Wednesday, December 24, 2008


My current offerings are sketches from last weeks trip to the main quad at Stanford University. After some cold rainy days we were, with perfect timing, presented with a dry, sunny day.
The buildings and arcades of the main quad have gorgeous decorative columns and archways that reveal pretty views both into and out of the quad so artists really are spoiled for choice here.
As we sat in the quad I was reveling in the peace and quiet, when some nearby construction work started up. In the distance there were metallic squealing and grinding noises not dissimilar to something from War of the Worlds. Fortunately, no alien spaceships invaded our peace and it was almost musical! In a rash moment I decided to include my three fellow artists in the sketch.

From the opposite side of the quad I decided to sketch the church and show some of the trees that decorate the quad. The non-denominational Memorial church, completed in 1903, was commissioned by Jane Stanford as a memorial to her husband, Leland. Designed by Charles A. Coolidge, its Romanesque style features carved sandstone, red tiled roofs, and elaborate colorful mosaics. The original huge mosaic on the church's exterior apparently took 12 men 2 years to complete but was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The mosaic had to be recreated from the original drawings. Its worth going just to look at that alone. (I carefully positioned myself so that I could only suggest it in my sketch!) There are lots more mosaics to enjoy inside the church (open to visitors on weekdays between 8 am and 5pm).
After sketching, the four of us enjoyed a festive birthday luncheon at the nearby shopping mall.
Have a Merry Christmas ... and here's to more plein air adventures in the new year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Los Gatos Old Town

One of the fun (or scary!) things about painting outdoors is the possibility that people will be interested in what you are doing. I was approached by shoppers many times while sketching down in Los Gatos Old Town last week. One wide eyed little boy was wowed by my artistic talent (bless him!!) and told me that he likes to draw and paint all kinds of things. I hope that his youthful enthusiasm will stay with him and that his talents will be nurtured. Too often art is one of the first things to fall off the curriculum when budgets are tight. Yet when we examine other cultures, and even our own history, we look to art to show us what people do and how they think. Art is crucial in our assessment of how great a civilization has become. Hopefully no one is assessing the whole of Western culture based on my little sketches, but it's good to be reminded that art is a communal joy - not just a secret pleasure to be enjoyed alone in your studio!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Villa Montalvo

Today we were at Villa Montalvo and the weather couldn't make up its mind. One minute it was sunny, then cloudy, then rainy, then sunny again - I thought I was back in England! Villa Montalvo is an Italian style mansion built in 1912 by James D. Phelan, the well know CA politician. Today the mansion is a CA historic landmark with gardens, aboretum, art center, and hiking trails open to the public. Its a great place to paint and sketch - even when the weather is less than perfect.
The mansion was all decked out for the Christmas Fair so it looked very festive. I did some quick sketches with brush pens and actually added a bit of color to the Xmas tree drawing in photoshop when I got home. (This the first time I've used photoshop for coloring so I'm pretty hopeless at it! I'm still getting the hang of using the brush pens, so the drawings are a little rough too. A bad workperson always blames their tools .... !)
Around the side of the house is a lovely area with sculptures and benches and the ground there was covered in fallen leaves. I drew the sculpture of the naked woman, but it made me feel very cold looking at her in this fall setting and I developed a hankering for some hot soup!

Wisteria is growing around the house and along the arbors and looks very colorful this time of year. The twisty trunks are fascinating to draw and I should have spent more time on this one getting the shapes right. Oh, well... there's always next time!

Monday, November 17, 2008

José Higuera Adobe

The Adobe
The "Casino", an original redwood building dating from the 1850's. This building was used as a saloon, gaming hall and, allegedly, a brothel! I discovered that the Sycamore tree behind the building is the largest in Milpitas - I thought it was two trees!

These sketches and painting were done on a gloriously warm and sunny November day. There was no-one around but us painters and a few cows in the field so it was lovely and peaceful.
This small historical park in Milpitas has the remains of an adobe built by José Higuera circa 1828. José Higuera was granted the land in 1821 by the last Spanish governor of California and this adobe is one of the oldest buildings in Milpitas. The current building is a shell, built to protect the remains of the adobe.
Prickly pear cactus that originally formed a hedge around the central compound of the rancho can still be seen at the site, as can pepper, fig and olive trees supposedly planted by José Higuera.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Alum Rock Park

