Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Northern Rambles

For years I have been going up north to Algoma to see my aunt, my mother's only sister.  Algoma is in Kewaunee County, right on Lake Michigan, and is always cool and damp, including through most of the summer.  This trip we caught up on family stories, went out for fish in one of the country bars, and took flowers to a local cemetery.  I have always liked the harbor there, with its red light and fog horn.  When I was a girl the waterfront was filled with fishing shacks and commercial fishing boats, but now there are more condominiums and private boats.  I had to do some serious cropping to make this shot look a bit like the harbor used to look.

My grandparents used to drive north for my aunt's early May birthday, and often the cherry trees would be in bloom.  I have never before this made it there in time to catch the  blossoms.  This time all the cherries, apples, wild plum were at their best, and I couldn't resist taking way too many pictures of the orchards. This one is right outside of Fish Creek.

Although I make it my first priority to visit relatives, and my second to visit favorite art galleries like the Edgewood Orchard Gallery, the Hardy, and the Fine Line, this time I wanted to see where my cousins' grandmother's family came from.  When I asked my aunt she just said the Grandma and Grandpa H. were from Belgium, WI, and that their cemetery was near there.  I hadn't visited their farm since about 1960, so I had to get out my county map.  Grandma H.'s family was Belgian, and I grew up with a taste for a local pastry called Belgian Pie.  But I didn't know much about the immigrants from the area.  That family is buried in the White Star Spiritualist Church near Namur, so I went searching for that.

The church goes back to the 1880s when a group of parishioners from the local Catholic church broke off and formed the spiritualist group.  We found the church, which has occasional services, and now draws psychics from places like Kewaunee and DePere.  I hadn't expected to find anyone there mid afternoon, but a group was standing outside talking, and after inviting us to come to a service any time, told my sister-in-law and I where to find the cemetery with the graves I wanted to visit.  Researching family history can sometimes be really interesting!

 I stayed a couple days with my husband's sister and her husband, both avid birders and naturalists who volunteer at a beautiful spot called the Ridges Sanctuary.  Whenever I can I take walks there, looking for interesting plants and wildlife.  This day was cool and a bit foggy, and the dripping confers and ferns reminded me a little of walks I have taken in the Pacific Northwest.  The unique environment at the Ridges hosts many rare plants and animals, and I always try to spend at least a little time there.

There are a couple ways to get from where I live in southern Wisconsin to Door County, a faster interstate route, and smaller state highways.  On Memorial Day weekend I wanted to take the smaller roads and avoid the heavy traffic and aggressive  drivers from the major highways.  My favorite route skirts Lake Michigan for forty miles, then veers off through rolling farmland toward Lake Winnebago.  I had packed a picnic lunch and pulled over to eat it at a scenic overlook a bit north of Fond du Lac, at Brothertown.  This scene, with the steep hill, farms, and the lake that blends with the sky, is a favorite of mine.  I shared the view with a motorcyclist, and the two of us just stared for a while before heading back to our separate homes.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Inspired by Get Low

about 8x10 inches, watercolor from the film, Get Low

My husband and I watch lots of movies on DVD, usually over a hundred a year.  Lately I have been struck by how beautiful the lighting is in many of the films we watch. The filmmakers seem to take real care in framing each shot so that it has interesting patterns of light and dark.  In Get Low I noticed that the older characters were shot often in interior shots, or with strong directional light that emphasized the character in their faces.  

