Water Work

Her Sun, His Sky

Late summer studio piece, composed from photos taken last spring along the Napa River between Lincoln and Trancas. The mallards weren’t facing each other. The water was the focus of much of my energies, and, of course, was the impetus for painting this subject. The palette: Cerulean, Cobalt, Manganese Blue, Gamboge, Winsor Yellow, Pyrrol Red, Opera Pink and Burnt Umber. A bit of Titanium White gouache (his bill). The paper is Arches 140 lb. Cold Press. No masking fluid on this one.

When the painting is a realistic scene, I try to convey a specific time of day and season, even a mood. Hope I did so here. Can’t quite explain my inclusion of the diving duck; I didn’t want to draw attention to it so it’s painted in more muted colors, but I could not keep myself from including it. (I’m also the sort of person who laughs at inappropriate times.) Still, this is meant to be a serious work, and I was thinking of a couple we know the whole time I was painting it; she is one of two close friends/family who became a widow this past season. It’s been that kind of year.

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not a good month, but painting is prayer

Here’s a poem by Czeslaw Milosz:


It’s been that kind of month: spring transitioning to summer in that dazzling way that convinces me yet again that autumn isn’t my favorite time of year after all, this is. It has also been a crushingly sad, dispiriting time. Deaths among family and friends, dire diagnosis for my last living parent. Except that there was much to do to help with memorial services and receptions, visit that parent, and maintain this year’s expanded vegetable garden, I think I could have spent this season sitting glassy-eyed near a window.

“What are you working on?” friends ask. Not much. But then I drift back to the garage (plein air seems to be beyond me right now), fill a jar with water, push a brush around in paint and begin. I have completed a few small things–mainly based on my photographs, mainly floral or avian–that have felt like small prayers. Praying for peace for the widowed friend, calm for my ailing father, and thank you to life for being so sweet that its end is unbearable.

Celebrations have marked this season and spread out across the summer calendar; they are like Milosz’s bumblebee visiting that rose. More prayers to life. More reminders that our lives are brief and must be savored.



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Style notes

Long time, no posts. Have been painting–though there were a few months starting in early November during which I just collaged and jabbed at things with scissors and knives.

Every once in a while a friend will ask how I’d characterize my style. Really can’t say. Have I got one yet? Attended “Monet’s Early Years” show at the Legion of Honor with friend Cindy  recently. His style was clear and somewhat set at an early age. We hobbyists sometimes don’t make such personal statements. That being said, I often find a certain manner of working on a painting that sets in; I’ve referred to this “working it” aspect of my process before. The fact that I can’t purge this from my practice must mean it’s part of my “style.”

Here are a few pieces from the past few months:

You can probably tell just by looking which ones were painted quickly and which were done over a longer period, with much reworking. You can also guess which were painted with photo references and which were done from life. The center landscape of a New England village was based on a blending of several photographs. The lilac still life was painted while sitting in front of those flowers on the dining table (and was my 5th attempt to paint lilacs this spring!). The backyard scene was my 2nd plein air piece this year. The coneflower was done from a photograph that had been enlarged to the same size as my painting of it.   Am still experimenting with palettes and have 3-4 set up, including one of Daniel Smith paints. Have almost used up the few sheets of Saunders Waterford paper I bought a couple of years ago, and am glad of this because I much prefer Arches, 140 lb. Cold Press. I tried 300 lb. again recently and enjoyed it much more than I had last time I worked with this heavier paper:

Enuf, as Aunt Ellen would say. Navel gazing is less interesting than looking out. I hope what’s clear from my paintings is my gratitude for the physical world. Am so lucky to have time and ability to go out in it. If all you have is a window to look out, I pray you have changing light and a scene that mesmerizes you.

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Foiled by titles

Titling paintings should be the easiest part of this pursuit. It’s not. I have veered from the merely descriptive, “Alston Park Trail” to quotes from favorite poems. Both practices come back to bite me. The first method fails because I paint scenes of four favorite local parks over and over again so it’s difficult to remember which one is “Westwood Hills Summer Afternoon” and which is “Westwood Hills Lengthening Shadows.” The second method is even worse because I lose memory of the connection between the painting and the quote chosen. Actual conversation on the phone last week:

“Carol, I have a customer here [at the gallery] who is interested in “It All Depends.”

“Oh. [long pause while I rack my brain]. Umm, is that the bee one?”

“Yes. Well, she wants the print but not the frame…”

And we went on from there. The painting is titled “So Much Depends,” which my fellow lit. lovers know is a reference to the short William Carlos Williams poem:

So Much Depends

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Bees are essential, right? Like chickens, rain water, etc. But I titled that painting 3-4 years ago and have not had it in the front of my brain much since. Lost connection.

Last summer I painted a couple of large rose paintings.

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What Need for Heaven?

