Friday, September 28, 2018


Yeah! Autumn is here!

The autumnal equinox sets me on a quest for new art classes and to renew my efforts to finish projects set aside during the last days of summer. I look through my binders and portfolios to refresh my memory of what I have learned and to see what progress I have made. In the spring I had felt stuck, not seeing the improvement I wanted. I knew that I'd reached a plateau in advance of what I hoped would be a jump to a new skill level. Tomorrow my waterclass begins again, and I plan to take with me some of the breakthroughs I experienced this summer.

My painting done in Leslie Wilson's class
I've been taking a class for a couple of years from Leslie Wilson, who considers Charles Reid, a well-known artist, as her mentor. Leslie paints in a style called direct painting, which is different from the usual layering of most watercolorists. She starts at the point of interestas I did with the stripes on the pumpkin in the painting here. I find this style a challenge, but I've learned a lot trying to find my comfort zone.

My unifinished painting of my great-grandfather, Ferdinand Belfi, from Ted Nuttalls' class

This summer I took a workshop from Ted Nuttall, a portrait painter who also considers Charles Reid a mentor. Ted's style is completely different from Leslie's, even though they both learned from Reid.

First, they have chosen different color palettes:

Ted Nuttall's and Leslie Wilson's different palettes

Second, they use different watercolor paper. Leslie swears by Fabiano 140 Rough, while Ted only uses Arches 300 Cold Press, a very smooth paper.

Their technique for picking up color on their brushes is different. Leslie dips her brush into clean water, wipes off the excess, then goes for the color. She may or may not mix another color together on her palette before she paints about an inch of color.  She returns to her palette to add another color to the original choice. She uses washes only to lay in the sky or large areas of water, which she puts down after she has finished the point of interest of the painting.

Ted uses layers of washes. He will start with a puddle of water on his palette, reach for a color and mix the two together. He will then put a sweeping wash over an area of paper, leaving only places where he wants the white paper to shine through. He lets the layer dry before he adds another layer.

While trying to learn watercolor techniques, I've taken classes from Birgit O'Connor, Gloria Miller Allen, Robert Dvorak, and Sondra Holtzman. Each of them taught me different techniques and color palettes. Sondra Holtzman's choices include a natural palette made by Daniel Smith from minerals such as amethyst, hematite, and garnet. Mixing colors from this palette create some beautiful greys.

I worked with large swatches of color in O'Connor's class, and layers of paint in Allen. Dvorak taught me quick sketchbook studies.

My painting done during Birgit O'Connor's class
With all the classes I've taken, I want to incorporate new techniques into my work, but I also want to find my own watercolor style. This summer I felt that I am coming closer. First, there are certain images I like to work with such as faces, small objects such as fruit, old barns, trees, windows and doorways. There are colors I like to incorporate into my color palette such as Indigo, Hansa Yellow, Amethyst, and Permanent Red Deep that help me reach the deepest darks and the best shades of green and grey. All the techniques and color choices I've found have been a boon to help me improve. I have one direction I need to remember each time I make a brushstroke:
 step away and slow down.

Check out these watercolor instructors and take a workshop:
Leslie Wilson
Ted Nuttall
Birgit O'Connor
Gloria Miller Allen
Robert Dvorak

Friday, September 21, 2018


Find a stone, note its color, look for that color every day of the week, and write down where the stone's color appears. Simple assignment. The next step, to paint the stone, is the hard part. Stones are difficult to paint. They often end up looking like potatoes.

When I looked for a stone in our yard, I discovered a dirty pot filled with mud and small stones. Instead of doing my assignment, I squatted down, hunched over the pot, my hands between my knees, and dug into the pot filled with dried mud and stones. I told myself that this chore meant the stone wouldn't be carelessly tossed out into the bushes. The stones in my pot were river washed, smooth and cool to the touch. They were not the craggy rocks that we find when we dig in the dirt in our backyard.

The smooth stones reminded me of the stone slabs that formed the stairs leading to the Inner Ise Shrine, part of Ise Jingu, a beautiful park and the spiritual home of the Japanese emperor, near Ise City in Japan. The stones leading to the torii gate of the main shrine are huge, but so carefully placed that the seams from one rock lined up with the seams of another. I found it hard to imagine such craftsmanship. The area is dedicated to the Japanese sun god, but it is also a premier example of the value the Japanese place on workmanship. The buildings on the site are not old, though the area dates back to 4 BCE. Every twenty years a new shrine is built near the current one, which is then disassembled. Everything in the shrine is also reconstructed including textiles. The workers maintain the building skills needed to construct these structures by their continuous renewal.

Digging through the mud in my pot recalled my collection of stones that I started after I took a geography class. I was fascinated by the earth stories that I could see in the stone. I remember the names, igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary, which describe how each rock is formed. Igneous rocks form from liquid, molten lava, for instance. Sedimentary rocks develop from particles of sand, shells, and other material while metamorphic rocks such as slate or marble are the result of existing rocks changing because of intense pressure and temperature. The different materials in the stones made the stones seem like pieces of art.

I don't remember why this pot I'm bent over got so muddy. I continued to squat over the clay pot. It was the middle of the afternoon and it was hot. It hadn't rained since spring. No reason for the pot to be mud-filled. No good reason for me to be hunched over the pot. I was in the shade, at least, and tiny insects floated in the air around me. I was determined to finish finding all of the stones even though I knew my muscles were getting frozen in place. I knew I would have a hard time getting up to stretch and unbend my knees.