After we watched the movie, the next day I went through it again, looking for shots I especially liked, and then pausing and doing quick draws.  There were a few that were too lovely to just sketch, so I took a picture of the TV screen as a reference.  This small painting in a notebook is from one of the reference photos.  I didn't intend to work in so many layers, and lift so much, but I am pleased with the part of the character's face that was highlighted.  I used colors suggested in Charles Reid's book, The Natural Way to Paint - cadmium red, raw sienna, cobalt blue.  Then I also added some burnt sienna on his forehead, and some Paynes gray for the darkest darks, and a touch of burnt umber also. I like how he turned out.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blue as Water and Sky

5x7 inches, acrylic on paper, in a sketchbook

On Sunday I went on a photo safari, and bagged a photo of a man fishing below the Monterey Dam here in town.  I did a couple little watercolors of similar scenes, and then this brilliantly colored one, then asked my husband which he preferred, and he liked this one best.  In reality the rocks are pale limestone, the water mostly a muddy green, but I wanted to make the picture more lively, more cheerful, more fun so I ditched reality.

Sometimes ditching reality is fine.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Yellow as a School Bus

5x7 inches, acrylic in my visual journal

All spring I have been taking inventory of my watercolor and acrylic tube paints, reconsidering my watercolor palette, and generally reading about color theory.  This week I have feasting my eyes on a glorious book about a short-lived art movement in France called Fauvism.  The book is The Fauve Landscape, and I have been spending lots of time looking at the paintings with their simplified shapes and straight-from-the-tube colors.  I'm thinking I'm going to have to try to shake things up a little and try some landscapes with in your face colors - if for no other reason that around here once the leaves return to the trees, the color I see most is green.  Sometimes, trying to paint in parks or summer fields I call it "death by greenery."  Maybe some non-local color is what is needed.

Anyway, I've been outside photographing reference photos, inspired by landscapes that feature rivers.  On Sunday I was out with my camera when I was captured by all the yellow school buses at the local bus company, rows of them.  So they, and not a river scene went in my visual journal.  Normally I'd use watercolor, but lately I crave more intensity, so I used acrylic and I like it very much.

A Marge Piercy poem about colors fits today's theme.
Colors passing through us
By Marge Piercy

Purple as tulips in May, mauve
into lush velvet, purple
as the stain blackberries leave
on the lips, on the hands,
the purple of ripe grapes
sunlit and warm as flesh.

Every day I will give you a color,
like a new flower in a bud vase
on your desk. Every day
I will paint you, as women
color each other with henna
on hands and on feet.

Red as henna, as cinnamon,
as coals after the fire is banked,
the cardinal in the feeder,
the roses tumbling on the arbor
their weight bending the wood
the red of the syrup I make from petals.

Orange as the perfumed fruit
hanging their globes on the glossy tree,
orange as pumpkins in the field,
orange as butterflyweed and the monarchs
who come to eat it, orange as my
cat running lithe through the high grass.

Yellow as a goat’s wise and wicked eyes,
yellow as a hill of daffodils,
yellow as dandelions by the highway,
yellow as butter and egg yolks,
yellow as a school bus stopping you,
yellow as a slicker in a downpour.

Here is my bouquet, here is a sing
song of all the things you make
me think of, here is oblique
praise for the height and depth
of you and the width too.
Here is my box of new crayons at your feet.

Green as mint jelly, green
as a frog on a lily pad twanging,
the green of cos lettuce upright
about to bolt into opulent towers,
green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear
glass, green as wine bottles.

Blue as cornflowers, delphiniums,
bachelors’ buttons. Blue as Roquefort,
blue as Saga. Blue as still water.
Blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat.
Blue as shadows on new snow, as a spring
azure sipping from a puddle on the blacktop.

Cobalt as the midnight sky
when day has gone without a trace
and we lie in each other’s arms
eyes shut and fingers open
and all the colors of the world
pass through our bodies like strings of fire.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Women Grads, Elkhorn High School, 1947

Patricia Smith, Carol Tess, Patricia Enright, 1947

I recently into the basement to look for a three-ring binder to house some magazine articles I wanted to save, and found one more of my mother's scrapbooks.  The entire collection was dedicated to her high school graduation in 1947.  There were formal photographs like the ones here, candid shots of her and her friends, the program for graduation, newspaper clippings of the event, and even a program from their senior class play. I love these photos, so carefully preserved, the subjects all  young and healthy. I occurs to me that graduation was very formal.  You can see all the girls with their hair fixed, makeup, rather serious expressions on their faces.  In this picture Mom is in the center, and her two best friends are on either side.  Patricia Smith went on to earn a doctorate in psychology and to teach and write textbooks in California and Oregon.  Patty Enright married and raised a family in Menasha, and was good about keeping in touch right up until Mom's death a few years ago. 