I'm totally behind on posting my plein air sketches - which must mean I have a life, of sorts!
Anyway, here we were in Alum Rock Park on a beautiful autumn day. The mineral springs are the primary reason for the park. Back at the turn of the last century they were used as baths for curing all kinds of ailments. Now we just have the various little bridges and grottos left. The accumulation of minerals on the rocks give rise to interesting textures and colors (and smells!). Here's my color/texture sketch of one of the springs.As I sat there painting every now and again there would be a little rockslide and a heap of small pebbles would rain down the rockface onto the ground. There are always lots of little earthquakes here and I wondered if that was what was dislodging the rocks. I didn't see any squirrels or birds causing it. It seemed like the whole park was in constant motion, rocks chittering down the hills, trees swaying in the breeze, undergrowth crackling as deer and squirrels wriggle through it. We followed a couple of deer down the main path. A young buck and a doe. Neither seemed concerned about our presence as they stopped frequently to munch on the fallen acorns.
I tried to sketch the buck, but he never stayed in the same pose for more than a couple of seconds.

Skye and Bart

Here's a pet portrait commission I had recently. Cute dog and cat.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Life is a fountain

Today's painting site was at DeAnza College campus. They have a beautiful white building called La Petit Trianon and a sunken garden with a fountain. I wasn't drawn to the building with the greek style columns, but to the fountain, which has beautiful contrasting rectangular and oval stone shapes. The water wasn't flowing, but even so it looked very paintable. I settled down on a strategically placed bench which just had a gorgous view of the fountain silhouetted against the dark trees.
I think when you sit still for a long period of time you become invisible. Certainly the young, tattooed woman, chain-smoking on the terrace above didn't notice me. She was yelling animatedly into her cell phone and everyone on campus must have learned of her pregnancy and that one of her friends was jealous because the friend couldn't get pregnant even without birth control (life's ironic like that!). Fifteen minutes into the call we almost got to learn her boyfriend's social security #, but I think someone shushed her up at that point. Shortly after the cell phone left a young father suddenly appeared and plopped his toddler son on the wet grass directly in front of me and proceeded to change his diaper. Fortunately he obscured my view of his son, so I was spared the worst, but his excited cry of "oh what a big poo!" gave me more information than I really needed.
Such are the pleasures of painting outdoors. Not only do you experience the changing light and atmosphere from the beginning to the end of your painting, but you learn something about the world around you. It's never dull!Over lunch our little trio of plein air enthusiasts discussed the difficulties of using color, painting shadows and the myriad other problems that have to be solved every time you put paintbrush to paper. We came to the conclusion that sometimes the complexities of creating art can do your head in - thankfully we can just go out again the next week and have another go.
The fountain sculpture, called La Vita E Una Fontana (Life is a Fountain), is by Salvatore Pecoraro. (check him out at My sketches really don't do it justice.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Deer Twins

Breakfast this morning was disturbed by a loud clattering outside on the deck which caused the Scrub Jays and squirrels to go beserk. I looked out and was surprised to see one of last years' deer fawns paying a visit. He paused to see what response his ruckus had made and when nothing bad happened he trod warily across the deck, in that "step, pause, step" way that they do, and disappeared down the steps to munch on the rose bushes. I noticed he had a single tiny spike antler growing, with had an even smaller spike right next to it (nothing on the other side). I've nicknamed him "Spike" of course! His sister eventually appeared too, but while Spike was filling his stomach she just stood and watched. Eventually Spike rejoined his sister and she greeted him by pawing his shoulder and licking his neck and shoulders. Periodically he would rub his head against her and she would enthusiastically clean his ears. After a few minutes they retreated under the deck to rest and digest.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

2 Weeks for the price of one

I'm more of a slacker than a blogger lately! Here's 2 weeks worth of plein air sites.
Last week we had a gorgeous day - perfect temperatures. We were at Lake Cunningham, lots of birds, water and hills to paint. The birds cooperated pretty well, setting themselves up for a doze on the shore of the lake, or sitting on the pontoon. It was weird, though, sketching the idyllic scene to the accompaniment of loud disco music and screams coming from the water park next door! In the end I only put paint on one of my sketchbook drawings, which didn't turn out so well.

Today we were in downtown Los Gatos, sitting in a shady park with a view of Main Street. We were grateful for the shade 'cause it was a real hot one today - was up to about 96F by the time I left! Anyway, I started with a drawing in my sketchbook, then thought I would paint the scene.

