A Plein Air Summer, Going with the Flow

This summer I left my job at games company Zynga so that I could accept a new job as Art Lead at Disney Interactive/Playdom, a position I am very excited about. In between jobs I had a month off, time I sorely needed and, of course, I used that time to paint. 


and I had tickets to attend an event called

"Outstanding in the Field"

, a traveling chef tour that was hosting a dinner at

Farm Fresh to You in Capay Valley

. We booked the whole weekend with the idea of wandering around the valley sketching idyllic rolling hills and farm country. 

Tragedy struck on the first morning of the first day when we witnessed a terrible murder of a cute baby faun by a Labrador retriever. After seeing such a beautiful little creature murdered by the neighboring farm's family dog, I really didn't feel inspired to sketch the landscape. Since we still had three days and our fancy chef dinner wasn't until the last night, we wandered around the valley looking around for sketching spots. Somehow, nerves-of-steel-Jamie was able to concentrate, but my mind was completely shattered. Finally on the morning of the third day I asked Jamie to find a spot he liked. I resolved that what ever it was, I would force myself to paint - no matter how I felt. He had been eying some old trucks by the side of the road, so that's where we set up.


"Old Truck", 8x12, pastel on toned paper

What a challenge...I found the first  hour was the most difficult. Maybe because I'm not an old-rusty-truck artist, I found the subject sort of interesting and different. That was enough to suck me into it, trying to find the correct placement of angles and figuring out the lighting and color shifts. Eventually my mind started to float away from those images of violence and into another world,


Later that night we went to the Capay Farm dinner that was hosted by the "Outstanding In the Field" group. We listened to a great lecture by the owners of the farm and also by the people who run the chef tour about supporting organic farms. It was pretty great and so different from anything we've ever done. 

The entire time we were at this event, I was salivating over the GORGEOUS light all around us - and these photos certainly do not do it justice. I wanted to freeze frame so many moments and paint them! Alas, those images are locked in my private data base for future inspiration.

The very next week Jamie was working in LA. I flew down to Santa Monica the following weekend, where Jamie and I spent our entire Saturday and Sunday exploring the beach and sketching.

and also some time relaxing in the sun!

Although I tried both days to paint the Santa Monica boardwalk, I was not successful in capturing what I saw. The light was shifting so quickly, almost moment by moment! Trying to figure out what to focus on was my biggest concern. I really love touristy sites with all their bits of busy color and activity. I would love to come back and do an entire series of sketches of this subject and other lighting conditions I observed on the beach.

After that experience, I realized what I needed to do mentally and physically during this


month off from work - I needed to focus and get some paintings done. When I think back on it now, I have not had a month off since I was 20 years old in college. Since then, I've worked full time every single day with just a few weeks off for vacations here and there. I've never had time to explore a particular subject or a concept in a series or do very large works - something I am


to do. A month off from work certainly is not a lot in the big scheme of things, and at the same time, incredibly precious to me. 

With that in mind, I decided to rent a hotel room up at Lake Tahoe by myself. All I brought with me were my backpack,

Terry Ludwig pastel box

, paper to draw on, my horrifying paint box and too-heavy tripod, my camp chair, painting umbrella, a book on John Muir meditations, flip flops, bug spray, hygiene necessities, my iphone, and some painting clothes. 


"Lake Donner Sketch", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

Actually, I forgot to mention my family was visiting too, staying at a rented house in Truckee. I really didn't paint during that time. Instead, we did all sorts of cool things like kayaking, hiking, hanging out, and watched the Olympics. The only sketch I did do during my family's visit was this one, above, about 1 hour.

Ok, so I was a total loner AFTER my family left. I rented a cheap hotel room in Tahoe City, with the goal of completing one painting per day. That's right, only one painted sketch per day. Although I can if I have to, I am not crazy about fast sketching. I like to find a spot I love and spend a full 4-5 hours to record what I see. My goal here was to really get in there and study the light, get everything working together rather than an abbreviated sketch. Too much of my life already consists of half completed thoughts and quick sketching; I simply had the urge to complete full thoughts and go at a slower pace.


"Tahoe Vista", 10x12, pastel on toned paper

What attracted me visually about the coast of Lake Tahoe was the surprising juxtaposition of the earthy palette of the mountains and lake against the extreme saturation of summer time water sports, outdoor cafes, and boats. Again, I found myself gravitating toward touristy sites full of tiny bits of saturated color.


After painting a few busy spots, I ended up at the AMAZING Sand Harbor. Everything about the place was so incredibly beautiful that I ended up coming back for several days, completely floored by the color of the water, the rocks, the sand, kayacks, and stand up paddling, while also impressed by the cafeteria, well maintained public bathrooms, food stands that served fish tacos and pomegranate margaritas, AND an outdoor theater that performed Shakespeare plays



This beautiful rock formation was littered with kayaks, boats and swimmers when I began the sketch, but after a mid-afternoon nap I woke to find everyone had left. I like the solitude of the rocks and the amazing blue-green hue of the water at this beach just as much with the swimmers as without.


"Sand Harbor Rocks", 8x10, pastel on toned paper


A little about my plein air set up:

it is ridiculous.

