Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lettuces to Harvest

I returned to Helmut's special farm -- Coast Organics just off Hwy. 101, south of Buellton. He was so generous and invited me back to paint in the fields. The rows of lettuces, broccoli, carrots, dill and onions stretched across the distance towards the golden fields and mountains. The soil was warm and soft, the texture of talcum powder, it shifted underfoot and made puffy little clouds of dust.
The cows shuffled along the hillsides, the grasses and underbrush crunching as they made their way to the water trough. The steady breeze from the coast moved through the valley and hawks drafted in the air current overhead. The sun was intense and there was no shade to be found... I set up in the lane between the two large sections and began to paint. A tractor worked in the fields behind me as I painted and some of the workers stopped by to look at the painting.
I love this very aspect of plein air... being immersed in sounds, sight, color, smells... it it hard to describe but time stands still for that moment. I think of nothing but the painting and the emotion of the experience.
As I packed up to leave, Helmut asked if I was done. I replied yes, thinking he needed to close up the fence gate. No, he remarked... it is time to harvest all the lettuce and he was waiting for me to finish. Oh, I felt so bad that I had delayed his task for the afternoon! He told me no, the lettuces needed to be painted.
He was so very right. They did.
The next day I drove in to buy some produce and the fields were brown and barren. I am so grateful to Helmut and humbled that he allowed me to capture this moment at his farm.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Meadows & Meandering

"Refuge. A safe place."
That is the Spanish translation for Refugio and also the name of a fairly major road through the Santa Ynez Valley. As Refugio Road leaves the valley and begins it's ascent up the coastal mountains, the road changes from a two lane road to a narrow unmarked paved road to a dirt/gravel road where only four wheel drive vehicles travel.
A local resident encouraged me to go past the signs marked "roadway ends" and continue on to find wonderful painting venues. Wow. Spectacular vistas appear as the roadway winds through vineyards, ranches and open spaces.
Just before the road enters the woods and steep foothills there is a sweeping meadow. The wind is blowing and the tops of the grasses move as soft waves. Red tailed hawks soar above and swoop down into the grasses for their meal. Eagles soar high above, their shadows travel across the land with arching movement. Horses nicker in the distance. It is dusk and feeding time.

As the sun dips lower in the sky the meadow is infused with light and color. The foothills in the distance begin to soften and fall into shadow. It is quiet and serene with only the sounds of the wind and birds... A trailing fenceline moved along the meadow and disappears into the grasses.
"Day's End on Refugio Road"... a fitting name for a special road in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunsets & Shadows

It's that golden hour, when the sun is just about to sink behind the hills and the contrast of light and shadow is so dramatic. I love painting in that time slot but time is of the essence so I keep my paintings small and work quickly. I often use the open trunk of my car to block the intense low light from my eyes (a makeshift umbrella!).
This is a little stretch of road leaving Los Olivos and heading up Ballard Canyon Road. By day, it is ordinary. At dusk, extraordinary with the tops of grasses illuminated and the rolling hills and oaks in the distance take on a soft glow. I loved the lyrical movement of the barbed wire fence as it trails through the grasses in its disheveled state.

I painted this one last night. It is a scene I have seen several times heading out of Buellton on Hwy. 246 where the road crests at the top of a big hill. There is a vineyard to the right with a farm road. Every time I have seen this view at dusk there are birds perched on every fence rail and the tops of the vines as if they are watching the sunset. They sit quietly for at least twenty minutes rimmed in light. The light becomes so intense as it slips behind the hills and the shadows are just luscious with color.
Flocks of birds fly by and, after the sun has disappeared behind the horizon, the birds in the vineyard all rise up and join them. It's magical.
These are the aspects I love about plein air. The observation of nature and the wonderful harmonies found within.
I titled this one "Evening Takes Flight," packed up my gear and headed back into the valley, now blanketed in the cool shades of night.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

No More Chicken Dinners

Peggy, a local gallery owner and artist, told me about an old diner in Buellton that I needed to check out... so I ventured down the road to look for it. A couple of miles from the busy intersection of Hwy 101 and Rt. 246, there it stood. It sits along the old highway 101 (now just a simple two lane road) facing out to the new freeway. It's weathered facade all wrapped in plywood and fencing -- the owner is looking for a buyer to move it to a new destination.

I loved it's quirky proportions and great vintage signage with peeling paint and broken neon tubing.

The cheery red roofs of the dining cars with curved glass window fronts were covered in various pieces of lace and sheets to obscure the interior. They are actual dining rail cars with a roof overhead and a center structure joining them. What a great re-use for old rail cars. This must have been one happening place!