When I taught high school here in Janesville the classes averaged around four hundred students, a number that always seemed large to me, since my graduating class had 128 students.  This photo from 1947 shows all the women graduates in my mother's Elkhorn High School class.  These women remain friends to this day, though many of them have passed away.  They continue to have reunions every few years, and to keep in touch with one another through telephone calls and letters.  It seems almost quaint.  I read last night somewhere online that people keeping in touch through social media is taking a toll on class reunions.  Why bother to get together with high school buddies when you already have seen each other's photos and know what is happening in each others lives online?  I'm not sure why one would replace the other, unless people are getting too busy to make the effort, or just are losing the taste for face to face friendships.

Here they are again in their caps and gowns, all dressed in high heels.  I imagine they wore dresses beneath those gowns, and felt very grown up.  No decorating of the mortarboards in 1947, no Silly String, or anything that didn't suggest the seriousness of purpose that the occasion signified.  Which isn't to say these women didn't know how to have fun - but that is another post.

Reading about local collage and university graduations in the newspaper got me thinking about how traditions change, which is probably fine.  A nicely printed program is a good thing, though this mimeographed program from my parents' graduation, they were in the same high school class, has its charm.  Girls dressed formally suggests dignity that perhaps they didn't all feel on that June day in 1947, but girls graduating today with shorts and flip flops beneath their caps and gowns have big challenges facing them and are just as excited to get on with their lives as Mother and her friends were.  Formal or not, this is a time of year that marks milestones, and I enjoyed sharing Mom's via her scrapbook.  I hope other young people take the time to preserve the day for their children, though perhaps that is gong out of style as well.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Willow Tree

11x14 inches, acrylic on canvas board (on top of the other river scene)

I've been playing around with painting along the Rock River, doing some outdoor sketching, some photography, and painting from both.  I want to paint outside, but I'm also a wimp.  I don't like to paint when it is windy or cold or raining, and it has been all of those things lately.  So, this was the result of a sketch and a photo reference I took at Riverside Park in Beloit. I swear, I was going to simplify forms more, and use more imaginative color, but I got all caught up in layers of color and, well, it is what it is. The painting does suggest what I like best about early spring, which is the effect of the first yellow green leaves and grass in an otherwise brown landscape.

I painted this tree in 2008, then last year there was a fuss about the tree when the parks department trimmed off the picturesque low-hanging limb.  Supposedly the limb was dangerous to park users, but I suspect somebody got a new chainsaw and wanted to try it out.  Maybe that's unfair.  Anyway, I closed on the twisted branches overhanging the river, and ignored the areas of amputation.  I may try painting this again in a different style.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Friends in My Garden

Spring is the nicest time in my shady backyard.  I love the yellow green of the new ferns, and the way the hostas and lily of the valley quickly grow, maybe as fast as corn in July.  These hardy plants grow where grass refuses to grow under the dry shade of the maple trees, which further endears them to me. But perhaps more than their hardiness and willingness to thrive despite lack of sunshine, I love them because my friend Kathy gave them to me, oh, maybe in 1992 or 1993, not long after we bought this house and decided to make a woodland garden where the thin grass used to be.

Kathy was an art teacher who lived up the block, and who used to join our little group for Friday morning breakfasts.  Little by little we got to know and like each other better, and part of that was because she had many hostas, ferns, beds of aggressive but fragrant lily of the valley, and was willing to share them with me.  We soon learned that digging in the soil was just one thing we enjoyed in common, and a friendship was born.