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Beyond Becoming and Perishing


(They’re down at the gallery right now.)   I spent a long time getting the light, shadows and rose hues just right. Pleased as punch with the results, I wanted to connect them to my favorite poet, Theodore Roethke, and one of his best longer poems,  “The Rose”. It’s a beautiful piece of 20th century verse, focused partly on his love of place and of his father, who grew flowers in greenhouses in Michigan. I chose “What Need For Heaven?” and “Beyond Becoming and Perishing,” which both made much sense at the time, but which are tripping me up over and over in the year since. Which one goes with which painting, for instance? Beyond what and who?

Here are three others:

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In An Hour It Will Be Summer



This juvenile green heron painting is titled by a line from a poem by W. S. Merwin, “Avoiding the News by the River,” apt because the heron’s youthful markings indicate the season; it will mature to a solid brown chest and green feathered head

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Pied Beauty





Another juvenile with its dappled appearance, probably a red-tailed hawk; painting title is also the title of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins
that celebrates bi-colored beauty


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Anecdote of the Soccer Ball




Ritchey Creek with a soccer ball lodged against a rock–it reminded me of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”


Have not resolved this issue yet. Ran across this phrase in an Octavio Paz poem and like it so much it’s on a post-it note on my desk to try to fit to some future work: “espacio reconquistado” (reconquered space). Back to the simply descriptive titling? Then what should I title this new Westwood Hills piece?

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If at first you don’t succeed…

One of the nicest compliments I’ve received as a painter came from a fellow art workshop student’s friend who attended our final class session/potluck. We each brought several of our finished pieces to critique. The guest, a rugged looking older fellow, looked long and hard at one of my paintings, then said, “This painter’s really working it.” That could be taken as “overworking it” (which I’ve also been told I can do), but I took it as a compliment. Some paintings are a struggle with composition, technique, palette, pigment and paper, but I don’t like to give up. If there’s something else to try to claim a success from a failure, I’m determined to try it, and if those attempts don’t work on the first sheet of paper, I start over, another form of “working it.” That remark made 4 years ago has become my mantra.

This subject was a vineyard scene in autumn under stormy skies. Have had small successes in the past capturing cloud shadows on hills. There was that in this scene, also tree shadows, the ever-challenging geometry of vineyard rows and their curving lines as they follow the contours of hills, and the color of the vines themselves: mainly yellow and red.

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black and white image of photo–to emphasize values

It was a windy day, clouds moved quickly, and I caught the scene I later wanted to paint out the passenger window of our moving car. The photo wasn’t perfect but had elements worth developing and enough of the scene’s magic (light, color, lines) to pursue as a subject.



First, I drew a simple value sketch on grey-toned paper. Fine. I like it, let’s scale it up, sketch it lightly on watercolor paper and start a painting.

value sketch on grey-toned paper

notice the added break in foreground vines

Not so fast, apparently. Communicating separate values in black and white is much simpler than doing so in color. I’ve observed this many times, have created colored value charts to focus my attention on the different values of different pigments and various dilutions of different pigments. It still poses a challenge.


color blends

Another problem was hue, particularly yellow and orange. If you don’t paint, you may not know how many decisions a painter makes when creating color blends. Yellow is a particularly tough color to create happy blends with. If the yellow I’ve chosen works well with certain blues to create the greens I want, it fails when blended with reds to make the right hue of orange. It’s not simply a matter of warm and cool though that has something to do with it. For example, I’ve found that Quinacrodone Gold mixed with Phthalo Blue makes a warm, beautiful and plausible (realistic) green–notice the first line blend in the chart. However, it is sooo warm, that, mixed with Quinacrodone Red, it makes a strident orange (line 2 blend). The red is cool (pinkish) so I thought it would knock the intensity down a bit, but it didn’t. Using a different yellow for the orange blend risks creating a work that seems disjointed though this can be done and artists often have a palette of 2 yellows, 2 reds and 2 blues and one earth tone (an umber, ocher or sienna). Look at line four in the color chart here and you can see that using a cooler yellow (Hansa) still made a very intense orange and that making a green from the Hansa Yellow and Phthalo Blue made a poster-paint hue (line 3).

Here are my three attempts to paint the scene with a couple of further sketches between paintings (one in pencil, one in paint) to see if I could learn something about the subject I was still not getting. I worked this thing as much as I could and I’m glad I did. The third painting is better than the first two, and changes in pigments and process helped.

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the actual vineyards transition from yellow to red subtly and erratically; that orange took over the whole section quickly and could not be lifted

First watercolor:

(Don’t like the colors, don’t want to paint each row of each vineyard; although I spent some time trying to change things, I did abandon this one without completing it. Can’t accurately report the pigments I used because I let my brush visit several yellows trying to knock down that orange.)



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again with that orange! resorting to oil pastels (mixed media) sometimes works, but it’s often a signal of defeat

Second watercolor, with oil pastel (pencil) over paint:







More sketching, once in pencil, once with watercolor

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just shadows







…and a new process and limited palette of 3 colors: Hansa Yellow, Quin. Red, Winsor Blue–Red Shade (Phthalo). Started with an underpainting of the blue and red as a blend to capture shadows. Also forced myself to walk away and let stages dry completely rather than overblending wet areas with further additions of paint.