As I sketched and painted I thought about all the motorists who had pulled off the road from their travels to sit and dine. How welcoming this place must have looked to them. All the people who went through those doors and found chicken dinners and breakfast being served. No munching on fast food on your lap behind the wheel!

I went back the next day and did another painting of it with morning sunlight washing over the front of the diner.

Now, forgotten and boarded up, it sits facing the new freeway (that was its demise) with no opportunity for motorists to pull off and have a bite to eat. I hope it finds a new home... and can, once again, serve chicken dinners.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Highways & Byways

Driving back from Santa Barbara through the mountains I spotted the rooftops of old barns off in the distance. I was just entering the Santa Ynez Valley and wasn't very far from the exit to Buellton.  I noticed a sign for Classic Organic Farms and figured I would find my way off Highway 101 and see where it took me. I saw the sign and went from 65 to 30 in a flash... amazing that right off this major highways was this old road that led me right to the barns I had spotted from the distance. I love taking chances and seeing where roads take me!

I pulled up to the roadside stand... it was an old barn with an awning out front protecting mounds of strawberries from the hot sun. Inside there were shelves overflowing with the most amazing produce. Heads of lettuce that were as large as basketballs. Carrots, onions, garlic and stalks of celery with the most abundant display of leaves that were tender and fragrant. Artful arrangements of antiques mingled with fruit and delicate bouquets of herbs for sale. It was really a visual feast.

A friendly border collie turned the corner and came to greet me. I deposited my money into the big oak barrel and put my selections in the car. Returning to paint was top of my list for the next day. I did a couple of sketches in my sketchbook and scoped out the perfect painting spot.

I returned the next day mid morning and set up in the shade of a tree to paint. People stopped to make purchases and it was fun watching them sample and savor their purchases before they had even reached their cars. Behind me were the self-pick strawberry fields where people were filling their baskets with berries galore.

This little farm was surrounded by mountains. I looked it up on Google maps when I got back and It is amazing how it is this little land mass tucked into the mountains.

I worked on my painting for few hours... I loved the rich texture of the barn and the variations in colors. You could see remnants of old stains and paints of varied colors - red, brown, mustardy yellow. The clouds were amazing and they were moving quickly coming in off the ocean. I loved the bend in the road and wondered where that would lead to.

To the left was an old covered area for cattle. The owner, Helmut, stopped by to talk and look at my painting and we chatted about the history. It had once been an old dairy farm and the road I was painting alongside was the old Coast Highway, and before that a wagon path. The farm used to make cheese that was carried by horse and wagon down to Gaviota (11 miles away through the mountain pass) and then put on boats to San Francisco. 

Now this farm, an organic vegetable and fruit farm, continues the tradition of working the land and preserving the heritage of this valley. I will go back and do some more painting before I leave... I loved this little spot of green paradise ... just off Highway 101.

To read more about Helmut and his farm Classic Organics check out...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shadows & Vines

I returned to one of my most favorite painting spots in Los Olivos... I still remember the first time I saw the stunning vista of the Saarloos Vineyards along Ballard Canyon Road. The road winds along the ridge and then takes a dramatic turn and suddenly you are climbing the hill and looking out over this incredible canyon vista with tiers of vines. Truly, it takes your breath away. Everytime.

In fact, it was the first painting spot on my inaugural visit to the Santa Ynez Valley three years ago. I immediately pulled over and set up to paint and an hour into the painting Keith Saarloos pulled up and introduced himself. The painting became part of his collection, and a friendship began. The Saarloos family is so gracious and allows me to roam the vineyards and paint! I love discovering new vistas and scenes to paint among the vines.

When I set out to paint this week's painting, I discovered an opening in the fence line along the road... I ducked under the climbing roses and baby oak tree branches! It was like a secret garden moment! When I looked up there was this wonderful new viewpoint... a long and winding road going deep into the vineyard. Lined with pink roses and olive trees. The long deep shadows crept along the earth reaching towards the vines.

After a small sketch to explore the composition and view... I set about painting and decided to expand the view to the left to reveal the steep slope of the vineyard.

It was an incredible late afternoon into evening painting. A herd of steer came down the hillside behind me and I could hear them snorting and eating ... the grasses and brush crunching under their hooves as they lumbered up and down the slopes. Hawks soared in the sky above me casting large shadows over the vines. The wind picked up as the sun began to make its way deep within the canyon and the colors intensified. The occasional creak and soft moan of a windmill above kept me company.

Larry Saarloos stopped by to say hello. I loved his reaction as he stooped under the opening and came up to see the painting. He zeroed right in on the sweeping path and the play of light and shadow along the road... he loved it. It thrills me when people see in my painting the very thing that inspired me to create the painting. It's the best compliment.

