Life in general Oil Painting Outdoors/Landscape Painting Photos Plein Air

Cemetery Conversations on July 4th

Low Tide from Sunset View Cemetery

Version 1: Low Tide: S.F. Bay from Sunset View Cemetery, Oil on panel, 9×12″ (Larger)

UPDATE (one week later):

I did a little revising on the painting below, trying to work with the suggestions people offered. I think there are some improvements (I like the distant hills better and I toned down the sailboats and removed the sign and tried to make the town look more like buildings). I feel like I’ve taken it as far as it needs to go as a sketch.

Version 2:

Revised Cemetery View

Below is my painting buddy Peggy’s painting of the scene (the title is a reference to the view from a cemetery). She painted the clouds and water as they were at the end of our session. With plein air painting you’re always painting what you remember or what you anticipate.

Peggy Anderson: “Angel Island from the Afterlife”


What I really wanted on the Fourth of July was a quiet day at home but I’d made plans with a couple of painting friends to go up to the nearby Sunset View Cemetery to do some plein air painting. It was a typical July morning in the San Francisco Bay Area: cold, windy, foggy and cloudy, and even more so on top of the hill where I decided to paint, a spot called “Viewpoint Garden,” with a widescreen view of Albany, El Cerrito, and, shrouded in fog, Angel Island and Marin County across the bay.

Before I got my gear out of the car, a large Chinese family arrived and started heading up the path to the viewpoint. I asked if they were having a service there, and they sent their only English speaker, a young man, to talk to me. He said it was just a small family service and they’d be done in half an hour.

Flowers for the Dead not the Deer

While we were waiting at the edge of the garden, an elderly Asian man came up the path carrying a basket of flowers which he was putting in holders at numerous graves. I asked him if he worked there (thinking people paid to have flowers maintained at gravesites) and he said, “No, these are all my friends and family…over there is my wife, that’s my brother, that’s my best friend, and back there are my parents and two of my other brothers. They all wanted to have a nice view.”

He said that he was 91 years old and grew the flowers in his garden. He showed us how many bouquets were scattered around the grass, having been pulled out of their holders and chewed up my the local deer. He only grows flowers that deers won’t eat to bring to the cemetery on his weekly visits.

Burning Stuff for the Departed:

Meanwhile, the Chinese family were lighting things on fire (possibly paper models of stuff the deceased might need or always wanted in life but didn’t get, according to this article) in a large trash can, creating huge amounts of smoke, as well as burning incense, and taking turns bowing numerous times before the grave of their dearly departed.  I asked the elderly man if they were his family too and he exclaimed loudly, “NO! They’re Chinese, I’m Japanese!” (Oops.)

I suggested he talk more quietly so we wouldn’t bother the family but he continued speaking loudly (despite his two hearing aids), saying, “Oh, we’re not bothering them. Those Chinese people are always burning stuff here and I don’t like it!” Then he regaled us with his (mostly) interesting life history. By then the Chinese family had put out the fires and packed up and headed out, thanking us for waiting. We looked at the grave afterward and it was a man who’d died a year earlier.

Buried standing up?

We were trying to figure out why the graves were so close together in that area—just little placques in the ground a few feet apart. We decided it must be urns of ashes that are buried there, although at first I wondered if people were buried standing up to save space. While that’s unlikely, given the way we think of the dead resting in peace, it did strike me that it would be a perfect metaphor for my life, since I’m always on my feet, on the go, trying to fit so much into every day. It made me tired just to think about spending eternity doing the same.

Catching a Rapist:

Then Peggy  told us about a friend who’d helped catch a wanted rapist. She’d been hiking in a park and decided to use the Porta-Potty. The door was unlocked but when she opened it there was a man inside who gleefully exposed himself. She ran and called the police once she was safely away. The police arrived, arrested him and told her he had a history of multiple rapes. He’d been known to watch a woman park her car and go into the woods. Once she was out of sight he’d disable her car and then offer to “help” her with it when she returned. Yikes!

About the painting:

Despite a very good start, after several hours I’d made a mess of the painting, and eventually got so mad at having lost all of the good beginnings (and the whole day) I rather violently scraped the panel down and threw it away. I’d taken photos of the scene and decided to start the painting over again at home. A migraine on Saturday delayed it another day, but finally on Sunday I gave it another chance and finished it today.

What attracted me to the scene originally was the way the low tide left little stripes of water over mud in the little harbor but by the time I set up and did the initial drawing, the tide came in and it disappeared. I’d never tried to paint an urban view like this before and couldn’t figure out a good way to do it and scraped it off several times, after either getting too detailed or too vague.

Finally, working from the photo, I decided the only solution was to TURN THE PHOTO and the PAINTING UPSIDE DOWN and just paint shapes upside down! That seemed to help. I also really wanted to capture the look of a gray day with some sun and clouds and fog.  This was definitely a tough one and I don’t think I completed succeeded on any of my goals.

That sign sticking up at the bottom in the middle is for 99 Ranch Market, a Chinese supermarket in Albany whose sign really does reach that far above everything else. When I looked closely at my photo there was also a giant red gorilla balloon advertising a carpet store to the right of the sign, but I didn’t put that in the painting. It’s one thing to “Paint the dog before the fleas” but entirely another to paint the landscape before the red gorilla!

If you have any suggestions to improve the painting, I’d be interested to hear them. Here’s the original photo (click to enlarge it):

15 replies on “Cemetery Conversations on July 4th”

Hi Jana, I think you picked a really challenging view to paint. I can see why the stripes attracted you, but in the photo they are a very subtle relative to everything else. I think the white flecks in the bay (sailboats? whitecaps?) draw too much attention. And the other adjustment I might suggest is to introduce more color to the urban landscape. Right now the exposed mud in the bay is pretty much the same color as the houses, and so the mud shapes sort of reads as a continuation of the streets. On the other hand, I think you did a great job capturing the subtle temperature shifts on Angel Island. Thanks for sharing your cemetery stories!