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Early on in 3rd attempt. Shadow shapes in under-painting. Yellows and reds applied with more restraint.





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The final version (rectangular)

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and as framed, (squared)

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Morning Energy

karlsson-wall-clock-pictogram-rainbow-blackYour metabolism may be very different from mine, but I’ve aged into my mother’s oft-repeated mantra: “morning is the best time of day.” Just watched a sunrise of deep pink and orange mackerel clouds as I sipped a 2nd cup of coffee at the kitchen sink. Have been up since 4:45, half an hour after my husband’s usual workday rise.  Now the countdown begins. I can rely on 5-6 hours of good energy before I slow down, this no matter what I consume in protein shakes, cups of coffee, etc. This is the best time of day for a hike, housecleaning, letter writing, menu planning, cooking, gardening, errands–and painting.  I’d say, “let the race begin,” but honestly when I get up this early I take that coffee back to bed and read until it’s daylight.

Most mornings have painting at the top of my “to do” list, but it quickly sinks as I rationalize that I have time to start a winter garden first or should run errands. This is the best time to look for warblers along the river in Kennedy Park. Laundry needs to be sorted, washed and hung up to dry. The microwave hasn’t been cleaned in two weeks and smells like bacon. My studio space is cluttered, and I can’t find things in it. The hummingbird feeders are empty or the dishwasher needs to be emptied. If I don’t get to the grocery store, tonight’s salad will be just lettuce. You get the idea. But if I don’t pick up those paint brushes by mid-morning, it really doesn’t matter whether or not I still have 3 to 5 unscheduled hours in front of me, I don’t have the energy for the work. I imagine this problem is magnified ten times for folks who are still working full-time yet are determined to pursue other passions.

Will save this as a draft because it’s already after 7, I’m still in pajamas, and the day is calling. Maybe when I come back to this I’ll have some images to post of work done.

Hope so.

Ran those errands, looked for the warblers, and framed another print to replace the one sold at the gallery yesterday. Lucky hummingbirds got a new feeder (the old one was leaking). Started work painting by 11 a.m. Not great, but okay.

Today’s goal: finish 2 paintings that have been on the dining room table for 2 weeks. It’s too hot to paint in the garage these days. I started both with grid drawings of 8×10 photos I’d taken in garden and at Tulocay Creek and the Napa River. I work with grid transparencies when I enlarge this way, placing a grid of 2″ squares over the photo to be drawn and sheet of velum with 4″ squares behind another sheet of velum to draw on. If I stand up while working on the drawing, I am freer with my hand and don’t get bogged down on any one square. The heron project involved combining a river photo for the background with a photo I’d taken of a juvenile green heron for the foreground.

After two weeks of working on both (and on neither as I started that garden and did other things), both paintings were close to being finished today. However, the one of roses was starting to seem like an endless process of wash after wash, petal by petal. I wanted to finish it but wondered if I ever would. I think I spent 90 minutes on the roses, 1 hour on the heron:

roses on the left with first washes, heron well begun, Sept. 10th

The finished works:

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I enjoyed going back and forth between these two works over the past couple of weeks because their color palettes were so different and my approach to each was too. The roses are not quite glazes, but the washes were almost that thin and carefully built up. You can see from the beginning photo that the heron was almost completely painted in the first couple of days. Its process involved editing; I moved reeds, changed their colors, etc., at one point even thinking of collaging reed shapes onto the watercolor. I am happy to be finished with both and moving on. What’s on tap for tomorrow morning?

Next morning, after staring at image of heron painting on my cellphone for 15 minutes:

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Maybe this is the one of the pair of works that will never be finished. The lighting of the photo (pre-dawn indoor) may make the change seem to be one of overall tone. It isn’t. Look at the reeds behind the heron’s beak. Had to break up that rhythm of repeated, evenly spaced horizontal lines that looked like a music chart. The removed reed had at least two other problems: its shape and arc weren’t convincing and it severed one’s visual path up the river too forcefully. Changes like this come from conflicting impulses in the original composition: how much of the background to make visible, how much of the heron’s reedy foreground to communicate, to what degree should the heron be camouflaged/part of the setting or stand apart from it, and how to give the viewer a reasonable path to travel through/around the painting. I’ve finally made my decisions. I think. Gouache is my friend. Who says watercolor doesn’t allow editing?

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Thought I was going to paint today. I have 2 or 3 pieces to finish up, many ideas for others. Watercolor is a form of play, too, but today’s energy led me to another form of game  altogether. Have started making stamps of California Towhees for printing. Here’s where I stopped my cutting, gluing, inking, messy play.I think all I really wanted to do today was create wrapping paper. Dunno. Fun though.

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