Looking More Closely

I recently got a great reminder insight into why it’s good to slow down and really observe what you’re looking at.

Vernal Pool sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Sketch for Vernal Pools. ©2012 Stephanie Benedict. 3″ x 4″ graphite

There’s a small park in eastern Sacramento County, California, that’s part park (soccer fields, softball fields, dog park) and part nature preserve. It’s a vernal pool preserve, and a National Natural Landmark.

What’s a vernal pool?

California’s Central Valley is (or, was) home to a habitat called vernal pools. They exist on rainfall and dry up completely in the summer here, where we get no rain from about April through September. These vernal pools are home to wildflowers and small creatures that have evolved to live in the flooded-then-bone-dry habitat, which suits almost no one else. Most vernal pool habitat in the Valley has been developed in some fashion, for farm or city, and the vernal pools are mostly gone. I’ve seen aerial photos of part of Sacramento County from the 1920s that are filled with these pools—and which is now an airport, the pools filled in for runway or hangars. So there aren’t many left.

The little preserve by me is a little island of paradise hidden in suburbia. I’ve seen all sorts of birds, from red-shouldered hawks and white-tailed kites to great egrets and mallards (when there’s water), to wild turkeys a-courting. When the rains come in the right amount and right season (so, not this year!), the vernal pools turn from mud puddles to glorious displays of flowers. The flowers bloom in sequence, as the water dries, in rings around the pool: first yellow, then pink and finally, on the floor of the pools, teeny white-and-blue ones.

Getting out of the comfort zone

I’ve painted scenes from the preserve a couple of times. A friend of mine purchased one, and she is considering commissioning me to paint another piece of the preserve.

Most artists will tell you that commissions are problematic: when someone commissions a painting, the client’s idea of what they want may or may not coincide with what the artist wants to do. Thisd time was no different: she wants something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. But I love the place, and I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a composition my friend would like and I would be motivated by.

What a treat to be able to go back to the preserve and look at it differently! I went there several times the following week, just before sunset or right after dawn. I walked different paths than I do normally, looking for the kind of view my friend wants. And I found some lovely ones: compositions I would never have found if I hadn’t gone there over and over, getting outside of my routine and looking. I found spacious views of the (then drying) pools crossed by long shadows of the surrounding oak trees. I found woodland views of the oaks themselves. I found interesting twists and turns in the pools that would provide depth into the paintings.

I’m grateful that my friend got me to get out of my routine and seeing the place again. I can’t wait now for next winter, when the pools fill up and turn different colors—I expect I’ll be back there looking at these new views again, in the hunt for that next painting.

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2 thoughts on “Looking More Closely

  1. Your reverence for the process comes across so fervently, not unlike your reverence for the vernal pools (which I 1st heard about from you in maybe 1990). It would be wonderful to see many paintings of this area. As you say, each time of day, each different light, each season offers up another experience of a sweet little corner of this earth. You have the eye and the hand and the voice to capture these treasures!

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