She and her husband Dave had a rustic cabin near Rhinelander, a simple A-frame place with no running water, an outhouse, a fire ring, set in the woods by a lake.  Heaven.  One spring she surprised me with a plastic pail of trillium taken from her property.  One or two still survive in my garden, hidden in the leaves of bluebells, but blooming to remind me of her friendship, even though she is no longer with us.

 Another neighborhood friend, Marcia, heard that I was looking for flowers that I could add to my shady beds, and she generously let me dig out a few bluebells.  Now, a couple decade later, I have drifts of the spring ephemerals, so many that I yank out fists full of volunteer plants that sneak into the grassy area where they are not welcome.  In a month they'll die back, and the area will only show Ehglish ivy and hostas, but in May the sea of blue never fails to remind me of the generosity of my neighboor friends.

All these plants are native, so they thrive despite punishing winter cold, summer heat and drought, and general neglect on my part.  Plants that aren't tough simply die out and are not replaced.  Because of their hardiness, I love to share them with other people looking for cost effective ways to landscape.  My school friends and ladies I've met since retiring have hauled away buckets of hostas, ferns, bleeding heart, buttercups, and yucca, and it makes me happy to be able to pas along the bounty.  Perhaps when they see their plants blooming they think of me, as I think of the women who have shared their bounty for my garden. 

Thin little leaves of wood fern, ribbed and toothed
By Frederick Goddard Tuckerman 1821–1873
from Sonnets, Third Series

Thin little leaves of wood fern, ribbed and toothed,
Long curved sail needles of the green pitch pine,
With common sandgrass, skirt the horizon line,
And over these the incorruptible blue!
Here let me gently lie and softly view
All world asperities, lightly touched and smoothed
As by his gracious hand, the great Bestower.
What though the year be late? some colors run
Yet through the dry, some links of melody.
Still let me be, by such, assuaged and soothed
And happier made, as when, our schoolday done,
We hunted on from flower to frosty flower,
Tattered and dim, the last red butterfly,
Or the old grasshopper molasses-mouthed.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Two guys fishing last Thursday in Beloit

Fishing, His Birthday
By Michael Sowder Michael Sowder

With adams, caddis, tricos, light cahills,
blue-wing olives, royal coachmen, chartreuse trudes,
green drakes, blue duns, black gnats, Nancy quills,
Joe’s hoppers, yellow humpies, purple chutes,
prince nymphs, pheasant tails, Eileen’s hare’s ears,
telicos, flashbacks, Jennifer’s muddlers,
Frank bugs, sow bugs, zug bugs, autumn splendors,
woolly worms, black buggers, Kay’s gold zuddlers,
clippers, tippet, floatant, spools of leader,
tin shot, lead shot, hemostats, needle nose,
rod, reel, vest, net, boots, cap, shades and waders,
gortex shell and one bent Macanudo—
I wade in a swirl of May-colored water,
cast a fine gray quill, the last tie of my father.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Step by Step

11x14 acrylic on canvas panel

Look quick, because I am about to gesso over this little painting exercise.  This isn't really my composition; it's an exercise from a "how-to" book about acrylic painting.  I have it in my head that acrylic will be better for the plein air event I plan to enter in June.  The scenery for that event is similar to ours here in Janesville, parkland along the Rock River, lots of trees, some buildings.  This little exercise had some of the same features, so I thought it might be useful.  

The result of my efforts are not especially wonderful.  The mill on the left looks flat, and the blue on the roof of the mill and church looks too bright.  Also the river doesn't look flat - a real problem!  That's supposed to be duck weed on the left (something we have plenty of when the weather warms), but it doesn't read duck weed.  It looks more like an odd patch of lawn near the bank.

That said, I was interested in the colors the author used in the under painting, and I liked the way the sloping bank on the left and the distant trees on the right turned out.  I also figured out how to use a little hard rubber tool for scraping out tree trunks.  I'd had it for ages and never used it before, so that was good. I also rather like the pale yellow of the overcast sky - that's a choice I might not have thought of.  So, even though I am about to cover this painting over, I'm glad I took the time to work through it.

