Flower Art Ink and watercolor wash Plein Air Sketchbook Pages Walnut Creek

Lilly Pond at Ruth Bancroft Gardens


Water Lilies at Bancroft Gardens, sepia ink and watercolor, 5x8 in
Water Lilies at Bancroft Gardens, sepia ink and watercolor, 5×8 in

It was a gorgeous day at Ruth Bancroft Gardens in Walnut Creek when my plein air group visited. I walked around looking at all the beautiful plants, sculpture exhibit (and buildings in the private area we were given access to, where the 105 year-old Mrs. Bancroft still lives). With less than an hour before our session end I finally settled on sketching at the lily pond.

I painted the old barn the last time I was there and that barn sketch is one of my favorites ever.

Here is my sketch with the scene behind it and artist Catherine Fasciato painting a lily with oil paint. I sat right between her and the sculpture, choosing shade first and subject matter second on this very hot, sunny day.

Building Drawing Ink and watercolor wash Sketchbook Pages Walnut Creek

Shadelands Ranch Museum Sketches

Shadelands Ranch Museum, Penniman House, ink & watercolor, 5x8"
Shadelands Ranch Museum, Penniman House, ink & watercolor, 5×8″

While I was in Walnut Creek to take photos of an industrial park for a painting commission I stopped at the Shadelands Ranch Museum to sketch. They were hosting a ladies’ tea that afternoon in the downstairs drawing rooms that looked quite charming. I explored the rest of the house but sadly they told me I couldn’t sketch inside.

I would have loved to draw the Walnut Creek Historical Society volunteers serving in white aprons, the fancy table settings, and most especially the gang of Red Hat Society ladies seated in one of the rooms. I waited outside and sketched the building, hoping to capture them coming out after the tea but they dawdled so long I had to leave or get stuck in rush hour traffic.
Shadelands Ranch water fountain, ink & watercolor 8×5″

I drew this water fountain on the property to warm up before tackling the massive Penniman home. Then I did the three sideways thumbnails on the left to try to figure out how much of the house I wanted to draw and how I’d fit it in on the paper.

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Ruth Bancroft Gardens: Beyond the “Private, No Entry” Signs

Ruth Bancroft Gardens Old Barn, ink & watercolor, 5x8"
Ruth Bancroft Gardens Old Barn, ink & watercolor, 5×8″

My plein air group was given the great privilege of being able to go beyond the chained off, “Private Property. No Entrance” signs to explore the property where Mrs. Bancroft and other family members still live. There are old barns like the one above and other outbuildings as well as a log cabin, a chalet and a beautiful Japanese style home.

1970s Muscle Cars Resting in the Shade and Dust
1970s Muscle Cars Resting in the Shade and Dust Behind the Garden

The Ruth Bancroft Gardens in Walnut Creek began as a 400-acre fruit farm in the 1880s developed by Hubert Howe Bancroft, a famous historian and publisher whose book collection is now part of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Bancroft Garden Lilly Pond and Dragonflies, ink & watercolor 5x8"
Bancroft Garden Lilly Pond and Dragonflies, ink & watercolor 5×8″

The farm was passed down through the generations, and much of the land was sold off for housing development. In 1971 the last walnut orchard on the property was cut down, and Ruth’s husband, Phillip Bancroft, offered her three acres to begin a new garden using her large collection of succulents.

Giant Agave, ink & watercolor, 5x8"
Giant Agave, ink & watercolor, 5×8″

The garden also has collections of aloes, agaves, yuccas, and echeverias. Aeonium ‘Glenn Davidson’, the first succulent in Ruth’s collection, is still growing in the garden.

Bay Area Parks Landscape Life in general Plein Air Sketchbook Pages Walnut Creek Watercolor

Bad Mood Cloudy Day at Borges Ranch That Ended Well

Borges Ranch Shell Ridge Area, ink & watercolor, 5x8"
Borges Ranch Shell Ridge Area, ink & watercolor, 5x8"

My mind was as cloudy as the skies when my plein air group visited Borges Ranch for a Saturday paint out. I was mad because a beautiful bookcase promised to me on Craigslist sold to someone else. I needed it badly. After I donated lots of books along with my rickety old bookcase I still had many I was keeping with no place to put them.

I was too grumpy to hang out with my painting friends so I hiked away from the ranch on the Shell Ridge trail, which is beautiful and quiet except for the sounds of birds. I set up my folding stool and sketched in ink with watercolor washes, facing one direction (above).

Borges Ranch Shell Ridge Open Space, watercolor, 5x8"
Borges Ranch Shell Ridge Open Space, watercolor, 5x8"

Then I turned to face the opposite direction and worked directly in watercolor. I was starting to feel better, enjoying freely painting all the gorgeous colors of spring.

Happy Ending

On the way home from Borges I passed an “Estate Sale” sign and pulled over. Usually estate sales just have a lot of crummy, over-priced furniture, ugly knicknacks, and icky used bathrobes. But this home was huge and completely remodeled, with a master bath better than any spa, a huge dreamy kitchen, and best of all (for me) a home office with TWO bookcases exactly like the ONE I almost bought for $100…and I got them for $20 each! The nice estate sales guy even loaded them in my car for me.

I learned a good lesson: Don’t waste time being grumpy! The second bookcase now holds my cookbooks and gardening books just outside the kitchen which makes them much more accessible than they were before and it looks nice there too.

Animals Bay Area Parks Landscape Oil Painting Outdoors/Landscape Painting Places Plein Air Walnut Creek

Landscape Painting with Coyote Soundtrack

Borges Ranch View, oil on Raymar panel, 6x8"
Borges Ranch View, oil on Raymar panel, 6x8"

Last Saturday my plein air group met at Borges Ranch in Walnut Creek’s Shell Ridge Open Space. It’s a beautiful place that feels far away out in the country, and is surrounded by strange, tall hills covered in a hundred shades of green.

While I was painting I kept hearing the strangest sounds: yips, yelps, squeals and howls. I ruled out the sheep, goats, pigs and roosters and decided it was either the world’s most annoying beagle or a coyote. Later I asked the ranger who confirmed that there were three coyote families in the three nearby hills. He said they all have pups in their dens and are very talkative now. Want to hear a coyote? Click here to go to a site with a coyote sound clip.

To see wonderful photos and stories about life with an adopted coyote who was orphaned at 10 days old when his parents were shot for killing sheep, please visit The Daily Coyote blog, “a story of love, survival and trust.”

Now back to the painting–I tried to simplify, avoid details and focus on color, light and big shapes. The sky was completely covered in a thick layer of clouds and I noticed a painting “rule” in action: cool light creates warm shadows (and vice versa). Although the heavy cloud cover meant there weren’t obvious shadows, I could see how darker areas leaned toward red while areas in light were cooler (e.g. lemon yellow, not an orange-yellow).

When I got home I broke my rule of not touching up plein air studies and fussed with it, eventually ruining it and throwing it in the trash. I’m glad I took a photo first…and that I had the joy of painting to a coyote soundtrack!