"Shadows & Vines"... another painting for the Saarloos collection. I am honored. Grateful to be able to share their special spot in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Oh, and did I mention they create and craft incredible wines. Artists of a different medium.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Back for More

I just had to go back to Los Olivos and paint at Clairmont Farms again. This time, I went out deep into the fields... the owners told me how to find a path that would lead me to a chair set under a big oak. Perfect! I wound my way through the rows, buzzing honey bees zooming in and out. I was of no interest to them as there was lavender all about!

The shady spot under the oak tree was perfect with dappled light filtering through it's sprawling limbs. It was windier today and each gust carried the intoxicating perfume of the lavender. Beyond the fields, I could hear horses nickering and calling to each other. I love that sound!
This is a larger piece.... almost 17" wide by 7" deep. I love the contrast of the grasses at the base of the trees with the expanse of lavender. The trees in the distance just seem to rise up out of the color. I look at this painting and I swear I can smell the lavender!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sights & Scentsation

Yesterday, I returned to paint at Clairmont Farms in Los Olivos. The entrance to the lavender farm is a long driveway lined with very old olive trees... their lacy leaves rimmed in sunlight with hints of purple peeking through.
Beyond the trees was a "sea" of purple. Truly, it was like looking out on a large body of water with the deepest hues of purples, blues and pinks where the sun was hitting the tops of the blooms. The smell was intoxicating and the occasional breeze would make it even more intense. Rising up out of the purple were stately old oak trees their trunks in shadow and sprawling shapes silhouetted in the light.

I set up my easel and was transported into this world of scent and sensation. Cars came in and out and people stopped by to look at my painting. The shade of one of the olive trees was the perfect spot.

But all the while, I was consumed with the smell of lavender as I painted. Enjoy the painting and, if you have lavender sachet handy.... sniff, and then take a look!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Fields & Family

Yesterday I ventured back to my new found painting spot deep in a vineyard along Ballard Canyon Road between Solvang and Los Olivos. I had permission from the family to paint anywhere and the roads that wind through the vineyard make it perfect for transporting all my painting gear!
As I came around the bend in the road I saw figures in the fields that I had just painted the day before (the painting of the red barn posted earlier). They were awash in the intense afternoon light pulling weeds and working in the fields. I parked under the oak tree along side their vehicles and set up my easel.
A young boy's head popped up from the back of the truck .... he was curious about why I was there and what was I doing? He had come back from the field to take a break from the sun. I hurried to start painting as they were working their way further back into the rows of garlic.
The first thing you notice about the workers in the fields and vineyards is how covered up they are. It was 90 degrees this day and they were wearing jackets, long sleeve sweatshirts, hats and even their faces were covered up to their eyes with bandannas. I painted their forms and loved how the one figure was bathed in light when he stood up to talk to the others. They were chatting and pulling, laughing and working... there was music being played. They called out to the boy and he hopped off the truck and carried a huge water cooler out to them... it was heavy but he managed, with no complaint, I might add. I quickly added him into the painting. Then he too, set about working alongside them.

Within an hour they stopped and came out of the fields to their truck and began to disrobe from all their layers. I was glad I had the figures and field in... I could finish the rest of the painting even if they left. Suddenly these forms became young teenagers, mom, dad, uncles and cousins. It was a family.
They were shy but I encouraged them in my most pathetic Spanish to come and take a look. One by one they walked up to the easel and smiled. Some would laugh and point with delight that they had found themselves in the painting. But the sweetest reaction was from the boy who was so proud that he was in the painting. He would point it out to each person as they approached the easel... and beam with pride. I told him to tell his family that they looked beautiful working in the sunlight and I wanted to paint that. He smiled and translated... and then told me "I was a very good drawer."
The family starting packing up but David, the boy, hung around and kept looking at himself in the painting. I asked if I could take his picture with the painting and he was so pleased.

This is what I love most about the plein air experience. These people touched me as I watched them toil in the fields... cheerful, happy and content. And David, so willing to help his family and so proud of his part of the work. When he saw the painting he said to me, "Look, I am carrying the water.... see."
An ordinary day of work in the Santa Ynez Valley, And extraordinary day of painting.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Oaks & Vines

The stately oak trees lining the winding roads through Ballard Canyon are so lovely. I set up my easel under one and went about capturing the vineyards and hillsides in the late afternoon. The late-day time slot is my favorite time to paint as the sun begins to go down and the colors intensify. The vines sparkle in the light and the oak trees take on these solid shapes with deep shadows. The low light illuminates the massive trunks of these trees revealing their form and strength. Birds begin to call out to each other from their perches and the gophers scurry about for their last bit of supper.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Second Look

It was another warm day in the Santa Ynez Valley. I set off down Ballard Canyon Road to find a spot to paint. Driving home the other day, I had seen these structures from the road and they caught my eye.  So I set off to take a second look. The setting was perfect and the contrast of the metal structure with the organic shapes of the landscape were exciting.

