Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting

The Irvine Museum has an interesting show up this summer:  Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting.  It’s an exhibition of early California Impressionist paintings paired with contemporary plein air paintings.  Many of the paintings are from private collections.  The viewer can compare and contrast the techniques, the subject matter, or the sizes of the paintings.  The museum offers little commentary on the matter, which is refreshing, so the observations are entirely those of the viewer.  Here are mine:

  • The older paintings are often larger than the newer ones. 16 in. x 20 in., 20 in. x 30 in., or even larger, are not uncommon sizes for the California Impressionist paintings. The newer paintings are more frequently 12 in. x 16 in. or smaller.
  • The earlier paintings are often more carefully painted, with more precise strokes and harder edges than the newer ones. Many of the newer ones are very think paint applied very quickly—not slapdash, but also not carefully controlled. The influence of the intervening century of abstract painting, perhaps?
  • The color palettes of all of the painters are similar. Few if any blacks, no strikingly different color ranges such as illustrators might use. The individual pigments might be different now from a century ago, but the range of colors are similar. And in this show, mostly California colors and light.

While this is a nice exhibition, and an interesting conceit, it’s also true that none of these paintings represent the best work of the earlier artists, and probably not the contemporary painters, either. I don’t mean these aren’t good paintings—they are.  A couple of them are very good indeed (take special note of the Ken Auster painting of houses near the beach). But not every show can be full of masterpieces.

In fact, as I think about it, these are plein air paintings.  A plein air painting can only be worked on for a couple of hours during the day, or the light changes too much.  I suspect the larger early pieces were painted over a couple of days, at the same time each day. But they’re not studio pieces, which can be worked on for longer periods.

And maybe that’s part of the point of the show:  that plein air paintings can be nice, even very good—but they are rarely masterpieces.

Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting runs through October 2, 2014.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think?  Do you like plein air painting?

Sorolla and America at the San Diego Museum of Art

If you have the opportunity to get to San Diego this summer, by all means do so.  Americans have the very rare opportunity this summer to see an exhibition of paintings by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida at the San Diego Museum of Art.  Though Sorolla was quite well known in his own lifetime (some 50,000 people came to his funeral, according to the exhibition catalog), he was then all but forgotten by the public.

Sorolla's portrait of Christopher Columbus
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Christopher Columbus Leaving Palos, Spain, 1910, oil on canvas. The Mariners’ Museum. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

Which is a shame.  Because, like his contemporary John Singer Sargent, Sorolla (pronounced So-roy’-ya) was an extraordinarily gifted painter. This exhibition focuses on paintings made in or purchased by Americans (or both), including a portrait of President William Howard Taft.  The exhibition include portraits of patrons and society members; seascapes; a few landscapes; and a number of gouaches painted from his hotel room in New York, and drawings made on the back of hotel restaurant menus.

OMG.  The show is amazing.

People always talk about Sargent’s “bravura” brushstrokes.  I hate to compare Sorolla to Sargent, but that’s the point of reference I think viewers might have.  Sorolla’s brushstrokes remind me of Sargent’s: the sweeping strokes of paint to indicate the folds of cloth in a sitter’s gown; or, in an otherwise shadowy room, the single thick stroke to indicate a sliver of light on a girl’s shoulder.  The painter’s energy is evident in each brushstroke.  Sorolla apparently loved the challenge of painting quickly, which in part accounts for the energy of his outdoor scenes (all painted from life, even the large ones).  The portraits are sensitive and glorious.  The seascapes are filled with life and emotion.  The large paintings of specific scenes—handicapped boys at the beach for an outing; or a woman in shackles, arrested for having murdered her child (today we’d call them political)—are also filled with emotion and sympathy.

Surprisingly, the landscapes are the weakest of the pieces, at least in this show.  They lack exuberance, almost as if the scene was too quiet for him.  (Or maybe it was the lack of pressure to get the likeness right.)

The day I was at the exhibition, many of the visitors were painters.  Snatches of conversations I overheard were all about this shadow or that bit of painting, or his use of color or how he changed the paintings from his sketches.  And for artists, this show has a couple of treats:  sketches made in preparation of paintings.  These sketches range from very small oil studies for large pieces, to drawings made to work out the composition for one of his paintings of children at the beach, to a series of nine rather large oil studies made in preparation of a commissioned portrait of Christopher Columbus.  Sorolla apparently found one of Columbus’ descendants to pose for the portrait.  The nine sketches included here show Columbus in a variety of heroic poses, all eventually rejected for a quieter, more sardonic portrait of the man at the slanting rail of his ship, framed by one of the ship’s sails, with just  a bit of horizon peeking out near the edge of the painting.  It’s a remarkable portrait, even if today Columbus’ legacy is considered to be far more mixed than it was when the painting was commissioned.

One word of caution:  parking at Balboa Park is quite limited, and the place his hugely popular. On the Tuesday I visited, we drove around for about half an hour looking for a place to park.  Look into public transportation, or get there early. Tickets are not timed. And the museum restaurant is currently closed, though there are other restaurants in the park. Sorolla and America runs through August 26, 2014.

Have you seen Sorolla and America?  What did you think?

Malakoff Diggins, Again

Here’s a painting I did last summer: a small one of Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park . This is “the diggins,” where 19th Century miners used large hydraulic cannons to was away the mountainside in search for gold.

The place fascinates me: beauty in destruction.

Malakoff Diggins by Stephanie Benedict
Malakoff Diggins ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 6″ x 12″, oil on panel.

