Nature Journaling at Year’s End

Update. Well, at least now we know why all the dead birds at Radio Road that day: an outbreak of avian cholera. Apparently the pond is going to be drained for a few months, to kill the bacteria.

Updated. What a way to start the year! My apologies if the version you saw included unfinished links.

It was a great way to finish the year: A field trip with the Nature Journal Club to Radio Road in Redwood City to watch and sketch shorebirds. About 20 birders and sketchers joined John Muir Laws on this unseasonably warm day near the sewage treatment ponds.

Avocets Napping, sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Avocets Napping by Stephanie Benedict. Sketch. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 5″ x 8″. Trying my hand at sketching live birds–and at using watercolors! (And yes, that’s a seagull in there.)

The (Bay Area) Nature Journal Club is a group of sketchers who take monthly trips to, well, sketch nature. But there’s a twist: they’re out to learn, too. I had only been to one other NJC event, a whale watching trip in Monterey Bay last October, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Laws gave an introduction and a primer to sketching ducks, and he asked the “bird nerds” (which included me) to introduce people to the kinds of birds on the pond.

Sewage treatment ponds are havens for waterfowl. There were both kinds of teal, pintail, widgeon, ruddy ducks, canvasback—even a few Eurasian widgeon, rarities for the Bay Area. And that doesn’t include the flocks of avocet, dowitchers (probably short-billed), snowy egrets, cormorants; and the gulls and passerines and raptors who flew by. I also spotted some birders with very large camera lenses lurking about.

After our introduction, we sketched and shared a potluck lunch, showed one another our journals—with Laws encouraging us to sketch beyond the birding-book profile view—then sketched and shared some more. Seeing other’s work is always helpful. Some had focused on drawing heads very well; others had worked on an individual bird. I worked on sketching the birds I don’t normally see when I go out in the Central Valley, where I live.

We ended the day with an examination of the feather structure on a cooperative dead pintail that Laws found, and a comment that the individuals who do the most to protect waterfowl habitat are actually hunters, through both their duck stamp purchases and organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He’s right: too often birders don’t provide the monetary support needed to protect habitat. “[Leaving] only footprints” doesn’t help protect habitat from development.

The bright sunny day did have its shadows. The surrounding neighbors threatened to have our cars towed when we went to their (public) park for lunch. And the pintail was not the only carcass we saw; there were a number of dead birds in the pond. One birder said there were an unusual number of carcasses that day. No one could say why. They had not been shot by hunters; predators would have eaten them. Disease? Toxins? Last summer I saw an account of many birds in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge being killed by some disease, and I wondered if something similar was at work here. The drought we’re having is likely to exacerbate any contagious or vector-borne illness, so that’s even more reason to hope for rain in the new year.

Still, I’m glad I went. Jack Laws and the Nature Journal Club are onto something, getting people out observing nature and turning their observations into art.

How did you finish out the year?

 

Anders Zorn at the Legion of Honor

I wanted to write a glowing review of the Anders Zorn show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco now through February 2, 2014. Anders Zorn is considered by many painters to be one of the Big Three of early 20th Century painting (the other two are John Singer Sargent and Joaquin Sorolla). He is not as well known by the public now, but in his day he was quite successful as a portrait painter and painted the portraits of three U. S. presidents.

 

Anders Zorn Self Portrait
Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait in Red, 1915. Oil on canvas. Zornmuseet, Mora. Photograph by Patric Evinger.

In many ways, the paintings are amazing, and this is a rare opportunity for Americans to see them without traveling to Sweden. The watercolors, especially, are tours de force. The paintings, both watercolors and oils, are worth seeing for the brushwork alone. Big brushes that create satin fabric (or homespun) in a stroke. Portraits that capture the personality of the sitter, for good or ill. So I definitely recommend the show to anyone interested in art history during the Gilded Age or in the paintings of a “painter’s painter.”

Zorn is also known for his limited palette, on display in the self-portrait that opens the exhibit: white, yellow ochre, vermilion, and ivory black. The self-portrait also has a dark ochre that might be burnt umber or some other darker earth color. In that palette, the blacks can look blue when placed next to warmer colors. And for the landscapes, Zorn may have also used viridian, but I don’t think so. The green in his landscapes is so odd, I think it, too, must be made with black, though I’m not sure how.