I love how they are standing side by side almost as if they are watching over the newly planted vineyard behind them. They have quirky, fun proportions and interesting shapes.
The sun was hot but I was able to find a small patch of shade to paint int. Bicyclists and runners occasionally came by. One passerby remarked how they had often traveled this road and never noticed them being anything special. But on second look, they studied them and my painting and remarked that indeed it was a great scene and they were quite charming set amongst the golden hillsides.
One of my favorite things about painting is capturing a scene that is often overlooked... and allowing people to look at their familiar landscapes in a new and fresh way.
A second look.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Stop & Sketch

This morning I finished a painting and decided to spend the rest of the day doing small watercolor sketches/studies. I grabbed my sketchbook, mini travel palette and camera... packing light!

This was my view this morning as I finished breakfast on the patio... grabbed a quick sketch to capture the light. I love how the morning sun illuminates slopes of the canyon's hillside and the deep caverns are still immersed in shadow. As the sun comes up higher, the darkness is swallowed up with light.

I finished up my painting that I had started earlier the day before. While I was putting the last touches on the painting, some cows moved down to graze under the tree. I pulled out my sketchbook and did several quick studies of them as they were moving about and when the mother and baby cow decided to nap, I worked on a color watercolor sketch.

The next stop was to pull over to do a sketch of the hillsides, but when I got out of the car I looked across the road and saw an open gate leading up to a massive oak tree in a vineyard. The tree offered shade and I decided to go up and check out the view. The spot offered a wonderful vista of vineyards and hills in the background. The hawks were sweeping the skies looking for breakfast. I will definitely go back and paint here this week!

Two more stops and several sketches later, I decided to go further down the road. There was a view I had remembered from our last visit -- just before Ballard Canyon Road ends at the highway. I decided to go back and find it and hoped for a place to pull over... I  was in luck! There was a shady spot with just enough room for my car. The afternoon light was delicious... and I loved this sloping landscape with the cluster of trees casting wonderful shadows and offering peek-a-boo views between the trunks.

I love taking a break from completing "finished" paintings and instead set my focus on capturing simple color studies where I can explore new painting spots, work out compositions and collect pages of ideas in my sketchbook.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Saddles & Sketchbooks

Today, our friend (and wonderful host!) Angela invited us to visit a farm where she was going to take her first Western Dressage lesson. Caroline and I were happy to go along and see something new (western dressage!) and spend some time with horses (we miss our two!).
We took off and headed towards the town of Santa Ynez. We turned down the driveway and entered a wonderful old riding farm surrounded with amazing vistas of vineyards and mountains. It was a hot day, but there was a nice breeze coming across the pastures.
We met Agapito De La Cruz the owner of Etcetera Farm and watched as Angela had her first lesson. Then he hopped on his horse and demonstrated the dressage techniques. What an amazing horse. Agapito is a really skilled rider. It was incredible to watch!

While the lesson was going on I turned to see the barn bathed in sunlight.... it was a perfect sketching opportunity. To my delight a cowboy even walked through the barn with a great silhouette! I hussled to add that into the sketch. It was a quick sketch... 20 minutes! I love capturing the sketch in ink and then washing in splashes of color notes to finish it off.
I showed the sketch to Agapito and Adrianna and they were amazed to see what I had done. They loved the color and even recognized the horse and owner in the foreground. They invited Caroline to come back and ride and then offered lessons in trade for a larger painting of their barn. "Perfect!," I said. Caroline is so excited to be able to ride while we are here and to expand her horse experiences... and I get to paint in a wonderful settings. It's a win-win.
My plein air sketches have created new opportunities and introduced us to new friends. It's another page in the chapter of our Santa Ynez adventure!

Friday, July 1, 2011

California Light & Color

So inspiring to be back in California! We are in Solvang, Central California, just north of Santa Barbara. While my daughter trains at Monty Roberts' ranch for equine training I get to spend my days painting in the Santa Ynez Valley. The colors are so vibrant and my palette so different out west. The first thing I noticed was the lack of humidity... my watercolors dried quickly in the hot sun, aided by the warm wind coming through the canyon. I hiked up the hillside and found this perfect vista. The dramatic sweep of land along with the juxtaposition of warm grasses and cool shadows caught my eye. After further observation I began to notice the incredible play of light and color within the shadow areas under the majestic oaks. Greens, blues vibrating with purples... exhilarating.