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):