Monthly Archives: March 2013

Painting the Mission

A couple of weekends ago I got to be a 4th grader again. It was wonderful.

Fourth graders in California are required to learn about California history. And while what I learned was decidedly a history of Europeans in California, it is true that you cannot separate the state’s history from the 21 missions built by the Spanish in the 18th Century.

Mission San Antonio de Padua
Mission San Antonio de Padua sits in the Valley of the Oaks in southern Monterey County.

The California Art Club is painting the missions this year, the 300th anniversary of the birth of mission founder Father Junipero Serra. So I made the five-hour drive to Mission San Antonio de Padua, in southern Monterey County, for a weekend of painting with the Club. And I got to learn once again about the missions and California history. (Again from a more-or-less European perspective.)

California Art Club painters at Mission San Antonio
Rosario the Cat sits in the shade of a 180 year old olive tree and watches painters from the California Art Club.

Mission San Antonio is the third mission to be established, originally in 1771 and moved to its present location in 1773. At its peak, the mission housed about 1,300 Salinan Indians. They grew grapes and made wine for church ceremonies, grew olives and made olive oil, had a tannery to tan hides for export back to the East Coast (readers of Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, will recognize that part). The mission was abandoned late in the 19th Century, until the Franciscans returned in the 20th.

Today’s structures are only partly original. The church’s roof collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, and other earthquakes and termites took their toll—so, while some original structures remain (such as the walls of the church), much has been rebuilt and fitted with things like electricity and indoor plumbing.

What’s most amazing is that the land around Mission San Antonio has never been developed. Archaeologists have been working since the 1970s to locate and catalog the artifacts, so visitors today (many of them 4th graders) can see the foundations of the Salinan housing, the original wheat threshing floor, the grist mill and wine press (at least partially rebuilt) and tannery foundations. The remains of a millrace, built from Roman instructions in Latin, are still there.

This preservation happened because the mission now sits in the middle of an active Army base, Fort Hunter-Liggett. The weekend we were there, some 4,000 soldiers were on base for training. The irony is that, when the mission was founded, the friars did not want a military presence there.

And the painting? Well, it was definitely challenging. Many artists found painting the building’s archways in perspective during the short window of time one can work on a plein-air painting to be hard. And the adobe changed color every time I looked at it, from yellowish to orange-y to pink-y to dull reddish. (Not to say that all of these things can’t be fixed back in the studio!) So I can’t say I got any finished paintings—but I did learn a lot.

Mission San Antonio de Padua painting in progress, by Stephanie Benedict
A work in progress. This image shows how deceptive photos can be. I have another one that shows that wall in shadow much closer to the reddish color on the canvas.

One final note. Mission San Antonio is in need of a seismic retrofit, which entails drilling through the adobe and installing steel supports. The cost will be about $12 million to $15 million. This tiny, but still active, parish has to raise the money itself. Here’s a link where you can donate money to preserve this important piece of California history. I hope you will consider donating to preserve this piece of California’s heritage.

And if you ever visit Mission San Antonio—watch out for the rattlesnakes.

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The Art of Racing the Wind

The Yolo Art and Ag project for 2013 began this past month on a clear and windy Thursday morning in far western Yolo County. The lack of rain this year meant the roads were dry and the fields weren’t muddy, good for artists but also scary for the future. I love the opportunity to paint on private farmland where one would never otherwise be able to go.

This time we went to a working cattle ranch the foothills that rise from the Central Valley to the Coast Range, near Lake Berryessa. The oaks haven’t leafed out yet—it is only February, after all!—but the grasses were trying to green up.

Early Spring First Layer by Stephanie Benedict
This was the first layer, after about 30 minutes. I focused on the shadow colors within the trees and tried to get the distant hills. The shadows were the part that would change most quickly as the light changed.

And the day was WINDY. We can get some pretty strong north winds here.  This one was not quite a howler, but gusty enough to knock my hat off my head and to untie the plastic shopping bag I use for trash from my tripod and send it floating across the field.

So painting was a race against the wind. My intention that day was to simply capture some of the color and value relationships before the wind grew too fierce to stand up in. I didn’t expect to make a painting: this was a sketch, information gathering, to come back into the studio with and perhaps make a painting from it.
Those silver-gray oak tree boughs, with a bit of reddish new growth on the ends, are such a tough color to capture. All the dull colors of winter are challenging. Only the bright green new grass and the brilliant blue sky were bright and clear colors—all the others were subdued and very complex.

But I’m actually starting to like the challenge of making such dull colors seem like they’re in light or in shadow.

So I raced to cover my 9 x 12 board with something approaching the base colors I saw in front of me. After 30 minutes, I had it, and then I relaxed. I knew that, while I might not get any more detail that day, I had the basics on the canvas. Then I started over to refine and add some subtlety.

Early Spring: a sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Here’s the piece after 60 minutes. So, call this a quick study.

After an hour I stopped. The wind hadn’t let up, the sun was actually getting warm, and the light was changing. Better to stop than to overwork it.
The piece is not a painting, but I kind of like the feel of the thing. I took more notes on the details—like the way the distant hills started showing more green in their trees as the sun rose higher. Maybe I’ll work on it again—or not. It’s all part of putting those miles of canvas behind me, the ones that John Carlson writes about:

“behind every great painter are miles of canvas.”