I am never that comfortable standing and painting, and even sitting on a camp chair and painting. After trying lots of variations, I finally found that if I attached my umbrella to my camp chair, placed my purse on it as a weight and then used my backpack as a cushion to sit on and propped my pastels on my paint box, I was magically able to concentrate more deeply. Finicky, I know...


"Sand Harbor", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

After having such a nice time at Sand Harbor, I searched around for subjects that contained no evidence of human activity, especially given that I had just experienced several days of people peeking over my shoulder and asking me questions about what I was doing and why. I finally found a seemingly perfect spot along the rocky shore line that I had to climb down pretty far with my set up. At 8:00 in the morning I had no way of predicting that by noon a steady stream of people would be climbing down the rocks right in front of me trying to get to the water all day. But as anyone who paints outside knows, there is


a surprise or some difficulty and you just have to go with it.


"Tahoe Shoreline Overlook", 8x12, pastel on toned paper

Fortunately there were moments of uninterrupted solitude at other locations.


"Lake Tahoe Shore", 8x10, pastel on toned paper


"Vikingsholm, Lake Tahoe", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

After a week of bliss painting and long walks at night thinking about all of the future paintings I would like to do, I returned to San Francisco and the endless summer fog. Not feeling super inspired to paint city scenes, I spent a little time in the DeYoung looking around, trying to regroup. I found this great little painting tucked away in a quiet corner of the museum by Jefferson David Chalfant (1865-1931), entitled "Bouguereau's Atelier at the Academie Julian, Paris, 1891".

Jefferson David Chalfant (1865-1931), entitled "Bouguereau's Atelier at the Academie Julian, Paris, 1891"

I also went outside the museum and looked at some fantastic sculptures by

Melvin Earl Cummings

, whose sculptures appear all over San Francisco. Oddly, all of these particular sculptures are in cages. I am unsure of what the reason is for putting these in cages. It is unfortunate since the sculptures are well executed, although a bit...odd, children wrestling giant rabbits, lions fighting with goats, and dogs attacking a kangaroo.

Despite the cage, I tried to sketch "Greyhounds and Kangaroo". I am certain I did not capture the gesture well; to me this looks a bit jumbled. My only defense is that the subject matter brought back vivid memories of the violence we saw a few weeks earlier in Capay Valley.


"Greyhounds and Kangaroo sculpture by E.M. Cummings, Golden Gate Park", 8x10, pastel on toned paper

While I sketched, I thought about this subject Cummings chose to explore - animals fighting, one being at a clear disadvantage. I also thought about a Richard Dawkins essay I read earlier in the year regarding deeper aspects within the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. 

Apparently, survival of the fittest does not necessarily mean the strongest vs. the weakest, although that dynamic does play a part. Survival of the fittest also means the advantage of being flexible, of being a species that can "go with the flow", absorb and adapt. I think that concept can also apply to painting. Painting is hard. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of time, investment in education, money to buy supplies, and hard work. It is difficult to get all of those things working together and can be frustrating and easy to internalize, creating a mind environment of "I am not talented". I believe the true key to what we regard as "talent" is really quality education. This for many reasons is difficult to access, and when accessed requires a lot of time to practice. However, it is during those moments of doubt that I need to remember:

I am doing as much as I can possibly do! take a deep breath, and go with the flow! 

And go with the flow I did. It's been a few years since I've plein air painted in oils, finding it frustrating and not really getting good results. Even so, I decided, what the heck, I've got some time, why not try again? I headed over to the Conservatory of Flowers on a very cold and foggy day to paint this building I've been intrigued by for a long time.


NOTE: I do not at all recommend using a hand held palette on top of your plein air box, unless you are finicky about your set up like me. I like the hand held palette because I have access to the entire surface as opposed to a palette that is set inside a box. Open Box M has a shallower palette surface, so I plan to purchase one soon. 

It took me an entire day to figure out the color range of the building and contemplate the drawing challenges involved in this building. When I recently took a perspective class taught by Carl Dobsky, he mentioned that he would do a field sketch of a subject and then recreate the perspective in the studio before doing a larger more formal painting. I had that in mind when I was painting this, so I tried my best to get an impression of what I observed, painting only the most important information and not worrying too much about correct perspective - which is difficult to freehand on a subject like this.


"The Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park", 8x10, oil on panel

Although this is my first study of this fascinating building and great lighting conditions, I plan to paint some more studies from different vantage points and explore some larger compositions. I hope to take this to the next level by creating a large painting using the method of perspective recreation that Carl Dobsky taught us in class.

"Aboriginal Art is described as a method for gaining knowledge of Nature and it's invisible dreaming".

Painting in Golden Gate Park in the foggy and cold summer is always interesting more for the people within the park than anything else. While I painted the conservatory, a man set up about 50 feet away from me and began playing a didgeridoo, an incredible Aboriginal instrument from Australia. How amazing it was to paint while I listened to this incredible sound!

I also tried at least twice to paint the fantastic Dahlia Garden and failed miserably, I still felt ok. 

I did not group together my lights and darks cohesively and instead created a complicated light pattern that does not read well enough.

Jamie painting along side with me in the Dahlia Garden. :)