Tag Archives: nature

Sycamore Leaves

Sycamore Leaves Sketch
Sycamore Leaves. ©2014 Stephanie Benedict. 3 1/2 in x 5 1/8 in., watercolor and water soluble pencils in a Moleskine watercolor sketchbook.

Autumn isn’t typically Sacramento’s best season. Most of the native trees don’t turn the brilliant colors you see in colder climates; we don’t have sugar maples or beech trees here. Oh, some of the newer subdivisions have planted Chinese pistache and liquidamber trees, which put on a nice show.  But many of our trees are quieter in color.

I decided to sketch some sycamore leaves, to see if I could capture the very subtle colors of the leaves as they lose their chlorophyll and turn first yellowy green. (They then just fade into a kind of gray-brown, and then fall off the tree.)  It made a good exercise both to try for the subtle changes and to practice my watercolor technique.  I added the pencil later, to try to get some of the texture of the leaves.

In the comments below, let us know what autumn is like where you live.

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The Drought in Northern California

It rained in Northern California last weekend: a trace in Sacramento, and a few inches of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada. The week before, while most of the rest of the US was caught in the “Polar Vortex,” the temperatures here were deceptively mild. Indeed, if you are a bicycle rider or a hiker, this is a great winter: Central Valley and Bay Area temps in the 60s, perfect sunny weather. (Well, except for the dirty, stagnant air.) It’s not so great if you’re a skier, though: there’s no snow in the mountains. Almost literally. The early January snowpack measurements found that on average the snowpack is about 20% of “normal.” In the northern part of the state, the snow was at 10% of “normal.” So while last week’s storm helped a teeny bit, many of the cross-country ski resorts have closed; instead, people can hike on their trails.

Benedict Oak Tree Sketch
Oak Tree Sketch. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. Watercolor in a Hand Book Journal.

What this means for residents, both human and non-human, is that, unless things change, there will be very little water this summer and fall. The fire danger will be extreme. There have already been red flag warnings in Southern Cal and in the Sierra foothills in January. There was a fire in Big Sur in December.

Here is Sacramento, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has cut the flows to the American River to 500 cubic feet per second (cfs). (A cubic foot is about 7.5 gallons.) By comparison, according to the Sacramento Bee, the median flow for early January is 1,728 cfs, over three times as much. Local lore has it that, when the flows are this low, you can walk all the way across the river in some locations.

Wildlife officials have already started warning people to beware thirsty wild animals. If the drought goes on long enough, it may affect the country’s food supply.

Here are a couple of photos from my local park, where there is a vernal pool preserve. Vernal pools are not affected by the pumping of river water. They only get water from rainfall, and no water flows out of them. The first photo is from December 2012, the second of our three dry years (so far). And the second picture is from last week (before this last rain).

 

Vernal Pools 2012 Benedict
Vernal Pools in Fair Oaks, December 2012. This was the second dry year in a row.

 

Vernal Pools Jan 2014, Benedict
The same vernal pools in January 2014. Sacramento has had no measureable rainfall since early December, and that was less than 0.1 inch of rain.

Since there is little I can DO about this drought, except conserve water*, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to document the drought in sketches and paintings. The sketch above is from that same park. With no rain, the oak trees kept their leaves very late, and they turned beautiful and subtle burnt oranges and reds.

I know I am supposed to end these posts on an upbeat note, and pose a call to action. So here’s my call to action for you: pray for rain. Do a rain dance for us. Whatever power you have with the Universe, send some rain and snow our way.

*Water in the West is an extremely complicated and complex topic, but since this blog focuses on art and nature, not politics, I’m not going to get into it. Yet.

 

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.

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!

 

 

Inspiration

Recently, someone asked me “What inspires you to paint en plein air?”

She was asking for a quote for some publicity, so of course I responded right away. But it got me thinking: what does inspire me to paint outdoors?

The Sentinel ©2011 Stephanie Benedict
The Sentinel ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. 9 x 12, oil on board. Private Collection.

The short answer is: I like to be outdoors. I’ve been a birdwatcher longer than I’ve been a painter, and part of what I enjoy is bringing my binoculars along, setting my pochade up in a shady spot, and seeing who happens by. Though I admit, you have to be so focused when you paint—all that fleeting light and everything—watching birds can be a distraction. But, on a Saturday in the Sierra foothills, that didn’t stop me from noticing how, around 11:00, all the hawks took to the air.

And then there’s the fact that you really can’t see accurate color detail from photos. Painters know that camera lenses cannot see the range of colors and values the human eye can: cameras get the darks OR the lights, not both. And that pesky white balance! Change the white balance setting, and all the colors change. How in the world can that be accurate? So if you wanna do landscapes, you gotta go outside.

The long answer is that I love being in the moment, in the landscape. All of these are elements inspire my work: the feel of the humidity in the air, the sounds of hawks and swallows, the scent of the pine trees or the dried grasses. So often our days are taken over by our electronic devices and our automobiles, we forget to look around us. I love immersing myself in the day and trying to portray it with paint.

One of my favorite science fiction short stories (this really is related!) is called “The Light of Other Days,” written in 1966 by Bob Shaw. The device in the story was what the author called “slow glass”: a special glass that allowed light to pass through it only very slowly, so that the viewer looking through the glass would see what had happened years before. The story involves a couple shopping for a piece of slow glass to hang in their living room, a kind of moving painting of the mountains through the seasons. (In reality nowadays, I’ve seen HD TVs at hotels do something similar: but they’re displaying videotaped scenes of island paradises or mountain snowfall. Not quite the same.)

Well, I’ve always wanted my paintings to be a kind of slow glass: I want them to portray a morning, or an afternoon, and give the viewer the echo of actually being there. That humidity I spoke of, or the scent of the pines, or the heat, or the sound of the surf. That feel of a place is much harder to capture than even the fleeting colors of the shadows, and I don’t succeed every time. But that’s what inspires me, and that’s what I’m striving for.

What do you look for in a landscape painting? If you’re a painter, what inspires you?