The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds

A friend’s recent question—“why don’t you put birds in your paintings?”―led me to find one of the best books I’ve seen for drawing birds: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws.

The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, cover illustration
The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws. ©2012 John Muir Laws. Illustrations used by permission

Artists typically study human anatomy in figure drawing classes, studying skeletons and musculature to inform their work. After all, we are hard-wired to know when an arm is too long. But few classes teach how to draw animals, and few books are as clear as this one.

With simple, clear instructions and wonderful examples, Laws takes you through all the steps you need to learn to draw birds accurately and quickly. AND he warns you about common mistakes, such as making the head too large.

Laws starts with the basics, of course: getting posture and angles, the proportion, head position, and angles. Only then does he go into shading and, finally, color. (The cover illustration is a good example of his process.)

Then the book goes on to bird anatomy, birds in flight, using negative space, field sketching, and materials. And he offers lots of tips. Here’s an example:

?©2012 John Muir Laws.  Used by permission
This image highlights the duck’s shoulder. See how the duck balances its mass in the water?©2012 John Muir Laws. Used by permission

This image, of a duck in water, highlights where the duck’s shoulder is, to help you get the feathers right. I also see it as helping balance that duck in the water, by showing how the mass is distributed.

He shows you how to make a frame to draw birds in flight, how to get heads and bodies in perspective, and how to use negative space to draw those curvy necks on herons.

Laws encourages everyone to sketch nature in the field. “The most important part of field sketching,” he writes, “is not the drawing itself, but the focus that it brings to your observations and the strengthened memories that emerge from drawing what you see.” And he offers more tips on his website and blog.

And, perhaps best of all, he runs the Bay Area Nature Journal Club, “a diverse community of artists and naturalists, of all levels, who meet together to connect to nature through art.” It’s a free program with monthly workshops on sketching nature, wildflowers, and birds. Makes me wish I lived closer to the Bay Area—maybe I’ll join them some time when they do a trip to the East Bay.

Wren in Flight ©2012 John Muir Laws.
Can’t you just hear the whirr of this wren’s wings? ©2012 John Muir Laws. Used by permission

“If you just see a blur of wings, draw the blur.”

I love it!

Why don’t I put birds into my paintings? That’s a topic for another post.

Do you like to sketch nature?

Bragging Monday

My painting, The Lighthousekeeper’s House, won 3rd Place at the 16th Annual Ironstone Spring Obsession Show over the weekend. A big thank you to the judges and to Ironstone Vineyards (especially to Chris Gomez), and congratulations to all of the prize winners and artists. They said at the reception that they had over 250 applicants (I’m not sure if that’s paintings or artists), of which 100 were accepted.

At Ironstone Vineyards, the Lighthousekeeper's House
Here’s the painting with the 3rd place ribbon. The Lighthousekeeper’s House, 400 mm x 1000 mm, oil on canvas. ©2011 Stephanie Benedict

Ironstone had invited artists in the show to give demonstrations, set up booths, or paint on the grounds during the day. A handful of artists accepted, including me. I spent most of the afternoon out by their lake, listening to a flock of Canada geese squabble and painting. That one, though, turned out rather poorly (and that’s being kind).

I kept wondering why they were holding this “Spring Obsession” reception in March, when the vines haven’t even leafed out yet. The answer, it seems, is that this is the traditional time for the banks of daffodils at the winery to be in bloom. But we’ve had such a weird year again that the flowers haven’t really bloomed yet. I fear this weather is the new normal. There were some banks of daffodils in bloom, but most of them were in pots by the entrance to the winery.

Ironstone Vineyards Entrance
The entrance to the winery tasting room and museum. Not too many flowers were in bloom yet in March.

The show is a very nice one. I’m honored to have been given a prize among the high caliber of company. You can see a sampling of the work at Ironstone’s blog.

Spring Obsession will be on display through Mother’s Day. I hope that, if you’re in the area, you’ll stop by to see it.

And, by the way, I recommend their sparkling wine (California champagne). According to their website, it’s made with French Colombard grapes, rather than the more traditional chardonnay grapes. So it’s a little bit fruity, but it’s complex and refreshing. I give it five on the “yum” scale: yum yum yum yum yum.

 

Ironstone Vineyards Spring Obsession 2013

I’m delighted to say I’ve been accepted into the Ironstone Vineyards Spring Obsession 2013 exhibition! I’ll be at Ironstone, in Murphys, California, on March 2, painting at the winery in the afternoon and attending the reception from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. Tickets for the event are $25, and are available by calling (209) 728-1251 ext#11/reservations. They’ve even posted my bio on their blog!

The Lighthousekeeper's House by Stephanie Benedict
The Lighthousekeeper’s House ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. Oil on canvas, 400 mm by 1000 mm

The show runs through May 12, 2013, 3:00 p.m. I hope you can make it!

When you go wine tasting, do you think about purchasing artwork from a winery?