Which brings me to why I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this show to someone who just loves art, and has no interest in the craft or in art history. For ultimately, though most of the paintings are supremely well executed, I cannot love them.

The paintings are just cold*, by which I mean the temperature of the colors, not the emotion he seeks to portray. The paintings are also, for the most part, somehow calculating. Even the nudes, for all their daring (naked women in the landscape!) are a little voyeuristic and prurient.

I think I was reacting to that famous palette. Without blue, the colors somehow seem cold and off. And yellow ochre is a harsh, dull yellow under the best of circumstances. If anything, I was reminded of early Van Gogh, before he went to Paris: all dark and umber and black. A few of the nudes are warmer, as Zorn got the warmth of the day into them. This is just my own opinion, mind, and you are free to disagree with me. But I’m gonna stick with a fuller palette.

Have you seen the Zorn exhibition? What did you think?

*See especially “Man and Boy in Algiers,” a watercolor from 1887. The rendering is perfect. But the skin tones in sunlight are cold. There is almost no warmth at all in that sunny day painting.

 

Reboot!

My goodness, but I’ve been away from this blog a long time!

Vernal Pool sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Sketch for Vernal Pools. ©2012 Stephanie Benedict. 3″ x 4″ graphite.  I do love water-soluble graphite!

I learned a powerful lesson about the need for systems this year. Having good systems will support you in your whatever you do, from having an organized computer and file system, to building supportive habits of writing, drawing, or whatever it is you do. I fell away from writing at first because my computer decided to stop working, and had to be replaced. That meant recreating my old hard drive, re-installing software. (But of course nothing works quite the same. I would like to request that you software developers out there not fix things that aren’t broken.) And then I just got busy and never got back to posting.

So—I’m rebooting this blog. I intend to post approximately weekly, and to write about nature, painting, and painting (and drawing) nature. I hope you find something interesting here, and perhaps even learn something!

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.

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

I finally got myself to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park to paint last week. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and we got a relatively cool-ish day so I packed the car and drove the two-plus hours from my house. (Far nice than this weekend, which is another scorcher*.) As I drove up into the foothills on ever narrower roads, I kept thinking about the truth behind Sacramento’s big claim to fame: it really is just two hours from anywhere. The weekend before, I’d driven two hours to San Francisco.

A view of the "diggin's" at Malakoff Diggins SHP.
A view of the “diggin’s” at Malakoff Diggins SHP. The trees in the valley have grown since mining ended in about 1884.

Malakoff Diggins is the site of the largest hydraulic mine of the California gold rush. Huge water cannons were used to literally wash away the soil overburden and expose the gold beneath. It’s a terribly destructive process that washes away mountains, leaving badlands behind.

Today, Malakoff Diggins is recovering, sort of. The mining generally ended in California in 1884, after a legal battle with farmers downstream, where the sediment washed down from the mines changed the rivers and caused flooding**. In the intervening years trees have grown where there is soil. The valley floor is covered with marsh, even in this dry year. The mountains of course will never regrow; there will always be scars from what the humans did here.

But those scars are both fascinating and beautiful. I’ve long wanted to paint the scene, so I set up my easel in the shade of a Ponderosa pine. The air smelled of pine and manzanita. I sketched for a couple of hours. I didn’t intend to do a complete painting; I just wanted to record the colors for reference.

Benedict plein air painting at Malakoff Diggins
My set-up at Malakoff Diggins. I found a great spot right next to my car. How convenient is that?

Now, I’m back in the studio working on the painting. It will be 30 x 40. Here’s a shot of the underpainting, done with acrylic paint mixed with gesso. This is actually my favorite part, probably because I really can’t mess it up yet. The only down side to this is that I have to wait overnight to start the oils, because I need to let that gesso dry thoroughly, and I’m eager to work on this one. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Stephanie Benedict Malakoff Diggins Underpainting
The underpainting. 30″ x 40″. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. The colors are darker than they ultimately will be, because I was focusing on the shadows within the trees here.

What hidden gem of a park is close to where you live?

*I talked to a friend who is actually is a weather forecaster in the Navy reserve. He thinks that the next few decades will be notable for NOT having a “normal” weather, but rather by increasingly chaotic weather patterns. He may be right–the system cannot stabilize while we keep pumping energy into it. I think that we all need to get used to this extra heat.

**But it’s still practiced in other places around the world.