The Drought in Northern California

It rained in Northern California last weekend: a trace in Sacramento, and a few inches of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada. The week before, while most of the rest of the US was caught in the “Polar Vortex,” the temperatures here were deceptively mild. Indeed, if you are a bicycle rider or a hiker, this is a great winter: Central Valley and Bay Area temps in the 60s, perfect sunny weather. (Well, except for the dirty, stagnant air.) It’s not so great if you’re a skier, though: there’s no snow in the mountains. Almost literally. The early January snowpack measurements found that on average the snowpack is about 20% of “normal.” In the northern part of the state, the snow was at 10% of “normal.” So while last week’s storm helped a teeny bit, many of the cross-country ski resorts have closed; instead, people can hike on their trails.

Benedict Oak Tree Sketch
Oak Tree Sketch. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. Watercolor in a Hand Book Journal.

What this means for residents, both human and non-human, is that, unless things change, there will be very little water this summer and fall. The fire danger will be extreme. There have already been red flag warnings in Southern Cal and in the Sierra foothills in January. There was a fire in Big Sur in December.

Here is Sacramento, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has cut the flows to the American River to 500 cubic feet per second (cfs). (A cubic foot is about 7.5 gallons.) By comparison, according to the Sacramento Bee, the median flow for early January is 1,728 cfs, over three times as much. Local lore has it that, when the flows are this low, you can walk all the way across the river in some locations.

Wildlife officials have already started warning people to beware thirsty wild animals. If the drought goes on long enough, it may affect the country’s food supply.

Here are a couple of photos from my local park, where there is a vernal pool preserve. Vernal pools are not affected by the pumping of river water. They only get water from rainfall, and no water flows out of them. The first photo is from December 2012, the second of our three dry years (so far). And the second picture is from last week (before this last rain).

 

Vernal Pools 2012 Benedict
Vernal Pools in Fair Oaks, December 2012. This was the second dry year in a row.

 

Vernal Pools Jan 2014, Benedict
The same vernal pools in January 2014. Sacramento has had no measureable rainfall since early December, and that was less than 0.1 inch of rain.

Since there is little I can DO about this drought, except conserve water*, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to document the drought in sketches and paintings. The sketch above is from that same park. With no rain, the oak trees kept their leaves very late, and they turned beautiful and subtle burnt oranges and reds.

I know I am supposed to end these posts on an upbeat note, and pose a call to action. So here’s my call to action for you: pray for rain. Do a rain dance for us. Whatever power you have with the Universe, send some rain and snow our way.

*Water in the West is an extremely complicated and complex topic, but since this blog focuses on art and nature, not politics, I’m not going to get into it. Yet.

 

Nature Journaling at Year’s End

Update. Well, at least now we know why all the dead birds at Radio Road that day: an outbreak of avian cholera. Apparently the pond is going to be drained for a few months, to kill the bacteria.

Updated. What a way to start the year! My apologies if the version you saw included unfinished links.

It was a great way to finish the year: A field trip with the Nature Journal Club to Radio Road in Redwood City to watch and sketch shorebirds. About 20 birders and sketchers joined John Muir Laws on this unseasonably warm day near the sewage treatment ponds.

Avocets Napping, sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Avocets Napping by Stephanie Benedict. Sketch. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 5″ x 8″. Trying my hand at sketching live birds–and at using watercolors! (And yes, that’s a seagull in there.)

The (Bay Area) Nature Journal Club is a group of sketchers who take monthly trips to, well, sketch nature. But there’s a twist: they’re out to learn, too. I had only been to one other NJC event, a whale watching trip in Monterey Bay last October, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Laws gave an introduction and a primer to sketching ducks, and he asked the “bird nerds” (which included me) to introduce people to the kinds of birds on the pond.

Sewage treatment ponds are havens for waterfowl. There were both kinds of teal, pintail, widgeon, ruddy ducks, canvasback—even a few Eurasian widgeon, rarities for the Bay Area. And that doesn’t include the flocks of avocet, dowitchers (probably short-billed), snowy egrets, cormorants; and the gulls and passerines and raptors who flew by. I also spotted some birders with very large camera lenses lurking about.

After our introduction, we sketched and shared a potluck lunch, showed one another our journals—with Laws encouraging us to sketch beyond the birding-book profile view—then sketched and shared some more. Seeing other’s work is always helpful. Some had focused on drawing heads very well; others had worked on an individual bird. I worked on sketching the birds I don’t normally see when I go out in the Central Valley, where I live.

We ended the day with an examination of the feather structure on a cooperative dead pintail that Laws found, and a comment that the individuals who do the most to protect waterfowl habitat are actually hunters, through both their duck stamp purchases and organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He’s right: too often birders don’t provide the monetary support needed to protect habitat. “[Leaving] only footprints” doesn’t help protect habitat from development.

The bright sunny day did have its shadows. The surrounding neighbors threatened to have our cars towed when we went to their (public) park for lunch. And the pintail was not the only carcass we saw; there were a number of dead birds in the pond. One birder said there were an unusual number of carcasses that day. No one could say why. They had not been shot by hunters; predators would have eaten them. Disease? Toxins? Last summer I saw an account of many birds in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge being killed by some disease, and I wondered if something similar was at work here. The drought we’re having is likely to exacerbate any contagious or vector-borne illness, so that’s even more reason to hope for rain in the new year.

Still, I’m glad I went. Jack Laws and the Nature Journal Club are onto something, getting people out observing nature and turning their observations into art.

How did you finish out the year?