The trouble with painting a street scene is that cars and buses are always pulling up in front of you and blocking the view. I tried to include some of the cars, but the scale is a little off - I don't think I wanted to block out the buildings so I subconsciously made them very small! It also made me realize that America is populated with the ugliest, most boring colored vehicles in the world. Almost every car I looked at was an SUV in either silver, grey or white. Yawn!
The painting is very unbalanced (& unfinished owing to the heat) and looks a little "melty", which describes perfectly how I was feeling.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Memorial Park

Ok, I'm a little behind on posting here. This is last week's painting from Memorial Park, Cupertino. Its a lovely little spot with lots of ponds, trees, play areas for kids, and, of course, a lovely war memorial (left side of my sketch, very tiny). While I was painting a supervised group of children were playing "What time is it Mr Fox?" on an open grassy area. It made me smile every time they shouted "dinnertime" and all the kids ran around screaming! Too bad I'm not a people painter or I'd have put them in my sketch.

Update on the thieving squirrel - a quarter of the seat cushion on my deck has disappeared into the little beggars nest and its now started stealing stuffing from the back of the seat! I have sprinkled pepper all over the chair in an attempt to keep the pesky critter away.

On a completely different note, my microwave has now started criticizing my eating habits. I put a casserole dish of leftovers in the microwave and pressed "reheat". After a couple of minutes the thing went crazy, flashing lights and alarms. The little screen told me "this setting is for one portion only". So now my microwave thinks I'm eating too much! Pah!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Squirrel Trouble

This week I didn't go painting - had plumbing problems to deal with instead! So my offering this week is a squirrel sketch I did a while back. We have a couple of squirrels visiting our deck and I caught one sharpening his/her teeth on the metal bracket for the bird feeder. This week I found out that the squirrel was using its sharp teeth to rip our chair cushions up and steal the stuffing for its nest! Cheeky devil! So far it's had a go at 4 of the chairs and the umbrella, and we've had to resort to keeping the cushions in the house. We left one cushion out in the hope that the squirrel wouldn't be tempted by the more expensive chair we have on the deck. So far that's working - the chewed cushion is disappearing at a frightening rate, but the good chair remains untouched! I can't imagine how large the squirrel's nest is by now though.
On July 31st we were painting at Gamble Gardens. The gardens were full of gorgeous blooms - all so beautiful it was hard to know where to start. In fact everything looked so good that when you looked down at your painting it was a big disappointment in comparison. Nature can be intimidating stuff!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Guadalupe Oak Grove

Last week's paint site was the Guadalupe Oak Grove Park. This is one of the last stands of original old oaks in San Jose. Some of the trees are alleged to be 300 years old! The trees in the car park were populated by loads of Acorn Woodpeckers flitting about and calling to each other. Red tailed Hawks were riding the thermals, and from the top of the hill we had a hazy view of the Diablo mountains. Unfortunately, when I got to the top of the hill and set up my paints I realised I'd left my glasses in the car! So don't expect too much from this week's paintings! I did a pen sketch - but I won't be posting that as it looks like something last week's chickens created!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Emma Prusch Farm

Today's plein air painting went smoother than last week's (which was canceled due to a pot farm raid!). Emma Prusch Farm is a great place to go painting. The farm house is interesting, there are farm machines, loads of different plants and trees, a rose garden and lots of chickens running around. The weather was perfect - sunny, but with a cool breeze. Normally I do a pen drawing and then add paint, but this week I decided to be brave and launched straight into painting without thinking about it at all. My paintings turned out better than I thought they would! The one of the house I started by imagining the roof line of the house on my paper, then painted the sky around it, then I put the background foliage at the sides. Amazingly, the house (which was just an empty space at this point) turned out fairly well proportioned. 'Twas a miracle! I think the secret was letting the brush do the work and not thinking consciously about it. The muse took over!
On the right side of the house was an enormous prickly pear cactus, which I was tempted to paint, but right in front of it was the much smaller, but more fascinating plant which I sketched above. I think this is a Castor Bean plant (seeds of which are very poisonous). It had gorgeous purple/green leaves and these odd spiky purple seed pods - very alien looking!
Lastly, of course, I had to sketch the chickens. They were strutting all around the place and one kept trying to peck at my paints so that I had to shoo it away. I was fairly pleased with these quick gesture paintings and I was planning on doing a lot more chicken poses - but a darling little boy came along and chased them away. Bless him!!

