Peet’s Coffee after Manet’s Bar at Folies Bergère

Peet's Coffee after Manet, Ink & watercolor

Peet's Coffee after Manet, Graphite, ink & watercolor

When I walked up to the woman at the counter at Peet’s to order my coffee I started babbling that she looked just like someone in an Impressionist painting. She humored me and asked for my order. I ordered my latte, went back to my table, and Googled  “Impressionist Bar Painting” on my iPhone. It didn’t take long before I found it.

Manet, Folies Bergere

Manet, Bar at Folies Bergère

I showed her the image on my phone and asked if she’d pose for me like the woman in the painting and she agreed. I don’t have permission to post her photo so all I can show you is my sketch, which is a study for a larger painting.

Needless to say, I left a good tip for my coffee (and modeling services). And fortunately there wasn’t a line of people waiting for their coffees.

I can see that I need to go back to Peet’s to sketch and take more photos so that I can replace the computer monitor on her left with something more beautiful. Or maybe it’s appropriate to be there? But it sure isn’t as pretty as Manet’s oranges and flowers in crystal.

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Birth of Impressionism Show and Gopher Close Up

Sketches from visit to Birth of Impression, ink & colored pencil

Sketches from visit to Birth of Impression, ink & colored pencil

I’m not a fan of crowds, blockbusters or standing in line, but I put up with all the above to visit the Birth of Impressionism show in San Francisco’s De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. I had planned to sketch in the park after the show but various delays only left time for these done while traveling there and back on BART and SF Muni.

I made a number of discoveries at the show and am looking forward to seeing it again, hopefully at a time when it will be less crowded. I really enjoyed many of the exquisite pre-impressionist paintings, and especially loved seeing the quite large “Whistler’s Mother” in person. Although the mother’s face appears soft and doughy, I could see in her eyes the universal worries, hope, dreams and sorrow all mothers experience.

Whistler's Mother

Whistler's Mother (click to enlarge)

I liked the detail of the little foot stool her son provided for her comfort but my niece and I chuckled about the ugly shower curtain hanging to her left. (Seriously, it looks just like a plastic shower curtain I saw on sale recently.)

I was also struck by how unskillfully made some of the early impressionist paintings appeared to me. I found myself thinking that if I’d painted them I wouldn’t have been satisfied with them. That made me consider what a harsh judge I must be of my own work. Then I wondered whether all the paintings in the show (and in museums generally) are considered fine works of art or are included in collections simply because they are historical records of work by famous artists?

And now for an abrupt change of topic….

Have you ever seen a gopher close up?

As we left the museum I saw a gopher pop his head out of a hole in the grass. He continued popping up and down, busy pushing dirt out of his hole. I thought he was so cute until I saw the close up (below) on the screen.

Gopher Close Up (click to enlarge if you dare)

Yikes! We had gophers in my first San Francisco house. I kept planting things in the garden and the next morning they’d be gone, pulled under ground by a network of gophers. I finally gave up gardening at that house. Between the fog and the gophers it was hopeless.

Lake Temescal Reflections, Angels With Road Signs, Breakthroughs

Lake Temescal Reflections, Oil on panel, 8x8"

Lake Temescal Reflections, Oil on panel, 8x8"

I have a theory about the paths we take in life, and how important it is to notice what I call “Angels Holding Up Signs” along the way.  Sometimes those angels take the form of a person offering helpful information or silently pointing the way by example, an intuitive thought, or an unexpected turn of events that makes you pause. When I see or hear an angel holding up a sign, whether it’s “Yield”, “STOP,” or “Go This Way” with an arrow, I consider it a gift and give it serious consideration.

Disclaimer: I’m not a New-Age angels and crystals sort of girl. But I do believe there are angels all around us; good, kind, generous people, like Adam at Kragen Auto Parts today who helped me dispose of gallons of old motor oil and their containers that had been abandoned in my garage (long story; don’t get me started!). Thanks Adam!

…And like the angels who’ve held up signs in my art life lately, including Kathryn Law and Ed Terpening who’ve both helped me to a breakthrough in my understanding about why simplifying is important in oil painting, especially when painting plein air. I’m always attracted to details, and so I’ve fought against that principle, and then fought my paints trying to put those details into my paintings.

Then I saw these paintings (below) by Ed Terpening on his blog, Life Plein Air, made during a workshop in which the instructor,  Peggi Kroll-Roberts, challenged the class to break the scene into as few large shapes as possible and paint those shapes with a large, fully loaded brush in one brush stroke.

© Ed Terpening

© Ed Terpening

© Ed Terpening

© Ed Terpening

© Ed Terpening

© Ed Terpening

Each study evoked in me a mood and my mind created a whole life story for each of these women. A mom at the beach trying to keep her kids in line; a sad, matron, wondering where her life had gone; a glamorous, young society lady at the country club watching a tennis game while sipping a martini….

