Trees in the Mist

Trees in the Mist

Eastern Sierras!!

The lands east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are a special place. For one thing, if you've come from the west side of those mountains, the all-out scrubby-desert lands that greet you on the eastern side are startlingly different! The Great Basin Desert of the U.S. laps against the eastern Sierras, at their central and northern foothills, and the Mohave Desert meets their southern flanks. This post has some of the sketches/notes from my travel journal, taken during a trip there a few months ago, October 2017. (Read more about the mediocre paper in this journal in the previous post :)

On the very first day, while crossing the higher reaches of the mountains on a narrow, winding road, I came around a bend just at the moment a brown bear cub dashed across (safely!):
I pulled off the road to see if another cub or a mama bear would follow, but no. Instead, there were other treasures in the forest right there, including a White-headed Woodpecker--my first sighting ever!
In the fall season, the Sierras are zig-zagged by yellow ribbons: the golden leaves of aspen trees that line streams and rivers where they course down the mountains and through the foothills. People come from afar to view them, just like they do for "leaf season" in the northeastern U.S.
Common plants east of the high peaks suddenly greet you with their distinctive aromas and textures, like Rabbitbrush blooming golden in October. You won't find most of these plants on the western side of the Sierras.
The Visitor Center at Mono Lake, just outside the teeny town of Lee Vining, teaches about them in its outdoor "garden" which birds enjoy as well:
Every time I visit the eastern Sierras, I try to recall which plants are which. Drawing them and writing descriptions helps. Messy handwriting, however, does not help! But these notes usually are written while standing along a trail, holding too many things at once.

"Bundles of sticks" would describe many of the shrubs that populate these lands, especially during fall and winter seasons when flowers, and sometimes leaves too, are gone for a time.

The silence (except for wind!!) of these wide lands suggests no animals are around in the daytime. But they are...
Further south, Great Basin Desert melds into Mojave. "Bundles of sticks" continue to populate the desert, but also--surprise!--several plants besides Rabbitbrush are in flower (if you look carefully). Buckwheat-family plants are especially conspicuous, their geometric arrays of wiry stems dotted with puffs of delicate flowers in yellow, white, russet-red...
Highway 395 runs north-south along the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, coursing over rolling high plateaus whose 4,000-6,000-foot elevation is low compared to majestic mountain ranges that rise above in all directions. It's unbelievable how many different groups of mountains transect the landscape in addition to the Sierras! (It's also unbelievable that anybody was able to cross them in covered wagons.) Amazingly, thanks to a car and pavement, I can drive here in a day, and enjoy the view of White Mountains shown below in a painting made on an earlier trip while, literally, soaking in an outdoor pool at Benton Hot Springs. Heaven!
The White Mountains are home to some of the oldest trees on earth: Bristlecone Pines. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is reached by a winding, narrow road east of the town of Big Pine. I have often said "I must go there some day." This trip, I did. Here is the view from a trail near the top of the White Mountains, looking east:
What a stunning, odd, moving experience to see this unique forest, home to deeply charismatic tree individuals, many of whom are more than a thousand years old!
At the visitor center (closed for the season), chipmunks and ground squirrels rush up to you, hoping for treats, which obviously people cannot resist offering... I have never seen such rotund rodents! I walked some miles from the visitor center along a steep trail at elevations of 10,000-11,000 feet, which few people did, so there was silence, peace, stunning views, raucous flocks of Clark's Nutcrackers harvesting pine nuts from the treetops, plus other high-elevation critters.
The final stop on the trip was Lone Pine Campground, which turned out to be a great place to watch birds and make notes of campsite "neighbors":
The most popular hiking trail towards Mt. Whitney--the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states--and into the John Muir Wilderness begins at "Whitney Portal" a few miles up the road from Lone Pine campground.
Whitney Portal trail begins at about 8,000 feet elevation, then immediately goes up up up, and then there is a small flat area and little Lone Pine Lake, then it goes up up up ... you get the idea. I spent four hours enjoying nature along the trail--and only made it about 3 miles in!
In some areas I met tremendous Foxtail Pine trees, and beautiful, shy, non-native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis):
... and enjoyed the company of other critters and indulged in more tree studying.
The next day began the trip home... after first sipping a latte at the charismatic Lone Star Bistro and finishing up journal notes and, as usual, wanting to explore for longer. Someday, another trip!

In praise of mediocre paper

One factor that influences how a watercolor painting turns out is the paper. Papers made especially for watercolor are able to absorb water without wrinkling (much), and they stay wet for several minutes, allowing the pigments to move around after the artist puts them on. More water on the paper means more movement and spreading of pigments.

But--you can also use watercolor on any paper at all. However, the results can be frustrating. Can you tell the paper of this little painting wrinkled a lot near the top?

I used plenty of water on the paper while doing the sky, hoping the cloud colors would intermix, but this paper was not made for watercolor. It wrinkled quickly. So when I painted the rest of the scene, I did not put water on the paper except for what the brush carried. Later I flattened the painting with pressure, which only made the wrinkles permanent. Oh well!

BUT! There can be advantages to using this kind of paper. In fact, I had intentionally bought this little book because it was made for drawing, not painting. I knew the paper would not be ideal for watercolor. It was best for pen or pencil (no water involved there!). Look how nicely it behaved with pen (even with my sloppy writing).
Why did I choose this mediocre paper? Because I wanted to force myself not to spend a long time creating any one painting, and instead make quicker "sketches."
This sketchbook became the journal I kept while exploring the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada... and there is so much to see! I didn't want to spend a lot of that trip looking at paper and paints instead of looking at the natural wonders that abound!