Saturday, July 12, 2008


The plein air painting was bit of a failure this week. I drove all the way to Saratoga and when I got to the park, it was closed and police were swarming all over it. The weather has been too hot for painting outside anyway, so I wasn't upset (apart from the wasted gas, ugh!). I went home and painted a little picture of Carl the chameleon instead. I quite enjoyed painting his face. Lizards are very cool - I might attempt a gecko next. I also think I'll attempt some of the tropical fish I saw while snorkelling. Watch this space...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Hawaii trip

Just had the most amazing week on Big Island Hawai'i. We met up with friends from New Zealand whom we hadn't seen for 8 years, so there was a whole lot of talking going on for a week! We stayed in Kona, (which I expected would be crowded and very touristy, but it was surprisingly pleasant) and Volcano, near the Volcanoes National Park. The sketch above is the view from our Lanai over Kahalu'u beach park where I learned to snorkel.
We toured a Kona coffee plantation (even though I'm a tea drinker!) and discovered that the trees there were full of chameleons. They are beautiful creatures, very bizarre looking with their horns and cone shaped eyes! The plantation guide told us a story about Carl, a large chameleon, who was apparently born from his mothers mouth as she was run over by a delivery truck. Poor thing! Carl is named after the delivery driver! The coffee tour was interesting - but the highlight for me was definitely the chameleons.

I learned to snorkel - an amazing feat considering my fear of water and dislike of swimming in the sea! Thank you Julie for your patience and sympathy!! I was astounded by the beautiful fish and coral you can see. Looking at the ocean from the beach you have no idea what an amazing world is right there just below the surface. We swam with sea turtles (being careful not to get too close or touch them - they're a protected species) and saw all sorts of butterfly fish, Wrasse, Surgeonfish, Puffer fish, Trigger fish (including the famous "Humuhumu-nukunuku-a-pua'a" state fish of Hawai'i), and even Moray eels. One little Cleaner Wrasse had itself a very nice setup - a hollow in the coral with a small ledge above. The larger fish swim into the hollow and the Cleaner Wrasse darts out from under the ledge, gives them the quick once over to remove any parasites and clean them up, then off they go!

Above is the view from the pool at the Kona Seaspray where we stayed.
The current eruption on Big Island was a huge draw for us. We had a helicopter ride over the erupting volcano and saw the lava flowing from the Pu'u-O'o vent into the sea, which was totally incredible. I loved the helicopter and now want one of my own! When we stayed in Volcano, we drove to Kalapana, on the south east coast, where there is a viewing area to watch the lava entering the sea. There is a parking area (free) and a marked path over the lava to a viewing spot(free). These are watched over by the park people so you don't get into trouble. (This and the snorkeling were the best value ever - just the cost of gas and whatever drinks and snacks we needed! Thank you Hawai'i!) Watching the clouds of steam rise over the sea was pretty amazing during the day.

Periodically lumps of molten lava (splatter) would explode into the air and create even bigger steam clouds. There was a line of steam stretching out into the sea and the water there is hot enough to scald - in fact the brochure tells of 2 people who got too close and were scalded to death by a freak wave. Yuk! The scene changes dramatically though as night falls. The steam takes on an orangey red glow and the exploding splatter looks like red fireworks. You can also see a line of fires along the crest of the mountain as the lava flows out and then an impressive flow of lava coming down the mountain - all of which is there during the day, just invisible!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

21st century diary

Welcome to the 21st century! I finally made the move from hand written diaries to blogging! This blog will be mostly about plein air painting adventures and the animals in my back yard, but I might also find room for the occasional rant or political musing. We shall see what develops!

To start here are two of my plein air sketches. The first was done at Mclellan Ranch Park, Cupertino. I wasn't particularly looking forward drawing at this site, but I found a very quiet spot by the stream and started drawing. After a few minutes three ducks paddled up the river and joined me. Ten minutes later the peace was broken by some crashing noises in the undergrowth and a doe tentatively poked her head out of the bushes just upstream on the opposite bank. I kept sketching, but otherwise remained still as she came down the bank and drank from the stream. After drinking her fill she wandered along the bank in my direction. She kept stopping and looking at me, and I tried to think invisible! Eventually, when she was about 10 feet away from me she decided that something wasn't right and she made her way back up the bank and disappeared into the undergrowth. On the way back to the car I bumped into a doe and her 2 spotty fawns just off the path. Amazing what you see when you move quietly through the world.
My second sketch is from Thursday - done in a lovely private garden.