Three Chico artists paint under stay-at-home orders
Gardening makes me happy, even pulling weeds. I’m in the moment as I do it, so satisfying.
Seed catalogues are my winter dreams. I want this, and this, and that, and that, but at some point I become realistic about the limits of my garden space and the summer climate here in Chico.
In gardening, I follow basic rules methodically, such as watering consistently, so that the plants will thrive. Placing a plant where it will flourish is an important part of planning a garden—in Chico summers many plants need late afternoon shade.
Before our last frost date of April 25th, I plant three beds of tomatoes in sunny locations, usually five plants to a bed, Beef Master, Big Beef, Early Girl, Sun Gold, and some form of paste tomatoes for cooking. Gardening requires optimism and a good deal of trust. Planting a small seed in the soil and then seeing—sometimes within a few days—a tiny plant emerge still feels like magic to me.
Just as planning where something will grow well is important in gardening, in watercolor painting, planning a composition in which parts will enhance each other is essential. I imagine the finished painting and its necessary steps before I am ready to start.
To begin “Summer Supper,” I chose a green bowl to complement the reds of the tomato soup and a little blue bowl for the green sauce. My grandmother’s faded blue tablecloth provided a subtle background. I arranged the bowls in a composition I liked and took photographs by the beautiful late afternoon light.
First, using a #2 pencil, I lightly drew my composition and then painted in all the shadows. Once they were dry, I tinted the tablecloth with a pale grayish-lavender wash to make it recede. When that had dried, I painted the pale blue of the cloth around the leaf pattern. Next, I tackled the tricky bit of painting the metal spoon and the viscous sauce.
Then, I took particular pleasure in painting the little blue bowl, having thrown it on a wheel and glazed it Cobalt Blue myself. In watercolors, Cobalt Blue is a “granulating” color: its pigments settle into the valleys of the paper, giving a mottled look that’s also found in ceramics. I cooled the shaded interior of the bowl by adding Ultramarine Blue and warmed its sunlit rim with Manganese Blue. The white of the paper makes the rims of both bowls sparkle and project forward visually.
Now I painted the soup. I mixed warm Cadmium Red Light and cool Alizarin Crimson to produce a muted red that doesn’t look garish. I defined the circumference of the soup with Quinacridone Rust and left little white specks of the paper unpainted to show the shimmer on the soup’s surface.
Then, onto the damp surface of the soup I dropped Gamboge, a yellow that resembles saffron. I love the magic that happens when a drop of paint, richly saturated with color, moves on its own over a wet swath of paper. I have learned to trust in that magic, just as I have learned that from a small seed, with care, a plant will emerge.
My mother and grandmother lived through the Great Depression. Since they didn’t drive, when they cooked they had to be creative with what was in their cupboard and garden. My grandmother loved to bake, and when I was eight, she put the first cake I made by myself in the oven for me.
However, my mother said I made her nervous if I watched her cook, so when I left home at nineteen, I taught myself by reading The Joy of Cooking from cover to cover. I approach cooking in the same creative way that my grandmother and mother did, by using what’s on hand and in season. In a similar way, I use my own bowls and linens in my still lifes—they are all so familiar to me.
When I paint, I love how a color such as red will jump out at me, especially when next to something green, and when I cook, I look for similar contrasts, as when combining tomatoes or red peppers with basil. Tomatoes and basil need hot weather to grow, and when combined they make a dish such as insalata Caprese or pasta pomodoro taste like summer! We eat with our eyes as well as with our mouths, and a colorful meal appeals more than a drab one.
The key to fresh-tasting, easy, delicious summer food is an herb garden. I start my basil from seeds in pots where snails don’t bother it much. Marjoram, mint, parsley, chives, and thyme are among my other favorites. Whether you make pesto or chimichurri or just add handfuls to summer dishes, fresh herbs will add that spark that tastes like summer.
All of my senses contribute when I paint a lemon. Inspired by a lemon’s tangy smell and taste, I’ll reach for a tube of Indian Yellow oil paint. Remembering the bumpy texture of a lemon I’ve picked, I’ll dab on thick highlights with a palette knife. In kindergarten, I pressed a petunia seed into the dirt in an eggshell and day after day watered it with an eyedropper. Nothing. . . nothing. . . nothing. . . until a sprout sprang up wearing its husk like a lopsided hat. A living plant had materialized from a hard black speck.
The awe I experienced as a child when I witnessed germination has stayed with me. Today, among the many flowers I grow in my backyard, you will find herbs, grapes, and lemons.
My Meyer lemon is protected from wind and frost by the walls of my painting studio and kitchen, which meet in an L. Yet, despite rich Chico soil and ample water and sun, for nearly a decade it has been virtually barren. Then, last winter it produced over sixty lemons, some as large as oranges. I sent pictures to friends as if they were birth announcements.
Painting a lemon is like painting the sun—both radiate positive energy. Lemons provide me with ideal compositional elements—circles, globes, and pyramids. They give me license to use every yellow in my paint box including Naples Yellow; Yellow Ochre; Cadmium Light, Medium and Dark; Aureolin; and Indian Yellow.