Mediocre paper also has the disadvantage of colors seeping through to the other side of the page, like this:
The blue and other random blotches of color are from a painting on the other side of this page. Needless to say, there are ways of preventing this problem! Can you think of some?

Next post, I'll share some of the discoveries on that trip. Come back and visit!

Washed Ashore!

Santa Cruz, California, West Cliff Drive shoreline. Watercolor 6x9 inches.
Along the Monterey Bay shoreline, there is endless entertainment for the person who takes a little time to inspect what the ocean's waves leave behind. You'll find shells, of course, like the lovely blue-black shells of the super-abundant California Mussel:

Three views of a California Mussel shell.
Or a less common Moon Snail shell:
Or, at low tide, a Leafy Hornmouth shell (sounding more like an insect than a snail!):
Leafy Hornmouth shell.
What you likely will not find are abalone shells that some folks may wish for (abalones, of which there are several species in our region, were harvested down to meagre numbers in decades past, and their populations have never rebounded).
But there are plenty of others to enjoy...

and so much more, like pieces of crab shells (exoskeletons):
Rock Crab carapace (a single piece of shell that covers the animals' back and sides)
Or pieces of fish, like this vertebra (backbone piece):
Three views of a fish vertebra.
Lovely pieces of seaweed:
Odd rubbery things that are animals (or colonies of them) called tunicates:
Thee kinds of tunicates washed ashore and an unidentified squishy red sphere.
Even clusters of teeny snail eggs!

Go and explore the stuff that's washed ashore, and enjoy a world of shape and design, color and texture, mysteries and answers--in short, the usual wonder of nature!

Santa Cruz exhibit

Have you longed to see a painting of a larger-than-life kitten among veggies? Of course you have!

Then come down to the Santa Cruz Art League's current exhibit, "The Best of the Central Coast," presented by the Santa Cruz Watercolor Society. My painting ("Still Life with Cat") is one among a wide variety of watercolor paintings (including some others whose subjects are cats, but in very different watercolor styles).

The exhibit runs from March 28 to April 19, and it's free.
An artists reception with beverages and goodies is Sunday, April 6, 2 to 4 p.m.

Location of the Santa Cruz Art League, driving directions, and its open hours, are here:

Close to Home

Lately I have been paying more attention to common, small, or maligned bits of nature that I don't usually bother with. I started doing this accidentally, to pass the time while waiting for somebody (when I didn't have a note pad or electronic device handy!). I soon discovered there is entertainment, drama, charm, and mystery in the apparently mundane.
Knotweed growing in the sidewalk, with the tiniest flowers I have ever seen!

Tucked in the cracks of the pavement were some tough, flattened, battered plants. When I looked more closely, I could see they had teeny white flowers all over! People walked on them all day, yet they managed to blossom.
Birds often are doing something interesting or endearing. I quickly sketched in watercolor this blackbird sunning itself just a few feet away from where I was sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe.
Brewer's Blackbird sunning in Sausalito
The pigeons along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz have a few key spots where they gather in small groups, sunning and relaxing on the clifftops above the lapping ocean--just as people do!
Rock Pigeons by the ocean.

Imagine my excitement when I saw one "ordinary" creature interacting with another: a pigeon voraciously tearing at knotweed to devour the seeds!

A Rock Pigeon enjoying Knotweed seeds
There are pre-made, little artworks everywhere in nature. Along a path covered with drab-colored, dried leaves, this delightful arrangement appeared:

A small "still life" alongside a hiking trail in Wilder Ranch State Park, California
I'm not sure why I found it so charming to see a downy feather among dried leaves, but I did, and sat down on the path to paint.
Along a dirt roadway in a very busy park in Santa Cruz, where gopher holes are plentiful and apparently vacant, one day I glimpsed a movement. Out from a hole popped the nose, and then head, of a pocket gopher.
Pocket Gopher emerging from hole at Lighthouse Field State Park in Santa Cruz

Motionless for a moment, the gopher then dashed out and bit off an entire cut-leaf plantain--one of the few plants able to survive on that hard, dry ground. The gopher retreated backwards into its hole, dragging the plant in its mouth. The whole dash-and-retreat only took about 7 seconds.
People generally malign gophers because they dine on the roots of many plants, including those in the garden, and cut-leaf plantain is an abundant non-native thing that isn't particularly captivating. But I was honored to have witnessed this little nature moment.
What "ordinary" things can you notice that aren't really ordinary after all?

Cats and more Cats

My world lately has been filled with cats. Actually, all my life has been enriched by cats--which I'll bet is true for many of you reading this!
Alas, all of my companion animals (a.k.a., "pets") have passed away. I miss feline company, though I enjoy the greater flexibility now to travel. For infusions of cat energy, I have been fostering kittens at home for a few weeks or months each year as a volunteer for the local animal shelter. 
I am often tempted to paint them, but I find it nearly impossible to finish a painting because they are always on the move, even during a nap!
Cats in photo books, however, make refreshingly still models.
Wild felines sometimes cross my path as I hike the parklands of Wilder Ranch, north of town, or at Año Nuevo State Park, further up the coast. 
And some appear in the journeys of my waking imagination.
Are you a "cat person"?