Monthly Archives: December 2012

Winter in the Sacramento Valley

Winter is a great time in California’s Sacramento Valley. Lots of birds, especially waterfowl, come to the Valley to over-winter. I always try to get out to some of the nature preserves this time of year to see who’s there. This week, I got to go with a group of plein air painters to a tour put on by the California Department of Fish and Game to look for tundra swans. This is apparently the southernmost part of their range. We drove north of Marysville near some flooded rice fields* and got our cameras out. A couple of our group actually either sketched or painted, but most of us took photos. I find that birding and painting don’t really mix all that well. If I’m trying to watch birds, I want to be mobile and unencumbered with painting gear. And if I’m painting or drawing, birds are mostly a distraction, however fun, and that light just keeps on changing. At least, that’s my excuse.

But I got some good photos, and some great inspiration. AND I got some ideas of where to go back in the future.

Swans in the sky by Stephanie Benedict
The skies over the rural Sacramento Valley are filled with waterfowl each winter. Though they’re hard to see in this image, the white birds are tundra swans and the dark specks upper right are greater white-fronted geese.
Snow Geese and Swans by Stephanie Benedict
This flooded rice field was filled with birds. Here you can see tundra swans, snow geese, greater white-fronted geese, northern pintail, and a shoveler or two. The softness in this photo is operator error.
Tundra Swans and  Sutter Buttes ©2012 Stephanie Benedict
A closer view of tundra swans taking wing. Those are the Sutter Buttes in the background, and, in the distance, you can see snow on the Coast Range about 75 miles away.

What outdoor excursions do you take in winter?

*Our tour guide, Bruce, told us that, since the burning of rice stubble was stopped a decade or so ago, more farmers are now flooding their fields in winter. It helps the stubble to break down, I guess. If the water is deep enough (about six inches), dabbling birds will hang out. Some farmers host gun clubs—we heard plenty of rifle fire while we were out. Weird to think it’s OK to hear gunfire nowadays. I don’t actually know what the farmers think of birders—or painters!

 

 

Let the Winter Come and Go

My favorite song this time of year is “Julian of Norwich.”  Here’s video of the Hemblington Harmony singing at the Bergh Apton Sculpture Trail  2011. They’re singing in summer, but I always think of this as a winter song, because of the chorus:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9StVup0CxsU

Loud are the bells of Norwich and the people come and go.

Here by the tower of Julian, I tell them what I know.

CHORUS:

Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go

All shall be well again, I know.

Love, like the yellow daffodil, is coming through the snow.

Love, like the yellow daffodil, is Lord of all I know.

CHORUS

Ring for the yellow daffodil, the flower in the snow.

Ring for the yellow daffodil, and tell them what I know.

CHORUS

All shall be well, I’m telling you, let the winter come and go

All shall be well again, I know.

Loud are the bells of Norwich and the people come and go.

Here by the tower of Julian, I tell them what I know.

CHORUS

All shall be well, I’m telling you, let the winter come and go

All shall be well again, I know.

Happy Holidays, everyone!  Let the winter come and go.  All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

The words were apparently writte in 1981 by Sydney Carter, who also wrote “Lord of the Dance,” set to the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts.”

Why I’m not (really) a Plein Air Painter

I love to do underpaintings. I love that first layer, the first block-in, the first color on the canvas. Maybe it’s because I know that whatever I do doesn’t have to be either precise or perfect, so there’s a huge amount of freedom with first layers.

 

Fall reds and greens, underpanting
Sometimes I do underpaintings in acrylics, sometimes oils. For this one, I used Gamblin’s fastmatte paints, just to try them. I’m not sure I like them yet. When this is dry, I’ll work in regular oils to add at least one, perhaps several, more layers.

And when one paints en plein air, of course, they’re really painting alla prima, or all in one sitting. From start to at least pretty close to finished. Oh, it’s true, you can return to the same spot a day or few days later to finish something up, for example, on a larger canvas. Or you can be like John Singer Sargent painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, and get everything set up to allow you to paint for those few minutes around sunset when the light is perfect—and make your models do this for months. That is, you can return more than once if the weather holds. A day or two after I was at the park shown above, we got three huge storms that changed the scene completely. All those bright red leaves are gone.

Or, you can be like me and do little studies outdoors and then do larger pieces in the studio.

I’d love to say I was a better plein air painter than I am, but I’m not.

And this is probably why: I like to paint in layers.

 

Secret Treasures at the Crocker

Imagine walking into a room and suddenly being transported to another time, another place. A place where satyrs raise families, where temples slowly crumble in Arcadian decay. A place where miniature cows graze in tiny fields, or an army of 1/8th-inch tall soldiers march across a field.

That’s how I felt this week—transported―when I walked into the The Artist’s View: Landscape Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum. While the big show currently at the museum is the Norman Rockwell show, there’s a hidden treasure on the second floor that I highly recommend. The show only runs through January 6, 2013, so see it while you can!

Willem van Bemmel Landscape
One of the drawings in the exhibition. Not my favorite, but the only one I could find an image of. Willem van Bemmel, Landscape with an Artist Sketching, n.d. Black chalk on beige laid paper, laid down to beige laid secondary support, 6 1/8 x 7 15/16 in. Crocker Art Museum, E. B. Crocker Collection

The exhibition features drawings from the 17th through the 19th centuries from the museum’s permanent collection. Most of the artists were new to me, but that didn’t make them any less amazing. Most are small: from perhaps 3 x 4 inches, to about 12” by 20,” these are ink and chalk and graphite drawings (and a couple of watercolors) and sketches of hillsides, trees, Greek temples in idyllic settings. The latter may not be to our modern tastes, but to anyone interested in seeing how someone works, they’re fabulous.

The museum kindly has a few magnifying glasses for visitors to use “for a closer look” at these small works. With them, you can see teeny figures done in ink (with quill pens, remember), or that family of satyrs in their forest home. Or you can just get a closer look at the individual strokes of the quill that form branches or the squiggles that transform into leaves when you stand back to look at the entire work. For the artist, it’s a great opportunity to look at the technique of these predecessors working 150 or 250 years ago.

I’ve heard that one of the reasons modern artists don’t get the effects these earlier artists did is that the paper we have available today is different (this is the Era of Bad Paper, after all). I could clearly see the difference in some of these works, on blue or cream laid paper. Some were made with brushes, some with charcoal, and others with chalk. The white highlights could be very subtle or bright washes—but they all seemed softer and yet more precise than most one sees today.

It’s a gem of a show. Where the Crocker did fall down, however, is in the gift shop: there’s not one image of any of these pieces on a postcard or print anywhere. I wanted to take a couple home with me (on postcards) so I could study how they were made. No luck. So literally, you may never get to see these works again.

And the Rockwell show? It’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure why illustrators get such a bad rap.