This is the library book I used for the exercise.  There is another example in the book of an old willow that I may give a go as well, since old twisted willows are a common feature along the river here and in Beloit.  I doubt that my own style will change any, but I may be able to solve some problems, and increase my confidence when I am out on my own.

Update on the wet camera in the painting bag with the water bottle. Even though it eventually dried out, after a day it simply expired.  Luckily for me I found an identical one for a reasonable price on eBay.  It works just fine, and will never share space with a water bottle. I learned a lesson there, too.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Beautiful Morning

Spring has finally arrived in southern Wisconsin, with trees beginning to bloom, grass (and weeds) springing up, and people shedding their heavy coats.  I decided to head to Beloit, ten miles south, to scout out places to paint next month.  The Rock River is high, but behaving itself pretty well so far, not like in 2008 when it flooded and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Redbud, crab apples, pear trees, all are in bloom, just in time for Mothers Day this weekend.

The Canada geese are apparently guarding their nests, because they were in a testy mood as I walked along Riverfront Park.  They hissed and assumed threatening postures, but never really caused me any trouble.

This old tree was the subject of a minor uproar last fall when it was trimmed back by the parks department.  I may paint it again, just not from an angle that shows the amputated low overhanging limbs.

Nobody was out in the paddle boats yet, but the water was so blue against the yellow plastic boats that I had to stop for a photo.

Yes, it was a nice morning, for a walk, or for getting out a fishing pole and spending time with a buddy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Suffering Withdrawal

This week the folks who run a local consignment shop downtown are in France visiting their daughter, so the shop isn't open. I stop in several times a week to catch up on news, chat with the regulars and see what treasures are there to be seen.  The owner also is generous with cups of free coffee, so I support my caffeine habit there as well.  I'm missing my hangout while it is closed this week, though I'm happy they are taking a rare vacation.

One of the things I enjoy is just looking at the constantly changing collections of odds and ends, books, housewares, glass, dolls, china plates, post cards, all sorts of things.  Individually few are really impressive, but collected and massed on shelves, I love to look at them.  These oriental dolls and figurines appealed to me.

I have never wanted to collect miniature horses, but collected together on the shelf, I thought perhaps I'd paint them at some point.  Or maybe not. 

If anyone who reads this has the urge to use these pictures as a photo reference for sketching or painting, please feel free.  I'd love to see what you do.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Crowds of Daffodils

Cool weather has made lots of our spring flowers a little late, but it has also kept my front garden colorful for two weeks already.  This is just a small patch of my daffodils.  They cheer me up every time I see them, and I planted about a decade ago so that I can cut with no hesitation.  This little garden has also been infested the last couple years with some purple flowers on stalks, and creeping charlie, but I'll worry about the invasives once the daffodils are done.  For now I want to just enjoy the exuberance of bloom.

BTW, these were taken with the camera that got wet on my last outdoor painting excursion.  Apparently it still works, though it doesn't make the "click" noise when I take the shot. I guess I can live with that.

I WANDER'D lonely as a cloud   
  That floats on high o'er vales and hills,   
When all at once I saw a crowd,   
  A host of golden daffodils,   
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,      5
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.   
Continuous as the stars that shine   
  And twinkle on the Milky Way,   
They stretch'd in never-ending line   
  Along the margin of a bay:      10
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,   
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.   
The waves beside them danced, but they   
  Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:—   
A poet could not but be gay      15
  In such a jocund company!   
I gazed, and gazed, but little thought   
What wealth the show to me had brought:   
For oft, when on my couch I lie   
  In vacant or in pensive mood,      20
They flash upon that inward eye   
  Which is the bliss of solitude;   
And then my heart with pleasure fills,   
And dances with the daffodils.   

                                       --William Wordsworth