For “In Praise of Lemons,” my tribute to unexpected bounty, I decided to spread lemons across a canvas that was twice as wide as high. Before starting to paint, I played with sketches of whole, half, and quartered lemons before deciding that lemon segments on a plate would make a strong center of interest.
First, I roughed in a circular arrangement of a half lemon and side views of two segments on a magenta plate. This center of interest remained essentially the same in later stages, but I made major changes to everything around this focal point.
As in gardening, I next did a lot of pruning and staking. I painted over the grapes and repainted the orange wall and tablecloth with shades of purple, the complement of yellow. To stake or reinforce the composition, I added three cylindrical jars.
In the final version of “In Praise of Lemons,” I reduced three jars to two and added two black rectangles to the wall. Stronger structure gave me freedom to improvise paths of parsley around the jars, lemons, and plate.
I relish laboring over a hearty stew in winter, but in summer I simplify.
In my recipe “Lazy Lemon Salad Dressing,” two opposites, oil and acidic lemon juice, enhance each other, just as yellow and purple do in painting. In winter, I did all the work of squeezing my bumper crop and freezing the juice in ice cube trays. In summer, I simply thaw the juice as needed.
You’ll need no written recipe for my uncomplicated dressing. Just combine two parts olive oil to one part lemon, a dash of salt, and, as an emulsifier, a dollop of mustard such as Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale Honey & Spice. To that basic structure you might add whatever is on hand—smidgens of parmesan, a toss of Tabasco, a couple of capers, bits of this and that to act as surprise elements, as does the flourish of parsley in my “In Praise of Lemons” painting.
I don’t bother with whisking the ingredients in a bowl. I shake them vigorously in a lidded jar that doubles as a server—so little clean up!
I garden in raised beds that my husband made in our back yard out of corrugated metal. I use garlic and onions all the time in cooking and they are so simple to grow: just poke a hole in the soil and stick in a start. Of course, you also have to give each plant enough space to flourish and enough water and food, such as aged chicken manure.
When I did this sketch of a raised bed with young garlic, I almost put a swear word under the squirrel instead of “yum!” since squirrels are always digging up what we’ve planted. Our seven-year-old grandson loves to help Pop Pop trap squirrels. He checks the trap every day for squirrels to release in the park.
Gardening, like painting and cooking, is unpredictable and doesn’t always go as I’d like, but the successes keep me excited. It makes me proud to grow fruits and vegetables that my family can eat.
When I walk through the garden door into our kitchen, the house seems to fold its arms around me and give me a hug. It’s like being greeted by the spirits of all the animals we’ve had as pets. I love the old windowpanes through which I can see my neighbors and the garden and the cozy wood stove with its smoky odors. My kitchen brings together growing, painting, and eating.
I paint in my kitchen by soft light that comes through the old metal casement windows. The sink is nearby for water, and when I’m painting I can get up and stir the pot if I’m cooking soup.
There’s a childlike quality to my paintings and my vision of life. It helps that when my grandsons come to visit, we draw and paint together at the kitchen table.
In still life paintings I often use bowls and platters that I’ve had for years; one is a white bowl that my daughter gave me. It doesn’t bother me that it’s chipped in places. I paint all its imperfections as part of life.
Just as it’s important to know when to harvest in gardening, you need to know when to stop in a painting. I’ll scotch tape a painting to a kitchen shelf and study it, take it down for a few dabs of paint, and tape it back up until I’m satisfied with it.
I didn’t know how to cook when I got married, but my father was a good cook and I’d often call him for advice. He’d tell me, “Just imagine what you want something to taste and look like, and then give it a pinch of this or that until you’re satisfied.” These days I enjoy looking at cook books but don’t follow recipes exactly. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect” is my motto.
It’s fun for our grandkids to gather onions and garlic from our raised beds, and they like to help with chopping and arranging when I make my herb-roasted onions recipe. I paint on my kitchen counter where I also prepare food. My husband will see a tomato on the counter and ask, “Can I eat it or do I have to wait until you’ve painted it?” I’m in the kitchen all the time, with music going, whether classical or western or rock. . . . I’m eclectic. I paint and cook to music.
My painting “Bouquet of Thyme” on this page represents a full circle of herbs I have grown, painted, and eaten. Now I’ve used the surplus and flowers to make a table arrangement. I love the shapes of the leaves and the tangy odor they add to the room.
A garden is never finished. There is always something that needs to be done, whether it’s amending the soil, planting, weeding, pruning or harvesting, and then at the end of one season, it begins again! Just as in painting and cooking, the process of gardening is an investment of time. Finding enjoyment in the process is key to committing yourself to doing it. It can’t all be about the results. But the great thing about the repetition is that you learn as you go and (hopefully) get better with time.
The three artists have cancelled their “Local Color” summer exhibit in Candy’s backyard because of the coronavirus. Longing to connect with viewers after months of solitary painting, they’ve launched an online gallery with thirty paintings of local flora, fauna, and landscapes. View the gallery here: https://conta.cc/2N6aixG
Edible Shasta-Butte is the guide to local food, dining, and gardening in Northern California’s central valley from Butte County north to the Oregon border.