Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Trip to Another World

Sea Lions in Monterey Bay
As we left the harbor, two sea lions followed in our wake, while pelicans flew along the shore. Pencil and water-soluble pencil in a Hand Book Journal sketchbook.

Last October, I traveled to a different world. I went whale watching in Monterey Bay with John Muir Laws and the Nature Journal Club. It was an amazing day.  Sanctuary Cruises, with their small, bio-diesel powered boat, took us out into the middle of the Bay, to what felt like a completely different planet.  Humpback whales had been feeding there on anchovies all summer.  The sea lions would attach schools of anchovy in a frenzy, then the whales would join in around the edges.  It was a bad day to be an anchovy.

At times, we could see three groups of whales spouting or breaching at the same time: one group close to us, another a little ways away, and a third near the horizon.  Along with the humpbacks, we saw Risso’s dolphins, sea lions by the hundreds, common murres, and even a shearwater or two.

Common Murre in Montery Bay sketch
Common murres were everywhere, no doubt also feeding on the anchovy. Several tried to flee the boat, but couldn’t get airborne–bellies too full, perhaps? Pencil in Hand Book Journal sketchbook.
Humpack whales in Monterey Bay
The humpbacks were everywhere that day. Pencil in a Hand Book Journal sketchbook.

Because this was the Nature Journal Club, and the intent was to sketch nature, I didn’t even bring my camera. Instead, we sketched, sometimes furiously.  My sketches turned out to be more like gesture drawings.  What I couldn’t capture on paper were the smells—sometimes we smelled fish, sometimes whale breath (a bit like stale beer, mixed with fish).

From what I’m hearing, the humpbacks continue in Monterey Bay again this year. Is it the recovery of the population since we stopped hunting them? Or is it climate change that has brought them closer to the shore?  Bay Nature had an article about the humpback populations in the Bay again this year—it might be ocean currents or the periodic peak in anchovy populations.  Whatever the cause, I’m grateful I had the chance to see the gathering last year.

Whale in Monterey Bay
The landscape painter in me tried to capture the view of the shore from the boat. Pencil in a Hand Book Journal sketchbook.

Have you been whale-watching lately? What did you see? Leave a comment, below, and let us know.

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Something Completely Different

I’ve been experimenting with caseins recently. I got some after I read the amazing James Gurney’s posts and watched his videos about the paints. (I rather wonder how much sales of caseins spiked after he blogged about them.) They’re fun!Toy Tiger ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 5: x 7". Casein

Toy Tiger ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 5: x 7″. Casein heightened with watercolor and water soluble pencil. On panel.

They’re a bit like gouache, in that they are an opaque, water-soluble medium, but they seem to me more flexible. You can thin them to do washes, or use them fairly thickly. They dry to a soft matte finish. But they’re also sort of like oil, in that you can mix them wet-into-wet if you work quickly. Gurney calls them “oils on steroids,” but I’m not sure I agree. I think they’re more like gouache on steroids. But they also share a feature of acrylics: they change value once dry, generally turning darker. Since values are something I struggle with, and therefore focus on, I find the value shift annoying.

But, not enough to stop me from playing more with them!

Posting will be intermittent the next few weeks. I’m trying to finish up some larger pieces for a show, and to get ready for some trips.

Richard Diebenkorn at the de Young

The de Young Museum in San Francisco is on a roll. In the past three years or so, the de Young has hosted some amazing art exhibitions, with still more in the queue. The latest in this string of must-see shows is Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years 1953–1967. Richard Diebenkorn lived and taught in the Bay Area, where he influenced Wayne Thiebaud and worked with or knew Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Nathan Oliveira and others.

 

Richard Diebenkorn Figure on a Porch
Richard Diebenkorn, Figure on a Porch, 1959. Oil on canvas, 57 x 62 inches. Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Anonymous Donor Program of the American Federation of the Arts © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. My favorite piece in the show.

Now, I’m not much of a fan of Bay Area figurative art, or of mid-century modern art in general. Abstract art isn’t my thing. I tend to come down on the side of the Beautiful in art, not the challenging. Indeed, before we went into the Diebenkorn exhibit, my friend Steven and I meandered through a small collection of modern pieces in one of the museum’s other rooms—and I felt like I was in one of those New Yorker cartoons of a woman standing in front of a piece of modern art grumbling “I don’t understand this.” I’m sorry: casts of tire treads in clay and binder mounted on a wall? Never mind if Robert Rauschenberg did it—why is that art?

And yet… The Diebenkorn show really struck me. Some of his abstracts are clearly landscapes: he admitted as much himself. The figurative pieces from the late 1950s are harsh, gritty, sometimes ugly. There is a palpable sense of alienation in those pieces, as if they were actively pushing the viewer away. But if the alienation is palpable, so is the life force. The energy. The furious scrubbing and layering and scraping of the paint. This is not Bouguereau’s invisible brushstrokes, or Monet’s calm deployment of paint (I’m thinking of the water lilies here). This is more like Van Gogh’s frenetic brushwork, only released to make its own abstract way.

The show is set up more or less chronologically. The alienation passes, the paintings calm down—still abstractions, but less driven, less hemmed in. The works become explorations and contemplations, whether they are just a coffee cup on a table, a pair of pliers, or a woman sitting in a chair. The final pieces on the exhibition show the clear influence of Diebenkorn’s trip to the Soviet Union and of seeing the works of Matisse.

It’s a fascinating show. I learned a lot about art, about painting, about trusting the medium more. And now I want a studio where I can paint much larger works!

Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years 1953–1967 runs through September 29, 2013. Highly recommended.

Have you seen the Diebenkorn show? Do you prefer abstract art over representational works? Why or why not?

 

Upcoming Museum Exhibitions

For the past few years, there have been a number of quite stellar art exhibitions featuring impressionist or sort of near-Impressionist art in the northern California region. Now the museums seem like they are focusing on more modern art, which appeals less to me. Still, there are lots of shows that sound interesting. Here is a completely subjective sampling.

Japanese Prints: Hokusai at LACMA

April 13–July 28, 2013

LA County Museum of Art

 

J.C. Leyendecker

Ongoing

The Haggin Museum, Stockton, California

Like Norman Rockwell? Check out J. C. Leyendecker.

 

Inspiration Points: Masterpieces of California Landscape

May 31–August 11, 2013

Oakland Museum of California

The Oakland Museum has one of the best collections of early California art around.  IMHO.

 

Impressionists on the Water

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

June 1 – October 13, 2013

In celebration of the Americas Cup races.

 

Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years, 1953–1966

De Young Museum, San Francisco

June 22–September 29, 2013

I know, Diebenkorn is more modern than my typical recommendations.  But every artist working today has to contend with Diebenkorn somehow.

 

The Epic and the Intimate: French Drawings from the John D. Reilly Collection

June 30–September 29, 2013

Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento

 

David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition

DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

October 26, 2013–January 20, 2014

 

Matisse from SFMOMA

November 9, 2013–September 7, 2014

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Paintings from the SF MOMA collection while that museum undergoes renovation.

 

And of course, the really big not-to-miss show:

Anders Zorn, Sweden’s Master Painter

November 9, 2013–February 2, 2014

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Among many artists I admire, Anders Zorn is ranked as one of the Big Three among many painters I respect, though he is less well known to the American public. (This Big Three comprises Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn.) There was a smaller show at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston earlier this year. This show promises to be much larger, and a chance for those of us not going to Sweden to see his work in person.

What shows have I missed that you are looking forward to seeing this year?

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.”