Instead of getting up, I continued, hunched over, my hands in a clay pot filled with dried mud and stones. Why did I persist? Perhaps taking the stones out one at a time reminded me of my childhood love of collecting rocks. Perhaps separating them from the dirt and dunking them in water became meditative and I didn't want to stop until finished. Maybe once I had found all the stones, I could select just one stone, note its color, find samples of that color in other places, and try to paint that stone.

Read more about Ise Shrine here:

Friday, September 14, 2018


I fulfilled one of my old desires a couple of weekends ago without having to do the hard work to make that dream happen. 

by Bill Slavin

We stayed at the Napa Farmhouse Inn in St. Helena to attend a wedding nearby. The people who own the B & B ran a bakery (another dream of mine) in San Jose for many years, but eventually sold the business to start a small farm in Napa Valley where they grow produce and flowers for restaurants in the area. 

When I was in my thirties, I imagined myself running an inn and making breakfast for hungry guests. The owners of this inn created an answer to my dream by making a place both quiet and inviting, well-thought out and lovely. Plus, Mimi and Ed welcomed us with grace, good food and helpfulness.

When we walked through their garden plot, we could see the meticulous planning that lay beneath what has become a riotous, fecund plot. The straight rows now intermingled as zucchinis and other squash escaped their boundaries, mixed with nasturiums and marigolds and butted up against the columns of heirloom tomatoes.

 Red peppers hid under the leaves while red and green chard grew tall next to onions poking their way up through more nasturiums and strawberries. The strawberries sent tendrils out across the path as asters and dahlias grew immense in row after row next to hardy shrubs ready to be dug up to expose the Yukon potato spuds within the rich earth. Basil and other herbs clustered around apple and peach trees spread across the property and lemon trees lined the walkway leading to the house. 

by Bill Slavin

Chickens clucked and pecked at the greens left in their yard. Their fresh eggs each morning became the main ingredient of a frittata filled with vegetables and sliced potatoes along with homemade bread and apricot-rhubard jam.

by Bill Slavin

Inside the farmhouse, the rooms were painted in soft colors without the clutter of some B&Bs. Our bedroom looked out on the dry garden with paths wandering from one section to the next, reminiscent of Provence farmhouses. The open kitchen, filled with stacks of dishes, bowls of fresh fruit, eggs, and potatoes, separated the cozy breakfast room from the great room. The great room, with a larger table, soft couches, and several chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, led us through to an old screen door to the back porch. Bill sat outside in a comfortable chair and read while I set up my watercolors on a picnic table under a pergola. We were able to escape for a while all the chaos that swirls around us with each daily news cycle.

The weekend seemed dreamlike with a wedding under the stars, our strolls around small towns with independent shops, meals with local, fresh ingredients, and coffee and conversation at a neighborhood coffee house.

Sometimes it's okay not to do the hard work to make a dream possible. Sometime you can be just as satisfied by enjoying someone else's dream-come-true.

Good places to stop in St. Helena and Healdsburg:

in St. Helena
market restaurant and bar st helena
in Healdsburg

Friday, September 7, 2018


Do you like hot summer weather or would you rather bundle up when there is a chill in the air? 
Nasturtium flowers and leaves ready to garnish a salad

I have friends who revel in the hot weather and all the outdoor adventures during summer while I spend a lot of time inside avoiding the heat. I look forward to the first changes in the weather in late summer.

Quick sketch in the garden of a succulent pear before it was eaten

I am always fooled by a week in August when I think we have reached Autumn at last. The mornings are overcast, schools are back in session, some leaves have fallen, and the air is chilly in the morning. Surely, Autumn is here. In Northern California, once Labor Day is past, summer returns and will most likely remain with us through October. At least for now the smoke from the forest fires has  blown away.

Add a little salt to radishes as the French do

We have two seasons in California. If we are lucky, we have rainy season, followed by dry season. For the last few years our dry seasons have lasted into drought years with subsequent fires scorching the forests and encroaching into suburban neighborhoods. The disasters are terrible to witness and too close to home not to worry.

A fragrant red onion

We live near the edge of Mt. Diablo State Park, so we keep our eyes and noses attuned for smoke. So far we have been lucky and we continue to enjoy the last flourish of summer flowers such as dahlias, daylilies and roses. We take walks around vegetable gardens with luscious, ready-to-pick produce. We stopped creating a vegetable garden when squirrels and deer found the offerings too easy to reach.  I appreciate when friends drop by with extra tomatoes, lemons, basil or zucchini, which gives me time to try new recipes. I found a good tomato soup recipe recently from Family Style Food, which I have copied here. Usually with a new recipe, I add something to the ingredients. For this one I just added a little wine and a small cube of cheddar.

Etagami of a Ripe red tomato 

Tuscan Tomato Soup
From Family Style Food

Start with 3 lbs. tomatoes, skinned and chopped
    To peel them easily, drop them in boiling water and let them cook for 3 or 4 minutes. When you remove them from the pot, the skins will slide right off. Save any juice from the tomatoes.

You will need 4 cups cubed crusty bread
    Put half of the bread cubes in a blender with 2/3 cup water, 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with a knife, and salt. Blend to a smooth paste.
Heat oil in pan over medium heat. Add 1 small onion, finely chopped and a pinch of salt. Cook until tender. 
Add chopped tomatoes to the pan with 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp salt, and black pepper. Mash the tomatoes into a coarse puree. 
Add the bread mixture to the tomatoes and stir. Add wine, if soup is very thick. Add 1/2 inch cheese cube. Cook for a few more minutes.

Drizzle olive oil over remaining bread cubes and toast in another pan over medium high heat till golden.
Garnish soup with toast cubes and fresh chopped basil leaves.

This soup is a great way to start a meal especially when the evenings take the heat out of the air and the light is golden. Then I know that Autumn is just around the corner.

Check out the tomato soup and other recipes at