Category Archives: Painting Process

Another Book of Sargent Watercolors?

Oh, my, yes!

When I buy monographs of an artist’s work, I almost never read the text. I’m just not that interested in the topics that interest art historians. This new book, John Singer Sargent Watercolors, is an exception. For the student of Sargent, this book is a must-have.

The book is a companion to a new exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and, later, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. (Alas, this show apparently will not travel to the West Coast, where I live…)

Sargent oil painting next to a similar watercolor
This spread from John Singer Sargent Watercolors shows one of my favorite Sargent oil paintings next to a watercolor of a similar scene. What a treat to be able to compare them! (I know this photo doesn’t do them justice.)

The story behind this show is that Sargent only exhibited his watercolors in the States twice during his lifetime. The first time, the Brooklyn Museum bought all of them; the second time, the MFA bought them all. This exhibition brings these two collections of more than 100 paintings together for the first time in a century.

For the viewer, it’s a treat to see images of all these paintings grouped together.

For someone who wants to learn from one of the best: the book includes many close-ups of the paintings, so you can see how he did what he did. You can see how Sargent layered the paint, how he used a wax resist, or wet-in-wet. There are photos of Sargent working (including one of him with an umbrella tied to his leg to hold it upright!) and of his models, so you can see that the apparently casual images are, in fact, carefully posed. There’s even a chapter, called “Bringing Back Something Fine” that talks about Sargent’s techniques, with photos of the paintings taken with a raking light, to highlight the texture of the paper or the impasto paint.

And the book also compares a number of the watercolors with oil paintings. Apparently Sargent went back and forth from one medium to another, in yet another example of the man’s extraordinary talent. So the book shows, in one two page spread, one of my favorite Sargent oil paintings, called “Val D’Aosta” right next to a watercolor image of nearly the same thing, called “Brook Among Rocks.” Both paintings portray a clear stream flowing over cobbles, the banks lined by rocks and grass. The water flows quietly, only a few riffles as it moves over the rocky bottom. Light reflects off the bottom of the stream. You can almost hear it burbling as you look at it. And—look there—fish! He’s painted a small school of fish in the water.

As an oil painter, I have an idea how the oil painting was constructed (and I’ve seen that painting up close in person). The watercolor? Yes, ok, watercolors are painted from light to dark, and the grass is clearly wet-in-wet. But—how did he get those reflections? Even more than his portraits, IMHO it is Sargent’s watercolors of streams, mountains, and rock quarries, that amaze and humble me.

The Killdeer and the Painters

The killdeer pair figured they’d found the perfect nesting site. It was in the middle of a wide open gravel patch at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, with lots of gray and white rocks to hide their speckled eggs in. They could see for some distance in every direction, so they could spot any raccoons or snakes coming, and could trick the predators away from the nest. They laid four eggs, and were carefully tending them to keep them warm at night and not too hot during the day.

What they hadn’t counted on was a bunch of humans and their vehicles taking over their nest area.

That Gravel Patch is a Parking Lot

The humans were a group of about a half dozen painters, myself included, who had come to paint spring wildflowers. This was the second of two paint-outs the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service had hosted at their refuges in the Sacramento valley.

Painters at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, April 2013. Painters scout out paintings.

Amy, a volunteer for the refuge, escorted us to go to one of the areas normally closed to the public. The refuge staff had generously set up awnings for shade, for the area was wide open. Behind us was a ditch and some willows, but the wildflowers were in a huge open area to our west. We parked in a gravel lot normally used by hunters in the fall—otherwise, few people ever came out here.

Most of us just parked our cars and started scouting around for something to paint. One woman moved her SUV to a better location. Later, someone from the refuge came in a pickup, parked where the SUV had originally stopped, then backed out and drove off. What we didn’t know was that both of those vehicles literally drove right over an active killdeer nest.

Luckily, neither of the trucks hit the eggs.

Why Is She Acting So Strangely?

We humans didn’t even cotton on to the fact there was a nest there until later, when Amy realized that this killdeer would start acting upset and go into her broken wing routine every time we walked near our vehicles.

Killdeer feigning injury.
Killdeer distract predators from their nests by pretending to be injured, like this one is doing.

So I watched her for a few minutes, when she circled back to a spot behind where those two trucks had briefly parked. There, she halted, and sat down. That must be her nest.

When she ran off again, we inched closer to find the eggs. I eventually spotted them, four specked round “rocks” among the rest of the gravel. We then marked the spot with a flag and some sticks, to prevent any other vehicles from threatening the nest. (I later found two more killdeer nests in other parts of the refuge.)

Four killdeer eggs in gravel
Four killdeer eggs are in the lower left of the photo.

And my painting? Well, it’s a good start. There’s information there I can use to make another one, with a different composition. Mostly, I’m very glad that our visit didn’t end in tragedy for that killdeer pair. It’s bad enough when insects get into the paint. Have you seen a killdeer nest?

Killdeer on her nest
Mama killdeer safely back on her nest. The flags and sticks are there to warn other humans away.

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.

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.”

Delta Eucalyptus

A few weeks ago I wrote about a plein air trip to the Sacramento River Delta. I finally had a chance to touch up the painting I did that day. Usually when you bring a painting indoors, you see things in it that need to be fixed:  edges not right, some area too bright—something.  This one had a shadow across that tree that was too much of a stripe, and the sky showed too many streaky brushstrokes.  (I like the sky to be smooth, unless I’m painting clouds.)  Here’s what I think is the final piece.

On the easel:  Delta Eucalyptus, ©2013 Stephanie Benedict
Delta Eucalyptus, 8 x 10 in, oil on board, by Stephanie Benedict

Do you prefer finished-looking pieces, or the more raw look of a painting done in one outdoor session, with no touch-ups?