Great suggestions Kris and I really appreciate the thoughtful feedback. I agree with what you’re saying but couldn’t see it myself, just knew it wasn’t quite right (though a vast improvement on the original). Thanks for validating it was a hard subject too.

I was just looking at your blog this morning (on my iphone procrastinating getting up for work) and was admiring how you focus in powerfully on a subject instead of trying to put everything in the world in one painting. Sorry I didn’t leave a comment — the iPhone is a great tool for viewing stuff on the internet but a paint to write more than a few words.

(Readers, be sure to check out Kris’s blog; her paintings of California blue and gold hills are wonderful!)


I enjoyed reading about your day. I like the painting too but the sign seems too centered to me. Like why is it there but no other building? The colors are lovely and I love how the hues seem to to in harmony. The greens of the trees are lovely. Overall, I do like this one!

Thanks Marta, I noticed that too about the sign being centered, but decided to be rebellious and just leave it — but you’re right on about the sign being detailed but none of the other buildings being detailed. Good point!


Jana — I swear you lead one interesting life!!! MERCY, you make mine sound so dull in comparison! Actually I like this painting … it feels ‘grey’ to me .. a bit overcast and yet bright with hidden sunshine …. I LOVE the treatment of the background hill and water and sky! And I think you did an excellent job of editing this too …

I’m really enjoying your oils, Jana …!!! They’re just getting better and better!

Thanks Lin. Your life seems pretty exciting to me, too! I think of mine as being pretty quiet. ~jana


Jana, I’m an admirer of your work, and an admirer of your blog, and do not feel qualified to critique your work, except to say that when I first saw your painting, I thought it was beautiful! I wouldn’t change a thing. I also paint, but mostly in acrylics and some oils..just beginning to learn watercolor and I’m having fun!
I loved the cemetery stories too!

Thanks Dorothy! It’s so cool to hear that someone admires my work and actually reads the blog too! I’m never quite sure if I’m just rambling on to myself or if it is the least bit interesting to someone else. Thanks for taking the time to leave a note! ~Jana


You saved your day, Jana, despite frustrations and
interruptions, by this lovely painting and wonderful
stories of sharing with your neighbors. I especially
love those misty hills and the boats breezing over
the water. And it’s added to my day, so thank you.

Thanks Annie. One thing I love about plein air painting is the chance to be out in the world meeting people and hearing their stories, even if it’s just in passing. All of the different sensory input, from hearing, seeing, smelling, etc. seem to become a part of the painting for me. ~Jana


Well, frustrating from a painting point of view, but hugely entertaining for us readers!I wonder who else would grow non-deer flowers?

This one seems (to non-painter me) to be exactly the windy, grey day I’m seeing right now! It has an early French Impressionist feel.

I couldn’t ask for nicer comments! Thanks so much! ~Jana


Jana…as often is the case, I think your painting is better than the actual scene. You captured a misty foggy/sunny view really well. It needs no tweaking if you ask me.

Thanks Rita, You’re too kind! ~jana


What a wonderful description of a very interesting day, Jana – I’m glad you’ve had more expert opinions than mine on your painting – when I first looked at it, I didn’t see it as an urban landscape, but couldn’t figure out why… I think Kris has put her finger on it – but it’s a lovely peaceful painting, and I love that you did it upside down to get the shapes right – I’m going to remember that one!


I like this one too Jana. I love the sign in the middle. Again, it’s anti-what-plein-air painter do, and I love the rule breaking. I wouldn’t add anymore town detail. You don’t need it. I thought the white were birds, but then thought sailboats, which I like more… my only comment would be to anchor them in the water more? Or maybe it’s nice that they can be birds or boats….
I love the value contrast. The darks being foreground. Your atmospheric perspective is great. Wish I was painting with paint instead of pixels right now. Lucky you!


The contrast of the vegetation against the muted, foggy background is lovely just the way it is.

Stop by when you have a chance. I’ve sent an award your way.


Hi Jana,
I haven’t checked in to your blog for a while. Your story was great, very funny in parts. Your paintng is wonderful! Very inviting. I agree with the comment about the white dots being a little strong, but the sign, being so subtle, doesn’t bother me a bit. Your painting has a much better composition than your original photo. Very nice!


I think this is wonderful, Jana – a great feel of the sailboats scudding along under a windswept sky. I love the way you’ve done the trees – shape as well as dark to contrast with the top half of the painting. The sign doesn’t do much for me – I’d be tempted to try a few tiny figures by the waters edge? And I loved the stories – wolves in the woods … mmm


Great post. I enjoyed reading about your day at the cemetery, and I enjoy seeing your paintings.

I have nominated you for an award on my blog. If you don’t want to participate, that is fine too!

Wow! Thanks Laurel! ~Jana


Hi Jana,

You know I love your work. This one spoke to me immediately. The colors and the composition are stunning. I love it!

Every day I look at the painting you did of our house and feel so fortunate!


Judy, Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a note! I’m so glad you’re happy with your painting. ~jana


I really enjoy your plein aire work with oils – the simplicity of them works really well. I think the changes you made to the painting all are effective.

It’s always tricky to go back into a piece – I usually ruin them in that way. Maybe it’s as you say, when it reaches the 75% stage it should be done. That’s a little like saying, when you reach the last stop sign, turn left – you never know when you’ve reached the end, so it’s hard to know when you’re at 75% of that point!

Seeing your local paintings of the east bay always bring back memories of when we lived there. Hey, I know that spot!


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