors, and brush strokes.

At Lily Lake, I couldn’t quite restrict myself to 5 minutes. I gave myself a 15 minute time limit for an initial sketch on a 3.5″ x 5″ piece of watercolor paper, set the timer, and painted.

LilyLake_15MinutesLily Lake
15 minute study

Next I worked for a couple of hours on a larger piece of paper. It was late afternoon, and the light and sky was changing every few minutes.


Lily Lake
2 hour study

I like the quick study much better. Making quick decisions forces me to work rapidly in bold patterns and simple color. Such “thin-slicing” is not my normal state of affairs; I usually mull things over until they are thoroughly mushed and muddy. I’m searching for clarity in many things. Funny that it should sometime come as a result of flash decisions.

Lupines in the afternoon


It was a rare weekday afternoon that I was able to spend painting at Russian Ridge, just before a late spring storm. Last weekend I realized this little patch of lupine was about ready to pop into full bloom, and if I wanted to paint them in their full glory, I’d have to get out there soon. Wildflowers fade fast.

Such is the life of a plein air painter. Time and flowers wait for no man or woman, and I wanted to capture the feeling I got on this trail that a person could step from the edge of the lupine-purple earth into the glowing sky.


I love these hazy days with lots of high clouds in the sky. We don’t get enough clouds in the Bay Area. And soon we’ll have the eternal sunshine of the spotless California summer, with no cover from the sun for months and months. But for now, we’ve got clouds a-plenty.


Of course, we’ll always have the fog rolling over the ridgelines, even on most summer evenings.

Painting outside: Mindego Hill

RussianRidge500pxMindego Hill #1
Oil on canvas board
© 2013 Margaret Sloan

For the last 3 Saturdays I’ve been at Russian Ridge, painting Mindego Hill. It’s an iconic view from the ridge: Mindego Hill rises over the coast range of mountain ridges rippling all the way to the sea. On a clear evening from the ridge, you can watch the sun set into the Pacific.

A few years ago, this hill was saved for all of us by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSP), organizations that have protected many acres of the Bay Area from the rampant cancer of development that afflicts the Bay. It’s rather miraculous that we have these open spaces where we can all savor the landscape that makes the Bay Area so beautiful. For many of us, getting away from the city streets is a necessity for our health and sanity.

The world is full of coincidence. (If you don’t believe me, check out This American Life’s recent show on coincidence) While I was writing this post, a young man rang to ask me to take a survey about POST and MROSP. I guess they are trying to put together a bond issue to raise some dollars. Would I be willing to pay more taxes to fund the necessary luxury of having open space available to everyone?  I’m not a fan of more taxes, but for this, I’m not sure how I could refuse.

To read about the GoMindego campaign (which was successfull in preserving the hill), as well as some history and facts about the hill, go to this newsletter: http://www.openspacetrust.org/downloads/newsletters/Landscapes-WI07.pdf

The landscape painter as tourist attraction


View from Badwater parking lot. Quick watercolor sketch on a piece of 3.5 x 5″ Arches 300 lb. hot press

I had planned a full day of non-painting sight-seeing with my non-painter traveling companions, but that was derailed when J. realized that she wasn’t quite recovered from a bad flu and she needed some rest.  Fortunately I had packed my watercolors, just in case I had a few moments while the others were hiking. (Always take some kind of painting supplies with you!) When the group decided to go back to the motel, I was able to split off and spend the afternoon painting.

I pulled off the road at the Devil’s Golf Course and set up my easel on the shady side of the car. Even in January, it’s often quite warm in Death Valley and I was grateful for the wee bit of shade.


View from the cutoff to the Devil’s Golf Course. Watercolor sketch on 8 x 10″ Arches 300 lb. hot press.

When painting in public, I often feel like I become part of the scenery. On their way to the Devil’s Golf Course, tourists stopped and from the comfort of their car watched me paint. Some stopped twice: once on their way in and once again as they drove out, checking my progress. One man, a tourist from New York City, asked, “Can I take your photo? It’s a great shot, with you painting and the whole valley around you.”

I must be quite picturesque. I think it’s the hat.

TheHatView of me, painting in the middle of Mosaic Canyon.