Autumn has come to the Sacramento Valley. We had our first rain of the season last week, a welcome break from the heat and the smoke from the wildfires around the state.
Rain here also brings fog. Not the thick kind that comes in on little cat’s feet, then silently moves on, as Carl Sandburg wrote of fog along the coast. We get tule fog here—or anyway, we used to. Tule fog condenses close to the ground and doesn’t move much. It can make driving treacherous.
But it also can add a blessed sense of moisture to a dry landscape, especially early in the fall, when the land is parched and the rainy season is new.
It was on such a day that I went out to Conaway Ranch, in the heart of the Yolo Bypass, on a Yolo Art & Ag adventure. There, amid the levees and fields used for grain and I don’t know what, I found a marshy spot turned bright red with the season. Actual tules filled the lined the marsh, and, as the fog lifted, I saw birds overhead: egrets and herons and blackbirds and geese. I felt I’d stepped back in time, to a land before European settlers changed California. I kept expecting to see a herd of tule elk and a grizzly bear, animals that once lived in the Valley but are gone now. Or maybe I’d been transported even farther back, and should look out for saber-toothed cat and wooly mammoths.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently had the chance to paint with friends at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, thanks to a Plein Air Painting day sponsored by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The refuge, located about an hour north of Sacramento, is one of a complex of refuges in the north valley that are the winter home of thousands of migrating waterfowl. In my humble opinion, these refuges are the jewels of the Valley—and, therefore, one of the best places to spend a sunny February Saturday.
The group was limited to about 12 painters, most of who stayed close to the parking lot and the viewing platform. My friends Linda Merchant, Rhonda Egan, and I ventured a bit farther afield: perhaps a quarter-mile down a hiking path near a second viewing platform, where we could stand out of the wind and see the marshes and the Coast Range to the west.
Here’s the deal with plein air painting that many non-painters don’t realize: just like photographers, painters like early morning and late afternoon light. Mid-day light, with the sun high overhead, is the harshest and, for painters, the flattest, because the shadows offer their least contrast at that time. It’s not impossible to paint mid-day: it’s just better earlier or later.
So the three of us painted both morning and afternoon pieces: the first, done late morning; and a second later in the afternoon, after the official ending time of the event—but with light that just got better and better. The two photos above show two paintings done from almost the exact same spot, looking in different directions, at different times of day. The first shows the snow on Snow Mountain, almost directly west, in late morning. The second is late-ish afternoon, looking southwest. This one is a kind of contra jour (“against the day”) because I was looking almost directly into the sun.
Thank you to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for having this plein air painting event!