How did so much come from such simple paintings? Leaving out the details left it to my mind to fill them in. This is something I so needed to learn: that simplifying and omitting detail doesn’t make a painting boring—it lets the viewer’s mind play and be creative, making for an exciting, rewarding experience. Thanks, Ed, for holding up that signpost!

Another sign-toting angel came via email this week: a request to purchase this plein air oil painting I made last summer at Lake Temescal. There I was at the crossroads, wondering whether to give up plein air oil painting, and this angel popped up with a sign saying, “You’re on the right path, don’t turn back.”

And now about my process with today’s painting. First I tried to simplify by painting large color shapes with the plan to create a color study for a work to be done in the studio. I also focused on the composition, picking a focal point, being careful not to divide the canvas in half as I have a tendency to do, making the subject (the water) the largest portion.

Here’s how it looked when I’d covered the whole panel:

Lake Temescal Reflections, phase 1

Lake Temescal Reflections, Phase 1

I’d worked quickly, using a palette knife, going for big shapes of color. I should have stopped there and gone for a walk. But instead I messed around for another hour and muddied up the design and the colors:

Temescal Reflections - Phase 2

Temescal Reflections (muddied), Phase 2

But the great thing about palette knife painting is that it’s easy to scrape off passages and repaint them. So later that evening I put the photo of Phase 1 on my computer monitor side-by-side with a photo of the scene and worked on the painting until I was satisfied with it (as posted at top).

And I’m very happy with another breakthrough: the way I was able to enjoy the plein air painting process without worrying about making a Painting with a capital P while I was out there.

Pansies Plein Air

Pansies in Pitcher Plein Air, oil on panel 12x9"

Pansies in Pitcher Plein Air, oil on panel 12x9"

The weather was too perfect to paint indoors but I didn’t feel like driving anywhere. My next door neighbor was out pruning his pansies and he’d pulled out a whole bucketful he was about to put in the compost bin.  Voila! A perfect painting subject. I stuffed a big clump of the pansies into a pitcher and set them on a table in the backyard.

I’d made the pitcher as a gift for my friend Barbara in the late 70s when I was a ceramic artist and she was a silversmith. She’s now a brilliant and prolific ceramic artist herself and she recently gave me the pitcher back. She was no longer using it due to a leaky crack and a house full of her own ceramics. I’ve been enjoying using it in still life set ups while fondly remembering it being filled with Mimosas every year for the annual Easter egg hunt and brunch her family held every year while our kids were growing up.

I knew that time was very limited before the shade moved across the yard onto the table so I worked quickly and had a great time.

Here’ are a couple steps in the work in progress:

Pansies Plein Air WIP #1

Pansies Plein Air WIP #1

Pansies Plein Air WIP #2

Pansies Plein Air WIP #2

Hannah’s Reflection

Hannah's Reflection, Oil on Gessobord, 16x12

Hannah's Reflection, Oil on Gessobord, 16x12

My friend Gina emailed me a photo with a note saying, “I like the light in this photo– for some reason I always think of you when I look at it.” Although I rarely paint from photos, especially those taken by other people, I just had to paint this one. My computer monitor is set up so that I can paint directly from the image on the screen which is a lot better than working from the limited colors in a printed image.

I’m not sure if I’m done yet, but I couldn’t see what else was needed so I stopped. If you have any suggestions for improving the picture, I’d love to hear.

Below are some stages of the painting.  I used a bit of artistic license: I gave Hannah a bit of a haircut and deleted Gina’s wonderful dog Bella because:

  1. The dog was competing with Hannah as the focal point and was about the same size.
  2. I couldn’t get Bella to “read” as a dog; no matter how hard I tried to draw her correctly, she just kept turning into a jackrabbit.

Top row: 1) the finished painting; 2) my painting start; and 3) a black and white version of the start to see if my values were on track.

Middle row: 1) & 2) the next two steps in the painting. 3) a view of a “color spot” layer that I made in Photoshop. I created a new layer, and used Photoshop’s Paintbrush tool to select (Alt-click) and paint spots of those colors because it can be easier to see the colors when they’re isolated. Even more helpful than the color spots is a color-mixing tip I learned from Dianne Mize on Empty Easel: you apply the color to the edge of  a small card and compare it to the subject until you get it right.

Bottom row: three views of the original photo. 1)  “Posterized” in Photoshop down to two values; 3) posterized with three values; 3) Gina’s original photo.

P.S. This park, which Hannah affectionately calls the “swamp adventure,”  is part of the East Bay Regional Parks. It is a river front park next to McAvoy harbor in Bay Point. It’s a little delta oasis in the sprawl of East Contra Costa County.

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